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In Anticipation of the Pi-Day of a Lifetime, We Blind Tasted 5 Apple Pies

Our office observed Pi-Day today. Christopher led the team in a blind tasting of five store-bought frozen apple pies.

The Candidates:

  • A: Mrs. Smith’s Original Flaky Crust Dutch Apple Pie ($5.99): The box art highlights ‘real’ butter and they are quite proud of their flaky crust.
  • B: Safeway Select Dutch Apple Pie ($4.89): The cheapest pie on the list. The box doesn’t describe much else about the pie, other than that it is ‘select’. The only pie without a web page to link to.
  • C: Sara Lee Oven Fresh Dutch Apple Pie ($5.00 reg. $8.99): Kind of funny that Sara Lee uses the phrase ‘Oven Fresh’ to describe a pie that you buy frozen.
  • D: Grand Central Bakery U-Bake Apple Pie ($16.95): Grand Central Bakery is a popular bakery a few blocks from our office in Pioneer Square. A few of us remember when President Obama had lunch there.
  • E: Marie Callender’s Lattice Apple Pie ($6.49 reg $8.99): This pie even has you sprinkle sugar on midway through the baking process.

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E-Cigarettes Gaining in Popularity—and in Regulatory Issues

The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a survey yesterday revealing that teenagers now use e-cigarettes at substantially higher rates than traditional cigarettes. The results of the annual, federal survey was written up in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Tripp Mickle, an expert on drugs and alcohol for the WSJ, writes:

A new survey shows U.S. teenagers are more likely to use electronic cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, a trend researchers say is driven by teens’ belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful.

The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey could add fuel to the policy debate over the battery-powered devices, which heat nicotine-laced liquid into a vapor and are regulated far more loosely than combustible cigarettes.

This news and these articles caught our attention for a couple of reasons. First (full disclosure here), we work with e-cigarette companies, so we’re always interested when we see the words “regulated” and “e-cigarettes” in the same sentence. Second, we know that e-cigarette companies probably become very nervous when they see a phrase like “teens’ belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful”—not because they aren’t (I’m no doctor—jury’s still out on that one), but because making health claims and advertising to children can raise a lot of regulatory issues for these companies.

So let’s back up a minute. What is it that we offer to e-cigarette companies, and why?  

E-cigarette companies use our new Content Monitoring service—something we’re thrilled about, as we think we can really help them improve their monitoring and self-regulation. This service, like our Paid Search Monitoring, is designed to help assure affiliate, partner, and publisher compliance. But, unlike Paid Search Monitoring, which finds improper ads on search engines, this service is specifically targeted at the content on publisher websites—be they endorsements, review sites, or other content-driven advertising platforms.

As Mickle writes in the WSJ, at the moment, e-cigarettes are much more loosely regulated by both the FTC and the FDA than traditional cigarettes. That said, A) they are regulated, especially by the FTC, which is, in general, very concerned about any possible “health claims” in advertising—ie. “healthier than traditional cigarettes;” “non-addictive,” or “quit smoking”—as well as advertising to children. And B) it seems like the FDA is looking to increasingly regulate the industry, taking the first steps toward doing so this past April by specifically zeroing in on sales of e-cigarettes to minors. Many companies are interested in being one step ahead of both the FTC and the FDA so that if new regulations do come down, they will already be in compliance.

That’s where we come in!  

As is true in all kinds of performance marketing, companies are responsible for the claims their affiliates or publishers make. Our new Content Monitoring service can (among other things) scan known websites for forbidden copy—such as “healthy alternative” or “no carcinogens”, detect whether a site is lacking in proper affiliate disclosure language, and discover previously unknown websites that may have forbidden copy. One of the big issues in this space is that it is constantly changing. The FTC or FDA can change regulations. Laws regarding sales to minors vary from state to state. Furthermore, doctors are in an ongoing debate about both the potential health risks (addiction) and possible benefits (ability to quit traditional cigarettes more easily) of using e-cigarettes. These frequent changes make it very easy for publishers to find themselves unintentionally out of compliance and make it even more essential that e-cigarette companies know who is promoting their brand, where they are promoting it, and how they are promoting it. We can help do that.

