Most people associate spam with one of two things: a deplorable food-like product, or email that is just shy of being vile. Spamming a search engine is equally as obnoxious. One would think with all of the progress the industry has made in the past year or so, we would all be grown-ups and play by the rules by now.
The problem is there are no rules. There is no book of guidelines brought forth by the likes of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) against creating bogus pages to help with search engine rankings. There are no standards and best practices committees to help site owners define spamming techniques and avoid them. So how does one do so?
Search engine spamming represents the deep, dark black magic of search engine optimization (SEO) that no one likes to talk about. It is the white whale, pink elephant and snipe hunt incarnate. Purveyors of insidious listing techniques are thought of as the lowest of the low. When search engines discover spammed pages or spamming search firms, listings are often sent to ranking Siberia, permanently.
So why would a site engage in a spamming practice and how can you avoid being a spammer? For the answer, we’ll have to dig into the search engine marketing (SEM) underworld.
What’s In the Little Blue Can?
In 1642, Blaise Pascal invented a mechanical calculator to help his father with math. Since then, we have searched for shortcuts to help speed up the process of making calculations. Search sites send spiders or crawlers out to the Web to index sites using complicated algorithms. Spiders view site content and meta architecture, among other things. All search engines purport to offer uncorrupted results for an unbiased, efficient user experience, based on these algorithmic calculations.
I should amend my earlier statement: Everyone likes to talk about spam, but no one wants to go on record about it. Some of the worst practices I am about to review were once thought of as a great way to get higher rankings. I talked to many a search marketing firm when preparing this week’s venture into search marketing science. A few of them admitted to using spamming techniques in the past, and at least two had suffered the consequences and were still trying to make reparations with search sites. Only one seemed bitter about the punishment they received. None of them would let me use their names.
Here’s a rundown of perceived spamming techniques, and possible ways away from them.
Cloaking: Generally speaking, cloaking is defined as "misrepresenting site content, specifically for the benefit of a search engine spider." Essentially, content seen by the search spider is different than the content seen by humans. There are lots of really neat ways to cloak, and most search sites can detect and spank cloakers. You can even use them to hide your doorway pages. A Better Way: Every page on your site should be built to be seen. Focus on creating rich content, and assign relevant labels to your images and text.
Doorway Pages: A doorway contains lots of keywords on a page often hidden by text in the same color as its backdrop. The idea is, of course, to help with ranking the page with keyword repetition, yet once a user clicks into this page said user is sent to another destination. A Better Way: Control keyword usage in metas by keeping them succinct and relevant.
Mirror Sites or Pages: Not quite an elgoog page, mirrors often depict hijacked content to fool users and search sites into believing someone else’s content is your content. A Better Way: Build pages for people, not search engines. Steer clear of using any other firm’s trademarked terms.
Rapid Fire Submission: There is always some jackass sitting in a dorm room -- brain clogged with the latest campus recreational drug -- figuring out ways to automate search submissions. Problem, search engines don’t like it when you crawl them, and they hate when you try to hit them with a phalanx of submissions. A Better Way: Bite the bullet and follow submission guidelines. Avoid anyone who offers a "tool" for doing so.
Link Farming: Affiliates are often blamed for developing link farms. Search engines, like Google, often rank sites according to how many links to the site exist. Unfortunately for these sharecroppers, search engines will also evaluate the quality of these links. A Better Way: Issue guidelines for your affiliates and police their activities. Focus on building strong relationships with business partners and reputable sites for link popularity with your rich content.
These techniques can be called many things. I have heard doorways referred to as "bridges" or "skip pages," link farms referred to as "free for alls" or "bazooka links." But in the end, they all mean the same thing: bad news for search rankings. The unique, creative naming practices for these activities may make them difficult to spot, but if you see some semblance of this “new math” in your search marketing offering, find a different calculator. I am sure Pascal would thank you.
Most Certainly Uncertain
One man’s spam is another man’s relevance. Like Steven Wright said, "There is a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot." You may believe a search optimization tactic is not in the spam pond, but the search site does. Most search engines have spam or submission guidelines posted somewhere on their sites. Each one has slightly different requirements, which is part of the problem. If it is OK to use one technique for one search, but not OK for another, what should you do?
First, contact your search marketing congressman -- i.e. your favorite SEM pundit or industry activist -- and ask him to help lobby for standards. Hint: See if you can get some of that tobacco money to help the fight.
Second, evaluate techniques against each search site’s guidelines and execute the practice which will best suit the site or group of sites having the highest-targeted traffic impact.
The problem with thinking of new and creative ways to fool search engines is, they are always one step behind (or ahead) of you. If you think your optimization solution sounds like spam, it probably is. If you have any doubt, check with them. Or ask your search marketing firm for documentation from the search site proving said technique is approved, condoned or otherwise appropriate.
While major search sites are a bit too busy with counting revenue from paid listings or discovering really neat ways to raid email for bonus bucks, to discuss the practice of users illicitly garnering search positioning, one immutable truth wakes me up in the middle of the night at least once a quarter. Some search firms are still spamming. All too often, I -- and many of my colleagues -- find ourselves in the position (no pun) of defending our techniques against the spammers.
Despite the negativity, possible penalties and efforts of credible search marketers, the cornerstone of the spammer’s sales pitch is a guaranteed ranking fantasy. The truth is, guarantees in optimization are implausible, but defending the truth is always difficult because reality is never as exciting as the dream.
iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brand: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Service and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.
Benefits of the cloud
The cloud has helped email marketers introduce new features that weren't available before, and it affords them all the benefits of a perpetual license ownership deal in an environment that can expand and contract as needed.
