Sunday, October 30, 2005

Will The Cookies Crumble?

The latest paranoia among online marketers is anxiety about the demise of cookies, those web objects that contain no code but enable all web recognition and tracking.

Without cookies there is no tracking, no stored passwords, no purchase history, no instant recognition and no way to make or attribute sales. Absent cookies the Internet is as blind as network television or national magazines.

Cookies come in two flavors. First-party cookies directly link your computer with a favored site. These cookies allow you to quickly log-into your bank account and make it easy for Amazon and others to welcome you by name and serve you content that you have already specified or expressed an interest in. When first-party cookies are present you can be identified 99.4% of the time according to Coremetrics.

Third party cookies come from ad servers and are imbedded in everything from ads to porn to the viruses that capture and destroy your hard drive. They mostly enable somebody out there to anonymously track your behavior and, in some cases, record your every click.

Cookies are under attack from several directions. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, the current version in universal use, responding to consumers’ privacy needs and its own security concerns, already blocks some cookies. There are rumors that in “Longhorn”, the next generation of MS Explorer, all cookies will be blocked, though to do so Gates & Company would screw themselves by disconnecting millions of Hotmail and MSN users.

But privacy concerns are real and growing. It turns out that cookies and spyware are pretty much two sides of the same technical coin. Therefore many of the new anti-spyware and anti-virus software programs sweep away cookies along with pop-ups and porn. And average consumers, between 35 and 56 percent of those online depending on whose prognostication you believe, manually dump cookies once a month.

But before you become Chicken Little over this, keep in mind that cookies enable the unique accountability feature that distinguishes the Internet from other media and directly feeds the coffers of MSN, Yahoo, Google and everyone else cashing in on ecommerce. Cookies are the only way to identify unique visitors; the metric that supports all ad pricing and facilitates counting and ranking site traffic. So there are plenty of tech-savvy players with a direct and urgent incentive to solve the cookie problem.

The smart money is betting that first party cookies will remain and 3rd party cookies will be toast in 18 months or less. The hitch is the need to extract the historical data and purchase histories from third party cookies, before they disappear, so that your favorite sites and merchants can maintain continuity and continue to recognize you for who you are; a best customer.

WebTrends has a system that they’ve patented. I suspect others are close on their heels. So if you are looking for something to worry about, put this one to bed. Assume that some form of cookies will continue to exist and fuel Web metrics. Figure they will be some variation of first party cookies and that you’ll have to add money to the budget to make the transition before 2008.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

E-Mail Doesn't Have to be Antiseptic

JD Powers reports 2/3rds of car buyers research purchases online. Five rounds of e-mail tag illustrate the self-imposed limitations on online sales tactics.

Feeling flush, I decided to shop for a Saab or a BMW online. In 1997, when I bought a Ford Explorer, I called 4 local dealerships, got descriptions of what they had on the lot, made a choice and concluded the purchase over the phone using my American Express card. So I figured that I could click, exchange a few e-mails and make a purchase online.

I was wrong.

I clicked on an ad and filled out a form. Within minutes I got acknowledgement e-mails from two local BMW dealerships. I’m still waiting for a response from a Saab dealer so either Autobytel, an information and lead generation service for dealers, is void in my area or the local Saab dealers aren’t fleet of foot.

Then I was introduced by e-mail to Maggie Keating of DeFeo BMW and Renee Kim of Prestige Motors. Both sent me e-mails introducing themselves as Internet sales representatives and pledging undying efforts to contact me and “make your experience completely satisfying.”

When I didn’t respond and ducked their phone calls I got another e-mail. This version was slightly more intense. It assured me that each of them was dedicated to helping me and again pledged to satisfy me.

Just in case I didn’t believe them. I got more e-mails shortly thereafter, one ostensibly from each of their direct managers and one from Autobytel, containing surveys asking me to rate my satisfaction with the speed of response and engagement process thus far.

