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WARNING! There are spoilers in this story.

There are spoilers because it's been way more than a month since Disney released "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." In that time, the movie has done nearly $2 billion in global box office. "The Force Awakens" is a force to be reckoned with, but it's also an epic cultural phenomenon. So if this article somehow spoils the film for you -- well, at this point, that's on you.

Seriously, if you haven't seen the movie by now (and you still really want to), you should just close your browser, step away from your screen, and go. Just go. We'll be here when you get back.

Anyway...

It's not that this article is about the movie, per se. It's actually about the marketing juggernaut that George Lucas built, that Disney supercharged as only Disney can, and that we all embraced. It's an article about hot chocolate, fruit, laptop computers, and breakfast cereal.

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UX design is big business these days. Major brands have important high paying positions dedicated to professionals who can ensure that users will have a good time while browsing their websites. Problematically, these professionals are often undermining another industry essential: the SEO.

SEOs are used to having their say, and this new supplanting of their position isn't sitting well. What's more, it's counterproductive overall.  Good UX should add to SEO and vice versa. In an ideal world, the two are never at odds. Unfortunately, this isn't an ideal world and there remains plenty of conflict between these two interests.

So the question becomes one of balance. How can both needs be met without sacrificing the integrity of either the user experience or the organic search rankings? Let's unravel these so-called conflicts and see if we can't engineer some solutions.

Textually frustrated

The main conflict that often divides professionals of either the UX or SEO ilk is of an aesthetic nature. To sum it up: too much text just isn't very pretty.

Unfortunately, in competitive markets, ranking keywords often requires a lot of text. The issue is, from a UX standpoint, that text-heavy homepages aren't super attractive. Neither are they good for facilitating the overall flow of a user path. Immediately being presented with an abundance of reading as soon as you land on a page is often off-putting to many users. It requires a significant investment of time and attention that many users just aren't prepared to make upon arrival.

This ranking requirement isn't as necessary when a site has a significant number of referring domains and links already in its pocket, but that's not often the case. UX has its own ranking factors to offset the need for a lot of text. Engagement and time spent on the site are powerful ranking factors that have been included in Google's Panda algorithm -- however, neither supplants the need for targeted keywords completely.

The real problem is that to actually rank for competitive keywords, you need a lot of text. Repeating keywords too many times in a small space is called keyword stuffing, and it sounds bad to both humans and search spiders alike. It can alienate users, which results in a bounce back to the search results and can negatively impact SEO efforts. Spacing out keywords in longer content blocks, on the other hand, will increase the likelihood of a higher ranking and prevent your text from sounding redundant and offensive to visitors. So what can be done to serve both ends?

Location, location, location

One method of balancing the needs of both UX and local SEO is to carefully decide where your text-heavy sections are going to go. Longer text blocks don't need to be at the top of the page. Above the fold text should be sparing and succinct, used to introduce big ideas rather than explain details.

Keep your minimalist aesthetics and fancy design elements in place but farther down the page, explain specific product offerings, describe services, provide text blurbs about recent events, and otherwise take the opportunity to expound upon the branding while including those pesky competitive keywords.

Moreover, don't feel pressured to include long form content in any particular element. You can target two or three keywords in multiple areas on the homepage:

  • Headings
  • Taglines
  • Blocks of body text
  • Calls-to-action

Any anchors linking to other parts of the site can include keywords as long as they make sense, contextually. And adding keywords to headings or taglines is a time-honored SEO tradition. You aren't limited to stuffing the same phrase into different positions either.

Repeat your targeted phrases sparingly and intelligently, but not in such a way that would sound funny when read aloud. The real trick is not to get so focused on your keywords that you compromise the quality of the content as a whole. Use common sense and creative action to serve both the on-page SEO and the overall UX.

Another consideration to make is whether or not it's necessary to have these text-heavy elements on the home page specifically. If the purpose of the website necessitates that a lot be explained up front, that's one thing. However, if multiple child pages with longer text explains points that the homepage merely alludes to, then that could be a valid solution as well.

The worst thing you can do is overdesign to fit an abundance of text where it doesn't belong.

Unnecessary UX

Animations and other interesting new UI elements have made the web a wacky and visually engrossing place to travel about in 2015. Unfortunately, overdesigning a website in order to provide a more engaging UX can end up doing just the opposite.

