Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hoax! Bad-Idea Marketing from Turner Broadcasting

I did hear a lot of sirens during the morning, but, hey, it's the city. You hear sirens.

Around noon, I left to work in The Writers' Room of Boston - which is a library-quiet workspace: no phones, no access. Nothing to do but write.

My sister Trish called mid-afternoon. "Where are you?" she asked. "Is everything OK?" She was at work and had heard that "devices" had been found all over Boston. She'd heard that Charles Street, the main street in my neighborhood was closed; so was the Salt and Pepper (Longfellow) Bridge that spans the Charles. One of these devices was found in Sullivan Square in Charlestown. No bombs yet, but the police were still looking.

I told myself, hoax. Kids. Morons. Jerks.

I told myself that my nine-year old niece, Caroline, whose school is maybe a mile from Sullivan Square, would be OK even if a bomb was detonated there. As long as it was a small bomb.

I plotted my path to Charlestown if I needed to go find her, to rescue her. How would I get to Charlestown if the bridges were closed 0r even out, the T not running? I could see if my brother was still at work - although knowing him, he'd have walked on water to get to his daughter. If I found him, maybe the two of us could commandeer a boat. Caroline's uncle is a police officer in a nearby town. Maybe he could be dispatched to get her if we were trapped here while she was trapped there. I was suddenly grateful that Caroline's mother and stepfather had gotten her a cell phone for Christmas, even if I thought she was too darned young.

I called my husband and told him to turn on the news.

Hoax, he told me. They're calling it a hoax.

A while later, he called me back to say that they'd just announced on CNN that all these unmarked "devices" that looked kinda-sorta like bombs - or as we were told, had components consistent with IEDs - were part of an advertising campaign from Turner Broadcasting promoting one of their shows - a cartoon called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," in which the animated characters are fast food items like a ball of ground beef called Meatwad and a box of french fries named Frylock. Boy, with a hook and title like that, this sure sounds like "must watch TV."

Apparently the ads are some form of graffiti advertising. They're lightboards that show a cartoon character giving the finger - ha, ha - but from some angles it looks like a circuit board with batteries, wires, etc. Apparently, they've been in place for about 10 days, but one was reported today by someone who saw this "suspicious device" in a girder on the I-93 underpass in Charlestown.

Marketing campaign? In this day and age to put suspicious, unmarked packages at key points like bridges and overpasses in big cities and not expect first responders to respond first, ask questions later? To put these packages out in the city that was the departure gate for the two planes that flew into the Twin Towers and not expect us to react?

Did Boston over-react?

Take it from someone who lives here, better safe than sorry.

And speaking of sorry, I hope the sorry-assed marketers at Turner Broadcasting who thought up this sorry-assed stunt are feeling just a small twinge of shame about it. (And I hope they're all ready to ante-up to cover whatever costs - just estimated at $750,000 - were incurred by the taxpayers of the City of Boston, of whom I am one.)

Maybe the outcome will be of some good - pointing up flaws in our Homeland Security measures that we can remedy.

But I'm thinking the outcome is mostly all bad: more mistrust, more paranoia, more tension, more what if's, more what's next, more when's next.

Maybe in a couple of days, I'll be laughing about this - and, having read all those articles about what a clever marketing campaign this all was, I'll come to appreciate the sheer marketing genius behind it.

But right about now, I'm not feeling so amused.

Outside my window in the Writers' Room, a cop pulls a cab over. What's that about, I wonder? It's getting dark and I can't see all that clearly from the fifth floor. Does the cab driver look like he's from the Mideast? A lot of cab drivers in Boston are. Mohammed Atta drove a cab here, didn't he? Didn't he?

As I said, right about now, I'm not feeling all that amused.

On my way home, I pass by the Boston Common, where I count 15 police vehicles parked in the Common at the corner of Beacon and Charles. Apparently it's a staging area for "situations." I suppose that this should give be a feel good, but it's not. Not really.

Screw you, Turner Broadcasting Marketing Department. Screw you.


Later the same evening....

Okay, okay. Now that I've seen the devices the whole thing seems faintly ridiculous. Once you know it's a cartoon character. It still raises the question of judgement about putting these signs on girders underneath bridges and overpasses rather than, say, in public places frequented by young people who would see the signs and get the joke. Places like Newbury Comics. College dining halls. Clubs like the Mideast and TT Bears (if they're still around). Putting them in bomb-sites where someone who wasn't young and hip could see them and think, hey, that looks electronic and bomb-ish, what's it doing there...well. Good idea for garnering publicity among us old fogies who watch news and read newspapers but, attention: Turner Broadcasting - none of us are going to watch this show, anyway.

It's hard for me to believe someone in Turner Broadcasting decided to put those signs where they ended up. My guess, Turner either hired young hipsters on the ground and had them do their thing or the young hipsters found them in the obvious marketing places (Newbury Comics, college dining halls) and decided to move them someplace a little more interesting. More of that fabulous "citizen marketing" we're hearing so much about?

Transparent Pricing

I'm considering a new pricing model.

Currently, I charge clients an hourly rate for my work. If a client prefers, I will give them a project price, but that's really just the hourly rate multiplied by estimated number of hours. If there are expenses (printing, travel, etc.) they are passed on at cost, but that's really it. My bills are very short.

But I'm thinking that's the wrong approach, and I should consider this approach. Each bill will include my time as a line item, but then I could add charges for my phone bill, my health insurance, my federal income tax, toner cartridges for my printer, electricity, water, and office supplies.

Wait, you say, that's silly. Those are overhead costs; you set an hourly rate that lets you work and cover those, right? 

Well, don't tell that to Sprint, or any other telecom:

[Texas] State Comptroller Susan Combs on Monday asked Sprint to quit charging customers a fee reflecting Texas' expanded business tax, but a spokesman for the wireless phone company said the surcharge will stay.

Sprint in January began charging a surcharge totaling 1 percent of each customer's wireless rate plan called the "Texas Margin Fee Reimbursement."

The fee is meant to cover part of the money that Sprint will owe next year under the business tax expansion, said John Taylor, senior manager of public affairs for Sprint Nextel Corp.

"There is nothing in Texas or federal law that precludes us from making this business decision, which we fully disclosed to our customers and to the public," Taylor said.

"We're not breaking the law" is a, well, powerful defense of a business practice that consumers hate, isn't it?

Telecom bills are notorious for this kind of nickel and diming, where the taxes and special fees often add up to 30 or 40% of the base bill. Why? It lets a carrier say, "We'll charge you $40 a month!" and then charge you $60.

It's legal. It's also one of the reasons that people tend to loathe the companies they buy telecom services from, no matter which one they've picked. They're dishonest - not in legal terms, just in practial terms.

(It's a lot like the car dealer practice of adding a fee for "advertising" to the cost of your car. Can you imagine paying a fee to cover advertising when you buy a can of soup?)

Why don't these companies simply include these costs in their pricing, and pick a number that covers the costs of service, overhead, taxes, and profit, and charge that? Well, because then they'd lose the opportunity for incremental price hikes, like the one Sprint has just instituted in Texas, because people would notice that their price was going up.

And make no mistake about it: Sprint has just raised the price of their mobile phone service in Texas. They can call it whatever they want, but they have raised the price.

I think that a mobile carrier could attract some customers by saying, "This is what we'll charge you. Period," and then sending simpler bills out. I doubt that will happen; adding on little charges is in the telecom DNA. And with the market controlled by an oligopoly, there's no incentive for anyone to do anything innovative and consumer-friendly.

So expect it to continue. I'm looking forward to the "CEO Bonus surcharge" and the "Routine network maintenance to provide the service we promised you" surcharge and the "Toilet paper for employee restrooms" surcharge. At least they could entertain us while they take our money.

PowerPoint: Say it Again

Okay, this is not news to anybody, but Seth Godin's post on PowerPoint abuse is worth repeating, because no matter how many times anybody talks about good and bad ways to use the omnipresent Office app as a presentation support tool, the parade of awful presentations continues.

Except that he's only about 80% right, I think. Seth writes from the marketing mindset, which is where most of us live, but...

If you're making a presentation to sell an idea, Seth's advice is great. But PowerPoint, and even live presentations, get used for other things.

I've seen PowerPoint used for plain old documents, and if you're creating something to email to people to give them information, you need to look at it differently.

Why do people use PowerPoint for this instead of creating a text document? Because of the quirks of Microsoft Office, I think. If you need to send information that consists of bullet points and some supporting charts and diagrams, it's frankly easier to do it in PowerPoint (quirky graphics tools and all) that deal with the nightmare of Word. Word's a pretty good word processor (once you learn to ignore the 95% of its features that no sane person really wants) but start dealing with non-text information and you'll need some ibuprofen pretty quickly.

