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Native advertising has become a very popular topic in the online advertising world. As publishers look for new ways to monetize their sites beyond straight ads, they're turning to these deeply integrated advertorial executions to incorporate branded content that appeals to their visitors. Some major publishers, like Buzzfeed and Gawker, rely almost exclusively on native ad executions.

The dangerous implications of native advertising for brands

But despite the growing popularity, native is not without controversy and confusion as publishers and advertisers look to identify what is a "native" ad execution, and what is not. An eMarketer report earlier this year earned the title "Native Advertising: Difficult to Define, but Definitely Growing," encapsulating the eagerness of publishers and brands to invest in a tactic that lacks clear rules and boundaries. However, the most direct assault on native ads came this summer, not from a major brand or agency, but from a comedian, John Oliver.

Oliver's rant, criticizing the insidious nature of the worst of the native ads, is largely for laughs, but there are enough kernels of truth to give marketers pause when considering native. Here's an overview of what makes this innovative ad medium tick, how to avoid the bad, and how to identify the best native ad opportunities.

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"Official Redskins Name Change"

There's been a lot of talk about how owner Dan Snyder refuses to change the racially-charged (read: super racist) name of his NFL team. This is probably the best solution put forward so far. Well, at least the 12-year-old version of us thinks so.

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Technology has gone a long way to depersonalize business. From the invention of the telephone to the emergence of bulk email, the feeling of dealing with another human being is soon becoming the analysis of a statistic. Thankfully email service providers have made attempts to put the human element back into the equation with personalization techniques to benefit businesses around the world.

A 2014 marketing study found that while the majority of brands still do not use personalization, it has proven to get readers engaging with your email. Personalized email has a 29 percent higher unique open rate and a 41 percent higher unique click rate when compared to non-personalized email.

Although the most common form, email personalization doesn't only mean having a reader's information in a couple of lines. It can also be a particular tone, style, or frame your email uses to evoke a response. Some companies have gotten interesting results from using different personalization techniques you may not have heard of.

Customer name personalization: Helzberg Diamonds case

This is the answer every email marketer will give when asked about personalization, and every person with an email account has probably experienced this personalization at one time or another. As the name suggests, this kind of personalization will use the customer's name in the subject line as well as the opening line. It may even continue to use the customer's name in the content itself.

While this form of personalization is the oldest trick in the book, that's not to say that this form has no use. A study by MarketingSherpa found that this kind of personalization achieved a 17.36 percent higher average click-through rate by simply including the recipient's name in the subject line only. In addition, the emails with a personalized subject line saw a 5.13 percent higher average open rate than the emails without.

However, you can also get quite creative with customer name personalization, as Helzberg Diamonds found. By adding an animated image using the first name of the recipient (a bracelet with the recipient's name on it), Helzberg Diamonds achieved an amazing 288 percent increase in sales conversions.

Tips for customer name personalization

  • When signing up subscribers, always ask for their name.
  • Always double check your data for incorrect or obvious fake names.
  • Know when not to use it. Would your subscribers want other people to know they use your product? (For example, adult services, gambling, financial services.)
  • Don't use their last name. Research shows it's too personal.

Company personalization: MarketingSherpa case

Dealing with named organizations feels cold, impersonal, and like an Orwellian nightmare. Company personalization is all about doing away with company and team names and putting a face to the company. Replace your company email address with one that is more personal. For example, instead of "no-reply@marketingsolutions.com," use "ben@marketingsolutions.com" to receive a more personal response from your reader.

At the end of your email, rather than signing off with "regards, Marketing Solutions," company personalization gives you the option to add credibility and build a relationship with your reader with a sign-off like:

Regards,
Ben Statsworth
CEO, Marketing Solutions
BSE Business, UCT

A case study indicated an increase of 137 percent in open rate from an email advertising an educational seminar by MarketingSherpa that used company personalization techniques.

Tips for company personalization

  • Be sure to include the company name somewhere in the sign-off and address, so readers know where your mail is coming from.
  • Include qualifications and position to give your message credibility.
  • Be ready to respond if people reply with questions, or have a team ready to handle the requests.

Appearance personalization: The Obama campaign case

A personalized message can mean more than just fields that change depending on the recipient -- and it should. The layout, template, and subject line that appears as a personal letter or informal message is an example of appearance personalization. It doesn't matter if you send out your email to thousands of subscribers, as long as it appears personal, it will have the desired effect.

In addition to company personalization, MarketingSherpa also applied appearance personalization to achieve its 137 percent increase in open rate. However, appearance personalization is not only successful with companies. The Obama campaign used it effectively as well.

The Obama administration was grossly underfunded by corporations when compared to the Romney campaign. However, after using email and appearance personalization, Obama was able to raise the majority of his $690 million campaign through appearance personalized emails.

