Usually around this time of year I’ll sit back, reflect on the year before, and talk about how great things were. For the past five years, I’ve talked about how WrightIMC has doubled in size every year of its existence and the great results we achieve for our clients. But upon self-reflection – and looking at blog visitor numbers – it’s apparent that very few people care about that type of navel gazing. And frankly, I don’t want to revisit 2013. Yes, for those who want to know, WrightIMC did grow (not double, but around 30%) and we delivered a lot of amazing results.
But, if I could sum up 2013 in two words it would “incredible change.” The word incredible is a contextual anomaly. It can denote both positive and negative. And, in this case, both definitions are appropriate. Last year was one of the most challenging years I’ve ever had, professional and personally. Challenging – another word that only reveals its sentiment in a specific context – and again, an appropriate term for last year. But it seems I’m now navel gazing, utilizing etymology, and burying the lead.
I want to talk about what I believe it will take for your business to succeed in 2014 and beyond. We’re in a brave, new world of marketing, and it’s both scary and exciting. But, 2013 gave us a pretty good compass to lead us through what is to come. While I can’t change the past, I do believe that the future builds upon what has happened before. Lest history repeat itself, let’s look at what we learned and how we can move forward in the new year.
Here are the five marketing items you need to prepare for in 2014.
1. Big Data isn’t necessarily useful data: In 2013, the trade magazines promised us a data utopia. For years, big marketers have been hoarding data – about everything from how you vote to if you own a pet or not. I’ve watched armies of analysts armed with MBAs sort through terabytes of information to glean bits of information that might yield an insightful nugget or the holy grail – a statistically-valid causation. The result has been creepily-targeted online ads that follow you around the Internet like a lovestruck puppy. These ads do work – but it doesn’t take a Ph.D in statistics and a team of NASA scientists to create them.
In fact, most of the “big data” I’ve seen reported doesn’t even make it into the creative brief. So, the creative often doesn’t reflect the data … and even when it does, it’s usually focused on something so esoteric that it’s basically useless. It’s like we’re focusing on the fact that our customers wear blue shirts sometimes, so we should only market blue shirts to them. Let’s just say the technology isn’t there for Big Data to be effective for most marketers.
Our advice: Stop using Big Data to make mission-critical decisions, and look for useful data to guide your strategy. What is useful data? The data that drives an action or specific result – be it brand awareness, sales, leads or something else. Find that data (which is a challenge in and of itself without relying on reams of miscategorized outliers) that means something to your bottom line. Use it early and often.
2. Google, Facebook, and the rest don’t want to help you if they can’t help themselves: One of the double-edged swords in 2013 was that many people started to see that I was right. Since 2009, I have continually advocated that you stop using your advertising budget to build a third-party publisher’s brand and shift those dollars to brand yourself. I’ve actually been laughed at for this notion by several prominent agencies and advertisers. Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger.com, coined the term “digital sharecropping” several years ago. Every time I watched television and saw a national television ad directing people to a Facebook page, I pictured a Madison Avenue media planner in a $4,000 suit picking cotton and plowing with a mule, while Mark Zuckerberg smoked a big cigar at the local bank and counted his mortgages.
In 2013, he pulled out his deeds to all the land that brands were share-cropping on his farm and demanded payment. The sudden change in the rules that careless marketers awoke to is just the beginning as Facebook looks for every single way to monetize it’s cash crop – the News Feed. And, many marketers and brands now owe their souls to the company store. It’s hard to pivot to a content marketing program focused on the website you actually own, when you’ve sold everyone around you on farming your customers off of someone else’s property.
It wasn’t just Facebook that started taking its cut. Google attempted to corral all of the valuable customer livestock into a pen called Google+ – and while there are still plenty of mavericks out on the loose, don’t underestimate the cowpokes in Mountain View. They’ll round up the majority of the valuable herd. In the meantime, they have taken away some of the most valuable data we had by removing the ability to know the keywords that drive traffic to our sites. While they do this under a thin auspice of privacy, most of us are too cynical to believe this (because it’s patently untrue). This is meant to move us from driving customers through our own funnel into buying advertising from the middleman – which in this case happens to be a company that claims to do no evil.
