Thursday, May 31, 2007

Competition can be a distraction

You've probably experienced the "keeping up with the Joneses" phenomenon. "Over at Acme, they're running ads on Widgets Daily! That's why they keep getting the business!" Or, "Why can't we have a ten-city seminar tour like they do?" The general theme: their kick-ass  marketing people are doing all the right things and you're not, and that's why our salespeople are all under quota!

And sometimes it's true, but usually it's not. Moreover, it speaks to a general focus problem that Pamela Slim of Escape from Cubicle Nation writes about in this post:

But some business owners get so focused on every move a competitor makes that they completely lose focus on their own business.  At the extreme, it is not only distracting, it is downright self-destructive.

I lived through an example of this working with a very talented artist and dance instructor in the 1990s.  He was creatively brilliant and a gifted teacher. But he was completely obsessed with other instructors in the area and would fly into a rage if a student from his school left to join another school.  At a certain point, he was as focused on studying, subverting and badmouthing the competition as he was on creating new art and building his own school.

Pamela offers some tips, aimed at the small-business-owner audience of her blog, but there is an important larger lesson here: the value of your business and brand comes from what you do, not from one-upping the competition.

There will always be competitors, either direct or indirect (such as "don't automate that process" or "don't do anything new"). If there are none, it suggests that you've picked a crappy market. And yes, you must pay attention to them, evaluate their tactics, and take them into account.

Just don't let that make you lose your focus, either tactical or strategic. If you decided on one set of marketing programs because all the data tells you that your competitors are probably burning money without sufficient return on their approach, stay on that path (but keep measuring to make sure you're right). If a competitor keeps winning business you're after, ask yourself if you're targeting the right customers and providing the right messages - maybe they address a different segment than you.

Ask those questions, analyze what's happening, but don't lose track of your fundamental business, promise to your customers, and value. When you get into a defensive, follow-the-competition mode, it's very hard to get out of it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Smelling Like a Mustang

It's not as if none of my products have actually ever lent themselves to branding extensions and merchandising. 

Years after Genuity's Black Rocket fizzled out, some of the paraphernalia created for its launch is still available on the Level 3 Merchandise site. (I have one of those lunchboxes around here somewhere.) In our marketing-spending prime, we had all kinds of stuff, including lava lamps and coffee tables.

But for the most part, the products and companies I've been associated with haven't had a whole lot of "stuff" associated with them, other than the occasional t-shirt, pad, backpack, or pen.

Nothing iconic. Nothing cool. Nothing much to get all hot and bothered about.

So I read with interest an article about Ford launching a Mustang-brand fragrance, which will be produced by the same folks who brought us Aramis. (Is that one still around? When I was a Christmas salesclerk at Filene's, lo' these many years ago, I worked in the stationery department and had a clear shot of the Aramis sales guy when he was pinched for putting his hand in the till.) The new fragrance will be sold at Sears, Kohl's, and Wal-Mart, which kind of puts to rest any notion I might have hung on to that Mustang is still the cool brand it was when I was in high school

In any case, I am wondering just what a fragrance named Mustang will smell like?

New car? Leather seats? Gasoline?

Burnt rubber? Armor All? Motor oil?

Those ghastly "deodorizers" shaped like pine trees that hang in a lot of cabs?

But maybe Mustang won't smell like a car at all. Maybe it will smell like something associated with a mustang-mustang.

Sagebrush. Cowboy sweat. Horse stall.

For those gals whose guys wear Mustang, Ford's licensing program promises "T-shirts for young women bearing the Mustang iconography."

Well, I guess the word "young women" includes me out.

Of course, even if I were in the right demographic, I probably wouldn't be buying any Mustang-related merchandise. Even if I were a big Mustang fanatic, which I'm not, I wouldn't be buying any. I'm fine with branded stuff when it comes free, but when I have to pay for it.

The closest thing I've got is some mighty cute Christmas ornaments that look like VW Beetles.

So I don't really "get" brand-associated merchandising.

Maybe I'm just jealous that the products I've worked on have been so boring, so dull, so nerdy that no one ever wanted to smell like them.


A tip of Mustang Sally's cowboy hat to adman (and new blogger) JD Norman for tipping me off to this bit of branding (which he terms "the scent of desperation").

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Channel Consistency, Front Line Empowerment, Customer Value

Companies have a tendency to organize themselves in ways that make operational sense but don't make customer-facing sense. So a newspaper's web site will operate separately from print operations, with different approaches to content; or online and retail operations will be two different silos with little consistency between them.

This can cause problems for customers, and so a few months ago when AT&T opened its remodeled "all in one" retail store in Houston to showcase all of the combined services formerly sold as SBC and Cingular offerings, dubbed the "AT&T Experience" store, I wondered whether they'd get it right.

My partner and I went there the other day. The store is a slick tech outpost that seems inspired by Apple's retail stores. Along the walls are lots and lots of mobile phones and handheld computers for you to play with - all powered up, with each devices phone number posted next to it so you can actually call it and see what happens. There are computers where you can browse for information about AT&T services. Deeper into the store there are big screen TVs demoing AT&T's IP television service, U-Verse. And there are people there you can talk to about home services like DSL.

But the proof is in what happens when you try to actually interact with the company, and I didn't expect much; companies get this wrong way too often. I was there because I wanted to upgrade from a regular phone to a handheld device that would let me get my email, use the web, and so on. I'd done my homework online already, and knew what I wanted (a Samsung Blackjack). But the web site was full of warnings that special online pricing is only available through the web site, so I wondered, would I be able to get it in the store at the same price and walk out the door with it?

A pleasant surprise - yes. The whole transaction took about fifteen minutes. Score one for AT&T.

My partner was not so fortunate. His issue: he did just such an upgrade a month ago, and he loves his new handheld (a bulkier AT&T-branded device designed for total road warriors), but has been unable to send or receive SMS and MMS messages on it.

This is where the wheels came off. After figuring out that part of the issue was the way the account was set up when he upgraded, it became clear there was a hardware issue. After a two-hour journey through troubleshooting hell, it became obvious that the hardware needed to be swapped out.

Here's where things went horribly wrong: because he bought the device 32 days ago, they would not simply grab a new one out of store stock and give it to him. They insisted on sending him a new one and having him ship the old one back. (Had we gotten there three days earlier, they would have swapped it out on the spot.)

Dumb, dumb, dumb. From our point of view, AT&T was going to replace the device. What's the difference between the trade happening instantly inside a retail outlet, versus via FedEx? Nothing, except that in the latter case, it's a pain in the neck for him, and AT&T has to pay for shipping.

But the store staff was quite insistent that they had to do things the more expensive and annoying way. Worse still, they handed him a store land line and told him he had to call and set it up. So an AT&T employee was standing in the store saying, "I can't help you, call one of my coworkers (while standing here in a loud store) and do it yourself."

He asked for the manager who said, "I cannot give you a new phone today." He said, "I paid $400 for this and you can't help me?" and he said, "It doesn't matter what you paid..."

Wrong. A customer who drops $400 on new hardware and adds $40/month for a data plan is more important than one who got a free phone for signing up and spends $29 per month. Those customers buy more from you. You should treat them as more valuable, because if they walk, you will lose more.

Just to make it worse, when he did make the call in the store (what else was he going to do?) he was put on hold. He gave up; we were hungry and tired and hadn't planned on spending two hours there. The phone call could be made from home.

I give AT&T credit for getting their retail and web channels in sync. But the rest of the story was such a sequence of amateur errors.

  • To your customer, all channels are still you. Let the customer choose the convenient way to do business.
  • When things go wrong and the customer really has no options, it's the wrong time to treat them badly. They'll remember. If you shine then, you'll have a loyal, happy customer.
  • Give front line employees (like that store manager) the authority to make customers happy. Had that manager been allowed to do the swap on the spot, he would have saved money for AT&T and made a customer who spends a lot with them happy. Instead, everybody's miserable.

Meanwhile, I'm happy with my new Blackjack except... I can't send or receive SMS or MMS messages. I think something's wrong in the account upgrade process... which means, now I get to call customer support. Whee!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Why I Like Memorial Day

While it may seem like blasphemy coming from a marketer, one of the reasons I most like Memorial Day is because there is so little marketing hoopla associated with it.

I'm sure there are all sorts of Memorial Day sales going on - any hook to get people into the store or car lot and buy something - but I haven't really seen, heard, or paid attention to any of them.

No, on Memorial Day, the commercial impulse is thankfully at least somewhat muffled.

