Saturday, June 30, 2007

Having it Both Ways

This popped up on a site with listings of freelance/consulting gigs (sort of a Craigslist for marketing consulting):

I'm looking for a reputable marketing company, on and off line to construct a marketing campaign with the intentions to recruit clients for a two day seminar which I'm holding.

That sounds reasonable, right? But then...

This job is based on commission only. So a specific percentage of the totally clients recruited will be allocated to the marketing company.

I'd love to see who responds to this, because I can't believe that a "reputable marketing company" will be inclined to throw their hat in the ring for this.

And not just because reputable marketers tend to have clients who are willing to pay for work.

Many of us who have done consulting and freelancing have done this kind of work when starting out, because we want clients. Or we come across certain potential clients we'll work for at bargain prices because we want to add them to our client roster.

But there's a whole other problem here. It's one thing to ask someone to put their payment on the line for things that they can control - the marketing program itself.

But there are factors here beyond the marketer's control. Is the seminar any good? What the reputation of the presenter? Is it priced correctly? Is there really a market for it? All the smart marketing in the world won't work if those things are wrong.

The desired response to that ad is a bid - not questions about all of that, but a price. Even if you started freelancing yesterday, this is a bad gig. If you don't have other clients taking up your time, you might be willing to take a pay-per-performance deal... but only it it's your performance determining payment, not the performance of your client.

This is an issue that comes up even in traditional pay-for-effort consulting; you discover that the client has some issue that is going to make you look bad, even though you can't fix it. The problems aren't your fault, and fixing them is beyond your scope, but they are going to make you look bad, and since you're the consultant, you're an ideal scapegoat.

Has this ever happened to you? How have you handled it?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Product Naming: Yaz Takes on a Whole New Meaning

I will admit that, when it coms to product naming, I'm not particulary good, usually ending up going the route of "the name should tell us what it does". I've veered of this a few times, and have actually come up with an occasional name or two that's not half bad, only to be brought back (by techies) who wanted to name the product after what it does. Thus, the Automated Test Facility - dah-dah - facilitated automated testing. (I actually didn't name this sucker personally, but it illustrates the point.)

Product naming in the B2B/T2T world actually doesn't matter all that much, since people invariably use the company name when they're asked what they use for "x". Our database is Oracle. I use Linksys. Branding at the product level is costly and not worth it for most B2B/T2T goods and services.

But consumer products can clearly benefit from clever or interesting names. I've never tasted it, but Red Bull sure sounds like a kick-ass drink.

And speaking of products that I have no call to use any longer, my ears pricked up when I heard a TV ad for a new birth control product. What caught my attention was the product's name: Yaz.

Yaz?  Yaz?  YAZ?

For anyone who grew up in Red Sox Nation, which includes anyone in the New England states, with the exception of the NYC suburban commuter counties, as well as our members of our vast and loyal diaspora, Yaz can only mean one thing, and one thing alone.

And that one thing is Carl Yastrzemski, Captain Carl, Number 8, Hall of Famer, and the last player to win the Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, homers, and runs batted in). Lest you think that the Which Yaz did in 1967 - also a year in which the Red Sox won the pennant and completely revitalized interest in baseball in Boston. (In my family, it didn't take 1967 to get us interested. We were already Red Sox fans, even in those completely gloomy and rotten years when they were cellar-dwellers.)

After the 1967 pennant win ("we" lost the World Series in a seventh game heart-breaker, which I refused to watch), New England went Yaz Mad.

Not that my mother would ever buy it, but there was even something called Yaz Bread, large loaves of that tasteless white bread we all grew up on.

And few families in The Nation were without the Impossible Dream record album tribute to the 1967 Red Sox, which had as one of it's biggest hits, with its immortal lyric:

Carl Yastrzemski,Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski
The man they call Yaz, we love him!

He played for the Red Sox from 1963-1981, so there are still women out there with a) an interest in birth control pills; and b) memories of Yaz.

Yaz (the pill, not the ballplayer) is a relatively recent import from Germany, and they either they just didn't bother to check things out; or they really didn't want to change the name; or they decided that Carl Yastrzemnski, the man they call Yaz, is so yesterday, so irrelevant to birth control pill consumers, that the fact that the word Yaz remains on the lips of the Fenway Faithful does not matter at all.

Of course, Captain Carl Yaz aside, the name Yaz is probably not too bad. It sounds kind of kicky, light, and young - it sounds jazzy.  It could be a softdrink, a candy bar, a deodorant. It's nothing like the mad (or boring) scientist names that birth control pills used to have.

In any case, between remembering the 1967 Red Sox, and remembering Ortho-Novum, this Yaz thing is making me feel very, very old. Sigh!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Subversion for Fun and Profit

I feel like I should write something highly critical about Subvert and Profit, but I just can't get worked up about it.

Subvert and Profit pays Digg users for their votes. (Digg, for those unfamiliar with it, is a news site where the contents of the front page are determined by votes of users. Digg users can vote stories up and down, and the headlines are the most popular ones.) Of course, there's value to being up at the top of Digg, so surprise: someone will game it if you pay them.

Which is of course wrong (not to mention against Digg's terms of service for the people who are paid for votes). But the thing is... what Subvert and Profit it doing is inevitable because of the bad idea at the heart of Digg.

Here's how Digg describes itself:

You won’t find editors at Digg — we’re here to provide a place where people can collectively determine the value of content and we’re changing the way people consume information online.

No more pesky editors - you know, people who have spent time and effort to get to develop deeper knowledge of a topic, who understand its history and can put news items into context. In other words, who provide some intelligence to the process of aggregating news.

I can join Digg and my opinion about the best stories related to gaming (one of their topic areas). Except that I don't know a thing about gaming. Do you really want me to be your guide?

Here's another bit of value that professional editors bring to the party: the ability to identify when they are being played - by a PR person, by a bad source, by whomever. Not perfectly, of course.

At the risk of offending PR people, public relations by its nature subverts media for profit. The only difference is that with traditional PR, there's a gatekeeper to decide where the subversion ends. Digg, by taking intelligence out of the process, has made the subversion easier... and more apparent.

Outrageous? Not really. What's outrageous is thinking that you could remove expertise from the picture and that it wouldn't matter.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Now, that's what I call customer service

The other day, I ordered a screen filter for my laptop from CDW.  I haven't ordered from them before, but their site was easy to use and the price seemed right enough, after I found the same item elsewhere for $20 more, I decided to look no further.

Within minutes, I got an e-mail confirming my order.

But that wasn't all.

The e-mail was actually from a human being. Who actually provided an e-mail address. And a phone number. And a nice little note (okay, it was formulaic) telling me to call or write if I had any questions.

Now, for all I know, "Robert Nixon" is a made up persona, like Betty Crocker or Uncle Ben.

But I was still happy to hear from "him" and, as long as the screen filter does it's job of blocking out my screen glare, I'll be back with CDW. They're in Vernon, Illinois, which is no real surprise. The world could do with a little more "Midwest nice."

They also had a very nice tracking system, with one-click link to the info on your shipment.  I ordered on Monday, they delivered on Thursday.

All well and good.

Will I be doing business with CDW again? You bet.

Will I tell all my friends about my happy experience with CDW? Absolutely.

Will I blog about my happiness? You got it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Balance of Power, continued

I wrote recently about the new balance of power between businesses and their customers. It's a fascinating topic and there have been all kinds of stories that made me think more about it in the last week.

Consider "gagwrap" software licenses, which attempt to ban users from writing anything bad about a piece of software by prohibiting use of trademarked names or graphics in negative reviews. (Jon Gordon of Minnesota Public Radio has been looking at this and did a segment on his excellent Wavlength podcast about it the other day. Aside from the many legal problems with them (they seem to be unenforceable), consider the message to users: if you use our product, we will control what you can say about it. Does anyone think this is going to win friends and customers, even among those who like the products?

Or how about AT&T's new DSL deal? As part of their merger with BellSouth, they agreed to offer $10/month DSL in the 22 states where they are the local phone company. It's a good deal; it's not fast service, but look, it's $10. Instead of turning this into an opportunity to tell dial-up users in those states, "Look - there's no reason to use dialup anymore, they've basically hidden the service from customers and made it difficult to find out it exists, never mind sign up for it. (The tech blogger at our local paper has been writing about the travails of those who want the service.)