"Email has become more critical. We understand that service providers are out there, but we think we need to own it," says Ryan Deutsch, Strongmail's VP of strategic services and market deployment. "We can now give them a perpetual license for that same software but let them deploy it in the cloud."
Strongmail is one of only a few companies that offers email marketing applications hosted entirely from the cloud.
Why the need for ownership? It mostly comes down to cost and customization, Deutsch says.
Email, for all its lacking appeal on many fronts, is still the most watched and effective marketing channel for brands to communicate with consumers, executives, and other businesses.
Cloud-based email services are a good option for mid-sized businesses since they typically don't have huge data centers and IT teams of their own. Large enterprises typically don't apply because they staff to manage an email campaign of any size, yet there are some standout companies that rely exclusively on the cloud for their email outreach.
Businesses that are utilizing cloud-based services for email are benefiting from a range of customization options that allow them to deploy new features and expand their outreach quickly and easily.
"They don't have the administrative burden and technology management challenges" that larger businesses encounter when going it alone, Deutsch says.
Ownership enables a variety of customization features ranging from how the platform interacts with call center software to ecommerce solutions. Scale can also ebb and flow as needed, depending on each client's needs.
Throughput, frequency, and list size can all change with relative ease since cloud-based services only charge for usage on an ongoing basis.
"It's a much more dynamic deployment for the marketer," Deutsch adds.
Where the cloud falls short
The cloud is not the panacea that some marketers wish it would be -- not yet, at least. Here are four areas highlighted by Mills that point to some major issues with application hosting from the cloud:
- IP reputation: This can help determine whether a certain IP address is responsible for sending spam, and when used effectively, it can stop at least 80 percent of inbound connections at internet service providers. With the cloud, you can't always pull a dedicated block of IP addresses, and you might get stuck sending email from the same IP address as a spammer.
- Security of the application: By sharing server space with other clients, there's always the potential for foul play or unintended consequences.
- Lack of disaster recovery: If Amazon's cloud was to go down, for example, there's no guarantee when that service would be up and running again. Worse yet, there's no guarantee all of your data would be secured and saved.
- Support and on-site expertise: By putting an entire application up in the cloud, you don't have physical access to the server and can't keep it under the watchful eye of an IT professional.
Mills prefers a content delivery network because it relies on servers dispersed throughout the U.S., which means data can be retrieved from nearby servers rather than pulling content from across the country. For good measure, Amazon's S3 has a content delivery network component that will provide a similar experience, but it can get very costly, Mills adds.
"I don't necessarily at this point... see a major benefit in the cloud" unless there are significant processing delays, says Mills. Only where a marketer has a massive upscale of clients does he see benefits from the cloud.
"Email marketing technology continues to improve and offer more sophisticated options, but the marketers, managers, and agencies planning and executing campaigns have yet to even scratch the surface of leveraging existing technology and email marketing possibilities," Simms Jenkins, CEO of BrightWave Marketing, tells iMedia.
"While I think cloud computing is an interesting approach for some companies to consider, for most it would be like buying a car with a cutting edge multimedia interface" that they're unlikely to make use of regularly, he adds
Sometimes simplicity works best, but for those who want to take things to the next level and potentially increase ROI from their email marketing strategy, they might want to reach for the cloud(s) and at least take a look around.
Matt Kapko is the deputy editor at iMedia Connection.
As the dominant face of the fast food industry, McDonald's is an easy target for criticism. Yet, McDonald's remains one of the most popular brands in the world, with customers lined up daily to satiate their craving for "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese..." But it takes more than a consistent product and catchy jingle to maintain loyalty amidst public criticism in a connected world -- a notion McDonald's continually proves with social media.
Among McDonald's faithful, the McRib is legendary. Making rare appearances only to fall off the radar shortly thereafter, the McRib's scarcity makes it a treasure to be discovered. Accordingly, McDonald's launched "The Quest for the Golden McRib" Facebook app. The quest allows fans to hunt for 10 virtual "Golden McRibs" and awards customers with badges for their profile pages, while encouraging them to share their adventures on Twitter using the hashtag #McRib. Durable brand loyalty is born from product passion and conversation. As the company states, "Our head of social media is the customer."
To establish strong connections with humans, a brand must show its humanity. Thanks to a relatable Twitter feed, McDonald's maintains a natural relationship with its more than 450,000 followers. Rather than a constant barrage of product promotions, the company posts positive Twitter updates similar to that of a typical user:
Not only do McDonald's Twitter representatives post positive remarks, but they also take time to respond to individual comments or questions, even rewarding followers with free products:
McDonald's clearly understands that it's not about the number of followers, but about strong connections created through various platforms of engagement, providing every customer with an opportunity to interact.
The combination of music and marketing is nothing new, but offering deeply engaging and rewarding experiences for consumers through music is still a challenge. In the 1970s, The Coca-Cola Company hoped to "teach the world to sing." Today, the beverage giant continues to strengthen its connection to music through unique partnerships and interactive programs.
In 2011, aiming to connect with teens across the globe, Coca-Cola launched a music marketing program that enabled Maroon 5 to create a new track in one day. The "24 hour session" was streamed live on Coca-Cola Music and prompted fans to interact with the band -- posting tweets, messages, and votes that were broadcasted within the studio. In addition, audience members directly contributed to the song itself, as their recorded hand claps were featured in the track.
