Thursday, January 31, 2008

No secrets online: your reputation's at stake

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

We’ve all met them. They’re the no-hopers who nevertheless seem endlessly to rise up the career ladder. By moving jobs every 18 months they avoid any of the consequences of their actions, and by doing so are elevated above the dedicated, the hard workers and the takers of responsibility – moving on again before they’re found out.

And we’d all love to spot them before they join. We all want to find out about other people, especially when we’re about to get involved with them (and sometimes just because we’re nosy) – and the internet’s proving fertile ground for our prurience.

A quick Google of a potential, current or ex-employee can pull up all sorts of interesting data on someone – their MySpace profile complete with photos they might not have chosen to pin to their CV, their Facebook page or a blog.

Argos were reported by The Sun to have sacked an employee for gross misconduct after he set up a Facebook group called “I work at Argos and can’t wait to leave because it’s shit” (one of a number of similarly named groups).

Directory company The Number asked Facebook to remove an abusive site about its brand, after an ex-employee set up a site for survivors of 118 118 - it’s still there (7 members), although it’s been joined by the much more popular (158 members) 118118 Appreciation Society.

HR professionals recommend you don’t check out potential employees online, and should judge them purely on the information they’ve supplied to you. But it’s hard to see how most managers could resist the temptation of checking out that apparently ideal candidate – especially with listings like this:

“Attention Golf Courses- do not hire Joe Bloggs (the listing used his real name, which brings it up in Google). He's the 37 year old assistant golf pro in Fort Worth, Texas, that recently turned himself in after security tapes recorded him skimming off deposits and stealing from the register.”

Employees are equally keen to get the inside track on a company they’re thinking of joining. The now defunct (but fantastically named) was the bible of the dotcom boom. Employees anonymously shared information on layoffs, restructuring and other corporate maneuverings, giving the lie to the official line and forming a fascinating resource for investors and recruits alike with confidential internal memos, emails and pronouncements.

A more serious-minded descendent of this seminal site is – a site where entrepreneurs can share experiences of private equity/venture capital companies (who aren’t allowed to join). These views are divided into public (can be viewed by non-members) and private (much more frank) opinions – and anyone about to embark on a VC path would be well advised to join up, as it helps to know who you’re dealing with.

Ultimately this is the point – and as much as people have applied online knowledge sharing to their business life, they’ve applied it even more enthusiastically to their love life.

After all, web users have been Googling potential dates from day one. But now sites like (which last year hit the number 5 spot in Yahoo! Buzz) let girls search for others’ experience of guys they’re considering dating. Almost inevitably, the site was sued – by a lawyer who took exception to his ex’s depiction of him – but it hasn’t stopped a host of copycat sites launching to cater for the seemingly endless demand for inside knowledge.

It’s getting harder and harder to keep a secret these days. In the past, reputations took a long time to build, and were robust enough to weather the barbs thrown at them by disconsolate ex partners. But in the digital age, employees and employers, investors and investees (and all the people they date) are going to have to get used to the fact that their reputation is increasingly (and quickly) impacted by their actions – and that its value is only increasing as the knowledge that underpins it becomes easier to obtain.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The battle for connected TV

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Apple have sold over 3 billion songs on their iTunes website since its launch in 2003, making the company a major force in the global music business – a position Apple is keen to leverage in the TV space. But the launch of Apple TV last year was met with indifference, mainly because the box couldn’t access the iTunes service – sales predictions of 1–1.5m units proved ambitious, as the box barely scraped past the 400,000 mark.

But Apple TV’s back, and the recent launch of version 2 led to a 17% slump in Blockbuster’s share price, as Apple dropped the price, and enabled the box to access iTunes without the need for a computer – at the same time offering a free software upgrade to existing owners to give them the same functionality.

The combination that proved so powerful in music – beautifully designed players with access to a vast online library of content – is what Apple are keen to follow in video, offering downloads to your computer, your mobile or your laptop.

But there is a missing ingredient which could offer the key to Apple replicating the success in TV that they’ve had in music. To make iTunes successful, Apple didn’t insist you had a Mac – you could run it on a PC, a necessary step given the Mac’s small market share.

Apple’s challenge here is getting connected to the TV. With an installed base of just 400,000 Apple TV users, the vast majority of iTunes users are accessing the store through a computer, which whilst they might hook up portable devices, they generally don’t connect to the main TV in the house. But the king of TV-connected entertainment devices is Nintendo’s Wii – seven million sold in the US alone. Releasing a version of iTunes for Wii (and for other platforms like Playstation and Xbox) could jumpstart iTunes into major distribution for TV content.

The battle for space under your TV is well and truly under way.

In the UK, Sky have had a long run free from effective competition. But last year Freeview overtook Sky, boosted by the popularity of digital PVRs, and together with a resurgent cable industry under Virgin’s leadership and the launch of BT Vision, a much tougher fight has emerged for what goes under the TV here.