Other than the veterans, who are usually downtown selling Buddy Poppies. I haven't seen or heard any this year, but I haven't been downtown that much. Maybe I'll see one on this afternoon's walk. I will definitely be paying attention.

Memorial Day is a good holiday for a number of other reasons.

It's the official-unofficial kick-off to summer, and for those of us who live in regions with difficult weather - and New England falls into the category - the kick-off to summer (official or not) is always welcome.

It's a three-day weekend. Which it wasn't always. When I was a kid, Memorial Day was celebrate on May 30th. In 1971 (I just looked it up), it became the last Monday in May.

Which is fine by me, although I know that some traditionalists think that making Memorial Day into part of a three day weekend puts too much emphasis on the official-unofficial kick-off to summer with its emphasis on cook-outs, weekend getaways, and opening up your summer cottage if you're fortunate enough to have one. And not enough emphasis on the real meaning of the holiday, which is honoring those who lost their lives while serving in the military during time of war.

Thus, I will buy and wear a Buddy Poppy - if I come across a veteran selling them.

And on Tuesday, I will drive out to Worcester, pick up my cousin, buy a bunch of geraniums, and go do some planting at our family graves.

The graves that we'll be decorating aren't full of people who died while serving in the military during time of war. (The closest thing to that is the grave of a second cousin of mine who died of a heroin overdose shortly after he got back from Vietnam in the late 1960's.)

But many of the men in those graves are veterans, including my father, who served in the U.S. Navy for four years in World War II.

When I plant geraniums on his grave, I will think of him - and of all the men (and women) who didn't make it through their wars safely.

Donation to the vet selling Buddy Poppies: $5. Spending on geraniums at the florist: $20.  A non-commercial, non-marketing centered holiday that makes you pause and think about all those young lives: priceless.



I've posted more thoughts on Memorial Day over on Pink Slip.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Weekend Odds & Ends

Happy holiday weekend (to US readers anyway). A few items of interest...

The sound of one Web 2.0 site clapping: A while back I wrote about the GORB, which struck me as one of the more obnoxious ideas to come down the pike: a place where you can leave anonymous criticism of people, indexed by their email address. The GORB's founders claimed it would lead to fabulous unbiased feedback on people. I noticed last night that the main feature on their home page is now a "GORB the Candidates" feature. Because lots of us have personal experience with Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, don't we? Looks to me like a desperate quest for relevance (and perhaps attention). Buh-bye!

OMG It's Fabulous! Really! If, like me, you find the uncritical adoration poured at every Web 2.0 startup, no matter how silly, by assorted bloggers a bit trying, you might enjoy Uncov. It's a completely blunt and nasty take-down of most Web 2.0 sites, with criticism based on the ideas and the technology behind them. The writer is a techie and so there's a lot about bad coding, but he also regularly points out that many of these outfits are doing things that other people tried (and found couldn't support a business). (Pageflakes gets regular and deserved knock-downs.)

Is he too hard on some of them? No doubt. But it's still a breath of fresh air after you're read a few blog posts (often from prominent bloggers) gushing about a web site that lets you save a record of the dust bunnies in your house online, and share it with your friends.

All Your Eyeballs Belong to Us. You would think, seven years into the 21st century, that people would have realized that web ads to bounce out over the content you came to a site to read and then stay there - without even a close button - and keep hanging there, blocking your view of that content, even ten minutes after you arrived at the page - are stupid, offensive, and obnoxious, and are a good reason to never visit a site again. What good is content if you can't read it?

You'd also think that a site like CNET, which spends a lot of money on its content, would actually want people to read it.

You would, it seems, be wrong.

Email Clients: Failure of Innovation. This is just one of my pet peeves. Why are email clients so thoroughly disappointing?

When Google introduced Gmail, with its concept of tagging messages instead of filing them into folders, I was thrilled. It's brilliant. No more "Did I put that in a folder for clients, saved messages, sign-up information, or somewhere else?" Just tag it with every relevant tag, and you can find it either by looking at those tags or with Google's kick-ass search.

I'm really surprised nobody has thought to incorporate this into an email client. Outlook continues to be the same lumbering beast it's always been, with your messages stored in remote sub-folders that you will never, ever find again. Apple's client is slicker but still basically a filing cabinet from hell. Thunderbird combines the clutziness of Outlook with a fantastically obtuse interface. (I know some people love it, but I tried... I just can't.)

I would have thought that Google would come up with some nifty little client that caches your mail offline and gives you a web interface just like Gmail to use when you don't have a network connection. (Yes, this does happen... often!)

I use Google Apps for my business mail, and I prefer working in the webmail interface to using any email client. Except then you're on a plain... the wifi at your favorite cafe is acting up... etc. And so it's back to Outlook.

That's all the griping. There, it felt good to get that out of my system! See you next week.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Mini-Roundup for May 25th

Over on the Vario Creative Blog, Mark Cahill had an interesting post early in the week that discussed journalism vs. blogging. His post was inspired by a recent blogosphere rumor in which the word was that Apple would be delaying its shipment of iPhones. The result was that Apple had a market cap loss of $2b by the time the rumor was squelched.

For those of us who are mostly blogging about our opinions as marketers, fact checking, ethics, and other journalistic "niceties" don't tend to have all that much application. Still, I'd urge all bloggers to read Mark's post, an imagine a world in which "citizen journalists" replace professional journalists. Lots to think about there.

On a lighter note, The Opinionated Marketers haven't been shy about blogging about jargon. It is the curse of the technology marketer, and - much as I try to avoid it myself - I never seem to completely reverse the curse when I write for my customers.

Here's a bit of what we've had to say about jargon:

Jargon Monoxide

The Special Language of Business

Telltale Signs for All

So, as  technology marketer, I really enjoyed Deni Connor's recent story in Network World, Top 10: IT jargon you just love to hate. I mostly agree with Deni's picks - like value add, solutions-oriented, and reduced TCO (ugh!). But the little riff on the use of acronyms...Well, if you're marketing VPNs the people you're maketing to will likely understand what a VPN is. Maybe a first time full write-out of the term is appropriate, especially in a piece that will be read by non-techs, but, come on, buyers don't want to be stopped dead in their tracks by having to read and absorb "Virtual Private Network". Most times, VPN will do.

To all our readers, enjoy the first weekend of summer. Happy Memorial Day to all, especially to our veterans and to those currently serving in the military.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fundamentals and Marketing - Take 2

Yesterday, John posted on what marketing can and cannot do, pointing out that marketing cannot do, pointing out that if there are fundamental operational flaws, all the marketing in the world can't make up for it. He was writing about phone and cable companies, but it got me thinking about a situation I found myself in several years ago.

At one point when I led the product marketing team at Genuity, I was asked to brief the company president on the positioning for all of our services. (The late and lamented - at least by shareholders - Genuity provided Internet-related services: connectivity, web hosting, managed security, VoIP, etc.) My group put together a great snapshot of each of our services: what it was, who it was aimed at, price, competition, key features, and value proposition. I got to do the honors of going through the info with our then still relatively new president.

As it happened, while all of our services were pretty good, they tended to be grouped in two categories: already commoditized and about to become commoditized. For the latter services, one of the big problems was that we had high price points that had been justified when we were the best alternative out there. In order to maintain our established price points, we had added features to the services. Trouble was that no one wanted to pay for these new features, and we were feeling a lot of pressure to decrease prices.

In most cases, our services were pretty much undifferentiated (except when it came to features that no one really wanted). Our initial value propositions - developed when we were one of the only games in town when it came to Internet expertise - were eroding as new vendors emerged and as corporations built in-house expertise for themselves.

Oh, well.

In any case, I could see our president getting more and more discouraged that I was not making any claims about what our services could do.

"Marketing has to change these value propositions," Joe said. "These are weak."

"What do you have in mind?" I asked.

"Well, we should say...." and he launched into a list of claims about ROI (and other areas) that he wanted to make about our services.

I pointed out that we could not honestly change the value propositions without changing the services themselves - or the pricing. Sure, marketing could say anything, but if we wanted to be able to back up the claims we were making, the services we provided would actually have to be different.

No, all the marketing in the world cannot make up for operational weakness, for product flaws, for stratospheric prices. Marketing - no matter how strong - can only mask fundamental problems for just so long. Sometimes you have to change the way you do business.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Speaking of Service

I'm on hold with Delta Airlines right now. Our family has gotten together on the west coast, and my parents would really like to use their miles to upgrade their flights home to first class. There was no obvious way to do that on the web site, so we called them.

After getting through a voice response service, we were put on hold. That was about half an hour ago.

