Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trick or Treat

I've always loved Halloween.

When you're a kid, what's not to like about dressing up, roaming around after dark, and eating candy? As parochial school kids, we had even more reason than most to love the day: we got November 1st off. (They don't call it Halloween for nothing. The name means 'The Eve of All Hallows', another name for 'All Saints Day.' So you had to get up and go to Mass. Big deal. Well worth having a day off of school that the "pubs" (i.e., kids that went to public school) didn't. Ha, ha!)

So Halloween was a pretty big deal. But it wasn't that big a deal. Costume choices were homemade, or purchased at Woolworth's for $2.49. Those store-bought costumes of Snow White and Bugs Bunny were completely cheesy. Someone with a match got too near...Whoosh! Hey, that's a really neat "pillar of fire" costume.

Needless to say, we didn't go in for store bought.

Early on, my mother made witch costumes for me and my sister Kathleen. They weren't really witch costumes, they were long black dresses (with long hems, and plenty of room in the shoulders to let out).

In year one, when Kath and I were 6 and 4, we were witches, with purchased crepe paper witch hats and really scary rubber witch masks.

It was really warm and misty that Halloween. The dye from the black crepe paper ran down our faces, and the wonderful, scary masks - complete with big hook nose and facial wart - were too sweaty. We couldn't breathe. We couldn't see. We took them off.

But those black dresses.

Well, my mother got her efforts-worth out of them.

I wore that black dress when I went as a "college professor" (first grade), and as a nun (third grade). I think I wore it one other time.

It was also pressed into service when one of my brothers dressed up as a priest - Saint Isaac Jogues, I think, who was an intriguing figure, as he was a missionary priest who came to the New World to convert the Native Americans. He was martyred, and his fingers were gnawed off by some of those he failed to convert.  Perfect for an eight year old boy required to dress up as a saint for the school Halloween party, wouldn't you say?

Anyway, in those years I wasn't wearing the witch costume for something or another, my mother pulled some costume together. (Gypsy was always easy and popular.) Or I came up with one on my own. One year I cut arm holes in some old green drapes, made a cone head out of cardboard, and went out as a pencil. At least I think I did. I remember making the costume, but - as with many of my crafty efforts - it may have been so terrible looking that I gave up and went another route. (Maybe that was the year I went out as the football player, wearing some old football pants that had been castdown to us from my cousin Robert, a sweater, and my brother Tom's helmet.)

Girls pretty much did some type of costume until 8th grade or so. After about 4th grade, boys went as hobos (beat up clothes, old man's hat, ashes rubbed on the face), soldiers (no lack of old WWII uniforms hanging around), or beatniks (pointy beard drawn on with mascara).

So, costumes were pretty minimalist.

So were decorations: whatever construction paper pumpkins and black cats you made at school were taped to the living room windows, augmented by brown lunch bags that you decorated to look like an owl and then blew up. (Whoooo.....Whoooo......) A few creative types carved pumpkins, or made scarecrows that they plunked on their front lawns, leaning against a tree.

In the last decade or so, however, Halloween has become a really big business. Of course, it still can't compare with gift giving occasions like Christmas in terms of spending.

Still, there are Halloween lights, banners, pumpkin carving kits, special dishware and serving pieces, all sorts of doo-dads and decorative pieces.

Halloween greeting cards, of course. I send out a few.

Costumes for kids. Costumes for adults. Costumes for pets.

For those of us who don't do costumes: sweaters, socks, scarves. (I will be wearing a black sweater, a candy corn scarf, and orange socks with witches on them.)

This is a big business, baby. Once again, American consumer marketers demonstrate that they know how to create demand. Once again, American consumers demonstrate that we know how to consume.

Well, Halloween has nada, zip, zilch to do with the B2B tech marketing I do, so I don't get to play as a marketer, just as a minor consumer.

But - despite all the commercialism, despite all the crap - I still love Halloween, and wish a Happy Halloween to all you marketers out there.




