Monday, April 30, 2007

Just What is a White Paper, Anyway?

Remember all those dopey, boring little themes you wrote in sixth grade that started out "According to Webster...."?

Well, now they start out with, "According to that completely unimpeachable source, Wikipedia...."

And, since I've been thinking a lot about White Papers lately (and, in fact, blogged on the topic just the other day), I thought I'd check out what Wiki has to say on the subject:

A white paper is an authoritative report. White papers are used to educate customers, collect leads for a company or help people make decisions. They can also be a government report outlining policy.

I'm sure that I'm not the only marketer on the face of the earth who has used and abused the term white paper over the years to cover any and all sorts of documents. Sometimes the only criterion seemed to be that the piece didn't contain artwork. And even then...

I'd like to see us B2B technology marketers come up with some type of standard definition of what is and what isn't a white paper.

White paper vs. off-white paper:
No, I don't want to join the content police, but can we all agree that the borderline between a white paper and an off-white paper is the introduction of specific feature/benefit information on your product. At that point, whether you want to call it that or not, your erstwhile white paper has become a brochure.

Although I violate this rule all over the place, I'd also like to see some sort of equation around length and depth.

I'm working with one small company and we have all kinds of little 1-2 page pieces that we're calling white papers that really don't have the heft (or gravitas) of a white paper. And that's okay. They're quick opinion pieces on things that are happening out in the real world that could have some impact on whether people would want to use our product. They are interesting, "good reads" (and no, I haven't authored all of them), and give our prospects something to think about. They establish authority and credibility for us, and demonstrate that - at least some of the time - we have our heads out of the clouds of insulated, rarified product development and actually pay attention to what's going on in the real world.

Now on my to-do list: get Company X to rename these critters "opinion pieces" or "briefs."

And funny thing about white papers. I used to say that the only people who read white papers are people who write white papers, and we're just looking for ideas to lift for our own work.

But apparently this isn't so.

As I posted on the other day, white papers are a principal source of information for a lot of tech buyers.

So, just what is in a white paper?
I again return to that unimpeachable master source, Wikipedia, which wisely tells us:

Typical content for a white paper might include:

  • Market Drivers
  • Problem Development
  • Historical Overviews
  • A Generic Introduction to the Solution
  • Benefits
  • What to Look for in an Ideal Solution

It's always nice if you can have quotes from industry analysts, "authorities", and even your customers. Just remember, you're giving them a platform in which to look smart (not tout your product).

And obviously, in an "Ideal Solution" you're not going to introduce too many ideas that conflict with your product's actual feature set. (It may not be a bad idea to add a few elements that a) no one is yet doing, but are on your drawing boards; b) are manageable with work arounds; or c) are relatively minor in nature - i.e., nothing that someone would make a buying decision on. Not making things too much of a slam-dunk will enhance your credibility and position as an authority.

Back to Wiki for things to avoid:

Because of their persuasive nature, white papers should be carefully crafted to avoid the perception of salesmanship. This can be easily accomplished by inserting key educational content that is relevant to the intended readers. White papers should begin by focusing on the needs of readers, rather than the specific solution suggested by the paper's sponsor.

Remember, it's not always all about you.

If your "white paper" starts sounding too much like a brochure or product description, it's not a white paper. Stop fooling yourself into thinking it is, because you can be assured that you're not fooling your prospects at all.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saturday Morning Odds & Ends

Odds and ends from my "blog about that" stack:

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Setting Expectations (Low): This morning I saw this on the results page after filling out a contact form on a web site:

Thank you for your feedback. A member of our staff may contact you soon.

Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see.

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Not the Proudest Moments in Advertising History: Slate has a gallery of racial stereotypes in ads. It's interesting, and uncomfortable in some cases, and perhaps the best take-away from it is that it's worth taking a moment to look at your current work and ask yourself, "Will this wind up in a similar gallery in 2050?"

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It's Its, Not It's: Seth Godin talks about the apostrophe, that frequently-misused punctuation mark:

That's the primary function of the apostrophe--to expose apostrophe ignorance.

That's accompanied by a photo of a Marriott restroom sign for "Womens," which apparently is the plural of the plural of woman. Which means... what? A four-dimension group of groups of women who transcend the ordinary boundaries of the time-space continuum? Or just what you'd expect from a constantly disappointing hotel chain (my personal opinion after too many sleepless nights thanks to paper-thin Marriott walls)?

Apostrophes are easy, folks. Just stop and un-contract the contraction, and you'll find your errors quickly.

Not that I've never made that error. I just engage in copious self-flagellation when I do.

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If You Have to Lie to Your Customers, Something's Wrong: Chocolate manufacturers want the FDA to let them call those waxy chocolate-flavored substitutes that nobody really likes "chocolate." Apparently - surprise! - people can tell the difference, and so they have to keep putting actual chocolate into popular candy bars and other products. In almost all cases, those products outsell the "chocolicious," "chocoriffic" stuff that's not actually chocolate.

It's fascinating to see an industry looking for permission to degrade the quality of their premium products to the level of their low-end products, in hopes that customers won't notice. Apparently the people making chocolate in the United States have no idea of the value of what they sell. Sad.

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We'll Do It Our Way: Unlike some, I don't find the whole idea of a print publication called Blogger & Podcaster ironic. Guess what? We all consume print media, even bloggers and podcasters. We ride trains, we want something to read at lunch, we want something for the plane ride.

I do, however, find their insane "magazine viewer" online reader incredibly irritating and stupid. Basically, instead of consuming web content as web content, we're supposed to "flip" through "pages" in a weird little viewer. Why? I suppose it's so that the people advertising in the print version can have their ads prominently displayed there.

There's another features - the ads talk to you. If that happened in a real print publication, I'd throw it out the bus window.

This, from people writing about new media?

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And that's the Saturday roundup. It's a beautiful morning in Houston, and my motorcycle is calling my name. Happy weekend!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Hear Ye, Hear Ye: Marketers Focus the Audio Spotlight on Consumers

The other day, The Boston Globe had an article by Jenn Abelson on something called an "audio spotlight device," from Holosonic Research Labs in Watertown, Massachusetts. Now, I'm almost automatically behind anything that's Made in Massachusetts. And I do love the use of screen beans, a personal favorite, on their home page. But from the applications mentioned in Abelson's article, I think we need "audio spotlight devices" as much as we need another hole in our heads.

The technology "sends sound in a narrow beam, just like light, making it possible to direct messages right into consumers' ears while they shop or sit in waiting rooms....[The device] has been used to hawk everything from cereals in supermarket aisles to glasses at doctor's offices. The messages are often quick and targeted -- and a little creepy to the uninitiated.

Well, I can imagine the messages being a little creepy to the initiated, as well.

In one use that Abelson describes, the spotlight was used to advertise a murder mystery show on Court TV. In the mystery book section of some bookstores, browsers had a whispering voice beamed at them that asked, "Do you ever think about murder?"

Easy to see the first lawsuit once someone on the border of being fully unhinged has a message beamed in his ear.

'Murder? Say, I hadn't really considered it, but now that God is whispering it in my ear. It's as if God is telling me something, isn't it? And, hey, when the Big Guy speaks, you gotta listen.'

According to the article, this technology is being used overseas. (Warning: stay out of Istanbul and Madrid airports and Fiat showrooms.) And a number of American consumer goods companies and retailers are evaluating it.

The audio spotlight will let marketers single out individual shoppers for special treatment. No more blaring "Gallon Jugs of Tide on special in aisle 3". Now messaging will be more selective. "You there, yes you, the one in the stained sweatshirt who just put the Teddy's peanut butter in your cart. You can get that stain out with Tide. Proceed at once to aisle 3."

Or, as you walk by certain products, you could be beamed info on it. Starkist is probably already considering resurrecting Charlie the Tuna to let us know how nutritional it is - and, of course, what good taste it has. Oy!

The thought of all those product icons talking to you. Snap, Crackle, and Pop; Speedy AlkaSeltzer; Mr. Clean; the Jolly Green Giant; the woman from those cheesy Mento's ads. What a nightmare! (I sincerely hope that Mr. Whipple is retired.)

I'm sure that advertisers will also be lining up seductive voice-over folks, too.

I might be able to resist the Jolly Green Giant telling me to buy three cans of Le Seur peas, but what if Martin Sheen is telling me to load up on Miracle Whip. (Yuck.) Will I be able to resist that siren call. What if Paul Newman starts directing me to buy his dressings? (Save your breath, Paul, I already do.)

The genius behind Holosonics founded the company while he was studying for his doctorate at MIT. Joseph Pompei believes that:

"It's a device that preserves the quiet. There's so much going on, it's sometimes an audio assault. This is like surround silence."

