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SearchTHIS: My Plan to End Spam

SearchTHIS: My Plan to End Spam Kevin Ryan

According to Jupiter Research, the paid search industry has grown from $250 million to $1.6 billion in about four years. Industry revenues grew nearly 50 percent in 2003. And if you follow the IAB interactive ad revenue reports, paid search accounts for nearly 40 percent of all online ad spending.

Paid search is big money, but what about money made in the natural form of paid search?

Now, the last time I suggested doing something formal about spammers, I came under some pretty serious fire -- well, abuse actually. Most of the comments related to the difficulties search marketers faced when they approached regulating search while combating spam and how they failed in such endeavors and how I would suffer a similar fate in my attempt.

The truth is, I don’t want to do it. I want us to do it. That is to say, we can do it with a little bureaucratic navigation, a little publisher-provider solidarity and a little charging-ahead gusto. And, let me say, this is the absolute last time I will ever write about search engine spam.

State of the industry

While parked outside the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) recent Los Angeles road show stop, I caught up with Greg Stuart, the IAB’s top man. I asked why the IAB hasn’t stepped up to regulate -- or to at least help regulate and/or control -- the unpaid organic or natural listing environment. Stuart said he could go after every Tom, Dick and Harry spamming search engine, but there really is no money in it. And that’s when it hit me.

He’s right -- there is no money in it. And moreover, the major players in algorithmic search could actually give a rodent’s posterior about the natural results economy because they are currently pulling down mega fat cash with sponsored listings.

No one put it more eloquently than a now famous Google employee at Ad:Tech, Chicago when an audience member asked how to enhance natural listings. According to sources attending the session (I was on stage elsewhere), the Googler suggested in so many words that search engine marketing firms are not truthful when advising about search site enhancements for natural listings. Now that doesn’t sound like the Sergey and Larry (incidentally, if you don’t know who I am referring to here, back away from your computer and please leave the industry) “information for all” mantra bringers I have come to know and love in a most heterosexual and professional kind of way.

Upon further investigation and consultation with industry colleagues, it seems the Googler buzz forwarded to me was taken out of context. Whatever the circumstance, there are some real concerns out there about natural search optimization firms and activities, i.e. the spammers, perhaps giving the rest of us a bad name.

“You'll be spammed if we do, and spammed if we don’t”

This quote from a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spokesman appeared in the August issue of Money Magazine with the caption “on why the agency won’t launch a do-not-spam registry for fear spammers will target the list.” The FTC is working on such a list, but the future registry will most likely not appear until a system can be built or structured to certify the origin of email

So, email is on its way to being fixed, but why?

One way email spam is different from search spam is that study after study has been conducted to determine how much revenue is lost because of it and how much could be saved by cleaning it up. Along with billions of dollars in corporate costs, email spam costs the legitimately annoying and intrusive email marketing industry millions each year.

Take a pagerank from email

We can learn something from email in that email marketing suffered from a lack of credibility at the hands of spammers. Until guidelines were established, many providers were roped into the damaging spammer category. Many would argue that email’s reputation is still in the krapper, but you have to admit with movements like CAN-SPAM and FTC intervention, it is making progress.

Although efforts are underway to help clean up search engine marketing, there has been little coordinated effort within the organized industry groups. Gurus are assembling to help out but for the most part there’s only a one-off occasional effort. One such guru is the original search engine relationship guy, Bruce Clay. Bruce has offered a code of ethics for search engine marketers, an excellent first step based on common sense and best practices. The only thing missing is a universal endorsement.

Search spamming won’t be important enough to get behind an anti-spam effort until we discover just how much revenue is lost to spammers. The search marketing industry, along with top search providers, should commission a study to determine how much solid search engine marketing revenue is being lost to spammers. Then search providers will have the incentive they need to create and enforce standards and guidelines. My money is on "quite a bit," but how do we go about collecting that information -- because in the end, it is all about the money isn’t it?

Enter the COLON

We have SEMPO, the IAB and a few other organizations, but The Coalition for Organic Listing Optimization and Naturalization (COLON) would be a brand new effort to introduce collaborative efforts for collected industry groups to establish optimization guidelines standards. It would be an unbiased approach, if you will, to organizing the various efforts of industry leadership. The COLON’s efforts will be funded by multiple industry groups and efforts. 

The first tasks at hand for the new group would be aligning leadership and funding a third-party study with the goal of providing some idea of how much revenue is taken away from paid search disciplines by search spam. Of course, utilizing various revenue projection and estimation data from other sources of revenue loss will be applied to the study.

