Be a Disbeliever

“Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.”

It’s a great rule to live by, and, it points out one of the main dangers inherent in market research, or research of any kind, really. Good research requires good filters and a high level of skepticism. You see, what research subjects say, and even what they do, don’t automatically tell us what they really think or will really do once released from the confines of the artificially created research environment.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a place for research –it can be extremely valuable. I’m just warning you to not take the results of any research, formal or informal, at face value.

First, as any good journalist will tell you, you must consider the source.

If a four-year-old child draws a picture and then asks how you like it, what will you say? Unless you are a heartless beast, you will probably tell him or her it is fantastic. So, when you describe to your spouse, partner, employee or mother the idea you came up with for a new ad campaign, what makes you think they will say anything other than, “That’s fantastic!”? And, unless they are a marketing expert or squarely in your target market, why should you care what they think anyway? In research, we call this a convenience sample – a sample of the population that was easy to access. Convenience samples are almost totally useless.

So, what’s a better way to test an idea or concept – a formally structured research methodology that leverages the power of truly random samples to explore the depths of consumer motivation? OK, sounds good, in a business-school kind of way. But how do we get a random sample? Oh, wait. I know. We’ll hire someone to call random people out of the phone book and ask them a series of questions related to the topic we are trying to probe. That’s random, right?

Wrong.

There are a bunch of problems with calling this kind of sample “random.” First, it’s only a sample of people who have phones – and fewer people (especially young people) have them at home these days. Then, our “random” people must have their phone number listed in the book, be home when we call and be willing to answer. Hmmm, this is starting to sound like a sample of elderly, talkative, lonely shut-ins.

The same limitations apply to online surveys, face-to-face questioning in public places and even interviews or focus groups composed of subjects recruited by professionals. None of these provides perfectly random samples and all come with inherent limitations and biases.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer is: Believe none of what you hear – not at face value, anyway – because there are no truly random samples and because all of us have inherent biases. All subjects come with challenges. Therefore, all data collected from them must be evaluated skeptically, professionally and with an understanding of the source and the situation.

So, wouldn’t it be better to emulate Gorillas in the Mist naturalist Dian Fossey, who spent years hiding behind trees in Africa watching mountain gorillas in their natural habitat and writing down everything they did? Couldn’t we better predict consumer behavior by watching them?

Maybe.

But what if our presence – our watching them – somehow changes their behavior. Have you ever walked into a room full of people and felt the mood change? Maybe they were talking about you. Or maybe, because you are their boss, they felt like they should behave in a certain way when you were present. It’s no different with research subjects. Do you really think the members of your last focus group didn’t know you were watching them from behind the huge mirrored wall? And do you really believe they weren’t a little intimidated knowing that?

So, we must also believe only half of what we see.

OK. This is starting to make research sound like a waste of time and money, which it definitely is not. My point is, like so many things in business, conducting and interpreting research in meaningful ways requires training, experience and insight. It’s tempting to try to find shortcuts, but that is usually false economy. Making decisions based on bad or incomplete research usually results in missed opportunities, half-baked strategies and wasted time and energy. So, the next time you think you have a great idea, don’t ask your mom what she thinks. Ask a pro to help you find out for sure.

Posted in Marketing, Research | Leave a comment

Don’t Forget Your A-B-Cs … or at least your A/Bs

Can’t sleep at night because you’ve got multivariate testing on the mind? I’ve got the site for you! OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme even for us marketers. But recently coming across www.whichtestwon.com was a refreshing surprise. Launched in June 2009, this site provides real-life A/B split test scenarios that marketers and companies in just about any industry can benefit from.

Self-pronounced “marketing optimization evangelists,” the folks behind this site offer nearly 100 case studies free of charge for your viewing pleasure. Near and dear to my heart, from a web design and digital perspective, are the studies focused on eye-tracking studies and human behavior response testing (You can check out a two-part blog post I submitted in the past regarding effective content placement on the web).  

For example, recent studies have included tests such as “Color vs. Size: Which Text Link Got More Clicks …” and “Email A/B Test: Which Subject Line + Email Creative Combo raised Sony’s eCommerce Sales?” A fun add-on is that you can participate in polls to see how your perceptions compare to other marketers.

Additionally, the site lists vendor participants and sponsors that work and specialize in and around the testing and research fields. It’s a great source for free options in the space such as the Google Website Optimizer which is a free tool launched in 2006 that supports both A/B and multivariate testing. As Google astutely states on their Optimizer landing page: “Why guess what site content and designs best convert your visitors, when you can find out directly from them?”

Let us know if you have any multivariate testing studies that have made a positive impact on your marketing efforts!

Posted in Custom Publishing, Integrated Marketing, Interactive, Marketing, Marketing Technology, Online marketing, Publishing, Web Design | 1 Comment

Integrated SEO for Mid-Sized Businesses: All Aboard!