At one company where I worked, the standard way to send routine documents was a PowerPoint presentation with a plain white background. It worked.

You also need to think about your audience. Seth's advice to use images and very few words is fine. Unless, of course, you're talking to techies, who want details, details, details. There are audiences who want to sit and look at that, and are honestly impressed if you have a ton of information on the slide.

Like all rules, there are good reasons to break Seth's generally good PowerPoint rules. Now, 90% of the time they're broken, there aren't good reasons. But don't forget that other 10%.

The Bunco Squad: Head's up marketing at P&G

Yesterday's Inside the Cubicle picked up on an article in the Wall Street Journal that detailed the efforts that P&G uses to get to know their customers better. In this case, the product is Prilosec, and the prospective customers are women who play the dice game, Bunco.

Before I even get into the thoroughness of P&G's approach to its target market, there's the sheer, rip-roaring fun of the very word Bunco. Frankly, until I read this post I didn't even know what Bunco was - other than my belief that, given its association with the Bunco Squad, it had something to do with illegal gambling - but it's a game that's kind of like Yahtzee, which I am very familiar with. Basically, you toss a bunch of dice and try to pull together different combinations (three of a kind, etc.), and get points for the combos. (With Yahtzee, you toss dice to make pokerish-hands.) Although at one point it was illegal - thus the Bunco squad - it is now apparently quite the rage among "affluent suburban women" who (according to our friends at Wikipedia) have Bunco parties.

On to P&G: someone there, in trying to get into the mind of their target customer, figured out that it might be worth looking at the Bunco ladies. She put out an alert asking for someone who knew any Bunco players, and hit pay dirt in identifying a strong market - and a group that was somewhat underserved in terms of having been acknowledged as a viable, discrete market. It turns out the Bunco players are a pair of sevens when it comes to potential Prilosec users. Now, Bunco is one of their main marketing efforts, and P&G even sponsors the 2007 Bunco World Championship. (Who knew?) For the other side of the house, they also sponsor car racing. All bets covered. Brilliant marketing. (And let's wait and see if the little purple pill people are on to something. If you haven't noticed, the election season is already upon us. Will the Bunco players replace the soccer moms in the electoral and polling imagination?)

In any case, good and fun marketing from the folks at P&G - and a lesson to us all as marketers.

While this type of marketing is obviously extremely applicable to consumer products, there's also a powerful lesson for B2B (and T2T/E2E/G2G - techie/engineer/geek) marketers in terms of being thorough in understanding not only the broad outlines of their target market, but also in terms of understanding demographic specifics that can help shape messaging, build successful programs, and develop products that not only meet a customer need - but become delighters with strong emotional appeal, and - dare we utter the words in this day and age of fickle consumers - build customer loyalty.

Other than the obvious - techies watch Star Trek, therefore I will embed at least one reference to Dr. Spock, errrr, Mr. Spock in my presentation to the engineers; techies tend to like lots of information, so make sure they get the details; etc. - I've done little of this type of demographic investigation. And no doubt you can do more of it - and it makes more sense - when there are zillions of potential product users, rather than a mere hundreds or thousands. But it's certainly worth thinking about, is it not?

One thing that I did do fairly regularly when I was directly involved (as product manager and/or marketer) with software development was to sit down with customers and watch how they used the product. With one mainframe decision support system (ancient history!) I managed, I spent an overnight session with some customers when they went through their monthly reporting cycle.  As long as I was able to keep my eyes open, it was a real eye opener to watch all the hoops that our users had to go through during their process. It not only helped us place our product in the right context, it also helped us figure out what we needed to add (or delete) from the system to make it more useful and usable.

In any case, the Bunco story gives us something to think about as marketers that's a no-bunk approach to getting to know and understand our customers.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Vista and Value Propositions

What's the value proposition of Windows Vista for consumers? Specifically, for consumers who have a PC running Windows XP?

I took a look at Microsoft's Vista site to try to find out. There, I learned that "the wow starts now." Okay, so what's the wow?" An animated graphic promises that it will be easier, safer, more entertaining, and better connected.

Those are all good things - well, the "safer" when your current product has a reputation of being a security nightmare is heading into dangerous ground - and so I wanted to know more.

"Easier" seems to revolve around better search functions. That's nice; the search in Apple OS is far, far better than XP's (and from what I've heard, Vista's), and is one of the few Mac things I actually miss. Along with the "easier" copy there are highlights of partner's names, apparently companies using Vista to offer things so exciting that they merit a prominent mention.

Things like this: you can connect your camera to it. You can print things. You can run Quicken. I'm still waiting for the wow. (As for the search, well, download Google Desktop for free and you've solved that one.)

How about "safer?" Copy informs us that, well, this time it won't be a train wreck. (Maybe.)

More entertaining? Well, apparently you can go to the Fox site and look at sports information. And download video - which of course we can all do already.

And better connected? I learned that there are webcams. And routers. And Verizon will sell me wireless broadband.

What's so striking about all of this is the sheer lack of excitement. There are lists of features that are pretty much all things you can do today with your XP PC or a Mac. Some of them require third-party apps (like searching) to work well, but those are often free applications. All in all, though, there's no wow here.

And I found myself wondering if the marketers at Microsoft - who I know are very smart people - ever sat down and said, "Okay, why would an XP user upgrade?"

In other words - what is the value proposition?

News coverage, like the information on Microsoft's site, suggests confusion about this topic. In USA Today, I read about "connected experiences."

"Vista is the biggest thing for us in years," Gates said in a telephone interview. "It is at the core of everything we do."

Vista is the hub of Microsoft's unfolding "connected experiences" strategy, a treatise on how consumer-electronics gadgets — be they TVs, game consoles or music players — connect and their content is delivered to PCs and cellphones. The convergence of digital devices has dominated recent Gates speeches, including his keynote address at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month.

Again, these are all things you can do today - though few people seem terribly interested in any of it. Microsoft's not alone in flogging this - there's Apple TV (which works on Windows machines) and AT&T HomeZone - but nobody else is talking about this as selling point for an operating system. (And given Apple's transformation into a consumer electronics company, which do you think will be easier - plugging in their box or upgrading your PC's OS?)

Funny thing about value propositions: they need to be relevant to the customer, not the marketer. I have no doubt that, as Gates says, Vista is the biggest thing for Microsoft in years. Nor do I doubt that it's a good product (all initial reviews suggest that) which improves on XP in all kinds of ways. Or that it will make it easier for Microsoft to continue to improve its OS, and make the development process easier. Yes, Vista is important.

Just not to someone sitting working on their PC asking, "Why should I upgrade?"

And that makes the hype about it (admittedly, more restrained than previous Microsoft OS releases) a little embarrassing. You can hear the flailing in the background.

As big as this may be to Microsoft, for users, it's a glossed-up Windows XP that should work better. That's a nice thing, but aside from a few hardcore early adopters, why upgrade? I haven't figured out any reason to, and have no plans to; I figure I'll get Vista when I buy a PC with it preloaded.

And so the launch comes off as a plea for revenue, not an exciting product offering. It's a launch that's not guided by offering the customer real value for their cash. And it's a reminder to marketers that before you start envisioning your new mini-site and dreaming up ads and coming up with talking points for executives, you need to put yourself in your customer's shoes and ask, "Why should I care?"

That's when the wow starts.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

CNN Money on "Misadventures in Marketing"

CNN Money Business 2.0 has a very funny section dedicated to 2007's 101 Dumbest Moments in Business. It includes a subset on marketing that's pretty good and definitely worth taking a look.

Among the high-lights (or low-lights):

  • A promotion for Spirit Airlines that revolved around a " help find Jimmy Hoffa's body" theme. You'd think that, at minimum, they could have been a little more current and had a "where's Whitey?" or "where's Bin Laden?" theme.
  • A McDonald's giveaway of MP3 Players that contained a Trojan horse that, when uploaded, forwarded logins, etc., to hackers. No thanks, I'll just have the fries with that.
  • Microsoft's release of two different products bearing the same name (Windows Live Search). At least it was a decent product name. I've been saddled with some lulus in my time:  when the Feds were taking down David Koresh in Waco, I marketed a product called ATF that had a component named the "ATF Agent." And years ago I was the product manager for a statistical modeling package that did Automated Box Jenkins Modeling. It's name? AutoBJ.
  • Disney's refusal to allow a family in England to carve the image of Winnie the Pooh on their child's headstone. (Disney eventually gave in.) It is hard to even imagine what was going on with the Disney brand police when they came down on this one. Here's one case in which everyone would have been better off it the stonemason had decided it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. It's unimaginable that, once someone had carved the headstone, the Disney folks would have dared to do anything about it.
  • A web-site spellchecker that put out a press release in which the word "we" was used when they meant "web." I am in complete sympathy with this company. No matter how many times you read (and spell-check) something, as often as not things like this find their way in. Proofreading hints: don't proof-read your own materials - in never works; read everything frontwards and backwards; never trust spellchecker, even when you use the grammar checker, it just doesn't do a good job on words that are in the dictionary, but out of context.