Key methods would include:

  • Conducting discovery surveys to determine what constitutes spam in the marketer’s eyes

  • Identifying small, medium and large business spending on spam-related efforts

  • Calculating costs associated with clean-up efforts once it is banned from indexes

  • Gathering additional data on where dollars would be spent if spamming was regulated out.

I used to think spamming was limited to small businesses who were ill-informed about search engine marketing activities. But lately, I am hearing more and more big brands being called out for spamming. Sooner or later paid search revenues will flatten out and it will make sense to go after search spam revenue.

I know we can’t form an industry group called The COLON I know that a universal endorsement of standards and regulations is a pipe dream. I also know that many other data points will be required to make such an effort worth while, but with all of the crap floating around with spam wouldn’t it be great if many of us could agree on a way to go, together?

iMedia columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services 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. Meet Kevin Ryan at Search Engine Strategies, August 2-5, 2004.

Oh Target, how much do we love your branded shopping? This BDA certainly tests this assumption, offering lots of opportunity to see product, as well as over-branded design and a distinct lack of user focus.

Led bravely by the familiar Target dog, the widget presents a "Pick of the Day," "Tip of the Week," "Gift Finder," "Weekly Ad" and a "Settings" section, where you can set the masthead to count down to a specific date.

The application

The good

  • Yahoo will show you how many times a widget has been downloaded; in this case it's more than 27,000. Even if you consider that a BDA failure, it's still an astounding ROI for exposure: these people are being alerted to a new product on their desktops on a daily basis.

  • For Target's most faithful, it's a hit and a little taste of product and design daily. And the widget collapses itself to just the dog and the countdown when not in use, which is a nice feature.

The bad

  • The site is more personalized than the widget. Why not bring that functionality to the desktop?

  • Surprise! Pop-ups are bad! Widgets often launch browser windows, but there's no standard for when that happens in the experience, so you have to make your own standard and follow it, which Target neglected to do. If one style of button launches a browser, then they all should. It's a challenge that makes a difference in the user experience.

  • Will I really keep it as a timer? It only counts days. Not very useful.

  • Worse than the lack of utility is the Target red that outlines the widget. The contrast between the widget and the desktop burns my eyes. I'm no expert on the most popular desktop colors, but my guess is that most are blue, and that the least popular desktop colors are hues that would compliment this blaring shade of red. I can't even look at this widget for more than a few seconds without it diverting my eyes to any other more reasonable palette on the screen.

  • Wait a second, no video? This was another glaring omission, and a missed opportunity. Target could have used its BDA to let consumers download high-quality videos in the background and to serve alerts to users when they're ready to be seen. People love those Target ads. Why not repurpose them?

What you can take away

  • You've already invested in dynamic web features. Now see their true potential on the desktop, where instead of having to re-enter criteria with every visit, the BDA can remember and do the searching in the background, returning what the user is interested in directly to the desktop.

  • Another practical reuse for retailers is the ability of your BDA to read the same cookies your website left behind. Did your BDA user drop a cart in your checkout process? The BDA can remind your user by displaying those cart items on the desktop, offering checkout at a glance and a click away.

  • Moreover, you can use that cookie information to push behaviorally targeted offers to the BDA. It's just repurposing your existing investment in a context far more convenient than within the web browser.

Coke extends its myCoke online social scene to the desktop, with this real-time list showing which of your virtual friends are online.

The application

The good

  • There's an old marketing wives' tale I'm sure you've heard about the Coca-Cola marketing strategy: if it moves, paint it red; if it doesn't, put a logo on it. Well, that theory seems to be at work here. There's a Coke logo, and you can see which of your v-ego friends (Coke Music users) are online. That's it.

The bad

  • Not interactive at all. You can't click through to the web and open myCoke.com. You have to log in to use the widget anyway. Why not just give me a click to the site and log me in on the way? It would retain a lot more users.

    In fact, there are two clickable links: terms and conditions and myCoke's privacy policy. If you're building a widget for your legal and compliance department, this might be a good place to start. But in this situation, it only highlights the deficiencies.

  • And for a social site BDA, why not offer chat? Creating a BDA integrating AIM, MSN and myCoke would be a boon for all the v-ego'd teens out there.

  • My poor eyes. This is another case where adding a little white around the logo would have gone a long way. As it stands, I can't look at the Coke red against my blue-background desktop pictures for more than a few seconds.

  • And I really can't understand why they didn't just port myCoke right onto the desktop. It already pops out with its own browser window. This is another case where technology sitting just on the edge of what a browser can handle works with ease on the desktop. I've got dual processors trying to churn their way through laborious myCoke loading screens. This could have been done in the background while I was idle on the desktop.

