Tag social media

Algorithms Are the New Content Gatekeepers Part Three: Reputation Management and Online Rabbit Holes

Alice and the RabbitIf you are concerned about how online communications affect your business, it is important to remember that businesses are made up of people.

As people, we hopefully care about other people just as much or more than we care about making a profit.

After all, if we don’t look out for our customers, we might end up not having any.

It is therefore important that we identify how the world around us is influencing the lives of our current and potential customers so that we change our communications strategy or even modify the type of product that we currently offer to them. We might even identify new products that can help fix the problems that they face.

For example, we should be watching how algorithms are having an effect on the content that users see. These algorithms often lead users down rabbit holes that expose them to very radical ideas.

Unless you are in a leadership position at one of the major search engines or social networking sites, the algorithms that these search engines and social networking sites use to help users discover new content are beyond our control. However, knowing how they can influence society, and in some cases cause harm, can and probably should change the way that we do business.

At the very least, it is important to know what is going on so that we can make informed decisions in our personal and professional lives.

Search Engines and Reputation Management

As pointed out in the last post, search engines use many different signals when determining what will show up on the first page of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP.)

While the factors that influence what shows up on page one of a SERP are constantly changing, it is safe to say that if there is a lot of negative content about you or your business online, there is a good chance that Google will find it.

If a person with a grudge against you or your business is adept at manipulating the search engine algorithms, you can be in for some pain.

As I pointed out in a post in 2015, experts have identified cases where the same tactics used by businesses to get found on a SERP were used to help sully the reputation of political figures. In one case, these tactics were used to spread a malicious and racist campaign that targeted Michelle Obama. While the leadership at Google made the choice to clean the search results for Michelle Obama and end the smear campaign against her, this doesn’t always happen.

It is therefore important to keep in mind that sometimes even the results found on page one of a SERP might not contain the best information about a topic. In fact, in some cases, the information found might not be accurate at all.

In other words, “User beware.”

From a business standpoint, it makes sense to monitor what is being said about your company and see what shows up when people do both branded and nonbranded keyword searches related to your company.

It is also important to monitor what is being said about you and your business on social networking sites, because these posts can and often do show up in a Google SERP.

That said, there are even more issues that you need to be aware of when we look at social media and algorithms. Some of these issues will be covered in the paragraphs that follow.

Social Media Is Business

Before we begin here, it needs to be pointed out that social networking sites are businesses.

In an article on The Guardian website, Natasha Schull, the author of Addition by Design, is quoted as saying, “In the online economy, revenue is a function of continuous consumer attention – which is measured in clicks and time spent.”

“Whether it’s Snapchat streaks, Facebook photo-scrolling, or playing CandyCrush, Schull explained, you get drawn into ‘ludic loops’ or repeated cycles of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback – and the rewards are just enough to keep you going,” the author of the article continues.

This is what helps the business sell itself to advertisers. If the site can deliver users who click on content and stay there, then it is assumed that it would be a good place for businesses to advertise their products.

That’s the way it currently is, clicks and time spent on the site get rewarded. I don’t think this is necessarily good or bad. It just is.

However, if social networking sites continue to deliver content primarily based on these criteria, the best content might not surface.

In fact, it appears that at least on YouTube, it is often outrageous or radical videos that get recommended to users. This often guides them down an online rabbit hole that can, if it goes unchecked, lead to them to even more outrageous or radical videos. If people start to believe these videos they will surely start to share them. This means they will often will be spreading of a lot of misinformation and “fake news.”

Down the Rabbit Hole

In case you are not familiar what we mean when we talk about rabbit holes, The Free Dictionary defines “go down the rabbit hole,” as “To enter into a situation or begin a process or journey that is particularly strange, problematic, difficult, complex, or chaotic, especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds. (An allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.)”

To get an idea of how algorithms on social networking sites can lead you down an online rabbit hole, you might want to read an article published in the New York Times in 2018 that was written by Zeynep Tufekci, Ph.D.

“It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm,” writes Dr. Tufekci. “It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”

Dr. Tufekci again points out that it is Google’s current business model that is to blame. As she points out, “The longer people stay on YouTube, the more money Google makes.”

“What keeps people glued to YouTube?” Dr. Tufekci continues. “Its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with – or to incendiary content in general.”

The conclusion that Dr. Tufekci makes is that one of the unintended consequences of YouTube’s recommendation algorithms is that after being exposed to these extreme videos, people get used to them and start to search out even more extreme videos.

Again, if this goes unchecked, we could end up with a lot of people believing a lot of extreme ideas that often are not based on verifiable facts.

“This situation is especially dangerous given how many people – especially young people – turn to YouTube for information,” writes Dr. Tufekci.

What You Can Do About It

It is unclear if there is a way to fix the problem.

As pointed out earlier, most of us don’t have any control over these algorithms.

Sure, government could step in. However, is government intervention the best answer? And, would they have the expertise to create laws that would fix the problem?

I’m not sure.

However, it is important that we teach people what is going on so that they can make educated decisions for themselves.

By spreading the word about what is going on you can help accomplish this goal.

From a business standpoint, it is also probably worth your time to research what is being said about your company on sites like YouTube. It is possible that YouTube users could be directed to false claims about your company that you thought were well in the rear-view mirror.

