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 …

Pandora’s Box: Spotify is poised to become the #1 music streaming service in the United States.

This past month, digital marketing research firm eMarketer issued its new forecast on music streaming activities in the United States. What it shows is that Pandora, which has dominated the market ever since the category was created in 2000, will likely fall to the #2 position, overtaken by Spotify.

Based on a calculation of internet users of any age who listen to music streaming on any device at least once per month, Pandora jas occupied a narrow band of between 72 million and 77 million listeners since 2015.

During that same period, Spotify users have increased dramatically, from ~24 million to ~65 million Americans. And eMarketer projects that Spotify will overtake Pandora by 2021.  The chart below shows the trajectory:

Actually, the trend had been building since even before 2015. In 2012, Pandora had ~67 million users compared to Spotify’s paltry ~5 million.  But Pandora has been shedding users in recent years.  As the chart above illustrates, by 2023 Pandora will have lost nearly 10% of its users since 2014.

To be sure, Pandora still holds a robust ~35% of audio listener penetration in the United States as of this year. But Spotify is nipping at its heels with a ~32% share.  Amazon Music (~18%) and Apple Music (~16%) are further back, but with still-significant chunks of the marketing.  (It should be noted that there is overlap, as some listeners may engage with more than one music streaming service during the month.)

What has caused the change in fortunes? Christ Bendtsen, an eMarketer forecasting analyst, says this:

“Pandora lost users last year because of tough competition from other services attracting people to switch. Apple Music has been successful in converting its iPhone user base.  Amazon Music has grown with smart speaker adoption, and Spotify’s partnerships have expanded its presence across all devices.”

Speaking in particular about Spotify’s rapid surge, Bendtsen notes:

“Spotify’s initial growth was driven by its unique combination of music discovery, playlists and on-demand features. But now that all music streaming services [possess] the same features, Spotify’s future success will rely on partnerships with other companies.  It has teamed up with Samsung, Amazon, Google and Hulu to be on all devices and provide bundled offerings.  We expect more partnerships to come, leveraging multiple brands, devices and services to drive user growth.”

As for Apple Music, there’s a reason it lags behind other music streaming services in the rankings. That service operates on a subscription-only model and doesn’t offer any form of advertiser-supported free usage.  Forecasters expect it to remain in the #4 position with its “premium-only” business model.

More information about the eMarketer music streaming forecast is available here.

What are your own music streaming listening habits? Have they changed in recent years, and if so, how and why?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Which brands are “meaningful” to consumers? Not very many.

What makes a brand “meaningful”? Multinational advertising, PR and research firm Havas SA has studied this topic for the past decade, conducting a survey every other year in which it attempts to rate the world’s most important brands based on consumer responses to questions about select key brand attributes.

According to Maarten Albarda, the methodology behind the Havas surveys is solid:

“It looks at three brand pillars: personal benefits; collective benefits, and functional benefits — and then adds in 13 dimensions like environment, emotional, social, ethics, etc. plus 52 attributes such as ‘saves time,’ ‘makes me happier,’ ‘delivers on its promises,’ etc.”

The Havas research is both global and quantitative — including more than 350,000 respondents in over 30 countries.

The 2019 Havas research shows that ~77% of the 1,800 brands studied don’t cut it with consumers. This finding came in response to the question of whether consumers would care if the brands disappeared tomorrow.

That’s the biggest disparity ever seen in the Havas surveys. Two years ago, the percentage was 74%.

Which brands perform best with consumers? The top five ranked for 2019 are the following:

  • #1 Google
  • #2 PayPal
  • #3 Mercedes-Benz
  • #4 WhatsApp
  • #5 YouTube

Four of these five are brands that are all about “utility” — helping consumers deal with actions (watching, searching and sharing). The odd one out here is Mercedes-Benz — suggesting that there is something enduring about the time-tested reputation for “German engineering.”

What’s equally interesting is which high-profile brands don’t crack the Top 30. I’m somewhat surprised that we don’t see the likes of Apple and Coca-Cola in the group.  On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson comes in at #6, which seems surprising to me because I doubt that J&J has the same kind of consumer awareness as many other brands.

The Havas research reveals that the highest ranked brands are ones that score well on purchase intent and the justification of carrying a premium price. Repurchase scores are also higher, making it clear that a meaningful brand translates into meaningful business benefits.

In addition to reporting on international results, Havas also releases a U.S. analysis. Historically, U.S. consumers have been even more parsimonious in choosing to bestow a “meaningful” attribution on brands.  In fact, the percentage of American consumers earmarking specific brands as indispensable hovers around 10%, compared to the mid-20s across the rest of the world.

The reason why is quite logical: American consumers tend to have more brand choices — and the more choices there are, the less any one brand would cause consternation if it disappeared tomorrow.

Click here for more reporting and conclusions from the Havas research.

Marketing AI and Machine Learning Come Into Better Focus

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are two phrases that have become regular currency in the marketing world over the past several years. It isn’t hard to figure out why, as both AI and machine learning have the potential to help marketers make sense of the ever-increasing volume (and complexity) of raw data that’s become available in increasing amounts, thanks to the digitization of “everything.”

Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but that isn’t exactly right. According to Thorin McGee, director of content at Fast Capital 360, the distinction is subtle yet significant:

  • AI is when you develop an algorithm that allows a computer to “think” for you towards achieving a goal.
  • Machine learning is when you let a computer create an algorithm to find ways to meet the goals you give it, based on large pools of data.

Put the two together, and you have the ability to gain some really deep insights into what your data is actually telling you, thereby improving decision-making success.

On the data front, this great potential is tempered by some significant challenges. Christopher Penn, chief innovation officer of marketing data and analytics consulting firm Trust Insights, characterizes them as the “5 V’s” of data:

  1. Volume — There’s so darned much of it.
  2. Variety — More kinds of data are being churned out.
  3. Velocity — Data is coming at us faster than ever.
  4. Veracity — If data isn’t verified, it can do more harm than good.
  5. Value — In raw form, data isn’t particularly useful. Like oil, data needs to be refined to be of value.

If getting your arms around data seems like trying to hug a stream of water, you aren’t alone in thinking that. Many companies are pretty adept at using data to identify what happened — and maybe even to diagnose problems and why they happened.  But it’s less easy to predict what will happen based on data … and even harder to use data to determine with confidence what should happen.

The biggest challenge — but also the one with the biggest potential payoff — is tapping machine learning to process and use data in forging future business as you wish it to be.

To date, very few companies have come all that close to becoming AI-powered enterprises. But it’s where we’re headed in the coming decade.  It represents one of the biggest opportunities for differentiating one company from another.  But it will require a disciplined and concerted effort:  talent acquisition (developers and data scientists), tapping outside vendors, along with taking available open-source code and building upon that to implement the appropriate marketing technologies.

Oh, and committing to a multi-year initiative and budget even after all of those other pieces are in place.

Surveying the current landscape, are there particular entities that you see as on the leading edge in applying AI and machine learning to their marketing endeavors? Please share your observations with other readers.

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.

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.