The ugly

  • Yes, it gets worse. The experience surrounding this BDA was actually poorer than the BDA itself. First, it's a Yahoo Widget. But it doesn't appear on the Yahoo Widget Gallery, which is where the myCoke instructions tell you to download it. Luckily, they fixed this a few days in, allowing users to download it directly.

  • No integration? I was emailed shortly after downloading the "Friends" widget to download a widget of all Coke games. No thanks. Looks cool in the email, but their BDA efforts are already damaged goods, leaving me wondering why they didn't add the games to the widget I worked so hard to find and download in the first place.

What you can take away

  • If you can leverage existing habits in open-source technology, go for it! Got teens chatting on IM? Give them a cooler, branded chat client to use.

  • It's easy to make BDAs viral. At the very least, a simple "Send this BDA to a friend" button on the desktop will do wonders for your offering.

  • Make it practical and interactive. Give your users the self-evident path to the next step in the process and they'll thank you with loyalty and an astonishing amount of exposure.

Around two years old now, Southwest's Ding proves that a BDA can make a huge impact on loyalty and sales without being pretty or all that usable. It's just a collection of buttons representing the categories of the website, with a text window showing customized, time-sensitive offers based on your registration preferences.

The application

The good

With only a small sliver of the overall airline market, Southwest's Ding has achieved:

  • More than 1 million downloads.

  • More than $60 million in sales per year from the BDA alone.

  • Incredible loyalty: in an industry where loyalty is everything, 45 percent of Ding users are more likely to make a future purchase from Southwest.

  • This is also a classic example of how powerful perceptions are. Ding is promoted as a constant low-fare searching device: exactly what price sensitive shoppers want to hear. But once they download the BDA, it's a perfect pivot-foot for these users to make clicking through to Southwest.com a habit. Being on the desktop eliminates all the competition Southwest would face in the browser. People are far more likely to start their browser session in a Southwest.com category than they are anywhere else.

The bad

  • The "ding" itself. The sound is cute in a 30-second TV spot. But I'm not constantly traveling Southwest, and the dinging got old, fast. The ability to turn off the sound and just have a visual alert (that isn't constantly blinking at me) might keep more casual users leaning forward.

  • The app is just barely integrated. Ding would do well to show car and hotel offers in its text window as well.

  • It only gets as personal as my flight preferences. Throwing in weather for those destination cities, or even a flight tracker on the desktop app, would make the proposition of keeping Ding active on my desktop a lot more viable.

What you can take away

  • Captivation is king. Feel free to design for attracting users on price. What you'll get by training users on your BDA, and your web interface, will keep them coming back regardless. This is especially true as your demographics hit 34- to 59-year-old users, who will stick with an interface they've been trained on rather than try something new, even if it's better.

  • BDAs for travel and hospitality are like a 100,000-square foot candy store no one else has heard of. It amazes me that no one besides Southwest is making a splash here. Make reservations, see live mileage or loyalty account numbers at a glance. Nothing else out there will serve your loyal customers with more utility and convenience while at the same time keeping those users away from all your competition's ad space on a zillion sites.

The undisputed heavyweight champion of BDAs, iTunes demonstrates that if you find an underserved need and build a highly usable interface for that need, the sky is the limit. In this case, Apple is the brand, iPod is the product and iTunes is the BDA.

The application

The good

  • When iTunes started, it gained momentum purely because no other company offered a way to create and manage MP3 files so well. I've often thought that if Apple decided to make a similar application around the process of filing and retrieving cooking recipes, they'd take over that industry, too. After all, iTunes isn't a whole lot more than a really nice database with ecommerce attached.

  • What makes this possible is the desktop. Managing this information online wouldn't work for all kinds of reasons, but on the desktop, Apple is free from the design restraints of HTML and can build an application specifically suited to the needs of the user.

  • Now that users are trained on Apple's way of managing music files, extending that user experience to ecommerce is seamless. You can fill out the holes in your music library without having to learn anything new. The interface is the same one you've been practicing on with your own files.

  • Welcome to the desktop portal. As you may have seen, the power of a trained user extends offline to physical products both vertically (iPhone, iPod, AppleTV), and maybe, more amazingly, horizontally across products within the same vertical. For example, for jogging, you can you buy the Nike+ service that tracks your progress with the iPod Nano. But when you want to have TV, movies and music at your disposal, there are color screen models, and you can use them all effortlessly with the same connection cord and interface.

  • Another amazing result of filling this space with a usable interface is how good the ecommerce can get. The now-vacant Sam Goody in the nearby strip mall attests to the reality behind more than 2 billion song downloads.

  • And did you notice, no website? Well, you can go to the web for information about iTunes, but you have to download the BDA to buy. I asked if you noticed, because most people don't distinguish between ecommerce through a BDA and a website.