Yes, it will cannibalize some of their current low-end DSL business. But so what? AT&T does seem to be good at understanding the customers in those 22 states are people who can buy a phone line, internet service, a mobile phone, long distance, and their new U-Verse digital TV service. Why piss them off over the DSL? Especially when the service is slow enough that it's not terribly appealing to anyone considering going to the cable company instead?

And then there's a proposed amendment to DVD licensing that would ban all copying of DVDs - including you making a personal backup of a DVD, or creating a DVD image on a PC (so, for example, you could watch your DVDs on your laptop on an airplane without running the battery down so fast by spinning that optical drive).

Guess what? Pirates will keep copying DVDs anyway, and users who want to copy DVDs for legitimate, legal reasons, will find life annoying.

What do all these stories have in common? They're examples of businesses that do no understand the role of information in markets today. All the economic ideas about how markets work that we know and love are predicated on the idea of perfect information - if buyers have accurate information, they will behave in certain ways. That's true, and it never really happens.

The big story of recent years is that the amount of information available to buyers has increased. You don't need to just listen to a company's claims and ask some friends if they've found them to be true; you can look on the web and find out what lots of people say about a company. People will hear about AT&T's DSL deal whether AT&T tells them or not. Even those who will never copy a DVD will hear about an attempt to limit their legal use of a product they pay real money for.

Very few businesses have really figured this out - information is flowing faster than you realize, and tactics based on keeping customers in the dark are likely to fail. Such tactical failures can have broad impacts - going back to AT&T, it's not just about how much $10 DSL will impact $20 DSL sales, but whether it leaves customers so annoyed that they just give up and buy the whole phone/net/TV package from a competitor.

The winners will be the businesses that make today's environment - more information for all - work for them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Boom Town: Marketing to the Baby Boomers

The Marketing Profs had a recent piece on marketing to the Boomers. Which I didn't see, other than the headline, because it was premium content which I don't - but should, they're very good - subscribe to, and which I was too rushed to do the other day, but it did get me thinking about marketing to Baby Boomers. Of which I am one, and, as I do know a bit about my generation...

Here's the first think I would do if I were marketing to The Boomers:

  • Keep in mind that Boomers are not a monolith. By most definitions, anyone born between 1946 and 1964 is a Baby Boomer. Lumping them all together from a marketing perspective makes no more sense than it would to lump together everyone born between 1928 and 1946. If nothing else, it probably makes sense to break the group up into sub-cohorts. The first wave might be the 1946:1952ers, then the 1953:1959ers, then the 1960:1964 tail enders.
  • Did I mention the point about keeping in mind that Boomers are not a monolith? Contrary to the general portrait, every Boomer didn't go to college, dodge the draft, and delay marriage. Even among those that did go to college, there were plenty who took accounting rather than sociology, drank beer at frat parties, and got married senior year.

I actually think that a lot of marketers have already pretty much done this, and the sub-cohort that most seems to be in play now is the first wave, the 1946-1952ers who have started (yikes!) to turn sixty. So, I'll focus on this group. And, since it's the sub-cohort that I fall into, I'll call us "we" and "us."

Whether we spent our 21st summer at Ton Son Hut Airbase in Vietnam, hitchhiking through Europe with a copy of Let's Go! in our backpack, dreaming about life outside the steno pool, rolling in the mud at Woodstock, or working with the old man as a plumber-in-training, we're all getting on in years. There's more behind us than's ahead of us and, for all our ridiculous narcissism and frivolity, we know it.  Whether you can tell by looking at us or not, we've all got gray hair. And that's okay. Like our parents, we earned those gray hairs honestly.

So, you want to appeal to us, and you don't want to slice the demographics too thinly, here are the push buttons that should work pretty well across our subcohort, whatever version of a Boomer we are:

  • We're nostalgic: Howdy Doody, Mouseketeer ears, Beatles on Ed Sullivan, man on the moon. We like remembering that stuff. TV made us a shared experience generation like no other up to that point. Bring it on. Fun references to our past are welcome.
  • We care about the future: Sure, as self-centered, spoiled narcissists, the future we most care about may well be our own personal futures, but we're getting to the point where we're all starting to think about just what we're leaving behind. Green is good. Grandchildren are good. Legacy is an "l" word you can start using.
  • We've done good: We may not be the Greatest Generation but, sorry, don't make us fall guys as the worst, either. On the downside, we've contributed to our share to promoting crap-consumption as a way of life, and all the ills that entails. On the upside, while we can't take all the credit, of course, we've made our share of contributions to technology, medicine, science, etc. The young geniuses making today's breakthroughs are working off our base, just as we worked off the base of those before us. That's how it works. And while we're giving credit, life is economically, politically, and socially better for women, African-Americans, and gays than it was when I was a kid. No, this is not all "us", but we helped it along. So, don't be afraid to give us an occasional compliment or word of thanks.
  • We ain't dead yet: For all our creaky knees and bifocals, most of us are still, in fact, going strong, with a lot of energy and intelligence to contribute to work, family, and volunteering. What we've learned from observing our parents, pretty much the first generation where so many of them lived well into their 1980's, that the key to life is staying active. So, no porch swings for us quite yet. We may not be running the show for much longer, but we ain't over 'til we're over. And, while I haven't done a nose count, I can't help but notice that a lot of the folks running for president are in that first wave Boomer cohort. Make sure you let us know that we're still relevant.

Pretty much my favorite Boomer oriented ad is the one in which Dennis Hopper plumps for some financial services firm. Okay, it may not be such a great ad if I can't remember exactly what company it's for (Ameriprise?), but it hits my hot buttons pretty well.

Having ridden a chopper in Easy Rider, Hopper is iconic. The ad thumps the drum that Boomers aren't going to fade away into some retirement village just yet, but can have active retirements in which they do something else. Sure, some of this is subtext for 'you're all going to have to work longer than you thought', but promising that you can still dream at sixty is the right note to play.

Again, I don't know what the Marketing Prof's said about marketing to the Boomers, but I do want to thank them for prompting me to think a bit about it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Oh, Pioneer! Sprinting to a New L.D. Provider

Here I've been chortling each time I read a John Whiteside manifesto on his dealings with the wonderful world of telecommunications. Knock on plastic, I told myself,  but things are going so darned well these days with the multiple entities, large and small, local and not-so-local, that make up what used to be known as the phone company. Nary a problem in sight.

Part of my contentment stemmed from a recent switch in providers that occurred last winter,  when I changed my Long Distance carrier from Sprint. Sprint was charging me about nine-bucks a month for service whether I made a call or not. I decided to go with to Pioneer, a small local-ish (State o' Maine) outfit with rock-bottom prices. This all seemed to make sense, given that 99.99% of my long distance calls are made on my cell-phone. Why keep paying Sprint for nothing?

It took me several months of wrangling back and forth, and a month or two of double paying, but I finally got a zero-dollar bill from Sprint that told me I'd made my final payment. Fool that I am, I tossed the bill out. I should have saved it. I should have framed it.

Then, the other day, I got a Sprint bill for $16.08.

When I called to ask whazzup with that, I was told - by a perfectly pleasant and helpful CSR named Ann (I think) with a slight Aussie accent - that my local provider (that would be Verizon) had reactivated my Sprint account. And I had to pay the Sprint bill.

Well, Maureen Rogers to Ivan Seidenberg: Thanks, but no thanks.

I then called Pioneer, where a perfectly nice but not so helpful person (from, I believe, India) told me that I would have to call back on Monday because, while there was a record that I was activated as a Pioneer customer in February, she could not access any record indicating I was still a Pioneer customer.

Nor could she give me the magic PIC number that I need to provide to Verizon to get them to turn me back on to Pioneer AND put a freeze on my Verizon account that will prevent them from any further, willy-nilly changes to my long distance provider. Nor could she provide me any proof that I was a Pioneer customer during the period that Sprint is now charging me for. Which is the only way that I can avoid paying the latest Sprint charge.

She couldn't help me because, although Pioneer claims that their customer service is 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., everybody you need to get a hold of in provisioning goes home at 5 p.m. and apparently take the keys to their systems with them.

So, it looked like that on the following Monday, I would be doomed to at least an hour's worth of hassle with Pioneer; another hour's worth of hassle with Verizon; and the 30 seconds it would take me to write a check to Sprint for what I am once again hoping (wishful thinking!) will be my final payment.

I just wanted it all to go away.

On Monday, however, I hit paydirt with Pioneer. An exceedingly nice and helpful person (named Nell, I think) took exceedingly good care of me, contacting one Fred Donnelly of Pioneer Provisioning in Portland, Maine.