Photo credit: Matt Brown on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic — CC By 2.0)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Algorithms Are the New Content Gatekeepers Part Two: Organizing the Web

Man closing a gate.It was not long after the World Wide Web was created that people began looking for ways to help users find content online.

In fact, the first website was created by Tim Berners-Lee on August 6, 1991. The first search engine, W3Catalog, was created only two years later. This was followed by Aliweb, JumpStation, Infoseek, WebCrawler, Yahoo!, Lycos, and many more.

Then in 1998 Google was founded and the way search engines found and prioritized content changed dramatically.

According to Wikipedia, “While conventional search engines ranked results by counting how many times the search terms appeared on the page, they theorized about a better system that analyzed the relationships among websites. They called this algorithm PageRank; it determined a website’ relevance by the number of pages, and the importance of those pages that linked back to the original site.”

Today, there are many different factors used by Google to rank content and determine what gets the coveted positions on page one on a Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

However, that is not really the point that of this post. The real point being is that maybe even before the old gatekeepers lost a great deal of their power, new gatekeepers were being created.

Once again, we are almost right back to the same place where we started.

A Way to Get Found Online—Search Engine Optimization

In an effort to circumvent the new gatekeeper, or maybe earn favor with it, businesses started to use tactics that we now refer to as search engine optimization (SEO).

As a post on Search Engine Journal (SEJ) points out, “Although it could be argued that SEO and all things search engine marketing began with the launch of the first website published in 1991, or perhaps when the first web search engine launched, the story of SEO “officially” begins a bit later, around 1997.”

“Ranking high on search engines in 1997 was still a pretty new concept,” the author writes. “It was also very directory driven.”

That was, until Google changed everything.

“Although links were only one component of Google’s overall ranking algorithm, SEO practitioners latched onto links as being the most important factor – and an entire sub-industry of link building was created,” the SEJ post continues. “Over the next decade, it became a race to acquire as many links as possible in the hopes of ranking higher and links became a heavily abused tactic that Google would have to address in coming years.”

As anyone involved with SEO knows, the tactics needed to achieve a high ranking on a Google SERP are constantly changing.

In fact, recent developments in technology have dramatically changed SEO once again.

When Google announced the use of machine learning (ML) with Google RankBrain in October of 2015, a new era of search was being ushered in.

“Since that time, Google has expanded RankBrain to run on every search,” the author of the SEJ post writes. “While RankBrain impacts ranking, it isn’t a ranking factor in the traditional sense, where you get rewarded with better rankings for doing x, y, and z.”

While it is an exciting time for SEO practitioners, it is becoming harder to tell what the search engine gatekeeper will reward.

As the SEJ post points out, there still are things that can be done to get found in Google.

However, with the use of machine learning, it appears that the way to get ranked in organic search is going to be less formulaic.

Given that it is machine learning helping make the rules, will we end up with issues that we are finding in social media today? This is something that I will explore in a future post.

But first, let’s look at getting found on social media from a purely business perspective.

Getting Found on Social Media

In the early days of social media, most of the social networking sites displayed posts in reverse-chronological order.

That worked okay at first.

However, as more people joined, the social networking sites needed to find ways for people to find new content that they might not otherwise find. Again, this was accomplished by creating algorithms that reward specific behaviors.

From a business perspective, your company wants to get its message out there to sell more stuff or accomplish some other business goal.

This is great! You just need to please the new gatekeeper and optimize your content to meet the ever-changing requirements of each social networking site.

If that is the intent, sproutsocial has a post that offers some great suggestions.

However, as even the sproutsocial post points out, the algorithms are not perfect.

“There are plenty of instances of algorithms seemingly “hiding” content on Facebook at random despite being optimized to a T,” the author of the post writes. “On the flip side, there’s a well-documented phenomenon on YouTube of videos surging to millions of views out of nowhere after being recommended to seemingly random viewers.”

“Oh, and algorithms are constantly evolving, attempting to work out the kinks and provide the best user experience possible,” the post continues. “As a result, marketers have to constantly adapt to ‘em. This means consistently experimenting with content and changing up marketing strategies.”

Paying for Access

Whether optimizing content for search engines or social networking sites, it takes a lot of work and knowhow.

Many businesses don’t have the time or expertise to be able to optimize their content to reach the right users online.

Luckily, many of the search engines and social networking sites offer you the option to pay to get your content in front of users.

In the end, whether you pay someone to optimize your content to be found organically or you pay the site directly to get your content shown to users, you are still having to pay someone to help you get past the gatekeeper.

Indeed, we are right back to the place where we started.

Photo credit: Luca Sartoni on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC By-SA 2.0)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Think About What You’re Sharing Online Part 2: Words Have Power

Social Sharing AppsAs you already know, there is a lot of information being shared on the Internet.

As you also hopefully know, just because it is on the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

In a post last year, I warned readers to fact-check the statistics that they are sharing online, because there are a lot of ways that numbers can be manipulated or misquoted to support ideas that are completely and totally false.

But the statistics are only part of the equation.

In fact, it might be the words that we choose to use in our social media posts or online articles that can have the most power.

While I have covered many of these topics in the past, I think now is a good time to point them out again given the fact that people, including our leaders in government, are using online tools to reach other people directly, thus bypassing the old gatekeepers who also served as fact-checkers.