Wal-Mart made the hit list a couple of times, for - among other things - it's faux blog debacle with Edelman, and an online uh-oh in which it suggested that customers who purchased movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes would also be interested in bio-pics on Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. (I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, but this sounds like it was a nasty, racist little employee thinking he was doing something funny. I hope they found and fired the creep.)

Talk about a list you don't ever want to make.

And, of course, there's a really potent lesson for marketing people here, and that's think things through. If you're doing anything that's even vaguely chancy, think through how the world might react to it. Something that seems kind of funny (find Jimmy Hoffa) sitting around the conference table, may be pretty darn offensive to the outside world (let along Jimmy Hoffa's family). Something that seems straightforward and by the book (of course we can't let a brand icon like Winnie the Pooh be used anywhere and everywhere) may seem ridiculous, abusive, and heartless to the customers you most want to appeal to, like the parents of young children.

In any case, the list is worth a look. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

That Unlovable Device

The Boston Globe's Business Filter blogger, Maura Welch, commented on our overscheduled lives, which seem to consist these days of interruptions being interrupted by more interruptions. And then a few minutes later I found myself looking at this ad:


And I thought, "Do you really want to go there?"

I don't have a Blackberry (or similar device). I don't need one. And I'm not one of those reflexive "Blackberry Evil!" types.

They are great for some people. Someone who travels a lot and was toting her laptop around just to read email and look at documents told me she loved it because she could leave the laptop at home. That makes sense.

But I guess I've gotten a few too many Blackberry-composed emails that say things like "awsm cn we gett propossl to clnt nXT Weak?" in response to non-urgent matters which could have waited until someone got to their desk. And had too many lunches with Blackberry users whose eyes kept moving to their ManacleBerry every few minutes as it buzzed. (At one of those I finally said, "If it's important, they'll call you!")

Immediacy created urgency. And so when you can get every email immediately, email becomes urgent. When you can be reached all the time on your mobile phone, every call becomes urgent.

For those of us old enough to remember when you only could be reached by phone when you were sitting at your desk and documents had to be couriered, faxed, or fedexed, it's all a bit silly.

Yes, I appreciate the benefits of modern electronic communications. In fact, my business wouldn't be possible without them. I just dislike the way that they make us abdicate our responsibility of filtering what's coming in and prioritizing it.

And there is a price to that. All kidding about typos aside, I have noticed that messages from somebody's digital third arm are more likely to be confused and unhelpful. This stuff can really destroy focus if you are not careful about it.

And there's the personal cost. A Houston Chronicle blogger observed, during what passes for a winter storm down here last week (icy overpasses, city shuts down), that we will never, ever have a snow day again - the day when you just can't get to work, so you have to spend the day inside watching the weather and playing with your kids, or reading a novel, or watching movies, or playing with the cats.

That's good for business, I know. I just wonder if it's good for us.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Let's Keep in Touch!"

Networking. Everybody understands its value, but for many people, it seems like a chore. It puts many of us our of our comfort zone - we know that in some cases, we're talking to people not because we particularly like them (not that we dislike them, we may just be ambivalent), but because they might be helpful to us in the future. Or maybe someone is just a bit introverted, and networking feels uncomfortable.

 Houston Chronicle reader blogger Donna Hershfeldt mentions the benefits of staying in touch with colleagues in her Watercooler Confidential blog, telling us that she's one of those lucky people who seems to be able to manage to stay in touch with people forever.

She is lucky; she recommends sending people an email (a real one, that you actually wrote just to them!) once or twice a year. That's good advice, but there are other things you can do.

One that I find helpful is to keep an eye out for things that you think people will find interesting. It's nice to get a "hey, what's up?" message from a past colleague; it's more memorable to get something pointing out an article or blog post or web site that someone thought you'd be interested in. (As long as they were reasonably on the mark.)

And there are, of course, tools. LinkedIn is probably the best known; I've used it, though I'm no power user. I recently learned about Doostang, an invitation-only network; it sounds like a good idea, but I haven't heard any first-person testimonials about it.

How do you stay in touch?  

Friday, January 26, 2007

Microsoft and Wikipedia

You've probably heard that Microsoft is in the doghouse for offering to pay a blogger to edit Wikipedia articles about their technology. It sounds at first like something along the lines of "flogging" (a la Wal-Mart), but I don't think it's quite that clear.

Microsoft Corp. has landed in the Wikipedia doghouse after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on the community-produced Web encyclopedia site.

While Wikipedia is known as the encyclopedia that anyone can tweak, founder Jimmy Wales and his cadre of volunteer editors, writers and moderators have blocked public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest from posting fluff or slanting entries. So paying for Wikipedia copy is considered a definite no-no.

"We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach," Wales said Tuesday.

Microsoft acknowledged it had approached the writer and offered to pay him for the time it would take to correct what the company was sure were inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles on an open-source document standard and a rival format put forward by Microsoft.

Spokeswoman Catherine Brooker said she believed the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp., which is a big supporter of the open-source standard. IBM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brooker said Microsoft had gotten nowhere in trying to flag the purported mistakes to Wikipedia's volunteer editors, so it sought an independent expert who could determine whether changes were necessary and enter them on Wikipedia.

Brooker said Microsoft believed that having an independent source would be key in getting the changes to stick -- that is, to not have them just overruled by other Wikipedia writers.

Brooker said Microsoft and the writer, Rick Jelliffe, had not determined a price and no money had changed hands -- but they had agreed that the company would not be allowed to review his writing before submission. Brooker said Microsoft had never previously hired someone to influence a Wikipedia article.

This sounds like a pretty reasonable approach, and it raises the larger issue of how a company should react when information on Wikipedia appears to be either incomplete or incorrect.

It's also hard to be overly critical of Microsoft when Wikipedia's policies are, at best, a bit fuzzy. Browsing through Wikipedia policy and guideline pages is one of those experiences, you find a lot of suggestions, but not a lot of rules. That reflects Wikipedia's fundamental nature: it's a community that is constantly changing as its members contribute to it. That's true of the policies, as well as the articles.

It seems clear that for an employee to go into Wikipedia and start cutting and pasting company language into articles is a conflict of interest.

But what if a company thinks that articles are problematic, and encourages a friendly third party to edit them? For example, someone might put links to Wikipedia articles on their web site and invite their site visitors to read them and edit them if they were so motivated. That doesn't appear to contradict the idea of Wikipedia.

But what if the company approaches an independent expert and says, "We think these articles aren't very good, and we'd like somebody to edit them. You know this stuff. Go edit them, and we'll pay you for your time." If that expert is going to go and do that work independently, with no review by the company that's paying for the time, is there a conflict?

I don't think so. There's a big fuzzy area between paying someone to be a direct agent of a company ("go to Wikipedia and write these words") and paying someone to go do what they want. In the middle, you have situations where someone is advising corporate clients about Wikipedia. If I tell a client, "I think the article should say this. Maybe you should suggest that to that customer that really loves you," am I violating the spirit of Wikipedia?

This is a moving target, and it will be as long as Wikipedia is the kind of productive, cooperative anarchy that it is today. Moreover, I don't think this is any kind of crisis that needs a solution.

The great thing about Wikipedia is that it's got built-in self-correction. Microsoft can pay someone to spend ten hours a week working on Wikipedia articles. IBM can do the same. And then a whole community of users not being paid by anybody will probably pay referee.

I do think, though, that Wikipedia will be on shaky ground trying to stop people unless they are very responsive to complaints about content that is simply wrong.

The Microsoft spokeswoman says that they flagged the articles they thought were wrong, and didn't get anywhere. Given that, what would one expect them to do?

Expect some ongoing tension over this topic.

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Collateral That Sales Really Uses: Take Two

Along with John Whiteside, I enjoyed Jonathan Kranz's article that provided a list of tips for building collateral that sales will really use, which appeared on Marketing Profs the other day. Anything that helps improve the fractious relationship between sales and marketing is for the good. We now what happens when those relationships get really out of hand: sales "wins" and marketing is put underneath the sales org. As a result, the strong marketers who know what marketing is really about up and quit (or get fired), leaving only those marketers willing to take orders - typically for tactical programs that are aimed at the target du jour.

