Consumers complain about marketing-oriented e-mails — yet they still read them.

e-mail ambivalenceFace it, there are always going to be complaints about marketing-oriented e-mails. Just as in the “bad-old-days” of junk postal mail, consumers are conditioned to pass negative judgment on the volume of promotional-oriented e-mails that flood their inboxes.

True to form, according to a new study by global business, technology and marketing advisory firm Forrester Research, consumer attitudes about e-mail marketing are pretty negative.

Here’s what a sampling of U.S. respondents age 18 or older reported on the “minus” side of the ledger:

  • I delete most e-mail advertising without reading it: ~42% of respondents reported
  • I receive too many e-mail offers and promotions: ~39%
  • There’s nothing of interest: ~38%
  • I have unsubscribe from unsolicited lists: ~37%
  • I wonder how companies get my e-mail address: ~29%
  • It’s difficult to unsubscribe from e-lists: ~24%

There’s far less to show on the “plus” side:

  • It’s a great way to discover new products and promotions: ~24% of respondents reported
  • I read e-mails “just in case”: ~19%
  • I forward marketing e-mails to friends sometimes: ~12%
  • I purchase items advertised through e-mail: ~7%

I wasn’t surprised at all by these finds.

What’s interesting, however, is that the attitudes of consumers are actually trending a bit better than they were in previous Forrester field studies.

Specifically, respondents exhibited improved attitudes in the following areas:

  • Fewer respondents are deleting most marketing-oriented e-mail promos without reading them (~42% vs. ~44% in 2012 and ~59% in 2010).
  • Fewer respondents report that marketing e-mails offer “nothing of interest” (~38% vs. ~41% in 2012).

The percentages are also slightly better for the consumers today who consider e-mails as a good way to discover new products and promotions.  Additionally, the percentages are lower on complaints about receiving too many e-mail offers.

The bottom line on these results:  It looks as if consumers have come to terms with the pluses and minuses of e-mail marketing. As they once did with postal mail, they recognize the negative attributes as a fact of life — something that just “comes with the territory” for anyone who is online.

Click here to view summary highlights from the Forrester study, or here to purchase the full report.

The key to environmentally friendly products’ desirability? Deemphasize the green.

Selling green productsIt turns out that one key to the success of marketing so-called “green” products is actually to deemphasize the environmental messaging — at least when targeting consumers in the United States.

According to a number of surveys conducted by branding and marketing communications firm Landor, American consumers value possessing “green” attributes the least valuable of a series of brand attributes studied.

This despite years of social engineers and marketers of environmentally friendly brands attempting to “educate” consumers on environmental consciousness and the importance of sustainability.

At this point, it’s probably better for products to promote themselves based on other attributes besides “green” attributes … or at least to stop leading with that argument.

Instead, what are the values that resonate the most with American consumers?  According to Ted Page, a principal at content marketing firm Captains of Industry, there are three in particular — none of them having much to do with environmental issues — at least on the face of it:

  • Freedom
  • Independence
  • Saving money

But for green products, it’s possible to tie everything up in a nice bow by being able to lay claim all three of these attributes as brand attributes while not compromising the environment, either.

Nest Learning ThermostatAn example of this message strategy in action is the Nest Learning Thermostat, which promises saving energy in the context of achieving increased home efficiency, automated temperature management and lower energy bills.  The “green positioning” is nice — but it’s the other product attributes that really hit pay-dirt.

Tesla logoAnother example is Tesla electric automobiles.  Tesla is promoting the performance of its high-torque electric engine as superior to other sports cars manufactured by BMW, Lexus and Audi.

The fact that Tesla’s high-performance engine happens to be emissions-free is just icing on the cake.

Thanks in part to this messaging platform, sales of the Tesla Model S auto now outstrip those of the Mercedes S-Class, Lexus LS, BMW 7-Series, Porsche Panorama and the Audi AB.

One has to wonder if this would had happened had Tesla chose to lead with “green” messaging instead.

