Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Price of Popularity

It seems like there's been a constant trickle of news about problems with Apple products, from iPods that carried Windows viruses to flaky MacBook laptops. Kind of a blow for a company whose reputation is that of the computer company whose stuff just works without all the headaches of Windows machines.

But as this Wired News article points out, this may not reflect any quality problem at Apple... it could just be a side effect of their rapid growth:

It's my impression that Apple's quality control is no better or worse than before -- we're just hearing about it more.

Consider that Apple is growing like crazy. The company shipped 1.6 million Macs and 8.8 million iPods last quarter. That's more computers and iPods than in any three months in the company's history, representing a 30 percent to 35 percent annual growth rate...

I think Apple's problems are the corollary of falling crime statistics in the 1990s, which had mostly to do with demographics. In Apple's case, it's effectively doubled its market share for portables, and all of a sudden there are double the number of customers complaining about problems.

Welcome to the mass market, Apple.

Apple's "it just works" positioning has always been a bit of a myth; its computers, like all computers, are complex beasts, and sometimes a bad part will get through. And even when the hardware is perfect, any operating system and software can interact in strange, unexpected ways that make users tear their hair out.

I'm a longtime user of both Mac and Windows machines, and have never seen a difference in quality; I can point to my old iBook that shipped with a defective motherboard, or my lovely flat-screen iMac that is the most cantankerous computer I've ever owned as evidence. So I think Apple's problem here is partly its newfound popularity, and partly the result of building a reputation around a claim that's not really sustainable.

But for anybody, more customers means more people to complain, and that's something you've got to be prepared to deal with.

Monday, October 30, 2006


I was listening just now to Fresh Air on WBUR, and the non-ad ad told me that one of the underwriters or sponsors or whatever they call their, well, advertisers, is Loomis Sayles, a money management firm in Boston. The mention of Loomis Sayles said that the company is "sincerely committed" to something or other - some public good. (Evidence, of course, is that they support NPR.) I have no problem with the word committed, but I wanted to check. So I went to the Loomis Sayles web site and apparently they do have a commitment to good works, with extensive community involvement, etc. But the word sincerely. Sincerely? Doesn't the use of the word sincerely - when you're attributing it to yourself - always kinda sorta cast some doubts on someone’s sincerity?

Isn’t it much better when someone else says that you’re sincerely sincere?

It’s things like this that, as marketers, we need to watch out for. Words like “sincerely,” which sounds phony. And “genuine”, which sounds fake.

I’m sure there are other examples, and I’ll make a sincerely genuine effort to think of them.

When Does It Become Okay?

Gawker.com notes that a bar in New York's Financial District has a sign in its window advertising its happy hour that reads, "The happiest Happy Hour south of Ground Zero." (There's a photo if you follow that link.)

Okay, I saw it and thought... ick. I expect a lot of people react that way. It's not what I'd stick in the window if I were the proprietor - hey, let's attract customers by reminding them of the most horrible day in the city's history!

But then, I'm not a New Yorker. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe New Yorkers have heard "Ground Zero" so many times that it's lost that power. Maybe it's just another place name ("turn left when you pass Ground Zero and you can't miss it!")

I honestly don't know (and maybe some reader in New York can venture an opinion). But it does occur to me that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mostly referred to these days as cities in Japan where people live and work, Dachau is a town in Bavaria, and Bull Run is a suburban area outside of Washington, not just the place where a bloody civil war began and thousands were killed and wounded.

When do these names and phrases become part of our general vocabulary, with their connotations of tragedy receding into the background? At what point can you describe your location as "south of Ground Zero" without offending people?

When marketing meets charity

Encouraging people to give money to a worthy cause is a noble thing. Companies that make donations to charity are doing good work. But I get a bit uncomfortable when the lines between charitable donations and marketing get blurred.

I will be honest about my bias here: I think that charitable work and donations are something that you do because they are good things to do. Yes, there is a personal objective too: doing good makes us feel better about ourselves. There's nothing wrong with that. But I think we need to remember the primary purpose of these activities, which is not to make ourselves feel good, but to help others.

And so I look at charity marketing tie-ins with some suspicious. Often, when you get people to make donations by buying a specific product, the amount of money that actually finds its way to the charity can start to dwindle. If it's money that was never going to get to that cause, that's okay; in the end, the charity is ahead.

But my first thought is always, "is this a gimmick or is it doing good?" (Maybe I'm just a suspicious guy...)

One example has been the proliferation of colored wristbands in the last few years that began with the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Giving money to help people with cancer by buying a little piece of plastic is fine, and I'm sure lots of money that would never have found its way to that cause wound up supporting it. Personally, I'm put off by everyone walking around wearing the things; I just think it's a bit tacky to always be saying "Look at me, I gave money!"

But what really got to me was the proliferation of knock-off wristbands for all kinds of other causes where most of the money went to someone making plastic wristbands - in the most absurd case, a "make poverty history" wristband that was being made in China by people working in slave labor conditions. Whoops!

My general feeling: go home and write a check. That's the problem with this whole approach: of the many ways we can contribute to good causes, from volunteering our time in our own communities to donating to good causes, this one asks so little of us, involves us so little in the world around us, and in the end gives relatively little back. I suppose it's better than nothing, but I'm a bit saddened to see us asking so little of ourselves.

And so I've watched the proliferation of breast cancer tie-in merchandise recently with no small degree of suspicion. And, as this item from the Mouse Print blog discusses, that suspicion may be sadly justified:

Don’t assume that the mere purchase of the product will result in a substantial contribution to breast cancer causes, or any contribution at all.  You have to read the details.

Eureka once put a sticker on their LiteSpeed vacuums proclaiming that they “will make a contribution to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation with every LiteSpeed sold.*”   According to Breast Cancer Action, their actual donation was only $1 per vacuum, and those models could sell for upwards of $200.

Sun Chips snacks sport the pink ribbon, but require you to visit their website and enter a special code from the package in order to trigger the company’s donation.  Many people might just see the breast cancer information on the package and assume that a donation is triggered by the mere purchase of the item.

Viva towels requires you to redeem a particular coupon for an additional donation to be made.

Campbell’s has put the pink ribbon on two of their soups in Kroger stores, and the cans are flying off the shelf, doubling in sales.  The donation: about 3.5 cents per can.  (All told, on sales of seven million cans, Campbell’s will donate $250,000.)  Certainly that is a substantial sum, but still only a few pennies per can.

Actually, I wouldn't call that "substantial." It's nice, I suppose, but with pink soup cans in grocery stores all over the place and Campbell putting themselves out there as the soup brand that helps you support breast cancer programs, it's peanuts.

And that's my problem with all this: these programs seem to be motivated by a company wanting to polish up its brand by looking like a great benefactor while making relatively tiny donations. (In the case of programs where the consumer has to redeem coupons or take some other action, I think the whole thing is appallingly deceptive; the makers of Sun Chips and Viva should be embarrassed by the way they've implemented this.)

I know the counterargument: if it's generating money that wouldn't have gone to a cause otherwise, is it bad? My fear is that it leaves people thinking that they've done something - and then perhaps passing up the chance later to do something more significant.

Obviously, I'm a bit conflicted about it. As marketers, I think that if we're going to step into this arena, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that what we're doing represents a significant contribution and not just an image enhancement for our brands. Otherwise, the whole exercise is hopelessly cynical.

Meanwhile, as a consumer, if you want to know what you are really contributing when you buy one of those pink products, there's the Think Before You Pink web site.

Maybe I'm too negative, and this program will encourage people to contribute to breast cancer research and care in some more substantial way. That would be a great thing. But meanwhile, each time I'm in the grocery store, I see the stacks of pink soup cans and wince a bit.

A Good Value Proposition: Non-Profit Edition

The other evening I attended a fundraising event for a homeless shelter in Boston. There are, of course, some people who don’t find the homeless all that cuddly and sympathetic, and consider homelessness the result of bad choices. But fortunately most people view homelessness as more a matter of bad luck - likely compounded by bad decisions, but almost always starting out with bad luck. You would have to be completely heartless to have come away from this fundraiser unmoved. It celebrated a tremendously humble, authentic, and engaging local philanthropist who is committed to giving away his vast fortune and dying broke. It featured a speech by someone who’d taken advantage of enough of the shelter’s many services to get back on his feet, find a good job, support his family, and become a productive member of society. It raised a lot of money. And the food was pretty good.

An excellently run program across the boards. I’ll stop beating around the bush here, and put in a little plug for St. Francis House, which for over 20 years now has been helping the poor and homeless of Boston rebuild their lives. It’s not just a tagline. St. Francis House started out as a soup-and-sandwich-line and now provides a full complement of services that indeed do help people rebuild their lives. They have an excellent story and value proposition. Not only do they serve thousands of meals a week, they also run a nationally recognized program (the Moving Ahead Program, or MAP) that helps people up and out of homelessness and back on their feet. The success statistics for Moving Ahead are incredible – most of MAP’s graduates stay clean, stay sober, stay housed, stay employed, stay connected.

