A day late and a dollar short: Starbucks finally honors its pledge to install WiFi blocking mechanisms in its stores.

In the age of social media shaming, it’s a wonder that some companies think they can get away with failing to keep their promises.

A case in point is Starbucks Coffee. For a number of years now, there have been concerns raised by Starbucks customers and other consumers about the easy ability to access pornography websites via the free public WiFi at the company’s store locations.

You may have witnessed it – people viewing such material in full view of other customers, without regard to whether there are minors present or any other ameliorating factors.

In such matters there’s such a thing as propriety. It isn’t illegal to view (most) pornography, but there’s a time a place for everything.

What it most certainly isn’t is copulating on the beach, or viewing hardcore pornography in a public space like a shopping mall, a coffee shop an airplane.

You’d think all of this would be obvious to a company like Starbucks — seeing as how “socially aware” the company purports to be. But it took protests from 75+ groups beginning in 2014 to convince the company to block access to porn sites for people using the public WiFi at its stores.

It took two years, but in 2016 Starbucks bowed to pressure and announced publicly that it would be rolling out porn blocking mechanisms across all of its stores.

But then … it didn’t happen.

What was Starbucks thinking? In its wisdom, did it think that by simply making the announcement the controversy would blow over?  That’s either naïve or willfully arrogant.

In any case, after waiting several more years for action to occur, a new online petition in November from a group called CitizenGo quickly gained more than 26,000 signatures — inside of a week, in fact.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the new effort, Donna Hughes, who heads up Enough is Enough, the Internet safety umbrella organization representing the 75+ groups concerned about Starbucks’ lack of action, explained why the petition resonated with so many people:

“By breaking its [earlier] commitment, Starbucks is keeping the doors wide open for convicted sex offenders and others to fly under the radar from law enforcement and use free, public WiFi services to access illegal child porn and hardcore pornography. Having unfiltered hotspots also allows children and teens to easily bypass filters and other parental control tools set up by their parents on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.”

Considering the speed in which the November petition reached critical mass, social media has only grown in its reach since 2016. What took two years to obtain a (broken) promise from Starbucks to implement blocking mechanisms for its store’s public WiFi took just one week this time around.

Starbucks has now confirmed to several news outlets that it is recommitting to install blocking software for its store locations in 2019.

We’ll see how good the company is in honoring its pledge this time around. My guess is that they won’t play with fire a second time around.

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.

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.

Social Media Mashup — 2018 Edition

One thing you can say about social media platforms – their world is invariably interesting. Or as a colleague of mine likes to say, “With social media, you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

The Pew Research Center makes it a point to study the topic twice each year in order to stay on top of the latest shifts in social media usage trends. Pew has just completed its latest report, and what it shows are some findings that confirm longer-term trends along with several evolving new narratives.

One thing hasn’t changed much: Facebook and YouTube continue to dominate the social landscape in the United States.  Facebook remains the primary social media platform for most Americans – with two-thirds of U.S. adults reporting that they use Facebook, and three-fourths of those saying that they access the platform on a daily basis.

What this means is that half of all U.S. adults are going on the Facebook platform every day.

If anything, YouTube is even more ubiquitous – at least in terms of the percentage of people who access the platform (nearly 75% of the respondents in the Pew survey). But the frequency of visits is lower, so one could say that the platform isn’t as “sticky” as Facebook.

No other social media platform is used by more than 35% of American adults, according to the Pew survey:

  • YouTube: ~73% of U.S. adults report that they use this platform
  • Facebook: ~68%
  • Instagram: ~35%
  • Pinterest: ~29%
  • SnapChat: ~27%
  • LinkedIn: ~25%
  • Twitter: ~24%
  • WhatsApp: ~22%

The chart below shows social media usage trends based on Pew Research studies going back to 2012:

Taking a closer look at social media behaviors reveals some stark differences by age group, and they portend even greater changes in the social media landscape as time goes on. In terms of being involved in “any” social media usage, Pew finds significant differences by age cohort:

  • Age 18-29: ~88% use at least one form of social media
  • Age 30-49: ~78%
  • Age 50-64: ~64%
  • Age 65+: ~37%

So, as the current population ages out, social media participation should go even higher.

But what about the composition of platform usage? Within the 18-24 age group, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are used significantly more when compared to even the next oldest age group.  Most dramatically, for Snapchat the participation level is ~78% for the youngest group compared to just ~54% for those age 30-49.

Other notable differences among groups include:

  • Pinterest is much more popular among women (~41% use the platform) than with men (just ~16%).
  • WhatsApp is particularly popular among American Hispanics (~41%) compared to blacks (~21%) and whites (~14%).
  • LinkedIn’s niche is upper-income households ($75,000+ annual income), which correlates to higher education levels. Half of American adults with college degrees use LinkedIn, compared to fewer than 10% of those with a high school degree or less.

More detailed results from the Pew Research study can be found here.

Social media platforms navigate the delicate balance between free speech and censorship.

Everyday Americans weigh in with their views.

The past few months have seen people like Mark Zuckerberg doing mental acrobatics attempting to explain how social media platforms like Facebook intend to control the spate of “fake news” and “hate speech” posts, comments and tweets that are so often the currency of interactive “discourse” online.

And now the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute is weighing in with the results of a survey in which ~1,000 Americans were asked for their opinions about the challenges of monitoring and controlling what gets published for the world to see.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 1997, gives us insights into Americans’ current attitudes about censoring objectionable content balanced against free speech rights.

Asked whether social medial companies should remove certain types of content from their pages in certain circumstances, sizable majorities agreed that companies should do so in the following cases:

  • Social media companies should remove false information: ~83% agree
  • Social media companies should remove hate speech: ~72% agree
  • Social media companies should remove personal attacks: ~68% agree

At the same time, however, when asked whether the government should require social media sites to monitor and remove objectionable content, those opinions were decidedly mixed:

  • Strongly agree with having government involved in these activities: ~27%
  • Somewhat agree: ~21%
  • Somewhat disagree: ~20%
  • Strongly disagree: ~29%
  • Don’t know/not sure: ~3%

So the key takeaway is that Americans dislike objectionable content and think that the social platforms should take on the responsibility for monitoring and removing such content. But many don’t want the government doing the honors.

A mixed result for sure — and one in which governmental authorities could well be d*mned if they do and d*mned if they don’t.

More information about the survey findings can be accessed here.

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.

What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.