Well, one man's 'surround silence' is another woman's 'invasion of the sanity snatchers.'

I really hope that this one lets you opt out.

As with oh so many technologies, however, there are also some reasonable uses.

The MFA [Boston's Museum of Fine Arts] installed four audio spotlight disks as part of the recent exhibit, "Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006." Each designer's collection had its soundtrack playing in its own zone, but the technology ensured music from the Chanel collection did not cross over to Dior's.

I can also see that this sort of technology would be a big boon at tradeshows. If you've ever worked the booth opposite the one that has a carnival barker going non-stop, you'll know what I mean. Also in those multi-plex movie theaters with the rice-paper walls through which you can hear the bang-bang and car chases from the next film over.

And there are home uses: pinpointing music or TV so that one person's pleasure doesn't have to become your pain. As someone whose husband keeps the television on as background news (a steady state of financial news, "24", and basketball games from the Celtics' glory days), I can easily see the benefits of this type of application.

But product specific messages beamed at me while I shop? Turn-off, tune-out. Not even the voice of Martin Sheen.

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And a tip of the Red Sox cap she gave me to my sister Trish who pointed this article out to me. She is particularly disturbed at the thought of a cereal box talking to her. Who can blame her? Moms are already being marketed to in the cereal aisle by their kids.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Marketing Places

Tory Gattis writes about the latest from the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau at his Houston Strategies blog, commenting on a recent Houston Chronicle column on the subject. From the Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg:

When I tell people I recently moved from the Chronicle's Austin bureau to start writing this column, I often get an apology.

"Oh, I'm sorry," they'll say. "That must have been a hard move. Don't you miss it?"

"No, actually," I usually say. "Austin gets really small after a while. There's Prozac in the water, and people seem overly concerned with being weird. Houston, with all its imperfections, is real to me. I love this place."

But this is exactly the kind of anecdote that worries the folks at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

They're concerned that Houstonians lack pride in their sprawling urban metropolis, that they're so caught up in the hustle and flow of daily life we can't see all that America's fourth-largest city has to offer.

Mostly, they're worried that when my Aunt Judy calls from Seguin wanting to visit, I'll sigh sadly and say, "Wouldn't you have more fun in Austin?"

So, the folks at the bureau have devised a solution: an image campaign marketing Houston to Houstonians.

"We feel it's important to start inside and work out because if you don't have pride in yourself and you don't have pride in your surroundings, we can never convince people to come," explains Holly Clapham-Rosenow, the bureau's vice president of marketing.

In other words, if they build our confidence, tourists will come.

The bureau has been running ads in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio for some time, marketing Houston to outsiders.

But the local "My Houston" image campaign is starting out small, at a cost of only about $40,000. It will include ads in Houston Modern Luxury Magazine, featuring hometown celebrities explaining why they love Houston.

So far, the confirmed list of celebs is short: Mama and Papa H.W. Bush, heart transplant pioneer Dr. Denton Cooley, boxing and grilling legend George Foreman and fashion designer Chloe Dao.

And another effort at creating a brand for a place goes wrong.

Whenever a region or city decides to improve its image and marketability with branding (and I have done some of this work), the first thought is to look at the places that already have great brand identities: the SF Bay Area, Boston, Austin, New York City, and so on. And an important point is missed: those identities don't exist because a chamber of commerce or CVB dreamed them up. They grew organically around the actual brand characteristics of those places, which locals were regularly articulating. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley because somebody used the name and it stuck. "Keep Austin Weird" is a created slogan, but it reflects the way many people in Austin think about their provincial town small city.

Most regional branding efforts fall flat because they miss the important of organic branding. And the Houston CVB is no stranger to this, having inflicted such slogans as "Space City - a City of Infinite Possibilities" on our metropolis.

What's interesting is that the latest idea, the "My Houston" campaign, starts with a mistaken idea: Houstonians need to be told why they should like Houston.

Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg is skeptical as well: "I don't know where they get this idea that Houstonians bad-mouth their city."

In fact, Klineberg says, given Houstonians' persistent concerns about traffic, crime and pollution, it's shocking how much they love the place. According to the most recent annual Houston Area Survey results, more than 80 percent think H-Town is better than other metropolitan areas. Less than 10 percent said it's worse.

For more scientific proof, look at the wildly successful "Houston. It's Worth it." campaign, still available on its Web site of the same name. A photo book is due out soon.

Once you get past the comedic references to flying cockroaches and the miraculous skin-preserving benefits of humidity, there are thousands of comments on the site that could have been written by the visitors bureau folks themselves.

Houstonians gush over the low cost of living, authentic local restaurants, diversity, world-class museums, endless opportunity and generosity of the people, as exhibited after Hurricane Katrina.

Houstonians are quite aware that we don't have a great image around the country, but then, Houston is our little secret. If you all knew how good life here was, you'd all move here and wreck it with overcrowding.

And so you have to wonder, instead of selling Houston to Houstonians, why doesn't the CVB ask Houstonians to sell Houston?

The Houston, It's Worth It campaign would give them a great place to start: a local ad firm came up with a slogan and some funny cartoons of flying cockroaches and rainstorms and freeways, and wham - people started pouring their hearts out on the web about why they love this town.

The proper approach to create a regional brand is to stimulate the organic growth that's worked elsewhere. We have a big advantage over Silicon Valley in its early days: we can spread the brand message faster, thanks to the web and user generated content. We can give our residents ways to make the message their own and pass it on.

But we can't create the message, not the way that most areas try to do it when they embark on these regional branding adventures. The true messages - which are the ones that will be believable as brands - are already out there, if we bother to listen to them.

(And since I've just beaten up on our CVB, I'll say something nice: their Insider's Guide to Houston is much better than I would have thought, leading off with the Aurora Picture Show up the street from me. But they should have also included the Beer Can House and the Orange Show.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Call Center Chatbots

I don't know anyone who doesn't have some horror story about trying to get support from a call center. First there are the hideous menu-trees to struggle through and game (0-0-0-#-#-#). Then there's the wait to speak with a human being which, if you're lucky, they'll even estimate for you. Then there is the actual human being, claiming to be "Brian" when you know full-well he's sitting behind a console in Bangalore. If you are really fortunate, Brian will know what he's talking about and be really helpful. If not, well...we've all lived that hell now, haven't we.

Thus, I read an article on chatbots in The Economist (March 10, 2007) with some interest.

Chatbots are "conversational software programs" which

...aim to supplement and even replace human operators with software that can understand ordinary conversational language and thus deal with calls more efficiently.

IBM's "speech analytics" software listens in on actual call-center conversations checking for keywords that can help the CRM answer the caller's question.

The keywords are used to search the knowledge base and quietly make suggestions to the operator, so speeding things up.

As anyone who has been through the call center wringer following CRM suggestions that you know are useless and stupid ("Have you tried tapping your teeth and blinking twice?") while the CRM stalls for time, the idea of "speeding things up" is a good one.

In addition to software that assists call center personnel, systems are being developed to replace them.  Some companies are already using these for online typed-in support conversations, and there are chatbots being designed that can actually "hold" a conversation.

I remember many years ago (early 1980's, mainframe days) when there was a "conversational" program - I think it was called Liza - that you could ask questions to and get stilted answers. It was sort of a geek sex talk thing, very primitive. Some of the online chatbots aren't much better. I chatted with one and asked whether it was lying about something. Clearly keying off the word "lie", it answered "Well, you can't handle the truth."

Maybe so, but that particular chatbot couldn't handle a real conversation.

I did quickly check out Jabberwacky, the chatbot site of Rollo Carpenter, an engineer featured in the The Economist article.  I didn't have much time to play there, but it looked very interesting, and you can create your own bot there for only $30 a year. It can talk to Jabberwack itself, or to your friends bots. Yikes. (Is it live or is it Memorex?)

Of course, chatbots are best used in the predictable, structured environment of the call center where things aren't all that free-form. A support question is, after all, a support question.

One interesting thing noted in the article was that chatbots are going to have to know how to handle abuse. Where a chatbot is identified with a gender, females get more abuse than males, and black females get the most abuse of all. Nice, huh? (This finding was based on a study by Sheryl Brahnam of Missouri State University.)

It will be interesting to see where all this chatting-up by chatbots ends. I'm all for it when it comes to augmenting or even replacing much of the functions of a call center. I call a call center when I want an answer, not a relationship. Given the periodic frustrations we all have with call centers, I'm sure that there will still be human beings who can be called upon when a bit of nerve soothing is required.

