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Category Archives: Online marketing

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: debunking marketing bullshit since 1968

Segmentation. It’s been part of marketing for eons, but now the age of Big Data is bringing it all into a new level of efficacy. And bullshit, obviously.

Obviously.

Obviously.

But what do such terms mean? Segmentation means working out who your audience is so you can advertise to them more effectively – splitting them up into segments so you can pick the message that’s most relevant to each one rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

Big Data? Your company collect loads of data and has done for years: from purchase information to website analytics, email addresses to birthdays and anniversaries. And now you want to use it, but there’s so much of it you don’t have the manpower to sift through it all. So you need software to do it for you and come up with the insights you need to be more effective.

So put those two things together and you have loads of data which should help you understand your customer better to inform your marketing and product decision-making processes.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Now, marketing types love a bit of segmentation. It’s always in the top 3 of management consultants recommendations when they don’t know what else to suggest: “Perhaps it’s time to segment your database?” is right up there with “ Let’s look at a loyalty programme” and “We should consider retargeting as an online marketing tactic.” It all sounds lovely when spoken authoritatively and with a big folder of research statistics to hand to make it look like it’s all based on sound evidence, of course. But does it actually work?

"Wrestle poodles... AND WIN!!"

“Wrestle poodles… AND WIN!!”

Well, yes, actually. It isn’t controversial to say that well-targeted messages  perform better than poorly-targeted generic ones. But there is often something missing – a soul. The hidden extra factors that make something human are not always revealed in data because – despite what neuro-marketers wish you to believe – we simply don’t understand everything about how the human mind works. As such, expensively-produced marketing that works by the numbers can – and sometimes does – still fail.

And so to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band. For the unfamiliar, an acid-drenched muso-fest of a band, public schoolboys who got beaten up during sports lessons but excelled at music; classically-trained bods who, through a love of comedy, eccentricity and, erm, psychedelic drugs, somehow uncovered many fine truths about what it is to be British that still hold up some 40 years after their heyday.

I had heard the song “Urban Spaceman” a thousand times before it suddenly clicked what it’s really all about. The 1960s saw advertising take off in whole new directions, along with the increase in media space to deliver it. And so, the song was a paean to these characters seen only in adverts – beautiful superhumans beyond reproach, not a human flaw amongst them.

Only the last line of the song reveals the truth – I’ll leave the punchline to them. And marvel at how a bunch of very fine musicians with an odd sense of humour realised it long before the rest of us.

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WTF is wrong with agencies?

[This post was first published on Imperica here]

So, you walk into a room full of the brightest and best that agencyland has to offer, a collection of the digitally-enthused and passionately adept, charged out by their agencies for hundreds, even thousands of pounds a day, all in a room to share knowledge and swap best practices.

And then you realise that there’s a surprising common factor – a lot of them appear to be dumb.

The clue comes from the presentations; one is essentially a series of links, as if a bunch of digital heads don’t have any other way of sharing such things, as if Twitter, Stumbleupon, Reddit and, y’know, email groups never existed. Another presentation lays out the revelation that stories have – I kid you not – a beginning, middle and end. This revelation causes much scribbling of notes, swiping of iPads and, yes, even tweeting. I look around me and think: is this it? A stone’s throw from “Silicon Roundabout”, the much-vaunted (by politicians, anyway) digital tech hub of London, where all the cool smartarses should be and it’s just… not San Francisco.

This is only one of a number of occasions recently when I’ve looked at agency staff doing, y’know, stuff and thought “Why do you exist?”

Account team to the rescue

Why do clients hire agencies anyway? Why, if you run a business and employ staff, do you need to bring in an external company to do bits of your business? The answer is that agencies are supposed to be better at certain things than you are. You hire in specialists to do work that can’t be completed internally to the same standards. Simple, right?

At least, that’s how it should be. Digital has been like this for a while – once the preserve of unemployable nerds, later the territory of the whizzkids and geniuses, but always an area where clients were lacking in knowledge and / or experience. Why? Well, often, it was an age thing. Marketing directors and other senior stakeholders were of an age where they hadn’t grown up with the internet and weren’t enthused about it. 10 years ago, people were still debating whether or not they should even have a webpage (mind you, a couple of weeks ago, a large client of mine was still debating whether or not to have a Facebook page. Sometimes things don’t change). Agencies who needed to sell these services found the employable geeks and snapped them up on far better wages than yet-to-be-convinced-of-the-value-of-digital clients. They gave the unknowledgeable the option to buy a service with a set of deliverables attached; if you don’t understand what the work is really about, having a checklist of documents to be produced and webpages to be constructed allowed you to tick things off one by one, and assume you’d done your job.

