Saturday, February 28, 2009

The User Experience Gap

You see the statistics and reports about how more companies are increasing their online ad budgets. You see the incredible growth of social media. And you see the high-levels of time spent online by all age groups (even among seniors!)

But what you don’t see are the steady improvements in Web site experiences you would expect considering these trends. For instance, last June Forrester Research published one of its many “Best and Worst” of site design reports.

This particular report focused on 16 B2C sites of companies across four industries: airlines, banks, department stores and MP3 manufacturers. All of the companies were brand names such as American Airlines, Apple, Bank of America and Macy’s (large companies with considerable resources).

Like most usability testing methodologies, Forrester’s approach evaluated basic site variables like presentation, content, functionality and task flow efficiency. What was remarkable about the test was that all 16 sites failed. And this wasn’t an anomaly, at least when using Forrester’s approach. In March 2007 Forrester submitted 16 different B2C sites to the same usability test. That time around 15 of 16 of the sites failed.,7211,45718,00.html

Which raises the question: if the Web is becoming more important to people in terms of the products they buy and services they use why aren’t companies committing the resources to deliver experiences that are commensurate with this growing prominence?

The short answer is that a lot of organizations are investing in improving their consumer sites but are finding that delivering exceptional Web experiences isn’t easy. This leads us to the long answer which is a bit more complicated.

In my opinion there are several reasons why companies fall short in this area. Some are related to organizational barriers and misguided marketing practices. Others have to do with the failure of some teams to use site design best-practices when planning their Web initiatives.

Organizational Barriers – many times the way a company is structured makes it difficult to generate consensus on a Web strategy and even more difficult to sustain it once implemented. Some common barriers include:

  • Highly distributed companies without a strong centralized corporate communications or marketing function
  • Companies with multiple lines of business with different value propositions and consumer audiences
  • Highly silioed organizations

Misguided Marketing Practices – many companies insist that customers are their most valued asset but some don’t walk the walk when it comes to planning their consumer facing Web sites. This is a result, I believe, of marketing practices that sometimes cause managers to focus on the wrong things:

  • Product features as opposed to consumer benefits
  • Product differentiation as opposed to consumer relevance
  • The assumption consumers are purely rational decision makers
  • Downplaying the emotional aspect of how consumers consider and evaluate brands
  • Underestimating the experiential dimensions of how consumers interact with brands on the Web

Failure to Use Web Design Best Practices – frequently Web teams short-cut critical activities that can make the difference between a decent and a great site. Sometimes this is because of tight timelines or limited budgets. A common result is a Web site that doesn’t meet the expectations of its visitors and is not set up for long term success:

  • Design personas to define the needs of various visitor “archetypes” that will come to a site. They are critical and help Web designers create experiences that are based on visitor, not organizational, needs
  • Cross-channel scenario maps to help Web planners consider the full context of how a site will complement other media channels and information sources as a consumer moves through a decision making process
  • Governance models to ensure a controlled approach to a site’s design, content and management as it evolves - without governance there is no way to say what changes should or should not be made to a site

The gap between consumer expectations and the state of most B2C Web sites presents an opportunity. To seize that opportunity managers need to take a hard look at consumer sites under their charge and ask themselves whether they deliver a unique and valuable experience for their intended audiences. If the answer is no it’s also likely that they are not adding much value to their brands and business stakeholders either.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The New Velocity

For years managers worried about the velocity of their business. The measurement of how quickly they could get their products developed, distributed, sold and consumed. The theory being that the faster the rate of velocity the more efficient and profitable their business. In other words, you turn over more widgets in a year you generate more revenue. You develop and sell 25% more units than last year with the same assets you’re conceivably 25% more profitable, and so on.

Today, with the growth of social technologies managers now need to worry about a new type of velocity – the speed in which consumer sentiment towards their brands might change (whether for better or worse). Social networking tools like Facebook, Digg and Twitter have given people the means to instantaneously and virtually gather to discuss, share their views and spread potentially damaging messages or content about a brand. People, in many ways, are in control.

