Thursday, November 30, 2006

It's the Little Things....

I'm not a big knitter-crocheter, but my sister Kathleen is a total maven. Last year for Christmas, she crocheted great big funky scarves for me, my sister Trish, and the family's little girls: my nieces Molly and Caroline. Inspired by Kath - and her assurances that this was a simple and quick pattern - I went on a small crocheting tear and zipped up a few scarves of my own. One of my giftees is allergic to wool, so I've been on the lookout for a funky, bulky yarn in cotton, silk, or acrylic.

No dice with a couple of the local shops I called. (One of them told me, "We only carry wool" in a tone of voice that would have been more appropriate if I'd asked her whether they had wool made out of human hair that had been lopped off the heads of unsuspecting women.)

Google to the rescue, of course.

My search led me to an outfit called, where I found a lovely acrylic yarn (if acrylic can ever be said to be truly 'lovely') and placed my order. That was on Sunday, and the yarn arrived today. It will make a beautiful scarf.

When I went to break the shipping box down for recycle, I found a small plastic bag rattling around inside that contained a tiny thank you note - and two pieces of wrapped hard candy. A little thing, but what a delighter. I may not have many occasions to order yarn online again, but I would definitely make my way to Y2Knit.

Maybe there's something about online yarn companies in general that makes them nice and thoughtful. Because there's a definite "first runner up" in this story.

In my wander around looking for yarn, I found a company called Halycon, in Bath Maine. I e-mailed them, asking them to recommend a non-wool yarn, and Susan Upham got back to me the next day. (I'd made my request on Monday.)

A couple of pieces of candy. A quick and cordial response. Two companies that I'll think very fondly of, even if I never order a skein of yarn again.

Why not an occasional delighter for a high-tech customer, too? Sometimes it's the small personal connections that make the difference, and the little things that mean a lot.

Mistake or Plan?

Over at Forbes, there's an article on the launch of Microsoft's Zune launch that asks whether Microsoft has forgotten in key group of people in the hyped launch of their new MP3 player: the people selling them in stores:

More alarming are some of the responses when [Piper Jaffrey analyst Gene] Munster's team asked salespeople about the Zune. "I've never heard of the Zune," one clerk said. "Who makes that (the Zune)?" asked another. Other clerks promoted some of Zune's features that Apple's iPod lacks. "The Zune is the same price as the iPod, but it has Wi-Fi and a built-in FM tuner," said one salesperson. "I love it; I have it and I love it," another said.

But is it selling? The Zune has fallen on online retailer's top sales rankings. On Nov. 16, the black Zune was the No. 7 best seller in Amazon's MP3 player list, according to Munster. By Nov. 20, it fell to no. 13. Today, it ranks No. 21, behind devices from Apple, Creative and SanDisk; the top five selling devices are all iPods.

Retail salespeople are a critical group when a main distribution channel for a product is the store shelf.

A company I worked for learned this the hard way; one of the products (from a division that I didn't work for) was a "smart phone." It was a telephone with a 4 or 6 line display and a little keyboard; you could use it get stock quotes, weather forecasts, horoscopes, or even send email. (Before you say, "Why would anybody want that?" note that this was when most homes didn't have any kind of Internet connection. It wasn't a terrible idea, just one that quickly became terrible as net access became common.)

The CEO often talked about one of the great marketing successes for the phone: it was available for sale in one of the office superstores. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell the people who worked in that store what it was. It was just the phone that cost three times as much as any other phone.

One day I was in one of those stores, and I went and found it on the shelf. It was sitting at the end of a display, not plugged in. I asked a salesman what it was. He had no idea.

That said, I'm not sure this is really a mistake on Microsoft's part. While the Zune appears to be a pretty good product, it lacks the cachet of the iPod, and Microsoft knows that. Promoting it to heavily to the folks who help customers at Best Buy and Circuit City would probably force them to evaluate it as an iPod substitute; and they'd probably find it lacking and pass that opinion on the customers.

I have a feeling Microsoft is content to let the buzz about Zune grow at the consumer level and allow sales to grow slowly - while they prepare newer models that will probably be a lot more interesting.

The last thing they need is Zune getting pegged early as a poor substitute for an iPod. I have a feeling that the decision to not push too hard at the channel level is intentional. Because ultimately, Microsoft is just not clueless enough to forget a major distribution channel.

Besides - they can afford to lose money on Zune for years. They've got lots of other revenue coming in. Apple, on the other hand, was saved from disaster by the iPod, and if its sales are eroded, they've got a problem. This is one competition where slow and steady probably wins the race.

Mistake or Plan?

Over at Forbes, there's an article on the launch of Microsoft's Zune launch that asks whether Microsoft has forgotten in key group of people in the hyped launch of their new MP3 player: the people selling them in stores:

More alarming are some of the responses when [Piper Jaffrey analyst Gene] Munster's team asked salespeople about the Zune. "I've never heard of the Zune," one clerk said. "Who makes that (the Zune)?" asked another. Other clerks promoted some of Zune's features that Apple's iPod lacks. "The Zune is the same price as the iPod, but it has Wi-Fi and a built-in FM tuner," said one salesperson. "I love it; I have it and I love it," another said.

But is it selling? The Zune has fallen on online retailer's top sales rankings. On Nov. 16, the black Zune was the No. 7 best seller in Amazon's MP3 player list, according to Munster. By Nov. 20, it fell to no. 13. Today, it ranks No. 21, behind devices from Apple, Creative and SanDisk; the top five selling devices are all iPods.

Retail salespeople are a critical group when a main distribution channel for a product is the store shelf.

A company I worked for learned this the hard way; one of the products (from a division that I didn't work for) was a "smart phone." It was a telephone with a 4 or 6 line display and a little keyboard; you could use it get stock quotes, weather forecasts, horoscopes, or even send email. (Before you say, "Why would anybody want that?" note that this was when most homes didn't have any kind of Internet connection. It wasn't a terrible idea, just one that quickly became terrible as net access became common.)

The CEO often talked about one of the great marketing successes for the phone: it was available for sale in one of the office superstores. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell the people who worked in that store what it was. It was just the phone that cost three times as much as any other phone.

One day I was in one of those stores, and I went and found it on the shelf. It was sitting at the end of a display, not plugged in. I asked a salesman what it was. He had no idea.

That said, I'm not sure this is really a mistake on Microsoft's part. While the Zune appears to be a pretty good product, it lacks the cachet of the iPod, and Microsoft knows that. Promoting it to heavily to the folks who help customers at Best Buy and Circuit City would probably force them to evaluate it as an iPod substitute; and they'd probably find it lacking and pass that opinion on the customers.

I have a feeling Microsoft is content to let the buzz about Zune grow at the consumer level and allow sales to grow slowly - while they prepare newer models that will probably be a lot more interesting.

The last thing they need is Zune getting pegged early as a poor substitute for an iPod. I have a feeling that the decision to not push too hard at the channel level is intentional. Because ultimately, Microsoft is just not clueless enough to forget a major distribution channel.

Besides - they can afford to lose money on Zune for years. They've got lots of other revenue coming in. Apple, on the other hand, was saved from disaster by the iPod, and if its sales are eroded, they've got a problem. This is one competition where slow and steady probably wins the race.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

MatrixStream: How to Screw Up Blog PR

One of the first blog strategies any organization should implement is PR - identifying bloggers who write about topics related to the organization, and doing outreach to them as you would with any opinion-maker (analysts, editors, writers, etc.).

And of course, sometimes this is done very badly. I offer this tale as an example of what not to do.

I started blogging not as a marketer, but as an individual. I started a personal blog some years ago when I was living in DC, mainly to find out what this whole blog thing was all about. Much to my surprise, people started reading it, it developed a following, and I was on my way in blogland.

And for a long time I had an email address on there - a special blog-specific address. Naturally, that address attracted spam. Most of it was the usual kind (Viagra! Breast enhancements!). But a year or so ago I started getting a steady stream of press released from someone named Aaron Keogh at a company called MatrixStream Technologies. Here's an excerpt from the latest:, the world's first 1080P high definition streaming Video on Demand ("VOD") and IPTV service for PC Player and IPTV receiver set top box (STB) clients will be launching this week.

The service to start, will offer over 700 free IPTV channels from over 70 countries, including standard definition and high definition channels to any broadband user with 1.5mbps speed or higher. A wide range of video on demand titles will be offered for a low monthly cost in the months to come with new TV channels and VOD titles being added each month.

(The earlier emails opened with a chatty "Hi John, it's Aaron at MatrixStream," as if I knew Aaron or had any reason to care who he was. That kind of fake familiarity sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to slap someone. Don't open your email with "Hi John, it's Aaron" unless we have some kind of existing relationship, and there's a single reason in the world I would actually know who "Aaron" is.)

Now, there's nothing on my personal blog to suggest that I'm a technology writer, or that I cover anything related to their business. So I replied to one of the emails and asked, "Why are you sending me this?'

No reply from Aaron. Another time, I was more direct: "Please stop sending me this. I'm not interested." Again, no reply.

This is PR as implemented by the hopelessly stupid: harvest a bunch of email addresses of bloggers, and start spamming. It's a good way to accomplish nothing useful, although I think it might be a violation of the CAN SPAM act.

