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Archive for October, 2013

What Makes Page Zero Tick? “Know Thyself” As Business Strategy

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Jim-Collins-Hedgehog-Concept-300x280The “three circles” planning exercise in Jim Collins’ Good to Great has, for me, stood the test of time as a powerful business compass for anyone contemplating corporate strategy for a company of any size. That coupled with the “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). A goal, in fact, doesn’t have to be all that big to be pretty audacious when your company is tiny or small. But it’s definitely the case that you can benefit by non-delusionally attempting to position and steer yourself towards interested markets — even very big ones — instead of just “taking what fate hands you.”

Although I and our fledgling agency, Page Zero Media, were pretty well known as subject matter experts early on starting around 2000 (and not just for PPC, but related concepts as well), it’s a lot harder building a real business than it is to be a “blogger” or to “get a few speaking gigs”. Early “success” doesn’t mean you’ve got the capacity to build a business. Taking on a few clients is just that. It’s a start.

Page Zero did a pretty weird thing from 2001 to 2006: it focused 95% of its client work on just one thing: managing PPC accounts (AdWords, etc.) and related paid, performance-based online media.

That was working out pretty well. I made the decision to focus so narrowly based on about three factors: (1) As a tiny consultancy starting up, we met a bunch of people, some of whom became clients. Those who came to us for SEO behaved less professionally at the time. Those interested in PPC were not only innovative entrepreneurs (and/or established companies), they put their hand up and said “I have a budget”. We chose the “rational” “budget-based” route over the “low rollers” who wanted search engine magic to make them rich. (2) I thought PPC would become huge. Turned out to be true. (3) I’d read Ries & Trout and those other various books about positioning. Seth Godin had some good ideas there as well. The idea that a FedEx could take what was perhaps perceived to be a tiny sliver of the market, master that, and then branch out later, was very compelling. Indeed, that’s a classic case study in positioning. Go narrow when you enter a field with established players.

So like I said, we did that — for approximately those reasons — for about five years, and did well out of them. They were good choices, and a bit lucky. I’d rather be lucky than good.

But with more people joining our agency, and the industry becoming more complex, I was becoming sensitive to all the water cooler talk that looked at all kinds of different services. Many agencies did just the opposite of what we did. They offered tons of other stuff. Were we just plain wrong to specialize? It was worth asking the question from time to time.

So, in 2006, I went back and re-read Good to Great by Jim Collins. The planning exercise in the book also helped me to draw the three circles for co-workers and new people.

His questions are roughly:

1. What can you be the best in the world at? Makes sense. Competitive advantage won’t come from being 30th best at something. “Top of mind” wins customers, and “RC Cola” wins nothing.

2. What are you passionate about? That’s a nice question because it makes it clear that work isn’t just about rational actor models and making profit — it has to be built on the fact that these environments run on the passions of real people. Maybe you can be unpassionate about something 400 days in a row, and keep coming into work. But on day 401 you’ll check out. Clients can sense who is and who isn’t 100% committed to their field. I subsequently read books about workplace motivators by smart authors like Daniel Pink.

3. And finally, what drives your economic engine? That one really stands out for me. I’ve seen so many experts and small agencies running after 1 and 2, but still not succeeding. Some activities and some subject matter simply don’t translate well into businesses. They keep you busy, but they don’t easily translate into sending a bill. That’s just the facts. That’s the difference between Hugh McLeod, who eventually did turn his art into a thriving business, and the millions of starving artists who simply wait tables to survive. Also, I’d grudgingly left a passion-filled chase for a PhD, and that had already left me starving. I had entered the business world at least in part to put solid food on the table. Building a sound economic engine is good for the clients, too. It means you’re a solid business with continuity, that they can rely on. Sort of how they want their own business to operate. B2B means “Business to business,” not hobby-to-business.

Here’s what emerged from the analysis.

1. This was pretty easy. From the accounts we’d already worked on, from the book I wrote, and from the interplay with other global thought leaders and conference audiences, I was pretty darn sure we could be second to none at Google AdWords.

