Mona Lisa Doesn’t Need to Shout


Mona Lisa doesn’t need to shout.  With confident, restrained grace, her smile draws us in with more power than a shout. It is as if her smile knows its place within the masterpiece.

Designing a masterpiece and designing a marketing strategy share this in common: both require an artful balance of relative context through selective, focused and deliberate strokes.

In design, crowding your medium with noisy elements is not a promising way to achieve a memorable, lasting masterpiece. From Mona Lisa’s smile, we learn that brands can be more effective by finding their unique but coherent place within a canvas of competitors.

Your competitive position should reflect not just an internal awareness of your brand, but an acute external awareness of your competitive context: how are you perceived and what makes you stand out amongst competitors?

And that’s exactly how memorable art comes to be: the artist places the appropriate weight, focus and distinctive value upon the central figures in a piece by building upon the background and supporting elements in a coordinated and delicate matter.

Which smile most resembles your brand?

Marketing Strategy Visual

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Living the Ethos of Customer Experience


I design user interfaces & workflows, communications, perform marketing analysis, and I work on developing brand identity.  It is easy to get disconnected from your customers when you’re interacting over a virtual medium of a website.

And when I ask friends in my field questions about the specific pain points, desires & needs of their customers (as they relate to the website), I almost always get a blank stare.  So it appears I am not alone in seeing the potential disconnect.

So, through mistakes and successes, I’ve jotted down a few things I’ve learned about the ethos of customer experience management:

  • Get Your Hands Dirty with Deep Customer Analysis – Without acute segment analysis, you might not even notice you have a customer retention issue. The inflow of new customer revenue sometimes covers up the loss of revenue from recently departed veteran customers.
  • Welcome Feedback – Provide ongoing platforms for direct customer feedback within your inbound channels of communication. Encourage honest feedback and continually reiterate and demonstrate a commitment to acting on customer feedback.  It builds trust, reduces customer frustration and feelings of alienation, demonstrates transparency and seriously contains issues from exploding into PR disasters so you don’t need to worry about reputation management on communication channels over which you have very little control.
  • Initiate One-to-One Contact  – Marketers shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to individual customers.   To improve customer retention, throwing out blanket apology emails can help, surveys can help, offering refunds through customer service channels can help, but it means a lot more to customers when marketers and other managers of customer experience proactively contact them with the express purpose of fixing their pain.
  • Create a Culture of Perpetually Re-evaluating Customer Experience – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the antithesis of a customer-centric mindset.  There is always room for improvement in customer experience, so build a culture of ongoing revision and enhancement.  You’ll do a much better job of preempting customer service, satisfaction & retention issues. Rain or shine, evaluate retention.  Just because customers stopped complaining doesn’t mean the problem is fixed – it might mean they’ve given up and left already.

Online Positioning: Picking a Keyword Mix


It seems like every 5 minutes a blogger writes about how to do SEO.

But there are only scarce fragments and side notes on how to actually research and craft a comprehensive strategy & plan for how SEO will be done most effectively for a particular website.  This is staggering.  The competition online is simply too fierce, too large and too varied to risk compromising on strategy.  In this post, I’ll provide a few of my own SEO mental models and some concrete guidance for those who want to get their SEO efforts right the first timeIt’s not rocket science, but it does take some discipline, attention to detail and analysis. 

So here we go.

First, the 80-20 rule.  Ideally about 20% of your time allocated to SEO is spent on prep/strategy, while about 80% is spent actually doing the SEO – creating & optimizing content, improving site structure and building external links.  But from my experience, roughly 80% of success in SEO is the result of effective strategy and planning.  For one particular site that required about a month of SEO research, organic traffic had increased 100% within just 3 months of the initial roll-out of the 1st phase of content/structure changes. And don’t get me wrong – the site was already ranked fairly well across a variety of terms.  It just hadn’t picked the right terms – it was not yet positioned hierarchically or around the core value prop. or target audience.

