Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, I'm a Satisfied Customer -- No, I Won't Recommend You

It was all started by Peter McCabe. And what he did was reported by Business Week in their January 30, 2006 issue:

In the fall of 2004, McCabe, chief quality officer for General Electric Co.'s health-care business, read a Harvard Business Review article recommended by a colleague. It suggested companies measure customer loyalty by asking one simple question rather than relying on lengthy satisfaction surveys: "On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to your friends or colleagues?"

At that moment, thousands of marketing executives across the country, most of whom must have had Business Week on their short list of must-reads, all knew what their next sales pitch to the boss would be.

Now, I completely understood the value of this exercise…when it’s applied B2B. Basically, you’ve got one business asking another business “So, how’d we do? Do you think we can do more business together?” And, more important, “Would you feel comfortable putting your good name and reputation behind a recommendation of us?”

But what I don’t understand is how anyone thought this could be ported over to every freakin’ B2C relationship in the land.

Within months of this story I was invited to take an online survey from Chili’s. It ended with “Would you recommend us to your friends?” I answered “No.” And yet, I like Chili’s a lot. I would eat there today. As I recall, the survey gave me a chance to explain why I couldn’t recommend Chili’s.

My reason was simple: everyone I know already knows about Chili’s, has already eaten there and already knows how frequently they’ll continue to dine there. A recommendation seemed unnecessary and would almost certainly produce a lot of arched eyebrows. “Uh, Dave…we’ve gone to Chili’s together, remember? We already know you like it there and you already know we like it there.”

But it wasn’t over. Soon I was receiving surveys from all kinds of well-known, high-profile, national consumer brands….and they all wanted to know if I would recommend them. But no matter how high I scored my personal satisfaction with their product or the quality of my last experience with them, I answered “no” to the recommendation…for the same reason I gave Chili’s.

I could just picture the puzzled looks that would come my way were I to recommend such visible brands. As if I was some amnesiac just now discovering all of the products that were both common and familiar to everyone else.

But the topper was when the same question appeared at the end of a survey from Wal-Mart. I had to ask myself the hard question: was I embarrassed by the de classe notion of coming off like some Wal-Mart zealot to my friends and family? Was I uncomfortable with appearing to convey to others that a trip to Wal-Mart was a pinnacle moment in my simple life?

Ultimately, I decided that my reasons for not wanting to recommend were pretty consistent across the board. The way I see it, you make a recommendation when you have information about a person or a place that others might not have been able to acquire on their own.

Perhaps it’s a newcomer to town or a visitor to your city. Or maybe it’s someone who’s about to travel somewhere for the first time…but it’s a familiar destination for you. You would also make a recommendation about a business that is so small or so new (or both) that it very likely hasn’t been discovered yet. Or the classic: the recommendation of a specific applicant for a job – when the hiring company wouldn’t know the person as well as you do.

But when the subject is a company, a product or a service that is already top-of-mind with everyone…and maybe even a major component in our country’s economy….the idea that you might make a recommendation for it seems akin to telling someone that you’re a big fan of water.

So, if all these companies will just get off this recommendation bandwagon, I’ll be happy to tell them how satisfied I am to be their customer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Perfect Banner Ad - Envisioned Before the Web Existed

In my first posting here, I addressed how “banner blindness” was neither new nor confined to advertising on the web. Now I’d like to propose that the creative thinking behind what makes an effective banner ad is also not new.

Hard to believe, perhaps, but the perfect banner ad was described about 25 or 30 years ago, a good 15 years before the earliest adopters tip-toed onto the World Wide Web.

At least that's my belief. I wish I could remember when it was, exactly, but sometime in the late '70s or early '80s (which would make it even earlier than Max Headroom and the cloak-and-dagger secrecy behind the life-threatening blipvert) a feature story appeared in Advertising Age in which a creative executive from J. Walter Thompson attempted to get out ahead of the trend to ever-shorter TV commercials.

At the time, 60-second spots had already given way to 30-second spots and there was growing use of the 10-second spot. This story tried to anticipate what a 3-second commercial might be like.

Using then-JWT client Monroe shock absorbers as the example advertiser, the prototype 3-second spot consisted of a continuous image with three distinct “moments.”

In the opening second, a toy car enters from frame left, bouncing harshly on its suspension and heading for a box emblazoned in the Monroe logo.

In the next second, the car is inside the box and we get a strong look at the logo.

In the third and final second, the car emerges from the right end of the box and glides oh-so-smoothly toward frame right.

Three seconds. Message delivered.

Now, wouldn't that be an awesome banner ad? No click-through required (no need...the message is in the banner), enough movement to catch your eye (without resorting to frantic dancers or other cheap devices) and a message that's clear enough to be obvious to anyone who might give it no more than a peripheral glance.