2. On passion, I thought a bit more deeply about what made people tick around our shop. Of course, we loved the nature of the new digital marketing world because of the promise it offered of key principles of accountability, transparency, data-driven, flexibility, and a host of other amazing and revolutionary changes to the way businesses spent their marketing dollars. But we also had pioneered (in our own way) a way of working remotely, avoiding bureaucracy, and other flexible workplace routines and informalities that actually could facilitate us working harder and better (not less). People were passionate about escaping a corporate cubicle or a meeting-based culture and embracing the empowering feeling that a client could come from anywhere, not just our local area. These seem like easy questions to answer now, but it’s all too common for platitudes about client satisfaction or some detail of a particular industry to be substituted in as answers to this question. I’m glad we dug deeply when answering that question, because it gave us a strong sense of who we are, why we want to be here, and consequently, what we bring to the table.

2a. Answering those questions frankly scares a lot of people (though fewer now), because people mistake form for function, ritual for success. If you don’t “look” like people used to “look” in the “corporate world,” how can you possibly gain “corporate clients” like Postmedia, Capital One, Direct Energy, Torstar, Careerbuilder, and so on (as we have done)? The reality is, life has changed, and “corporate world” is just a stereotype held by some people. We were hired by one of the above companies because the new marketing manager went to bat for us, fresh off reading a couple of my recent blog posts. He pointed to one particularly edgy one, and I thought “Oh no!” – because he seemed pretty buttoned-down and corporate. I told him that style was necessary to stand out, and that deep down we were pretty conservative in how we do business. He dismissed my concern, returning to the subject matter of the blog post. Regarding the style, he said: “It works for me!” Authenticity is increasingly a tool for winning business, not scaring it away, as we’ve seen of late. (And it shouldn’t have taken a read of The Naked Corporation by Don Tapscott to convince you or anyone of that.) At the extreme end of the trend towards authenticity and openness, we see people like Rand Fishkin posting the annual (private) financials of his company, SeoMoz (now Moz). The numbers look pretty impressive now, right? But the ballsy thing is, Rand posted those numbers a long time ago, too… when they were fairly anemic. Many of Moz’s current fans might forget that it wasn’t that long ago that it was an incredibly lean operation where the CEO made $26,000, then $38,000, per year. Believe me, all of us have been there. (Eventually, if you keep growing, it’s got to be someone’s job — like your accountant, or peer, or an expert VC investor who says that eventually “salaries must normalize so anyone can put a true valuation on this business,” to stand up and force the owner to be paid properly, lest the whole point of running a business for profit be lost in the pep talks about passion etc. So in a scalable business that is fast headed towards the $20 million mark in annual revenues, I hope Mr. Fishkin now makes over $200,000 a year, despite his equity position or any partial exits that VC investment may have facilitated.) … And guess how the marketplace has responded to all of Moz’s reckless openness? It says “Works for me!”

3. So what was, realistically, driving our economic engine? Was PPC doing it? Could it continue to do it? The answer we came up with in 2006 was: “Keep doing what we’re doing.” Although established agencies were doing well offering many services, we also saw a lot of people failing after they hung out their shingle, struggling to grow past one or two people when they started dabbling in everything clients were asking for. But we did have reservations to how well the model worked… for us. It wouldn’t work with the smallest accounts. It would work better if we did a better job of positioning ourselves. And it would work better if we kept adding top talent to the team. So we worked on all of those things. We also made the decision to begin selling SEO and those kinds of things to existing clients, quietly.

Today, we’re seeing significant growth in our Findability division, which focuses on the interrelated prongs of SEO basics, Social integration and strategy, and content strategy. We’ve always had strengths in those areas, but it’s taken some time to work out how we can best help our clients succeed. Again, the primary challenge going forward is to “add top talent to the team” so that we can ensure the best quality results for our customers.