Statistics and success rate are valuable “selling tools” when St. Francis House appeals to donors. Their holistic approach to working with the poor and homeless is also a differentiator for them. Certainly, basic services like food and closthing are important elements of St. Francis House’s mission, but it's not just about a bologna sandwich and clean set of underwear. It's about getting homeless people – who will generally have some combination of substance abuse problems, severe physical and mental health issues, and criminal records – back into society, and about recognizing that even those who may not be able to climb the long hill back into a better life - not now, and maybe not even later - deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.

The point here is that even if you’re doing marketing for a non-profit, you still need to approach it in a professional manner. Marketing is marketing, and marketing's essential, whether you're a non-profit, for-profit, or (as was often my experience in the past) a non-profit for-profit. At a non-profit, you’re in competition – with other non-profits in the same arena, so you need to differentiate yourself.

You’re in competition – with all the other non-profits in the world for charitable contributions and grants – so you need to make the case for your charity that’s as clear as, and even more compelling than, the case for other worthy causes. You’re in competition – for building awareness, so don’t forget to develop a strategy for reaching out to the media. You’re in competition – make sure it’s easy to find your organization and find how to give to it, and make sure the ways to give to it include via your web site. You're in competition - you need to figure out how to nurture and grow your donor base. You’re in competition - for volunteers, for employees, and – yes – for those who will use your services, so make sure people know about you.

You're in business: think like a marketer! You get the point. Working in marketing for a non-profit can yield incredible “feel goods.” But it also has the same challenges you'll face in any other "business." Just because it’s a good cause doesn’t mean that everyone will build a path to your doorstep, check book in hand.

Full disclosure: Although I have absolutely nothing to do with its marketing, I am a long time board member, and volunteer, at St. Francis House, a remarkable organization that has, indeed, been rebuilding the lives of Boston’s poor and homeless since 1983.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

MarketingProfs on Why Rebranding Fails

If you're considering rebranding a product or your organization, spend a few minutes reading this MarketingProfs article on Why Rebranding Often Fails.

Galen de Young talks about why rebranding sometimes fails to accomplish what it's intended to do - or even makes things worse. Many of the issues come down to the branding truth test  - are you just changing the window dressing, or is there something new going on?

Rebranding to get your market position in line with the great features of your new product release, or the new demographics of people who are buying, is a smart idea that will increase your brand strength. But if you're rebranding just to shake a bad image or declining market share, without doing something to address the root causes or those issues, rebranding is likely to be an expensive and pointless endeavor.

Before you start the rebranding project, try doing an audit to find out how well in tune with reality your current brand is. If you find that it's accurate, but undesirable, then scrap the rebranding - you've got more important work to do.  

You Always Hurt the One You Love

Email: a great way to stay in touch with customers, a medium that's engaging and immediate. Well, it used to be; smart marketers starting using it very quickly, everybody followed, and now... people tune out most email marketing. And the story keeps repeating itself.

It's marketing's tragedy of the commons: when we find a medium whose unique new characteristics make it a great for marketing, we all start using... thereby changing it.

I thought of that when I read this piece on MySpace from the Huffington Post, of all places. Apparently now that marketers have found MySpace, MySpace users are getting a bit sick of their social networking environment turning into a giant advertisement, and this may be slowing the site's growth:

It was bound to happen: Backlash against the most popular sites on the web, once so new and exciting, now tarnished by populist appeal and the fact that people like WSJ reporters know about them. Today the WSJ reports that MySpace users are growing weary of being marketed to incessantly through fake friend requests, messages, and endless ads for Asian porn (ETP has one friend — Tom — but still, the requests some in). The WSJ notes that some MySpace members are deleting their pages, though a spokeswoman has said there has been "absolutely no increase in the rate of deletions." MySpace growth, however, has plateaued, and site visits actually declined in September (Facebook did, too, but the company's data shows a rebounding later in the month).

Down the virtual street at virtual reality site Second Life, something similar is going on:

Second Life natives are feeling as if off-world businesses have begun an invasion of their virtual world by setting up shop there and have already begun "rewriting history" - even before they are proclaimed victors.

And so it goes. For any individual marketer, the advantages of using these media are real. When a lot of individual marketers use them, we start destroying what brought users to them in the first place: a bit like gentrifiers in an up and coming neighborhood who are attracted by the area's uniqueness and diversity, and then wonder why ten years later it's become a glossy but dull expanse of Starbucks, CVS pharmacies, and upscale chain stores.

What's the answer? I'm not sure, because we can't expect any individual marketers to ignore his or her own economic interests, even if the sum of all those individuals is bad for everybody's interests.

The users, meanwhile, will move on to the next new thing... until we find them.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Revisiting the Trade Show

Trade shows: they're not sexy. They're not glamorous. For many marcom pros, they are the least exciting part of the job. (For a small group of people who just love doing events, on the other hand, they're great - and thank goodness, because we can hire them to be events managers!)

But they are still an important part of your marketing mix, if you find events that offer you the right demographics and the right opportunities for face to face contact with current and potential customers.

The folks over at MarketingProfs recognize the bad reputation of trade shows - and their importance, and offer you a concise guide to getting the most out of your exhibit participation:

Industry tradeshows, conferences, conventions, and other B2B encounters like them don't deserve the bad rap that many get.

These are the red-headed stepchildren of business development. That's particularly true among professionals, who are liable to feel that they're above it all.

B2B events are, however, incredibly efficient. Your clients and prospects gather there... in growing numbers. Plus, events like these blend face-to-face selling and broadcast-style marketing, giving you a shot at the best of both worlds.

Provided you're smart. And, provided you can overcome the professionals' legendary reluctance to be, well, social.

It's a nice little refresher even for those of us who've done more shows that we (or our aching feet) care to remember. It may be less exciting that talking about the latest trends in interactive media, video sharing, and consumer-created content - but that doesn't mean that there aren't some good pointers here for making sure your events investment provides you with the best possible return.

Changing Your Marketing Mindset

This morning I went to the Houston Interactive Marketing Association's regular breakfast event, and the speaker was Mary Bermel, HP's Director of Interactive and Emerging Media. Her presentation covered a lot of material about interactive media and HP's activities in that area, but there were two themes that I thought were worth mentioning here, both related to changing the way we think about how we communicate with the outside world.

The first: as marketers we have spent a lot of time thinking about how to develop messages and push them out to our audiences. The way that people are using the web these days changes that. "Markets are conversations" is a phrase that's been used a lot, but it hasn't been taken to heart; in many cases, it seems like marketers think that markets are conversations in which they talk a lot and the customer listens.

But the reality is that our audiences have a lot of control over whether they have to listen to us... and they can create their own content to displace ours. Marketers' messages become just one voice competing in a media universe where the costs of creating and distributing content are approaching zero.

That means that your advertising has to do more than highlight your marketing messages: it has to engage the user and respect the user's response to it. It has to interact with the user. And most of all, your marketing and advertising are content products in their own right that must offer some value to the person on the other end. Does yours pass that test?

Another point that Mary brought up: we've all been focused on getting people to our web sites. Email drives them there, banner ads drive them there, search optimization drives them there... but does bringing people over the moat into our own web fortresses really fit they way the customer wants to use information?

Sometimes it's fine, and it provides all kinds of useful metrics (and is critical to engaging a customer in dialog). But not always. And so one recommendation she had for marketers: detach and distribute. Don't hold all of your content so close that people can't get at it. To use a crude analogy, you might have to start the conversation elsewhere before you can invite the customer to come visit you.

All in all, a good morning program from a fast-growing local marketing group.

Dumb Luck? Genius Marketing?

I was just checking the weather the local paper's site, and the video insert was showing news of a big, unseasonal snow storm in Colorado. An ad from a local travel agency came flying across the scene, advertising tropical getaways to Hawaii. In a couple of months, we'll be looking at the same scenes here, no doubt: snowplows, zero visibility, jammed up cars, bundled up pedestrians. Ah, Hawaii...

The timing of the ad was either dumb luck or genius marketing. Sometimes you need a little of the former to get the latter.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pay Per Click vs. Organic Search

 MarketingProfs has a good, concise summary of the pros and cons of pay per click advertising (such as Google Adwords or Yahoo Sponsored Search) and organic search engine optimization. In an ideal world, you'd do both, but as they point out, sometimes budget constraints don't allow that.

Which should you use? The answer is, unsurprisingly, "It depends." One thing I'd add to the MarketingProfs piece: the tradeoffs can be very, very different for different organizations.

