Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Brand from Beyond the Grave

The New York Times has an article about the Robert Ludlum business. Although the writer died six years ago, his new books keep appearing.

They're not, of course, written by him; others write them and they are marketed as part of a Ludlum franchise.

Twelve Ludlum books have been released since his death, with a 13th due out in September. The business is deployed now as a kind of film studio, presenting books completed by others or new ones written using his name.

Since early 2006 there have been three alone: “Robert Ludlum’s The Moscow Vector,” the sixth in the “Covert-One” series of paperback originals; “The Bancroft Strategy,” and “Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Betrayal,” by Eric Van Lustbader.

Mr. Ludlum did not want to be forgotten or leave behind only an enormous backlist that started with “The Scarlatti Inheritance” in 1971. He had little reason to worry: he is now a brand extended far into his afterlife.

“This goes back to 1990 or ’91 when Bob had quadruple bypass,” said Henry Morrison, the agent for Mr. Ludlum. “One day we were talking about what would happen when he was gone. He said, ‘I don’t want my name to disappear. I’ve spent 30 years writing books and building an audience.’ ”

Ludlum's not the only author-brand that's outlived its namesake; the Times article mentions V.C. Andrews, for example. But the Ludlum operation seems to be particularly skilled at the business.

There is a logic to this. If you are a big fan of Ludlum's books, the Ludlum brand tells you that you can expect something similar. In a sense, all the Ludlum estate is doing is producing more of the product that the writer produced in during his life.

Still, for many people (including me), it's just intensely weird. There's a connection between a writer and a reader, and following a great writer means seeing where she or he will take you with new works. That's kept me reading some my favorites - people like Margaret Atwood and Michael Cunningham and Russell Banks - as they write new books. The post-death author brand may satisfy you by giving you just what you expect. But sometimes the pleasure is being guided to what you don't expect by somebody you trust.

But, publishing is a business, and I'm sure we'll see other authors - or rather, their estates - following the Ludlum model after they've penned their last words and the keyboard is gathering dust.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Satisfaction: Diving into a Market Research Project

As a marketer, there are few things that are as satisfying to me as learning about a new industry.

Okay, I can't give away the industry I'm poking around in, but I've been completely immersed recently in helping a client figure out what needs to be on their product roadmap, and how they should get there: build or buy.

I went into this one completely cold. Usually, when I'm doing a research project, I know a little something about the product, or the industry, or the users, or the players.

Not this time out.

Nada. Zilch. Zippo. My experience with this industry was nil. My awareness of any aspect other than its existence was nil. And my impression - if I thought about it for a moment - was at least marginally distasteful. Basically, I didn't know jack.

Much of the "background info" the client had provided me with - and there wasn't all that much - went right over my head. He was throwing out names, concepts, and acronyms that I'd never heard of. A few times I asked him to spell something, or what it stood for, but once I realized how little confidence my questions were inspiring in the client, I just shut up and took notes.

The client, of course, knew that I was a no nothing, but my price was "righter" than what an industry expert would charge.

On my first dive in, I was really flailing around and swallowing water. Cold water. Lots of it. How, I asked myself, will I ever sort through all this stuff and make enough sense of it to pronounce on trends and give some advice.

But after jumping in, I found my stroke and stopped sputtering. The water was fine.

In the last two weeks, I've read countless 10-K's and 10-Q's, web-sites, downloadable collateral, press releases, industry rags, industry association publications.

Two weeks later, I've become something of a minor-league expert. I know the trends and the players. I know who's doing what to whom. I know my way around. 

Thank God for the Internet! Thank God for Google! Thank God for SEC filings! This is so much fun!

I've just completed my preliminary report to the client.

He's not exactly gushing at what I've come up with. (He's not that kind of guy.)

But a couple of times I mentioned things I'd found that he didn't know.

  • He didn't know that X had just signed a deal with Y - a deal that had a ton of implications for his customers. (I found this one combing through a stack of press releases on the web site of someone in his industry, but not - yet - a direct competitor of his.)
  • He didn't know that Q, which had very high market share in an adjacent market, was coming into his. (I read about it in their 10-K.)
  • He didn't know that only x percent of his market had an ABC professional on staff, which opens up an new product avenue for him. (I saw it in an industry association fact book.)

Okay, he pushed back on or discounted a few things I told him. It's not like I'm some kind of Market Research savant, or true industry expert.

Still and all, he's happy. I'm happy.

And if you want to know anything about the [mystery] industry, just give me a holler.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

In Praise of Ugliness

Gerry McGovern at Giraffe Forum recently wrote about the beauty of ugly websites that work, using RyanAir as an example. Gerry's point:

When I ask people to look at a website like Ryanair their instinctive reaction is often to say that it is ugly. If you ask most people to look at the most successful websites, they would also probably tell you that they look ugly.

The fact is we don’t spend our time looking at websites. We spend our time reading and using them. There are three things a great web design must be: useful, useful and useful.

He's right; usability trumps attractiveness every time. But I think that he makes an unsupported leap in finding a relationship between ugliness (or, more precisely, lack of design that most people would call "attractive") and usability.

Yes, there are plenty of sites where owners have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about look but neglected usability.

But it's hard to argue that these things are natually exclusive. There's no reason a site can't be beautiful and useful (as some commenters point out).

Still, kudos to Gerry for pointing out where the priorities needs to be.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Crate&Barrel Full o' Catalogues

I like getting catalogues.

Yes, I know that they're tree killers.

But I still like looking through them. Paging through a catalogue, you can find all kinds of stuff your wouldn't realize you "needed" if you were doing purposeful shopping online.

I like getting catalogues.

The people in my building get a lot of catalogues.

There are six units in this building, and - conservatively - each of the units gets a good 8, 10, 12 catalogues each week. More in the fall. More and more as the run-up to Christmas gets into full swing.

The people who used to live in my building get a lot of catalogues, too.

And this building has a pretty sizable alumni association because, although it's a condo building, we're the only owners who live here. The others are renters. Pretty much the only people who can afford the rent here are newly minted MBA buddies who stay until one of them decides to get married, and empty nesters who are seeing if they like living in the city before they buy anything.  Few of our renters last more than a year or two.

No one sends a change of address notice to a catalogue. At least no one who's ever lived here.

That means a lot of catalogues.

The other day we got an awful lot of Crate&Barrel catalogues.

In addition to six for people who actually live here, we got catalogues for Connie S, Mariana B, John O, Megan C, David Z, Leon S, Conan L, and Lowell C. Most of these folks are long gone.

David Z and Megan C got married. Conan L did, too. Connie S never actually lived here, her boyfriend, Keith G did, but he's gone. Mariana B's husband had a business reversal, so they could not longer afford their pied a terre here. Leon S's parents own a unit in the building, but he doesn't live here. I have no recall of Lowell C.

John O moved to Washington about 10 years ago. It was a relief to see him go. He was OCD, and would bang around in the middle of the night, slamming in and out of the communal laundry room to wash a dish towel or a pair of socks.

I don't know why I haven't noticed all the Crate&Barrel catalogues that must have been coming here over the years since these folks have left. But I did this week.


Maybe catalogue companies should institute a three-strikes policy. They can send you three catalogues, but if you never order anything, you're taken off the list.

Crate&Barrel was very gracious when I called to cancel all the catalogues. I cancelled mine, too. I'm trying to go a bit greener, and if I want to buy something at C&B, I have two within walking distance.

NOTE TO MARKETERS: We're not customers if we never buy anything. We may not even be prospects if we don't bite after years of catalogue bombardment.