We’re now aggressively expanding our mandate beyond PPC and paid media, but we’re very pleased with the stable growth we’ve enjoyed by not trying to be all things to all people. “Know thyself” is pretty important for individuals, but just as much so for businesses. I’ll always be grateful to Jim Collins for the epiphany, and also for the concrete planning method attached to his concepts. Avoiding the negativity of those who see the world otherwise, who see convention instead of business wisdom, has sometimes been a challenge. We’ve taken inspiration from others who have gone on similar journeys… and from those, like Daniel Pink and the folks at 37 Signals, who have been good enough to put some of that inspiration in print form.

We’re in the business of helping our clients grow. It’s been important that we also have our own house in order as we do so!

“Jail Time Warranted” For Youths Who Misuse Search Engines: Agency Head — The Shallot

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

the shallotBy James Dinnerklieg

Digital Culture Reporter — The Shallot

October 15, 2013


Children engaged in class projects, or simply curious about what something is, have been playing havoc with online advertiser ROI, according to Cynthia Tripani, CEO of Providence, RI-based digital advertising agency Cyan Cyclone, LLP.

“Google seems to be bent on enhancing shareholder value, and has an elaborate agency partnership program,” said Tripani. “Yet sometimes I wonder if they have the proper commitment. Children as young as seven years old are searching for items our clients want to sell, yet they don’t have high purchase intent. They may not even have credit cards! It appears they’re just looking for learning opportunities. That’s nice, but it’s hurting our Quality Scores and driving up CPC’s.”

The problem has escalated to the point where the agency, despondent about Google’s lack of enforcement, has turned to the police to consider laying charges in such cases.

“Yes, we’ve been approached,” acknowledged a perplexed-looking Sgt. Don McConnell of the local police department in an exclusive interview with The Shallot. “Unfortunately, we don’t have full national cybersurveillance powers.” McConnell further implied that the same lack of spatial awareness that would cause someone to set up an ad agency in Providence, RI might hinder them from seeing the wider scope of the FBI, NSA, and other agencies when it comes to interfering with searcher privacy.

It appears the problem extends beyond the prepubescent set. Local industrial container supplier Henry Kendrick noted: “I love Google. I use it all the time to check out new wholesalers. Big, thick, metal containers of all shapes and sizes, with fine work on the reflective logos to add an easy 20% to profit margins… I can look at this stuff all day long. But I only make a supplier decision every couple of years, and that’s usually over a few boilermakers at the annual convention in Chicago.”

It appears that some industry experts agree with Ms. Tripani’s take. James Falconer, a former lead engineer on the Bing Ads team, agrees that “this can be a real problem for advertisers. Word to the wise: if you want full exposure on some of these mass information words such as ‘garter snake’ or the exact match for [stinky], try Bing Ads. Our Quality Score was never all that accurate. Chances are you can stay up there for single-digit pennies per click.”

At press time, children and other conductors of low-buying-intent searches remained at large.

This story was fake. And don’t try Googling “The Shallot,” the name of a nonexistent satire publication. You may be disgusted by all the ‘information’ you’re forced to look at.

5 Insanely Great AdWords Automation Tricks

Monday, October 7th, 2013

With the proliferation of high-powered third-party tools, we might be forgiven for overlooking the loads of performance and personality you can inject into an account using the latest and greatest capabilities of Filters in Google AdWords. Give this a try! By creating bespoke outcomes using techniques you customize yourself, you’re not only providing the high-value-added service your client or company deserves, but you can feel a bit more creative than you would using somebody else’s off-the-shelf methodology.

We didn’t used to think of “Filters” as particularly actionable, even though, of course, they are. But with today’s capability to select all the filtered keywords and take any type of action (similar to bid automation) on all of them, AdWords Filters behave nearly the same as third-party bid automation tools, or the “Automate” button in Google AdWords.