This would be okay if the people sharing the information always posted verifiable facts. However, what they are often sharing is misinformation and half-truths designed to help them achieve their underlying goals.

While this might help the person in the short-term, spreading information that is not factually correct can have a negative effect on the brand, particularly if the person spreading the information is the brand.

Furthermore, given the nature of social media and the desire to be the first to post about a topic, we need to remember that typos do happen. Therefore, even people posting information online with the purest intent can end up sharing erroneous information that can eventually go viral if the typo is not found and corrected. Even then, the erroneous information could continue to spread after it is corrected—more on that later.

The rest of this post is intended to point out some of the things that people should think about before sharing content online.

Again, many of the topics below were covered in previous posts. When possible, links to the previous posts will be included within the short summary of the topic.

Note: This post is written with the consumer of the information in mind. However, these concepts can also help businesses make sure that they are not sharing information online that might eventually do much more harm than good to their reputation.

The Importance of Reliable Sources

As I pointed out last year, maybe the most important thing that you can do when evaluating the information posted online is to ask yourself whether or not the source providing the information is credible.

If you are not familiar with the source, be skeptical.

If the source of post is a reliable news outlet, more than likely the information was fact-checked. However, even experts make mistakes. Whenever possible go to the original source to verify the validity of the post.

Checking with snopes.com can often uncover erroneous information that is being spread online.

The Words That We Choose to Use Matter

In the English language, there are many ways to say the same thing.

Many academic studies have been done to prove that the words used and the way that the messages are phrased can influence the way that people respond to what is being said.

In fact, changing just one word can have a huge impact.

The words that we use often say a lot about the intent of the post and reveal things about the person posting it as well. Furthermore, if you share someone else’s post, it could also influence the way that you are seen by other people.

To make things even more complicated, the words that we use can have different meanings in other cultures, thus influencing how the post is being interpreted by different readers.

If you are looking for a place to start to learn more about how the words and phrases we choose to use influence the way others interpret what is being said, I’d suggest reading “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Dr. Frank Luntz.

Typos and Omitted Words Can Change the Meaning

Unless we are dealing with bots, and there are a lot of them, the posts that we read online are being written by a human.

And, humans make mistakes. Even people at respected media outlets like the Huffington Post.

Whether it is in an article or a post on Twitter, a typo or an omitted word can change how people interpret what you are trying to say.

It is therefore important to take the time to proof what you post online. And, again, if possible fact-check posts from others before sharing them.

Not Everyone Sees the Correction or Retraction

Here’s where social media complicates matters.

By the very nature of social media, people often share things quickly without thinking about it and move on to something else.

Therefore, when there is a correction or retraction to something posted online, many of the people who saw and shared the original post won’t see the correction.

To make matters worse, unless the correction is made to the original source, people often will continue to the share erroneous information after it has been corrected.

Things Get Changed When They’re Shared

When reading posts online, I often remember “The Telephone Game.”

In the Telephone Game, a message is given to the first person in a line of people and then he or she is told to pass the message on to next person in line by whispering it in their ear. This continues from person to person until it gets to the end of the line. At that point, the last person announces the message to the group.

In most cases, what is announced at the end is significantly different from the message given to the first person in line.

Even though social media posts are often written communications, people often paraphrase what is said when they share it online, while others add their own commentary.

In some cases, changes need to be made in order to fit the character restrictions on the specific social media platform.

In many ways, social media is just like the Telephone Game.

Given the fact that changing even just one word can make a huge difference, it is generally a good idea to be skeptical about what you read on social media.

People See What They Want to See

While this might not influence what is being shared, it is important to remember that everyone brings with them their own thoughts, feelings, biases, and life experiences.

When we read a post online, we tend to see what we want to see.

Therefore, even if two people read the same post, the way that they interpret it might be completely different.

People Are Sharing Ideas in Unseen Ways

One of the final things that I want to point out is that people often find out about something on one social networking site and share it on another.

For example, they might see a post on Facebook and share it on Twitter, or vice versa. Or they might email it to a friend or just call a coworker over to their desk to have them read it from their screen.

As Dr. Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania pointed out in his book, titled “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” most word of mouth happens offline.

In fact, only about seven percent of word of mouth happens online.

If a person shares online content with another person offline, we have another opportunity for the Telephone Game to take place. If the person receiving the message offline then posts something online, it is again possible that erroneous information will be spread.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t believe anything being shared online. It’s just that there are a lot of things that can happen when things get shared, both online and offline.

All of these things can potentially change the meaning of the message entirely.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, the words that we use often say a lot about the intent of the post and reveal things about the person posting it as well.

Furthermore, if you share someone else’s post, it could also influence the way that you are seen by other people.

Photo credit: ijclark on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic — CC By 2.0)

 

 

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Voice Search Is Gaining Popularity, but Not as Quickly as Some People Think

Voice assistantThere are a lot of people still spreading the news that comScore predicted that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be done via voice search.

Marketers who have yet to consider voice in their marketing efforts might panic after hearing that statistic. After all, comScore is a reputable media measurement and analytics company. If they are predicting this, there must be some reason for it.

The problem is that it doesn’t look like comScore ever made that prediction. I searched several times and couldn’t find a comScore article reporting this stat.

It appears that as often happens, people are not checking with the original source. In their defense, people often link back to a trusted media website that focuses on marketing, advertising, and media when citing this statistic. However, while it is generally okay to cite a trusted source, often going back to the original source is advisable.