I also posted about Halloween over on Pink Slip, if you care to take a look.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Beta Joke

It seems that every new web service that appears is in "public beta," and that granddaddy of these is Gmail, which has been in "beta" for three years. Last week Google announced that it was adding IMAP support to Gmail - a much needed improvement for anybody who accesses email from multiple devices - with the usual Google comment that it would activated in everybody's Gmail accounts "in the next few days."

It's turning out to be much slower than that, and at least once I've heard someone say, "Well, it is a beta product."

It's a beta product that is presented to the world as a finished product in every way but the word "beta" on the screen, and Google deserves some grief for this. Once upon a time, it actually meant something when a product was in beta. It meant that it was not intended for real-word use just yet, it was changing and being fixed, and you used it at your own risk. And it also mean there was a schedule somewhere for it to get out of beta, for a release candidate to be ready, and for it to become a real product.

I don't think you're going to find anyone at Google who will seriously tell you that they view Gmail as an unreleased product. Especially when it's a key component of their Google Apps service, which is not marked beta.

So, having gotten lots of individuals and now businesses (including mine) to use Gmail as their mail service, what does that beta mean? It's a joke, and it makes Google look very bad. Add to that the broken promise of an important new features being there in "a couple of days" and you it seems like at Google beta means, "not really supported, good luck to you!"

Gmail is a very, very good product, even in its "beta" form. I just with Google would be honest with its users, and drop the "beta" tag. It's a free mail service, the expectations for support are not that high anyway.

And, I think they've played a big part of creating this "everything is beta" craze, which is good for nobody except service providers who don't want to support users.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #4

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Practical Product Management Rules from Pragmatic Marketing.

Rule #4: In the absence of market facts, he who owns the compiler wins.

I've lived through this nightmare more than once and, all I can say is, even in the presence of market facts it's plenty easy for the guy with the compiler to win.

But when you're working with the developers, it is ALWAYS best to have the following:

  • Win-Loss analysis: If 19 out of 20 times, you hear that a key factor in a loss was ease of use, your developers can, in fact, respond that "The customers don't know what they're talking about," "We're selling to the wrong people," and "Our sales folks don't know how to sell." But you will have market facts to support your argument that the UI needs work.
  • Competitive info: The last thing you want to find yourself doing is playing competitive catch-up - especially when some of the features you're trying to catch up with are completely irrelevant. Yet it is always useful to know what you're up against. And if you can anticipate moves that your competition is going to make - through analysis of what they're saying publicly, who they're partnering with, where they're selling, etc. - so much the better.
  • Market trends: What are the analysts saying about your industry - or the industry you sell into? What's being said about technology trends. No, you don't have to listen to every 'Gartner assigns a probability of 0.8 to universal adoption of touchscreens by 2010", but people do place significant weight on what the "theys" of the world say. So dig up whatever data you can find on SOA, SaaS, MDM - or whatever acronym you think your product needs to accommodate. (Years ago I worked for a software company that - for a lot of reasons not worth going into here - was wedded to OS/2. I remember bringing a copy of InfoWeek (I think) with a picture of OS/2 in a coffin with a lily on it on the cover into a development meeting. It definitely helped us move along on our decision to convert to NT.)
  • Customer input: The customer is not always right, and sometimes they will ask for stupid things, or not so stupid things that are, in fact, one-offs that help them and only them. But your trusted customers - not your developers - are the ones actually using your product, so their ideas should be heard.
  • Sales engineering and customer service input: Your sales engineers tend to know better than anyone else what the technical obstacles are to selling and implementing your product. You need a forum for capturing their ideas. Customer service folks tend to know better than anyone else what the technical obstacles are to ongoing, day-to-day success with your products. You need a forum for capturing their ideas.

When product management/product marketing start talking product with the developers, they need to be armed with the richest possible set of market facts they can find. The above are useful sources of those facts. It's then up to you to put them in a digestible, sensible format to present them to the developers.

There is still no guarantee that a really stubborn guy with a compiler with balk at product ideas that don't spring full blown from his own head. But if you've got the facts, ma'am, it's far more likely that resistance will fade away.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saturday Mishmash

A few things from the ever-growing "blog about that!" list.