It would be nice to think so, but … probably not.

The “Snowden Effect”: The U.S. cloud computing industry is getting hammered.

cloud computing securityI’ve blogged before about the fallout from the Edward Snowden affair and its effects on the U.S. cloud computing industry.

In fact, back in the summer of 2013 I read an interesting thought piece published by my brother, Nelson Nones, Chairman of Geoprise Technologies.  His experiences as an IT specialist who has lived and worked outside the United States for two decades has made him particularly sensitive to what the international implications of the Snowden revelations may be.

In his 2013 analysis, he claimed that the NSA spying revelations would likely have serious consequences for the cloud computing industry.  As he wrote at the time:

“… these threats will be perceived to be so serious that many businesses could decide to abandon the use of cloud computing services going forward — or refuse to consider cloud computing at all — because they bear full responsibility for compliance yet now realize that they have little or no ability to control the attendant non-compliance risks when utilizing major cloud services providers.  

Out front: Geoprise Technologies' Nelson Nones was among the first to warn about the negative consequences of NSA surveillance programs on the U.S. cloud computing industry.
Out front: Geoprise Technologies’ Nelson Nones was among the first to warn about the negative consequences of NSA surveillance programs on the U.S. cloud computing industry.

 

In view of recent revelations, the tantalizing cost savings and efficiencies from cloud computing may be overwhelmed by the financial, business continuity and reputational risks.”

And his prediction as to what would likely happen as a result if these concerns played out in the market was even more chilling:

“Revenues and profits of U.S.-based service providers will suffer to the extent that businesses of every nationality abandon the public cloud computing services they are now using, or refuse to consider public cloud computing services offered by U.S.-based providers, in response to the heightened customer risks that have now been revealed.”

itif_logoShortly thereafter, I began to notice similar writings back here in the United States – in particular those by members of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a DC-based think tank focusing on technology policies.  It projected that the U.S. cloud computing industry would forfeit somewhere between $22 billion and $35 billion in lost business as a result of the NSA-related revelations.

For anyone keeping score, that’s between 10% and 20% of the worldwide cloud computing market.

New-America-Foundation-logoAnd now, one year later, the full scope of the impact is being realized.   New America Foundation, a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization focusing on public policy issues, released a report this past week which outlines the impact of Snowden’s NSA revelations.

Here are just two examples of the findings it published:

  • Within days of the first NSA revelations, cloud computing services such as Dropbox and Amazon Web Services reported measurable sales declines.
  • Qualcomm, IBM, Microsoft, HP, Cisco and others have reported sales declines in China – as much as a 10% drop in overall revenue.

Not only that, foreign governments are giving U.S. tech firms wide berth when it comes to contracting for a range of products and services that go well-beyond cloud computing.

Among the casualties:  The German government ended its contract with Verizon as of June … while the Brazilian government selected Swedish-based Saab over Boeing in a contract to replace fighter jets.

In the current environment of security jitters, it’s much easier for foreign competitors to portray themselves as “NSA-proof” — and the “safer choice” for protecting sensitive information.

Hans-Peter Friedrich
Hans-Peter Friedrich

And unambiguous comments like this one made by Germany’s Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich just add fuel to the fire:

“Whoever fears their communication is being monitored in any way should use services that don’t go through American servers.”

Even more ominous, a number of countries are debating – and indeed close to enacting – new legislation that would require companies doing business within their local to use local data centers.

Sure, some of the countries – Vietnam, Brunei, Greece – aren’t overly significant players in the grand scheme of things.  But others certainly are; Brazil and India aren’t inconsequential markets by any measure.

In all, the New America Foundation report forecasts that the fallout from the NSA’s PRISM program will cost cloud-computing companies multiple billions in lost revenues – from $20 billion on the low end to nearly $200 billion on the high end.

This, plus the collateral damage of lost contracts involving ancillary and even unrelated tech services and manufactured products, may result in a contraction of the U.S. tech industry’s growth by as much as 4% — not to mention seriously undermining the United States’ credibility around the world.