Furthermore, it looks like even after someone highlighted the error online, people either aren’t aware of it or ignore it and continue to share the erroneous statistic anyway. This happens a lot on social media and the Internet, in general.

Econsultancy Uncovers the Erroneous Statistic

In an article on the Econsultancy blog published in July of 2018, Rebecca Sentance wrote about several errors that she found regarding this statistic. The rest of the post that you are currently reading highlights some of the findings that she uncovered. If you get a chance, the whole series of articles that she wrote on voice search is worth reading.

The first thing that she found was that the statistic was actually based on something that Andrew Ng, then Chief Scientist at Baidu said in an interview with Fast Company. Again, in reality, it appears that comScore was not involved at all.

In the Fast Company article, Ng is cited as saying that “in five years time at least 50% of all searches are going to be either through images or speech.” The quote was then cited by Mary Meeker in her KPCB Internet Trends 2016 report and the “In five years time” got changed to “2020.”

As Sentance points out in the Econsultancy article, Ng’s estimate not only includes voice, but image search and voice search. This is the second error with the original statistic.

Sentance then goes on to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation that at the time her article was published only 13% of Google searches were made by voice queries.

That means that there is a wide gap to be filled in just a couple of years.

The Econsultancy article does give some insight into what Andrew Ng might have been thinking by highlighting a tweet that he wrote that stated, “As speech-recognition accuracy goes from 95% to 99%, we’ll go from barely using it to using all the time!”

“So, Andrew Ng believes that sheer accuracy of recognition is what will take voice search into the mainstream,” writes Sentance. “95% word recognition is actually the same threshold of accuracy as human speech (Google officially reached this threshold last year, to great excitement), so Ng is holding machines to a higher standard than humans—which is fair enough, since we tend to approach new technology and machine interfaces with a higher degree of skepticism, and are less forgiving of errors. In order to win us over, they have to really wow us.”

She then goes on to point out some other potential barriers to voice search adoption. However, that is something that I plan to take up in another post.

The Timeline Might Need to Be Adjusted

Voice search will be more important as time goes on. That is a bet that I’d be willing to make.

It’s just that 50% of all searches by 2020 is a prediction that probably won’t come to fruition. However, as we’ve learned, it doesn’t look like we can’t blame comScore for this one.

There is a prediction made by Gartner in 2016 that can be documented that says, “By 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.”

If Rebecca Sentance’s assumptions are correct, then even this number is a little optimistic.

However, only time will tell.

Photo credit: iphonedigital on Flickr.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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The Rise of Podcast Consumption and Why It’s Important for Your Business

PodcastsSteve Jobs was extremely adept at predicting what consumers would want even before they knew they wanted it.

It’s therefore not surprising that Jobs was bullish on the future of podcasting early on.

According to a Forbes article, “Back in the summer of 2005, Steve Jobs and Apple announced they would support podcasts on iTunes. At the time, podcasts were considered somewhat niche, but Jobs was adamant they were important.”

“Apple is taking Podcasting mainstream by building it right into iTunes,” said Jobs in a 2005 press release. “Podcasting is the next generation of radio, and users can now subscribe to over 3,000 free Podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered over the Internet to their computer and iPod.”

Research published by Edison Research in 2018 indicates that, once again, Jobs was correct.

The Podcast Consumer 2018 – Research from Edison Research

Each year, Edison Research publishes a study on the current trends in podcasting in the United States.

In 2018, the study included findings from the Infinite Dial 2018 study (conducted in partnership with Triton Digital), The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, and the latest findings from Edison’s Share of Ear Research.

Because the 2019 version of the report should be released soon, I don’t want to spend too much time on the specific findings from 2018.

That said, because it is the latest data currently available, there are some interesting trends that they uncovered that are worth pointing out.

The video embedded at the end of this post is also definitely worth watching if you are interested in this medium.

More People Are Listening to Podcasts and They’re Spending More Time Doing So

As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, Steve Jobs and Apple recognized the potential of podcasting in 2005.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that according to Edison Research, in 2006 only 11% of Americans ages 12 and older had ever listened to a podcast. This percentage has slowly increased to 44% in 2018.

The more interesting number, however, might be the percentage of Americans age 12 and older who had listened to a podcast in the last month. This percentage increased from only 9% in 2008 to 26% in 2018.

Furthermore, when the research was conducted in 2018, 17% of the population of Americans age 12 and older had listened to a podcast in the last week. This is an estimated 48 million Americans.

Among those weekly podcast listeners, when compared to earlier years, the average time listening to podcasts increased in 2018.

Overall, weekly podcast listeners listened to an average of seven podcasts per week in 2018.

Infographic: The Steady Rise of Podcasts | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista.

Why Podcasts Are Important for Business

As with any medium, podcasting might not be a good fit for your brand.

However, because more people are listening podcasts, the likelihood that your customers and potential customers are among those consuming podcast content has increased.

It is interesting to note that current podcast listeners make more money than the general population, tend to be more educated, and are more likely to have a full-time job. This makes podcast listeners very attractive to marketers.

It is also noteworthy that Americans currently listen to podcasts most often on their smartphones, tablets, or other portable devices.

As smart speakers become more common, it only makes sense that more people will start listening to podcasts on these devices.

