Is third-party marketing data on life support?

As a marketing professional for the better part of four decades, I can’t imagine any of us doing our jobs without soaking up as much data as possible to help with our decision-making.

And data accessibility is miles ahead of where it was when I first entered the marketing field.  Back in the day, “finding data” meant hitting the reference libraries to access government or other reporting – especially if you were lucky enough to be located within a reasonable distance of one.

There was the phone for real-time information-gathering … and also the FAX machine for quick receipt of “facts in brief” — not to mention the “wait-and-wish-for” mail and package delivery services.

If it was insight you needed from customers or prospects about a new industry or business venture, primary research was always an option — if you had the money and the time to allocate to the effort.

As for “first-party” data, that was available as well – but how often were we at the mercy of the bureaucratic machinations of in-house IT departments to get even basic data requests processed in a timely way?

All of which is to say that marketers have always used data – but the quantity wasn’t as great, while the timeframe of data acquisition was at a snail’s pace compared to today’s reality.

But now, after having become quite spoiled at the availability of all sorts of information, might it be that we’re regressing a little?

In particular, third-party information purchased in bulk, often from data aggregators, seems to be where the backsliding is occurring.

Consider ad targeting and building audiences: We have access to valuable first-party data thanks to website analytics and studying the results of our own e-mail campaigns.

There’s no question that the first- and second-party data which marketers are able to access are highly valuable in that the information creates efficiencies in campaigns and drives higher conversion rates. But theoretically, the ability to layer on accurate third-party data would take things even further.

There’s also been third-party behavioral data from three big behemoths — Google, Facebook and Amazon – that can be used for MarComm targeting purposes. But of those three platforms, just one of them allows third-party data to be made publicly available to end-users.

This poses challenges for the suppliers that aggregate and sell third-party data, as the quantity and quality of their information isn’t on the upswing at all.

Fundamentally, finding a good source for third-party data entails understanding what sources each data aggregator is using and the methodology it employs to collect the data.  Factors of scale, quality, reputation and price also come into play.

But despite best efforts, when testing third-party data for MarComm campaigns and lead-generation efforts the results are often pretty ugly — the data loaded with inaccuracies and basically terrible for efficiency metrics.

It doesn’t help that with the rise of Amazon as yet another “walled garden” of data, the “open web” represents a ever-smaller portion of the total ad spend — and hence also a decreasing amount of the third-party data that’s available to end-users.

With the veracity of third-party data becoming more suspect, it’s had an interesting effect on data management platforms, which are now focusing more on the actual messages themselves and not the “personas” of the people receiving the messages or how they were identified and targeted.

Is it possible for third-party data to provide good information to AI systems — intelligence that can verify and augment the value of the first-party data? If leading ad platforms can use such third-party data to enhance the accuracy and value of what they sell to advertisers, there still may be valuable material to work with.  As it stands, though, I’m not sure that’s the case.

What are your experiences?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Programmatic ad buying in the B-to-B sector: The adoption rate grinds to a halt.

Each year, Dun & Bradstreet publishes its Data-Driven Marketing & Advertising Outlook report.  The report’s findings are based on a survey of marketers in the business-to-business sector.  Among the questions asked of marketers is about the advertising tactics they utilize in support of their sales and business objectives.

A look at D&B’s annual outlook reports over the past several years, an interesting trend has emerged: The adoption rate of B-to-B companies being involved in programmatic ad buying has plateaued at somewhat below 65% of firms.

In fact, you have to go back to 2015 in D&B’s reports to find the proportion of companies involved in programmatic advertising running significantly below where it is now.

That being said, those firms that are involved in programmatic ad buying are planning on allocating additional funds to the effort. The most recent survey finds that ~60% of the respondents involved in programmatic advertising plan to increase their spending in 2019.  That includes ~20% who plan to allocate a significant dollar increase of 25% or greater.

Another interesting finding from the 2018 survey is that there appears to be slightly less interest in display and video programmatic ad placements – although display remains the most commonly run ad type.

Where heightened interest lies includes one category that should come as no surprise – mobile advertising – as well as several that might be more unexpected. Social media advertising seems like it wouldn’t be a very significant part of most B-to-B ad buyers’ bag of tricks, but two-thirds of respondents reported that programmatic advertising in that sector will be increasing.

Another interesting development is that ~17% of the respondents reported that they’re stepping up their programmatic buying for TV advertising – which may be an interesting portent of the future.

