The U.S. Postal Services unveils its Informed Delivery notification service – about two decades too late.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service decided to get into the business of e-mail. But the effort is seemingly a day late and a dollar short.

Here’s how the scheme works: Via sending an e-mail with scanned images, the USPS will notify a customer of the postal mail that will be delivered that day.

It’s called Informed Delivery, and it’s being offered as a free service.

Exactly what is this intended to accomplish?

It isn’t as if receiving an e-mail notification of postal mail that’s going to be delivered within hours is particularly valuable.  If the information were that time-sensitive, why not receive the actual original item via e-mail to begin with?  That would have saved the sender 49 cents on the front end as well.

So the notion that this service would somehow stem the tide of mass migration to e-mail communications seems pretty far-fetched.

And here’s another thing: The USPS is offering the service free of charge – so it isn’t even going to reap any monetary income to recoup the cost of running the program.

That doesn’t seem to make very good business sense for an organization that’s already flooded with red ink.

Actually, I can think of one constituency that might benefit from Informed Delivery – rural residents who aren’t on regular delivery routes and who must travel a distance to pick up their mail at a post office. For those customers, I can see how they might choose to forgo a trip to town if the day’s mail isn’t anything to write home about — if you’ll pardon the expression.

But what portion of the population is made up of people like that? I’m not sure, but it’s likely far fewer than 5%.

And because the USPS is a quasi-governmental entity, it’s compelled to offer the same services to everyone.  So even the notion of offering Informed Delivery as “niche product” to just certain people isn’t relevant.

I guess the USPS deserves fair dues just for trying to come up with new ways to be relevant in the changing communications world. But it’s very difficult to come up with anything worthwhile when the entire foundation of the USPS’s mission has so been eroded over the past generation.

Suddenly, smartphones are looking like a mature market.

The smartphone diffusion curve. (Source: Business Insider)

In the consumer technology world, the pace of product innovation and maturation seems to be getting shorter and shorter.

When the television was introduced, it took decades for it to penetrate more than 90% of U.S. households. Later, when color TVs came on the market, it was years before the majority of households made the switch from black-and-white to color screens.

The dynamics of the mobile phone market illustrate how much the pace of adoption has changed.

Only a few years ago, well-fewer than half of all mobile phones in the market were smartphones. But smartphones rapidly eclipsed those older “feature phones” – so that now only a very small percentage of cellphones in use today are of the feature phone variety.

Now, in just as little time we’re seeing smartphones go from boom to … well, not quite bust.  In fewer than four years, the growth in smartphone sales has slowed from ~30% per year (in 2014) to just 4%.

That’s the definition of a “mature” market.  But it also demonstrates just how successful the smartphone has been in penetrating all corners of the market.

Consider this:  Market forecasting firm Ovum figures that by 2021, the smartphone will have claimed its position as the most popular consumer device of all time, when more than 5 billion of them are expected to be in use.

It’s part of a larger picture of connected smart devices in general, for which the total number in use is expected to double between now and 2021 – from an estimated 8 billion devices in 2016 to around 15 billion by then.

According to an evaluation conducted by research firm GfK, today only around 10% of consumers own either an Amazon Echo or Google Home device, but digital voice assistants are on the rise big-time. These interactive audio speakers offer a more “natural” way than smartphones or tablets to control smart home devices, with thousands of “skills” already perfected that allow them to interact with a large variety of apps.

There’s no question that home devices are the “next big thing,” but with their ubiquity, smartphones will continue to be the hub of the smart home for the foreseeable future.  Let’s check back in another three or four years and see how the dynamics look then.

Are boomerang kids the “new normal” now?

I’ve blogged before about how the Great Recession and resulting high unemployment rates drove a significant number of young adults back into their childhood homes — or relying on Mom and Dad for financial support at least. It affected millions of young adults.

The economy and job prospects have been steadily improving since those dark days – even if the improvement hasn’t been as rapid as people would like to see …

But here’s an interesting finding: Those new jobs and the improving economy haven’t resulted in the kids moving back out of the house.

