Eric Enge interviews Marc Johnson

Picture of Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson is the Chief Marketing Officer for Hitwise. Johnson joined Hitwise in March 2008.

Prior to Hitwise, Johnson founded and managed Storyline Development, an independent marketing and market research consultancy. Johnson previously served as an Executive Vice-President and then Advisor to Buzzmetrics, (now part of Nielsen Online. There he helped create the first product, sales and marketing plans.

As Vice-President of Marketing and Product Development at NPDTechworld, Johnson created information products around convergence and the digital lifestyle for top consumer technology brands.

Starting in 1996, Johnson spent 6 years at Jupiter Research where he was Senior Vice President, Marketing and Strategy, overseeing all product development as well as PR and event programming. He was also Group Research Director, where he managed all digital media and marketing research and developed the concept of Rational Branding.

Prior to Jupiter, Johnson was an advertising sales executive at Ziff-Davis and Meredith Corporation, where he worked on some of the first online and multi-channel marketing campaigns.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Why don’t you start with an overview for the readers about the Hitwise service, for those who aren’t familiar with it.

Marc Johnson: Hitwise is the leading online competitive intelligence service. We are used by marketers around the world to plan, implement, and report on a range of online campaigns. We have partnered with ISPs around the world, and we capture daily usage patterns of millions of internet users, 10 million in the US and 15 million outside of the US.

That type of data source allows us to monitor websites very deeply and very broadly We participate in markets and/or have data partners in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Eric Enge: The 15 million internationally is in those specific markets?

Marc Johnson: Exactly.

Eric Enge: That’s actually pretty good coverage for those markets. Is there a plan to cover other geographies overtime?

Marc Johnson: Absolutely, although we haven’t announced any new markets into which we are going. But we are in constant discussions with ISP partners around the world. We’ll be going into new markets as our ability to get a sizeable data source develops and we are able to give the same service to new markets that we give to our clients in existing markets. We will focus our expansion in Europe and Asia Pacific

Eric Enge: Right. So, when you do a deal with an ISP, which is the primary source, presumably you do something so you get access to anonymous data only?

Marc Johnson: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s an important point that it is anonymous data, so there is no personally identifiable information that we receive. It is because of that methodology that they we are able to measure in depth and in a timely matter. So, we are able to turnaround daily, weekly, and monthly data depending on what the reporting is because we are getting that directly from the ISPs.

Eric Enge: Right. And, one of the big challenges ultimately in this kind of analysis is making sure you have enough data to ensure it is statically significant. That’s what I think having a large panel of users allows you to do, get relevant data more quickly, particularly on long tail events.

Marc Johnson: Yes, absolutely. We focus on using that large sample to publish the competitive intelligence on what right now is 160 different industries. And having a rich data sample really gives us the ability to do this. It’s about industries and websites, not the individual users.

Eric Enge: Absolutely. Are there any plans to expand the number of users that you are sampling in the US?

Marc Johnson: No announced plans to expand there, but we are always focusing on the quality of the data sample, and in this case, quality corresponds with size. We are constantly talking to data partners about bringing them into the fold as it were. Those conversations are obviously very sensitive and we wouldn’t want to announce anything new but we are committed to having the most robust dataset in the space. We’re riffing on a theme of sample and depths. It is very important because we found that that allows us to provide different applications. It’s not only having a sample breakdown, it’s also how robust the breakdown is in terms of what you can do with it.

So, we bucket our offerings into a couple of different categories. The first one is rankings, the comparative positioning of sites in terms of generating traffic and generating customers and prospects. The second is search intelligence, what products and services are being searched for and what keywords are driving the most amount of traffic to particular sites, comparatively speaking. That’s really important- not on an individual level, but on the site level. That rich sample that allows us to track demographics and lifestyle. That’s anonymous aggregated demographic segmentation that helps clients understand what the audience looks like on a macro level.

Eric Enge: What type of companies makeup your customers today?

Marc Johnson: Right now our total client count is approaching 1,500 and it runs from large to small, or very large to pretty small. The bellwether determinant of their relationship with us and how valuable they are to us is just how important the web is to their business. We have smaller retailers, midsized retailers, we have companies like Google, we have media companies like MTV and CBS, we have CPGs like Purina, retailers like Bare Necessities, Shopzilla, Overstock. It really is quite a spread. It just comes down to how critical the website is to their business.

Eric Enge: And, what would an entry level cost?

Marc Johnson: Well, there is no set price. Pretty much every package is customized based on the client’s need. But, our relationships run anywhere from the mid five-figures on up to a much higher multiple of that with the larger companies. So anywhere into the six figure, seven figure range down to the mid five figures.