Even worse, the sound quality of the hold music is so bad - static, drop outs that sound like you're being transferred somewhere - that you feel like you're being disconnected all the time.

I haven't flown Delta because I live in Houston, and they're never the best way to get anywhere; but after this, if they were the only option, I think I'd rather take a bus. I'm really quite astounded by how bad this experience is.

Why would they expect anyone to want to be their customer if there was another option?

(As I finished writing this, I got a rep. She said, "How can I help you?" and then I was disconnected. Lovely.)

Fundamentals and Marketing

Marketing can help you address a lot of problems - low awareness, a product that doesn't match market needs, lack of visibility,  poorly understood sales channels, and so on. But sometimes marketing is supposed to overcome flaws in business fundamentals, and that rarely works. Consider this Business Week article on Cox Communications.

In the scramble for every customer, one cable outfit seems to have hit upon a formula that works: beating the phone companies at customer service. In recent surveys conducted by J.D. Power & Associates Inc., owned by BusinessWeek parent The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP ), Atlanta-based Cox Communications outscores traditional phone providers such as AT&T (T), Verizon Communications (VZ), and Sprint Nextel (S). On a variety of metrics, from network performance and reliability to billing and cost, customers in several regions describe Cox as their preferred provider.

Having a cable company lead the charge on phone service is doubly surprising given the poor reputation that many have among their own customers. According to Power, cable outfits rank 18th out of 19 industries for service. "Cox customers don't actually hate them, and that is saying something for a cable company," says Craig E. Moffett, a senior cable analyst at Bernstein.

That's nice, but what does it really pay off?

For many cable companies, phone is the fastest-growing portion of their business. Bernstein's Moffett estimates that Cox is generating about $1 billion a year from its 2.1 million phone customers, with profit margins of 50% to 60%. Nearly 20% of the homes in neighborhoods where it offers phone service have signed up, according to researcher IDC (IDC). By comparison, a tad less than 7% of customers in cable giant Comcast Corp.'s (CMCSA) neighborhoods take its phone service, which it started pushing two years ago. (Cablevision Systems Corp. has the industry's best phone- penetration rate, 29%.) Phone companies capture 5% or less of their potential TV customers.

Imagine that - spend money on fixing fundamental systems so that customers like you, and they spend more with you.

While cable and phone companies are busy trying to become a sole source for phone, internet, and television, they're been hobbled by a problem: their customers hate all of them. The choice is, do I want to get all these services from one rotten company, or spread them among several rotten companies? Cox seems to have figured out that if you're the one player that's not despised, you're likely to do well. And providing good service is a great way to avoid being despised.

Sometimes the challenge of finding new customers and expanding your relationship with your existing customers is not a marketing challenge at all.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pitching Advice from Sean X

 iMedia last week had an excellent cautionary post on how interactive agencies can go wrong when they make their pitches. It's all sound advice, and much/all of it is applicable to sales pitches in general.

The article, 6 Ways to Blow a Pitch is by Sean X Cummings. Sean's unholy six are:

  • Talk a lot about your agency history
  • Assume you know more than the client
  • Forget the client's budget constraints
  • Be oblivious to the client's other agencies
  • Ignore the RFP
  • Staff the pitch with who is available

When I read Sean's article I had a flashback to the time when my company was planning our first "real" web site. We had a very minimal on-line presence, home grown, with a very simple design (screaming "home grown"), but not that dissimilar to what a lot of companies were putting out there in the mid-1990's to get "web presence."

I invited 4 web design firms to come in and pitch us. While I didn't have a formal RFP, I provided each of the firms with a point-by-point road map outlining what I wanted them to cover in their pitch, including where possible showing me examples from their portfolio that showed me how they'd addressed specific issues for other clients. If they didn't have examples, I asked them to be prepared to talk a bit about how they'd go about things.

Now we weren't looking for an especially complex or convoluted web site. This was still the era of web site = brochure. But I did want certain things addressed (expressing our company personality, customer support, etc.). In the document I gave the firms, I also outlined things that they didn't have to cover (since I'd already figured it out from their web site, thank you).

My 4 web design firms came in and I have to say that I was shocked that 3 of the 4 completely ignored my "how to pitch me" document.

Sean's words well encapsulate my feelings:

I am often dismayed, if not outright shocked, by the delusions that occur when agencies get involved in pitches.

When I'd try to bring the agencies back to the "pitch document" I'd give them as a point of reference, they looked at me as if I had two heads and plowed right back into the pitch they'd come with.

They insisted in showing me things I didn't want or need to see, talking about how they'd handled problems that we didn't have.(E.g., we were selling high-ticket enterprise software and were never, ever, ever going to be selling it online. So I didn't need to see six examples of secure credit card implementations.)


Guess which company got my business?

And guess what? I just checked, and Saltmine is still in business. We went with them even though we were in Cambridge and they were in Seattle. And they did a great job. The company I worked for is no longer in existence, but I remember Saltmine as fun, creative, and great to work with. Too bad I can't recall the names of the other three companies that pitched Softbridge on this project. I've got a notion that they're no longer around.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday Double Header

The other day I gave Time Warner/Comcast a hard time for an overly cute booklet they mailed to their Houston customers to explain the transition of the local cable franchise from one company to the other. I felt vindicated when the Houston Chronicle's technology editor wrote about the Time Warner to Comcast transition on his blog and a couple of commenters - from the very audience this booklet was supposed to inform - shared their reactions to the piece:

"I received by booklet the other day, it didn't tell me anything."

"I agree the booklet I got was totally useless."

As I said, when your customers are wary and want information, cute is just not the way to go.

Meanwhile, this video from Microsoft about advertising has been all over the place:


It's a promo for Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions.

Call my cynical, but... marketers love to talk about how everything is changing, customers are empowered, you can't just shout at them, and so on. The video is cute and well-done, but I'll believe that this indicates a change of anything but rhetoric when I see it. This comes from Microsoft, the company whose latest OS is loaded with consumer-controlling rights management technology. Come on.

It's cute, though.

(UPDATE: Tara Hunt of HorsePigCow has more to say about the problem with this.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Celebrity Fonts

A while back, John Whiteside did a post on Kate Moss's font. (When Supermodels Have Serif.) It's not a bad font, but, personally, I would have thought that Kate would have had something that looked more like her: coke-rail-thin, not so rounded and curvy. But John raises the specter of a new fad of celebrity fonts.

Of course, fonts have often carried the name of their designers - and, for all I know, Kate Moss may well be artistic enough to design hers - but I think John's on to something with the notion of celebrity fonts.

Would Arnold Schwarzenegger look like this? Or would it be something borg-like:  Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or would it be one of those scary Germanic fonts?

And what might Paris Hilton's font be: something frilly- girly Paris Hilton or something kind of eight-grade  Paris Hilton. Or would she surprise us with something breezy?  Paris Hilton. And will Paris' font change once she's done her time?

Yes, I can see where celebrities will trend towards signature fonts that will become part of their personal brands. Fans of the celebrities will buy the rights to use the fonts of their beloved. Some 10 year old girl will write - make that text - to her boyfriend using Lindsay Lohan. Her beau will respond in Justin Timberlake.  

And what about the rest of us? Are we not living in an age when we all know that we can't count on anyone to hire us for life?  When we're competing for attention, recognition, and work with not just everyone in your graduating class or suburb, but with every last person on the face of the earth. When we're told that all prospective employees will Google us and, if they find something they don't like (drunken lap dance on YouTube), they won't hire. When we're told that all prospective employees will Google us and, if they don't find anything on us, they won't hire us because we no longer have any identity or relevance. We are so 20th century. So out of it. So unemployable.

Well, damn straight, we all better get with the Brand You program and develop our own brand, font and all. (Me, I'm strictly non-serif. Although I do like Copperplate.)

And as for the Googling...Thank God for blogging. I'm not (yet) the first Maureen Rogers to come up. The post position goes to Maureen Rogers, the equine craniosacral therapist. But I am ahead of Maureen Rogers the herb expert.

I will focus now on improving my Google ranking (without, I hope, tipping off either equine Maureen R or herbal Maureen R that I'm hoping to claw my to the top of the Google heap and stay there).

Then, and only then, will I figure out what my font is.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Don't Get Cute (Or, Context Counts)

Another note on customer communications: start with an honest assessment of what your customers really think about you.

The other day this appeared in my mailbox:

Some background: here in Houston, Comcast is taking over the local Time Warner cable franchise. We've seen some news items about it, but nothing has really changed yet - but apparently, a month from now, it becomes official, we all become Comcast customers, etc.

