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Christmas e-Marketing – Bah, Humbug!

December 18, 2014

scroogeSomething odd happened today. I received a Christmas message from a marketing agency and it caught my attention. There was nothing particularly striking about the email; the design was not overly creative– a cut out Christmas tree and simple little blinking star animation – and the message was a generic ‘wishing you and your family …’.

What stood out was the sender. I looked at the name, which was quite distinctive, and thought, ‘I’m sure I’ve been receiving emails from this guy for years, and never really paid any attention’. My email management is poor to say the least and, when I searched back in my email archive, I found a handful of emails that I hadn’t deleted from this marketing agency going back to 2007 – seven years!

I know nothing about the agency, I have no idea how I ended up on its mailing list, and for some reason I have never asked to be removed. Maybe the frequency of emails was so unobtrusive that it was easier to ignore them or, subconsciously, maybe there was some reason for me to do nothing and let the emails keep coming.

Would you class this as a successful marketing approach? There are two schools of thought on this one.

On the one hand, you could consider it a monumental waste of effort. At least seven years’ worth of e-marketing for not a single response – no emails opened or read and no click throughs from me. Sure, it’s a volume approach so the individual cost and effort is minimal. Let’s say my email address was acquired in the first place – a few cents at the most – then the ongoing cost per email sent, which again, probably amounts to just a few cents. Add it all up and, over the years, this marketing agency has probably spent just a few dollars in marketing to me. At some point though, wouldn’t you take a look at your database, and decide that after seven years of zero response, maybe it’s time to quietly delete my email address and move on?

On the other hand, you could argue that with perseverance, the marketing agency has finally achieved some cut-through, albeit in a perverse way. I’m finally taking notice! For a minimal marketing cost and effort, time and weight of numbers has worked. Who knows, after the next email I receive, maybe I’ll pick up the phone and talk to them.

The truth is, I would never use this agency, let alone talk to them. Why not? It’s lazy marketing. There is no attempt to understand what I need or if I am even the right target audience. It’s just a numbers game for the agency – there is no analysis of the success of its approach in marketing to me.

And a Christmas message? I don’t know who you are, because you have never bothered to engage with me in any meaningful way. Sure, send me through ‘useful’ advice on ‘Expanding the Reach of your Email Marketing with Social Networking’ or ‘Targeting Potential Customers for Better Marketing Results’ (I went back and read the agency’s old email subject lines) – but don’t make out we have a personal connection if you’ve never bothered to create one.

I think I am finally going to hit the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

On a brighter note, I’d like to wish all Explore Communications’ past, present and future clients and their families a very merry Christmas and happy New Year!

(Pictured above: “Patrick Stewart as Scrooge”, By Tnarik Innael, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.)

 

The Ash Cloud

November 24, 2014

ash_cloudWhen Adobe first announced it was moving Creative Suite to the cloud as a subscription-only offering, I pitched my tent in the unhappy customer camp.

Up until last week I was running Creative Suite 6, which I had bought for $2000 in July 2012. And I know I paid that much, because I looked it up in 10 seconds on my cloud-based accounting software program, Saasu.

Adobe’s announcement in May 2013 that it was replacing CS6 with ‘Creative Cloud’ wasn’t just the nail in my coffin of obsolescence – it was my $2K boxed product rolling down the tracks through the crematorium’s furnace doors. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

Heavily laboured analogies aside, my investment in the Adobe CS6 boxed product was doomed the moment I paid for it. Under Adobe’s yearly release cycle, CS7 would have come out around the same time Creative Cloud was announced, and it would have been a cat and mouse game to see how long I could keep CS6 going before I’d be forced to upgrade.

So why was I so negative about Creative Cloud? Despite working in the IT industry for nearly 20 years, I’m in the generation that first bought music on vinyl. I still insist on reading novels as a book not on an e-reader, I pick up the daily newspaper from the front lawn in the morning and I don’t like the concept that you never really ‘own’ the music you buy through Apple iTunes.

The catalyst to upgrade from Adobe CS6 came when I offered to take on the design work for a client’s case studies. Presented with an Adobe InDesign template that was two versions on from my CS6 application, I realised I couldn’t resist any longer.

When I checked the Adobe subscription options, I had the pleasant surprise that my previous loyalty was recognised with the opportunity to purchase (in local currency) a 12-month subscription for just $20 a month – giving me access to Adobe’s entire Creative Suite.

