My Recent Depressing Realization about All This Crappy ‘Content Marketing’

One of the things I do every day is blog. I haven’t been blogging here as much because I have too much work these days. I’m blogging on LSA Insider, Search Engine Land and its sister sites Marketing Land and MarTech Today.

As a person who has been writing or editing in some capacity for more than 25 years I take “content” seriously and try my best, often under intense time pressure, to be thoughtful about what I say. Which is why I became somewhat depressed this past week when I was struck by an epiphany of sorts about all the content, surveys and reports that I’m constantly receiving from tech companies and PR folks.

The market is awash in “content” and content marketing — reports, infographics, surveys and so on. A majority of it is garbage.

Before I get to my “epiphany,” a digression about an earlier one. Years ago I was in Moscone Center in San Francisco for one of the then-massive AdTech events. I was standing on a mezzanine level looking down at lots of people seated at various “bistro” tables. These were mostly male attendees presumably doing “biz dev” meetings. There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, my realization at that moment was that in some way, shape or form each of these conversations boiled down to one essential thing: “I want your money.” It was kind of horrible.

I had a similar feeling earlier this week when I realized that the 50+ pitches I see every day from companies and PR people are really just about SEO, about getting links. All the studies, surveys, reports and “content” being generated — so much that most of it is lost in the noise — is really about links. In some cases it’s about generating downloads for sales follow-ups. And in a fraction of cases it’s about branding and “thought leadership.”

If you work with Forrester Research or a comparable firm to create a report, you’re paying $20K – $40K or more. Then the PR firm is getting at least $5K or more per month to pitch your content to somebody like me. And because it’s mostly created for purposes other than exposing the information in the report it’s usually mediocre. But almost nobody in the system cares; it just needs a hook or some data to get pickup — and links.

So the sponsoring company winds up spending perhaps $50K overall and may not get much if any exposure or coveted links or leads. For every 20 pitches featuring a report, I’ll ask to see one or two. I may write about one. I have very little time to do more than scan these docs for top-level findings, let alone read them carefully and digest their implications. But most of the time they’re not intended to be read that way.

Beyond the realization that this is all about SEO, nobody is really very invested in the “content” they’re promoting — except in rare cases. It’s all part of a giant, relentless, impersonal marketing machine.

I write some of these sponsored reports myself on behalf of LSA and some of our members. When I do it I try to work closely with the company on questions that I think are interesting or important to the broader industry and develop interesting data and ideas. I’m often late in delivering them because I care about the work and what it says. (People want quick turnarounds because these docs are highly disposable or perishable.)

I’m somewhat sleep deprived and so chalk my mood up to that. But all this strikes me as pretty horrible and empty.

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DexYP: What Should the Brand and Strategy Be Going Forward?

Months of rumors were answered yesterday when it was announced that Dex Media and YP would become DexYP. It’s not a merger; Dex bought YP for $600 million.

YP had been owned by private equity firm Cerberus Capital, with a minority stake retained by AT&T, the original owner of YP (formerly the AT&T yellow pages).

More than any other directory publisher, YP had continued to invest in its brand and consumer strategy. This past year, under the leadership of new CEO Jared Rowe, the company had also started to emphasize its print directory again as part of a “blended” print-digital approach for SMBs. This was something of a surprise given that it had been gradually backing away from print in the past few years.

YP also strongly promotes its consumer brand and traffic — “60 million consumers visit yp.com each month” — as part of its selling proposition to SMBs.

Dex has not really emphasized its consumer-facing properties and spent more time developing a broad set of marketing and progressive operational solutions for SMBs. In the past several years, under the leadership of Joe Walsh, Dex has moved from selling traffic and leads to a suite of services that help them manage their businesses — something approaching a cloud-based “operating system.”

That’s represented in “DexYP’s marquee product, Thryv, formerly known as DexHub”:

[Thryv] is an all-in-one app enabling local business owners to manage their businesses on their smartphones and other devices from anywhere. Thryv lets local businesses automate business functions they performed manually in the past, or never performed. These include building a digital customer list, communicating with customers via email and text, updating business listings across the internet, accepting appointments, sending notifications and reminders, managing ratings and reviews, generating estimates and invoices, processing payments, and issuing invoices and coupons…

(This “operating system” approach is essentially the thesis behind LSA’s new Tech Adoption Index research project.)

The merger of the two companies reflects DexYP CEO Joe Walsh’s vision for “a single, massive Yellow Pages entity,” according to my colleague Charles Laughlin. The belief is that only massive scale and its corresponding efficiencies can effectively compete with the larger digital-media companies.

