Days fly by!

It has been 5 Years since I joined IIM Bangalore. I can't believe 2 years have passed by since I graduated! Days just fly by; interestingly I am completing 8 years in the industry and 4.5 years in Marketing!

Marketing, specifically Digital Marketing has been my bread and butter for past few years; and the domain continue to intrigue me each and every day.Looking back, I miss IIMB, my friends and the grill we used to have.The exposure those days gave, the pumping knowledge, articles and what not feel amazing even today. To be honest, sometimes I doubt how I coped up all those; that too with enjoyment.Two subjects - Marketing and Strategy that attracted me the most continues to be my interest areas even today; apparently the the subject that I hated the most - Finance continue to be the same :)

Reflecting on the whole journey...I think it has also reached the starting point of Mid-Life crisis! This is the time, you get all those questions - what have you achieved, what's the priority, where to focus, what's my future and how to continue one's passion? 12 Years has passed by, beginning as a budding electrical engineer shifting to computer programming, then to management and finally to marketing (individual contributor to lead to marketer to lead to individual contributor LOL). 

With another 30 years ahead of me, thoughts swing between a PhD to Entrepreneurship to Manager to start-ups. It's all a haze with some beacons gathered during the three years at B-School. One of this year's resolution was to keep this blog alive;which somehow I struggle to do. I intend to revamp a bit the blog, continue writing about my learning in the world of business. So stay tuned....

Zero Moment of Truth

Recently, I started doing a MOOC in Coursera on Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals: Marketing Analytics in Theory. The first topic of discussion was about Zero Moments of Truths. Hearing the team Moments of Truth sailed me back to the MBA classes on Services Marketing. I believe at that time, even the term - Zero Moment of Truth was not coined :) I thought of refreshing my memory on this topic.

Moment of Truth

So what is a moment of truth? It is nothing but an handshake between the customer and an organization in a manner that customer forms an opinion about the organization's service/product  offering. It can also be considered as the instance that gives and opportunity to the organization or customer to change the opinion of the service. An example I could think is - say you are entering the hotel reception after a long tiring journey and the staff  asks to wait in the lobby since the room is not yet ready; think what will be the perception formed especially if you had already pre-booked and made all notifications. On a different note, consider the staff mentioning the room is not ready; but provides you a refreshments voucher. Here is a great McKinsey article on moment of truths (The ‘moment of truth’ in customer service). These gestures from the staff can decide whether you will recommend the hotel to you friend. Thus the gesture from staff can be considered your first moment of truth. Let's assume you got the room; how well maintained it is will be the second moment of truth and so on. Procter and Gamble was the originators of these terms - The first moment
Of truth occurring at a store shelf, when one decides to buy a product; the second occurs at home, when she uses it and becomes either delighted or not like it at all.

Now let's shift gears to sales & marketing, specifically digital. According to Google/Shopper Sciences study, a shopper uses 10.4 sources on average to decide whether to buy a product or not! And hence they coined the term Zero Moment of Truths to hint there are hundreds of small decision making moments happening before we make an actual purchase. In my personal opinion, it's once again another digital specific term that Google coined :) Anyhow considering, digital is becoming the major piece in our life and having a significant role in our decision makings; this is a fairly good way to look into customer decision making.

Zero Moment of Truth

All purchase cycle has three steps - Stimulus (seeing an ad), Purchase (the buying experience, packaging etc.) and finally Usage (delighted or frustrated using experience). All these are moments of truths. In essence Zero Moment of Truth implies there are no more such a concept. A customer is empowered to all possible information before making a purchase. A customer can get product specs, user reviews, support information, demos and more before even going to the store. What this essentially drives is the improvement in customer engagement - pre and post purchase. A good example of pre-purchase  engagement is the demo videos; post purchase engagement being content around best practices, usage tips and so on.

Addition of ZMOT has made the marketer think more from the customer point of view. Gone are the days when a marketer needs to just think about brochure, packaging and so on. Now she needs to think from how she can enhance the availability of information, how to manage online reviews, how to build online ambassadors. ZMOT also provides a view into brand sentiments. The reviews, social media posts and forums not only provide the brands a view of how the products are perceived; but also as a market research tool.