Not only did the "session" provide a peek into professional music production, but it also gave fans a glimpse into Maroon 5's down time (filled with yoga and ping pong), which is relatable content that helps establish a deeper connection among consumers. As Coca-Cola's project lead and global brand PR representative, Judith Snyder, explains, "This is an experiment to connect with teens in a new, fresh, engaging conversation. We are always collaborating, and Coca-Cola Music allows us to leverage our scale and share stories." It is in the reciprocal exchange of content that demonstrates a brand's awareness of fan value to consumers.
For Coca-Cola, loyalty comes from connecting with consumers by creating unique content and experiences. By not only offering fans free music, but also by providing an outlet for customers to take part in music creation, Coca-Cola proves, once again, why it holds nearly unanimous acceptance across the globe.
Major League Baseball
As America's favorite past-time has grown, it has undergone continuous innovation. And Major League Baseball's internet and interactive branch, MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), continues the commitment to innovation. As CEO Robert Bowman has notably stated, "Whatever your business is, talk to your customers and provide them with what they want. It makes sense." One of the best ways to open up the conversation with consumers is through blogs. This notion is clearly expressed through MLB's community blogging site, MLBlogs.com -- currently the host of 12,000-plus blogs.
MLBlogs provides the platform for everyday aficionados to rub virtual shoulders with its "pro bloggers." Rather than allowing new bloggers to struggle aimlessly to create a digital presence, MLB representatives provide useful posts updating users on new features for personal blogs, such as the post entitled, "New: Embed MLB.com video in your blog." By teaching bloggers to post MLB.com video rather than content leading away from its site, MLB maintains traffic on its own site. In addition, MLB's monthly post "Around the MLB.com Blogs" aids users in their search for valuable content within the community. Furthermore, MLB rounds up the most popular blogs ranked by page view every month in its "Latest Leaders" post. The comments beneath the list make clear a sense of competiveness and pride among users -- solid fuel for building loyalty.
By creating a welcoming environment for a wide variety of fans to share their passions, MLB allows the fans to step up to the plate. By empowering the consumer to perform digitally, the brand nurtures the deep connection necessary for sustained engagement.
According to a recent study, seven out of 10 Americans visit a Macy's store or its website at least once a year -- that's 70 percent of America. As Macy's CMO Peter Sachse states, "We saw we don't need more customers -- we need the customers we have to spend more time with us. Therein lies the whole idea of loyalty. We put the customer at the center of all decisions we make." To build this loyalty, the retail giant launched its "My Macy's" campaign four years ago, which it still upholds today. The campaign capitalizes on the large stream of consumers that interact with Macy's by creating a highly personalized, omni-channel shopping experience that underscores its consumer-centric strategy.
The Macy's website receives a strong flow of visitors to its "My Macy's shop ahead services." For example, the feature allows online customers to check the size, color, and availability of a dress at a local store. By seamlessly blending the in-store experience with its digital platform, Macy's drives consumers online to the store -- and vice versa.
In addition, Macy's recently launched a new strategy to secure the loyalty of Millennials through two digital experiences. "mStyleLab," aimed at ages 13 to 22, is an online community that "collects the opinions and thoughts of youth across a broad range of topics." This feedback is used to improve Macy's products, programs, and overall shopping experience. mStyleLab members spend time online discussing topics and answering questions regarding shopping habits, interests, etc., and the company compensates these members with gift certificates. In addition, "Impulse," serving customers 19 to 30, is a microsite within Macys.com that highlights key fashions, tips, and events.
According to Brand Keys, hard alcohol breeds hard loyalty. At around $50 a bottle (750 ml), Patrón does not create loyalty out of everyday affordability. Rather than appeal to drunken college crowds on spring break, Patrón uses its marketing dollars to establish an elite club for those that consume and appreciate their ultra-premium tequila.
When asked about Patrón's strong consumer connections online, the company's Greg Cohen explained, "Recognizing the importance for a luxury brand like ours to engage consumers, a number of years ago we created The Patrón Social Club, an online members-only gathering spot for Patrón aficionados." Club members are given access to unique cocktail recipes, the latest tequila trends, and chances to win special prizes. As Cohen states, "We're a firm believer that brands should talk with consumers, not to consumers, and the Patrón Social Club fosters that two-way communication."
In addition, the Patrón Secret Dining Society invites members via email to exclusive dinner parties. For example, Chicago members followed a series of clues leading to a candlelit warehouse, in which Chef Rick Bayless prepared food while skilled mixologists made tequila-based cocktails.
According to Cohen, "In addition to the Patrón Social Club, we've also built a loyal following on our Patrón Cocktail Lab on Facebook. The application encourages fans to create winning cocktails, and the winners are given prizes and access to events, while their cocktails receive a spot on Patrón's official recipe list.
Jennifer Long, brand director for Patrón Spirits, explains, "By leveraging a social networking site like Facebook, we are able to provide our loyalists access to share and build drink ideas." In rewarding those with the best recipes, Patrón creates loyalty by stirring up emotion -- a potent ingredient in the loyalty cocktail.
For DIY enthusiasts, the Home Depot is a trusted companion. Not only does the company offer a low-price guarantee, but it also provides a progressive loyalty rewards program.
Striking a loyalty chord with in-store customers is not the only way the Home Depot maintains strong connections. Online video is the perfect medium for reaching the DIY community, and one look at the company's YouTube channel proves it understands the value of topical video content. Rather that repurposed TV commercials, the videos feature Home Depot DIY experts detailing specific products or taking viewers step-by-step through home improvement projects.
By producing how-to content that engages the viewer, the Home Depot reinforces the approachability of DIY projects, which continually funnels consumers back to the store and online.
The Home Depot also offers an impressive digital magazine that helps customers discover unique home improvement projects, trends, and design ideas. The magazine is produced quarterly with content tailored for each of the seasons.