And, as Edison Research pointed out, “In-car listening is growing, and represents a major potential source of new listening.”

All this data indicates that podcasts might be a great way for some brands to connect to consumers.

At the very least, it is something that your brand should consider.

 

Photo credit: Casey Fiesler on Flickr.

Infographic credit: Statista.com.

Video credit: edisonsurvey on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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The Future of the Retail Sales Associate—Another Reason Why Retailers Need to Provide More Mobile-Optimized Content Online

The Future of Retail Sales AssociatesThe way customers shop, in general, is changing with more and more customers going online to research and buy products. Furthermore, smartphones have also modified the way customers shop in brick-and-mortar stores.

This means that retailers are going to need to rethink everything. And, that means everything.

For store employees, this means that their world is going to be altered dramatically.

In 2014, Doug Stephens, one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists, wrote a very informative blog post that predicts what a “typical” retail sales associate’s job will look like in the near future.

In the post, he predicts that in the near future there will be fewer humans working in brick-and-mortar retail stores, with technology there to fill in the gap.

In the post, he cites a study from Oxford University that estimates that there is a 92 percent chance that retail sales associates will be replaced by technology in the next decade. (Keep in mind, this was over four years ago. Therefore, if the predictions are accurate, retail sales associates should be retraining for other positions now! Even if it takes a little longer than experts think it will, the world that they are predicting will arrive someday… soon.)

While this is an alarming figure, people who want to work in retail stores should be heartened by the other prediction that Doug Stephens makes—that those employees who do survive will be paid much higher than they currently are. But this is going to mean that they also are going to need to get a lot more training.

Other sources again support his position.

Some of the recent articles that discuss retail trends point to the fact that there will always be a need for some human salespeople at most brick-and mortar stores. However, they will have a slightly different background.

As far as I can tell, four types of non-management employees will emerge to replace the generally unskilled workforce that currently fills many of these low-paying retail sales associate jobs.

Professional Salespeople—The Customer Service and Product Experts

In the blog post mentioned earlier, Doug Stephens writes, “Although retailers will point the finger at price as the smoking gun behind showrooming, research shows that in fact, it’s more often the pursuit of adequate and accurate information that drives customers online.”

Therefore, in order to compete with online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores are going to have to hire a core group of employees who really know their stuff.

These employees won’t be the ones who check people out at the cash register.

They will be like the salespeople of old who thought of their position at the store as a career, not just a place to work until they find other jobs. These employees will be experts in customer service and they will know everything about what they are selling.

The stores that realize that there is a need for this type of employee and hire and train people who really want to excel at their job will be the stores that will succeed.

As Doug Stephens also points out, the people who fill these positions will be paid more than the average salary of a retail sales associate today.

This probably means that stores won’t hire many of these employees, if they still want to keep their costs down. But, the employees who are hired to fill this type of role will be an invaluable resource to customers and the store.

To be qualified for this role, the employee will also have to invest in additional training.

Organizations like the National Retail Federation (NRF) are already recognizing that this type of training is needed and have begun offering it at a reasonable price.

Part-Time Associates—Knowledgeable Salespeople Augmented With Technology

This group of employees will most resemble the current retail sales associate.

They will be the young adults who are working their way through high school or college. They will have some basic product knowledge and business acumen. And, they will have grown up using technology, therefore they will be very comfortable assisting less tech-savvy customers with the technology that the store will use to assist in the sales process.

They will also use technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets, etc.) to access mobile-optimized content that will answer the product-related questions that customers have.

Because these employees will be in the process of completing their training, these positions will probably still be on the lower-end of the pay scale. However, to attract the best employees, retailers will still have to pay more than minimum wage.

With technology to augment the sales process, fewer of these associates will be needed on the sales floor of tomorrow.

Temporary Workers—The On-Demand Workforce

The gig economy is here, with some employees being hired to work for only a short duration of time to fill a specific business need.

As a Washington Post article points out, it is already changing the workforce in many mainstream restaurants (e.g., Five Guys, McDonald’s, Papa John’s Pizza, etc.)

Will brick-and-mortar retail stores be next?

Retailers have always hired temporary workers around the holidays. This would just take this concept to the extreme.

It is entirely possible that stores could hire employees for one or two days to staff a large sale similar to those on Black Friday.

And, again, if stores bring in the right technological solutions to assist with the sales process, these temporary workers could be quickly trained to work the cash register or again help the less tech-savvy customer in the shopping process.

Some retail experts say using temporary workers is a bad idea. But, the reality is that only time will tell.

Non-Human Employees—Mobile-Optimized Online Content and Other Technological Solutions

The fourth type of employee that will replace the current retail sales associate is not a human at all. However, in many cases technological solutions will be able to do the same job… maybe even better than the current retail sales associate can.

As mentioned above, customers are already reaching for their smartphones to get product information while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, some customers would rather use their smartphones to find product information than talk to the retail sales associate on the sales floor.

This might be because they often get incorrect or incomplete information from improperly trained retail sales associates. Therefore, we might have a chicken and the egg situation at play.

Either way, the one thing we do know for certain is that customers want to be able to quickly and efficiently find product information either online via their smartphone or by talking to a retail sales associate.

Having the right information available online is going to be a must for the retailer of tomorrow. And, as mentioned above, it will also help human salespeople do their jobs better.