Research, Analysis & Keyword Selection

SEO Process Cycle

Differentiation
Just like any marketing plan, you need a competitive position online that is based on your specific value proposition and core audience.  You can’t say “me too” online for very long.  There’s far too much of that going on.  The key to SEO positioning is centering your keyword mix on the differentiating factors of your value proposition.  You need differentiation to have a position that attracts quality traffic, but you also need to test these keywords.  This is especially true for smaller sites and smaller businesses.  Understand who your competitors are online and study their ranking and website content to ascertain where they’re strongly positioned and where they’re vulnerable.

High Quality Keyword Mix
Jump into Google Analytics and look at organic traffic and conversion rates by keyword.  Pick the top performing candidates. If you don’t have historical conversion data associated with particular keywords, a modest AdWords budget is an ideal channel for discovering how to refine keyword mix and gain some quantitative support to the keyword mix in consideration.

Highest Possible Search Volume for Keyword Mix
Using keyword traffic research tools, you want to pick the most popular keyword variants within your mix of candidates to be the focal point.  Use AdWords keyword research tool and Google Trends. The operative word here is highest possible – don’t sacrifice quality for quantity unless you plan to be a gigantic traffic eating monster like Wikipedia or eHow.

Long-Tail
As one hypothetical example, it is possible to take a word like “craft beer” and turn it into longer, more specific keywords, like “seasonal craft beers” and “IPA craft beers”.  In this way, the core of your focus is around a broader, high-volume keyword mix; but you extend and diversify your keyword array around those core terms.  This makes it easier to rank high for keyword variants that competitors may not have thought of.  The nice thing about longer keyword phrases is that they tend to produce higher conversion rates.

Keyword Strategy: Visualizing Structure, Defining Variants,  Applying Keywords to Site

The Plan

After the keyword mix is visualized and clearly defined, it is crucial to have a concrete plan and timeline for executing an SEO strategy.  The first phase is site/content optimization.  The second phase is content creation (blogging would be an ideal example of this for small businesses).  The third phase is external link building.  All of these can be done concurrently, but it is important to at least emphasize each of these phases in the stated order.

The final component of the SEO plan is a roadmap for measuring and improving upon the SEO strategy over time.  If you can’t quantify the impact of an SEO strategy, it’s a waste of time and money.

What to measure:

  • Rank is still a useful leading indicator; however, don’t forget that there are thousands of keyword variants used to find your site.  So even if you don’t rank that well for your core keyword, you could be taking #1 spots for lower traffic, higher quality terms.
  • Traffic – Relative and absolute growth month to month of organic traffic
  • Conversion Rate of organic traffic high-level and broken down by keyword.  At the very least, track registrations (or the rough equivalent of that for your site) and transactions (or, if revenue is not your business objective online, whatever most desired action defines the whole of your site)
  • Retention & Customer Value $ (Advanced) – You need a database/eCRM for this.  But it is extremely helpful for quantifying the outcome of SEO efforts. If you don’t have a database or eCRM solution, there a good make-shift solution: take the number of new user registrations by month (even if that is a simple .xls file of email addresses w/ dates) and subtract your Google registration conversions.  Then, apply your AOV or average annualized customer value $ to the share of new registrants that acquired through organic search. By taking these two simple steps, you are now at least able to quantify the share of new users acquired organically through unpaid search and the approximate share of annual revenue those new users produced.

A few pointers on how to measure and analyze effectively:

  • Annotate EVERYTHING – every major change to site structure/content, every ranking milestone, every major Google algorithm update, every major external link building effort.  I guarantee you’ll need to look back in order to do effective analysis and be able to articulate the story of your SEO growth.  There are far too many variables to keep track of in your head.
  • Use Rank Checker to document rank improvement over time.  Later on, you’ll want to overlay this data with traffic & conversion data from organic traffic.  You can automate this Firefox add-on to run routinely and check a long list of keywords.  Make sure you’re logged out of Google, etc. when you run it or your rankings will be skewed to your personal search history.
  • Everyone can afford to set up a free Google Analytics account and pay a web admin or developer to add Google Goal TrackingGoogle Webmaster tools is an important insight tool – I particularly appreciate the previous month comparison chart for keywords.  It shows you how much you’re up or down for any given keyword (traffic, click-throughs, etc.).  Webmaster tools also provides html suggestions, which is helpful for those just getting started in SEO.
  • Use AdWords keyword research tool.  It’s still one of the best tools.  While your at it, setup a modest AdWords campaign ($500) and get some initial conversion data on different keywords you’re considering.  Although, make sure your statistical sample (number of click-throughs) is large enough to actual warrant any serious conclusions.
  • Review & Analyze weekly, monthly, quarterly & annually – experiment with SWOT analysis approaches and document everything you find.  When you annotate your changes, try to include a concise summary of the analytical justification for the change as well.

