The Ripple Effects of High Gasoline Prices

Shopping at home is rising along with gasoline prices.We’ve all heard the news reports about the effects that high gasoline prices are having on families who rely on automotive transportation for their livelihoods. It’s all well and good to promote the use of public transportation, but when your job is 25 miles away along suburban or rural roads, it’s often impractical to adjust commuting behaviors.

We’re also reading how high gas prices are affecting other aspects of the economy, such as the rising price of food items in the grocery stores due to higher transportation costs.

To this, we can now add another consequence of the high cost of petrol. Paralleling the gas price spike has been an increase in Internet activity.

Marin Software, a leading paid search manager platform for advertisers and agencies, has performed an analysis across more than $2 billion worth of paid search marketing activity. The firm established a benchmark based on the share of activity across the Google and Bing search engines, and then studied cost-per-click activity, clickthrough rates and conversion rates.

Marin evaluated the rise and fall in the volume of clicks along with the rise of gas prices over the time period January – March 2011. Voila! It found a positive correlation between rising gas prices and increased click activity.

In a similar vein, digital market intelligence firm comScore is reporting that U.S. e-commerce sales were ~$38 billion during the first quarter of the year. That’s up ~12% compared to the first quarter of 2010. And while e-commerce volume has been up over the past six quarters, this is only the second time the growth as been in double digits.

So the premise that the higher gas prices climb, the more the propensity is to shop from home and avoid the cost of driving appears to be on target. And it’s probably being helped along by the plethora of “free shipping” offers that are also out there — along with avoiding paying sales taxes.

Looking forward to the day when gasoline prices may plateau or fall back, it’ll be interesting to see if Internet activity drops back as well. Or will more people have become used to the comfort of shopping from home in their boxer shorts – so that online activity remains at an elevated level?

I have a suspicion it’ll be the latter.

The Information Tsunami Shows No Sign of Letting Up

If you feel you’re being overwhelmed by information overload in the digital realm, you have lots of company.

A survey conducted last month of ~200 adults who are online “content consumers” found that the largest proportion reports being online essentially their entire waking day. The survey, conducted by content publishing platform company Magnify, was made up of executives, professionals, entrepreneurs and technologists.

It’s a small survey sample to be sure … but who could really argue with the results it uncovered? When asked to what degree they were connected to the Internet, here’s how these respondents answered:

 From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed: ~50%
 Most of the workday: ~28%
 9 am to 9 p.m.: ~17%

But here’s the even bigger kicker: A large majority of the respondents reported that the quantity of information being received today had grown by 50% or more compared to last year:

 Information flow has doubled or more since last year: ~26%
 … Has increased by ~75%: ~10%
 … Has increased by ~50%: ~28%
 … Has increased by ~20%: ~25%
 … Has stayed essentially the same: ~11%

How are people dealing with processing the additional information? See how many of these “coping mechanisms” reflect your own actions or behaviors:

 Reading/responding to e-mail on evenings and weekends: ~77%
 Never turning off the mobile phone: ~57%
 Unable to answer all e-mails: ~47%
 Missing important news: ~41%
 Ignoring family and friends: ~40%
 Answering e-mails even while with children: ~35%
 Checking e-mails in the middle of the night: ~33%

The question is: Have we finally reached a critical-mass state where the law of diminishing returns kicks in?

Well, we might have thought that one year ago … before the latest torrential increase in volume happened!

Facebook’s Hidden Bombshells

Facebook's hidden bombshellsAs Facebook has been busily turning itself into a web powerhouse – challenging even the likes of Google for dominance – some people are beginning to question the fundamental aspects of how Facebook treats users and the content they post.

Last week I came across an interesting article by Douglas Karr, a social media consultant and author, who has spent thousands of dollars advertising on Facebook for himself and his clients. Karr summarized recent experiences he’s had with Facebook accounts that now make him extremely leery of using it as a central rather than an ancillary platform for promoting companies and their brands.

Facebook somehow became suspicious of entries posted by one of Karr’s clients. Facebook then proceeded to disable every administrator’s account that was associated with this client’s Facebook page. Because Karr was one of the administrators, this action disabled all of his Facebook pages and applications as well.