It goes without saying that this new velocity makes it harder to manage brand perception and reputation. There are many cases of how people in a matter of hours have used Web 2.0 technologies to wreak significant havoc on brands that have been around for decades. One of the best examples being the You Tube video of the Comcast technician sleeping on a customer’s couch while on a service call. Or the legions of parents who this past November joined forces on Twitter to rail against a TV ad for children’s Motrin (the spot was promptly pulled by parent company Johnson & Johnson).

The result is a real-time, mass consumer feedback loop. The impact is greater transparency and accountability for both corporations and brands. To be successful in this new environment it’s not enough that companies develop, distribute and market new products quickly to achieve optimum velocity. What also matters is how openly they engage with their consumers, how well they listen to them and how quickly they respond to their concerns.

Brands that neglect to use social technologies to build bridges to their consumers and monitor their brand health do so at their own risk. In a time of increasing commodization and decreasing differentiation this could be among the best strategies brands have for a competitive advantage.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

“Startups, Not Bailouts”

Author and columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a persuasive op-ed column in today’s New York Times about the folly of using billions of dollars of taxpayer money to bailout G.M. and Chrysler. Meanwhile high-tech startups, our best hope for future growth, are finding it more-and-more difficult to find venture capital in the current environment.

Stated otherwise - why we are throwing good money after bad when we should be doing everything we can to bankroll the risk takers who are trying to bring the new technologies to market that represent our best chance for a prosperous future?

After reading Friedman’s piece I did some research and learned the following:

  • 2008 marked the first yearly decline in venture capital (VC) spending since the post dotcom bubble year of 2003
  • What’s worse - VC investments in Q4 2008 dropped precipitously from the prior quarter (26%) as well against the two year trailing average
  • What’s even more worse (at least for someone like me who works in an Internet related industry) - Internet-specific VC investments in Q4 also dropped by 26%
U.S. Venture Capital Investments 2001 - 2008

See PriceWaterhouseCoopers “MoneyTree Report:”

So basically the story goes something like this:

During the past 30 years G.M. and Chrysler have been steadily losing market share and have lost hundreds of billions of dollars. So what does the government do? It gives them billions of dollars more (the latest installment $25 billion) to prop them up because they are “too big to fail.”

Meanwhile, during the same 30 year period it was high-tech companies (many of them startups) that were among the most powerful driving forces of economic growth. But sadly in this climate of limited resources it’s likely that the next Amgen, Google or Microsoft will have to get in line behind the down and out from Detroit before it will get government funds to invest in new innovations. Seems like folly to me.

Don’t get me wrong, the recent stimulus legislation will do a lot of good for high-tech industries. For example, funds were set aside for rural broadband and the digitization of health care records which is a start. And while the Obama economic team has made some good moves in their first 30 days there is so much more that can and must be done if we’re going to have a vibrant, innovation-led economy in the coming years. In this zero-sum environment giving G.M. and Chrysler $25 billion was not one of them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

U2 CD Leak – Blunder or PR Stunt?

The release of U2’s new CD, “No Line on the Horizon,” is planned for February 27. But it appears they have run into a bit of a SNAFU.

Someone at Universal Music, U2’s music publisher, accidentally put the CD up for sale on (the Australian site for Universal’s Get Music online music service) almost two weeks before the official release date. Not surprisingly someone purchased the CD before it was taken down and it wasn’t long before it appeared on peer-to-peer file sharing sites where people are now downloading it for free.

The fact is that most CDs are leaked before official release dates. Which raises the question: was this a blunder or a stunt by U2’s management to generate buzz and pre-empt other leaks to better control publicity around the release?

It’s more than a little suspect that U2’s music publisher “accidentally” posted the CD for sale two weeks before launch. And it has been five years since U2’s last CD (for many artists a dangerously long hiatus). On the other hand, U2 is one of the most recognizable and respected brands in the music business so they’re certainly not suffering from low awareness.