Our advice: Use third party publishers and search engines to amplify your content marketing strategy. The end goal should be to have the action take place on your site – the farm you own. In order to do this, many of you need to initially shift dollars to making a site worth visiting. Once you’ve got that established and maintained, you can shift back to amplifying your message and drive more volume back to your own property.
3. People trust strangers more than companies: In 2013, barely a week went by without a company coming to us in a panic about their online reviews. Many of these companies were mature, established companies with thousands of satisfied customers and great track records. This last year, we saw the evolution of consumer power.
Consumers have always had the ability to affect a business through word of mouth and with their pocketbooks. But, 2013 marked a tipping point where companies that haven’t paid attention to their online reviews watched millions of dollars in sales go elsewhere. For example, one company that has been in business for 15 years and has tens of thousands of satisfied customers on the books watched their sales number plummet after 3 relatively negative Google Reviews in 6 months. The problem? Before the negative reviews hit, they only had two other reviews total. So all of a sudden, despite the fact that there were thousands of satisfied customers, on the Web they looked like a horrible company with which to do business with.
All companies, regardless of size, must monitor their online reviews, now. Ironically, this affects smaller businesses more than large, branded companies. A well-known brand image can do a lot to battle negative reviews. Phone companies, cable companies and airlines have some of the most horrific online reviews out there – yet, the reviews have minimal impact because of their well-known brands and the limited choices for their services. Most small- to medium-sized businesses don’t have the luxury of a multi-year billion dollar branding campaign. It’s important to see what’s being said, but it’s even more important to find ways to get your satisfied customers (especially those who are apt to create online reviews) to write about you. It’s a tricky challenge. Most of the major online review sites don’t allow you to compensate your customers for reviews. Some don’t even allow you to ask for reviews (BTW – Yelp, that is a really stupid policy you need to change). So, getting creative is the name of the game. Understanding your satisfied customers and encouraging reviews takes some of the most creative thinking we’ve had to do as an agency.
Our Advice: First, monitor your brand and reviews. If you aren’t doing that, stop reading this and go do that, then come back. Next, you need to come up with creative ways to get your satisfied customers to talk about you online. There is no one-size fits all best practice for this. Think outside the box – but first know the rules. Read the terms of service (TOS) for the major review sites to see what you can and can’t do. And check back on those TOS periodically – they change. Of course, I’m a little biased, but many times it helps to have an outside pair of eyes to help with your online reviews. Consider hiring someone to help you with this. The money spent on outside help is miniscule compared to the monetary impact of several overwhelming negative reviews in light of a small review footprint. In other words, you can hire us. If not us, hire someone. We’ve got recommendations for others that do it well if you prefer.
4. The basics of SEO and online marketing haven’t changed, even if the details have: If you kept up with online marketing this year, you might have the impression that SEO doesn’t work anymore and social media marketing is God’s gift to both consumers and marketers. The reality is that SEO is still the second best converting tactic for direct marketing (the first being a well-built, in-house, email list). Social media is actually best used in conjunction with a robust search and content marketing program. But therein lies the problem: As marketers, we all want to silo these channels so they are easier for us to implement and digest.
In reality, your customers don’t care about your SEO, social media or content marketing program. They care about what they get out of the deal. All of your channels need to work together to disseminate a coherent and cohesive message that has value to your customers and makes you money. And guess what, it’s always been that way. Four years ago we came up with our basic tenets for SEO. These apply to most other forms of online marketing, as well, and are a good, big-picture checklist for marketers who are reevaluating their programs. We call them the Four Cs – and here they are:
Code: Yes, Google’s gotten a lot better at reading bad code. But, it still likes well-built code. And, if your coding on your really cool ad doesn’t work, or your Facebook page breaks, you’ve defeated yourself before you began. The irony is that code is usually the easiest item to fix. If you do it right, it’s repeatable and it just works. Getting it done right doesn’t break the bank. Your code is the foundation of your digital campaign. Sometimes you can get lucky with a shaky foundation – but eventually it will fall. Spend time to get the coding portions of your program right from the start and you’ll sleep a lot better.
