Building a Business Case for Online Communities

B2B companies frequently look at online communities with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, they see the obvious success of sites like the Amex OPENForum, and they aspire to reap similar benefits.  On the other hand, there are the standard fears that many companies have:

  • Fear that community will devolve into a quagmire of complaints from upset customers
  • Fear that they will not in control of the community discussion
  • Fear that they will invest substantial resources in a digital product whose ROI is difficult to calculate

These are all valid concerns, but they frequently recede into the background as more is learned about how communities develop, and how to think about the value they create.

 

Building a Business Case

The ROI question is truly a challenging one for most B2B organizations. The point of community, of course, is to provide value to the community members, not to push product. But even setting that expectation can set some B2B organizations on edge.  They end up asking some version of the question: “If I can’t measure a lift in products sold, how can I prove value?”

The over-arching message should be about building a strong sense of trust and relationship within the community, which increases customer loyalty and improves brand image, advocacy, and preference.

And there’s research to prove this (emphasis mine):

  1. “Research… reveals that customers who socially interact with other customers, via participation in brand communities, often exhibit an intense loyalty to the sponsoring brands.”
  2. “Positive influences of participation on recommendation behavior, brand image of the community sponsor, and intention to continue community membership can be confirmed.”
  3. “Researchers believe that in the future online communities will be the fundamental basis of companies’ marketing strategy. Especially, understanding consumers’ brand community behavior is considered a key success factor in doing business in the digital age. Virtual consumer communities (communities centered on a specific brand or consumption activity) can be of great value to marketers. Firstly, a company can use virtual brand communities for data mining and learn more about its customers, products, and even competitors. From active communities it is also easy to find potential candidates for pre-release product testing. Secondly, the most active members of these kinds of communities can do some of the work traditionally done by the company marketers by providing information seekers with purchase incentives and reliable information. Brand loyalty is closely linked to virtual interaction and to formation of strong social ties between individuals in a community.”
  4. “In the quest for building long-term successful brands, many marketers have become increasingly interested in how to create and foster successful communities of brand users. The appeal of such an approach to relationship marketing lies in the recognition that members of brand communities tend to exhibit favorable brand-related behaviors and intentions.
  5. “The results from the structural model suggested that perceived social support and consumer-brand relationship were important drivers of relationship mediators (i.e., sense of online brand community), which led to relational outcomes (i.e., brand commitment, brand preference, brand advocacy, and behavioral loyalty).”

The next challenge is to take these softer notions of loyalty, preference, and advocacy, and translate them into something measurable:

Web Engagement metrics:

  • Total visits by channel
    • Referring sites
    • Direct
    • Search
    • Social
  • Total pageviews
  • Time on site
  • Bounce rate
  • New visitors
  • Repeat visitors
  • Frequency & Recency

Community Satisfaction (qualitative):

  • Community responses to online surveys
    • Qualaroo, Foresee, FluidSurveys, etc
  • Bi-annual “Community Health Index” survey
    • Email survey to all active community participants asking for feedback

Community Engagement (quantitative):

  • Registrations
    • Ratio of new visitors to registrations (conversion rate)
    • Number of registrations over time
    • Registered users vs active users
  • Contributions
    • Total number of threads
    • Total unique contributors
    • Number of posts per active member
    • Posts per day
  • Topic interaction
    • Most popular subject areas
    • Thread depth (posts per thread)
  • Moderation effectiveness
    • Speed of replies to discussions
    • Number of volunteers

 

Community Development

Online communities are organic entities.  They have to grow and develop over time, and they often grow in surprising directions.  That said, community development is not a passive endeavor.  Communities require proactive management and participation in order to maximize positive business outcomes, and reward positive behaviors.