Sending out a booklet explaining what will happen is a very good idea. But as I flipped through this piece, it was actually a bit offputting.

What do most customers think about the cable company? I don't think I've ever heard of anyone loving it. My take, from comments from people I know, is that Time Warner has earned a "well, they're OK" from locals. The service basically works, though not having a broadband outage twice a month might be nice. The TV service generally works, though the DVR they give you is an impenetrable beast that makes you long for a Tivo, especially when it randomly decides to simply not record something (that happens regularly). The rates seem to go up fairly often, and new charges like a rental fee for the cable modem you got for "free" when you signed up appear on your bill.

Probably the most enthusiastic thing you'll hear from a customer is "They don't suck" or "Well, their internet service is better than using AT&T." And that's not entirely their fault; a cable company is one of those businesses that almost nobody will ever love, because you're stuck with them. They're always going to be a couples circles of hell out from the IRS and the DMV.

So when you find something in your mail promising to help you "cope with more awesomeness," it's hard not to roll your eyes. Were we getting "awesomeness" now?

It doesn't help that the booklet is filled with overly cute cartoons that are, I think, supposed to be humor. Like this:

And this:

That last is, I think, supposed to be funny because we are in Texas. (My reaction was, "Somebody in New Jersey who doesn't know Houston from Hinckley came up with that one.")

Here's the important question that I think didn't get asked before this was created: How do these customers we're about the acquire feel about their cable company right now?

And so while there's useful information in the piece, the general take-away from it is, "Wow, I bet this turns out to be a lot more annoying than they claim."

The right tone, I think, would be slick, professional, and reassuring, perhaps with a chart of "what's changing/what's not," a specific call-out for people who pay their bills online or have them delivered by a bank-sponsored bill presentment service (that's me, and I still an unclear on what will happen next month), some information about how many customers they serve and any good stats on customer satisfaction they've found... in other words, things to tell us that it will be okay.

It also doesn't help that the piece looks like an ad from a company that's unknown to people here. If someone missed the news stories about the switch, it would be easy to throw away. A plain, boring cover with a Time Warner logo on it would have worked better.

Step one: know your audience, and don't kid yourself that they love you when they probably don't. Your communications will be more successful if they are rooted in the reader or viewer's perceptions of the world. It can be hard when those perceptions aren't what you'd like, but you'll never change their minds if you don't know what they think in the first place.

Stop Talking to Your Customers

That's right. Just stop. Shut up. At least, if you have nothing to say that they care about.

In the last week, I've gotten two phone calls on my cell phone that make me not want to be somebody's customer.

The first came from the local Volkswagen dealer where I've taken my car for service. It was a recording telling me that their records show that I was due for service soon, and asking me to remember to schedule an appointment.

That's not a bad reasont to contact a customer, but it's a horrible reason to call them on the phone. Especially in an age where more and more people (including me) use mobile phones as their primary phones.

Interrupting my work day to tell me that I have to take my car in for service makes me never want to go back to that dealership, because frankly, with all the interruptions in a day, I don't want somebody who adds another low-value disruption to day. Really, a postcard would have worked just fine.

Today, it was Allstate. Why did they call me? Just to remind me that I'm their customer.

Seriously. No policy renewal coming up, nothing. Just, "Hi, thanks for being our customer! Call us if you need anything!"

This was worth derailing my train of thought while I was in the middle of something important?

The thinking behind this seems to be, "We have your phone number so we can call you when we feel like it, whether you want to hear from us or not." And what can we do? You can't drop your car off for service and not give them a phone number. Your insurer does need to be able to contact you, because it might be something important.

The VW dealer did get an email telling them to never, ever, ever call me again unless it had to do with my car being there for service. The Allstate call told me I could press 5 if I wanted my agent to contact me, and I did press 5; if he actually follows up, he will get an earful.

But meanwhile, fellow marketers: the next time you are about to launch some kind of customer communication, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this have any value to the customer, or will they not care, or find it annoying?
  • Is this the right channel for this? Should this message arrive by phone, or email, or postal mail?

If your answers have to do with your interests, not your customers', just stop. They probably don't want to hear it.

Here's how both of the interactions that bugged me could have been turned into positives:

  • A postcard from the VW dealer reminding me that regular service is important, and offering me $ 10 off if I brought the car in on one of their slower days (a way for them to manage their workflow better). Good for me, good for them.
  • A mailer from Allstate thanking me for being their customer which included a quick hurricane preparedness checklist - this is Houston and June 1 is approaching. Yes, I can do my hurricane season shoppping on my own and I will, but a reminder is nice, and would leave me thinking mildly positive thoughts about them.

It's not that hard to come up with something useful to offer your customers, or to figure out the right way to get it in front of them. Invest a little thought in that before you start reaching out, and you're more likely to please your customers instead of irritating them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You Wanted Sell to Me? It's Gonna Cost You

As marketers, one of the most exciting elements of all that data proliferating on the Internet is the potential to conduct highly targeted personalized marketing.

As consumers, this is one of the aspects of the Internet that most of us fear. Who wants someone out there knowing exactly how many minutes you spent trawling around Bluefly looking at duvet covers? Who wants someone who knows your size and color preferences, your toothpaste brand, and how often you print out a Sudoku puzzle? Who wants someone knowing which bills you pay online and how often you Google the name of your junior high boyfriend?

Frankly, if I think about all that information on me that's floating around in hyperspace, I get really creeped out.

And, frankly, that's my personal data we're talking about. Mine, all mine.

To the rescue, according to a March 10th article I saw in The Economist, are companies that will enable individual consumers to aggregate their own data, deposit it in an online vault, and let marketers pay to see it.

AttentionTrust "is a not-for-profit organization that puts the user in control of their Attention data." Attention data is not a term I'm familiar with, but apparently it's floating around there and it  is all the data compiled on what you look at on the Internet. (So, right now someone out there has captured the information that I just googled on "attention data.") AttentionTrust's premise is that you own your attention data, it has value, and you should have the right to decide who you want to share that data with. They offer a recorder that let's you capture your own trail of breadcrumbs, which you can then decide to make available to other AttentionTrust members. Sounds reasonable, but I didn't get in deeply enough to figure out if and how they prevent non-trusted entities from grabbing your attention data.

The article also mentions a company called GestureBank, but GB has apparently been swept in with AttentionTrust and are no more.

Agloco has a great tagline: Own the Internet, and describe themselves as "a global community that is owned by its members." It's hard to argue with their position:

Do You Realize How Valuable You Are?
Advertisers, search providers, and online retailers are paying billions to reach you while you surf. How much of that money are you getting?

You Deserve A Piece of the Action
AGLOCO gets paid by companies to reach our Members through our Viewbar™ software.We give that money back to you.

What's the Catch?
No catch. Sign up, refer your friends, download the free Viewbar™ software and surf the Internet as you normally would.

Privacy Counts.
Your information will never be sold, rented,or shared with anyone else. Bulletproof privacy is a core commitment of AGLOCO.

Certainly, consumer marketers should be looking at AttentionTrust and Agloco (and, I'm sure, the others out there doing variations on a theme here). And consumers concerned with all those Big Brother marketing maws capturing every keystroke should be paying attention to just who's paying attention to their attention data.

But one of the nice things about moving on through the demographic cohorts is knowing that a lot of marketers are just not interested in marketing to those of us teetering on the verge of consumer geezerhood.

So I am under no illusions whatsoever that there will be a bidding war for my personal data. Oh, I know that, as a Baby Boomer, however past my consuming prime, there are plenty of marketing organizations who might want to get a piece of my action: retirement communities, financial services, travel, drug companies, the Scooter Store, funeral parlors....I will know them when I see them.

I will definitely be on the lookout for their overtures, and will definitely be figuring out just what I might be worth to them.

Let them pay to play.


Technorati tags: ,

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Department of Customer Prevention

Is it just me, or does this page simply scream "Dear Customer, please do not bother us"?

This is what I encountered on the AT&T web site. I wanted to make some changes to my land line service.

While AT&T (or as they keep calling themselves, "the new AT&T!") has an "online account manager" it's one of those peculiar systems that lets you upgrade service, but not remove anything. I realize they don't want you to actually remove anything you're paying them for, but let's face it: sometimes, you will. And you'll be a happier customer if you can just do it.

(Plus, the transaction will cost them less to process.)

Unable to do that, I realized I had to call them. Silly me; I thought it would be easy to find a phone number on the web site. Ha! To get a plain old number to call and get a person to help me, I had to go over to the shelf in the corner of my office and drag out the phone book.