Scott Buresh, author of the piece, notes that the average search term price rose from $25 in October 2004 to $55 in December 2005. I don't doubt that, but average search term prices are not particularly meaningful when you're trying to make decisions for your organization. It's quite possible that the search terms for your marketing are under a dollar (I have clients with campaigns running now with those kinds of rates).

And if you're in such a niche market that the keywords have stayed cheap, chances are that you can do organic SEO rather inexpensively too - because the playing field is much less crowded.

Buresh also raises the issue of whether consumers find organic or PPC results more useful and trustworthy. Again, it depends.

If you're ready to spend money, the pay per click results are often much more useful than organic search results. Organic results are likely to include general articles, news stories, and blog entries while PPC results will include links to companies looking for your business, often with some kind of special offer (if they're doing their PPC program correctly).

Organic search is most useful when your customers are researching a future purchase. They're looking for information and advice, and they will probably look to organic results for reliable, non-vendor information. If you can provide something useful there, it's helpful. When they are ready to buy, a PPC ad that promises free support, a 10% discount, or some other enticing offer, that may be more powerful - the customer wants to complete the purchase, not read about it.

My suggested first step when you're trying to decide how to allocate resources between PPC and organic search - think through your customer's buying process, and start performing the searches that you expect them to do. This will give you a lot of insight into where you want your search results and ads to appear.

And if you seek out a marketer for advice, be ready to hear the only honest answer to this question: "It depends." But usually, both will be useful.

Acquiring (and Acquired) Minds Need to Know

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in a small company or a large one, at one point or another during your career, there’s a more than zero chance that you’ll be involved on the giving or receiving end with an acquisition. And marketing is one area where an acquisition can wreak obvious havoc. That’s because our activities are likely the most visible and outward signs that “something” has happened.

A while back, I had a client that was acquired about six months into our relationship. My sponsor was pretty much the sole survivor of the old marketing team, and I can’t say that the acquirers made life very easy for him. What he got was continuous stop-start, go/no go, contradictory responses every time he asked for any clarification. As the acquisition approached its first anniversary, we lamented how little headway we’d made with “them.”

With the anniversary upon us, I couldn’t help wondering whether tin was the first anniversary “gift category”, as in tin ear. I know things always move more slowly than you like, but by this point, “we” should have a clear answer on logo, branding, product nomenclature, combined messaging and positioning, boilerplate, budget levels – and an idea about who’s responsible for what.

No such luck! My suspicion was that when it came to this acquisition, marketing had no seat at the table. At best, they had been at the “kids’ table”, not really privy to the conversations the grownups were having. So a year after the acquisition, they were still struggling to answer questions that should have been thought through months before.

A lot of the problems we were experiencing seemed to be on the acquiring side, but that may only have been because “our side” had been pretty well decimated. But the situation did get me thinking about acquirer/acquiree behaviors that could have improved the situation. So a bit of advice:

If you’ve been acquired, and you make it through any post-acquisition purge, don’t just sit around licking your wounds feeling bad for yourself that the company you know and love – and maybe even had a hand in building – is no longer in existence. Jump in. Try to find an “information ally” in the acquiring company. Try to make your ‘requests for information’ as specific as possible: not “what’s gonna happen?” – rather, “can I assume that this quarter’s budget is intact?” (Make sure “they” know what outcomes you’re expecting from any spend – “they” didn’t acquire you so that they could lose money, did they?) Don’t wait to be asked for what’s contractually committed and what’s under plan – make sure that you have this information at your fingertips.

Volunteer to take a stab at joint company positioning. See if you can get on the team that’s working things through. You may not have all that much authority – especially if your company has been a really small player – but you will at least have a sense of what’s going, and be able to put your ideas, or at minimum your questions and requests, on the table. Remember that you’re the expert on your products and markets, the repository of what worked and what didn’t, the one who knows what reference customers you can rely on.

There are no guarantees, of course. The acquiring company may want nothing more than your customer list and revenue stream. That may want you to just pick up your pink slip and go, and your company to fade into the sunset where all ‘used to be’ companies go. But it’s always better to be proactive than to sit around moaning and groaning, fearing the worst and lamenting the past.

If you’re the acquiring company, make sure that you have a roadmap – or at least a roadmap to develop your roadmap – on how the new acquisition will be brought into your fold from a marketing standpoint. Share what you’re planning – and what’s still up in the air - with the marketing folks at the company you’ve acquired. Develop an FAQ for marketing from the perspective of the company being acquired, throwing in everything you can think of – i.e., everything that would be on your mind if you were getting acquired. How do I do a PO? Is my budget still good? Will we still be exhibiting at next month’s trade show? Should we change our signage? What should we have on hand in the booth? Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes and keep the questions and answers coming.

Everyone will understand that things may not work out quite as planned, but at least they won’t feel like they’re being completely marginalized. And you’ll end up looking like the pros you are.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Little Housekeeping

There are some new additions to the blogroll over there at the right:


In Praise of Simple Web Sites

One of my personal little pet peeves - web sites that use more technology than they need to, and as a result are less useful to visitors than they ought to be.

You see them all the time; yesterday I came across a particularly egregious example of wasting money on a cool technology that makes a site frustrating for visitors: T-Mobile's new minisite for their combination mobile/wifi phone service.

The service is a very cool idea; you use a mobile handset that, when it's near a wifi hotspot, starts routing your calls via voice over IP instead of the mobile network. This takes traffic off of the mobile network - so you save money (you're not using up your minutes) and mobile carriers have less trouble with congestion. It provides better coverage by reaching hard-to-service areas (like the inside of your house) through wifi rather than the normal mobile network.

It's no surprise that T-Mobile is the first US carrier to offer it; they've got an extensive network of hotspots to leverage (one in nearly every Starbucks!) and they are European-owned (Europe is way ahead of us on offering new mobile services like this).

So I clicked over to the site to find out more about it - and was confronted with a nightmare.

I wanted to read about the service. You can't do that on this site. You can watch a lot of little movies in which someone talks to you about the service.

At first I thought there was just an introductory video, which is fine; I tried to skip it to get to the real information. No luck; every link opens another movie.

It's kind of cool, and it no doubt represents a bit investment in content creation when compared to having a copywriter create content for all the pages... and it's frustrating. I don't want to watch a commercial. I want to know how it works, what it costs, what hotspots I can use, and that sort of thing.

I'm sure the marketing team behind this site is quite proud of it. Too bad it undermines the business objective: getting people to use the new service.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I Love When This Happens!

Earlier in the year, along with my Opinionated Marketing colleagues, I worked on a branding project for an economic development agency. We came up with what our client agreed was a great idea for an approach, and a tagline that hit the mark in terms of branding the region - there was consensus that we'd really aced the region's essence.

Since the development agency covered many different sub-groups, over a wide and quite diverse (economically, culturally, and socially) geography, we all understood that the branding would take a while to be implemented.

Curious just now about whether anything had happened, I googled our tag line. Sure enough, one of the sub-groups has adopted it and is now featuring it prominently on its web site and positioning.

It's hard to explain how good it felt to this die-hard marketer to see that tag line out there.

Tell It Like It Is

This post from the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog about marketing job titles is interesting. There is a list of some alternate titles they've seen for marketing staff, and honestly, they don't make much sense to me; they include things like "product management" and "product development." (I should note that Roy Young, who wrote the piece, didn't endorse the idea raised by workshop participant that we should drop "marketing" from our titles.)

My problem is this: those things aren't marketing. They interact with marketing (or ought to), people who are good at them have some marketing instincts in their profile, but they're not marketing.

The topic that led to this was a discussion about what to do when marketing is undervalued in an organization. It's a good topic, and a situation that many of us have seen (if you haven't just wait - it'll happen).

If marketing is undervalued in your organization, you've got a problem. Who's watching your market to identify trends and opportunities? Who's got the plan to let customers know that you're there? Who's training the sales force? Who's tracking the performance of marketing programs?

Maybe those functions are spread among the product managers and sales management and the like. But even if that's true, there's probably a serious lack of coherence to how your company relates to its market.

If you're undervalued, don't play games by pretending you're not a marketer. Raise your value by explaining the results of what you do. If it's marketing programs, those should be financial results. Build your relationships with product managers so they see you as their indispensable source of wisdom and insight into the market. Work with sales so that you're a resource for them, not an overhead department that doesn't understand your challenges.

That way, whatever it says on your business card, your value will be clear.

Words of Wisdom from Seth Godin

Love him or hate him (or just give in and admit that, as a marketer, you're insanely jealous of him), Seth Godin generally has something interesting and valuable to say. I really liked reading through these words of wisdom:

Top 10 Secrets of the Marketing Process
Try these 10 ideas to get you started down the path of scientific marketing tactics:

1. Don’t run out of money. It always takes longer and costs more than you expect to spread your idea. You can budget for it or you can fail.