Being a marketer, I just couldn't let it go. So I went to the company's web site, and in their press materials, found a press contact: a fellow named Gene Choi. I wrote to him, explained the background (the steady stream of spam from Aaron Keogh), told him I was planning to write about the company's PR approach on this blog, and said this:

Since part of my business is advising marketers on how to use email and blogs in their efforts, I'm using you guys as an example of what not to do - practices that are ineffective, annoying to those who might right about the company, and possibly illegal. I was curious, though, if this is actually part of planned PR efforts, and if there's a rationale for spamming bloggers that I'm missing. I'd like to include that in my piece to make it more complete.

Is anybody surprised that Mr. Choi hasn't responded? (Actually, it is. You're the PR guy. Someone writes and says, "I'm about to write about you, it will probably be negative, but I want to hear your side of things. You ignore them for days. Good approach? I think not.)

Okay, am I just kicking a little company that has clueless marketing and PR folks because they annoyed me? Well, maybe. But it's more than that.

People like the marketing practitioners at MatrixStream make life harder for the rest of us - the people who want to be professionals, do things that not only help our companies or clients but also accomplish that by providing some benefits to others we work with. Ideally, good PR doesn't just help the client; it helps the journalists writing about them by providing them with accurate information.

When people engage in these kind of amateurish PR-as-spam techniques, they create an environment where all of us have to work harder to be considered credible. They're a bit like the spammers who've created a whole email filtering industry that often blocks legitimate messages that the rest of us send. Or, more crudely, the people who visit a foreign country, behave like the stereotypical "ugly American," and leave those of us with a little respect for the places we visit to deal with the bad feelings in their wake.

And so my message to you is simple: if you are tempted to try something like MatrixStream's spam-the-world approach, just don't do it. It's the wrong thing to do. It makes it harder to be a marketer.

You may not see any immediate fallout, but you're degrading the overall marketing environment. Yes, you might get some good lead or story while most of your efforts just piss people off. But do you want to be the jerk that leaves the metaphorical Big Mac wrapper lying in the Grand Canyon?

Plus you'll have some pissed-off opinionated marketers talking trash about you.


Yesterday's weekly newsletter from Marketing Profs held its usual compendium of insghtful and useful articles.  As a board member and volunteer at a non-profit, I was particularly interested in Laura Ries on Seven Steps to Building a Strong Non-Profit Brand. Her steps were clear and straightforward, and used an interesting example of a friend who, as a child, had lost her mother to cancer. Kate had built a non-profit that helps kids who've lost a parent. The steps were all along the lines of treat-your-non-profit-the -way-you-would-a-business.  Yep, yep, yep. All well and good.

Then I got to Step 4:

4. The enemy

Every strong brand needs an enemy. This is something nonprofits by nature tend to avoid discussing. But strong brands are built by figuring out who the enemy is, and what the enemy stands for, and then building a brand that stands for the opposite.

Mercedes cars are big and comfortable. So BMW positioned itself as the ultimate driving machine with smaller, lighter, more-nimble cars. Listerine is the bad-tasting mouthwash, so Scope positioned itself as the good-tasting mouthwash. Home Depot is messy and male oriented, so Lowe's positioned itself as neat and female oriented.

Who is the "enemy" of Kate's Club? I think it is the American Cancer Society and other groups that focus on cancer patients and cancer survivors. Kate's Club is for the children left behind, the children whose parents were not survivors and who at a critical developmental stage have a hole left in their lives.



Non-profits have to recognize that they have competitors - for funds, for volunteers, for employees, for clients - and that they need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. But "enemy"? "Figuring out what the enemy is, and what the enemy stands for, and then building a brand that stands for the opposite"? Hardly.

In her example, Kate's Club surely competes with the American Cancer Society, as well as with charities that focus on the needs of kids. But how can a non-profit aimed at wiping out the disease that wiped out Kate's mother be characterized as the enemy? How does working with kids who've lost a parent "stand for the opposite" of the American Cancer Society. Highly differentiated, yes. Use the differentiation every way you can. Abosultely. But "stand for the opposite." I don't think so.

We face this all the time at St. Francis House in Boston. As a day shelter, we provide services to poor and homeless adults, and we compete for money and attention with a far larger night shelter, the Pine Street Inn. (I'm competitive enough not to put their link in here.) But at St. Francis House we share an ultimate goal with Pine Street, and that's helping the homeless. Our services are occasionally overlapping, but they're mostly complementary - referring guests back and forth. When people tell me they support Pine Street, I point out where our mission is different. We have a powerful story, and I hope we don't "cannibalize" donations from Pine Street.  But if it happens, well, good for us. I still can't and won't think of Pine Street as the enemy. When they raise money to build a whole slew of single room occupancy housing units for the homeless, that's great. "Our people" will have a place to live, not just a cot to sleep on. We never want to lose sight of that particular goal.

Maybe Laura's using such a strong term to make her point about non-profits having to think of themselves in competitive terms. 

In the business world, competitors don't tend to share an ultimate mission, once you get passed the "what's good for the industry..." bromides. You're competing for customers, revenues, market share...The competitor may well be an enemy, and you may well stand for the opposite. It's a little harder to think that way in the do-gooder world.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Life v2.0

So what's new in your second life?  

Business Week has a piece about businesses trying to set up shop in Second Life, the virtual reality created by Linden Lab of  San Francisco. If you've been hearing the buzz about it and wondered what it is, why it's important, and generally whether you should care, it's as good a place as any to start.

For real-life companies from Warner Bros. to Adidas to Intel seeking to brand themselves as hip and forward-thinking, virtual community Second Life has quickly become a trendy marketing and advertising outlet. Opening virtual offices or shops, selling and market-testing digital replicas of products, and creating 3D online personas or "avatars" in Second Life are becoming items on the to-do lists of those eager to tap into the nascent market. The three-year-old Web-based world has more than one million "residents" who spent $9 million in October on virtual land, products, and services. And while advertising's traditional outlets are losing eyeballs, so far this year the population of Second Life has increased 995% -- a growing potential consumer audience for marketing messages.

Second Life, of course, is still a work in progress. None of the companies spending real money to launch campaigns can yet gauge how successful their efforts will be, and virtual campaigns aren't without their own unique dangers. One problem is hackers, who periodically shut down Second Life. Linden Lab, the company behind the site, recently met with federal authorities to address this cybercrime. In addition, many long-time residents view the arrival of big brands as a threat to established mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. Annoyed vigilante residents have set off bombs -- via malicious computer code -- that destroy virtual buildings or cause the application on your computer to freeze. American Apparel has had to deal with virtual protesters scandalized by the scantily clad models in the company's real-world ads. And there is one weird technical glitch: When a space is swamped with visitors (more than 60 to 90), a bug in the system can make avatars' clothes disappear.

If you go visit Second Life now after hearing the hype, you may be underwhelmed. I've looked around a few times and it mostly seems to be avatars staring into space as people try to figure out what to do. Nevertheless, with 1.6 million "residents," it's something worth paying attention to - particularly as the technology improves.

Business Week has a tip sheet that offers some basic information. One thing they don't mention: some Second Life users are frustrated by what they see as a corporate invasion of their online world, so be ready for backlash if you're heavy-handed in your marketing efforts.

As the article notes, nobody can actually tell if they're making any money in Second Life. But I'd bet that someone will figure out how to, and be able to measure their results - eventually.

Singled Out: The New Yorker's Cover Switcheroo

No, I am not going to give up my New Yorker subscription because of it, but the November 27th edition (last week's mag) had an odd bit of something-or-other surrounding their cover. As everyone knows, the New Yorker covers are works of art unto themselves. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has a framed cover or two around, and I've certainly been in plenty of bathrooms that had a cover on the wall. (The guest bathroom at one college friend's house was papered in NY covers.)

If the November 27th edition had shown up with no comment on the cover, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. It wouldn't have been my all time favorite, or the all time worst. Just kind of middlin' blah. But on the inside, the editors reveal that there were four different covers for the week. I just happened to luck into the kind-of-boring one that was the most like a traditional NY cover, but not as interesting as the ones that someone, somewhere got.

Even that wouldn't have irked me until I was at my sister's and saw that her November 27th NY had a much "funner" cover than mine. I then asked a friend about her cover. She, too, got a better deal than I did. We all share similar zip codes, etc., so I can't for the life of me figure out why I got the boring cover and Kathleen and Ann got ones that were more interesting. But, of course, I'M NOT GONNA LET IT BOTHER ME.

Still, from a marketing point of view, I have to wonder what The New Yorker is after here. They're not soliciting feedback, or asking us to go online and vote for our favorite. (They do state that all four covers will be on their web site, but I can state in turn that if you get there a bit late in the game, i.e., on the "cover day" of November 27th, good luck trying to find them.)

So, what is it that they're trying to prove?

If this were some type of ingenious micro-marketing, I might be offering them some kudos. But that doesn't appear to be the case. So what exactly have they accomplished, other than signaling that they're willing to spend extra $$$ on a print run that doesn't benefit their readership in any particular fashion. If they wanted to play with the newsstand run, that would have been one thing. This I just don't get. If they wanted to do multiple cover versions for us loyal, long term subscribers they should have at least had the courtesy to let us see all of the different versions, full-sized. (The magazine does show thumbprint versions of each cover.)

Whatever aesthetic (i.e., artsy-fartsy) point they're trying to prove, from a marketing viewpoint, I must say that this effort doesn't cover their marketing department in any glory.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Google Maps Makes Me Want to Scream

I think we all understand that certain free services on the web are supported by ads, and are fine with it. Right up until the ads start interfering with using the service. For example: Google Maps.

I initially loved Google Maps. The interface is much nicer than what most of the other map sites offer.

But when you search for a business address, you get crap.