But I don't see chatbots replacing human-to-human interaction anytime soon. I did, however, read somewhere about chatbot "pets" that are being introduced in Japan to provide companionship to the elderly. That I find completely dispiriting. Sure, we all need a kind word on occasion, but wouldn't it be nice to know that the kind word was coming from a fellow human being and not a machine.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

When Supermodels Have Serifs

I'm not sure whether this is simply an example of careful attention to branding or a harbinger of cultural apocalypse, but supermodel Kate Moss is now a typeface.

Probably the former, and the latter is just my inner cranky old man coming out; I image this would't even be interesting to me if the product was a soft drink rather than a supermodel. Still, I'm not sure whether to be appalled or impressed that anybody can say things like this without dissolving into giggles:

“Kate is in an exceptional territory of her own,” explains (designer Peter) Saville. “She is an icon to everyone, in that young women can relate to her and aspire to be her. She’s an accessible icon, and similarly she’s not intimidating. She’s synonymous with possibility for young women – she’s not mpossibly beautiful, or alluring, or mannered. It’s that that’s made her such an astonishing role model for her times. Plus Kate has never denied or denounced her roots; she hasn’t moved on to another world. All this has endeared Kate to a generation. She’s a brand. And this next stage for her is the inevitable product realisation of that brand.”

So what does Kate Moss look like as a typeface?



I think it's a cute retro nod to old-time fashion magazines; I can see it appearing in an ad in Vogue in 1955. Whether this captures the essence of the Kate Moss brand characteristics - or hey, maybe some aspect of her personality - remains to be seen.

My guess is that by 2011, though, you'll never see this font within a mile of Kate Moss.

(Random digression: I hadn't realized, until I read this Wikipedia article, that Saville designed the album covers for Joy Division's Closer and New Order's Power, Corruption & Lies. The latter is one of those albums that I played till the vinyl was wearing into nothing back in college, and was one of the first CDs I bought. Memories...)

Monday, April 23, 2007

B2B Tech Marketing: The content your buyers want most

KnowledgeStorm andMarketing Sherpaa recently release the first research piece in their Connecting Through Content Series.

Available to those who sign up with KnowledgeStorm (sign up is free), Issue One: How Technology Marketers Meet Buyers' Appetite for Content (March 2007) is a must-read for B2B technology marketers trying to figure out how to get through to their buying audience.

Based on a survey of 4,000 tech marketers and buyers, the report frames its conversation in terms of what technology buyers "crave": content.

For starters, as someone who for years has argued (sometimes fruitlessly) that techies like to read and learn stuff, not just see an ad with a pretty picture and 3 words, I love and laud the premise that marketing to techies means providing rich, meaningful content.

Among the findings: nearly half of the respondents "considered the information they found online to be of greater value to the content they received through other means such as events, mailings and publications," which certainly speaks to marketers' need to put increasing focus on what's online.

Another finding: content should be tied to the buying cycle, from "research to purchase." This is very important to keep in mind. I know that I give lip service to this concept all the time, but spend more time on the theory than the practice. Of the customers I'm working with at present, only one is consciously and officially addresses the buying cycle. Not surprising, it's the only really large company I'm working with.

But whatever the constraints that small companies face - and half of the companies I work with don't have a marketing department at all, so they face many - size shouldn't be an excuse for not mapping content to where the buyer is in their buying cycle.

White papers topped the list of what's on the technology buyers reading list.

Interestingly, webcasts were high on the technology marketers list of things to do, with two-thirds of them using them as part of their marketing mix, but less than one-third of technology buyers looked regularly to webcasts. (Ooops. Wish I'd seen this before I planned a webinar for one of my clients.)

Anyway, the report is a treasure trove of very current data (the survey was conducted in February 2007), and B2B technology marketers are well advised to give it a look - and then give their content marketing programs a long hard look of their own.

 

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Just to make sure I get all my begats straight, this originated from iMedia (which, in one of those viral "thangs", was e-mailed to my friend Sean who e-mailed it to me).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Some Notes for Software and Interface Designers

These are some simple rules for you.
  1. My computer belongs to me. I have set up all my preferences the way I want them. Do not add icons to my desktop or quick launch menu; I can decide for myself what needs to be there.
  2. Do not make things run in the background or when I start my PC. I can decide how much stuff I want running all the time, using system resources. There is no earthly reason for most of the software that dumps things into the Windows system tray to do that. I do not need my online meeting software running all the time; most of the time, I am working, not hosting a meeting.
  3. A routine upgrade is not an opportunity to change program preferences which I have set. When I turned off the "auto-detect media" option in Picasa - which should have been off to start with - I meant it. The fact that I installed a minor update this morning did not mean that I'd changed my mind and wanted it running in the background all the time.
  4. Your software should do its task and nothing more. Why did installing a printer/scanner make OmniPage decide that it's the default document to open PDFs? Why does it keep thinking that, no matter how many times I fix the file assocations in Windows?
  5. Your software shouldn't install other software I didn't ask for. I am so tired of saying, "No, I don't want the Google (or Yahoo or MSN) toolbar. No, I don't want Yahoo messenger." If I wanted it, I'd install it. Just give me what I'm asking for.

I am Mac/Windows agnostic, I have one of each type of machine running here, and while I generally prefer the Windows interface to do work - it's crisper, it's more flexible - these are the things that may make my next machine an Apple. Because Macs are very, very good about not letting new software insinuate itself all ove the place, whereas Windows software installation seems to be a free pass to just take over your machine.

It's irritating. It's the reason nothing made my Symantec will ever be permitted on any computer I have control over, ever again; removing the non-functioning Norton utilities suite was like uninstalling a virus. (It never worked - $60 down the toilet. Their support is nonexistent; after buying software that doesn't install correctly, they want you to pay to get help. This is a company that, in a fair world, would cease to exist.) It's why nothing made by AOL is ever allowed on any computer I control, ever, ever, ever.

If Microsoft could secure Windows so installers just couldn't do this crap without permission, I'd probably never consider a Mac again. If Windows software developers would think for a moment, "What does our user want?" it wouldn't be a problem.

As it stands today, this simple issue makes me hesitant to ever buy another Windows machine. Even though, in so many other ways, I think it provides a much better user experience.

Thus endeth this Sunday's rant.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Les Halles in Second Life, Ready for Your CareerBuilder Close Up

A residents' association in Paris is running a contest in Second Life in order to put a little pressure on the first-life city government. Plans were unveiled for a new garden at Les Halles, but residents are complaining that they're not being consulted about plans for this important project in a prominent spot near the center of Paris:
The association is urging locals to come up with their own ideas for the area's gardens and post them in the online world of Second Life, where people create virtual doubles of themselves called avatars.

Accomplir will shortlist five of the best projects, which will then be displayed on an island in Second Life.

The winner will be announced at the end of June and receive a reward of 275,000 linden dollars (785 euros, £530), the currency used in Second Life.

Accomplir will then go to the town hall with the winning idea, aiming to put pressure on officials to speed up the redevelopment process.
Using the web to get citizen input in a public way is a great idea, but I do find the to choice of Second Life as the place to do it kind of strange. It effectively limits the input to a pretty small group of people; most people don't use Second Life and aren't interested in Second Life. Despite the figures that we see for the number of "citizens" of the online world where, for the most, avatars stand around and look lost (approaching 6 million, according to its web site), the number of active users appears to be quite a bit smaller.

Not surprising, given that participation requires downloading software and learning to control an avatar and navigate the place - it's just more effort than most people are interested in expending. When you're trying to start a community initiative online, it's wise to lower the barriers as much as possible - let someone sketch their idea for the gardens, scan it, and upload it. Or create a video presentation.

In other "seduced by technology" news, CareerBuilder is going to let people add videos to their resumes. Kevin Dugan at Strategic Public Relations predicts that it will be "painful and entertaining." I think that's about right, but more importantly: who will watch these videos?

Think about how CareerBuilder works: people put their resumes online, so that they can be contacted by outfits holding cattle-call interviews for "sales manager" positions that usually involve no paycheck, and other such scintillating opportunities. Employers post jobs, and people reply, at which point their resumes are ignored.

It's almost impossible to get someone to read a resume on one of these services; does anyone expect employers to actually take the time to watch a video?

A better approach, I think, is a kick-ass resume that rises to the top of the electronic pile and includes a link to your web site - where you can post videos, portfolios, whatever will show off your talents - and which someone might actually look at once your resume has caught their attention.

Sometimes, the simple technology is the right approach. When you look at a resume, you expect to read something. When you open an email, you expect to read something. If you want community input, you make it as easy as possible for the community to provide it.
I do wish the folks at Accomplir in Paris luck. And those video-producing job hunters. I just wonder if there isn't an easier way for all of them to accomplish what they're trying to do.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Social networking gets down to business

A brief article in the April 7th Economist, "Joined-up thinking" described several of the business-side uses of social networking. 