If a stunt, it was nowhere near as sophisticated as Radiohead’s pay-as-you-choose release of “In Rainbows” on its own Web site. Unsophisticated is very un-U2 and considering their strong stance against music piracy it’s likely that this was simply a mistake.

But the fact that it’s a week before the release and buzz is building and people are listening begs the question: when will music labels and publishers accept the future of music distribution and figure out a way to become relevant again?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Online Ad Industry Needs to Get Serious About Privacy

In a previous post I discussed dynamically generated display ads and how they represent the next wave of innovation in online advertising.

Unfortunately, this next round of innovation is potentially in jeopardy. A critical component of this evolving online ad model is a technique known as behavioral targeting (BT). BT involves making assumptions about a person’s interests based on things like the Web sites they visit, their profiles on social networking sites and the types of things they search and then serving them customized ads based on those assumptions.

FTC's 2007 Guidelines
While the data used by BT methods is anonymous, there is still quite a bit of controversy around the technique. Privacy groups criticize it as intrusive (if not creepy). And the Federal Trade Commission has been keeping an eye on BT since December 2007 when they issued voluntary guidelines to Web sites delivering targeted ads in an effort to protect consumer privacy.

Apparently, no one was listening. Last week the FTC issued a follow up report on the issue. The report reinforced the FTC’s commitment to industry self-regulation (i.e., voluntary compliance) but this time added tough words for the online ad industry which it claimed is not moving fast enough to address the privacy issues. They also commented that if the industry does not make substantive efforts to address these concerns regulations or even legislation might be required.

Concerns with Current Privacy Practices
Privacy groups and the FTC have a host of grievances with current targeted-ad practices:

  • They don’t clearly explain what information is being collected and how it is being used
  • The explanations are not easily accessible and are normally buried deep in lengthy privacy policies
  • They are not convinced that the data collected is completely anonymous
  • They are concerned that Web sites are combining personally identifiable data (addresses, birth dates, etc) with anonymous data captured through BT methods

What the FTC is Requesting
The FTC report laid out guiding principles for Web site privacy practices including provisions for:

  • Clear, accessible and plain language statements about the behavioral data they’re collecting and how it will be used
  • An easy way for consumers to opt-in or out
  • Security policies for collected data
  • The length of time data will be retained considering legitimate business needs

The report was not specific regarding the types of notice Web sites should provide to consumers. Some have proposed links on banners that lead to an explanation of the data collected, how it will be used and opt-in and opt-out features.

Regulation and Innovation – Rarely a Good Combination
eMarketer is projecting a 300% spending increase in targeted online advertising in the next three years – strong growth in a down economy. A lot of this growth will depend on investments Web sites make in new technologies to enable more sophisticated ad-targeting.

The last thing we need is for the government to dampen that growth by imposing a set of onerous regulations. The online ad industry has a clear choice: figure out a way to improve online consumer privacy notifications or the Federal government will figure it out for us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Will the Internet Look Like in 2020?

The nonpartisan Pew Internet and American Life Project recently posed that question to over one thousand members of the digital elite (analysts, policy-makers, academics, technologists and other Internet experts).

Pew asked them if they agreed or disagreed with various scenarios regarding the social, political and economic impact of the Internet ten years hence. The scenarios spanned everything from the effect of the Internet on social tolerance, to the impact social computing will have on individual transparency and responsibility, to the blurring of boundaries between professional and personal lives.

1. More powerful and better designed smartphones will be the primary means of Internet access for a majority of people across the world

The good news: Greater access for all - more people (especially the poor and those in remote locations) will have access to the Web through affordable, readily available mobile devices.

A big unknown: Will governments, regulatory bodies and wireless carriers align behind one universal standard for connectivity? Not likely if the current CDMA versus GMS situation in the U.S. cellphone market is any indication.