Blog search becomes useless: This item from Blog Business Summit matches what I've observed: blog search tools like Technorati and Google Blog Search are becoming pointless, because all you find is blog spam. I've about given up on them, and I wish someone would create a blog search tool that was able to distinguish the splogs from the blogs.

Getting retail right: Apple's slick retail stores have been a successful part of the company's strategy, and this Fast Company piece by a writer who went "undercover" and worked at a number of retail operations shows why:

Many companies fail from the start by talking down to their new hires and using training materials geared for the lowest common denominator. Gap started employee orientation on the wrong foot by showing us a video about the perils of employee theft. Starbucks handed out Orwellian handbooks telling us to "Be Authentic." Such approaches produce cynicism and engender a fake sense of belonging, if any at all. Apple treated us like adults.

Apple does a lot of other things well. Employees are taught how to work together because customers notice when employees don't get along. Apple floods its retail zone with staff because the bottom line suffers every minute customers wait for help. By the time I got to Apple (my last stop), I knew that dress codes (like Gap's) were bogus and uniforms that match a job (like at UPS) are critical. Apple requires staff to wear tasteful company-issued T-shirts and lanyards. Employees also hand out business cards as in high-end clothing stores, an act that calls them out as individuals in a way not typical of traditional retail.

The Apple retail experience isn't perfect (I actually once stormed out of their Houston Galleria store insisting I'd never return, though I did), but it's one of the better ones.

I thought the line about Starbucks was interesting; I'm so tired of thinking, "No, I don't want the pumpkin latte they're forcing you to push today in a really "authentic" way, because I actually come here to drink coffee, not candy." I'm not a jerk, though; all I say is "No, thanks."

What do do when life SUX: The Sioux City, Iowa airport authority tried to get their three-letter code changed, but they didn't like any of the alternatives, so they're sticking with what they've got: SUX. And they're making it part of their marketing. Their web site kind of screams small-city earnest charm ("Why wouldn't ya?"), which is totally appropriate. And you can buy SUX gear. "Go SUX!"

Enjoy your weekend!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Macy's Brand Killing Spree

Since Boston's latest home grown department store, Filene's, closed down - a depressing and protracted affair - I've been doing my share of sniffily, nostalgic be-pissing and be-moaning. Oh, everything is becoming that same everywhere you look. Of course, the fact that there was nothing particularly unique about Filene's other than its name, logo, and brand association with Boston/New England. You could pretty much get the same merchandise in any other middle class, middle of the road department store anywhere in the country.

(The one unique aspect of Filene's was its Bargain Basement, which actually hasn't been an official part of Filene's for years, and which lives on, although not in its original location for the time being.)

Similarly, I rued the death of Marshall Field in Chicago.

Not that I did any shopping there, but my mother grew up and Chicago, and when we visited there, my she sometimes took us downtown. I remember going there as a kid - the nearby El, the filigree on the facade, the perfume counters.

I don't know that much about Marshall Field, other than that it had something of an upscale reputation, and carried some high end lines.

Now that Marshall Field is a Macy's, I understand that they've dropped some of those upscale lines, which has resulted in a fall off of business at the flagship store. 

While I can sit here and complain about Macy's, and wonder why they didn't let the local stores keep their local names (Filene's...A Macy's Store; Marshall Field's....A Macy's Store), I also recognize that, from a brand point of view, calling all the stores Macy's makes sense.

It certainly makes sense when it come to advertising - the same ads can run untouched in every city where there's a Macy's. And that has to be pretty much every city in the country.

And it certainly makes sense when it comes to managing customer expectations. Macy's is Macy's is Macy's. Yes, I'm sure that they vary the merchandise based on location - surely they sell more winter coats in Boston and Chicago than in Houston. But customers have a right to walk into a Macy's in wherever-ville and find the Bali bra they're looking for.