First, they talked about some dubious marketing uses, which they termed "painful," one in which Pizza Hut set up a bogus delivery guy profile on MySpace to tout the company's promotion. (I bet that one got outed pretty fast.) They also mentioned the much maligned (late, but not lamented) WalMart teen site, The Hub.

If from the consumer side of marketing, social networking hasn't worked out so well when the "suits" are trying to control it, it obviously works from the citizen marketers perspective.

But The Economist was more interested in the more B2business person aspects of social networking.

LinkedIn is the obvious "first up" when it comes to a business use of social networking. Although I am an exceedingly light user of LinkedIn, I do have a profile (which I need to update), but I was still thinking of it as just a networking site in which people could comb around, see who knew who, and make some connections when they were looking for work. But there's more to LinkedIn than just that: 

LinkedIn has over 350 corporate corporate customers which pay up to $250,000 each to advertise jobs to its expanding networking...Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn's founder says corporate use of his service is now spreading beyond recruiters: hedge funds use it to identify and contact experts, for example.

Too bad I'm not a hedge fund expert. Still, I am going to go update my profile and see who among the 10 million other folks on LinkedIn I know and love.

Jobster is a social networking site aimed exclusively at recruiting (My Monster?). Members use tags to identify their skills, and the tags are used to match up with jobs that are posted there.

Unlike on LinkedIn, companies can set up private networks to ensure that the right kinds of people are alerted to openings and that the data they post stays under their control.

Visible Path sounds a little creepy to me.

The firm analyses e-mail traffic calendars and diary entries to identify the strongest relationships that exist inside and outside a company.

That's a little too invasive for my taste, but it's easy to imagine that it will hold appeal to the folks in their twenties who are used to living their lives in the public and MySpace and YouTube, and who will be using Twitter to let everyone they know that they've moved from the couch to the balcony.

IBM has apparently announced a new product, Lotus Connections, that looks interesting.  Employees use it to:

...post detailed profiles of themselves, team up on projects and share bookmarks. One manufacturer testing the software is using it to put inexperienced members of its customer-services team in touch with the right eneingeers.

This sounds like a really interesting application area, especially as company's move from strict hierarchies to fluid teams that come together on an ad hoc basis for specific projects, then go their separate ways onto different projects when they're finished up on one.

The article quotes Paul Jackson, a Forrester analyst, who says that "the business benefits [of social networking] are still unproven."

It sounds like Lotus Connections could be, if not the killer app here, one that can get corporations interested in intra-mural use of social networking. And unlike Web 2.0 upstarts with cool collaborative applications (like 37Signals), IBM has "enterprise" written all over it. (Remember when the saying was 'you couldn't get fired for buying IBM'? - well, in some ways it's still true.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tragedy Marketing

Responding to events that relate to your business is smart marketing, but it helps to have some semblance of common sense. And taste.

Consider this press release from an outfit called US Netcom:

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger indicated that it would've been difficult to warn every student because most were off campus at the time.

The fact is, Mr. Steger is wrong. Automated mass emergency notification could have been used to save more than 20 lives that morning. Mass notification should have been in place that would have given students more than two hours warning of the events unfolding on campus, including notification to students with cell phones who were attending classes.

Could mass emergency phone notification have prevented such chaos? It's entirely within reason.



They even include pricing for their service. It's repulsive. I can't even imagine what they were thinking. What are these people like, as people? With their families? Do they sit at dinner and say, "Honey, we had the coolest idea today - we heard about those shootings and so we put about a press release about how our products would have prevented them!" Do they seem like nice people until something like this reveals the gaping vacuum where most people have empathy and sense of what's appropriate?

(A sharp rebuke to US Netcom can be found at The Bad Pitch Blog and Jim Hopkins at the USA Today small business blog wrote about it.)

They're not alone, of course; if you do a Google search of "Virginia Tech" you still find an ad from Rave Wireless; they've also got a press release and statement on their site. It's nothing as atrocious as what US Netcom put out, but I think they'd have been better off to have just skipped it.

I wonder, what kind of useful business activity do they get by sponsoring "Virginia Tech" on Google?

There are certainly gray areas around tragic events - particularly for the media, who often have trouble remembering when "informing" becomes "exploiting." But I don't see too much gray around US Netcom.

Not the Most Social Customer Survey

Would this email want to make you answer a customer survey?



It would be easy, amidst the garbled HTML, to miss the part about getting an Amazon.com gift certificate for taking it. Or you might miss it among the page and a half of legal language, almost all of which could have been included on the web site after clicking the link.


But if you do click the link to take it, you might have the experience I did - after answer three very general demographic questions, you're unceremoniously dumped onto the Zune homepage. No gift certificate. No explanation.


The outfit behind the survey, Cross-Tab, looks legitimate enough, but you have to wonder when you see something like this. Customers generally like to provide feedback. If you send garbled emails and then promise a gift but don't come through, however, not only to they stop wanting to give you feedback... they stop wanting anything at all to do with you. (Welcome to the social, indeed.)

And it's so easy to do this correctly. Consider this survey from Cafe Press:
The email is is clear and easy to understand. It's formatted to display correctly in a web mail client. When you click the link, you go to to a survey that actually works correctly. And the coupon is offered in advance, whether you complete the survey or not - an example of trust that leaves the customer feeling good about participating, and won't leave her or him feeling ripped off if something goes wrong (as happened with Microsoft, and which can happen even to the most careful company).

Fortunately for Microsoft, there are so few Zune users that the damage should be minimal. I'm not really one of them, by the way; I downloaded the music management software that goes with the Zune just to see what they were doing, and then deleted it, but I'm on the list, even though it's one "social" that doesn't interest me much.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Stuck in the Elevator approach to messaging

Mary Schmidt's recent post, Merde before Magic, made the point that, when you come up with messaging for a customer, you just need to start getting something down on paper. It won't be brilliant or perfect to begin with - and may, in fact, never be anything more than serviceable. But you gotta start somewhere.

I often start with what I call a "Stuck in the Elevator" pitch (which is a more fun way to think of it than as  a positioning statement). This is a far longer version of the classic (and never, ever, ever in the history of mankind actually used in an elevator) elevator pitch.

The stuck pitch is a rather longish piece, typically 250-500 words or so that pretty much capture the essentials, the thing that someone would want to know about your company and/or product(s). Here's what goes into a Stuck Pitch:

  • What your company/business unit is all about
  • What product you offer, i.e., what exactly does it do? what's it used for?
  • Who uses your product
  • What they get out of using it

Yes, the same information can be contained just as it's shown above, in neat little summary bullets. But, for me, getting all the words down in paragraph form is actually helpful. It fills in blanks and makes you think things through. It may overexplain things, but writing things out in full sentences helps make sure that the meaning is clear. When you start out by taking short cuts  - which is what those short, bulleted lists are - the information is subject to misinterpretation. Meaning is lost, you forget what you meant by a particular word.

S-P-E-L-L everything O-U-T.

It may seem like a drag to begin with - so much easier to think and act in bullet points - but trust me, this will help ensure that your message is true, clear, and meaningful.

Once we've got this "source document", I do a 100 word version, then a 75 word version, then 50, 25, 10.... By the time you've got it down to 10 words, you've got the heart of your message.

And once those 10 words are out there, let's hope you get those 3 little words that are music to a marketer's ear: Tell me more.

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Plus you've got your "capsule stories" that you can use for online listings, printed directories, trade show books. No more scrambling around at the last moment.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Your Web Content is Always One Second Old

(This post is not directly about yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech, but it does relate to it, so I do want to take a moment to express my sympathy for the victims and their families, friends, and community.)

It doesn't matter when you posted it; to a visitor, your web content might as well have gone live five seconds ago. And that means that when something happens in the world, your web site needs to reflect that.

Case in point: Yesterday, Americans were shocked by the horrific mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech.

But, as Mother Jones magazine points out, you would not have known this if you visited the web site of the National Rifle Association, the primary lobbying group against gun control laws in the US. After the shootings yesterday - and even as I write this, more than 24 hours later - the site features an article touting their lobbying activities (dated April 13). Auto-playing videos ask you to donate money. There's nothing to indicate that a gun-related tragedy happened yesterday, nor even a link to the brief written statement on the topic that the group released.

This is just utter ineptitude on the part of the organization and its public affairs staff. When a tragedy like yesterday's takes place, the nation starts talking about gun control, and the NRA is always part of that discussion. It doesn't matter whether you think that the NRA is a bunch of crazed gun nuts, or heroic defenders of our Constitutional rights; it's obvious that yesterday's events would bring attention to them.

