Forget Big Government: How big retailers can learn intimate details about your life

Can you imagine being a teenage girl in high school who gets pregnant and having your father learn that fact from seeing coupons for baby goods in his mailbox one day? Thanks to the power of today’s marketing technology, that recently happened to a Minneapolis high schooler who shopped at Target.

The New York Times had a piece last week on what big box retail giant Target – and presumably other, similar merchants with the means – are doing to learn more about their customers. Using data on their demographics and purchase history – tracked using credit card numbers or e-mail addresses, they make educated guesses on what people are looking to buy and their marketing team can target them accordingly.

This concept of one-to-one marketing is nothing new – has thrived on it for years. But what made the New York Times story so interesting, as this analysis on notes, is how it can lead to you being targeted so specifically that details about your personal life get out to people you don’t necessarily want to know them, at least not that way.

As Forbes‘ Kashmir Hill and the Times’ Charles Duhigg describe, Target used a mathematical formula based on products purchased and even the colors of those products to calculate a “pregnancy prediction score” – a number indicating the likelihood that you’re expecting. Target’s statisticians have even developed a means of guessing how close you are to your due date. And this data can be remarkably accurate.

Duhigg reports that Target sent coupons for baby clothes and cribs to the aforementioned Minnesota teen based on her “pregnancy prediction score.” When her father saw these coupons, he angrily went to the local Target and demanded to speak to a manager, who apologized. But said father was the one apologizing a few days later when he found out that his daughter was indeed pregnant.

I don’t intent this to be a rant against one-to-one marketing. Businesses are out to make money and the more finely you can tune your marketing to the needs and desires of specific customers, the more likely you are to get sales.

But it does illustrate the power of the data merchants like Target have at their disposal. And it also illustrates the need to be careful with what information you give out.

Have any of you had an experience where a merchant started targeting you with offers based on information you didn’t want out in the public domain?

#McFail: How McDonald’s Twitter strategy went awry

The beauty of Social Media – the opportunities it provides for businesses to engage and interact with their customers, and vice-versa – can also be its curse if not done correctly. Just ask fast food giant McDonald‘s, which is cleaning up a major public relations mess after a Twitter ad campaign went so horribly awry that it earned the hashtag moniker “#McFail.”

As‘s Jeff Roberts reports, McDonald’s launched a 24-hour campaign last week using Twitter’s “promoted tweets” function. This utility allows businesses, at a cost, to craft tweets that appear at the top of certain search results on Twitter. The idea is to get your tweet in front of Twitter users no matter when they happen to log on during the period of your campaign. You can read Twitter’s help center page on promoted tweets for more information.

In the case of McDonald’s, it used two different hashtags as part of its promoted tweets campaign. The first,

#MeetTheFarmers, went uneventfully. But at 2 p.m. last Wednesday, it switched to a new hashtag, #McDStories. The promoted tweet quoted a McDonald’s potato supplier, with a link to a video of a happy potato farmer. And that’s when McDonald’s lost control of things.

Twitter users began telling their own McDonald’s stories, and not ones that were exactly flattering to the company. Some were jokes by stoners, others referenced heart attacks (since fast food usually isn’t particularly healthy food) and others still referenced the ongoing fight between McDonald’s and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Within a few hours, the hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. And as a result, the promoted tweet in question has remained a “Top Tweet” even nearly a week after the debacle occurred.

The moral of the story: you need to be very careful before launching a campaign, particularly one on social media where people can respond directly. Do your research and try to envision how people might interpret your message before you send it. Just because McDonald’s believed that the #McDStories hashtag would encourage the sharing of positive stories does not mean customers will see it the same way.

In hindsight, if McDonald’s might have been better off keeping the original #MeetTheFarmers hashtag. Instead, it got a Big Mac-sized social media fail.

Study: Pharma journal ads are often not FDA-compliant

The journal PLoS One released a study yesterday on the adherence of pharmaceutical advertising in medical journals to the FDA’s guidelines. And the findings suggest that there may be a problem with the FDA’s regulations regarding drug advertising.

According to the study, less than 20% of the advertisements studied were completely compliant with FDA regulations. In addition, nearly half of the 89 advertisements from November 2008 issues of leading U.S. biomedical journals were non-compliant with at least one of the FDA’s descriptions of bias and a third were found to be possibly non-compliant due to incomplete information.