    In fact, eMarketer recently reported that women ages 16 to 25 have voted iTunes their No. 5 favorite website, which is a telling statistic for the future of ecommerce and a very important lesson for anyone interested in capturing the attention of such an influential group. These are the household financial managers who will dictate the success of your brand over the next decade.

The bad

  • Yes, there are problems with iTunes. First, the restrictions cross the line between business objectives and serving your users well. This "beat me or join me" attitude will almost certainly end up defining iTunes as either a fad or a trend. Remember, iTunes is only a few years old. We may end up looking back on it like synthesizers you wear like a guitar or women's suits with shoulder pads.

What can you take away?

  • iTunes really has something for everyone to take away. It demonstrates the BDAs' power to customize an interface completely to your users' needs, as well as the rewards for companies that achieve that level of interface utility.

  • What need is your brand an extension of? Apple looked into the lives of its target users, found where help was needed and created a way to overcome those obstacles (real or perceived) first. As I mentioned, Nike leveraged the Apple BDA in a partnership, providing its customers hardware and software to complement the way they're already using a product.

  • Simple ideas are often the best place to start. Apple did it by creating an application to allow its users to track songs. A laundry detergent company can apply that same helpful concept by creating a BDA timer to remind customers when the wash is done, with a click to the web for tips on stain removal. If you're a household product, a desktop "cleaner" tool with your brand could organize the desktop workspace.

The cosmetic identity refresh
In January of this year, Tropicana refreshed its brand identity and launched new product packaging. That the new look became so controversial is ironic given that the rebranding effort was so reductionist in nature. Nearly all of the distinctive graphic elements consumers have associated with the identity disappeared, and the new packaging looked more like a generic store brand than a premium juice with decades of brand equity. Within a month, Tropicana reverted to the old, familiar visual system, but not before spending significant time and money to salvage the ill-fated rebranding effort.

The Tropicana case illustrates one of the leading causes of failure when refreshing brand identity: poor strategic rationale. Stripping the identity elements that held the most equity from the product packaging was a puzzling move, particularly when the battle for shelf space in leading retailers has never been more expensive or competitive. But many companies make a far more subtle mistake when budgets are tight. They refresh the identity incrementally -- cosmetically -- and for little reason other than looking new. Celebrities can afford a nip/tuck from time to time just for the newness of it. Your brand cannot. Don't touch your identity unless there is a sound strategic reason to do so.

The obscure naming or renaming
A naming effort sounds easy and cheap, but it is rarely either. Names are often the most vital brand asset a company owns. We measure unaided name awareness and attempt to track how consumers link product attributes to brand names. It requires time and money to establish these associations. That's why it's odd that some companies choose periods when budget funds are scarce to rename their most important brands. It's not that bad times are bad environments for naming, it's that many companies have difficulty securing the advertising and promotional budgets required to introduce the new name to the public. This is particularly true of digital companies, where it's relatively easy to name features and functionality. It's much harder to get these named features and functionality to register with key audiences. There may be solid rationale for launching a new name or renaming your legacy brand, but be sure you have the resources to support the introduction now. Otherwise, you might be better waiting until there's more budget to do it right. You'd be surprised how much equity can be destroyed by a botched renaming initiative.


The clever brand advertising splash
I confess, the clever brand advertising splash is my personal pet peeve. What is it? It's the kind of advertising campaign that doesn't contain a call-to-action -- it's just designed to promote core brand attributes. This mode of advertising is essential for a brand launch, but it's hard to justify for established brands when budgets are tight. You may be surprised to hear a brand strategist say this, but in a down economy, your advertising dollars need to be held accountable for demand generation. This is especially true given the murky evidence to support the return on investment from purely brand-focused advertising campaigns.

Still, we see online, print, and television ads executed with clever creative components that provide little more than entertainment value. And while it is true that brands are assets that depreciate over time -- and you need to maintain them to preserve their value -- splashy, brand-focused advertising when awareness is high and equity established is akin to replacing the windshield washers on your car when you really should have bought new brake pads.

The anonymous viral effort
It's cheap. It's sexy. And, best of all, it spreads like wildfire. That's what we're led to believe about viral marketing, anyway. Many brands see a bad economy as the prime time to shift spending to viral channels. And there is much to love about a well-executed viral campaign. But viral marketing is not always the best way to promote and sustain your brand. First, if it's truly viral, you usually have to reduce the brand lockup -- sometimes to the degree that it's nearly impossible to tell the brand is involved at all.