Websites with too many design elements can be just as unattractive as bland sites with nothing but text -- and worse, they're more difficult to navigate. The addition of too many design elements makes an interface:

  • Less intuitive
  • More confusing
  • Inefficient
  • Inconsistent
  • Difficult to maintain

Thus a well-intentioned overabundance of design elements (no doubt included to provide for the user's every eventual need) ends up negatively effecting the UX, and as a direct consequence, the SEO as well.

Less is more

UX is a significant ranking factor in a website's SEO because it's interpreted by the search engines as signifying higher quality of content based on user engagement. People clicked through to find content concerning a specific subject and stayed on a page because they were engaged by what they found. Thus the positive impact on SEO.

However, when there's too much work invested in UX design, the website can often look plain ridiculous. This is nothing more than shoddy UX design. Effective and well thought out UX design puts the user front and center, giving their needs primary weight.

That doesn't mean bombarding them with a volley of slick elements. It means giving them what they came for in a balanced and attractive manner. It's easy to do this without assaulting the senses as well. Moreover, doing so will prove that any organic traffic your site gets is well-warranted, and only add to its authority.

Takeaways

With this in mind, remember these three maxims when designing to meet both SEO and UX benchmarks:

Clarity over confusion
Positive UX requires clarity, provides users with explanatory text where needed, and allows them freedom of movement to explore content which goes into more detail, either below the fold or elsewhere on the site.

Necessity determines placement
When prototyping your designs, ask yourself which elements are necessary to the goals of both the user and the website itself (among which SEO has to be counted). If an element doesn't meet both sets of needs, then it isn't necessary and must be removed. 

Collaboration is key
The relationship between UX and SEO doesn't have to be contentious. Reach out to SEOs on your team, gather their input, and see if you can't work together to brainstorm a more effective design in both respects.

What other ways can you think of to bridge the gap between UX and SEO? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Kyle Sanders is CEO at Complete Web Resources

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

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Viewability and actual viewed competition

Marketers know when a video is played, the amount of time it runs, and engagement metrics pretty well. However, video marketing blindness (whether a person is actually watching or ignoring it), placement of video (viewability), and how much they are engaged are important pain points the industry can't ignore. Abbey Thomas, head of entertainment and auto at Tremor Video, elaborates on this difficult challenge at the thinkLA Entertainment Breakfast.

Learn more about thinkLA and upcoming events.

Click here to subscribe to the iMedia YouTube channel!

Article written by media production manager David Zaleski and video edited by associate media producer Brian Waters.

"laptop and financial chart with glowing points on abstract background." image via iStock.

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Retail is undergoing explosive change. We've all seen the articles about how digital affected holiday sales. But these changes are about a great deal more than just one season, and 2016 is sure to bring further massive disruption.

Here are seven megatrends that'll transform retail in 2016.

Cross-channel marketing based upon unified omni-channel profiles

Retailers have consistently been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to using data to create better experiences for customers. And retailers know that omni-channel consumer behavior is making it critical that data from all channels be combined into unified profiles. PC-based browsing data was the easy bit. Mobile's more challenging, but when more than half of connected consumer time takes place on mobile devices, you can't ignore the need.

In addition, the IAB just released a study that shows how common in-store use of mobile phones has become. The study affirms that such behaviors aren't just confined to Millennials. Rather, use of smartphones and tablets as shopping aids is strong in virtually every age group.

Different cohorts use their phones for different things. But the unifying truth -- that mobile is an integral part of most people's shopping experience -- will drive more and more retailers to progress in uniting data sets for more comprehensive shopper understanding. That goes for web only, multichannel and brick and mortar retailers.

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Marketers are investing in reaching consumers through mobile, but most aren't focused on creating a holistic experience, and many aren't paying attention to a crucial part of the customer journey: phone calls. If you've read an email from Sephora, Nordstrom, or Bonobos lately, you've seen mobile-ready content designed for on-the-go scrolling. Open Best Buy's mobile app and you can contact a representative with a single tap. And whether or not you follow Target on Snapchat, you've likely seen their branded filters. Yes, people like to take selfies, swipe and search on mobile -- but they also like to call businesses, particularly when making big purchases. In a recent survey, we found that many consumers prefer to use their smartphones to call businesses than to fill out customer service forms online or engage with their favorite companies on social.