2. You won’t get it right the first time. Your campaign will need to be reinvented, adjusted or scrapped. Count on it.

3. Convenient choices are not often the best choices. Just because an agency, an asset or a bizdev deal are easy to do doesn’t mean that they are your best choice.

4. Irrational, strongly held beliefs of close advisors should be ignored. It doesn’t matter if they don’t like your logo.

5. If it makes you nervous, it’s probably a good idea. If you’re sure you’re right, you probably aren’t.

6. Focusing obsessively on one niche, one feature and one market is almost always a better idea than trying to satisfy everyone.

7. At some point, you’re either going to have to stick to your convictions or do what the market tells you. It’s hard to do both.

8. Compromise in marketing is almost always a bad idea. Extreme A could work. Extreme B could work. The average of A and B will almost never work.

9. Test, measure and optimize. Figure out what's working and do it more.

10. Read and learn. There are a million clues, case studies, books and proven tactics out there. You can't profitably ignore them until you know them, and you don't have the time or the money to make the same mistake someone else made last week. It's cheaper and faster to read about it than it is to do it.

My favorite is point 6: focusing obsessively. For smaller companies, and even for larger companies that are market challengers, not leaders, this is the best way to go. Why is focus so important?

Because it lets you constrain your market to one that's identifiable and manageable. Even if you have a generic product that could be all things to all men, if you're small you are not likely to have the money or people resources required to reach it. Faced with this, your alternatives are:
  • Going after the larger market, anyway, diluting your resources and message, and not being all that successful, except in a scattershot, occasional way.
  • Sitting around sulking, whining, and pitying yourself because you can't get at that great big market that you know would just love you to pieces if they knew about you. (Sniff sniff, boo hoo.)
  • Figure out some part of the great, big market that you want to go after, and JUST DO IT.
If you already have some customers, and there seems to be some type of pattern - vertical or otherwise - pick the group with the most instances, and find the rest of them. Because you already have customers in this group, you already know what to say when you get there, and you'll be able to provide your prospects with a customer list that will likely be known to them.

If you don't have customers yet, sit down and figure out the ideal, ideal prospect. If you can't limit things at all, and the world is truly your oyster, put all the possibilities in a hat, and pick one out. (That's your pearl of great wisdom.)

If you have one or two differentiating features, what type of buyer will that most appeal to? Doesn't matter if there aren't that many of them for starters. Find the ones there are out there and go get 'em.

Maybe your niche will be geographic in focus.

Once you start selling into a focused niche, I guarantee you will get very good at it. You will learn the niche issues and lingo. You will be able to make an argument that it makes more sense to go with you, who's focused on this niche, than with the larger, market share vendor who doesn't have any particular knowledge of or interest in your prospect's business.

Once you've established a foothold in your niche, you start reaching out. What are the adjacent niches? Pinpoint your niche on the conceptual (or geographic map, if your focus has been locality) map and start drawing wider and wider circles around it. That'll tell you where to go next.

It's easy to let yourself get discouraged when you're in a small, unknown, no budget, no market share company. But if you pick your niche and go after it, you can become the best at it and grow from there. Being focused on a niche is not limiting, it's liberating!

Blogging Transparency

PR firm Edelman keeps running into blog problems. First there was the flap about the "Wal-Marting Across America" blog, which turned out to have been engineered by Working Families for Wal-Mart, an astroturf group that Edelman cooked up. Then, news broke that Edelman is behind two other blogs:

One blog appears is on the site of Working Families for Wal-Mart, the "astroturf" advocacy group formed by Edelman last December, writes MediaPost. More intriguingly, however, the second fake blog is on WFWM subsidiary site Paid Critics - which is devoted to "exposing" links between unions and other vested interests that are supposedly "smearing Wal-Mart."

Last week, the Wal-Marting Across America blog was shut down after it was revealed to have been written by two writers paid by WFWM. Now the three contributors to the two other Edelman-created blogs are identified on them as Edelman employees whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart.

"Doesn't anybody at Edelman see the irony [ed.: perhaps more apt would be "hypocrisy"] behind having their own paid critics writing Wal-Mart's Paid Critics blog?" Sean Carton, chief strategy officer for Baltimore interactive consultancy idfive, is quoted as asking. "It was old media thinking in the new media world, and you can't get away with that [stuff] anymore."

Astroturf groups have always been one of the ethically gray areas (to put it kindly) of public relations. It's interesting, however, to see how the ethics of blogging are developing.

When you're using a medium whose greatest appeal to readers is the personal voice of the author, you don't want to get caught faking it. And the best way to avoid that is not to do it.

I thought about Edelman as I was looking at a job description for a blogger-for-hire to create online presence for a celebrity (and I don't know who the celebrity is). A few highlights:

  • Create one fansite blog and monitor it for only positive posts (with design ideas you will be provided with)
  • Create one fansite Message Board and manage it for only positive posts
  • Constantly have e-mail contact blogs/bloggers
    that have postings already and either encourage them to remove negative photos and place the ones you will have possession of and offer cross-promotion possibilities as reward
  • Contact other organizations that have posted negative photos online and encourage removal and present alternative

This is, I think, someone who just doesn't get it. It's one thing to write a blog saying great things about a celebrity (or a company or a product). But if you're going to invite the public to participate, you need to be ready for the bad as well as the good.

One of the reasons that blogs have become popular is that they are very personal conversations with readers. Conversations where one party is regularly silenced don't tend to go very far.

Certainly, there's content that's approprite to delete: thingse that are pure insults with nothing else to say, obscene comments, that sort of thing. But my belief is that if you err on the side of loose control, your fans - the people passionate enough about your topic to be reading and commenting - will do much of your work for you, responding to the negative comments. And they'll be more convincing than you can be.

Here's a question to ask before you start a business blog: are you ready for blogging? Are you ready for a conversation? If not, you might want to think twice about jumping in.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Getting Started With Syndication (Part 4): Creating Feeds

I've talked about the basics of web syndication, RSS and Atom readers, and creating custom feeds to act as your own "clipping service." To finish up this series, I'll briefly cover how you can create your own RSS feed.

First, the caveat: I'm not a techie, I'm a marketing guy! If you're looking for specifications of what a feed's XML file is supposed to look like, you're in the wrong place. If you're a marketer (even some of the time) and want to add feeds to your site, however, this should be useful for you.

There are a couple of ways you can start syndicating your own content so that your customers, readers, members, or whatever audience you need to reach can find it and subscribe to it.

First of all: what should you syndicate? The anwswer to that is, anything that will be updated and you want people to find. Obviously, if you have a blog, that's one thing. But don't stop there - you can create feeds for press releases, customer support bulletins, company news, or almost anything else you want to share.

So how do you do it?

The easiest way: create a blog. Or rather, use blog publishing software. All of it will create feeds automatically for you. This doesn't, by the way, mean that you will be stuck with your feeds living on a blog hosting service (like Blogger's Blogspot); most blog software will either let you publish to your own domain (so you could use it to put your syndicated content in a subdirectory on your web server) or is installed right onto your server.

If you're using syndication for a company-sponsored blog, this may work just fine; if you're syndicating other content, it can be a bit clumsy. For those cases, you have a couple of options.

First, look at the software you're using to maintain your web site. For smaller organizations, this may be something like Dreamweaver or FrontPage; those programs (like most web site management packages) can create feeds for you. For larger organizations, you probably have a content management system in place; again, most of that software can create feeds.

Ask your IT people about it. If you don't have IT people, or they're not cooperating (unimaginable, I know), or you just want more control, there are also services and software that will set up the feeds for you. Google "create RSS feed" and you'll see a number of them. They vary in features, price, and ease of use, but there's something for almost any budget and set of requirements.

And don't forget to let people know that the feed is there - put links and buttons on your site so that RSS-savvy visitors can subscribe.

Crowdsourcing: Power to the People?

Here's a brand-new buzzword that is getting some legs: crowdsourcing

It's a general term for the idea of "outsourcing" an activity to "the crowd" - in other words, the public. It's not strictly a marketing concept: things that depend on users to generate content, or code, or any usable product are examples of crowdsourcing. Linux and Wikipedia are probably the best known examples, and word of mouth could be called "crowdsourcing" in a general way.

In marketing circles, the most buzzworthy example of crowdsourcing is consumer-generated media.  

The appeal is obvious: why pay an agency to develop creative when you have customers or users who want to do it on their own?

Well, as with any neat idea, there are some things to be cautious about.

You can learn a lot from an exercise in crowdsourcing. If you ask your customers to create some ads or slogans for you, you're going to find out how they think of you - and how that differs from what you thought was your brand position.

Of course, you might find out that some people really hate you, as happened to GM when they asked people to create ads for the Chevy Tahoe. The site was mobbed by people who hate SUVs. The results were nothing to make a brand manager happy.

