PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

In copywriting, it’s the KISS approach on steroids today.

… and it means “Keep It Short, Stupid” as much as it does “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Regardless of the era, most successful copywriters and ad specialists have always known that short copy is generally better-read than long.

And now, as smaller screens essentially take over the digital world, the days of copious copy flowing across a generous preview pane area are gone.

More fundamentally, people don’t have the screen size – let along the patience – to wade through long copy. These days, the “sweet spot” in copy runs between 50 and 150 words.

Speaking of which … when it comes to e-mail subject lines, the ideal length keeps getting shorter and shorter. Research performed by SendGrid suggests that it’s now down to an average length of about seven words for the subject line.

And the subject lines that get the best engagement levels are a mere three or four words.

So it’s KISS on steroids: keeping it short as well as simple.

Note: The article copy above comes in at under 150 words …!

More Trouble in the Twittersphere

With each passing day, we see more evidence that Twitter has become the social media platform that’s in the biggest trouble today.

The news is replete with articles about how some people are signing off from Twitter, having “had it” with the politicization of the platform. (To be fair, that’s a knock on Facebook as well these days.)

Then there are reports of how Twitter has stumbled in its efforts to monetize the platform, with advertising strategies that have failed to generate the kind of growth to match the company’s optimistic forecasts. That bit of bad news has hurt Twitter’s share price pretty significantly.

And now, courtesy of a new analysis published by researchers at Indiana University and the University of Southern California, comes word that Twitter is delivering misleading analytics on audience “true engagement” with tweets.  The information is contained in a peer-reviewed article titled Online Human-Bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation and Characterization.

According to findings as determined by Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks & Systems Research (CNetS) and the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, approximately 15% of Twitter accounts are “bots” rather than people.

That sort of news can’t be good for a platform that is struggling to elevate its user base in the face of growing competition.

But it’s even more troubling for marketers who rely on Twitter’s engagement data to determine the effectiveness of their campaigns. How can they evaluate social media marketing performance if the engagement data is artificially inflated?

Fifteen percent of all accounts may seem like a rather small proportion, but in the case of Twitter that represents nearly 50 million accounts.

To add insult to injury, the report notes that even the 15% figure is likely too low, because more sophisticated and complex bots could have appeared as a “humans” in the researchers’ analytical model, even if they aren’t.

There’s actually an upside to social media bots – examples being automatic alerts of natural disasters or customer service responses. But there’s also growing evidence of nefarious applications abounding.

Here’s one that’s unsurprising even if irritating: bots that emulate human behavior to manufacture “faux” grassroots political support.  But what about the delivery of dangerous or inciting propaganda thanks to bot “armies”?  That’s more alarming.

The latest Twitter-bot news is more confirmation of the deep challenges faced by this particular social media platform.  What’s next, I wonder?

Getting a handle on survey response rates.

It turns out, there are some predictive factors.

sgOne of the nice things about the proliferation on online surveys in recent years is that, over time, we’ve come to understand survey response dynamics much better.

Of course, predicting response rates with flawless precision is impossible due to the individual attributes of each individual survey, the sample composition and so forth.  But thanks to a 2015 compilation of “bottom-line” information by content marketing specialist Andrea Fryrear, the following points are good ones for marketing personnel undertaking market survey work.

Surveys aimed at “internal audiences” outperform external ones.

Targeting an internal audience such as a company’s own employee base is likely going to generate higher response rates (in the neighborhood of 35% to 40%, give or take). For surveys of an external audience, it’s more like 10% or perhaps even lower.

The reason is simple: Surveys aimed at internal audiences are likely very-well targeted, whereas with an external audience, often it’s difficult to reach only the right type of respondents.  At least some of them will turn out to be poor targets.

Additional motivating factors.

Other factors that can influence survey response rates include:

  • Customer loyalty – People who feel a connection with the brand conducting a survey tend to be more likely to participate.
  • Brand recognition – Surveys that focus on well-known brands will typically outperform ones from an unknown source or dealing with unfamiliar brands.
  • Perceived benefit – The “WIIFM” factor.  For example, response rates can soar even higher if the respondent population is motivated by serious incentives.  I recall getting more than a 60% response rate on a mail survey and an external sample because the monetary incentive was a $2 bill.
  • Demographics – The reality is that certain segments of the population are more likely to respond to surveys than others.  Think everything from age and gender to ethnicity and geographic location.
  • Survey distribution – Certain audiences are used to interacting on social media … others online … still others offline.  Chances are, you already know which type of research targets those are within your target markets, and it should influence your choice of survey delivery.