When I called, one of the first things I heard was a recording telling me that I could manage my account online on their web site. No, not really.

Would it have been so hard to put that phone number somewhere easy to find on the web site?

Here's what worries me: I have my mobile phone service from Cingular, which is also "the new AT&T" now, and I've been very pleased with them in just about every regard. They have a much better web site with much better account management features. They're generally good to deal with, in my experience.

I'm worried that now that AT&T is their full owner (SBC, the "old AT&T," was part owner and while SBC was evil incarnate, Cingular seemed to operate outside of their sphere of despair; now that BellSouth been acquired by SBC/AT&T, though, AT&T owns the whole thing) they will begin to resemble AT&T: a business that views its customers the way vampires view their prey.

But let's hope not.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pretty Please With Splenda On It

Late last week, McNeil Nutritionals, makers of Splenda artificial sweetener, settled a lawsuit that Merisant, makers of Equal artificial sweetener, had mounted against them. Merisant had sued McNeil over Splenda's tagline made from sugar so that it tastes like sugar, claiming that that tagline misled consumers into believing that Splenda is somehow more natural and healthier than other sweeteners. Kind of a sugar-without-the-calories rather than some 100% foreign substance, chemistry lab construct. Made from sugar sure sounds sweeter than made from saccharin or aspartame.

(McNeil settled after the jury had asked for a calculator and instructions on how to figure out damages. The settlement amount was not disclosed. Merisant had been asking for $200 million, and, according to one juror, the jury was leaning towards an amount lower than this. Source of this information and other details and quoted material: Associated Press article in the Boston Herald.)

Given Splenda's dominant market share - 60% to Merisant's 14% - the suit has some element of sour grapes to it. But the question remains whether the "lie" that Splenda marketing was telling was a sugar-white lie or a whopper.

While the Splenda end product contains no sugar, "the active ingredient in Splenda starts as pure cane sugar but is chemically altered to create a compound that contains no calories, according to McNeil."

So big lie, little lie, or no lie?

Those of us in marketing say things all the time about our products and our companies.

Sometimes our claims stretch things: We may fancy ourselves "FinalRewards Systems a leading provider of enterprise application software for the emerging virtual funeral parlor industry..." when actually we're a following provider of enterprise apps for said industry, and to date have a whopping 2 customers to our name.

Sometimes our claims sound good but say nothing: "FinalRewards 1.0 is built on a robust platform...." As opposed to a fragile, house of cards architecture that's going to fall apart when we add our next user? 

Sometimes our claims are based purely on our own subjective appreciation of our product: "FinalRewards 1.0 has an intuitive, easy-to-use interface..." when, in fact, most customers might find that the interface is so terrible that they'd just as soon pass on to their own final reward as have to use the product.

Sometimes our claims are fuzzy and hard to prove: "Using FinalRewards may result in significant productivity increases for funeral parlor administrators...." when "significant" could mean 5 minutes over the course of a year (and that's not taking into account the productivity hit you take to get up and running with the application).

But our claims are seldom bold-faced lies. I can't think of one B2B technology marketer who would ever make a false technical statement about their product.

Where would it get you?

It's pretty easy to prove or disprove any technical claim, so why make one that's untrue. All that's going to make you do is look like a liar.

But did McNeil really lie? Or did they just let things lie, knowing that the average label reader would see "made from sugar" and not think about the mad-scientist process that somehow leeched the calories out of that sugar on its way to the little yellow Splenda packet.

"I don’t think the company necessarily set out to mislead, but I don’t think they did anything to stop it," said [juror Barbara] Helms, a vice president at a Philadelphia advertising firm.

Did people start using Splenda because they thought it was more natural, or were they just sucked in by the high production values of the ads? Do Splenda users believe they're getting "real sugar", or did they switch to Splenda because they figured a next-generation product was bound to be better?

Sixty percent market share.

How often does that happen?

Sixty percent market share means an awful lot of people are using this product. (Disclosure: I'm one of them.) Were we all duped by misleading marketing, or is it possible that the product - whether it's directly, or indirectly, or not-at-all made from sugar - actually is better?

For whatever reason, McNeil refused to add a statement to their boxes that said that Splenda doesn't actually contain sugar, which does kind of suggest that they were looking to mislead consumers. I don't imagine that such a statement would have vastly cut into their market share, although clearly it would have been something their competitors could have pointed to.

Meanwhile, McNeil is dealing with another law suit, this one from sugar producers.

Just goes to show ya the problems that marketers can find themselves in when they sugar coat the truth.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Back to Basics

The marketing blogerati are abuzz over Delta Airlines apparently setting up a Twitter account (or, at the very least, someone who claims to be Delta Airlines doing it). (You can see it here.)

It's interesting, but I'm a bit surprised at how many people are treating this like big news.

Is it interesting? You bet. Is it important for Delta? I doubt it. Is it important for Twitter? Other than the PR, I doubt it.

As I was reading about it, I found myself thinking about that Pew report on American internet use that revealed that half the country simply isn't terribly interested, many others use telecom technology but see it as an aggravation as much as a boon, and that the elites are a small group. (And how many elites are Twitterati? A fairly small group, I think.)

It's not news that I'm a big Twitter skeptic; I haven't seen a use for it that couldn't be accomplished more easily with email or SMS or instant messaging. And even if you use Twitter the way most people seem to - to keep up with friends and thought leaders - it's hard to imagine that a lot of people are interested enough in Delta Airlines to want their tweets. (If Continental, the airline I fly 99% of the time, followed suit, I'd have no interest in it.)

If, of course, this is even really Delta.

The content of the Delta (or faux-Delta) Twitter stream makes me think, would I want to be distracted by getting this kind of information via Twitter, versus while reading the business news?

There are so many variables in this industry- sometimes ppl like Sarawara still get stuck on the phone. Sorry @Sarawara :( I'm working on it

sending out flight notices/reminders to those who've signed up for my messenger service [Continental does this via SMS. Doesn't Delta?]

@Blephen - been trying to make the employees happier too. Gave out bonuses and part-ownership in the company

Am I saying Delta shouldn't do this? No. What I'm saying is that a little perspective is in order.

I think it's great when any company (assuming this is them) experiments with new media. Some of those experiments will become major communications and marketing channels in the future. Most of them won't. If there's some Twitter guru within Delta who championed this, great.

But when people start talking about this as a groundbreaking moment, my BS detector goes into overdrive. This is utterly irrelevant to most Delta customers, and even if Twitter is a massive success, it will be for quite a long time. (I mentioned that Continental sends you updates via SMS if you request them; I bet most customers don't use that service.)

And there's nothing here that can't be replicated in 15 minutes by any other airline that wants to do it.

Delta's main marketing challenge is getting business from the flying public, and that means basics: their web site, their customer service, internal cost controls, quality assurance, and communicating with the public in ways that are relevant to them - which means via the news, their web site, customer emails, through their reps, and so on.

I'm not knocking the idea of any major company experimenting with Twitter (or Second Life or any other over-hyped bit of technology). In fact, every company should have a little skunkworks going where people are free to play with all of this stuff and figure out if it belongs in the mainstream of their marketing efforts.

And those of us observing the marketing world need to keep it in perspective, rather than hailing all of these experiments at the next big thing. (Are you actually pushing Twitter as a strategically important channel to your clients? I suppose there are a few out there for whom that would make sense, but I suspect their businesses have to do with Twitter itself.)

Doubletalk Alert / Marketing Through Lawyers

HBO's CTO has noticed that consumers don't like digital rights management (DRM), because it prevents them from using content in legal ways that suit them. His solution: give it a new name!

That changed on Tuesday, when HBO’s Chief Technology Officer, Bob Zitter, suggested at an industry conference that DRM needs a name change. Zitter’s suggested name: Digital Consumer Enablement, or DCE.

The irony here is that “rights management” is itself an industry-sponsored euphemism for what would more straightforwardly be called “restrictions”. But somehow the public got the idea that DRM is restrictive, hence the need for a name change.

Zitter's rationale is downright Orwellian:

Digital rights management (DRM) is the wrong term for technology that secures programmers' content as it moves to new digital platforms says HBO Chief Technology Officer Bob Zitter, since it emphasized restrictions instead of opportunities.

Speaking at a panel session at the NCTA show in Las Vegas Tuesday, Zitter suggested that "DCE," or Digital Consumer Enablement, would more accurately describe technology that allows consumers "to use content in ways they haven't before," such as enjoying TV shows and movies on portable video players like iPods.