NOTE TO Crate&Barrel: Stop asking people who shop in your stores to sign up for a catalogue. And when someone hasn't ordered anything in 5 or 6 years: dump them from your catalogue rolls. Thanks.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spam and Statistics

Mark Cahill at Vario Creative has an interesting post on spam and web statistics, and raises some great questions about how we interpret web stats:

One trend I’ve been seeing in web traffic would suggest that a good percentage of the web traffic we see in our reports is bogus as well. I attribute this to scripted robots looking for contact forms, forum registration forms and blog comments on which they hope to post their message unnoticed.

Here’s what got me thinking: I was looking at traffic stats for a local business. They don’t do any business outside of their local shops, no online product sales, etc. On the surface, they had fairly good traffic. The problem came in when I started to look at the geographic distribution of their visitors. Nearly half were coming from Asia - and on top of it, they had a huge depth of visit. Almost as if they were reading every single page of the site…

As Mark observed, these aren't real visitors. But then how do we understand what's happening on a site? Some of it is filtering things like this out, of course, but I think it's helpful to remember why the site is there. It's generally not just so that people can see it. It's usually so that people can do something: buy something, download something, ask for more information, whatever.

And so traffic stats can not only be misleading, but they can also take you down the wrong path. What matters is the visitors who do what you want them to do when they reach the site. What's more interesting than how many people come to your site (people, not robots) is what they do, how they move through the site, and what actions they take when they are there.

Sounds obvious, of course, but it's not as simple as it sounds.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

This is not a bill. (Marketers beware.)

A while back, I wrote about a couple of overseas companies that send things that look suspiciously like bills for something that's made to sound suspiciously like a trademark registration service.

Just the other day, I received a missive from the Domain Listing Service Corp. that also looked suspiciously like a bill.

When I opened it up, the document that looked suspiciously like a bill listed the domain name of a url I have registered; an official-looking reference number; and a notice date.

To the right hand side of the page - in larger font - were the words "Domain Listing Service."

Hmmmmm, I said to myself, I don't remember registering with any domain listing service other than GoDaddy.

The document started right out with the words "HOW TO MAKE A PAYMENT," then went on to tell me what the payment covers:

  • Domain name submission with 8 key words/phrases to 25 MAJOR search engines
  • Initial search engine submission
  • Quarterly search engine submissions
  • Complete details are located on the Internet at www.dlscorp.net

Then there's more on PAYMENT INFORMATION, which I am asked to remit on or before August 8, 2007.

Current payment details: $65.00.

If I counted correctly, the document uses the word "payment" nine times on this first page. It also uses the word "payable" twice.

Turn the page (or is it payge) over, and there's a bit more use of the words pay/payment/paid. The subscription details are quasi-repeated.

And then there's this:

This Internet Listing offer is provided to millions of websites throughout the United States to enhance their website exposure. THIS IS NOT A BILL. THIS IS A SOLICITATION. YOU ARE UNDER NO OBIGATION TO PAY THE AMOUNT STATED UNLESS YOU ACCEPT THIS OFFER.

Let us face one fact. If, on a direct mail piece, you feel the need to use the words "THIS IS NOT A BILL. THIS IS A SOLICITATION.", you have done your marketing darnedest to make sure that the direct mail piece does, in fact, closely resemble a bill.

I'm sure that there are many people who just go ahead and make the payment. The amount is so little - who doesn't have signing authority for $65? Petty cash, more or less.

I'm also sure that there are a few folks who, having read through the bill, errrrr, solicitation, do find that the service is of interest - maybe even that the approach is clever - and sign up for it.

But I am betting my GoDaddy url - a holding place, nothing on it, why would I want to alert 25 major search engines to it's glorious non-presence to begin with - that there are more of the former than there are of the latter.

Shame on the marketers at DLS Corp for this shabby piece of marketing.

Meanwhile, here's a nice little piece of humbuggery from their About Us page:

Domain Listing Services has found a very cost effective way of making your website seen by more people than ever imagined. The industry norm has always been to take clients money, submit them once to the search engines and forget about them. Domain Listing Services does not forget who keeps us in business.YOU THE CLIENT!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Furry Money 2

Apologies for the light blogging - all I can say after spending a week and a half with a new puppy in the house is, "How do people manage to have children?" It's amazing how a little creature who can't relieve himself without help and needs supervision can eat up your spare time.

With that in mind a follow up on my Furry Money post. I mentioned how many pet expenditures are really to please to owner, not the animal. It's obvious when you look at the pet outfits, bandanas, etc. in the pet aisle; it's even more true if you look at kennels. (I'm big on advance preparation; I don't want to be caught having to jump on a plane and having no plan for what to do with the little guy. So I've been looking.)

What a kennel needs to be: clean, well supervised, with qualified staff and access to a vet. Ideally with enough activities to keep the dogs busy and thus happy. And they need to rigorously check vaccinations and vet records for their charges, so that your dog doesn't come home sick.

The rest is gravy, but there is gravy in great quantity available. Consider Rover Oaks here in Houston (a play on River Oaks, the city's posh neighborhood where people with names like Bush live). Now, I'm not knocking them. I'm sure it's a very good place to leave your dog; who knows, I might wind up taking Teddy the crazy pup there someday.

But does any dog really care if he's got a luxury suite?

For discriminating pets who prefer a special “at home” environment, Rover Oaks Estates offers 26 Luxury Suites at our Houston location and 28 at our Katy location. The suites are private, air-conditioned rooms with sofa, color television and special themes and d├ęcor.

It is a drag when your dog hates the drapes. But it's more of a drag if he tries to eat them. This one is definitely to make the owner feel good.

Here's one service I used to think was to please owners, but I've reconsidered: doggie day care (or, as it's sometimes called, day camp). Watch a dog all day and you realize that leaving him home alone is not a good thing. Especially during the puppy months, when he's learning how to relate to the world, and you'd have to leave him in his crate because he can't have run of the house without someone keeping an eye on things. So sending him somewhere where he gets to play, interact with other dogs, and tire himself out is a different thing.

More importantly, as I look at the wreckage of my desk, I realize that there is another benefit for the owner: a day to yourself. A month ago I would have heard that and thought, "What? Isn't the dog a joy to have?" Yes, he is. But Teddy's first day at camp is next Tuesday and it'll be a weekly thing, because this owner is happy to pay for a day to himself (and a better-socialized dog who's had a great day of romping around).

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Seven Habits of Effective Marketers

A lot of people have covered this ground, I'm quite sure. In fact, I just googled and there are a number of folks who have already borrowed from Steven Covey's Seven Habits brand with respect to marketers. So I'm not being very original here at all. But I also haven't cheated and looked at what the "experts" have to say.

Here are my Seven Habits of Effective Marketers (in no particular order):

  • They make it their business to understand how and why customers use their products. That means going on sales calls, talking and listening regularly to customers, and - if it's at all feasible - watching how their customers actually use their products.
  • They make it their business to understand why they lose deals. That means win-loss analysis that's not shy about asking the ones that got away the hard questions. (And taking their answers very seriously.)
  • They anticipate their customers' needs. They do this by putting themselves in their customers shoes and trying to figure out what might make the product do an even better job for those customers.
  • They keep on top of their market. They watch the competition like a hawk. They watch those in adjacent market spaces like a hawk, too. They look at what's going on in their industry, in the economy, in the world at large: anything that can impact their customers, their products, their company.
  • They know enough about their product to be able to communicate about it with ease and conviction. They know the features, they know the benefits, and they know how they connect up. They know who the product's for, and what users get out of it.They don't have to refer to a product cheat-sheet to answer first-level questions; they've internalized the information.
  • They're always up for learning about that new techniques, new trends, new technology that are changing the way we market. (And they're not afraid of letting go of "what always used to work". )
  • They look at the results. Very carefully.No, they don't spend all their waking hours coming up with new metrics and measuring sticks, but if something's not working, they make it their business to find out - and find out why. If something is working, they want to know why that's so, too.