That’s about it.  If you follow these steps at the outset, you’ll have a clear sense of where you’re going, you’ll know where to get started and how to prioritize the phases of execution, you’ll know what to do when things aren’t going well, you’ll be able to explain to others why things are going well, and you’ll know how to continually build on the growth and momentum you’ve started.

I highly recommend SEOmoz, SEO Book and “The Art of SEO“.  Great resources for the beginner or aspiring expert.  These thought leaders provide far more insight and expertise than I do on the subject and I couldn’t have had success without them.

Brand Message Fail


Whether it is a punchy tagline, a 30 second story or a lengthy commercial, we’re surrounded by brands that have no idea how to talk about themselves.

This week, I encountered 3 painfully familiar examples of how to undermine brand equity.

1. Internet Services Company – This brand happens to be a medium-sized online advertisement/marketing company in Los Angeles. On their homepage, front and center, you can’t find much about the brand.  It doesn’t mention that they provide advertisement or marketing services, it just says they help “grow verticals,” which is rather ambiguous.  The blurb on the homepage introducing the company reads as follows:

Our Story – <<Brand Name>> is a unique and compelling story. Our business model is producing superior results. Learn about how we do it. Click here

So, where to start. First, this company actually does have a compelling story.  If you were morbidly curious enough to fall for the “click here” at the end of the brand’s blurb, then you would land on the “About Us” section of the site, which details some very impressive facets of the company’s evolution, achievements and distinctive characteristics.

Somehow the homepage designer decided that the best content from that page was the most vague and unsubstantiated claims imaginable.  First, you don’t just assert that you are unique and compelling.  You have to say something unique and compelling about who you are and what you do.  Unique and compelling people don’t walk around saying that they are unique and compelling; so what makes marketers think that brands can get away with it?

Another issue is that “superior results” is not a business model.  It is not only too ambiguous to count as a business model, it is a differentiating factor, which is one part of a business model.  But even as a differentiating factor, it is too vague.  How are the results superior?  Are they more efficient? more accurate?  more cost-saving? more revenue-generating? What kind of results are produced? For all I know, this could be true of an accounting firm. There’s no indication that this company’s results have to do with online marketing outcomes.

After reading this blurb, which is so vague it could apply to virtually any company in the world, who would want to “click here” to learn how they “do it”?  Not me.

2. Distribution Company – On my way to the office, I passed this large freight truck that had plastered on the side a giant, daunting logo, contrasted with the underwhelming tagline, “A Different Kind of Merchant” (albeit in equally gigantic type).

The tagline itself should tell me how they are a different kind of merchant, not simply assert it.  How about “<<Brand Name>>. Always One Step Ahead of You” or maybe, “<<Brand Name>>. We’re on it.”  Or perhaps, “<<Brand Name>>, zoooooooooooooom!”  or maybe “<<Brand Name>>: the sound of your business delivered on time.” Okay, so these aren’t the most sexy taglines.  But they are certainly more interesting and suggest a “different kind” of distributor.

3. Bank Ad Campaign – On a drive through LA, I spotted a billboard that I was later able to find online. This campaign, while not necessarily tied to the core brand message, does directly impact the brand messaging because of the way the brand name and logo is used.

What is wrong with this?  It may not be obvious at first.  I can sort of sympathize with the marketers behind this campaign and their desire to be customer-centric and identify their customers with the brand.  But there is a reason you don’t see major brands making the mistake of using their brand name and logo in a generic sense, as a word other than the brand name.

