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Archive for May, 2013

Lies The SEO Publicity Machine Tells About PPC (When It Thinks No One’s Looking)

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

As some of us know, paid search works great. It captures users with high commercial intent whether they type in broad queries, specific queries, or something in between. You can budget as little as much as you want. You can customize, test, iterate, and learn at whatever pace you wish. You get search query reports, A/B ad testing data, and much more.

The sense of tight interplay between a business owner’s wish to “go out and get some response from a certain kind of searcher” and the pace of that response can be very satisfying, to say nothing of profitable.

Nearly 100% of pages of Google Search results with high commercial intent show several text ad listings in the most visible part of the page. Think that doesn’t matter? That it somehow doesn’t apply?

Unfortunately, some experts have told business owners just that. The operators of firms that sell trendy tools to help merchants churn out blog posts and the like won’t provide balance in their marketing recommendations, for fear of undermining the value of their tools. They tell business owners that “85% of educated people won’t click on a paid link” or “sophisticated searchers in your industry are clicking on the organic links,” so “PPC is a waste of money.”

So? So? and “Really?”

I never realized until recently that much of the business community is being told flat-out lies about PPC by people who are fundamentally biased towards forms of SEO. Organic search is a wonderful thing — I’d never deny that. But when sold in a certain way, by experts that preach high marketing ideals when all they’re really doing is barely-masked, same-old SEO tactics, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. Everyone can’t get everything for free. There is only so much free to go around. And the tool vendors and evangelists are selling the fairy tale to too many people. The pot of gold has only so many nuggets to spare at this point.

The average small business owner (and by “small business”, let’s make no mistake, that doesn’t mean small dollars: small business owners are often affluent and eager to pursue best practices) is then convinced to spend months committing to a publishing schedule and listening to marketing advice that shapes the pace and tenor of the marketing strategy to the needs of the toolset vendor. Months go by. Targets get missed. Website investments of $35,000+ sit there as expensive, white-elephant fixed assets. The well-off business owner transforms themselves into a “make money in your spare time” content marketing workaholic instead of just investing a few more dollars in variable marketing costs to achieve ┬áthe needed balance.

There’s nothing wrong with content strategies, of course. We endorse them. But we endorse them for clients who are neglecting them, and who are currently spending $20,000-$100,000 per month (or more) on paid clicks. They aren’t getting cheated on high-intent paid SEM traffic.

Those who have never done PPC, and who are being told not to do it, are being cheated.

I just talked with one such business owner today. He cited all the statistics about how great organic search is purported to be for his market segment… and how bad PPC should be, if you follow the logic. I said “well, it sounds like you’re trying to create blog posts to generate traffic on some long-tail search terms, which by the way you can also do with PPC [people are often told PPC can't do long tail terms, or that it can only do long tail terms. For some reason, vendors lie a lot about what PPC can and cannot do].”

I continued: “I’d just like to see what actual referral success you’re having with that strategy. Sounds good on paper, but are you actually ranking well on many of these terms, or do you basically not show up on page 1 or 2 of the SERP’s, same as all the other more popular and unattainable terms you don’t show up for?”

He mentioned that when the tool vendor came to him, he had just surpassed 200 visitors a month to his expensive website. He had set a near-term target of 1,000 per month, and wanted to get to 10,000 a month within about a year. With an aggressive effort (something he was accustomed to executing in his long and successful career), he was going to get to 10,000 one way or another.

Then he told me he wasn’t seeing any results from following all the high-flown rhetoric of the “inbound marketing, content marketing” tool vendor. “Last month, I was around 520 visitors. This month, we’re at 587.”

Want to get to 1,000? Work and wait and believe for another year or two. Want to get to 10,000? Forget it.

587 visitors a month. That’s about how impactful “inbound marketing” is on the ground for real business owners who need real results these days. And the intent of the people who stumble into a site to read content about expensive luxury products they cannot afford? It’s non-commercial. It’s non-existent. Tire-kickers enter gibberish into the lead forms, on the rare occasions they do turn into prospects.

Are we selling solutions, or fairy tales?

For 2,000 extremely high-intent visitors, paying a healthy $3.00 per click, you’ll shell out $6,000. Certainly, that’s why many small business owners would balk at the investment, particularly when respected industry experts tell them it’s a waste of money. But what if that $6,000 turns into $75,000 in sales?

You have to at least try it. You could grow old waiting for the inbound marketing fairy tale to come true.

On Not Aping Midgeley

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

On Saturday, Seth Godin gave me something to think about. Thomas Midgeley was the evil genius advocate of leaded gasoline and CFC’s. Both have caused widespread damage; moreover, it’s impossible to argue that there weren’t alternatives. And one crucial way to prevent such damage, as relatively powerless individuals, is to avoid being complicit in the spread of harmful, profit-seeking, short-term, shortcut solutions. In the long run, such “solutions” turn out not to be terribly profitable anyway.