Using Filters as your automation method comes with a number of advantages. Foremost, you enjoy the flexibility and ease of sorting and viewing that is baked into the AdWords platform. But perhaps the greatest advantage of Filters is the flexibility in date ranges. For some reason, those creating bid automation software have loved “data look-back periods” of a week, a month, or (woo-hoo!) all 90 days…or “all time.” Notice a gap there? Between “90 days” and “six years,” for example? A whole bunch of your account might not have meaningful data from just the past 90-day period. And “all time” may be skewed, or overkill. With Filters, we can opt for a certain 18-month period and make our first couple of parameters related to minimum volume and cost, so we’re now managing a large, meaningful set of keywords or ad groups with a nice, statistically significant history. (To be sure, you should manage accounts frequently – daily, even – but for long-tail segments, you do want long date ranges.)

The principal drawback of using Filters as an automation method is the lack of a well-developed logging system and revert functionality such as that offered by AdWords in relation to the “Automate” button.

Without further ado, here are five fun tricks you can try. Tip: most filters can provide misleading results unless you are thinking of ways to further filter out or avoid anomalies, such as brand terms. It can be helpful to filter at the campaign level as opposed to the whole account level.

  1. Goosebump. Sometimes you need to give volume a boost, but you can’t always do this in the most perfectly rational manner. Special situation: a client in the travel industry is willing to temporarily relax the allowable CPA in order to hit certain short-term volume goals – to impress an investor, for example. The account’s performance over the past 12 months has been volatile due to steady improvement via optimization and the deployment of Enhanced Campaigns in recent months. We want to reach the short-term sales target, but while minimizing waste. We’ll go on data from just the past 120 days, with the parameters as follows:
    • Conversions ≥ 1 (we’re taking any glimmer of performance as smoke to find fire).
    • Conversions ≤ 15 (anything high volume, we already manage directly).
    • Ad position worse than 1.6.
    • Cost/conversion < $52 (target is $60; we’re cherry-picking the good stuff).
    • Select all filtered keywords and increase bids by 10 percent.

    Remember, you can do this with just a couple of keystrokes with the current version of filters. You don’t need to change 92 bids individually. You can also “preview” the change if you wish. The only major difference between this and a more conventional bid management method is that this method is focusing on a shorter date range than might be warranted to make a statistically significant call on what bid level is accurate for some of these keywords. But given the turbulence in the account in the past year, and the short-term nature of the client’s new sales target, taking account of recent conversion behavior is a decent heuristic.

  2. Quality watchdog. This one’s easy. In an account that has relatively misleading attribution in the first place, it’s been decided that pausing low-Quality-Score keywords is high priority even if some of those keywords appear to generate some business. The action taken is to be roughly threefold. First, arrest the drain on the account-wide Quality Score factor by pausing all keywords with QS of three or worse. Second, given the waste that was apparently allowed to go unchecked for two years, determine whether the current account manager is up to the job. Third, rebuild the account structure as warranted, resuscitating some of the keywords and showing them against more relevant ad copy, implementing Sitelinks, and evaluating landing pages. The simple filter is as follows:
    • All keywords in account with Quality Score ≤ 3.
    • Date range: past six months.
    • Select all filtered keywords, and pause them.
  3. Keyword myth-buster. A truism around the micro-water-cooler that is the PPC division of your company has it that all keywords involving the word “buy” or “wholesale” will be worth more than product-related keywords not containing those keywords, so they should always be bid aggressively out of the gate. As it turns out on further investigation, that isn’t always the case. Phrases containing “buy” actually fail relative to other keywords when it involves the broad match type or a mobile device. “Wholesale” only works well when shown against relevant ads and landing pages. How do you challenge the “myth of the buy words” in just a few seconds? Across a whole account or campaign, simply employ the following filter. Again, this parameter is now easily findable in the menu that drops down from the Create Filter function.
    • Keyword text contains: “buy.”
    • Set the date range on this to the most recent one-year period.

    That’s pretty much it. Now you scroll down to the totals at the bottom of the page and look at the relevant statistics (such as ROAS or conversion rate) for “all filtered keywords” and compare it to the mean for “all keywords” across the campaign or account. In an account with many moving parts, this can make a big difference to your methodology in setting initial bid levels for new ad groups, for example. To get more granular with your analysis, you could add parameters for > 30 clicks and match type=broad, for example.

