Interesting times for Digital Marketers

interestingSome weeks very little changes across the platforms we use to reach our customers and prospects. Those are what I think of as good weeks. The only certainty however is change, and this week has seen a whole heap of changes from Google and Facebook. Here’s a little about each and some links where you can read more in depth analysis.

Google Places becomes Google+ Local

Google are beating the Google+ drum hard, despite the weak engagement numbers, and have given their local business product the Plus treatment with this overhaul of features and functionality. TheNextWeb concentrate on what Google+ Local means for users while Google Local expert Mike Blumenthal covers how the Google+ Local changes affect businesses.

Google kills etailers free traffic source, Google Products/Shopping

After a decade in beta, the trouble-prone (setting and letting it run never worked very well, with the constant data format and required field changes) Google Base/Products/Shopping part of Google is going away. When it worked it could be a reasonable source of traffic, but now Google have laid to waste the comparison shopping sites it was intended to compete with, by way of the Panda updates, they’re free to start raking in the cash by making it a purely pay to play deal. If you want your products to appear in the SERPs like they used to it’s time to crank up the Ad budget.

price-comparison-trends-uk-june-2012
UK Price Comparison Websites traffic trends since 2009

Facebook finally doing something for their real customers

Facebook, reeling from the reality check of their post-IPO stock slump, have rolled out a couple of long overdue new features for the people who ultimately keep the lights on: their advertisers. Page admins now have some shiny new abilities that will make managing a page just a little bit easier. First up is scheduled posts. Sure you’ve been able to do that before with third party services (and these services remain useful still, particularly ones that allow you to post an RSS feed to Facebook, but now you can schedule a post in the future. Mashable have a little bit of a kvetch about the interface  whilst AllFacebook set out how to use it.

Secondly, something that third party tools weren’t ideally placed to provide – you can now assign different levels of admin roles, all the way from ‘Insight Analyst’ – someone who can’t make or comment on posts (other than as their own personal account) all the way up to Manager, with each subsequent level gaining the ability to comment, add posts and finally the ability to assign admin privileges to others. AllFacebook has the details.

Getting an RSS Feed to post to your Facebook Page’s wall

Sounds so easy doesn’t it?

Here’s what I learnt in trying to get a custom-created RSS feed (not one generated by blog software) to appear as posts/status updates on the wall of a Facebook Page. This information applies to all kinds of RSS feeds though. If you’re using WordPress, there are several plugins that purport to offer this functionality. In my experience they can be unreliable, usually through no fault of the plugin author or WordPress, rather Facebook changing something that breaks the plugin.

The purpose of the exercise was to get the latest special offers on an e-commerce site appearing on the company’s Facebook Page wall.

Facebook Notes – not quite what we’re looking for

The most straightforward option should be the one provided by Facebook, right? Notes offers the ability to import a blog/RSS feed into the Notes tab of your Facebook page and in so doing post an announcement for each ‘note’ to the Wall. Sounds great but what you get in practice is a link from the Wall to the individual note, which appears in it’s entirety. The objective was to take a user from the Facebook Wall post straight to product page on the e-commerce site, so this clumsy and unnecessary intermediate step means Notes doesn’t do it for us.

RSS Tab for Pages – does what it says on the tin, but no more

This application, which creates an RSS tab on the Facebook Page imports the feed just fine, and if that’s all you need then it’s all gravy. It is supposed to also post items to the Wall, but that feature doesn’t work.

Social RSS – Fell at the first hurdle

With a score of 2.3 out of 5, and the latest post referring to the fact that things are broken, this one didn’t merit a try.

RSS for Pages – Disappointing

I’d expected more from Involver, “the web’s most trusted social marketing platform”. RSS for Pages doesn’t deliver, or at least, it didn’t work how I’d hoped. It created a ‘News’ tab with my RSS feed on, but there wasn’t anywhere to specify that items should be posted to the Wall (and none of the items were), even though automatic posting to the wall is mentioned as a feature (though that may be in the paid for version only) and the suggestion that I upgrade to get a refresh time of better than once a day, with zero information on cost, had me searching for an alternative.