It then took a Herculean effort to repair the damage, during which time Karr learned quite a bit more about the customer service side of Facebook – if you could even call it “customer service.” Here’s how he summarizes it:

Facebook lacks a meaningful customer service process. There’s no phone number to call … or dedicated e-mail address specifically for support. So good luck trying to get any sort of satisfaction. Karr was asked to submit a form in order for his account to be turned back on. But that communication only resulted in an automated reply message to verify his identity.

In the meantime, with his accounts disabled, there was no way for Karr to log in and retrieve any of the now-hidden content.

What Karr learned is when all of what makes a Facebook presence so valuable – postings, photos, video and other content, fans, applications, etc. – goes by the boards, there’s essentially no recourse for a business.

Luckily for Karr, his account was re-enabled after a few days – with no notification from Facebook. But then he still had to republish all of the pages.

[It turns out that Karr’s client had a “friend of a friend of a friend” at Facebook who was able to pull a few strings to set things right … but how many of us should be so fortunate?]

This experience revealed another distasteful reality: The content you post on Facebook may be yours, but Facebook owns the access to it.

Yep. If you look closely at Facebook’s fine print, this is what you’ll find: “You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.”

So much for keeping proprietary control over anything that may go viral and ends up on Facebook.

Karr’s word of advice for companies considering employing Facebook as their primary means of generating online traffic and revenue: “Don’t.”

Instead, he suggests adopting other tactics such as developing a blog, investing in search engine optimization and search engine marketing, using Twitter … and owning all of your content on your own domain.

That’s pretty smart advice from someone who speaks from experience.

What Facebook Looks Like Today

Facebook's world mapBy now, everyone knows that Facebook has pretty much won the social media wars, as early entrant and rival MySpace hemorrhages employees as it tucks its tail between its legs and slinks away.

And Facebook itself is a good chronicler of the hyperactivity of Facebookers wordwide. Recently, it published some stats on “what 20 minutes on Facebook looks like.” Among the revelations:

 ~10.2 million comments uploaded every 20 minutes
 ~2.7 million photos uploaded
 ~2.0 million “friend” requests accepted
 ~1.8 million status updates posted
 ~1.6 million wall posts
 ~1.5 million event invites sent out
 ~1.3 million photos tagged
 ~1 million links shared

Fan designations (or “likes”) are now reaching stratospheric proportions for some celebrities. And who were the most popular in 2010 based the “most liked” status? The results show a major skew towards the younger generation … and toward entertainers rather than political, scientific or academic leaders:

 Lady Gaga: ~25 million people “like”
 Eminem: ~24 million people
 Megan Fox: ~20 million people
 Vin Diesel: ~19 million people
 Rihanna: ~19 million people

Where does President Barack Obama rank by comparison? He’s at ~17 million “likes” – right along with Bob Marley, Li’l Wayne, Justin Bieber and Shakira.

Personally, I found the trends in relationship status to be the most interesting. There were quite a few relationship changes … but perhaps not as many as you might expect considering that there are an estimated 600 million active users on Facebook these days.

For the record, here’s what happened with personal relationships in 2010:

 ~44 million people changed their status to “single”
 ~37 million changed their status to “married”
 ~28 million changed their status to “in a relationship”
 ~6 million changed their status to “engaged”
 ~3 million changed their status to “it’s complicated”

Notice that the number of people who migrated away from marriage were nearly equally matched by those becoming engaged or getting hitched. As the famous French saying goes, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Mere Words? Google’s Library Project Speaks Volumes

Google Library Project
Google's Online Library Project: 5 million+ volumes and growing.
An article published recently in Science magazine provides fascinating sociological findings based on researching the content of the growing number of books in Google’s digital library.

Google has amassed a database of some 2 billion words and phrases from more than 5 million books published over the past 200 years. Much of the news coverage about this project has been focused on the intense criticism of some publishers and authors who are concerned about copyright protections and Google’s alleged knowledge “power grab.”

But a more interesting and useful result of Google’s library project has been that linguists have been able to use this trove to measure information and trends based on the language in the books and the people and concepts that are referenced therein.

By analyzing the digitized text of the books in Google’s database in relation to when they were published, the researchers found that they can measure all sorts of trends – such as changing tastes in foods, ebbs and flows in relations between countries, and the role of religion in the world.

For example, references to “sausage” peaked in the 1940s and have dropped off dramatically since then, whereas references to “sushi” began to appear in significant volume in the 1980s.