This works against the goal of distinguishing a brand by excessively or arbitrarily employing the brand name or logo. Altering the brand name meaning impacts trademark strength as well as brand perception.  It raises the question, “So how do I know whether future uses of the ‘U’ name and logo are referring to the brand or to the word ‘You’?”  Suppose I read an ad that says, “U can do better.”  Is this saying “You can do better” or “<<Brand Name>> can do better”? This ambiguity creates an interesting double-meaning, which is why it is tempting to use.  But the long-term impact of this ambiguity dilutes the brand equity.

The only time it may be acceptable to violate this rule is when you use a part of a brand name in an alternative way.  For example, “X Marks the Spot – The Official Xbox 360 Geo-caching Event”.  This is debatable though, and I’m not sure I can claim this is always acceptable or advantageous.  It seems to work well for product promotional offers tied to a product/service, but the risk to brand equity seems to increase when you mess with the integrity of the parent brand.

Lesson Learned: Tell Why You Matter & Own Your Name
From the first two cases mentioned we learn that there is nothing unique or compelling about the mere assertion that you are unique and compelling.  It comes across as lazy and arrogant to say so.  Articulate the specific attributes, events, characteristics that make you unique.

The second lesson from these examples – own your name. I don’t walk around my office calling my co-workers “Chad” or calling my stapler “Chad.”  It would just cause them to think I was having an identity crisis, or some more severe neurosis.  So don’t go around putting your name on random things.  If you are going to extend the reach of your brand identity to sub-brands, have a carefully deliberated strategy behind the architecture.

The point of this post isn’t to mock sincere marketing efforts of others; it is to highlight common mistakes that come at a high cost to brand equity, with the hope that fellow marketers would learn from these examples and deliver unified, unique and compelling brands.

The Psychology of White Space


You can tell a lot about a person by how they fill the empty space in their home… or anywhere.  Even in conversation.

People talk too much when they’re nervous, if they talk at all. Often, the nature of this talk is haphazard, a little too loud and somewhat self-centered.

I think it often ends up that way with insecure brands as well.

But insecurity isn’t always the cause.  Some people talk excessively because they think it will help them control their surroundings and manipulate people around them. Some have a gift, and can usurp unsuspecting victims, wowed by charisma.  But many are completely put off by such shameless displays of narcissism. 

Why Space Matters

It is a tragedy that we respond to empty space on a page, in a conversation or in our daily routine with angst. Something in us tells us to hastily fill every trace of quiet with noise, because that space challenges us to become aware of our environments, our spaces, both internal and external. 

Empty space also challenges us to give up control and to assume a receptive attitude. Space frees us to become focused and mentally present, a precondition to any relationship. 

Your Brand has a Persona

If you want any semblance of a relationship between your brand and your customer, however abstract that relationship may be, you had better dignify your audience with space – in video, radio, graphic design, messaging, typography and any other possible means of communicating.

Attracting qualified customers and retaining them requires an art for communication.  You can’t spam or shout yourself into capturing marketshare.  You have to woo and, however far-fetched it may seem, find ways to use creative mediums and methods to converse and listen to your customers.

For better or worse, your brand has a perception, one associated with a persona – real or imaginary.  How you engage your target audience will determine whether they like this individual or not.

Listening is how good friendships are formed. And what marketer really enjoys shouting constantly?  I don’t.

Is the Funnel Really Dead?


I am a firm believer in lifecycle marketing.  Thinking of the entire lifespan of your customer challenges you to revisit your brand strategy and build more robust marketing tactics that extend beyond merely transactional touch-points and improve overall user experience.

But recently Performable, a web marketing tool provider, has made an interesting claim:  “The Funnel is Wrong”.  On his Forrester blog, Steven Noble goes as far as to say that we should bury the conversion funnel altogether.