Isn’t that just what America needs to have right now:  international credibility problems not only in the political sphere, but also in the economic one.

Unfortunately, what I wrote in my blog post a year ago still stands true today:  “OK, U.S. government and administration officials:  Have fun unscrambling this egg!”

Get Ready for Internet Sales Taxes

Are sales taxes finally coming to the Internet?

Taxes on the InternetAfter years of fruitless attempts, it would seem so.

On July 15th, five senators introduced legislation on a bipartisan basis to make taxation of purchases made over the Internet a reality.

The legislation is called the Marketplace and Internet Tax Freedom Act, and it combines the efforts of two initiatives that had been separate before:  The Marketplace Fairness Act and the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

On the one hand, the legislation would keep access to the Internet tax-free by limiting what state and local governments can do to impose Internet access fees – at least for the coming decade.

On the other hand, it gives states the unambiguous ability to enforce their sales tax laws on businesses selling to buyers located within their borders – including if those purchases are made online.

In other words, the 44 states that currently have sales tax laws on their books will be able to collect online sales taxes.

Not surprisingly, the National Retail Federation and other trade groups that represent brick-and-mortar retailing are lauding the actions of the five senators in introducing the legislation.

David French, the NRF’s senior vice president for government relations, noted that it’s high time “for Congress to eliminate the sales tax disparity, which disproportionally impacts community and independent retailers.”

Unlike in prior years when Senate and House lawmakers seemed incapable of coming together in support of sales tax legislation, this time appears different.

Why?

I think part of the reason is the sense that, at the end of the day, it just isn’t fair for offline retailers to shoulder the burden of collecting taxes – along with being at a competitive disadvantage – versus online retailers who benefit from being able to offer lower the same products at a lower overall cost, while also benefiting from lower overhead costs in most cases.

The fact that the current legislative bill is being introduced by senators from across the political spectrum as well as a diverse geography (the Northeast, South and Midwest) — tells me that the legislation will go through — and that the days of tax-free online shopping are numbered.

It will be interesting to see what the ramifications might be if and when the legislation passes.  Will 24/7 armchair convenience trump the sudden 5%-7% higher cost to online consumers?

Those consumers can be notoriously price-sensitive … but they’re also creatures of habit and great lovers of convenience.

My prediction is that the new regulations will turn out to have little or no impact on the broader retail buying behaviors.  If you concur — or if you have a different opinion — please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Boomers and Millennials: Destined always to be different … or on the same trajectory?

NeuroWhen it comes to advertising, it turns out that the Baby Boomer generation sees things quite a bit differently than the Millennial generation.

In fact, based on neuromarketing research conducted last year by Nielsen NeuroFocus, generational differences account for some interesting neurological contrasts between Boomer and Millennial brains.

The research results also point to how companies might find it wise to tweak the design and presentation of their advertising based on the age levels of their audiences.

Consider these distinct differences found by Nielsen NeuroFocus in its research:

Brain Function: The Boomer Brain likes repetition. Boomers also tend to believe that information that is “familiar” is true. On the other hand, the Millennial brain is more stimulated by dynamic elements such as rich media, animation, and lighting that cuts through their “perception threshold.”

Distractions: Boomer brains are more easily distracted, whereas Millennials are adept at dealing with “bleeding-over” communications such as those found in dynamic banner ads and in contemporary magazine layouts.

Attention Spans: Boomers have a broader attention span and are open to processing more information, whereas Millennials prefer at-the-ready, multi-sensory communications. (And “impatience” is their middle name.)

Colors: In advertising, contrasts gain the attention of Boomers in advertising. With Millennials, it’s more the intensity of the color palette overall rather than contrasts within it that does the trick.