It's important to keep all of that in perspective. Crowdsourcing of all varieties by its nature attracts the most passionate users in the crowd - and they may be people who aren't your customers and never were going to be your customers.

The worst thing you can do is react to something like that without first asking, "Do these people really matter to us?" People who hate SUVs aren't going to buy one no matter how you market it. For GM to give them a platform to express that isn't a great marketing move, but trying to react to that only would compound the mistake.

And thus I get to my problem with the word "crowdsourcing." It's not outsourcing. When you outsource an activity or process, you can expect a reliable final result. Outsource creative work to an agency, and you should expect creative that meets your requirements. Outsource it to the crowd, and you will get what they want.

That's probably going to be educational, and might be usable, but it's not really outsourcing; it's part of the marketing conversation. You should experiment with consumer-generated media, you should look for ways to use it to get your best customers more engaged with your brand... but you shouldn't mistake it for a way to offload an expense. If you do that, you're likely to find that you don't own your own brand anymore.

That's Entertainment

I actually like John Mellencamp's new song This Is Our Country (I'm actually listening to it while blogging). To me, it strikes a nice patriotic note without being jingoistic, divisive, obnoxious, strident, or pig-headed. So I wasn't disappointed to see John M opening last night's World Series game with it even though... hey, just wait a darn minute. A (somewhat toned down) version of This Is Our Country is used in Chevy ads, and isn't Chevy a sponsor of the World Series..... And isn't American Idol, which brought us the guy who sang God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, also brought to us by Fox, which just happens to be broadcasting the games.

Yes, yes, yes. Baseball is entertainment. Entertainment is a business. Business wants to sell us something. Etc.

But does everything have to be a cheesy tie-in?

At least they had Anita Baker (Detroit native with no obvious tie to Fox or any sponsor) sang the National Anthem. And I think the Bob Seger tune the night before was authentic, too, but I haven't really checked out to see where the threads go.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

On the Wings of Dove

This is a must-view for anyone who has young daughters, nieces, friends... It's been getting quite a bit of play this last week, but the first place I saw it was on Marketing Profs. The post (and accompanying video) show quite graphically how the advertising world creates an untrue and unattainable image of 'beauty' that's causing our little girls to develop terrible body images, and unhealthy obsessions with thin-is-beautiful, beauty=good, and with "beauty" (whatever that means) in general.

Dove Evolution

A few years ago, Dove soap had an ad campaign in the states that showcased "real" women - i.e., women that looked like us, like our friends, like our colleagues. Perfectly attractive, but normal: normal looks, normal weight. Normal. I don't usually buy Dove products, but I did in the wake of this ad. And I'll do so again, based on the ad that they're running in Canada that demonstrates what goes into making someone who looks like the rest of us into a super-model: the make-up, the hair-do, and - this is the worst - the pixel-by-pixel sculpting of the model's face to make her look thinner. This ad - which I would hope will run in the States at some point - is a real eye-opener.

Maybe it's all marketing gimmick, but Dove is doing the world in general (and young girls and young women in particular) by exposing this less than savory use of Photoshop to glorify something that doesn't exist.

I'm going out and buying some more Dove. (And Dove products will be stocking stuffers for my 9 and 10 year old nieces come Christmas.)

Now That's Some Niche Marketing

Finding an underserved niche to focus your marketing efforts on is often a good idea, but I'm not sure this one will be successful: a German businessman is launching SMINTAIR, which stands for Smokers International Airline:

SMINTAIR reinstates the liberty of smoking in all seats. Non-smokers will find the cabin air more refreshing than on any other flight with any other airline, as SMINTAIR adds fresh outside air to the conditioning system! This is more expensive, as it burns more fuel, but it is seen as an additional service to our guests.

They're going to focus on luxury travelers who'll pay high ticket charges on their initial runs between Düsseldorf and Tokyo.

Looking through the site, however, the rather overblown rhetoric makes me think that this is more about a personal crusade than a business opportunity. Consider this note from the managing director:

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Guests,

before I would like to share my next to 50 years of experience as an airline passenger with you, I'd like to take the opportunity to clear one of the biggest lies floating around everywhere in the World: "Second Hand Smoke (SHS, a.k.a. ETS, Environmental Tobacco Smoke) damages your health". Please refer to our DOWNLOADS page and be surprised by the overwhelming, neutral evidence. By the way, did you know that the NAZIs also sported a huge Anti-Smoking campaign? Yes, they did and the one we experience now, frightningly, carries exactly the same insignia.

Oh my. Unless you're selling something like books or movies about history, talking about Nazis on your site is probably not a great idea.

"The 'We' Mentality" - Technology Division

One of the challenges that technology marketers have - especially when the technology is not cool consumer "stuff", but behind the scenes software and services sold to developers or IT - is how to build the type of allegiance that results in The "We" Mentality that Spike Jones is writing about over on Marketing Profs. Much of what's getting written about in his post (and the comments) is how people so closely identify with "their" sports teams, which for a lot of folks is a "til death do us part" relationship. (Actually, it goes beyond death, as I noted last week when I wrote on Major League Baseball logo-caskets.)

OK, no one's every going to identify with, say, a testing tool, the same way they will with their favorite team, but as technology marketers, we still want to build the sorts of loyalty and allegience that results in repeat sales, word of mouth referrals, references, and unprompted, spirited defense when we're being attacked out in the blogosphere. Obviously, the first thing you need is a good product - all the logo shirts and mouse pads in the world won't build loyalty if your products aren't doing the job. (It may be a very niche job that they're doing, which may leave you with a group of crazed supporters who are few in number, but that's another story.)

User groups are one clear way to foster a tech community. If you have multiple products, it's obvious a good idea to have birds-of-a-feather sessions to bring the like-minded together. If local chapters of your user group spring up, make sure that you support them with info and an occasional speaker at chapter meetings.

If you do trade shows, make sure you alert any users in the area. They're probably coming to the show, anyway, so why not invite them to drop by? Sure, you might risk getting into a gripe session, but you also might be in the enviable position of having them do the selling for you when they start evangelizing to people who stop by your booth. If you do local sales events (breakfast seminars, etc.), invite your local users as well. For the cost of a cup of coffee and a croissant, you're giving prospects an opportunity to talk to actual users. (And why not tack on a product update, or some other session - for users' only - to the end of your sales event. Your customers like being in the know.)

If you have a blog for tech-talk - and you probably should - keep it current and informative. And real: don't make it a thinly veiled sales pitch, and don't let your self get defensive if comments and questions get critical. (Obviously, you want to make sure that your competitors aren't in there trash-talking, so you might want to make sure that blog-icipants are legit and real customers. Encourage your users to weigh in.)

Periodic webinars - again, not sales pitches, but events that convey useful materials: product information, usage tips, technical trends - are another good way to build customer loyalty. Let those who missed a session know what they missed, and encourage them to replay the recorded session for themselves.

No, we'll never have caskets with our product logo on them, but there are still plenty of good ways to build loyalty.

Customer Service, Please! I'd like more responsibility.

I'm dealing with an incident I had with a laptop battery (More on this in a future post; we'll see how it all turns out.), and have been doing some personal research on this most recent laptop battery recall and the incidents that led up to it. I must say, I applaud Dell in how it has handled this situation and led the industry.

There's a difference between Customer Service and true customer care, and Dell seems to have set the bar on the customer care and corporate responsibility with their most recent laptop battery recall.

I'm a marketer and not an expert in customer service (though I've worked with and for customer service operations related to marketing issues), but it seems to me that Customer Service is usually concerned with responsiveness, professional politeness, and ability to resolve a customer issue -- within a process that is accountable and measured (for process improvement). Customer Service issues can run the gamut: from a consumer being unable to use a product/service as they intended (which could be the consumer's fault, a misunderstanding, etc.) to technical issues (from simple to complex) to a complete, total letdown (bordering on a law suit) on the part of the company providing the product or service. In these situations, customer service personnel earn their salaries by remaining cool-headed, communicating often and well, and sticking to their process for issue resolution. (At least this is my view of customer service. I'm open to better definition and explanation.)

Every once in a while (hopefully), a Customer Service issue crosses a line and becomes an indicator of a potential danger. This is what happened with laptop batteries this past summer. Among all the calls about bad disk drives, lost data, irate customers looking to sue the company because they lost a big customer or missed their tax deadline because of a computer malfunction, etc. etc., a handful of calls were about laptop batteries overheating. These calls could be handled in quiet ways to satisfy the individual customer's situation, but an overarching question arises: is this a potential threat to consumer safety, and if so, what should the company do about it?

Some of us may recall (or you may have read about) one of the best examples of handling a consumer safety issue: The Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982. Many believe Johnson & Johnson's handling of this incident may have saved the company. Today, Tylenol is still a leading, trusted brand. (Read an excellent study on the PR handling of this crisis by Tamara Kaplan of Penn State.