Right now, I'm trying to print out a map with directions to a hotel in Dallas. We're going up there this weekend; friends are having a Christmas party, and we're staying near their home (it's a four hour drive from here). So I wanted to print the directions to put with the hotel confirmation.

Except that Google is giving me a map that has a sidebar of ads for other hotels nearby. Fine, whatever. I can make that go away. But the map has a whole series of lettered pins, none of which are on the address I want to go to. Okay, I thought, maybe if I ignore this and click directions it will behave.

Well, no. When I do that, it shortens the address to Dallas, TX (no street address) and gives me directions to get to the center of Dallas. Which I don't need - you just drive up I-45 till you're there. I want to know how to get to my hotel, at the address I just typed in, but which Google Maps won't show me because it's so busy showing me ads for other hotels I could stay at.

This is the point where I realized that Google Maps is completely nonfunctional for getting directions to a business, went to Mapquest, and had what I needed in under 90 seconds. While the map printed I cursed Google for wasting time that I could have spent more productively doing... well, anything. Staring at the wall or talking to one of the cats would have been more rewarding.

I don't mind looking at ads in exchange for using a handy web tool. I do mind when the ads pre-empt the handy web tool. Google is usually much better that this; I'm surprised at how what a crappy job they've done with Google Maps.

Let's Get Small

Do you want your blog to be big? Really big? Okay, it's understandable, but as this Marketing Profs post points out, that might not really be the point.

The idea that you need to reach as many people as possible is just wrong. The power of your blog is not just that a lot of people read it; it's that it's relevant to them, and it creates dialog with and among your readers.

Yes, we all want lots of people to read what we write. I claim no superiority here; when our Technorati rank broke through the 1,000,000th mark, I sent a note to Sean and Maureen that said something like "Whoo, we're number 997,246!"

But don't get too obsessed with it. You're better off having a smaller core group of readers who are engaged, interested, and may become new colleagues, customers, business partners, resources, sounding boards, or take on any one of a number of other useful roles. (Even friends!)

Rankings are fun to watch, but don't confuse them for useful measurements of the value of your blog.

One final note: the source of that link above tickles me, because as marketing blogs, go, MarketingProfs is A-List!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Flag design review

It's a busy holiday weekend, and so my contributions here are definitely "Opinionated Marketers lite," but here's something to amuse you: a Flash piece about what might happen if national flag designs were reviewed by marketers. Enjoy!

Friday, November 24, 2006

"The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World"

I am exceedingly suspicious of any marketing claim that includes the words "Most Important," and I was frankly annoyed when I received a copy of a catalog from something called Heifer International that trumpeted their standing as "The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World". I harrumphed, but, looking at the cover, I did try to figure out what exactly they do. It didn't give me much of a clue: a picture of a couple of actors - the guy who played Josh on West Wing and the mother from Malcolm in the Middle (at least that's who I think she is) cuddling with a cud-chewing cow. (Actually, he's not chewing his cud, it's straw, and that thing on its head might be a horn, so it might be an ox. I'm a city girl, what would I know?) Other than "something to do with critters", I couldn't figure out what they were about.

Another odd things is that this catalog was addressed to my mother - who never lived here, and who has been dead for five years. So I'm guessing I've been getting this one a while, but have never looked at it.

Based solely on my annoyance over the "Most Important" claim I did open the damn thing. And damned if the work that Heifer International does isn't pretty important.

Your donation to Heifer is used to purchase livestock (cows, rabbits, goats, chickens) for brutally poor people so that they can scratch out a little more subsistence from their farming.

As I sit here deciding how much of a donation to make, I remain annoyed by not being able to tell from the cover of the catalog precisely what Heifer International does. I wish they'd had a picture of the little guy with the goat, rather than the TV stars. But their claim did get me to open the catalog - and my wallet.

Pretty good marketing, I'd say.

The Day After

As many of us are recovering from our Thanksgiving day indulgence today (hope yours was good), it seemed like a good day to note that in every health crisis, there's a market opportunity: in this case, a growing demand for personal trainers as American gets, well, larger. And as in most fast-growing markets, the not-so-good can do well along with the good.

The nation's aging, overweight population is fueling demand for personal trainers skilled at prodding the out-of-shape of all ages to get fit.

But there's no guarantee those buff trainers know the best workout for a 65-year-old man with heart disease or an obese woman in her 50s with diabetes.

Virtually anyone can become a certified trainer because there are no national educational standards for the field. Numerous Web sites offer personal trainer certification after just a few hours of online training — and a few hundred dollars.

That situation galls personal trainers like Ken Baldwin, who has seen people become disillusioned or injured by working with unqualified trainers.

The Purdue University instructor helped create that school's four-year undergraduate personal fitness trainer degree, which he believes is the first of its kind in the nation. The year-old program is built on Purdue's health and fitness major, which already focused on exercise physiology, basic health studies, fitness evaluation and program management, psychology and nutrition.

 So, if you decide that you need a trainer to help get back into your idea shape after this holiday season... check those credentials!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Really, you shouldn't have."

That's the tagline of, a web site dedicated the sometimes-controversial habit of passing along gifts you don't really want to other people. It was the subject of an AP story recently.

McGrigg noted that a survey done by MMC last year found that some 40 percent of respondents admitted that they had regifted. The main reasons were to save money, to save time or because they felt the recipient would like the item.

Some people writing the Web site share those attitudes. Others do not.

One woman wrote, for example, that her sister "thinks by putting a big bow on her regifts, no one will know they have been regifted." It seems the tactic didn't work last year because the woman last Christmas got back the gift she had given her sister a year earlier.

"I am thinking of wrapping it up again and giving it back to her this Christmas," the woman wrote.

 Whoops. There are right and wrong ways to do these things, of course. I was actually a little surprised by the money saving motivation; I can't remember ever actually regifting, but I would expect I might do it because I just wanted to get rid of something, and knew someone who'd appreciate it.

The site is informational in nature. They have regifting tips, and users can submit their regifting stories (there's a contest for the best stories right now). As I looked through it, though, I though they were missing an opportunity.

With all those unwanted gifts collecting dust, maybe setting up a regifting market would be a viable business. It would be a way for you to get rid of those gifts that you don't really want, and can't imagine giving anybody... or finding that perfect weird item for somebody else.

Maybe, maybe not; I suspect eBay already fills that niche.

If nothing else, perhaps the site will help avoid those unpleasant moments when you realize that you've just given a gift back to the person who gave it to you in the first place.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Jones for a Jones?

I've long suspected that consumer marketers could have more fun with their products than those of us who have labored in the B2B or B2T or T2T or G2G (geeks selling to geeks) world I've built my career in. Not that development tools, IT controls management software, and DSP boards aren't fun, it's just that....

So it was with a slight trace of envy that I watched the Jones Soda marketers hit town. Boston Filter had a piece yesterday on their pie-flavored sodas, which sounded weird but digestible. Then one of the TV news outlets picked up on their even more unusual flavors: Turkey and Gravy soda anyone? Guess there's no more "Kids, you'll spoil your dinner!" warnings in households that pick up a Holiday Pack of Jones, that also includes Dinner Roll, Sweet Potato, Pea, and - thankfully - Antacid soda. And I thought Moxie - an old-time New England "tonic" that tastes like boiled tire treads -  was bad.

Jones soda is, of course, having some fun here, but it's fun with a good cause. If you buy the Dessert Pack (fruit pie flavors), a donation goes to St. Jude's Hospital for Children. If you really bite the bullet - or whatever the equivalent is for ghastly soda (gag the giblet for the turkey soda?) - and go for the Holiday Pack, the donation goes to Toys for Tots.

Great way for Jones to grab some headlines, do some good, and have some fun while they're at it. Nice marketing all round. I'm sure that the Holiday Packs show up as gag gifts (gag, indeed), stocking stuffers, and Yankee Swap items. (Note to my siblings: I've got dibs on this one.)

Real Bad News

One of my ongoing complaints with the consumer software industry is its utter contempt for customers. From installers that litter your PC with shortcuts and icons to take you to sales pitches (Quicken, anybody?) to partnerships that that mean that installing one piece of software leaves you with extra stuff you didn't want on your computer, the whole experience of downloading or buying software leaves you feeling like you're dealing with someone who wants to take control of your computer. Because obviously, you couldn't know on your own what software you want or what should be on your desktop or anything like that.

And one of the worst offenders, in my experience, is Real Networks. Today, for the first time in ages, I downloaded Real's free player. I have been avoiding it, because my past experiences with Real were so awful - software that demands to know who you are then installs all kinds of extraneous crap on your PC when you just wanted to watch a video clip. (I remember one fun feature: if you didn't notice you had to scroll down in one of the install boxes, you wound up "opting in" to all kinds of email and extra software.)

But today there was something I wanted to see, you had to have Real Player to see it, and so I relented.

I downloaded it, ran the installer, and then carefully unchecked all the little boxes so that it wouldn't install twenty-seven different shortcuts all over my machine, add it to the quick start bar, and tattoo a Real logo on my ass.

And so it began installing. And then it stopped installing. For ten minutes, it's hung at "99% done" - and told me it was installing the Google Toolbar.


I didn't ask for the Google Toolbar. I didn't check a box to get the Google toolbar. Nothing anywhere mentioned the Google Toolbar.

I don't want the Google Toolbar. (And whether the Google Toolbar is good or bad is irrelevant - it's my PC and I didn't ask for it.)

Why do software companies do this? I'm sure somewhere along the way somebody from Google and somebody from Real got together and thought it would be just lovely if people downloading a video player got a new toolbar for their browser. And if the way it worked was to offer it, with an easy way to say no, that would have been fine. But no.