I emphasised ‘entire’ for good reason. In all the years I have used Adobe design software (I still remember making the decision to switch from Quark to InDesign), Adobe Premiere had always been tantalisingly out of reach. For the limited amount of video editing I do, there was never a cost justification to upgrade the Creative Suite package to include Premiere. Instead, I’ve had to make do with dodgy video editing software I’ve taken a punt on downloading via website recommendations.

Now, for just $20 a month, I can use Premiere, and a host of other apps that I’ve never heard of before that in the past would have cost me squillions but spent most of their time gathering dust in the All Programs menu.

Apart from Premiere, the most exciting thing about Creative Cloud is that now I am connected into Adobe’s continuous upgrade cycle, and I can immediately take advantage of innovative new products. For example, I just read that notepad manufacturer Moleskine has collaborated with Adobe to launch Moleskine Smart Notebook, which connects directly to Adobe’s Creative Cloud applications.

And I no longer need to go through the ‘which version are you running’ preliminaries when sending Adobe files. The last of us CS6 luddites are being prised away from the beautifully-packaged software boxes we’ve been clinging to, limpet-like.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise to me. Just about everything else Explore Communications uses is in the cloud (like my ironic reference to Saasu above). I think the last boxed product I’m using is Microsoft Office, but it’s time will come sooner than later …

That said, I can’t see myself switching to e-books, ever.

Blog Posts: WordPress or LinkedIn?

September 26, 2014

In the past fewLinkedIn-InBug-2C weeks, a number of people have asked me for advice about the effectiveness of LinkedIn as a publishing platform.

In some respects, the answer to the question can be found in the fact that these enquiries have all been triggered by people reading the posts I have published on LinkedIn.

I was invited by LinkedIn to publish content on its site in June this year, and I made the conscious decision to post the same content both to my WordPress-based corporate site – www.explorecomms.com.au – and also to LinkedIn here. (This is one post that I can’t simply copy and paste to both sites!)

If I was just comparing readership stats, for me LinkedIn is by far the better publishing channel – and LinkedIn also provides a greater level of reader interaction.

However, spam comments are the killer for WordPress at the moment. I would average at least 500 a week. Most are caught by the Akismet filter, but a few always slip through every day. It drives me crazy. On my LinkedIn posts, I have no spam.

On the plus side for WordPress, the posts on my website reach a virtually infinite worldwide audience – but how useful is it to my business to have a reader from Honduras? (That was one of today’s stats.) That’s also a negative. LinkedIn posts are very visible to my connections, who are largely connected with what I do professionally, so the content I write is more likely to be relevant and of interest to them – and they are more likely to read. Unless someone is already following my blog on WordPress, most of the hits my posts receive will be from search terms, which may or may not have anything to do with my business.

My WordPress blog is also closely connected to my business. A lot of readers might find Explore Communications via one of my blog posts, then click on the “About Explore Communications” page or “Our Services”. On LinkedIn, the posts are currently tied to my personal profile, not my business page, so it is one step further removed for a reader to find out what I do for them.

Another advantage, WordPress also gives me much better data and analytics compared to LinkedIn, which seems to be limited to a basic tally of Views, Likes and Comments. I am only on the free LinkedIn service, so there may be more reporting available if I take out a premium subscription.

So what’s my advice?

If you are a small business owner like me who already has a website with a blog publishing engine and you have modest website traffic, publish your posts on both sites. Publish first to your own website, then repurpose the content and publish on LinkedIn. It’s only an extra ten minutes work, and be sure to include a link to your website at the bottom of your LinkedIn post. (If you are reading this on LinkedIn as most of you probably are, you will see that below.)

If you don’t have a website with a blog publishing engine and you want to post content regularly, my recommendation is to first convert your site over to a platform that allows you to do so easily. If you don’t want to do that, LinkedIn publishing will give you a great opportunity to immediately start engaging with a targeted and engaged group of readers.

If you are an independent contractor or sole trader, where you are the service you provide, LinkedIn publishing alone is ideal. If the content you publish is interesting, and provokes discussion and engagement, you will increase your professional profile and reach.

Is there a Perfect Sentence Length?

August 25, 2014

Henry_James_by_John_Singer_SargentIn a word, no.

I read with some bemusement an article on the Inside GOV.UK blog that you shouldn’t write sentences of more than 25 words in length.

(Inside GOV.UK describes itself as ‘a product blog about developing and iterating the GOV.UK website. For the people who publish content to the site and anyone else who is interested.’)