Fred sent me an exceedingly nice and helpful note letting me know that I was the victim of a rare miscommunication, and that he was going to straighten it out. Including making the $16.08 bill from Sprint go away.

Now, the proof of all this will be if a) the Sprint charges do indeed go away; b) I don't get another one bill from them; c) Verizon doesn't switch me back to Sprint.

Still, I feel that with Fred Donnelly, I'm in quite able hands. I have his name. His e-mail address. His phone number. And his best wishes that I have a good weekend.

Which I will, now that I'm in Fred's good hands.

Happy as I am, at least in the moment, with Pioneer Telephone, I do have to admit one thing.

It may have cost more, but things were sure a whole heck of a lot easier when the only one you had to deal with was Ma Bell.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Selling Civic Duty

It's been an unusual week; Monday I had jury duty, and I was picked to be on a jury. The trial began Tuesday morning and wrapped up yesterday, and now I'm done and back to normal life and trying to get unburied.

As I sat in the courtroom on Monday during the jury selection process, I found myself wondering: why is a jury duty such an unpopular product? How could you reposition jury duty to make it more appealing to the public? (Hey, there's a lot of time to just sit and think on that first day.

We take it for granted that nobody wants jury duty, but why is that? As I looked around the room, I tried to guess what everyone there does for a living. And it occurred to me that there must be a significant number of people for whom jury duty is more interesting that a regular day at work. Why would they be so resitant to it?

And most people think that our system of trial by jury is an important thing... there must be some sense of civic duty in there to which we could appeal.

I've been called for jury duty before, but this was the first time I was put on a jury and it was interesting to get a closer look at the "product attributes" of the experience:

  • It's interesting. Hey, people watch legal shows on television all the time; why not see the real thing? Even our straightforward little drug possession case raised some fasincating issues about searches and evidence.

  • Free lunch!

  • It rarely takes a long time. Three days, in my case, which is about average.

  • The sense of doing something important. Yes, this sounds hokey, but sitting in the courtroom for a day and half during a criminal case, it's very hard not to realize that you and your fellow jurors hold somebody's fate in your hands. It's serious.

I was appalled the first day by how many people would say anything at all to get out of being selected. I didn't want to be picked either, but the shameless crap that some people - more than a few - were spouting left me thinking, "What happened to civic duty?"

So in the off moments, I started thinking, "How do you market civic duty to the public?" Because it was in frighteningly short supply on Monday.

Three days every couple of years is not a big sacrifice, and the second two days were quite interesting. How would you explain that in a way that made the public look at being picked as something positive?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It Slices, It Dices...Ron Popeil, Marketing Genius

Well, I saw the other day that Ronco is going into bankruptcy. Could this be the end of the Veg-o-Matic and the Popeil Fisherman?

Before it's too late, it's time to think about what Ron Popeil (the Ron of Ronco) can teach us marketing types about concise product naming and enticing messages for our products - let alone bringing to market products that are useful and just plain handy-dandy. Sure, they may meet a need you didn't even know you had, but still...

For sheer marketing genius, what more do we need to know about the Veg-o-Matic beyond what's captured in its name and in those timeless words "It slices. It dices." Say no more! More is less!

And the Popeil Pocket Fisherman? Keep one in the glove compartment. Or pocketbook. Drive - or walk by - a stream and see a trout leaping. Just add a worm and you're ready to go.

The Showtime Rotisserie: Set it and forget it.

Flip-its - some kind of fork for spatula-thingy for fliping meat on the grill. If that wasn't a perfect name for the product, I don't know what is.

Solid Food Injector. Pefect, again. Says just what it does. Shove stuff into the chicken when you don't want to use your fingers.

Okay, Ron Popeil may have fallen down a bit with his spray on hair product, the Popeil GLH System. The GLH stood for great looking hair. I'll just bet. Nothing like a spray-painted bald spot.  Hey, there, good looking....I mean, great looking.

The Dail-O-Matic wasn't his best naming scheme ever, but once you realized you dialed the thickness you want for that veggie, and you realized that it's the first cousin to the Veg-o-Matic, well, I'm there.

"But wait, there's more...."

Ron's Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler seems like a product in search of a need. Who doesn't already own a fork? And if the yolk and white don't get scrambled perfectly, well, who really cares. Add ketchup and no one will notice anyway.

"Operators are standing by!"


Thanks to Forbes for a August 06 article that listed the Top 10 Ron Popeil inventions.

And, by the way, it's not Ron that's going bankrupt. He sold out a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The New Balance of Power

Here's something interesting about the new power than consumers have over marketers: some companies don't get it.

Consider Dell, for example. When the Consumerist blog ran a post called 22 Confessions of a Former Dell Sales Manager, the company's reaction was to demand that they remove it, in a rather heavy-handed way.

Still, Dell is smarter than most companies; they then admitted that this was a mistake in decidedly non-legalistic terms on their Direct2Dell blog - a place where many readers had probably not even heard of the initial flap.

Of course, as Dwight Silverman at the Houston Chronicle's Techblog points out, the Dell response quickly morphs into a sales pitch - not a great idea while you're apologizing.

But even so, the response puts them ahead of a lot of companies, or perhaps entire industries, like the endlessly customer-hostile recording industry. Their latest bit of bullying? When a British professor criticized RIAA on his personal blog, a British record exec who sites on UK industry groups threatened to file a formal complaint with his university.

I expect to see more of these basic errors. I'm not one of proclaim revolution easily, but you'd have to be hiding under a rock not to understand that the ability of ordinary people to call attention to their complaints with companies has grown enormously in the last few years. The question for any business is how to respond.

Sometimes, it's reasonable to ask for a blog post to be removed (though reading the original Consumerist post, that clearly wasn't one of them). Usually, it's better to particpate, correct errors, talk about reasons for policies that are causing complaints, and generally engage with the public.

The recording industry will probably be the last one on earth figuring this out; viewing customers as hostages appears to be part of the industry DNA, and I expect they'll be firing off lawsuits at somebody's grandma even as their customers desert them in disgust. For most of the rest of the world, however, this is still all relatively new, and as people feel their way through it mistakes will be made, mea culpas will be issued... and it's our job to help clients sort it all out.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Take Me Out to the (Erp!) Ballgame

A few weeks back, The Wall Street Journal* reported on a marketing program that the Los Angeles Dodgers have put into play. Although the Dodgers are one major league baseball's attendance leaders (trailing only the Yankees), they do have some not-very-good bleacher seats that they don't always sell out.

What to do, what to do...

Well, the plan that Dodger marketing cooked up is a raising the ticket price and including all-you-can-eat, with special all-you-can-eat concessions set up offering unlimited hot dogs, nachos, peanuts, and sodas.

Well, I suppose if you're a 15 year old boy, the prospect of unlimited access to ballpark hot dogs is an incentive, but it really is hard to believe that there are all that many people who want to eat ballpark food in such quantity.

Not that I don't eat ballpark food...

Just the other night, I was at a lousy - and cold - Red Sox game, during which time I consumed a hot dog, a Diet Coke, and half a bag of Cracker Jack's (that I think was smaller than last year's boxes). If it had been a bit warmer, I also would have consumed a Sports Bar (a not very good, melt in your hands brick of flavorless ice cream covered in a thin coating of tasteless "chocolate"). [The appearance of the Sports Bar guy in the stands near us prompted one of the few smiles of the game. When he hollered "Sports Bars here!" (or, as it was rendered in Fenway-ese: Spoorts Bahs Hee-ye), a woman a few rows behind us hollered back, in perfect imitation of his accent, "61 degrees here." Which could have been even funnier if she's said "55 degrees here", which was more like it.]

Hot dog, etc. is all part of the ballpark experience, and I'm not going to turn up my nose at it. (I will confess that one time, in my prissy, goody-too-shoes childhood, I made Tommy McCullough, a friend of my brother Tom's who had come with us to a game at Fenway, toss a hot dog in the trash because it was Friday night. When I smugly reported my pious deed to my father he said, "Why'd you do that? It makes not sense to throw out a perfectly good hot dog.")

But all you can eat?

No thanks.

Apparently, however, it works, and the Dodgers are finding that there are plenty enough people who are enticed into the cheap seats by the big bennie of limitless greasy nachos. Even if all the free food made the sale a loss leader, there's still parking, souvenirs, and other food (like beer and candy) that's not included. But my guess is it's only a loss leader if you put the full retail value of the food consumed into the equation. I don't know what they charge at Dodger Stadium, but a hot dog is about $4 at Fenway, as is a soda, as are the Cracker Jacks, as is a Sports Bar. Across the boards, there's quite a markup going.