Consumers will go from engaging with your brand on mobile search, email, and social to calling your business. And once they have that conversation, they'll go back to searching, reading email, and scanning their social networks. Each interaction, online and off, must influence the next. Customer engagement is omni-channel, whether you like it or not -- and if you don't help cultivate, personalize, and measure the customer journey, you'll be in trouble. As you optimize your omni-channel strategy, think about mobile not as a single channel, but as a home for every channel. Here are four ways to create a holistic omni-channel strategy:

Use what you know about your customer

Make sure everything you know about an individual customer -- including how they prefer to connect with your brand -- influences subsequent interactions. For instance, if you know someone is likely to call because they've called you before, don't make the CTA in your mobile app (or in any other channel) a "contact me" form -- make it a call button.

Gather intel from phone calls, too

The only way to orchestrate a true omni-channel experience is to learn from every interaction, including phone conversations. If a customer or prospect expresses interest in a product while speaking with a representative on the phone, consider including that product in your social ads, mobile app experience, or your next email campaign.

Emphasize your phone number

People want to have a conversation, so they're calling your business. If you don't make that step easy, they'll take their business elsewhere. In fact, our survey found that 68 percent of mobile users will only search for a number for two minutes before moving on to another company. Prominently display phone numbers on all of your digital assets, including your emails, landing pages, paid search ads, in-feed ads on social, mobile app, and website copy. On mobile, use click-to-call buttons that open up an auto dialer. In all of your copy, encourage your prospects and current customers to call with a clear call-to-action.

Make calls part of your PPC strategy

People want to reach your business, and most likely they'll be looking for your number on their mobile phone. About half of our survey respondents said they use a search engine to find a business' phone number, compared to 25 percent who look on the business's website. Make sure you're No. 1 showing up in mobile search results, and No. 2 capturing conversions from people who search on mobile and then make a call. Get details about the keywords and ad groups that are driving the most calls and modify your CPA target bid strategy accordingly.

With so many ways to reach consumers on mobile, it's easy to forget about the big picture. The omni-channel experience is the battleground for marketers, and being an effective omni-channel marketer means much more than keeping up with the latest GIFs, emoji, and social channels -- it means orchestrating an integrated, streamlined customer journey.

Kyle Christensen is VP of marketing at Invoca

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet. 

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For standalone blogs and simple websites, WordPress is a cost-effective, user-friendly, search engine-optimized solution that meets the needs of thousands of businesses every day.

WordPress offers customization options, a large selection of third-party themes, and an extensive ecosystem of plugins that allow you to focus on content development and marketing, instead of reinventing the web design and development wheel. And the robust community behind the platform provides extensive documentation and support, even for third-party plugins and libraries.

But in some cases, despite all its advantages and features, WordPress is not the best option.

One size does not fit all

The primary drawbacks of WordPress are the limitations it poses when websites start to grow more complex and interactive. WordPress does power some large, complex websites. But a site's WordPress installation may struggle to keep up as functionality, features, and complex content are added, and ongoing maintenance may become a nightmare.

Another tool may be a better choice if your website will have:

  • Advanced audio/video media. Adding more than a few photos on each page, higher-resolution graphics, or videos can strain WordPress and your servers.
  • Complex content search needs. The WordPress media gallery uses a simple search function. If you have a lot of media content, consider a solution that takes a multi-tiered approach to complex media asset management, categorization, and search.
  • Multilayered content relationships. Pages drawing from many different content types with complex interconnections can stress WordPress functionality. A few pictures sharing space is one thing, but when complex, multitier relationships exist among your web content, media assets, and display requirements, WordPress is often not the best way to manage them effectively.
  • Advanced user editing workflows. For smaller businesses, WordPress may be a great fit for a few users to edit content across the site. However, the more frequently your site requires updates, the more challenges you'll face as the complexity of your content and the role of each contributor evolve.
  • Multilingual elements. If you want to appeal to people speaking multiple languages in multiple regions, WordPress offers some terrific third-party plugins, but other solutions provide much more robust, effective multilingual content management systems.
  • High security requirements. WordPress security improves with every release, but it's not the safest web platform out there. With so many companies using WordPress, hackers view the platform as a prime target for massive-scale attacks. If you handle sensitive data or unpublished material you don't want to make public yet, look for a more secure solution.
  • No active technical maintenance team. WordPress and its many plugins undergo constant updates to address security and functionality concerns, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Version dependencies between plugins and WordPress often cause conflicts, but if you don't update frequently and check for bugs and other problems, your site could fall victim to the security issues discussed earlier. If your website is not actively supported and maintained by a technical team, exploits of your site may lead to lost data, embedded Trojan viruses, and malware that destroy the site's user experience and search engine optimization.
  • Extensive integration with other solutions. Many corporate websites use third-party systems, which tend to incorporate other Java data sources. For example, a large law firm might have hundreds of lawyers, each with a unique bio page reflecting specialties. Firms this size often integrate attorney lists with back-end human resources databases to automate updates and changes to hundreds (if not thousands) of website pages. Mass integration on this level would prove difficult to implement, manage, and maintain for the long term within WordPress.

