SXSW Gets Intelligent, Raises as Many Questions as Answers

SXSW 2017 was a terrific week spent in the presence of some of technology’s brightest minds, music’s best acts and film’s most creative souls. For Ketner Group, the event was a chance to lose sight of reality and dive into the fascinating beyond, the next era of the intersection between technology and humanity. It’s exhausting work, but hey, someone’s gotta do it.

It seems that with each passing year, SXSW does a better job of asking questions than providing answers. Maybe that’s because each one-hour session doesn’t do the experts on stage enough justice. How can someone who has dedicated their life to mapping the human brain using machine learning break that work down in one hour, while sharing a stage with the founder of Siri and a biologist learning how to grow everything we need by having intelligent systems program atoms and microbes? It takes the hour just to fully realize how much smarter these folks are than you!

But understanding the question that needs solving is the key first step to success. And we saw a few critical questions arise that anyone involved in commerce and technology will need to consider within the short and long term to ensure their prosperity. Some will be answered before SXSW 2018, and some not for many years, but the work starts now. Let’s dive in.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, these are some of the most hyped technological concepts out there. And they were everywhere at SXSW 2017. And really, they should be. AI and machine learning will be incorporated into nearly every aspect of retail, from logistics and distribution to marketing to in-store and online customer experience.

AI has the power to greatly reduce the stress of manpower on a retail business, opening up human capital for more valuable roles that drive better experiences. Intelligent systems will understand human language and new age personal assistants will make Amazon’s Alexa look like a pet rock.

And as the founder of Kasita revealed, even your living room will be AI-heavy to the point that it may actually be artificial intelligence in physical form. TVs, window blinds, thermostats and many other items will become smart gadgets, learning how to adapt to your lifestyle and reduce your time spent doing menial tasks, which include buying things like groceries or razors. Watch out, because this one is going to be fun.

Conversational Commerce
Siri started the voice command personal assistant craze that has since grown into a full force commerce craze. But based on nearly any metric – capability, adoption, competition – it hasn’t yet hit the mainstream and is nowhere near its full potential. Alexa and Google Home can’t understand complex speech patterns, can’t infer deeper meaning from simple requests and are prone to making real mistakes, like ordering something because it overheard someone on TV or a demanding child say it. Chatbots will combine the best of speech recognition and cognition to make customer service a breeze. No, really.

Our voices will eventually replace our hands as our primary machine operating tools, and how retailers integrate this technology into their omni-channel platforms will be fascinating to watch.

Social Commerce
The golden rule in payments innovation is not to compete against other forms of digital payments, compete against cash. Social commerce has long been an area that retailers have felt could be the next frontier in omni-channel commerce. And as they started to understand its potential, conversation apps outpaced them. So what’s the future of social commerce? Think small.

Commerce on social media or conversation apps is not a significant growth area for enterprise level business, at least not yet. And part of this is the limitation of highly complex payment, banking and regulatory systems.

Instead, this is an area in which independent businesses, individual sellers and developing nations are the true pioneers. In fact, according to Facebook’s Director of Commerce & Payment Partnerships, Facebook alone has over 5 million businesses registered, many using it as a critical platform to do business.

Sellers can create mini-storefronts on their Facebook or Instagram pages, listing the products they have for sale, deleting the posts once they’re no longer in inventory. They can use peer-to-peer payments apps like Venmo to manage cashless and remote transactions, and communicate instantly via apps like WhatsApp and create a marketplace for their goods much broader than available within the constructs of their physical environment and local infrastructure. 


The question for major retailers will be whether they can integrate massive SKU count assortments into this sort of framework, if the social and conversation apps will evolve with their platforms to enable a simple integration, or if social apps will avoid the invasion of commercial interests on an otherwise personal interaction space.

What Now?
For now, we wait, we watch and we marvel at the technologies that are revolutionizing our world. Within retail itself, we’ll continue to see the automation of process, the personalization of marketing and experience, and the simplification of consumption. Where we’re going, we don’t need answers (right away), we just need the right questions.