It isn’t just the usual suspects who are battling for space. Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console already offers movie and video rental in the UK, whilst Wii has the capability to follow and Playstation3 has a Blu-Ray high Def DVD player built in.

Meanwhile, on the internet, Project Kangaroo is set to bring together the BBC, ITV and C4 on one software platform, and if Auntie can avoid the politicking that so badly delayed the iPlayer, it could do for online TV what Freeview did for broadcast – in turn, finally providing a reason to hook up a PC to the telly, and adding another box to the list of contenders.

There at least seven different types of box you can use to access TV on your TV set (excluding offline devices like DVD players and PVRs), dozens of different suppliers of connectivity and thousands of suppliers of content.

The world of TV is set for a revolution, and with it, the way we use it as a means of communicating brand messages. As the distribution of TV shifts from broadcast to addressable, there are wide-ranging implications for how advertising on it is measured, traded and delivered.

So far, the proportion of TV delivered in this way is small. But this isn’t going to be a slow burn medium that grows gradually over several years, because many of the devices already exist in consumers’ homes. All they need is a reason to connect them – and when they do, the marketing on TV is going to change forever.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The art of search

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

"All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved."

Sun Tzu was writing about war in the 4th century BC, but his words continue to resonate today in the world of business and marketing, where confusion still clouds the difference between tactics and strategy. Nowhere more so than in search marketing, where the proximity of search to the end of a consumer journey tends to focus practitioners solely on the tactical.

The General knew that the tactics he employed were just the visible part of his activities. His enemies and friends could see his tactics, and they knew when he won – but Sun Tzu knew that most wouldn’t look beyond the visible, and many wouldn’t even be aware that a strategy existed – let alone understand the decisive role it played in achieving victory.

In search, as in every other part of business, strategy is critical. But most people when asked about their strategy in search will start to talk about their tactics – few really understand what a strategy represents here, and even fewer how to go about creating one.

The easy results achieved by search in improving the accountability and effectiveness of advertising have created the marketing phenomenon of the century. But this ease has also led to a casual approach to the long-term value of the medium and a failure to look beyond the obvious when approaching the discipline.

So what do I mean by a strategy in search?

Like any area, we start with an objective. There may be more than one of these, but they need to be prioritised and distilled down to the clearest expression of what we want to achieve.

Once objectives are clear, there are a number of questions that a strategy for search should answer. Four of the most important are:

Competition – how do competitors use search, and what is the competition for our message? If rivals’ brand names aren’t protected from competitive bidding, this can provide real opportunities. If your brand name is a generic that can’t be protected in this way, then other means can be employed to gain prominence in search – for instance producing relevant content that helps promote the brand’s ranking.

Customers – how do people search for my product, and what is their interest? Are people searching for brands or for solutions to problems? How important is my brand in this, and how does natural search key in with delivering brand visibility?

Co-dependence – where does search fit, and how does it relate to other marketing? Can an analysis of the data give us an insight into the searches made two or three steps before the final search that resulted in a sale, and do we have the tools to give us this? The systems and analytical techniques exist to create this understanding, and form an important building block for strategy.

Capability – can I meet my customers’ search needs? We need to understand whether customers are typically in a purchasing or an information-gathering need state, and how their choice of keyword might reveal this – it may be appropriate to direct searchers to different types of content dependent on their need state, and understanding this both informs our site (content) planning and our landing page strategy.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.“

He knew his stuff. Tactics are vital – responding to opportunities and threats as they arise – with speed, awareness and ability to change direction critical success factors here. But a purely tactical approach is an approach that’s designed to fail.

So if you ask what your search strategy is and they start talking about keyword groups, bid strategy or optimisation, then you might start to hear alarm bells ringing. As Sun Tzu would have it, the sound of those bells is the noise before defeat.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Microsites can dilute brand equity

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008
As search continues to grow, advertisers are seeking ways to use it to support their other marketing efforts – recognising the interdependency between search and other media. But in doing so, many are breaking some of the basic rules of advertising and hampering their own efforts to make search work for their brand.

Company websites are often massive, templated affairs that don’t lend themselves to the creative, flexible demands of a short-term campaign, and so many marketers deal with this by setting up campaign microsites to address this limitation.

But the problem comes when enthusiastic marketers create new web domains for campaigns.

A domain is key brand asset –,,; all of these companies recognise the importance of having the web domain for their brand.

But all of these companies have launched microsites under separate domains to support short term objectives.

The difficulty here is that the focus of communication becomes the domain, rather than the brand itself – relegating the brand name itself to the second tier, and making it subordinate to the needs of the campaign. The objective becomes to promote the campaign itself, rather than the brand – not an inconceivable idea, but one to be approached with caution.

From a communications point of view it’s also a matter of consistency. Whilst this isn’t true of Double Diamond or Smash, campaigns (and straplines) usually have shorter shelf lives than brands, and we have to think carefully before we deviate from making the brand the hero.