Anyway, as gagging as it sounds, this is head's up marketing on the Dodgers part, so a tip of the cap to them. (Fenway Park is smaller and they pretty much sell out every game, so I don't see this coming to Boston baseball anytime soon.  Unless they keep playing like they've been doing lately, a deadly combo of no pitching, no hitting, and errors.)

Too bad we never had this concept in B2B enterprise software Although I suppose that with the site license that a customer could scale into ("....even though you only have 3 users now, this will cover you if you scale to 3,000") we had our own little version of all you can eat going there...


*"Free Eats Sell Bad Ballpark Seats", Adam Thompson and Jon Weinbach, May 16, 2007.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Unclear on the Concept

From Ars Technica comes news of a strange request from CBS: a plea that customer not use DVRs to watch Jericho. The show was rescued from cancellation by fans, but CBS is sternly telling that that it's all Tivo's fault that it was going to be cut in the first place:

"The biggest problem with our show is that so many people were watching it on the Internet or Tivo (which doesn't count toward Nielsen ratings), so I think the fans are now aware to watch it when it's on," he said.

This isn't just Beyer's personal view, however. Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment, told the New York Times that if fans want the show to live, they need to watch the broadcast because that's how the money gets made. Stressing that live viewing is "of primary importance," Tassler said that "We want them to watch on Wednesday at 8 o'clock... and we need them to recruit new viewers who are going to watch the broadcast."

Those selfish viewers, watching a show when and where it's convenient for them! Next thing you know, they'll think they should be able to watch what they want, not what a network executive wants them to see! Who do they think they are, anyway?

It apparently hasn't crossed the mind of CBS execs (or Nielsen) that if your method of measuring viewership is missing viewers, it's a bad way to measure.

Of course, the whole DVRs-killed-the-show idea is suspect. The program was up against American Idol. While I personally would rather have teeth pulled than watch American Idol, it's clear that a whole lot of people don't feel that way. Gosh, could that have been a problem for Jericho?

Friday, June 15, 2007

10 Things I Know About B2B Product Pricing

Everybody knows 10 things about something, right?

After all these years in B2B Technology marketing, one of the things I know 10 things about is product pricing. I will, of course, have to qualify this a bit, as most of my career has been not just in B2B technology, but in enterprise/expensive B2B technology. None of those $99-a-pop widgets for me! So, most of what I know about B2B product pricing is about $$$$ pricing.

  1. If you have a price that's well above every other competitive product on the market, your product better provide more value than the competitors' products.
  2. Just because it costs you $X to build a product doesn't mean that someone will pay you $X for it.
  3. If you have to charge higher prices because your costs are higher than your competitors' costs, and you can't really figure out what the extra value is to your customers, you better find a way to lower your costs.
  4. Providing more value is not the same as having more features.
  5. Even if you don't provide more value for higher price, somebody, somewhere will buy your product. The trick will be finding anybody else willing to do the same on a regular basis.
  6. Eventually, if you don't provide more value for higher price, you will either have to lower your prices or go out of business.
  7. If you really are providing a lot more value than the competitors' products, but your customers don't perceive that what you're providing is all that valuable, you've got a problem: you can either tough it out until your customers see the light or adjust your prices. (It's really not your customers' fault if they can't see the value. Trust me, it is seldom the case that they are "too stupid to see".)
  8. High prices do, however, confer a "halo effect", leading customers to believe that they're getting more value than they may actually be getting. Up to a point.
  9. Good marketing can consistently make up for an over-price of  about 10-15%. Beyond that, the unenviable burden is all on sales.
  10. Figuring out how to establish product price  for complex, B2B technology is really, really hard.

Now, these aren't the only things there are to know about  B2B product pricing. They just happen to be the 10 things that I know.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Twitter: A Solution Seeking Problems

The buzz around Twitter is hot. No surprise: it's an interesting new thing that appeals to a key group of hyper-connected people, and they're using it and talking about it.

But, as is often the case when people love something because it's fun and interesting, everyone starts feeling compelled to explain why it's important and useful (instead of just fun). And it's getting a little embarrassing. These "great uses of Twitter" lists reek of desperation; mostly , they explain how you can use Twitter to make ordinary things more complicated and intrusive by utilizing a technology that will reach 0.5% of your audience.

I had another fit of eye-rolling when I came across this list of 17 marketing uses for Twitter, via Jaffe Juice. An example:

Questions from the audience. A speaker is talking on stage. Something she says triggers a question. But you have to wait 30 minutes until Q&A. By then the topic may have lost its relevancy. But what if she has Twitter enabled for the discussion? She'll be able see your (non-interruptive) question pop up right away, and decide if she can answer it at that time.

I just have to go Miss Manners on you; if you have bothered to attend a speech or lecture, please put your phone down and pay attention. Or leave.

As for the speaker, I expect that she will be focused on giving the lecture or speech, not watching Twitter for questions. Even as I enter middle age, my short-term memory still functions well enough to remember my question twenty minutes later and raise my hand and ask it. (And if it's not relevant anymore then it probably wasn't terribly important.)

(A friend of mine has the ultimate low-tech solution for this problem on his fridge. It's a slip of paper that says, at the top, "Please write your question for Sir Arthur C. Clarke.")

Or this one:

Quick intraoffice memos. "Meet in the conference room in 5 minutes." "Can someone bring an extra extension cord?" "Check out this article..." In essence, these memos increase the amount of communication. They should only be used when absolutely necessary (don't go overboard), but they can sharpen your company's efficiency.

By creating a culture of distracted people who can't focus on anything for more than five minutes because they're watching Twitter feeds to find out who needs an extension cord? Guess what, folks? You need my attention now, you need to call me or walk up to me. I might not be looking at my email or IM or watching for Twitter messages.

The big efficiency challenge isn't getting more information, it's parsing what you've got.

Hailing taxi cabs. It's not always easy to track down a cab. And it seems even harder when you're in a hurry. But wait. If you know you're going to need a ride in 10 minutes, Twitter the taxi HQ in advance and they'll send one your way. All you have to do is give them an address and a time.

When I lived in DC I called for cabs regularly. By phone. Because unless the dispatcher said, "Okay, he'll be there in fifteen minutes," I knew that no cab was coming (and even then, maybe not). Besides, most of those calls required questions: "Which airport? Is that a house, apartment, or office? Will you be outside?"

Ordering at arenas. Having trouble finding the beer man at a baseball game? Just Twitter the vending area with your order. 2 Old Styles comin' right up!

Yeah, because the guy with the beer is going to be watching his handheld for a Twitter from row 47 instead of serving beers to the people nearby.

Okay, my point here is not to pick the list apart. I realize that I sound like some kind of Luddite who just hates new things. But you know what? I'm not. I tend to be an early adopter 0f these kinds of things. I'm more likely to use Twitter than 98% of the people out there.

But you've got to give me a reason. And if the reasons hasn't become clear yet - which I think is the case with Twitter - just stop talking and let people use it and see what emerges.

These is exactly one item on that list that makes perfect sense to me:

Just to have fun. Many a boisterous laugh has been shared via Twitter. It's a place where people can come together and just be themselves. Personalities shine through. People encourage each other. Jokes run wild and turn into memes. Friends can relax and peer into each other's lives. And a general feeling of camaraderie, compassion and respect flows freely from one person to the next.

Well, that's really cool. And that's enough reason to use it. Play with it, have fun with it, experiment with it, and one day somebody is really going to find the killer use of it that makes the rest of us say, "Now that's wicked cool."

But that's not going to happen in one of these "how to use Twitter instead of dental floss" lists. If anything, they make Twitter sound silly, and I just don't believe it's as silly as most of what I've read about it suggests.

So please, go play, go discover, and stop justifying.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wonder how Holsten's is making out (now that The Sopranos have made them famous)

If you are one of few people who has no interest in the Sopranos, or who hasn't seen the final episode, here's a little background. (Warning: semi-spoiler ahead.)

The final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos takes place in a real, actual diner-y type of local restaurant in New Jersey. The restaurant is called Holsten's, and most people have probably eaten at a place just like it at one point or another. Think counters. Think jukebox. Think burgers. Think onion rings. (Which actually aren't on the Side Order menu - but I'm sure they will be.)