2. The ability of digital communications and social networks to rapidly spread information will result in a less socially tolerant global community

What this means: More tribes, more fragmentation, more polarization and more people using the Internet to spread hate, dogmatism and even fanaticism.

On the other hand: Increased access to information can mean more government, corporate and individual transparency and the potential for greater cross-cultural understanding.

Let’s hope this trend appeals to the better side of human nature.

3. Copyright and intellectual property protection will still be elusive

The good: More free online content (is it possible that the Wall Street Journal online will one day abandon its paid subscription model?)

The bad: More regulation and complex IP-control technologies and even more entangled workarounds to circumvent them.

4. As social media grows individual transparency (if not responsibility) will increase and privacy will become an even scarcer commodity

The new creed: “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have embarrassing stuff online.”

But people will still set boundaries: As one respondent commented – “Although society will seem more transparent, most people will guard many…aspects of their lives with great tenacity.”

5. The growth of artificial worlds and augmented reality means that some people will spend just as much time in virtual reality as they do in “real life”

The upside: More realistic virtual environments will be used to drive advancements in education, engineering, medicine and science.

The downside: For some people it will mean increased isolation, alienation and even violence and more sedentary lifestyles.

6. Ubiquitous computing will make it harder for some workers to separate their professional and personal lives

The positive: An always-on culture will have benefits such as time shifting and more employers may finally start measuring results (i.e., completed work) versus activity (i.e., time in the office). And to paraphrase one respondent, it’s not hard to argue that the 9-to-5 workday was an industrial era creation that doesn’t apply in idea driven economies.

The negative: This hyper-connected lifestyle will be bad for familial and social stability, and will increase stress levels and the likelihood that businesses and governments will use technology to intrude into people’s private lives.

For many, especially those in Internet related industries, this is already a reality so as one respondent said: “get over it.”

7. The basic architecture and technology of the Internet will not change but will evolve; a less secure Internet will cause some to create gated communities

Don’t expect a new “clean slate” Internet, it will take too long and cost too much: Improvements will occur gradually as security and performance requirements demand a more advanced platform. Incremental enhancements such as Internet Protocol v6 and the Semantic Web (allowing easier access to online content) will slowly improve performance.

Do expect more “walled gardens” and other restricted areas of the Internet: In response to the increasing frequency and scope of security breaches, large entities and other online communities will create secure environments where members will give up some control and privacy in exchange for added protection and utility.

Bottom line - the Internet will evolve dramatically over the next decade. And for better or worse many of the economic, cultural and social trends that it instigated will become more pronounced and prevalent in our lives. Let's just hope we don't lose control over it against our collective best intentions.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Integrated marketing is harder than it has to be

Many big companies (certainly those in the Fortune 500) use more than one agency for campaigns encompassing multiple communication mediums. A common scenario might look something like this:

  • Big brand agency for national TV and print brand campaigns
  • Digital agency for Web design, online advertising, email and social media programs
  • Direct marketing agency for targeted customer acquisition and retention efforts
  • Promotions agency for trade and shopper marketing and field merchandising support
  • Multi-cultural agencies for Hispanic, Asian or African American specific campaigns
  • And so on…

There’s one critical problem with this scenario. For several reasons when two or more ad agencies are engaged to create an integrated campaign achieving great work becomes hard, not impossible, but hard.

There are many causes for this, but I think the main culprits are:

  • Client side practices (especially in the area of briefing) that discourage inter-agency collaboration
  • Inter-agency competition
  • A lack of cross-trained, multi-discipline marketers on both the client and agency sides
  • A cultural divide between the types of agencies involved

In my opinion with one exception these causes are hard to manage let alone eliminate – here’s what I mean.

Inter-agency competition will never go away
Agencies are always competing – it’s part of the business. And they compete on many levels: for the account, for their ideas, for a bigger share of the marketing budget, etc. Agency competitiveness is driven by ambition and ego; hard things to change let alone eliminate.

