Saturday, September 30, 2006

Technology Whitepapers Are So 20th Century?

In Business-to-Business marketing, whitepapers are a tried-and-true marketing tool. Whether actually written by your brilliant CTO or ghost written by the product marketing or PR people, whitepapers have a long tradition in the marketing mix. A good whitepaper helps establish a company as a market leader, a thought leader in a particular industry or technology and a "player" in a market -- sometimes, actually generating leads.

According to MarketingSherpa's annual Business Technology Marketing Benchmark Survey, whitepapers still work well for Fortune 1000 firms, but not so well with SMB (small and mid-sized business) firms.

The survey summary appropriately indicates that technology purchases usually have a research phase where prospective buyers set off and gather information on likely products, services and vendors. In larger firms, this process is usually done by a mid-level manager, but this may not be the case in SMBs, where IT directors or actual business owners may make buying decisions without actually doing all the research.

Online has changed the rules. Small and mid-sized businesses can now find LOTS of product research information for free.

MarketingSherpa's survey of 1,900 marketers indicates that whitepaper syndication services (CNET's ZDNet, CMP TechWeb, etc.) appear to be an effective way to reach large organizations when selling software, hardware and other technology services. Online ads in general business sites were the second most effective way.

But paid search services such as Google AdWords appear to work best with medium-sized companies, while many of respondents thought industry-specific online ads were also effective with this market. For small business, ads in third-party newsletters worked best, followed closely by paid search ads. (No wonder Google is changing the world of advertising ... and practically everything else!)

Do whitepapers still have a place in the world? I think so, especially if you are selling to the Bigs. But if you are selling to SMB clients, you might want to rethink the need for that well-crafted whitepaper... or make it shorter. You might also think about providing a highlighted version for quick reading.

To find out more about this survey, visit the SherpaStore or read a review of the survey on page 2 of the St. Joseph's (MO) Chamber of Commerce newsletter (PDF file).

Tories Try New Media

Over in Britain, the Tories - hoping to end years out of power when Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister and new elections are held - is taking a step into the world of blogging, the Guardian reports.

Under the direction of Conservative Party head David Cameron, they've launched Webcameron. The site includes a blog by Cameron, video blog entries, comments, a blogroll, and guest spots (the first is a chat with US Senator John McCain). This morning the first thing you see is an opening frame of a video with Cameron standing at his kitchen sink - definitely not what you usually expect from politicians.

Very often when a corporation or political party tries to use these kinds of new media, the results are obviously false and calculated. From what I've seen of this site, however, that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

Will the site actually help the Tories connect to younger, net-Savvy Britons and get an edge in the next election? That remains to be seen; and of course, no matter how well done the site is, British voters will also be thinking about the actual policy of the parties.

It's an interesting project, though, and well-timed, with public frustration with Tony Blair and the Labour Party running high. I suspect we'll see a lot more sites like it - both in the UK and here in the US.

Friday, September 29, 2006

After the honeymoon

In the technology world, it's common for a a company to buy a smaller company that's doing cool, innovative things. Maybe their products are unique; maybe they've dominated a smaller but appealing niche.

What's also sadly common is that after an acquisition, the acquiring company often wipes out what was powerful and unique about their new purchase.

I thought about that reading this Houston Chronicle TechBlog entry by Dwight Silverman about Dell and Alienware. Dell bought Alienware recently; Alienware, of course, is known for high powered PCs that appeal to a very techie crowd, often focused on gaming. Their stuff represented nerd chic. They were a little outsider outfit.

The Business Week article from the TechBlog post is already unavailable on the magazine's site, but from what I can see in the blog commentary about it, the question is whether being part of Dell has damaged Alienware's cool factor.  

It's too soon to know what will happen to them as part of Dell, but it is interesting (and not promising) to see that the Dell and Alienware web sites suddenly look strangely similar.

Although, as Silverman points out in his blog post, we might see one of the other, though less common, post-acquisition scenarios: the smaller company transforms the big one from within. Depending on the state of the two companies, that can actually be a good thing.

It's a bit like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" but for a company called Alienware that might be an entirely appropriate analogy.

g Whiz: Why it's so important to know your market

A new luxury hotel opened last fall in Galway, so we thought we'd walk out and take a peak. Our Irish friends had told us that it was worth it - kind of.

The g Hotel is the brainchild of one Philip Treacy, a Galway native and, according to the g brochure, "the world's most famous milliner." (I can't think of another milliner, famous or otherwise, so I guess we'll take their word for it.) If you've been to a W Hotel (sleek, black, moderne), well, the g is W on acid. We asked to see a room, which was no problem since there didn't seem to be very many occupied ones. You had to walk down a long, dark, winding corridor to get to the room, but it wasn't bad once we got there - stark and white but not bad. The one hint of color in the room was a hideous picture of a woman in a strange hat, which, from the brochure and public spaces seems, to be a theme. (World's most famous milliner, etc.) The picure would not have looked out of place in an ad for bachelor pad furniture during the Miami Vice era.

It was the public rooms, however, that really boggled the mind. We had lunch in a highly ornate, glaring, silver, mirror, glass, and chrome room that had as it's most singular feature a fixture made up of 100 or so large silver bulbs. Our other lunch option was a Barbie pink lounge that looked like it was designed by the makers of the Groovy Girls. (Don't know the Groovy Girls? If you do any doll-shopping and are looking to an antidote to Barbie and Bratz, check the GG's out. They're a bunch of funky, very cute, very sweet dolls with psychedelic-colored clothing and furniture.)

The most noticeable thing about the g was that it was almost empty. The fellow who showed us the room told us, rather hesitantly, that it had only been open since November, and they were getting guests via word of mouth.... Most of the people we saw appeared to be, like us, rubberneckers, or there for a function.

My overall impression was that the g would not have been out of place in Las Vegas. Or a city like New York, LA, or London - cities large enough to have critical mass for all kinds of taste. But in Galway?

Now, Galway is a very lively, bustling, interesting spot, but it's no g spot. I've been here 9 or 10 times, and the average tourist is: a) a middle aged, middle class Irish/British/Euro/American couple; b) an elderly Irish-American on a CIE tour bus wearing a just bought scally cap (himself) or a just bought Aran knit sweater (herself); c) a student or retro-hippie type who's come for the music/arts/university scene. I just don't see that a town the size of Galway - population, I'm guessing, 60-70,000 at best - can support such a non-traditional hotel with rates that start at nearly 400 Euro. (That's over $500 US.)

There's a marketing lesson here, folks. There are damned few instances of "if you build it, they will come." To some degree I sympathize with Philip Treacy, who just wanted to do something spectacular for the olde towne. Galway now has a hotel that a lot of people will want to come to gawk at once, but where I'm guessing that very few people will want to stay. Between the price and the look and feel, I'd say that this one's missed the market.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Time to Go Organic?

What works better - organic search optimization (tweaking your web site so that you come out high on search engine results) or sponsored search (pay per click programs, like Google Adwords, where your message appears next to search results)?

ClickZ reports on a new study that indicates the two techniques produce similar results:

If you gathered the opinions of 100 paid search practitioners, and compared that to 100 organic search optimization experts, you'd find persuasive arguments for each method being superior at driving conversions. A new study from WebSideStory will justify the arguments of both sides.

The study looks at traffic and conversion data from 20 business-to-consumer e-commerce sites during the first eight months of 2006. Paid search had a median order conversion rate of 3.4 percent, while organic search results produced a conversion rate of 3.13 percent. The data set included more than 57 million search engine visits.

There are arguments to support both sides, Rand Schulman, WebSideStory's CMO, told ClickZ.

"On the one hand, because you control the message of paid search, you'd expect higher conversions. On the other side, because people value the 'editorial integrity' of organic, you'd expect higher conversions," he said. "Ultimately you need to do both. I think the eye-opener here is that neither side has a significant edge."

The findings match my own experience working with both kinds of search marketing. There's a credibility to organic search that sponsored search can't match; sponsored search, however, lets you get immediate results and lets you control exactly what you spend and where you appear.

Also, sponsored search self-selects for people who want to spend money:

There are many factors on both sides of the argument, which ultimately balance each other out, according to Dana Todd, executive VP of interactive agency SiteLab and president of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO).

"Most visitors are not looking past the top three paid search ads, and the top three organic results. At that level of quality sites, you'd expect to see conversion rates that are close," she said.

In addition, organic search's higher volume of clicks, which tends to be 1.5 times higher than paid search volume, is balanced by the recognition by users that paid search ads are ads, which leads to a self-selection by users who have a commercial intent to their search, Todd said.

Bottom line: do both. But watch out for two common mistakes:

First, remember that organic search isn't a one-time effort. Too often, companies spend some time optimizing their sites, see the results, and stop. Keep monitoring your search results, because new sites are always appearing and everyone else is spending time optimizing their own sites, and if you don't stay on top of it, your results will drop off.