This may be a really dumb thing to admit, but I can't exactly look in the mirror and say that I'm in perfect synch with the seven habit habit all the time. Even when I know I should be doing something, I occasionally let it slide - or backslide.

But I can look around me and see some very effective marketers. In fact, I work regularly with two of them.

John Whiteside. Sean Branagan.

Gentlemen, take a bow!


Apologies to Steven Covey. I'll let our readers know if I get a cease and desist order and have to change the title to "Seven Hobbits" or something.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Country Store, Take Me Home

I am a complete sucker for the catalogues that come regularly from the Vermont Country Store, and have, in fact, blogged about my affection for them while back. I don't order tons of stuff from them, but I do have more than a few "practical and hard to find" things from the store. (But shoot me if I ever order a muu-muu, please.)

My brother Tom just sent me a catalogue from an outfit in his neck of the woods, and I can see that I could get sucked right in to lusting after goods from Jack's Country Store in Ocean Park, Washington.  Some of what they carry - like New England's own Sky Bars - overlaps with Vermont Country Store. But there's a lot of good stuff in there.

For starters, I could go for a dozen cotton handkerchiefs just like the ones my mother used to keep in her pocketbook - the nice, flowery ones. (Not that I'd actually want to use and launder them, mind you. I'd just like to have them.) I'd also like a Kewpie Doll like the one my Uncle Bob won for me at Riverview Park in Chicago. (Riverview closed in 1967, so this was quite a while ago.)  And although I do not have a yard, I would dearly love a John Deere Traveling Sprinkler (which is a sprinkler that roams around your yard and looks just like a little John Deere tractor).

But what really got to me is their business philosophy that - through several different owners, and two fires - has held steady since 1899. That's when Mr. Morehead, the original proprietor, wrote:

The firm of Morehead & Co. was established in 1895 and by a close study of the needs of the locality in which we have been located since then, and catering to these wants, we built up our present business. It has been our constant aim to deal in only the best goods and to sell them at such prices as - coupled with square dealing - would not only hold our old customers, but gain us new ones.

Think about all the mission and vision statements you've agonized over.

Now look at this one: "close study of the needs of the locality...deal[ing] only in the best goods...[sold] at such prices  as - coupled with square dealing - would not only hold our customers, but gain us new ones."

Customer centric. High quality. Fair prices. "Square dealing."

I'd say we could all learn something from Jack's Country Store.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Monkey Business

I had to chuckle when I read this on Steve Rubel's blog, under a picture of a monkey on a treadmill with a breathing apparatus attached to him:

All of this leads me to the photo above. The Web 2.0 construction boom is bigger now than it ever was. Techcrunch, Scobleizer and Mashable leave me all breathless. It's like watching the cranes of Dubai rise. We're a million monkeys running on treadmills, chasing the latest banana. Myself included! The breathing apparatus in the photo above reminds me of my Google Reader stream!

Steve is clearly a guy who loves all this tech for its own sake, and that's fine, but I was reminded of a lesson all marketers need to learn: you are not your market. You're not public at large. You're the people using the things you talk about. And you have to remember who they are if you want to talk to them and not yourself.

"We're" not a "million" monkeys; a core group of people who have what Steve calls "shiny object syndrome" are a half-dozen monkeys. The rest of us are watching to see which shiny objects are worth the effort, and which are more like a pile of rotten bananas. Or, more likely, we're not even watching; we know that if there's something good, we'll hear about it second or third hand.

I'm not really knocking Steve or the other Web 2.0 fanatics; but if you read his blog or watch his Twitter stream, it's clear that he loves this stuff because it's cool and new. And that's fine; somebody's got to be wading through all these sites and finding the gems, and it should be somebody who loves it.

The only problems is when people start saying "blogging is dead!" (actually, from what I see from my small business clients, it's really just getting going) or things like this, in another post:

What this all means is that mobile platforms and devices encourages people to publish more often, but in a far shorter format.

Last but not least we have social networking. These sites and services make it easier for us to tune into "signals" - e.g. people and topics we care about - and tune out noise.

So what does this mean all for blogging? I imagine over time some erosion. We will unsubscribe from low quality blogs written by strangers that we truly don't have time for, in favor of tuning into friends and their mobile streams.

When I read stuff like this I find myself thinking of the Pew Internet & American Life Project study from May that looked at how Americans use internet technology. 8% are heavy users; half of us are occasional users, and 10% use information technology but consider it to be a hassle.

Which confirms what I observe in real life; there are tons of tech-savvy knowledge workers who find their email annoying, don't like instant messaging, and generally want information coming to them from fewer, more manageable sources.

That leads me to another observation: there are all kinds of new ways to push information out and get it from others, but the easier it gets, the lower the information density of these messages are. Twitter is a great example; it can be fun, I've gotten some useful and interesting things on it, I do enjoy seeing tweets telling me what a friend who moved to New York is up to... but the amount of valuable information there is much lower than what I find in my email or in the blogs I read.

The bottom line: take all of it with a large grain of salt. There are all kinds of interesting things happening, most of which will never become marketing tools or important to your daily life. It's important to take the front-line reports of folks like Steve and incorporate them into a bigger picture... and always, always compare that to what the people in your market are actually doing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lend me your ear (or 2 second access to it)

Attention spans and patience levels keep getting shorter. And what with our instant ability to skip an ad entirely by press-buttoning our way to another station, radio ads are getting shorter and shorter, too.

Clear Channel (which, it seems, runs just about every commercial radio station in the world) is now offering its advertisers "blinks" (2 second commercials), and "adlets" (which run for 5 seconds). The new development was described in a recent Boston Globe article by Se Young Lee.

I'm seldom listening to Clear Channel stations, so I don't think I've heard any of these, but there's an ad on the oldies station I occasionally cruise that I'd welcome in 2 or 5 second mode. (For the life of me, I don't know why an ad for a local New England supermarket chain like Stop & Shop would run an ad in which an anthropomorphized bottle of water speaks to us in what has to be the most god-awful, full-nasal, Midwestern accents I've ever heard. And as the daughter of a Chicagoan, I've heard plenty of them.  Despite what my Ant Meeery (Aunt Mary, for those of you who don't understand Midwestern) says, the Midwestern way of speaking English is not considered "accent free" and is not now, and never has been, the manner of speaking universally embraced by national broadcaster. This can't possibly true. I'm positive that I would have noticed by now if Brian Williams voice came across as if someone were shoving a screw-driver in my ear.)

In any case, I haven't heard a blink or an adlet that I'm aware of. The blink example ("Sweet tea at McDonald") will obviously work for a company with a powerful, known brand already working for it.

An adlet packs in a whole lot more, and looks like it will be giving the traditional 60- and 30-second ads a run for their money.

(Mostly I listen to NPR or NPR-ish radio stations, so I don't listen to all that many ads. But the NPR little mini-ads for their sponsors, which I consider the epitome of getting a lot of clear information into very few words, are some form of adlet or another.)