Obama's emails begin with a slightly informal tone while communicating in the first person about relevant, everyday, human topics, slowly bringing the election and fundraising in as the main focus. Within reason, the same approach can be applied to your own email marketing campaign.

Tips for appearance personalization

  • Don't be too personal: Slang and lingo is never well received.
  • Don't be too specific: If you're too specific, you risk isolating a percentage of your readers.
  • Use the first person and simplify words where you can to appear friendlier.
  • Keep context in mind: If you're a legal company, you do not want to sound unprofessional and not serious.

A little effort can go a long way and earn you a lot of extra revenue. Email service providers can provide basic personalization tools and segmentation functions, but personalizing your email campaign can and should mean more than a tool doing all the work for you.

Mark Brown is a copywriter at GraphicMail.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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In the world of online marketing, content is king. (We're all familiar with the phrase Gary Vaynerchuk coined at the 2008 Blog World Expo, and yet, six years later, it still applies.) In fact, research from the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs shows that nearly all (93 percent) of B2B marketers now use content marketing and more than half (58 percent) plan to increase their content budgets throughout the remainder of 2014. 

However, CMI's "B2B Content Marketing: 2014 Budgets, Benchmarks and Trends -- North America" report also indicates that marketers encounter significant challenges when it comes to creating the quality content they need to satisfy prospects and customers. Specifically, they suffer from a lack of adequate time to devote to content marketing and have trouble producing sufficient amounts of content.

So what can marketers do to make the content creation process, from start to finish, a little easier on themselves? The following is a look at 11 tools that make content marketing a snap.

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Webrooming: the modern consumer practice of browsing and selecting products online before visiting brick-and-mortar stores to buy them

There's been a ton of chatter in the industry that brick-and-mortar is dying. Thanks to the convenience of online shopping and the myriad of mobile devices that consumers have to purchase products, e-commerce was expected to eclipse "visiting actual stores" as common shopping behavior. However, it turns out that consumers are not quite ready to live and shop fully online just yet. Instead, they have blended their love of technology with the ritual of physical shopping by using their devices as platforms to browse products before visiting brick-and-mortar locations to buy them. Brands call this "webrooming," and it's the way people now conduct commerce. Webrooming is a spin on the common company practice of showrooming, where brands display products and services at locations for shoppers to browse. Today, the browsing is done online, and brands need to get used to this if they want to drive significant in-store traffic. Does your online presence accommodate webroomers? How visual and user friendly is your mobile browsing experience? If you're lacking in this area, you're losing out on foot traffic.

Few are experts in consumer shopping behavior like Wayne Duan, lead merchant for Walgreens.com. He speaks to iMedia about why shopping behavior is very different today, and why you need to adjust your online presence to adapt.

Click here to subscribe to the iMedia YouTube channel.

Article written by senior media producer David Zaleski.

Video edited by associate media producer Brian Waters.

"Shopper enters Walgreens store on June 9" image via Shutterstock and Tupungato.

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It's no surprise that the job of a marketer is extremely complex in today's business world, especially with digital channels allowing customers to command how and when, if ever, they will engage with your brand. In addition, marketers have less and less control over their brand communications than ever before, yet they are routinely asked to create and sustain wonderful customer experiences at every touch point. However, things have changed so much in the past 10 or even five years. What constitutes an exceptional experience today?

Marketers need to shift their mindset from telling customers what their company wants them to hear, to listening to customers and having engaging conversations on their terms, when and where they want to have them. It's a different way of thinking and engaging. When done right, it will create deep connections to target consumers. The time is now to change the focus from campaign-oriented marketing to real-time marketing.

So, let's dig deeper into these customer experiences and what they should include in order to be successful.

Experience rule No. 1

Marketers need to predict and monitor the customer journey, not the sales cycle. When marketing and sales deliver the right information at the right time, they are able to build relationships and let the customer choose the direction. This includes inbound marketing tactics like offering premium content the customer downloads after submitting profile information, which helps to identify qualified leads and provide more relevant information in subsequent interactions.

Experience rule No. 2

Conversations need to take place in real-time. Thanks to real-time decision technology, organizations have the to ability deliver a personalized experience to each customer or prospect right at that moment of interaction -- be it lunch on a weekday or one in the morning. Give them what they need, when they need it, and structure your digital ecosystem so that consumers can discover more through serendipity, not by you forcing it on them.

Experience rule No. 3

Relevance and personalization are key. Customers get vocal and often discredit the company and its communication when they encounter marketing and advertising that doesn't speak to their needs and interests. In one recent example -- and there are countless others -- a photo service sent out emails congratulating customers on having a baby. The problem was the email went out to the company's entire list, which included people who had not welcomed a new bundle of joy and were offended. The secret to delivering a tailored experience is collecting data, using it to show your audience you understand them, looking at analytics to find opportunities for improvement, and optimizing continuously.