Finding the best fit

Chief marketing officers should consider the functionality of their digital properties to understand the pros and cons of each content management system to determine which best fits their needs, as some digital tools fit a site's specific requirements better than others.

How can you find the right solution for your business?

  1. Look at solutions purpose-built for your sector. If you work in certain industries, such as law or fitness, many companies provide tools tailored specifically to your online needs. Search for those offering tailored solutions for your company and your specific needs. These solutions may be open source or based on open source technologies.
  2. Consider hosted services. Your company doesn't have to take on the entire burden; you can use one of several solutions to reduce the heavy lifting required on your end. Squarespace is one popular hosted alternative to WordPress, and if you have an e-commerce site, a provider like Shopify is often a better solution than coupling WordPress with e-commerce plugins.
  3. Seek a customized solution. If you have a growing company with niche software requirements or you have a complex project underway, you might end up doing so much custom development on top of WordPress that it virtually ceases to be WordPress. This happens more often than anybody would like to admit, and it's a fine approach, as long as you recognize the technical debt this may incur. Finding a more tailored solution that requires less customization will save time and money.

WordPress is an invaluable resource, but it isn't the right choice for every scenario. The larger and more complex your company or project gets, the more likely it is you need a solution above and beyond what WordPress offers.

Jaron Rubenstein is the founder and president of Rubenstein Technology Group

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet. 

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The world of food marketing is constantly evolving, and just like the food and restaurant industry itself, shifts in trends and taste mean that a different approach needs to be taken to market them. Whether you are responsible for marketing a food product or a restaurant, you have no doubt seen some of the trends that are driving a shift in marketing strategies and tactics.

We are going to discuss five rules of food marketing you should pay attention to this year.

Make technology part of the experience

There are many ways that technology is connecting consumers to restaurants and the eating experience as a whole. Many forward-thinking restaurants are finding new and innovative ways to integrate technology in a natural and unobtrusive way.

Want quicker service at your favorite spot? In-store tablets are used at some restaurants such as Chili's, which lets customers order more food whether their server is present or not. It turns out that consumers spend more money when this is possible.

Is talking on the phone a little too much? Domino's Pizza's introduction of text and Twitter ordering takes convenience to a whole new level. In addition, there are many other apps that make the delivery experience a lot easier and more streamlined, for everything from restaurants to groceries.

The traditional point-of-sale system has been greatly simplified by companies like Square that are taking the hassle out of working with legacy systems. This streamlines things for the customer as well, in some cases allowing them to sign and leave a tip right from the device in the store, and receipts can be emailed instead of printed. As a marketer, that helps you grow your email list, and as a consumer, it's one less piece of paper for that $4 cappuccino.

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Last week, Randall Rothenberg created tidal waves across the industry in his evangelical scorn of ad blockers, decadently indulging his peers in a diatribe about ad blockers' profiteering and subversion of freedom of the press. Though the significant rise in ad blocking has caused painful billion-dollar revenue losses for publishers and extreme divisiveness over potential solutions, the fresh introspection into our industry is more than welcome and long overdue.
 
Brands, too, are re-thinking their content strategies as a result of ad blocking. While consumers choose to subscribe to ad blocking for numerous varied reasons, three explanations we all can sympathize with include: ads no longer provide value to the consumer, ads have become disruptive to consumers' online experience, and finally, ads no longer resonate with consumers at an emotional level.
 
Fortunately, over the past year brands have taken this time as an opportunity to reverse the tide and explore innovative content ideas. Here are some emerging trends that marketers can apply to stem ad blocking inertia.

Long-form storytelling is making a comeback

Women InmatesThe Ascent, and Cocainenomics: What do they have in common?
 
