Tag Archives: online marketing

Verizon phone books: the shameful waste

If you read no further, just consider the picture below.  It says it all.

This picture is worth the next 1,100 words.  Get it?

This picture is worth the next 1,100 words. Get it?

Let me be clear about 3 things right off the bat:

1) As a marketer, I understand the need to promote goods & services
2) Having previously marketed media, I also understand the need to maximize reported distribution/coverage of a marketing vehicle so that it’s appealing to potential advertisers
3) I’m not one of those internet snobs that thinks nobody should be using phone books.  Any consumer who finds them useful should get one, and any advertiser who finds them effective should benefit from this marketing vehicle.

Those things said, the distribution of Verizon phone books in Manhattan is an environmental waste, a burden on consumers who don’t want them, and a gross misrepresentation for the book’s advertisers.

Let me start with an analysis from my own small apartment building in lower Manhattan.  There are 7 apartment units in this building, which is clear from the 7 buzzers & name labels by the building’s front door.  Yet we’ve had a stack of 12 Verizon Yellow Pages books and 12 “Business to Business” directories by our front door for the last 4 days.

Fuzzy math: 7 apartments (and buzzers), but 24 phone books dumped on our building

Fuzzy math: 7 apartments (and buzzers), but 24 phone books dumped on our building

Forgetting that nobody in my building has taken a single one of these in 4 days, let’s consider that even if *everybody* in the building took one of each of the two directories, there would *still* be a 42% waste factor.

And, why was a *single* B2B directory delivered on our 100% residential block?  B2B, as explained on the directory’s cover, means “Business to Business.”

While walking to work yesterday, I took these pictures of stacks of directories in front of other buildings on my block.  This was 3 days after they were distributed.

Day 3 after the phone book drop.  See a pattern here?

Day 3 after the phone book drop. See a pattern here?

So who’s to blame for all this?  Surprise: it’s not really Verizon.  In a nod to the migration to internet searching for phone numbers (not to mention the need to fund its heavy investment in FIOS infrastructure), Verizon spun off its phone book business in 2006 to Idearc.

Since the spin-off, Idearc’s revenue has fallen about 8% (but at $3B, this is still big business). The problem?  Print directory advertising, representing 90% of Idearc’s total revenue, declined 10%.  Its internet advertising, while growing quickly, is still too small of a base to make up the difference.  Does this sound familiar?  It’s exactly what’s happening (or happened) to other print vehicles like magazines and newspapers.

But the real problem was the crushing debt of $9B that Verizon dumped on Idearc, ultimately causing Idearc to file for Chapter 11 Bankupty earlier this year after it broke its debt covenants with creditors.

Now in restructuring, Idearc must be under incredible pressure to fix things fast and book as much Yellow Pages advertising as humanly possible. Think of the pressure on their ad salespeople.

Small business advertisers, the core of Yellow Pages revenue, are likely attracted by a couple of things that a decent Idearc ad salesperson would try to convey: 1) a promise of mass distribution of their message, and 2) the tangible ability to see that message themselves.

Verizon’s Yellow Pages plays into both of these needs.  Idearc claims they have a distribution of 884,000 directories in Manhattan alone.  If you’re a small business in Manhattan, that seems like an awful lot, right?  And unlike internet ads or search advertising that may run “sometimes but not always”, it’s easy to verify your listing in the phone directory: just open the book, and there it is in black and yellow.

But if the experience on my block is any indication, Idearc is over-estimating the true distribution of their directories by a factor of perhaps 80-90%.  That’s bad news for advertisers and even more unfortunate for the environment: in the best case, the unwanted directories will immediately go in the recycling bin.  In reality though, many probably go straight into the garbage.

Ok, but there must be a way for consumers to say, “No thanks” to directory distribution, right? After all, we can opt out of email, as stipulated by federal CAN-SPAM laws.  Well, yes and no.

Here’s a resource to find the printed directory distributors in your area, so you can call them to opt-out in the future. Idearc’s number is 800-888-8448 (select Option 2).  I called them to opt-out and was connected in 15 seconds to a real person who promised to help.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s no way he could.