They didn't have to do much - perhaps just put something expressing sympathy at the top of the page with a link to their statement, or replace the home page with a splash page for a day or so. This is not difficult or expensive.

It doesn't matter that the material that is there now is a few days old and predates the shooting. The moment that the shootings happened, that material became the NRA's response - or lack of one.

(Mother Jones reads a political motive into it, but I think that's a stretch. Cluelessness seems more probable.)

An example of an organization doing a much better job is Virginia Tech itself, as Josh Hallett describes. During the midst of the crisis, they put an update on the university home page. Today they have a memorial page up with information about events and resources for the campus and for the media.

When something happens outside of your organization that will bring attention to you, the content of your web site is the first thing most observers will see. You cannot leave old content up and hope that everybody understands that you're very busy these days and didn't have time to change it. Every moment of every day, your web content is brand new in the eyes of site visitors. Make sure it doesn't embarrass you!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Parago/Circuit City Finale: Victory is Mine!



(Entire story here.)

Constant Comment: Blogging at Bigelow Tea

April 9th was apparently just another normal day on Bigelow Tea's blog. Dean told about how Bigelow cleans its tea-bag making equipment each spring. ("Not all tea companies take such a proactive approach...") 3 comments.

April 10th started innocuously enough, as well, with recipes for muffins made with Pomegranate Pizzazz and cake made with Tasty Tangerine. (The Tasty Tangerine cake sounded really good.) 0 comments.

By early afternoon on the 10th, however, there was trouble brewing for Bigelow.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who had their TV turned on for more than a nanosecond last week. After all, not only is Bigelow the makers of "Constant Comment" (and other teas), it was, until it was canceled last week, a sponsor of Don Imus' talk show.

So Bigelow Tea found itself right smack dab in the middle of a pretty big tempest in a pretty big teapot.

In her blog entries, Bigelow co-president Cindi Bigelow - and doesn't it just tell you something about a family-owned business that they have co-presidents - dealt pretty candidly with the Imus brouhaha (brewhaha?).

She wrote about where they were in their process. At the time, Bigelow had not necessarily made any up or down decision on advertising, but did - of course : what else could you say?- condemn the comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Further, she reaffirmed her commitment to continue as a participant in a long-scheduled Imus radiothon to raise money for a number of children's health related charities.

One of Cindi's posts inspired 133 comments which predictably ran the gamut: 1) how can you NOT support Imus, I'll never buy your tea again; 2) I never realized you ran ads on Imus, I'll never buy your tea again;  3) I never realized you ran ads on Imus, but I love your tea so thanks for taking them off; and 4) I used to watch Imus, I don't drink your tea, but I will now.... In other words, a smattering of all possible combinations of tea-no-tea/Imus-no-Imus/ads-no ads.

(Apparently, Bigelow got thousands of e-mails, too.)

But what they did on their blog was, I think, pretty well done:

  • They did not shut people down.
  • They did not shut people up.
  • They did not retreat from support for the Imus good works radiothon.
  • They seemed honest and thoughtful in their posts.

Of course, they were spinning. And who knows what the longer term outcome of this situation will be for them. For one thing, I'm sure that there are a lot more Bigelow tea drinkers out there who never watched/listened to Imus but who now feel they know him and wonder just what Bigelow was thinking in advertising on his show. So I'm guessing they take a little hit from this.

But people who like Constant Comment tea like Constant Comment tea.

For Bigelow, in all likelihood, it is just a tempest in a teapot. But I'm guessing that there advertising dollars will be going to sponsor shows that aren't quite the spicy zinger that Imus was.

In any case, I'm going back for that tangerine cake recipe.

From a marketing perspective, Bigelow has a blog that is serving them well. It has interesting posts - like the recipes - that will bring people back to the site, and they used the blog effectively to communicate to their customers during a time of crisis. The blog forum is more intimate and interactive than issuing a press release, and Bigelow Tea is doing a good job with theirs.

 

Afterwords:

Imus
First, a brief weigh-in on Imus:  I've never actually watched or listened to his show, but my second hand impression is that he's someone who thinks that because he's on a first name basis with John McCain and John Kerry; does provide a venue for the occasional intelligent conversations on his program; gives a lot to charity; and is not "personally" a racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-semitic bigot, he's got a special  license to use terms that are hurtful and demeaning, if he uses them in a "joking" manner. Sorry, Don, unfunny is unfunny.

Further, his using these terms aids and abets people who are bigots, giving them comfort and permission to continue to embrace these terms (and the underlying thoughts they express) . I don't think he would have been put off the air if there hadn't been such a crazed media-push outpouring and a big rush to the microphone. And he probably shouldn't have been put off the air. That said, if this situation actually puts the brakes on the downward spiral and coarsification of public discourse (especially when it comes to the contemptuous shock-jock treatment of women, gays, and minorities) then it's well worth the Imus martyrdom (which is likely temporary, anyway).

Bigelow Advertising
When I first heard that Bigelow was canceling its advertising on Imus, my reaction was, 'what the heck is a tea company doing advertising on that show.' That was because my impression of the show was that it's listeners were not likely to be tea drinkers.

I mentioned this, over cups of tea, to my old friend Marie who told me that she was, in fact, an occasional Imus listener. Few radio stations, she told me, are available at her vacation home in Rhode Island, but one that is carried Imus. Marie - kind, decent, brainy, thoughtful, middle-aged, liberal, tea-drinking, Worcester girl, wife-mother-friend-volunteer and all round good person; friend since we met on Day One our freshman year at Notre Dame Academy; that Marie - is a political junkie, and if Imus had a politician on, or a pundit, or a Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd, David Gregory type on, Marie listened in.

Sometimes he's a jerk, Marie told me, but he did have interesting people on his show.

So, if Marie listened to Imus, he must have some redeemable value; and Bigelow must have been spot-on in advertising on the show.

While we had this conversation, we were finishing up lunch in a restaurant and the tea we were drinking was, indeed, from Bigelow.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Answer the Questions You're Asked

I thought I made it pretty easy.

On Friday I put an ad on Craiglist looking for web help. I was relatively specific; I explained that I had a small, primarily informational B2B site. I explained that I was very happy with the site design and content, though I had some ideas about changes and additions in the future; my concern was that the small web company that built it and is now maintaining it had become very unresponsive to issues like site outages and broken forms, and so I was interested in finding someone who, going forward, I could work with on site changes. I said that I wanted someone who could also identify a new host for the site and handle that for me.

I explained that the site was only updated every month or so, and that the only thing on it besides informational pages was a few forms for people to request information or download PDFs.

And I explained what I wanted in a response from someone interested in the work: those who thought they could help me should tell me a bit about who they were, give me links to some sites they've worked on, and tell me a bit about how they operate and charge. (I didn't include a link to the my site; I didn't want to get spammed, and so I told people that if they sounded like a fit, I would forward on that information so we could get specific.)

I got a lot of responses, of course, and what's striking about them is how many people didn't tell me what I asked.

I got emails from people talking about their ability as Java developers. I got obviously-canned emails from people telling me that they would build me a new site (something I specifically said I didn't need.) I got emails with people's resumes attached to them in Word format. I got emails about people's ability to do SEO.

When the first few were coming in, I had some vague thoughts of sending a polite response to everyone, but those have passed. Honestly, the majority of them don't even sound like the person even read anything in my request other than the words "web site."

Here's the other piece of it, not in the ad. I'd really like to find somebody not just for this small project, but whom I can use for client work. That means that they have to be smart and responsive, so I don't have a vendor making me look bad to my clients.

Most of these folks have disqualified themselves based on that. Moreover, they are wasting my time; now I have all these emails tucked into a folder so that I can sit down and do a first pass (delete, delete, delete) to eliminate the people who not only don't appear to match my needs, but haven't even tried to tell me why I should bother with them.

It can be hard to figure out what customers want. But it's not very hard when a customer tells you explicitly, the way I did.

If you can't answer questions when you're asked them directly, why should a customer bother with you? If you wasted their time when they needed service A and you offered B, why should they try again with you when they actually need B? The folks who gave them A probably can give them B too, or point to somebody else who can.

What's especially irritating about it is that these are the people smart enough to be scanning Craigslist for potential customers who are raising their hands to say, "I need some help!" And then they're blowing it by ignoring what they are being asked.

And I have about 70 emails to sort through.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Seth Godin on Vision and Change

Seth Godin hits on something critical in a post on being "anti-change vs. "pro-business":

The car makers continue to lobby hard, or even sue, over emission rules. Wendy's, as previously discussed, is working hard against a rule in New York requiring they post calorie counts. It's common wisdom that government regulation is bad for business, and especially bad is regulation that requires change.