Given the content of the survey and its coverage in national news sources, I think it is likely we’ll see both the FTC and the FDA taking an even bigger interest in e-cigarette companies.  You can understand how they might be uncomfortable with the idea that kids think they’re safe and that doctors are saying they help curb addiction (even if true).  The science, unfortunately, just isn’t there yet. And until it is, e-cigarette companies need to stay safe rather than sorry. That means they can’t make claims regarding their safety or ability to curb cigarette addiction and should steer clear of marketing to children, both on their own and on any publishers’ sites.

If you’re an e-cigarette company in search of compliance solutions, please do reach out to us at BrandVerity. Our sales team would love to show you the product and work with you to make sure it suits your needs. Also, please feel free to leave comments in the space below!

Black Friday Follow-Up: Brand Bidding Increases Through Thanksgiving Weekend

Right before Thanksgiving, we ran a quick post outlining how to minimize the non-compliant paid search  tactics that often crop up around Black Friday. We also said in that post that we’d update with any trends we noticed in the days leading up to and on Black Friday. This is that post! (Aren’t you excited?)

To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t as significant an increase in brand bidding around Thanksgiving as we feared we might see. This is good news for brands and retailers, as it means that for the most part, people acted appropriately around these major shopping days.

That’s not to say there wasn’t an uptick at all. This graph shows the incidence of non-brand ads using trademarked terms for the month leading up to Thanksgiving and continuing until December 5, 2014. The data is pulled from the same cohort of monitoring policies as our State of Branded Keywords Report, meaning that the search terms were brand names, domains, and common misspellings. It did not include searches like “[Brand Name] coupons,” which might have further inflated the numbers.


DeVry SERP

A few interesting things appear here. First, on the day before Thanksgiving, non-brand trademark usage dropped to its lowest levels all month. It’s hard to say what exactly caused this, but there is a general pattern of numbers dropping, then spiking throughout the month–perhaps as a result of fiddling with ad campaigns or attempts to hide from compliance teams. Wednesday was a lot of people’s last day in the office before leaving for the weekend and perhaps brand bidders decided to lay low until everyone was out.

Second, starting on Thanksgiving and continuing through Saturday, trademark usage by competing advertisers was particularly high. As you can see, numbers skyrocketed back up on Thursday, more than making up for the dip on Wednesday. The number of non-brand Ads/SERP on Black Friday was the highest for the entire month of November. The implication here is that people interested in targeting brands’ trademarks on paid search did take advantage of the holiday weekend’s increased shopping and the fact that many compliance and marketing teams were out of the office or simply overwhelmed by their own marketing campaigns.

The final interesting point here is that there is a (small) drop in non-brand Ads/SERP on Sunday, followed by another uptick on Monday and Tuesday, suggesting that Cyber Monday has become nearly as much of a target for brand bidders as Black Friday.

It is absolutely clear that brand bidders do target companies over the Thanksgiving weekend and that it would be in a brand’s best interest to put in place a monitoring system to catch the offenders, if they do not have one already. That said, we’re planning to do a bit more digging into how brands, especially in the online retail space, are targeted around the holidays more broadly. Preliminary looks at the data suggest that, overall, numbers of non-brand Ads/SERP go up in November and December and that’s a topic we’ll explore in more length in our next report on the State of Branded Keywords in Paid Search. Keep an eye out for that in January.

Did you notice an uptick in brand bidding over the holiday weekend? Let us know in the comments or by contacting us at BrandVerity!

