Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

The evolution of e-mail.

It’s all about mobility now.

With the proliferation of mobile screens in both the business and personal environments, it was bound to have an impact on the way that people interact with e-communications.

And now we see the extent.  Recently-released stats from e-mail software and analytics company Litmus in its 2019 State of Email report reveal that ~43% of all e-mails are now being opened on mobile devices.

That compares to ~39% being opened in webmail and just ~18% in desktop applications.

How this is playing out is pretty clear.  People are riffling through e-mails on their mobile devices to determine what to keep and what to delete.  They might come back to the saved e-mails on a different (larger) device, but the first cut is most often via mobile.

This sort of “triage” behavior is happening in the workplace as much as in personal communications.  What it means is that the initial impression an e-mail leaves has to be super-effective like never before. The “from” line and the “subject” line have to work harder than ever to draw the attention of the viewer and avoid a quick consignment to the recycle bin.

Only slightly less important are the first one or two sentences of the e-mail content — particularly for those people who choose to have preview options activated.

It’s putting more emphasis than ever on “mere words” rather than photos, other images or eye-catching design. In an ironic twist, we’ve come full circle and are now back to where it all started with messages hundreds of years ago:  words, words and words.

Another interesting consequence is the second look that some marketers are giving to direct mail, which — although clearly more costly than e-communications – does provide far better way to draw attention of a target audience through design and imagery instead of the quick trip to the trash bin.

The Litmus 2019 State of Email report can be downloaded here.

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.