Overall, the piece contains excellent advice.

John picked up on one point of exception he had with Jonathan's list; I'll offer another.

Jonathan writes about "making sales responsible for defining the target," proposing that you "bring the sales team to the table to define exactly what a qualified lead should be. Include factors such as industry, region, company size, titles, budget, purchasing timeframe, etc."

I'm am 100% in agreement with "bringing the sales team to the table", and getting everyone to agree on what a qualified lead is. And in 100% agreement with the notion that Know Thy Target is imperative if your campaign is going to be effective.

But, in my book, it's not up to sales to identify the targets. That's marketing's jobs. Yes, marketing can and should seek input from sales - they typically have a good idea of who buys and what's happening out there. But sales, by its very nature, is out for the short-term, opportunistic land grab, not out to build the long-term market. 

Once marketing has defined the big-picture landscape, and the company has agreed that this is the way to go, by all means invite sales to the table to talk about what sub-sections of the overall market to go after. This will definitely help eliminate the these leads suck" mentality we've all lived through.

One of the worst things that can happen in a company - and I've lived through it - is when marketing builds a strategy, and everyone at the executive level (including sales) seems to agree to it, but when it comes to execution, anything goes. In the company I'm thinking of - and John Whiteside can tell you I'm not making this up - our strategy was to target mid-market companies. There were a whole lot of reasons we'd made this decision (not the least of which was it was where all our customers were), and everyone who mattered seemed to give lip service to it (and I mean big, bo-toxed lip service, not thin lip service).

Marketing went off and began doing programs aimed at the target market.

Too bad sales wasn't interested. What they really wanted to do was pursue big game: Fortune 1000 companies, the "logos" that everyone knows, major dollar deals. Once in a blue moon, one of our big game hunters would end up bagging an elephant. But it was rare. And costly. The deals were big on the top line, but we usually had to make so many concessions to get them that they were unprofitable on the bottom line.

Mostly, we ended up putting all sorts of effort into the big game hunt and not winning the deal. We were a relatively small company that, in the big deals, was almost always going up against far larger, better know competitors with more dazzling product portfolios and track records - and they typically had an incumbent relationship with the big game/big name companies already.  In these big game hunts, it was as if we had a pop-gun and the competitors all have Uzis.

The problem never got resolved while I was there. The executive team - for whatever reason - just tended to ignore the "cognitive dissonance" between our explicit mid-market strategy and the pipeline reports that showed all these big deals.  I don't know why they never put two and two together and figured out that most of those pipeline entries were really pipedream entries.  Too busy celebrating the big glory wins, however rare and costly.

If marketing had sat down with sales and asked them to define their targets, they would have pointed us to the Fortune 1000 companies that they wanted to sell into. There was very little that marketing was going to do that would turn any "opportunities" we uncovered into anything more than wishful thinking. These "opportunities" were completely ill-suited for our company, and vice versa.

This impasse resulted in revenues that weren't what they should have been. And, naturally, bad feelings between marketing and sales.

So I'll got back to my exception to the Kranz Rules: It's marketing's job to define the market strategy for a company, it's sales job to execute that strategy, and it's executive management's job to enforce compliance (or get a new market strategy). 

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Over at the Boston Globe's Business Filter blog, Maura Welch has a piece on "greenwashing." Maura links to PSFK for an explanation:

‘Greenwash’ is a pejorative term that some environmentalists and critics use to describe the activity of brands and corporations that portray a positive public image of putatively environmentally unsound practices. Greenwashing can take many guises ranging from lies of omission to misleading labelling systems; from empty mission statements and voluntary codes of conduct to sustainability reports that offer only partial disclosure and transparency right through to the arbitrary sponsorship of good causes and events.

It’s a whitewash of the green variety, a sham, a hoax, a scandal that dazzles consumers with the blinding beauty that is GREEN - the holy grail of sustainability - that warm feeling you get when you do something ‘good’. The power of ‘green’ is so tremendous that it has often been channelled into another symbol of hope: the good old green American $: a fast ‘buck’ or two billion wrapped up in a green blanket of hope.

As consumers have become increasingly aware of environmental and social issues, some brands have found it hard to resist exploiting and profiting from the emerging ‘green market’. It is big business.

From there I found a link to an article from The Green Life that identifies their top 10 greenwashing villains. It should surprise no one to find BP ("Beyond Petroleum" my butt) and TruGreen (formerly ChemLawn) on the list.

Being green is a positive thing in the market, so it's no surprise that companies will take a few minor, and probably inconsequential, steps toward environmental sustainability and then spend even more money talking about it. I'm not sure how savvy consumers actually are about this.

BP, for example, does a little bit of work on alternative fuels, and then runs "Beyond Petroleum" ads everywhere. (It's a bit hard to get a sense of average consumer sentiment about them here in Houston, where "BP" these days makes locals think not so much of "British Petroleum" or "Beyond Petroleum" but rather "Blown-up Plant," and a series of news stories about just how badly they've done at keeping their facilities safe.)

Do people get a warm fuzzy about BP that they don't get about ExxonMobil or Shell? Does anyone see the TruGreen truck and think that it does anything but spray chemicals all over the lawn?

I'm not sure. And, though I have my views on environmentalism and business practices, they're not really relevant here; there's no standard measure of the point at which a company's policies become certifiably environmentally friendly.

Ultimately customers who care about this need to do a little research and figure it out for themselves. But as marketers, what do we do when our employers or clients want to start greenwashing a set of practices that are anything but friendly to the environment?

I guess that what we do is a decision for each of us. There are only a few areas of marketing I'd call outright evil (marketing to young kids being one of them, for me), and I'm not ready to put this one into that category. But sometimes greenwashing really is plain old lying, and that's tough to defend.

Web4 - the Creepy Web?

I'm still not happy about the "Web 2.0" buzzword, and Seth Godin is talking about Web4! No matter, I've always been buzzword-resistant.

So what is Web4? Here are some of Seth's examples.

I'm typing an email to someone, and we're brainstorming about doing a business development deal with Apple. A little window pops up and lets me know that David over in our Tucscon office is already having a similar conversation with Apple and perhaps we should coordinate.

I'm booked on a flight from Toledo to Seattle. It's cancelled. My phone knows that I'm on the flight, knows that it's cancelled and knows what flights I should consider instead. It uses semantic data but it also has permission to interrupt me and tell me about it. Much more important, it knows what my colleagues are doing in response to this event and tells me. 'Follow me' gets a lot easier.

Google watches what I search. It watches what other people like me search. Every day, it shows me things I ought to be searching for that I'm not. And it introduces me to people who are searching for what I'm searching for.

As a project manager, my computer knows my flow chart and dependencies for what we're working on. And so does the computer of every person on the project, inside my team and out. As soon as something goes wrong (or right) the entire chart updates.

I'm late for a dinner. My GPS phone knows this (because it has my calendar, my location, and the traffic status). So, it tells me, and then it alerts the people who are waiting for me.

This sounds like a very depressing world to live in.

The best web technologies are those that have increased social contact. I like that my partner and I can, despite being horribly busy all day long, exchange IMs during free moments. I like reading the blogs of people I know and hearing about things on their mind that we might never have gotten to in ordinary conversation. I appreciate being able to use tools like LinkedIn to find people I ought to know. This is all good stuff.

But here's what I don't like: technologies that tell me what I should be interested in. Not just because they rarely work well, but because I like to actually manage and experience my own life. I would love to be able to ask Google, "What do people like me look for?" I don't want it to tell me.

I like human contact. If I'm running late, I call or text someone. Is it a chore? Maybe. But you know what, I don't believe that more than handful of people in this world don't have time to call and say, "I'm late, be there in 15!" or text "stuck in traffc on 10 c u soon".

At least those things come from human beings. Somebody's cell phone telling me its master is late is just... cold. Web4 could make us even more isolated and atomized, with our personal interactions becoming even more shallow that today's "Where are you? I'm at Starbucks!" mobile phone calls.

And my email client peering over my shoulder as I'm writing a message - and then comparing it to other people's messages? Goodbye. I'm doing everything important by voice from that point on.

Seth points out that privacy is largely an illusion, and he's not wrong, but I think he misses something: it may be illusory, but there's a social contract between us and the people who can see all that data to pretend that it's there - to not obviously remind us that someone could be watching.

Personally, I think a likely reaction to this Web4 would be a push toward stronger data privacy laws - the US moving in the direction of the EU (which would be welcome right now, frankly) and the EU charting new territory.