On the other end of the spectrum is the cigarette industry. Most of us are familiar with the cover-up used by the cigarette industry when they had tons of reports (scientific and anecdotal) of how cigarette smoking caused cancer. This is a stellar example of how a company fooled its consumers for generations, rather than stepping forward in the interest of public safety. The cost to these companies and the whole industry is not just in the dollar amount of the massive class action suits, but in the public mindset as well. Today, that industry is running away from itself in shame: How many employees would proudly state they work for the cigarette industry?

With this most recent laptop battery recall (and there have been others for years!), I think Dell has set the bar for other PC makers. The article in the NY Times on August 14th states the company decided to recall 4.1 million batteries after SIX incident reports. That's actually very few compared to other laptop battery recalls. Granted, some of those six incident reports were wild -- especially the one where the laptop battery fire set off ammunition which led to a pick-up truck exploding into flames.

The early responses to Dell's massive recall by other laptop makers were statements that their products are safe. Since then, Dell has been joined by SONY, Apple, IBM/Lenovo, Toshiba, Sharp, Hitachi and some others. This is industry leadership (simply defined as doing something in your industry and others following), and ultimately, Dell has seized the high ground of customer care and corporate responsibility.

One parting thought: In the NY Times article announcing the Dell recall, there was some discussion and quote from a former employee alleging that Dell has hundreds of examples of laptop battery burn-up and malfunction in their possession, recovered from customers by stalwart customer service personnel. If that's true, shameful! This leads me to two unanswered questions here:
1) What's the responsibility and proper course of action for the individual Customer Service representative?
2) What's the responsibility and proper course of action for the individual consumer?

Getting Started With Syndication (Part 3): Create Personalized News with Custom Feeds

In Part 1 of this series I provided an overview of web syndication with RSS and Atom, and in Part 2 I talked about the various feed readers you can use to keep track of frequently-updated web content.

While these technologies provide a great value to you by helping you keep up with blogs and news sources, if that's all you use them for, you're missing one of the most powerful features of web syndication: the ability to create customized news feeds.

What's the difference? Subscribing to a site's feed (for example, the feed for this blog) means that when site publishers (like your friendly Opinionated Marketers) update their sites, the new content will be delivered to you. But often, the content you want isn't just what a site publisher decides to add; you might want very specific kinds of information from many different site. Syndication lets you track that kind of multi-source information - sort of personalized web clipping service.

And, thanks to search engines like Google and Technorati, it's incredibly easy to do that.

For example, let's say that I want to keep up with news stories about the use of social networks like MySpace for marketing purposes. I can go to Google News and perform a search on "social network marketing" and get these results.

But I don't really want to have to do that all the time. The good news: I don't have to. If you look at that Google News results page, you'll see a link over at the left called "RSS."

That's an RSS feed with that will give me new results for that search. So I just need to add that link to my RSS reader (Google Reader is the one I like) and I'll get a steady stream of clips about social network marketing.

It's a powerful tool - I can create a feed for any Google search I want. So my RSS reader is turned into my own personal clipping service.

You can do the same thing with Technorati, the blog search engine, and see all the new blog mentions of a topic. (In Technorati the RSS feed is a little button called "Subscribe" in the upper right hand section of the search results page.) (Google Blog Search provides a similar functionality.)

With Technorati, you can focus your search results even more. There are some blogs that publish so much content that it would take a good part of your day just to keep up with them. Instead of trying to sort through everything to find what you want, you can let Technorati and RSS do it for you. For example, this page shows the results of search the MarketingProfs blogs for mentions of "Web 2.0." Once again, there's a Subscribe link to let you start watching a feed that just contains the entries that mention Web 2.0.

Syndication has taken off as a way to keep track of blogs, but it's much more than that. With syndication technology you can create your own completely personalized information gathering service. Instead of seeking out information on the topics you care about, let your RSS reader do the work and deliver your morning update right to your PC.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Word of Mouth at Internet Speed

Word of mouth has always been a factor in business success. These days, though, the Internet has given us word of mouth on steroids. We had an instructive case of this in Houston this week. (I have no business with anyone involved.)

On Wednesday morning, Sabrina Farber of Garden Guy, a landscaping business in Houston, wrote an email to a potential customer:

Dear Mr. Lord,

I am appreciative of your time on the phone today and glad you contacted us.  I need to tell you that we cannot meet with you because we choose not to work for homosexuals.

Best of luck in finding someone else to fill your landscaping needs.

All my best,


That was the day before yesterday. Mr. Lord and his partner forwarded the email on to friends and family to warn them about Garden Guy's policy. The rest, as they say, is history.

The email has circulated around the country. It's been blogged about - just have a look at Technorati's search results for the company's name. You'll also find results at Google News. And Google Blog Search. Today, the Houston Chronicle ran a story on it.

That's two days of word of mouth.

It's fair to say that a lot of potential customers now know more about Garden Guy than they ever would have without that email.

Whatever you think of their policy, there's a lesson here: customers talk to each other. And they send email. They send them to their friends, to their family, and if they're upset, to everyone in their address book. And those emails get forwarded. And don't forget the various directory sites that allow visitors to leave comments about a business.

Whatever people are saying about you, it's going to be heard far and wide a lot fast than it ever used to be. Pay attention to it, or it might come back to bite you.

Turning a Sales Call into a Sales & Marketing Call

The other day, I went on a sales call with a client of mine. We have a new product coming out, and we're looking for beta customers. The company we called on was a bull's eye: They're in our "first choice" target market. They're still using a manual approach to the process our product automates. They recognize they need to change. They "got" what we were saying. They "got" what we were showing them.

But they're also well into their product evaluation process, and have looked at three other products. I know, because I asked them. And as our demo wrapped up, I also asked them how our product compared to what they'd seen (and heard) from the competition.

I think I caught my client a bit by surprise by flat-out asking what the prospect thought about our wares. (I almost heard him gulp.) No, I wasn't fishing for compliments or reassurance. I really wanted to know how we stacked up. I didn't expect a really detailed response, and I didn't get one. (Let's face it, if you've looked at 4 applications that all do pretty much the same thing, any compare-and-contrast is going to be blurry.) But what I did get was some feedback on an important product feature that was of interest to them, not part of any of the competitors' offers, and a potential delighter. The feature is major, a real differentiator, and we can build a very good story around it.

Will we get the deal? Even though in this case we're a small, unknown player going up against "household word" competitors, we may have a shot.

But nice as it is to win a deal, every sales call is not going to result in a sales win. But every sales call you go on as a marketer person should result in your gleaning some helpful information. It can be a tidbit about competitors. Some insight on how the product is viewed in the "real world." Feedback that will help you determine what to emphasize (and what to ignore) when it comes to messaging.

It never hurts to observe, and it can't hurt to ask, either!

Citgo Responds to a Boycott

What do you do when your company is the target of a boycott? That's a question that Citgo is facing right now; the company is owned by the Venezuelan national oil company, and since Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been running around calling President Bush "Satan," the company has become the target of a boycott.

Boycotts almost never accomplish their goals. When they do, it's because the goals are very specific, because the boycott is widespread, or both. The Citgo boycott thus far has been relatively small and has no particular goal (there's no specific action that boycotters want; Citgo can't stop being owned by its Venezuelan parent). Moreover, this boycott doesn't actually affect its target (the Venezuelan government); as Houston Chronicle business writer Loren Steffy points out in his blog, because of the way that gasoline distribution works, the only people who will feel the impact are local American station owners.

Nevertheless, Citgo has launched an ad campaign to counter the bad publicity they're getting:

In the first ad, which appeared Monday in the Washington Post, Citgo President Felix Rodriguez said critics are doing more damage to Citgo's thousands of U.S. employees and small-business owners who sell Citgo gasoline than to the company itself.

"We understand that, as a corporation, we cannot always control the environment in which we operate, but we feel compelled to set the record straight out of respect for our employees, business partners and consumers," he said.

Other national and regional newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, will run the ads later this week, and TV commercials are on the way, Citgo spokesman David McColluma said.

But one analyst said it remains to be seen whether many consumers connect Citgo and the Venezuelan national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, better known as PDVSA.

"For all intents and purposes, most people don't even know they're owned by PDVSA," Fadel Gheit, with Oppenheimer & Co. in New York, said.

There's some risk in the company's response; if a lot of people don't know about the Citgo/Venezuela connection, they may be actually spreading the word and attracting new boycotters.