The Performable whitepaper says there are a lot of things wrong with funnel marketing, but the bottom line is: funnel marketing doesn’t reflect customer behavior, tends to separate marketers from customers, doesn’t provide enough context for the user experience and doesn’t account for a particular phase in the customer lifecycle.  The outcome of the funnel is a simplistic approach to optimizing web marketing efforts that is not nearly as holistic or effective in the short-term or long-term as lifecycle marketing.  Read whitepaper: Why Lifecycle Marketing is the Future

Here’s how Steven Noble illustrates the comparison between the funnel and lifecycle frameworks:

Funnel Vs Lifecycle

You get the basic idea – one depicts a linear path that assumes each transaction results in increased loyalty.  The second involves a variety of experiences with a brand that gradually and cumulatively drive not only more future transactions, but a personal loyalty to the brand.

Apples to Oranges

First of all, I am not sure how funnel marketing is opposed or even comparable to lifecycle marketing.  From my experience, funnel marketing is a tactic that can easily be crafted to fit within a lifecycle marketing strategy.  There might be plenty of ways to terribly execute a funnel marketing plan and to execute such a plan without any consideration of strategy, but that doesn’t at all indict funnel marketing per se.

Comparing lifecycle marketing and funnel marketing is like comparing Hitler’s strategy for dominating all of Europe with General MacArthur’s island-hopping tactics at Okinawa.  It’s just not comparing apples to apples.

Evaluated as a strategy, funnel marketing would look pretty ridiculous.  But that is because it isn’t a strategy at all! It’s really easy to shoot down the weaknesses of a funnel-based approach if you’re thinking of it as a strategy.

An Officer, Not a General

Yes, conversion funnels (on their own) are wooden, overly linear, too focused on transactions and don’t account for the variety and depth of user experiences. But has anyone said funnels were supposed to more than this? Perhaps someone has said it, but I don’t know of a single reference to funnel marketing as a comprehensive online marketing strategy.

In any case, I do think Performable could make a point. It seems like the real enemy isn’t the activity of funnel marketing, it’s narrow-mindedness that focuses merely on transactional conversions, without the broader context of a lifecycle strategy to inform other critical touchpoints and non-transactional conversions/actions that are needed to cultivate a long-term relationship with customers.

KPIs and conversion funnels are narrow-minded on purpose they have to be in order to make sense of data and adjust quickly.  But web analysts, good ones anyhow, know that the KPIs aren’t a substitute for an over-arching strategy.

You don’t let an officer direct an entire military force, but you still need him.  Understand his role, and he could be the difference between success and failure.

There is Still a Heartbeat

There are good reasons not to bury the conversion funnel. In the web intelligence/analytics community there is a strong emphasis on tracking KPIs at the end of funnels, and I think this is crucial for a few reasons:

  1. They’re quantitative
  2. They’re based on business outcomes
  3. They provide a focused and simplified view of web performance that enables quick analysis and action

#3 is important because of a few huge problems with how web analysis has been done historically: Too much data, too many reports, tons of data that may be interesting but only 1% or less that is relevant or actionable.

Funnel to Freedom

So even if I sometimes get trapped in my conversion funnels, I force myself to periodically take a step back, look at the strategy, and make sense of the data within that high-level context. Ideally, that strategy includes the customer lifecycle. This is not only good common sense, but it is also psychologically refreshing for marketers like myself who thrive off of a sense of the big picture and how the end-user is actually benefiting.

Looking at data through the lens of the overall strategy means, of course, that my conversion funnel data should include conversions that are not just transactional, but also track other key interactions in the customer lifecycle, like survey completions, social media mentions, product recommendations, “share with a friend” actions, etc. In other words, my conversion funnel data can and should provide me with insights about the overall health of my customer lifecyle.  If I haven’t defined my KPIs around a unified strategy, how will they be of any use to me? In this respect, I disagree with the criticism that funnels can’t tell us about actual customer behavior or experience.

A Modest Proposal

I think Performable’s message needs qualification: funnel marketing is only wrong when employed without a strategy, which lifecycle marketing can provide.

As a web analyst, I know how incredibly easy it can be to get buried in the numbers and fixate on conversion funnels.  But I can’t throw the baby out with the bath water, or bury the baby with the bathwater…. hmmm, my imagery is becoming problematic.

There is a place for funnel marketing within customer lifecyle marketing. If you see yourself letting the funnel become the be-all end all, pull yourself out and revisit your customer lifecycle strategy.  Whatever you do, don’t pull the plug.

