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.

Amazon’s Spark that Fizzled …

Amazon Spark: Less like a sizzle … more like a fizzle.

It’s now been more than nine months since Amazon launched its social media platform Spark … and so far, it’s hardly sizzled.

In fact, it’s made barely a ripple in the market.

There are plenty of people who contend that the last thing the world needs is yet another social network. But others would like to see new alternatives to the recently beleaguered Facebook platform.

As for its trajectory, it looks as if Spark is following the former rather than the latter path. The question is, “Why?”

Very likely, the answer lies in Spark’s questionable underlying raison d’etre.  Essentially, Spark is a social feed of photos and other images. That makes it similar to Instagram … sort of.

One difference between the two platforms is that Spark is open to exclusively to Amazon Prime members.  That limits the potential number of Spark users pretty severely, right from the get-go.  [It’s true that non-members can view Spark feeds — but they can’t post their own content. And what’s a social platform if you cannot interact with it?  It isn’t one.]

Another difference with Instagram may be even more of a fundamental problem. The rationale for Spark is to focus on products that Amazon sells.  Spark is directly “shoppable,” which differentiates it from Instagram and other social networks.  It also makes it less like a true social network and more like a garden-variety e-commerce site.

In other words, rather than being an interesting and engaging social platform, Spark is boring. Informative – but boring.

It isn’t that Amazon/Spark allows brands themselves to post content there; posting privileges are granted only to people it dubs “enthusiasts” or “onsite associates.” Brands must seek out “regular people” [sic] who are members of Amazon Prime to post content on their behalf about their products.

And I’m sure that’s happening – along with varying levels and forms of compensation flowing to these supposed “enthusiasts” in return for the product plugs. But can anyone imagine less compelling content than what results from this kind of commercialized “AstroTurfing”?  No wonder people are ignoring this social media platform.

Andrew Sandoval, a group director for media planning agency The Media Kitchen, summarizes Spark’s predicament by noting that lifestyle-focused people tend congregate on Instagram — a place that shows people living their lives through products. By contrast, “Amazon Spark is mostly just talking about your products, which is the hard-sell.  Ultimately, the e-commerce social experience is a little too far from the social experience,” Sandoval opines.

Have you interfaced with Spark since its July 2017 launch? If so, do you see redeeming qualities about the platform that the rest of us might be missing?  Please share your comments with other readers.

Gord Hotchkiss and the Phenomenon of “WTF Tech”

Gord Hotchkiss

Occasionally I run across an opinion piece that’s absolutely letter-perfect in terms of what it’s communicating.

This time it’s a column by marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss that appeared this week in MediaPost … and he hits all the right notes in a piece he’s headlined simply: WTF Tech.

Here is Hotchkiss’ piece in full:

WTF Tech

By Gord Hotchkiss , Featured Contributor, MediaPost

Do you need a Kuvée?

Wait. Don’t answer yet. Let me first tell you what a Kuvée is: It’s a $178 wine bottle that connects to WiFi.

Ok, let’s try again. Do you need a Kuvée?

Don’t bother answering. You don’t need a Kuvée.

No one needs a Kuvée. The earth has 7.2 billion people on it. Not one of them needs a Kuvée. That’s probably why the company is packing up its high-tech bottles and calling it a day.

A Kuvée is an example of WTF Tech. Hold that thought, because we’ll get back to that in a minute.

So, we’ve established that you don’t need a Kuvée. “But that’s not the point,” you might say. “It’s not whether I need a Kuvée. It’s whether I want a Kuvée.” Fair point. In our world of ostentatious consumerism, it’s not really about need — it’s about desire. And lord knows many of the most pretentious and entitled a**holes in the world are wine snobs.

But I have to believe that, buried deep in our lizard brain, there is still a tenuous link between wanting something and needing something. Drench it as we might in the best wine technology can serve, there still might be spark of practicality glowing in the gathering dark of our souls. But like I said, I know some real dickhead wine drinkers. So, who knows? Maybe Kuvée was just ahead of the curve.

And that brings us back to WTF tech. This defines the application of tech to a problem that doesn’t exist — simply because it’s tech. There is no practical reason why this tech ever needs to exist.

Besides the Kuvée, here are some other examples of WTF tech:

The Kérastase Hair Coach

This is a hairbrush with an Internet connection. Seriously. It has a microphone that “listens” while you brush your “hear,” as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors. It’s supposed to save you from bruising your hair while you’re brushing it. It retails for “under $200.”