I don't get it.

I get it, and it's a result of lack of vision.

Too many companies are focused on where the market is now, and where it will be tomorrow, but forgetting what it will look like next week, next year, or in the next decade.

The auto industry is a great example: they've fought every safety improvement that's ever come along. Seat belts? Air bags? They'll ruin us!

But of course they haven't. Forced by government regulation, manufacturers have adapted. (Other issues, of course, may be ruining them, but it's not airbags.)

Consider the current debates going on about plastic bags in grocery stores. The initial reaction is the short-term reaction: don't make us stop giving our customers something they want.

Of course, if you go to a grocery store in France (to pick somewhere that I have gone shopping), you'll find this problem has already been solved: if you want a plastic bag, you pay a small charge for it. So lots of people bring durable, re-usable bags to the store. And if you run in on impulse and don't have a bag - or maybe you just need some at home for scooping the cat litter - you pay a very small amount for it. (I never actually saw paper bags, which aren't exactly environmentally friendly anyway - trees, anybody? Have you seen what happens when we make paper?)

The grocery stores who figure this out first in the U.S. will get green shoppers. If others follow, the issue will go away.

The reactive "don't regulate me!" impulse often comes from having a short-range horizon and short-range understanding of the market. But it goes beyond the issue of regulation; it's more mundane objections to new ideas, too.

Do you know what your customers will want in five years? Wouldn't you like to be the first one there?

Web Site Advice for Small Companies (thanks to Mark Cahill)

A week or so ago, Mark Cahill over at Vario Creative, had a post listing tips for making your company's web site active and engaging.

The list was thorough and thoughtful, but, as someone who works for a number of small companies, it gave me heart palpitations.

"My companies" tend to be understaffed when it comes to marketing. Sure, we all readily acknowledge that our web sites are important, but it seems enough of an effort to refresh the content every few months. If we pay much attention to more regular updating, we're violating Mark's first point. "Press releases don't take the place of real website updates." How come? No fair! Wah, wah, wah....

Naturally, I left a "this is all well and good" comment, asking for more practical advice for the little guys who aren't hip deep in resources to throw at their web sites when all of their efforts going into building-supporting-selling the product.

Well, a day or two later Mark was back with a response that got into the pragmatics of keeping your web site alive.

Here's a quick look at the highlights (these are Mark's words, pared down):

  • Regular content updates on the site (besides press release) can be as simple as adding a quote from a customer, updating a list of new customers, or even posting information on your most frequent customer support request.
  • Blogging is cheap...you can make a decent impact by blogging twice a week 
  • Wikipedias
  • Participating in online communities  
  • Automate the rotation of your products on the homepage
  • Sponsoring niche communities is dirt cheap

Frankly, the list remains "daunting", but I have already started putting together recommendations for my small companies to put a subset of Mark's suggestions into action.

Even a company with very limited resources can take step one and post customer wins and a regular Q&A from the support data base.

Blogging, even twice a week, is a pretty big commitment, but if you can get someone to fall in love with the idea (and having a sounding board)...

Automated rotation of products is kinda hard if you only have one product. Sponsoring a niche community might be difficult when you're just starting out and don't have much traction with customers yet, but I'll think about it. (Hmmmm, maybe we could get providers of services in adjacent spaces to contribute....)

The two suggestions that I particularly like are the ones about Wikipedia and the participation in online communities. One reason I like these is that both seem like things that you can do one-shot (or occasional shot). Yes, I realize that approaching this with a one-shot mentally isn't going to work any better than thinking that your annual web-site update is sufficient. But if you start out thinking relatively small, it might be easier to get someone in the company to volunteer for duty.

Anyway, go check out Vario on this topic - there's a lot of merit in what Mark Cahill has to say.

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I want to say thanks to Mark for responding so thoughtfully and quickly to my comment.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Not to Handle Bad News

If you do a Google News search right now (it may be different when you read this, of course) for "Turbo Tax Security" you'll find a bunch of stories like this one: Glitch Gives Woman Access To Others' Turbo Tax Information.

If you were a Turbo Tax Online customer and this made you nervous (as it should), and you went to their web site right now, here's what you'd find on their home page about the incident:








Nothing.

If you looked farther down the news search results, you'd find out that they fixed it. But if you didn't look harder (and most people won't) but instead just turned to the company for an explanation... you'd probably wind up choosing a different tax prep option.

Information travels fast. Hiding doesn't work.

Notes from the Spam Arms Race

I'm not a fan of captcha - those little letters and numbers you have to type to validate your identity on forms all over the place - and I think it's often done poorly, but it does serve a purpose: getting in the way of automated spam applications that try to pound out site registrations, blog comment spam, and the like.

So I think it's really weird that you can download a tool to get around it from ZDnet.

Is there some legitimate use of this I'm not seeing? I just don't expect to find tools for spammers on a reputable site.

Newspapers on the Web

Here's a New York Times article about the thirty most popular newspaper web sites in the US. (They're number 1.)

The results aren't too surprising; to some degree, site popularity seems to be driven by a paper's circulation and reputation, as well as the size of the area they serve. So up in at the top you find the Times and USA Today and the Washington Post and the LA Times.


A little hometown shout-out for the Houston Chronicle, which came in fifth. The Chronicle is not a great newspaper, largely because of the economic challenges all papers who aren't the big nationally known elite face: they don't spend enough money on reporting, so they wind up relying heavily on wire services and articles from other papers for things that you'd expect a newspaper in the country's fourth-largest city to cover on their own.


They have, however, been very aggressive in using the web, and as a result their site is dramatically better than the paper itself. They've also been way ahead of the curve in incorporating user-generated content: a section of reader-written blogs has morphed into a community space where readers can not only blog but post pictures and interact with one another.


(Full disclosure: I was one of the initial crop of Chronicle reader bloggers (writing about politics) and still blog there.)


That seems to be paying off in site traffic; I note that the Dallas Morning-News site, produced by a generally superior newspaper in a slightly larger metro area, is way down the list. (Deservedly so - it's pretty mediocre.)


You can see signs on this list of who's doing well adapting to a new media environment, and who's not. We haven't reached the winnowing phase yet - when paper publishing simply doesn't make economic sense anymore - and I don't think that's coming too quickly. There's still too much appeal to paper. But we may start seeing some victims among papers who aren't keeping up with the web.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

MLB Merchandising: Play Ball

Now that the season is upon us - that's The Season, by the way - I'm getting a lot more e-mails from MLB and the Red Sox making sure I know about all of the wondrous merchandise I can buy.

Personally, my favorite items so far as the multi-lingual Red Sox caps and t-shirts.I would, in fact, probably go and pick up a Gaelic something or other this Sunday, since I have tickets. But they're predicting heavy rain, so I may have to take a raincheck on getting that Stocai Dearga cap. Or the Italian one: Calzini Rossi. Or the Spanish: Medias Rojas. (I can't do the Japanese or Hebrew ones justice here, but they're very cute.)

Whatever else you can say about Major League Baseball (in general), and the teams (in particular, I tip both of my current Red Sox caps - classic "B" and the one with the little red sock logo on it -  to the Home Town Team): THESE FOLKS KNOW HOW TO PUSH THE BRAND.

Not that I don't know how to push the brand, but in B2B technology (especially in smaller companies without a lot of means for brand-building), there just aren't as many fun opportunities as there are when it comes to baseball.

Admittedly, I've ordered (and used) my share of logo-ware over the year. I still carry my Softbridge tote from LL Bean, and wear the swell denim shirt we got everyone in the company when we unveiled our new logo. I use my Genuity backpack most days, and my husband has a nice long-sleeved IP Services polo. I still have an Interactive Data Corporation notepad with my name on it. Sure, the paper is yellowing, but I occasionally come across it and scrawl a note to myself on it.

But I can't hold a candle to MLB when it comes to the sheer, exuberant volume of team stuff there is out there.

I am in possession of the Spring mlb.com catalog, which just arrived in the mail.

I'll admit I was a bit miffed that I had to get all the way to page 3 to find any gear with Boston on it. (The Yankees made it on page 2, with a little picture of Derek Jeter in an add for their premium TV and alerting service. I did take some fine-print comfort here. The "alert" pictured had a score of Bos 6 NYY 3 under it, and Jeter appeared to be flying out.)

The stuff you can buy! Camo t-shirts. Bobble-headed dolls. Schedule watches. Silk ties. Flip-flops. Boxers. Pencils. Pens. Bedding.  Street signs. Mr. Potato Head. The world's most hidesou reclining chair. Tiffany lamps. Lava lamps.