Happy Black Friday from BrandVerity

This Friday officially kicks off the holiday shopping season (though if the emails I’ve been getting this week and this TechCrunch article are any indication, it’s already started). While we at BrandVerity look forward to the advent of holiday decorations, peppermint mochas, and really great deals just as much as everyone else, we also know that Black Friday can see a major uptick in the amount of brand bidding and trademark infringement appearing in paid search.

We wrote a bit about Black Friday and the attendant increase in non-compliant affiliate tactics last year.  If you’re a merchant, this might be a good time to review the information there, in our Resellers series, and in our Guide to Affiliate Compliance. Because marketing teams tend to be swamped at this time of year, compliance issues can slip under the radar. The sheer quantity, however, of shopping during the holidays makes it imperative for brands and merchants to know exactly who is bidding on their brand terms and what those advertisers are promoting. The potential losses to non-compliant partners of all sorts can seriously eat into your expected Black Friday profits. Take the time now to review your agreements and remind your affiliates, resellers, and other partners of what you have agreed upon in order to avoid issues over the holiday weekend.

Watch this space next week for a recap of trends we noticed in paid search leading up to and on Black Friday. While we hope there won’t be much new to report–as that would mean everybody played fair this week–we expect that we’ll have some interesting examples to share.

To our US readers, have a happy, healthy, and compliant Thanksgiving, and to our international readers, we’ll see you in December!

Reseller Questions (Part 6): What’s Going on with Product Listing Ads?

As both a dancer and a devoted wearer of Adriano Goldschmied (AG) jeans, I was intrigued by the company’s newest social media campaign on Tumblr, the latest in a series of companies using dancers as models. The campaign includes images of dancers taken by famed dance photographer Dane Shitugi of The Ballerina Project and asks Tumblr users to share their own images with the hashtag #whatmovesme. Director of global communications, Johnathan Crocker, hoped the campaign would provide a “viral component” to the brand’s marketing initiatives.

But, while AG is paying a lot of attention to their social media marketing and branding, are they paying an equal amount of attention to how paid search results impact their brand? This blog post–the final in our reseller series, at least for the moment–will look at the issue of Product Listing Ads by resellers, taking AG jeans as the example.

Case Study: AG Jeans and PLAs

Like many of the brands discussed throughout this series, AG Jeans seems to do the majority of their sales through other retailers. As a privately-held company, they do not release a great deal of information regarding their business operations, but between the small number of direct retail locations–12 in the US and 1 in Japan–and the large number of resellers with whom they work (including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, and Piperlime), it seems fair to assert that the majority of their business comes through those channels. Also, those nationwide retailers provide a key growth channel for the brand in markets in which they do not have their own branded retail locations.

But what about online? AG does operate an online store and their own search ads appear consistently in the top spot on Google followed by authorized and reputable resellers.


AG-PLAs-and-Search-ads

The above screenshot should look pretty familiar to anyone who’s been reading this series, but with a new addition–a set of Product Listing Ads (PLAs) above the side search results.

So what do those PLAs mean for AG?

PLAs, which feature a photo of an item, a price, and a link to a reseller, have become an important marketing tool for resellers and brands alike. Google’s recent upgrade to “Shopping Campaigns” has brought increased attention to this kind of advertisement.

As you can see in the screenshot, none of the PLAs that appear for “Adriano Goldschmied” are for AG’s own site. That is a consistent statistic we found when running PLA Monitoring for the brand. In fact, agjeans.com only accounted for only 2.8% of the PLAs on its branded keywords during our monitoring period. And, when they did appear, the results often looked something like this:


AG-2

What these screenshots show is that when ads for agjeans.com do appear (these were both on searches for “jeans AG”) they often show up next to other advertisers listing their products for a significantly lower price–something that Google oh-so-helpfully points out. It seems a fair assumption that a consumer would click through to Nordstrom’s site rather than to AG’s.

What’s also interesting is that over the same time span, AG’s own site always held the top search ad spot on Google, suggesting that while they run a very effective AdWords campaign, they have not put nearly the same effort into their Shopping campaign.