NRF 2017, Here We Come

In most industries, the holidays are a time to disengage from the hustle and bustle of work, plan for 2017 and clean out the junk folders to start the New Year feeling refreshed. But as we all know, quite the opposite is true in retail. And once a new calendar gets pinned to the wall, the heat really starts to turn up as we make final preparations for the biggest conference of our year, NRF’s BIG Show.

This year, the Ketner Group team has been as busy as ever, meticulously preparing, pitching, coordinating and managing all sorts of client announcements and on-site briefings. As the newest member of the KG team and a rookie to the realities of NRF life, I have to admit it’s been impressive watching our team stay (mostly) stress-free, while securing some truly terrific opportunities for publicity next week, without losing sight of client needs in the now.

As our entire office goes wheels up this weekend, heading from sunny and warm Austin, Texas to the hopefully not-so-cold and not-so-gray Big Apple, I expect to feel the same excitement and confidence in our client outcomes as our veterans who have been mastering the NRF process for over ten years.

We look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces, connecting with new clients and having NRF ’17 mark the start of another great year at Ketner Group, for our clients, and for the retail industry in general. Good luck everyone!

Ketner Group clients at NRF, and where to find them:


Reimagining the Retail Associate

Retail is changing faster than a teenager out of Nana’s Christmas sweater before meeting up with friends. We are witnessing major investments in omnichannel development, especially in tech-heavy areas like big data analytics, personalized marketing. Yet, investments into the role of the retail associate have not quite made it to the top of the priority list for many retailers. The tides they are a changing, however, and like an old episode of MTV Made, the savviest of retailers are undertaking the challenge of turning traditionally undervalued store associates into retail superstars.

With so much focus on high-level changes, it’s the folks on the floor who are the ultimate brand ambassadors that most directly influence customer loyalty. They can’t be seen as just a necessary expense any longer – to stock shelves or fold clothes, run the checkout or greet shoppers. When we get right down to it, no matter how many marketing and innovation dollars a company spends, the associate is the only actual person on-site to convert the sale. They have the ultimate power to win or lose a customer, once and forever.

Why Change Now?

The need for this shift is easier to understand when we look at how polarized retail is becoming. On one end it is becoming commoditized, on the other it’s becoming specialized. The intensity of competition for consumers has driven a wedge between “price retailers” and “experience retailers.” In either extreme, executives need to acknowledge that their lowest level employees can be the difference between a shopper returning to their store or looking somewhere else where they feel more at home.

Men get the reputation for hating shopping, and I count myself among that group. The thing is, I like new things, I just hate spending time in a store, wandering aimlessly and breathing recycled air that makes me thirst for a cold beer, or even just a trickle of warm water from a fountain. A good shopping experience all comes down to stripping away challenges and time-consuming activities.

Associates are already tasked with solving these challenges, like locating the right size of an item a customer likes – whether on the shelf or in the backroom, or finding and ordering it online for them. We all know that associates are there to help with these things, but in reality, too many of us have heard, “I’m sorry that’s not my department,” or “what’s on the shelf is all we have,” to even bother asking most of the time. When shoppers like me hear this, that sprint out of the store happens much sooner and sales, not just today but forever, are forfeited.

Arming Associates with Technology

Luckily, just as technology has redefined the modern shopper, technology is ready to redefine the modern associate. Some of the most successful retailers in the country have acknowledged the inefficiencies of the old model and have begun making significant investments in empowering employees. They are arming them with data-driven, engagement-oriented technologies that, in combination with supplemental training, allow them to provide a more personal, more intelligent and more supportive shopping experience.

For example, clienteling software gives employees access to shopper history and allows them to make recommendations based on data collected from every interaction a customer has, on any channel, with that retailer. In combination with face-to-face conversations in the store, associates can make better recommendations, anticipate needs more effectively, and ultimately, drive better sales.

Likewise, tools like mobile POS allow associates to finalize transactions on the fly, protecting shoppers from long checkout lines and promoting a personal connection with the same associate from a customer’s first inquiry through the completion of the sale. Less time spent in the store and fewer headaches when inside is a recipe for success.

