Bringing Customers Back

Come back later!Many of you have explored online advertising, and some of you likely rely on it as a key part of your marketing initiatives. Whether you buy display ads locally or go all-out with pay-per-click advertising, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of online advertising. First, online advertising – especially on the pay-per-click side – offers precision that few other advertising formats can offer. If you want to reach a user searching for “pink foam stress reliever”, there is nothing more precise than online advertising, unless you’ve unearthed some mind-reading techniques that no one else has discovered.

Further, if you want to reach a content-oriented audience – let’s say you want to advertise on any website that is focused on high school football – you can do so using a “content network” strategy. The best online advertisers, of course, use a mix of all of these, tailored to the particular product or category they are advertising.

For instance, you might run display advertising on local news and business sites advertising your promotional and marketing services with a broad message. You might also advertise on sites for specific interests with a category of products – such as sports-related products like water bottles, flags and coolers on the aforementioned football-focused sites. Finally, you can advertise even narrower selections of products (or single products in some cases) to users who enter specific keywords into search engines – like the stress reliever examples above.

All of these are important strategies for the savvy online marketer, and they make even more sense if you are actively selling products online using an e-commerce shopping cart. But they don’t address the biggest problem plaguing any online advertising effort: getting users to come back to your site when they’ve left it without purchasing.

Why won’t they stay?

I’ve addressed the abandonment issue before; shopping cart abandonment rates average around 70% across all industries, which is a pretty terrible number. That means that less than a third of the people who put something in your online shopping cart will ever actually complete that purchase. Even more troubling are high bounce rates – when users come to your site and immediately leave. You can try dozens of techniques to keep them there, but ultimately there are a lot of tire kickers and “browsers” in the world, and you’re not going to get all of them. Even those visitors that don’t bounce immediately may stick around for a few minutes and then bail. It’s brutal out there.

Now, there are a few things you can do while you have visitors on your site to increase the likelihood that they’ll stick around and make a purchase. Live chat is probably the simplest and least expensive technology to interact with a visitor who might be wavering about a purchase or needs to ask a question. But you may not have the personnel to man live chat all day long, and while many visitors use live chat, some of them find it intrusive.

Optimizing your site’s landing pages – that is, the pages where users enter from searches and online ads – is another critical step in ensuring that users find what they want and stick around to buy it. But optimizing landing pages is a time-consuming and often frustrating process – you make a change, wait a while, and then look at the analytics to see if anything has improved. Split-testing (also called A/B testing, such as that available in Google Analytics) can make this process less cumbersome, but it doesn’t get you results any faster. It’s just something you have to do over time.

Where did they go?

Ultimately, you have to resign yourself to the reality that a sizable chunk of your visitors will leave your site without giving you much of anything – not a purchase, not an email address, nothing you can really use other than some measurable indications of when they left and from where they departed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reach them once they’re gone.

Enter “remarketing”. Remarketing is a technology that raises the hackles of privacy advocates and might even provide a dose of the “creep factor” when you’re browsing around online. You’ve probably encountered it before – you went shopping at the Ford Motors web site for a new pickup truck, then a day or two later you notice that there are suddenly ads for Ford pickup trucks on a lot of the sites you visit.

The first time I encountered remarketing was many years ago; I was shopping for a new laptop bag from Timbuktu and left the site after not finding the one I wanted. A day later, I noticed while browsing news sites and technology blogs that I was seeing an awful lot of Timbuktu ads, and they all seemed to advertise the exact line of laptop bags that I had been looking for.

I was, quite frankly, a little creeped out by this. And I’m not the only one – plenty of web users who are very sensitive about their privacy take steps to block these ads, because the technology they use follows you around the web as you go from site to site. It can be a little unsettling to find out that you’re being watched.

But, as Facebook and Google have demonstrated time and time again, many web users will trade privacy for convenience, and the majority of users do not take aggressive steps to block this kind of technology. That means that it’s quite likely that the majority of visitors who leave your site can be reached later with advertising for your products and services. Best of all, this “remarketing” technology is now cheap to run and easy to implement.

How does it work?

Remarketing is devilishly simple: You add some code to your website, and the remarketing provider tracks your visitors by putting a cookie on their computer. When those users leave your site, the remarketing provider shows your ads on other websites that these users visit. You create the ads yourself and upload them (remarketing is most often done with display ads); and then enter where you’d like the users to go when they click. You can send them straight back to your home page or, if you’re a little more savvy, you might want to send them to a landing page geared specifically to what they were looking at when they first visited.