In Los Angeles, super-graphics purveyor SkyTag has coated the surfaces of many buildings with an iconic image of the Statue of Liberty, accompanied by block letters reading 1969. There's no connection to the SkyTag brand nor is there any identification of what the image and text mean (SkyTag was founded in 1969 in New York). Maybe the cost is irrelevant to SkyTag because it owns the display environment, but the average consumer in Los Angeles thinks the murals are advertising for an upcoming film or record release. Viral marketing may be a good promotional tactic, but it is risky as a brand implementation strategy.


The topical but over-reactive messaging campaign
A brand messaging platform should be evergreen. Unlike promotional messaging or product messaging, brand messaging should remain fairly constant during the ups and downs of the market. Many companies are tempted to rewrite their brand messaging platform to address market pressures. It's the business equivalent of changing your own personality to fit in better at a party. It's not you, and it rarely works out well in the long run. There may be strong reasons for companies to adjust their advertising and promotional messaging to reflect the times, but your brand messaging should reflect who you really are, and who you have always been, as an organization. It should inform and influence all of your company's communications, and serve as the foundation for your distinct brand voice.

The microsite stop-gap
The budget is tight, you're launching a new product, and you need to introduce it with the proper amount of digital gusto. But your existing corporate website needs work that is beyond the scope of your budget. This is where many brand managers opt for a microsite -- a small, containable site that sits independently from the primary website so you can create your own information architecture and appealing design. It works around the system, and it is sometimes the most viable, if not the only realistic, strategy. However, resist the microsite stop-gap. Microsites are like rabbits -- they are rarely orphans. Besides the fact that a proliferation of microsites is costly and hard to maintain, it creates major brand challenges. You can confuse your customers by fragmenting the visual look and feel of your brand system, and you can create long-term brand architecture issues. If you must use microsites, consider setting hard and fast "sunset" dates for when the site will go offline and migrate onto your primary website.

The obligatory social media push
Social media is the darling of brand marketers in nearly every industry. The allure of connecting with customers and influential audiences in a 1:1 relationship is causing many companies to push their teams to implement a social media strategy as soon as possible. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn offer tremendous possibilities for brands, but the opportunities should be explored strategically, not because there is an obligation to introduce the brand in those channels. Too many companies spend hard-earned money to launch their brands on Twitter with nothing to say, no guideline on how to say it, and no strategy on how to respond to those who decide to engage in conversation.


The three trusted endeavors
I've shared seven guaranteed paths to brand failure, but I haven't answered the over-arching question: Where should you spend your brand budget when economic conditions are less than ideal? At the risk of providing an overly generic answer, there are three areas nearly every company can benefit from:

Brand architecture simplification. When budgets are plentiful, many companies launch brands without a lot of diligence. Especially in digital circles, first-mover advantage can generate more return in the short-term than a perfectly constructed brand architecture. But a bloated brand architecture is expensive to maintain over time. In a down economy, you can cut costs and optimize your brand portfolio by re-evaluating your brand architecture approach. How should your brands be organized? What are the naming and identity conventions? What are the decision criteria for launching new brands and names? Which brands, if any, should be consolidated and what is the migration path? These are questions that most companies can and should address in the current business climate.

Message alignment. Large companies rarely consolidate communications. It's the biggest communications challenge for the modern corporation. One company can stream messages from multiple divisions and multiple service areas within each division. There are promotional messages, investor messages, community outreach, lobbying, and branding. One of the great values a strong brand can provide is consistency in the messaging platform. Message alignment is a worthwhile exercise when budgets are tight. The goal is to streamline the process of communicating externally. You do this by developing a strong brand messaging platform that can help all communicators deliver their messages in a branded way. We find the best practice for this exercise is to help communicators understand three aspects: the brand voice, the brand messaging platform, and the storytelling architecture that links the brand to virtually any messaging need.


Brand health. Because your decisions are likely to face increased scrutiny in the current climate, data is your friend. This is an opportune time to gauge the strength of your brand and set benchmarks that can measure future performance. By diagnosing the strengths and weaknesses of the brand, you can better justify future investments. We do this through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. One caveat you should consider when setting benchmarks: use caution. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke refers to the current time as the worst economic environment since The Great Depression. If he's right, we're in a period that statisticians refer to as an outlier. Based on your particular industry, you need to decide whether the data you gather today will serve as a valid baseline or a reflection of consumer sentiment that is colored by the current crisis. Regardless, your brand will fare better if you assess its overall health now and have diagnostic criteria to guide your future brand building efforts.

Not to belabor a point, but from a financial perspective a brand is an asset, not an expense. The money you invest in a brand should, theoretically, retain value for the organization. Though spending money on the brand during the lean times feels risky and invites scrutiny from internal stakeholders who might otherwise not have cared, brand maintenance is vital to the long-term advantage of your organization. You may find it rewards you down the road, especially if you can avoid the path of the misguided.