Of course, after the final Sopranos episode, you're probably thinking other stuff, too, but that's another story.

Well, I woke up this morning, baby, not thinking got myself a gun*(which is as likely to happen to me as a trip to a place like the Bad-a-Bing, the strip joint where Tony Soprano's crew hangs out). No, as a marketer I was, instead, thinking about the ultimate product placement for Holsten's, where this magnificent TV series ended.

I imagine that by now all sorts of fans are planning on a pilgrimage to Holsten's. By this weekend, I'm sure that they'll be converging on it in droves - if they aren't already.

Do you think that Holsten's will be happy that Carm decided not to make manicotti and to have the last supper of the series at Holsten's?

If I know TV fans, they will be lining up outside Holsten's for years to come, which may make the Holsten's folks (temporarily) happy. All that new business.  All those quarters dropped in the jukeblox to play Journey's Don't Stop Believing. And all those souvenirs. (Can't you just see the t-shirt: Holsten's: Onion Rings to Die for. Or not.) 

The whole thing will, of course, royally tick off all of their current, loyal clientele who will no longer be able to get near the place.

So, will Holsten's regret that they were the scene of the crime, metaphorically speaking, of course, as there was no crime. Or will the big bucks they are going to no doubt make from this make up for the crazy hassle that they're going to experience?

I know all this up close and personal because I live just down the street from the Cheers' bar. To this day - how many years after the show went off the air ? - there are still tourists beating a path to see where Carla waitressed and Norm hung out.  Unfortunately, from a local customer perspective, the success of Cheers altered what had been a nice local spot to a not-so-nice local tourist trap. Fortunately, the piano bar/restaurant above the pub has been somewhat restored but, unfortunately, us old-timers have gotten so used to not going there that we still don't. Not that the owner cares: the loss of our custom was certainly not worth the millions he made in t-shirt, caps, and shot-glass sales over the years. And not that the owner wasn't savvy enough to buy a nice little neighborhood restaurant around the corner where all us locals eat. Excellent service, unbelievably good chili and terrific salmon. And, for us regulars, a place where everyone knows your name).

The Cheers' bar no longer has the lines around the corner that they had in their prime-time.  But an awful lot of people apparently still want to see where Sam Malone "worked." I can't tell you how many times I'm asked for directions.

So it will be with Holsten's.

I'm sure that their business will grow colossally. They'll make a lot of money. And when it all dies down, they may or may not get their regulars back.

But that's marketing for you. Sometimes you just have to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, no matter how fleeting, no matter what a challenge it is to your "core business."

Of course, as a B2B product marketer, I haven't had to worry a whole heck of a lot about product or company placements.

The closest I came was when I worked at Wang Labs, where I was the product manager for Shark, a stock market ticker and analytics application. Our claim to fame was that Shark documentation appeared on the cubicle shelves of some of the traders in the movie Wall Street. While the movie came out during my tenure at Wang, the product placement was before my - and Wang's - time.  Shark had been a Walsh-Greenwood product that was acquired by Wang to run on its mini-computers  - in those dark ages when there were mini-computers and when it was a big deal for non-traders/non-brokers to have access to real-time data.

When Wall Street came out, my group declared an off-site and marched over to the local theater to watch it, madly cheering when the Shark documentation appeared. (Was there an inflatable Shark, too? I can't remember.) In any event, the product placement did us not one iota of good. Maybe that was because our version of Shark was caged in a Wang mini that nobody wanted.

What's likely to happen to Holsten's got me thinking about Shark. In Gordon Gekko's famous words:

...greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And, if you add that it has also marked more than a few downfalls, this makes not so bad an epitaph for The Sopranos, no?

Good luck to Holsten's.


*I don't wanna hafta explain all that much Soprano-ese here, but this is part of their theme song.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ghost in the Blog Machine

A week or so ago a discussion broke out in marketing blogland about the practice of ghostwriting blogs. Among those weighing in were Sallie Goetsch, Shel Holtz, and Josh Hallett, all with some interesting thoughts on the subject worth your time.

There's a lot of sentiment that "ghost-blogging" is never acceptable, but I think it's off base - though it's certainly not ideal. As with so many things that provoke controversy, there's no simple answer other than "it depends."

Josh and Shel come down firmly against ghost-blogging; their argument is that blogs are not just any business communications medium, but must be more personal. Sallie defends the practice, pointing out that skilled ghostwriting of any kind isn't simply doing the work for someone else, but requires the writer to get to know the bylined author's voice, style, and thoughts.

Sallie is convincing, and I think that the argument that blogs are inherently "personal" and this requires 100% personal authorship is one that bears some closer examination.

All blogs are not, as Sallie calls them, "identity blogs." (A great term that I'm going to use in the future!) The blog is a format for the web medium, not a tool unto itself. You can find a lot of older stuff that reads like blogs from customer newsletters and such that came out years ago; in fact, I often think of a colleague who sent a quirky, sometimes offensive, and always opinionated newsletter out to surgeons and physicians that was, in essence, a blog - except we didn't even have email then, and it was created via a typewriter and a local copy shop.

But that's not all that's out there. A local direct marketing agency here in Houston does a blog that highlights case studies (from their clients) and comments on DM trends. I have no idea who there actually writes it, nor do I really care. Other blogs have multiple authors.

Consider this Dell blog. For most of what's on there, I don't see what difference it makes whether someone sat and wrote it and posted it, wrote it and had someone do a quick edit and cleanup on it, or send a writer an email with four bullet points and said "please blog this."

And some people shouldn't be writing without guidance. If you're the CEO of a publicly-traded company, guess what? You don't get to just chatter away; you have to be very careful about what you say so you don't get in trouble with the SEC or your shareholders or your customers.

The point is authenticity. Some people have the and writing skill to be authentic and clear and interesting all at once. Some needs some help with that, and that's where ghost-blogging comes in.

Done well, you shouldn't notice it.

This is a regular question that I hear, and there's one final thing to note about it: ghost-blogging isn't the easy way to blog. Getting a writer up to speed requires a commitment of time, and providing direction is an ongoing commitment. And if you have a good writer producing material at blog-worthy frequency, it's not cheap.

It is, however, a reasonable choice for some blogs based on the goal of the blog and the bylined author's abilities and time commitments.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Trademarked in America

Like most other shoe-string marketers at small companies, I've thrown plenty of  ®,  TM, and SM marks up in collateral and after any usage of a product name. Half the time, I've done this without actually going to the hassle and expense of registering, trademarking, or servicemarking whatever it was that I was mentioning.

(I also threw plenty of ©'s  into documents, under what may well be an erroneous assumption that this made them copyrighted.)

Anyway, it never seemed to matter one way or the other, so I'd throw those ®'s,  TM's, and SM's just in case there was someone out there crazy enough to use the terrible product names that I had in play.

A few weeks ago, I was going through the mail at The Writers' Room of Boston, where I am a member. We were temporarily between admins, so I was picking up some of the slack.  

I opened an envelope (curiously postmarked Hungary) from on Inernational Data Medium Anstalt of Vaduz, Liechtenstein, invoicing The Room for $1,890 for the registration "to our Register of brand publications of the international trade press on business and economy" of  Thank A Booktm.

TM's, SM'd, ©'d, or ®'d, Thank A Booktm is a nice little fundraising program that we've done a couple of times in which we ask people to write a bit about a book that had in influence in their lives (and send us a small donation). We've "published" (i.e., had printed up at Kinko's) two versions of Thank A Booktm, and we may well resurrect it again. The Room is, after all, a small non-profit always looking for ways to support our goal of providing workspace (and community) for Boston writers.

IDM Anstalt requested that we "please send a crossed check payable I.D.M.", at which point our "registration herein above will be published in the issue of 2007. A free CD-ROM is sent postage paid to every registered company."

Well, all I can say is they don't know The Writers' Room very well if they think we're going to fork over almost $2K in exchange for a "free CD-ROM" letting us know that our brand is internationally registered and usable in Paper Goods and Printed Matter (Class 16) and Clothing (namely t-shirts, hats, visors.... Class 25).

I would have thought nothing of this if, low and behold, a couple of weeks later, we didn't get another letter from Hungary, this one from a company called TM-Collection Ltd, asking us to register Thank A Booktm. In exchange for $1650 (a mere pittance), we would receive "a complimentary copy of the pbulication TM-Collection - Edition 2007." TM- Collection lets us know that this is for Goods and Services Classes 16 and 25, without actually telling us what they are. Thanks to IDM, we're smart enough to know it's Paper Goods and Clothing.