There are some interesting questions now:

  • Will DexYP continue to invest in the YP brand?
  • Will the combined company use the YP brand for consumer-facing products and experiences and “Thryv” brand for the marketing solutions aimed at SMBs?
  • Will there be an attempt to reconcile the two companies’ somewhat different approaches to SMB marketing solutions or will DexYP simply shift to selling the Thryv product across all markets?

What are your thoughts about the outlook for success? What should the DexYP strategy be? What should happen/will happen to the YP brand assets and consumer properties?

Here’s another interesting aspect of this: Dex has been “branding” and promoting CEO Joe Walsh as an accessible personality (an entrepreneur like the SMBs themselves) in a series of SMB-focused explainer videos on YouTube about marketing tactics — everything from website development to email, CRM and social media:

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What Percent of SMBs Are Willing to Pay Yext’s $500 Annual Fee?

Yext has a range of business listings management plans — from $200 to $1,000 per year. At the top level you get reputation management as well. The “best value” package is $499 per year.

Some local SEOs have expressed skepticism about whether local businesses would pay that much. David Mihm and I were having a debate about this on Twitter last week. So I did an online survey and asked 500 SMBs the following question:

Would you be willing to pay $500 per year to ensure your business is correctly listed on important sites across the internet?

  • Yes — 34%
  • No — 61%
  • Other — 5%

Most of the “other” category comments were requests for more specific information. Here are several representative responses:

  • depends on if it’s guaranteed and on what sites
  • depends on what the important sites are
  • I can do that myself
  • would depend on the specifics
  • depends on the company listing
  • need more details
  • depends on the guarantee

If a couple of percentage points from the “other” category migrate after specifics, let’s say that 36% would be willing to pay the $500 per year. And if there are 25+ million small businesses in the US and the “addressable market” is half of that (for argument), then the annual opportunity is $2 billion at least.

What’s your perspective on this? Do you find this persuasive or remain unconvinced?

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Majority of Homes Now Don’t Have a Landline, 71% Under 35 Are Mobile Only

Another mobile milestone has been reached.

In 2015 mobile search passed desktop search volumes. Last year mobile advertising reached 51% of total digital ad spending. And now the majority of US homes are mobile only. For younger users the numbers are more dramatic: 71% of adults under 35 live in mobile only households.

According to the US Center for Disease Control:

The second 6 months of 2016 was the first time that a majority of American homes had only wireless telephones. Preliminary results from the July– December 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicate that 50.8% of American homes did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone (also known as cellular telephones, cell phones, or mobile phones) —an increase of 2.5 percentage points since the second 6 months of 2015.

Demographic insights:

  • More than 71% of adults under 35 live in mobile only households.
  • More than 83% of unmarried adults in shared housing live in households with only wireless telephones
  • More than 71% of renters live in mobile only households
  • Among ethnic groups, Hispanic adults were more likely (64.8%) than non-Hispanic whites (46.6%) or African Americans (52.1%) or Asians (47.4%) to be in mobile only homes.
  • People in the Midwest (53.0%), South (55.5%) and West (53.4%) were most likely to be living in wireless-only households

Among other implications, it’s going to be much harder for telemarketers and telephone sales reps to reach people at home.

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United Airlines — or Brands Behaving Badly

By now you’re probably aware of the situation: United airlines asked people to volunteer to take another flight Sunday because one from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky was over-booked and some United employees “needed to get to Louisville.”

When not enough people volunteered, United personnel started involuntarily choosing people. And when one man “selected” to deplane refused to give up his seat, they called security and physically dragged him off the plane. (The footage is shocking.)

How STUPID was that? It’s another example, albeit an extreme one, of brands’ shortsighted thinking in dealing with customers.

The damage to the brand will be significant and potentially be in the millions of dollars, in terms of negative PR and lost bookings. There will also likely be a lawsuit by the guy dragged off the plane and a settlement resulting in a payout and creating another opportunity for more bad press — reminding people of bad United customer service. It will take years to correct this perception.

Even though United, from a technical-legal standpoint, may have been within its rights to do this — what a colossally stupid idea. It resulted from lower-level personnel not thinking about how customer service (the lack thereof in the extreme) or their own behaviors impact the entire organization and the brand.

With more foresight and thought, United could have compensated these people or created incentives that would have resulted in a sufficient number of volunteers getting off the plane, avoiding the incident. Even if they had paid thousands of dollars it would have been a bargain compared to what they’ll incur now in:

  • Lost bookings
  • PR crisis management
  • Legal fees and settlement costs
  • Further negative press (and potential Congressional testimony)
  • Other compensation to the people on the flight who witnessed the incident

How does this continue to happen?