The article notes that the proportion of 60-second ads on Clear Channel's Boston stations have dropped from 95% to 60% in just three years.  30-second ads now account for 30% of the ads, with blinks and adlets making up the rest. Blinks and adlets not only keep listeners from fleeing from your ad - as I do when I hear the noxious Stop & Shop ad - but they also cost a lot less. We'll look for the cost for blinks and adlets to go up, however - although not to the lofty levels of the full 60-second ads.

TV is not yet working with the short-form ads. Apparently it's too inconvenient to deal with commercials of different lengths, given the length of a standard TV ad block. But with the pressure on from all those TiVo-ing folks who bypass the commercials entirely, it's probably just a matter of time before blinks and adlets start popping up on TV, too.

In the meantime, "creative types" will be looking for new ways to capture those short attention spans.

My advice for the Stop & Shop agency: bag the "nice Midwest lady" ad for something that I might be willing to listen to. How about: Stop & Shop. We sell food.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Second Life Losing Marketing Steam

An LA Times article talks about how marketers are losing interesting in Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Labs:

"There's not a compelling reason to stay," said Brian McGuinness, vice president of Aloft, a brand of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. that is closing its Second Life shop and donating its virtual land to the nonprofit social-networking group TakingITGlobal.


But the sites of many of the companies remaining in Second Life are empty. During a recent in-world visit, Best Buy Co.'s Geek Squad Island was devoid of visitors and the virtual staff that was supposed to be online.

The schedule of events on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s site was blank, and the green landscape of Dell Island was deserted. Signs posted on the window of the empty American Apparel store said it had closed up shop.

There are a number of problems, from a pretty small population of actual active users, to a lack of cultural fit between the companies trying to use Second Life as a branding tool and what people really do there:

For some advertisers, the problem is that Second Life is a fantasyland, and the representations of the people who play in it don't have human needs. Food and drink aren't necessary, teleporting is the easiest way to get around and clothing is optional. In fact, the human form itself is optional.

Avatars can play games, build beach huts, dress up like furry animals, flirt with strangers — sometimes all at once.

Their interests seem to tend toward the risque. Ian Schafer, chief executive of online marketing firm Deep Focus, which advises clients about entering virtual worlds, said he recently toured Second Life. He started at the Aloft hotel and found it empty. He moved on to casinos, brothels and strip clubs, and they were packed. Schafer said he found in his research that "one of the most frequently purchased items in Second Life is genitalia."

An overarching problem, I think, is that for most people, Second Life is incredibly cumbersome and kind of dull. You download a piece of software that is, in my experience, a resource hog (on both my G4 iMac and my fairly powerful Windows machine), and then you create an avatar, and have to learn how to manipulate it, and find yourself wondering why the screen keeps redrawing you with no clothes on. I'm pretty good at these sorts of things, and I kept accidentally flying off of cliffs and such. (I'm sure for a 20 year old raised on video games, it's all much simpler.)

And in my brief experiments with it, I found a lot of avatars standing around doing nothing.

Obviously, there are people who find it stimulating, but I think that they're a small group of devotees. Nothing wrong with that, but it hardly makes it appealing for big consumer and tech brands.

Moreover, some of Second Life's residents are very happy about that:

Angry avatars have taken virtual action. Reebok weathered a nuclear bomb attack and customers were shot outside the American Apparel store. Avatars are creating fantasy knockoffs of brand-name products too.

Now that's some customer feedback.

As I've said before, the idea of virtual worlds is an interesting one, and it's not going away. Of course, in many senses, online communities, from chat rooms to social networking sites, have always been virtual worlds - just relatively low tech versions.

So for marketers, this remains something to watch, perhaps to use in some opportunistic ways, but not a world-changer. Or even a virtual world-changer.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Selling at C-Level

I can't possibly be the only marketing person in the universe who wants to tear her hair out when I hear the words "we want to sell at the C-level."

There are certainly products and services that must be sold at C-level. They tend to be high-ticket items. They tend to have enterprise implications. They tend to be strategic in nature.

A lot of companies look at this list and say, "Hey, one out of three ain't bad."

Why is it that the one out of three tends to be high price?

Here's how the thinking goes:

If it costs a lot, we can make it an enterprise license to justify the price, even if there are only three people in the entire enterprise who really want or need the product.

If it costs a lot, it must be strategic. And besides, who wants to own up to the fact that their product or service isn't strategic? It's kind of like admitting that your very own baby isn't all that cute.

And speaking of not-so-cute babies, I've worked with plenty of products that were sold into the C-Level because we were pretty darned sure that the people who would actually have to use the product weren't going to like it very much. Left to their own choice, they would have given the prize to a different baby. They'd have gone with a product that was easier to use (and probably cheaper).

But we-sell-C-level-by-the-sea-shore.

So forget about features. You're talking to the C-level, you're talking bennies, baby. C-levels, we are told, don't care what the product is. How it works. What it actually does-does. They only want to know what it does for them. This means - drum roll, please - that you need to pick and choose from the handy-dandy, evergreen C-List that miraculously applies to all products and services:

  • Save time.
  • Save money.
  • Cut costs.
  • Increase productivity.
  • Make money.
  • Increase the top line.
  • Increase the bottom line.
  • Free your people up to focus on what's important.
  • Improve competitive edge.

(And here's our nifty little ROI-calculator, Mr. or Ms. C-Level. Handcrafted with objectivity and care. No, we haven't rigged the results, but let's just say that we've always been pleasantly surprised by them.)

Now in no way am I going to argue against this list. After all, why would someone invest in B2B/T2T products unless they at least hoped that they were going to get something or other out of it - where that something or other might just be one of the above. (Of course, the dirty little secret is that some products actually don't deliver. Is there anyone out there who really believes that arming their entire sales force with PowerPoint makes them more productive???)

But a lot of companies just throw the C-List out there (no doubt, on a PowerPoint slide) without being able to demonstrate either theoretically or with proven examples how their product actually does any of the above. (I don't think any marketing or sales person should be allowed to cite any of these benefits unless they can draw a straight line - at minimum, a dotted one - from the benefit to the product element(s) that support it. Note that I said straight line, not curly-cue.)

Now, I have had experiences where it made sense to sell at the C-Level. And I have worked with products where we can honestly and truly connect the benefits and features dots (which you need to be able to do at whatever level you're selling into, by the way. It's just that in a lot of cases, if you're selling to actual users, you're generally better off leading with the features. You will need those benefits, however, so that the actual users can sell internally - often to those pesky C-Levels.) 

Here's what can happen if you sell a product or service at the C-Level that doesn't really belong there:

  • You will win some deals. (But it will be hard.)
  • Your product or service will be force fed to the actual users.
  • Your product will be left on the shelf.
  • Word may filter back to the C-Level that the product's not being used. You won't have a C-Level reference.
  • Word may not filter back to the C-Level that the product's not being used. You may have a C-Level reference, but the minute someone wants to talk to the users, you're cooked.

Now, good things can happen, too. The actual users may end up embracing your product and singing hosannas to those brilliant execs who gifted them with it. This could, theoretically, happen.

But why risk this?

Before you start on about how essential it is to sell at the C-Level, make sure you ask yourself why you're doing it. And whether it makes sense for you to sell there. It just might be better business to sell below C-Level.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Furry Money

Pet related marketing fascinates me. I've always been one of those animal people (you are one and you get it, or you're not and you don't) and so I've been the subject of it. And it's interesting because it's one of those areas what what is needed for an animal is so simple (strictly speaking: food, water, shelter, attention, health care) but what is desired is so much more. And in many cases, these are things that we do to satisfy ourselves more than our pets, who basically want to eat, play, and sleep.