Adding to the aura of TM-Collection officialdom, the invoice is in both French and English,which certainly makes more sense than Hungarian and English. And let's me brush up on moi officialese: Conservez la partie ci-dessus aux fins administratives...)

Here's what the TM folks say about themselves on their web site:

Our main business activity is publishing TM-Collection, an unofficial, but international yearly catalogue of newly registered trademarks. Our goal with the publication is to create a guide for branded goods and services. Turning the pages of TM-Collection, the reader can get a global impression of new trends regarding trademarks - brands, designs, logos, newly established companies, etc.

'TM-Collection' is a free catalogue; it is distributed in both Europe and overseas in a targeted way as the content thereof is international. We send it mainly to professional organizations, business associations, chambers of industry and commerce but we will plan to distribute free copies at international fairs and exhibitions as well.

Oh, I get it. I pay them $1650 for inclusion in a free catalogue. And the benefit to me is.....what exactly?  No mention of "unofficial" in the official looking bill they sent.

IDM-Anstalt doesn't appear to have a web site, but they do appear on the International Trademark Association's Warning List about unsolicited trademark registration services.

Nice little racket they've got going in Hungary, wouldn't you say?

Send off a bunch of official looking invoices. Someone doesn't look too closely at them. Figures that somewhere along the line someone or other filed for an international registration of some sort.

Marketers beware!

But just to be on the safe side: Thank A Booktm. Thank A Booksm. Thank a Book®.  Thank a Book©.

Better to err on the side of caution, don't you think.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Second Life (Again)

Joel Cere at MarketingProfs recently took a "second look at Second Life," and commented on the buzz about the virtual world and the ongoing question: is there really anything there for marketers?

But how long will the Second-Life media frenzy last? And if not for PR, what is the value of investing time and money with avatars when marketing budgets are under renewed pressure to deliver real returns from real consumers?

While a reality check is overdue, I would argue that there is more than meets the eye in SL, and there is genuine value to be extracted for brands that are willing to learn the dynamics of the "metaverse" and play by its rules.

His conclusion: there is something there, but if you approach it like an ad platform, or think that just showing up makes you cool, you're wrong. Second Life users are there to create things and interact with each other, and your activities there (if any) need to fit that model:

Stepping in Second Life is not about PR or showering avatars with ads. It provides an opportunity to understand the mindset of today's connected consumers, turning your investment in Second Life into a real competitive advantage in First Life—and delivering real dollar returns on your marketing investment.

I'm a Second Life skeptic, and continue to be, but that is different than being a virtual reality skeptic. Second Life is an interesting concept implemented in a way that's tremendously appealing to a select group of users, and utterly uninteresting to most people.

If your customers are in that first group, however, you should be paying attention to Second Life and experimenting with a Second Life presence. If not... you should still be watching.

Why? Because creating and interacting are things all people like to do (hello, YouTube?). The fact that Second Life isn't something that most people will ever want to use doesn't change that. Eventually, the concept behind Second Life will be implemented in other ways - some by Second Life's creators, some by others - in ways that will be appealing to more people.

And so Second Life is the experimental version. For a few marketers, it'll be an important place to have a presence. For most of us, it'll be something to watch and learn from.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Just Pondering....

Informing Microsoft:

I must get a couple of those grave Microsoft error messages each week. You know, the ones that suggest that you send an error report off to Microsoft post haste.  I never send them, but I was just wondering...does anybody send them?  And what exactly does Microsoft do with them once they get them? I have no idea whatsoever how many MSFT users there are out there. Surely the count is in the hundreds of millions.  So what would happen if, in any given week, a hundred million people sent error reports on to Microsoft.  Now, I'm not suggesting that we do so. Just pondering what would happen if we all did. I'm sure that the error reports are screened and sorted automatically, but does someone actually look at the results?  Inquiring minds want to know. And blogging of inquiring minds....


Irish Minds:

The Irish Development Authority is running an ad campaign with the theme "knowledge is in our nature". The ads (which I've seen in The Economist) feature arty portraits of famous Irishmen. So far I've seen William Butler Yeats and Bono, and there may have been one with Samuel Beckett as well. In any event, I started to read through the ad copy, but was stopped in my tracks by this:

The Irish mind. An abundant supply of that rare commodity you'll need to bring your business to peak performance.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that they're talking about creativity, imagination, flexibility, agility, the capacity to initiate and innovate, etc. (I know because that's what they tell me in the next paragraph.) And yes, yes, yes, the Irish are nothing if not creative and agile. But if I really ponder what they're saying in the above, aren't they kind of saying that the Irish mind itself is a rare commodity? Or is this the half of my mind that is oh-so-literal German taking over for the half that's creative, imaginative, flexible, agile and innovative Irish?


Coincidence or Creepy Invasion of my Clicking Privacy?

 The other day, after checking out the web site of a company I'd seen an ad for, I received an unsolicited e-mail from someone who provides a similar but not identical service. Was the individual who sent me the e-mail solicitation - who had a gmail address, no real professional URL - doing a mass-spam-mailing? Did he find my blog and grab my e-mail address? If so, why wasn't the note more personal?

No, this person's either spamming and just coincidentally showed up on my e-mail doorstep on the very day I'd been looking at a similar service.

Or he somehow captured the clicks that brought me to the similar web site. Or he's a disgruntled ex-employee/consultant of said similar web site who knows how to officially-unofficially figure out who comes a calling and is going to try to grab business from his old boss. (The e-mail mentioned a different pricing structure. Apples to oranges, but it seems to be cheaper.

Anyway, I was just pondering: is this one of those weird coincidences that would have done Thomas Hardy proud or is it a creepy invasion of my clicking privacy?

Sometimes I really do not like marketers.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bank of America: Don't Make Us Hurt You!

Bank of America is launching a customer education program to inform account holders about its fees, and how to avoid them:

Bank of America Corp., which collected more than $22.4 billion from customers last year for everything from using a competitor's ATM to paying a credit card bill late, is launching a new effort Wednesday ostensibly to help customers avoid the pesky fees.

It's an ironic campaign for the nation's second-largest bank since more than half its annual revenue comes from non-interest income that includes such fees. In the recently completed first quarter, growth in fees and other non-interest revenue sources helped the Charlotte-based company post a 5 percent earnings increase.

It's not clear if the bank thinks its online and in-branch advertising campaign -- called "A little knowledge is a powerful thing" -- will actually cut back on that source of income, and the company declined to disclose how much it's spending on the effort.

Obviously, it's a good thing for customers to understand pricing, though if it requires a special campaign to explain it, one might ask whether the pricing is too complicated to begin with. And yes, it is legitimate for banks to charge fees for some things.

But let's face it - fees at large national banks like BoA are high and have been increasing like crazy, thanks in some part of consolidation in American banking and the resulting lack of competitive options. And so it's hard not to watch Bank of America undertaking this effort and think of a bully warning his victims, "Here's what you need to do not to get punched in the face."

It's also a bit galling to see the fees go up as the level of service has generally declined. Yes, there are now great self-service options like online banking that make life easier. But when one actually needs to interact with the bank, well, it's not the old days anymore.

(My favorite recent one: getting foreign currency. Time was, you went to a branch that carried foreign currency and got some, for a fee. Now, at Bank of America, you have to order it online. You can have it delivered to your local branch - but you have to pay a delivery fee for said currency to be moved from one Bank of America location to another. Maybe next up will be a delivery fee for the cash to be inserted into the ATMs...)

There's too much money in fees for Bank of America to do the right thing, which is simplify and reduce them.

I assume that this move is meant to create goodwill and warm fuzzies among Bank of America customers. I don't think it will work.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Feature Creep

In the May 28th New Yorker, the excellent business writer James Surowiecki had a particularly good essay on "feature creep."*

While I've generally heard (and used) the term in association with all kinds of out-of-spec goodies being added to the specification list for a software release (without, of course, extending the release cycle), Surowiecki gives it a more universal definition: a "spiral of complexity" in which features get added to a product that will supposedly make life easier. Instead, of course, they make life harder.

He cites a study by Elke den Ouden of Philips Electronics which:

...found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn't figure out how to use them.

Despite this finding, Surowiecki points out the feature creep continues unabated.

Whether they can use them or not, people like to have "the one" with more and more features. More, in our minds, equates to better.

