It’s Getting Tougher to Tell Companies Apart As PR Gets More Relentless

Luma Scape

Over the past couple of years something has changed. I’m on the receiving end of daily press releases, pitches, data dumps and studies. I probably receive 50 or more emails every day simply pitching stories, product announcements, press releases and other promotional email.

It has become relentlessness. It wasn’t always like this; the whole thing seems to have intensified in the past year or two.

I previously tried to respond to every email I received from a PR person — what we me being a “nice guy” and all. But given that most of the emails I get are essentially, Dear [insert name] . . . generic copy . . . let me arrange an interview with my client, I’ve stopped responding unless I’m definitely interested or I recognize the person has taken the time to address me as an individual.

If I don’t respond, often what happens next is a follow-up email: “Just making sure you saw my previous email.” And in the more recent past I’m starting to get phone calls from people. In other words, many people are “escalating” with the phone because they think their emails aren’t being seen or are being ignored — they’re right.

I feel sympathy for these folks who are expected to justify their fees by producing “clips” and “mentions.” Many seem increasingly under pressure, sometimes even desperate.

All this is a function of too many companies, with similar marketing and PR strategies, and too much overall noise in the marketplace. (Everybody now has a quarterly report or index they’re pushing.) It’s very difficult to tell companies apart from their pitches and claims. Even after talking to them it may still be tough to tell them apart (see graphic above).

This is also a challenge from a vendor or biz dev point of view. Who should we work with?

Recently I experienced this at the IAB Leadership meeting in Phoenix: lots of programmatic vendors and data providers making similar or nearly identical claims. Of course when one can truly get under the hood or see a product in action differences become apparent. But I’m not often in that situation.

As an aside, this is what SMBs confront too with all the competing sales claims and pitches they’re exposed to.

I don’t have a good solution or set of recommendations for the problems I’m describing, except that PR folks should stop the “shotgun” approach often taken. But breaking through all the noise is getting more and more difficult for everyone in the system: the client companies, their reps, analysts and tech journalists.

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“You Guys Should Really Have an App; Wha? I Guess, I Don’t Know . . .”

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The other day I had my nearly 10-year old Honda Accord sedan serviced at my local Honda Dealer. Several days before I received a direct mail coupon (oil change, tire rotation), which promoted me to call for an appointment — old school.

When I got there, as you might imagine, hundreds of additional dollars of maintenance were called for — nearly paid for the mailing right there.

After I left my car, I declined their slow courtesy shuttle (“he’ll be back in a about 30 minutes”), instead taking Flywheel (poor taxi-industry imitation of Uber) back home. Later in the afternoon I Ubered back to the dealer. (Every time I take Uber I feel guilty and struggle with it.)

Upon my return to the dealer, paying for the work was more difficult and time consuming than it needed to be. The lead technician who had checked me in that morning was nowhere to be found; and the people “in the office” confused me with someone else (telling me my wife had already paid — sounds good, too bad it wasn’t true). The repair paperwork was surprisingly difficult to read and understand, not at all user friendly.

I paid with a credit card in the usual manner and waited for them to “bring my car down.” While I was waiting, I said to one of the women helping me, “You know, you guys should really develop an app. It would help with scheduling, maintenance reminders and loyalty and you could even incorporate payments and invoicing into it.”

She looked at me as though I had been speaking Mandarin. Then she shrugged and said, “Wha . . . I guess, I don’t know.” Clearly she was not invested in the success of the business.

I thought about finding a more senior person and explaining the benefits of having an app but decided it wasn’t worth the energy and effort.

I know there are apps such as RepairPal; however it makes sense for a dealer like this to have its own maintenance app. The challenge is finding someone to build it and making sure that the finished product isn’t weak and therefore a waste.

I report this story because it was an illustration of the “inertia” that afflicts many SMBs as well as the built-in resistance to doing something different and potentially beneficial, though seemingly optional. It seemed a perfect microcosm of the larger small business marketplace.

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With Brand Relevance Fading, BBB Strikes Deal With Porch to Distribute Ratings

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.38.00 AMWhile the non-profit Better Business Bureau (BBB) may still have some relevance to some consumers and businesses in terms of dispute resolution, its brand has become almost totally diluted and irrelevant in the digitally dominated world of local business search.

For years there has been a dormant opportunity for BBB to do something online that would reinsert the organization into the process by which consumers seek and find local businesses. As a modest example of such an effort, BBB has now done a deal with home services directory site Porch.

This is not game changing for either side. It appears that the BBB rating will appear on listings in Porch search results. This may be a licensing or revenue sharing deal.