RSS Graffiti – We have a winner!

RSS Graffiti works almost exactly how I want (I wouldn’t mind being able to remove the ‘via RSS Grafitti’ annotation, but that’s probably a compulsory thing, and the Source and Published lines seem like overkill). The main thing is the user clicks the link and goes to the page you want, not some interstitial page. There’s no unnecessary tab added to the page, the settings for how it works all make sense, and you have a fair degree of control, including the ability to post to the Wall items dated in the past – handy if you need to get some older items posted.

If you’ve found any other solutions that work well, please share them in the comments.

image credit: jovike via Creative Commons on Flickr

Tracking (and fixing) site search

Nobody goes to a hardware megastore for fun, we usually need something specific. We wander down the aisles ‘if the adhesives are here, then that must mean tile adhesives are here right?’ until we give in and ask a disinterested looking pimply youth for help. They begrudgingly motion in the general direction of where you should find your grail. Now imagine there’s no pimply youth to help you. That’s what most e-commerce sites are like.

Riffing off of a recent Seth Godin post where he points out “Broken search = no sale”…

Tracking site search (whether you’re running an e-commerce site or not) is an important place where you can go the extra mile to make sure that your audience/customers/readers are finding what they want.

A lot of people just browse a site, navigating to what they want by clicking through your (hopefully well thought out) site hierarchy, letting you lead them to the product you want. Some people however want to get right to it, they search. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they’re gone.

As Avinash Kaushik points out, tracking WHAT people are searching for is super easy with Google Analytics but that doesn’t make your task – improving search results as easy as it could be.

You know how Google has a search quality team? For your site, that team is you.

Whether you track the inputs (search terms) and outcomes (number of results returned) using your own back-end systems or Google Analytics custom variables function isn’t as important as the act of paying attention to what they tell you.

Where to start?

Begin with the low hanging fruit and work your way up the tree – your biggest problems probably lie with the searches that return zero results.

No results found

This is the worst thing a site can return – it’s a door slammed in the user’s face. There are a number of actions you should take here:

Start with the simple, single search parameter queries. If you provide filtering functionality, ignore queries for ‘1TB Hard Drive’ with a price filter set to ‘below $10’, at least until that becomes a reasonable possibility.

1) Check your ‘no results found’ message.

If you’re going to slam a door in someone’s face, at least try and do it gently. Perhaps with some tips on how they might open it again ‘try widening your search, using fewer words’ (contextually of course!) or how you can help open it for them, with a contact form, with the subject filled in (‘I searched for “creme brulée torch” and didn’t find anything’), or even a phone number. Something that has the customer understanding that ‘your search is important to us’. Oh yeah, and it helps if you actually respond to those requests. I’ve seen ‘no results found’ pages that are completely blank. That’s the opposite of helpful.

2) Start with the largest volume.

Whatever reporting tool you’re using, sort by volume (by unique users – some people will search multiple times, the logic being ‘that can’t be right, they must have something for this search’ – incidentally this is the definition of madness. (GET A LINK) Examine each query – is it a misspelling? A synonym (hard disk vs hard drive)? Products you don’t sell (but do sell an alternative)? What does your site software allow you to do about this? Apply autocorrect filters? Add keywords to products? Make a search ‘fuzzy’? Show a message? Suggest alternatives? If the answer is none of those, time to hire a developer, find/buy a plugin or nag your ecommerce platform vendor. Work on the top ten once a week until the top ten is all low single digits – that’s when you’ve squeezed all the juice out of this.

Found something, exited on that page

These are the people that gave up in disgust – they didn’t find anything, they left. It could be they were just checking prices but whatever happened, they didn’t like what they saw enough to stick around any longer.

1) Filter out bots

Not an issue if you’re using Google Analytics as bots don’t load the tracking javascript but make sure you exclude them if you’re using something back-end.

