Economic outlook for marketers, 4Q 2014

One of the things I like to do from time to time is check in on a variety of different leading economic indicators to get a sense of how the overall economy is doing. That knowledge lets me know – within a certain amount of error – what marketers can expect their quarter to look like. How much should we push our customers? How much should we challenge pricing?

B2C

The consumer is the heart and soul of B2C. If the consumer doesn’t shop, the B2C company doesn’t sell – and the B2C marketer has to work doubly hard just to tread water.

So how is the consumer looking?

Employment:

All_Employees__Total_nonfarm_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

Nonfarm payrolls are expanding, and fairly significantly. We’ve technically got more people employed now than ever. Of course, some portion of that is natural because as a nation, we have more people than ever.

Unemployment:

Civilian_Unemployment_Rate_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

U-3, the general measure of unemployment, is below 6%, a place it hasn’t gone since before the Great Recession. If you look in the data, even U-6, the total labor pool across the board, is down to 11.8% underemployment. That’s a far cry from the peak of the Great Recession, when we were pushing 20% underutilization of labor.

Initial Claims of Unemployment:

4-Week_Moving_Average_of_Initial_Claims_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

We’re back to almost the first dot com bubble, and the height of the boom times before the Great Recession, in terms of the number of people who are filing for job losses. While there are still a whole bunch of people without work, it could be much, much worse.

Real Disposable Income:

Real_Disposable_Personal_Income_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

2012 was a much better year for income, but we’re approaching it in a much more sustainable way as we head into Q4 of 2014.

Overall, there are a lot of macroeconomic potential shocks out there waiting in the wings. Instability in the Middle East. The Russian-Ukrainian war. Ebola. But the bigger picture, at least for the general US consumer, is that 2014 is ending on fairly solid footing. What does that mean for you as a marketer, if you’re a B2C marketer? You probably don’t have to overhype the low cost message quite as much as you did last year – the consumer overall probably feels a little bit better than 2013, which means slightly looser purse strings for the holiday season.

B2B

For the world of B2B, we look to things that are going to impact companies’ ability to buy from other companies. This means looking at leading indicators from shipping to what it costs to run a business.

PPI:

Producer_Price_Index__All_Commodities_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

PPI, the Producer Price Index, is the general cost of doing business. What’s unusual here is that business got really expensive during the Great Recession, then prices dropped as the economic shocks rippled up the supply chain, and then for a while things got back on track. But in 2011, PPI plateaued, and it’s been holding there ever since. While you might think it’s a good thing that production costs have leveled off, the reality is that level pricing means that companies of all sizes aren’t making more money on average.

BDI:

BALDRY__1041_00_UNCH__0_

The Baltic Dry Index, BDI, is an index of what it costs to put a bunch of things on a container ship and ship it overseas. This is a great B2B leading indicator because companies don’t buy shipping containers unless they have product to sell. It’s not something you buy just for the heck of it. Again, we see that things went crazy int he run up to the Great Recession, BDI crashed hard at the beginning of 2009, and it really hasn’t made a huge lift since then. We also see the softness in 2011 extending out to today.

VIX:

VIX_Index_Charts_-_CBOE_Volatility_Index_Interactive_Index_Charts_-_MarketWatch

The CBOX VIX, or volatility index, looks at how volatile the markets are. It’s an indicator of how safe or risky investors feel. The VIX hit the roof during the Great Recession and had a few aftershocks in 2011 and 2012, but has calmed down considerably since then. A major portion of that has been the Federal Reserve Bank effectively handing out free money for years to investors via TARP and the Quantitative Easing programs, as well as holding interbank interest rates near 0%.

Do you see the pattern here? In each of the three charts, B2B leading economic indicators show that the B2B economy is in a holding pattern. The sky isn’t falling by any means, but the pie isn’t getting any bigger, either. If you’re in B2B, maybe you’ve noticed this already. Leads are probably becoming sales opportunities at a slower pace. Sales opportunities are probably taking longer and longer to close. If that’s the case, then there’s a good chance you’re caught in this economic plateau as well.

The good news is that a strengthened consumer will eventually ripple upstream to B2B, in general. As you can see from the charts above, the consumer face-planted in 2008, while B2B took as long as two years to fully feel the impact. Thus, as the consumer gets back on their feet, we should expect B2B to do the same. When will that be? Assuming the consumer continues to heal up and get back in the game, probably B2B will feel it in late 2015 or early 2016.

So overall, a merry holiday season for the consumer B2C marketer; B2B won’t get any coal in the stocking, but Scrooge’s ledgers will still be a bit thin.


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Social media analytics and accountability at SMB36

I had the opportunity recently to speak at Social Media Breakfast Boston 36 about social media analytics, accountability, and measurement, using apple pie as an analogy:

Special thanks to Bob Collins and Social Media Breakfast for having me!


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The role of data in marketing

I’ve heard and read quite a bit lately about how data can fix everything in the enterprise. Big Data, small data, data lakes… data will make everything better. I read very recently how data replaces the “shoddiness of intuition”, how data can help to redefine your marketing to be science, rather than art.

Except that none of that is true. Data can make things better to a degree, but data cannot completely replace intuition, nor can it transform anything that relates to human beings to pure science. There are two core reasons why.

Banners_and_Alerts_and_Civilian_Unemployment_Rate_-_FRED_-_St__Louis_Fed

First, your data – especially around marketing – must be clean and correct in order for it to be usable. Bad data is actually worse than no data, because no data means you know you’re guessing. Bad data creates a false sense of confidence. Imagine basing digital strategy around your web analytics, only to find that the tracking code is missing from half the pages on your site.

Second, data is largely backwards looking. This is simple fact; I cannot get a copy of tomorrow’s data. I can at best get machines to uses sophisticated algorithms to forecast and guess at data, but that’s still guesswork and not objective fact. A machine would not have correctly forecasted, for example, the stock market crash of October 24, 1929.

Third, data is meaningless by itself. Your ability to interpret it, to analyze it, is what makes it valuable. Having data is like owning cookbooks. If you’re hungry, it can help, but only if you know what to do with it.

So what can data do for you? More than anything else, data can help provide guard rails. It can help to confirm or deny your intuition, give you a sense of where the correct answer might live. If you’re faced with a strategic choice in your marketing, data can suggest which choice might be the better choice based on past performance or other people’s experiences. Data can tell you when you’ve reached certain milestones (or are about to) or alert you that a course correction is needed.

Above all else, recognize that data is only one tool in your toolkit. It’s only as good as your capabilities, so if your intuition or experience is the best tool for a given situation, use the best tool for the job.


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