Experience rule No. 4

Marketing content has to be about solving problems, not selling products. Today's consumers are sophisticated and wary of blatant marketing efforts. Every communication needs to address critical challenges and pain points and answer "what's in it for me" for every customer. You'll know your messaging is resonating if people are sharing your content.

Experience rule No. 5

Brand interactions need to be consistent across all channels. Whenever and wherever someone interacts with your brand, the experience needs to build upon everything that came before and flow seamlessly into what they do next. Again, this is a challenge aided by technology. If a customer calls a contact center, wouldn't it be good to know in real-time that the customer had recently opened an email about a particular product, and read six web pages about that product? Marketers and CRM specialists need to maintain an interaction data store, so that the history and meaning of previous interactions can be factored into the personalized next-best action decision engine. Attribute data about a person and people like that person is no longer enough to make optimal real-time decisions in this omni-channel world.

Experience rule No. 6

Omni-channel capabilities will be critical. Today's marketing is all about meeting your customers where they are, regardless of channel or platform. If your audience spends time on Twitter or Pinterest, so should you. If they're mostly on tablets and phones, consider a mobile app. But all of this technology needs to work together to avoid mixed or misdirected messages, like the example given in rule No. 3.

Experience rule No. 7

Don't make a promise you can't keep. You can't just tell people they're important to you; you need to show it in everything you do and say. That includes addressing issues and complaints promptly and professionally, as well as asking permission and earning trust at every interaction.

It's important to note that changing the minds of your fellow marketing team members might not be easy at first, but the first step is to commit to changing the focus from campaign-oriented marketing to real-time marketing. You need to devise a plan and shift and gather the right team to develop a holistic, long-term strategy -- then get ready to put those plans into motion. The organizations that embrace this new reality will be the ones that rise to the top.

Grant Halloran is Global VP and GM, Infor CRM and Marketing Management Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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A couple of years ago, I researched content marketing maturity in the enterprise. We identified five phases of maturity, the highest one being the very aspirational level of actually monetizing content; organizations from Red Bull to Coke to Kraft have been able to actually sell their content marketing.

That's clearly not going to happen for every brand practicing content marketing, nor should it. A far more attainable and worthy goal is phase four of our maturity model: fostering a culture of content. That is, evangelizing the importance and impact of content marketing not only across all sectors of the marketing division, but across the enterprise itself. It means getting senior management, sales, customer service, operations, product, HR, IT, and the rest of the company (as well as partners, such as agencies) educated and informed about content.

Many misunderstand this as a "find the bloggers" initiative. And sure, it's always great to identify, inspire, and encourage the development of content creators who have real domain knowledge and expertise, not to mention channels of communication into relevant sectors and target markets.

But a genuine culture of content goes far beyond enabling and empowering content creators outside of marketing.

It's about education: what content can achieve and how those achievements might benefit them. This means fewer calls to customer service, for example, if that department can help surface issues and problems that can be addressed with content (with the additional benefit of savings).

It's about finding more content or topics for content, perhaps from an offsite, conference, or convention where marketing isn't attending but customers or executives are.

It's about employee advocacy. Employees can showcase an organization as a great place to work or provide behind-the-scenes expertise where it's needed around products (or projects).

It's about executive buy-in. When the C-suite understands content and the role that it plays, it is more willing and able to get behind programs that spread content culturally. (This is why Nestlé's Pete Blackshaw, global head of digital, arranged a Silicon Valley "field trip" for that company's senior leadership -- to imbue them in the culture and potential of digital communications.)

This week, at Content Marketing World, Kraft Food's Julie Fleisher discussed company-wide initiatives around content, such as building a software platform that integrates with enterprise functions around data and CRM, and also an educational program spanning hundreds of employees and a few dozen agency partners to boot, to get everyone on the same page around content.

We're going to see many more enterprises rally around the culture of content, creating training and evangelism programs to spread the word and foster participation. This will result in better marketing and hopefully, more openness and transparency insofar as consumers are concerned.

What has your company done lately to foster a culture of content? I'd love to hear your stories.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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For decades, marketers relied on gut feelings to make major marketing spend decisions because useful data just wasn't available. Today, however, marketing executives face a bigger conundrum: They know the data is out there but aren't exactly sure how to get meaningful insights from it. Relevant data is being gathered. However, this flood of unstructured information creates a big data beast with little connection to actionable insight that can improve decision-making.
 
Fortunately, major media sites are rushing to marketers' aid -- armed with terabytes of data from every click, swipe, check-in, and registration. That data shows, among other things, the demographics of who engages with what content, the time they engage, how they engage, and across what channel. Media sites are able to package up this data and deliver insights that help guide marketers' campaigns, tapping into tools that make data actionable and drive the bottom line.