Playing a devil's advocate here - if you really consider, ZMOT is just another jargon introduced; it's all about how to keep a customer or prospective customer engaged.

Social bookmarking as an online marketing tool

A little bit of history to start with!

We know, social bookmarking for personal use is an effective tool to bookmark, and get to know about high quality resources. The purpose behind starting such concept was itself knowledge sharing. But later it came under the attack of spamming :) and as a link building tool. As we discussed previously, thus the concepts like nofollow became more important.
With updates to search algorithms and social media becoming an important factor; social bookmarking are once again becoming an important tool to share resources and also to build traffic. While there could be two opposite schools of thought on whether social bookmarking helps in search engine results; it definitely add value to building traffic (for example you don't get any PageRank benefits for reddit backlinks since they follow nofollow policy)

Ok, now let's get into understand what is social bookmarking? Social bookmarking is nothing but bookmarking something you like and feel useful in public. This enables others to catch on high quality resources easily. For example, I may have a personal copy of a bookmarks folder called Digital Marketing; It may have sub folders like SEO, PPC and so on. And each will have articles, web pages that I have categorized and bookmarked into these. Social bookmarking sites like reddit or stumbleupon allows to follow a similar pattern with the help of tags to categorize each of my bookmarks; and at the same time share it to the world. Others can either up vote or down vote the resources based on how useful they found the resources were.

So you may ask, how does an online marketer make use of social bookmarking site? In my opinion, the main use is only for sharing; it's a channel to promote the resource you are creating. A word of caution though; unless the content is of high value, it may backfire completely. The more important aspect - it gives you an idea of how well your content is received; what's its share-ability quotient. This helps an online marketer from the content marketing perspective. It gives her an idea about which content is clicking and which are being found useful by readers. As we discussed these sites work on the principle of network effect. The bigger and more active the network is; the higher the chance is to reach a wider audience; thus building more traffic. (of course there is a chance that your link may get dropped in the ocean; selection of sites is after-all a judgement call)

So which social bookmarking sites to use? According to Search Engine Journal, there are at least 50 that you can consider. Find the full list here (50+ Social Bookmarking Sites : Importance of User Generated Tags, Votes and Links). I would suggest monitoring few of these to understand the kind of topics getting more traction. Based on the overlap of those topics with your domain area, choose few. It's better to keep sub-themes and focus on one or two sub themes in each social bookmarking site. Another aspect that you may want to look into are the nofollow policies, reach and popularity. I found these two sites useful in making your choice - Social bookmarking sites list and Tranvict blog post on the same.
Three sites that I suggest you consider experimenting with are stumbleupondigg, and reddit

What's your take on social bookmarking? which sites do you suggest?

Creating a social media policy for organizations - a primer

Social media usage is rampant.Most of us use at least one of the social media channels, be it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. We use it during while at home, during office hours or even while traveling. We share updates about personal, official, social - you name it. From an organization's perspective, it is literally impossible to keep an eye on what's being share by its employees in social media channels. Thus it is important to develop guidelines for its employees on what to and how to share in social media channels. Of course it may sound completely against the rationale of social media - share freely anything you like; but it is important that the employee is sharing relevant, accurate and appropriate information in the channels. From an online marketing perspective, it is important that your employees are sharing consistent messages regarding your firm, they are having a professional conduct and so on.
One should be very careful in drafting the social media policies, since it should not drift away the employees from engaging in social media. Today, it is important than ever that the organization is keeping a personal touch with its customers and prospects. And employees are one of the important players to achieve this. So how to develop an effective social media policy for your organization? Keep the following factors in mind while to draft the policy -
  1. It should be simple to follow; yet covers all aspects to take care of protecting your brand's messaging, company reputation and keep confidentiality if required. It should cover basics such as etiquette to be followed, guidelines on what can be share and what cannot be and so on. There is no point in creating a 25 page document like a legal policy for your social media engagement.
  2. It should not be a list of restrictions; but a set of best practices for the employees to help their organization build a better brand and business.Consider your employees as your brand ambassadors in social media channels.
  3. It should include the reason why there is a social media policy at firsthand? What's the company's vision? why it is caring about social media? Is it for building the brand? Is to project how enthusiastic its' employees are? Is it to use social media channels as a sales channel?
  4. Industry regulations. It's important to take care of any industry regulations especially if your business in concentrated in sectors like defense, insurance, healthcare etc.For example FDA released a new draft social media guidance report earlier this year. Though very old, here is a nice compilation of possible regulations in some of the industries pertaining to social media.
  5. Disciplinary actions and policy reviews. It may sound like a school; but it's often helpful to think about what actions will be taken if there is a misconduct. Also it is important to keep reviewing the policy every six months in view of industry changes and developments in the social media ecosystem.
Creating a social media policy? Check out an example here - IBM Social Computing Guidelines (disclaimer - it's just an example; and I was an IBMer; so used to follow these). If you are looking for more examples, here is a database of social media policies followed by various organizations.