Second, make sure you (or anyone you pay to do search optimization for you) are using white hat, not black hat, techniques. There are a lot of ways to trick search engines; they'll give you some quick results, but if you're caught (and you probably will be eventually), you'll find yourself blacklisted from search engines. There are, unfortunately, a lot of consultants out there who promise great results by using these techniques; it's a risky approach and I don't recommend it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

World Pastry & Bread Champion

Who among us marketers has not at one time or another touted our company as "a leading" something-or-other. As long as we were mentioned in some industry-rag round-up, or got a slice of the market-share pie from IDC, or had Gartner say something (anything), hey, we're definitely "a leading provider" ("The" leading something-or-other if we could gen up some new, unique category that only we could be part of, thanks to some obscure differentiating feature that we had.)

So when I saw McCabe's Bakery in Galway sporting a sign claiming "World Pastry and Bread Champion," and with a colossal silver trophy in its window, I thought: what a lot of hoo-ey.

But, no, this was apparently a case of truth in marketing, and Richard McCabe has indeed been crowned the World Champeen four years running. (In addition to bragging rights, he walked off with a Lexus and 100,000 Euros. With prizes like this, I don't imagine that the contest was any piece of cake.) Anyway, I tried a scone which was, in fact, one of the best I've even eaten: tasty, moist, and light - quite unlike the more common stone-scone that's desert-dry once you manage to bite your way in.

The lesson could be one of "oh, ye of little faith" - why was I so suspicious? But the marketing lesson is this: if you're going make a claim, make sure that you can back it up with some evidence. There may be a customer (like me) who actually wants the proof. (For those of us whose products aren't World Champion of anything, just remember: if you can't outright claim that you're the best, there's always room for another "leading provider.")

Sniff Test

I spent half an hour at Logan Airport the other evening tearing through Vanity Fair - actually, it was more like tearing up the magazine - to get rid of the noxious perfume drenched inserts that were making me sneeze and giving me a pounding headache. Who was the marketer who thought up that one?

I would get it, if not like it, if I were reading Elle or Vogue or some other fashionista mag, but this was Vanity Fair. I really did want to read the depressing "decline of the West" article by Niall Ferguson, thank you. Overcome with angst, yes; overcome by fumes, no.

My advice to Vanity Fair: charge a premium for people who want to buy a parfum-free version of the mag. And while your at it, take out the equally irrelevant fashion ads weighing it down. The mag is a great airplane read, and I'd be willing to pay $2 more for one that didn't make me ill.

Abandoning Your Leads to Die

MarketingProfs has a nice piece on a classic marketing danger zone: handing inquiries off to the sales team.  The most important cautionary paragraph:

If you merely dump prospects on sales without first agreeing on the meaning of "lead" and then qualifying each prospect based on your definition, you and sales may end up at loggerheads when supposed leads don't become actual customers. At the very least, you'll confirm any assumptions on salespeople's part that you can't help them turn leads into cash.

Amen. Dealing with the issue goes well beyond that warning, though.

Remember how salespeople think: they need to be focused on closing deals, because they are trying to hit a monthly or quarterly quota. If you give them an inquiry from someone who isn't ready to buy - and that will be most of the inquiries you can get - they will follow up a couple of times, and then chuck it, usually complaining about the crappy leads they get from those stupid marketing people who don't understand how to bring in business.

Worst of all, that person might buy something - in six or nine months. Probably from a competitor.

If you try to handle this by just doing more "acquisition" marketing - getting yourself out there in  front of everyone all the time - you will do better, but the price will be a lot of money on marketing and a lot of wasted time sorting through the raw inquiries to find the near-term buyers.

A better approach - look for the real value of that inquiry. It's an invitation to start a conversation. And as a marketer, that kind of conversation is what you're good at.

Not a "please buy now" conversation, but a "tell me about yourself!" conversation. Think of it as a first date. You're not going to pop the question yet.

But you can keep the conversation going until that prospect is ready (or you figure out that she or he never will be).

You can do it through mail, email, seminars, surveys, white papers, newsletters, blogs, podcasts... in fact, through almost any communications medium.

They key, though, is remembering that your salespeople don't have the time, need, or (often) skills to manage that conversation. That's your job as a marketer.

And when it's time to pop the question, that's when you have the "meet the family" moment of introducing the prospect to your sales team. You'll be far ahead of competitors who haven't been having that conversation. And your sales team will be happy because you're giving them something to help them make their numbers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Blog to Blog Advertising

Here's an interesting approach to blog advertising: on Techmeme, sponsors pay to have their latest blog posts appear in a "sponsored post" section on the site.

As ad models go, I like this one. The sites that are sponsoring Techmeme are likely to be of interest to some of their readers, and rather than run gimmicky banners, they're just putting the blog posts themselves up. It's almost like a formalized, for-pay blogroll.

My guess is that this model of advertising on blogs will turn out to be a higher value form that the search ads and banners that are more commonly seen (and therefore command higher prices).

Another interesting feature: in order to advertise with Techmeme, you've got to have a blog. If you don't "get" blogging, your money's not welcome. It works as a built-in quality control feature from the point of view of Techmeme's readers; anybody who sponsors the site must be clued-in to blogging to even be there.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Abreviations Are the Bane of Technology... and Marketers

Any technologist knows a good abbreviation or acronym can propel an obscure technology or term to rock-star status. (Well, at least that's what seems to be the commonly held opinion among some techies.)

Apparently, Tim Berners-Lee didn't think so when he created the World Wide Web.

Legend has it that Berners-Lee (or should that be BL or B-L?) partly picked "World Wide Web" to thwart use of an acronym: in English, "WWW" is the longest possible three-letter acronym to pronounce, requiring nine syllables -- versus only three syllables for the full name. According to Wikipedia, the late Douglas Adams once quipped: "The World Wide Web is the only thing I know of whose shortened form takes three times longer to say than what it's short for."

In business the same alphabet-soup thinking seems to pervade, as if we save SO MUCH TIME using 2, 3 or 4 letters (or sometimes more) versus the full name of something.

"Hey, Joe. Marie in HR called down to IT to talk about the ERP system having problems with the XML scripting. She said to get back to her ASAP."

I guess this is our way of creating an insider feel, an exclusive club. But, real problems seem to arise when a well-known acronym or abbreviation is used by a new concept.

In talking to a small business client recently, he mentioned his SEO (Search Engine Optimization) guy said he needed to increase his PR. I'm a marketer. I've never heard it put that way before, but I know what PR is. Hell, I don't even need to tell you, right?

But, the more he talked about his PR, the more I wondered what he was talking about. He said he thought he needed higher PR. (I thought he might want to confer with the Pope. Then I rethought that, based on recent Papal PR efforts.) He said, only some pages on his website have good PR. (I thought that was normal. Most pages are not about PR, they might be about service, delivery, process and other elements of the business.) Finally, he asked me what I thought he could do to increase his PR. At this point, I stopped him and asked him what he was taking about.

"PR is PageRank," he said. That's what his SEO guy calls it, I guess.

Ah, a techie doing marketing. Anyone in marketing knows the two letters "PR" mean one thing: Public Relations. Up till now, I'd been impressed with this client's SEO guy and his search engine position. But techies using terms like PR mark themselves as amateurs in the marketing ranks. (I'll give him a PR of 2 as a venerable source for marketers, although with some work, he could raise his rank in the future.)

PageRank is something familiar to me, and something that marketers should know. It is one of the differentiating elements in the Google search architecture and one of the main methods Google uses to determine a page’s relevance or importance. (See The Anatomy of a Search Engine, the 1998? Stanford paper on the topic, by two guys who know a little about the subject: Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page.)

My problem with the use of PR by the SEO guy and my client is just this: Why do it? And why use it when PR is such a widely recognized term -- especially in the marketing world? I know, I know. IT guys love the buzz words, acronyms and abbreviations. But if they want to be accepted and understood in the marketing world -- where they can have such a great impact -- they need to learn the language and respect the sacred ground.

From Starbucks, a Lesson in Thinking Like a Customer

Over at StarbucksGossip.com, a blog that exists solely to comment on Starbucks, there's been a little debate raging about customers who make their own iced lattes.

Scanning the coffee menu at Starbucks on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa reveals that the cost of a tall iced latte is $2.45.

Don't want to pay that much? Order a shot of espresso and a cup of ice — at a cost of $1.35 — and use the milk at the condiment bar to make your own latte. That's a savings of $1.10.

Is it stealing? Some say it is.

Some of the baristas find it particularly annoying:

At starbucksgossip.com, many of the more than 400 posts on this topic said customers are taking unfair advantage of the company, which for the month of August reported revenue of $617 million, up 21 percent from August 2005 revenue.

"The condiment bar is called a 'condiment' bar for a reason," a barista wrote. "The milk should be used as a condiment, not the base of a beverage."

"I have to say that this is a sucky thing to do," another barista wrote.

A lot of companies would look at the money lost of DIY lattes, get worried, and come up with some kind of irritating scheme to lock up the milk or turn the store employees into latte police. Starbucks, to its credit, did not:

In a statement released last week, Starbucks sided with customers.