The surprising thing was after 3 rounds of contact … no one talked cars to me. Nobody sent me a pitch or a picture. Nobody loving described the perfect BMW 3 series they had waiting on the lot with my name on it. Nobody told me what a stud I was for considering BMW. Nobody proactively tried to sell me anything.

It was all antiseptic e-mail. No emotion. No color. No pitch. The emphasis was on reassuring me that the online channel was real and that these cyber saleswomen meant business.

Instead of selling me they asked me questions. Some duplicated the form I filled out. Most asked me questions about what I wanted – what packages? What color? What model? Not all the questions seemed to be aimed at qualifying me.

I had no idea what was possible or available. When I said I wanted to buy within 30 days and asked them what was on the lot ready to go and asked them to compare monthly leasing rates with purchase rates, both Maggie and Renee suggested I cruise by and then answer the questions. Still no pitch, no come-on and no car talk.

Isn’t it funny how different the online experience is from the showroom? On the lot, a salesperson would romance the product, put me behind the wheel, talk up the features and benefits and try everything possible to get me visualizing myself behind the wheel of a fully loaded BMW 325. In real life, if I showed signs of desire, like asking about rates and specifying a 30 day decision-delivery cycle, they’d immediately start talking details, deals and delivery dates.

By e-mail I got the third degree. But no romance, no customer service and no uptake on the signals I was sending. When I asked what they had available, neither sales rep responded by saying, “we have a hot black 325i with leather interior, a killer stereo and satellite radio that we can deliver to your door tomorrow.”

I was looking for them to do the heavy lifting for me and to sell me a car. They were looking to be politically correct and to meet some management-imposed metrics designed to assess the value of the fee the dealers pay Autobytel. The end result was that neither of us got what we wanted.

The moral of this tale --- online should contain the same combination of emotional and logical elements of a real life sales experience. The number of non-serious tire kickers online is probably the same, in percentage terms, as on car lots. So there is probably nothing to lose by focusing e-mail exchanges on selling.

Why bother to engage customers with e-mail that is tepid and process oriented rather than product-centric and sales focused? Think about the psychology of it. If I took the trouble to click, I’m interested in a car; your car. Talk cars to me. Confirm my interest, validate my brand selection, draw me in with eye-candy, the brand values, unique features and benefits and/or the best deals you can make. Nobody wins when we just play e-mail tag.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Piercing the Veil of Anonymity: Step 1

Most people who see and respond to advertising are anonymous. Each day millions of unknown people click on key words, banners and emails, tune into to broadcast media and read print vehicles. It’s always been this way in a one-size-fits-all brand advertising world.

Getting past anonymity is the greatest challenge in the evolving, measurable, interactive one-to-one world we live and market in. Piercing the veil of anonymity is critical to deliver personal, customized super-relevant interactions which lead to sales and ultimately help build valuable on-going customer relationships.

Privacy and perceived value guard the unknowns. Consumers and business people are anxious about revealing themselves because they don’t trust us. They don’t believe we can or will keep what they tell us secure and to ourselves. And they don’t believe that we can restrain ourselves from pestering them with too many questions or assaulting them with too frequent or too irrelevant communications.

Yet thousands of campaigns have proven that people will give up information incrementally in return for information or services they perceive to be of value. In fact, in the presence of high perceived value privacy concerns melt away for the great majority who are happy and eager to trade information for a give-away they desire.

Therefore the challenge for marketers is to create offers perceived to be of such value that targeted audiences will uncloak themselves in return. So far “best practices” in this regard are:

I. Confirm Response and Validate Their Action

Create unique landing pages that look and feel like each campaign. Never just drop off a responder at your Home page. Most people still need to be reassured that they ended up where they want to be. The Internet is still somewhat magical to an awful lot of us.

Be sure the landing page delivers on the promise in the ad. If you tout a product or service, picture it, describe it, offer specs and offer answers to the most logical or most frequently asked questions right then and there.