Understanding online ad networks

Ad networks are the first set that came into existence when the online advertising ecosystem started evolving. When the number of websites and high quality websites started increasing, it became difficult for both advertisers and publishing websites to optimally and individually take care of advertising contracts. Advertising Networks connected these two parties. The main function of an ad network is to aggregate ad space supply from publishers and sell/match it to advertisers' demands. The unique proposition of ad networks was to provide advertisers, a single platform to reach a large online audience with high targeting capabilities; at the same time having a low-cost inventory.

Most of the ad networks have a unique set of websites for each domain category they cater to (Eg: Real estate, fashion, small business, B2B segments etc.). Even with the advent of ad networks, significant amount of the transactions used to be personal in nature involving a sales team.Examples of ad networks include Google AdWords, Chitika, Adblade and so on. Here is a wikipedia list of notable advertising networks.

Depending on the targeting capabilities, an ad network provide, they can be classified into vertical ad networks and horizontal ad networks. Vertical Networks provide advertising capabilities for a specific domain (for example - fashion). They also offers customization in terms of where the ads can appear from a web page perspective (like banner or right side-panel etc.). An example for a vertical ad server is sportgenic (now part of Mode Media) which focuses on Sports as a domain. Horizontal Networks generally delivers ads across a wide range of publishers and domains. No customization or targeting is available. They focuses on inventory suitable for general audience.If brand awareness is the objective, an online marketer can often use horizontal ad networks since they offer high reach.Horizontal Networks are also termed as a Blind Networks since in most of the cases, they don't provide the exact information on where the ads are shown. They often offer Run-of-Network (RON) campaigns as opposed to Run-of-Site (ROS) offered by Vertical Networks. BrightRoll is an example for horizontal ad network.

An OpenX whitepaper on ad networks and ad exchanges categorizes the steps taken by ad networks to connect between advertisers and publishers as below -
  1. Forecasting how much inventory an ad network have to sell across its publisher web sites (Essentially this step involve aggregation of ad inventory across publishers and forecasting inventory volume based on historic data; and then bucketing the inventory into demographic packages which can be sold to advertisers)
  2. Doing deals with advertisers to sell that inventory (Essentially this step involves the inventory sales in advance; often a sales team based transaction)
  3. Delivering sold advertising (Essentially this is the actual ad delivery; showing ads across publisher sites based on various pre-defined/pre-agreed criteria)
Off-late, another segment of ad networks emerged known as audience networks or targeted ad networks. In my opinion, these are a hybrid of vertical and horizontal networks; allowing an advertiser to buy audience segments by demographic criteria, behavioral traits or focus areas.Most of these don't offer transparency as in the case of direct sales or vertical networks.

Of course, as you may have guessed, the classification logic is more for an understanding purpose and in reality the line of separation is often blurred. What do you think?

Importance of utilizing Live Chat as an online marketing tool

Live Chat is one of the easy to implement tool that help a business in providing a personalized experience to visitors of it's website. In the jargon world, it is a tool helping in conversion optimization!