Of course, another way to do that would be to use industry-standard file formats that can be played on a variety of devices.

What other "opportunities" can DCE bring?

Zitter went on to discuss HBO’s strategy. HBO wants to sell shows in HighDef, but the problem is that many consumers are watching HD content using the analog outputs on their set-top boxes — often because their fancy new HD televisions don’t implement HBO’s favorite form of DRM. So what HBO wants is to disable the analog outputs on the set-top box, so consumers have no choice but to adopt HBO’s favored DRM.

Which makes the nature of the “enablement” clear. By enabling your set-top box to be incompatible with your TV, HBO will enable you to buy an expensive new TV.

I'm not sure I can afford much of this enablement. Meanwhile, also in the DRM front, a company has apparently decided to do its marketing through its lawyers:

MRT claims that Vista, Adobe Flash Player, Real Player, iTunes and the iPod have been produced "without regard for the DMCA or the rights of American Intellectual Property owners." The DMCA, signed into law in 1998, makes it illegal to manufacture products that are designed to circumvent copy protection. Accordingly, MRT has filed Cease and Desist letters against Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and Real to stop production or sale of products that infringe on the DMCA.

MRT's X1 SeCure Recording Control has proven effective against stream ripping, the company said in a statement, and these companies have been "actively avoiding the use of MRT's technologies."

"Together these four companies are responsible for 98 percent of the media players in the marketplace; CNN, NPR, Clear Channel, MySpace Yahoo and YouTube all use these infringing devices to distribute copyrighted works. We will hold the responsible parties accountable. The time of suing John Doe is over," said MRT CEO Hank Risan.

The approach here seems to be, if they won't voluntarily buy our product, let's sue them and force them to buy it! Actually, I doubt it will get that far; this is probably just a PR ploy.

What do Zitter and the people at MRT have in common? A refusal to recognize that customers do have power. Customers recognize what DRM is, and they don't like it, not even honest ones who have no intention of stealing content. You can accept that and find a business model that suits your interest and the customers... or you can try to fool them by calling something that restricts your customers "enablement." Consider the contrast to Apple, which understands what customers want, and therefore is leaning on content providers to give up on DRM.

Or if you've got a technology that your target customers have decided not to implement, rather than find out what they want and make it, you can try to browbeat them into buying it through your lawyers. This is not a strategy for success.

In both of these cases, listening to the market might be something to consider.

Friday, May 11, 2007

To Market, to Market: How I Fell into Marketing

Even though one of my concentrations in business school was marketing, I didn't start out to be a marketer.

How could I have?

When I entered business school, I had only the most rudimentary of notions about how business worked, let alone what marketing was. My work experience had basically been waitressing and scut-jobs. My jobs were so low-down on the totem pole, I barely knew what business the place I worked was in. (Bank or shoe factory? Truck rental or architecture?  Insurance company or Oxfam? Of all of my scut jobs, Oxfam was about the only one that actually registered with me: I definitely got what they did. Tood bad I was only there for a short while as a temp.) 

Marketing? If anyone had asked, I would have said it was advertising.

And the marketing courses I took in b-school?

Nothing as practical as marketing 101. No 4 P's for me.

It was all applied marketing. Models. Analysis. Statistics. (After all, I did go to business school at MIT.)

When I graduated, I got a job working with a consulting company that built econometric and financial forecasting models for Fortune 1000 companies. (Since my co-concentration at MIT had been something called applied economics, this was right up my alley. But it was only right up my alley because I went to business school to begin with because my boyfriend (now husband) thought it was a good idea, and he was an economist.)

Somewhere along the line, I drifted into product management, and the first product I managed was a time-series forecasting tool that did Automated Box-Jenkins models. The product's name was Auto-BJ. (No comment.)

I was a product manager for a good long time.

When I worked at Wang, I couldn't get marketing to do a brochure for my products, but I did get the OK to do some four page data sheets on my own. I snuck around and figured out how to turn them into something more brochure-like by adding colored photos. I used two guys in my group for models.

Wang had a professional photographer in house.

He never told me that if you didn't put make-up on the guys, the pictures would come out with five-o'clock shadows even if the pictures were taken at 8 a.m.

I learned to live with my bro-sheets on which Charley and Jack looked like thugs. Other than that, they turned out OK.

Then I was hired by an incredibly daffy, fast-growing company that brought me on to be the lead product manager for a group of products they were going to build. Someday.

They never did.

Since I had nothing to do once I got there, they put me in a staff position where I did research and wrote business plans and presos that our chairman used to dupe people into investing in us.

Eventually, the dupes smartened up. (Our chairman's reaction: 'The investors are trying to screw us.' The investors might have seen it another way.)

The turnaround guy came in.

Suddenly, the marketing department was gone.

The new chairman looked at me and said, "You can write. You're in charge of marketing."

The first thing I had to do was fire our PR firm.

I doubt we paid them, so I think they were just as happy.

It was a good experience, given that over the years I got to fire a few more PR firms.

We were signed up to go to a trade show in two weeks. Our booth was in hock - we hadn't paid storage.

Somehow, with the help of the one sales person left standing and an admin who to this day remains the most organized person I have ever worked with, we were able to figure out how to rent enough stuff to look respectable. The rag and the rug: pipe and drape. A wastebasket. A potted plant. A couple of chairs. We couldn't afford to rent a real booth.

We did make a new sign. It looked like a shower curtain. So that's what we called it.

After I'd been in charge of marketing for about six months, I found a carton that contained about 5,000 bingo card leads. One of our products had been named Product of the Month by PC Magazine. In the old days, people who saw something of interest written up or advertised in a magazine circled the product's number on something called a bingo card and mailed it in to the magazine.

The sales person and I nearly wept when we saw all those bingo card leads.

We had no way to follow up: no collateral, no telemarketing, no nothing. (This was way pre-web.)

We sifted through the cards and she picked out the ones that looked most promising.

No collateral? Not for long. I wrote some data sheets and printed them in-hourse on card stock. They weren't bad. Eventually we graduated to things printed outside, black and white with spot color. I got really good with shading and spot color.

I designed everything.

I'm no designer.

I kept things simple and/or borrowed ideas from easily-replicable pieces that came in the mail.

The first piece - a four page, one-color brochure - I printed in large lot turned out terrible. I had no idea what a PMS color was. The color I picked - could it really have been sight unseen - was so hideous that I got in a fight with the printer, telling them I couldn't possibly have picked such a horrible color. I went to an art supply store and bought a PMS chart. Damned if the printer wasn't right. I had picked the worst shade of blue on the face of the earth. I had to live with that dreadful piece for about six months. Then we got new features in the product, and I got to redo it. This time I knew better. Using my PMS book, I picked a really nice blue.

The best direct mail piece I ever did was a knock-off of something that I saw for an entirely different kind of product. We, of course, used one color printing, with lots of shading. The piece looked great. We redid in about 5 or 6 times in different colors, varying the text a bit. We got pretty good results with it. The font was copperplate. (I still like copperplate.)

At one point, I had to design the cover for our documentation.

I did a variation on a Mondrian painting. Amateur, but not half-bad.

Then I did a product logo that looked like a belt buckle. We called it the belt buckle.

It was pretty bad, but we used it for years.

Eventually, I figured things out. We got more stable. I got to hire people.

I still did all the writing.

On the job training. Baptism by fire. Live and learn.

But that's how I fell into marketing.


As I'm heading to Berlin for vacation in a couple of days, let's make it a tip of my homburg toMary Schmidt's recent post on "what'd you wanta be when you grow up."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

All Your Eyeballs Belong to Us

ABC and ESPN have come to an agreeement with cable provider Cox to offer programming on demand, but with an unusual condition: the ability to skip commercials will be disabled.

Cox viewers will be able to watch episodes of ABC's hit series "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," "Lost," and "Ugly Betty" free whenever they choose starting in the fall, The Journal said, adding that episodes will be available 12 hours after they premiere on ABC, and ESPN will chip in a package of college football games.

In an important component of the deal, the companies will also test technology that will place ads in shows based on ZIP Codes and geographic area, The Journal said. The test will start in Orange County, Calif., where Cox has about 250,000 subscribers, the Journal said.

Cox and Disney will also test a system to place fresh commercials in available episodes every few days so that ads don't grow stale, according to the report.

The agreement only applies to programs on Cox's video-on-demand menu, so it doesn't affect viewers using digital video recorders to fast forward through ads, The Journal said.

It's easy to see why the networks want to do this; it's hard to sell ads in on-demand programming, where every single viewer will be sitting with a remote in hand ready to bypass ads.