You can get even more precise than that if you have the time. Say a visitor shopped the T-shirts category of your website – if you so desire, you can show them a t-shirt ad. You can even give them offers that you wouldn’t normally advertise in your other campaigns; since they’ve already shown interest in your products, you might want to lure them back with a coupon that only gets shown in your remarketing ads.

How does all this work? Remarketing takes advantage of the massive amount of “inventory” online – that is, all the ad space sitting out there. Since a remarketing provider is showing an ad specific to a user, they (and ultimately, you) can pay a bit more for an impression than an advertiser who is showing the same ads to everyone else who visits that site. It’s a little more money for the site hosting the ad, a tiny bit of money for the remarketing company, and a higher likelihood that you get that click, since the user viewing the ad is already familiar with you.

Want to try it out? There are a number of remarketing companies out there; it’s built in to Google Adwords, but you have to enable it and set it up separately. Of the third-party providers; Adroll is my favorite, because of its simplicity and low cost, but you might want to look around if you’re going to give remarketing a try. You should – it’s inexpensive, easy to implement and gets results.

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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First Impressions: Test Driving Google+

Google+ Social NetworkIf you’ve explored social networking with Twitter and Facebook, there’s a chance you might have noticed the “field trial” launch of Google’s next social networking product, Google+, last week. I say “next” because Google has thrown a number of social products at the wall over the last decade (Orkut, Wave, Buzz) and none of them have turned out to be very sticky. Google+ may change that. I’ve been using it for about a week, and it’s an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook that could give both of them a run for their money.

Before we explore Google+, a little background. Google has been losing engineers and executives to Facebook for a couple of years – Facebook has largely supplanted Google as the “hot” internet company, and Google has been unsuccessful in building any kind of social functionality into their products, much less in creating a social networking platform out of whole cloth. But Google has something now that they’ve never had before: big-time market share in something other than search. For years, Google has tried to bolt social features (and many other things) into their search product, but most users want search to stay simple and straightforward.

But then came Android. Google’s smartphone platform has taken the mobile world by storm, grabbing up market share quickly through a savvy combination of giving the operating system away for free and allowing carriers and manufacturers to customize it to their liking. Android represents an unprecedented opportunity for Google to “bake” their tools and software into a phone, thus capturing yet more eyeballs for their real core business: selling advertising.

Where does Google+ fit into this? I think it’s do or die: Google can’t afford to have tens of millions of smartphone user eyeballs sucked into competing social network platforms. Facebook is, at heart, a massive photo-sharing network (the largest one in the world, actually). Smartphones are rapidly becoming the primary method of taking pictures; the image quality is fabulous, and it’s a camera that you always have with you. Is the social networking battle really as prosaic and simple as photo sharing? Of course not. But don’t underestimate its importance. If you want confirmation, look no further than Google’s recent decision to roll its own photo sharing service, Picasa, into Google+ itself.

Google’s biggest problem, and consequently its primary threat, is that with the unfettered proliferation of junk web content, search and advertising may soon be effectively restricted to “trusted” sources – that is, you’ll be more likely to seek out things via the people you know rather than using a general-purpose search engine. Facebook is growing like a weed, and their advertising platform boasts a level of personal targeting unavailable in Google’s products; forget about keywords and geotargeting – Facebook knows what your friends like. That’s powerful stuff, and Google doesn’t just want a piece of it; they view it as a threat to their very existence.

Inside Google+

So, perhaps the strangest trait of Google+ is its current lack of any kind of advertising. It’s a smart, though transparent, tactic – encourage early adopters and influencers to join during one of Google’s trademark (sometimes years-long) “beta” phases and then blend in the advertising model later. Like Wave a few years back, any new Google product announcement causes the entire tech community to salivate like hungry dogs, scrounging for precious invites. With Wave and Buzz, the hype was met with a resounding “huh?” once users got access. I don’t think that’s going to be the case with Google+.

First of all, Google has just recently gotten the User Experience religion, which you can see in the new version of Gmail’s interface and improvements to their SERP (search engine results page). Google+ actually looks like UX designers had a hand in it, rather than just engineers. In fact, it’s less visually cluttered than Facebook itself, which seems to be in a constant battle between feature cramming and interface cleanup.