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At one point several years ago I had a discussion with someone about how BBB might become a more widely used directory or search site for local businesses. It has made some effort in that direction but offers a user experience that is mostly inferior to leading local search sites. And absent some major brand-building, it’s not going to be a consumer destination — though perhaps a stronger, more consumer-oriented mobile app would help.

Without a strong brand, BBB is playing an SEO game, which it’s bound to lose. What the BBB may not fully realize is that in the digital world and with younger users it has almost no brand equity. The organization needs to aggressively promote its brand, ratings and dispute resolution services to regain some visibility. As part of that, it should also seek to become more widely used consumer source for local business information.

If I were advising them, I’d argue for an app consisting exclusively of A and A+ rated businesses. What would you recommend if you were advising BBB about its future direction and regaining relevance?

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Yelp Sues SMB Reputation Firm for Shady Review Solicitation, Management

Revleap

Yelp has sued a company called “Revleap” that says it will deliver 4 or 5 star reviews on Yelp while withholding reviews of three stars or below in “the control center for your quality control.” To many business owners this sounds like the answer to the unending challenge of gaining a steady stream of positive customer reviews.

The lawsuit presents a range of claims against Revleap, including trademark infringement, unfair competition and false advertising. Yelp contends the company is not only violating its own terms but completely scamming business owners:

Revleap, which has cycled through various names including “Yelpdirector” and “Revpley,” has spammed businesses with unsolicited messages claiming that they can get good reviews to stick and remove bad reviews. One thing Revleap actually does, it seems, is bombard their clients’ customers with surveys. Customers that respond favorably, and agree to post a review, are entered in a drawing for gift cards in an effort to deceptively boost their clients’ reputations.

Revleap’s business model is the sort of thing that can put small businesses at risk with respect to our Consumer Alert program and federal and state regulators who often crack down on businesses that try to artificially inflate their online reputations.

Reviewing the collateral on Revleap’s site, it’s clear the company is misrepresenting what can be done (e.g., removal of negative Yelp reviews). However Revleap appears to be following many practices that are pretty common: using post-purchase customer surveys to identify positive experiences and then selectively posting or asking for reviews to be posted on key sites. Entry into a prize drawing is used to encourage positive reviewers to post on Yelp.

There are others in the market that use or have used drawings and contests to encourage review writing and posting. Drawings and other compensated or incentivized reviews like this are prohibited by Yelp because ultimately they may distort consumer opinions. Yet many use them and see nothing wrong here because there isn’t a 1:1 quid pro quo.

Revleap appears to operate on the darker end of an ethical gray zone around reviews. Companies like this capitalize (literally) on SMB ignorance, frustration — even desperation. Reviews have become a critical part of online marketing but there remains confusion about how to collect them and what’s permissible, especially regarding Yelp.

There are many ethical firms out there monitoring reviews and many that seek help SMBs collect and distribute reviews online. Among them are Reputation.com, GetFiveStars, Customer Lobby, Refgo, Review Pro, Grade.us and others. I don’t know the workings of all these companies but the ones that I’ve spoken to seek to do things in an ethical way.

Different consumer sites have varying rules or standards about collecting or soliciting reviews, with Yelp being probably the most strict. Other sites or programs are more lax. I don’t think Facebook has many consumer guidelines, if any, for local business reviews. And Google provides various high-level incentives (or used to) for Local Guides to write reviews (membership, access to Google swag).

Accordingly there’s not a ton of consistency among top review sites, which is a problem for SMBs. Because what may be OK for Tripadvisor, Google or Facebook may or may not be OK for Yelp or Angie’s List. Ideally there would be a set of clear standards that everybody adheres to or substantially adheres to.

I don’t see that happening soon. Unless or until it does there will be many companies that prey on frustrated, indignant or unsuspecting SMBs who simply want to address what is a very real challenge and very real imperative in the market — influencing and advancing their online reputations.

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Check Out the SMX Local Search Advantage Workshop Speaker Roster

local_search_advI’m very pleased with the group of speakers that have come together for the SMX West Local Search Advantage workshop on March 2. My view is that every person thinking about going to SMX West should be in this session.

It’s going to be a great day of tactical and practical information addressing a broad range of issues: SEO, Maps, SEM (local and mobile), reputation, tools, video, offline attribution and more.