Laurence Vincent is group director of strategy at Siegel+Gale.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

The obligatory debate over definitions

OK, let's get the terminology out of the way. After all, this is where a lot of people are getting hung up, and rightfully so.

A lot of marketers have been using "content marketing" and "native advertising" interchangeably in recent months, and that's a problem. Even if you accept the legitimacy of the term "native advertising" (which I obviously don't), this basic distinction still needs to be made: Content marketing and native advertising are not the same thing. Native advertising is a subset of content marketing, just as advertising is a subset of marketing in general. Content marketing refers incredibly broadly to the idea of brands creating content as means of boosting their brands. Native advertising, so far as our industry has determined, is when brands pay to inject that content into the information streams of consumers, be it via an article, tweet, video, or image. This can be done in a number of ways, and some practices are more concerning than others.

When it comes to the manifestations of what we're currently calling native advertising, the distinctions made by Ben Kunz are a useful starting point for discussion. He breaks down native advertising into three types:

  • "The Frame," which is a relatively innocent execution in which a piece of content has an introduction or conclusion that notes the piece is sponsored by a given entity.

  • "The Insertion," in which the content is produced by a marketer and disclosed as such, yet looks like real stories or videos on the site.

  • "The Misdirection," which goes even further than "The Insertion" and is specifically designed to misdirect the source.

Here's my point: Those first two manifestations? We have names for those. They're called "sponsored content" and "advertorials." It's that simple. Those are perfectly good terms that advertisers and publishers understand and have put a good deal of thought into executing in a reputable way. (To see just how much thought, check out The Guardian's guidelines for sponsored content. The publication leaves little room for confusion.)

It's fine if publishers want to put a renewed emphasis on these types of sponsored products -- and many of them are (including iMedia Connection). Many publications are opening new divisions staffed with writers and editors whose sole purpose is to craft quality sponsored content that aligns with each publication's own tone. That's fine. Good for them. Fight the good fight against declining subscriptions and ad revenues, my brethren. But label that content as sponsored, and label it clearly.

But that third manifestation of native advertising? The Misdirection? If marketers and publishers have coined the phrase "native advertising" with the hope of legitimizing practices like that, then we're all in deep shit. That's a battle that reputable publications have been fighting since the dawn of journalism, and for good reason. If you blur the line -- especially intentionally -- between editorial and advertising, you will lose reader trust. And then you'll lose readers. And then it's pretty much over.

Oh, and marketers? That loss of trust applies to you too. If you think consumers won't use their spending power to demonstrate how little they like being fooled by your veiled sales pitches, then think again. It's 2013. People go remarkably out of their way to avoid ads. If you try to slip one in the back door, that door will be slammed and locked forever.

Beyond the above-mentioned tactics, other companies positioning themselves in the native space are focusing on inserting activity-driven display ads into the natural ecosystem of the content that people are consuming. Some of these ads are quite brilliant, and I generally like what these companies are doing. But again, why we need to apply a muddy term like "native advertising" to these practices is beyond me. I realize "activity-based in-content display ads" is hardly a sexy moniker. But at least everyone knows what we're talking about and can immediately discern the value.

The blurriest line

OK, to recap: Let's stop dressing up our old advertorials and sponsored content with the unnecessary bow of "native advertising." And, more importantly, let's not intentionally blur the lines between editorial and advertising. It's fine for brands to support or put out valuable content to bolster their images. But don't hide the source. 

There is one final blurred line that needs to be addressed, and it's one that publications and marketers (particularly PR professionals) have been intentionally ignoring for far too long. I'd say that it falls into the realm of so-called native advertising, except that in this case, the publishers aren't even getting paid to soil their good names.

I'm talking about articles touting certain practices, solutions, sectors, trends, types of products, etc., that are authored by representatives of companies with a vested interest in the success of those very things. Those articles, the creation of which is essentially the very foundation of many public relations firms, are essentially sponsored content -- that no one is paying for. And increasingly, in a world where page views and volume of content are valued over quality, they are tarnishing otherwise reputable publications.

This topic arose recently in our office when this Mashable article, "Can Content Marketing Save Journalism?" was circulated among our editorial team. It's an interesting read -- the writer makes some good points and throws out a few interesting examples. Ultimately, the article painted a relatively hopeful picture for publishers that embrace the trend toward native advertising.

And then one of our editors -- only one, out of the half dozen who read the piece -- noticed this at the end of the article:

*Editor's Note: The author's company, Contently, helps brands find journalists for the purpose of creating content for native advertising.

In a flash, the article's credibility crumbled into an ironic little pile. A representative of a company built on native advertising suggesting that native advertising is of great value? Not a surprising conclusion. But what was surprising was how buried this important disclosure was within the article.