Lastly, the survey revealed little change in the types of challenges respondents face about programmatic ad buying – namely, how to target the right audiences more effectively, how to measure results, and the need for better technical and operational knowledge for those charged with overseeing programmatic ad efforts inside their companies.

More information and findings from the 2018 D&B report can be viewed here.

Successful marketers reveal the keys to more effective content marketing.

What differentiates B-to-B companies who carry out successful content marketing initiatives compared to those whose efforts are less impactful?

It isn’t an easy question to answer in a very quantitative way, but the Content Marketing Institute, working in conjunction with MarketingProfs, has reached some conclusions based on a survey it conducted in June and July of 2018 with nearly 800 North American content marketers. (This was the 9th year that the annual survey has been fielded.)

Beginning with a “self-graded” question, respondents were asked to rate the success of their company’s content marketing endeavors. A total of 27% of respondents rated their efforts as either very or extremely successful, compared to 22% who rated their results at the other end of the scale (minimally successful or not successful at all).

The balance of the CMI survey questions focused on this subset of ~380 respondents on both ends of the spectrum, in order to determine how content marketing efforts and results were happening differently between the two groups of marketers.

… And there were some fundamental differences discovered. To begin with, more than 90% of the self-described “successful” group of B-to-B content marketers reported that they prioritize their audience’s informational needs more highly than sales and promotional messaging.

By comparison, just 56% of the other group prioritize in this manner — instead favoring company-focused messaging in greater proportions.

Other disparities determined between the two groups of marketers relate to the extent of activities undertaken in three key analytical areas:

  • The use of primary research
  • The use of customer conversations and panels
  • Database analysis

Also importantly, ~93% of the respondents in the “successful” group described their organization as being “highly committed” to content marketing, compared to just ~35% of the respondents in the second group who feel this way.

Moreover, this disparity extends to self-described skill levels when it comes to implementing content marketing programs.  More than nine in ten of the “successful” CMS group of respondents characterize themselves as “sophisticated” or “mature” in terms of their knowledge level.

For the other group of respondents, it’s just one in ten.

Despite these differences in perceived skills, it turns out that content marketing dissemination practices are pretty uniform across both groups of companies. Tactics used by both include sponsored content on social media platforms, search engine marketing, and web banner advertising.  It’s in the messaging itself — as well as the analysis of performance — where the biggest differences appear to be.

For more information on findings from the 2018 Content Marketing Survey, click here.

“Same old, same old”: Retailers are sending the same e-mails to the same people.

As with so many aspects of marketing these days, data segmentation is key to the success of retailers’ sales efforts.

E-marketing may well be the most cost-effective method for reaching customers and driving business, but a recent analysis by Gartner of retail e-marketing activities shows that many retailers are employing tactics that are neither well-targeted … nor particularly compelling.

The Gartner analysis was performed earlier this year and published in a report titled Discount Emails — The New Playbook.  The analysis covered more than 98,000 e-mail campaigns conducted by 100 national retail brands.

Trumpeting discounts is one of the oldest tactics in marketing, of course, so it comes as little surprise that those sales messages are pervasive in e-marketing as well.

In fact, Gartner finds that more than half of all e-mail campaigns by retailers feature discounts in their subject lines.  Those discount messages are typically sent to nearly 40% of the retailers’ e-mail list — meaning that discount messaging targets broad segments of customers.

Gartner finds that those discount offers generate a ~16% open rate, on average.

Contrast this with retargeting and remarketing e-mails. They make up a much smaller fraction of the e-mail volume, but pull much higher open rates (around 31%).  Abandoned shopping cart e-mails generate an even higher average open rate of 32%.

“Welcome” e-mails tend to do well, too — in the 25% to 30% open rate range.

Gartner’s conclusion is as follows:

“Brands that employ less frequent, but timely, relevant e-mails triggered by customer site engagement or transaction outperform their peers.”

Gartner also found that the average national retail brand has more than 25% of its e-mail database overlapping with other national retailer e-lists, making it even more important for brands to differentiate the language of their e-mail subject lines and to engage in more data-driven e-mail targeting in order for their marketing to stand out from the pack.

Let’s see if the national retail brands get better at this over the coming year.

When companies and brands take a stand on “issues,” here’s a quick way to weigh the potential implications.

In recent years, companies and brands have found it increasingly difficult to navigate the PR waters in a politically polarized environment.

On the one hand, companies want to be seen as progressive and inclusive organizations.  On the other, there is concern about coming off as too controversial.