In addition, the company launched "The Home Depot Style Guide" app for the iPad. The app features a series of articles with clickable images for more information. For instance, one article pictures an unadorned hallway that gradually fills with design changes, demonstrating how little alterations can have a large effect. In addition, the app links to the Home Depot website, custom-made for tablets, wherein all items within the app are available for purchase.
By providing the knowledge and goods for consumers to act on their ideas, the Home Depot empowers a sense of accomplishment within the consumer. Once an individual completes a project from start to finish, there is a strong likelihood that that person will be back for more.
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Jessica Bowman, CEO of SEOinhouse
No doubt about it, Jessica Bowman is an SEO expert. Before founding SEOinhouse.com -- where she currently serves as CEO -- Bowman started the in-house SEO program at Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, systematized SEO at Business.com, and took SEO to the next level at Yahoo.
Bowman's unusual path to success began in IT, where she worked for many years as a project manager, user experience manager, and process analyst. This experience allowed Bowman to understand how the IT department and other disciplines work, think, and function together as a whole; an intimate understanding of these processes fueled Bowman's revolutionary ideas on how to maximize SEO.
Bowman has been featured in the SEO Bible, is a contributing author to The Art of SEO, and was even featured as a role model in Marie Claire magazine.
In an industry as competitive as the automobile market, brand loyalty is crucial. And in the last two years, Hyundai has made a swooping surge to the top of the automobile loyalty list. Once the butt of jokes about poorly made vehicles, Hyundai has made big moves to secure the loyalty of automotive aficionados. One way the brand has accomplished this is by offering reasonably priced, sleekly designed cars paired with America's best warranty. In addition, the brand discarded its "cheapest car in America" title by increasing the quality (and price) of its 2012 Accent, which has worked wonders on consumer perception.
In addition to traditional big event sponsorships, Hyundai aims at developing a rich brand story through online video. On Hyundai's YouTube channel, videos detail new vehicles and offer insights into the Hyundai world, including glimpses into Hyundai's own steel plant, built to answer environmental concerns and questions of steel quality.
Rather than spending millions sponsoring a band's tour, Hyundai leveraged the power of digital content distribution and social sharing to produce a documentary film. Hyundai picked five world-renowned DJs to travel the globe (Hyundai vehicles at their disposal) and reinterpret regional music for the brand's "Regeneration" campaign. The finished full-length documentary can be viewed on Hulu, and the company gave away five tracks created during the documentary to their fans. The following is a trailer for the film:
By blending a more traditional approach to advertising with new ways of interacting with consumers digitally, Hyundai is able to connect with multiple demographics, solidifying its position at the top of the automobile loyalty ladder.
Not only does Clinique offer high-quality products that emphasize technology and dermatologist recommendations, it also garners loyalty by offering its three-step skin care system that centers on individual needs and diverse skin types. Using interactive online questionnaires, the system matches customers to a compatible set of skin-care products.
Digitally, Clinique was one of the first cosmetic companies to offer online shopping and has a strong Facebook and Twitter presence, allowing fans and followers to share product experiences, take surveys, and receive free samples. In addition, the company launched the "Clinique Beauty Forecast App," which provides geo-targeted weather forecasts and offers expert skin-care tips related to the current weather conditions.
Realizing its failure to tap into the male demographic, Clinique's recent marketing efforts have focused on breaking into this valuable market by re-launching "Clinique for Men" online and producing targeted content for a richer consumer experience. The new site includes a skin assessment guide that aims to make the line more approachable to less knowledgeable skin-care customers. In addition, the brand partnered with Men's Health magazine to create Clinique Magazine, which seamlessly blends lifestyle content into the shopping experience.
The magazine features monthly updated news and product reviews from the "Insiders Club," which provides customer feedback on product launches. In addition, customers are given the opportunity to become "Clinique Skin Supplies for Men Insiders," provided with the latest skin care and grooming products to test. Clinque builds brand loyalty by providing personalized shopping experiences that demystify the skin-care procedure.
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Gurbaksh Chahal, Founder and CEO, Radium One
Gurbaksh Chahal is an entrepreneurial maverick. At age 16, Chahal dropped out of high school to work on his first business venture and -- according to his Wikipedia page -- by age 25, Chahal had created and sold two advertising companies for a combined total of $340 million.
Chahal is the founder of three ridiculously successful online ad companies: Click Agents (which merged with ValueClick in a $40 million transaction), Blue Lithium (acquired by Yahoo for $300 million), and his current venture Radium One (which has an estimated value of $200 million).
He is a best-selling author, was featured as "America's most eligible bachelor" on Extra TV, and gave away $110,000 of his own money on Fox's "Secret Millionaire."
Chahal has been featured in various media outlets such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Bonnie Hunt, Neil Cavuto, The New York Times, MSNBC, Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes, and Businessweek.
If that's not hot, we don't know what is!
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Natalie Cupps, VP Digital Marketing and Sales, LACED Agency
As evidenced by her rock-climbing photos, Natalie Cupps knows what it's like to battle a slippery slope and come out on top.
Natalie has more than 13 years of experience in advertising, branding, marketing campaign strategy, and project management for the digital space. This experience helped Cupps to transform Los Angeles based agency LACED from a startup with no capital to the successful, award-winning agency it is today. Cupps now serves as LACED's VP of digital marketing and sales.
Like any brilliant marketer, Cupps has many diverse interests and hobbies -- films being one of her chief interests. Although Cupps looks like a movie star, she prefers to stay behind the scenes and works as a movie marketing and PR consultant for Moon Whistler Productions, an entertainment consultancy company that helps to identify clever marketing tactics to promote and distribute films with (often) tight budgets.