Like my good friend and strategic marketer Curt Westlake says in his blog, we may have fancy new tools to use, but it's still all about the basics.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Part III - Ultimately, "Banner Blindness" Leads Us to Search

During the mid-'90s, in the middle of my “Disney days,” I was a writer/producer in Cast Communications (if you don't know, Disney doesn't have employees...they have cast members), part of the Disney University. During that time, I attended a conference in San Francisco on employee communication...and got a great insight into how advertising messages are received!

One of the speakers had a presentation about how companies fail so abysmally when they write employee manuals. The reason is: they’re thinking like a company and not like an employee. And the example he cited was the medical insurance manual.

This book, he noted, is always carefully organized around all kinds of complex categories of coverage that satisfies the corporate insurer and has the blessing of the corner offices. However, once the employees look inside, their eyes glaze over. They take this book home where, invariably, it goes straight into their desk drawers, never to be read.

That is, until little Johnny falls and breaks his leg. Then mom or dad will rush to the desk, remove the manual from the very back of the drawer and open the book to search for information about the topic that’s top-of-mind at that moment – broken legs.

As the speaker noted, the odds that the Table of Contents or even the Index would have such an entry were very small. The book wasn’t written that way. Consequently, it was of no help to the employee at that crucial moment.

This, I came to realize, was also the way that lots of people regard advertising. At the moment that consumers are presented with a message, their minds are usually occupied with other things. The walls are up. Interest runs to zero, zip, squat, nada.

“I really don’t want to hear about a can of paint right now”

“Please, don’t expect me to be concerned with car insurance at this minute.”

“Hey, wireless provider....I'm still within my two-year contract, which I am NOT going to break.”

However, when they're ready to repaint their bathrooms, that’s when they'll be interested in all those designer paint colors. The next time they pay a car insurance premium – or have to deal with their insurance companies' claims process – that’s when they’ll be wondering if they could do better. And at the end of that two-year wireless contract, that's when they'll consider switching services.

Yes, this is the basis of the classic push/pull argument. Many consumers reject (or at least resist) messages being pushed at them but they will embrace opportunities to pull the information they want.

However, that just covers the “when” and “where” of delivering marketing messages – the “timing factor,” if you will. The point of the story about the medical benefits guide tells us we can add the factors of “what," "how” and “how much” to the messaging process. This represents the depth of the content and its accessibility.

When consumers are ready to buy, that's when the walls come down and the antennae go out. But they don't want just the high-level brand message. They want information: features, warranties, dealer locations, customer satisfaction scores. And they don't want to hear from only the advertiser. There are other, more trusted voices they can turn to.

In other words, these consumers are turning to the internet...where “pull” ends up meaning “search.” No, not pay-per-click. And not even organic search for an advertiser's own site. Instead, it's the cast-a-wide-net search for all of those independent reviews, reports, forum comments, blog postings and unsolicited personal experiences with a product or service (and here’s the kicker) over which the advertiser usually has no direct control.

In fact, in this recent article by Peter Hershberg in Advertising Age, he describes a possible next step in search as social media inquiries produce a more focused (and likely more trusted) response containing leads, links and referrals.

And check out this item from the Frugal Traveler in the New York Times.

One way or another, some form of internet search will provide consumers with the most effective kind of marketing message there is...the one that's actually wanted, because they're ready to receive it. They'll get the type of “medical benefits manual” they want to have at hand, providing the information they need...organized in a way that's useful…at the very moment when it's important to them.

Search has started to establish true interactivity in communication where there once was none. The traditional media are not going to die. There will always be a place for them. But communication doesn't happen simply because a message is sent. It has to be received and valued by the recipient. That's where search is already taking us.

For lots of great thinking along these lines, I recommend John Battelle's Searchblog.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Part II: "Banner Blindness" to In-Store Video

Does “banner blindness” extend to other visual displays of advertising? It can...and does, when the timing of the encounter is not controlled by the consumer.

In my first posting, I suggested that because computer displays (and, more to the point, web pages) are flat, there might not be much difference between “banner blindness” on the web and the way consumers look at print ads in newspapers or magazines (or don’t).

But what if that screen was much larger...and sitting in the retail environment? What if, instead of holding a tiny banner ad, the entire expanse of that screen was devoted to bold, colorful point-of-sale marketing messages? Or what if the screen was showing private channel video programs, thoughtfully brought to me by the store I’m in at that moment?

Consumers have already spoken. It’s just more clutter. More noise. Something else to avoid.

Reports indicate that most consumers claim in-store digital signage and TV screens have little impact on their purchases and, in fact, they say that it tends to blend into the background. That’s “filtering” in action. What they’re describing is the video version of “banner blindness” or reading around the ads.

Yet, I can vividly remember the moment about 5-6 years ago when an associate regaled a potential client with predictions that the day was not far off when every end-cap in every store would have a video display, updated overnight with fresh new graphics and images.

My immediate mental image of that scenario, based on what I had witnessed every time I was in a retail environment, was of hundreds of shoppers disregarding every one of those displays. Their minds were someplace else. Or they were deep in conversation with someone. But they were “filtering”…because it was not the right time to impose on them with an(other) intrusive message.