I canceled out of the Google Toolbar installation, and Real finished, and went on to demand all kinds of information, try to make itself my default media player, and so on. The usual sociopathic Real behavior.

The experience left me with this thought about Real and their products: I hate them and will probably uninstall it as soon as I've watched the content I wanted to see. Anything connected to their name will make me run the other direction.

That's probably not what they were after. And sadly, this isn't unique to them; they're just particularly ham-handed about it.

We are told that customer interactions are a great place for cross-selling, and it's true. But it needs to be done in a way that respects the customer.

Imagine if you went to Best Buy and bought a DVD player, and instead of being asked if you wanted the extended service plan and finding a Netflix coupon in the box, someone was out in the parking lot putting some extra products in your trunk, there was a Netflix coupon plastered across your windshield so you couldn't go home till you'd done something with it, and when you turned on the car radio you heard a sales pitch for the service plan. Then when you got home, the living room was rearranged and the DVD player now controlled your iPod and your coffee maker.

You'd never go back, would you?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Managing Leads

Managing leads is a topic that always worth revisiting, because it's a place where things so often go wrong. I won't repeat the points in this great little MarketingProfs piece on the subject, but I'll call attention to one of their recommendations: "Know the sales process."

In most effective sales organizations, the sales force adheres to a standard set of practices that pertains to sales stages, training, forecasting, quota, bonuses, activity levels and how they pursue and generate leads.

A considerable amount of time is spent training and developing these sale processes, yet Marketing rarely has a firm grasp on how or why salespeople perform their duties. Yet, without that knowledge, how can marketers possibly expect Sales to take them (or their leads) seriously?

Ask yourself, when is the last time a member of your marketing team was seen in the "sales pit" or on sales calls? If you can't remember... it's been too long.

I've seen this part ignored so many times, but it's critical. If your processes for managing leads (particularly scoring them and handing them off to sales) aren't in sync with the sales team, things are not going to work. And while you may think that the way things are done in sales is not right, in most cases you're better off working with it first and then talking the your sales management about how you think it can be improved.

Otherwise, as happens all too often, you'll have a sales team complaining about "those worthless marketing leads" and become the handy scapegoat when somebody misses their quota.

Getting to the Point

A week or so ago, Mary Schmidt had an excellent post on the uses and abuses of Power Point . She focuses on just four points, which she gets across quite concisely, and which I'll boil down even further: 

  1. The presentation is for your customer (not you)
  2. Keep the preso simple and uncluttered, but KNOW THY MATERIAL
  3. It's okay to have a long, detailed, wordy PPT if it's a leave-behind, rather than a stand up preso
  4. Make sure your name, company, etc. are on each page

This latter one is actually something I haven't given that much thought to, but she's dead on: if someone pulls a couple of slides out of your preso to circulate, you want to make sure that they know where it comes from!

The best point Mary makes is her #1 - and for good reason.  Here's Mary:

Your presentation isn’t supposed to be designed for your comfort. It’s supposed to be designed for your audience’s interest. I once worked with a colleague who had to put tons of data on her slides otherwise, “I won’t be comfortable presenting the material.” Well, after a few times of watching the audience sink into glazed overload – she agreed with me that it wasn’t about her. Ta-Da!

Is there anything worse than watching a presentation while the presenter, with his/her back half to you, reads details off of an eye-chart? That's why point #2 is so important: keep the info on the slide to a minimum, but complement what's on the slide with your knowledge.

And there's no underestimating the importance of your knowledge. If you're giving a presentation that someone else has created, you need to know how to fill in the blanks for yourself. I go trapped once by this. My boss and I shared a presentation that we gave at breakfast seminars, and one or the other of us was always adding to it. It usually worked out okay, but in one instance Drew added a chart that I didn't quite "get." It made sense when he presented it, but there was something about it that wasn't quite clear to me. I rehearsed it and all, but I was never that comfortable with the point. And it showed! I tried to make my way through it, but ended up giving up. I explained to my audience that it wasn't my slide and I really didn't get it, and they just laughed. But the lesson was learned. You need to have your material internalized or you'll just end up looking dumb.

Thanks to Mary for the reminders.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Coffee Competition

Say "biggest national chain of coffee shops" and most people will think Starbucks. They're wrong. MarketingProfs writes about America's biggest coffee retailer in terms of cups sold: Dunkin Donuts. 

The interesting part is that Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are not really competing head on.

The campaign is a portent of the chain’s plan for national expansion over the coming decade, and in many locations in the Northeast, Dunkin’ Donut stores sit cheek by jowl with Starbucks’ stores. Media scuttlebutt has it that Dunkin’ Donuts is aiming to have about 15,000 stores nationwide by 2015, which is unconfirmed by the company. However, Mr. Rodriguez has gone on the record stating that the company has its sights set on “$10 billion in sales by 2010.”

Rather than trying to compete with Starbucks as another “Third Place,” it looks like Dunkin’ Donuts is leveraging its unique strengths to position itself in an entirely different way. Armed with its staple Original Blend that thousands of fans eagerly consume on a daily basis, and a full range of flavored coffees, espresso products, chai and hot chocolate, beverages contribute over 60% of the company’s total sales. Legions of faithful fans prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee over Starbucks and every other brand.

That brand loyalty is something. I'm from New England, which means that when I started drinking coffee, it was usually from the Dunkin Donuts in my hometown in Connecticut. And whenever I'm back in that part of the world, I usually find myself gravitating back to the familiar pink and orange sign. (And while there are five Dunkin Donuts locations in Houston, I've never set foot in one, and not just because they're in remote suburban locations: somehow, it just doesn't seem like a Texas thing to me.)

Maybe, as a friend once joked, they just put crack in the coffee so you're hooked for life.

Calling the market where Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts operate the "coffee shop market" misses an important point: markets can be mapped and segmented in all kinds of ways, and companies that stake out the right places in those markets don't get into difficult, profit-killing battles as much. I would guess that Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts often have the same customers - just at different times. Dunkin Donuts on your way to the office, Starbucks to sit a while and relax. It's a good approach for both companies.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Jury's Out

Normally, I hate it when web designers get clever with navigation. I don't want to have to figure out your Flash-based navigation system when I visit a site; I want it to behave in predictable ways when I visit so I can find what interests me. I want it to be fast. Watching a "site loading!" graphic when I just wanted some basic info usually makes me just leave the site altogether.

My goal is to find what I need, not to sit in awe of your design prowess and conclude that you must own more turtlenecks and cool shoes than the other designers. It's not about you, it's about me.

That said, I'm really not sure what I think of this site for some condos in Atlanta. It has a funky layout that feels like sliding around a globe. But it works well, is kind of cool - and is supplemented with a more traditional set of links up at the top. (I wonder if that was something that the designer didn't want to do but the client insisted on.)

What do you think?  

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sometimes You Need to Ignore Your Most Passionate Customers

Every marketers wants passionate customers - people so in love with your product that they will tell all their friends about it, set up fan sites, post to their blog about it, and generally become your most dedicated product evangelist for no personal reward other than the happiness of talking about something they love.

And sometimes, you need to ignore them.

One of the big tech news stories this week has been the release of Microsoft's Zune music player, Redmond's bid to take a bite out of Apple's dominant iPod. Like any Supernerd vs the Black Turtleneck smackdown, it's led the true believers to start slugging it out all over the web.

This Mac News piece, " How Zune Will Try to Take Down the iPod," is interesting because it highlights the dangers of listening to your true believers too much.

Writer John Martellaro writes about the Zune introduction in terms of Microsoft's plans for the entertainment market - which is smart - but ultimately criticizes Microsoft for business savvy - which is strange:

The Zune gives Microsoft a ticket to:

  • Negotiate with record labels and Indies;
  • Negotiate with Hollywood studio execs;
  • Give away (where legal) Zunes to build corporate good will;
  • Poison Apple's dealings with other clients and partners; and
  • Develop product placement and visibility on TV.

In other words, the Zune gives Microsoft a product platform with which to attack the iPod on business grounds. You see, Apple has always been good at vision and creating products that inspire. Apple, in the past, hasn't been so good at hard-nosed business deals, losing degrees of freedom, and certain kinds of business partnerships that are typical in the corporate world. Microsoft is very, very good at these kinds of things. The result is that, in time, Microsoft will be able to exert the kind of business leverage that has always been distasteful to Apple.

Isn't that fascinating? We like Apple because they don't like to sully themselves with... you know... business.

I'm a nonpartisan in this religious war. I've owned many Apple products over the years (and still do, including an iPod). I've also owned lots of Windows PCs and Microsoft software. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. There are, of course, two great myths of the Apple crowd:

Our stuff just works! Well, the products are beautiful and often innovative but... I wish I'd recorded my hours of phone conversations with AppleCare about the Airport base station that always vanishes off of the radar of any Mac five minutes after it's configured. Nobody ever solved that one. Or the ones about my lovely flat-panel iMac, the crankiest computer I've ever owned, with its penchant for randomly resetting the monitor brightness to minimum when you start it, or for the Finder to partially crash about once every two days forcing a hard restart....

My point isn't that Apple's bad, it's that computers are extremely complex systems and they all screw up.

This article comes from the bigger myth: Microsoft is evil and Apple is good! No, they're both corporations who want to make money. Apple's no worse than most, but given their mediocre record on environmental issues (they could learn from Dell about recycling their stuff), their current program to sue anyone who uses the word "pod," and that sort of stuff, it's amazing to me that people can forget that they are a moneymaking enterprise that will do well by making smart business decisions. Like the ones Microsoft seems to be making.