In fact, two studies conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016 have determined that “living with parents” is now the single most common living arrangement for America’s 18-34 year olds.

That is correct: Instead of living with a spouse, a partner, a roommate or on his or her own, the largest single segment of millennials lives full-time with parents.  The phenomenon is most prevalent in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, where it’s no coincidence that the cost of living is much higher than the national average.

For marketers, this means that the once-coveted 18-34 year-old cohort is today made up of many people who are consuming other people’s resources (e.g., the resources of their parents) rather than making all of their own purchase decisions and spending their own money.

Furthermore, Pew Research has determined that living with parents isn’t merely about employment (or the lack thereof). Over the past eight years, adults age 18-34 have continued to move back home in greater numbers — even as more of them have been able to find jobs.

The Pew findings suggest yet another surprising trend that appears to be in the making – that this is the first American generation where a large portion of the people won’t ever purchase a home.

It’s easy to figure that trends of this kind are transitory. But Pew cautions that the trends may well be more fundamental than the implications of an economic recession.  Instead, there are broader cultural dynamics at play – as well as the long-term challenges of economic independence for this generation of people.

The implications for marketers are intriguing, too.  For some, it will mean placing more emphasis on marketing initiatives aimed at parents, who are the now ones making purchase decisions within a larger multi-generational household — often one that stretches over three generations rather than just two.

And consider these dynamics as well: How do young adults and their parents work through multi-generational purchase decisions?  What are the most effective ways to target and reach multiple generations living under one roof who are making coordinated purchase decisions?  Maybe the old ideas of targeting each audience separately no longer make as much sense as before.

One thing’s for sure – it’s risky for marketers to wait for a return to normal … because that “normal” likely isn’t coming back.  Better to come up with new tactics and new messaging to reach and influence buyers in the new multi-generational environment.

ESPN: What the heck just happened … and who’s to blame?

Last week, ESPN announced the layoffs of some 100 staffers, most of them on-air talent. This comes after layoffs of ~300 other personnel in 2015, but since those were behind-the-scenes employees, the news didn’t seem as momentous.

There are several factors coming together that make life particularly difficult for the sports network. One big problem is the commitment ESPN has made to pay top-dollar for the right to air professional sports events, particularly NFL and NBA games.

These financial commitments are set in stone and are made well into the future, which means that ESPN is committed to high long-term fixed costs (broadcast rights) in exchange for what’s turning out to be declining variable revenues (viewer subscription fees and advertising).

This isn’t a very good financial model at all.

Which brings us to the second big factor: declining subscribers.

Since 2011, the network has lost ~15 million subscribers. So far in 2017, the network has experienced an average loss of ~10,000 people per day.

The financial impact of these losses is significant. All of those lost subscribers amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year in money that’s no longer going on ESPN’s books.

Sports journalist Clay Travis predicts that if the current trajectory of subscriber losses continues, ESPN will begin losing money in 2021. (And that’s assuming the subscriber base losses don’t accelerate, an assumption that might be a little too rosy.)

The fundamental question is why so many people are no longer subscribing to ESPN. The predictable answer is because services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, with their on-demand services, are squeezing cable/satellite TV and its subscription business model.

One way Disney (ESPN’s parent company) has attempted to maximize viewer subscription revenues over the years has been by bundling the network with other, less lucrative Disney media properties like the History Channel, Vice, Disney Junior and the Lifetime Movie Network. In the Disney constellation of channels, ESPN has been the acknowledged “driver” of subscription revenues all along, with die-hard sports fans being willing to subsidize the other Disney channels – often never watched by these subscribers – as the price of access.

But something else is happening now:  ESPN itself has begun to lose viewers as well.

According to television industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, ESPN’s viewership rating has declined ~7% so far this year.  ESPN2’s rating is down even further – an eye-popping ~34%.

Percentages like those aren’t driven by “sidebar” incidental factors. Instead, they cut to the core of the programming and the content that’s being offered.