And then people started to make money out of the web, and things changed again.

Suddenly, this stuff was deemed measurable in metrics normal non-digital people could understand. Did we make a return on our investment? Are we selling things through our website? The demands on agencies changed – and agencies changed to meet those demands. Instead of “digital strategy” meaning “what colour should our website be?” it became “does our web stuff help meet our business objectives?” and so new kinds of planners and strategists were needed, ones that understood the workings of businesses more than just the workings of marketing.

At this point, the advertising agencies who had successfully sold in the notion that the web was just another billboard, somewhere to extend the “above the line” creative, a place to put pretty pictures from the real world in front of consumers (just in smaller boxes)… they began to look, well, a bit shit.

Digital engagement is not like advertising – there is very little value in engagement alone. Whilst you may get a bit of all the above-mentioned metrics, if you don’t give an end user something to do you’re missing an opportunity – that might be the opportunity to engage in conversation (two way communication breeds better engagement than just getting people to watch a film or an animation or read some text), or it might be to drive people to a web or social media page with a stronger call to action, to sign up, to contribute, to purchase. But it’s not just that it’s an “opportunity” – it’s that these are things people want to do online. Passive viewing and sucking up marketing doesn’t cut it. And this kind of activity is more measurable than “how many eyes walked past our poster.” Analytics will tell you exactly what response something got.

And then there’s the user. Digital requires more understanding of individual users’ needs because people do more things in digital than, say, when they’re walking past a poster or watching the telly. They search, they research, they talk with friends about things they like, they shout at brands they hate, they create and distribute, influence and are influenced. And they often do it by themselves in a room with a screen. Advertising & PR have to talk “one to many” – so advertising a product on TV to millions in the hope you hit 2 or 3 target markets means finding messaging that works across all targets; digital has an element of the same but often requires a more individual approach, understanding that it’s just you and the user communicating, albeit in a context of more people / friends / followers etc.

"Yeah, sorry, gotta dash, got a client meeting in 20 minutes, gonna sell them some elephants."

This puts the ball in the court of the strategists. Where great advertising planners of the past were often a mixture of creative instinct, sharp minds and bucketloads of experience, digital planners and strategists need a mix of those things plus one all important element: evidence. That means that you can prove what you say; charm and a few lunches might sell something in to the client, but it won’t sell it into the punter. Smart agencies now buy into psychology, anthropology, data and research. And strategists & planners need to be able to help turn all of that into yer actual real stuff on the other end.

For a while, digital people looked pretty smart, then. The explosion of social media brought a new generation of socially-minded people who got lumped together under the “digital” banner and then… Well, I’m not sure the two are wholly related but there seems some correlation, if not causation. Social media seems much more sexy than “trad” digital because, hey! Everyone’s got a Facebook page and – bejasus! Some people have even tried that Twittering thing and it looks fun and so can’t we have one of those? Can we make it sell our widgets? … and so forth.

The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to be strategic. One of the stupidest mistakes of people in positions of “authoritah” is to assume that any job they’ve never done themselves is actually easy. Now they had a Facebook page, they were social media experts, right? Which is a bit like saying you read a paper every day so you know how to be a journalist. Marketing directors would start looking at social as a way of delivering campaign tactics – short term, marketing objective-driven executions; and the new generation of social media agencies have got fat off the proceeds. It was the Wild West all over again, and without much in the way of competition the fees were high and the audience easier to reach. There’s gold in them thar hills, and all that.

Now, things are different: everyone’s doing it. It’s harder to win. Real social engagement means a sustained presence; listening and responding goes further than just communicating – consumers expect companies to change when they demand it, and in the age of social CRM, they do. Marks & Spencer are brilliant at this and they run most of their social engagement from a small in-house team who know what they are doing. Who the hell needs an agency, when you’re the most-engaged UK brand on Facebook and you’re driving sales?

Proper strategy means knowing what businesses need as well as consumers – and over time, not just in the short term. Relationships mature, they aren’t always created in an instant. Knowing the whizziest of whizzy gadgets and gimmicks is not the whole game any more – but it is a part of it. If you stop learning every day, technology-based disciplines will always pass you by. This is the technological imperative at work – just because you know something about Twitter today does not mean you can answer business challenges tomorrow.