The full report on the study is available here.

I admit that 89 advertisements isn’t a very large sample size. And determining whether something is FDA-compliant or not is a somewhat subjective process. But these figures suggest that the FDA may need to make its regulations of drug advertising simpler and easier to understand.

The large pharmaceutical companies have staffs dedicated to ensuring compliance with the regulations put forth and enforced by DDMAC, the FDA sub-agency that governs this area. Even the smaller companies take great care to stay in compliance. They thoroughly vet all advertising and other promotional materials. Then they vet them again, and even more times still, before they go out in the public domain. With fines of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on the line, you don’t want to mess around with this.

Yet in spite of all that, a sizable majority of ads appear to be non-compliant. And this makes me wonder if the FDA should make its regulations clearer and more concise. I’m all for the FDA requiring drug ads to be responsible, accurate, truthful and fair and balanced. But all the regulations in the world do no good if companies can’t comply with them.

I believe that content should have what I call “the 4 Cs:” it should be clear, compelling, complete and concise. No one expects government regulations to be compelling (that’s not what regulation is for after all!). But it would only help drug manufacturers and marketers if those regulations were clear, complete and concise. Regulate what needs to be regulated, but make the regulations as clear and simple as possible.

Social media can be powerful…if used properly

Phil Baumann is one of the healthcare industry’s top social media voices. A nurse by training, Baumann runs the website Health Is Social and was writing about the ways Twitter could be used in healthcare before many healthcare organizations knew Twitter existed. And in a recent blog post, he raised the question of whether or not  healthcare marketers are ruining Twitter by overusing hashtags, sending out spam and other lame tweets simply to shout their message and otherwise abusing what can and should be a very powerful communications tool.

The same lesson applies to other industries.

Social Media is not only another tool your business can leverage to improve its product/service offering, it’s something that businesses should use if it adds value to your business. But as with any tool, you need to use Social Media correctly or it could backfire. Just as a construction worker shouldn’t use a jackhammer without knowing how to use it and what to use it for, nor should a communications professional use Social Media.

The key to using Social Media properly is the ability to listen to what your customers are saying about your product and/or its market. Social Media allows even Ordinary Joes and Janes to become, in essence, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs in marketing venacular) if they’re followed by enough people interested in the subject. A tweet or blog post is not just another means of shouting your message the way you would with a television advertisement.

Loading your tweets up with hashtags just to maximize your tweet’s exposure won’t turn that exposure into a return on your investment. If anything, it will come across as just another cheap play for their interest. Same for sending out an automatic tweet to someone whenever they follow you. The most annoying ones are the automatic tweets that you receive whenever you mention a product in a tweet, regardless of the context. I randomly mentioned the iPad in a tweet one Sunday night during my weekly participation in the Healthcare Social Media tweet chat and promptly received two autotweets from people offering to sell me an iPad. Oh joy.

Don’t use Social Media unless you’ve thought through what you want to get out of it, you know how to use it and you and your organization are ready to make the commitment necessary to do it. When you are ready to jump in, be ready to do a whole lot of listening and reacting. Save the one-way shouting for your paid advertising and media outreach.

Do it, but do it right.

Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

One of the frequent complaints from this country’s political right is that the news media has a liberal bias. The political left sometimes says that the news media, specifically FOX News, has a conservative bias. Watching the TODAY show on NBC one morning this week, and seeing former House Speaker (and possible 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) brought on to criticize President Obama’s response to the crisis in Libya without anyone from the other side to offer rebuttal certainly does bring the former complaint into question.

Or does it? Does the news media as a whole actually have a liberal or conservative slant? Or does it just seem that way? Does the media actually favor one side of the political spectrum over the other? Or does it simply give more face time to whichever side gets the most people to tune in? I’m increasingly wondering if it’s the latter.

The idea of individual media outlets being liberal or conservative editorially is nothing new. But that decision has been driven by a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. Say what you want about FOX News, for example, but it definitely stands out from the crowd and gets people to pay attention, and its ratings reflect as much.

Ratings (or circulation in print media and pageviews in online media) drive what you can charge for advertising. The higher the ratings, the more advertisers will be willing to pay, and the more money you make. When your parent company’s board of directors also controls holdings in a variety of other industries, it is even more likely to value short-term profits above all else, and the more profits you can show them, the happier the board will be with you.