No, the Marshall Field customers who wanted the upscale brands won't be back there. They'll be at Nieman's, at Saks, at Nordstrom's. But the core demographic served by Macy's in New York has got to be present in equal proportion in Chicago. And Boston. And Houston. Middle class. Middle of the road. (We have to buy our bras somewhere.)

Yes, it is a loss of identity and interest when iconic stores get gobbled up. I want there to be local color. I don't want everything to be homogenized into one undifferentiated, boring, massive lump.

Still, I think that in the long run, it will turn out that Macy's has done the right thing in enforcing the Macy's brand. Short term losses, short term pain. But the right thing.

And as long as they still run the "Macy's Day Parade" each Thanksgiving, I can forgive them if they've robbed the world of my store (Filene's) and my mother's (Marshall Field).


Meanwhile, I haven't checked it out, but someone told me that Marshall Field fans in Chicago have been picketing to restore their store's good name. Shopadarity Forever!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Remember Who You Are

Giving advice to Apple has always been a popular pastime in the IT and business press, even though most of the advice turns out to be wrong. One suggestion that I think is horribly wrong comes from Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at ZDNet, who thinks Apple should start selling Macs with Windows (only) as their OS.

At first glance there's a certain logic to it:

OK, but let’s get back to the original question - What could/should Apple do to take sales and profits to the next level? Simple. Release an Apple branded Windows-based PC. I know, I know, this kind of talk is bound to upset the hardened Apple fanatic, but it makes perfect sense. One of the things that’s undoubtedly helped boost Mac sales is Boot Camp. Now there’s no punishment for switching platforms because you can take your old platform with you, but just as some people got tired of paying the Microsoft tax when they wanted a PC to run Linux on it, people who want Apple hardware in order to run Windows on it will eventually see the Mac OS as an Apple tax. Why doesn’t Jobs and the crew at Cupertino just skip that whole Apple tax step and offer customers a choice of operating systems. Since Windows is the dominant OS at present, that’s a good place to start, but if Apple really wants to offer the customer real choice, Linux would also be great.

Here's the flaw in the logic: I think that very few people buy Macs to run Windows, as Kingsley-Hughes suggests. They (like me) buy Macs because they can run Windows when needed, but otherwise are Macs.

Apple's invested a considerable amount of effort into creating their brand and their product differentiators, and OS X is the heart of that. A Mac with nothing but Windows is a commodity product like a Sony, Dell, or HP PC. It's a very nice offering in that market, but it makes Apple just another computer.

It's very, very important to understand why your customers buy your product. In Apple's case, it's because they provide an excellent and non-Windows user experience. Now, I'm sure there's some segment of buyers who look at the new iMacs and think, "That's gorgeous! I want one!" but would rather run Windows. (And they can, of course, do that today.)

It's the same problem with the endless suggestions that they license OS X to run on other hardware. Both moves turn them from a company selling a complete experience to another hardware manufacturer, trying to out-do everyone else on cost efficiencies. It takes a specific set of capabilities to be profitable in that game... and it's not Apple's game.

When you forget who you are, you wind up playing someone else's game, and guess what? They're probably better at it. I suspect that Apple is happy to have their (growing) niche, knowing that it will probably never be bigger than the Windows segment - but that it will satisfy its customers and generate profit for the company.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The shock of recognition: baby boomers as "seniors"

Over on Seth Godin's blog, he mentions that he will be speaking at an upcoming conference called "Marketing to Men, Women and Boomers". (Okay: are Boomers really a separate category from Men and Women? Come on: To the young men and womenfolk, we just look like we're out of play.)

In any case, Seth had an internal link to a post on marketing to boomers, in which he makes the argument that "traditionally" marketers haven't bothered marketing to seniors because of a belief that older people are closed to the new, just "trying to maintain the status quo." Open - presumed by marketers to be younger - people "are seeking out things that they believe will make their lives better."

Seth then suggests that because boomers have been open their entire lives, they will be worth marketing to:

Senior travel, senior fashion, senior experiences... it's all fair game, because there's a different demographic inhabiting that age group now.