Survey length can make or break your response and completion rates.

To achieve the highest response rates, ideally surveys should take five minutes or less to complete. Ten minutes or less is probably OK, too.  But anything longer than that will likely have deleterious effect on your response rate.

How many questions does this mean? On average, respondents can complete five closed-ended questions in a minutes’ time … but only two open-ended ones.

Survey reminders? Yes.

Particularly with online surveys, it’s a good idea to send reminder notices to those who haven’t completed surveys as you get closer to the cut-off date. Sending two or three reminders is a good rule of thumb … and try sending them at different times of the day or different days of the week to that you can reach as many different prospective respondents as possible.

Learning from the experience of the thousands of surveys administered every month should make it easier for marketers to ensure their next survey will generate successful results instead of flame out.  There’s really no reason for failure considering the wealth of “experiential information” that’s out there.

Putting the best face forward at Twitter.

tdWhen business results look disappointing, one can certainly sympathize with the efforts of company management to explain it away in the most innocuous of terms.

This may be what’s behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s description of his company’s 2016 performance as “transformative” – whatever that means.

Falling short of industry analysts’ forecasts yet again, Twitter experienced a revenue increase of only about 1% year-over-year during 2016.

Monthly active users didn’t look much better either, with the total number barely budging.

While I have no actual proof, one explanation of tepid active user growth may be that Twitter became the de facto “place for politics” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election — which didn’t actually end in November and continues apace even today.

Simply put, for many people, politics isn’t their cup of tea — certainly not on a 24/7/365 diet, ad nauseum.

Quite telling, too, was the fact that advertising revenue showed an absolute decline during the 4th Quarter, dropping below $640 million for the period.

Even more disturbing for investors, the company’s explanation about the steps Twitter is taking to address its performance shortfalls smacks of vacuousness, to wit this statement from CEO Dorsey:

“While revenue growth continues to lag audience growth, we are applying the same focused approach that drove audience growth to our revenue product portfolio, focusing on our strengths and the real-time nature of our service.”

“This will take time, but we’re moving fast to show results,” Dorsey continued, rather unconvincingly.

One bright spot in the otherwise disappointing company results is that revenues from international operations – about 39% of total overall revenues – climbed ~12% during the year, as compared to a ~5% revenue drop domestically.

Overall however, industry watchers are predicting more in the way of bad rather than good news in 2017. Principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson at digital media market research firm eMarketer put it this way:

“Twitter is losing traction fast. It is starting to shed once-promising products such as Vine, and [to] sell off parts of its business such as its Fabric app development platform.  At the same time, some surveys indicate that Twitter is becoming less integral to advertisers’ spending plans.  That doesn’t bode well for future ad revenue growth.”

With a prognosis like that, can the next big drop in Twitter’s share price be far behind?

What do you think?

Is the Phenomenon of “Fake News” Overhyped?

fnIn the wake of recent election campaigns and referenda in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria and the Philippines, it seems that everyone’s talking about “fake news” these days.

People all across the political and socio-economic spectrum are questioning whether the publishing and sharing of “faux” news items is having a deleterious impact on public opinion and actually changing the outcome of consequential events.

The exact definition of the term is difficult to discern, as some people are inclined to level the “fake news” charge against anyone with whom they disagree.

Beyond this, I’ve noticed that some people assign nefarious motives – political or otherwise – to the dissemination of all such news stories.  Often the motive is different, however, as over-hyped headlines – many of them having nothing to do with politics or public policy but instead focusing on celebrities or “freak” news events – serve as catnip-like clickbait for viewers who can’t resist their curiosity to find out more.

From the news consumer’s perspective, the vast majority of people think they can spot “fake” news stories when they encounter them. A recent Pew survey found that ~40% of respondents felt “very confident” knowing whether a news story is authentic, and another ~45% felt “somewhat confident” of that fact.

But how accurate are those perceptions really? A recent survey from BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found that people who use Facebook as their primary source of news believed fake news headlines more than eight out of ten times.

That’s hardly reassuring.