2) Start at the top ten again and see what they saw

Do the same search yourself and see what you find. If could be that the search returned some results but not all, or the order of the search results meant that they didn’t see the product they were interested in on the first page. A search for ‘Photoshop’ might return an alpha-sorted list of products with photoshop in the name. If a company called Aardvark makes plugins and they show up first, the user doesn’t see the Adobe products in the first ten. Think about how you can provide more information to make it easier for the user to drill down and refine. Showing brand logos or a brand filter at the top is a simple solution and easier than writing your own ranking algorithm (Google have more PHDs working for them than you do).

3) Keep notes

There are some queries that you just can’t do anything about – make a note on them so you don’t duplicate your efforts – revisit occasionally.

Where next?

You could go crazy with this. Conversion rate is affected by a number of things: site design, purchase cycle duration, pricing, availability, visit intent (order tracking for an outstanding order isn’t much of a conversion opportunity). The best approach is to implement a form of user testing. There are free and paid for options. I’ve been using 4qsurvey’s free service. Whilst it has some aspects that aren’t quite optimal, you can’t argue with the price. And whilst you’ll only get a fraction of a percent of your traffic to fill in the survey, and some of the responses will be positive (pats on the back are lovely but don’t help you to improve), you will find the odd gem amongst the responses – the annoyances, frustrations and disappointments are what will drive you forward.

Image credit: D’arcy Norman via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Adding value to remove value

Apple have just announced free engraving for iPads ordered from their online store. It’s a perfect example of how personalisation can add value to the initial purchase whilst at the same time restricting the resale possibility of the item.

Who could bring themselves to part with an iPad that had ‘to Daphne, with love’ etched into the back of it? And how much less is a personalised product worth anyway – sufficiently less that it’s not worth selling when a new one comes ou

How can you personalise your product so that someone wants to hang on to it for sentimental or perhaps other reasons?

Quit snapping at your customers

Making websites simple to use has always been one of the objectives high on the list of any project brief I’ve ever seen. You want your users to feel comfortable and safe and have a smooth path from landing on your website right through to whatever constitutes a desirable outcome for a visit. Usually that involves filling in a form. There are some great examples out there of how to do forms right – ones with subtle hints and cues along the way, forms that are a delight to fill in.

Then there are the ones that seem to hurl barriers in your way, giving you cryptic or harshly worded error dialog boxes. Here’s one from Tesco.com’s online shopping signup page:

I entered a phone number with spaces in it. That’s how we remember phone numbers – in blocks of numbers, not the whole 11 at a time. I entered it with a preceding zero, but the generic ‘There is an error’ script that checks the phone number submitted on this page gives me this incorrectly spelt error message as both a javascript dialog box and in text by the form objects. All I did wrong was enter spaces. If you don’t want spaces in there, a simple bit of string replace code, server or client side, will take them out.

Maybe Tesco’s people responsible for web usability don’t create new accounts very often, maybe they don’t track how many error messages get shown, and figure that they ought to be working to minimise that.

Optimising a site for search gets a lot of attention, but the real improvements can be made by optimising the traffic you already get. Converting 2% of 100 visitors is better than converting 1% of 150. There are free and paid for solutions to usability testing – with real users.

If you know what you’re doing with Google Analytics’ more advanced functions (events) then you can track how far into a form people get before they give up, for example. If you don’t have that much faith in your coding skills, use a service like ClickTale to find out the same thing (and more besides).

If both of those seems too much like hard work, then it’s time to go read a Web Usability book and find some religion. There’s even a No Dashes or Spaces Hall of Shame, chock full of examples of customer hostile web forms. Amazing how many big names have web developers that like to snap at their end users!

Image Credit: Andycpuk via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Price Comparison Mobile Apps – an opportunity for B&M Stores?

barcode scanner
There are a number of apps (Twenga, RedLaser, Save Benjis and others) for performing on-the-go price comparisons.