Did you notice anything in common with all the pictures of directories above?  They are all shrink-wrapped in lots of 12.  So even if 6 of the 7 apartments in my building had opted out of receiving the book, presumably we *still* would have had at least 12 dumped on us. (conversely, if they had broken open a pack to leave just one, it would have been soaked by this week’s rain)

It gets worse.  Yesterday I came across the people who were distributing directories on the next block.  It looked like a hard-working husband and wife team who were really hustling. To their credit, at one point I saw them debate among themselves whether to leave a stack in front of a brownstown that was clearly being gut-renovated, with only rafters showing and workers everywhere.  At least there was some thought to that (they ultimately decided to skip the house).

The root of the problem: no way to truly opt out.

The root of the problem: no way to truly opt out.

I approached these folks and politely asked them if they had a way to know who didn’t want to receive these directories.  They explained that “we don’t leave one if someone says they don’t want it.” But when I asked if they received any kind of list in advance for people who didn’t want them, they said, “oh no, nothing like that.”

Bottom line: opting out does nothing because the actual distributors dump packs of 12 books on each doorstep, and they have no list of who might have opted out, anyway.

I guess the whole thing would be a big joke if it weren’t so wasteful for the environment, frustrating for consumers, and misleading for advertisers.

Here’s a funny video showing one creative way to return your unrequested phone book.

Some parting thoughts & resources:

Hi Idearc:

I would like to permanently opt-out of receiving any of your printed directories.  The other 7 tenants in my Manhattan residential apartment building would like to do the same.

How do we proceed, please?

Thanks in advance,
Kelly Ford

New York, NY  10011

(email sent 10/15/09)

Update: Dec 26, 2009:

Idearc Media dropped white pages last week on my block.  Despite this blog post, despite my phone call to Idearc, despite Lisa Vilfordi’s comment here and subsequent direct emails between Lisa and me, despite Lisa’s personal assurances this would not happen again, they still screwed it up.

On the plus side, Idearc’s distributor dropped only the number of books which corresponded to the number of units/buzzers in my building: 7.  But they didn’t honor my multiple opt-out requests.  Assuming nobody else in my building had opted out, there should have been only 6 books dropped.  So, assuming that all other 6 tenants in my building wanted, took, and used the books (which is a laughable set of assumptions), we’re still talking a 1/7 = 14+% waste factor.

Idearc continues to ignore opt-out requests

I went on a trip out of town and came back 6 days later, and surprise: all 6 books were still there, now waterlogged.  They all ended up in the garbage.  Waste factor: 100%.

I sent an email to Lisa Vilfordi of Idearc to ask for her comment, but she didn’t reply.

The sordid love affair between restaurant websites and flash: would you two kids knock it off, already?

Agencies all over the world must be making a fortune designing overly fancy websites for restaurants, and I wish they’d knock it off.

I’ve never been in the restaurant business.  I also don’t know much about it, other than to have an appreciation for how difficult it must be: demanding hours, fickle customers, staffing challenges, perishable inventory, health inspections.  Given all those other challenges, you’d think that restaurants would want to do whatever they could to help visitors to their website quickly and painlessly find what they need to be convinced to make a booking. But this is so often just not the case, and is a reason restaurants are accelerating site disintermediation to places like MenuPages and OpenTable.

Despite not having worked directly in this business, I’m going to go on a crazy limb and predict what 95% of restaurant website visitors are looking for, probably even in this order:

1) the restaurant’s current menu
2) contact & general information: phone, location, hours of operation
3) a few photos to get a sense of the interior vibe and design of the place

Instead of making some or all of the above available front and center on the homepage, I’ve seen way too many restaurant websites with the following sequence of events:

1) a ‘loading’ bar as some huge animation sequence is served. Mind you, this is on fast broadband connections. I can only imagine what it must be like when connecting at slower speeds (and yes, plenty of people still do)
2) music begins
3) some big story appears about the chef’s philosophy and inspiration for the establishment
4) menus are 3 clicks deep and require a pdf download

The pdf thing alone is going to alienate a lot of customers. (they either won’t download the menu or won’t find it after they do)

Check out these sample offenders.  (it took me about 2 minutes to put together this list on the fly).  Keep in mind that these are all restaurants I actually like.  I’m just frustrated with their websites: Almond, Spice, Tao,Paris Commune, Singe Vert.  Here are some more examples from Matthew Stibbe, who shares my frustration.