There's another whole aspect of this: while the examples Seth gives show technology being helpful, let's be realistic: someone needs to make money. Dumb interruption marketers will transform the helpful possibilities into irritations and worse, as they have already with email and are rapidly doing with blog spam.

Maybe I'm a hopeless 40+ person who just doesn't get it. But I don't believe most people want that kind of intrusive "help." I hope I'm right.

Otherwise down the road I'll be blogging from a tiny village somewhere in Spain, where I can escape it all.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Collateral that Sales Really Uses

This has probably happened to you: you create a new data sheet or brochure or mini-site. Maybe it's for the hot new product, maybe it's a long-awaited refresh of existing content. You've gotten all the input from everybody - the product managers, the industry marketing specialists, and so on. Everybody agrees on who the target customer is. Everyone has signed off on the list of important benefits and supporting features and the key messages. You're golden!

And then you start hearing from sales people, "This isn't what we need. How can I sell with this piece?"

MarketingProfs, the kings and queens of the handy checklist, enter this fray with Six Ways to Prepare Better Collateral for Sales Teams. All the advice is pretty good, so I won't quibble with some of the six items actually not being about collateral.

The key message is make sales agree on what they need. Then, when you get complaints later, the question is "What has changed in the market? What did you miss before? Let's figure out how fix that."

I'll just add three thoughts...

1. Beware of sales people for whom nothing will be right unless it's what I have jokingly called the "order-0-matic" - the brochure or web content or direct mail piece that makes a prospect call up and say, "Please sign me up for five of them!"

Some sales people are really good. Some are not. Some don't like to think. You'll get to know who they are in your organization pretty quickly - and you'll keep their complaints in perspective.

2.  Train the sales team on the collateral. Don't call it training, call it an "introduction" or "review" or whatever, but don't just throw it over the fence. Write a detailed cover email, or better yet have a quick webinar for them, and explain what the collateral is, what's in it, where it fits into the sales process, who it's intended for, and when it should be used. You don't want to give your people a new tool without bothering to tell them what it's for.

3. One beef with the MarketingProfs list - item 6, "Organize collateral by issues, not industries. Jonathan Kranz writes:

By focusing on issues instead of industries. For example, data decay is data decay, whether it occurs among a hospital's patient records or within an investment bank's spreadsheets. The problem, and the expertise required to overcome it, remain the same (or very similar) regardless of industry, so focus on the problem.

I have to disagree. Sometimes, that's great advice, and sometimes, it's not; I don't think you can come up with a hard and fast rule about this. If you are selling to associations and you talk about "customers," they will tune you out - you're not in their world. If you are selling to large financial institutions, you must speak their language, and you must have references in their industry. Some vertical markets are very open to hearing about your expertise and customers in other markets; some just aren't. Know the culture of your customers (and future customers) and organize your collateral according to their needs.

That quibble aside, this is another great little list from MarketingProfs.

Get a Life

On Monday, over on The Boston Filter, Maura Welch posted on a send-up of Second Life that's making the rounds. It's called called Get A First Life, and it's a priceless send up. Not much to it, but what's there is great. Some gems:

  • Your world. Sorry about that.
  • Go outside. Membership is free.
  • First life is a 3D Analog World Where Server Lag Does Not Exist

As parody, it's just hilarious.

It also points up something that's deadly serious. The more we get caught up in the virtual world, the less time there is for the "real world". Yes, the real world can be messy, noisy, scary, and annoying. But there's no substitute for it.

Sure, I do a lot of online shopping. But I also like to thumb through the catalog. And sometimes I even like to go to the store and browse. And try things on. And paw through the sale rack. See if I can find a helpful clerk. Chat with the person ahead of me in the check-out line.

If it's a grocery store, I like to examine the yellow peppers myself, thank you. And I'll be the judge of whether that cantaloupe is ripe. Sometimes I actually put food close to my nose and sniff it.

I like the weather. Right now it's cold. And we had a little snow, too. Pretty much the first of the season. I hope we have at least one major howler before winter's over. Snow and cold make it all the more fun when the crocuses start to stick their heads up for real, and we get our first sweater weather. What's the weather in the virtual world? Yeah, you don't ever step in a puddle, but you don't get to smell summer rain on a hot sidewalk, either.

As marketers, we of course embrace the new technologies that are available to us - and the new way that our customers and prospects expect and want us to communicate with them. But sometimes what we really need to do is pick up the phone and call a customer just for the hell of it, just to check in. No strings. No marketing. No sales. Just person-to-person connection. "How's it going?" "Thought you might be interested..."

Sometimes a prospect will open that direct mail piece - especially if it's an interesting color-shape-size. After all, these days, it's becoming a rarity. Sure, it's easier to forward an e-mail marketing piece on - but it's also pretty darned easy to just click right past it. And they also might (correctly) figure out that the cost of sending this e-mail is so low, well, it's probably going out to everybody - no matter how "personalized" the subject and content are.

Sometimes, your customers and prospects will want to see you in person. Will want to actually meet you before they buy from you.

Second Life, Life 2.0, whatever we want to call it, is just great. It opens up all sorts of avenues for communication, for learning, for sharing, for developing a community with people you would likely not meet in real life.

But let's not forget the First Life's been around for a good long while and, with any luck (and some political will) it'll be around for a good long time in the future.

The Ever-Shiny Apple

Wouldn't you love to have the kind of devoted customers Apple has? On ZDNet,  Larry Dignan wonders if the company's recent behavior will dampen the enthusiasm for them among their devotees:

Perhaps these practices are just capitalism at work. Perhaps we shouldn't hold Apple to higher standards. Perhaps none of this matters to Apple fans. But take the remove "Apple" from this post and replace it with any other company. Then tell me your opinion. What if Microsoft had these flubs in the span of 3 weeks? 

Dignan says we're not at the point where this will hurt them, and I think he's right. I also think that such a point does exist... but it's far away.

Consider what you hear about Apple: they're not that evil empire from Redmond! Their products are great! They're cool and nice and we love them!

An objective view reveals how silly all of this is. Their environmental record is horrible, they're fairly hostile to the blogosphere, they're incredibly controlling, they are lawsuit-happy. And their products are good, but they're not that good; the funniest thing about the current I'm a Mac ads is that most of the actual product claims in them are utter nonsense.

None of that makes them worse than anybody else - they are just another corporation in search of profit. But more interestingly, none of it matters to the Apple faithful. Why? (And how can all of us do replicate the phenomenon?)

I don't have an answer, but I think that that their outsider status has helped, lending an aura of cool that comes from being the little niche in the PC market. Great industrial design certainly plays a role.

But I think any of us could have all of that and still not get be where Apple is now, where they could ship a product that explodes and burns your house down, and still be loved. What's the Apple secret?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How Yahoo Lost the Sponsored Search Market

Why is Google so far ahead of Yahoo in sponsored search (they've got about 70% of the market)? This Wired News article looks into the tortured history of sponsored search at Yahoo, and it's not a pretty story. (Interesting reading, though.)

What's frustrating for advertisers, of course, is that their search engine gets a lot of traffic, and their sponsored search programs do get good results. The system is an gigantic pain in the neck to use (even after the transition to their new platform), but it does produce results.

It's just that Google has done everything right, including their approach of constant small upgrades to to their platform - something Yahoo didn't have the luxury of doing:

And this project was more complicated than just knitting together a search engine with Yahoo's computer systems. It needed, among other things, a new easy-to-use interface for advertisers to navigate while placing their auction bids. While Google's AdWords service allowed customers to buy ads through a fully automated system, Overture's did not. Nor did Overture have an effective way to push advertising onto blogs with matching subject matter, as Google did.

Another problem was Overture's practice of displaying ads based solely on how much the advertiser had offered to pay per click. Unlike Google's system, Overture's wasn't designed to factor in how much traffic those ads might generate. This meant it was more likely that expensive but irrelevant ads could end up at the top of the column marked "sponsor results." This sounds easy to fix, but it actually entails creating entirely new ranking software and a new database to keep track of millions of clicks on the fly.

And lastly, because Panama was going to handle billions of dollars of customer money, it needed to have billing and cash-management systems as reliable as a bank's. By the end of 2006, Yahoo had already spent three months transitioning advertisers to the new network, something that is to continue into March. "It's been like changing engines in an airplane midair without any of the passengers noticing," says Steve Mitgang, a senior VP at Yahoo.

Pretty much. I'm not up to speed on the interface of the new platform now, but my impression so far is, "this is it?" Just trying to find simple bits of information about your account is pretty laborious. And then you go over to AdWords and it's just all so easy.