If you become the target of a boycott, there are a couple of things you should do when formulating a response:

  1. Assess the real impact of the boycott. Nobody likes seeing their brand dragged through the mud, but you need to take a cold, unemotional look at what's happening so that your response isn't out of proportion to what's happening. Reacting too strongly to a boycott that doesn't have legs might just feed the boycott, rather than counteract it.
  2. Look honestly at what the boycotters are demanding. First of all, they might be right; if you're engaged in a bad business practice, you should stop and ask yourself, "Do these people have a point? Are we being a bad neighbor?"
  3. Talk to the boycotters. Boycotts often happen because people feel like a company is an impenetrable fortress that won't respond to their concerns. If those concerns about about the impact of your business on a community, or an environmental practice, or workplace policies, emotions can run high. It's worth the effort to understand the motivation of boycotters, have an opportunity to tell them why you do what you do, and see if there's some common ground.
  4. If false claims are being made, rebut them in a calm way. It's tempting to paint your boycotters are fanatics or lunatics, but that will often appear to be a defensive reaction that stinks of guilt. Your problem is the boycott, not the people.

Our businesses are part of the communities in which we operate. A boycott will feel like a strongarm tactic, and the natural human reaction is to fight back right away. But your response should be calculated, not emotional.

And - needless to say, I hope - if you really are doing something damaging, a boycott might be an opportunity to make your organization a better corporate citizen.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Incompetence. Delivered.

I'm beginning to think that if you want to find an example of the worst practice for any marketing or communications activity, you need only look to telecom giant AT&T.

They are the local phone company here in Houston. Recently I wrote about my experience with their email marketing: if, when you place an order for service, you indicate that you don't want to receive any advertising email from them, you get it anyway.

If you then unsubscribe when it shows up... it keep coming.

Apparently they use the same type of "unsubscribe" system as the nice people who send me email offering me Viagra.

Tonight I discovered that their web site is equally bad. It's one of those sites designed to make it very hard to communicate with them, unless you're trying to buy something. Do you want to send a message or find a phone number for their corporate office? Sorry, no.

The web site is designed to prevent customers from communicating with them. You can't even find our the address of their corporate headquarters there. The overall feel of it is "Do not dare speak to us."

And they probably wonder why consumers hate them so much.

The advertising message I got today had a line at the bottom:

This is a commercial email from the AT&T Marketing Communications Team
2600 Camino Ramon, Room 1S050M, San Ramon, CA 94583-5000

So here's my message to the team in San Ramon: you are embarrassingly incompetent.

Actually, I'm going to send them the message the old-fashioned way: by mail. Because the giant company that's plastered all of Texas with billboards about their high-tech offerings makes it impossible to use any of those services to reach them.

Getting Started with Syndication (Part 2)

In Part 1 I talked about syndication technology (RSS and Atom) in general terms. Like many things, syndication makes more sense once you try using it.

If you're still scratching your head and wondering what the fuss is about, my recommendation is that you just dive in and have a look. That means you need a reader.

You can find lists of readers in a number of places; the DMOZ Open Directory project has one organized by platform, as does the RSS Specifications web site. A little Googling will turn up all kinds of information. So which do you pick?

Readers fall into three general categories: stand-alone software, web-based, and web browsers.

Stand-alone software is exactly what it sounds like: programs for viewing RSS and Atom feeds. Well-known options include FeedDemon for Windows and and NetNewsWire for Macintosh.

My very personal thought: I'm not a big fan of any of the standalone software I've tried, and I don't recommend this approach for novices. The programs are full of features and quite powerful, but I've yet to find one whose interface was really all that comfortable or intuitive. That's just my opinion; there are lots of people who love these readers, and you might become one of them. But I'd suggest trying a web-based or browser reader first, and considering software if you become a real power user.

Web-based readers are also plentiful, and in most cases are free. The best-known are Bloglines and NewsGator. I've used both and they're quite good. It's easy to get started; go to their web sites, create an account, and start adding feeds. When you return to the site, you'll see which feeds have new content; click and read.

A new entry in this category that I've started using and am very pleased with is Google Reader. The first version was pretty clunky, but Google has just upgraded it and it's like a whole new program - and a really good one.

If you use Gmail, you'll find the interface very familiar. A few aspects of it need some work (there's a bit too much clicking from screen to screen in the subscription management area for my taste) but overall, it's really good.

All of these readers let you organize feeds into folders; I have folders for marketing blogs, friends' blogs, news blogs, and so on.

One big advantage of web-based readers: you can use them anywhere you can find a PC with an internet connection. If you use more than one computer regularly, that's a big advantage.

Another benefit of a web-based service: many now offer support for mobile devices. So if you're a road warrior, you can read feed content your electronic ball and chain... er, I mean, mobile phone or BlackBerry or other such device.

As much as I like web-based readers, I think that web browsers are going to be the way most people use RSS and Atom feeds.

What do I mean by browsers? Very simply, web browsers that incorporate feed reading features.

Firefox, the open source browser that's made a big dent in Internet Explorer's share of the browser market, has incorporated some primitive RSS features for some time now; but they're not terribly helpful for keeping up with feeds. You can create "bookmark folders" for feeds, but the tools for keeping track of what you're read are nonexistent.

However, a new (2.0) version of Firefox is coming soon, and I suspect that the feed functionality will be improved. I haven't seen it yet, so I can't really comment on it.

Internet Explorer, the default browser for the majority of users, had no feed features at all. However, version 7 of the browser is now available, and it includes feed support that's really excellent. Feeds are handled like bookmarks: you can subscribe to them and have a list of your feeds (organized by folders) a click away at all times.

Best of all, finding feeds is easy. Whenever you're on a page that has a feed, an RSS icon on the toolbar switches from grayed-out to active. Click it, and you'll see the feed, and a link to subscribe to it.

Explorer will also automatically download all the new feed content at an interval you select.

If you work on one machine all the time, I think that the easiest way to start using feeds is to download IE7.

For Mac users, there's Safari, Apple's browser, which has similar features. If you're using a Mac you've already got it, and I'd recommend starting there.

To summarize then, this is my (very personal) recommendation:

If you want a web-based reader that's available wherever you are, try one of the services mentioned above. Those are also good choices even if you work on one machine all the time, but in that case you can also try IE7 (if you use Windows) or Safari (if you're a Mac user).

Whichever you choose, actually using RSS and Atom feeds will make a lot of the buzz about them make sense. Have fun!

Next: creating customized feeds to track topics that interest you.

Customer is not a 4-letter word

I don’t usually read ads for car dealerships, but this one caught my eye – maybe because it wasn’t in the automotive section, maybe because it looked like one of those “in memoriam” ads that companies run when their founder dies. (I’ve always been a sucker for an obituary: must be the Irish blood.) Anyway, it was an ad for Herb Chambers, one of the biggest car dealerships in the Boston area. (If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes with the TV or radio on here, you’ve no doubt heard their jingle: Herb Chambers, we’ve got it.)

The ad recounted a touching little story about how Herb got in the car business. Years ago, he ran into a pushy, rude, useless car salesman who so annoyed Herb that he “bought the dealership and got rid of the guy.”

Whether the story was literally true, or just figuatively so, so far, I was with Herb. I even liked the tag line – “We don’t sell cars. We help you buy them.”

Fortunately, I’ve led a pretty charmed life when it comes to car-buying. I’ve always lived in cities and have gotten this far having owned a very under-average, un-American number of cars: one used, two new. I’ve never actually been on a Herb Chambers’ lot, so I don’t know if anything he says in his ad actually matches up with the car-buying experience there. But I was completely taken aback by the line that he looks for salespeople “who listen to our guests.”

Guests? Guests???????

Let’s get something straight here. All those tire-kicking, bargain-hunting, MRSP-seeking, test-driving folks who swarm all over car dealerships for the Presidents’ Day sales are not guests. They’re customers – potential or actual.

The only businesses that I’ll let get away with calling their customers guests are hotels and restaurants, where the financial transactions cover categories (eating, drinking, sleeping) that at least mimic what happens when you’re someone’s real guest. But guests aren’t typically coming to your home to buy a car.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the word customer. As marketers, we should be proud of the relationships we help develop with our customers. We’re the ones making them aware of our products and services, making those products and services easier to buy and easier to sell, and keeping in touch with the customers once they’re “ours.”

I like the word customer, and I’d like Herb’s little fairy tale a lot better if he’d used the “c word” rather than pussyfoot around with the word guest.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Playing Ball in the Great Beyond

Well, here's good news from the National Funeral Directors Assocation's annual meeting. Baseball fans who've been dying to go to that Big Out in the Sky in real style will, starting with the 2007 season, find eternal housing in urns and caskets that sport their favorite team logo. Naturally, the Boston Red Sox are among the teams that will get up to the plate in the first inning. (Or is it the last inning?)

Starting next season, fans of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers will be able to have their ashes put in an urn or head six feet under in a casket emblazoned with their team colors and insignia.

Kurt Soffe, a spokesman for the funeral association, said the MLB caskets are part of trend of trying to capture "the life and the passions of the person that has passed way." At this year's convention, for instance, there was a Harley Davidson-themed casket and one featuring Betty Boop."More and more families are wanting to have something that respects the personalities," Soffe said....