Gone are the days when Search Engine Optimization (SEO) fit neatly into an IT department’s purview. More recently, SEO was considered purely a marketing function and not relevant or influenced by any other department. Ignorance was bliss, wasn’t it?

The truth is that effectively optimizing and promoting a website is too complex and too important to be left to just one team. There is simply too much at stake and too many moving parts for one team or one person to handle independently of other business functions.

In fact, if your sales teams, customer service reps, PR gurus, analysts and subject matter experts are not in sync and actively contributing to your SEO strategy, your company may be missing a huge opportunity to improve your website’s visibility across a wide variety of search engines, social media sites and vertical search engines.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your teams without taking away from their ability to do their own jobs.

Pick a Destination, Lay the Tracks

Before even mentioning (and trying to explain) SEO to your non-marketing teams, pick a common goal and get people excited about achieving it. Want to increase sales leads? Need more e-commerce revenue? Want to improve customer experience and lower call-center overhead by reducing customer complaints?

Sometimes uniting a team against a common enemy is an effective motivator. Are your competitors getting more than their fair share of top rankings in Google, video views on YouTube or mentions in local media? Get your team fired up about elevating your game to compete more effectively.

Get Everybody to the Station

Once you have their attention, explain how an integrated SEO strategy can help the company achieve its overall business objectives.

Explain the benefits of greater visibility in search engines in terms they understand. More leads. More sales. Better customer service. Whatever their incentives are, tie them to the SEO strategy so they can see how their contributions will matter to their own personal and professional success.

All Aboard!

Now you’ve got your expanded SEO team mobilized. How do you get the most out of it?

The basic blocking and tackling should be handled by the marketing and IT teams. Build (or update) your website to align with Google’s SEO best practices to serve as a solid foundation for your efforts.

Next, align your experts. Interview your internal subject matter experts for a series of blog posts, white papers or videos that explain what your business does or its products. No matter how you choose to do it, create content that your customers can use and relate to.

Even if it seems like common sense to people in your industry, there are plenty of potential customers out there that are researching their options and putting their trust in companies that can explain their products or services clearly. This is where you have a chance to become a trusted advisor as they work their way through the decision-making process. Not to mention it will create lots of keyword-rich and credible content on your site!

Update your PR team on SEO best practices to insure that their press releases and messaging include links back to your site to get maximum exposure. Inform them of the targeted keywords in your SEO strategy so they can incorporate them into their outgoing communications. This can help your external content rank well for valuable keywords in news search engines, general web search engines, and social media sites.

Task your sales people and customer service reps (or any customer-facing employees) to solicit feedback and testimonials for your company on your site or third party reviews sites. A few positive endorsements can go a long way towards building your brand’s credibility and displacing any negative comments that may be floating around.

Don’t Derail Your Efforts!

There are a lot of moving parts in an active SEO campaign. You’ll undoubtedly get a lot of advice (solicited or otherwise) from vendors, marketing firms, your CMO’s “SEO guru” nephew and online communities. Make sure you separate fact from fiction and realize that there are no guarantees or easy wins in SEO.

If you do choose to hire an SEO consultant or outsource any part of your strategy, be sure to read Google’s recommendations for hiring a search engine optimization company. It will save you a lot of time, money, and headaches. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. SEO is an ongoing effort, not a one-time task.

Don’t be afraid to take the long view and allocate resources to insure your strategies are successful and your goals are accomplished. With a holistic approach, SEO can become an integrated part of your internal processes that constantly builds on previous successes and engages (and enriches) every part of your company.

 Andrew Miller is a Search Engine Marketing Consultant based in Richmond, Virginia, and a frequent contributor to our clients’ success online and offline with SEO, PPC, web analytics and conversion rate optimization strategies.

Posted in Blogging, Integrated Marketing, Interactive, Marketing, Marketing Technology, Online marketing, Public Relations, SEO, Social Media, Web Design | 1 Comment

Make Your Own History with Social Media

I hope this won’t end up sounding like one of those “I used to walk three miles in the snow without shoes” kind of stories your dad told you when you were a kid (or possibly still does, even though you’ve now got kids of your own). I recently saw a post by the Royal Pingdom that provided global usage stats for the web for 2010. I was just awestruck by the numbers and had to share them.

According to their data, which was gathered by more than a dozen credible Internet and traditional research sources, there are now over 1.97 billion Internet users worldwide surfing over 255 million websites. I still remember back in 1996 working as part of the initial marketing team for the startup website sportsline.com (now www.CBSSports.com). We used to joke about whether “this whole Internet thing would catch on.” Back then, those of us in the business were sure it would – but certainly we weren’t in the majority.

Sure, there was the whole boom and bust, but hindsight shows us that was simply natural selection at its finest. At the time, we believed we were making history every day with our ideas since there were no textbooks on the “right way” of doing things. It was an environment where the next big idea could come from anyone in the company, no matter your position or work experience.