The fact that, 5-6 years later, aisle end-caps have still not been converted en masse to video displays means we can probably conclude that retailers chose to stick with the simpler, cheaper (and no doubt more effective) “analog” version.

Have you ever walked through a Wal-Mart (Come on, we’re friends here…and no one else is looking. You can admit you’ve gone to Wal-Mart.) and noticed how many consumers actually look up at the overhead monitors of the Wal-Mart TV Network. I can pretty well assure you that if you count them all with one hand, you won’t run out of fingers during your visit.

Wal-Mart and its vendors would say (and have said in press releases) that this $10 million project has produced results.

Says Kim Miller, vice president of marketing at Kellogg, “advertising at the point-of-sale will become increasingly important to win the market. The results we’ve seen during tests of the new Wal-Mart Smart Network have been impressive.”

“We’ve built a network tailored to the way consumers shop our stores--delivering helpful, custom, [sic] content closest to the point of decision--that helps them shop smarter,” says Stephen Quinn, CMO, Wal-Mart Stores, U.S. “We will be analyzing point-of-sale data on an ongoing basis to deliver a shopper-centric communications platform.”

“Shopper-centric.” Eek. But I digress.

Now, I don't have the statistics. All I know is what I see in the stores. Anecdotal and subjective, to be sure, but what I see is (to borrow a phrase from auto journalist Peter DeLorenzo) “a heaping bowl of Not Good.”

Heck, what I see these days is a lot of shoppers with their noses either in their own list or the store’s circular. They’re trying to cut costs. They’re looking for bargains. The spontaneous purchase of a carpet shampooer just doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Everything in these initial posts is simply meant to underscore the incredible challenge that advertising copywriters and designers face in trying to craft a message that people will even notice, much less permit some level of engagement. As Steve Cosmopulos, Creative Director at what was then Arnold & Company in Boston, told his teams, “Consumers are not out there just waiting to read your ad or watch your commercial. They have plenty of other things to do.”

The issue, then, is timing. When — and under what circumstances — is the consumer most receptive to your advertising message? That's next time.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Banners Might Be New, But Not the Blindness

As a child, I was an avid reader of the Peanuts comic strip. Years later I would come to realize that one particular strip had provided me with an early lesson in how many consumers respond to print ads (and, today, web ads). I hope I can do the strip justice in the retelling here.

Charlie Brown and Linus were on Christmas Vacation (that’s what it was called then) and their class had been given the assignment of reading The Brothers Karamozov during the two-week break. Of course, Linus tackled the task head-on while Charlie Brown procrastinated.

One day, as Linus was deep in his reading (and the end of vacation nearing), Charlie Brown asked him how he managed to deal with all of those unpronounceable names. Linus replied something like, “When I come to the names, I just ‘bleep’ over them.”

Recently, while reviewing a business website assessment that had been prepared by an independent search engine marketing company, I read something that I found remarkable, if for no other reason than it identified one of my own behaviors:

"Eye tracking studies have confirmed that users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement. This is referred to as 'banner blindness.'"

Wow, ya think? This revelation came as no surprise to me at all. Because I don't look at banner ads either. I have no difficulty at all in “reading around” banner ads, no matter what their shape or where they are placed on the screen.

Now, I might make a slight exception for those silhouettes of kinetic dancers or the faux home video of the young woman caught on camera. But I give those advertisers credit only for knowing that our species is hard-wired to detect sudden movement. After my first exposure to these "Ha! Made ya look!" ads, it was simply a case of once burned, twice shy.

But there’s nothing new about “banner blindness” except maybe the name. Lots of people don’t look at ads in any of the print media either. And haven’t for generations.

Again, I hold myself up as a shining example (though a statistically invalid sample). I have never found it particularly challenging to read only the editorial content and deftly navigate around the ads. And, though it’s true that I’ve spent many years in advertising, I’m a consumer, too. (But just one consumer. I’m not my own focus group.)

Over the years, I’ve heard and read print media reps explain how editorial content can “lead” readers into the ads...that three columns of text above a half-page magazine ad provide three opportunities to draw eyes down into the ad. Well, gosh, my eyes know exactly when they’ve arrived at the end of a column of text. They know where the border of the ad begins. And they dutifully stop at the border, turn around and go back.

New as the web might be, consumers simply extend the behaviors and abilities they’ve developed with print....to read over, around and right past ads they are meant to see.

I don’t think it helps the cause at all to create a web page layout that ropes off the ads into one area (allowing your mental cop-on-patrol to scowl, “Move along! Move along! Nothing to see over here!”). And we all appreciate “Story continues below” as a public service.

Just this past weekend I participated in an online chat on the SpeedTV.com site. After every few replies from the hosts, up would come a little box right in the text flow that identified itself as an ad. Maybe I’ve been under a rock but I had never seen that before.

But now that I’ve seen these mid-chat ads in use, the next time — just like with those convulsing silhouettes — I’ll just “bleep” over them.

What does this point to? Indulge me a few more thoughts, coming soon.