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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Are News and Politics Ruining Facebook?


On Friday, former NBC and CNN journalist, turned education activist, Campbell Brown announced that she was joining Facebook as a liaison to news organizations. She will lead the “News Partnerships” team at Facebook according to a post on her Facebook page:

This month I will be joining Facebook to lead its News Partnerships team. This is a different role for me, but one where I will be tapping my newsroom experience to help news organizations and journalists work more closely and more effectively with Facebook. I will be working directly with our partners to help them understand how Facebook can expand the reach of their journalism . . .

The announcement made me think about how big a part of the Facebook experience news and politics have become. This has been part of a very self-conscious plan, since roughly 2013, to turn Facebook into a “personalized [digital] newspaper.”

Some people now get the majority of their news (broadly defined) through their News Feeds. According to Pew survey data released last year, “A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media. That’s up from 49% in 2012.

Six in Ten Get Their News from Social Media

Two-thirds of Facebook users get news on Facebook. It’s also the primary news source for Millennials. Though I don’t pay close attention to news in my feed, my wife and many others I know do get a substantial amount of news from Facebook.

At a holiday gathering recently one of our friends was saying she (40+) had completely shifted away from Facebook to Instagram because she was so tired of the political tirades from her connections, leading up to and following the election — I have been guilty of some of that myself (tirading). She complained about both Clinton and Trump supporters ranting in her feed.

There has been lots of unfriending on Facebook in the run up to and in the aftermath of the election. You’re also familiar with the whole fake news controversy and how bogus stories, some planted by Russia, may have influenced some voters. Facebook is now trying to address fake news in several ways.

Facebook’s tag line or mission is “to make the world more open and connected.” It has done that to varying degrees but with the emphasis on making it a news platform — and the inevitable political discussions/arguments that has inspired — Facebook has also inadvertently helped create echo chambers where any information that contradicts preferred positions is screened out. In this way it has arguably helped harden positions.

Any internet platform as large and successful as Facebook, which is driven by the logic of a public company, is under constant pressure to grow, evolve and innovate. News was a logical — even inevitable — place for Facebook to go. But it may well have been a mistake.


Apple Maps Needs to Do a ‘Pepsi Challenge’ with Google Maps

Apple Maps 2

As an iPhone owner (I also have several Android phones) I use Apple Maps a great deal. However I’ve found myself using it less over the past several months. That declining usage revolves around routing and navigation.

In many ways I prefer Apple Maps to Google Maps. However I believe that Google offers more reliable navigation and is more likely to get me to my destination more quickly. When I’m at home I’m inclined to use Apple Maps because I’m familiar with the area and routes; so if there’s a mistake I can catch it. But when I’m traveling and in a rental car, I always choose Google Maps.

On a “visceral” level I have more confidence in Google’s navigation and routing. (Waze is separate conversation). I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And this is a problem that Apple will need to directly address; it can’t simply rely on being the “default map” for iPhone users.

At Apple’s 2015 developer event, CEO Tim Cook said that Apple Maps were being used 3.5x more than “the next leading mapping app” (Google Maps) on the iPhone. But in June 2016 a survey of just over 2,000 US adults from Fluent argued that Google Maps is the favorite mapping app for both Android and iPhone users.

Apple Maps preferences survey from Fluent

Maps and navigation (and local search) are critical functions and features for smartphone users — as everyone reading this knows. Apple will need to invest in its mapping product in perpetuity if it’s to remain competitive with Google. Apple knows this. (Siri improvements and third party developer integration into Apple Maps are key to competing as well.)

Apple needs to tackle the problem of my “intuitive perception” that Google Maps offers more reliable navigation head on. (I don’t actually know this as a fact; I haven’t systematically tested it.) I believe the company needs a version of a head-to-head match-up, or “Pepsi Challenge,” to show that Apple Maps features and routing are as good as its rival’s. At a minimum it needs to do more to promote Apple Maps and its capabilities.

But first it must make sure Apple Maps are in fact as good as Google Maps.


Facebook, False Equivalence and the Darker Side of Social Media Revealed


Undoubtedly you’ve seen the controversy surrounding Facebook and the election. How much did the circulation of fake news and other false, inflammatory content contribute to the election of Donald Trump? In some areas the margins were very thin — Michigan in fact remains too close to call.