But I hardly think this solves the problem. If people aren't interested in your advertising, they will not watch it. You can succeed in irritating them by making them get up and use the bathroom and refill the snack bowl during the ads. But will you get their attention?

I actually think the ad-skipping works better; viewers see the ads in fast-forward and can stop and look at interesting ones (something I do regularly).

This kind of approach is, I think, a replacement for more creative thought about how to engage consumers in an environment where, increasingly, they are in charge - online, at the TV, everywhere. (And I predict you'll see it creep over into the DVR itself sooner or later.)

That's not an easy problem to solve... but if you don't even ask yourself how, failure is guaranteed. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, other marketers are asking the question, and when they come up with a good answer, the "you're going to watch whether you like it or not!" crowd will be left behind.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Marketing the Berlin Zoo

A few months ago, the Berlin Zoo was handed a marketing cream-puff in the form of a fluffy little polar bear cub who'd been abandoned by his mother. Controversy - often a friend to marketing - was there from the outset, when an animal activist suggested that the cub, by then named Knut, would be better off dead than raised by humans. This set off a world-wide protest with little kiddies all demanding that the cub be spared.

He was.

Knut is alive and well and the star attraction at the Berlin Zoo, which is in the news big-time for the first time since the animals started running free during bombing in the waning days of World War II.

Not only is Knut the star attraction, he's become the marketing darling as well. And not just for the Zoo.

Souvenir shops all over town are full of cute Knut stuff - caps, postcards, t-shirts - the usual tourist paraphernalia. It is ubiquitous.

From the Zoo itself, there are podcasts. (And thousands upon thousands of people lining up to see His Cuteness.)

There are Knut blogs, fan clubs, even a Knut theme song.

According to Wikipedia (and where would we be without that?), Knut even boosted the stock price for Berlin Zoo shares.

All this because of cuteness.

For above all, Knut is possessed of surpassing cuteness.

Or at least he was a couple of weeks ago when he was little and fluffy and adorable and puppy-ish and playful.

And he still is now.

Sort of.

But he's apparently doubled in size in the last month or so, and he's getting a bit more aggressive than playful with his handler, and we know that this is only going in one direction.

So what's the Zoo to do?

They don't have much more time during which they can say 'come to the Zoo and see cute-little-Knut'. Pretty soon he'll be not-so-cute, two-ton-Knut, the adult polar bear.

I'm sure that he will be handsome and magnificent.

But he won't be cute.

The marketing director of the Berlin Zoo was on the news last night (CNN International, I think, maybe Sky) talking about how they were going to keep going with the Knut "brand", using Knut (original, cute Knut) as a symbol for the Zoo, while spinning down over time the brand-involvement of the aging, hefty, not-so-cute Knut.

While the Berlin Zoo still has some potential with this brand, focusing too much on any one particular baby animal is bound to be a problem, especially if there's not a steady stream of new baby animals being born. (Knut was the first polar bear born in Berlin in 30 years.) If the trip to the Zoo depends on seeing the baby polar bear, there's bound to be drop off in visits and ramp up of whining kids ("But I wanted to see the cute Knut, not that monster polar bear who looks like he could eat me").

Those baby animals have an unbreakable habit of getting bigger and bigger - and it happens pretty darn fast.

Poor Knut. He's only 5 months old and already, it appears, his moment is about to pass.

We'll see how long the brand and the merchandising last.

As for its share price, it's back down from it's stratospheric heights of 4900 to a more normal range. Last trade: 2336.

Once again, the market-market has already anticipated that cute Knut just didn't have all that much staying power.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Set Your Content Free

Shel Holtz writes about the YouTube "embed" model and "content on the edge":

Between RSS feeds, widgets, and embedded video, content is moving steadily to the edge. Companies like Shell would do well to consider freeing their own content to be offered and viewed wherever people want it, exposing those videos to a far bigger audience than the one that will make a deliberate trip to the corporate website.

This is an important idea, and one that I haven't heard discussed much. When online marketing started (yes, some of us can remember the days before that!), the mantra was "drive traffic to the web site." Use email with lots of links so people will visit your site. Ads should create clicks through to your site. And so on, and so on.

But guess what? People don't really want to go to your site. Oh, they will if they see value in it, but why raise the hurdle that way?

And so now we see video living on YouTube showing up on lots of other people's sites, thanks to their embed code. We see RSS feeds that extract the meat from your site and let people read it somewhere else. We see interactive ad formats that let people complete forms and download information without ever leaving the site they were on when the ad showed up.

YouTube and RSS are particularly interesting because they free your content to go live on somebody else's site. RSS draws content from your site, but others can incorporate it into their own sites. And YouTube exposes your content to people who may never come to your site... but might become your customers.

(There's also an interesting small business play here. I was talking to my sister, who runs a one-woman business, about a video clip she wants to put on her simple, informational web site. She started worrying about how that would work - how do I add that to my page? won't I need hosting that supports streaming video? But she can just put it on YouTube and embed it. Plus, it has promotional value to people who've never heard of her, so tagged properly, all kinds of new people can see it there. This means that even the tinest businesses add video to their sites in minutes.)

This also means that those web stats we all know so well aren't as meaningful as they used to be. If people aren't coming to your site to consume your content, you need different metrics.

It's taking many companies a while to catch on to this idea. But after a long period of turning web sites into marketing venues, we may be seeing a new era - where the web site is repository that supports marketing activities happening elsewhere online.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Pricing 101 - Don't Cheat

I wrote the other day about pricing transparency and getting your pricing models right, but it seems there is an even simpler pricing lesson some companies need to learn: don't cheat.  

The nearest place for me to buy office supplies is OfficeMax. Like all of these office superstores, they've got most every doodad for your desk you could want, reams of paper, electronics, folders, and so on - the odds and ends that you regularly need. Since it's just me in the office, it's not worth ordering a lot of stuff from a catalog; I just stop by there every couple of weeks for at most 10 items. (It's on the way to various other errand destinations, so it's very convenient.)

There's just one problem: on almost every single one of those trips, something I buy scans at a higher price that what was marked on the shelf.

When this happens once, you shrug and think, "mistakes happen." When it happens another time or two, you think, "these people are disorganized."

When it happens on almost every single trip, you start to think, "This company has a policy of fraud."

What's particularly funny is the reaction when you point this out to the cashier. Just this morning, as my $19.99 items scanned at $24.99:

Me: "That was marked $19.99 on the shelf."

Cashier: "Oh, okay." (changes price)

No price check, nothing. It's almost as if the employees know that the prices are often wrong, and actually checking is a waste of time, because the customer will be right.

And, as I noted, this happens on almost every single visit to the store.

Sure, I can have my convenience by just watching the register and correcting all the mistakes. But when I got for more than a couple of things, I don't really feel like carrying a notepad around so I can write down the correct prices as a I shop.

And besides, who wants to do business with a store that's trying to rip you off?

I tried to send a message to OfficeMax about this; I think it's good form to try to get help before writing something negative like this on a blog. But - strike 2! - they've got one of those appalling "Customers are forbidden to email us" web sites. You can call an 800 number because obviously, you've got nothing better to do. And after all, isn't it smart to make customers contact you through a high-cost channel?

My question is whether this is a problem at this particular store in Houston, or an informal company policy. Not that it matters; convenience is nice, but Office Depot is only another ten minutes down the road.

Technorati tags: , ,

Calling in Sick to "Opinionated Marketers"

I was hoping to have something to say about marketing as it relates to my German trip, but I've spent the last two days mostly snoozing off some travel sickness. Since I'm never, ever, ever sick, this is a surprise. And all things equal, I'd rather be sick in my own bed than in a hotel, but sick happens.

That said, being sick afforded me the opportunity to watch more TV than I normally would on vacation.

Since my German is rudimentary, to say the least, that meant watching BBC, Sky News, and CNN International.

The most interesting ads to note were those for faraway places.

As far as I can recall, the only "foreign country" that regularly does TV advertising in Boston is Ireland.

Not here.

I saw ads for vacationing in Croatia, Montenegro, Malaysia, Lithuania, and Cyprus.

Kind of made me want to take a vacation, but I guess that's what advertising is for.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

There Are No Pricing Secrets

One of the interesting developments of the last five or ten years is that pricing has become far more transparent. Thanks to the good old internet, it's much easier to find out what different companies charge for something, and what others are actually paying for it.