The problem for Yahoo is that if an incremental increase in spending at Google will produce the same results as the same money spent on Yahoo, why even deal with Yahoo? Until an advertiser who's looking for lead generation has truly tapped out Google's potential (and I don't think that happens often), Yahoo is a tough sell.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Thing of Astonishing Beauty and Grace

After all the Office 2007 talk going around, I decided it was time to have a look at OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft. And during the installation, I gasped when this dialog box appeared:

It was a gasp of happy surprise. Look at that! Instead of making changes to how my PC works, it asked first.

It even suggested not making itself the default program.

And when the installation was done, there were no new icons on my desktop, now QuickLaunch icons eating up valuable space on the taskbar, and nothing new sitting in the system tray sucking up resources. I had a computer that was the same as before, except with new software available for me to use, when and if I wanted to.

This is how software installation should work, but almost never does.

I would love to print that dialog box out and mail a copy to every product manager for desktop software in the world.

(Shortly after writing this, I installed a route update to Adobe Acrobat, which resulted in a new Acrobat shortcut on my desktop. Because obviously, if I didn't want it there before, installing a routine update that has no perceptible effect on the program would just change everything! Sad that a major software company does a crappy job when compared to a bunch of people working on an open source project, isn't it?)

Suits and Geeks

Via podcast from WAMU in Washington, DC: the Kojo Nnamdi show looks at "Suits vs. Geeks," with guests Mindy Zetlin and Bill Pfleging, co-authors of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive.

It's an interesting discussion, particularly because Nnamdi's a great host. (Anyone from WAMU out there? This former Washingtonian misses the show and wishes you'd podcast more than just Tech Tuesdays!)

If you work in technology, you know that the techie/business divide is an ongoing issue. The show got me curious about the book (which I have not read).  


Having found that what's in my wallet included a large number of credit cards that I never use, I decided to cancel some of them. Wad of plastic in hand, I started dialing around, and was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was to unload. Yes, I did have to suffer some time in the phone menu purgatory before being allowed into the heaven of actually talking with a human being, but the process was relatively painless and quick. (One of the cards even had a "To cancel your card" option. I can't recall which one, but bless you, my dears.)

Most of the canned voices on the other end were the same neutral .and reassuringly bland ones you hear everyone. Nothing that stands out: no accents, no intonations, no nothing.

That is, other than American Express, which seems to be using an aging Valley Girl, perhaps in hopes of capturing a younger audience. A voice that sounds like an aging version of Hillary Duff or Lindsay Lohan or Mary Kate and Ashley in one of those obnoxious "all grown ups are dumb, all kids are smart" - or, at the very least, smart ass - movies aimed at pre-teens is not what I expect from AmEx. I wouldn't have been surprised if the voice had said, "Well, duh," or "That is just so wrong", or "shut UUUUUPP'.

Maybe it's just me, or one of these ear-of-the-beholder (or belistener) things that wouldn't bother anyone else on the face of the earth. Of maybe I'm just so yesterday. But I found the voice at distinct odds with AmEx's image as a somewhat upscale credit card.

Just to make sure that I wasn't imagining things, I called the customer service line one more time and realized it was not so much the voice as it is the curious pronunciations and the stress placed on certain syllables - that kind of "question-mark-y" way of ending a sentence that I've noticed with increasingly frequency in younger people. (Make that "younger pee-pullllll?")

I did eventually make my way out of the valley of lightness and got to speak to a real person, with a normal voice.

Unfortunately, she was able to convince me not to dump my AmEx card by pointing out that I would lose some miles in a generic frequent flyer mileage bank if I did so. Since frequent flyer miles is the ONLY reason I got the card to begin with, I figured I should hold on to the card long enough to transfer them out of the bank and into one of the dozen or so miles programs I'm in.

So I'm not quite done with the AmEx voice yet, as I'll have to go through her when I do end up quitting the card. Or, I suppose, I could do things the old fashioned way, and put it in writing. Or see if I could cancel out online, without real or recorded human intervention. Whatever.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Office Upgrade Agita Ahead

Everything I've read about the new Microsoft Office 2007 makes it sound like a good program - what we can only wish it had been in the past. Of course, there's nothing about it that sounds like it will make it any easier to do the things I use office for - writing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Mainly, it sounds like at first it will cause document compatibility headaches, followed by a year of "where did that feature go?" until we're all used to it - and then the next Office upgrade can come along.

And it looks like it will cause a specific marketing headache, because the way Outlook handles HTML email is changing.

A quiet change Microsoft has made in the rendering engine used by Outlook 2007 is beginning to sink in among individuals who have gotten accustomed to having the Internet Explorer (IE) engine render HTML e-mail messages. And the reaction of many is one of anger and disbelief.

"While the IE team was soothing the tortured souls of web developers everywhere with the new, more compliant Internet Explorer 7, the Office team pulled a fast one, ripping out the IE-based rendering engine that Outlook has always used for email, and replacing it with … drum roll please … Microsoft Word," according to a post by Kevin Yank on SitePoint blogs.

Yank continued: "Not only that, but this new rendering engine isn’t any better than that which Outlook previously used—indeed, it’s far worse. With this release, Outlook drops from being one of the best clients for HTML email support to the level of Lotus Notes and Eudora."

On the "Campaign Monitor" site, blogger David Grenier outlined some of the Outlook changes that will take effect, as of Office 2007.

In a post entitled "Microsoft takes email design back five years," Greiner said the rendering-engine changes messes up background images; provides poor background color support; and lacks support for float or position "completely breaking any CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) based layouts right from the word go."

Whee! That should make your future email campaigns fun, shouldn't it?

Why is Microsoft doing this?

"Outlook can still render HTML image content — users just need to select it, as indicated in this (Office Online help) article," the spokeswoman said. "But folks can still opt to display in HTML in Outlook, the same as they did in 2003 and XP. (There are three options for displaying email — plain text, rich text, and HTML.)"

The spokeswoman did not respond to a question as to why Microsoft made the change in e-mail rendering engines.

It doesn't matter why, I guess; it's reality. Watch for more news on how to do HTML email in the brave new world of Office 2007.

(I have stopped using Outlook; it's bloated and slow, and after hunting around for good alternatives, I'm currently using a combination of Thunderbird for email and EssentialPIM for the rest of Outlook's functions, with good results. Does anybody have any good Office-avoidance strategies?)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Another Ad-Free Moment Fixed!

Worried that there are still a few times in your life when you can't see an ad? Then you'll be pleased to know that soon one of those disturbing marketing-free moments will be eliminated, thanks to advertising in the bins at the airport security checkpoint! As Adrants notes...

A six month test in LA by the Transportation Security Administration has led to the formalization of guidelines for security bin advertising. Now advertisers can waste millions of dollars trying to reach people during the single most hair raising, confusing and distracting point in their lives as they juggle carry on luggage, remove laptops from briefcases, struggle with knotted shoe laces, remove all personal belongings from pockets, stress over which pocket the boarding pass and identification are in, heard wandering children, fold cumbersome strollers, receive admonishment from bitchy security guards for forgetting to leave that bottle of water behind and marvel at just how stupid people really are when they're asked to follow a few simple rules.

And then, they observe, your ad will wind up under somebody's shoes. Yay!

Friday, January 19, 2007

There's More to Search Marketing Than SEO

That's what USA Today blogger Jim Hopkins reminds us in this post.

But he adds: "I have paid some pretty hefty fees to SEO optimizers, and they basically don’t do all that much. They claim to know the keys to heaven, but companies like Google change their search protocols quite a bit, and all that means is that the people who provide the optimization get to keep charging. I have put obscure pages up on the web for no commercial purpose that get listed near the top almost immediately. Other times, I have a very important page and only the most specific search terms find it. So the mystery continues, and I just make sure I have the best content possible, and then place pay-per-click ads for the terms I know people are searching for relative to my products."

If you're struggling with the SEO vs. sponsored search "dilemma," just stop. You should do both. And if you need something to happen right away, you should start with sponsored search.

Oops and Oops

I just had one of those days where everyone I dealt with online seemed to be doing things wrong.

First was a great example of badly used email. I got a message from a web site where I've made a purchase maybe once or twice in the last few years. Maybe I opted into their email list, maybe not; I honestly don't remember. But there's no way it makes sense to send me an email telling me about a perk for their "most loyal customers."

I'm not a loyal customer. I know it. It was a travel site, and I make almost all my travel plans on the Continental web site. I live in Houston, and they dominate our air travel market; they will almost always be the best way to get anywhere, and I've flown them so much that my gold Elite status, the potential of upgrades, mileage perks for booking through their site, and that bank of frequent flier miles that will hopefully take me to Australia for my next vacation is a powerful incentive to stick with them even when the fare is slightly higher.