These are all ground-breaking branded content campaigns that Netflix sponsored in partnership with The New York Times, The Atlantic, and most recently The Wall Street Journal to promote their hit shows Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, and Narcos. Each of these long feature articles demonstrates outstanding and delicate journalism on thought provoking subjects with beautiful graphics and deeply engaging videos.
 
Netflix's Orange is the New Black native 1,500-word ad included short-form videos that gave rare insight into individual profiles of women who, for example, transitioned from "a Hermes scarf, a Tahari coat dress, a pair of high heels" to shackles on the first day. Rather than cornering this ad to a 300x250 ad slot, the paid post appeared on the Times' homepage, "among editorial links to an article about a town's fight against pollution, an op-ed about the Frick Collection, and a travel story about Bolinas, Calif."
 
For advertisers, custom native ads like these are paving a new model for branded content. By delving deeper into interesting subjects and delivering value that readers expect alongside editorial content, brands will ensure consumers come back thirsting for more.

Deliver the right experience, not just the right message

Over the years, intrusive, repetitive, and data-intensive (rich media) display ads have led consumers to associate online advertising with annoying experiences and slow load times. Therefore, it has become incumbent upon brands more than ever to reset this perception by creating contextual, non-interruptive experiences.
 
This imperative couldn't be more relevant than in the context of mobile. When the Times reviewed how much of consumers' mobile data came from advertising in "The Cost of Mobile Ads on 50 News Websites," the study astoundingly found that "more than half of all data came from ads and other content filtered by ad blockers." No wonder why consumers glommed onto ad blocking when Apple made it easier on iOS.
 
For "mobile-first" brands, crafting a light, yet engaging content experience will be vital. Additionally, Mobile Marketing Association found that marketers who ran mobile native campaigns at lower frequency (fewer placements and exposures) contributed to better overall ROI. Therefore, as advertisers plan branded content campaigns across both desktop and mobile channels, prioritizing non-interruptive, relevant experiences at less frequent times will remain key to keeping consumers engaged.

Along these lines, publishers should also think about how they can serve advertisers as a better conduit for good user experiences. Publishers such as Forbes are already experimenting with offering "ad-light" experiences that will likely prove to become sustainable, revenue generating models.  

From pushing marketing messages to pulling on consumers' heartstrings

Jeff Bander, president at Sticky, perceptively pointed out that marketing is entering an era focused on emotion, so it behooves brands to adjust their measurement to align with this new reality.
 
There are many examples of digital campaigns that are following this trend. In a brilliant social example geared towards environmentally conscious millennials, the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund launched a Webby Award-winning #LastSelfie campaign that featured nine-second Snapchat pics of endangered animals. The pics included captions such as, "better take a screenshot / this could be my #lastselfie" and "Don't let this be my #LastSelfie." As a result of this campaign, the WWF achieved its monthly donation target within three days and animal adoptions through its site. 
 
This campaign illustrates how anchoring content in consumers' passions and interests can be extremely effective in mobilizing consumers to take action, rather than block ads. 
 
The ad-blocking phenomenon rang alarm bells against a slowly degrading user experience, and sparked new, vital conversations in our industry. As a result, brands have begun laying the groundwork for new models of consumer engagement. The key will be to partner with publishers that are also evolving their monetization strategies to offer lightweight and impactful user experiences. In this new "ad-light" world, publishers will no longer rely on volume and instead realign their product strategies to the shifting landscape. I look forward to seeing how brands, publishers and the tech ecosystem will band together to innovate a brand new content roadmap.

Stephen Gill is CEO at Tiller.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

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As more global consumers adopt and integrate mobile apps into their daily lives, marketers are wise to understand how they orient and interact in this environment. "In-app" is the most powerful mobile marketing environment we have. This highly receptive state offers unique ways for brands to effectively and directly engage consumers. There are two avenues for the marketer: advertising to the receptive in-app consumer while they are engaged in that environment and/or developing a branded app to build loyalty.

Winning with in-app advertising

If we think about the consumer's state of mind when in-app, it's easy to imagine how well executed advertising can succeed there. All consumers "in" an app have essentially "opted in" to the environment. As a result, consumers are attuned to messaging and are receptive to it. Well-targeted, rich, useful, in-app advertising resonates in this environment because a connection can happen at the right time, appropriate place, and in a personalized way, handing control to the consumers themselves. Imaginative uses by a QSR brand of things like the smart phone's accelerometer, allowing a consumer to mix and select various menu items by shaking their device, is one strong example we've seen in the market.