What’s exciting about these newly reported numbers by Pingdom? The tremendous growth we’re continuing to see in both the social media and video usage spaces. Again, we are dealing with media where there is such a short history that anyone can come across the next big thing. Even kids in a college dorm room can become billionaires and affect the lives of millions.

So, check out the numbers, and don’t be afraid to make your own conclusions and even take a bold move or two. Hindsight might be 20/20, but I’m willing to bet this whole social media thing isn’t going away either.

Have a similar story to tell? Don’t be shy and share it with us!

Posted in Interactive, Marketing, Marketing Technology, Online marketing, Social Media | Leave a comment

The Impact of Health Reform on Marketing

To say that healthcare (and therefore healthcare marketing) is in an enormous state of flux is a cliché, for sure. That doesn’t make it untrue.

The current administration devoted much of its entire first year to getting a health reform bill passed. The Republican wave victory in the recent mid-terms will possibly lead to its overturn or more likely death by a thousand cuts over the coming years.

Let’s define health reform as the need to evolve today’s marinade of misery into something resembling an efficient, reasonably well-run industry that includes both the opportunity for profit as well as a high degree of consumer choice, downward pressure on prices and corporate competition. Irrespective of the political landscape, I contend this reform will slowly but surely emerge.

Government-driven change will surely continue to be a critical part of the mix – certainly until, and unless, the Medicare and Medicaid programs are substantially reduced under some future administration (good luck with that!). But we believe that real reform is and will increasingly be driven by other factors as well.

These ’forces of disruption” can be broadly grouped in three areas: demand-driven (consumer expectation, demographic shifts), supply-driven (technology, capital constraints, new competitors) and government (legislation, regulation and financial).

Demand-Driven

The web is proving just as powerful a player in healthcare as it is in almost every other industry sector. Why? Because it resolutely shifts knowledge from the center to the periphery, empowering individuals as it goes. Once upon a time (say 2005), people had little ability to benchmark or measure health-plan value or hospital quality. Today, this is foundational to their/our decision-making process.

In this scary new world, insurers and providers must think very differently about the end users of their products and services. These end users now have knowledge. Increasingly, they’re exercising an informed level of choice as a result. Perhaps for the first time, hospitals and insurers must objectively consider whether their products and services truly meet the needs of the people they’re supposed to serve. They must also consider how they describe and explain these products and services. Our experience is that – with a few honorable exceptions – this is not the case.

Delivering consistent patient and customer satisfaction, based on a basket of value, transparency, quality and outcome measures, will increasingly determine the success or otherwise of plans and providers alike. Embrace it or die.

Supply-Driven

Technology and science march on, oblivious to media angst and political machinations. An optimistic view of healthcare might be that 20 to 30 years from now, science will have outstripped the status quo to such an extent that we pass through some kind of health singularity and the entire existing healthcare edifice becomes obsolete overnight. Maybe. But for now, the disruptive opportunities and threats are many and need to be dealt with.

We believe that change will come faster and faster.  A rolling revolution of new treatments, better forms of patient/doctor communication, more efficient surgical techniques and completely new competitors disrupting profitable service lines will appear each and every year. Marketers must make sure they’re thinking ahead, watching developments and being open-minded about what’s possible and where opportunities and threats lie.

This type of mindset will come hard to institutions that have operated in broadly the same competitive environment for decades. But those days are over. Objectivity and a willingness to exploit first-mover advantage will be increasingly important to success.

Government

While the specifics of dealing with Washington are often a nightmare, the good news for marketers is that what government is demanding is – at least in intent – also what’s in the best interests of plans and providers: transparency, value, wellness leadership, improved information and technology delivery and so on.

The truth is that healthcare is lagging the rest of the economy in terms of how it thinks about and serves its various constituents. Government is exerting pressure on the right areas necessary for change. For example, from a consumer point of view, EMR is a no-brainer. Being able to access, control and comprehend one’s own health reality and make informed decisions based on access and choice is little different from any other retail decision-making process.

Since the dawn of time, a mystique has surrounded healthcare. The idea of the doctor as omnipotent and all-powerful served everyone’s needs for centuries when scientific knowledge was limited and nobody really knew what they were doing most of the time. That’s different today. Marketers need to understand that the role of the healthcare provider is to empower consumers and inspire them to take control of their own wellbeing. It’s still a competitive differentiator and clearly places the enterprise in alignment with what the government is trying to do.

The Patient-Customer

For healthcare companies, as with sector after sector before them, success will depend on placing the consumer (the patient-customer, as we call them) firmly at the center of the enterprise. Plans and providers must shift their mindset from that of a producer to a servicer of genuine need – financial, physical and emotional. And their marketing and advertising plans must evolve accordingly.

Health reform is here to stay. Whether the current players in the industry are around for much longer is up to their leaders and marketers to determine. 

 

Posted in Branding, health, Healthcare Marketing, Integrated Marketing, Marketing, Marketing Technology, Online marketing, Public Relations | 1 Comment