I did a high-level marketing plan for a doggie day care center in business school (at the time they were not so ominpresent) and what was amazing to me wasn't just that people would want such a thing, but how much they were willing to pay for it.

I have normally had cats, and while there are plenty of ways to spend money on your cat (I had a friend who, when moving from coast to coast, bought his cat a seat on the plane), there are some natural limits. Cats stay home so you don't show them off as much. Most cats don't actually need grooming, and their toy desires are quite simple (string is always good).

But the other night I was pushing a cart along the aisle of the local pet superstore because tomorrow morning, a 10-week old puppy takes up residence in my home, and it really was quite an experience. I have never raised a puppy before (but my partner has, since childhood, so I have good coaching - fear not) and it was interesting to see how much more stuff you really do need, but also how much you could go spend going nuts with it.

For example: puppy shampoo. I said, "Look the puppy kind is yellow, like human baby shampoo," and was told, "That's probably what it is." Fine, whatever, a bottle went into the cart. But of course, there were also the spa varieties of it. I'm not sure that a puppy would really be happier is his shampoo was smelled like bananas.

I passed on the special puppy towel with accompanying mitt ($19.99) because, well, I have old towels.

Then there are the toys. Chew toys are a necessity, because in their absence, your shoes, furniture, remote controls, books, and almost anything else will take their place. (And I fully expect a few of those things will even with the chew toys. But toy selection is interesting. Why the one that looks like a carrot instead of the one that looks like a bug? Why the one that looks like a football instead of a baseball?

Well, because I have to look at them, of course.

It's not just merchandise, of course; as part of the adoption, the rescue league arranges for a day of "Puppy Playschool." This is a good thing; dogs should learn how to interact well with other dogs and with people. But it will be interesting to see what they're charging if you want to come back, get other classes, and so on. (I picked up the flyer for the classes at the big pet superstore, and my eyes nearly popped out when I saw the prices for group classes. No offense to any pet trainers reading this: you have a great skill and do good work, and you should make money at it. And if the market bears the price, go for it. I was just amazed by the prices, that's all, and feel fortunate to have someone experienced to train me and a good supply of friends with well-trained dogs for playtime. Not that I might not be seeking those services if problems develop.)

I skipped the dog clothing aisle. He's a lab mix. They don't need clothes to stay warm, like some miniatures - and this is Houston - and besides, a lab with clothes looks silly. Oh, but his first bandana is waiting. I never said I was immune to this.

I imagine there will be more expenditures. And I admit some of them are going to really be to make me happy - he seems thrilled to roll in the dirt and play with a stick.

It's an industry where the gap between need and desire is amazing, not to mention all that pets-as-surrogate-kids stuff. And that's just interesting.

I just hope that there aren't too many people out there spending all the money but not providing the one thing you can't buy, but you must give a pet: attention and affection.

And now, since it's Friday afternoon, and I'm floating along on new puppy vibes, you all have to indulge me with this:

Happy weekend!

Really, really good customer service at the Buffalo Hampton Inn.

I recently made a shuffle off to Buffalo, where I stayed - at my client's corporate rate, thank you - at The Hampton Inn and Suites.

It was my first time in Buffalo since, on a childhood family trip to Chicago,  in the broiling heat, our packed to the gills car got a flat tire just outside the city. Which is a whole saga in itself. The punchline of that particular story is that for the second half of our trip, my father had to make up for lost time. So, rather than stop for lunch the next day we drove pell-mell across Ohio and Indiana, swigging down warm Pepsi's and eating those god-awful marshmallow circus peanuts. (My mother was, obviously, not a party to this adventure. She had flown to Chicago with the two "little kids". The "big three" got to drive with Dad. Yahoo! My mother's idea of breakfast always involved milk and eggs. My father's idea of breakfast was a Danish as big as your head.)

In any case, I can't remember when I've experienced hotel customer service was as fine as that provided by the downtown Buffalo Hampton Inn. It's the type of service you expect, long for,  and may even get in far more upscale hotels.

Everyone, but everyone, was friendly and courteous. (Midwest nice, so that was no big surprise.)

But it wasn't just the friendliness (which, by the way, still had an element of East Coast reserve that I was thankful for. I hate the "in your face" stuff.)  Nor was it the cookies in the afternoon. Nor the fact that they gave you both USA Today and the local paper, which is so much more interesting a read. Nor was it the free Internet access - I really hate to pay for Internet access. (Minor quibble: it was ethernet, not wireless. But the price was right.)

While I was in Buffalo, I had to make a copy of my driver's license and fax it off. (This was a banking thing.) I asked whether and where there was a business service center, and they just took care of it for me at no charge.

I asked if I could purchase a copy of the Buffalo Spree Magazine that was in the room with one of those "please leave this for the next guest" labels on it. The fellow at the desk - was his name Colin? I really should have made a note of it - not only called housekeeping to see if they had any extra copies, but he went and got it for me while I waited.  And gave it to me free of charge.

Van to the airport? Free, baby - and manned by a very pleasant young fellow named Robert who did not for one second drive like a jerk.

But the trip to the airport just the icing on the cake.

What was so great about the service was the above and beyond steps: the copying, the faxing, the copy of Spree.

If the desk had directed me to a local business center - or charged me for their services - I would have been fine with that. If they'd told me that they didn't have a copy of Spree to spare, that would have been just fine - or told me I'd have to chase it down myself.

Anyway, kudos to the Hampton Inn for the extremely nice and professional folks they have working for them.

What does this tell us?

  • You need to cover your service basics.
  • It always helps if you throw in some unexpected delighters.

What's this done for them?

I will definitely stay there next time I'm in Buffalo.

I will definitely consider Hampton Inns on other trips. (I've never stayed in one before.)

Citizen Marketer that I am, I will tell all my friends about it.

There. You've been told.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Twitter Old News Already?

So now I'm hearing about Pownce, a Twitter alternative. I think this was inevitable because I, the Twitter skeptic, set up a Twitter account last week. (Being a skeptic doesn't mean I don't want to have a look.) So obviously it's time for Twitter to be old news.

My take on Twitter...

I set it up with a handful of bloggers whom I read regular as friends (because I could find them). And I set it up to send tweets to my IM client. This, frankly, drove me nuts. I'd be in the middle of something and suddenly iChat would pop up with some bit of possibly interesting, but certainly non-critical, information.

So I then added the feed from the Twitter page to Google Reader - much better. I'd see the message (time delayed, of course) when I popped over to Reader to scan feeds in between other tasks.

I cannot imagine having this stuff coming to my phone, except in some very unusual situations; I think it would make me crazy.

So far, though, I was underwhelmed. The problem, of course, is that something like this is only interesting or useful if you have enough people you know also using it. Over the next few days I found more people I knew using it, and then I took a few minutes to scan their lists and saw some familiar faces - people I knew personally, or just by reputation - and added them.

I've got about ten "friends" now (some are friends, some I've never actually met) and that seemed to be a point where Twitter got more interesting and useful. We'll see how it goes moving forward.

What I do not see, so far, is some compelling, broad use for this. I can see it as a way for a business or organization to stay in touch with a very small group of heavily wired people, but in a world where there are still enormous numbers of people who view email as overwhelming and see no purpose for instant messaging I have trouble seeing large numbers of people using a service like this. But I can see that if the people you want to reach fall into the group that wants it, it could be a useful thing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Marketing Mistakes Have Been Made....