"Customization is a fundamental attribute of the Starbucks Experience," the company said in an e-mail statement. "We provide condiments to our customers so they can make their drinks to their liking, and we appreciate their patronage. We trust our customers to make the choices that are right for them."

The statement reflects the company's "Just Say Yes" policy, another way of saying the customer is always right.

Starbucks knows what its selling. The coffee is good but not great. What brings people in is the desire to go to Starbucks.

With the margins on those eighteen-syllable concoctions that are more like candy than coffee and the add-on sales of CDs, mugs, coffee machines, and the like, they can afford to lose a little on the DIY-crowd. What they can't afford is people who don't like going to Starbucks, because then the whole business falls apart. This kind of thinking is one of the reasons they're so fantastically successful.

Don't annoy your customers over the little stuff; recognize what makes them want to do business with you, and you'll find plenty of profitable ways to sell to them. If you damage that fundamental relationship, all the smart products in the world won't help you.

Infect the Language for Fun and Entertainment!

Most of us who communicate for a living have found ourselves cursing the way language gets abused in the corporate world.

We've all seen how horrible words and phrases spread. One day someone told me he'd been "tasked with" something, and I thought, "What a strange, contorted way to say you've been asked to do something." A week later it was everywhere.

And so they come and go and come and go. Remember when "tiger teams" were all the rage? How about "templatize?" "End-to-end?" "Turnkey?" "Clicks and mortar?"

Buzzwords usually have one of two important features:

1. The buzzword (or buzzphrase) means something, but it's something that's already expressed more clearly and simply by ordinary English. ("Anne tasked me with re-envisioning the corporate presentation!" vs. "Anne asked me to look at the corporate presentation and recommend some new approaches to it.")

2. The buzzword actually describes some new concept, but quickly gets applied to everything in sight. (See "Web 2.0.")

Generally, they are born, they annoy millions, and they either fade away or we all get used to hearing them. What can we do?

Well, here's a very funny story about how you can fight back, or at least entertain yourself while the language degrades: create your own stupid buzzword and release it into the wild to see how far it can go!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

By any other name

Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston, has some problems. It's not considered a particularly desirable location; its main roads are a morass of not-too-high-end chain stores and restaurants; it's not attracting any particularly interesting development. And so city leaders are thinking the solution is to change the name of the city.

Some of the motivation here is, I'm sure, irritation that neighbor Sugar Land, just up the road, is considered a highly desirable suburb of Houston and was recently on one of Money magazine's inane lists as one of the best places to live in the US. If you drive along Highway 6, you can barely tell that you've crossed from Sugar Land to Missouri City; the same set of stores in similar strip malls along a traffic-choked road just keep repeating themselves.

Here's something interesting, though; Missouri City has a large African American population, and in 2000, Black Entertainment Television called the place a "model city" for African Americans.

That's a point of differentiation from Sugar Land, which to many folks around Houston epitomizes bland suburbia.

There's a point of differentiation that Missouri City's leaders could start with to figure out how to position their community as a desirable place to live, work, or invest. Is it the right one? I'm not sure, but it's a better starting point than changing the name and hoping the perception follows.  

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Brand Loyal

As marketing professionals, we’re all concerned with keeping our customers brand-loyal. Good customers buy more stuff. They act as references. They know you, and – here’s hoping – like you.

But we all keep hearing that brand loyalty is a thing of the past. That what matters most is cost. Or novelty. Or both.

What’s a marketer to do?

I don’t have any easy answers. But I thought I’d start with just what makes me brand loyal. As it turns out, a lot of my brand loyalty on the consumer goods side is pretty deeply rooted. I use Tide, Scott’s Toilet Tissue, and Geisha Tuna (solid white) because that’s what my mother bought. If I could find them, I’d still buy Dailey’s Kosher Dills. (I haven’t stayed 100 percent brand loyal to the “House of Liz.” I buy Teddy peanut butter, not Peter Pan. Progresso, not Campbell’s. DeCecco, not Mueller’s. But having made those switches, I stick with them.)

I guess I’m a pretty loyal kind of guy.

Loyal to the home town team (Red Sox), despite it all. Loyal to Talbot’s and LL Bean. (And, no, I am NOT a frowzy, middle-aged dud, thank you. I buy Eileen Fisher when I can find it on sale.)

I’m loyal to certain authors. (William Trevor and Alice Munro lead that pack). I’ve read to the same magazines since I was in high school. (Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker.)

Given all of the above, I’d say that I like what I like and my tastes don’t change all that often or dramatically. And whether my likes are inherited or acquired, once I like something, I feel no need to switch.

With a few exceptions (baseball), I do add brands all the time, however. Generally, it’s when the new brands are like something I already like. I’ve stuck with Judy Collins and Tom Rush since grammar school, but I’ve added Richard Shindell and Mary Black.

Again, once I like something, as long as it stays consistently - well, likeable - I’m brand loyal. (Again, there are a few exceptions like baseball,where I stay consistent even when “the product” isn’t all that consistently likeable. Red Sox, August 2006.)

Technology is another story altogether.

Over the years I’ve had PC’s and/or laptops from IBM, Dell, Gateway, Toshiba, Dell, HP/Compaq, and -are you ready - Leading Edge. Is the laptop I’m working on an HP or a Dell? I have to look down and check. It’s HP.

I’ve got an LG cell, a Palm Pilot PDA, and a Linksys router, but the only brand here that I’d consciously repeat is Linksys. That’s because, once I got it working, the router works just fine. But mostly it’s because I’ve been pretty happy with their customer support.

I’ve lost track of all the Internet access providers and/or e-mail addresses I’ve been through. But I like my current one (Comcast) well-enough. And I’ve been pretty happy with their customer support. I was having problem with attachment and used their online help. The real-time interactive help was useless. (It reminded me of the “conversations” we all had twenty-five years ago with “Liza” on the mainframe computer. ME: “Hi, Liza, what’s the weather like?” LIZA: “Why do you ask?” The guys in the office always had slightly racier chats with Liza.) Anyway, after a brief fling I gave up on interactive and used e-mail, which worked brilliantly. A real person stuck with it until we solved the problem (or at least found a still-working workaround.)

(We actually have two ISP’s in our house. My husband hasn’t managed to pull himself off of AOL because he’s been happy with their customer support.)

Hmmmmm. I think I’m having an “aha” moment here. The technology brands I like are the ones where I’ve liked the service. Maybe if I hadn’t had to use Linksys customer service to begin with, I’d be brand indifferent when I go to buy my next router. But I did have to use the service, and it was pretty darned good. So I’d be benevolently disposed toward Linksys. (But maybe not if they started using the Cisco name, since I have no experience with Cisco support.)

So it looks like I’m getting an answer here. For technology products - where the baseline features are all just about the same; where the exotic, differentiating bells-and-whistles features don’t matter to the purchaser (i.e., the purchaser is not early adopter, but in the next wave); and where rock-bottom price is not a driving force - the product better have reasonable quality and VERY GOOD customer service if you want your customers to come back.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Timing

Certainly, the e-coli spinach crisis is not a lot of laughs - especially for the victims. (Nor is the likely underlying story about the dangers of agri-business going to be either.) Marketers of healthy/healthful foods will have their challenges recovering from this (although of course there will be plenty of opportunities here as well).

But I did have to feel a bit bad for the Embassy Suites Hotels' agency when I saw their ad in this week's New Yorker. The headline reads "Everyone Likes Spinach in Their Omelettes, Except People Who Don't." (The ad promo'd their complimentary, cooked-to-order breakfast, and while I thought the design was terrible, the message was fine.) I'm sure the ad was in the can weeks ago, and now they're stuck with their placements. I'm sure they were thinking: spinach, hey, that won't offend anyone, plus a lot of people hate it, or used to hate it, so it's even a little funny, heh, heh...

When I was at Genuity, the marcomm folks designed a disaster recovery campaign around an "anything can happen" scenario that included a very clever cartoon of a plane flying into the Empire State Building. Not so clever after all, given that the campaign was scheduled for September 2001. Timing may not be everything in life, but it sure is something.

Word Inflation

Remember a few years ago when every product and service became a "solution?" You no longer bought laundry detergent, you got a garment cleaning solution. You didn't just buy clothes, you bought a wardrobe solution!

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but just a little. "Solutions" are so much sexier than products, so everyone suddenly was explaining why what they sold was a solution to a problem. Even when it was just a product- often a well-understood, valuable, useful product (whose identity was suddenly getting lost under the weight of solution-speak).

I thought about this endless human desire to use high-power words when low-power words work just fine when I saw this Houston Business Journal headline about Marble Slab Creamery:

Marble Slab Creamery unveils new marketing strategy  

Interesting headline, I thought; an ice-cream store is not someone you expect to be changing strategies that often. Their previous strategy seemed to be making really good ice cream from natural ingredients and then opening up retail outlets in high traffic locations where people could buy it. A darn good strategy, I'd say.