And as a business partner, Microsoft is very good. In another life I was simultaneously a partner of Microsoft and IBM, and the difference was shocking. Microsoft made it really easy for us to use their technology and resell their products. IBM made us crawl through broken glass, even when our numbers were great. (This was a few years ago, and hopefully things are different now.)

Over the years Apple has had an unfortunate habit of drinking their own Kool-Aid, which has led them to their current tiny market share in the PC world. Hopefully they're smarter than that these days.

But if anyone in Cupertino is patting themselves on the back about the dedication of their most dedicated customers (who, honestly, tend to creep out lots of other potential customers - if I buy this Mac, am I going to become one of those irritatingly smug Apple people?), they ought to stop.

Those customers will buy Apple products even if they cost twice as much as the competition and are packaged in razor wire. It's everybody else they need to worry about.

If you've got those kinds of dedicated customers, too, congratulations: you've done something amazing. Just don't be so in love with them that you forget the rest of the market.

e-Mail Marketing: Non-Profit Division

Earlier this week, I attended a Board Meeting at St. Francis House, which provides multiple services (life-sustaining and rehabilitative) for the poor and homeless in Boston. (Disclosure: I'm a long-time SFH board member, and a volunteer, but I have nothing whatsoever to do with their marketing - other than being a devoted, enthusiastic member of the SFH family.) Part of the meeting was given over to SFH's new online marketing efforts, which include e-mail marketing.

The presentation on the online work was probably over-long for most of the board members (lawyers, finance types, real estate developers....), but as a marketing person, I found it very interesting to see how our donations have picked up and how we're attracting younger donors, etc.

Then just yesterday I received a Thanksgiving e-mail from St. Francis House that included multiple links to online giving opportunities.

On Thanksgiving Day -- and every day -- St. Francis House gives our guests more than just a meal. We give them hope and a chance to rebuild their lives. With your support, we can help them change their lives for the better, and leave homelessness behind for good. And that is something to be thankful for.

With our special Thanksgiving gift catalog, St. Francis House has made it easy for you to give our guests a reason to give thanks. This simple online holiday giving catalog shows just how much of an impact your gift can have:

Just $25 dollars could buy a winter coat that makes the difference between life and death during a long, freezing night outside....

If went on in the same vein, but with ample opportunities to click through and make a donation at many different dollar levels. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, but I haven't seen this before from other non-profits. (Maybe I'm not on enough e-mail donor lists.) I'm guessing it will work out very well for St. Francis House. Those of you involved with non-profits might want to check it out. (And anyone who's interested in learning more about St. Francis House and the truly wonderful work they do, should check it out, too.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Advice for Letting Go

Return Path has some good advice on a topic many email marketers get wrong: the unsubscribe process.

Yes, someone who's unsubscribing from your list is leaving and is unlikely to be a future customer... but you should still make the process as pleasant as possible. If you do, they might come back.

(And if you don't, you might wind up violating the CAN-SPAM law.)

This should be very simple, but often it doesn't work very well. I recommend checking your process against the five best practices that Return Path lists. There's no excuse for getting this one wrong - nothing they recommend is difficult.

I think I should forward this on to the nice marketing people at AT&T, since they have such trouble with the whole subject! 


Yesterday I got an e-mail from Bitpipe that looked like such a nice piece of micro-marketing, I almost got goosebumps. It alerted me to an article on a somewhat obscure topic that is of EXTREME INTEREST to one of my clients. Excitedly, I clicked right through, filled in forms for not one but two online pubs that I swear I already subscribe to.

(And, boy, do I hate those forms where I have to admit that I have no IT spending authority, that I'm at best an influencer, that my budget is between $0 and $50K, and that my company has between 0 and 100 employees.  I want to see a little checkbox that says "Marketing Consultant" that lets me by-pass all those other questions. It never seems to have any impact on whether or not I get the free subscription. No matter how honestly I answer, I always get approved. And the publications are left with a non-buyer e-mail address in their database.)

Anyway, I was so eager to get this article of interest that I (almost) happily filled in the info.  Then what to my wondering eyes did appear?  An article that was a year and a half old that I'd already found by googling.

Naturally, there was also insult to injury. The place profiled in the article was a company where I and others of the Opinionated Marketers persuasion had once worked. And the person quoted extensively in the article was a fellow who was on the opposite side of an amazingly pitched battle that the Opinionated Marketers'  former manager had gotten himself engaged in (on the losing side). Seeing his name reminded me of the good old days when the "Man Your Battle Stations" alerts would kick in periodically. Talk about things I don't miss about the corporate world...

If Bitpipe is going to get me all jazzed up about some goodie, I truly don't mind if it turns into a bit of a stroll down memory lane. I just want it to be current news. In this day and age, something 18 months old doesn't generally qualify.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Zune Hits the Market

Yesterday Microsoft launched their Zune... digital media player? Personal music player? It's a measure of how thoroughly Apple has captured this market that I want to find myself wanting call the Zune "Microsoft's iPod."

The player itself appears to be a solid offering, no iPod-killer but a good competitive entry into the market that should probably be seen as a prototype for more interesting devices to come. The marketing has been pretty solid, I think.

As I was reading reviews and comments about it yesterday, I came across a site called ZuneScene. It appears to be a fan site run by people who love the Zune and hate Apple. It's amateurish, filled with spelling errors and bad writing, but clearly enthusiastic. And it's got a disclaimer explaining that it's not affiliated with Microsoft.

Turns out this is just one of many such sites.

I'm just cynical enough to wonder what real relationship, if any, there is between these sites and Microsoft. Perhaps the whole Wal-Mart blog mess is still fresh in my mind. I haven't been able to find anything answering that question.

If I had an off-the-record conversation with the Zune marketing folks in Redmond, though, this is the question I'd want to ask: "How did you get all those sites to appear?" The product only appeared yesterday - there can't be a community of dedicated users yet, can there?

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft created them. But I think their people are smart enough to have realized that one of the strengths of the iPod in the market is that people love the things so much that entire companies have sprung up to make accessories - and sites like iLounge are there to guide customers through it.

It would be smart for Microsoft to have decided to try to help feed a Zune user ecosystem by identifying people who were likely advocates and showering them with love (and Zunes and information) in advance. Did they do that? If so, they were smart.

Apple is far ahead in this area (as with sales) but having watched them in the past, I suspect some of the iPod fanatics are doing their thing despite Apple, not because of them. 

It will be interesting to watch the progress of Zune.  

(A side note: iLounge used to be called iPod Lounge. I suspect the name changed because of Apple's new quest to sue everybody who uses the word "pod." It's one of the reasons Apple shouldn't be complacent about Zune; their products are great and innovative but the company itself is often heavy-handed and unresponsive to its customers. Many of us who have used Apple products over the years have a love/hate attitude toward the company, and simultaneously want to see them to well and want to see somebody eat their lunch. They could learn something about relating to customers and partners from Microsoft.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Be Right Back

I was at a client's office yesterday, and we broke around 1 p.m. to head downstairs to grab lunch at the pre-fab sandwich and salad cafe, only to be met by a sign that read "Back in 5 Minutes."

Just what kind of customer communication is this, anyway? None of us had seen the cashier leave, so how were we supposed to know when the 5 minutes were going to be up? Yet you see signs like this posted all the time at small shops - "Back in an Hour", "Back in a While," "Be Right Back."

As it happened, the cashier bustled back in while we were making fun of the sign. She was a bit smokey, so my guess is that she went out side to grab a cigarette, so the 5 minute estimate was just about right. Not that we would have stood there waiting for 5 minutes, but this at least within the bounds of reason.

"Back in an Hour"? "Back in a While"? What's that supposed to mean.

Every small shop should get themselvs one of those little clock signs with the movable hands. That way customers will know that if the thick hand is on the ten, and the thin hand is on the two, they'll be back at 10:10.

As marketers, we all need to occasionally place ourselves on the other side of the door we're posting our messages on and ask ourselves just how our customers might be receiving them.

Ads, Ad, Everywhere

Fellow marketers, please try to remember: consumer really aren't excited by the chance to see ads everywhere they turn. They view them as interruptions. They resent them.

Shel Holtz just wrote about an unwanted ad experience in his Road Weary blog (a blog which is always great reading for those of us who have taken too many business trips). 

After checking into a Marriott hotel in Toronto, he did what most of us do: fired up his laptop. Here's what happened:

I noticed earlier that spam-like banner ads were showing up in my browser. I would navigate to a page that I knew had no ads, and one would appear anyway, mostly touting online poker. Curious, I clicked on over to my own blog, and the same ad showed up there...

I assumed I had picked up some adware. Since the laptop is new, I haven’t had a chance to install spyware/adware software, so I paid for AdAware Pro and ran it. The ads kept showing up. A little investigation determined that all these ads link to a company called Superclick. I visited their site and learned more than I wanted to, enough to get my blood boiling. Superclick provides a guest interface for hotels that includes in-room services, which is fine. But it’s also dishing up these ads. So anybody staying at a property using Superclick who visits my blog will see an ad associated with it. I would never take advertising from an online poker site, and if I did, I’d expect to get some of the revenues.

Instead, I’m paying $12.95 per day to see these ads.

That’s right; that’s what the internet connection costs.

Do you find that appalling? I do. Most of us have gotten used to the idea of ads to subsidize free services. In this case, however, the ads are an extra that comes with an overpriced service.