  4. Group love. If you are stuck filtering just for keywords, you probably use volume thresholds to avoid managing keywords with too little data to be statistically significant. But are you forgetting you can also look at aggregate keyword data – in the form of ad groups – to look for signs of trouble that might not be adequately captured by keyword sweeps?
    • Go to the ad group level and set your date range to the past year.
    • Clicks > 100, or some arbitrary volume threshold that is not too high, not too low. (Definitely not too high, as part of the point is to catch underperformers that have been flying beneath the radar.)
    • Assuming your target ROAS (conversion value/cost) is 2.8, filter for conversion value/cost < 1.4.
    • These problem ad groups are now “singled out” for special attention. If your filter only shows 30 to 40 ad groups or less, you could immediately go in and make a number of bid changes in these groups – even on lower-volume keywords arbitrarily. If you have a large account and more than, say, 300 culprits on this list, you may be in for a month or two of more fundamental renovations on these ad groups.
  5. Match game ’13. Here, we’ll go on the warpath against broad-matched keywords that are underperforming, singling them out for an extra dose of the bid-down treatment as they clearly haven’t gotten the message they aren’t wanted. Broad match types can pull valuable impressions away from more specific match types, and that situation won’t abate if they’re hanging around with medium to high bids. In this case, rather than taking the situation gradually, you want to give it a little extra emphasis with across-the-board cuts.
    • Set up your normal bad-keyword-sweep parameters, such as past nine months, cost > $75, cost/conversion > $40.
    • Add a parameter, match type. Check only broad match.
    • Decrease bid for all filtered keywords by 8 percent. Instantly, your account’s more specific keywords get more of a chance to shine, rather than having their thunder stolen by broad match types.

    Over time, your overall ROAS should improve as you bid more accurately by match type as a rule, rather than taking everything case by case. Case by case makes sense on the surface, but if you’re like me, you believe that broad match should be bid above other match types only some of the time. If it’s most of the time, your account isn’t doing as well as it should in terms of relevance. This strategy does not substitute for deep dives into the Search Query Report. It also blends Broad Match Modifier with the more-frequently-misbehaving ordinary broad match, unfortunately. (Come on, Google!)

Many of these techniques are quirky and personal rather than being universal, obvious rules that everyone should apply. This goes to show how much scope there now is for customization and creativity in the use of Filters as bid rules. The Filter menu contains nearly every parameter under the sun, from max bid to impression share, keyword and ad text, engagement metrics like bounce rate, and beyond. Enjoy making your own rules.

This column originally appeared at ClickZ on July 12, 2013. Reprinted by permission.

The Man Who Took On Chips Ahoy… And Won

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Recently, Canada lost a giant in marketing: Dave Nichol.

Strangely, for twelve hours following his death, only one media outlet reported it. And the tributes and official obituaries were particularly slow to trickle in. It’s as if no one quite knew what to make of the man. The Globe and Mail has now published a full obituary weeks after Nichols’ death.

How big an impact did Nichols have on the average consumer? Talk to any Canadian, especially one over a certain age, and they will share with you the experience of:

  • Having eaten a Decadent chocolate-chip cookie (or maybe the whole bag). And remember those Oreo knock-offs with more filling? Seems like the Oreo folks had to run to catch up with that one. I don’t go down that aisle anymore, and the big-ass Oreo knock-offs are one big reason why.
  • Having stuffed their fridge with “Memories Of…” exotic-at-the-time sauces. Nichol introduced things like Szechuan flavoring to the average consumer.
  • Having shopped on price for No Name(TM) products.
  • Switching to President’s Choice peanut butter, because for many years, it was the only credible way for most people to get unadulterated peanut butter in a decent size at a good price. And maybe, especially…
  • Witnessing your usually-immune-to-marketing Mom waiting excitedly for Nichols’ Insider Report, a folksy, old-school 18+ page “newsletter” about recipes, food, new discoveries, etc. — information all delivered to you by pitchman Nichols. For the rest of us, who hadn’t just traveled to Italy or Turkey to check out all the culinary delights, Nichols’ publication was like a brief winter vacation. And in 1980′s Canada — before retail choice exploded and before most ordinary folks were routinely slapping such holidays on their credit cards — those mini-vacations livened up the place just a little bit, evoking sights, sounds, and smells just slightly more exotic than Zamboni fumes.