While many critics have charged that unchecked false news did benefit Trump, especially late in the campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has dismissed the notion:

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

However Trump himself credits social media for being instrumental in his win and giving him lots of free exposure. He’s probably referring to Twitter in particular but Facebook also figured significantly in promoting memes that were favorable to Trump. Many of the most shared stories on Facebook are/were fake. And they helped amplify anti-Clinton themes that Trump was promoting. To be sure there was lots of anti-Trump sharing and activity on Facebook as well.

Despite Zuckerberg’s position, many Facebook employees were alarmed by some of the allegations against the company and have formed a “secret” internal task force to consider and address how fake news may have impacted the election outcome.

Earlier this week both Google and Facebook took action to try and cut off advertising revenue to publishers and sites that generate or promote fake news. And to the extent that fake news was a strategy to confuse or influence the electorate it’s less likely to continue (for the present at least) in the wake of the election.

Ultimately the problem of malicious or fake news stories circulating on social media is one that requires human editorial intervention and cannot be solved by machine learning alone. But the bigger issue is the way that social media have helped “flatten” and create false equivalence among sources. Google has equally contributed to this over the past two decades.

There’s a way in which news aggregators and social media give credibility to sources and stories that should have none and diminish the credibility of traditional news sources, which deserve more. Headlines now matter more than facts and substance.

Zuckerberg and many of his peers often promote their companies and technologies as a force for good in the world. Indeed there’s a kind of utopian view of the role of technology in some cases. Technology has improved our lives in many respects; however there’s always a dark side or unintended consequences. It’s always a mixed blessing, especially when it operates independently of human oversight or control. This is such as situation.

Facebook has helped people organize and register voters. But it equally allowed damaging, false information to flow unchecked to millions of people during a critical election that will have repercussions for a generation or more. Social media have connected us but also isolated us, by creating insular echo chambers where any information that contradicts our preferred positions and world view is screened out. Fringe beliefs, lies and fraudulent conspiracies can be amplified and reach millions without any reality checking.

Facebook is the top news source for Millennials and a primary news source for almost half the US adult population. Lies or outright propaganda on social media are corrosive of public discourse and democracy itself.

This election has surely revealed (or more clearly exposed) the dark side of social media and online “news.” It’s not entirely clear to me how to address the problem — but we must.


On Tuesday, Go Out and VOTE. It’s Much More Important than Digital Marketing


Against the backdrop of the larger problems in the world — and there are too many to name — I sometimes question whether I’m spending my time wisely, writing and doing research about digital marketing. I like what I do but their are times when I think I should be doing something for the greater good.

As you might infer from that statement, I don’t support Donald Trump. I’ll spare you my opinions. But if you want to vote for him that’s your right. The most important thing you can do in a democratic society is participate in the process — i.e., vote.

When people fail to vote or sit on the sidelines complaining that the system is totally corrupt or that there’s “no difference between the candidates,” all they do is tacitly support and reinforce those things they disdain.

I’m trying not to judge people with different views. Instead, I’m just telling people to vote in casual conversation. I’m not trying to proselytize or argue with them, just encouraging them to get out and vote.

Two women in a Site for Sore Eyes I visited yesterday seemed kind of shocked when I said “make sure to vote Tuesday” as I left the store. And a millennial Latino cashier at Whole Foods told me that he wasn’t sure he was going to vote, when I asked whether he was last Friday.

I have almost no capacity to understand that perspective: “it doesn’t matter if I vote.” People in this country and others have died for the right to vote. People around the world are still subjected to repression and violence when trying to express their political views. Millions of people still have little or no say in their governments or the laws that govern their lives. This is true in countries like Russia and China.

One thing that makes this country different and great is its political traditions and history. Admittedly, the system is flawed — it seems more flawed than ever right now — but nowhere else is it perfect.

Despite all this, it’s imperative that people participate. Voting in this election matters as much or more than probably anything you’ll do this year. And its impact may last for a generation or more.

Whatever your ideology or perspective, please go out and do it — #VOTE.