And to underscore how many people are using Facebook versus more traditional news outlets as a “major” source for their news, this BuzzFeed chart showing the Top 15 information sources says it all:

  • CNN: ~27% of respondents use as a “major source” of news
  • Fox News: ~27%
  • Facebook: ~23%
  • New York Times: ~18%
  • Google News: ~17%
  • Yahoo News: ~16%
  • Washington Post: ~12%
  • Huffington Post: ~11%
  • Twitter: ~10%
  • BuzzFeed News: ~8%
  • Business Insider: ~7%
  • Snapchat: ~6%
  • Drudge Report: ~5%
  • Vice: ~5%
  • Vox: ~4%

Facebook’s algorithm change in 2016 to emphasize friends’ posts over publishers’ has turned that social platform into a pretty big hotbed of fake news activity, as people can’t resist sharing even the most outlandish stories to their network of friends.

Never mind Facebook’s recent steps to change the dynamics by sponsoring fact-checking initiatives and banning fraudulent websites from its ad network; by the accounts I’ve read, it hasn’t done all that much to curb the orgy of misinformation.

Automated ad buying isn’t helping at all either, as it’s enabling the fake news “ecosystem” big-time. As Digiday senior editor Lucia Moses explains it:

“One popular method … is tapping the competitive market for native ad widgets. Taboola, Revcontent, Adblade and Content.ad are prominently displayed on sites identified with fake news, while there are a few retargeted and programmatic ads sprinkled in. Publishers install these native ad widgets with a simple snippet of code — typically after an approval process — and when readers click on paid links in the widget, the host publisher makes money.  The ads are made to appear like related-content suggestions and often promote sensational headlines and direct-marketing offers.”

So attempting to solve the “fake news” problem is a lot more complicated than some people might realize – and it certainly isn’t going to improve because of any sort of “political” change of heart. Forrester market analyst Susan Bidel sums it up thus:

“While steps taken by … entities to curb fake news are admirable, as long as fake news generators can make money from their efforts, the problem won’t go away.”

So there we are. Bottom-line, fake news is going to be with us for the duration – whether people like it or not.

What about you? Do you think you can spot every fake news story?  Or do you think at least of few of them come in below radar?

Social media: The biggest casualty of the U.S. presidential election?

smrrOnly one presidential candidate was a winner on election night. But there was more than one loser.

Sure, minor-party candidates lost. But I’d posit that social media itself was a loser as well.

It isn’t an exaggeration to contend that the 18-month long presidential campaign has had a corrosive effect on the social media landscape.

You could even say that the social media landscape became downright “anti-social,” thanks to the 2016 campaign.

For those who might have posted politically-oriented social media posts, they’ve risked receiving strident arguments, flamethrower responses and alienated friends.

Along those lines, a recent Pew Research study found that significant percentages of people have blocked individuals or adjusted their privacy settings on social media to minimize their exposure to all the vitriol.

It’s a far cry from social media’s promise in the “good old days” – not so long ago actually — when these platforms enabled people to stay in touch with friends and make acquaintances across the country and the world that they would never have been able to forge in the days before social platforms.

The easy ability to share information and interests only added to the appeal of social media, as people expanded their horizons along with their network of friends.

Companies and brands got in on the action, too. They found social media a welcoming place – particularly in the case of consumer brands where companies could ride the wave of social interaction and promote all sorts of products, services and worthwhile causes.

Advertising and promotion on social media naturally followed, with many companies allocating as much as 20% or more of their annual marketing budgets to those endeavors.

Until quite recently, that happy scenario seemed to be holding, with brands launching interesting, fun, quirky or cause-oriented shareable content in the hopes that they would “go viral” and pay dividends far in excess of the resource outlay.

What a difference 18 months makes. Suddenly, brands are spending only about half as much on social media marketing as they attempt to stay above the fray.  That also means staying far away from venturing into current topical discussions, lest their prickly digital audiences become instantly polarized.

Unfortunately, for brands who wish to avoid controversy arising from even the most seemingly innocuous of postings, social media is no longer a welcoming meadow of lush green grass and bright flowers. It’s closer to a war-torn field peppered with land mines just waiting to explode.  Hence the hasty retreat.

Unfortunately, just like trying to unscramble an egg, it’s very hard to see social media ever going back to what it used to be.

And for that state of affairs, there’s plenty of blame to go around.