The Hushme Mask

This tech actually does solve a problem, but in a really stupid way. The problem is obnoxious jerks that insist on carrying on their phone conversation at the top of their lungs while sitting next to you. That’s a real problem, right? But here’s the stupid part. In order for this thing to work, you have to convince the guilty party to wear this Hannibal Lecter-like mask while they’re on the phone. Go ahead, buy one for $189 and give it a shot next time you run into a really loud tele-jerk. Let me know how it works out for you.

Denso Vacuum Shoes

“These boots are made for sucking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”

Finally, an invention that lets you shoe-ver your carpet. That’s right, the Japanese company Denso is working on a prototype of a shoe that vacuums as you walk, storing the dirt in a tiny box in the shoe’s sole. As a special bonus, they look just like a pair of circa 1975 Elton John Pinball Wizard boots.

When You’re a Hammer

We live in a “tech for tech’s sake” time. When all the world is a high-tech hammer, everything begins to look like a low-tech nail. Each of these questionable gadgets had investors who believed in them. Both the Kuvée and the Hushme had successful crowd-funding campaigns. The Hair Coach and the Vacuum Shoes have corporate backing.

The dot-com bubble of 2000-2002 has just morphed into a bunch of broader-based — but no less ephemeral — bubbles.

Let me wrap up with a story. Some years ago, I was speaking at a conference and my panel was the last one of the day. After it wrapped, the moderator, a few of the other panelists and I decided to go out for dinner. One of my co-panelists suggested a restaurant he had done some programming work for.

When we got there, he showed us his brainchild. With much pomp and ceremony, our waiter delivered an iPad to the table. Our co-panelist took it and showed us how his company had set up the wine list as an app. Theoretically, you could scroll through descriptions and see what the suggested pairings were. I say theoretically, because none of that happened on this particular night.

Our moderator watched silently as the demonstration struggled through a series of glitches. Finally, he could stay silent no longer. “You know what else works, Dave? A sommelier,” he said. “When I’m paying this much for a dinner, I want to talk to a f*$@ng human.”

Sometimes, there’s just not an app for that.

_______________________

Does Gord Hotchkiss’ column resonate with you as it did me? Feel free to leave a comment for the benefit of other readers if you wish.

The escalating “arms race” in the adblocking arena.

Have you noticed how, despite installing adblocking software on your computer or mobile device, a lot of online advertising is still making it through to you?

That isn’t just your imagination. It’s happening – and it’s getting worse.

According to a recent report based on findings prepared by researchers at the University of Iowa, Syracuse University and the University of California – Riverside, the extent of “end runs” being successfully made around adblockers is quite high – and it’s growing.

According to the research, more than 30% of the Top 10,000 Alexa-ranked websites are thwarting adblockers in order that millions of visitors will continue to see online advertisements despite running adblocking software.

As the universities’ report states:

“Online publishers consider adblockers a major threat to the ad-powered ‘free’ web. They have started to retaliate against adblockers by employing anti-adblockers, which can detect and stop adblock users.   

To counter this retaliation, adblockers in turn try to detect and filter anti-adblocking scripts.”

Some of the more “forthright” publishers are being at least a little transparent about the process – first asking visitors to stop blocking ads. If those appeals go unheeded, the next step is to notify visitors that if they fail to whitelist the site, they will no longer be able to access any of its content.

The problem with this scenario is that many visitors simply go elsewhere for content when faced with such a choice. Still, it’s nice that some online publishers are giving people the choice to opt in … in an environment where the publisher’s content can be monetized to some degree.

Other sites aren’t so courteous; instead, they’re overriding the adblock software and serving up the advertising anyway. That certainly isn’t the way to “make friends and influence people.”

But “violating consumer intent” is kind of where we are in this arena at the moment, unfortunately.

QR Codes Live!

In marketing, QR codes have been the butt of jokes for years. The funky little splotches that showed up in advertising on everything from magazines to transit buses were supposed to revolutionize the way people find out information about products and services.

Except that … QR codes never lived up to the hype.

While a few advertisers stuck with QR codes doggedly, for the most part we saw fewer and fewer of them after their first initial years of splash.

But now, QR codes are making a comeback. It turns out that they’ve become central to mobile marketing tactics.

We’re talking about QR couponing, which is exploding.  Newly published estimates by Juniper Research, a digital marketing consulting firm, show that nearly 1.3 billion coded coupons were redeemed via mobile devices in 2017.

Moreover, Juniper is forecasting that the number of coupons with QR codes being redeemed via mobile devices will continue strong at least through 2022.

A big reason for the sharp increase in use is built-in QR functionality on smartphones – led by Apple which has begun including QR reader functionality as part of the camera application on its new iPhones.