Despite the surprising directions that communities can grow in, the motivations for community participation are often quite uniform:

  1. The opportunity to participate in like-minded discussion
  2. Being connected to something larger than themselves
  3. To give and receive help
  4. To receive affirmations of the importance of their contributions
  5. The opportunity to elevate themselves as “experts” within the community

In order to position a new community to attract, retain, and grow its member base, the following considerations must be taken into account:

1. Seed the Community

  • Send invitations to participate to people who you think would be a good fit
  • These can be thought leaders, business partners, and loyal customers
  • Choose a core set of SMEs who will be accessible to community members
  • Exposure to, and the ability to network with, known experts is a core part of a community’s value proposition

2. Develop Your Moderators

  • Moderators must be open, candid, and “real people” not a “corporate mouthpiece”
  • Moderators must be responsive to activity within the community
  • Moderators must recognize and react to the needs of the community
  • Members of sufficient standing may be offered a position as Moderator over time

3. Expect 2-Way Communication

  • Think of members as “advisors” to First Data
  • Be open to receiving feedback and advice from community members
  • Show community members how their feedback is influencing First Data

4. Encourage Profile Development & Content Creation

  • Allow members to accrue “points” based on volume and quality of interactions
    • Posts
    • Responses
    • Likes” of comments
    • Etc
  • Allow users to build out profiles that represent themselves
    • Personal interests
    • Professional interests and qualifications
    • Detailed descriptions of their businesses
  • Score users based on how “good” their profile is
    • E.g. LinkedIn “Profile Completeness” meter
  • Encourage content creation
    • Elevate guest blog content of outstanding quality to the main blog
    • Proactively promote the best content outside of the community
      • Primary social media accounts for the community should share this content via social media for added exposure

Setting Expectations

Finally, you have to set expectations around how quickly the community will grow.  Every B2B organization I’ve ever discussed community would prefer that the community be populated, vibrant, and self-sustaining as soon as it’s launched, but that’s obviously not a realistic expectation.  You must actively invest in your community, and those investments can take a significant amount of time to pay off.

For example, everyone in B2B knows that Amex OPENForum is a powerhouse with massive traffic, attracting very notable contributors.  What’s easy to forget is that OPENForum had very humble beginnings:

Amex OPENForum growth Building a Business Case for Online Communities

Image via ContentLab

After its launch in 2007, the OPENForum only accumulated 425,000 pageviews in 2008!  If we assume a modest 3 pageview per visit (significantly lower than the 6.4 PVPV they get now), that translates into fewer that 12,000 visits per month!  For a massive organization like American Express with massive budgets at their disposal, that’s a modest start.

Another example that I like to use is Wikipedia. True, it is not a “community” website in the same sense that a B2B forum is a community website.  Wikipedia’s potential user-base is everyone in the world, writing about almost anything in the world, in contrast to a B2B site whose target audience and focus is much more narrow.  But it’s still instructive to look at how long the ramp-up time was for Wiki:

Wikipedia growth Building a Business Case for Online Communities

Image via Wikipedia

Some highlights:

  • Getting from zero 100,000 articles took 3 years
  • Getting from 100,000 to 200,000 articles took 1 additional year
  • Getting from zero to 500,000 articles took over 5 years
  • Getting from 500,000 to 1,000,000 took 1 additional year

This is a powerful reminder that patience is a virtue in community development. Done well, the rewards for community development are substantial.  But they don’t happen overnight.

Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

TL; DR – Mobile apps are used for entertainment purposes.  If you’re a business, you should make the mobile version of your website your #1 priority.  Your mobile app can wait.

Mobile apps are getting a lot of press and buzz, and as a B2B marketer, you see lots of large corporations grumbling and making noises something to the effect of “we’ve got to get a mobile app for our business”, “gotta get an app built this year”, etc.  Why?

The Perceived Market Opportunity

It comes down to the perceived market opportunity.  Lots of people are using mobile apps, and spending lots of time in them:

mobile apps number Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via Statista 

Those numbers seem really impressive.  App users use, on average, more than 20 apps per month and spend 21 – 37 hours in those apps on a monthly basis.

Other mobile app stats of interest:

  • 102B (billion) mobile apps have been downloaded by the end of 2013
  • That’s forecast to rise to 225B by 2016
  • 93% of those apps were free
  • 7% were paid

 mobile app downloads Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via Statista

Again, those are impressive-looking numbers.  What’s missing is any discussion whatsoever of what the app using versus non-app using populations look like.