On the other hand, Crispo, one of my neighborhood favorites, does it very well: a blazing-fast homepage that conveys basic information & the core of the restaurant’s vibe, on-screen menus a click away, and photo galleries and virtual tours on a separate tab.

Crispo's homepage is clean, fast, and helpful

Crispo's homepage is clean, fast, and helpful

There are a lot of compelling situations when fancy animation on the web adds value: virtual real estate tours, high end hotels, showcasing the interior of a car, demonstrating a complicated software product, maybe showing off a cruise line.  But the homepage of a restaurant site is not the right place & not the right time.  If restaurants feel their interiors are absolutely so compelling that they deserve an animated tour, put it one click deep on another page.

Back to one point: should restaurants really care if their potential customers prefer to turn to MenuPages or OpenTable rather than the restaurant’s own site?  Yes.  MenuPages, while incredibly helpful from a menu perspective, doesn’t convey the other elements & atmosphere of the restaurant that help define it as an experience.  (and yes, those elements CAN be expressed without resorting to flash on the homepage).  And OpenTable (which I absolutely love) is great for customers, but may end up costing the restaurant for a reservation that would have been free had the customer called the restaurant after visiting the restaurant’s own site.

For all the many restaurants out there that I love, please: keep your websites fast, straightforward, helpful, and free of homepage animation. By doing so you can save on agency fees, give your customers what they want, and avoid driving customers to 3rd party sites that either don’t convey your full brand experience or make you pay for bookings.

How not to get a response to your cold pitch (part 1 of many)

Cold pitching is a tough job.  I’m terrible at it myself, and I respect people who can do it well.  I acknowledge that sales people have to start somewhere, and I don’t mind receiving well-thought-out, inbound pitches (via email) from time to time.

I receive many inbound pitches for all kinds of marketing services.  It’s rare that I’m in immediate need of the exact service somebody’s pitching me when I’m first contacted.  But if it’s a well-conceived proposition for a service I could imagine using someday, I file the pitch and often come back to it. I’ve ended up striking very large media deals with companies that initiated contact with me this way.

On occasion I’ll send a quick email back to acknowledge a cold pitch, but more often than not I don’t.  Some people consider that bad business etiquette; I had a boss once who said that “even if the guy on the phone is selling vacuum cleaners, you should hear them out and only then politely decline.”  But I don’t buy the philosophy that every uninvited pitch deserves a personal response (especially when the email was sent to a general “marketing@” or “press@” email address.)  And apparently, that just pushes some sales people to completely lose it.

In browsing through my archived emails tagged ‘pitches’ the other day, I was struck by some common elements that made many of them either very strong or incredibly weak.  I’ll blog about some of these from time to time to make my point.

Here’s the first one.  How likely do you think it is that I would ever contact this sales person to discuss advertising opportunities based on the content and tone of this email?

This is not how to win friends and influence people

This is not how to win friends and influence people

Side note: he had emailed us exactly one other time, 2 weeks ago, and as far as I’m aware we’ve never received a phone call from this person.

To his question of when a good time would be to speak with me about advertising on the site he represents, I can direct him here.

Next in this series: I’ll highlight some effective techniques that I’ve seen good salespeople use in their cold pitches.

Converting .ods files to .xls or .xlsx: Try Zamzar.com

I’m happy to have abandoned Windows for the oh-so-stable Mac OSX , and I’m increasingly using Google docs for basic spreadsheets and word processing.  But there’s one Microsoft application I just can’t live without for more complicated spreadsheets, and that’s Excel.

I recently changed my iMac hardware and didn’t have MS Office installed on the new machine, so as a stopgap I started creating .ods spreadsheets using NeoOffice.  Since then I’ve installed Office on the new machine, and so I wanted to convert my .ods spreadsheets to an Excel-readable .xls or .xlsx format.  Not so easy.

NeoOffice provides a .xls ‘save as’ option, but inexplicably then drops formula content and exports the document as values only.  Copying a NeoOffice spreadsheet to the clipboard and pasting to Excel causes the same problem.