Who doesn't like getting the information directly in a chat instantly. When you install a chat application in your website, you are not imposing anything  on your visitors - they don't have to install the messenger nor do they have to compulsorily chat. Of course implementation of live chat depends on how mature the organization and how much can you invest in the sales force. For example a real estate firm may be able to handle it with just one operator while an e commerce firm may need to increase its work-force depending on the traffic. Also how long at least one operator is available to answer questions is also important; since the website is live 24X7; there is always a chance that you may get a query in non-official hours.

Main advantages of implementing a live chat application are -
  1. Understanding buyer behavior
  2. Understanding buyer intention and fill the sales funnel
  3. Support customers or prospective customers
  4. Reduced call center support system since an agent can handle multiple chats at the same time
Let's understand quickly the technical side of implementing a live chat. Once again Javascript comes to rescue. We just need to put another set of code like the tag implementation. You may wonder how live chat vendors are able to understand user behavior? once again cookies comes into picture. (Learn more here). At a high level, the operators are given a platform interface to monitor any chat initiations while a visitor visits the website. This pro-active type of chat initiation is  the normal usage. There are provisions to deliberately pop up with a custom message (based on various criteria) to help the website visitor. This is known as broadcast chat. In case the operators are not online, there are options to even send queries over a form (this is typically same as the forms similar to contact us or registration).
Another aspect of a live chat tool is that it is a registration form in disguise offering a marketer not only an understanding about user behaviors(with its analytics capabilities), improved interaction (with the live chat support); but also opportunities for options like sending brochures, sign-up for newsletters and so on.
Now a days, live chat application vendors are offering even mobile app based solution; thus providing an opportunity to overcome the missed opportunities during non-official hours or unattended chats.Similarly some sophisticated vendors provide capabilities like integrated VOIP possibilities, ticket management, and other integration.
Some of the important live chat vendors are
  • Live Chat Inc
  • Live Persoon
  • Snap Engage
  • Click Desk
  • Zopim
Chat Tool Tester website provides a good analysis/comparison on major chat vendors available in the market. Do check it out! Here is another interesting article for you to read about making live chat working for an online business (The Art of Conversation: Using live chat to market your online business )
What do you think about live chats?

A quick note on online ad serving

We are living in a world in which advertisements are uniquely customized for each of us. In the past, a marketer wasn't diving into all the nitty-gritties and optimization of ad campaigns; however with the advent of technology, a (online) marketer is equipped with a plethora of options in how to reach to a prospective customer. Ad servers play a pivoting role in this workflow.

Ad serving is essentially the method by which online advertisements are shown to a specific user at a specific time taking into account factors like target segment, and consumer behavior. Before understanding how an ad server works, we have to understand two sides of the ecosystem - supply side and demand side. By supply side, I mean publishers (like New York Times) who have good websites and willing to lend out ad locations in their web pages. Demand side represent those who want to advertise their offerings (For example McDonald's).

When the internet ecosystem was small; the workflow was simple with publishers themselves deciding the cost for each of the ad placement units in their web pages and then having a human-broker type mechanism to connect with various advertisers. While this may be still prevalent in case of some high-traffic sites, the online advertising ecosystem has evolved to the sophistication that we are now talking about showing relevant ads, contextual ads, re-targeting ads and so on. With the advent of millions of websites, a manual process of ads allocation is also not possible. Thus came the concept of ad serving. It started with ad networks, then ad exchange and then ad servers (we will discuss about the differences later).
Considering the two sides of the workflow, mainly there are two types of ad servers - site side ad servers (publisher ad servers) and third party ad servers. Site Side ad servers serve ad creative every time a page is called. It manages the inventory of ads and make sure appropriate ads are displayed according to the campaign attributes. However managing a dedicated ad server may not be the forte of all publishers; this give rise to third party ad servers. An example could be Google's DFA for Publishers. These days, third party ad servers usually focus on trafficking, reporting and analysis of results across multiple locations. This separation enables the publisher to deactivate a creative on their end without needing to coordinate with the agency.