Each urn will feature recognition of the deceased's passionate support, stamped with message that says "Major League Baseball officially recognizes (person's name) as a lifelong fan of (team)."

Come on, do real fans - dead or alive - really are if MLB "officially recognizes" them as a lifelong fan?

In any case, the company that's coming out with this new line is an outfit called Eternal Image, which also has deals with the American Kennel Club, Precious Moments (cloying big-eyed child figurines etc.), and, ta-da, the Vatican. This certainly has to come under the heading of oddest set of partner relationships in the history of marketing-kind! It's obviously in a league of is own.

And just think of the potential cross-over deals: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel transposed onto Fenway Park's Green Monster. Precious Moments Angels wearing Yankees caps (they would!). The Pope blessing a Corgi.

Certainly something that comforts the bereaved is worthy, but I think that this is a case of marketing sitting up nights manufacturing a need and a product to fill it. Bury Uncle Horace in his Big Papi shirt if you must, but the logo casket really strikes me as one big groundout. But you do have to give these Major League Baseball marketers some credit. When it comes to working their brand, they sure don't leave any (head)stones unturned.

The Importance of Working with your Developers

Not sure if you need a login to get at this excellent article by Roy Young that appeared the other day on Marketing Profs, so I've got the whole thing here.

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Marketers Make-No.4:
Failure to Dream with the R&D Team

It's impossible to take a new product invention from utter unknown to the number-one seller in less than five years—right? Wrong. Johnson & Johnson division McNeil Nutritionals pulled it off with Splenda, the trademarked name for a food sweetener called sucralose. How? McNeil's marketers took steps to ensure a well-executed launch, including initially making Splenda available only to diabetics—who then rapidly spread the word about the new product's benefits.

As you know, creating products is risky business: Companies invest hugely in their R&D teams, yet most new offerings fail, with the consequence of serious financial loss. R&D needs marketing to help reduce risk in new product development; marketing needs R&D to be part of the team that creates sources of future cash flow.

To create value for your company, marketing brings important expertise, perspective, and processes to make R&D more likely to succeed. The first step is to know the typical makeup of scientists or engineers from R&D is very different from yours; and they are likely to have some preconceived ideas of what you are like. Consider the stereotypes about R&D and Marketing:

R&D: Tech-centric. Complex solutions. Scientist. Detail-oriented. Features focused. Problem-oriented. Inventions without a market.No concern for price, costs, or profit. Customer? What's that?Poor communicators. Ivory-tower dwellers.

Marketing: Big picture. Go to market fast. Artisan. Detail-ignorant. Benefits focus. Scattered. Opinions without justification. Concerned only about sales volume and market share. Scientific rigor? What's that? Expensive advertisers. Does a job that anyone can do.

These differences often create obstacles—but, as you join new product development teams, be optimistic that the differences between these two functions can actually serve as sources of strength, with each team bringing unique perspectives to bear on the company's efforts to succeed. Keeping in mind the typical R&D mindset, consider using these six strategies to work together effectively:

1. Identify products that offer unique value to consumers
Consumers perceive new offerings as valuable when those products or services have unique features, meet consumers' needs better than alternative offerings do, demonstrate good quality, reduce consumers' costs, and seem novel. Help R&D select projects for development that meet such criteria by providing comparative analyses of competing products and sharing your knowledge of consumers' needs and costs. Teach your colleagues from R&D about the market power of needs-based segmentation: the idea that customers should be segmented on the basis of their needs. Simply put, customers in different benefit segments have different needs.

2. Lead a customer-focused development process
Sharing your understanding of consumers' needs and preferences with your colleagues in R&D can encourage them to keep customers in mind while developing new products and services. Ongoing customer contact through market research is the crucial means by which you generate valuable knowledge of the product and services. But to gather and present market-research data that will be meaningful and useful to R&D, you must demonstrate the scientific rigor and familiarity with the language of research that R&D experts appreciate. For example, establish a sound statistical foundation for your research, gathering input on methodology if necessary from technical staff on topics such as statistical significance and research design. Pay close attention to your sampling: Do respondents to a survey represent an adequate cross-section of the consumer population you're interested in? Should you augment surveys with focus groups or one-on-one interviews? Could interviews with existing customers shed additional light on potential new customers' needs and interests?
Consider conducting field research—observing consumers as they shop for and use products in your target market. And don't forget to gather input from expert consumers in the product category at hand—chefs, for example, if your company is developing cookware, or physicians if you're working on a new medical device. Insights from these experts can spark additional ideas for new products and services. Talking with staff members from other units in your company—sales, customer service, operations, and so forth—and consulting with trade-show participants can yield further valuable information about consumers' needs.

3. Help R&D to focus on consumer benefits, not product features
With any new product or service under consideration, R&D has extensive homework to do first. Help your R&D colleagues complete that homework by conducting market research to identify who the target customer is, how the product should be positioned, what consumers would be willing to pay for the new offering, and what product features would deliver the benefits that consumers want.

4. Ensure a well-executed launch
Of course, all the market research in the world won't help a new product or service succeed if the offering isn't launched properly. The heart of a well-executed launch? A solid marketing plan—one you start building early in the development process. The best marketing plans outline effective go-to-market strategies and communication programs. They take into account consumers' emotional attachment to products and reflect deep understanding of how much people are willing to pay for specific benefits provided by an offering. Advertisements about a new product or service "lead with the need": They acknowledge the need that consumers want the product or service to fill, and they explain how the offering fills that need better than alternative offerings do.

5. Leverage your firm's core competencies
Point out ways to develop offerings that take advantage of what your company does best already. As some experts maintain, step-out projects—those that require entirely new competencies—tend to fail. By leveraging your firm's established talents, you and the R&D team go into the competitive arena powerfully equipped to trounce rivals. How to identify the core competencies that best lend themselves to breakthrough products and services? In all too many companies, executives overemphasize technology-related strengths—such as engineering, manufacturing, and operations. Sure, these strengths are important. But organizations that focus solely on such abilities overlook important marketing-related competencies, such as a company's existing customer base, sales force, and distribution channels. Additional valuable marketing competencies include customer service resources, advertising and promotion talent, and market intelligence.

6. Target promising markets
Help R&D develop products targeted at more attractive markets—those that are large and getting large, and in which customers have a strong need for products. This is precisely what the marketing team at innovation leader 3M did, according to an article in the November 2005 issue of Business 2.0. At 3M, scientists were reassigned to work in major business units, where marketing teams could help them find a market for a product in development and thus increase the chances that new offerings would ultimately prove commercially viable. Marketers encouraged scientists to think futuristically about products and to mingle with potential customers early in the development process.

Such changes yielded impressive results. To illustrate, under the new regime, one chemist who had tinkered for years with nanotechnology-based materials developed a film of reflective material that boosted brightness and clarity in liquid crystal display (LCD) screens used in cell phones, laptop computers, and televisions—a highly marketable offering.

As Bill Schultz, a top scientist with 3M since 1968, explains, "Finding a business unit that knows it market makes us more confident. Nothing is more frustrating than doing good tech development and not having your product commercialized."

Look to dream with the R&D team if you want marketing to be valued as a leader of future cash flow.

OK. For many of us, there's no such thing as R&D - it's all "D". We're not dealing with formal research budgets like 3-M or McNeil. Yes, mistaken software designs can turn into expensive market failures, but it's nowhere near the magnitude of making a mistake with a manufactured product. But often the techies pumping out code are doing so in an isolated, ivory tower in which ideas are transmitted directly from their brain into their fingertips and on into the code base without really thinking about the customer and market aspects of what they're doing.

So Roy Young's article makes an excellent reminder of how important it is for marketing to work with engineering, other than to say that I’ve always found that it can be enormously helpful to get the product developers out in the field. My career has been in high tech (primarily software), and while I sometimes had to drag my techies out there kicking and screaming, every customer visit, prospect call, trade show walk-around – anything that got the engineers out into the “real world” – yielded enormous benefits.

Greater understanding about how the product was actually used by real customers would translate into features that improved the customer experience. Engineering’s hearing from prospects about barriers to purchase and out-and-out deal-breakers made it easier to get important new features in the next rev, and helped us all discern what were true customer needs (vs. what were rightfully ignored knee-jerk demands from sales based on what they’d heard on their last call). Floating around the trade-show floor to see what the competitors have to offer was often an eye-opener as well - when confronted with successful competitive products with features we lacked and sorely needed lit more than one coding fire.

Some marketers shy away from direct "contact" with their developers, fearing that they'll be viewed as lightweights capable only of providing logo-ware. (And we've all dealt with developers who completely looked down their nose at marketing because we lacked their domain expertise and advanced degrees.) We may need to keep in mind that we provide an extremely important and highly valuable function when we help drive the right products to the right markets.