Graphic: Brad Petersen

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The ‘Influencer Marketing’ Scam

Considerable attention these days is directed toward “influencer marketing.” My (as yet) unproven theory is that it’s basically all bogus.

It’s certainly true that trusted “influencers” — a term I dislike — can impact buying decisions. There is a lot of data to support that assertion. For example, the following from the 2015 Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising study shows that friends, family and “people we know,” as well as the opinions of other consumers, are the most trusted referral sources:

But what agencies and brands have frequently sought to do is co-opt that trust in the form of product placement or undisclosed sponsored posts or endorsements. In the language of business ethics it’s called a conflict of interest.

Basically influencer marketing involves walking a tightrope, either by trying to get so-called influencers to promote your product without paying them directly or by paying them but typically without clear and explicit disclosure of that fact. That’s because proper disclosure destroys credibility and their capacity to deliver influence.

This is the same MO employed by many native ads, which try as much as possible to look and feel like “content.” Facebook News Feed ads are less “deceptive” while some of the ads in the Yahoo stream are more deceptive in this regard.

These paid but undisclosed conflicts have resulted in myriad problems for brands and influencers with the FTC. The problem is that clear and explicit disclosure, sufficient to alert people to the fact that something is an ad, potentially kills its influence. But being deceptive holds longer-term negative implications for a brand.

According to research from Reuters (2015), “a third or more say they have felt disappointed or deceived after reading an article they later found had been sponsored.” I suspect the numbers would be higher and the negative feelings more intense with individual celebrities and experts. It would feel something more like a betrayal of trust.

I also suspect that if we surveyed 1,000 consumers and asked them whether a paid post or paid endorsement by their favorite celebrity or expert would have influence over a pending purchase decision they would say either “little” or “none.”

Would love for someone to argue with me — the key point being influence after clear disclosure of the paid relationship.

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Facebook Jobs Won’t Kill Craig’s List but It Gives SMBs Another Reason to Engage

Craig’s List has survived numerous “Craig’s List killers” and will probably survive Facebook Jobs. The classifieds marketplace makes money primarily from fees for job listings and real estate in New York.

Consultancy the AIM Group estimated total Craig’s List revenue at $700 million in 2016. While I’m quite skeptical of that number, if it’s even half that amount it’s still amazing. (Facebook Jobs is mostly indifferent to Craig’s List, although it’s mentioned in the video below.)

The new Facebook local recruiting capability has its own Page, with aggregated postings. Specific openings also appear on company Pages. Users apply directly through Facebook in a streamlined application process that automatically includes information from the user’s public profile.

If it works — meaning there are lots of jobs and lots of applicants — it will further strengthen Facebook’s relationship with local businesses, giving them one more reason to use the site. And given the organic throttling that’s gone on, most companies looking to fill positions will also be compelled to advertise as a practical matter. How much revenue that will generate for Facebook is an open question.

It’s fascinating to watch Facebook evolve from a customer acquisition and marketing platform into a broader CRM/conversational/retention platform with a range of capabilities, including scheduling and booking. This is another non-acquisition tool that makes the site more useful for local businesses.

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Yelp Is Starting to Solicit Reviews for Business Owners — and That’s a Good Thing

Yelp is getting serious about transactions. That’s a very good thing for the company. This is what CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said about it on the recent Q4 earnings call:

We also made excellent progress in building our transactions capabilities. The number of Yelp Eat24 orders, Yelp Platform transactions and Yelp Reservations bookings grew 40% in 2016 and transactions per user increased by more than one-third. Across Yelp, we expanded the number of transaction-enabled businesses and categories and improved conversion through efforts such as streamlining the checkout process. With the integration of Nowait, we also added the ability for consumers to remotely join waitlists at approximately 3,600 restaurants. We were particularly excited to facilitate more than 4.5 million consumer inquiries through Request-A-Quote in its first full year.

I’ve argued several times in the past that emphasizing transactions can accomplish multiple things for Yelp:

  • It helps differentiate the platform and make it a tool for both businesses and consumers
  • It provides more data for Yelp itself and for business owners
  • It provides new revenue streams
  • Transactions can help Yelp capture verified reviews as a service to business owners

According to business networking site Alignable, Yelp has the worst NPS score of any of the SMB brands it tracks. Helping business owners get reviews will partly address the problem.