As Doug Stephens points out in his post, there are companies like Hointer that are working to bring additional technological solutions to market to help automate the retail sales process even further.

However, I will leave that topic for future blog posts.

Final Thoughts

In order to compete, brick-and-mortar stores will need to be able to provide customers with the same accurate and complete product information that they can find on Amazon or other online retailers.

If the brick-and-mortar store provides the information first, customers will have one less reason to visit another store’s website or mobile app, and therefore will be less likely to use the store as a showroom only to buy the product elsewhere.

This can be accomplished by having better trained retail sales associates and by creating the right mobile-optimized content that customers can search for on their smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, other technological solutions like “smart mirrors” in fitting rooms will also be used to deliver product information to customers.

Given the changes in the marketplace, it’s not a question of whether to invest in employees or in technology.

Successful stores will do both.

In fact, technology will help less knowledgeable retail sales associates meet the needs of the store’s customers more efficiently and effectively. In other words, in many cases technology and humans will work together to provide a better shopping experience.

Note: This is a very general prediction of what the “average” retail store of the future will need to do in order to meet the needs of its customers. There will be variation based on the products and services sold, who shops at the store, the store’s location, etc.

Photo credit: Zepfanman.com on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – CC BY 2.0.)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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How Smartphones Will Influence the Future of Visual Merchandising and Store Design

It has been over a decade since the iPhone was first introduced to the world.

In that time, smartphone use has skyrocketed.

In fact, Deloitte expects smartphone penetration to approach 90 percent in the United States, with much of the growth being fueled by increased smartphone usage among older Americans.

Customers Use Mobile Devices When They Shop and Buy

As we know, having a smartphone has changed the way many consumers shop and buy products and services in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, mobile is changing the way that we do almost everything in life.

Over the years, retailers have experimented with different ways that they can use mobile devices to improve their customers’ shopping experience.

In the near future, successful retailers will find ways to leverage mobile technology and incorporate it into all parts of their business. This will have a huge impact on the way retailers merchandise and design their brick-and-mortar stores in the future.

It is important to point out that retailers should not look for ways to use mobile devices just for the sake of using mobile devices.

Instead, retailers that will succeed in the future will find additional ways to provide value to customers. Often this means providing them with memorable shopping experiences.

In other cases, it might be finding ways to make their shopping experience easier or providing the customer with ways to save money.

Often these things can be achieved by leveraging the same mobile devices that their customers are already using.

After all, if mobile phones are changing the ways that people shop, wouldn’t it be smart for retailers to make adjustments and make it easier for their customers to find what they want when they want it using the same technology.

Using Mobile Devices to Improve Visual Merchandising and Store Design

Here are some of the ways that smartphones and tablets will change visual merchandising and store design at successful retail stores in the near future.

As already pointed out, retailers need to take into account the way customers use smartphones when they shop and buy in their brick-and-mortar stores. This includes customers using smartphones to comparison shop, find product reviews, look for coupons, and use shopping apps to do all the above. Smartphones are also changing the way customers actually pay for the products once they have made a selection.

With this in mind, retailers need to make sure that their digital marketing teams and their visual merchandising teams are talking to each other and are on the same page.

In the future, retailers that find ways to have their digital teams and their visual merchandising teams work together or even better, actually interact and play off each other will see positive results from their efforts. The goal should be to provide a seamless shopping experience, no matter what channel the customer is using.

Retailers should strive to delight customers and provide a remarkable shopping experience. In other words, retailers should be trying to create a shopping experience worth talking about.

Ideally, retailers will be able to inspire customers to take a photo of their shopping trip and post it on social media for their friends and family to see. This is some of the best advertising the store can get.

Another way that retailers can use mobile devices is to create efficiencies and improve productivity by having staff armed with smartphones and tablets and then create the right software, content, and processes that leverage mobile to the fullest.

It is not enough to just provide mobile devices to employees. Management needs to explain to retail staff how and why to use them at different points in the shopping experience.

And, don’t forget that mobile can help improve processes throughout the store, not just while staff are interacting directly with customers.

While having staff use mobile devices to enhance the way they do their job is not going to directly influence merchandising and store design, it will help the store better understand the customer and make improvements wherever possible. It will also help management gather feedback and collect valuable data.

As just mentioned, retailers can use mobile phones to help better understand the needs and shopping behaviors of their customers by using these mobile devices to collect valuable data about their customers’ shopping behaviors while in the store.

This data will influence the way stores are merchandised and designed in the future.

However, as we have seen from many of the recent stories in the news, customers can be wary of the way data is collected and used. It is therefore important to proceed with caution and follow all of the rules and regulations. While retailers will use data to improve every part of the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, it is important that customers are aware of what is being done.

Final Thoughts

Smartphones and tablets have changed the way that customers shop and buy.

This post has focused on how mobile devices have changed how customers shop once they are in the brick-and-mortar store. However, as we know, mobile devices play a role in the whole shopping experience, even before customers enter the store and long after they purchase the product or service.

Knowing this, successful retailers with learn to adapt and leverage this knowledge to improve their customers’ shopping experience no matter how and when they choose to shop.

It only makes sense that retailers would find ways enhance their customers’ shopping experiences using that same mobile devices customers are already using.

This post has provided a few suggestions for retailers to consider.