Online conversion sites can help, though.  I used Zamzar.com to convert the .ods file to a fully-functioning .xls file and it worked great.  The site is aggressive in its pop-ups but otherwise gets a clean bill of health from SiteAdvisor (my previous startup).  Simply upload the original file to Zamzar.com and they’ll email back the converted file in one of several formats.  The free version of the service has file size limits and takes a good 30 minutes for the conversion, but paid versions of the software reduce these restrictions and speed conversion time.

The advantage to online conversion sites is that you don’t have to download/install software (good for locked-down corporate systems) but the disadvantage is that you’re uploading your data to a 3rd party.  So clearly you shouldn’t be sending anything that’s highly sensitive.  It’s also important to check the reputation of the conversion site because a nefarious site could in theory return the document with a malicious payload (embedded in a macro or visual basic script, for example) that could do all kinds of nasty things to your system.  SiteAdvisor is a good place to start to check the sites’s reputation.

Side note: Prior to trying Zamzar I also tried Media-Convert.com but only got file errors when I uploaded my source file.

Bottom line: it’s not seamless to move streadsheets between NeoOffice and Microsoft Office, but Zamzar.com can help by easily converting .ods files to Office’s .xls or .xlsx formats.

Beware Best Buy affiliates…are you really getting credit for the qualified traffic you drive to BestBuy.com?

Hunch’s business model is very straightforward: when Hunch proposes a result to a user trying to make a decision, the result page may include a link to an external retailer offering the product or service for sale. Hunch would share in any resulting sales via affiliate marketing relationships.  We’ve been testing a variety of affiliates in these spots lately, but one we’ve decided to drop is Best Buy.  I’ll explain why.

Hunch users who end up on a result page represent highly qualified traffic; someone landing on a Hunch page for a Nikon camera is there precisely because they just answered a handful of questions designed to help them find the right camera for them.  So we tend to see solid post-click conversion when users click through to an external site to browse for product availability or detailed product information.

We signed up to the Best Buy affiliate program through Commission Junction, and tested Best Buy links in several topics for which we already had a history of strong post-click conversions.  While CJ’s reporting platform showed nearly the same ad impressions and affiliate clicks for BestBuy as we tracked internally, CJ reported not just a lower post-click conversion rate than we had historically seen, but actually zero.  Several more days went by, clicks were still flowing to Best Buy, but they reported zero resulting sales.

We decided to test this by buying some merchandise ourselves.  Two of our employees, on two different days, followed Hunch affiliate links to Best Buy and then bought something.  CJ still showed no sales activity.  Houston, we have a problem.

I emailed the Best Buy affiliate team on Aug 29th to report this, attaching receipts for our sales, and inquiring about all the other qualified clicks we had sent them.  They replied on Sept 1st that they’d look into it and that we should “alllow two weeks to do so.”  On Sept 10th they emailed back to say they had determined that both orders were, in fact, valid, and that we should allow “up to two days” for them to show up in CJ reports.  No explanation about what happened or why, nor any reference to the real issues about what happened to all the other qualified clicks we had sent them.  (side note: irritatingly, they sign their emails not from a person, but anonymously as “BestBuy.com Affiliate Team”)   I wrote back to ask them to provide a further explanation.

On Sept 15th they wrote back to say our links were formatted correctly and they didn’t have further info, but we could contact their technical support staff if we wanted.

An inadequate explanation from Best Buy

An inadequate explanation from Best Buy

As of today, 19 days after I originally wrote them, we still haven’t received credit for the items we bought (not our greatest concern, but hardly confidence-inspiring), nor have we received any explanation for what happened to all the other qualified clicks that seemed to have gone into some type of Best Buy black hole.  I’m not interested in dealing with their technical team (that should be the role of their affiliate team, as an intermediary), and as a result we’ve discontinued our relationship with them.

CJ reports that Best Buy’s 3 month epc (or “revenue paid by the advertiser to the website publisher per hundred clicks, over a 3 month period”) is just $6.85.  That’s just 7 cents per click – far below what Best Buy would be able to purchase qualified clicks for from one of the major search engines.  Now you could argue that I should have seen that metric in advance (I did) and stayed away (I didn’t)…I thought, as I suspect many other sites do, that our traffic is so highly qualified that we should expect much higher conversions than Best Buy’s historical average.  Note that AJMadison, another respected electronics and appliance retailer, has an epc that’s three times that of Best Buy’s, at $19.10.