If you can offer prospects a few immediate content choices that naturally follow from the ad premise, you are much more likely to delight them and engage them to continue a conversation with you. Remember that each step in the conversation pre-sells the next and that the experience prospects have at each step must close for the opportunity to continue the interaction.

II. Track Behavior and Dynamically Serve Up Content.

Recognizing and responding to behavior starts the process. Create a user experience that is easy, intuitive and relevant to anonymous prospects. First, can they find what they are after quickly and easily? Second can you watch they are doing in real time and give them more of what they want and what they express an interest in?

If you can’t do it in real time, study your weblogs, identify what significant groups of prospects have looked at and interacted with in the past, anticipate several likely pathways through your content and lay them out in an easy to find and appetizing way.

Third, based on what they seek and what they use, predict their next likely move and proactively provide them with it.

III. Reveal Yourself and Make an Offer.

After prospects have moved through predictable content paths it’s time to try to meet them. The goal is to identify named individuals with explicitly expressed preferences from the anonymous visitors. The key ingredient is patience.

Remember fundamental psychology. Nobody likes surprises. Love-at-first-site exists only in fairy tales. No sane individual tells you their whole life story when you first meet them. Everyone hates salespeople. People buy people first, then goods and services trade hands; your personality will come through by how and when you reveal yourself.

Keep in mind that it’s all about THEM not you. Their wants, needs, likes, dislikes and anxieties drive the process. Not yours. Get an e-mail address first. This is the key to an on-going conversation. Don’t try to get 25 data points out of anyone on first contact.

The three best ways to reveal yourself are:

Ask your anonymous prospect if they are getting what they need? This interest in their satisfaction can be done in a pop-up or pop-under. Simultaneous with the question should be an offer to provide more of the same, the next logical thing or something different in return for an e-mail address.

Offer the anonymous prospect something free in return for their e-mail address. This can be a free sample, a download of data, a report, music, industry intelligence, a digital tool or calculator or it can be a gizmo, a reprint or a tchachkie; in which case you might need to solicit a postal address to fulfill the offer..

Offer to enroll the anonymous prospect in a contest to win something of value in return for their e-mail address. The prize can be your product or service, a discount on your product or service, access or value from a partner or access to an event.

Once you have the e-mail address, confirm it and ask permission to continue the semi-anonymous conversation. In seeking permission comply with privacy requirements and ask your partially known prospect to tell you how, when and about what they’d prefer to continue talking. Most campaign research indicates that responders who express preferences for channel, media and frequency convert to buyers 3-5 times faster than those who aren’t asked or don’t specify what they want.

Only by piercing the veil of anonymity can you begin the process of converting a prospect into a customer, a repeat buyer or a brand loyalist and advocate.

Friday, October 07, 2005

CMO Survival Guide

Headhunter Spencer Stuart ( clocked the tenure of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) at b2c companies as 23.7 months, up a full month since the last time they conducted the survey. It seems that CMOs like agencies are hired primarily so they can be blamed and fired after less than 2 years on the job by other C level players, whose average tenure is considerably longer.

Disposable CMOs suggest that marketers have dramatically less perceived value in corporate C suites than CFO bean counters or CIO chief geeks, both of whom hold their jobs, on average, a third longer. CMOs last only half as long as head honcho CEOs, who generally take the heat for overall performance.

Many of the CMOs I’ve worked with have been obsessed with advertising, too focused on their own organizations and unwilling or unable to grasp essential business realities to add value to the operation. Some have spent their tenure kissing the CEOs ass. Others have built themselves an empire which was often at odds with other C level players and frequently seen as irrelevant to the business.

CMOs are easily impressed with their own grandeur and frequently concerned with grabbing as many perks as they can get. They don’t understand that in most companies marketing is seen as a necessary expense and annoyance rather than the Great White Hope.