Training multi-discipline marketers – nice idea, but unrealistic
The notion that multi-lingual marketers can be created through some kind of corporate training program is not only naive, it’s a contradiction in terms. This is especially so with respect to agencies.

We have specialization in marketing communications for a reason. It’s a response to our increasingly complex, multi-dimensional and tech-driven culture. Specialization is an outgrowth of this complexity. As a result each marketing discipline has its own idioms, methodologies and techniques. These are not things that can be learned, at least not beyond a superficial level, through a training program.

Bridging the cultural divide – good luck
Habits, old and new, die hard. Agencies like all organizations are creatures of habit. For example, while some of the big brand agencies are starting to break away from the formula they have used for over fifty years, many still default to the 30 second spot as the central creative device. On the other hand, digital agencies think of interactions and non-linear experiences. While direct shops focus on driving response. Etc, and so on...

Along with these different approaches come different thought processes, value systems and theories on how things should work. The assumption that you can lock these different agency types in a room and they will miraculously and seamlessly collaborate is crazy – it’s mixing like oil and water.

Clients hold the keys to success
I think the best opportunity for getting great, high-impact integrated creative starts with clients. But the fact is that the engagement models many clients have in place are not sufficient to meet the challenges of a multi-agency arrangement. That said, I think there are at least two things client marketing organizations can do to meet the challenge.

1. Consider universal briefing and an inclusive approach to concept development - big ideas can come from anywhere. And in many instances the more agency minds working a creative problem the better. What’s needed is an environment where multiple agencies can collaborate and riff off of each other’s ideas as opposed to working in channel or audience specific silos. Consumers, after all, experience brands across multiple channels and touch points; the creative process should align with this reality.

All too often one agency, usually the brand agency, is briefed on a new assignment before all other agencies (who sometimes are not briefed at all). Clients should consider changing this practice by briefing all agencies at the same time with a universal brief that considers all channels and audiences. Then task each agency with coming up with ideas that both meet their specific channel/audience needs and are big enough to extend beyond as well. Then let the best idea win.

2. Use a program management approach to coordinate inter-agency activities - coordinating and synthesizing the myriad activities a large integrated marketing program involves is a complicated undertaking. Many client marketing organizations, unfortunately, don’t have the right processes in place to effectively meet this challenge.

Here’s where program management can help. Program management is the process of managing multiple projects
towards a certain outcome (as opposed to project management which focuses on outputs) and has been used for years to coordinate complex technology implementation and software development initiatives.

In the context of integrated marketing, program management can help ensure that all agencies and client marketers are aligned and working towards a common goal. 

For example, program management techniques would require that client managers focus on orchestrating the full portfolio of cross-agency activities. Instead of looking at things from a channel or audience perspective, client focus would be drawn to the macro level and determining if activities across the portfolio are advancing in a way that best meet the desired business and marketing outcomes.

Another benefit is that program management techniques can be easily learned. There are four key aspects of program management that involve skills that most managers already possess; it just changes the focus and manner in which they are used:

  • Strategic planning
  • Governance (including definition of roles and responsibilities)
  • Ongoing management of project and program level activities
  • Financial management and control

Clients should want their agencies to focus on creating great work that drives results – not competing with one another and jockeying for position. The stakes are too high and the budgets are too big especially in this era of limited resources. While nobody likes excessive process I’ll take a little process over the alternative – ineffective and disintegrated marketing that no one is happy with.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Designing a corporate social media program? Plan carefully to avoid mishaps and unnecessary brand risk

It’s not news that many brands are using social media as a way to build brand preference, drive sales or increase customer satisfaction. In many ways social media is becoming table stakes for any brand that wants to generate awareness or stay engaged with today’s Web savvy consumer. These consumers expect it from companies they transact with and, in many instances, will reward them by being more loyal or even advocating on their behalf.