It's not my intent to pick on Mashable here. To do so would be for me to fling rocks while living in the most fragile of glass houses. iMedia Connection has been guilty of this offense on many occasions. The ad network writing about how to choose an ad network. The social media listening platform writing about the value of listening in social media. It's a line we've crossed many times in the need to feed the daily publishing beast. But it's a line that we're becoming ever more vigilant about maintaining, not only out of respect for our readers, but also out of respect for our sponsors.

It's not fair for companies to sneak (and in the case of particularly crafty PR folks, I do mean sneak) self-serving promotions into publication under the guise of articles while other companies support those publications via traditional advertising and sponsorships. It blurs the line just as badly as the worst manifestations of native advertising, and there will be long-term repercussions.

In the marketing world, there is no black and white anymore. We're all navigating a landscape in which the shades of gray multiply weekly. But that doesn't give us an excuse to flagrantly ignore editorial vs. advertising distinctions that have time and time again been proven valuable and, in fact, essential to maintaining consumer trust in both publications and brands.

Lori Luechtefeld is senior editor of iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow Luechtefeld at @loriluechtefeld. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Ink splash background" image via Shutterstock.

Satisfying your customer's needs along their journey

A customer's journey begins long before there is even a conscious thought that motivates him/her to take any kind of action. Remember that we consume products and services as a means to satisfy our needs and desires. But, before we even recognize we have a particular need or desire, there is an influencer that brings needs and desires to the forefront of our consciousness. Marketers like to call this "demand creation" and use advertising as a means to drive this demand. I have never been a fan of the term "demand creation." It is very manipulative in its design and intention. Essentially, you are saying, "there is currently no need for this, so let's go out and create a false sense of need in order to increase revenue for the business." Pushing consumerism for the sake of consumerism is not sustainable on many fronts.

Every business will have a different customer journey. The first step to improving the customer experience is to map the journey of your customers. Customer journey mapping should start from the moment people are exposed to your brand. Depending on your industry category, you may also consider taking it a step further and also include how potential customers feel about your industry and your competitors. This will give you a much deeper understanding of customer needs, barriers to conversion, and identify the paths to least resistance. Journey mapping exercises should also be considerate to the various journeys different customer segments may take. Develop customer personas based on the attributes and characteristics of each segment and map their unique journeys. Different people have different needs and must be engaged in a way that is most comfortable and natural to their preferred journey. Being empathetic to how people prefer to be communicated to, how they learn, and how they value you is essential for cultivating brand relationships through the customer journey. Mapping a typical customer journey should at the very least answer the following questions:

While this provides a simple framework to understand, it is important to note that most journeys are multi-dimensional. Most people will go through these phases multiple times at various stages of their journey. For example, a person will go through this entire process just to make a purchase decision. But, the customer experience does not stop at the point of purchase. People will go through this process again and again at each touchpoint, which could include websites (both brand and distribution sites), in-store, packaging, customer service, social media, email, promotions, etc. Whether you are a B2C or B2B brand, every customer will move through these key phases. How you engage each customer through the journey will determine the brand memories you create. Those memories will determine whether or not they purchase from your company again and how customers share their experience with others. To develop healthy and sustainable brands, you must provide an exceptional customer experience at each touchpoint throughout their journey.

Digital transformation that enhances the experience

As someone who spent nearly 20 years as a digital marketer, I appreciate the enhanced capabilities, operational efficiencies, and brand experiences our digital world can now provide businesses. But remember, even in the digital age, it is still about the people. Many businesses make digital transformation decisions purely based on supply-chain cost benefits without accounting for the impact it could have on a customer's experience. If the digital journey causes more friction or inconveniences to a person's preferred journey, it could lead to a greater loss in revenue attributed to dissatisfied customers. This is why mapping the customer journey for your different customer personas is so important. Some people prefer the digital experience at certain touchpoints, while others may prefer it at other touchpoints. And dare I say, some people may not prefer a digital experience at all. Even if that is not an option, you need to make sure the digital touchpoints provides a simple, convenient, and intuitive experience.

A digital transformation strategy that provides options based on customer preferences is the way to go. While it is important to create operational efficiencies to reduce costs, it should never be at the sacrifice of the customer experience. Your customers are the reason you are in business and the reason you will stay in business. Of course, let us not forget that when digital platforms and data intelligence are used right, it can reduce friction and provide conveniences that can exponentially enhance the customer experience. Regardless of what your digital transformation requirements are, decisions need to be based on the preferences of your customers. Remember, digital strategies are designed to satisfy human needs.