Inside GOV.UK is, of course, providing guidance primarily for government information websites. That means it is applying its rules to the specific context of a broad base of constituents who are trying to find information as quickly as possible.

Apparently, sentences that are longer in length than 25 words are very difficult to read, and the optimum length of a sentence is just 14 words. (That last sentence just broke the rule of 25 words, so most readers didn’t undertand what I just wrote.)

The problem is that these sorts of pronouncements are often conflated to apply to broader contexts, such as business to business communications, and that’s not always helpful. Government websites with the primary goal for users to skim read and find the information they need as quickly as possible is a totally proposition to content that needs to engage business stakeholders, clients and partners.

In fact, the problem may be even worse.

I remember studying Henry James at university and being struck by the length of his sentences yet how his prose was very ‘readable’. In doing a search online for “Henry James sentence length” I found this in the Washington Post:

Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

Wolf points out that she’s no Luddite. She sends e-mails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. She’s involved with programs to send tablets to developing countries to help children learn to read. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

- Washington Post, ‘Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say‘, b, 6 April 2014

I sometimes receive feedback that the sentences in my case studies are “too long”; but the most important thing is to engage the reader and convey meaning, which is often best achieved with a conversational tone – and we don’t tend to speak in staccato, 14-word sentences. In fact, variability is always my numer one priority, particularly with the long form case study.

To put it to the test, I ran the latest draft of a case study I am currently working on through an online word counter and text analyser. Here are the results:

  • 1357 words, with 557 unique words used
  • An average length of 27 words per sentence, with the shortest sentence at 10 words and the longest at 61 words
  • No common word sequences apart from “of the” and “in the”

I think that with the simplification of content, we are in danger of not just losing reader engagement, but also meaning. In a blog post that refers to the Washington Post article above (‘Social media more complex than great literature‘), there is a great infographic included entitled ‘Tweets are harder to read than great literature‘. The blog post also provides a great conclusion that works just as well for this post:

Henry James despised sentences that were a “mere seated mass of information”.  Without syntax, words would just sit there like lumps. It’s syntax that gives them backbone. There’s meaning in the way they come together.

 (Pictured above: “Henry James by John Singer Sargent cleaned”, Public Domain, sourced from Wikipedia)

 

 

Free Advice

July 29, 2014

131500 trainsIt’s always good to see your free advice acted on. However, I’m not sure if I can claim direct credit for this one. More than likely it was one of the recommendations made during a number of projects costing CityRail more than $1 million in consultancy and design fees, market research and testing (see “Bouncing ball branding cost transport $1m-plus” by Jacob Saulwick, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2013).

Headlining the consultancy project was a rebrand from CityRail to Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink, which I think has worked really well for the organisation.

The free advice I gave to what was then CityRail was in a post back in 2011, “131500 trains: Too Much of a Bad Thing?” (image left from the original post). At the time, CityRail was channelling all the updates on the status of the network through one Twitter account, @131500trains, but the constant deluge of bad news about delayed services and breakdowns was having a massively detrimental effect on the organisation’s brand and reputation. My recommendation was:

A better approach would be to provide more targeted and specific information to those that need it. For example, I’m generally only interested in what’s going on the Southern Highlands and Airport & East Hills lines – so it would make more sense to have a separate Twitter account for each line for me to follow.

In February 2014, Transport NSW set up seven separate Twitter accounts for each of the seven major Sydney Trains lines, and three accounts for NSW TrainLink – North, South and West – see http://www.transportnsw.info/en/travelling-with-us/keep-updated/social.page. (My local line, @TrainLinkSouth first tweeted on the 14th of February: https://twitter.com/TrainLinkSouth/statuses/434173242686050304.)

The key point to make here is that you need to balance up the public service that you are providing via social media – in this case a really important one to keep public transport users informed on the status of the network – with the reputational damage that can be caused by the aggregation of ‘bad news’. If the end result is that fewer passengers are choosing to ride on NSW trains, you need to change your approach.

‘Half of writing history is hiding the search results.’

July 16, 2014

SerenityI’m not the company’s biggest fan, but after the recent ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling in Europe, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Google.

The case concerned a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, who wanted Google to remove a link to a 1998 newspaper auction notice for his repossessed home – after he had unsuccessfully tried to have the auction notice itself deleted.