So what's their new strategy? Well, it seems to be making really good ice cream from natural ingredients and opening up retail outlets in high traffic locations where people can buy it.

What they have changed is their signage and collateral. According to the article, they did this after doing research on their customers - which tells me they are smart people, and this isn't an "I'm bored with the old stuff!" move (it does happen, folks).

You can reinvigorate a brand with that kind of move, and I expect that's what the good folks at Marble Slab are doing. Good for them.

But it's not a strategy change. It's an adjustment to how they execute tactics that support their ongoing (good) strategy.

Why is this important? Because your marketing can fair for different reasons. If Marble Slab's strategy was off - say, they were focusing on natural ingredients while the market has decided that processed chemicals were hot (who know?), or they were focusing on their own retail stores but discovered they could do much better by locating themselves inside of grocery stores, or they were focusing on urban locations but it was the suburbs where the ice cream was being bought, they'd need a strategy change.

But if you're falling short because you've got a good strategy but you're not implementing it well - say, the customers aren't getting the right message from the ads, or the colors of your stores make people lose their appetite - you've got a different problem requiring a different solution.

Make sure you know where your problems are, and attack them at the right level. Otherwise you're likely to spend lots of money on pretty creative work to support a failing strategy - or change a good strategy because you weren't executing it properly.

(And when you're hiring a marketer to fix things, ask about strategy and tactics and make sure she or he knows the difference!)

I don't want to be too hard on Marble Slab; it sounds like they know exactly what they're doing, but somebody writing a press release got overly excited and thought that saying that they made some branding and graphics changes was less exciting that talking about "strategy," and didn't really understand the difference. That won't affect their bottom line; it just makes for some amusing reading in a business publication.

(Here's a free and utterly non-strategic tip for Marble Slab, though, in case someone there finds this blog: your home page has no title. Look up in the title bar of your browser window. That's going to play hell with your search engine placement - your web folks should know better, so go tell them to fix it.)

But enough marketing talk - I want some ice cream.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Stroll Down Preso Memory Lane

In olden times – say, fifteen or twenty years ago - when a sales or marketing person was going to give a presentation, they had a couple of options: 35 mm. slides, flip-charts, or overheads.

Slides looked great. Someone actually designed them for you. They even used color and graphics. Unfortunately, they were expensive to create – you actually needed budget and a designer. And they took forever to produce. You rarely made changes, and changes were never made on the fly. Other than cost, time, and complete non-customizability, the biggest problem with slides was that outside of those who have a degree in optical engineering – and that pretty much precluded everyone in sales and marketing – no one could ever remember which direction to face the slides when you placed them in the projector.

Flip-charts were cheap obviously fully customizable. All you needed was a pad and felt-tip marker. You could also create them in the moment, although, of course, you ran the risk of having your writing slant down, slant up, or cram into the end of the line. Each time you finished a page, you could either flip it over or tape it up on the wall (a grand technique for audience involvement). The flip-chart approach worked pretty well when the presentation was given at home, but it was a bit cumbersome to lug around the oversized pad and easel. So on the road, most of us used overheads.

Overheads were clear, glassine sheets used with overhead projectors. (They were also, for some arcane reason, called “foils”.) Like flip-charts, overheads could be customized for a specific presentation. Foils were pretty simple: words, bullets, maybe some type of chart. You could draw on them to illustrate or emphasize a point. Anyone could use them, other than one sales rep I worked with who insisted on drawing on the projector screen itself.

Once we got PC’s, well, our options increased, and when the first presentation software came into our lives…to say that our world opened up… Even if all you could do was bold, italic, font size, and indentation, it was easy. There were actually templates you could use.

And then there’s PowerPoint, which now lets just about anyone create a multi-media extravaganza. Everyone in sales and marketing is an artist, an artiste, even. Customer’s logo on the front page? Sure, why not? Cartoons of worried looking people, transformed to happy campers once they used your product. Screen Beans on one slide, nice color photo of a router on the next, screen shot of any-app USA – let’s face it: they all look the same. Cut to a live video of one of your customers singing your praises, then to a picture of Ben Franklin to illustrate your ROI… And the effects: box in, box out, wheelspokes, random bars vertical, cut through black. There’s a whole presentation square dance going on out there. (Allemande left and do-si-do…)

Sales and marketing folks now devote hours on presentations – building their own deck from scratch, borrowing slides from the grab bag full of every-other-presentation-that-anyone’s-ever-given, staying up all night, last minute in flight changes (talk about changes on the fly). And you know what? A lot of these custom presentations are one big, confusing, incoherent mess. And, worst of all, many presenters use them as a crutch, a substitute for true interaction with their audience. Frankly, they’d be better off playing TaiPei or Freecell while they thought about how they were going to engage a customer, rather than just sit there heaving stuff into a PowerPoint preso.

Worried about the sales and marketing productivity? Think about taking away their PowerPoint for a while. The withdrawal might be painful, but they’ll come out better for it. And a grateful nation full of prospects and customers will heave a mighty sigh of relief.

Web 2.0 Buzzword Bingo

The world is abuzz with talk about Web 2.0. Everyone wants to have a Web 2.0 business model and Web 2.0 applications and be talking about how their activities are part of the Web 2.0 mindset.

While it's always interesting to watch buzzwords take route and - occasionally - become useful words, this one is a particularly loosely defined term.

And if you're thinking, "I'm really not sure what Web 2.0 is but at this point, I'm too embarrassed to ask anybody," take heart - you are not alone. A good place to start is the Wikipedia Web 2.0 article, which tells us:

Web 2.0, a phrase coined by O'Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a supposed second-generation of Internet-based services — such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies — that let people collaborate and share information online in previously unavailable ways. O'Reilly Media, in collaboration with MediaLive International, used the phrase as a title for a series of conferences and since then it has become a popular (though ill-defined and often criticized) buzzword amongst certain technical and marketing communities.

The article then gives some characteristics of Web 2.0, most of which frankly don't differentiate it from Web 1.0 (or 1.5 or 1.9.2 release 3, or whatever the hell it was we all must have been using a little while ago).

Do I sound skeptical? If so, it's because I am - most buzzwords become ways to make something ordinary sound new and sexy, and I think Web 2.0 is one of those.

Most of what's being called "Web 2.0" appears to be applications and ideas that have developed incrementally over the years, now wrapped up with a big digital bow. I could cross from skepticism to cynicism by adding, "so that they can provide fodder for marketing new books and conferences," but I'm actually not that much of a cynic about this stuff.

Take a look at this Wired News article about the best and worst "Web 2.0" applications. Don't worry about who's a winner or loser, because the list is quite idiosyncratic; look at what's considered Web 2.0: sharing your photos online (how groundbreaking!). Various forms of social networking. A browser that's not supposed to keep history or caches.

This ideas may be good, bad, or ugly; what they aren't is anything that suggests that kind of big change that sticking a "2.0" after something indicates. They are the same ideas that have been driving the web forever - sharing information, connecting people, and so on - getting more useful (hopefully) as technology, business models, and knowledge about how people really use these things improves incrementally.

So if this is the Web 2.0 world, we got there by leaving the Web 1.9.8 world behind, and the Web 2.0.1 world is probably already arriving.

All that said, if you're a marketing or communicator, it might not matter - because somebody is going to ask you about your organization's Web 2.0 strategy, and you're going to have to answer them. So read up on what Web 2.0 is, and isn't, and ideally you'll have an answer that satisfied today's buzzword compliance standards... but doesn't leave you with an embarrassing quote hanging around in a year or two when a new buzzword has left Web 2.0 in its grave.  

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Blogs Influence IT Purchasing

KnowledgeStorm and Universal McCann have released a study of IT professionals that finds that they read blogs and get technology information from them, and that they use RSS. This isn't exactly a surprising finding, but it is interesting to see someone trying to measure blog readership in a specific business demographic.

Syndication technologies (RSS and Atom) seem to be stuck in the early adopter phase, but this study found that 31% of respondents use feeds. Interesting but again, not surprising; this is a group where you'd expect to find more early adopters.

I'd take some of the statements in the announcement with a grain of salt (like the use of the word "proves" in the headline and breathy proclamations that blogs are "the perfect forum" for IT professionals), and read this is another indication that you need to be thinking about how blogs fit into your arsenal of PR and marketing tactics - particularly if you are marketing to IT buyers.

This study follows an earlier KnowledgeStorm/Universal McCann study on podcasts, and an upcoming study on wiki technologies is promised.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We Clean Blinds

I have rarely if ever worked for a company with products that are easy to explain. My products have tended to be complex and/or required a new way of working (and we all know how much people like change) and/or they were so high-priced that, no matter that no amount of explanation could help the prospect over the sticker shock.

And all of this was compounded, of course, by the rage for talking about features, not benefits. (We have to say that this product will improve your top and bottom line. Who cares what it actually does?)