All this “smart, experienced people” schtick flew in the face of standard agency hiring practices. Agencies weren’t where a lot of smart people went, not outside of planning departments anyway. If you had a modicum of charm were good looking and had a nice haircut, wore the right clothes and kissed the right sphincter, you could get a pretty decent job. Smart people went into planning and strategy and were locked away in dark rooms. At this point, I expect a lot of agency types to be fuming, but, frankly, if they read this far they aren’t the targets (reading seems to be anathema to a certain type of agency person, long copy a distant dream). Anyway, the needs of the digital market brought in smarter people. Agencies who had never considered such things as, y’know, how a business actually works, started to employ business analysts and consultants, whole departments sprang up that dealt with data and research. Anthropology, sociology and psychology became important.

So, what’s with all the agency dumb?

My theory: money breeds complacency. And complacency breeds poor hiring practices. The lack of competitive pressure which has allowed a whole slew of agencies to gain cashflow on the back of average work. So they keep hiring the same people they always have. They forget – or don’t know how – to look into social and digital expertise. In the ’90s you used to have to check that someone had “Microsoft Office” in their skillset; now kids learn that stuff in school. Just because someone has a Pinterest account it doesn’t follow that they know how to use it for business (and for an explanation of why social media consulting is almost dead for the same reason, see here). And if you don’t use it yourself, you sure as hell can’t check whether someone else is any good at it.

I keep wondering what it would be like if you got into a car for your first driving lesson and the instructor had a book open on his lap. “I don’t drive myself,” he says, “but I have an excellent book here written by some of the best drivers in the world. Now…. If you can…” [reads from book] “depress the clutch with your left foot…”

You would be out of that car in a second.

"Where to guvnor? Can you just put me 'and on the satnav? Cheers."

So why do agencies think it’s alright to charge people for the services of people who are reading from the approved text?

The trouble is, they all follow a similar trajectory. That complacency allows their competitors to nip in and point out that they could deliver the same work (a) considerably better and (b) considerably cheaper. Non-experienced people take longer to do the same work and they’re learning as they go – inevitably costs go up as quality suffers.

Agencies that want to prosper with digital and social offerings need to get their heads out of their collective backsides. Compete with Silicon Valley?

You. Are. Fucking. Joking.

 

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How To End Rioting With Targeted Advertising

The title of this piece disgusts me. Marketing people are always telling you how products will change lives for the better; usually such positive changes are evident in the swelling coffers of their and their clients’ bank accounts. The level of self-regard and rampant egotism in marketers is not something I try and subscribe to but bear with me, I think I’m onto something here.

Burning, man

Burning, man

Firstly, we all know London and parts of the UK “erupted” in riots in August 2011. This caught everyone by surprise except, say, people that actually lived in these areas who feel the boiling, feral emotions of everyday urban life day in day out and were waiting to see how and when the volcano would erupt. In the immediate aftermath, it was a race to apportion blame; facts, evidence and calm heads at this juncture become irrelevant – it’s a big ol’ game of point-scoring and the first to come up with a cosy-sounding theory that fits with people’s pre-existing prejudices is usually the winner.

Depending on which variety of politician or media outlet you personally subscribe to, you could take your pick from “pure criminality,” the breakdown of family or community values, poverty or gangs. Or something even more bizarre if you fancied – perhaps social networks  were to blame, just as, say, phone boxes were responsible for 1970s Irish Republican terrorism… weren’t they? In fact, so beautifully dogmatic was the government on this issue that an immediate “anti-gang task force” was announced as well as the hiring in of a US-based anti-gang specialist  at the expense of the local forces (much to their annoyance). Later, we would discover that over 80% of those arrested had nothing to do with gangs and that they weren’t really the blame but – hey! – at least we’ve satisfied ourselves that there’s an “answer” to a “problem” that we can repeat down the pub and that’s all nicely done with.

However, life, despite the attempts of those to categorise it as such, is not that simple. People are not simple. They are complex beings with multiple interwoven behaviours and desires. All of the above reasons have something to do with why riots erupt, but they are not everything. (And if you have a spare hour or so, Adam Curtis’ beautifully written / researched blog piece on “Goodies & Baddies” examines how classifying people as one thing or another is a dangerous game and illustrates the point with loads of great news archive footage. I can’t recommend it highly enough.) The truth is that there is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that need to be fitted together before you can grasp the real picture of what makes human beings act so rubbishly in these kind of events.