The reason for that could be completely logical. PLAs, in general, have a higher clickthrough rate than text ads, resulting in many retailers directing the majority of their paid search budget to them. The best results, however, for PLAs are generally for non-branded traffic. As non-branded keywords return better results on PLAs, and branded keywords return better results on text ads, AG might be making the conscious choice to direct their attention to standard text ads rather than PLAs.

That said, only having options to purchase from resellers when a consumer is specifically looking for their products seems like a missed opportunity. They’ll very likely lose out on the direct sale and, while in general the advertisers bidding on AG’s terms are legitimate high-end retailers, they lose control of the customer experience. While it’s great that a customer in Chicago can walk into an Anthropologie or go to the Nordstrom’s website to purchase AG jeans, AG should be concerned about whether that consumer is building loyalty towards the brand or towards the retailer. The fact that their resellers sometimes advertise much lower prices than AG’s own site in those ads only adds insult to injury.

As a brand, AG has a dedicated customer base which they’re actively working to engage online in other ways, so why not through PLAs as well?

Well, why not?

In addition to the reasons stated above, the answer might be at least somewhat related to the ways that PLA campaigns work and are run. Google’s Shopping Campaign platform–while providing more tools for advertisers than their old PLA Campaign system–provides less clarity for advertisers about where and when their PLAs appear than the standard AdWords platform. It’s quite possible that AG doesn’t really know what’s going on with its PLAs–and certainly doesn’t know that its resellers are advertising much lower prices right next to their own advertisements.

While PLAs are not the highest priority for a brand like Adriano Goldschmied, keeping track of what their retailers are doing with their brand and brand name can only be in their best interest as one part of a comprehensive marketing plan. Since launching BrandVerity’s Product Listing Ad Monitoring service, we’ve begun to learn a lot more about these issues and would be happy to discuss how our service might help you and your brand.

Do you have any insight into how brands should manage PLAs? Questions about our PLA tool? Let us know in the comments below or contact us at BrandVerity!

Hospitality Attorney Greg Duff on OTA Agreements and Paid Search

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Credit: Flickr

It’s no secret that we’ve been focusing a lot on the topic of partner bidding this month at BrandVerity. Posts so far have discussed important issues such as when partners should or should not be allowed to bid on your brand terms, the dangers of partner bidding, as well as the potential confusion and friction that partners can create.

To this point, our posts have primarily highlighted reseller issues in online retail. But partner bidding affects brands in many industries beyond that. So, to expand the discussion, we decided to highlight the hospitality/travel industry as well. For insights into how these issues affect that industry, we turned to attorney Greg Duff—hospitality industry expert and founder of the Hospitality, Travel and Tourism group at Garvey Schubert Barer.

Remember, these are opinions and insights only—you should always speak to your attorney for advice about your specific legal matters. Without further introduction, here are BrandVerity’s questions and Greg’s responses:


When it comes to hotels’ agreements with Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), is there anything that hotel brands should be more conscious of?

GD: Just about every OTA agreement (and most distribution agreements generally) contain a few key terms that hotels should review and consider carefully. First, what affiliates or third party partners of the OTA may the OTA use for distributing the rates and inventory made available by the hotel? Relatedly, what control, if any, does the hotel have over these affiliates or third party partners, particularly when an affiliate or partner is using the rates and inventory in violation of the agreement? We are seeing a number of traditional static rate wholesalers making rooms (with discounted packaged rates) available on consumer channels on a standalone basis, which is causing a lot of concern.

Second, what commitments is the hotel being asked to make with regard to parity—rate party, availability parity, loyalty program parity, keyword parity, etc.? Third, what, if any, contractual limitations is the OTA willing to consider regarding use of the hotel’s trademarks as keywords on search engines? Will the OTA limit its use of the hotel’s trademarks? Better yet, will the OTA consider use of negative keywords? Fourth, how and by whom are room taxes being calculated, collected and remitted? Is the hotel able to collect (either from the OTA or guest upon checkout) the taxes it needs to satisfy its state or local tax obligations? Will the OTA provide indemnity protection should the OTA take an aggressive stance on taxes?