The Market Reality

Businesses should be aware of what’s happening when the media chattering classes are investing in a technology hype cycle:

garnter technology hype cycle Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via Gartner

They are trying to get you excited, so they can get you Clicking so they can make MONEY.  The media will continue to be a fluffer for whatever topic gets clicks.  You will see them quoting big, top-line numbers like “103 billion apps downloaded in 2013.”

That seems like a lot, right? We’ll let’s take a closer look.

Consider data from comScore’s most recent Mobile App Report that shows that 2/3 of mobile users don’t download any apps on a monthly basis:

comscore app usage Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via QZ

Digging in even further, you find that the top 7% of users account for 50% of total app downloads!

So it seems that apps are broadly not that interesting to 2/3 of the population, with a tiny fraction of users accounting for most of the app-related activity.

For the 1/3 of the population that does download apps, the usage patterns are pretty interesting.  60% of downloaded apps are used 10 times or less:

app retention Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via Localytics

And finally, you have analysis from Gartner that predicts that less than 1% of apps will be considered a financial success by the companies that develop them through 2018.

Investing in Apps vs the Mobile Web

I’m a big believer in aligning marketing efforts in a way that maximizes business outcomes.  Building a mobile app for your business is not a “win” unless it results in a greater number of conversions [or insert your favorite metric here] than would have been the case had the same resources been devoted to another marketing channel.

So I tend to look at mobile apps from a utility perspective.

But there’s another way to look at mobile apps versus the mobile web.  There is deep, nerdy philosophical divide about open versus closed data architectures, and what that means for the future of the Internet. It goes something like this:

  • Open data architectures
    • Personified by:
      • The open-source software community (Linux, Apache, Hadoop, etc)
    • Characterized by:
      • Use of open-source software to create products and services findable and available on the open web
    • Controlled by:
      • Decentralized control, where any community member can change and modify code
  • Closed data architectures
    • Personified by:
      • Companies building closed ecosystems (Facebook, Apple)
    • Characterized by:
      • Software used to create products and services that are accessible only from within their own ecosystem
    • Controlled by:
      • Centralized control, where companies dictate changes to the platform

Tim O’Reilly had a debate with John Battelle a few years ago, with O’Reilly arguing on the side of open data architectures:

(I’m) surprised that you’re not more worried about the consequences of the shift from the “front end” of browser-centric computing to the “back end” of apps, closed networks and proprietary connections between massive data servers and specialized clients.

Why? Because the first defaults to open and the second defaults to closed.

But from a social, innovative, and macroeconomic perspective, open is almost always better. As Michael Wolff points out in his companion piece, it’s no surprise that media moguls (old and new) are pushing to regain control. What’s a surprise to many is that they’re getting it.”

One interesting area where this divide is playing out is in mobile apps versus the mobile web.  Apps are siloed, the web is open.

Mobile Usage Patterns

When it comes to how average mobile users are spending their time online, again mobile apps win hands-down:

  • 86% of total time spent using the Internet on a mobile device is done via apps
  • 14% is spent in a mobile browser

apps vs mobile browser Mobile Apps vs the Mobile Web for B2B

Image via Flurry

And it gets really interesting when you look at how that time is spent:

  • 37% of time spent in apps is for Gaming
  • 33% of time is spent in Social Media apps
  • 9% is spent in Entertainment

That’s means a whopping 79% of time spent in mobile apps is for entertainment.  If it is true, then, that in about 4 of 5 cases, apps are being used for entertainment, what does that indicate relative your high-level goal to “get an app built”?

The Business Case

The starting point for a mobile app should be a very well-defined set of user needs which call for a clean, mobile solution, that cannot be offered via the website. Here, the business case for a mobile app can be pretty straightforward.

If you have a ton of loyal, repeat mobile customers who only need 1 or 2 things from you, you can probably package that into an app and get great adoption and usage. But, if your visitors have more varied needs while they’re mobile, you should consider how your website renders on the mobile web.

Google recently did a survey of 1,500 consumers who use their mobile phones while shopping.  Google’s survey confirms that 65% of consumers use the mobile web to do their retail research – whether researching products; finding where products are sold; making price comparisons or finding promotional offers – rather than 35% who use mobile apps.

Summing Up

So, if 2 of 3 users don’t download apps frequently, and 4 of 5 users of apps use them for entertainment purposes, and deliberately turn to the mobile version of your website rather than an app while making purchase decisions, just how sure are you that you need an app?