Standard newspaper fare

One of these jigsaw pieces involves marketing and another involves consumerism. Yep, we’re getting to the point, people. Much of our economy’s strength is based on people buying shiny things. We don’t have much in the way of resource production or manufacturing any more so we sell goods and services. Marketing exists to convince us to buy stuff, we buy stuff and companies make money, that money is used to pay wages so we can go out and buy more stuff. And so forth.

But there is a problem. Marketing exists and pumps forth just about everywhere, even if its real target is only a small percentage of those watching or consuming it. Consumerism demands the constant addition of new products and markets to feed the economy. As a result, even a small child is convinced that their life is incomplete without those shoes, a princess dress, that toy, that brand. I was forced to watch a Barbie film with my 4 year old daughter the other week. It began in an era of princesses and dragons, castles and kings. Despite this medieval aura, the first scene involved the princesses leaping from the dinner table in excitement at – I kid you not – the arrival of the cobbler. Yes, he rode up in a carriage with horses and opened it up to reveal which shoes he had brought them. Even 4 year olds can learn the importance of shoes to happiness and well-being amongst one’s peers. And so it goes on.

"Today we are going to learn the Spanish for 'Buy all my shit,' amigo"

Your average Joe these days knows he is a social outsider if he doesn’t have the latest trainers, this month’s console  game selection or certain items of branded clothing. Every character to which one might aspire on TV or film has a swish smartphone, a nice laptop (both of which are likely to be higher spec than their real-life counterparts because of product placement) and will lead lifestyles of varying degrees of glamour. When you add up the sheer cost of leading such a lifestyle it’s astounding. To keep up means literally hundreds of pounds a month and that’s at the conservative end of the scale.

And then you consider the average wage in the UK is under £20K a year for most in the likely riot-y groups , and you realise that this is not an affordable lifestyle for a significant portion of society. I look at the kids from the estate near where I live and try and put myself in their shoes. They are living in a place where they are led to believe that  to be a functioning, successful member of society they need to wear a couple of hundred quids’ worth of clothes, drive BMWs or Mercedes, have £200 PlayStations and £44 games to go with it, play football in £100 boots… But their wage earning potential is likely to be somewhere around minimum wage or, perhaps, traveller site slave. Education in my borough is mainly piss-poor for ordinary folks who can’t afford school fees or housing within the catchment zone of the good schools. Jobs are thin on the ground outside of chicken-based takeaways. How are they ever supposed to “succeed” or even be “normal”?

And then, for a couple of days only, the shops were open and the tills weren‘t ringing. And so these disenfranchised under-funded aspirational consumers-to-be helped themselves to the lifestyle to which their imaginations had become accustomed. Remind me: how is that in any way surprising?

Marketing and consumerism play their part in forging these unrealistic expectations. Aspiration is seen as a normal thing even though social mobility in the UK is regularly highlighted as being the worst in the developed world outside of the USA. Kids born after 1970 have no realistic prospects en masse of social mobility. Those that do move are the exceptions not the rule. Meanwhile, everything from billboards to advertorial to TV ads to display advertising aims at maybe 10% of its potential audience but doesn’t care that it’s unrealistically raising expectations for the other 90%. And fuck what damage it does – we marketing types just want the 10% at any cost.

Targeted advertising, then, solves the problem. Truly targeted ads – ones that are fed by a knowledge of your search history, behaviour, preferences and propensities – really only exist online and on mobile at the moment and in relatively primitive form. Targeted advertising is better for marketers as it has far better response rates and you only pay for advertising to your targets rather than for the other 90% you don’t care about. If you think about a TV ad, it splatters a message at several million people at once, even though the product isn’t aimed at everyone. That whole Minority Report schtick with billboards that know who you are and talk directly to you is only round the corner, however.

And then imagine multi-view TV sets display, mobile and email plus whatever new tech is developed in the future for zapping marketing messages into our brains. (There’s a great moment in Futurama where Fry has a dream which is sponsored by Lightspeed Briefs but stupid copyright means I can’t embed it or link to somewhere you can see it in the UK. I may have to riot about this later).