So it was with great envy that, on my Route 128 commute, I’d occasionally spot a van that said on it “We clean blinds.” Every time I’d see it, I’d sigh and think, “Gee, I know exactly what they do. I wish I had some blinds that needed cleaning.” Just looking at that tag line, I could figure out the benefits on my own. Yes, it would cost me something, but the result would be time savings and very likely cleaner blinds than I’d get if I cleaned them on my own.

I went to a trade show recently, and I saw a technology company that explained just as clearly what they do: “We buy, refurbish, and resell Cisco gear.” I didn’t need to stop in and ask them what they did. I am actually not in the market for any used Cisco gear, thank you, but if I run across any business that is, I’ll sure know where to refer them.

For most of us marketing complex technology, there'll never be "We Clean Blinds" (or "We Refurbish Cisco") clarity. But we should never lose sight of the power of simplicity and directness when we describe what our products are and do.

Vote Often and Early

I just voted (primary election) and with all the money that gets spent on elections, I have to admit that my favorite political marketing tool is still the good, old-fashioned sign. Maybe because it's so low-tech and yesterday, maybe because I've been a sign holder plenty of times, I love seeing the "visibilities" (people standing on street corners, holding their candidate's signs, and waving to people). I love the people standing around the polls, plumping for their guy. I love the signs on people's lawns, or taped to telephone poles and trees. I love political rallies: Go Team!

But the reality, of course, is that there's a lot more to candidate marketing than a cardboard sign.

We've certainly known for a long time that candidates are really and truly marketed, that handlers handle everything from speaking points to coiffures. (Joe McGinnis' landmark book on the topic, The Selling of the President, was about Nixon's election in 1968.) It's a given that candidates must have an image, and that their positioning must be carefully honed and adhered to. (This, of course, is why we like it so much when a candidate gets away from the wranglers and shows what we believe to be his or her true colors. You go, Howard Dean!)

Still, it's always interesting to see how the different candidates are packaged. In today's Democratic primary in Massachusetts, there's a three-way battle for the gubernatorial nomination. Deval Patrick, Chris Gabrieli, and Tom Reilly - all have compelling back stories - no legacies here; all three are in many respects quite admirable. No surprise that each candidate's positioning is more around image than issues.

Patrick is the "man of passion." Together we can do something or other). He's got the preacher thing going and can really rev up a crowd. (Although I must say that the ad which excerpted a speech in which he said "we have to get Massachusetts up off of its knees" didn't quite do it for me. Sure, we don't have a growing population and housing costs are a bear, but by pretty much every measure of quality of life - education, health, income - we're in the top 10. The "off its knees" sounded like he was talking about Louisiana or Mississippi.)

Gabrieli is the "man of action" - I'll get results. He's a successful businessman, and, while we've had that with Mitt Romney for a long while and gotten no results, it's still a decent story. And this ad was a big improvement on his humorous attempt to portray himself as a take-out-the-trash common man, when he's extremely wealthy.

Reilly is the "man of the people" - Hey, I live in a modest house in a modest neighborhood, just like everyone else. And he really does have the common touch. He looks, talks, and acts like he grew up in the same neighborhood I did.

Frankly, each candidate image is reasonably appealing. So I needed to actually look at their stands on the issues. I missed the debates, but I did comb through the web sites, listen to the TV pundits on election eve, and glance through the issues chart in the morning paper. The choice became clear: Patrick for Governor. (Prior to actually looking at the issues, I'd been leaning Gabrieli, especially when our incumbent lieutenant governor, who's the Republican nominee for gov, ran a ludicrous, ad hominen, over the top attack ad against him.)

I could have made an emotional, image based decision for any of these candidates and let it go at that. (And these guys are similar enough to each other that it wouldn't really matter all that much.) But I needed to know exactly what I was buying, errrr, voting for here.

There's a marketing lesson in here. When we come up with the image, the positioning, and the tag line for our products, we need to keep in mind that somewhere, someone in the company that's thinking of buying our product will actually want to know what is does and how it works. In many of the ads, web site home pages, and collateral I see for technology products, I find myself struggling to figure out exactly what they do. Just telling me that your product will increase ROI, improve employee productivity, and increase operational effectiveness ain't enough if I don't know what the product is actually good for.

Winning Arguments vs. Winning Customers

Early in my career, I worked for a small company that made medical equipment. One of our product lines was a relatively low-tech item used during surgery to prevent a common complication. It was a cool product - a simple, non-invasive technique that replaced expensive pharmaceuticals with potential side effects and could save people's live.

The product wasn't developed by the company; we'd bought it (before I was there) from its inventors, a local doctor and lawyer. The lawyer stuck around in a sales/product development role under contract to us. He was a smart, passionate guy who believed absolutely in his creation and spent his days out evangelizing for it as hospitals.

And sales of it has steadily increased; it was a profitable item for the company.

Sounds great, right? Not when you peeked under the covers.

Our biggest competitor was a large medical manufacturer who came out with a very similar product that included some extra features. The features made it complicated (and far more expensive), and the clinical benefit was questionable. We had a ton of peer-reviewed studies showing that our simpler, cheaper version did everything that theirs did; they had one or two papers suggesting the opposite. This being peer-reviewed medical research, nobody was endorsing anything, but our stack of studies from respected medical professionals was pretty impressive.

The company had never looked at market share - they just watched the sales come in and were happy. This isn't unusual in a small family-run outfit like that company. But when our new head of marketing (first ever in the position) went and did a little research, she found something troubling: sure, our sales had been increasing nicely, but the overall market for the product had exploded. So as we watched nice year-over-year revenue increases, our market share had plummeted from more than 50% to under 10%.

That's a prescription for disaster, because the market was showing signs of consolidating, and you don't want to be a tiny little player in a consolidating market. Her recommendation was that we just exit; we were completely outgunned from a marketing standpoint, and she thought it made sense to sell off the business (a small part of the company's overall revenues) while it was profitable.

Needless to say, the clashes began. Our inventor was a typical entrepreneur: smart, committed, and absolute in love with his product. He was also a lawyer: that meant he was in love with being right and winning arguments. Those are great skills for a lawyer.

For a marketer, not so great. Our approach to the market was one that you could defend in a court of law, but not so successful in the marketplace.

The product and pricing decisions were quite sensible, unless you happened to be buying the product. The up-front price was high, but the ongoing costs for supplies very low. You'd save money. But if you were a hospital, buying supplies was much easier than buying equipment, so despite the money that would be saved, it was very hard to get it through purchasing.

Then there was our communications. The inventor sent out endless newsletters to the medical community highlighting studies that demonstrated our product's value. Great, right? Well, not when you're telling surgeons, "You are all wrong in choosing that other product" (and that was the tone of the newsletter).

Surgeons really, really don't like being told that they are making a bad medical choice by a lawyer. Or a marketer. It doesn't matter if you have enough clinical studies to fill an ER from one wall to the other; they are the surgeons. (Interestingly, nurses were very eager to hear what the studies said.)

At trade shows, it was typical to have surgeons come up to our stand and say, "That doesn't work." If you tried to offer them copies of some of the clinical literature, you'd get a patronizing "Oh, that's so cute, the non-doctor thinks he knows something" smile and the surgeon would walk away, saying, "No, it really doesn't work."

We had our advocates, to be sure.

Looking back through the lens of experience, it's easy to see where we went wrong. We picked the wrong fight. We tried to convince doctors that they were wrong, and that's a doomed strategy.

What we should have done was stop trying to win the argument and win the market battle instead. We should have leveraged the surgeons who understood the product's benefits. We should have made better use of the nurses, who were the ones dealing with cost issues and sitting on hospital purchasing committees. (The inventor, showing some professional snobbery, liked talking to surgeons but thought the nurses were just, you know, gals in white uniforms.) We should have marketed directly to hospital purchasing staff, whose influence was already on the rise. We should have talked to insurers.

Instead, we went into an unwinnable argument with the moral clarity of the faithful... and the market consolidated. Sales started to level off and drop. Eventually, my former employer sold off the business. The big competitor dominates to this day.

Being right isn't all it's cracked up to be. It feels nice, but if you want to succeed in the market, you need to understand stop worrying about being right (though not settle for being wrong!) and let go of arguments.

The goal isn't to prove people who don't buy your product wrong. It's to find the ones who will buy it, because it's the right choice.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Morality, Ethics, & Marketing - Two More Cents

John recently posted an entry on Seth Godin's recent blog entry on marketing morality. It's an interesting topic, that certainly won't be exhausted here, but I did want to add a bit on a sub-topic that wasn't addressed in either place: marketing to children.

USA Today had an article on a timely, back-t0-school example:
The latest effort by schools to boost tight budgets by hooking up with corporate sponsors gets going next month, when school buses in 11 states begin airing commercial radio with ads targeted at kids. Bus Radio, a Massachusetts-based company, says 100,000 riders on 800 buses will hear music and commercials. The company says the broadcasts will entertain children and curb rowdiness.