You either search by product name or barcode, but the pitch for them all is the same: you’re out shopping, in a bricks & mortar retail store when you see a product you want. You take out your iPhone, scan the barcode or type in a product name and check the price, either directly with online stores like Amazon or using Google Products.

The developers of the apps sell them cheaply, the real revenue is in the affiliate commissions to be earned.

Whenever a technology comes that tips the balance unfairly (away from the bricks and mortar store which are being turned into a free showroom for online merchants) there are a number of ways for the ‘wronged party’ to handle the threat.

  1. Do nothing

    This is probably what most b&m stores will do – this is a technical threat that they’ve not planned for, places like Borders and Waterstones have been haemorrhaging market share to Amazon for years.

  2. Fight dirty – mobile signal jammers in stores.

    Great way to come across as the bad guy, a technical roadblock that is likely to inconvenience more people than necessary.

  3. Fight fair – Treat a price comparison as the buying signal it really is

    Given that these apps can (and some do already) know your location when you send that request, the fact that you’re looking for a lower price could be signalled to the retailer you’re standing in. A simple query to their systems could return ‘our best possible price’, not necessarily beating everyone – there’s some value to immediacy and not paying a shipping charge after all. Then just take your phone to the counter to get the item at the reduced price.

I understand there are technical issues with this – not every price comparison app or bricks & mortar retailer would want to take part, but the larger stores stand to lose the most from doing nothing.

Image credit timailius via Creative Commons on Fickr

Remarketing – scary or good customer service?

 handRemarketing, the online equivalent of running after a customer who has walked away from a shopping cart, was covered by the New York Times yesterday.

I must admit it’s the first time I’ve heard the term, but back in the late 90s I wrote something like this for the online store of a company where I was marketing manager (and web developer). We tracked what products registered website users had looked at or downloaded demo versions of. Being a FileMaker driven site, this data was instantly available to my colleagues in sales – they used it to go fishing for hot leads – if necessary they would research the products first so they might be able to answer any simple questions straight away. As to the marketing application of this data, I used it to build up an idea of what areas of the creative industry a customer was into so we could target direct mailings and emails to them more effectively.

All of this was permission based – we wouldn’t phone someone who would prefer not to take sales calls and we wouldn’t mail or email someone who had opted out. I don’t see any mention of permission or opt-in in the NYT article. That SeeWhy’s founder, Charles Nicholls, ‘says he advises Web sites to have visitors “put their e-mail address in at the first step,” to increase the likelihood that it will be captured’ shows just how little he understands about usability or permission marketing – nobody puts their email address into an online store before they start shopping!

In the last five years I implemented something similar for some client online stores and for my previous company’s own store. The difference to the Abandonment Tracker Pro methodology is in how the follow-up is performed and the conditions under which this is done. Only logged-in customers, who abandoned the shopping cart in the checkout process, rather than just left the cart ‘in the aisle’ are contacted and the contact is always made by telephone. Additionally abandoned carts are separated into two groups – abandoned at checkout and abandoned after an unsuccessful payment attempt. The unsuccessful payment attempt ones being the most urgent – the customer was trying to pay and couldn’t.

In my experience with these various sites where this has been implemented, the ‘rescue-rate’ of the orders where payment was attempted is around 70%. For the carts just abandoned at checkout, somewhere around 30%. The reaction from the customers is also different – the customers that have attempted payment are not at all surprised that we’re phoning them up, usually they’re pleased. In the UK the Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode schemes can be confusing or off-putting for some people.

Amongst the cases of abandonment before payment attempt customer reaction is a little more mixed, usually they were just comparison shopping and had been conditioned through the poor usability of other sites into registering to check there are no shipping charge surprises, and simply wanted to be able to compare like for like. Even so, a 30% conversion rate on these carts is worth the trouble of making a call.

It all comes down to how you identify an abandoned cart and how you contact the customer – it’s either great customer care or it’s intrusive snooping.