But it’s much worse when you try to promote these sites using search.

In paid search, whilst you can prevent competitors bidding on your brand terms, this is harder to achieve with straplines (though you can if they’re trademarked). Type ‘quote me happy’ into Google, and whilst Norwich Union is listed in the paid for results. But so are two aggregators, insurancesite and Adrian Flux – both selling competitive products.

And to compound the loss, whilst Norwich Union have registered, they haven’t secured, which continues to direct traffic away to other insurance companies.

So using campaign-specific domains creates problems in paid for search. But natural search is a much bigger challenge.

The spiders that crawl the web creating the index for search engines are programmed to evaluate websites against a set of criteria which determine how highly those sites appear in the ranking for particular search terms.

Four of the most influential criteria are; how long a site has been in existence, the quality, depth and relevance of information on the site, how many websites link to it, the quality of those linking websites.

So setting up a campaign microsite on a new domain runs counter to the way search engines work.

Compared to a brand or company website, campaign microsites tend to be shorter-term affairs –often even for a promotion with a finite and brief shelf life. Natural search rankings take time to establish, so are less effective as a promotional tool against transient activity – particularly if that activity offers little that will cause a spider to prioritise it.

And it does. Limited content, few links from other sites and competition from the brand website tend to push these sites to invisibility down the search rankings –, boots’ site to promote their professional expertise, ranks 4th in google behind the brand which takes the first 3 places even when you search for ‘expert at boots’, and fails to make page 1 in either the paid or natural listings for any of the product areas featured on the home page.

Campaign microsites can fulfil short-term objectives and be a valuable means of circumventing corporate inflexibility. But when they’re given their own domain, more often they dilute brand equity and perform poorly in search. They might look attractive in a conventional advertising sense, but they frequently fail to deliver in digital terms.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Digital predictions for 2008

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

2007 was a rollercoaster ride. The rise of Facebook, the Doubleclick acquisition by Google, the continued boom in both online advertising and e-commerce – the sheer pace of growth continued to keep us all on our toes.

As January gets into full swing, it’s a good time to think about the trends for 2008. If last year was anything to go by, there’ll be no shortage of material, so I’ve picked four that are going to define the coming year.


Christmas has seen the BBC pushing its iPlayer software heavily on TV. The system lets viewers watch BBC programmes over the internet up to seven days after broadcast, and it’s a great (free) product.

But as this column has discussed before, it’s just one of several IPTV platforms – Sky and Channel 4 have their own, whilst ITV streams its programmes on the web. This makes watching TV online clunky and over-technical, with different software required for Eastenders and Coronation Street, and no common programme guide.

Kangaroo, the BBC’s joint venture with Channel 4 and ITV is expected to put paid to these obstacles, bringing these operators’ channels together with others on one software platform – one observer commenting that it could do for IPTV what Freeview did for digital TV.

And it comes at an opportune moment – according to the OECD, the average speed of UK broadband connections is 4Mb, and over half of UK homes have broadband – providing a critical mass of users that could see IPTV take off this year.

Mobile web

Poor battery life, duff devices, worse software and cripplingly high costs have conspired to keep the web firmly in the home or office.

But all of these are set to change in 2008. Not just better phones (Apple’s iPhone is the first usable mobile web browser – coupling a good device with excellent software) that make using the internet on the move a reasonable proposition, but also the success of ultra-mobile PCs.

At the same time, the mobile networks have introduced fixed-price access (largely responsible for the growth in fixed-line internet access), and WiFi hotspots (many of which are free) have become common. With longer-range technologies like WiMAX are starting to become available, we’re going to see the web unplugged in 2008.

Transparency spreads

A lot of attention has been focused on how brands will be affected by the transparency the web demands, but 2008 will be the year that transparency comes to politics.

We’ve already seen how bloggers have taken enthusiastically to the task of keeping our representatives in order, but technology is set to change the availability and meaningfulness of data. puts a flag on every location earmarked by the US Congress for defence spending – straight away, you can see which states are benefiting from federal investment, and which are losing out, and applications like this could change (not just for the better) the level of understanding we can have of what is done in our name.


2007 saw the US Federal Trade Commission grant approval for Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, doubtless aware that the deal bolstered a substantial export opportunity for US business. But will the competition authorities in Europe take the same view? They were tougher on Microsoft in the past, and may be less inclined to support Google here, as the search giant’s share of the business is close to 90% in both the UK and Germany.

What is significant is this. ‘New’ media isn’t new anymore, and regulators are starting to wake up to the power it wields. By 2009, internet advertising is widely expected to have overtaken TV in the UK, and that scale makes it a big business that government won’t be able to keep its hands off.

The sense is that digital is outgrowing its adolescence. Government and business are sitting up and taking notice, even if they’re still scratching the surface of what will be possible. 2008 is going to be a growing up year; the year that digital starts to become the establishment.