Another study referenced in the essay (by Debora Viana Thompson, Rebecca Hamilton, and Roland Rust, who are marketing academics) indicated that:

...when consumers were given a choice of three models, of varying complexity, of a digital device, more than sixty percent chose the one with the most features....[when] given a chance to customize their products, choosing from twenty-five features...twenty features was the average. But when they were asked to use the digital device, so-called "feature fatigue" set in. They became frustrated..and ended up happier with the simpler product.

As marketers, the whole problem of feature creep is exacerbated by our zest to promote new features. For us,  more is definitely more. More features means more to shout about, more to differentiate on, more reasons to go back to customers and the ones that got away.

Surowiecki outlines a couple of options: different products for different skill levels; making simplicity a selling point (I posted recently on the Jitterbug phone, which is doing just that); or actually trying to make the complex simple. (Good luck!)

In any case, as marketers we have a lot to think about when it comes to feature creep.

There is, unfortunately, no right or easy answer.

For better or for worse, we have to live with the fact that sometimes more is less, sometimes less is more, and sometimes the vice-versas pertain. But next time we clamor for some not particularly useful feature that will appeal to one power user on the face of the earth, but will give us some grist for our marketing mill, we should take a good deep breath and ask if we're really doing anyone a favor there.



*Try as I might, I was not able to get a working link going to this article but if you google "New Yorker Surowiecki feature" you can crawl your way to it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Attack of the Branding BS

The organizing committee for the 2012 Olympics in London has unveiled its logo for the games. My initial reaction: ugh. But that is neither here nor there.

What's interesting, in a car-crash kind of way, is what committee chair Seb Coe had to say about it:
"This is the vision at the very heart of our brand," said London 2012 organising committee chairman Seb Coe.

"It will define the venues we build and the Games we hold and act as a reminder of our promise to use the Olympic spirit to inspire everyone and reach out to young people around the world.
Um... okay.

Seth Godin's reaction to that pretty much sums it up:
If you are paying money to someone who talks like this, may I suggest you stop? And if you work for someone who talks like this, time to look for a new gig.

More: Mary Schmidt

A Link in the Value Chain

This article about the latest front in the music industry's war against its customers got me thinking about the tough spot that record labels are in, and about how value and viability work in other markets.

The latest news, if you're curious, is the appearance of state laws that treat people selling used CDs as if they were selling enriched uranium:

In Florida, the new legislation requires all stores buying second-hand merchandise for resale to apply for a permit and file security in the form of a $10,000 bond with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In addition, stores would be required to thumb-print customers selling used CDs, and acquire a copy of state-issued identity documents such as a driver's license.

And you just wanted to get rid of those old Flock of Seagulls discs because, well, the 80s are quite over? Think again.

The concern, of course, is that in the age of digital music, selling CDs is no longer a transfer of your listening rights to somebody new; there's nothing to stop you from ripping all the music into MP3s and then getting rid of them, in effect having your cake and eating it too. Or your spare change and your music. And I understand why that bothers record labels.

But they're so blinded by the short term revenue threats (illegal downloads, used discs, etc.) that they're missing the big picture: in the 21st century digital music age, what is the role of the record label? More specifically, what is the value that they add the chain that links creator to listener.

Let's think of a completely different example. Let's say that I have a business making hand-crafted houseware items. I sit in my studio and create designs and hire people to make them. Now I want to sell them.

I probably don't sell them to customers. At the very least, I probably sell them to stores, who sell them to customers (marking them up along the way). That's fine - there's value in each link. I provide the store with things their customers like, and they provide me with access to customers (and cash). The store gives me business and customers the products they want. The customers give the store cash and get things they want.

Maybe the chain gets longer: I start selling to a distributor. Now, assuming the retail price hasn't changed, maybe I'm making a bit less. But the distributor is giving me access to stores I might not sell to on my own, and I'm giving them products to show to the retailers who are their customers. The retailers are getting a better selection of products... and on it goes.

Does this sound like Business 101? Of course it does... but I don't think the record labels have looked at their business this way.

In music as in so many industries, electronic distribution has changed the equation. And so everyone has to ask not "How can I protect the profits I made selling plastic discs with music on them?" but rather, "What's the value I provide, how much is that worth, and how do I organize my business to make money off that value?"

I don't buy the idea that record labels have no role. As romantic as the idea of the inspired musician strumming away in Austin or Cambridge or the West Village and her fans downloading MP3s from her web site is, the reality is that we live in a pop star culture, and its not going away. An organization that can identify performers who will be big, and market them, has a place, no matter what any of us might think of the quality of the product.

What they don't have anymore is a stranglehold on the actual music, or the ability to keep people from accessing it in ways that suit their needs. As the last few years have shown, if you try to lock down the content, the customers will simply find ways to steal it.

You can keep fighting that battle, or you can figure out what you're good at and what somebody else can't easily duplicate, and design your business around that.

That's not easy, and it often involves major pain - giving up revenue, giving up margins, and restructuring your organization. The alternative, though - whether you're in the music business, some other content-producing industry, or actually any business at all - is extinction.

Look at your own value chain. Where do you fit in? Are you adding anything, or are you just an excess link that can be removed?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Apple Gets Ads Right

I've been pretty critical of Apple's advertising in the past, particularly the "I'm a Mac" ads: I think they're examples of the company's self-absorption, smug and sometimes inaccurate, with that annoying hipster guy that makes a Mac user like me want to go hang out with Steve Ballmer. So I think the new batch of iPhone ads are really noteworthy:


They don't try to be clever or funny. Instead, they display the product in a compelling way. Anybody who's used a smartphone knows the limitations of them; I really like my Blackjack but let's face it, browsing the web in WAP and coping with the deranged Windows Mobile interface are not high points of one's life; they're tools that get things done, albeit awkwardly.

So watching this ad and seeing a real browser (and seeing someone flicking through album covers with their finger, and all of that) is actually very impressive. My first reaction was, "ooh!"

Whether iPhone lives up to all that is something we'll find out after June 29, when mortals start getting them. But the ads do what ads should do - they make it look like the coolest phone ever. That won't sell phones on its own, but it will get people looking at them, and having some idea of what's different about them. And that's the point.

Coming from me - who usually sees an Apple ad and wants to get rid of products I like just to avoid becoming one of those Mac people - that's high praise.

En Garde! "What to do when customers attack"

Over on iMedia Connection, Tom Hespos has a good article entitled "What to do when customers attack." It's pretty high level, but it's certainly worth all marketers giving it a look. (Just in case.)

Tom points out the importance of being proactive in figuring out just what's being said out there in-the-world-where-you-have-no-control. For starters, he advocates setting up relevant search terms in an RSS feeder and doing blog- and group-searches (see Tom for more detail).

Tom then provides some high-level advice for responding to whatever it is you find out there.

First, he wisely cautions that if you do talk back, that you avoid "marketing-ese". I am quite sure that we have all seen this in action. Someone from marketing hops on to a blog or board and puts up brochure ware. Even if they don't identify themselves as shilling, errrr working, for the company under attack, they completely give themselves away. Sometimes the copy is ripped right off of the web site. It doesn't take much to figure that out now, does, it?

By all means, if there are misconceptions or flat-out errors floating around about your products, you should correct them. Just avoid the marketing hyperbole, claims, rhetoric and stick to the facts.

Tom then goes on to advise that you prioritize where you're going to respond - and avoiding getting into any he-say-she-say online shouting matches with those who are clearly emotionally wound up and unlikely to really listen to (let alone hear) anything that contradicts their feelings. So pick your battles.

The bottom line: sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the chatter is unwise, but conserving your energy in terms of responding is quite wise, and never, ever fight back with cheesy, unconvincing marketing-speak.

Or, as Tom put it:

Once you do identify the hot spots where people are discussing your brand, focus your efforts in the areas where they're most likely to make a difference. Make your point of view heard but realize that actions speak louder than words. Show people the depth of your commitment by taking their feedback seriously, and you will reap the rewards through increased loyalty.

What Tom doesn't really get into is the point that there are some situations in which it may be advisable to get your most passionate advocates (outside your company) in on the conversation. DO NOT, of course, put words in their mouths, since if you put them there they're likely to come out as marketing speak, but if you have trusted, passionate customers - and you don't mind risking their seeing what might be some unpleasant comments - I would not hesitate to encouraging them doing the talking back for you. (This may not be relevant for big-name brands where the pro folks and the con folks are likely to be going at it already. But I'm thinking about lower-down-the-brand chain B2B technology products where someone or two folks may be out there kvetching....)