Let's face it. We've all done it at one point or another: executing a plan or program that you know is flawed from the get go. 

Most of us - at least once we've reached a level of experience and confidence in our careers - have pointed out the flaws and suggested alternatives, but sometimes we still get stuck with carrying something out that we don't think is going to work.

If we have any integrity whatsoever, we'll do the best possible job that we can to make sure that "it" - whatever "it" is - succeeds. The alternatives to soldiering on aren't very attractive. We can half-heartedly support (or, far worse, deliberately undermine) "it", thereby guaranteeing that "it" won't work.

Or we can quit in a snit. But, let's face it, when it comes to marketing, most of the stakes we're dealing with aren't so darned high that it's worth making a big grandstand play out of refusing to execute a poor idea. Most of my career has been in B2B or T2T (techie-to-techie) technology - business applications, development tools. The bad idea has never been anything all that dramatic, or even marginally involved with ethics. There's been no: 'Market this child's toy containing napalm or else'. 'This cake mix only contains trace elements of ground glass.' 'The Surgeon General has not explicitly stated that kindergartners shouldn't smoke.'

It's mostly been around the lines of let's sell into this market, price this product, talk to this analyst. Maybe I think I have a better idea, but maybe "they" don't think my idea is so hot. "They" like theirs better.

So as marketers, when we're asked to do something that we might not agree with, we go ahead and do our best.

And why not?

As both John and Mary have pointed out, we're going to get blamed for the results anyway.

I'm still smarting from a relatively recent experience while working for a small, unfunded startup.

The program in question was premature, ill thought through, and underfunded. Trifecta!

Premature because we still had not clearly identified our true value proposition or price point. Ill thought through because we selected a target market without fully understanding it. (And I'm hoping I'm not just saying this out of sour grapes because it was not the market I would have chosen - premature program and all.) Underfunded because there was no money.

I mean, there was some money, but not a lot. Not enough to have turned the program into a successful campaign, even if it hadn't been premature and ill thought out.

But "they" wanted to do something, anything - and I didn't want to be the one accused of foot dragging and analysis paralysis. We've all seen this in action (or in inaction): some people think it's better to just do nothing, because then you can't fail.

So, I pointed out my reservations and counter-suggestions. Got over-ridden. And tried to execute the program in scrimp and save mode, to the best of my ability.

No surprise that "it" didn't work. I mean "it" really didn't work.

I'm sure there are plenty of examples where a $3K marketing spend has turned into $3M in revenue, but this sure wasn't one of them. I would have been happy if we'd broke even.

The client was pretty graceful about the entire thing. They're pretty smart guys. And I had, in fact, managed expectations quite deftly, if I do say so myself. But there are expectations and there are expectations. I know that everyone was hoping that our first foray into the big, wide world; our first baby-step marketing campaign, was going to yield some great results.

On behalf of marketers everywhere, I feel bad that marketing seems to have let the side down.

Not to imply that all - or even most - of the marketing mistakes I've made have been based on somebody else's bad idea.

I can come up with an entire litany of mistakes that I made on my own. (Now, that'll be a post when I get around to it.) I've done stupid things through ignorance and inexperience. I've let dumb things happen because I was unwilling to confront someone. I've let dumb things happen because I didn't want to hurt someone's feelings. I've hired the wrong people. Or the wrong consultants. I've designed and executed programs that sprung full blown from my own personal brain - and no one else's - that produced nada in return. (Good thing we didn't use metrics in those days.) I've flubbed vendor relationships. I've done careless proofreading and let typos fly by. Mea marketing culpa...

Hmmmm, I'd better stop this one in it's tracks right now or no one will ever hire me again.

I will say that most of the real lulu mistakes I've made are behind me, and I've learned from them.

Still, with this still relatively recent experience so fresh in my mind, I do ask myself: could I have done something, anything differently? Should I have been more forceful and vocal in my objections to the program? Should I have told them to get another girl?

Just another episode in a long string of live and learns, I guess.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Another Sprint Thought: Carrots vs Sticks

After my post this morning, I wondered, "If those 1,000 customers are really just more trouble that they are worth, how could Sprint have handled the situation better?"

Now just imagine if the letter those folks had gotten had said, "Reviewing our customer service records, it seems that we are unable to service your wireless needs. While we value your business, we don't think it's good for us or for you to have you as an unhappy customer. Therefore, if you wish to leave, we will waive the early termination fee on your account."

Most likely, 950 of the 1,000 problem customers would have left... and Sprint would have been seen as doing the right thing.

Sometimes carrots beat sticks.

Sprint Fires Some Customers

We've all had times we want to fire our customers - and those of us who've worked in B2B environments probably can think of some horror stories of customers who were so impossible to satisfy that their business cost us more than it made for us. And often, we were right; we were keeping our promises but there was simply no way they'd be happy.

US mobile phone carrier Sprint seems to have taken this idea to heart; apparently they are terminated 1,000 customers who called customer service too often (more than 25 times a month), telling them that they feel they just can't satisfy them, so they should go away.

Problem is, it turns out that some of these customers are saying that they call so much because Sprint keeps screwing up. (As a former customer of both Sprint long distance and wireless, I believe this; the only correct mobile phone bill I got from Sprint was the first one, and the long distance billing problems required me to hunt down the number of their headquarters and beg to speak to a VP of customer service to straighten out - after they'd turned my account over to collections even as their service reps kept agreeing that yes, I was right, the bill was completely wrong. All telecoms are pretty bad at customer service, but in my experience, Sprint's incompetence is unparalleled in the industry.)

The Consumerist link above quotes one just-terminated Sprint customer:

I've only been a Sprint customer since December 2005. I joined on the $30 SERO plan. This was around the time the SERO plans first became available and they still included unlimited text messaging. Since then, I've called numerous times because I keep being charged $10.00 for the unlimited text messages. Every month I call and every month they only credit my account $8.00. This happens every month. This past month I had also been having problems with my Samsung IP-830W. I did go to my local repair center to deal with that, but they stuck me with a refurbished Treo 700P with non-functioning space-bar and menu key. I've been calling customer service pretty much every day for the past month trying to get this fixed too (getting an equivalent replacement). I purchased this IP-830W full price (~$699) back in March of this year. I've spoken with numerous customer service supervisors about this and they've offered me a blue Treo 755P. They told me they would put a temporary credit on my account for the same price as the blue Treo 755P and then send me a return kit for this defective Treo 700P the repair center left me with. The temporary credit is on my account, but no one has been able to order this blue Treo 755P. I also have not received the return kit.

Now, there are two sides to every story, and maybe these folks can just never be satisfied. But they're not the problem; they're the canary in the coalmine, serving as a warning to Sprint that something is wrong in customer service. Getting rid of them won't fix their problems.

Moreover, the bad PR from this will probably scare some potential customers away from Sprint.

That PR keeps getting worse; after the initial story turned up last week, some charged that some of the accounts being terminated belong to active duty military personnel - and are being terminated for "excessive roaming." Larry Dignan at ZDNet is recommending an overall boycott of the company. Is this all really worth the money saved by dumping those customers?

It's stupidity on Sprint's part from start to finish. Yes, sometimes there are customers you just don't want. But you'd better make sure it's because they are impossible to satisfy, not because you're just bad at satisfying them.