Consider the benefit to your business if you took those same resources, and improved any of the major metrics around your mobile website. What would the business impact of investing that same amount of money in conversion rate optimization? Or how about investing in improving your website’s performance?

The Aberdeen Group study showed that a one second delay in page load time equals:

  • 11% fewer page views
  • 16% decrease in customer satisfaction
  • 7% loss in conversions

Apps are for people who already know you and like you enough to download your app.  The mobile web is for everyone.  And that includes people who have no idea that your business exists (yet), but will use the web to find you, and become your customers.

Technical SEO in a Semantic Search World

This is the deck I presented at a recent session “Advanced SEO” for the Digital Summit conference in Denver, called “Technical SEO in a Semantic Search World”.


This presentation was actually a really fun opportunity for me to talk about something that’s been on my mind – the changing role of SEO in the world of Semantic Search. I’ve been doing SEO professionally since 2003. In the past 3 years, I’ve seen more big, substantive changes to the field than I saw at any time in the 9 years that preceded that. We as SEOs, and as an industry, need to think about how our roles evolve and develop so that we can continue to add value to our organizations and clients, rather than selling them a Chinese menu of outdated optimization tactics.

On slide 2, I talked a bit about the state of the web at large. And the state of the web is that it’s a mess. The web is a heaving mass of unstructured data, that grows exponentially, is completely unsupervised, and constantly has new technologies stirred into the stew.

On slide 3 my point was that technical SEO represents our best toolset for elevating our sites out of the mess that is the web. But today, technical SEO is table stakes. In the game of organic search, technical SEO is simply the minimum amount you can ante to be in the game. 10 years ago, doing technical SEO meant you were guaranteed some solid first page rankings in return for your effort. Today, basic technical SEO will get you ranked somewhere in the top 100 for a few of your keywords. It’s that much more competitive.

And so, on slide 4, I talked about all of the things that we as SEOs have to keep our eyes on. SearchMetrics rankings correlations show all the factors that might be correlated with a single URL ranking. MOZ study data show the difference between page-level vs domain-level ranking factors, and whether they’re keyword dependent, or keyword independent. Add to that the Penguin and Panda algorithms, and keyword data disappearing into (not provided), and you get a sense for how busy the average workday of an SEO is.

I think that we as an industry are falling into the trap of paying attention to the tactical elements of SEO that we are familiar with, and not thinking about the forest from which all these trees are growing.

On slide 5 I discussed the new world of semantic search. Specifically, if you were to ask most any SEO today “What is semantic search?” you would be likely to hear something along the lines of:

  • Semantic search is about understanding the meaning of queries, and delivering results based on an understanding of the context in which the query was made
  • Semantic search is about “things not strings
  • Things in semantic search are “entities”
  • Entities are organized according to an ontology
  • Entities can have multiple properties based on their type
  • Entities can have relationships to other entities
  • Semantic search has its underpinnings in artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, and natural language processing (NLP)

However, despite knowing all these things academically, they often haven’t filtered through to the extent that we have identified specific tactical strategies to address semantic search with technical SEO.  We may be fine talking about semantic search in the abstract, but we often default back to obsessing over character count in our title tags, because that is a more “knowable” field where we feel efficacious in our action.

All of that has to change.  So we know that semantic search changes things for our profession, but how?  Specifically, what does this change mean for us in our day-to-day jobs as we think about how to align our strategy and tactical delivery to the world of semantic search?

And honestly, I don’t think that semantic search requires a massive retrofit for us as SEOs.  Most of the stuff that you consider fundamental, technical SEO is still important, it just might be important for different reasons.  I.e., having descriptive, compelling title tags is still a best practice, because it allows you to put an effective marketing message in front of a human visitor right when they’re likely to be responsive to it.  In practical terms, a visitor may not see your title tag exactly as you wrote it. Google may be rewriting your title tags based on what it thinks is best for the visitor, or changing the visual formatting of the title.