Social media programs, however, aren’t always successful. An October 2008 Gartner report predicts that 50% of future social media initiatives among the Fortune 1000 will be classified as failures. And social media programs do not come without brand risks. Two notable examples of brands that got into a social media storm include Dell Computer Corps’ infamous “Dell Hell,” and Wal-Mart’s fake “Wal-Marting Across America” blog. And, no surprise, the deeper the engagement enabled by social medias the greater the potential for brand risk.

Key issues to consider when planning a social media program
Despite the risks and high failure rates many organizations are still forging ahead with social media. If your company or client is one of those organizations consider the following factors first:

1. Be clear on your business objectives – some examples:

  • Improving brand perception
  • Increasing customer satisfaction or loyalty
  • Creating a place where people can discuss product features or exchange best practices
  • Reducing service costs
  • Developing a dialogue with your customers
  • An early stage warning system for bad customer experiences
  • Monitoring social data to gauge sentiment
2. Identify the social media tactics that are best equipped to meet those objectives:

  • Managed communities, polls or moderated comments
  • Support forums
  • Blogs
  • User reviews and other user-generated content
  • Wikis
3. Develop a plan on how to respond to any unforeseen brand backlash perpetrated by disaffected consumers:

  • Disgruntled customers
  • Customer complaints
  • Negative reviews
  • Pranksters
Corporate social media programs can be a powerful tool to build brand equity and increase sales. But they need to be approached in a sensible and planned manner.

Start small with low risk programs such as managed communities or polls. Then listen, learn and adjust. As your audience grows it might make sense to move on to higher engagement tactics such as user reviews, forums, wikis or other user-generated content.

And don’t forget that most social communities don’t just form by chance. In most instances a social media program will not on its own address low levels of brand awareness or Web site traffic. But it certainly can help in those areas if it’s part of a well thought out plan and provides value exchange to your intended audiences.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Measuring the ROI of your digital marketing efforts

Few doubt that the Web is the most measurable media available to marketers - at least in theory. In reality, many struggle with putting that theory into practice. This is true for both brand building and direct response campaigns. And the measurement challenge becomes even more difficult when digital marketing tactics are used in concert with traditional media.

This situation has several negative results. For client marketers it means bad decision making and media investments that fail to deliver their full potential. For digital agencies it makes it harder to show the ROI of their efforts and justify future investments in online marketing programs.

In addition, consumers rarely make purchase decisions using one channel. The inability to understand the impact of online and offline brand interactions on consumer behavior (both alone and as a complement to each other) makes it nearly impossible for marketers to align experiences with consumer expectations.

Several approaches can be used to close the gap between measurement theory and reality. This is especially so regarding direct response campaigns where I believe the measurement challenge is most difficult. For example, one framework that I have seen used with success is illustrated below.

The theory behind the approach is quite simple: identify the source of visitors coming from online tactics to a campaign Web site using cookies. For offline tactics visitor source is identified using unique URLs. This source data is then carried forward and matched with leads and sales records in a campaign database. This approach can be taken a step further to provide deeper insights by collecting and matching data beyond source such as banner creative, offer, keywords searched, etc.

While this type of approach is simple in theory, the devil is in the details when it comes to implementation. This is especially so as more attribution variables are added. But the payoff more than justifies the effort: better attribution of sales to tactics and critical insights that enable more effective allocation of ad budgets for future campaigns.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Has demand for e-books finally reached a tipping point?

Yesterday’s post was about a new digital publishing format, v-books. Today’s post is about e-book readers, a not so new digital publishing delivery platform that may finally be taking off in the U.S.

It was reported yesterday that sales of Amazon’s Kindle may have reached 500K units in 2008. This, according to analysts, may put it ahead of early sales volume levels for Apple’s iPod. It has been a long time coming. I don’t know exactly when e-book readers became commercially available in the U.S., but I know it was at least as early as 2001. In the eight or so years since, consumer demand and adoption have been tepid at best - until now.