Cupps has spoken at NOKIA's Global Social Media Week 2011, has been a guest lecturer at the McCombs Business School at University of Texas in Austin, and was honored by Cambridge's "Who's Who Among Executive and Professional Women" in both 2006 and 2007.
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Rebecca Denison, Senior Social Media Analyst, Digitas
Leading the trend of biochemist-turned-marketer (see Sheldon Gilbert), Rebecca Denison has made quite a name for herself in the world of media analysis.
Before joining Digitas, Denison was the first social media strategist at Edelman Digital in Chicago, where she developed and managed social listening and measurement for more than 40 CPG brands -- rendering her an invaluable social media resource.
Since joining Digitas, Rebecca has focused on the planning and execution of social listening, measurement, and analytics activities for a number of fortune 100 brands, including Sprint.
Rebecca holds a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently working toward a master's in predictive analytics from DePaul University.Photos by Stephen Garrett.
For many, a trip to the seventh largest retailer in the world is a weekend ritual. But are quality goods at respectable prices enough to create and sustain customer loyalty? According to Paul Latham, Costco's VP of membership, marketing, and services, they just might be:
"Costco really doesn't have a strategy for 'creating and sustaining brand loyalty,'" he says. "We have a strategy for running our business. We simply believe that if we provide our members with the products and services they're looking for at the lowest prices possible, do it in a clean and safe environment, and provide efficient and courteous service, we will be rewarded with loyal members."
The way in which Costco runs its business demonstrates a commitment to return customers. In a recent iMedia Connection article entitled, "The truth about engagement," the author writes, "You want engaged consumers? Give them something to hunt." Costco might be tapping into this notion. As Latham states, "We try to create a 'treasure hunt' atmosphere in our warehouses, where our buyers source unique items that our members might not expect to find." Keeping customers engaged in the continuous hunt for fleeting products is a strong way to induce return customers.
In addition, Costco's email marketing strategy keeps customers coming back for more. According to Latham, it's all about efficiency: "Our email efforts are effective largely because we are very selective and careful not to inundate our members with marketing messages. Our members appreciate the fact that we use email sparingly, so our open rates tend to be strong." Although the retailer's success comes from the selling bulk items, its marketing efforts are applied sparingly. Give consumers what they want, and interact with them only enough to show them they are valued.
Despite waves of complaints from customers across the globe at the launch of new products and software, Apple customers are the most forgiving and patient in the business. Apple devotees know that new technology can be problematic. Rather than jump ship to join another captain when issues arise, Apple customers wait patiently for the company to fix the problems.
In the mobile marketplace, Apple leads the loyalty competition. According to a recent report released by the research firm GFK, 84 percent of iPhone users surveyed said they would choose the iPhone again. Conversely, 60 percent of Android users said they would stick with the Android OS if given the opportunity. These statistics make clear the two-party smartphone system in which consumers reside. When choosing a smartphone, consumers typically face the question: iPhone or Android? What makes the decision easy for most iPhone users are its apps. In fact, according to a recent study by Futuresource, 54 percent of iPhone users "commit to the Apple brand in order to keep the apps they have come to depend upon."
Apple's App Store is a dynamic hotbed of downloadable tools and games. As the iPhone OS has been in existence long before the Android, its app store naturally provides more offerings. However, it is not the sheer volume that maintains customers, but the quality of apps it allows into its store. Apple's commitment to providing the customer with the best offerings available is underscored by its app store, which in turn helps secure loyal customers.
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Sheldon Gilbert, Founder and CEO, Proclivity Systems
Sheldon Gilbert's bio reads like a great novel; his resume is exciting, diverse, and full of unexpected twists and turns.
Gilbert is the founder and CEO of Proclivity Media, which specializes in predictive advertising. Proclivity Media is recognized as one of the industry's most advanced advertising technology platforms and was named as one of the "Top 50 Promising Tech Startups" by Businessweek in 2009.
Gilbert is an inventor and the owner of numerous patents in predictive analytics and computational advertising, but he wasn't always in the media business. Having earned a degree in molecular biochemistry at Yale, Gilbert was fascinated by the promise of new software programs that could mine massive volumes of genetic data to predict disease outcomes. Keeping these data-mining concepts in mind, Gilbert left the medical field in 2000 and joined Four Point Partners, where he helped to build some of the first-generation e-commerce systems for retailers like J.Crew, Best Buy, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and Nike.
Gilbert has been featured on CNBC, The New York Times, Fast Company, and Men's Vogue. He is regularly invited to speak at various universities, conferences, and industry events on a broad spectrum of issues ranging from predictive data modeling to economic reform.
Across the board, Amazon is No. 1 in brand loyalty, recently overtaking fanatically supported Apple. As the largest online retailer, its sheer selection of goods is enough to continuously reel in customers. However, a company does not get to the top of the loyalty charts by treating people like fish.
"Amazon Prime" is a membership program that gives users unlimited shipping for $79 a year. Not only does the program offer free shipping on goods, but it also provides a wide array of free digital services. Prime members can access unlimited, commercial-free, instantly streaming online videos through Amazon Prime Instant Video. And with the release of its new Kindle, the Android-powered Kindle Fire, Amazon provides an affordable tablet on which to view content.
Although Amazon is hesitant to reveal the numbers, according to comScore, the Kindle Fire makes up 54.4 percent of the total Android market, likely due to Amazon's loyal customer base and the tablet's low price ($199). This market domination has attracted the attention of big brands like HBO, as the HBO Go service is now available on Kindle Fire. HBO Go provides members access to HBO's original shows, such as "True Blood" and "Game of Thrones."
