Thursday, September 25, 2008

Planning search for Christmas

This article was first published in marketing magazine

If you’ve got children, you’ll know the degree of forward planning that goes into Christmas. Mine started early lobbying (landscape analysis, benchmarking) in August, and by mid-September, their campaign had moved into a fully active phase.

Goals had been established, and broad strategies to achieve them put in place. Without being consciously aware of it, I’ve already got high spontaneous recall scores for ‘Lego Secret Agent Truck’, and ‘ponies’ (my daughter has audacious goals, and I’m not sure it’d go in the garage).

On the other side of the fence, retailers have been working away for months preparing their offerings. Christmas store designs were signed off months ago, and bets made about winning lines for the season.

But online, (with some notable exceptions) few retailers pay as much attention to Christmas planning as they do offline. This is particularly true in search – a key channel as the shopping season swings into action. So this week I’m going to look at three of the most important things you can do to get set for Q4 – there are plenty more, but space as ever is at a premium.

First, what happened last time? Smart search advertisers create separate campaigns for Christmas. This allows full control over seasonal inventory, facilitates independent measurement and creates a module that can easily be amended and re-used each year.

If your search team did this last year, you’ve got segregated performance data to go back to and see what worked and what didn’t, and this is the starting point for planning 2008. If they didn’t (and you still plan to be around next year), now’s the time to get this set up – you’ll thank yourself in 2009.

Analysis of historic data will help forecasting and ensure that the seasonal opportunity is maximised. Additional seasonal traffic, plus increased competition can push up CPC levels, so don’t miss out on sales by running out of budget.

This is easier said than done – after all competitor activity can drive up your volumes too, and to avoid being caught out you need to keep an ear to the ground.

So making sufficient funds available is vital to avoid disappearing from the search results just when there’s a spike in interest in your product or sector. But as ever, just being there isn’t enough.

Copy is always hugely influential on effectiveness, and at Christmas your advertising and product offering may be quite different to the rest of the year. This needs to be reflected in the integration of seasonal offers into ad creative messaging and the testing of different offers to maximise clickthrough and conversion. So test special offers, price reductions, free delivery and gift wrapping – but make sure your landing pages reiterate the offer.

This is one of the commonest mistakes. When you put a sign in the shop window saying ‘free giftwrap’, think how many consumers nevertheless ask whether you do free giftwrap before making a purchase. They don’t wait until after they’ve bought, instead they seek reassurance before they buy.

So by using the homepage to repeat the offer that’s brought them in, you’re offering the reassurance that the assistant gives in-store.

Finally, technology. Using an XML product feed as part of a search marketing platform allows stock availability to be used as a dynamic control in your search campaign. So when an item goes out of stock, keywords can be paused - minimising wasted clicks and ensuring budget is diverted to best sellers or available products.

Christmas is a time when spikes in demand can play havoc with inventory control, and the application of technologies like this can improve customers’ experience of a retailer, whilst also enhancing the effectiveness of its advertising budget.

I hope my kids get what they want this Christmas, and if they do, it’ll be in no small part down to their clear objectives, consistent strategy, and the groundwork they put in early on. They’re already halfway through their campaign - what chance do I stand?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Integrated agency: rather missing the point...

This article was first published in marketing magazine

What does integration mean?

It’s a word we’re hearing a lot at the moment, and as you might expect, there are a lot of agendas in play here.

Back in the early eighties when direct marketing agencies started springing up all over the place, the integration argument was a hot topic – “how”, asked marketers then, “can I integrate my brand and direct activity?”

These marketers were concerned principally with media leverage and creative consistency, and the agency networks responded by acquiring DM agencies. But as marketers have discovered, there’s a difference between acquisition and integration – and plenty of DM agencies still exist separately, even within networks.

But does this mean the work isn’t integrated? Of course not. Many marketers have found that so-called ‘integrated’ agencies might be convenient, but they sacrifice focus and expertise to achieve this.

Think of the Swiss Army knife. It’s not a very good screwdriver - the corkscrew is painful to use and even the knife isn’t the best knife you can use. But you can put it in your pocket, and it’s useful for lightweight general occasions – though you won’t use it if you’ve got serious work to do.