Eric Enge: Right. Any plan to offer a lower range service?

Marc Johnson: We’ve talked a lot about that and from time to time. We do have the ability to offer service in a more store-sense and store-centric way then we are used to, giving more snapshoted data and reports and things like that. It is something that we might be doing eventually.

However, we’ve found that with the clients we have now there is still a lot of growth opportunity, and the financial commitments we are getting is pretty much perfect for us. But certainly we’ll always be looking at whatever the marketing prospects need.

One thing that I would say we are very focused on is putting a lot of our data out on the market place for free. We are going to be rolling out some new data centers on To Go, which is data feed, a political data center. Marc, can you explain this last sentence?. ,

That should allow our design to maybe help smaller companies begin to familiarize themselves with our data and with our services, and use it in a way that it doesn’t really cost them anything. That is something that people really gravitated to and we will let the market decide whether that leads to any smaller paid deals or not.

Eric Enge: Right. Let’s start to get into in some general industry oriented questions. Have you seen the competitive intelligence market evolving over time?

Marc Johnson: That’s a great question. I think that there are a couple of things that are always important and developing there and I think that service is always going to be a big differentiator. When we talk about competitive intelligence, it’s not only the what, which is the data, it is how the data is applied and gives structure to information so that it’s usable and applicable, We feel like that translates to services that help companies apply competitive intelligence.

That is going to be increasingly important, especially in a world where there is a lot more data, and a lot more competitors, and it’s hard to figure out who is doing what on an ongoing basis. And, I think that on that theme, there is the integration of different data sources, a little bit like open APIs, that providers, companies and marketers will be able to look at in a lot of ways to bring in and export data. For instance, at Hitwise, we are looking at a lot of ways to incorporate other datasets into our products, like what we did with Mosaic and Prism for lifestyle and demographics. But we are also looking at ways to get our data feeds either directly to the clients or into other data centric tools through partners.

Eric Enge: So combining data, ISP type data, and data from other types of sources to create new richer datasets?

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. Using and integrating the multiple datasets. In terms of competitive intelligence, the scalability is always going to be important. The measuring we do at a network level helps with scalability, with any competitive intelligence solution and with anything alike in the marketing, ROI analysis world. It’s all about cost effectiveness.

You can analyze, measure,plan, and research, but if it doesn’t translate, if it’s not cost-effective, or if it is too difficult for your organization to use then it’s not an asset, it’s a liability. So, that cost effectiveness speaks to working with organizations to drive the data and intelligence up, down, sideways etc to the organization, so it is able to be used. And then, finally where we are going, or where the market is going, is being able to measure all types of internet or all types of digital traffic, whether it’s web, IM, mobile or downloads.

Eric Enge: Alright. Absolutely so, and talk a little bit about some specific aspects of this here. So for example, a scenario for using competitive intelligence to recognize a new channel opportunity or an expanded channel opportunity. How might you go about doing that?

Marc Johnson: What we did at Bare Necessities is a great example. In terms of the work that we did, there has been a lot made around the long tail concept and how companies can monetize that. So what we did with Bare Necessities was help them use the depth that our dataset provides to look at all the keywords that visitors to their own site and to their competitor’s sites are getting.

That long tail gave them some new opportunities that were perhaps unintuitive and allowed them to start marketing to the channel. That helped them get greater conversion with their search campaigns and also to keep our monitoring system in place so that as keyword traffic changed they would quickly be able to jump on the opportunity and bid on keywords as they came up.

Eric Enge: So being able to see any changes that happened at the competitor allowed them to adapt and adjust faster?

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. If one of their competitors started to run a new search campaign focused on a competitive product our data alert system would allow them to find that out quickly and they would be able to act or react accordingly.

Eric Enge: Right. So, the data you would get in that scenario would be the set of keywords coming in and the volume of those keywords. You of course don’t get pricing information and things like that, right?

Marc Johnson: No. You get the list and the volume. No pricing information.

Eric Enge: That kind of data is very valuable. You can recognize trends, but they are not guaranteed to work for you if they work for your competitor. But what it will do at least is let you know what you should be looking at.

Marc Johnson: Exactly. It’s important for you to know what’s working for your competitor.

Eric Enge: I can imagine what would happen if you have been working in three channels and then you all of sudden you see your competitors investing a lot in a whole new channel area. It’s possible that the new channel is in fact something that you could choose to invest in, and it is a whole market for us.