Not to mention that additional issue of ads appearing on-screen with sites that have nothing to do with them... something that any site publisher (like any of us with blogs) should be irate about.

Needless to say, this doesn't endear Marriott to Holtz:

However, I am now disgusted with the hotel, and with Marriott in general.

(I can't resist adding that I cannot stand Marriott hotels and avoid them at all costs; the Marriott-branded ones tend to be incredibly mediocre for the price, and a few stays at their Courtyard properties convinced me that they have a corporate policy of building all of them with walls made of tissue paper. After a sleepless night a few years ago listening to the people in the room next door having what sounded like intimate moments followed by furniture-throwing contests over and over, I swore off the entire chain.)

Marriott strives to be a high-quality hotel (though they fail, I think); I doubt they'd put ads over the toilet in the bathroom or on the towels or on the ceiling over the bed. Why did they think it was a good idea on your laptop? I hope plenty of regular Marriott customers complain (and ask for refunds for their Internet service) until they stop.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Moving Targets

The other day, my mobile phone beeped to tell me I had a text message. This usually means someone I know is trying to reach me, so I grabbed it and looked to find... a message from Cingular (my provider) telling me about international calling rates.

Typical irritation marketing, with an extra annoyance factor: I've carefully opted out of all such advertising messages. It seems that every company periodically decides to ignore its customers stated preferences and do this. (It's been happening repeatedly with AT&T, our local phone company in Texas; no matter how many times you tell them you don't want email, they just keep sending it. My only conclusion: their marketers are idiots.)

I was going to write about here, but then I thought, Wait, this all seems strangely familiar. And so here is a post from two years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same...


The language of marketing is filled with some unfortunate metaphors. We've all talked about out targets - you know, that audience that we're trying to reach. When we hit our target we expect them to respond in certain ways. There are whole disciplines of marketing that are concerned with getting those targets to react to our marketing in predictable ways (that result in revenue).

It's easy to forget that those targets are people just like us. This week I had one of those helpful reminders of what it is like to be on the other end of marketing - to be the target.

A few months ago my mobile phone started buzzing at me. I had a new text message. I have several friends with whom I exchange regularly text messages. We have conversations that are a bit like IM, but spread over hours and days. I looked at the message.

This message was not from a friend; it was from AT&T Wireless, my mobile carrier, and it was informing me of some contest I could participate in that involved a pop group of interest to no one over the age of 30. At the end of the message were instructions on how to opt-out of text messaging marketing.

I went to the URL specified in the message and followed the instructions to opt out. End of story, right? Wrong. A few weeks later I got another message, this time about an extra-fee service I could use. Once again, I opted out.

A few weeks later, guess what? Yet another advertising message from AT&T Wireless.

These things are annoying to begin with. For a marketer, they are doubly annoying; not only are you getting pestered by spam text messages on your mobile phone, but you are being reminded that some marketer out there is doing something really wrong, and making it harder for the rest of us. This time, I called the AT&T Wireless customer service line and asked for help.

After about half an hour on the phone, a representative assured me that the problem was solved, and I would not be getting more of the text message spam.

This week, it happened again; I received a message telling me about a service to help identify song titles using my mobile phone (at a dollar a pop).

What's happening here? Someone in the marketing group at AT&T Wireless decided that the text messaging capabilities of their customers' mobile phones were an ideal ad delivery channel. This was their first error. It's not surprising to find this kind of thinking from a telecommunications company; this is an industry whose reputation for treating customers poorly is legendary (and well deserved). No one at AT&T Wireless seems to have stopped and thought, "Would I want my mobile phone interrupting me with advertising messages?" It's even more irritating than garden variety telemarketing, because with mobile phones, you're likely to get the message while driving, or while you're in a meeting (this was the case with one of the offending messages in my case), or at some other inconvenient time.

So AT&T Wireless went ahead. Someone apparently realized that if you're going to start a campaign to massively annoy your customers, you need to give them some way to get out of it, so they added opt-out instructions to the messages and set up a web page for opting out.

Unfortunately, that web page doesn't seem to connect to any system for then actually opting out of the messages. I visited the "customer support forum" on the AT&T Wireless web site, where customers can post messages to discussion boards about questions or problems. Sure enough, I'm not the only one who can't opt out and make the spam stop; this is not some isolated problem, but just dumb marketing combined with a broken system on the part of AT&T Wireless.

There is, though, one way to opt out of the messages, and that's to opt out of AT&T Wireless services altogether. I've talked to friends who use other mobile carriers and none of them are having this problem.

Now, I have been a happy AT&T Wireless customer. I like my phone. I am very happy with the coverage and reliability of their network. I am happy with my bill; the rates are not the cheapest out there, but they are quite reasonable. I spend nearly $100 a month with AT&T Wireless. Now, in a misguided attempt to get a few more dollars out of me, their marketers have succeeded in convincing me to switch carriers and lose my business altogether.
This is bad business in a market like wireless services, where penetration is high and carriers are fighting over pieces of a fairly mature market.

What marketers have to remember is that the "target" is actually a group of people. When you send marketing messages to that target, you're not feeding information into a black box and seeing what comes out the other end. You are making a permanent and possibly damaging impression on that target, and if you are not careful, that target will respond in unexpected and perhaps damaging ways. Such as deciding not to do business with you anymore.

When you're marketing to your own customers, you need to be even more careful.

Next time you are trying to predict how the target market will react to your program, stop and do a reality check. If you are using some new medium that may be seen as invasive or annoying, be very careful, and do a small text. Think about whether you'd want to be part of that particular target.

Or just ask. For example, AT&T Wireless could have offered me unlimited outgoing text messages (which costs them almost nothing) in exchange for opting in to receiving advertising messages at a reasonable frequency. I pay for my text messages, and probably would have said yes to that. (I don't pay much, but it's something; and when I received those ad messages, I would have thought, "Well, this is what I have to get to send all those free messages.")

Unfortunately, the marketers at AT&T Wireless didn't about people receiving advertising text messages; instead they thought about target markets and incremental revenue and treated their customers like passive recipients of advertising, rather than people with whom they had a business relationship.

I'm not sure what the text messages cost them to send, but in the case of this customer, the net revenue is negative $1200 per year. Anyone feel like calculating the ROI on that program?

In Praise of PDFs

Years ago, I returned from vacation hoping to see a brochure that I'd slaved over back from the printer. I was running marketing for a small software company and we were spending big time (by our standards) for this piece. We'd hired a designer, we had a great concept and copy (mine), and I was really psyched.

When I got to my office, a copy was on my desk, with a big fat typo on page 1 circled. Ouch. Actually, it wasn't a typo, it was a homonym-o, or whatever the word is for that condition in which you think one word and type another. (I.e., a condition in witch u think won word and type another. U no the write word, u really due, but something else comes out of your fingertips.) Anyway, their, errrrr, there it was. (I can't remember exactly what the problem was: your/you're, there/their, hour/our - but it was on page 1.)

I actually considered dumping the run and reprinting it, but, as my boss pointed out, we didn't have the $5K (and no one would notice, anyway).

I knew, of course, that it could have been worse. One place I'd worked did a very expensive brochure for a product called "Data Window". Too bad it came out "Data Widow."

Still, what should have been a portfolio piece made me shudder everytime I looked at it.

This all came to mind just now as I was proofing some data sheets for a client.

A lot of it was nits, some not so nits: "it" should be "IT", "faulty" should be "faculty". And I was reading carefully. But it sure takes the pressure off knowing that these pieces will live only as pdf's. No, we do not want prospects to download sloppily proofed collateral that will reflect poorly on the company, and we'll all do our best to see that this doesn't happen. But, phew, knowing that they're not going to be spending thousands of dollars on a big print one makes this task a whole lot less nerve-wracking. (Or should that be a "hole lot less nerve-racking"?)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pricing Games

It's that time of year when the my mailbox is filled with catalogs. Which makes me quite happy; I need to buy Christmas gifts for a number of people, and I'm not going to a mall to do it. (I don't even like to go to shopping malls the rest of the year; one of the benefits of city living, in my opinion, is that you almost never have to endure that particular assault on the senses.)

Of course I always look at the catalogs as a marketer as well as a customer, and it's interesting to see what retailers do to get me to buy from them.

The other day a little Bose catalog showed up in my mailbox. I bought one of their Acoustic Wave stereos a few years ago, and I love it; I've also got their noise-canceling headphones, another great product that made a number of 9-hour flights between Houston and Paris this year far more pleasant. I like their products a lot.

There's just one thing about their catalog that makes me nuts: the actual prices of the products are in tiny, tiny print over much larger type that tells me what the monthly payment for the product will be.

So, for example, if I wanted a new Acoustic Wave System II, the price is - $102.33? No, that's impossible!

Of course it is. It's actually $1228. I had to look fairly hard to find that. Like most people, I flip through catalogs quickly, and it wasn't until I slowed down that I noticed the real prices in small print above the monthly-payment prices.

By that time, I was already thinking that Bose was trying to lure people into making silly monthly payments and racking up interest charges, kind of acting as a Rent-A-Center of high end electronics. I hate that; I'm one of those old-fashioned people who thinks that if you don't have the money right now for a piece of electronics, you just don't buy it. (Borrowing for a house: fine. Borrowing for a car: OK in a pinch, but avoid it. Borrowing for all else: bad idea.)

Which is really unfortunate, because if you do the math, Bose is actually offering you 12 payments that add up to exactly the same price as paying all at once - in other words, a no-interest loan. That is a good deal.