This includes maybe one of the most important ways mobile devices can influence visual merchandising and store design… as a way to collect data. By providing valuable data that allows retailers to better understand their customers shopping behaviors, mobile devices will improve the way the store meets their customers’ needs now and in the future.

Photo credit: Antoine K on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license – CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Social Media Props: The H-E-B Limited Edition Selena Shopping Bag (Case Study)

HEB store“Fans of the late “Queen of Tejano” Selena Quintanilla caused the website of Texas-based supermarket chain H-E-B to crash after they released a limited-edition reusable shopping bag honoring the singer,” writes Thatiana Diaz in a March 9th post on people.com.

H-E-B clearly hit a homerun when it teamed up with the Selena Foundation to sell a limited quantity of special-edition shopping bags that honored the late singer Selena Quintanilla.

However, the real story goes beyond the fact that people waited in line to buy the bags or that the bags sold out so fast.

The real win was all the earned media coverage that the brand received when fans of the singer posted photos of the bags online and the press covered the story after the bags sold out so quickly and caused the H-E-B website to crash in the process.

The Selena Bags Generated a Great Deal of Earned Media

In addition to the article on people.com, the story was covered on today.com, popsugar.com, retailwire.com, and on local news affiliates’ websites around the country.

This definitely helped put the brand front and center, making it visible to a lot of potential customers.

And, as most marketers know, the best thing a brand can get is a positive mention of the brand from a customer on social media, as friends and family are the best influencers out there.

So, when fans went online in droves to post photos of the bags, as well as photos of the lines of people waiting to receive their bags, the retailer scored… big time!

To see what people posted, search for #SelenayHEB or #Selenabag on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Here are just some of the posts that I found on Instagram and Twitter:

 

Yayyyy! Thank you so much Mr. Q !!💜💜 #queenofcumbia #selenayheb @heb

A post shared by Isabel Marie💗 (@isabelmarieofficial) on

Got some! #heb #selena #queenofcumbia #anythingforselenas #selenayheb

A post shared by Monica Velasquez (@lemon78644) on

Im so excited I was able to grab a couple of these!! #SelenayHEB

A post shared by Gabrielle Nichole (@gabbyrielles) on

Anything for Selenas. #SelenayHEB A post shared by Lisa Letchworth (@512panthacat) on

QUEEN OF CUMBIA!!!! #heb #selenayheb #vivaselena A post shared by Cristina Davila (@cristybexar) on

ME SIENTO MUY… EXCITED!! WE GOT OURS!!!💓💓💓 #SelenayHEB A post shared by Bek🏋🏽🐾🍕🌮🧀 (@yourstrulybek) on

 

The Limited Edition Selena Bag as a Social Media Prop

This isn’t the first time that I have written about shopping bags as a way to get a store mentioned in user-generated posts in social media.

In fact, it was about two years ago that I wrote a post explaining how to use visually appealing luxury shopping bags as photo props to get included in the posts when customers upload photos of their in-store purchases after a long day of shopping.

In this case, though, the shopping bag was not only used to carry home the products purchased, it was the product.

A product that was the star of a lot of photos posted online shortly after the bags went on sale.

The Upside of “Sold Out”

Because the sale of the bag helped the Selena Foundation while honoring the beloved singer, I think H-E-B did almost everything right.

I say H-E-B did almost everything right, because the website did go down and they did run out of bags on the first day. Clearly there was more demand than the store anticipated.

But then again, maybe the fact that they ran out so fast was also a good thing, because the limited quantity of the bags increased their perceived value. If you don’t believe me, just look what they are selling for on eBay! (Many have sold for over $50 per bag, with one selling on March 7, 2018 for $169!)

And, if the website hadn’t crashed, would the press have covered it? Who knows? Therefore, that might be a good thing, as well.

Final Thoughts

As I have said before, offering customers a trendy shopping bag is a great way for retailers to get included in the post-purchase photos that customers upload to social networking sites after a long day of shopping.

As highlighted in this post, H-E-B offered a limited edition reusable shopping bag that honored a beloved singer and benefited the Selena Foundation. In this case, the bag was the product.

A product that a lot of customers wanted, as demonstrated by the long lines and the many posts on social networking sites from customers bragging that they got the bag or complaining that they weren’t able to purchase one.

Either way, the reusable shopping bag honoring Selena Quintanilla generated a lot of earned media for the store. And, that is a good thing.

On that note, I want to end the post with a YouTube video from a customer who just missed out on getting the bag. He was gracious even though he waited in line only to leave empty handed… twice! (He waited in line in the store and couldn’t get a bag online before the website crashed.) Hopefully, he will still be able to purchase the bag online on eBay.

Photo credit: Todd Morris on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license – CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Video credit: Aaron Sanchez on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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How Social Commerce Can Help Increase Sales

Social Commerce MobileSocial networking sites have been around for over two decades.

However, it wasn’t until recently that many businesses realized that social media was a viable way to get the word out about their products or services and maybe even a place to sell directly to the consumer.

That doesn’t mean that these social networking sites weren’t trying to find ways to get businesses to use their sites to sell products early on, it was just that many businesses were slow to catch on.

While many social media platforms rely on advertising that ultimately drives users to advertisers’ websites, many of the most popular social networking sites have at least experimented with ways to get consumers to buy directly from businesses without even having to be redirected to another website.