Loyal customer of this other site? Ha.

So I clicked the unsubscribe link and got this (click for larger):

No. No, no, no. This is not okay. There is no reason that your unsubscribe function can't, at a minimum, send an email somewhere to be processed later, even if the database is down for some reason.

Later that same day, I came across this on the web site of a VoIP provider (again, click for larger):

Yes, weather events can be very disruptive. But come on - they provide internet-based phone services. The rest of us never have a snow or ice day anymore because we can connect to work from wherever we are. It's hard to believe that this is not true of the staff providing online or phone support.

Moreover, this tells me, "We have no disaster recovery plan." No failover to another location. No plan to serve customers when life interferes. When there's a bump in the road, we'll disappear.

For a company that provides dial tone as a service, that's pretty scary.

These are powerful marketing statements. Not the ones anybody really wants to make, but powerful, nevertheless.

Interesting... but Whose Context?

Everybody's buzzing about the Google patent suggesting that they have plans to get into digital billboards. And with good reason; Google's entry into any ad medium is likely to be newsworthy.

It's interesting to hear the word "contextual" being thrown around, though, suggesting that it will be some kind of billboard equivalent of what they've done so well with AdWords.

The Mountain View, Calif. search marketing giant has filed a patent application for technology that lets local stores tie their stock control computers to a Google-powered ad network, a strong hint that the company is planning to expand expansion beyond Web, print and radio advertising.

The patent, filed December 21, 2006 with the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office), covers systems and methods for allocating advertising space in a “network of electronic display devices.”

The idea is to tie billboard advertising in local malls to actual products for sale nearby, much like the company’s flagship Google AdWords/AdSense network that handles contextual advertising on the Internet.

It's a smart idea. I can imagine ads that change depending on what product has excess inventory, or by time of day based on what people are likely to want to buy in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

But the context here is the context of what the advertiser wants to sell, not what the customer wants to buy, and that's not a small distinction.

Adwords was revolutionary because the ads were linked to what the user was searching for. That's really hard to replicate in the physical world; as someone is strolling through the mall, how do you know what she wants?

You don't, and so we're back to interruption marketing - hey, is this what you want? How about this?

Google may be making that kind of advertising more flexible and efficient, and that's a good thing, but so far, I'm not seeing anything particularly contextual from the customer's point of view. I am, however, curious to see what they do with this.

If they have figured out how to do physical contextual advertising, they're on to something big. But we'll have to wait till there's more than a patent out there to look at.

Just Who Am I?

I have been working with a client on a new web site. Like most of my clients, the company is small, techie, and brainiac. The founding father (FF) is one of the most brilliant people I've ever worked with, and exceptionally gifted in his ability to translate complex technical concepts into something that a lay person with only the most minimal technical grasp can easily understand. He also writes with real personality. His white papers are a tour de force. I really enjoy working with this guy.

One of the things we're doing with the new web site is taking the opportunity to really define what the company is and does, and making sure that what we're saying is consistent with the FF's desired outcome for his company.

For the most part, the company's business has been providing custom technical solutions, with a limited revenue stream from the software that's an off-shoot of their consulting work. Their desired outcome, however, calls for them to flip the ratio of professional services to software on its ear and become a "real" software company.

Once that got settled, I drafted up the proposed positioning document that I needed the FF to okay before proceeding to write the web site content.

Yes, yes, yes.

This is what we'll say

Yes, yes, yes.

This is who we are. (Or at least who we'd rather be.)

But sometimes things that seem right in black and white just don't translate into living color.

Yes, yes, yes.

The word docs that contained the draft content were all well and good.

It was only when we mocked up the Home page and a couple of drill down screens that the FF began to get a little nervous.

"You know we get two-thirds of our revenue from professional services," he told me.

"Oh, yes," I answered. "We've been all through this."

"But the new site has hardly anything about professional services. It seems kind of buried."

"That's because we agreed that we were going to, well, bury it a bit and focus more on positioning ourselves as a software company," I said.

"But we're really a professional services company," he said.

We backed and forthed on this for a while, and talked about the implications of choosing one path vs. the other. (A conversation that I had thought we'd already completed.)

I realize that now that as the new positioning is nearer to going live, it's truth time.

One thing to have the new story in a word doc on your PC; quite another to have it out there for the world to see.

In some sense, I realize that I'm serving as the FF's shrink as he makes what seems like a pretty scary transition.

I'm going to do a couple of things to make the transition less scary, but I'm really trying to keep the FF from completely backsliding into his comfort zone.

We spent quite a bit of time talking things through yet again, reminding ourselves that the desired outcome is inconsistent with being a professional services organization. Being a software company is perfectly consistent with it.

The goal of the new web site was to put a firmer stake in the ground about our software products. (It's not as if we don't have them; it's just that, for a variety of reasons, it's been easier to do the pro serv work. And I have a growing feeling that the FF and his brainiacs find the consulting work more interesting, since it's always on to the new in a more dramatic way than if they were "merely" updating/upgrading their products. (Yawn.))

I'm working on a compromise solution, but I'm concerned that a year from now this company will still be a consulting firm claiming that they really want to make software, rather than a software company that happens to do consulting.

The whole thing reminds me of just how difficult it can be to develop an identity, especially if it involves shedding some old skin and thinking of yourself in a new way. Change is hard. Maybe the FF isn't quite as ready for change as he thought (or hoped) that he was.

He took one look at that web site copy as it was going to appear on the screen, in all its glorious, living color, and said to himself. "That's not me."

But he hasn't yet settled the big questions, "Just who am I, and who do I want to be?"

Custom Job

I'm sitting in a Doubletree Hotel in balmy Syracuse NY, hoping to get out of town before what they're saying is going to be light snow blows in and turns out to be two feet of lake-effect whiteout.

The hotel is quite nice and convenient and - a big benefit, given my lack of direction - I know just how to get here without consulting MapQuest. I may have liked it better last time I stayed here and it was a Wyndham, which provided free WiFi to members of their frequent guest program. Now I have to pay for the access - although it would be free if I was in the lobby or the restaurant. Frankly, I'm not willing to sit in the lobby in my PJ's and check my e-mails and blog.

But I am a Hilton Honors member, so on check-in they brought me two bottles of water and a small packet of custom M&M's - purple and white. And while I do maintain that white M&M's and, to a lesser extent, the pastels they sell at Easter, taste funny, it is nice to have this little mini-pack of M&M's. Just enough to give me my chocolate fix, without having to roam around - again something I wouldn't do in my PJ's - looking for a vending machine that sells full-sized bags of M&M's.

I've had these custom job M&M's (a.k.a., M&M Colorworks) before and I think that they're fun and a nice way to reinforce your brand.  (They'd make a good little trade show give-away, too.)

Of course, now that I've consumed the paltry little packet they gave me, I wish that they'd left me two packets. Now that would have been really thoughtful, and would have more than made up for having to pay $9.95 for Internet access.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Enough With the Upsell

I am sitting in a Starbucks as I write this.

When I got my coffee, the clerk said, "Do you want to try a cinnamon dolce latte?" I declined. He was asking everybody that; obviously, the order has come down from above that all customers must be offered this drink. (There's also signage up in the store.)

Just now I overheard the barista telling someone, "Oh, it's just, like, the best latte ever!" as the clerk was asking (again), "would you like to try the cinnamon dolce latte?"

Now, I'm one of those people who has become an anomaly at Starbucks. I like coffee. I like the taste. I like the smell. And so I am very happy to have coffee, or a traditional espresso drink. Every now and then I've tried one of their special drinks, and generally found them a bit disgusting. So I stick to my coffee that actually tastes like coffee.

And the people who work at this particular Starbucks, who have seen me a million times, reliably offer me all this crap each time I come in and get one of the same three things that I ever get here.

Does anybody believe the barista raving about the new cinnamon dolce latte? Maybe he really does love it. But if next week's drink is the broccoli chai no-whip mocha, he'll be telling us about that, won't he? How do we know? Maybe the words are being relayed from a chip in his head connected to the Starbucks Hive in Seattle.

Here's a different idea - how about employees who are passionate about something you sell, and tell customers about it because they want to share that passion? How about offering the new drink to someone who looks up at the menu and seems uncertain and might want a suggestion, but not to the person who comes in four or five times a week getting the same thing?

In other words, how about an honest relationship with your customers?

Otherwise, the enthusiasm of your employees comes across as... well... flair, as seen below.