It’s also interesting to see how references to certain “personalities” grow or decline over the decades. Revolutionary leader Che Guevara was covered widely in the 1960s but has receded since then, whereas Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe has seen a slow, steady increase in references even decades following her death.

References to “God” have declined steadily since its peak usage in the 1840s, which likely comes as no surprise. More interestingly, references to “men” far outpaced women all through the 1800s and 1900s … until the 1980s when the two were at parity. And by 2000, references to women surpass those of men.

When evaluating emotional concepts, the researchers have found that concepts like “empathy” and “self esteem” have exploded since the 1940s and 1950s … while those of “will power,” “self control” and “prudence” have all declined.

Commenting on the importance of this academic research, Mark Liberman, a computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “We see patterns in space, time and cultural context on a scale a million times greater than in the past.”

It turns out that Google’s digital database of books is but a small fraction of the total number of volumes published since the invention of the printing press; that figure has been estimated at ~129 million. But Google’s 5 million+ books are giving us a much more precise view of trends than what’s ever been possible before.

And an interesting ancillary finding of the research is realizing the number of completely new words that have come into use in the English language. It turns out that more than 500,000 new English words that have made their “debut” since 1950.

Google is making this data available at a time when it continues to face criticism about its online library endeavor. The initiative has faced copyright disputes, lawsuits and charges that Google is attempting to create an “information monopoly” (some of which have been sort of settled). But over the long haul, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that people will view the pluses as outweighing the minuses in Google’s library project.

A Game-Changer for Charitable Organizations and Causes?

Jumo, a social network focused on charities.Chris Hughes
Jumo, the newest social network focused on charities and social activism.
There’s a new international social media resource being launched. Jumo, which was unveiled this past week in a beta test version, aims to connect people with not-for-profit causes and charitable organizations.

Established in February 2010, Jumo describes itself as “a social network connecting individuals and organizations who want to change the world.”

The founder of Jumo is Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who more recently served as director of online organizing for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He sees Jumo as a way for people to find and evaluate organizations that focus on the causes that interest them. Such organizations can range all the way from health and educational initiatives to ones dealing with advocacy issues such as gay rights.

News articles, YouTube videos, Twitter posts and other content will be added to Jumo pages, and users can also add their own comments and feedback.

What’s the inspiration behind Jumo? It’s to establish a social platform focusing on issues, advocacy and not-for-profit organizations rather than on personalities or branded products. “The more connected [an] individual is to an issue they care about, the higher probability there is they will stay involved over a longer period of time,” Hughes has stated.

As part of establishing its mission, Jumo has outlined the following three key factors:

 Millions of people are working to improve the lives of others, many of whom lack the resources to have major impact.

 There are millions of other people who would want to help, but don’t know how.

 Despite where we are with technology, it’s still difficult to find meaningful opportunities to get involved.

Jumo provides a platform wherein people can discover the type of causes and organizations they care about, follow the latest news and updates in those fields, and support the work of these organizations through the donation of skills, time or financial support.

In Hughes’ view, this is what differentiates Jumo from social media platforms such as Facebook, which also allows the creation of pages for non-profit groups. Facebook’s groups tend to be passive, with many an individual’s interaction going little beyond “following” or “liking” them.

Hughes believes there will be significantly more volunteering and giving associated with the people who interact with organizations on Jumo. And if that happens, it may finally fulfill the promise of online platforms enabling not-for-profits to raise money more efficiently and less expensively than via traditional means.

That’s a goal that has been stubbornly elusive to date, as only about 5% of all U.S. donations come from online giving, according to the Blackbaud Index of Online Giving.

How does Jumo intend to grow and thrive in the online world? As a not-for-profit initiative itself, it plans to rely on payments from users and sponsorships from groups that would like to receive more highly visible promotion on the site.

Jumo already contains ~3,000 charitable organizations and issues-oriented groups which have been “seeded” on the site. But any organization that is certified as “tax exempt” is eligible to set up a page on Jumo.

Is Jumo destined to transform social activism? Only time will tell … but it will be interesting to see how this interesting new venture evolves and grows in the coming months.

Bing, Blekko, and more new developments in search.

Facebook + BingWhen it comes to the evolution of online search, as one wag put it, “If you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

It does seem that significant new developments in search crop up almost monthly – each one having the potential to up-end the tactics and techniques that harried companies attempt to put in place to keep up with the latest methods to target and influence customers. It’s simply not possible to bury your head in the sand, even if you wanted to.