As with hotel booking sites or OpenTable, Yelp can follow up after a booking and solicit a review on behalf of the business owner. And it has apparently started doing just that:

The more categories that offer scheduling and booking, the more Yelp can seek reviews after the fact. That boosts Yelp’s overall review count. It also broadens the number of reviewers and gives Yelp greater confidence the review is legitimate — although it wouldn’t be 100% guaranteed — enabling Yelp to back away (at least partly) from its controversial “review filter.”

The review filter (“not recommended”) has fed the (fake news) perception that Yelp manipulates reviews to coerce business owners into advertising. This has been one of the major knocks against Yelp and partly the driver of the company’s negative NPS ratings on Alignable.

Transaction-driven review solicitation can help that.

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Super Bowl Ads: Are Politics the New Sex?

At $5 million for 30 seconds, you better hope your Super Bowl ad generates buzz. Past campaigns have used humor, sex, cute animals and sentiment to capture attention. Some have consciously sought to generate controversy — usually involving sex (e.g., the old GoDaddy, Carl’s Jr.).

This year politics took the place of sex as the engine of controversy, though most ads still avoided it.

Before the game I was curious to see how many advertisers would “be political” and how many would completely avoid it. Political commentary from brands is seen as extremely risky, in this polarized climate especially But “safe” ads (read: boring) are problematic too.

Some of the ads therefore tip-toed into a kind of gray area, where if you were inclined to see a political message you might be able to find one.

This was the case with the Budweiser commercial about the founding of Anheuser Busch by German immigrants. Even thought it dramatized the truthful company origin story, it sparked a call to boycott Budweiser. One could argue the depiction of modest hostility to immigrants in the ad is a comment on the current political climate but it’s also historically accurate.

Coke recycled its 2014 multi-lingual, multi-cultural “America the Beautiful” ad. It was controversial then but much more controversial now, given the immigration ban. A message of inclusion, it was read as partisan in this environment. (Think about how Apple’s classic “1984” Super Bowl ad would look to many in the current climate.)

There were other ads, such as Audi’s “Daughter/Drive Progress” ad about gender equality, AirBnB’s “We Accept” campaign, Melissa McCarthy’s Kia ad that had a light pro-environmental theme and Avocados from Mexico was seen as political by some, though only if the simple mention of “Mexico” now is political. A few spots had subtle and no-so-subtle pro-gay messages.

However the ad that won the night from a “buzz” perspective was one that went directly after controversy. It was a pro-immigration spot taking aim at the border wall, from building-materials supplier 84 Lumber. (It didn’t seem cynically produced.)

An initial version of the ad was rejected by Fox as too controversial because it depicted the proposed border wall. The agency cut a new spot, which was approved.

At the end of the abridged TV ad, viewers were prompted to visit company’s website to see the “entire journey.” It sparked massive traffic to the company’s website. Whether these were sympathetic or critical viewers, it got the job done.

Below are the two versions of the ad:

I love Super Bowl ads and their creativity. But it’s generally true hat they’re a big waste of money. They typically don’t “work” to boost brand metrics or deliver actual sales. The 84 Lumber ad by comparison will probably do both.

The company and its agency took a huge risk by being political — that’s not going to work much of the time. However, millions more people now have an awareness of 84 Lumber (including me) and some of those people will go on to spend money there. Beyond this, the ad is getting huge secondary coverage because of its controversial content and the initial Fox rejection.

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New LSA Digital Media Certification Program Seeks to Identify Ethical Sellers

How many small business owners have received telemarketing calls from marketing companies making spurious claims about a guaranteed ranking on Google? The SMB-digital marketing services arena is full of noise with almost limited transparency.

Business owners receive a barrage of calls per month soliciting their marketing dollars. The process of “vetting” these firms is very difficult; and finding a company that can be trusted is near the top of the list of challenges.

Top SMB challenges in finding a marketing service provider (multiple responses permitted)

Source: Thrive Analytics, November 2016. N=200 SMBs

LSA has decided to enter the market with a new certification program that seeks to point SMBs to ethical marketing firms. This isn’t a guarantee of performance. Rather it signifies that certified companies have agreed to abide by a set of guidelines and ethical business practices surrounding:

  • Sales practices and representations made to prospective clients
  • Service standards and accountability
  • Hiring and training practices
  • Service agreements and contracts
  • Transparency
  • Security and privacy of information

This program was developed over a roughly two-year period with a great deal of consultation with key constituencies. LSA also surveyed small business owners, which supported the idea: 80% said that such a certification would impact their choice of a marketing partner.

Our hope and belief is that over time the certified firms will rise above the noise and deliver genuinely better service to SMBs. Learn more or apply here.

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