A new licensing agreement with MGM will add hundreds of movies and TV shows to the Amazon's video catalog, which now offers more than 18,000 videos. According to Brad Beale, Amazon's director of digital video content acquisition, "Our customers tell us they love having tons of movies and TV shows to choose from, which is why we are focused on adding even more titles to our already extensive Prime Instant Video library." Once again, the key to happy customers is listening.
Nowadays, nearly every vacation begins with an online journey. Web-hopping from travel site to travel site can be as draining as a red-eye flight, but many find that the personalized experience, DIY satisfaction, and extra money saved from online booking are worth it. If you have recently planned a trip, the odds that you visited Expedia (or its affiliate network of travel sites) are high. In fact, one of every 20 hotel rooms a night is booked through Expedia -- the world's largest travel company.
To reinforce its dominance, Expedia launched "Expedia Everywhere," which places social media and mobile at the center of its marketing strategy. For instance, in 2011, the company created the largest Facebook-hosted sweepstake game, "FriendTrips," which gave away five trips entitled, "Trips of a Lifetime." According to Expedia, the game increased the company's fan count by 750 percent.
By developing strong relationships with influential bloggers, Expedia understands the value of travelers' sharing stories with others. In late 2011, the company invited 16 top travel bloggers to lunch and to a corporate suite at the Seattle Seahawk's football game. In addition, the company sponsors road trips with travel bloggers, such as the "Touring California with Travel
Blogger Spencer Spellman" feature.
Another online platform Expedia uses to develop positive relationships with consumers is the digital newspaper. Expedia partnered with NTimes.com to serve as the exclusive online booking engine for its travel site. Visitors to NYTimes.com Travel are able to access Expedia travel content and book hotels, flights, rental cars, and cruises. To develop customer loyalty, Expedia makes sure the individual knows they are just that: individual.
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Rei Inamoto, Global Director, AKQA
Rei Inamoto doesn't just dress the part of marketing rock star -- he also lives the life of one. Named in Creativity Magazine's annual "Creativity 50" twice, as well as one of "The Top 25 Most Creative People in Advertising" in Forbes Magazine, Inamoto is arguably one of the most influential individuals in the marketing and creative industry today.
Inamoto is chief creative officer at AKQA, where he's responsible for delivering creative solutions for clients such as Audi, Google, Nike, and Xbox. Since his arrival in 2005, Inamoto's presence has been instrumental in bringing AKQA the highest recognitions. In 2009, AKQA became the first agency in history to receive five Agency of the Year accolades from publications such as Creative Review and Design. Most recently, Advertising Age honored AKQA as one of the "Top Ten Agencies of the Decade."
Inamoto is a frequent speaker at numerous conferences such as Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, SXSW, and Spikes Asia to name a few. His writing and opinions have been widely published in publications like Fast Company and Contagious Magazine, making him a thought leader and a prominent voice in the industry.
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Joshua March, Co-founder and CEO, Conversocial
You could say that Joshua March is the James Bond of digital. A native of the U.K., March is a jetsetter, risk taker, and technology trailblazer.
March is the co-founder and CEO of Conversocial, a venture backed start-up that provides social customer service software for brands like Sephora, Tesco, Groupon, McDonald's, Waitrose, and Net-A-Porter. Don't let March's youthful appearance fool you into thinking he has limited experience; he's co-founded several companies including Facebook Developer Garage London and iPlatform (the U.K.'s leading social application agency) and has built major social campaigns for Big Brother, The Economist, Swatch, ITV, and Facebook.
March is an international business traveler -- he often bounces between Conversocial's London and New York offices -- and has a reputation for wowing admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Call of Duty
Activation Blizzard's "Call of Duty" franchise has taken the world by storm. The company has released a total of eight remarkably successful games. Activation Blizzard's most recent offering, "Modern Warfare 3," sold 6.5 million copies within 24 hours -- making it the biggest entertainment product launch of all time. The fact that each sequel was more successful than its predecessor points to both loyal customers and powerful marketing.
One area in particular that demonstrates Activation Blizzard's marketing prowess is online video. To promote its upcoming "Black Ops II," the company created an unsettling documentary video featuring future war expert P.W. Singer and Lt. Col. Oliver North. Both individuals propose nightmare scenarios of war. For example, North states, "I have a nightmare scenario that a hacker breaks into our system that controls satellites, UAVs, and even the launch of missiles. Consider what it would be like to have friendly fire from U.S. weapons overhead."
"Black Ops II" is set in the year 2025, in which unmanned weaponry controls every element of war. By creating a credible video with expert perspectives detailing plausible real-life conditions of future wars that mirror the conditions within its game, Activation Blizzard thoroughly engages customers with its forthcoming video game by adding relevancy and verisimilitude to what is really just a fictional creation. Although the video was created to sell video games, its goal is consumer connection, and the company does not interrupt the connection with overt advertising.
In addition, the "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" site in which other online videos and game trailers can be viewed. The following is the official gameplay trailer, which, by the way, had 23,855,832 views as of August 3. (I wonder how this game will do...)
Many would name Samsung as Apple's chief competitor. Recognizing the strong personal connections individuals develop with their mobile devices, Apple and Samsung have been locked in a public battle for smartphone customers. Trying to capitalize on the strong relationship consumers have with their iPhones, Samsung created a video mocking Apple fanatics waiting in a never-ending line for a new offering. Those in line are then persuaded to join Samsung users dancing in the streets, shouting "We're free!"
By depicting Apple iPhone devotion as "blind" and Samsung devotion as liberating, Samsung paves the way for the transference of loyalty from Apple to Samsung.