Second, Google+ offers an interesting (and possibly superior) alternative to  Facebook’s “friending” – a system called Circles. Circles are easy to organize visually and, perhaps more importantly, don’t require the same type of explicit approval, notification and reciprocation that Facebook requires. Facebook accomplishes this by bifurcating relationships into “Friends” and “Fans” (the latter primarily for celebrities, businesses and organizations); you can become a fan of something without any kind of reciprocal approval. It’s vastly superior to a business having to approve thousands of friend requests, but it makes the “fan” type of interaction much less personal.

Circles allow you to manage both personal and “fan” relationship seamlessly and mix them together however you like (it may, in fact, offer too much freedom and control for the average user). You can draw the lines wherever you want, and while the party you friend or follow might reciprocate, they never have to in order for the whole thing to work. In that sense, Google+ is an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and Google has clearly learned from Facebook’s own missteps trying to craft a “real-time” status feed as Twitter’s popularity began to soar. Where Facebook has bolted on, Google has re-thought from the ground up, and it shows in the simple management of relationships and status.

That’s not to say that Google+ is anything revolutionary. If you were color-blind, you might have a tough time distinguishing between the two at first glance (Facebook’s trademark blue has been toned down to neutral blacks and grays on Google+). Let’s not mince words: Google+ is a blatant attempt to rip off the best of Facebook and Twitter and create a competing social network platform. It is, at best, an incremental improvement over existing technology. It will initially appeal to early adopters, Facebook haters and über-nerds like me who have to have their hands on every new bell and whistle that comes out.

I haven’t mentioned a few other marquee features of Google+, because I don’t think they’ll make much difference in the social network arms race. “Hangouts” are video chat rooms, and Sparks are topic-specific news feeds (like RSS). Neither of these are compelling reasons to pick one social network over another. In fact, constantly slapping new features and tools into social networks can backfire – witness the continued appeal of Twitter, with its restrictive format. Both Google+ and Facebook could learn a lesson from Twitter and offer better compression or summarization of feeds; my primary complaint about Google+ is that a single status update, with an article excerpt, link or video, often takes up an entire screen. It certainly doesn’t encourage the quick, cursory skimming that Twitter excels at.

The Mobile Gorilla in the Room

But all of this may be academic. Google will be successful with Google+, and not because of nerds, early adopters or tech writers like me. Google+ will be baked into Android handsets (the Android app is already available) and Google will put every ounce of its muscle into adoption on the mobile side. I expect Google’s nascent local deals business and Places to all flow through Google+ shortly. Consider all the first-time Android phone buyers out there (and there are millions and millions of them): if Google can provide the right combination of incentives and simplicity to push even half those users into Google+ for something as simple as photo sharing from their smart phone, they’ll build market share faster than you can spell “Zuckerberg”.

Is Facebook scared? Should they be? Maybe. Facebook has built an unbelievably large, loyal user base and has shown over and over that even egregious missteps fail to generate any substantial abandonment of the service. Ultimately, the two companies are coming at revenue from opposite ends: Facebook has built market share with your relationships and is only recently beginning to monetize it; Google has been monetizing content for years and now wants in on your relationships. I don’t think Google+ will result in a massive exodus from Facebook, but if it steals advertising dollars, that may be all Google needs to call it a success.

Giving up on Organic Search

As I was searching for a gift late one evening using Google, I came to a shocking realization. For all the work eBlox has done over the years in organic search – optimizing websites and links so that pages come up high in Google’s rankings – I’ve been won over by the “other” side of Google’s search results page. That’s right: I click on ads. Specifically, the “pay-per-click” ads that run down the right side and top of Google’s search results page. For me, those “Sponsored Links” have become a more reliable way to find many of the things I’m looking for. And if my behavior has changed, you can bet that other users’ habits are changing too.

Why on earth would I click an advertisement for “imprinted ceramic mugs” when Google has invested billions of dollars in technology to show me the absolute best, top-notch, high-quality, popular web site for ceramic mugs right there in the middle of the page? Quite a few reasons, actually, but the most salient one may be that Google has quite a few more billions riding on the accuracy and effectiveness of those ads that surround the natural results than the results themselves. Google’s stated mission is to organize the world’s information, but their balance sheet tells the real story: Google is an advertising company. That’s not to suggest Google neglects their organic search results; quite the opposite. Google’s search results are probably the best they can possibly be given the volume of information they have to process.
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