Content: As my old journalism professor used to say “words mean things.” Over the years, we’ve seen tons of articles about “SEO Copywriting.” We’ve even written some of them. Most of the tactics for SEO copywriting involved finding creative ways to include keywords in your content. That’s not so relevant anymore. Sure, you need to have the keyword you want to show up somewhere on the page – but overstuffing with a single word is not viable anymore.
Our concept of content has evolved. Now, it’s about writing something that your consumer wants or needs to read. Headlines are paramount and good writing is the currency of the realm. The content has to be good – and it needs to draw in readers in more ways than one. You want to draw them in with teasers from the sites where you syndicate. You also want to draw them into the content and get them engaged with it. And most importantly, your content should move your audience to take action. It’s not easy, and you won’t hit a home run every time. But baseball games are won with singles, doubles and triples at the right time. And, it’s OK if you strike out once in a while. Work on your content.
Connections: Links (backlinks are connections) still reign as the king of search engine optimization in spite of Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird and all the other search engine algorithm changes that have happened in the last year and a half. Influencers are the heart and soul of both content marketing and social media marketing. The connections you have are what separate the good marketers from the great marketers. Connections get you links, get you ink, get you mentions, and increase your digital reach and footprint. Arguably, connections are the most important thing you should concentrate on in a digital marketing campaign. We’ll be writing a lot about connections in 2014, so stay tuned. I don’t want to spoil too much too early.
Communications: In graduate school, I studied a lot of the work of communications pioneer, Marshall McLuhan. His most famous quote, “The Medium is the Message,” is more appropriate today than ever before. For those who aren’t familiar with McLuhan’s work, I’ll quote from Wikipedia to explain a bit more. Wikipedia says, “‘The medium is the message’ is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” We have more channels to distribute our messages than ever before. The choice of appropriate media in conjunction with your audience is of paramount importance. Match the proper media with the proper message and your results will reflect the quality of your choice.
Our Advice: Concentrate on the Four Cs we’ve outlined above. Don’t get distracted by shiny objects that take you away from these Four Cs. Categorize every tactic and strategy in accordance with their corresponding basic “C” component. If it doesn’t fit, it probably won’t work long term.
5. Nothing works in a vacuum. Erase the lines: Early in my career, I worked at one of the largest PR firms in the world. The clientele at this firm was amazing. There were tons of bright people. But there were also very fixed lines in the sand. We were a PR firm. We didn’t buy media – even when it made sense for the client. That was the advertising agency’s job. This proverbial separation of disciplines was one of the largest reasons for my departure from what most considered an amazing job. I just couldn’t sit back and watch the red tape as agency bureaucrats fought for turf – most of the time peeing on each other and the client’s results at the same time.
In today’s world, the specialist agency is very valuable – but keeping them out of the loop isn’t an option. Different agencies have different strengths, but if there isn’t communication of the overall plan, as well as coordination with all of the marketing decision makers, you end up with problems. More and more we are seeing that medium- to large-sized businesses are splitting up agency duties in order to “not put all their eggs in one basket.” What actually happens is that no one knows who is doing what, and there are disagreements about how and what to do. Don’t set lines by discipline – but by project or other clear delineation. If we need to buy media to promote a content marketing campaign, I don’t mind having the traditional agency do it – as long as they do what we need for the project and don’t interject where they have little or no expertise. I would never do that on their television or print buy.
Our Advice: If you don’t have a strong internal resource to manage your agency relationships, hire an agency that can manage your agency relationships. We frequently work with clients where we manage all of their agencies in order to maintain a cohesive and coherent strategy. Don’t just let them all “do what they do” or you’ll end up with a bunch of “doo-doo.”
In closing, the whole team at WrightIMC is extremely optimistic about what’s in store for 2014. We’ve learned a lot in the last six years, and 2014 has the potential to be the best and most satisfying year yet!