In an arena not as polarized as smartphones, Samsung had managed to engage customers in another powerful way. In order to promote its flat-screen TVs, Samsung opened its "Samsung TV Portal." Content on the portal includes how-to videos, how-to walkthroughs, product spotlights, and more. For instance, the portal features the following video, "How to Use Social TV: Samsung Smart Minute."
The mission of Samsung's TV Portal is to "provide the information and insight you need to make your Samsung TV experience every bit as enjoyable as you want it to be." Aware that television technology changes rapidly, which subsequently leaves many consumers apprehensive to embrace new offerings, Samsung created a browsing portal to keep its customers up to date. Not only does Samsung sell more products by keeping the public informed, but the company also builds customer loyalty by providing engaging content that ensures each consumer enjoys (and is not frustrated by) his or her purchase.
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Mihael Mikek, CEO and Co-Founder, Celtra
When he isn't windsurfing, skiing, or traveling with his beautiful family, Mihael Mikek starts and grows multi-million-dollar businesses. After founding several businesses in the medical and chemical service fields, Mikek transitioned to the digital sphere by creating Celtra, a mobile rich media display advertising platform.
Mikek developed the concept for Celtra in 2006 while studying at Babson's MBA Business Hatchery. In just a few short years, Mikek put his idea into action and raised more than $7 million of private venture capital. Mikek's quick response to the market evolution was instrumental for Celtra's success. Today, Celtra provides services for major agencies, publishers, and ad networks including AT&T, Google, Jumptap, Mindshare, MediaVest, Mojiva, OMD, Rovio, Starcom, Yahoo, and ZenithOptimedia.
Under Mikek's guidance, Celtra has been nominated for several industry awards including an American Business Award, MassTLC award, and AlwaysOn Top 100 Mobile.
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Stephanie Shkolnik, Social Media Director, Digitaria
You could say that Stephanie Shkolnik is a social media butterfly. An avid practitioner of the social media arts, Shkolnik works her magic as Digitaria's social media director.
Prior to joining Digitaria, Shkolnik led the social path for several major companies: Shkolnik launched an online tool for produce giant Fresh Express (thereby helping the company leap into the digital space), she bridged the gap between traditional and social conversations at CamelBak by building and executing social media marketing strategies that enhanced brand awareness, and she worked with Major League Gaming to strengthen its social presence.
Today, Shkolnik and her team build social media strategies for Fortune 500 companies, connecting people with the brands that matter most to them through socially data-driven insights.
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Dana Todd, SVP of Marketing and Business, Performics
Dana Todd's experience in the digital marketing field is (nearly) as colorful as her hair. Since 1996, Todd has driven value for hundreds of companies, helping them find actionable insights and success in interactive marketing. Her career spans a rainbow of practices: Todd led San Diego interactive agencies Bien Logic and SiteLab; she co-founded SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) and its training arm, SEMPO Institute; and most recently Todd launched Newsforce, a startup that redefines how companies think of advertorial and sponsored content.
Todd is a regular speaker at Search Engine Strategies, ad:tech, OMS, SMX, and OMMA, and frequently provides insight to the financial press, including The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and CNNMoney.
Today, Todd serves as the senior vice president of marketing and business development at Performics. While Todd is considered one of the pioneers of the search marketing industry, her broad palate of expertise includes all forms of online marketing and interactive visibility -- which, if you ask us, paints quite a lovely picture.
OK, so Skechers' rocker-bottom shoes failed to magically transform consumers into Kim Kardashian or Joe Montana. But the company continually delivers strong customer service and rewards, underscored by its consumer-centric approach.
Making sure customers are heard is at the center of the footwear brand's digital strategy. According to Adweek, Skechers.com features 60,000 products reviews and 32,500 questions and answers. Is this because Skechers' customers are inherently vocal online or because the company has provided an ideal forum for digital interaction? After browsing the company's website, the answer is clear.
In order to provide shoppers with timely, relevant information, Skechers partnered with PowerReviews to implement the vendor's "Social Answers" question-and-answer tool. When shoppers click the "Questions" button, they are able to pose specific product questions that are quickly sent to customer service and to customers who have previously purchased the item. Within three hours, the customer is sent a follow-up email answer, which links to the product's page.
According to Skechers' ecommerce merchandising manager Timothy Lakin, "Because a customer who submits a question is already engaged, if we can give them the answer they want in a timely fashion, they usually buy the shoe." And he is right, as PowerReview reports that "80 percent of answer notification emails were opened, and more than half of those emails resulted in a conversion."
To boost the success of its site, Skechers motivates its customers to share online by monetizing their content. Members of Skechers' "Elite Reward" program receive points for submitting reviews and answers to questions posed by fellow consumers. Customers save their earned points for discounts on Skechers.com.
With 4,400 hotels across the world, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is the world's largest hotel company. Accordingly, IHG provides the world's largest hotel loyalty program, Priority Club Rewards, in which club members receive 10 points for every dollar spent.
To connect with consumers digitally, IHG has launched a number of apps including the "Priority Club Rewards" app for the iPhone and the "Concierge Insider Guide" for the iPad. With the Priority Club app, users can book, change, or cancel hotel reservations as well as redeem reward points, view hotel photo galleries, or receive GPS-enabled hotel directions. The iPad app provides travelers with concierge recommendations, video tours, insider tips, room bookings, and more.
Not only does InterContinental have a strong mobile presence, but the company also recently launched the first global, multi-language shopping portal in the hotel industry. IHG's shopping portal features 600 leading online retailers, from Target.com to Nordstrom, and Priority Club members receive points for every online purchase.