When getting ready to re-negotiate its terms with an OTA, what should a hotel brand have prepared?

GD: The response largely depends on the relative sizes of the hotel and OTA (and relatedly, the bargaining positions of each). Smaller OTAs are often willing to work with hotels on each of the items noted above and other items as well. Larger OTAs are often unwilling to provide much of any relief. Hotels need to have reasonable expectations going into any OTA discussion and must be able to identify those issues or items that are “must haves” (e.g. connectivity, payment, etc.) vs. “nice to haves.”

In paid search, what should brand-conscious hotel brands do to restrict the use of their brand terms?

GD: The best strategy (though often hard to obtain with the larger OTAs) is to use a combination of keyword restrictions (identify those hotel trademarks or service marks that the OTA cannot use for SEO/SEM purposes) and negative keywords (those few trademarks or service marks that the OTA must purchase on a negative, phrase match basis). Remember, that absent some contractual agreement on this issue, trademark law often affords OTAs broad discretion in purchasing and using a hotel’s trademarks and service marks for SEO/SEM purposes.

How can a hotel brand ensure that its agreements are both A) followed and B) enforceable (if not followed)?

GD: Once the agreement is signed, the real work begins. Our clients use a combination of approaches to monitoring OTAs’ performance under the distribution agreement. Some clients don’t monitor at all and simply rely on someone bringing an issue to their attention. Other client have dedicated employees who monitor compliance—both on rates and keyword provisions. Others use services like BrandVerity to automate the process.

What’s the next marketing channel that hotel brands should be watching?

GD: Great question. The answer to this question varies from week to week as channels come and go. Tingo is one of the more interesting ones that we’ve come across recently. I expect to see a lot of development in the group travel segment in the future, with platforms like Groupize and others gaining traction.

For Those Affected by the GAN Transition

We know that the past few days have been very complicated for all of you who have had any sort of relationship with GAN. The sudden change has created a whirlwind through the affiliate marketing industry, with many working around the clock to develop and execute their plans of action.

The number of moving parts involved here is incredible—and potentially overwhelming. In particular we are expecting abusive affiliates to take advantage of the decreased focus to increase their efforts. After considering the burden this has placed on many in the industry,  we’ll be providing complimentary monitoring of GAN affiliates in paid search through the end of July to all advertisers currently unprotected by BrandVerity’s monitoring.

If you’d like to try our service at any point over the coming weeks, simply send us a quick note and we’ll get you started.

Social Media Compliance

We’re very excited to formally launch our Social Media Compliance Service.

BrandVerity’s Social Media Compliance service identifies tweets and public Facebook status messages that meet the criteria you specify.  By integrating the same affiliate detecting technology as is used in our paid search product, we will be able to provide you with new information about the landscape surrounding your trademarks and new means to protect your brand online.

Our monitoring agents follow all links in selected tweets and then crawl the destination landing pages. You can then apply sophisticated rules to identify non-compliant tweets based on content in the tweet, the affiliate relationship and the landing page content. As an example, you could identify all affiliate tweets that do not contain the word ‘disclosure’ on the landing page.

Furthermore, we build affiliate profiles that contain all of the social media accounts an affiliate is using.

The service is immediately available.

Please drop us a note if you are interested in learning more!

Affiliate Summit East 2012 Panel Summary: Affiliate Compliance – Best Practices, Issues and Options

We thoroughly enjoyed Affiliate Summit East and found it to be a great learning experience.