So the fundamentals are still important, but they’re evolving.  You don’t have to throw out everything you know to adjust your SEO strategy to the semantic search model.  And there’s nothing more fundamental than the 3 pillars of on-page SEO:

  1. Information architecture
    • Depth of site architecture is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of site design
    • I provide steps so you can do your own analysis of your site’s IA
  2. Code
    • Organizations need to start thinking about how they’re going to integrate schema.org into developer workflows now
    • I provide examples for how you can insert correct schema.org syntax onto your pages to give your developers examples to code to
  3. Content
    • With semantic search, your content has never been more critical to your site’s ability to produce good ROI over the long term
    • Panda is just the most visible (and frightening) manifestation of this new understanding of the “quality” of your content
    • I provide steps for how perform an audit for thin content at scale.

 

Why Your Business Should Invest in Google+ Now

Because B2B marketers represent big companies, and decisions sometimes require lots of cross-department buy-in, we can be slow to adapt to a changing technology landscape.  Wouldn’t you like to be ahead of the curve for once?

Social media networks rise and fall with regularity, and as marketers, we’re often put in the position of investing actively in developing an audience on a particular platform, only to see the audience fall away when the platform cools off.  Who cares how many MySpace friends you have, right?  Even current platforms are in flux. Many businesses feel like Facebook is constantly moving the goalposts, some are writing breakup letters, and others are doing detailed analysis of paid Like fraud. It’s hard to know where to invest your time and resources.

One social network is going to buck this trend of a dramatic rise, and equally dramatic fall – Google+. You may have recently read “Google+ is Dying” on TechCrunch, which was written after the news that Vic Gundotra is leaving. That article was click-bait, and was subsequently refuted by Slate, to whom Google said:

“Today’s announcement has no impact on our Google Plus strategy—we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos.”

Google+ is not going anywhere. As you read this article, hopefully you’ll come to understand just how deeply woven into the fabric of Google’s entire ecosystem Goolge+ is. As a result, your investment in the network early is likely to grow in value over time.

Google+ growth curve Searchmetrics Why Your Business Should Invest in Google+ Now

Photo credit: Searchmetrics

Google+ doubled in size year-over-year, but its active user base is still comparatively small.  And that’s actually great news for you and your business, because “small” is a relative term. Plus has 29 million unique monthly users on its website and 41 million on smartphones, with some users overlapping, compared with Facebook’s 128 million users on its website and 108 million on phones, according to Nielsen.

And this “smallness” means there’s still green field for developing an audience, and connecting with them.  There are a lot of influencers active on the platform right now, and because there’s less noise, it’s much easier to establish relationships. When you look at the firehose that is your Twitter feed, can you say the same thing?

The reason that Google+ isn’t going anywhere is that Google is weaving it very tightly into the fabric of its entire ecosystem:

Google+ is the foundation for Authorship markup in organic search

  • This is a de facto identify system where authors can become known entities.
  • This changes the way visitors scan the SERP, and can substantially impact CTR.
  • Though not currently used as a ranking factor, it seems like an obvious candidate to play a role in ranking and retrieval as it develops.

Google+ Local is the basis for verifying local businesses as entities and returning them in local search results

  •  “The best locally relevant results, served globally” is the #1 goal of Google’s search quality team.
  • Google+ Local is Google’s platform for user ratings and reviews of local businesses, rivaling Yelp.
  • Links to Google+ Business profiles are often present as part of the new Knowledge Graph results that appear prominently for your company’s brand queries.

Google+ is linked to Google accounts automatically

  • Google accounts give you access to all the free products you already use like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Analytics, and AdWords.
  • Google+ is the commenting system for YouTube, which has over 1 billion unique users per month.

To be clear – you shouldn’t be investing in G+ just because it’s going to be around for the long haul, although that’s a pretty compelling reason. G+ is building some amazing products that are creating marketing opportunities that have never existed before.