I was thinking about this as I canceled my free trial of GoToMeeting this morning. I really like GoToMeeting. During my one-month trial, I used it several times. It was reliable and had all the features I wanted. I recommend it. *

The only reason I was canceling it was that their pricing model doesn't work for me. I just don't host a lot of online meetings, so fifty bucks a month is too much. If they had some kind of pay as you go pricing - say $10 a meeting - I'd be a customer. There would probably be some months I paid more than $50, but they'd be balanced by others when I paid nothing.

But $50 every month? Doesn't work for me.

So, I went to their site and canceled - and was immediately offered $120 off of an annual subscription.

I was impressed; I had clicked the "too expensive" option for the "why are you canceling" question, and they responded to try to save the business. Smart.

But what if I hadn't canceled? I'd have paid $120 too much for a one-year subscription.

They don't advertise that special, of course, but people will find out about it. (Perhaps by finding this blog post, I guess.)

If you're going to offer these specials, you need to be prepared for people calling you and asking, "Why didn't I get that?" I suppose they might just give to anyone who complains, but that leaves people with a lingering bad feeling... "If I hadn't found out, I'd have kept paying too much."

It's a bit like the not-savvy telephone user who suddenly discovers that everybody's been getting all-you-can-use long distance while they've been paying 10 cents a minute.

Everything's out there on the web, folks. People will find it.

(And the the folks at GoToMeeting, who have put together a nice service: I wish you had let me explain in more detail why I was leaving, through a content form. Maybe you'd find a lot of people like me, and see an opportunity to get more customers by introducing a new light-use pricing plan.)

* One quibble: you can't host a meeting from a Mac. This whole "doesn't work on a Mac" thing is very 1997. Fix it, guys.

Technorati tags: , ,

Corporate Blog Basics

Debbie Weil offers some basic corporate blog pointers, and it's a good list. Nothing really earth-shaking here, but you should check your corporate blog for these things.

I'm not completely behind all of them; I think photos are nice, but not really essential for most business blogs. I'm also not sure that "subscribe by email" is that important - but maybe those of you who offer this can share some experience.

But a good list, and one that's reminding me that we should replace that list of names over at the right with brief bios. (The shoemaker's children and all that, I know...)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Welcome to the Human Network

When you're on the final leg of your journey, and you've finished the book you've started with, and you don't feel like going into the overhead compartment to dredge out your next book, and they screwed up your seats so that you're not sitting with your husband, and the guy next to you has his head in a PowerPoint presentation (that you can't understand because it's in German), you can read what's on the packaging around the small slab of chocolate that they just handed you.

So I did yesterday morning when, one half-hour out of Berlin, the Lufthansa flight attendant handed me some chocolate sponsored by Cisco.

Not that I could read most of it, since it was in German, but I could get the drift. The fact that it featured pictures from Cisco's TV ads - the Tibetan monks gathered around a laptop, the man and his dog connecting up from a park in Barcelona - helped.

And, there was a bit of English to help me along: Welcome to the human network.

Well, nobody knows better than a blogger that the Internet lets you make connections in a new and exciting way.

But welcome to the human network?

Come now, Cisco.  Hasn't there been a human network all along? I mean, go ahead and take credit for helping with the connect-up part of things. And I guess I can't blame you for trying to put a human face on hubs, routers, and load balancers. But we were all part of the human network well before Cisco sold its first piece of wire.

So when we checked into our hotel in Potsdamer Platz and got connected - thanks, I'm sure, in no small part to Cisco - I thought I'd check out Cisco's site and see what they have to say.

For the most part, I'm down with with this statement:

When we're all connected, great things happen. Join us and see how life on the network is changing life as we know it.

Although, of course, terrible things can happen, too, on balance connected is a good thing.

Then there's this:

On the human network, people decide what's possible.

I don't want to over-think things here, but this is true and I believe it always has been. And always will be, at least until AI and robotics and machine intelligence get to the point where humans surrender their human prerogative.

Cisco then invites us to share our stories with them.

Tell us how the human network has helped you make something great possible. Enter your name and a short subject line to get started.

Where to begin....

Somewhere in the late 1800's, the human network helped two sets of my great-grandparents to leave the family farms in Ireland for life in Ameri-kay. That human network was composed of brothers and sisters, cousins, and town-folk who had come to Massachusetts before them, and was facilitated by letters that were written back and forth.

In the 1920's, the human network helped my German grandparents out. My grandfather had misinterpreted the immigration rules. He thought that the entrance fee to Amerika was $25 per family. When he got to Ellis Island, he found out it was $25 per head. He wired his brothers in Chicago to send him the rest of the money. It took a few days for them to come up with the dough, during which time my grandfather stayed in a men's dormitory, while my grandmother and mother stayed with the women and children. My mother remembered my grandmother crying the whole time because she didn't know what was happening. Happily, the Wolf family's human network came through and they were soon on their way to Chicago.

Where, during World War II, the human network worked yet again, when one of my mother's girlfriends, who was dating a sailor, fixed my mother up on a blind date with my father, who was stationed in Chicago for a couple of years during the War. The rest is family history.

These were just the first human network stories I thought of when I read Cisco's request.

Okay, maybe I'm not all that great, but the human network did make me possible.

I don't want to bust Cisco that much for their campaign. It's hardly the most egregious case of marketing hypes I've ever seen. And maybe you can chalk my reaction up my zonked out state after a long flight.

But welcome to the human network?

Thanks, but we've been there all along.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Four (or More) Weddings and a Funeral

Talk about repurposing unused capacity:

All across the country, funeral homes -- some 89% of them owned by individuals, families, or private companies -- are adding reception halls with catering kitchens and 12-foot screens for multimedia presentations. "And most of that change has come within the past three or four years," the magazine says.

With cremation on the rise, sales of pricey caskets are down, and funeral directors are turning into event planners, Business Week reports.

Makes sense. They have event planning skills and they have facilities. It will be interesting to see if the non-logical but understandable creep-out factor is a problem. But, you know, funeral homes are nice places in general; can they overcome the death factor and be seen more as facilities for celebrating (or acknowledging) big life transitions?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Gravity Defyer Shoes! Hyperbole Defyer Marketing!

I may be the only person in the world who actually read all the copy, but I couldn't help myself when I saw an ad in The Atlantic featuring the grinning zealot in the double-breasted suit, springing forward, briefcase in one hand, shoe in the other. (It was a third shoe. I checked his feet and they were both clad.)

"Catapult your career with the elegant shoe of the future," the copy read, "Invented by Alexander Innovation Wizard," one Alexand Elnekaveh, who is, I believe, the very shoe-in-hand zealot.

Just how could I resist reading all the copy in this ad, even though it was very dense (full page) and in something like 5 pitch type.

I learned that the Gravity Defyer Shoe  - which, as pictured, looks like it's made out of some type of cheesy material (Corfam, anyone?) - is based on shock absorber technology used to help buildings withstand earthquakes. When embedded in the GD shoe, the shock absorber gives your body a little push forward, promising you "a more active lifestyle."

In fact:

Unlike traditional dress shoes that you can't wait to take off to relive your feet at the end of along day, your feet will actually be begging to put back on the Gravity Defyer Shoe.

How much fun it must have been to write this copy.

It's almost as if Aelous, the Greek god of wind, himself had taken his powerful wind out of his bottles and put it into each of the Gravity Defyer Shoes.

And this:

We all have them, and expensive pair of dress shoes for those "special occasions."...The shoes that world famous Secret Agents wear to the black tie party where they end up doing some reconnaissance before they are chased around a European city by evil henchmen...You will feel like you can keep up with the best of World Famous Secret Agents when you are wearing the Gravity Defyer Shoe...The Gravity Defyer Shoe will provide you with access to a breakthrough in your active lifestyle all while looking like a distinguished gentleman deserving of a cover story in a quality men's magazine.

Given the copy, I'm surprised that they didn't put words in the mouths of those whose leaden testimonials are featured in a call out:

"Best shoes I have ever had on my feet...I will order 2 more pairs." Zane Carson of Joelton, TN

"I tried them on and they feel great!" Roger O. Davis, Atlanta GA

"I love them very much, they are very comfortable." Joseph Pessitti, Melrose Park IL

The GD is more than just a shoe. It's actually something of a Maxwell Smart gadget (they did mention secret agents, didn't they?) that can be ordered, appropriately enough, at  a place called Gadget Universe

Of course, the Gravity Defyer's real magic is that it will make you "appear nearly 2" taller."

This ad is either inspired marketing or over-the-top silliness. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. It sure caught my interest. (I will not, however, point it out to my husband. He may very well want to be 2" taller but I don't think I want to be seen out with him if he's wearing plastic shoes.)