Right now, this argument’s being rehashed in digital media, where the agency networks tell us they’re upping their game, “putting digital at the heart of the organisation”.

They point to dozens of studies that show that TV and press influence response rates to digital advertising, and stress the convenience of one call for busy marketers.

But to be effective in this space, an agency needs to combine triple-A standard display, search, SEO, affiliate marketing, technology and data practises.

Search and affiliate marketing may deliver some of the same outcomes as media, but they’re planned, traded and managed in completely different ways, using different tools and different skills.

SEO is principally a technical discipline, although objective-setting and measurement align it to marketing.

Even media is a different kettle of fish online. Trading uses different models, with agency deals a disadvantage particularly in the current market. Smart agencies are using workflow and knowledge management tools, whilst most agencies still use excel spreadsheets for planning. Media exchanges and auctions are on the horizon, and technology plays a central role in effectiveness.

Finally, data is critical. Sophisticated data models are the key tool here, analysing the interdependency between the different digital channels, the influence of offline, and driving investment based on real customer responses in real time.

If none of these skills look like those of the average traditional media planner or buyer, it’s because they’re not. The networks failed to anticipate their clients’ demands for digital expertise, and are now engaged in an unseemly rush to build capability - but they’re missing two key ingredients.

First, the real challenge of integration is between the different digital channels. Combining digital with offline is relatively straightforward – integrating digital channels requires skills most traditional agencies simply don’t have. So their claimed advantage lies in the easy bit.

And there’s a bigger challenge.

For many brands, the internet is fast becoming the dominant channel for consumers – it’s where they hear about products, buy or make decisions to purchase, and crucially, where we as marketers can hear what they have to say about us.

As this shift happens, it will become the core of marketing activity – sales, advertising, market research and customer service, putting digital at the heart of strategy and making offline media a downstream activity.

So all this focus on integrating the media aspects of digital and offline activity is missing both the real challenge and the real opportunity. This isn’t about administrative convenience. It’s about the challenge of integrating digital’s many complex aspects, and the opportunity of moving marketing itself from a broadcast past to a future that reflects consumers’ new relationship with brands.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cross media deals, and the absence of the free lunch

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

As economic belts tighten, advertisers are looking with renewed vigour at getting the best from their media deals. Since the last recession, online has become a major medium – expected to overtake TV this year – and budgets are now substantial.

Encouraged by some agencies, advertisers are looking more closely at how cross-media dealing might create greater pricing efficiencies (procurement speak for cheaper) as increasingly, media groups own properties which span both the traditional and the digital worlds.

But amidst all this hype about synergies and leverage there are some real bear-traps for the unwary here, and some agendas that aren’t altogether straightforward…

Let’s look first at some of the bear-traps.

First, this isn’t a big market opportunity. There’s actually little crossover between the Top 10 traditional media operators and the top 10 in digital – the top ranking traditional media owner in traffic terms is the Daily Mail in July, and that scrapes in at number 10.

The online display market is dominated by the big portals – MSN, Yahoo and AOL, the smallest of which delivers twice the audience of the Mail’s site. Sky might be a 500lb gorilla in the TV market, but it’s at number 14 online. And this raises a further consideration.

When a media owner is selected to meet planning criteria arrived at for the offline property, there’s often a mismatch online. The Telegraph’s audience online is much younger, Channel 4’s is more upmarket and most of the Guardian’s audience is in the US. So plans created for one medium can struggle to translate effectively to the other.

Then there’s measurement. Whilst TV is traded in share and ratings, online is traded in impressions, clicks and outcomes.  Smart operators have been using rating points in online for years – it’s a useful way of creating a point of comparison across media, as well as a sense of the scale of a campaign against the audience size. But the danger here is that the tail comes to wag the dog, as lowest common denominator traditional media metrics can replace more business-centric outcome measures in setting objectives.