As technology becomes even more a part of everyday life, shopping behaviors change and people raise their expectations for those they buy from. In a time of increased automation, when companies no longer feel personally attentive, human touch can provide a distinct advantage. People have a unique ability to build a sense of community, trust and loyalty.

But these human interactions can’t be purely transactional. Associates have the opportunity and power to talk to each customer, make recommendations and persuade them to buy an item. Just because they aren’t built on an ecommerce platform, don’t hold their memories in the cloud and don’t require service upgrades, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same attention and investment.

Not Every Trick is a Treat: Branding in a Competitive Environment

im-a-mouse-duh-mean-girlsBeing the talk of the town on Halloween requires going beyond the cliché and finding an outside-the-box costume that people will also be able to understand and enjoy. Whether scrambling last minute and slapping a mask or a witch hat on or becoming a Goodwill regular hunting for the perfect accessory, Halloween revelers take advantage of Halloween to borrow a persona that extends far beyond their everyday personality. Done right, a Halloween costume can earn you some serious kudos.

This isn’t dissimilar to retail marketers developing campaigns this holiday season. As the nights get longer and mornings get colder, they are looking for ways to cozy up to shoppers in unique ways. The ‘go viral’ mentality has led to a lot of good and bad ideas, but brands and retailers know they can’t just discount themselves into oblivion anymore. They need to find innovative marketing campaigns and brand messaging that puts a new spin on traditional tactics. Like knowing what it takes to win the office Halloween costume contest, there are a few foundational elements Halloween shares with holiday marketing.


In the age of data-driven marketing, it can be hard to remember that people can’t give feedback – positive or negative – on something they haven’t seen yet. Numbers can tell you anything you want to know about your customers, and on a macro-level, you can determine what sort of marketing those people respond to best. That is undoubtedly important when creating your brand, full stop. But when looking to stand out in an extra busy time, those numbers can be so restricting that you never find the best answer.

Riddle me this: which costume do you prefer – the store-bought ‘princess’ costume or the one that took someone a week to make after visiting four stores, busting out the sewing machine and coming up with an original costume you hadn’t seen before? Ask Google what’s more popular and you’ll see that lots of people were princesses, so you know that’s a safe way to go, but I promise you’d be more excited to have trick-or-treaters come to your door as the latter.

Numbers and data and research can lie, even if it’s by accident. They’ll tell you what isn’t the wrong move, but they can’t prove what is the right move – not in this instance and not when trying to develop a viral or even just plain compelling marketing campaign.


That’s me. I’m ‘dead Barb’ from Stranger Things. People liked my sign.

Creativity is great, but if people are left scratching their heads and whispering to their friends that they have no idea what’s going on, it’s useless. Some of my favorite costumes are when people dress up as characters from kids’ movies I haven’t thought about in years. These costumes establish a sense of belonging and an inside-joke mentality to the holiday. These costumes aren’t cliché, but they rely on a shared connection that most people have, and takes advantage of that feeling to create a positive reaction. Many of the movies I haven’t seen or barely remember are well-established, so I don’t have to know exactly what the character did in the movie or what their most quotable lines are in order to appreciate it.

Retailers can leverage their knowledge of their customers here to find unique connections they have with each other. No matter what you sell, your customers have other interests. Find the connections that fly under the radar and exploit them without alienating those who aren’t in on the joke, and you have a pretty good recipe for success. 


One thing that is sure to get people to like your costume even when they don’t know you is to have a funny costume. Costumes that take a second to figure out because they’re based on wordplay or costumes that shake the stuffiness and self-consciousness of daily life are always a big hit. They’re creative; people understand that it’s a joke and not who you really are, and they can easily join in the fun with you. The barriers to friendship, conversation or just a moment of laughter with each other when you get the joke is what it’s all about. Don’t take yourself too seriously, whether in costume or in business at the holidays, and you’ll be on the track to a successful holiday.

Halloween marks the holiday season’s earnest launch. The competition for best costume, just like the competition for holiday consumers, is tough to win. But, if retail marketers think about their holiday strategies the same way they think about putting together a good costume, they’ll be swapping out the fun size treats for king size in no time.