Photo credit: Jack.ed

Why can’t giving to charity be more like shopping?

waterpurifierAmericans gave over $300bn to charities last year. UK figures are much lower (hey, we pay higher taxes) but are still over £9bn annually.

But charities always need more money to accomplish their aims – you’re unlikely to come across a charity that says “no thanks, we’re good for this year”. Given the worsening global financial situation, charitable giving is set to suffer – in the last recession corporate giving dropped by over 10%. It’s clear that charities are going to have a shortfall in funding and may be unable to meet their objectives.

Right now charitable giving online is handled in a number of ways. You can go direct to the charity’s website and make a payment online, or set up a recurring payment for a specific amount; you can go to a site like charities.org and do something similar. Some charities like the Red Cross give you a choice from five different sub-causes. One that I really liked, Barnados, lets you purchase ‘ethical real gifts‘ for people in need, a step in the right direction, and not prominently displayed enough in my opinion.

Another problem that charities have to overcome with online giving is that people are often reluctant to give a charity their contact details – they know that they will receive guilt inducing ‘begging letters’ by email, maybe phone calls too – giving to a charity is like painting a target on your back. None of the donation forms I looked at, where you enter all your details offered full opt-out – Red Cross had a checkbox, default checked, saying ‘I may be contacted by email’, Charities.org gave no such option. Neither allowed you to opt out of further contact.

It is the Barnados approach that gave me the inspiration for this idea – that online shopping for charity could be fun AND meaningful whereas most ways of giving to charity online feel immensely impersonal.

So here’s what I propose:

cataractopAn online store that allows multiple charities to list the items they need. Just like any online store, it will have items that go out of stock when the charity has met their target, best-sellers, new releases, and featured items. The items on sale could be electric kettles, microwaves, operations to restore someone’s sight, 24 hours of care in a hospice. Literally anything. It could even allow monetary value donations, if you can’t decide what to buy or can’t find an item that is in your price range. What about asking specifically for money to cover administration overheads – why not let the donor choose how their money is allocated?

When searching for products the donor could shop by charity (like a by brand search on a regular online store), keywords, category, project, target geographical area or age range. The donor gets full control over where their money goes.

Charities that are part of this online store would have to commit to transparency in their costs – a water purifier would have to be priced at a fair value, which could include the cost of getting it to where it needs to be, but shouldn’t include spurious costs, or a percentage for charity overhead.

At the checkout the donor gets to choose, per charity, their contact profile:

  1. Give the charity all my contact details, I’d love to be on their database
  2. Allow the charity to contact me by email exclusively via this website
  3. Give the charity just my name and town, so they can ‘attribute’ the items for their own records only
  4. I’d rather keep my details private and not hear from the charity or this website about this charity.

By offering to be the gatekeeper for the donor’s details we are safeguarding them from unwanted solicitations.

For each item given, the charity is obligated to update the online store with a progress report – sent 30 water purifiers to a village in Mozambique – post pictures. Users can log in to their account whenever they want and see the outcome of their purchases (whether or not they asked for emails).

The online store metaphor could be taken further and even improved upon. It should be possible for couples to set up a charitable giving wedding list, nominating specific charities if they wish, even specific items. Companies should be able to make large donations as part of their charitable giving programme. In the cases of larger, amalgamated donations, a DVD could be produced (automatically, perhaps partnering with Animoto) for the couple to have playing on a screen at their wedding reception or a company to display in its lobby, detailing all the good that has come out of the wedding or giving programme, so wedding guests or employees feel a sense of pride in what they have achieved.

To make this happen would take a monumental effort and a lot of will power. I’m not in any kind of position to make this happen, but I would invite anyone who knows people at Digital River, Elastic Path, or any other large ecommerce vendor to show them this article and ask how it fits in with their charitable giving programme.

Update, 14th April 2009 – looks like I was unlucky in my research not to come across Global Giving, with both US and UK sites. I would recommend anyone looking for an interesting way to give to charity check take a look.