Location-based advertising has been another trigger for the growth of in-app advertising. U.S.-based location-targeted mobile ad revenues are expected to grow from $4.3 billion in 2014 to $18.2 billion in 2019, according to research from BIA Kelsey. Location-enabled programmatic mobile inventory has doubled in the last year. Today, more than 60 percent of all mobile ad requests include location data of some kind.

As the available data and technology improves, more mobile ad marketers are using it to drive greater campaign relevance. Advertisers and ad networks now have the ability to collect and process volumes of consumer data to create more targeted and timely mobile marketing. The better the data, the more precise the targeting can be. When coupled with definitive place, or POI data, accurate location data allows marketers to develop powerful consumer audiences based on their prior mobile activity, behavioral frequency, and device information.

Data input needs to be verified for accuracy or the data led marketing will be wasted on the wrong people. The upfront vetting you do with your data solutions, providers, and partners on the methodology is essential. The most accurate form of location data is real-time, latitude and longitude coordinates pulled directly from a mobile device's global positioning system (GPS). Leveraging precise location data, marketers can reach consumers within steps of a retailer, driving foot traffic from potential shoppers, or capture consumers' intent on visiting competing retailers nearby. That's where you want to be.

The branded app as marketing

According to a recent study from Forrester Research, consumers spend more than 85 percent of their time on smartphones using native apps. In fact, consumers don't even consider many of these apps "native." They consider them "functional" -- tools to effectively interact with brands they depend on. However, the challenge is to keep the users engaged with these apps on an ongoing basis. It turns out "native" app users aren't using the vast majority of the apps they have downloaded onto their phone. In fact, according to a recent Forrester study, 84 percent of their time is spent using just five apps. This dovetails with another recent study from Nielsen spotlighting that there is a ceiling for the number of apps that consumers will consistently use.

So, what can you do to ensure that you're one of the lucky few, favorite branded apps that consumers deploy on a regular, if not daily, basis, able to take advantage of these consumers ravenous for information about, or utility delivered from, your brand? Establish immediate value and functionality to the end user.

Most of the apps that people use frequently are ones that deliver a specific function in an instant. So, how can your brand's app do that? How will it make their lives instantly easier, becoming indispensable in the process?

The best in-app interfaces or executions are incredibly focused, taking advantage of the consumer state of being "all in" when they are there. A strong app is mobile-first with a streamlined design that provides a logical, easy flow and navigation. Essentially, it will deliver a laser-like focus on a primary task and eliminate bells and whistles that may distract. A lot of businesses make the mistake of pretending that their mobile website launchers are apps, but they're not. Native apps offer marketers an environment that can be used to create distinctive, specific experiences for customers.

The app consumer is ready, willing and open to marketing. That's a unique combination. But, for it to work, brands must respect and cater to this special permission. Whether you're delivering the messaging and proposed engagement via ad placements inside the app or using the app itself as a marketing vehicle, everything you do must engage, service and delight -- not annoy or burden -- the audience. The elusive permission slip has been granted. Now it's the brand's responsibility to deliver a continuous, memorable journey.

Tom Kenney is president and CIO at Verve.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

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Once again we're into a new year. Everyone in the email marketing world is taking a deep breath now that the frenzy of the holiday season has passed. For many email marketers, January and February are the time to begin thinking about that long put off RFP.  If you're one of those marketers, bite the bullet and get going. After all, Christmas is less than 11 months away! If you're not in the market for a new ESP in 2016, there are still companies in the email marketing ecosystem with whom you should be familiar. The amount of innovation in email marketing continues at a staggering rate (so much for "email is dead", right?). It can be hard to keep up. So here are three of the companies I'll be keeping an eye on in 2016.  You should get to know all three. (And if you missed last year's three, check them out here.)

Webbula (www.webbula.com)

The first company on my list is Webbula. It's understood in email marketing that good list hygiene is a key best practice for any email program. Marketers must get rid of invalid, non-responsive and duplicate email addresses as soon as possible. It's the way one stays out of trouble with the Spamhauses of the world as well as the ISPs. To that end, Webbula describes itself as "The most comprehensive email hygiene solution on planet earth." In a fairly crowded category, that's a bold statement to make. So how do they back it up? For starters, Webbula has created CloudHygiene. It's a flexible, customizable data agnostic platform that is effective on B2C and B2B for both international and domestic email addresses. CloudHygiene's Email Intelligence Report immediately helps marketing executives and campaign managers understand the level of reputation, fraud, delivery, and conversion risks within their email lists.