So for a bracing splash of reality, consider these CMO survival tips:

1. Don’t Automatically Fire the Agency.

Most CMOs fire the agency during the first 60 days on the job. They think they need to put their personal stamp on the brand, revamp the advertising and start fixing all the things that their predecessor screwed up.

This is usually a deadly trap. The agency can actually teach you about the business. The agency always has internal allies and partisans who then become your immediate enemies and detractors. And it’s rarely about the ads. Switching one parity agency for another just kicks over the table and builds in transition and ramp-up time, which for some CMOs means breathing room before they have to deliver.

In most cases the brand advertising campaign costs the most and yields the least tangible benefit to the business. Your big, bold, new idea not only has to pass muster with risk averse and troglodyte superiors, it’s rarely going to change things. And more often than not it becomes a lightening rod for internal or external criticism of your performance.

2. Learn How the Business Works.

CMOs are expected to be something more than traveling ad makers. Few CEOs and boards are happy for a senior player to travel his or her one big idea from company to company. And in spite of your experience, all firms are not essentially a like at the operational level. Get your head out of the clouds or out of your ass and focus carefully on how the business operates and how the parts come together or don’t.

The typical company is composed of a dysfunctional collection of duchies that tolerate each other and every so often interact successfully. Many CMOs can add value and gain allies by resolving internal battles, directly addressing outstanding pains or getting marketing to work better, sooner or more easily with some other part of the business.

Suck up your pride and embrace units like call centers, database teams, event units and field marketing; groups who handle lots of messy details and who are often either undervalued or frequently complained about. Integrate them into the marketing organization and get them supporting, rather than sabotaging, your plan of attack.

3. Make Nice to Sales and IT.

These are generally the two biggest competitors for CEO attention and corporate resources. In most companies the struggle between these organizations is on-going and titanic. Too many CMOs spent their time building a marketing empire to parallel or confront these other, larger and more potent empires. But when the inevitable clash comes, Marketing almost always loses.

Marketing is always the weak sister because unlike Sales, it brings in zero revenue. And marketing, unlike IT, is not perceived as mission critical nor can it quantify, justify or rationalize huge investments the way IT can. Therefore strategic concessions and a willingness to share resources is a much more effective tactic than trying to take on players who are usually more entrenched and usually perceived as heavier weights.

Smart CMOs align themselves with Sales and defer to CIOs. They avoid competing for technology resources by relying on agencies and outside vendors and they try to pick their battles over the choice and installation of CRM software. And they work hard to be sure that the campaigns running directly attack the same audiences that Sales is attacking and they get access to the pipeline and sales planning..

The smartest CMOs buddy up with the Sales leadership, throw them an occasional bone or boondoggle and get cozy with the CIO, who ultimately can save or screw you.

4. Measure Everything.

Because no one believes Marketing adds to revenues, a savvy CMO must prove that he or she carefully and productively spends the marketing budget and that allocations made yield strong returns in terms of awareness, leads, future sales and customer or partner satisfaction.

Soft measures like brand value, brand rankings and purchase intent don’t get attention or credibility among CFO and CEO types who are constantly looking to slice the marketing budget and apply the savings directly to the bottom line to meet Wall Street’s forecasts and expectations. Face it -- at the CMO level you are playing a different game than you are used to. All the big ideas and creativity in the world doesn’t matter.

Most C level players still think the marketing budget is too big and mostly wasted. The CMO has to prove them wrong and have the stats to do so at your finger tips. If you don’t know and can cite your cost-per-lead, cost-per-acquisition, cost-per-service call and if you don’t have a handle on the sales pipeline you are not in the game.

It helps if you can do more with less and document the efficiencies you’ve created. Often measures of internal efficiencies, de facto evidence of C level business management skills, can deflect questions about the ultimate impact of marketing spend on revenues. It’s a numbers not a pictures game at the CMO level. If you don’t have a dedicated and trusted numbers guy handcuffed to your wrist, you will not beat the 23 month mark.
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