First there's the shock of recognition (emphasis on shock) when I see boomer and senior brought together as equivalents. Hey, we're the baby boomers, the only senior we know is senior class. But the first baby boomers have turned 60, and while 60 is the new 40, I guess we qualify as seniors - or will shortly.

Whether we're seniors or boomers - and I'm still a proponent of the more youthful, buoyant label of "boomer, we're certainly seeing a lot of non-Polident advertising aimed at "us" - think the Dennis Hopper "Dream" ads. (Note that Hopper is a boomer icon to the first wave boomers but is, himself, a pre-boomer.)

A few observations on boomers:

One, we are obviously a huge chunk of the population, and thus it's just going to be difficult to ignore us. But within this huge chunk there are many sub-populations. Some of these are based on age. Let's face it, there's a big difference between a first wave boomer who remembers when the Beetles appeared on Ed Sullivan, and a last gasp boomer born in 1964 - the year the Beetles shook their mop tops on old Eddy's show.

It's not just the age subsets, either. There are obvious different groupings based on education, job, life experience, affluence, etc. The "classic" boomer that comes most commonly to mind is the group that came of age during Vietnam, protested on campus, spent a summer bumming around Europe courtesy of the $200 Icelandic Airline flight, didn't trust anyone over thirty, ended up getting a law degree, etc. (This is the group the Dennis Hopper ads are squarely aimed at.)

Well, for each boomer that fits this bill, there's the guy who actually went to Vietnam, not college, and made his living in manufacturing or a trade.

There's another point I'd like to make, and it's one that's consciously or unconsciously, alluded to when Seth writes  about "senior travel, senior fashion, senior experience."

Because if there's one thing about people in their 50's and 60's, it's that they already have enough stuff. We don't need dishes. We have enough earrings. We have enough pictures on the wall, enough flower vases. We have our dining room table, our living room couch. Sure, we'll open the wallet for electronics - iPods, iPhones, flat screens. We'll buy new cars. (Actually, "we" won't: I'm about to get rid of my car and am hoping I can go carless the rest of my life. The pleasures of living in a city.) But, basically, we have enough stuff. Enough stuff to last a lifetime.

But, for the boomers with the money for it, there will definitely be strong interest in travel and "experience."

You may not need a coffee table, but that doesn't mean you aren't interested in a trek to Machu Pichu. (I'm not so sure about Seth's "senior fashion" angle - comfy clothing that doesn't look like the comfy clothing our parents wore?)

In any case, it will be interesting to see what happens with all the marketing that we'll be increasingly seeing that's aimed at the baby boomers as we enter what happens to all of us - men, women, or baby boomer - and that's the final shopping sprees of life.


To read more on marketing to boomers, look here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Disrupting Markets for Fun and Profit

In a Wall Street Journal column on the US mobile phone industry, Walt Mossberg talks about the problems with the business models used by the big 4 carriers and why they're not good for either consumers or innovation. In doing so, he touches on some ideas that have crossed my mind in the past regarding that industry, and which can be applied to any market.

Mossberg's point, well-taken, is that mobile phone customers don't like what carriers offer them:
  • You have to buy your phone from the carrier. That means you're stuck with their choices, at their prices.
  • You are pushed toward a discounted phone with a service commitment. You might be able to pay a higher price for the phone without a commitment, but you'll be discouraged from doing so; information on those options is quite hard to find, and...
  • Handsets are not interoperable. Sprint and Verizon phones simply don't work with anybody else's service. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM technology with SIM cards which makes it theoretically possible to swap carriers by swapping SIMs, but they put software locks on the phones to defeat that. They can be undone, but it takes effort.
Mossberg talks about the government's role in this, which is legitimate for the mobile market, because the entire business depends on being given use of something that belongs to the public: wireless spectrum.