Forget about whether kids need to be entertained 24/7. (What's wrong with yacking about mean teachers and yucky homework with the kid next to you? Or even charing critiques of last evening's episode of Survivor or American Idol? What's wrong with staring out the window and twirling your hair?) And, while there's plenty of rowdiness that should be curbed, isn't a bit of schoolbus rowdiness OK? I guess we're supposed to be assured that this is OK by the mention that the ads will be "age appropriate." Thank goodness, I'd hate to see those kindergarten boys targeted for Gillette Tag body spray (or worse).

What's really insidious here is making the schoolbus yet another opportunity to market directly to kids - with no adults there to mediate and discuss whether what's being marketed is crap, whether the claims made about the product are crap, and whether it's really OK not to fall in line and, at age 8, sign up for life-time membership as a cog in the fly-wheel of consumption.

A while back, I saw a show on a marketing company that specializes in targeting pre-teen girls. They go into the market-place-of-choice and somehow identify the girls who are the biggest influencers. They then get these alpha-girls to "sponsor" sleep-overs during which products are evaluated. The pitch to parents is that the girls are being "empowered" to help decide what products will come to market. (As nice a piece of marketing-spin rubbish as I've ever seen.) Yes, they're empowering those girls to hound their parents into purchasing yet more crap.

Anyway, it seems to me that we're all greedy little beasts by nature. Forget about curbing rowdiness. How much harder does it make the job of parents trying to curb the consumption madness of their children when the schools seem to be condoning it by bomarding kids with ads on the schoolbus, however "age appropriate" they are.

If kids need entertainment on the bus, let 'em sing Three Cheers for the Bus Driver or 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.


Rewarding your customers

My SO just made Platinum on Continental Airlines' Elite program. For the first 2/3 of the year, he was "commuting" from Houston to Paris, so the miles added up. For both of us - I didn't go as much as he did, but I did make four trips to France, and so I hit Gold (the middle level of their three elite tiers) a few weeks ago.

And it's funny - when you hit Silver, Gold, or Platinum, you get a package with your new frequent flyer card in the mail. The exact same package, no matter what level you're at.

When I hit Silver, I got a mailer that contained my new card, some drink tickets, two name stickers to put inside your luggage (in case it's lost and the tags are missing) and an explanation of all the Elite levels. When I hit Gold, I got the same package with a gold card. And he just got the very same thing with a Platinum card.

"Four drink tickets?" he said. "I've flown 75,0000 miles with them so far this year. I've squashed my butt into economy for all that time. They should at least have a note in there thanking me for spending so much goddamn money with them."

"For all those miles, you should get a free drink on every flight!" I said.

You do get different benefits at different levels. For example, when you Silver, you get a 50% bonus on your miles (fly 1,000 miles, get 1,500 deposited to your account.) At Gold that goes up to a 100% bonus, and he now gets 125% bonus as a Platinum flyer.

And then there's the best benefit - the first class upgrades. You wind up farther up the list to get bumped into first class as you advance through the tiers. If you fly a lot, that's not a small thing. I was in first class both ways on my last trip to DC, and let me tell you, it made me very happy. It's nice to get off a plane not feeling like you've been living the life of a veal calf for the last few hours.

Platinum flyers are their very best customers. These are people who, like my SO, are constantly hopping onto planes. And they send out a package that makes them feel like... nobody special. ("I've flown from Texas to the Middle East and all I got was a stupid drink ticket," the t-shirt could say.)

If you're going to reward your most loyal customers, make them feel rewarded. Otherwise, what's the point?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Where Are You Sending Them?

 Let's take a quick look at a basic, but often-forgotten, element of email marketing: the landing page.

How many times have you clicked on a link in an email ad (or a banner ad or sponsored search listing, for that matter) only to find yourself on a page where you just don't know what to do next? What you're experiencing, of course, is an advertiser who thought about their ad copy, the design, the placement - everything they needed to in order to get you to click - but didn't follow through and make smart choices about what would happen next.

This article from ClickZ about landing pages is a great summary of the basics. Print it out and stick in on a wall in your work area. Even experienced marketers something forget about these things, as some clicking on ads will show you.

You're investing time and money in getting potential customers to click a link - don't lose them! 

Friday, September 15, 2006

Eat Your Spinach

On hearing that bags of spinach are being recalled because of e-coli outbreak tied to eating your spinach (which has so far resulted in one death), I began thinking about how tough it must be to be a spinach marketer, even on a good day. Here they were, thinking they were doing the world a world of good, and now this.

Despite all that help from Popeye, they've certainly had their challenges to overcome in getting people to eat their spinach. But they're good marketers: the ubiquity of spinach salad on the restaurant menu is certainly testimony to their genius in getting people who hate cooked spinach (I'm one of them) to eat it raw. (Throwing bacon on spinach certainly helped.) So I was wondering how spinach marketers are reacting to yesterday's death-by-spinach news.

As it turns out, a while back the National Spinach Association expanded its mission and is now the Leafy Greens Council, dedicated not just to spinach, but to all the cruciferous veggies (think every vegetable you hated as a kid, plus lettuce, and you're there). They even came up with a set of trading cards (the Cruciferous Crusaders) to help kids make more mature eating decisions. ("No, thanks. I don't want a Happy Meal. I'd rather eat kale.")

Alas, the Leafy Greens Council appears to be no more (either that, or they shut their web site down for the duration). So I don't know what they're thinking today. If the Leafy Greens Council were still around, I'd say they'd be counting their blessings that they could still get out there with Brussel sprouts and turnips. But it they're out there on their own, all I can do is wish them good luck.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Or marketer!

A local marketing organization is having a lunch meeting I want to attend next week. Like good marketers, they have an email list to distribute meeting announcements.

I clicked on the link for registration in the email and found myself on a web page with a registration form... for last month's event.

Hmm. There was an email address for inquiries, so I wrote a quick note asking how it could register.

It bounced. I went back to the web site and there was a phone number to call. I called it.

I got a phone company recording telling me that the number had changed.

We've all had these days, so I don't want to beat up on them too much... well, yes, actually I do. If you launched an email campaign with a landing page that went to the wrong form, an invalid email address, and an incorrect phone number, how would you explain that to your boss or your client?

And this is a marketing organization.

Getting Blogging

PR giant Edelman has an interesting blog portal on their site. It's a link to blogs and podcasts written by Edelman staffers.

Some are part of the Edelman site; some are hosted offsite. They are written by a wide range of practitioners within the firm and from around the world (some are not in English).

It also include a link to get RSS feeds for the blogs.

It gives site visitors a quick look at the expertise they are hopefully getting when they become an Edelman client. I haven't seen anything quite this comprehensive on another firm's site. I'm curious what kind of traffic and readership it gets.  

It's a good example of a firm embracing new media and technology.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Morality, Ethics, Marketing

Let's take a brief break from the day to day marketing issues to think big thoughts.

Nearly every business activity has ethical implications, and marketing has more than most.

Seth Godin recently tackled some of the ethical questions of marketing in a blog post called "Marketing Morality."

Your marketing changes the way people act.

Not completely. Of course not. You can't get babies to start smoking cigars and you can't turn Oklahoma into a blue state. But on the margins, especially if your product or service has some sort of archetypal connection to your customers, you can change what people do.

Now it gets tricky. It gets tricky because you can no longer use the argument, "We're just giving intelligent adults the ability to make a free choice." No, actually you're not. You're marketing something so that your product will have an edge over the alternative.

Everyone knows about milk. The milk people don't need to spend $60 million a year advertising milk in order to be sure we all get a free choice about whether to buy milk or not. No, they do it because it makes milk sales go up.

What a huge responsibility.

If you're a good marketer (or even worse, a great marketer), it means that you're responsible for what you sell. When you choose to sell it, more of it gets sold.

I have no standing to sit here and tell you that it's wrong for you to market cigarettes or SUVs, vodka or other habit-forming drugs. What we do need to realize, though, is that it's our choice and our responsibility. As marketers, we have the power to change things, and the way we use that power is our responsibility--not the market's, not our boss's. Ours.

The morality of marketing is this: you need to be able to stand up and acknowledge that you're doing what you're doing. "By marketing this product in this beautiful packaging, I'm causing a landfill to get filled a lot faster, but that's okay with me." Marketers can't say, "Hey, the market spoke. It's not my decision."

I've never believed the canard that advertising is just about offering information. It's nonsense, and we al know it. It's about making people do things. As Seth notes, there are limits on one's ability to do that, and good marketers are keenly aware of them... but we should never pretend we're not trying to influence behavior. Because if we make that argument successfully, we've just argued our way out of our jobs.

And like Seth I'm not going to lecture anyone: just make sure that you are comfortable with what you do.

One of the marketing issues that fascinates me is what our marketing activities do to the cultural environment in which we operate. I'm a marketer, but I'm also a person who lives in the world we create, and like many other people I find the intrusion of marketing into everyday life troubling. There's the obvious stuff, like telemarketing calls and endless badly-targeted direct mail. There's spam. And of course there's also the appearing of ads everywhere from over urinals to on eggs.

As I marketer, I understand why it's done and that it works, but as a member of society, I hate it. And so I found this item from Wired News rather interesting.