Over time, based both on these average metrics and each affiliate’s actual experience, you’d expect affiliates to increasingly migrate away from low conversion partners like Best Buy and towards higher conversion alternates.  But my gut tells me that with such a strong brand name, Best Buy can afford high affiliate churn because they likely have such strong interest with new potential affiliates joining the program.  I don’t know whether in Best Buy’s case this problem is a deliberate strategy or just negligence and poor execution, but either way it doesn’t inspire confidence in affiliate marketing systems.

Bottom line: for cpa-driven affiliate relationships to work, there has to be trust and reliability in the system for accurate post-click reporting and payments.  So it’s disheartening when even a big brand like Best Buy can have such a complete failure in their affiliate model, as we experienced above.

One implication of all this: I would gladly pay a 3rd party to conduct “real transaction” audits on the sites with whom I have an affiliate relationship.  I’m not talking about click matching, but actually buying a low-priced physical good from time to time (and perhaps then returning it later for a refund).  This approach couldn’t be efficiently scaled to take representative frequent samples for a given affiliate, but still, at low volume it could potentially identify the most egregious offenders.  Because as we found out with Best Buy, where there was smoke, there was fire.  Anyone know of any companies that do that kind of affiliate auditing?

Low Google Quality Score? Consider “buying your way” into the party.

Quality Score is that somewhat mysterious but very powerful measure Google uses to determine if, how, and when your paid search ads show up on Google and its content network.  As Google explains it, a high Quality Score generally means that your keyword will trigger ads in a higher position and at a lower cost-per-click (CPC).

The Quality Score is affected by historical click through rate, quality of the landing page, relevance of the keyword to the ad group, and loads of other factors.  Knowing Google, there are probably dozens of factors that change and are re-weighted all the time.

I’m not going to go into recommendations for sites to improve their base Quality Score (but for a nice primer, see Dave Davis’ discussion of this in Search Engine Journal – a few years old but still very relevant. There are also of course lots of great resources on Search Engine Land on this topic). What I do want to point out is that the Quality Score needs time to reach equilibrium, and that Google’s initial guess is often very different than what it ultimately learns.  So if you’re convinced you have a great user flow from your AdWords ad through to your site, but Google just doesn’t seem to get it yet, consider biting the bullet and “buying your way in to the country club.”

I’ve often come across cases where Google’s “on-the-fly” Quality Score assessment for a new campaign or ad group was very low, resulting in a cpc that was significantly higher than I wanted to pay, let’s say $1.00.  Now, I knew that was way more than I was willing to pay an on ongoing basis based on my ROI expectations, but it would have been a mistake to throw in the towel at that point.  If I didn’t overpay and buy my way in for at least a little while, how would Google ever realize the strength of my campaign and the great user experience I had in store for its searchers?

Once I ran my campaign at the $1.00 cpc bid for just a few hours, the quality score improved.  In addition to gaining some CTR history, I suspect Google was also realizing that the types of pages I linked to on Hunch had a very low bounce rate, in other words it was a great user experience.  The Quality Score shot up and I was able to gradually reduce my bid while still maintaining decent placement.  Over a few days’ time, my bid was down by 70% from where I started.  (incidentally, bounce rate isn’t something I’ve seen Google talk much about explicitly, but in my recent experience – and from what I’ve heard from some former insiders – having a low bounce rate is a big deal.)

The whole process is akin to talking your way into a club once with the doorman, but then counting on the charm of your personality to get yourself invited back for free.  Same with Google.  And while I’d rather have the Quality Score be right to begin with, this pricing mechanism is actually pretty efficient.  Google is essentially saying, “We don’t see it yet, but if you’re so sure, put your money on the table.  Then we’ll talk again.”

So if you’re convinced you have a great user experience, but Google’s Quality Score doesn’t yet reflect it, don’t just go home with your tail between your legs.  Temporarily buy your way in until Google realizes that you deserve to be in this party after all.