Let's consider briefly the steps involved in third part ad serving.
  1. When a prospective customer visits a website using a browser, the browser renders the web page. In the HTML code that gets rendered, along with the actual content; an ad request is also activated.
  2. Content is taken from publisher's content server and ad request is sent to the publisher's ad server (if the publisher doesn't have a dedicated ad server; it will be sent to the third party ad server used by publisher)
  3. The publisher's ad server sends a redirect asking the browser to call the third party ad server using a secondary ad tag.Browser activates the code by calling the 3rd party ad server.
  4. 3rd party ad server makes the decision about which ads to send back depending on various factors like geo, interest, and other similar demographic parameters.
  5. 3rd party ad server redirects the browser to retrieve the ad from the content delivery network where resides the actual creative file (if CDN is used)
  6. Browser activates the ad request to CDN.
  7. Ad is delivered to the web page by the CDN used.
Although there are multiple steps as mentioned above, all these happen over a time frame of milliseconds.
Some of the key benefits of third party ad servers are -
  • Tracking, optimization, re-targeting and reporting of all channel types.
  • No worry about ad optimization and instead focus on strategies
  • Minimal level of attribution capabilities like removing duplicates.
  • Reliability in terms of up-time and also consultative information on how their creative is performing.
A brief comparison of ad servers is available in this wikipedia article. Two good articles about this topic that I found useful are --

A bird's eye view of display advertising

What is Display Advertising?

Display Advertising is perhaps the oldest form of online advertising. Simply put, its nothing but the ads - banner ad, image based ads that you see often. Presently, it extends to other forms such as rich media. Thus unlike a text based ad, these improve both the attractiveness and interaction capabilities of an ad.First image based ad was from AT&T that appeared in Wired magazine website in 1994. Since then, online display advertising has grown a lot. Here is a good video from IAB on the evolution of display advertising.

If you are in the online advertising field, I am sure you would have come across at least once the lumascapes. If you look at the latest Display landscape lumascape, you can how evolved the ecosystem has become with hundreds of niche players and complex offerings. From a core display advertising vendor perspective (aka what you need to know if you are an SMB), is that there are essentially four or five platforms that you need to consider to do display advertising - Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and LinkedIn. If you become more savvy, you can consider other options like re targeting, trading desks and the buzzword - programmatic buying!
Capabilities such as contextual targeting and re-targeting enables an online marketer to reach the right target audience with the help of display advertising. Plethora of customized targeting strategies can be included in marketing campaigns with the help of vanilla products such as Google Adwords or Facebook advertising. Irrespective of which platform you choose, there are a number of properties that the vendor use for enabling the contextual advertising (like Google - Display Network, Youtube, Gmail and so on; Microsoft - Atlas, Bing, Outlook, Maps, Yahoo mail and so on).Optimization is the key to running an effective display advertising campaign. David Booth & Corey Koberg, in their book - Display Advertising An Hour A Day, suggests the following optimization strategy -

  1. Based on few campaign runs, determine the key sites that are performing well
  2. Wherever possible, consider managed placements to manually bid for more inventory on the key sites and specifically exclude sites that aren't performing.
  3. Keep an eye on the visitor behavior to re-target those visitors with a high chance of conversion.
  4. Study the demographics of conversions for fine tuning

Having said this, display advertising has its own challenges - that many of us don't click a banner ad. So how can an online marketer justify her budget request for display advertising? In my opinion, the question one needs to ask is what's the objective of your display advertising campaigns - is it reach, branding, retargeting - go for it! Are you looking for a more specific advertising, text based search advertising could be enough.A thumb rule often used is - display advertising is more suitable for generating and interest and search advertising for getting into a consumer's consideration set. Proponents of display advertising argues that it is not the clicks an online marketer should worry about while considering display advertising; but the impressions or reach or how many views the banner ad. But again the display advertising industry is plagued with challenges like bots - that mimic web traffic to a web site. This defeats the purpose of reaching to real folks for branding/reach etc. A solution called Viewability or viewable impressions is in making which expected to overcome some of the challenges of fraudulent display advertising.We will look in detail about viewability in a later post.