If there’s one programming factor that’s tracked nearly on point with ESPN’s viewership declines, it’s been the explosion in “sports-talk” programming versus actual “sports game” programming at the network. As Townhall opinion journalist Sean Davis has written:

“If you talk to sports fans and to people who have watched ESPN religiously for most of their lives, they’ll tell you that the problem is the lack of sports and a surplus of shows featuring people screaming at each other. The near-universal sentiment … is that the content provider sidelined actual sports in favor of carnival barkers.”

Davis points out the flaw in ESPN’s shift in colorful terms:

“ESPN went from the worldwide leader in sports to yet another expensive network of dumb people yelling dumb things at other dumb people, all the while forgetting that the most popular entertainment of people yelling about sports stuff for several hours a day – sports talk radio – is free.”

There’s an additional factor in the mix that’s a likely culprit in ESPN’s tribulations – the mixing of sports and politics. That programming decision has turned out to be a great big lightning rod for the network – with more downside than upside consequences.

The question is, why did ESPN even go in that direction?

Most likely, ESPN execs saw the tough numbers on higher costs, subscriber losses and lower ratings, and decided that it needed a larger content pie to attract more consumers.

The reasoning goes, if some people like sports and others like politics, why not combine the two to attract a larger audience, thereby changing the trajectory of the figures?

But that reasoning flies in the face of how people consume political news. In the era of Obama and now Trump, political diehards gravitate to outlets that reinforce their own worldviews:  conservatives want news from conservatives; liberals want news from liberals.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel have figured this out big-time.

But if you’re starting with a cross-partisan mass media audience for sports, as the original ESPN audience most certainly was, trying to combine that with politics means running the risk of losing one-half of your audience.

That’s what’s been happening with ESPN. Intertwining sports with coverage about bathrooms in North Carolina, transgender sports stars, gun control laws and proper national anthem etiquette only gets your numbers going in one direction (down).

The question for ESPN is how it plans to recalibrate and refocus its programming to truly defend its position as the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. However it decides to position itself in terms of the delivery of its content – television, online, subscription, pay-per-view or other methods – it should refocus on covering live sports events.

Not sports talk … not debate … not politics or sociology, but the sports themselves.

At one time, not so long ago, sports were a safe refuge from politics and the news. ESPN would do itself – and its viewers – a favor if it sought to recapture that spirit.

Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

When people think “search,” they still think “Google.”

… And they might say it, too — thanks to the rise of voice search.

Over the years, many things have changed in the world of cyberspace. But one thing seems to be pretty much a constant:  When people are in “search” mode online, most of them are playing in Google’s ballpark.

This behavior has been underscored yet again in a new survey of ~800 consumers conducted by Fivesight Research.

Take a look at these two statistics that show how strong Google’s search popularity remains today:

  • Desktop users: ~79% of searches are on Google
  • Smartphone users: ~86% use Google

The smartphone figure above is even more telling in that the percentage is that high whether users are on an iPhone or an Android system.

But here’s another very interesting finding from the Fivesight survey: Google’s biggest competition isn’t other search engines like Bing or Yahoo.  Instead, it’s Siri, which now accounts for ~6% of mobile search market share.

So what we’re seeing in search isn’t a shift to other providers, but rather a shift into new technologies. To illustrate, nearly three in four consumers are using voice technologies such as Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana to supplement their traditional search activities.

Some marketing specialists contend that “voice search is the new search” – and it’s hard not to agree with them. Certainly, voice search has become easier in the past year or so as more mobile devices as well as personal home assistants like Amazon Alexa have been adopted by the marketplace.

It also helps that voice recognition technology continues to improve in quality, dramatically reducing the incidences of “machine mistakes” in understanding the meaning of voice search queries.

But whether it’s traditional or voice-activated, I suspect Google will continue to dominate the search segment for years to come.

That may or may not be a good thing for consumers. But it’s certainly a good thing for Google – seeing as how woefully ineffective the company has been in coming up with any other business endeavor even remotely as financially lucrative as its search business.