Two of the newest developments in search include the introduction of a beta version of the new Blekko search engine with its built-in focus on SEO analytics — I’ll save that topic for a future blog post — along with a joint press conference held last week by Facebook and Microsoft where they announced new functionalities to the Bing search engine. More specifically, Bing will now be displaying search results based on the experiences and preferences of people’s Facebook friends.

What makes the Bing/Facebook development particularly intriguing is that it adds a dimension to search that is genuinely new and different. Up until now, every consumer had his or her “search engine of choice” based on any number of reasons or preferences. But generally speaking, that preference wouldn’t be based on the content of the search results. That’s because the ability for search engines to deliver truly unique search results has been very difficult because they’ve all been based on essentially the same search algorithms.

[To prove the point, run the same search term on Yahoo and Google, and you’ll likely see natural search results are pretty similar one to another. There might be a different mix of image and video results, but generally speaking, the results are based on the same “crawling” capabilities of search bots.]

The Bing/Facebook deal changes the paradigm in that new information heretofore residing behind Facebook’s wall will now be visible to selected searchers.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to contemplate. It’s one thing for people to read reviews or ratings written by total strangers about a restaurant or store on a site like Yelp. But now, if someone sees “likes,” ratings or comments from their Facebook friends, those will presumably carry more weight. With this new font of information, as time goes on the number of products, brands and services that people will be rating will surely rise.

The implications are potentially enormous. Brands like Zappos have grown in popularity, and in consumer loyalty, because of their “authenticity.” The new Bing/Facebook module will provide ways for smaller brands to engender similar fierce loyalty on a smaller scale … without having to make the same huge brand-building commitment.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this. A company’s product had better be good … or else all of those hoped-for positive ratings and reviews could turn out to be the exact opposite!

Google’s Instant Search: Instant Irritation?

Google's Instant Search is a Non-StarterHow many of you have been noodling around with Google’s new Instant Search functionality since its unveiling earlier this month? I’ve spent the better part of a week working with it, trying hard to keep a “completely open mind” as to its benefits.

I’ve finally came to the conclusion that … I can’t stand it. I’m a pretty fast typist, and generally know what I’m searching for. I really don’t need Google “pre-anticipating” search results for me, and find the constantly jumping search results window extremely off-putting to the point of distraction.

I gave Instant Search a full week … and couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve now elected to turn it off completely.

Wondering if I was the only one with this view … it certainly didn’t take long to find out that there are a great many people out there who feel the same way. You can use Google search (either the “instant” or “traditional” will do fine) to find any number of blog posts and user comments about Google Instant Search that are just one notch shy of mutinous — and hardly genteel in their choice of language. (A few examples can be found here and here and here.)

If the comments by disgruntled users are to be believed, Bing/MSN may find itself with a nice little bump in search volume market share by the end of September.

And if that actually happens, Google Instant might die a quiet death – which wouldn’t be the first time Google laid an egg in its “throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach to product development.

But if Google Instant does gain traction … there are some negative implications for search marketers as well. Many companies seek to structure their online marketing campaigns by determining the optimal amount of spending on search advertising, display ads and social media. The key to success in this endeavor is undertaking a process that examines the millions of cookies and billions of clicks that are made by web users, along with factoring in other elements like geographic location and time of day.

All of this information is weighed against the cost of various ads and the likelihood of success as they are served to the user. That’s determined by running regular models of millions of keywords and word combinations, judging the relative costs to determine the optimum frequency. For some of the most aggressive marketers, these models are run once or twice daily.

The advent of Google’s Instant Search scrambles all of that, because it makes the process even faster and more hectic than before. As those of you who have experimented with Instant Search know, you start seeing “suggested” search results with just the first one or two keystrokes … and those choices continue to change with each new keystroke made or movement of the cursor down the list of Google’s suggestions. For marketers, the result is a lot more velocity on the ad side – and more price changes.

As proof of this, within the first few days of Instant Search’s launch, sites that Instant Search recommends after the first one or two letters are typed into the search box – “Mapquest,” “Ticketmaster” and “Pandora” are three useful examples – were experiencing significant increases in traffic, whereas their hapless competitors were not.