Free Wisdom

MarketingSherpa's annual MarketingWisdom report is always fun and informative; it's a big compendium of in-the-trenches stories by marketers about what they've experienced and learned over the last year. I haven't had a chance to read this year's yet, but it's on my stack of things to review when I have some spare time. Enjoy! 

Proving a Concept Isn't Always Rewarding

This recent article about drops in share prices for Whole Foods raises an interesting point about being the company that proves that a market is viable.

When John Mackey started out in 1978 with his alternative grocery store in Austin called Safer Way — a takeoff on the name of the mainstream giant Safeway — he was on the fringes of the grocery industry.

Most mainstream shoppers would have considered Mackey's place to be a hippie store.

But today the mainstream has co-opted his Safer Way philosophy: offering natural and organic foods for healthy, environmentally friendly living. And Whole Foods Market, a very similar concept he opened with friends two years later, has been riding an amazing wave of success, becoming a darling of Wall Street — that is, until last year.

So what happened? A number of things, including extensive expansion (perhaps too much)... but more importantly, other grocers have seen the success of Whole Foods and emulated it in their own way.

Following Whole Foods' lead, other grocers are creating their own upscale models, which include natural foods and organics, Beyard noted.

H-E-B's Central Market and H-E-B Plus, for example, have an impressive offering of gourmet foods and an expansive selection of quality produce, meat and fish. Kroger and Randalls are also revamping stores to reach the same market.

Wal-Mart recently expanded its organic line of foods. In some stores, "we may offer as many as 200 different organic selections," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk said.

I've noticed that the local Kroger now carries things I used to have to go to Whole Foods for. Yes, they keep it in a strange little health-food ghetto at the side of the store; no it's not as pleasant as going to Whole Foods. It is, however, four blocks from home instead of across town.

They've even started carrying organic beef - no small thing if you are cooking for somebody with enough allergies that the traces of antibiotics that wind up in a lot of meat can trigger a reaction.

If the success of Whole Foods leads to healthier products being available in regular grocery stores all over America, in a way, John Mackey will have accomplished the mission that led him to open a store in 1978. However, he might not be the one reaping all the benefits of that success.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why Everyone Hates the Phone Company

OK, just one reason, we don't have all day. The general theme: nobody likes companies who take advantage of them by charging insane prices for something just because they can.

Both Maureen and I have posted recently about the Cingular-to-AT&T rebranding, and both had a general sense that as a brand, Cingular is stronger - AT&T is incredibly well known, but (at least for those of us in states where they are the local phone company) that's not a good thing.

It's always something with them. Today I had the ugly surprise of the bill for an international phone call coming in.

Now, I have no international plan because I rarely make such calls. I knew I'd pay a lot for the call. Here's the thing: my partner was overseas, it was the one window of opportunity in a crazy day for us to talk, and he was having trouble making a call from his hotel. So I got a text message saying "Call me here!"

Had I expected to have to do that, I'd have gotten a code for a prepaid service online earlier. But this was unexpected. So I dialed.

We talked for about 20 minutes. That cost $50. That's to a western European country - we're not talking about calling Malaysia or something like that.

But... come on. More than $2 a minute? I expected to pay a high rate for the call, but that's more than a high rate; that's robbery. A high rate would be twenty-five or thirty cents a minute. (Interestingly, if you sign up for a $5 international plan, AT&T charges eight cents a minute for that same call. I don't believe for a moment that the discounted rate is below cost. So the margin on what I paid was at least $2.15 per minute, or 96%. Look at it this way: they're charging at least twenty-five times the actual cost of the service (and probably much more than that; I'm being generous in their favor here).

And they can. I had no other option at that time. (Obviously, the next time there's a remote chance of having to pick up the phone and dial another country, I'll be prepared to take a non-AT&T route.)

Of course, I learned something, too. I learned that AT&T is the kind of company that will grab your money at any opportunity, and is not to be trusted. They'll charge a ridiculous rate - something far beyond reasonable profit - if they can.

That's a message that won't easily be wiped out by any number of "delivered" billboards or any clever Cingular rebranding efforts.

In fact, though my cell phone has always come from a company partly owned by AT&T, it wasn't right there in my face. Now, when the contract is up and I can consider changing carriers, they'll be AT&T - and I'll have been living with a monthly reminder that it's from those people.

And that's the problem with this whole exercise. AT&T is a brand that is horribly damaged, because being their customer is such a horrifying experience. Cingular, probably because they have always had to compete with other mobile carriers, isn't nearly as bad. I am not surprised that AT&T is opting to use the corporate mothership name for everything, but unfortunately, they're picking the brand that's lodged in consumer's brains somewhere near the spot that muggers, rotting flesh, and the IRS occupy.

They should have stuck with Cingular.

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

The other day, my building received its annual dump o' Yellow Books. On the half year, we used to get a double allotment of Verizon Yellow Pages, but I'm not even sure they exist anymore.

In any case, the tomes come in a difficult to open, impossible to lift, shrink-wrapped clump, and are left on the front steps, I'm sure by forklift. For whatever reason, the task of taking the Yellow Books off the steps and bringing them into the vestibule of our building has fallen to me and my husband. Since we can't lift the entire thing at once, we wrestle the package open and bring the books inside, two-by-two. Occasionally, the package has already been broken open, which makes our task the more urgent. It's January in Boston, and if rain, snow, sleet, and hail hit the books, they'll turn into papier mache or, worse, cement.

Once inside, the books sit there for a couple of weeks, ignored by everyone in the building.

I then put them in my recycle box, and away they go to be recycled so that they can be turned into next year's Yellow Books.

Is it any wonder that I turn an annual jaundiced eye to the delivery of the not-so-good books?

Some years I actually replace my old copy, but I never look at it. Deep down inside I must harbor a belief that every home needs a Yellow Pages. A vestigial belief, harkening back to the day when people really used Yellow Pages or Yellow Books or whatever they're called.

And there was such a day. I remember it well. You wanted to know where the nearest dry cleaner or florist or Indian restaurant was, you could look through the Yellow Pages and find it. They even had a nifty little jingle: "Let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages." This type of search has been largely replaced by the Internet. Or has it?

Yesterday, I was ranting to my friend (and fellow Opinionated Marketer) John Whiteside about the above mentioned books. John's eminently sensible suggestion to the publishers is that at minimum they come up with some sort of "opt out" mechanism to save all those yellow trees. But, of course, we decided that this wouldn't help the publishers get advertisers. (I can hear the pitch now, "Only 83% of the residents on Beacon Hill chose to opt out.")

They could also affix a sticker to the package, with an 800 number to call if you wanted the books picked up. Presumably, the publisher would have some use for them, other than recycling.

As our conversation continued about the utility of the Yellow Books, John mentioned that he does use them, and that, for a number of reasons, the print version is better than the Internet.

Since I use neither, this led us to conclude that because I have lived in my neighborhood for a long time, I really don't have much need for the Yellow Pages. I know where the butcher-baker-florist-hardware store-shoe repair guy are already. Plus, I live in a densely populated urban area. I walk around. I know when a new Indian restaurant opens up.

John, while also in an urban neighborhood, is relatively new to his 'hood. Thus he uses the yellows to find things. He gives especially high marks to the smaller, more localized editions that are just your area. A good message for potential advertisers, I'd say.

John also warned me that the online yellows weren't all that easy to use, and the results just weren't as good in his experience.

Off the phone, I decided to do a tiny experiment.

Yellow Book in hand, I looked up florist. There were pages of them, but in short order I could scan the list and find the one closest to me. Along the way, I discovered that Stop & Shop (local grocery chain) considers itself a florist. Hmmmmm. Life is full of little surprises.

Online, I entered my zip and "florist" and got a list pretty quickly. But since only a few appeared on the page, it was harder to navigate and find the closest one. It was much easier to skim the written word. (Plus I think that the first one that came up online is one of those bogus florists that put a "real" local address and phone number in a listing, but are actually a call center that takes your info and places your order with a real local florist - while charging your a hefty surcharge. I walk by the address of the phoney florist every day, and there's never been a florist there as far as I know. The phone number is no longer in service, either. The florist scam has nothing to do with the listing - the same non-florist is in the paper version. I just found it interesting that the first florist up was a dud.)

I then tried to find an Indian restaurant. While neither book nor online had a separate sort for Indian restaurant it was, again, far easier to skim the listings in the book than page through the on-line information.

Of course, when I put my inquiries to the Google test, putting in florist + zip, and Indian restaurant + zip, the results were quick and correct. Google wins!

So, in my decidedly unscientific survey: if you want to find info fast, Google it. But if you're going to go by the Yellow Book, let your fingers do the walking the old fashioned way. Paper covers online!