The environment is about as toxic as it’s ever been. In the “good old days,” companies were able to merrily avoid controversy by supporting universally agreed-upon “benign” causes.  But whereas in the 1970s or 1980s, celebrating Christmas or financially supporting the city’s symphony orchestra or fine art gallery was never faulted, today the situation is different.

Acknowledging a religious holiday risks criticism about offending non-believers or shortchanging people of other spiritual faiths. And dishing out dollars in support of “high culture” invites barbs about the need to divert those resources to more “socially woke” initiatives and away from “high culture” pursuits that speak to only a small slice of the general public.

The recent controversy with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick-inspired “Just Do It” campaign is another case in point. It may be a bit of a coin toss, but the conventional view is that Nike’s campaign was, on balance, a modest victory for the company in that more of the public was favorably disposed to it than put off by it.  And after a momentary dip in Nike’s share price, the stock recovered and ended up higher.

Less successful was Target’s move to direct its employees to forego wishing customers “Merry Christmas,” and instead use the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. Target decided to be “out front” with this issue compared to competitors like Wal-Mart.  But after several years of gamely attempting to enforce this guideline in the wake of negative customer reaction and a barrage of bad press on the talk shows, Target finally relented, quietly reverting to the traditional Xmas greeting.

Simply put, in the current cultural environment there are more risk-and-reward issues for brands than ever — and what actually happens as a result is often unpredictable.

And yet … surveys show that many consumers want brands to take overt stands on hot-button issues of the day.  Sometimes brands are just as criticized for not taking a stand on those very same hot-button issues — such as whether to adopt gun-free zones in office and retail spaces or deciding what kind of gun-related merchandise will be prohibited from being sold in their stores.

To deal with this increasingly gnarly challenge, recently the marketing technology company 4C Insights developed a “decision tree” exercise that’s elegantly simple. It’s a great “back of the napkin” way for a company to weigh the potential upside and downside factors of taking a stand on a socio-political issue that could potentially impact product sales, corporate reputation, or the company’s share price.

Here’s the 4C Insights cheat-sheet:

To my mind, the 4C Insights decision tree can be applied equally well to weighing a potentially controversial social or cultural issue in addition to a political one.

Indeed, it should be a ready-reference for any PR and marketing professional to pull out whenever issues of this kind come up for discussion.

In this environment, my guess is that it would be referenced quite frequently.

Amazon and its sellers need each other.

If you speak with small businesses that sell products online, many will tell you that they chafe under the strong-arm tactics of Amazon and its seller policies.

On the other hand, what’s their alternative?

The reality is that it takes about the same amount of time and effort to run a Walmart or eBay store as it does to run a store at Amazon.

The difference? The sales revenue of a Walmart or eBay store is typically less than 10% of what businesses would generate on Amazon for that same amount of work.  That interesting informational nugget comes from James Thompson, a partner at the Buy Box Experts e-tailing consultancy.

(And for small retailers attempting to run their own e-commerce sites, the revenue stream is even lower.)

But even with Amazon’s ascendancy in the world of online commerce, its retail platform remains a frustration to small sellers due to its level of responsiveness to questions and concerns (low) and its sudden, sometimes inexplicable policy changes.

Consumer advocates would counter-argue that Amazon’s seller policies are focused in the right place:  looking out for the end-user customer. But others contend that Amazon’s actions aren’t even-handed, nor applied equally.

Take Amazon’s policies on dealing with product shipments and defects. When a seller’s defect order rate goes as high as 1%, Amazon deactivates the vendor’s account automatically.  To be reinstated, a seller has to go through an arduous vetting process, during which time Amazon holds all monies due to the seller until every order is shipped and received – even orders that are in dispute.

To make matters even more onerous, the customer service phone number of the seller disappears, making it next-to-impossible for the vendor to clear up any misunderstandings with an end-customer other than by going through the Amazon portal.

Here’s another example:  Without prior notification, last month Amazon instituted a new “Pay by Invoice” policy that allows corporate customers a pay period of 30 days.

While this is a great move from the customer’s point of view, most small businesses are used to being paid in two weeks.  The new invoice payment policy squeezes the resources of smaller sellers, which often operate under tighter cashflow conditions than larger retailers.

It is true that bigger brands make up an increasing share of volume in the world of Amazon sellers. Those brands bring in the most money, but small businesses round out the portfolio and remain an important component of realizing Amazon’s aims of becoming the big behemoth with an “always and everywhere” presence in the world of retail.

Considering everything, it would seem that Amazon and its sellers should recognize each other’s worth and how much they mean to each other. Amidst everything, there has to be a win-win position that can be reached to the benefit of everyone.