Using symbols and slogans and logos to sell a product or a company has been around for as long as there have been products and companies to sell. But selling, like so much else in this increasingly hyper and over-hyped world of ours, has mutated into something uglier -- call it consumer marketing.

Technology's march only serves the beast. Each advance (if advancing is what it is) diffuses the way we get our information. If we now have 3,089 ways of taking in news and information, the marketing swine will find 3,089 ways of shoving their "buy this" message down your throat, whether you want to hear it or not. There is no escape.

With hundreds of thousands of marketers out there, clamoring to be heard over the din of their collective, orgiastic whoring, you can't read anything, watch anything or go anywhere without a ceaseless assault on your senses. The message, regardless of how subliminal, never varies: Buy this, own this, drink this, drive this, wear this, be this. In order to be cool, you must consume consume consume.

The irony of a writer complaining about "marketing swine" in a piece that appears on a web page that is able to exist because of the surrounding advertising is not lost on me. But the irony doesn't mean he's wrong.

It should tell us something that someone whose paycheck doesn't bounce because of ad revenues resents advertising so much. In the same piece, there's a link to this page, which tells people how to get logos off of their cell phones.

With some risk of damaging the phone. Think about that: there are people who so resent the appearance of a corporate logo that they will risk damaging an expensive piece of electronics to rub it off.

That, too, should tell us something.

Am I suggesting that we all renounce our evil marketing ways and change careers? Of course not. I'm simply suggesting that, like all good businesspeople, we should never forget the implications of what we do - and for marketers, that means asking if our exciting new marketing channel is something we really want to live with.

And, in practical terms: if people hate it that much, how well will it work?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Are Corporate Blogs a Fad?

Recently my SO said, "If I hear one more person talking about corporate blogs, I'm going to throw up."

I suspect there are a lot of people who share that opinion. In part that's a healthy suspicion of hearing something touted as the latest hot new marketing channel. Usually, these things are a bust. (Remember Pointcast?)

In part it's a reaction to the many really bad corporate blogs out there, which are just standard web content reformatted to look like a blog, but with the same tired institutional voice and heavy sales-pitch content. It might look like a blog, but it misses the point.

The UK-based CIO Jury at CNET.com recently weighed in on the topic and concluded that no, they are not a fad - though not without some dissent.

With companies increasingly using blogging to communicate both internally to staff and externally to clients and customers, 10 of silicon.com's 12-strong CIO Jury IT user panel said corporate blogs are more than just another technology fad that has found favour among senior managers.

Christopher Linfoot, IT director at LDV Vans, said: "Like all new technologies corporate blogs are often misapplied but there are valid applications, usually employee communication and not external. We do have a couple in use here in the former category."

But another member of the jury said:

Nic Evans, European IT director at Key Equipment Finance, said: "Personally I think corporate blogs are at best just a 'jeans day' version of more formal communications and at worst more benefit for the ego of the blogger than their potential audience."

The article also notes some of the difficulties of corporate blogging:

But corporate blogging also throws up issues of how censored or moderated the content is. Rob Wharton, CIO at Colt Telecoms, said: "Blogs are popular because they tend to represent personal opinions and personality rather than corporate messages. Therefore we need to take a great deal of care to ensure appropriate use so we don't devalue the blog concept, whilst avoiding mayhem in what essentially needs to be a controlled message."

Your challenge, of course, is taking care not to miss the boat on what could be a vital new communications tool, while not spending too much time on something that may not pan out. The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle (as is so often the case): there are good uses for corporate blogs, but we're likely to see lots of misapplication of the concept while the right and wrong ways to use blogs gets sorted out.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lost in the Crowd

The best/worst marketing gimmick I saw at the VON Expo (going on this week in Boston) was a guy walking around advertising Truphone (VoIP for your mobile phone). Their theme was “Still talking to a PC? Unchain yourself”, and they had a downtrodden looking guy in a rumpled, graying white shirt and a Dilbert tie lugging around a PC tethered to him with a handcuffed chain. Clever enough idea. The problem was that the downtrodden, rumpled guy didn’t look all that different than the average guy in the crowd (some of whom were actually walking around trailing roller bags). If they’d wanted their spokesmodel to standout, Truphone should have put him in a sharp, nicely tailored suit. (Hey, what's he doing here?) Or – I hate to say it – chosen a babe to pull the PC along. That people at this event absolutely would have noticed.

What to Name This Baby

Believe me, I know that it’s really difficult to come up with a good name for a company. Unlike naming the baby, where it’s really OK if there are multiple Emilys and Jacobs, you really want your company name to be a one-off. But walking around the VON Expo (Voice-Video-Vision - a.k.a. "the VoIP show") in Boston this week, it was interesting to see how many terrible company names there really are out there. Is it just me, or does Dialexia look a lot like Dyslexia? And what were they thinking when Porta One came up with their name? Are there no Porta Potties in Canada?

I will throw Voxbone a bone because they’re Belgian and maybe it means “voice good” in Bruges. I have some trouble with Personeta – to me it sounds like a bad “made up name”, or a put down. (“She’s not really a person, she’s more of a person-eta.”) Mediatrix is a bit too racy. Or a bit too religious. Take your pick.

But my “Best of Show” when it comes to bad names is, drum roll please: U4EA Technologies. Yes, they have the word “Euphoria” embedded in their logo. And maybe the URL was taken when they set up shop (it’s not now). To me the name looked like UREA. (In an industry where IP/"I pee" jokes are not unknown, this one just doesn’t do it for me.)

Now that I’ve managed to knock all of the above companies off my list of places I could conceivable consult, I want to point out I’m not a total crank on names. I liked Cantata. I liked Airvana and Pingtel (even though I think that at some point these companies will decide that they were having an attack of severe cutesy when they came up with the name – especially in the case of Pingtel). My favorite company name at VON was Ojo. So, naturally, come to find out it’s not a company name at all: it’s a product name. (The company is actually World Gate.) Still, if you want to see fun, interesting branding/naming, check-out Ojo. It’s a personal video phone, and they’ve got a few fun things going with it: a nice pun on the Spanish word for eye (if my junior high espaƱol is still serving me); use of the color orange (since most of us are going to pronounce it o-joe anyway); and the first O in Ojo has eyelashes.

Instant Feedback, Like It Or Not

From Guy Kawaski's blog comes a discussion of how online reviews change the dynamics of business:

Ilana DeBare of the the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a terrific piece (9/3/06) about this phenomenon called “Amateur reviews changing approach of small businesses.” Check it out by clicking here. She starts off with a story of how a new restaurant thought it could work the kinks out during the first thirty days only to find out that customers were already criticizing the place on Yelp after the first weekend of business.

The article points out one of the problems with online reviews: there's no quality control. Anybody (including a competitor) can say anything.

Monitoring these kinds of online review sites should be a part of your regular media monitoring, particularly if you're in a market where such reviews can be influential.

In reviews, as in all other things, there is value in expertise. It's empowering to let everyone become a reviewer, but I wonder how useful these sites are for customers in the long term. As I read Kawasaki's blog and the SF Chronicle article, I thought about reviews for a local high end Latino restaurant that I found while looking for its address.

Here in the land of Tex-Mex, other Latin dining options are kind of limited - and people's inexperience with them showed in the reviews. Many of them complained, "they didn't give us chips and salsa when we got there, and they had no burritos!" Not surprising since it wasn't a Mexican restaurant, but is it fair that this led to negative reviews? (I had a great meal at the restaurant in question, chips or no chips!)

The nice thing about professional reviews is that the reviewer is somewhat more likely to know what he or she is talking about...

Monday, September 11, 2006

To Market, To Market

Tech Target has a new blog, My Educated Guess, that has a brief article on marketing to the mid-market. I’ve been the mid-market route in a couple of companies, and I’ve found that it’s exceedingly difficult to get discipline around it. I remember explaining my rule of thumb to one sales guy: If you’ve heard of the company, they’re probably not right for us. The CEO was a big proponent of focusing on the mid-market. “It takes a mid-market company to sell to a mid-market company.” At first blush, this didn’t really make all that much sense, but did have a logic of its own if you thought about it. Since they might not be that large an account to the “big guys”, mid-market companies might get lost in the support shuffle. With a company more their size, they could (theoretically, at least) get better support, the personal touch, a call from the CEO, etc.

At least that’s what we tried for. In reality, even with the CEO touting the brilliance of our mid-market strategy, sales just never got in line. Sales guys wanted bragging rights to the big deal, bagging rights to the big logo. “We’re hunting elephants,” they’d say, “Not squirrels.” Naturally, the company closed enough big logo (big buck) deals to have everyone in the sales force salivating after the big commissions. Despite all the do-or-die effort we’d put in on proposals we stood scant change of winning, we didn’t win many of these big logo deals. Maybe it was just as well. When we did win the logo deals, we had usually been squeezed so hard on price, product changes, and support that we actually lost money on the account.