Someone has finally come out and compared Nichols to Steve Jobs, in a sense. And that’s accurate. He was impatient, detail-oriented, and visionary. He was said to eschew focus groups as pandering to the “lowest common denominator.” Although he never owned or controlled a large company, Nichols did transform an industry and how the average consumer looked at and purchased familiar products.

The Decadent Chocolate Chip phenomenon alone was transformative. “All” Nichol did was oversee the engineering of a much superior private-label cookie to the one that dominated store shelves at the time. Everyone “got” what Nichol had done, because it was everyone’s dream cookie — the one you’d draw up on the whiteboard if you were an immature 6-year-old being asked what you wanted. It would seem to be mostly just chocolate chips — real ones. The dough would be better, too. And you’d jam a few walnut pieces in there wherever there was room. You’d make sure the bag had big close-ups of the cookie all over it. You’d give it an audacious name. And finally you’d sell it for 50 cents less than the dominant brand.

Chips Ahoy didn’t know what hit it. During the Decadent’s heyday, if you’d have dropped in randomly on those Canadian homes with a “need” for a bag of cookies or two, you’d be more than likely to see a bag of The Decadent in the cupboard.

That represented so much of what was to come in the grocery business. Not in every field, but enough to change consumers’ perceptions (and thus, demands) permanently. Brands were in retreat. The grocery retailer could not only wipe what they wanted off the shelves and replace them directly with their private-label creations, their pitchman could speak directly to consumers in those same channels. The success of these products improved the profit picture at the retail level. Those profits meant that the retailer could increase share of voice for their “non brand” brands by outspending the brands themselves.

This accelerated the recognition that television advertising for products like cookies, toilet paper, and soft drinks was becoming increasingly wasteful. Television advertising for these products was based on the idea that costly exercises in “brand lift” would somehow cause consumers to search high and low for one brand over another. Sometimes, they still do. But the proportions have changed. The advertising seems ever more wasteful. And people only want to trust brands in certain areas.

Ironically, those who have cut into the appeal of brands by releasing private-label products — and now, in our era, creating information revolutions and means of helping consumers find out about products — have become the brands themselves.

Nichols as the brand never sat well with his corporate masters. And he never felt adequately recognized. While paid handsomely, Nichol wanted to graduate to the owner class. Imagine a Steve Jobs who was just kept on as a consultant, with his chum Steve Wozniak working anonymously down the hall, both earning $1 million salaries, but ultimately having to bow to the superior class of people who “gave them the opportunity.” It was a great opportunity for Nichols, but it could have become even more. He was right to strike out on his own.

Today, the trim, 40-year-old corporate scion Galen Weston Jr. has taken over the TV pitchman role at Loblaw — a role that had gone dormant after Nichols left many years ago. The role is still a powerful one, and the creation of innovative private label successes continues apace. But of course, Weston is no Nichol. He’s unconvincing as a foodie, and looks even more uncomfortable pretending to enjoy a barbecue with regular folks or holding a piece of fruit handed to him by a well-scrubbed farmer.

But his family and shareholders are big and strong — the strongest in the land. While the Sobey’s folks may have just merged with Safeway Canada, that has been eclipsed by Loblaw acquiring the nearly-as-large-as-itself drugstore empire Shopper’s Drug Mart. Although the corporate structure of all Weston and Loblaw related holdings may be too complicated to convey with a single valuation, all put together it’s above $30bn, far ahead of the competition. That effort to scale up may not have been a choice, but rather a perceived imperative. Various retailers compete with Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and more. Loblaw makes money not only from groceries, but its pharmacy, the Joe Fresh clothing line, and the various other departments in its Superstores.

Corporate strategy has eclipsed personality and innovation, at least for now. We won’t see another Dave Nichol for a long time to come.


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