But that’s just my take at the moment.

Do you think there’s hope for funnel marketing or AIDA related models?

If you have a moment, make sure to check out Performable’s software.  It is quite innovative and ambitious in its attempt to gauge customer lifecycle performance. I haven’t seen a demo yet, but the concept is certainly intriguing.

I fight for the end user. – Tron


You walk into a clothing department store and are bombarded by a sales clerk demanding you be helped find what you’re looking for. Startled, you reply that you’re “just looking around”. Then you find something you like, but you don’t know where to go to learn more it and try it on. And suddenly help is nowhere to be found. Do you return to the greeter all the way at the front of the store? Maybe just pick up the phone and scream frantically for help? You try to find your way to the dressing room, but you just keep running into nooks of the building that only have bathrooms, doors to the managers office, the maintenance closet, the elevators, etc. You think about trying the clothes on in the bathroom, but then angst over being arrested for attempted shop-lifting destroy that plan. At this point, maybe you gamble and go to the check-out line, but I think many of us just give up and leave.

And many websites out there, some of them belonging to high-profile companies, still structure their user experience this way. Users are bombarded immediately upon landing on the homepage, then neglected while navigating interior pages (unless ready to “BUY THIS NOW AND CHECKOUT!!!”), and when users attempt to go it alone, they’re often lost and see no way to navigate back, forward or laterally.

That is something I didn’t imagine being able to say in the year 2011, with web 2.0 established as the new sine quo non for online businesses.

Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced websites that seem to only fight for themselves and even websites that don’t appear to fight for anything, but are merely sitting around idly, yelling at people that happen to pass within an earshot.

I think there is plenty of literature out there advocating for the use of the varied and robust web tools that allow you to increase the efficiency of your online efforts and more effectively target your respective audience.

But what often goes unstated is the fact that web analysts don’t just need awesome tools and strong left-brain analytical skills, we need to tap into and hone our creative, sympathetic right-brain capacities that empower true customer-centricity or, as I like to call it, online hospitality

Let’s face it, you can call it fancy names, but that’s all it is: hospitality applied to a particular technology. 

There’s just no way around it. Throwing marketing dollars at a problem and hiring outside consultants will only go so far. To move from a culture of good to great in the web analytics world, you’ve got to learn to relate to your end users. Great web analytics certainly requires analytical skills for answering the “what?” of behavioral data, but answering “so what?” (as Avinash Kaushik puts it) requires a sympathetic capacity to put yourself in others shoes and feel their frustration, thoughts, motivation, and satisfaction.

Sympathy takes time, practice, attention to detail, vulnerability to criticism, willingness to give before receiving, the ability to listen, the ability to understand that individuals and their experiences never perfectly fit into the groups or labels we design for them, real human relationships that have depth (if you can’t connect to someone in person, how will you connect through a website with a business objective?), self-reflection and a hell of a lot of patience.

Fight for the end-user and they will fight for you.  Sympathize with visitors to your website and they will gradually see your brand as more than a mere transactional destination, they’ll see it as a place where they feel welcomed, understood, helped, satisfied… and they’ll keep coming back.

Finally, what do we learn from Tron? We learn that when we let technology (CLU) control the virtual spaces which we inhabit, things go awry.  When a technology’s notion of perfection is allowed totalitarian rule, it often only serves the IT department’s goals for conservation of IT resources, efficiency, etc.  We can’t let the technology get between us (the marketers) and the customers we desire to reach.  In fighting for the end-user, we have to let the right-brain wield it’s sword and cut CLU’s head off or he will destroy the end user and destroy the companies we work for. 

Well, don’t bring a sword to work and don’t attack your server room.  But do make a compelling case for the end user.  Arm yourself with customer feedback from exit surveys, cart abandonment surveys and product/service update surveys.  When it comes to making a business case you’ll need quantitative and qualitative data.  Nothing speaks as loudly as your own customers, and (I will add) nothing helps tranlate complex web performance data to non-technical stakeholders quite like a customer complaint or compliment.