Sales ≠ Marketing

A headline in the Boston Globe caught my marketing eye on Sunday. “Work comes looking for top marketers.” The sub-head was less inviting ‘Senior salesmen with proven worth are hot, especially in healthcare, tech.’ And the article went on to talk about sales, marketing, and sales and marketing positions that are “out there.”

I don’t know why, but having spent 25 years in high-tech marketing I HATE when the terms sales and marketing are used interchangeably.

Yes, I know that “the dictionary” conflates the terms. (I know because I just looked it up in a Random House Dictionary the heft of a Gutenberg Bible and, much to my chagrin, found it out.)

But those of us who’ve worked in sales and/or marketing know that the fields are adjacent but distinct.

Sales is, well, getting someone to buy something.

Marketing, in my definition – and experience – is making products easier to sell and easier to buy. Marketing makes sure that products meet some-need-or-another (amazing how many products don’t really). Marketing makes sure that the audience for these products is aware that they exist. Marketing makes sure that the audience understands what the product is and does (also amazing how many products are out there – especially in the software world – where you don’t really know what the product is, only that it will provide you instant ROI). Marketing makes sure that the salespeople know who that audience is, where they are, and what to say when you get there.

That’s my view anyway. If only I could sell it. Or market it.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Low Tech Wins

Yesterday I had one of those really annoying automotive experiences: one of the power windows in my car fell off of its track and into the door. Whoops!

Because my car is a Volkswagen, nothing like this is easy. My trusty neighborhood mechanic told me to take it to the dealer - VW windows are insanely complex. So I called the only VW dealer in the inner loop area of Houston, where I was told I could have a an appointment... next Thursday.

Remembering why I stopped taking the car to them in the first place, I asked, "Is there any way you can get me in sooner? It's a real problem not having a window!"

"No sir, I'm sorry."

This is the problem with that dealership: they are part of a group of dealers in the area, and when you call to make a service appointment, you don't seem to get anyone at the actual dealership; you get someone sitting at a computer who cannot do anything that computer won't permit her to do.

I made the appointment, pulled up the VW web site, and started checking who had service hours on Saturday, and making calls.

My car is now at another local VW dealer - not a terribly conveniently located one - but one who could actually help me.

When I called, I spoke to someone sitting there in the service department. I explained the situation and she said, "Hold on!" After a few minutes she came back and told me sure, they could do it for me today, as long as I got in first thing.

Because they are apparently less slick that the first dealer, she could walk over to the service area and ask, "Can we squeeze in this guy with a window problem tomorrow?"

Automating things and centralizing things is a great way to save money. Of course, if you do it in a way that makes your front-line staff unable to respond to customers helpfully, you'll probably lose whatever you've saved. Not every customer is going to have the standard needs. If you can't respond to something as simple as getting someone in faster than normal because they have a special problem, you're not going to have happy customers.

(A funny side note - whenever you use that first dealer's online service appointment form, you get a fast response - from the sales manager, eager to help you buy your new VW. I told them about this twice but they never fixed it. Duh.)

I have no intention of ever setting foot in the first dealership again (this was just the latest in a long line of annoyances with them). And while I might buy another Volkswagen, it certainly won't be from them. Hope that centralized appointment setting is saving you big bucks, guys.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Who Writes the Manuals?

Seth Godin recently linked to a post on Kathy Sierra's blog about user manuals, and why marketing should be responsible for them. That led to an immediate response from Darren Barefoot disagreeing.

They're both right. Sort of.

From Kathy:

Why do so many companies treat potential users so much better than existing users? Think about it. The brochure is a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom. The brochure gets the big budget while the manual gets the big index. What if we stopped making the docs we give away for free SO much nicer than the ones the user paid for? What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?

Let's take the whole damn ad/marketing budget and move it over to product manuals and support. Let's put our money where our users are. If we're in it for the short term, then sure--it makes sense to do everything to get a new user, while doing as little as possible once we've got them. But if we're really in it for the long haul--for customer retention and loyal users--then shouldn't we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most? Our users?

From Darren:

There’s a reason why words like ‘glossy’ and ’slick’ have negative connotations. Because they imply shallowness, which isn’t something you should aspire to in a user manual.

It’s hubris to say, as Kathy does, that “shouldn’t we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most?” Ah right, so there hasn’t been any design or ‘pro writing talent’ applied to that area yet? And marketers are the saviours? Right.

User manuals get a bad wrap because companies don’t devote enough resources to them. That money should be spent on thoughtful tech writers, trainers and support personnel who can make compelling training and support material. It shouldn’t be spent on applying lipstick.

Kathy's central point - that user manuals should be part of the experience of making customers passionate about, and committed to, our products - is absolutely right. But, as Darren points out, the way to do that isn't prettier manuals (and that's how I read Kathy's suggestion that we spend more on designing and printing manuals, especially given her "brochures - slick and cool vs manuals - black and white and boring" comparison graphic).

All successful communications should be designed with the user's needs in mind. The user of marketing materials is trying to make a purchasing decisions. The user of the manual is trying to accomplish her business tasks with the product. These are different things. Accomplishing them requires different skill sets.

Seth says, "can I propose a team effort?" That's the right approach.

As I read all of this I though back to my days at a company that made analytical lab equipment. We redesigned all of the marketing materials (they needed it badly). We made them more customer focused; we made the terminology used in them more consistent and clear; we did a really good job at it.

Then we looked at the manuals - which were boring and not that pretty - and my reaction was just like Kathy's.

After some, er, heated discussions with the tech writer who was responsible for them, s0mething became clear: our users didn't want pretty manuals. Our manuals sat in binders in laboratories and were consulted when someone needed details on exactly how we were determining results for tests, or when they needed to know maintenance procedures for the equipment.

They needed simple line diagrams, not sexy photos. They needed clear instructions on how to make the damn thing work so they could get through all the samples that needed to be tested, not information about why our techniques were the best around. They already knew that; that's why they bought our stuff.

Here's what we did do: the tech writer started reviewing the marketing materials to make sure that we weren't saying things that would make a lab tech on a purchasing committee snort in derision. And I started reviewing the manuals, so that I could make sure we weren't changing terminology after they bought the equipment, or undercutting our marketing messages.

The result, I think, was better manuals and better brochures. (This was pre-web - boy, I feel old suddenly!)

There's an element of marketing to all communications with your customers, including documentation, but not everything is primarily a marketing task. Have some respect for what the documentation folks do, because it's a specialized and important skill that you probably don't have. But don't ignore what they are doing, either.

Team effort - it can be a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Caps off to Red Sox marketing?

Just got another e-mail from my friends the Red Sox. Today, they want to sell me caps. Thanks, but I already have two.

Whatever else you can say about the Red Sox, they sure know how to market. They sell out all their games (three years and counting, even with the dreadful run they’ve been experiencing lately). After the 2004 World Series, they sold official Fenway sod. They’ve put those terrible Coke bottles on top of the Green Monster. They’ve suckered thousands of fans into signing up for official membership in Red Sox Nation, even though the only benefits appear to be a plastic card and a steady stream of e-mails. I ought to know because I’m one of them – a founding member, no less.

I haven’t given up on this season yet. Last night’s win against the White Sox, courtesy of a 10th inning walk-off homer by a local kid, is keeping hope alive in the Nation. But I’m wondering just how long their marketing will carry them if the team starts to really founder. I’m not just talking the current swoon. And I’m not anticipating a return to the cellar-dweller Red Sox teams I cut my fan teeth on. The Red Sox spend way too much on payroll to have that happen. I’m talking about a couple of middling seasons of no play-off play.

Yes, people will still don their Red Sox caps and head to Fenway. The Yankee games will still sell-out. But however brilliant and persistent their marketing is, it will never make up for a rotten showing in the standings. Just listen to what one Red Sox “fan”, trying to unload some tickets, said in a Boston Globe article on plummeting ticket prices a couple of days ago:

In an offer unimaginable only a month ago, Liz Brownell, 24, of Dedham, was using Craigslist yesterday to pitch a pair of $45 grandstand seats for face value for Sunday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. When the Sox were in first place earlier this season, similar seats fetched $150 each.

``Prices have dropped pretty drastically," Brownell said. ``Who wants to pay through the nose to see a lousy team play with third-string players?"
There’s a Marketing 101 lesson here. And that’s that all the marketing in the world cannot make up for a product that’s overpriced and lousy. In the short run, marketing can create some stir and even help sell product. And certainly, there are plenty of examples of the lesser product winning out due to good marketing. (To dredge up one hoary example: Beta-Max, anyone?)

In baseball, the marketers can sweeten the pot with giveaways – give me that cap, don’t try to sell it to me. But what energizes fans is good quality play and a shot at ‘why not this year?’ Just as surely as what keeps people buying any product or service is always going to be quality and/or value, not marketing hype.

Of course, there’s a Marketing 102 lesson here two. Wouldn’t you think someone trying to sell tickets would come up with better positioning than “who wants to pay through the nose to see a lousy team play”? A real marketer might have pointed out that it’ ain’t over ‘til it’s over.