I have been a Kindle owner for about five months and am more than pleased with the usability of the product and Amazon’s content delivery platform. However, one disappointment has been the amount of book, and to a lesser extent magazine, titles that are available for download (it would also be nice if it had a color monitor and touch screen capability but maybe that’s asking too much for a product that sells for $359 considering all the other things it does).

That’s why I was happy to hear that Kindle sales topped 500K units last year. As the number of Kindle owners increase the demand for more titles will also increase. For example, about four months ago I did a search in's Kindle store for Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (a modern classic & Pulitzer Prize winner). The book was not available and if I recall correctly there was only one or two Roth titles on hand – a bit of a letdown. Today the book is there along with seven other Roth titles.

Right now, Kindle and digital book downloads are a small percentage of Amazon’s overall sales. But as demand increases that will change. Now I wish someone (Amazon, Apple or mail-a-movie giant Netflix) would offer a viable arrangement for delivering digital movie downloads to box-top sets. There is certainly consumer demand for that innovation.

Kindle 2.0 to be unveiled soon

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

V-books - YouTube like videos for a fee?

HarperCollins is now offering downloads of v-books on’s digital download store is reporting today.

The first book that I’m aware of is Jeff Jarvis’ “What Would Google Do?” The book costs $9.99, is 23 minutes long and is available for download to PCs and mobile devices. Based on the two minute sample on Amazon it appears this v-book is little more than Jarvis speaking into the camera for the full video duration.

Personally, I like the idea especially as relates to business books. Many times I’ll by a business book for $25+ get half way through and put it down. Sometimes I just don’t have the time to read a full business book and let’s face it they can be quite dry. If publishers can synthesize the key points of a business book into 20 or so engaging minutes then they may be on to something.

Of course some business books you just have to read in full format, especially when there are detailed case studies that are critical to understanding the author’s conclusions. And not sure I would be interested in a fiction v-book (there’s something about reading a good piece of fiction that I’m sure would be lost in the translation).

Another alternative for the time challenged business reader is Soundview’s Executive Book Summaries. Annual subscriptions run from $119 - $169. For that you get 30 six to eight page summaries of the top business books published in a given year.

I have subscribed and like the service. While 30 summaries a year is a manageable number, the downside is that it’s likely that quite a few of the titles may not interest you since they span all business categories (marketing, finance, HR, manufacturing, etc).

From what I saw on the demo, the production quality of these v-books’ may not be much better than the average video you see on YouTube but that's not really the point. Worth a try even though $9.99 seems a bit pricey.

Monday, February 2, 2009

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste

David Leonhardt, economics columnist for The New York Times, wrote an interesting though somewhat depressing article called “The Big Fix” in yesterday's Sunday Magazine section. In the article he outlined the challenges our country will face trying to revive the economy without the old stand-by growth engines of Wall Street and consumer spending.

One positive in the article, at least for me, was when Leonhardt quoted a statement that White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, made a couple of months ago about what is probably the only upside of the crisis:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,”

What Emanuel meant was the that the severity of our situation is so bad that it could actually be a catalyst to make some of the transformative changes we as a country have been putting off for years but are needed if we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.

That got me thinking. Whether you like it or not the federal government will play a lead role in shaping the future of our economy. However, the private sector, as always, must and should play a lead role as well. One of the ways that will happen is when companies start investing again in programs that put people to work whether that be new product launches, Web redesign projects, software upgrades, etc.

This is where people can make a difference. Whether you’re a middle manager in a large corporation, a software salesperson or, like me, an account guy at a marketing services firm, you, with a little bit of ingenuity and courage can do something to help get this economy going again.

Here’s what I mean.

Emanuel’s quote reminded me of something I read years ago about IBM’s Chairman and CEO, Sam Palmisano. Palmisano rose through the ranks of IBM’s vaunted sales organization. One of the tactics he used to use on sales calls that were not going well was to ask the executives he was meeting what their toughest business challenge was. Then, like any good sales executive, he would get their consent to come back with some ideas on how IBM would solve that problem. He would use that next meeting as an opportunity to ask for the assignment. Essentially, Palmisano was creating an opportunity where none existed (this is what sales professionals call solutions selling).

