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.

“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.

Blogging and social media in B-to-B marketing: Continually falling short.

As a MarComm specialist and head of a marketing firm for several decades, I’ve worked with my share of marketing tactics — the tried-and-true ones as well as the “next new things.”

Along those lines, working with numerous B-to-B companies in their attempts to turn social media and blogging into significant sources of new business, the track records have been more often ones of failure than of success.

I think the issue boils down to something pretty fundamental: Unlike consumer products, where customers can fall deeply “in love” with particular brands, or at the very least develop feelings of brand affinity, in the world of business products and services, the brand dynamics are seldom “emotional.”

The reality is, business buyers are looking for products and services that will solve their problems and also provide all-important CYA peace of mind. Few B-to-B buyers are truly “excited” about these purchases, and they aren’t personally “invested” in the brands in question, either.

Instead, they’re looking for solutions that work. Ones that deliver on a checklist of criteria, and ones that don’t risk unpleasant developments down the road.

In such a world, the notion that buyers are waiting around to read the and interact with the next blog article or social media post that’s published by a supplier is fanciful at best.

News flash: The target audience doesn’t care about things like that.  Business buyers don’t have time in their busy schedules to read the posts.  The few times they will is when they need to satisfy a business need and are looking for information to help them make an informed buying decision.

But of course, it’s precisely then when content needs to be easily findable on the web. Brands that have published deeper and more relevant content than their competitors are going to be the ones that show up on search engine results pages (SERPs), because those are the websites the search engines reward with higher rankings based on the perceived “relevance” of the web pages in question.

This view of B-to-B audience dynamics isn’t just my personal one; survey research of B-to-B buyers reveals similar attitudes.  For instance, market research and communication firm KoMarketing publishes an annual B2B Web Usability Report, and the findings they uncover are consistent:

  • Most B-to-B buyers don’t think a blog adds much to a supplier’s credibility as a company.
  • As for social media activity, three-fourths of buyers find such platforms irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

So, what is it that buyers are seeking?

It’s more “actionable” data such as sales contact information (who to call), a list of customers a supplier serves (addressing the credibility factor), plus customer testimonials, case studies and similar reports that help buyers “see” themselves in the experiences of other customers.

That’s pretty much it.

Which brings us back to blog posts in the B-to-B realm. Informative articles that center on customer testimonials and before/after case studies provide the best of everything:  content that buyers will actually find useful, along with the “relevance” and “robust activity” that search bots are seeking in making their quasi-mysterious calculations on how high to rank a particular web page on SERP pages.

It dovetails with my typical advice to business clients:

  • Don’t publish blog posts because you expect people to read them like they would a newsfeed. Publish them for relevance and visibility when your prospect is actually seeking out information and insights — which could be months or even years after you publish the post.
  • Make sure each blog article addresses “problem –> solution” topics centered on the challenges your customers are most likely to face.
  • Twitter or Facebook? Unless your marketing have plenty of time on their hands and nothing better to do, don’t bother with these social platforms at all — because the payoff is so mediocre.

What about you? Are your B-to-B marketing experiences different?  If so, please share your perspectives in the comment section for the benefit of other readers.