Here’s the lineup of speakers and their sessions:

Google My Business: Everything You Need to Know Now
Joy Hawkins Product Consultant @Imprezzio Marketing and Google My Business Top Contributor

Local SEO Strategy & Key Tactics (Bonus: Apple Maps Clinic)
Adam Dorfman, SVP Product & Technology, SIM Partners
Andrew Shotland, LocalSEOGuide

Driving and Tracking Online-to-Offline Conversions
Michael Mire, Co-founder SweetIQ

Executing a Winning Local-Social Strategy
Kelley O. Williams, Director the Honey Bee Company

Building or Fixing Your Online Reputation
Chris Silver Smith, President Argent Media

Mobile SEO, SEM and Attribution
Jaclyn Jordan, Senior Paid Search Strategist at WordStream

New Rules for Local-Mobile Search
John Busby, SVP Marchex

Top Tools for Local Marketers
Conrad Saam, General Manager Atticus Marketing

Leveraging Video for Local Lead Generation
Mat Siltala, Founder & President Avalaunch Media

Managing Multiple Locations: the In-House Perspective
Derik Beck, VP of Digital Marketing, Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care
Heath Bradbury, eBusiness Marketing Manager, Advance Auto Parts

There are local and mobile sessions in the main conference but this content will be more focused and tailored specifically to the needs and interests of local agencies and national-local marketers. Much of the content will be more advanced and specific.

Register today. If you send your team you’ll also save between 15% and 35%. Individual attendees can get 10% off with discount code: WS-LSA10.

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How Do We Think about Location Once Location Is Everywhere?

Pin

In the category of half-formed thoughts . . . I see two things going on with location at a high level in the market. First, many marketers and brands still don’t “get” location. Either they don’t see it as relevant to them –it’s something for SMBs — or, if they do, they’re having trouble “operationalizing” location-based marketing.

Evidence of the latter comes in the form of recent reports and research from SIM Partners and others.

Paradoxically location is also becoming a more routine part of digital media and advertising. It’s being used to help define audiences for later targeting, for personalization of apps, for attribution (online to store). In some cases location is explicit (e.g., AdWords location extensions); in others it may be hidden or in the background (active “auto intenders” as defined by people who’ve visited dealer lots in the past month).

In the programmatic world, which is gaining momentum, location is simply one data point among many being used to define and target audiences. Location is almost a check-box.

There are predictions from BIA/Kelsey and others about location-based ad spending becoming an increasingly large component of overall ad spending. As I’ve written in the past this begs the question: What is a “local” or “localized” ad?

Location can obviously can have a significant impact on ad performance in many situations. It may also be the most important component of a marketing campaign (e.g., driving foot traffic to retail or local stores). However if, as is increasingly the case, location is automated (e.g., AdWords location extensions, which is a key to broader adoption; or if location is simply a proxy for other values or just one of several targeting variables, how does that affect how we think about and discuss location?

Will location matter, will it continue to be a meaningful category or will it simply become one of many audience targeting techniques?

I may not have entirely captured my thoughts here. But there’s something interesting in considering a future in which location is a routine component of most digital media campaigns — a check box or subsumed merely as one audience targeting parameter in a longer list of targeting variables.

How does all this strike you? Am I making sense? Do you agree we’re moving from a place where many people don’t “get” location to one where location is a constant in campaigns but largely handled by automated systems in the background?

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Google Killing Helpouts Learning Program

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Almost exactly a year ago I wondered aloud how Helpouts was doing and whether it had any traction. My sense was “no” and that the service was languishing.

I’ve always thought it was a good idea with great potential for both users and providers. But either Google didn’t push it enough to the consumer public or those who had used it didn’t have good enough experiences to generate favorable word of mouth — or both.

Earlier this morning TechCrunch reported that Google had pulled its Helpouts app from Google Play. Now on the Helpouts site it says the service will shut down on April 20.

One could see this as another failed “Q&A” or “live advice” experiment. I think there are many reasons why it didn’t succeed.

What are your thoughts and theories?

Here’s the email that Google just released:

We have some sad news to share with you today: Helpouts will be shutting down onApril 20th, 2015. While this announcement was just posted on our site, we wanted you to hear the news directly from us.

Since launching in 2013, Helpouts has been a home for people to connect with experts on topics they want to learn about or seek advice and solutions to everyday problems. The Helpouts community includes some engaged and loyal contributors, but unfortunately, it hasn’t grown at the pace we had expected. Sadly, we’ve made the tough decision to shut down the product.

Starting April 20th, you’ll be able to download your Helpouts history using Google Takeout (available until November 1st, 2015). Until then, you can email us with any questions or concerns you have about your account or take a look at these FAQs.

We want to thank you for your support—both the providers who shared their expertise with the world, and the people who needed some extra help or advice along the way. You’ve had a lot to contribute—and we’ve loved learning alongside you.

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Does Retailer App-Ambivalence Threaten to Slow Beacon Momentum?

Beacons

Are beacons threatened by retailer app ambivalence? A new survey (n=70) from Shop.org and Forrester Research, discussed in The State of Online Retailing, says that many large retailers have “quietly opted to put apps on the back burner” — and, perhaps unwittingly, beacons with them.

No app, no beacons.