It's funny how that minor thing - the way prices were presented visually - had me thinking that Bose was playing tricks, when in fact they're offering a good deal.

These are items where the total price is important, because most people comparison shop. By making that hard to find, Bose nearly had their catalog heading straight to the trash bin in my house. Now it's actually sitting on the pile with other catalogs for an afternoon of gift shopping via catalog and laptop. Close call!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Don't Confuse Tactics with Strategy

There's an an interesting post at Vario Creative Blog in which Anthony Vario describes an excellent software port project:

In order to get the product right, she started by talking with customers.  They were literally pulled into the development process.  A monthly newsletter was instituted to make the development process as transparent as possible.  Each and every newsletter had a call to action to call or email and keep the discussion going.  It did.  In fact, the circulation of the newsletter expanded dramatically as the users added the names of other interested parties within their organizations.  Customer support discussed the development when they had users on the phone. 

When they were ready, they identified a single beta customer to help launch the product.  Once that customer was live, they put together a simple 5 minute recorded Webex demo and included a link to special homepage, with a new product datasheet, access to the demo, and a call to action to schedule a one on one demo of the working product.

My analytics package showed that within the first 24 hours, the demo was watched by over 20% of the newsletter subscription list.

There's more, and it's worth reading; if you want a quick summary of the right way to handle an upgrade in which you could lose all of your customers, this is it.

But it left me scratching my head, because it came out of a discussion on the blog about whether the press release was dead (I don't think so) and this was given as an example of a new kind of marketing.

As I read it, I thought, this is good, but it's not new. This is how smart marketers and product managers have handled upgrades for a long time. Sure, maybe there weren't email newsletters and webex demos in the past, but conceptually, this is nothing new; it's just easier thanks to new technology.

Vario gives four reasons that this is new and different:

1. It was realized from the beginning that the customers had to be engaged, that in fact they had ownership of the brand.
2. Technology wasn’t used for technologies sake, instead she used the media that was most likely to reach her core customers.
3. By securing her existing customers as part of the process, she kept a percentage of them from jumping ship.
4. The project was accomplished with a virtually non-existent marketing budget. In fact, the only things that came out of the MarComm dept. were the final press release, the time it took to format the product datasheet, plus a couple hours of webmaster time sending the newsletter monthly.

I'm unconvinced. I think number two is the key item in the list: she chose media that fit her strategic goals, not just whatever was cool and new.

Personally, I think the critical medium in these cases is the telephone... as in, the product manager calling a customer and saying, "Hey, how's it going?"

New marketing technology and media can make us think everything we do is new; it's not. In many cases, the tried and true approaches are still the way to go - new media just change some tactics.

Woe to the Vacationer

Norwegian Cruise Line has an ad in this week's New Yorker which touts its "no set dining times" policy. The header for the ad is interesting:

Woe to the Vacationer who is forced to dine at 7 p.m. at table 8 with the Wurtzels from Albany.
Woe. Wow. Whoa.

First off, if I were from Albany, I might be a little insulted by this. And if my name were Wurtzel and I were from Albany, I might be a lot insulted by this. Well, on White Pages, I didn't find any Wurtzels in Albany, but there are plenty of them in NY.

What makes Norwegian Cruise Line so certain that I, as a potential cruiser, would not want to dine with Irving Wurtzel from Poughkeepsie, or Alan and Ruth from Great Neck, or Catherine from Fishkill.

In truth, I wouldn't want to be forced to dine with anyone, but I think that Norwegian is setting a pretty poor tone here. There are a number of different ways that they could have gotten the message across that didn't seem quite so insulting. They could have used a more generic, less ethnic name for starters: the Johnsons, the Smiths, the Rogerses. They could have used a made up a town name - some generic suburban name like "Rolling Meadows Glen". Or made up some ridiculous descriptor - "the couple with the matching poodle hair-do's" or "the family that named all their children after Gumby." Maybe even that would be insulting to someone.

But the real point is that while Norwegian may be trying to make fun of the "boring" passengers on other cruise lines, it unfortunately comes across as a put down of their own customers. After all, if the Wurtzels from Albany are on your ship, they're your customers, too.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cool Tool

This is interesting: a little tool called Page2RSS that creates an RSS feed for you to monitor updates of sites that don't publish their own feeds.

I'm not sure how well it works, but I've set a couple of feeds up, and so I'll find out.

Found it via Micro Persuasion.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Do ROI Calculators Add Up?

Few things have driven me battier over the years than ROI Calculators. It has always been exceedingly hard for me to believe that anyone would actually use a vendor-supplied calculator thinking that it was going to product any result that didn’t scream BUY OUR PRODUCT AND SAVE BIG!

Admittedly, when it comes to a lot of technology purchases - most office “productivity” applications and IT tools - it’s pretty difficult to prove whether any cost or time savings were actually ever realized. In any cases, new technology-based products actually make work. (How much time did you spend on presentations before PowerPoint existed? I thought so.) It’s just that they become must haves – it’s the way you have to do business.

And then there’s the dirty little secret about ROI. Sssshhhh, don’t tell: for product purchases, very few companies ever actually look back and figure out whether their expected ROI actually came through. (I call this phenomenon Lot’s wife syndrome, i.e., the belief that if you actually do look back you’ll turn into a pillar of salt. Or a bowl of quivering jello as you try to come up with your excuses for making an investment that hasn’t panned out.)

So between self-serving, all-roads-lead-to-purchase ROI calculators, and the fact that so few places actually go back and calculate whether they achieved any R on their I, why bother with the damn things?

The truth is that, whatever they do or don’t do after the fact, most prospects will need to make some type of an ROI argument to get a purchase approved. And you will need to be prepared to help your prospects make that argument.

One way is to provide a detailed write-up on where to look for sources of return. If you’re a web hoster, sources will include equipment purchase and extended support. If you’re providing some type of automation tool, the checklist will include time savings, etc. In self-defense, you may have to provide a spreadsheet or some sort of simple calculator, but note that your prospects will – or should - be skeptical of any data that you’ve got in there that is not objectively verifiable, i.e., the actual cost of your product. ROI calculators that you hire a third party to put together aren’t all that much better, since their numbers probably came from you. If there’s a third party that’s developed a generic calculator for your product, you’ll be higher up the believability scale, but these will be costly.

Also keep in mind that, if you’re making the argument that your product will cut personnel costs, it may not be all that attractive to the purchaser (unless you’re selling to the CFO or someone on the business side who’s keeping the P&L). In cases where you’re threatening the livelihood of the people you’re trying to sell to, you’re much better off if you can point towards saving on actual new hires, rather than getting rid of people.

Don’t forget that ROI is not just tied to saving money. In the best of circumstances, it’s tied to making money. If your product or service can be used to attract more customers, handle more calls, close more deals, make sure to fill in that side of the equation first. It may just be a matter of expressing the same data in a different, more positive way. Rather than say that something will decrease employee costs, state that it will enabling employees to get more done.

It seems squishy, but you should throw in the “intangibles” to your ROI argument. They may sound completely lame, but they may actually be true. Automating a pedestrian, time consuming process really will let your people focus more important things, and that really should help your business.

In the end, however you end up handling it, when it comes to ROI calculators, honesty is really the best policy. Let your prospects know what’s real and what’s theoretical. Don’t make extravagant claims, make likely cases. As always, one customer is worth a thousand words, and if you have a customer who’s willing to talk about where and how they got their ROI, by all means use this information, even if you have to disguise the company.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bad Actors

This story of a virus being distributed through Wikipedia is interesting, and disturbing. It highlights an inherent problem in all social media and user-generated content: while most people participate in a positive way, there are always some bad actors out there.  

Malicious hackers have turned to Wikipedia to try to help them catch out PC users.

The virus writers created a page on the German Wikipedia that linked to a fake fix for a new version of an old malicious Windows worm.

But instead of curing a bug, those installing the fix would be infected by a new Windows virus.

The booby-trapped page on the German version of the online encyclopaedia has now been removed.

"The very openness of websites like Wikipedia - which allow anyone to edit pages - makes them terrific, but can also make them less trustworthy," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "In this case, the article in question wasn't just misleading, it was downright malicious."

Whether it's somebody hijacking your social media platform for nefarious purposes, creating content that diminishes your brand, or some newly-dreamed-up way to cause trouble, it's going to keep happening. The story of interactive marketing has been one of marketers (and content creators in general) ceding control to their audiences. With lack of control comes the possibility of trouble.

Monday, November 06, 2006

11:00 - 11:04 - Scheduled Unstructured Time

Today was a day where it seemed like I barely had time to refill my coffee cup, which is why I so appreciated a piece on MarketingProfs called Have You Scheduled Your Goofing-Off Time Today?

I goof off almost every day.

In fact, when I'm very busy, as I have been lately, I work very hard to incorporate some goofing-off time in my schedule. Usually it's just a few minutes here and there, between projects or during a fit of writer's block. Nevertheless, this time is invaluable to me....

The author's point is that spending some time looking at things because they are interesting and engaging, not because they are relevant to your job. Why? It makes you smarter.

This is why I have such a hard time reading business books. I do read them, because some of them are quite good. But when I can finally grab a little time to actually sit with a book, I find myself desparate to read a novel, not a book about marketing.

So I balance it out, and keep some business books in the mix - but make sure that my reading feeds the rest of my brain, too.

Manning vs. Brady: Who's the Better Brand

I admit, I’m not getting as much joy out of this post as I would be if the Patriots had actually beaten the Colts last night in what had been hoopla’d into the game of the season in these parts. Still it’s interesting to take a look at the different brands of each team’s superstar quarterback.