Getting ratings/circulation/pageviews in the news business these days requires more than simply reporting what’s going on. You need powerful voices and presentation. You need to be provocative. TODAY’s producers probably brought on Newt Gingrich that day because they knew he’d say something provocative that would get people talking about TODAY. Those people then tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Why doesn’t the other side get put on to rebut? It’s likely because, in TODAY’s opinion, it won’t do anything to boost ratings further.

If those on the left wonder why people like John McCain can get on the Sunday talk shows frequently while major figures on the political left can’t, this is probably why. The Democratic Party’s political leaders are, in a word, boring. Even if Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer and Tim Kaine have the facts on their side (sometimes they do, sometimes not), they don’t know how to push the public’s buttons the way their Republican counterparts do. The audience quickly gets bored and turns the channel. And ratings fall.

The media does not have a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It has a RATINGS bias – a desire to get as many people to pay attention as possible while expending as few resources as possible. If only one side of an argument can make its case in sufficiently captivating fashion to boost ratings, only that side will get air time.

Pharma Marketing Fail: Letting a third party execute your social media strategy

As I have mentioned here before, one of the big (if not the biggest) reason why Pharma is hesitant to engage in social media is all of the regulation the FDA places on drug marketing. The FDA still hasn’t put out its long-promised social media guidance. And while pharma companies are slowly beginning to enter the social media waters, there are stumbles such as the recent one involving AstraZeneca’s “Take on Depression” discussion on Facebook.  John Mack describes it in more detail on his blog, but to sum it up, discussion participants waiting for the application to load noticed that the URL was also being accessed. That would be cross-marketing for Seroquel, AstraZeneca’s new anti-depression drug. This act is a violation of FDA guidelines.

The real interesting thing here, though, as Rich Meyer notes, is that this social media program was being executed by Edelman, one of the world’s largest PR firms. Some of the work for this program was also being outsourced to other individuals. Bad move on AstraZeneca’s part.

With all of the complex regulation involved in pharmaceutical marketing, social media programs need to be executed by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. They have the staff on site that thoroughly understands the FDA’s drug marketing regulations and what they allow and don’t allow. Even large agencies like Edelman may not have specialists in this area. Certainly smaller agencies may not have the expertise in this area. And when you don’t know what you’re doing with FDA-regulated marketing, you could find yourself getting a warning letter or a fine from Uncle Sam.

It’s one thing to have an outside agency help with designing your social media strategy. But once it is designed, it should be executed in-house. If you’re a major pharmaceutical company like AstraZeneca, there is no excuse for not doing this. If you’re a small company and absolutely don’t have the resources to dedicate someone on staff to this task, make sure that the agency you outsource it to knows FDA drug marketing regulations and how to comply with them.  It may cost you a little more money now. But it could save you A LOT of money (in the form of FDA fines) later.

Is television advertising dying?

One blogger that I read frequently, Rich Meyer, raised an interesting point in his most recent post about DTC marketers needing to cut spending on television advertising. That post raises an interesting implication: is television advertising dying?

Television is a one-way medium. It throws your message out in front of many people at once in the hopes that enough will see it and be convinced to buy your product. The more people who can see it (ie, the higher the TV ratings), the more expensive it is to advertise.

But people are increasingly learning about products from other customers, specifically nowadays through online media that allows customers to express their own thoughts and provide feedback. Customers are no longer dependent on what the company says in advertising and what the news media reports. And as Meyer notes, new technologies such as DVRs. mobile devices, and the posting of TV shows online (via services like Hulu) are further reducing the number of people who see television ads. Therefore, marketers have less incentive to devote their advertising budget to TV advertising.

But is TV advertising really dying? I’m not convinced. There will always be very highly-watched TV broadcasts (such as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards) where advertising can produce customers, even if they’re being driven to your business more by the creativeness or absurdity of your ad than by the product those ads are trying to sell. And when your product’s target audience is lower on the social technographics ladder, you’ll still need to use television. An example of the latter is elections; most voters tend to be older and get their information about candidates from TV, so advertising aggressively on TV is a must.

But Meyer is right that TV advertising should probably be a smaller part of your marketing budget. You need to determine just how much smaller based on who you’re serving. One set of marketing strategies certainly does not fit all.

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