Update: another thought on this subject

Monday, July 09, 2007

The 10 Commandments of Freelance Marketing

Well, if the Vatican can come up with Ten Commandments for driving. (For those who missed it, Rome spoke a couple of weeks ago. My personal favorite: Thou Shalt Not Kill. That's probably because, as a product marketer, I'm all in favor of repurposing existing content wherever possible. Thou Shalt Not Kill is time-honored, proven messaging, that's for sure.)

In any case, here are my Ten Commandments for Freelance Marketing:

I.       Thou shall treat the customer's strategy, product,
           positioning, market, story, reputation, and budget as
           if thou worked for the company full time and/or as if
          any of the above are thine own.

II.      Thou shall not lie to the customer about their
            strategy, product, positioning, market,
            story,  reputation, and budget. (Thou shall try to be
            gentle with strong, contradictory opinions; unless,
            of course, gentle does not work with thy customer.
            Then thou can be more forceful and, perhaps, even
            raise up thy voice and  asketh, "Are thou out of thy

III.    Thou shall not lie to the outside world on behalf of thy
           customer, neither shall thou badmouth the customer,
            except privately to thy closest friends and family
           (even when thy customer seems to deserve it).

IV.     Thou shall strenuously advise thy customer not to do
            something thou think is stupid.

V.      If the customer decides to do it anyway, thou shall tell
           them thou can't be involved, or shut thy mouth and
          doeth the work.

VI.   If it fails, thou shall not say 'I told you so.'

VII. If it succeeds, thou shall admit that thou didn't think it
          would. (But thou shall abstain from flogging thyself in
          front of the customer. No needeth reminding the
          person paying the bills that thou can be as wrong and
          stupid as the next marketing consultant.)

VIII. Thou shall try thy damnedest to deliver what thou
            promised, when thou promised it, and for how much
           thou promised it for. If thou find thyself going off
           track on any of these dimensions, thou shall tell the
           customer as soon as possible.

IX.    Thou shall not help thyself to customer tschotkes
           unless they invite thou to.

X.      It goeth without sayething that thou shall avoid  
           getting thyself involved in any internal political
           struggles. This can getteth thou killed.

There is, of course, nothing holy about these particular Ten Commandments. No stone tablets. No Moses. No going to hell. They just happen to be mine, and there may well be some sins of omission here. Doest thou have any more to addeth?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Networks and Their Limits

I love this video from Lee Lefever that explains social networking, because I could show it to my dad and he'd understand it.

That said, it got me thinking about the limits of social networking.

As the video points out, the connections between people are valuable, and social networking is a way to make them more visible and usable. That's great. But it's obvious that all those social connections aren't equally valuable, and its worth considering what the source of their value is and what that means in the context of social networking.

Some of the value of a particular network connection comes from the skills, knowledge, and reputation of the individuals; let's call that the independent value that anybody brings to any social network connection. But there's also situational value that's we don't bring to any network connection; it depends on who is on the other end of that connection.

If my work life fell apart tomorrow, there are about four or five people I'd call and tell about it in brutal honesty; in return I'd get real help from them. There's a larger group that I'd contact and give part of the story to, perhaps not letting on how dire things were, and I'd get some help from them too. There are a lot of people who I'd approach in a more casual way.

Because, you see, the relationships are different. One of those top-level connections would go out of her way to introduce to me to people, putting her own credibility on the line. Those who are a few levels down in depth of relationship will make some efforts, but won't put themselves at too much risk. And so on.

And so there are two important points to keep in mind about social networking:

First, as Lee points out in the video, online networking makes hidden connections visible and usable but it doesn't increase their value. Digging up hidden value is different than creating value, and if you want to create a valuable network, all the effort that this required before the web is still required.

Second, there is a danger to social networking; with all those connections visible, it's tempting to assume value and shirk on the effort required to keep a network healthy. If somebody is one of your LinkedIn contacts but you haven't exchanged an email for two years, it's a crap connection. It means nothing; you probably can't depend on it. Yes, that person might be thrilled to hear from you, but you haven't been nurturing the connection, and there's an excellent chance it's atrophied.

Visibility and value aren't the same. If you want to make use of the power of social networking that Lee describes, you need to take care of that network. Go have a look at your LinkedIn page and ask yourself, without looking for the details, "Where does she work now? Did he get married? What's her latest project?" If you have no idea, you've got some work to do. It's nice to look at a long list, but like having four hundred "friends" on MySpace, it won't keep you company on a lonely Friday night.

It's the classic Web 2.0 problem; we've created great connections and conduits, but what are they filled with? Unlike many Web 2.0 idea, social networking is one where you can expend effort and see an immediate affect.

This is my networking resolution: over the coming weeks I'm contacting everyone in my LinkedIn network to catch up. If I can't track them down, off the list they go, because a sentimental memory of working together is not a connection. And the day I really need that network, I want to know it counts for something.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Help Your Customer; Help Yourself

The other day, I was talking to a client (let's call her Andrea) about a project that I'm working on when she made an off-hand remark. We had been talking about how soon her team was going to be able to provide me with some critical content for my project, when Andrea said, "We're so under-the-water here that I'm thinking of canceling all our projects with outside vendors. We just can't get them the information they need fast enough."

Needless to say, this wasn't something I wanted to hear. No, I wanted to protest, you might want to get rid of those other, know-nothing freelancers, but you can't possibly mean me."

Instead I told Andrea, "I know what you mean. I've been in your position myself. By the time I pulled all the resources and information together - half of which were my head - I might as well have done the whole thing myself."

Andrea assured me that she wasn't thinking of canceling the project I'm doing.

Thank you, Andrea.

But I do know that, given my long experience, I tend to be a very low maintenance vendor. A lot of what I work on is messaging, sales tools, web site content, etc. - items that require some degree of knowledge about a product.

So before I bug a customer with a lot of questions, I will review whatever material there is to be had. No, I don't become an expert overnight, but I do get a good sense of what the products do and how they're (currently) positioned. I then develop a list of questions for the internal product experts. The list will have questions specific to the product, as well as general questions about information I need for different marketing vehicles (data sheet vs. brochure vs. sales preso).

In some cases, I take a stab at the answer and ask if I got it right.

List in hand, I'll work directly with the product expert(s) to make sure I'm technically accurate and complete. My goal is always to not waste anyone's time by asking obvious questions that I should have been able to figure out on my own.

I also try to minimize the possibility that I'm going to hear the words "this isn't quite right" by being very explicit, early on, about what I'll be delivering - especially when I'm working on something new. I'll lay out my approach in some detail, and give a sample or two that reflects the tone I'm planning on taking. Better to hear "this isn't quite right" based on a page or two rather than after I've delivered what I thought was a near-final product.

Another thing I always shoot for is minimizing the number of iterations and reviews by getting clear up front who's going to be reviewing material and what they're going to be reviewing it for. When I hear that everybody and his brother have to look at everything, I shudder and sigh. Then I try to work back to what it is everybody needs to buy in on. If it's core messages about a product's positioning, fine. Let's get the fundamental story straight first. But I always try to get the customer to draw the line at "everybody into the pool" endless wordsmithing and nitpicking. Unfortunately, some people are so into trying to make everyone happy (or, politically, trying to keep anyone from undermining a project), that they stick with the must-get-buy-in-from-everyone approach. Uuugggghhhhhh.