Google+ Post Ads

  • Businesses with at least 1,000 Google+ followers can now use the platform to create interactive social media ad units and display them across the millions of sites that comprise the Google Display Network (GDN).
  • Normal GDN targeting and pricing models apply.
  • Businesses can use ANY of their Google+ posts as ad creative.
    • Google+ is now your beta-testing platform for all of your social ad creative.  Launch Google+ posts as you normally would, and push winners even further with Post Ads.
    • Use engagement metrics of your past posts as the starting point for deciding what to promote first – i.e., promote the stuff that people have engaged a lot with in the past.
    • Proactively push engagement for exceptionally valuable content (e.g. content around major company news).
  • You can use any YouTube video that you’ve uploaded and posted to Google+ as your ad creative, which can be great for awareness of new initiatives and product launches.
  • Hangouts On Air can also be turned into interactive, live ad units (think conference events, investor calls, Q&A sessions, etc) which are also archived and available after the event.

Google+ Hangouts

  • Conduct multi-person meetings about product launches, or thought leadership events.
  • Shoppable hangouts are allowing visitors to buy the products you talk about as they’re being introduced in the Hangout.
  • Hangouts are archived and searchable on YouTube, extending the value of a specific event to a much broader audience

Circles

  • You can create audience segments via Circles the same way you segment your email sends.
  • Make your messages relevant to each audience’s specific interests to improve response rates to your marketing messages.

Auto Awesome

  • Get creative with the automatic .gif builder to create engaging views of your products or people in your company (gifs get crazy attention on G+).
  • The Auto Awesome Android app will actually create videos for you, if you’re lazy ;), and video uploads to G+ have been increasing by 20X.

When you combine a long-term view of investing your time and resources in a platform that’s going to build in value over time, it makes sense to start investing now.

Google search is still the front door to the open web for the vast majority of internet users across the world.  That’s not changing anytime soon.  So long as that remains true, Google+ has a valuable role to play in your social media, content marketing and brand building strategies.

This is a re-post of my article in Social Media Today.

Make Your Own Gl1tch Art

You know that really cool thing that the Internet does where, out of nowhere, you find something that you didn’t previously know existed, and you now become absolutely insane about?  Yeah, that thing.  It just happened to me, again, and it is making your own glitch art.

Glitch art is the process of taking an existing image and modifying the code used to render the image to make it… different.

Take one of my favorite recent art installations, Florjentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck that floated into Hong Kong harbor.  It is rad-looking.

Ducky Make Your Own Gl1tch Art

But what if you could modify it to make it even cooler?  You can!  German designer Georg Fischer (aka snorpey) is a glitch artist who has done a wonderful service to me personally by making a do-it-yourself glitch art creator. You just take an image, and then play with it until it is messed up in the exact way that you find aesthetically pleasing:

Ducky glitch1 Make Your Own Gl1tch Art

Ducky glitch2 Make Your Own Gl1tch Art

Ducky glitch 3 Make Your Own Gl1tch Art

Hooray, Internet!!!  Kiss an hour of your day goodbye!!  You’re welcome!!

Get Your Selfie On

SelfieCity is a data visualization tool analyzing 3200 selfies taken by people in 5 cities across the globe, then grouped by the city they were taken in (New York, Berlin, Moscow, Sao Paolo, Bankok).  The analyzed lots of different aspects, like age, facial expressions, glasses / no glasses, head tilt, etc:

selfie city snapshot Get Your Selfie On
They started the project with 120,000 randomly selected photos and used Mechanical Turk workers to help classify them.  Stats of interest:

1. Only ~4% of photos taken are selfies
a. This is way lower than the ~20% that I would have guessed

2. Significantly more women take selfies
a. 61% of selfies in NYC, 82% of selfies in Moscow

3. Young people take selfies (duh)
a. Oldest average age of selfie takers was 27.6 in NYC

4. Women strike extreme poses in selfies (double-duh)
a. Average angle of head-tilt was 50% greater for women

The takeaway:  IF YOU ARE A GROWN MAN, STOP TAKING SELFIES.  Science has spoken.

As laughable, naval-gazing and ridiculous as I find selfies, their rise to prominence is fascinating to me.  The LA Times called 2013 “the year of the selfie“, after the Oxford English Dictionary chose “selfie” as word of the year. The New Yorker wrote 900 words on “The Return of the Selfie“, and there are even graduate theses being written about them.