(Hey, I had a Genuity Black Rocket lava lamp at one point. It now belongs to my sister Trish. So: B2B Tech can be as much fun as MLB after all.)

I'll have to get me one of those Mr. Potato Heads for the Red Sox. Or should I get the Yankees one and let the potato rot?

My all time favorite MLB merchandise, however, was not in this spring's catalog.

It's the Major League Baseball themed caskets and urns from Eternal Image.

For many baseball fans, rooting for that special team was a lifelong commitment. That is the inspiration behind Eternal Image’s extraordinary line of urns and caskets, each individually reflecting one of the 30 Major League Baseball™ teams.

If you're not into baseball, they also have merchandise deals with the American Kennel Club, Precious Moments, and the Vatican. Something for everyone.

I posted on this last fall, in Playing Ball in the Great Beyond.

What can I say?

I love this game.

Hey, wasn't that the MLB tag line last year?

Jeez, they've even got me using their old tag line.

I told you these guys were good.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Web 4.32 rev 0.831

Over at Digital Axle, Ana Yoerg talks about the latest "stick a number after Web" absurdity: Web 2.5.

I had enought trouble with "Web 2.0" but I've grudgingly come to admit it means something. Of course, "2.0" is just a nifty way to say "this has become something different" - in this case, something truly interactive and user-driven.

But it's not a goddamn software release, people.

The reason that I can deal with the "Web 2.0" terminology (yes, I'm very cranky about new buzzwords) is that the shift from a web that primarily put information in front of users and enabled some structured communications and transactions with them into something that's much more malleable from the user's point of view really is a fundamental change.

But whenever I read some 2.5 or 3.0 definition, it's all just adding to bling to that. Vertical search! Communities! Folks, there have been online communities since people were dialing up into them to access somebody's bulletin board server running on an Amiga in the basement. This is not a new paradigm. These are features.

Something might come along worthy of the name "Web 3.0." But I suspect it won't be anything like the web as we know it, and might have more to do with what's now available via the web becoming more of a pervasive network accessible via many devices.

Mostly, though, I hope that when that does happen, nobody calls it "Web 3.0."

The Many Faces of Parago

Since the last installment of my Circuit City rebate tale, I've gotten more email from Parago, the company that Circuit City uses to make sure they don't have to honor their rebates.

As of that last post, on April 5, I'd received an email informing me that my check would be mailed in 7-10 days, followed by one telling me that the information I'd provided several times needed to be provided again (conveniently enough, with the several emails containing the information attached to the request).

Since then, more email: on April 6, a note telling me that my check will be sent in the next 2-4 weeks; then, today, another email telling me that it will be mailed in about 30 days.

So let's see; as of April 4, my check was to mailed sometime late this week; but now, on April 9, it's not happening till May.

This would be comical, if not for my ever-growing suspicion that the point is to avoid paying out rebates - which would, I believe, be fraud, and not particularly funny at all.

Time Delay Email from Microsoft

When Microsoft introduced the Zune last November, I was curious about it; the hardware actually sounded like a decent product, and I wondered what they'd done with the software. So I downloaded the Zune software, installed it, poked around a bit with it, decided that it was not terrible but vastly inferior to iTunes, and uninstalled it.

(I'm actually not a big iTunes fan; for me it's in the "less crappy than the alternatives" category.)

In order to install the software, you had to register with Microsoft. So I did - this would be late November or maybe earlier December.

And I received an email confirmation of that. Today.

The subject line was "Welcome to the social!" And I thought, "Buddy, I came to the social, I had a look, and I left a long time ago."

It's rather amazing, though, to think that a company with Microsoft's resources is sending four month late email confirmations. If anybody should be able get this kind of simple task right...

Just how much packaging DOES a stylus need?

Sure, I occasionally cast an envious eye on my friends who are toting Blackberries. And I occasionally cast an envious eye on my friends who are still using a FiloFax or some other paper-based means to manage their schedules. But when it comes to technology I'm a second wave adopter, hold-and-use kind of consumer.

My nothing-fancy Palm Pilot has been a pretty reliable companion for the last seven or so years. (I've had it for so long I've even forgotten how weird and goofy the name is.)

I got my Palm when I worked for Genuity. Truly, it was the only way to keep track of your existence, given that the company ran on dawn-to-dusk meetings. Some days, it was just like being in high school. You left your home room/office at 8 a.m. and didn't return until the end of the day. Except at Genuity, you generally worked through lunch (food provided) and you seldom got a study hall break.

So, I was pretty much stuck on my Palm Pilot.

Over the years, the only problem I've had is a couple of lost styluses (styli?).

The other day, I lost a stylus.

No problem.

At Staples, they only came in 3-packs.

Problem, but not much of one. Just an annoyance because I only need one stylus at a time. And at my average rate of stylus loss - one every two years or so - by the time I lose my next stylus I will have long since forgotten where I stored the other two. Necessitating a trip back to Staples to buy another 3-pack.

But, no, the 3-pack purchase was not the problem. The problem is the execrable plastic packaging they came in.

At first, I was optimistic that it was going to be easy - thumb-nail, only, needed to open it.

But, no. That was not going to happen.

Unfortunately, I was in a place where there was no scissors, so I had to try to open the packaging with a knife.

I am not the most skilled knife-wielder in the history of mankind, and I lean towards impatience, so I forced myself to open the package with ultra-caution. I was not worried about poking my eye out with the knife - hey, poking your eye out is what the stylus is for, no? I was more concerned the knife would slip and I would sever a finger tip. Or - worse - that the knife-cutting-plastic would jump up and sever an artery.

And that's how my life would end, blood gushing all over a still-unopened 3-pack of styli, my last words a simple plea, "Why can't we have packaging that's easier to open....."

It will be a while before I have to purchase another plastic-fantastic stylus 3-pack. Perhaps my Palm Pilot will have run out of steam by the time I misplace my next stylus. Isn't that what built-in obsolescence is all about?

All I know is that, an hour or so after I bought (and somehow managed to prise open) my new stylus, I'd already forgotten where I'd stored the spares. 

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Road to Nowhere - Education Department

Paleo-Future, a blog devoted to what the future used to look like, regulary runs clips from the CD-ROM that was packaged with The Road Ahead by Bill Gates back in the 90s. That was an attempt by Gates to show how information technology was going to change the way we live. Apart from the embarrassing hairstyles, overly chirpy tone, and endless product placements in the video clips, it's actually one of the more accurate looks at the future - but, as always happens when somebody predicts the future, there are funny anachronisms. (Such as a "future of police work" clip in which a detective says, "Can I record this conversation?" and then slams down some kind of digital sound recorder the size of a three ring-binder on a desk.)

There's one clip, however, that really struck me, because it hit on a pet peeve of mine. Whenever technology entrepreneur types start talking about education, their complaints with our education system mostly sound like, "They don't use enough of the high tech products that we sell."

I don't think they mean it as self-centered as that sounds - it just comes out that way. These are folks who've seen IT change the way we bank, buy things, plan travel, and so on, and they assume that a dose of technology will make education better.

I'm really skeptical of that; the most important part of education is learning how to think, and I don't believe that technologies that makes markets and transactions more efficient (by providing markets with better information, by reducing transaction costs and times, and so on) are likely to help students learn to think critically, analyze information, draw logical conclusions, and so on. In fact, I think there's a real risk of just the opposite: creating student ADD akin to that suffered by managers who can't focus for 10 minutes because they're checking their email.

Yes, there are some ways that technology is great: providing better access to information to do research, for example. But that's changing processes, not changing fundamentals.

And so here's the clip of the Bill Gates classroom of the future.

 

It's funny, but it's also horrifying; with technology, instead of sitting in a boring, 20th century library actually finding information about his topic, the student was able to make a video clip which inspired his class to shake their booties to that funky Incan beat while offering absolutely no information (other than "The Incans are dead now").

(And what's with all the kids giggling about an entire civilization being wiped out? Nice.)

If that's the classroom of the future, we're doomed.

More to the point, this is why when tech entrepreneurs start lecturing educators about how to teach, somebody should send them an email or IM to distract them and shut them up.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

It's All in What You Call It

When Bank of America scooped up one of my credit cards by buying the credit card business from the bank that had it before, I was happy; I use BoA already and their online banking is excellent. One of the nice features is that you can download everything into Quicken, saving you the trouble of entering things manually.

But when I tried to do this for my credit card, I couldn't do it anymore. I emailed customer support asking how to download current transactions (I typically do this every day or so).

Here's what they told me:

Due to system enhancements, you will no longer be able to download current activity on your account on a daily basis.