It’s High Noon for Retail Loyalty

Clint_Eastwood_-_1960sThe old rules are broken. Look to the horizon as long as you want, there is no tough guy sheriff riding into town with his posse to restore law and order. Parking lots at major chain stores are turning into weed havens as they shutter their doors, from national department stores to niche retailers like Sports Authority. Others are searching for unique ways to increase their foot traffic and customer loyalty, putting car showrooms in clothing stores or bringing booze and bocce to a bookstore. Malls are asking startups to fill the same spaces they used to give away for free to the biggest retailers.

In old Western movies, law and order was always restored by the end because the hero sheriff had the support of the townspeople and was able to outsmart the bad guys. But guess what? This time around, the newcomers have the numbers, and they’re not going anywhere.

CPG Goes Rogue

Subscription services have been shaking up major industries for years now; from music and movies to clothing and video games, pay as you go has been lucrative for retailers and convenient and budget-friendly for consumers. Most of those services simply found a new way to get the same goods to consumers cheaper and more conveniently, and more importantly, a new way to fuel customer loyalty.

Let’s look at our friends at Dollar Shave Club: Razors make you look sharp. But who really cares what the name on the handle says? Four blades or seven, vibrating head or stationary, people just don’t want to worry about bleeding necks or shins, or worse, untimely stubble. Unorthodox advertising has played a part to be sure, but the simplicity of it all has helped Dollar Shave Club enlist 3.6 million subscribers who have sent their old name brand razors packing.

Loyalty to Dollar Shave Club razors is multi-tiered, but at its core it is founded on easier acquisition of new goods and the inconvenience of going back to the old way of buying razors if they opt out of the program. Loyalty is quite literally built into the program, combining the three key pillars of loyalty directly into it: affinity (via quirky ads and branding), trust (the razors are actually good) and habit (they just keep ‘em coming!).

Don’t Talk About It, Be About It

To sell a product, people have to know you sell it, and Dollar Shave Club is hitting the bullseye spots in this arena. Tried and true advertising is more “tried” than “true” today. For example, all of the fastest growing L’Oreal brands share one trait – they don’t advertise. They instead invest those dollars on modern capabilities like search optimization, distribution improvements and reinvestment in R&D. That’s one thing the old westerns always proved: you can talk the talk, but to come out the other side, you better be able to walk the walk. 

The New Six-Shooter for Brands: Data

We all know the power of data, but it has been critically elusive for CPG brands because channel partners control consumer interactions. Direct-to-consumer subscriptions reduce that barrier and make customer intelligence much more accessible. As a direct subscription service provider, Dollar Shave Club owns all parts of customer relationship in a way Big Razor never could, meaning they can optimize their strategy at a much lower cost by analyzing the data their members organically produce.

Getting Shoppers to Remain Loyal to Your Posse

Today, one third of shoppers are buying more private label products, and only 6.5 percent, a new low, hope to return to name brands some day. For CPG, this is momentous. Where emotional involvement with a brand is low, and there is no real product differentiation, customers have no problem getting out of Dodge when an easier, more convenient or cheaper option becomes available.

Loyalty is not a program. It’s not something you get it the mail. It’s earned, and earned again and again at every touch point and opportunity for a customer to find a better alternative. Don’t take it for granted or think that the reason shoppers relied on you before is why they’ll keep coming back. In the Wild West of retail, you can’t wait for the sheriff to arrive. You have to innovate.

Amazon Prime Day: Breaking Rules, Making Money

Amazon Prime Day 2016: A lesson in playing the long game
Amazon Prime Day 2016: A lesson in playing the long game

Pretty much everyone I know, knew about Amazon Prime Day. While most of them didn’t buy anything on Amazon that day, they still took the time and made the effort to look at the deals they could get on a day billed as being bigger and better than Black Friday and Cyber Monday.


How can such a self-serving sale day, or, as some venture to call it, a “holiday,” that’s so different from the norm succeed in retail?