The best thoughts I’ve read on the topic were from Stephen Marche in Esquire, where he wrote:

For all of human history, and even into human prehistory, making an image was an act that required not just conscious thought but immense effort. That’s why a picture was something removed from ordinary life — images possessed sacred properties, special auras and powers. The camera made the image much simpler to make of course, but it didn’t remove the consciousness of the act. Taking photographs required expensive machinery and skill… The leap in the ease of taking and disseminating images from the year 2000 to the present is as great as the leap from drawing in caves to the year 2000. And yet we still think of photographs as if they require effort, as if they were conscious works of creation. That’s no longer true. Photographs have become like talking. The rarity of imagery once made it a separate part of life. Now it’s just life. It is just part of the day.

I’m fascinated by whether selfies are trend that will peter out, or become so commodified that they’re no longer cool (“Nice selfie, MOM!”).  Or, maybe they’ll continue on their current trend, and 2 years from now, the only photos that can be taken by cameras are selfies.  If the frame doesn’t contain at least one person making duck-face, the camera won’t function.

 

 

 

What the Healthcare.gov Disaster Means for Your Website

Putting politics aside, the launch of the Healthcare.gov website has been a train wreck. I’ve been building and marketing websites for a dozen years, and I have never seen a launch go so spectacularly, publicly wrong. This is partly due to the highly visible and contentious nature of the Affordable Care Act. But more interestingly, this marks the first time in my memory that there was an implicit assumption that a big, complex program and a website were essentially the same thing.

If:             Healthcare.gov = Affordable Care Act

Then:    Healthcare.gov is broken = Affordable Care Act is broken

This logic is fundamentally flawed, but that doesn’t stop it from being the dominant perception in the marketplace.  In fact, if you look at the relative popularity of these terms on social media, “healthcare.gov” gets 2.6 times as many tweets per day as the name of the program itself, “affordable care act”, and Google Trends shows the terms neck-and-neck in popularity:

Forbes Topsy healthcare 1024x439 What the Healthcare.gov Disaster Means for Your Website

Forbes Google Trends healthcare 1024x575 What the Healthcare.gov Disaster Means for Your Website

What this marks is a shift in the mindset of the American public – your website is not a part of your business, it is your business.  If your website doesn’t represent your company well, or even worse, doesn’t function smoothly, the bad smell doesn’t just hover over your website, but over your business as a whole.

But that knowledge comes with a huge upside.  As a website owner, you are in a uniquely powerful position – no one in the world knows your customers better than you do.  You will have some or all of the following ingredients at your disposal:

  • Customer knowledge
    • Direct customer experience and feedback
    • Your sales and support staff who talk with customers every day
  • Keyword data
    • Years of search keyword data specific to your audience finding your website
    • Social media keyword data
    • Keyword data from publicly available tools
  • Content performance
    • Engagement and conversion metrics of content you’ve published over the years
    • Analysis of competitors’ content marketing and social media campaigns
  • Conversion path knowledge
    • Knowledge of the specific steps involved in your customers’ journey
    • Knowledge of the common stumbling blocks your customers encounter
    • The ability to proactively present solutions to problems that customers may experience

These ingredients should be combined and recombined with user personas to continually refine the kinds of content and services that you offer to address changing audience needs.  If a piece of content does not directly satisfying one of the primary needs of your core audience, you should question whether it deserves to be prioritized.

Create content that solves user needs as its first priority, and then rigorously QA and analyze conversion bottlenecks to ensure that customers aren’t encountering barriers along the conversion path.

Granted, if your website fails at providing a good user experience, and the efficient delivery of its primary value to your customers, you’re not likely to have your failure broadcast on The Daily Show.

People will just quietly click the Back button, and find your competitors.

Forbes Daily Show healthcare What the Healthcare.gov Disaster Means for Your Website

This is a re-post of my Forbes article.

What Google’s Changes Mean for Your Content Marketing Efforts

91% of B2B marketers use content marketing as a tactic, spending $118 billion in 2013 on content marketing, social media, and video.

If you don’t understand some key aspects of Google’s new search algorithm, you may be flushing your content marketing dollars down the drain.  True, talking about search algorithms tends to make eyes glaze over.  But, if you’re like the millions of other businesses that have identified content marketing as a key channel for educating prospective customers and getting them into the sales funnel, you need to know how the game has changed, and what that means for your business.