Of course, there are positives. Editorial teams can be more effectively motivated, and publishers are often more willing to integrate commercial messages into their content. But of course if it’s just running creative on radio and online that you want, arguably that’s possible without a cross-media deal – your online and offline agencies should work together to make this happen for you; it’s their job. And of course if they do, you’re not constrained to using just the properties of that particular media group – you can do anything you like (almost like media planning really).

Where it really gets sticky though is when you try to account for the value. Both agencies and media owners can get into a media version of find the lady – a great price on one medium concealing poor value in others.

This is particularly the case if the agency creating the deal isn’t particularly expert in one of the media channels – they’re keen to show their openness to using that channel (usually digital) but wouldn’t know a good deal if it jumped up and bit them on the nose.

Worse though, since auditors are often employed on a single medium, these deals are often removed from the audit altogether. So a press audit might omit a deal because it has a substantial online component – and it might be tempting for an agency to load the pricing up on that deal in order to demonstrate deeper discounts on that media owner on the parts of their business that are subject to scrutiny.

Heaven forefend, and I’m sure that never happens.

We all want value for money. But as the economic weather gets wetter, it’s wise to remember that nowhere is the free lunch more elusive than in media.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chrome represents the start of the new browser wars

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

The only billionaire I know collects earthmoving equipment. A visit to his house could well involve digging huge holes in the grounds, or filling them in – for him it’s a contemplative process, and a chance to indulge the engineer in him.

I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read Google’s latest announcement – the launch of their own web browser. Google Chrome will compete in what’s beginning to look once more like an interesting market.

The earliest popular web browser was Netscape’s Mosaic, which burst on to the scene in 1994. Within a year, Microsoft had launched Internet Explorer 1.0 which it distributed for free, and the first browser war was under way. By 1997 it was all over and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer began its domination of the sector – leveraging the software giant’s huge distribution strength.

And it’s not until recently that anyone’s been able to challenge this.

Two things have changed since 1997 that have made this possible. The emergence of the open source software movement (where communities of developers cooperate to create software for the common good) challenged the supremacy of big software companies.

Linux in operating systems. Apache in web servers, MySQL in databases, PHP in web programming – these open source projects now dominate the web’s architecture, changing the business model fundamentally for giants like Microsoft, Sun, and IBM. But it isn’t just software for IT people – this has impacted on consumers too, as the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser has reached 20% market share.

According to, Internet Explorer has fallen from 80% to 72% in the last 18 months, with almost all of this going to Firefox.

And if you install the Firefox browser on your computer, you’ll see a clue to what else has changed. Because integrated into the toolbar in Firefox is a search panel, which provides listings from Google.

Almost all of Mozilla’s income derives from this search panel – their deal with Google helped them earn $61m in 2006 (the last published accounts), since when their market share has rocketed.

Google know that loyalty to their brand is low. Web users will use what’s to hand – it’s why distribution is critical to the search giant’s success, and it’s why Microsoft’s first move as they launched into battle with Google for the search market was to build Windows Live search into Internet Explorer.

The official Google blog is pretty lukewarm about the new browser – “The web gets better with more options and innovations – Chrome is another option”. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

But one thing Chrome does do is tell Google what people are looking at – reporting back your surfing behaviour. It will add more suction to the data hoover that is Google and that may unsettle some.

But the real point of Chrome is a bigger one. The browser is the window not just onto the web, but on to all of the applications that reside there, from online storage (YoStore) to photo-sharing (flickr), word processing, spreadsheets (Google Docs). In the future, it’s believed, most computing power will reside online – accessed through a browser with little stored locally on our computers.

So browsers are a critical battleground for control of access to the future of computing and the internet, and Chrome’s features are designed to target this.

So whilst there’s little on the face of it that consumers can’t currently get from IE or Firefox, Chrome represents a more fundamental shift in direction. And because it’s open source, the development resource going into Chrome will boost progress of Firefox too.

Google are wealthy, and have a history of launching dozens of software plays and little history of making money out of them. But Chrome isn’t just a rich man’s hobby. It’s a sign that massive change is on the way for how we use the internet – a change that’s set to come at Microsoft’s cost.