Here's my question: how is removing a useful feature an "enhancement?" When someonen was writing these canned responses, did they stop and think that customers might not consider this an "enhancement?" Did they feel stupid writing that? They should have.

The Special Language of Business

Some fun for a Saturday morning: Matthew Stibbe at Bad Language offers The Devil’s marketing dictionary. It's marked Part One; I look forward to the next installment!

Meanwhile, have some fun coming up with your own additions. My favorite:

Call to action. The mating cry of a salesman in written form.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Don't you just love a bargain?

I bought a Boston Globe the other day, at my favorite newstand - the one in Downtown Crossing that sells the paper for $.25, rather than for the $.50 it costs everywhere else. It was stuffed with not one, but twelve four-color glossy flyers for the Christmas Tree Shoppe.

Now, because the Christmas Tree Shoppes are, like Dunkin' Donuts and what used to be Gillette, a home-grown (Massachusetts) business, I tend to look favorably on them.

For those unfamiliar with the chain - which may just be around in the Northeast - they sell the most amazing amount of cheapo household crap imaginable. Interspersed with some merchandise that is well-designed, decently made, and a real bargain. But mostly what they sell is shoddily made - and largely, I'm guessing, unneeded.

I know this not just from the advertising flyer, but from personal shopping adventures there, especially the one at the foot of the Sagamore Bridge on Cape Cod, which is large, mother-church-ish, and has, for whatever reason, an authentic thatched roof that's straight out of Merry Olde England.

I stop there at least once a year when I'm coming back from my sister's or cousin's on the Cape. One time, after a family funeral, my sister Kathleen and I blitzed in and each bought about seventy-five bucks worth of junk in about 5 minutes. We figured that Betty, whose funeral we'd just attended, wouldn't mind.

After another funeral - okay, we're Irish, we tend to die a lot - we made another stop and ran into people I didn't really know but who'd also been to the funeral.

What's wrong with going straight from the party-after the burial to buying your year's supply of wrapping paper, Twinings tea-bags in only slightly dented boxes, hand lotion, and not-half-bad picture frames at the Christmas Tree Shoppe? I mean, life belongs to the shopping. I mean living.

If only I were near a Shoppe today.

I could get myself some felt Easter totes for $1.69. A jumbo rock solar light that doesn't look half bad. (It's like a big fake "polystone" rock that "lights for up to eight hours per night." Presumably after a sunny day. Little ceramic bowl sets tied with a ribbon. A colorful birdhouse.

And that's just page one.

Turn the page for the "European" dinner napkins, which were pretty striped paper napkins, but I never actually think of Europe as a paper-napkin capital. If I had a pet, I cold buy a very nifty little pet carrier. Except that even if I did have a pet, it would be too big for the pet carrier. How about that sprinkler that's really a cute little turtle (with a cute little flowered hat) holding a brass sprinkler head. Brass! We're actually talking high-end here. This sucker costs $19.99.

Somedays I am so darned happy to be doing B2B marketing.

The other day, the wonderful Mary Schmidt wrote a thought-provoking post about how things don't make you happy.

I thought of Mary as I flipped through that Christmas Tree Shoppe flyer.

Ah, that Mary, sometimes she's so damned right.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Circuit City Rebate Madness - Parago Talks Back

(You can find the rebate story thus far here, here, and here.)

After my last go-round with Parago, the company that handles Circuit City rebates (in which they replied to my email asking for information which was contained in the email to which they were replying) I sent an email to Holly Gillentine, the contact at Parago's PR firm listed on their web site, asking if they'd like to chime in here. That seemed only fair. Moreover, to make this more than my tale of woe, I asked a few general questions. Here they are, verbatim:

1. What's the future of rebates?
2. Will the rebate process ever be modernized so that in an online world, people aren't stuffing pieces of paper into envelopes?
3. Why is the service process that accompanies rebates so bad? (I hope you'll read the material above: today I got an email from Parago asking me to provide information that was in the very email to which your rep was responding. That's unbelievably bad service!)
4. Many consumers suspect that the whole rebate game is designed to thwart them, because the goal is to have a low percentage of people claim the rebates. Is this true? Does Parago do anything to make the process easier (and thus increase the percentage of customers who get rebates) or is that something Parago's clients don't actually want?

This afternoon I got a response: a letter from Juli Spottiswood, Parago's CEO. I was going to paste it right in here, but unfortunately, they sent it as a PDF locked down so text can't be selected. Here's a JPG of it (click on it to make it bigger):

After I sent the email with the questions, I looked around online to see what people were saying about Parago. And boy, was that interesting.

Ms. Spottiswood says that my experience is the exception, but it seems to be a pretty common exception. I found tons of stories of people getting run-arounds just like I have - Consumerist had several items about them, including a case where a rebate was rejected for not including a UPC code, but the consumer had a photo of the form with the code. InfoWorld also has written about them, talking about a case where people were getting conflicting stories from Parago reps - including lies about who they worked for.

Ms. Spottiswood says that Parago is working to make rebates easier for consumers. For an interesting counterpoint, consider this piece from Adrian Kinsgley Hughes, a blogger at ZDNet, who found a Parago patent for an online redemption system. Consider this, directly from Parago's patent application:

"By requiring post-purchase activities, the rebate offerer attempts to reduce the number of successful rebate claimants. Breakage occurs when a product bearing a rebate is sold, but the rebate is not successfully claimed. Because rebate programs offer the potential for breakage, manufacturers can offer a more valuable rebate compared to a straight reduction in product price." (emphasis added)

So Parago is patenting technology to make sure that consumers don't get their rebates too often.

All of which leaves me convinced that Parago's mission is to keep consumers separated from their rebates. I give them credit for responding to me; as I found out more about them, I became convinced I would hear nothing. Unfortunately, the actual experiences of consumers - related all over the place online - speaks far more strongly about Parago than Ms. Spottiswood's letter.

Something else happened after that last blog post. I got an email about my rebate:

Thank you for your rebate inquiry. We are pleased to inform you that we have updated your record in our system. Your rebate submission is now valid. The rebate check should be mailed in the next 7-10 business days.

I guess telling them in April what I told them in February is more effective. But then today, at about the same time I received the email with Ms. Spottiswood's letter, I got another email from a Parago rep:

Thank you for your rebate inquiry. We apologize for any inconvenience. In order to provide you with accurate information, we need to know the promotion code or rebate offer. The promotion code is located on the rebate form and starts with P followed by a series of numbers and / or letters.

That's the same information I've provided three times.

Their online tracking system still says that my rebate has been entered and is "scheduled for final processing." Based on what I've read about others' experiences, I don't know whether "final processing" means sending my check, or asking for all the information a fifth time.

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Technology Averse Tech Providers

You'd think that Time Warner, our local cable franchise in Houston, would use technology to improve customer service. After all, this is a company whose message to consumers is that they are a great, all-in-one, high tech telecom provider, giving us television, telephone, and internet services. And, and as I've mentioned before, cable companies are now looking to offer their own branded mobile service.

This morning I called them about my dead internet connection (a not unusual event... sigh), and went through some diagnostic steps on the phone, and eventually was told that they needed to send a technician out.

Fine. The next available appointment was at noon tomorrow. The rep told me, "They will call when they are on their way."

My partner's home in about a 90 second drive from mine, so I thought, "Hmm, I could go work from there tomorrow morning." So I said, "Let me give you my cell phone number - there's somewhere nearby I can get online and get work done until they arrive."

"I'm sorry," the rep told me, "but they will only call the main number on the account, unless you have Time Warner phone service and you have no dial tone."

Me: "You're kidding."

Rep: "That's our policy."

Me: "Doesn't that seem kind of dumb to you?"

Rep: "That's our policy, sir."

The solution (which I didn't think of until after hanging up) would be, of course, to change the number on the account to my cell number. (That probably wouldn't have been a good idea to do today; once the service order is entered, it might go into some other system that doesn't get the update, and who knows what kind of chaos would have resulted.)

But here's a company that wants to be my one telecom provider (they're not, and won't be anytime soon)... but won't call my mobile phone when they're on the way to my house for a repair, to save me from being stuck there waiting.

Bad service. Bad use of technology; not only should they be willing to do that, they should be offering to send me an SMS with an estimated time of arrival. Offering, not waiting for me to ask. They should be leveraging all the technology their customers are walking around with to provide superior service at a minimal cost.

But that, it seems, is not in a cable company's corporate DNA. Time Warner Cable's tagline used to be, "Now Anything's Possible." I guess they realized that no, not even basic things are possible, and dropped it in a momen of honesty. Now the slogan is, "The Power of You." That seems kind of appropriate, because they're not contributing much to our relationship.