In the past 2 months, Google has made some significant changes.  First, they completely replaced their core web search algorithm.  Then, they hid the keywords that visitors use to find websites in organic search.

1.        Google Hummingbird

In August 2013, Google completed the change-over to their new search algorithm, Hummingbird.  A complete algorithm change is a BIG event for Google.

If the algorithm is the “recipe” that Google uses for ranking and retrieving results, then individual ranking factors within the recipe (such as using keywords in your title tags) are “ingredients” in the recipe, and Google has stated that there are over 200 ingredients.

All the early evidence indicates that Hummingbird still uses the vast majority of the same ingredients, in the same way.  So, doing good on-page and off-page SEO is just as important as always – more than ever, it’s table stakes for effective web marketing.

The big change with Hummingbird is in how it understands natural-language queries and processes them.  Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries in a much more intelligent way.  Now, Google may return results that may not contain the exact keywords you used in your query, in that exact order, but the results will match the intent of what you asked for.  For example, you may have Googled “the best French Cajun food in Baton Rouge” and get a website returned that only talks about Acadian cuisine, and doesn’t use the words “French” or “Cajun” anywhere on the page.  It matches your intent, but not the exact words.

Google is now much better at understanding “entities” or “things” and not just keywords or “strings”.

2.       Google Hides Your Organic Keyword Data

Next, in September, Google announced they’re encrypting all searches performed on Google.  That doesn’t mean anything to the average user of Google, but it means a foundational shift for companies that care about the organic search traffic that their site gets.  Anyone with access to web analytics for any site they work on will notice that a huge percentage of organic search traffic is now being lumped into the black box of “(not provided)”.  What this means is that most companies that get 80% or more of their organic search traffic from Google will no longer be able to see what terms visitors typed in to find their sites.

There are ways to work around this new limitation, and your resident SEO should be able to speak to them.  But those are tactical fixes, and what you should be looking for is a strategic solution.

1+2 = 4

So, let’s do a quick summary of what we know:

  • Hummingbird allows Google to understand the intent of queries much better
  • Google applies this refined query knowledge to entities (“things, not strings”) which allows them to consider a larger set of documents as potential results
  • Google no longer lets you see exactly what keywords visitors used to find your site

If Google is now very good at understanding the intent of a searcher’s query, but no longer lets me, as the site owner, see exactly what that query was, where does that leave us?

We are now in a place where the burden is on you, as an organization, to really understand your customers, identify each facet of the business problems that they face, and provide solutions to those problems, or at least being able to describe how your product fits into the landscape.

Absent query data is actually a big problem for lots of organizations.  Query data allowed us, at a tactical level, to see exactly how users were finding our sites, and then use standard web engagement and conversion metrics to attempt to rationalize how well our content matched that user’s needs.  If we didn’t have the right content, we could create new content, or re-write existing content to do give us context-appropriate coverage for that keyword.  It was a very tactical fix.

That approach resulted in SEOs feeding keyword “opportunities” back up the funnel to content writers to plug obvious gaps.  Often, the result was creating a shallow piece of content that contained the keywords, but didn’t address the end users’ needs in a substantive way.

What is required, now more than ever, is a top-down approach to understanding customer needs and developing comprehensive content sets that service those needs.  User personas need to be a driving force behind your content creation.  Are your editorial team and SEO team able to articulate all of the major points along the customer journey for each of your main user personas?  Do you have user personas that you update?  Do you regularly interview your sales staff to integrate feedback from the front lines into your personas?

More than ever, Hummingbird underscores the important of writing content that addresses real customer needs, not just specific keywords.  Conceptually, your content needs to be substantive and solve problems, not just fill “keyword opportunities”.

Measuring Success in Social Media

This presentation is a companion to my post on the most common question in B2B social media. My goal with this presentation is to introduce a conceptual framework that takes helps sort social media metrics into meaningful bundles that are strategically aligned with key business outcomes.

This presentation also includes:

  • High-level recommendations to keep in mind for B2B social media
  • A deeper dive into the metrics you should be tracking for each of the “big four” B2B social media platforms:
    1. Twitter
    2. LinkedIn
    3. Facebook
    4. YouTube
  • An overview of some free tools available for measuring your progress in each platform

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