Webbula maintains that managing only bounces misses key active threats such as moles, disposable domains, bots, zombies, and legal traps that have been planted in your production, CRM, inactive, and lead generation email lists. Webbula's platform identifies these harmful emails and only Webbula has an exclusive relationship with the world's largest Honey Pot purveyor, enabling them to accurately identify over 189 MM of these spam traps. As an added bonus, Webbula offers a free test to give you a view into your email health status before your email campaign efforts are put to the test.

Vince Cersosimo, Webbula's CEO and Founder, made a very interesting point when he told me, "The greatest trick spam traps ever pulled was convincing the world they don't click. Email threats like spam traps, fraudsters, and bots not only open emails, but also click on links. Webbula's CloudHygiene goes beyond verifying if an email will bounce and also detects deliverable email threats affecting the health of your daily email campaigns."

Ongage (www.ongage.com)  

I first encountered Ongage when I was speaking to the sales team at Message Systems (Ongage is a strategic partner). The company changes the paradigm of email marketing by detaching the front-end tools from the back-end sending. Essentially, Ongage provides a single, vendor-agnostic email marketing user interface that allows users to easily connect to a large and growing number of email vendors and platforms at once from one convenient front-end. Ongage was founded in 2011 as a result of a sister company's real need: to work with several email delivery providers in parallel, which created several operational and analytical challenges for the organization.

For marketers with an SMTP relay solution like Amazon Web Services, Ongage provides the front-end features that enable professionals to control the campaigns and gain reporting insights.   For marketers using more than one ESP for email and for email agencies using several different platforms for their clients, it offers built-in connectivity to a variety of email service providers allowing production teams to manage several providers from one intuitive front-end interface.  And users of on-premise MTAs like Message Systems no longer have to go without features available with many of the leading ESPs, giving them the best of both worlds. Ongage isn't for everybody, and it's not going to replace a Yesmail or Experian solution.  But in the world of SMB email marketing, it's a solution worth looking at, even for those who are high volume senders of up to 500 million emails a month.

"We designed the next generation of email platforms to help marketers create a competitive edge." says CEO Ofer Shani. "Email marketing is in a constant state of transformation with more and more publishers taking advantage of advanced features in their marketing strategy. In 2016, the use of behavioral emails, multi-vendors, and other automated elements will become increasingly common and necessary for marketers to reach marketing goals."

CertainSource (www.certainsource.com)

You might be more familiar with the parent company of CertainSource, eWayDirect, which is an ESP focused on the mid-market. CertainSource, founded in 2012, grew out of that business and was launched to address the challenge faced by B2C marketers to acquire customers, and to build engaged email lists, safely and cost-effectively. They enable B2C marketers to grow email lists with "new to file" confirmed double opt-in subscribers cost effectively, and in a way, that improves the overall inbox delivery of their entire list. Typically this has been an area dominated by co-registration, but there has been a challenge to scale email lists while maintaining high inbox delivery, and doing it all in a cost effective manner. CertainSource combines proprietary technology with proprietary processes to confirm and qualify prospects and then nurture those prospects to confirmed subscribers.

Through a practice CertainSource calls Funnel Management, they manage thousands of omni-channel active lead sources simultaneously, eliminating risky lead sources in real time and throttling source lead volume by performance (LTV). "New to file" inbound leads received. Through the eWayDirect platform, confirmation email series sent, "Intent to engage" is scored at the source level and finally, qualified new subscribers delivered to client ESP. The results are impressive! And CertainSource can now help clients to optimize other channels beyond email such as native, mobile, social, and display, identifying top performers in each.

Neil Rosen, the company's founder, had this to say about the service: "The challenge digital marketers face is being able to scale their best performing marketing channel -- email -- without jeopardizing inbox delivery or their online reputation. Solving that for our clients with our integrated platform has enabled them to break from the pack and significantly outperform their competition. While it has taken three years of development, the end result is very rewarding for us, as well as for our clients."

So there you have my list for 2016. It gets harder each year to get down to just three companies.  There are many deserving of mention. That's good news for email marketers and marketers in general. So while you should check these three out, make sure you cast a wide net. And if you happen to work for a company you think should be on this list, reach out to me. I want to know what you do! 

Chris Marriott is president and founder at Marketing Democracy, LLC

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