I will be hearing from Andrea shortly about the next steps in our current project. I have suggested an approach that I think will minimize the time, hassle, and back-and-forth for her team. Let's hope she takes me up on it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Beware of Blogstorms in the Weather Report

If you trolled around Blogland last weekend, you would have the impression that Apple and AT&T's iPhone activation process was a disaster. Assorted bloggers shared their tales of woe (very real); perhaps the most unfortunate was Josh Hallett of Hyku, whose activation took days. People who should know better cited web polls showing nearly 40% of users unhappy. (Of course, web polls are about as statistically valid as checking in with a Ouji board, but what the heck!)

That makes this news item in which AT&T says that there were problems with 2% of activations interesting.

Now, AT&T may be using some definition of "problem" that doesn't make sense, but for the moment, let's assume that not having a problem means your iPhone was up and running with, say, an hour. That's pretty reasonable.

2% is not something to congratulate yourself over; the goals should be 0%, of course. But 2% is not a disaster, either.

But if you were relying on blogs to find out what was going on, you'd have a rather different impression, wouldn't you? This points to the limitations of blogs as journalism. In the iPhone story, the big picture is important. That wasn't available by reading individual accounts, but that didn't stop a rush to judgment.

Note that I'm not criticizing anybody for sharing their story - that's interesting, that's appropriate for blogging, and that's potentially quite helpful to somebody experiencing problems and looking to see what's happening to others. It's the ongoing online conversation.

But the tendency to look to blogs for some deeper truth about something happening right now is troubling when that truth depends on taking a step back and looking at some quantitative information.

Meanwhile, for all of you who went through hell getting your phones activated - hope it's over and you are enjoying your new Object of Desire! It's made me a little bitter about my Blackjack, but I keep reminding myself that pre-iPhone it was doing everything I wanted it to, and that hasn't changed...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Marketing the Rockets' Red Glare

The Fourth of July is one of those holidays that you've just got to love.

It's summertime. It involves fireworks. It requires minimal shopping (other than hot dogs and watermelon). Other than making sure that you're wearing red and/or white and/or blue, you don't need to get dressed up. (Note to self: Once again, see if you can find a scarf to replace the nice Stars and Stripes one you lost when you went to hear Kerry speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. If not, wear LL Bean striped t-shirt and red-white-and-blue earrings.)

What is not to love?

Well, maybe it's the hokey ads that try to exploit The Glorious 4th.

I thought I'd do a quick inventory on the ones I've seen this year.

Southwest Airlines: You're now free to celebrate your birthday, America. I'm no big Southwest fan, and while the visuals are nice (all-American scenes), the kiddie voice-over singing "My Country Tis of Thee" is a tad cloying. But overall this is a nice extension of their "You're now free to move around the country" campaign.

Tide: Very similar in imagery to the Southwest Airlines ad: all shapes, sizes, colors of Americans wearing red, white, and blue.  But the song is different: "America the Beautiful." And the singer's a pro (Cyndi Lauper).  The ad has been running since the spring, but it seems especially apt this week.

And then it struck me that there just isn't that much to inventory of Fourth of July ads out there. All I've seen are the above and a few print ads for retail store sales.

Maybe it's because I'm not watching enough TV. Maybe it's because the only thing I do watch these days is my daily dose of Red Sox baseball. But there just don't seem to be enough red-blooded American marketers out there exploiting our Grand and Glorious 4th.

Good thing: reverence for our national high holy day?

Bad thing: can't make a buck off of patriotism?

In fact, it's probably not either. It may just be that we already have enough ads tooting the patriotic horn. (Think John Mellancamp's "This Is Our Country" ads for Chevy.)

In any event, here I was all to write a critique of all sorts of Fourth of July ads and there just aren't any in site.

Well, when in the course of human events there's nothing to blog about, there's nothing to blog about.

To all marketers everywhere, opinionated or not, American or not, have a Grand and Glorious 4th.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Wisdom of Meritocracy

Last week I wrote about one of the inherent problems with brain-dead content gathering systems like Digg - they're easy to game, because they're dumb by design. But this is actually a bigger Web 2.0 issue; there's a mythology of the "wisdom of crowds" informing the ideas behind a lot of social networking and tagging that's fundamentally flawed.

(And which is not, I should note, what James Surowiecki actually meant by that phrase in his very smart book on the subject.)

Continuing on this general topic, Mark Cahill at Vario Creative talks about the "answer people" in social media - that small number who actually provide most of the useful content. He raises this point while commenting on some new research on the topic (which I haven't reviewed myself yet, but am going to), and wonders:

So what is the ramification for the new trend towards social networking? It certainly suggests that you will need a means to identify, motivate and hold onto these ‘answer people.” The truth is, that while social networking tends to carry a “mobocratic” stigma, we need to firmly embrace meritocracy to succeed.

Mark has more to say, and you should click over there and have a look.

If social networking carries that "mobocratic" stigma Mark refers to, it's in large part a chosen stigma. Digg brags about its lack of editors, YouTube is about broadcasting yourself without any gatekeepers, tech gurus traipse around Silicon Valley talking about the wonderful "democratized" future of media, and so on. Whether this makes any sense or actually will enrich us is not something that rarely gets discussed; it's an article of faith that this will be great.

And so it's fascinating to see networks self-organizing into meritocracies. Could it be that it's because this is what people naturally prefer?

I'm not trying to channel Andrew Keen, who's selling a bunch of books these days by reducing this topic to a simplistic "internet bad!" rant (and in doing so, taking a basic idea about which he's correct and undermining it through shallow arguments). There is value in disrupting the established meritocracy, which can become so ossified that it offers up Britney Spears, Fox News, and reality television as its editorially-approved, gatekeeper-checked outputs.

But what is the next step in all this? It's great to see people considering that question. What new meritocracy emerges, and will it serve us well?

This is, I think, the big topic of social media in the coming years.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Nintendo Wii Goes Gray

Nintendo's doing something fun and interesting with Wii, and that's introducing it to the elderly, which was reported on in a recent Boston Globe article by Robbie Brown.

Hoping to up the demographic boundaries of its products, Nintendo rolled out Wii in a retirement community in the Boston suburb of Hingham. The residents (average age: 77) are using a shared Wii, wired to a 68-inch TV, to golf, box, bowl, swing a tennis racket, and play baseball - providing an opportunity to get back into a game that an elder may have abandoned as they aged, to pick up a game they'd never played before, and to get some all important exercise. (And another all important: a reason to come out of their rooms and socialize.)

While the Nintendo was designed for entertainment, apparently a number of folks have jumped on it. With its motion-detection device, it's a natural for physical training, rehab, and just plain old exercise.

For Nintendo, giving the  Wii's to retirement communities is good business:

"Our strategy is making sure it's in the right place for the elderly to touch and feel the Wii for themselves," said Perrin Kaplan , a Nintendo vice president: "Our target is everyone from 5 to 95."

That upward limit is a market that Nintendo (and other gamers) have had a hard time reaching, and one they hadn't anticipated as anything that the Wii would appeal to. Wii "lets users create virtual characters to represent themselves, does not include white as a hair-color option." Nintendo had tried designing mental puzzles for the elderly, but it now seems the "killer app" for the seniors is going to be exercise. (Hmmm, maybe I should strike that term "killer app.")

Head's up marketing on Nintendo's part. It seems that they capitalized quickly on the Wii for exercise trend as it began emerging, and, as a result that can pretty easily extend their products into a new market. Not to mention benefit those folks who might have thought they'd never swing a golf club again. No, it's not quite the real thing, but that will change a bit as the simulations get better. Meanwhile, I'm guessing that Nintendo designers are picking shades of white and gray for those Wii avatars right now.