We were fortunate enough to have our CEO, Dave Naffziger, moderate a savvy panel of affiliate managing and marketing experts. Including the likes of Pat Grady, Marty Marion, Matt Wool, and Adam Riemer, the group touched on several important affiliate compliance issues facing the industry today. With tons of years of experience discussing a range of topics, there were a few messages that stuck out to us:

Affiliate Compliance and Terms & Conditions– “T’s and C’s,” as they were referred to several times during the panel’s discussion, are the key to a solid foundation for an affiliate program. However, as the goals of all affiliate programs are different, so too should the rules be. It is important to police violations and maintain brand integrity while not compromising potential affiliate channels for profitability. Matt Wool, in working with the Tiny Prints, referenced one clause that allows him to do just that. In addition to guidelines that clearly establish acceptable and unacceptable affiliate actions, Tiny Print’s Affiliate Program Terms & Conditions‘ Reversal & Communication Policy gives them the right to request an explanation of traffic driving techniques from any affiliate suspected of violating the rules. If the corresponding response is insufficient or untimely, Tiny Prints is warranted in taking action against that affiliate.  Ultimately, aim to structure a clear and concise agreement to protect and even encourage the most profitable affiliates (ie ‘mommy bloggers’, ‘coupon sites’, or other high value avenues that work for a specific site and not others) while limiting wiggle room for fraudsters.

Typosquatting, Blog, Search, Pay Per Call and Software Affiliates- When it comes to evaluating different affiliate types, it is again valuable to construct Terms and Conditions that are program-specific. It unlikely that there is a universal way to leverage an affiliate program to profitability nor is it fair to assume that any affiliate marketing avenue is guaranteed to cost tons in commission theft. It is simply important to evaluate how each channel impacts your brand and build your terms and agreements accordingly. It might be worth considering how certain softwares and affiliate subdomains may impact search listings, how different types of ads interact with your site, how autodirecting from similarly named sites will impact profit, the nature of phone calls or leads being driven, etc.  As an example, Adam suggested affiliate managers should test the different softwares affiliates use. In order to evaluate how affiliate software can impact profitability, it is necessary to check how an affiliate portrays a brand across the entirety of the internet. Since affiliates can bring users to different pages given an ip address, it is essential to to investigate how an affiliate’s software can impact the user experience from computers outside the company in addition to inside.

When should you Investigate an Affiliate– There are a number of red flags, which again vary from program to program. Understand your conversion data and establish a status quo in order to understand when affiliates’ activities seem out of the normal. By establishing baselines and a general rapport with affiliates, it is easier to analyze unusually high conversion rates, notice blank referrers, and recognize responses from contacted affiliates that should warrant investigation into their traffic driving means. Pat offered an anecdote in which he noticed an unusual trend in his pay per call affiliates. In a pay per call system, affiliates often earn commission when calls last a minimum amount of time. Upon inspection of his program, Pat recognized that several calls lasted identical amounts of time. After sifting through the recordings, it turned out an affiliate had hired individuals to run through a script as a means to reach the appropriate length of call and trigger the payout. Comparing emerging patterns to established trends is a mechanism for recognizing investigation-worthy affiliates. Depending on the size of an affiliate program, some managers will monitor the first 5 sales of a new affiliate, audit the top 50 affiliates, or even audit a random sampling of affiliates to investigate the possibility of violations. Though streamlining compliance actions can be an effective means to save time, it is important not to burn the wrong individuals. Growing suspicion into intuition via a monitoring tool is a great first step in spending less time on compliance and more time on profitability.

Sub-Affiliate Networks– Some affiliates will act as an intermediary between a network and additional affiliates. Given this fact, visibility into such subnetwork may be obscured and it can be a great way for notoriously nasty affiliates to hide. It may even be the case that certain affiliates have not met network standards, but in fact can slide in through this back door due to a lack of compliance standards in the sub-network. In any regard, a lack of transparency and clarity at any level is worth avoiding in an affiliate program.

We hoped to highlight some of the key points that emerged from the panel’s discussions. Please feel free to reach out to us with any clarifications or follow-up questions!