Not Your Grandmother’s Sale

Let’s think about it. Why do retailers introduce sales? Traditionally, they are spurred on by a present and competitive business need, such as:

  • Shedding excess inventory or old models/styles to make space for more in-demand items;
  • Earning market share during high-sales volume times, like the winter holidays;
  • Increasing cash flow to make new investments;
  • Simply keeping up with competitors who market more aggressively on price.

But Amazon made this holiday up to celebrate their 20th anniversary last year. They’re already the largest retailer in the country and are poised to topple Macy’s as the largest apparel seller as well. It happened in the middle of July, during the mid-week grind, with no obvious holiday tie or “competitor sales”. It defied the accepted rules of engagement.

Playing Mind Games

The Power of Habit: Amazon must have read this one twice

A quick story: I was away with some high school friends last weekend. One was reading a book called “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” (found, of course, on Amazon for $9.18 in paperback, but there are over 400 vendors and options to choose from). The author, Charles Duhigg, talks about why we do the things we always do. Duhigg tells the reader about craving an afternoon cookie every day, and obliging himself. Then, through careful self-analysis, he realized the cookie need was not a result of hunger, but because he needed socialization and a walk. The true reward for his urge wasn’t unhealthy food, but camaraderie. Now, he skips that snack and feels a lot better.

To that same end, Amazon knows that people are creatures of habit and of reward. Amazon understands social psychology better than anyone and have the resources and marketplace influence to manipulate the masses into giving them more control over their consumption habits.

So they enlist their army of marketplace sellers, eager to spice up a lazy summer sales season, who live up to Amazon’s promotional hype and make it worthwhile for casual Amazon shoppers to sign up for Amazon’s $99/year Prime membership.

Prime Day conditions both sides of the transaction to expect benefits from using its platform. For buyers, it’s seemingly a no-brainer. “Save $400 on a 4K TV, have it on the doorstep in two days, plus get free shipping on anything I want for a whole year? Yes, please!” Even though deals beyond a few big-time purchases like those TVs were minimal, shoppers are being conditioned to see Amazon as the go-to place for what they need, which doesn’t pad margins now, but creates the conditions for increased market domination moving forward.

For marketplace sellers, the financial benefits weren’t tremendous, growing only 1% from 2015. The act of participating in the sale, again, really just has the same effect as a traditional sale, as mentioned above. But marketplace sellers are encouraged by the long-term (potential) benefit of increasing their regular customer base thanks to increased traffic from the rise in Prime subscriptions. For one day, they’ve seen a bump in sales volumes, unloaded inventory and brought in new buyers to their potential pool. They’re slowly being conditioned to rely on Amazon for larger and larger chunks of their revenue, becoming less autonomous and another pawn in Amazon’s domination of everything, everywhere, all the time.

Amazon Prime Day can be debated on its single-day successes on seemingly limitless merits, and goodness knows, it’s been debated. But what is undeniable is that Amazon is a master at making us look at them, think of them, engage with them, even when we don’t know we want to, or why we’re doing it. I’d call that a success.

Identifying the Value of the Modern Press Release

We hear questions from our clients all the time about when, where and how to use press releases in today’s landscape and wanted to break down how to think about them today. With the rise of digital media, social media and interactive content, the role of press releases has shifted, but their intrinsic benefits are still intact.

The role of the press release:

  • Direct communications: Releases deliver unfiltered messages to the masses, supporting lead-generation, sales conversions and public visibility.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO): Investors, customers, potential employees and other target groups can learn about and discover your company through keyword searches.
  • Long-term content: Releases become permanent parts of a company’s public record, findable and downloadable for the foreseeable future.

Reaching those who matter, directly and on message

Press releases provide factual, direct information to a maximum number of media covering your company, customers and market. Press release distribution, whether over the wire or to a select list of relevant media, gives your company a formal touchpoint with media who are consistently challenged to keep your company top of mind. Press releases themselves won’t cut through the noise of the market, but they provide PR pros with the ammunition to leverage their relationships with reporters to deliver the visibility your brand needs to grow.