To illustrate this, an infographic created by 16best.net  has some interesting facts about social networks as ecommerce gateways. The part of the infographic that lists a “Timeline of Social Commerce” is shown below. Although not all inclusive, it highlights some of important points in the brief history of what people often refer to as social commerce.

History of Social Commerce 16Best

 

Additional Comments on Social Commerce

In a blog post about social commerce on the Conversion Sciences Blog, Jacob McMillen states that, “Social commerce is selling that takes place directly through social platforms. Instead of using social marketing to drive visitors to your website, where you then convert them into customers, visitors are sold to directly on social media either in the form of a complete checkout experience or a “Buy Now” style click-through that triggers an off-platform checkout.”

It appears that this is what 16best.net is using as the working definition of social commerce in their infographic.

However, I need to point out that others have a much broader definition of social commerce. If you are interested, Wikipedia.org has additional information on social commerce and its other definitions.

Final Thoughts

As shown in the infographic provided by 16best.net, many of the most used social networking sites are constantly looking for ways to help businesses convert sales directly on their sites without redirecting users to another website.

This is good for the businesses selling the products because it reduces the number of steps needed to make a conversion, thus eliminating some of the lost sales that might otherwise occur because of website friction.

It is also great for the social network because it adds value to their service, not to mention the fact that it keeps the user on their site.

Remember this is only a small part of the story, as social media is often used for reasons other than conversions. In fact, often social media is part of the awareness and consideration phases of the buyer’s journey. (Note: This depends on the type of product, of course.)

That said, from a business standpoint, it is important to keep up with the options available so that you can reach your customers where they are when they need your product.

Again, your business might experience increases in sales by taking advantage of the social commerce options available, because there are fewer chances to lose the customer in the conversion process.

Photo credit: Jason Howle on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Infographic credit: 16best.net blog.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Your Online Content Might Reach More People Than You Think

Photo credit: magicatwork on Flickr.Digital marketers spend a lot of time assessing the effectiveness of their online content by looking at things that can be tracked and measured  (e.g., clicks, likes, shares, comments, etc.)

However, if we only pay attention to online metrics, we are most likely underestimating the reach and efficacy of our marketing messages.

This is due, in part, to the fact that we still “live” most of our lives offline.

Therefore, marketers really need to find additional ways to measure the success of our marketing activities.

However, because a lot marketers still create content for branding purposes, sometimes it is difficult to accurately judge the effectiveness of an individual piece of creative at all, because the influence of branding messages need to be evaluated over a longer period of time.  (This is something that Bob Hoffman, CEO of the Type A Group, pointed out in Episode 413 of The BeanCast Marketing Podcast.)

Most Word of Mouth Happens Offline

In his book, titled “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” Dr. Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that most word of mouth happens offline.

According to Dr. Berger, most people tend to think that around 50 percent of word of mouth happens online.

However, most people are wrong.

“The actual number is 7 percent. Not 47 percent, not 27 percent, but 7 percent,” writes Dr. Berger. “Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.”

Dr. Berger goes on to point out that even though we spend a lot of time sharing online, we spend more time offline and offline conversations are rarely documented.

Furthermore, he points out that while online conversations could potentially reach a lot more people, many of these potential recipients don’t actually see every online post.

What Gets Shared Online Is Also Shared Offline and Vice Versa

If the content that we create is compelling enough, people will share it.

The problem is, people share content the way that they want to.

That means that after you post something online it might get shared by people online.

However, a person who sees your content on one social networking site might share it on another social networking site.

Or, they might call people over to their computer or smartphone and say, “Hey, look at this.”

They might also just mention it in passing when talking to friends, family, or coworkers in their day-to-day conversations.

And, as other experts have pointed out, what is shared online could potentially reach the right person with the ability to spread the message through other more traditional media outlets.

For example, back in 2012, Tom Webster highlighted the fact that 80 percent of people claimed to have received information from Twitter because it was relayed to them in other media (e.g., television, radio, other websites, etc.) Even back then, 44 percent said that this happened almost every day.

I would guess that both of these numbers are higher today, given the fact that both of the current presidential candidates know that when they post something on Twitter there is a good chance that what they post will be cited in the evening news or in other media outlets.

While most businesses don’t get the attention that presidential candidates do, their posts still have a chance of being shared in many ways once it is posted online for everyone to see.

Final Thoughts

As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.”

Since business leaders often need to justify their budgets, it might be more accurate to say, “What gets measured gets funded.”

Because there are so many ways to measure the effectiveness of the content that we post online, measurement has become a very important part of the content creation process.

And, the good thing is that some very smart people are constantly working on ways to improve the accuracy of the analytics that marketers use each and every day.

However, as I have tried to point out in this post, we still have a long way to go, particularly when examining how content is shared.

It is therefore often necessary to find alternative ways to measure how effective your content is in accomplishing the desired goal in order to justify creating it in the first place.

That said, in some cases it might never be possible to measure all the ways that your content influences your bottom line even when there are some analytics to help guide you along the way.

That is, unless you stop creating content altogether and measure the decrease in sales over time.

The problem with this is that it probably will allow your competitors to grab the attention of your potential customers.

Therefore, this is clearly not the best solution.

Instead, the best solution is often to measure what we can, but realize that our content might be influencing sales in immeasurable ways.

Photo credit: magicatwork on Flickr.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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