So, the next time you’re in a meeting with your senior managers or a client, or on a sales call try to create an opportunity where none exists by asking the tough questions. Get them thinking of the possibilities that can be realized by addressing the tough problems they have been avoiding for years and have been holding their business back. Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What are our/your toughest business challenges?
  • Is our/your top-of-mind unaided brand awareness where it needs to be?
  • How much money are we/you leaving on the table because of poor customer experiences?
  • What are the costs to our/your organization of continuing to delay implementing that customer retention program despite high lapse rates?
  • What is the impact of not addressing these challenges on our/your ability to create shareholder value and a healthy return on equity?

Then, and this is the most important part, go back to your desk, cube or office, get your team or department together and brainstorm ideas on how to solve these challenges – now.

No one really knows what the next engines of economic growth will be (infrastructure projects, the digitization of our health care system, etc). What I do know is that nothing makes executives focus like a crisis and if they’re shown a way forward that generates results they will give it serious consideration. You really can’t ask for much more in this current climate.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Now appearing at a browser near you - online advertising 3.0

Despite all the advances in digital marketing, the process by which online ads are produced is still manual for the most part. And, once these ads are placed they are largely static; if updates are needed (e.g., if the ads are not performing well) some level of human involvement is required.

This situation is changing thanks to process and technical innovations that now allow advertisers to serve and update their online ads dynamically (i.e., automatically) by leveraging a combination of predefined business rules, real-time data, algorithms and pre-developed creative assets. The financial and strategic benefits from these innovations, while not yet fully realized, will be huge for the $28+ billion U.S. online ad market.

The next wave – more efficient production = reduced costs for marketers
The amount of time and money that will be saved by these innovations cannot be underestimated: web designers and developers no longer have to build by hand every online ad unit to every size; and agency media managers no longer need to send scores or even hundreds of ad units to web site publishers.

In terms of marketing effectiveness the impact of these innovations will change the game for online advertising. Advertisers can now do complex, multivariate testing and deliver custom, just-in-time creative that is more relevant and targeted to specific marketing situations.

Automating multivariate testing
Advertisers can now test a conceivably unlimited number (easily into the hundreds) of banner creative configurations to identify the combinations of elements (messaging, imagery, call-to-action, etc) that deliver the best results. Previously, this level of testing was highly impractical since the effort needed to create the number of banner versions to generate statistically relevant test results made it cost prohibitive; in most instances costs simply out-weighed benefits.

More relevant, effective and efficient online ads
This is where things get interesting. Marketers can now deliver much more relevant and targeted ads to consumers by combining customized, just-in-time banner creative with a variety of data about their target consumers, including:

  • Geography
  • Prior online behavior
  • Their stage in a multi-step shopping/purchase decision process
  • The editorial focus of the web site where the ads will be placed

Here are some examples of how these innovations are being used to deliver more relevant online advertising:

Sequential messaging – banner ad messages change based on where a consumer is in a multi-step shopping/purchase decision process (this is especially useful for highly considered purchases like automobiles, health insurance, etc)

Contextual messaging – banner imagery and messaging change based on the editorial theme of the site where an ad is running (e.g., personal finance, sports, travel, etc) to increase contextual relevance

Geographic targeting – here ads are customized with messaging or imagery that is relevant to a specific state or region of the country

Real-time targeting – ads can also be updated with real-time information (e.g., sports scores, time of day, weather) using live data feeds to create timeliness or a sense of urgency

While many of these online targeting approaches were previously available the ability do it dynamically wasn’t. So the next time you see an online add that is uncannily relevant to your unique situation it probably isn’t a coincidence. Some people may think this level of targeting is spooky. Personally, I prefer this over the alternative – like seeing ads for Brilliant Blonde Shine Shock hair treatment on my Yahoo! Mail sign in page.