Once again, companies with strong followings ensure loyalty through special rewards and a consumer-centric focus to guarantee a personalized experienced.
Walmart was built on offering "low prices, always," which its customers cite as the principle reason for patronage. In fact, according to journalist Charles Fishman, about 140 million Americans shop at Walmart every week.
Traditionally, low-income Americans are less likely to spend time online. However, as more and more shopping occurs digitally and bargain hunters become increasingly tech-savvy, Walmart has greatly increased its digital efforts.
Appealing to customers without access to credit or those fearful of identity theft, Walmart.com developed a "pay with cash" option, allowing customers to order merchandise online and pay in-store. As Internet Retailer states, "Because of the new payment option, Walmart.com has attracted new online customers, as nearly 30 percent of those who have chosen the 'cash' payment option are new to the site." By doing so, Walmart reduces the risk suffered by other brick-and-mortar retailers. For examples, consumers at Best Buy view items in-store only to purchase them online elsewhere at a lower price. By prompting customers online to come pay in-store, Walmart isolates its customers in an environment where all further purchases are made at Walmart.
Most recently, Walmart initiated its "endless aisle" program, allowing in-store customers to scan QR codes that provide access to a broader range of Walmart products online. Realizing a growing number of their loyalists wanted to shop online, Walmart initiated a number of innovative programs to smooth the transition from brick-and-mortar to digital.
In "Smokey and the Bandit," Burt Reynolds (Bo "Bandit" Darville) is offered $80,000 to make the illegal haul of 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia and back in 28 hours, all because Big Enos Burdette "is thirsty." That's beer loyalty -- and Burdette is not alone, as Coors continually ranks high on Brand Keys' loyalty charts.
Coors Banquet has been a longtime staple of American beer drinkers. To tap into America's nostalgic feelings about the brand, MillerCoors recently released four commemorative cans whose front designs hail from 1880, 1936, 1959, and the 1950s.
Keeping the past in mind while moving forward is a marketing strategy the brand continually embraces. Pete and David Coors recently embarked on a road trip from Golden, Colo., to New York City to celebrate "the famous trek that many Coors Banquet fans took before them" in pursuit of beer. In a 1940s Coors Banquet delivery truck, Pete and Dave made various pit stops along their journey to share stories with customers and bar owners, thoroughly chronicling their journey on Facebook.
In addition, as part of Coors "Grab a Piece of the Legend" campaign, fans were able to log onto the Coors Banquet Facebook page to share their own stories. The result was this video, created as a culmination of the various stories shared. As a Coors' fan in the video states, "I have been drinking Coors since I have been drinking beer. I don't get into fads. I try to stay true to my roots." Coors maintains strong loyalty by implementing digital campaigns that emphasize the importance of heritage (or "staying true to one's roots").
Building on the success of its global multi-channel "Stay Hilton, Go Everywhere" campaign, Hilton launched the hospitality industry's first iAd interactive extension for Apple devices. Embracing the power of imagery, Hilton's interactive iAds for the iPhone and iPad take users on virtual vacations around the globe.
Image source: Hilton Global Media Center
At the bottom of the screen, a compass allows users to navigate between various images of destinations with a swipe of the finger, making the ad the first to employ the three-axis gyroscope on Apple devices. According to Dave Horton, global head of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, "This iAd reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of our brand as one that ventures beyond the norm to ensure it stays as relevant today as when it was first created."
Hilton's commitment to staying relevant with modern, tech-savvy consumers is evident in the following video, which details the company's "Lobby Initiative" -- a strategic plan to redefine the lobby experience to best engage guests.
In addition, rather than broadcasting ads across social media, Hilton listens to its customers and provides relevant responses -- evident in the following Facebook post:
Hilton is a forward-thinking brand, ensuring that discounts and added value are extended to every consumer. As the 2012 Gay Pride Season commenced, Hilton launched the "Stay Hilton, Go Out" package, which provided lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) travelers and friends of the LGBT community traveling to Pride Season celebrations with special offers. By staying relevant and focusing on its guests, Hilton thoroughly engages its customer base.
In the digital marketing world, mistakes are common. Before AT&T developed an advanced email marketing strategy, it made a few mistakes. For example, the company's VP of general marketing sent customers a generic email detailing AT&T's planned infrastructure spending. The email infuriated recipients, who quickly swarmed AT&T's Facebook page with complaints. Ready for the onslaught, AT&T representatives responded to each and every post, tempering consumer's anger. As a result, AT&T now bolsters customer loyalty by sending personalized and geo-targeted emails.
More than 2 million people a day visit AT&T's website, which is a lot of customers to maintain. According to AT&T's SVP of consumer digital experience, Phil Bienert, the most critical activity for great customer service is to listen: "From formal surveys to digital analytics to social media to crowd sourcing, we're constantly gathering feedback from our customers in a number of different areas to ensure we're continuing to improve."
And listening closely appears to be working. In 2011, AT&T wireless recorded the "fewest number of Better Business Bureau (BBB) complaints and received the lowest BBB complaint rate among the four largest national wireless carriers."
Yet, AT&T still suffers from a common symptom among wireless carriers: Despite loving their smartphones, customers feel a "disconnect" with their smartphone carriers. And customer connection breeds customer loyalty. In order to improve its relationship with consumers, AT&T continues to evolve its "Rethink Possible" campaign to center upon human experiences. For instance, take the following video. Rather than flaunt AT&T network speed, the video highlights the phone's ability to allow individuals to share their exciting new experiences with others.
Kyle Montero is an editorial intern as iMedia Connection.
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"Marketing concept: pixelated words Customer loyalty" image via Shutterstock.