But just how are they doing it, and what should marketers expect from their media partners going forward? Here are the top five big data-driven innovations to look for:

Drastically improved demographic profiling

Premium publishers and large media companies dedicate major time and money to making sure their first- and third-party demographic information, based on millions of users, is high-quality and accurate. Media companies can also do the legwork to make the data useful by culling through massive amounts of information and modeling it. Marketers may pull the information they need to better understand their audience and more accurately target campaigns.

Self-service portals

Analytics isn't just for IT anymore. In order to stay ahead of the competition, business users need to be able to access and use agile, dynamic analytics and enhanced self-service dashboards, with minimal training. Innovative media sites that recognize this need are offering user-driven analytics that enable analysis of the site's data at any time. These tools make information actionable and easy to understand for marketers.

Information-rich visualizations

It's simple: Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text and are more engaging than a giant spreadsheet of numbers. Intuitive and insightful information visualizations help marketers quickly wrap their heads around customer information in relation to location, social network, products, brand sentiment, and purchasing power. For example, marketers can pull a highly visual graph representing their brand's most popular content to gain an understanding of consumer content preferences instead of scrolling through thousands of rows in a spreadsheet. Media sites that incorporate these interactive visualizations offer more value to marketers.

Real-time trending analysis

Media sites want users to tell stories, and individuals want to share their stories. Why? For individuals, it's a platform for self-expression. For media sites, it's a way to better understand users and improve customer experience. And for marketers, the media sites that help them track users' stories can help increase engagement, distribution, and growth of valuable content, all while helping both businesses get a better understanding of customer data. For example, if a video is trending, marketers can see in real-time who is engaging, how many times they clicked and basic demographics of viewers like age, gender, and purchasing power. This kind of real-time data allows marketers to pivot (or not!) right when patterns are emerging. Think Oreo's famed 2013 Super Bowl blackout tweet.

Custom mobile apps

We're in the mobile age, and marketers, like customers, demand access to information on the go. If asked something very specific, like what age group the company needs to target in the following quarter, marketing executives should be able to have that information in the palm of their hand. Also, marketers routinely need to adjust campaigns based on target audience behavior, sometimes at a moment's notice. To that end, media sites that provide customer data via a mobile app will lead the pack in marketers' eyes. And, it should be enriched by everything listed above -- first- and third- party data, visually accessible, and up-to-date in real time. 

With many of the world's biggest media sites now employing big data analytics to make their inventory more valuable and effective, marketers can look forward to having access to comprehensive, visual, insightful customer data that can be accessed in real-time and on-the-go. The future is bright, marketers, and I have a feeling we're only scratching the surface with what we can do with customer analytics in 2014 and beyond.

Kevin Spurway is senior vice president of marketing at MicroStrategy.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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"Generation Z" is the name of the "new" generation, a collective name of the people who are teenagers today -- a fearless cohort.

Growing up as digital natives, this group has always had access to digital tools which have helped them gain exposure (for good or for bad) online. Platforms and tools like YouTube and Snapchat have enabled both the fame-inclined and the everyday sharer the ability to create their own fully-formed brand or casual presence online.

So, what's the key to this fearless behavior? A fearless attitude. For Gen Z, it's all about going your own way -- starting your own company or creating a new product without having to wait for permission, the right skill set, an academic degree, or even years of work experience.

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Continually creating new content is vital to keeping a marketing message fresh, elevating search visibility, and perhaps most importantly keeping an audience engaged. Content marketing, the practice of creating (hopefully quality) content for the purpose of building an audience that can then be marketed to, has recently come of age in digital marketing. "Native advertising" seems to be the buzzword of the year. And more marketing managers than ever have realized that finding something interesting to talk about can give brands (especially old or stodgy ones) a renewed voice among consumers.

Until a few years ago, the phrase "Old Spice" was synonymous with "dad cologne." I once read a piece of dating advice that recommended wearing Old Spice aftershave on dates because it reminds women of their fathers (paging Electra...). But now Old Spice is perceived differently. With a brilliant move into the current meta phase of hipster weirdness, the brand has engaged with an entirely new demographic. And also sold tons of body wash while it was at it. That's the power of content marketing.

5 pieces of content marketing you can create today

That said, creating new content scares and mystifies marketers more than it should. But the trick is this: Don't overthink what you're doing. There's an old cure to writer's block that suggests writing anything down on the page, even if it's unrelated. Because there's nothing more intimidating to a writer than a blank page. Sometimes to break the equivalent of marketing writer's block you just need to create something -- anything -- to get those creative juices flowing. If a quick and dirty content idea paves the way to a bigger project, great! If not, you've already created your content for the day. Win-win.

Here are five easy concepts you can likely apply to your brand and crank out within an hour.

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