This action takes away a huge barrier that once confronted users. The lack of in-built readers meant that consumers had to download a separate QR code scanner app.

We know from experience that one more action step like that is often the difference between market adoption and market avoidance.

But with that hurdle out of the way, major retailers are starting to take advantage of the more favorable playing field by finding more uses of QR code technology. Target for one has announced a new Q code-based payments system to scan offers directly to their device-stored payment cards, which can be scanned at checkout for instant payment.

Expect similar activity in loyalty cards, making their redemption easier for everyone.

The newly revived fortunes of QR codes remind us that sometimes there are second acts for MarComm tactics and technology – and maybe it happens more often than we expect.

Changing Cross-Currents in E-Mail Marketing

Many marketers find it one of the easiest marketing tactics to execute … but also one of the least effective in terms of results.

In the realm of digital marketing, e-mail marketing has to be one of the most mature choices of tactics these days. It’s been around for a long time, and its relatively small hard-dollar costs make it one a natural “go-to” marketing tactic for many companies.

But today, a declining percentage of marketers see e-mail as one of their most effective tactics in the digital marketing arsenal.

So, what’s the problem?  Many companies have the technology and skills in place to perform e-mail programs using in-house resources. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that more companies are seeing their e-mail programs becoming less effective — for a variety of reasons. Among them are these:

  • E-mail filtering technology is making it more difficult to land e-mails into inboxes.
  • Privacy regulations are becoming more stringent.
  • Overuse of this marketing tactic means more e-mail messages than ever from more companies are being deployed – and with that, more of them are being ignored by recipients.
  • While e-mail used to be the only digital direct marketing game in town, today there are a bigger variety of ways to engage with customers and prospects.
  • Building a high-performing e-mail list that also conforms to regulatory stipulations is more challenging than ever.

This last point is particularly nettlesome for marketers: Data quality and data management are considered among the most difficult challenges for marketers – and also among the least effective in terms of their success.

So, in some ways the factors affecting the use of e-mail marketing are working at cross-purposes. E-mail marketing is easier to execute than other digital marketing endeavors … but as for its effectiveness, many marketers rate other tactics higher, including content marketing and search engine optimization.

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how attitudes and behaviors regarding e-mail continue to evolve. Will this time-honored tactic decline in importance, or find new life?  Stay tuned …

Changing Buying Behaviors: Clues from Thanksgiving Weekend 2017

If there was any doubt that we’re in the midst of fundamental changes in consumer buying behaviors, the results from the opening days of the 2017 holiday season have put such questions to rest.

Movable Ink, a firm that enables content personalization within e-mails, has just published some insightful statistics it compiled from Thanksgiving weekend last month.  Movable Ink logged nearly 438 million e-mail opens between the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the following Cyber Monday. What did it find?

To start with, it found that recipients engaged with them.

Of the e-mails sent on Black Friday, nearly 50% achieved read lengths of at least 15 seconds. On Cyber Monday, the results were nearly the same (~46%).

Fifteen seconds may not seem like a long time to engage with an e-mail, but it’s light years compared to what is often experienced in consumer e-retail.

Movable Ink also found that the majority of the e-mails were opened on smartphones — far outstripping desktops and tablets:

  • Smartphones: ~53% of e-mail opens
  • Desktop computers: ~25%
  • Tablet opens: ~16%

An equal 53% of conversion actions happened on smartphones … but desktop conversions proved to be higher than their open stats, and e-mails opened on tablets were much less likely to experience conversions:

  • Smartphone: ~53% of e-mail conversions
  • Desktop computers: ~38%
  • Tablets: ~8%

Consumers were certainly in a buying mood over the holiday weekend, with purchases averaging between $120 and $140 on each of the four days of the long weekend:

  • Black Friday: An average of $124 spent
  • Saturday: $120
  • Sunday: $119
  • Cyber Monday: $141

However, while smartphones led in terms of e-mail engagement, when it comes to actual dollar sales smartphones come in last – by a country mile:

  • Desktop computers: ~$162 average holiday weekend total spend
  • Tablets: ~$107
  • Smartphones: ~$85

We can acknowledge that smartphones have become the most important method for reaching consumers with product content, coupons and special offers.  And yet, significantly more purchasing continues to happen on desktops.

One takeaway is that for all of the convenience smartphones purport to provide, the purchasing experience on mobile devices doesn’t yet match the experience on desktop computers.

It would also help if there was more similarity between the purchasing process sellers are delivering across all platforms. That continues to be a missing ingredient with some sellers, and it’s likely explaining at least some of the dampening effect on mobile sales revenues.