Empowering employees and giving them purpose

Every individual and every business has a purpose, even if you have not been able to identify it yet. Your purpose is why you do what you do. Purpose is what motivates people to action and is what keeps people focused to achieve their goals every day. Aligning shared passions, shared beliefs, and shared value is how one finds common purpose. Purposeful leaders leverage common purpose to inspire, unify, and drive collective action to achieve their goals and desired outcomes. Purpose-driven brands find the common purpose across organizational stakeholders, their customers, and society to achieve business sustainability. Purpose is determined by leveraging your expertise and aligning your needs, values, and aspirations with the impact you want to have on the world.  As a business, you need to define a purpose that the company can rally and get behind.

Individuals with purpose are attracted to businesses with purpose. People want to work for companies where they are empowered and are having a positive impact in people's lives. When people are living with purpose, they are happier, more fulfilled in their work, and they are much more eager to satisfy customer needs. When your employees are happy, fulfilled, and engaged it leads to greater customer experiences. When people are operating with common purpose, it boosts employee morale and improves collaboration that results in greater performance which leads to greater customer experiences. Your employees are the face of your brand. Every interaction a customer has with an employee is a touchpoint; a touchpoint that will leave a lasting memory about the brand experience. What kind of memory do you want to create? Answering this question could help you find your purpose if you have not yet found one.

Living your values and delivering your brand promise

Your brand values are what you stand for. It is what you believe as an organization and how you want to be perceived by your current customers and your addressable audience. Consumers feel good when they spend money with a company who shares their values. Employees want to work for a company who share their values. Your values form your personality. And just like every great relationship, your looks will only take you so far. It's what's underneath that matters most. Your brand values set the expectations for your employees, tell your customers what they can anticipate from a relationship with you, and informs society how you plan to behave in the community.

We are in the middle of a cultural paradigm shift. There is a new social contract that is being drafted between businesses and the greater society. People want businesses to behave in a socially responsible and transparent way. People want to be treated with respect, be fairly compensated for their work, and operate in a healthy, happy, and positive work environment. People want businesses to have an appreciation for the value they provide to society and the impact they can have on the world. Businesses must be authentic, empathetic, and genuinely care about people -- care about their customers, their employees, and society as a whole. Purpose-driven brands are born from values-based businesses.

Your brand promise is the value you provide and the benefit your products or services have in satisfying customer needs and desires. Your values cannot be sacrificed in order to deliver a brand promise. Because of the new social contract, your values must drive your brand promise. People want to support businesses -- as consumers or employees -- who align with their needs, values, and aspirations. This alignment cultivates deeper relationships between people. Delivering your brand promise in this way strengthens brand reputation and loyalty. This is how you build stable businesses and sustainable brands.

Creating a culture of innovation and customer-centricity

Depending on who you ask, innovation can mean a lot different things. We need to be careful about throwing the word "innovation" around, only to have it become the latest buzzword that gets disregarded two years from now. I define innovation as the process by which a new idea is brought to life. Innovation is extremely important for our progress, growth, and sustainability across all pillars of society. For a business to create a culture of innovation, I believe it must at least institute these five key practices:

  1. Provide a platform that promotes the exchange of new ideas across the organization

  2. Establish a process that validates new ideas before they are implemented

  3. Design a workflow that permits easy integration and dissemination of validated ideas

  4. Reduce operational frictions and empower people to be more collaborative

  5. Avoid complacency by gamifying innovation and by leading with purpose

Most companies need to undergo cultural transformation in order to create an innovative and customer-centric culture. The majority of companies still retain organizational structures that are product-centric. Departments, processes, and workflow are designed around the delivery of a product or service rather than on improving the customer experience and the delivery of their brand promise. As a result, most decisions that occur across the organization and the supply-chains are based on creating efficiencies in the manufacturing and delivery of the product or service, even if it may not be beneficial to the customer. This is a huge misstep. Organizations should be designed to deliver great customer experiences. Of course, your products or services are the primary variables. But the No. 1 variable is your customer.

Employees must be educated, developed, and organized in a new way. They cannot work in departmental silos. They must understand their individual roles and responsibilities and know how they impact other organizational stakeholders throughout the customer's journey. Everyone must make a commitment to put the customers' needs first. Digital transformation strategies must be deployed as a means to enhance the customer experience, not hinder it. Management must learn how to lead with the brand's values and lead with purpose to deliver on the company's brand promise. Organizations need to establish a culture of innovation and customer-centricity in order to remain competitive in an increasingly socially conscious market. At the most fundamental level, a business is just a group of people that provide value to society through the exchange of goods and services to satisfy the needs and desires of others. Regardless of innovation or how cultures evolve, it always has been, it is now, and it always will be about the people.

Jason Burnham is principal of experience innovation at Strativity Group, Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

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Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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