Seth closes with a call for “vigilance, candor, and outspokenness.”

But how does any of that relate to what people like us do for a living?

In a less obvious way, it relates. The Canadian Marketing Association, and its counterpart, the AMA, for example, have often lobbied to save marketing practices that nearly no citizen can stand, such as telemarketing. They cloak their lobbying in the guise of “ethical” marketing — while defining ethics. Maybe that’s why we recently let our membership in the CMA lapse.

In the early 2000′s, I found myself in the midst of a little bit of an identity crisis. I’d spent ten years studying democratic processes in public policy, tax policy, and involved myself in progressive causes. Now all I was doing was working in an industry that helped companies sell stuff. Writing a book to help folks make more profit. Who was I?

I’m no saint, and I sure hope you don’t think you are. :) I drive a gasoline-powered car, and got a speeding ticket over the weekend. I plan to drive to the service office to pay the ticket today. Still, when it comes to the big trends, how can we do something not to be the personification of evil?

In 2004 as I was writing about AdWords, it dawned on me that it wasn’t all bad. I realized that Google, and its AdWords program, were bent on saving the world from the pollution of interruption marketing (of the type that Godin named and shamed in his great book of 1999). In a way, then, irrelevant ads seemed to me like a kind of environmental pollution. No one is a saint, but mitigating such pollution is better than spreading more of it than one has to. I even suggested a term for the excessive proliferation of ad pollution by the mainstream advertising industry over the years: “surplus interruption.”

How can we make some small gestures this week to cut against the Midgley grain, to avoid being the “leaded gasoline advocates” of the marketing and advertising world?

I certainly don’t need to tell you to stop sending heavy paper flyers to every household in half the cities in towns in North America, because I’m pretty sure you don’t do that. That excess of unwanted paper is so great, that in another context (yellow pages books), many cities have even banned it!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Set tighter impression caps on your remarketing ads in the display networks. And bid less on them. It isn’t so urgent that prospects must be reminded (to the tune of the highest bid you’ve got in your arsenal, virtually guaranteeing placement on any network site) of their interaction on your site, again and again and again. Less is more.
  • In that vein, make all of your display ads more interesting and more topical. Is the creative being forgotten?
  • Stop writing long missives about how to do SEO that simply fuel people with hope that they won’t have to work harder on the fundamentals of their business, just as long as they figure out ways to create all kinds of brand new pages of so-called content built around different shadings of commercially-valuable keywords. Calling all of this endless production of mediocrity “valuable content” is just a euphemism for more clutter, crap, busywork, boondoggle, and subterfuge.
  • Plan a startup business model around native monetization models, transactional revenue, or something closer to transactional value. Avoid banking on massive numbers of page views and unreasonably high CPM rates. Avoid even more banking on colossally-even-more-massive numbers of page views and “junk” CPM rates that reach $1.50 per thousand impressions only because six large ad units are crammed above the fold, and another sixteen smaller ones below.
  • Re-embrace user experience and intuitive navigation. Redesign a garish, cluttered website and resolve to cut out the navigational options and excessive information, boasting, and graphical elements that don’t seem to do anything to help people find what they’re looking for. Send a prospect to a well-tested lead form instead of a home page with a tiny-fonted phone number, chunks of rambling text, and low-resolution images of two magazine covers where your shop was written up ten years ago. Stop coming up with HiPPO-driven excuses why the status quo is good enough when it comes to your website, and step back to “outdated,” “old-fashioned” basics like Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think or Seth Godin’s The Big Red Fez, in which he advises “Don’t Hide the Banana.” In comparing website users to a monkey looking for a banana, Godin actually came up with a simplified way to describe the all-important concept (Spool et al., Xerox PARC Research Center) of “Information Scent.” Information Scent based design is “not just another set of opinions.” It’s important research about what works, and what turns people off.
  • Making your 800 number large and blinking does not exempt you from the above.
  • Check that opt-in email frequency.
  • If you’re a human being, please don’t automate your tweets.

The Finance Minister Who Messed With Marketing

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

In Canada, as in every country, there are many regulations governing the terms of mortgages offered to consumers. In addition to that, some of Canada’s banks (called “Chartered” banks) have long enjoyed a special, protected status. Not just anyone can open up a bank. The country’s careful rules around mortgage lending terms, amortization periods, required down payments, and mortgage insurance have seemed wisely conservative in hindsight. No greed-driven bubbles of low-quality mortgage lending… less fallout in the form of bursting bubbles and plummeting asset prices.