At some point, indoor location services may be available through the mobile browser or otherwise on smartphones. However, today an app is required before beacons can be triggered or utilized by smartphones.

The Forrester survey identifies mobile as the top retailer priority. Yet there was a lack of action to support mobile. Respondents were spending only “modestly” on mobile development and, as indicated, many were turning their backs on apps.

Less than half (44%) said that apps were now a key part of their mobile strategies. Instead many retailers are focusing on the mobile web. This may be realistic from one perspective but is also short-sighted.

Forrester mobile apps

Source: Shop.org, Forrester Research

Getting consumers to download and use retailer apps has been challenging. Most have not offered sufficient functionality or value to justify continued use. But, as mentioned, beacons (and other indoor-location technologies) rely on the presence of relevant apps to deliver their content or capabilities.

Ironically indoor location technologies, such as beacons, can deliver content (offers, product/inventory locators, payments) that makes retailer apps more valuable. But users can’t experience that content without the retailer app in the first place.

Most retailers in the survey (77%) said they had some sort of mobile-optimized or responsively designed website. And while the mobile web offers much greater reach than apps, engagement is typically much less. Retailers should be pursuing a dual mobile web and app strategy, with the goal of moving more users (or certain more loyal categories of users) into the app tier.

There was little discussion of beacon technology in the report. Only 25% of respondents said they were planning to invest in it this year (n=52). Beacons seemed to be roughly in the middle of mobile priorities. The survey sample was small but suggests, together with other data in the market, that retailers are more focused on e-commerce or driving store visits vs. developing richer in-store experiences around smartphones.

Of course you can’t do everything at once. But the survey results imply that most retailers still don’t really know what to do with indoor location.

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Google Maps Turns 10 But What Will Mapping Look Like 10 Years from Now?

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I remember when Google Maps was just a baby. Google launched Maps in 2005. It wasn’t the first digital mapping product by any means. But with its then-novel ability to drag the map without reloading, it quickly came to define dynamic mapping and continues to be the dominant mapping property today.

(Re/Code has a good story about the personalities behind the original Google Maps.)

Both AOL’s Mapquest and Yahoo Maps preceded Google Maps, which was briefly called “Google Local” (I still have the t-shirt). Yahoo’s product was the first true “local search” tool utilizing maps. Yet given Google’s prominence in web search, Google Maps novel features and the company’s increasing investment in the product it was able to overtake both and never look back.

It’s hard to determine but also hard to overestimate the role that Maps has played in Google’s success. To Google’s enormous credit and to the surprise of most cynics, Google continued to develop Maps without fully exploiting its “monetization potential.” The years-long, multi-billion dollar investment Google has made in Maps, Navigation and Street View is also what scared Marissa Mayer away from pursuing local when she took over at Yahoo.

Google has five to seven enormously successful products:

  • Search
  • AdWords
  • YouTube
  • Android
  • Maps
  • Chrome (and Chrome OS)
  • GMail (and Calendar)

While Maps doesn’t make much money directly for Google it has been instrumental in the long-term success of search and mobile/Android. Google couldn’t have known in 2005 how critical Maps would be in its later mobile efforts. Google Navigation, launched in 2009, essentially killed the stand-alone PND (e.g., Garmin) market.

Until Apple Maps launched in 2012 it appeared that Google Maps would have no serious rivals. But Apple Maps and others such as OpenStreetMap have helped diversify digital mapping and have created an opening for other companies to develop some new user experiences (e.g., Recce).

Unlike Mapquest in its prime, which became complacent, Google recognizes the importance of its mapping product and will continue to invest in it. But we’re now in a place analogous in some ways to where we were when Google Maps first launched in 2005. There’s a standard UI and UX to most mapping experiences online or in mobile. Bing Maps, Here Maps and others follow a very similar approach to Google.

Will we see any new UX/UI innovation representing the kind of compelling change that Google introduced when Maps first launched? Augmented reality, in-car heads up displays, AI, wearables . . . What will maps (and Google Maps) look like in 10 years?

What are your thoughts and can Google Maps remain on top?

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Yext Bought InnerBalloons in December (How Did I Miss It?)

InnerBalloons

I completely missed this: Yext acquired Netherlands-based digital marketing company InnerBalloons this past December. I stumbled across it today completely by chance.

InnerBalloons provided for European SMBs and reseller partners many of the same services that Yext offers its customers in the US. The fit is natural and in early 2014 I thought this would be a good acquisition for Yext (or a comparable competitor) were it to move into Europe.

I’m happy for InnerBalloons co-founder Robin Allenson, who is now SVP European Partnerships at Yext. The announced acquisition price of InnerBalloons was $8 million.

Yext is now trying to do globally what it has done in the US market with business listings and real-time data. Yext’s revenues in 2014 were roughly $60 million.

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