For advertising to really work, it needs to show you something you can afford (or nearly afford if it’s something worth saving for). If ads become truly targeted, we’d end up only seeing stuff that was relevant to us personally. I would no longer see ads for cars or food I can’t afford; I would doubtless see a swathe of ads for second hand Toyotas, the joys of travelling by bus and coach, prescription drugs that dull the pain of existential angst, rented accommodation and affordable credit. Relieved of the aspirational desires that kill my appreciation of my current lifestyle, I would be able to be satisfied. And so would the missus – imagine that, folks: a world in which your partners’ desires were tempered by affordability and pragmatism: unbounded joy, in my eyes.

And so, as the youthful, disaffected mob are relieved of the need to aspire to unrealistic goals, they are instead fed with advertising that fails to do the ultra-consumerist damage we are currently inflicting on the nation’s yoot. Ads for Gola trainers, delicious Netto snacks and Morley’s Fried Chicken, socks 3 pairs for a pound from your local market stall: all achievable, satisfying consumerism.

And the economy continues to be healthy without the need for rioting or looting.

Problem solved, clearly.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Advertising, Digital, Online marketing, Society

 

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Best practice in spam beats a lot of social media agencies

The concept of “survival of the fittest” applies to marketing as much as anywhere. Marketers need to stay one step ahead of both their audience and their rivals in order to reach a competitive advantage. And spammers, like the porn industry, are rapacious in their quest to make use of new technologies to gain that teensy extra percentage of traction.

No guns were bitten in the making of this image

This is as subtle as spammers usually get

Spam is usually seen as “throw mud at a wall and hope some of it sticks” discipline. According to a recent study  it takes around 12.5 million emails to generate c. $100 of Viagra sales, which is a lot of mud being chucked at a lot of walls.

Twitter spam is a trickier business. For a start, mere link spamming is likely to get an account blocked & banned pretty quickly, but spammers set up so many accounts – and so quickly – that they are back in the game before you can say “0 followers, 97 tweets”. My spidey sense starts tingling the moment I check out a new follower and see they’re following a load of people with no followers in return. These usually have a profile pic of a woman aimed at a particular demographic (some are saucy, some are not – segmentation in practice), and you can usually tell it’s spam from the fact the profile name and the user name are different. It’s a quick press of “block & report spam” and we all go on with our lives.

So I was quite impressed with one account that hooked me in unawares. Sometimes when you get followed by someone that looks vaguely interesting you figure you’ll follow them and they might turn up the odd interesting comment in the Twitter stream from time to time. A little background music, if you will. Last week, I was followed by “Cool Like Linsey“. She had some pretty good little quotes going on and seemed to be in conversation with some of her followers. I blindly followed.

And then I got a little non-Follow Friday shout:

Oooh I feel special

Getting my attention

Well, hey, that’s nice I thought. I mean, I’m an interesting guy, so why not? Ego stroked, I went on my way. A few days later I noticed her giving similar (i.e. exactly same copy) shouts to others. And the penny dropped.

This is about reducing attrition. By giving me a seemingly genuine follow shout-out I think “Oh I’d better not unfollow her. She was nice to me.” I am a sap, obviously. Brands are slow to repost content or retweet stuff from their followers as they worry about highlighting users who may turn out to be off-message or degenerate. So they err on the side of caution and stick to a bit of conversation without the stamp of approval a retweet may give.

Here, then, is an account which does pretty bloody well at masking its true intent. It’s pretty much best practice in Twitter spam as of today. The account pumps out decently-researched historical / philosophical quotes:

"I may need to procreate with this deep and meaningful, yet utterly saucy, woman"

I am a sap.

But then, just for a few hours at a time, there’s links to a couple of apps / ads for eyeglasses. And then it’s back to shouting out for follows for her followers and quoting away. Smart stuff.

In this way, you can see how spammers are going to evolve to match market expectations just the way a brand or corporation or anyone else does. She (? Who knows if it’s male, female or bot?) focuses on her audience, targets her content to a narrower niche and drops the marketing in smaller, less noticeable chunks. And she’s now rotating the copy in her follow shout-outs too.

The truth is, as social media practices go, this beats an awful lot of agency-led / PR-savvy brand accounts out there. Eventually accounts like this will die off, although someone like this will have clearly evolved whatever is effective elsewhere long before that happens.

Targeting, copy adjustment, a degree of subtlety and creativity.

At this point you have to ask, “Is this spam? Or just… marketing?”

I hate it, but some degree of respect is due.

 

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