Additionally, each news outlet that picks up your press release is going to have its own dedicated readership—which means that you’ll have a new set of eyes seeing your brand for the first time  every instance a press release is published. These users will be reading your press release, getting an idea of your business and, if they’re interested, visiting your site—that’s extra referral traffic that serves as icing on the cake.

Get Googled

Press releases have natural SEO benefits, including:

  • Natural links from multiple, and high quality, outside sources: It’s hard to get quality inbound links. Whatever your content creation strategy (blogs, video content, social media), it’s a challenge to get your content syndicated through third parties. Alternatively, news sources constantly need new material to publish and each one that picks up your release gives you much needed link source diversity. It’s also much easier and far more likely that a high quality website will post a drafted release than write an original story – on your customer win, product news, event attendance, etc. When Google sees this, you get preferential treatment by association.
  • Opportunities for keyword linking and name recognition: Press releases also give you the key opportunity to associate your company name with relevant keywords and subjects. Releases can include the company name and market keywords to increase the likelihood that searches will result in the company page showing up due to co-occurrence and co-citation, as well as the recent semantic search updates to Google’s algorithms.
  • Online reputation management: Press releases that include your brand name in the title tend to rank well in search engines for searches of your brand name. Since you can control the content of a press release, this gives you some degree of control over your online reputation (at least as far as what users see when they Google your brand name).

Formal reference points – beyond the data sheet

Press releases act as a form of online brand management and marketing. Storing copies of your press releases on your website provides potential customers with all the necessary information about your company. Customers that need product information or client references can easily find them in the press release without spending their time poring over technical specifications or looking for customer reviews you can’t control. Simple media alerts don’t have this sort of long-term brand management potential.

Expectations for press releases

The primary question to ask when asking a PR agency to draft a press release is: “Is a press release the most effective way to get my point across?” While it may be slightly more expensive, is it important to control my message, have instant and worldwide syndication, boost search results and provide a library of news for potential clients visiting your website? If so, then a press release will usually deliver maximum value, even if a barrage of media briefing requests do not come your way.


  • DeMers, Jayson. “Where Press Releases Fit In Your 2015 SEO Strategy.”Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.
  • Tan, Miranda. “Why Press Releases Are More Important than Ever.”LegalZoom. N.p., 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.


Aidan HeadshotHello world, it’s me, Aidan. I’ve somehow been lucky enough to find myself among the experts at Ketner Group, surrounded by some extremely creative, intelligent and kooky people for the last few weeks and am glad to report I couldn’t be happier to be here.

I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself. I’m joining Ketner Group as a senior account executive, having begun my PR career in 2013 at Lois Paul & Partners (LPP), where I climbed the ranks from intern to account executive and learned the ropes of public relations and the fascinating nuances of the technology industry.

During my time at LPP, I served enterprise technology clients in a broad range of roles, from writing content to pitching news and thought leadership stories to managing social media accounts and ring-leading happy hour efforts. It was a great introduction to the breadth of experiences a PR pro can have and gave me the practice and confidence to expand on my favorite aspects of PR at Ketner Group.

I grew up in Boston and graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in Political Science and History – the natural launching point to a career in retail and technology public relations. I’m still a political junkie at heart and my favorite books to read are biographies and historical fiction. Sometimes I wonder where my content creativity comes from with such practical interests like that…

While I generally believe I’m a well-adjusted, rational human being, my blood still flows thick with Masshole when the Pats, Bruins, Celtics and Sox battle our rivals. I love being on the move and am always looking for the next big adventure, cheap flight or new hobby – I currently play Gaelic Football (an Irish blend of rugby, soccer and basketball) and like to golf or hit the archery range when I’m feeling more precise than energetic.

I have a younger sister who decided I was cool enough (for once) to join me in Austin once she graduated from college, and I regularly find myself volunteering to dog-sit her little mutt, Scottie Pippen, when she goes out of town. Her job often requires (allows?) her to organize events involving legendary Texas BBQ joints and with the amount of leftovers that find their way into my fridge, there’s no way she likes her job more than I like it.

I’m excited to be on board here with Ketner Group, and here’s to having many, many more months as fun, challenging and interesting as the first!