If that’s what is happening with the big boys, where does this put smaller businesses? The answer is obvious: They’re going to get squeezed big-time … and as a result, their search advertising costs are going nowhere but up.

Mighty sporting of you, Google.

Doomed if you don’t read the Fine Print: GameStation Channels Mephistopheles Online

GameStation's Immortal Soul ClauseEver wondered how many people actually read usage agreements, product warranty documents or web site privacy policies?

If you were to extrapolate your own behavior to the world at large, my guess is you’d probably admit that practically no one does.

And in that case … you’d be right. Proving the point, last spring GameStation, the U.K.’s leading video games retailer, took a page right out of Goethe’s play (or Gounod’s opera) Faust. GameStation inserted a clause into the purchase of online game products in which buyers turned their souls over to them!

GameStation added the clause allowing it to claim the souls of online game purchasers as part of an April Fool’s spoof. The clause in the user agreement stated clearly that customers granted GameStation the right to “claim their immortal souls.”

Specifically, the “soul” clause stated:

By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from gamesation.co.uk or one of its duly authorized minions.

But all shoppers were also presented with an tick-box option allowing them to opt out of this startling condition – along with getting a ~$10 voucher towards a future GameStation purchase.

It turns out that nearly 90% of all buyers – that’s around 7,500 people – neglected to check the box in order to claim the bonus voucher – as well as protect their immortal soul. This led the retailer to conclude that practically no one reads its sale terms and buying conditions at all.

I’m sure Mephistopheles would be mighty proud of the clever folks at GameStation. But fortunately for us, GameStation doesn’t drive as hard a bargain as the devil did against Faust. Instead, the company simply sent a follow-up e-mail to each unsuspecting customer nullifying any claim to his or her soul.

Thanks, guys. That was mighty sporting of you.

What does this prove in the larger scheme of things? Perhaps that people are gullible? Or that folks find all the small print in user agreements intimidating or indecipherable?

Most likely, it’s just that people are lazy.

Updating the Marketing “4 Ps”

The Four Ps of MarketingIn business, we like our checklists and concise bullet points. It’s all part of our impulse to distill ideas and principles down to their essence … and to promote economy and efficiency in whatever we do.

In marketing and communications, it’s no different. Most everyone who’s studied business in school knows about the “4 Ps” of marketing: Product, Place, Price, and Promotion.

Today, that listing seems woefully incomplete and inadequate – even quaint. Stepping in to fill the void are additional attributes that have been proffered by marketing specialists. Several of these newer lists — one coined by Robert Lauterborn, a professor of advertising at the University of North Carolina, and another from technology marketing specialist Paul Dunay — consist of a group of marketing “Cs”: Consumer, Cost, Convenience, Content, Connection, Communication, and Conversion.

But I like a new group of “Ps” as popularized by Jennifer Howard of Google’s B-to-B market group. She offers up five new “Ps” of digital marketing, and they go a long way toward filling the yawning gaps in the original list.

These new digital marketing attributes are Pulse, Pace, Precision, Performance, and Participation.

Beyond the fact that fair dues should be given to anyone who manages to come up with an additional set of five new attributes that likewise begin with the letter “P,” they happen to be worthwhile additions to the original list, and they help bring it into the interactive era.

The new set of marketing “Ps” can be further described like this:

Pulse – active listening and attention to customer, brand and competitor insights.

Pace – the speed at which marketing campaigns are carried out is critical. “Slow and steady” usually doesn’t cut it.

Precision – assuring that marketing messages are delivered to the right customers … at the right time … and place (e.g., PC or mobile device).

Participation – creating conversations with customers via rich media ad formats and social media platforms to enable them to “join the conversation.”

Performance – meeting expectations for results that notch ever higher, via measurable and accountable marketing and media tactics.

In the world of digital marketing and e-commerce, marketers like to borrow a term from the realm of traditional retailing. It’s the “moment of truth,” and it was first coined by Procter & Gamble executives to describe those critical 10 to 20 seconds when someone is standing in a store aisle and making decisions on what to purchase and what to pass by.

In the online world, Google refers to this phenomenon as the “zero moment of truth” (ZMOT) – when a potential buyer interfaces with a brand or a product on a computer, smartphone or other digital device. Why zero? Because instead of 10 or 20 seconds, many people take only a split second to decide whether they’ll stay and engage … or whether to ditch and switch.