The ruling by the European Union’s court of justice has not only compelled Google to remove the link to the notice, but also to delete ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ search results when a member of the public requests it. According to Google, in less than two months since the ruling it had received over 250,000 requests from more than 70,000 people.

Some commentators have argued that the Internet has fundamentally changed how we should view privacy, even suggesting that the Declaration of Rights be changed to state:

Every citizen has the right to remove their own words, images and videos from all digital records
(see ‘The right to be forgotten is fundamental in the digital age’, 14 July 2014)

I agree that each of us now has a much more extensive public record of our personal history than we have ever had before, but why should we be treated any differently to the ‘great men’ of the past? (As in Thomas Carlyle: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’) Now, we all have a part to play in the world’s history. Twenty years ago, we would have been looking up old newspaper articles in the library on microfiche – just because it is so much easier to search for information in the digital age, should that change how we limit the availability of that content?

The generation of kids today know only too well that anything they do or say online is there permanently – it’s only us in the older generations that see privacy in the digital age in a different light.

Also, who is comfortable with the fact that Google – a commercial enterprise – has been given the onus of determining what is in the public interest when evaluating each of the ‘right to be forgotten’ requests it receives?

The line from Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity ‘Half of writing history is hiding the truth.’ could now be re-phrased as ‘Half of writing history is hiding the search results.’

(Pictured above: ‘Still of Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion from Serenity (2005)’, © 2005 Universal Pictures via IMDB.com)

SEM Snake Oil

June 18, 2014

SEODo you remember when online advertising first started?

I was chatting to an industry colleague this week about social media experts (SMEs) and the recent news from eBay’s own research that advertising in search engines has “no measurable benefits”. We both agreed that there is a lot of snake oil being sold in the market today, especially in the area of SEM – search engine marketing – and that the complex data that is often presented by SMEs to show how your business is performing on social media and in search engines may not be all that it seems.

The conversation reminded me a lot of the early days of online advertising – which is it not that long ago. The first clickable web ad was published in 1993 by Global Network Navigator and the first banner ad by HotWire in 1994. The first ad server was released in mid-1995, with this FocaLink press release claiming to use proprietary technology to be the “first firm to focus exclusively on Web advertising brokerage services.” Online advertising was certainly around in Australia in 1996 when I started out in marketing and, at the time, we were excited by the promise of real measurement and visibility on reader engagement, even though overall online audience numbers were still relatively low compared to print. Unlike the print world, now we could see real data in terms of page impressions and click-throughs. However, what puzzled me at the time was why media companies largely operated separate sales teams – one for print and one for online – and why the sales pitch they gave was so different.

The online advertising reps were all about transactional benefits – how often they’d report on the stats, what sort of click-through percentages to expect, and the frequency of your ads appearing across different pages on their site. It sounded like a sophisticated sales pitch, but it was largely self-referential, without any connection to real business outcomes. I saw a lot of people falling into the trap of measuring success just by the click-through rates achieved from a campaign.

The print ad guys had a more mature approach. While it was still founded on audience statistics (as most advertising is), there was a lot more thought put into how that advertising would support the brand and the client’s go-to-market strategy, and how it would align to editorial subject matter and target audiences.

The pitch for online advertising has evolved considerably since then. Now, we are seeing more integrated campaigns, which might be a package of online and print advertising, or a combination of banner advertising, an email blast to a targeted list, a whitepaper to download and even some telemarketing to qualify leads. Now it’s all about real outcomes for the client.

That said, it’s arguable as to whether or not Google AdWords has evolved a great deal since its launch in October 2000 (I remember battling with Google and competitors’ trademark violations on AdWords for most of the Noughties). If anything has changed, it’s just sheer volume.

It all seems very one-dimensional. A case in point is another story that caught my attention last week – a piece in the SMH’s small business section “What’s the nasty new Internet trend?”. In the article, a small business owner (funnily enough, in the web marketing space) described how negative SEO (search engine optimisation) resulted in the company’s website link, which was on the front page of Google, “disappearing completely” after the attack, costing the company thousands of dollars in lost revenue. What worries me is that these companies seem to be so intent on getting to the top of the Google search listings, that they are forgetting that there might be more effective ways to achieve their marketing objectives – and ones that are not so easily torpedoed by competitors.

The SMH article also points out that “big Australian brands can spend upwards of $20,000 a month on SEO”. I wonder how many are seeing a return on their investment.

(Pictured above: “Search-Engine-Marketing”, By Danard Vincente, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.)

 

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