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. And, that’s especially applicable when looking for new affiliates. When we can scan across affiliate partners and identify to competitors what might be lucrative traffic it allows us to obtain more business.

Eric Enge: Alright, excellent. So, let’s talk a little bit about tracking down long tail keywords?

Marc Johnson: Yes, sure. Using the depths of the Hitwise service, the opportunity there is to get deep into the tail. A lot of the terms at the head of the tail can be pretty expensive, because they are being bid on things like that. So our search intelligence product helps you develop better and more extensive wordlists, to go through your campaigns. And then, your content and programming decisions map back into what your search strategy is. So, we are still operating at the long tail level, but we have to make sure we are optimizing the terms to match the ones we have already identified.

Eric Enge: And then, what about doing rankings analyses and making use of ranking data?

Marc Johnson: Yes. That’s one of the hearts of the service, and one that for benchmarking is invaluable, comparing a site’s performance versus any other site or benchmarking it against an industry. Your search analyses then ultimately translates into where your rankings stand. We have clients who use our dashboard, and they have all these things that we are talking about in their own customized window. So, it’s that marketing, the marketing interface things, that brings it all together.

Eric Enge: Alright. Yes. So I mean basically, you use the rankings analysis to figure out which of the guys you should be tracking?

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. I mean, you can look at specific industries or you can create your own category. , Say you focus on particular keywords. You see where those keyword are driving traffic to, whether they are competitive or relevant sets, then you could create your own watch list or rankings to understand how all those sites are doing relative to each other.

Eric Enge: Right. Now, I think it was in the Delta case study, I saw something about measuring impact the different marketing campaigns make, and I think it ties in with what you are alluding to. You launch a new banner ad campaign and how does that work, how does it do versus other kinds of campaigns? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Marc Johnson: Yes, sure. The travel industry is a big one for us because the transactional nature of it makes timeliness and depth really important. So Delta is really focused on the comparative market share that they were gaining or losing based on what they were doing with their campaigns. They used My Hitwise to create custom categories around booking sites and other competitors, and as they were running their different campaigns they were able to monitor the result on their share in that market. And because they were able to see this they rolled out a new advertising partnership

Eric Enge: Right, absolutely. And then, with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I remember that they published an article here from Orkin and it starts off by talking about mosquitoes and related terms. That’s another interesting dimension, which is picking up market trends by monitoring keywords so that you can respond to the market trend, whether it drops or rises.

Marc Johnson: Yes. The industry trends, are really interesting and that example is telling in that Orkin had planned for their traditional season, how the mosquito season runs etc. And, that planning is relevant of course to any business.

Eric Enge: How many people do I need to have, how many trucks do I need to have, how many chemical supplies I need to buy..?

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. And, when they started, they started to not see their expected demand. They used our tool to look more closely at what people were searching for and, it turned out that the mosquito searches were way, way down. It was searches for other sorts of pests that were leading, and then that allows them to shift their marketing and their resources in response to that developing trend.

Our head of research, Bill Tancer, always uses a great example of prom dresses, and the time of the year that prom dress searches happen. A lot of times, the instinct or the assumption would be that promotions and inventory stocking should happen in the spring, as we go into that early summer-prom season, but it’s much earlier in fact that the searches start happening, back in January.

This gives retailers that sell prom dresses or anything else an opportunity to get in front of that trend as it develops, be there before their competitors and understand better the market as it is changing.

Eric Enge: Right. In the Orkin case, it was mosquito pest control planning v.s. planning for controlling other types of pests. It allows them to run their business in a more efficient manner.

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. And, that’s very a strategic use of the service because the translation of those findings filters down or is applicable in a lot of different areas.

Eric Enge: Yes, indeed. And then, in the prom dress example, you have a situation where it can directly impact a search engine marketing campaign. With that data you know that you need to have your keywords up in January, you can’t wait until April or May.

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. You can get your keywords up and start thinking about advertising campaigns, and then even down the line to in store and point of purchase stuff.

Eric Enge: Right. So, if we try to net this out, looking at competitive intelligence services as a whole, what you are really talking about is getting insight into the market based on the lens that really isn’t available anywhere else. And that is what the user’s behavior is on the web; what are they doing, what are they responding to, where are they going, and being able to learn things that can really help you improve your business prospects.

Marc Johnson: Yes, exactly. The notion of competitive intelligence implies the ability to apply this. That application comes from having a rich data source that helps you understand the competition. You can’t make smart decisions unless you know what competitors around you or your partners are doing. So that hits the nail on the head.

Eric Enge: Thanks for your time today Marc!

Marc Johnson: I enjoyed it Eric. Thank you!

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