Humor: The Boomer generation prefers lighthearted, clever humor in advertising messages – positive and not mean-spirited. Boomers also like relatable characters that aren’t much younger than themselves. Millennials tend to prefer offbeat, sarcastic or slapstick humor – basically, the kind of humor that many Boomers find offputting or even offensive. Making special effects and other visual hi-jinks part of the shtick attracts the attention and interest of Millennials, too.

It turns out, there’s some real science behind these findings, too. Nielsen NeuroFocus reports that when people are in their mid-50s, distraction suppression mechanisms tend to weaken. Even as early as the mid-40s there are dramatic declines in neurotransmitter levels – particularly serotonin and dopamine.

How does that manifest itself in situations where we see “Boomers behaving badly?” Dopamine declines can lead to thrill-seeking behaviors to compensate. And a drop in serotonin levels can lead to the feeling that “something is missing” – thereby leading to classic midlife crisis behaviors affecting a person’s professional life and personal relationships.

… And as we know, that often doesn’t end up particularly well.

But here’s the more central takeaway from the research: Boomer-Millennial differences don’t turn out to be so much a function of differing world views; it’s more a function of the aging process itself.

So look for the Millennials to begin responding more like Boomers in the coming years.

Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

Trying to tame “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”  (David Tarp, CEO, Tumblr)

Online CommentsOne of the most empowering aspects of the Internet is its ability to foster online interaction and feedback, wherein “regular people” have a megaphone in addition to journalists and writers on publisher websites.

But there’s an ugly side to the public dialogue, unfortunately: There’s an awful lot of verbal “dirty laundry” that gets put on display.

It’s sort of like taking younger children to the state fair or a sporting event — and then trying to shield them from the loud profanity (and worse) that they overhear.

The fact is, you can’t get away from the coarseness on online comment sections – particularly if the news content pertains to political or socio-cultural topics.

It’s often a “drive to the bottom” where social norms and common decency fall by the wayside in the name of airing grievances or settling scores.

It extends to less potentially inflammatary zones beyond polarizing politics, too.  Researchers have found that people who read the same news story about a new technology, but who are exposed to different sets of coments — one set fair and the other nasty — have completely different responses to the news story itself.  In the research, commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a news story without the need to back it up with facts, caused ill effects that were neither accurate or fair.

The researchers dubbed it “The Nasty Effect.”

For some time now, Internet news and information sites have tried to strike a balance between access and interactivity on the one hand … and civility and decorum on the other.

In many cases, the quest has been frustratingly difficult. Here’s what some publishers have said about the issue:

“There’s got to be a better [way] to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.”  — Craig Newman, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the worst things about writing in public is fielding random ad hominem attacks … in the space in which you’ve poured out your precious thoughts.”  — Ev Williams, Medium

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”  — Suzanne LeBarre, Popular Science

As a result, now we’re seeing more instances of publishers and bloggers killing their comment sections completely.  Consider these examples:

… As of this month, the Chicago Sun-Times has axed its comment capability for the foreseeable future.

… The much anticipated March 2014 launch of Vox (Ezra Klein’s news venture), doesn’t provide for feedback comments.

… The same goes for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s website.

Popular Science shut down its comment sections this past September.

… Atlantic Media’s Quartz business site hasn’t ever allowed comments on its site since its launch in 2012.

… And neither has Tumblr.

But it seems rather unrealistic to think that comments sections can be banned from the Internet outright. That would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Instead, a via media approach may be what the Huffington Post has done. This past December, it implemented a policy wherein commenters must use their Facebook accounts and real names in order to post a comment on Huffington Post stories.

Those who wished to continue posting comments under pseudonyms have had to “appeal” for the right to do.

The goal? To make people think twice before publishing strongly worded comments — the kind that say as much about the poster as they do about the object of their commentary.

Despite the predictable howls from some readers who feel that the right to express an opinion without fear of reprisal is a big part of the appeal of the Internet, four months later the Huffington Post sees the move in positive terms.

The publisher’s community director Tim McDonald reports that the number of “faux” accounts in its system has gone way down – and the quality of discourse is up.