But everyone knows there are no formal regulations pertaining to the actual posted rates the banks provide, based on their own calculations of profitability, communications strategy, and the cost of money to the banks. Despite being regulated, if their cost of money drops, they can offer special rates. It’s up to them. And that’s just what some of them have done.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty decided they shouldn’t. Using not only the weight of his office as a prod, but also (undoubtedly) behind-the-scenes reminders of the special breaks, insider dealings, permission to enter certain categories of investment banking activity and global finance, and favorable legislation the major financial institutions may continue to enjoy (in areas such as service fees and credit card interest rates and terms, for example), Mr. Flaherty scolded some key financial institutions when they decided (based on cheap money in the global financial system, not least of which comes from the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy decisions) to post rates for five-year fixed mortgages as low as 2.99%, as a special Spring offer. He so harassed Manulife and BMO that they reversed their promotions. The government told private companies what to do, in other words, despite there being no law or regulation on the books that prohibited it.

Apparently Minister Flaherty was concerned about a potential housing bubble. People in their 30′s with lives to lead and babies on the way apparently want to do something crazy like lock down the same kind of home ownership lifestyle that has been the norm since Flaherty and his wife bought their first home sometime in the 1960′s. And with interest rates so low (thanks to the central banks’ monetary policy), who could blame them? Homeowners didn’t create cheap money. Neither did lending institutions.

At least one bank president, a Mr. Waugh of Scotiabank, railed against the excessive government interference.

Never mind, Mr. Flaherty, that mortgage brokers, second-tier institutions, etc., rub their hands with glee at automatically now being handed the mantle of “low-rate leader.” Never mind that anyone with strong credit who sits down with their banking rep will immediately be shown the “real” rates, and if they go across the street to a white label lender, will have a rate offer in their inbox numerous basis points below that by the end of the week.

Yet, several of the largest lending institutions decided to roll over and change their posted rates… in most cases to rates above the psychological barrier of 3.0%. Those who didn’t are getting the leg up in terms of consumer attention. What unseen governmental wrath may they now face?

As usual when governmental actors overstep even the bounds of already interventionist government policy, there is a bit of a domino or trickle-down effect. In this case, it trickles down to marketing. Do you think it is just a couple of disgruntled bank presidents or board members that are affected when a large line of business is asked to take a zigzag course in the middle of its busiest season? There are millions of shareholders to think about, first of all. Millions of consumers in the market for mortgages. And whole marketing departments and advertising vendors who need to “make do” with a watered-down message when they had earlier had coherent, well-thought out plans developed around rate specials intended to raise consumer interest in an important season during a fragile economic rebound.

It looks like the government’s random jawboning in the banking sector has just made pretty much everyone less effective in their jobs. And everyone is conditioned to stop driving forward in their area of expertise, lest the wise prophet of bubble doom have another bad hair day and announce his latest viewpoint.

I rarely get political here, because it’s not the place for it. But an agent of the government telling the financial sector what they can and can’t say… from a government that came into power promising less regulation and more economic freedom? It just proves: the longer they’re in office, the less connected they are to the real interests of consumers, and the real challenges of the private sector.

I just hope that most consumers understand that the informal, non-posted rates they may actually negotiate when they sit down with a bank rep haven’t changed. And in many cases, they’re below 3%. If you’re employed and bullish about the future, it’s not a bad time to buy.

Why Yelp Matters

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Even though arguably valued richly, Yelp stock still managed a remarkable rise of 25% in the wake of its most recent quarterly earnings report.

What’s driving the optimism for a company that lost 8 cents a share (more than estimates), but posted strong revenue growth of 68% year over year (ahead of estimates)?

  • When it went public, the company had scant revenues, but was already becoming universally known and widely used.
  • Unlike some companies in this user-generated-content space, its international expansion is relatively seamless and legit (like TripAdvisor).
  • Mobile! Some companies worry that rapid shifts to mobile user engagement mean challenges for monetization. Yelp is already killing it in this channel and is only just getting warmed up.
  • The “freemium,” “claim your company and then consider the benefits of paying for enhanced listings” ad sales model is logical and is amenable to constant refinement. Quite simply, Yelp is doing a good job of perfecting and scaling the model, and there is no reason to think it won’t be highly profitable as it grows. Compare the nightmare scenario at Angie’s List where the money largely comes from users, they churn endlessly, and to make up the slack, the company is also taking revenues from companies, something their print advertising has trumpeted they never do.
  • Despite some grumbling about review content (a necessarily messy world where the veracity and usefulness of reviews falls under constant scrutiny), Yelp is easy to recall, and basically likeable. When you see a story about folks reviewing jails on Yelp, it’s a fairly good sign that you may be top of mind. Controversy isn’t bad, as long as people understand what they can do with your app.
  • Most of all, Yelp is doing what, in going public, it tacitly promised investors it could do: turn into a viable, big-time business of far-reaching relevance to consumers and businesses in every city and town in America, and many countries around the world. Those who bet against them executing on that have been proven wrong.


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