For those completely uninterested in sports and/or who never turn on the television, that would be Peyton Manning for the Colts, and Tom Brady for the Patriots.

Like Microsoft and Apple, like Coke and Pepsi, Manning and Brady dominate their game - or at least dominate the conversation around the game. The run-up to last night’s game revolved around a hyped-up head-on between these two guys.

Peyton Manning’s brand is about unquestionable talent. When it comes to stats, he beats Brady pretty much across the boards, and he’s arguably the single most talented quarterback in the NFL today. I don’t like him one little bit, but when he’s got game, he is amazing to watch – just a machine. The Manning brand is also about pedigree. Manning’s father was a pro-football quarterback and is Hall of Famer. His kid brother is the quarterback for the NY Giants.

Manning’s brand is about personal performance, and his is formidable. But it’s also more or less a me brand. Until the Colts manage to win a Super Bowl, that’s what it will remain.

If you’ve seen any of the ads that Peyton Manning is in – I’m not sure what they’re for, but he eats things, goes shopping, cheers for people, and kicks his brother in the butt – they seem to exemplify the jock who hasn’t quite grown up yet. I’m sure these ads are intended to create the image of a good-humored guy, but he comes across as a case of arrested development.

Tom Brady's brand is unquestionably about winning. Even though he just got upstaged by Manning – as he did the last time these two teams met - when it comes to winning the big games (i.e., the games that win the Super Bowl), Brady’s the one who’s got game. He may not have the breathtaking talent of Peyton Manning, but somehow it comes together to put a lot of W’s up there. There’s nothing robotic or perfect about Brady’s performance. And maybe because I’m a Pats’ fan, whenever “we’ve” got the ball, I’m nervous – is he going to get sacked, is he going to get intercepted. (If you watched last night’s game, you saw why a Pats’ fan has reason to be nervous: 4 interceptions.) Yet whatever is happening, I tend have faith that, in the end, Tom Brady will pull things out.

Brady’s brand is also about leadership. When he’s interviewed after a game, he takes ownership and responsibility, but it’s not in any “all my doing/all my fault” kind of way. It’s as if he just finished internalizing a business book on the habits of effective leaders. He doesn’t let people (including himself) off the hook, but I’ve never seen him toss someone under the bus, either. And the only ads I remember Brady doing - and I haven’t seen any in a while - were for some credit card or other – and he did them his teammates, not solo. No wonder his teammates love the guy.

Like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady’s brand is somewhat about family. In Brady’s case, however, it’s not about Crown Prince son and “spare heir” trying to play out their Oedipal strife on the football field. It’s about the hug and kiss little Tommy gave his father in the locker room after a big loss (which showed up in a 60 Minutes profile on Brady, but did not seem staged at all).

Frankly, both of these guys are overexposed, but most of Brady’s overexposure is at the hands of press and media that just can’t get enough of Mr. Wonderful. I have no idea how many handlers he has at work getting him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, GQ, and this week’s Boston Sunday Globe (in an article entitled “The Brady Brand”, no less.) He even made this week's list of the most fashionable people in Boston. (OK, in the land of LL Bean and Brooks Brothers, that might not be saying that much.

But listen to the announcers talk about Brady during a nationally-televised game. They’re typically gushing to the point where I’m embarrassed for them and for him. Sure, the announcers do a lot of talking about Peyton Manning, and most of it’s positive. But there’s always the ‘can he win the big one’ question lurking there. And the sense that he’s just not as likeable (and, let’s face it, adorable) as Tom Brady.

Yeah, I’m sure it helps that Brady’s a cutie while Manning’s kind of bland looking, but if you ask anyone who’s got the better brand, Brady by a long shot. (I’d bet that even Peyton Manning would agree to that.)

Brady’s brand is better because he has won more. Manning might have better features, but when taken together, the overall package works better for Brady. The sum is more than the parts of the whole. With Manning, the sum is so far less than the parts. Maybe this will be the season when he takes it all. We’ll see.

If on feature-by-feature basis you come out ahead of your competitor, and they’re still the winner, look again – there may be something missing in your product. If you’re product is truly better, you’re being out-marketed. (Now, if someone’s outspending you 100:1 there may be nothing you can do about it, but if that’s not the case, get in there and figure out how marketing can make your product add up.)

Brady’s brand is better because his exposure comes from the “objective” press – not through advertising. Advertising can be a very powerful way to raise awareness and, in fact, gain credibility. But real credibility comes when “someone else” is saying good things for and about you. That’s why getting in front of press and analysts is so critical. That’s why having customers talk about you is so potent.

To me, Manning always comes across as kind of befuddled that he’s not adulated the same way Brady is. It’s as if he’s thinking, Hey, I can’t help it if I’m already the best. Brady knows he’s not the best, and in a sense that makes his brand all the better. He doesn’t rest on his laurels – if ever there were a poster boy for continuous improvement, it’s Brady. Don’t assume that his year’s good press, Magic Quadrant, and customer satisfaction will last forever. It won’t if you’re not doing something about it.

For all his undeniable brilliance on the field, and his supreme confidence when he's got the ball in his hands, Manning’s brand just doesn’t seem all that confident to me. Brady’s brand is better because he exudes confidence. I think he’s one of those athletes (or business people) who can really look at himself objectively, look at his strengths and weaknesses, and not get into his head about it in either direction. You need to have confidence in your products. Focus on what you have that’s great, acknowledge what you have that’s not so great. Don’t whine about it, improve on it. But don’t let it get you down on your product. If marketing doesn’t have faith in its products, there’s no way they’re going to be capable of convincing anyone else that they should.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What Marketers Can Learn from Catalog Retailers

Now that all that's left of Halloween is smashed pumpkins and candy corn on sale, it's time to usher in the catalog season. As I was sorting through this day's stack of catalogs, it occurred to me that there's a lot that marketers - even those of us in the T2B (techie to business) world - can learn from the most effective catalog marketers.

  1. Make things easy for your customers. I haven't ordered anything from Harry & David in a couple of years, but as Christmas "nears", they always send a nice package telling me who I ordered gift baskets for in the past, and what I ordered. I can call Harry & David 24/7, or get on their web site, and I'm just a click away from ordering a couple of "Twelve Days of Christmas" treat baskets, knowing that I won't be repeating what I so lovingly sent a couple of years ago. don't need to key in much information: I can even keep the same gift message.

    No matter what your product or service, you need to make sure that you're customers can communicate with you in multiple modes (and on their time) - what if they want to order something at 3 a.m.? - and that their data is up to date and accurate.
  2. Reward your best customers. In the scramble for new customers, we're often ready to cut good deals that aren't available to our existing customers. Guess what? Existing customers don't like it if they get wind of it, so you'll have the worst of both worlds: new customers who may not be paying enough, and old, loyal customers who feel gouged. I order a lot from L.L.Bean, and I use their credit card. This gives me free shipping and monogramming, and lets me accrue bonus points. Free shipping is an unbelievably good benefit: if I spill iced coffee on my white t-shirt, I can order a $12 replacement without incurring $6.95 in shipping and handling. Bonus points are a real boon, too - when I'm shopping with my coupons in hand, I always end up buying more than I would have otherwise.
  3. Even if you're focused on a niche, you still need to grow your product and expand your market. When I get the Vermont Country Store catalog, I pore through it like Laura Ingalls Wilder going through the Sears Roebuck Wish Book in 1885. For those how aren't familiar with the Vt. Country Store, they sell all kinds of odd-ball, retro, fuddy-duddy merchandise. They used to have stuff my grandmother liked. (Odd-ball hairpins, "Chenille Bedspread with Fanciful Flowers and Ruffled Time [that Creates a Whimsical Air.") Then they had stuff my mother liked. ("Jaunty Wool Scarf Hat," "Luxurious Electric Blanket.") Then all of a sudden, they had stuff that I liked. Some of it is, no doubt, my moving inexorably toward fuddy-duddy-hood. I haven't gone over to the jaunty scarf hat yet, but I have bought things like a wooden clothes rack, nice wool kneesocks, and nail hardener.

    Faced with an aging audience for their products, what Vt. Country Store has really done to get the baby-boomers hooked is to start carrying all these nostalgic items from the 1950's and 1960's. Hey, I remember those wax choir boy and Santa candles that made Santa look like an albino. Glass Wax - hey, now I can stencil my windows. Ribbon candy. Nonpareils. Davey Crockett caps. Potholder looms. Spoolies. They even carry that ridiculous "electronic football game" that vibrated its little plastic players up and down the gridiron. My brothers had one. Maybe I should order it so we can play it on Xmas Eve.

    The point is that Vt. Country Store has expanded their catalog of practical, useful, and hard to find things to include all sorts of impractical, non-useful, hard to find things that hit the graying babyboomers where they live (which, as inevitably happens as people get older, is at least somewhat in the past). And they're even starting to carry items from the 1970's and beyond. I may not get all teary-eyed about Click-Clacks, but the kids who drove their parents nuts clacking them in the 1970's probably are.

    What Vermont Country Store is doing quite well is consistently expanding their product line both horizontally - more stuff for their existing base - and vertically - to drag in the "younger folks" who could care less about Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop or Zippy the Chimp, but who are already nostalgic for Kermit the Frog.

    A good lesson here for those of us with very focused, very niche markets. You need to keep improving and expanding what you offer your market, and also figure out how to find new, adjacent markets when you saturate your niche.

I must away, I have to go order a deck of "Authors" playing cards and some footsie-PJ's for my husband.