With this approach, perhaps “shameless” needn’t upstage  “shame” after all — and the benefits of interactivity and debate can be preserved at the same time.

What do B-to-B buyers really want in a website?

Hint:  Forget social media.

btob web surfingAs online communications continues to evolve, B-to-B marketers have more options than ever to interface with prospects and suspects.

In fact, it’s pretty easy to get distracted by the latest “shiny objects” in marketing … and we sometimes see a lack of focus — and “prioritization all over the map” — as a result.

With company websites serving as the “hub” of marketing communications, it’s only natural to try to align the information provided to prospective customers with what they’re seeking.

A recent survey of several hundred B-to-B companies conducted by DH Communications and KoMarketing Associates sought to determine what business-to-business buyers are doing once they land on a vendor website. Which elements on the site increase a vendor’s credibility … and at the other end of the scale, what causes visitors to leave?

The results of this survey confirm what many have suspected. In a nutshell:

  • Buyers come to a vendor’s website with one thought foremost in mind: to qualify the company in order to begin the process of moving towards a purchase.

And this:

  • Buyers believe the vendor qualification process should be simple and straightforward, and they don’t have time to deal with it any other way.

This mission manifests itself in the following typical behaviors when landing on a website:

  1. The first place visitors go is straight to the products and services pages.
  2. They want to see technical information … and published pricing information, too.
  3. They look for testimonials or case examples to see how others have solved their problems using the products or services.
  4. If they don’t already know the company, they check out the “about us” pages to gauge its credibility as a supplier – but only after they’ve determined that its products or services are aligned with their needs.
  5. They have little interest in social media – and hence mostly ignore those elements.

Website Must-Haves

The survey asked respondents which informational content elements are “must-haves” for a B-to-B website. It found that these elements are of greatest importance:

  • Contact information: ~68% consider a “must-have”
  • Pricing information: ~43%
  • Technical information: ~38%
  • Case studies/white papers/articles: ~38%
  • Shipping information: ~37%

The first item on the list above may seem like a given. But it turns out that many websites don’t offer visitors the most preferred methods of contact: an e-mail address (~81% want this option) and/or a phone number (~57% want this).

What about “Contact Us” forms? It turns out that quite a few visitors don’t like them at all. It makes sense to offer them … but also to provide other contact options. Otherwise, some visitors will leave the site without any further engagement — or so they claim.

Axing the Distractions

Because most visitors come to vendor websites to gather information and research products in preparation for making a buying decision, things that detract from those objectives are viewed as an interruption and a distraction.

Some elements are so irritating, they’ll compel visitors to leave the website altogether.  What are those? Video and/or audio clips that play automatically, animated web designs and other visual hijinks, plus pop-up messages are the worst offenders.

Basically, anything that interrupts the visitor’s train of thought reduces the vendor’s credibility and helps the push the company further down the buyer’s list of prioritized vendors.

What’s Missing from Vendor Websites

The survey also asked respondents to cite what they feel is lacking on many vendor sites. Their responses to this question could be considered an indictment of B-to-B websites the world over!

  • Case studies/white papers/articles: ~54% say these are most lacking on websites
  • Pricing information: ~50%
  • Product reviews: ~42%
  • Technical support details: ~42%
  • Testimonials/client list: ~31%

Social Media?

To consider the social media attitudes revealed in this survey of B-to-B buyers is to wonder what all the fuss has been about over the past five years. In citing how impactful social media is on the buying process … it’s clear that the impact isn’t great at all:

  • Social media isn’t a factor: ~37%
  • Neutral feelings about social media: ~26%
  • Social media is a factor, but not a “deal-breaker”: ~30%
  • Social media is a big factor: ~6%

The takeaway?  If B-to-B web content managers spent less time on social media and more time on pricing information, case study testimonials and robust technical data, it would be a more valuable use of their energies.

I’ve summarized some of the key survey results above – but there are more research findings available in a 32-page report summary just published by KoMarketing Associates. You can download it here.