To relate an at least tangentially relevant personal incident:

As an online grouser, I had an interesting experience last December with none other than the Boston Red Sox.

After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to order tickets online, I posted about my experience (over on Pink Slip). This is when I realized for the first time the power of RSS feeds, Google Alerts, and blog searches. A few days after my post, I heard from a Red Sox VP of all things (which, of course, I also chronicled).

The upshot was that the Red Sox responded to my complaints and, while I don't know whether they've done anything to improve their systems - they haven't yet taken me up on my offer to be part of a focus group - they did help me avoid their systems all together and purchase tickets from an actual human being. The other upshot is that, embarrassed to admit I'm perfectly happy as a bleacher creature, I ended up paying a lot more for tickets than I would have normally. Of course, so far the real upshot this season is that The Home Towne Team is (despite losing this weekend's series to the Yankees) playing pretty darned good ball. Let's hope they're still smokin' when my first game comes up in July.

The point here is that here was a business - the Red Sox - with a very strong brand.  They're also, after 4-plus years of sell-out games, in an over the top seller's market. And THEY were paying attention to what one annoyed fan had to say about the customer experience. If they can do it, how much more motivation do those of us need who are working less glowing brands, with products that are in highly competitive, distinctly buyer's markets? As marketers, we really need to be paying attention to what the folks out there are saying about us. Blinders off!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Hostage Theory of Pricing

Josh Hallett wrote about the price of wifi at a hotel recently - a price that, like so many hotel charges, seems unconnected to either a service's value to the customer or cost to the provider. (In this case it was $1600 for three people to use wifi in a meeting room. Yes, you read that right.)

As I read his post, I was reminded of an experience last year in a hotel in London. My partner had to call home in an emergency and his mobile wasn't working, so he picked up the room phone, thinking, how bad could this be? It was just supposed to be a 10 minute call, but it stretched to more like 20.

The total charge was something north of $200. He questioned it upon checkup, and was told rather brusquely that this was what any four-star London hotel would charge. (I don't doubt it; London is one of my favorite cities on the planet but every time I'm there I'm just appalled by the expense.)

It's quite simple: a hotel can do this because you have no choices. If you are picking up that phone, you probably don't have a mobile or calling card handy. If you are buying wifi from them, you have to be there and have no other option at hand.

It's not just hotels, of course; American movie theaters with their "no outside food" policies are another example. Ban outside food, and the only snacks during the show are $5 sodas and popcorn and $4 boxes of stale candy. Or airport concessions, where you pay an astonishing fee for fast food. Or at a ball park, or... you get the picture.

It's pretty easy to make a business case for this. Will I refuse to go to an Astros game because the hot dogs are too pricey? Well, where else am I going to see baseball in Houston? I'm not someone who's going to pack a lunch to the airport, either. (I have been known to smuggle food into the theater. Note: remember that in summer chocolate will melt in your pocket.)

No, they don't need to stop doing this, at least not soon. But there is a pitfall.

Treating your customers as hostages and pricing accordingly creates a great opportunity for competitors. Some months after that London trip, I was in the slightly lesss globally-known metropolis of Syracuse, New York. I stayed at one of those little bare-bones hotels because I was not planning to spend any time awake in the room anyway, it was convenient, and it was cheap.

And, oh, there was free wifi throughout he hotel and free domestic long distance calling in my $40/night room. (It was spartan and the 80s mauve color scheme didn't do anything for me, but really, who cares? It was clean and handy.)

Now, the $40 a night chain is not really a competitor of the four-star London hotel. But people do cross categories that way a lot, and eventually, people start to notice that somebody charging $40 can give away long distance (as they should - it costs nearly nothing) while the $400 people can't. And they'll ask, why is that?

And when a direct competitor does it, you're in trouble.

As it happens, that free long distance was an amazing boon. On the last day of the trip my mobile phone battery conked out and I was unable to even turn the phone on. And there was an old fashioned desk phone in my room that I could use to call home to Texas at no charge.

I'll probably stay there on my next trip.

If you're engaged in hostage pricing, be careful. You will make some nice revenue off of it, but be ready to give it up at a moment's notice when your competitors start doing the same.

And remember that there's a long term brand karma cost: nobody likes feeling ripped off, and some of your customers will find a reason - legitimate or not - to simply never come back. (Even if the next guy rips them off, too.)

If, on the other hand, your competitors are doing it, then there's an opportunity waiting for you. Be the player who frees the hostages and make sure everybody knows about it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Blogocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Robert Lindeman is a Boston-area pediatrician who was recently in court fending off a malpractice suit brought by the parents of a 12 year old boy who died while under Lindeman's care.

Lindeman is also a blogger named Flea, with a fairly well known blog "drfleablog" (now - at least temporarily - taken down).

Which turned out to be a critical element in his malpractice trial  - one which ended up pushing Lindeman into a big, fat settlement.

According to yesterday's report by Jonathan Saltzman in The Boston Globe, the plaintiff's lawyer somehow figured out - did someone put a flea in her ear - that Lindeman was Flea. She asked him under oath whether this was the case.

Rather than have his "unvarnished views of lawyers, jurors, and the legal process" brought out in court for the jury to see, Lindeman chose to settle.

He had, apparently, used his blog to rally support for his side of the case, and was also providing blow by blow descriptions of what was happening in court, including mentions that the jurors had been caught snoozing and that the plaintiff's lawyer bit her fingernails. He had clever little nom de blog for lawyer Elizabeth Mulvey. In drfleablog, Mulvey was Clarissa Lunt. (Ho, ho! Not hard to see how that one translates into a coarse, misogynist term now is it? And that's the best that a Yalie who went to Columbia for med school can do?)

Lindeman also blogged about how he was being coached to act on the stand.

The consultant told him juries in medical malpractice cases base verdicts almost entirely on their view of a doctor's character.

"We've said it before, and we'll say it again: If the basis of this case is that Flea is an arrogant, uncaring jerk who maliciously neglected a patient, resulting in his death, the plaintiff will not win, period," he wrote. "As much of a cocky bastard that Flea may appear in the blogosphere, the readers who have a personal acquaintance with the real 3-D doctor understand how such an approach cannot succeed."

Apparently, it was posts like this which Lindeman's lawyers felt might do some harm.

As much as it might seem like just plain bad taste (or complete callousness) to be flaming around in your blog about a case you were involved with in which a child died, it also turned out to be not such a smart thing to do.

There are some lessons here for those of us who blog about our business, who use anecdotes from our experience, and who may be tempted to use telling little details about our colleagues and clients.

  • Don't write about current work or client situations in the heat of the battle. If you want to make sure you get all the material down while it's still current, write it up but don't post it. Wait until the battle has played out and the story's clearer. Blog about something in the moment and you may regret it the morning after.
  • When blogging about real people in a real situation that you've experienced, avoid use of physical characteristics or habits that would allow someone to recognize themselves or others. Give the people you're writing about cover - and yourself some deniability. I only use real names when I'm mentioning a friend or relative who will get a kick out of the mention (first names only). I may also use real names when I'm referring to something that's in the news or referenced in a blog or news article, or when the person I'm writing about is kinda-sorta famous. (When I blog about my experience at Wang Labs, I wouldn't hesitate to use Dr. Wang's name if it were relevant, or that of John Chamber's, who worked at Wang for a while. I wouldn't be apt to use the name of anyone else there, unless it was a friendly mention.)
  • Avoid at all costs "clever" names like Clarissa Lunt. Something like that just makes you look like a jerk.
  • If you're still working for a company and/or a client, you might also want to disguise the giveaway details here, too, especially if you're writing something that is less than flattering about a situation. (After the fact, you might want to be more open. Or not. Over on my other blog, Pink Slip, I often mention the names of the companies I worked at. For the most part, they're out of business. I would not use the name of a client company I've worked with unless it were 100% relevant to the story. And then I'd let the client know I was making them blog-famous.)
  • Under no cases should you reveal anything  you learned under NDA, that you've been sworn to secrecy about, that can impact stock price - no matter how cleverly you disguise the situation.

I'd say that people or companies in the news are fair game. As are companies where, as I've said, mentioning the company is central to the point. (E.g., a blog on outstanding - or outstanding awful - customer service.)

As business bloggers, we should observe our own version of the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. To our colleagues, to our companies, or to our clients. As so often happens in these situations, in harming our colleagues, companies, and clients, we'd really be harming ourselves.