Here's a thought exercise that requires ignoring that stumbling block: what if an upstart carrier launched with the following proposition?
  • You can use any unlocked GSM phone on our network. Bring your old one, shop around for one, or we will sell you one.
  • We'll charge you a reasonable upfront fee for the SIM and set up your account with no contract. You go month by month (or prepaid). Of course, if you will sign a contract, we'll give you a financial incentive (perhaps waiving the SIM fee), but you don't have to. And we won't extend the contract every time you drive within 300 yards of our store, like the other guys do.
  • Change your plan anytime. Change your phone by buying a new one anytime. Have more than one: your slim flip phone for a night on the town and your Blackberry for when you're in road warrior mode, whatever you want.
I think anybody offering that would do very well. They wouldn't even have to have the lowest prices - as Verizon shows, premium pricing is no barrier to market share. Lots of people would prefer the freedom.

Now, given that all of these companies have a business that depends on being granted access to a public resource, I personally think it would be appropriate for the government to say, "Fine, you can use that public resource, but you have to follow some rules that make you treat consumers properly." The political climate in the US and the tremendous lobbying resources of our telecom giants have prevented that, of course, but it would be a reasonable bargain to strike.

Mossberg points out that the iPhone, for all the complaints about lack of openness and its requirement that it be used with one specific carrier, is the first device to break some of these rules. You don't have to buy it from AT&T; in fact, you can buy a used iPhone from the Apple Store (when they're available) or on eBay and activate it like any other phone. Apple may have gotten into bed with AT&T on this product, but they certainly have kept AT&T on their own side of the bed - far from the product development.

Apple might, I think, have gotten away with more - perhaps getting hold of some spectrum and creating their own carrier, or worked out roaming deals with T-Mobile and AT&T. I don't blame them for not pushing that far - this is a new market for them.

But as I read about the expected Google phone and the idea of an ad-supported mobile phone, I wonder if Google's got it all wrong. Instead of pushing a new and untested model on people, would they be better off fixing what people hate about the current approach and creating something like the hypothetical service I described above?

And here's the more general lesson for marketers, particularly those who are upstarts in an established industry. We've seen lots of people try to do a basic resell of mobile services with service plans that copy the incumbent offerings - Virgin's mobile service comes to mind.

If you want to get toehold in a market where people are unhappy with what "everybody does, because everybody does it," do something different. Disrupt the status quo, and do so with the funds to stay in it long enough for people to see that there's another way.

It's not a guarantee of success - AT&T, for example, could shrug its corporate shoulders, give in, and start offering the very same thing in no time. In this particular market, though, incumbents are fond of welcoming their customers with gilded handcuffs, and there's an opportunity for someone who does something different to grab market share.

How about your market?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #3

This post is the third in a series inspired by Pragmatic Marketing's 20 Rules of Product Management rules for technology marketing.

RULE #3 Time spend on the strategic reduces the time wasted on the tactical.

There are books written, I'm quite sure, that define strategic and tactical, but here's my simple definition:

Strategic is where you want to go; tactical is how to get there.

Framed in those simple terms, it's pretty easy to see that you better have the strategic figured out first - or why bother with the tactical at all? Isn't going tactical without knowing strategic a bit like hopping in the car to go on vacation, without figuring out just what kind of vacation everyone wants?

Now, life can be one big adventure and all that - and I'm sure that there are occasional successful vacations that start out with hop in the car and go mode.

But for everyone who ends up feeling that they had the perfect vacation, there are a couple of dozen who feel cheated because they had their sand pails and shovels packed for the beach, and they ended up in the mountains where nobody really wanted to go. And I'm pretty sure that even the odd vacation successes are because the strategy was 'we just want to go on a fun vacation somewhere,' and the tactic was 'jump in the car and go.'

In business, however, this sort of strategy makes very little sense. Sure, you will end up somewhere, but is it the best somewhere for you? Or even an okay one?

There are a couple of recurring themes that pop into my head when I think about the implications for marketing of getting tactical before getting strategic.

One is that old favorite, 'if we build it they will come' approach, in which a product is built, then tossed over the transom into marketing, who's supposed to be waiting with open arms and closed mouths for the product toss. (Here you go. See what a nice thing we built for you to market. If you're any good whatsoever at marketing, I bet we'll sell a gazillion.)

So marketers are stuck with a product accomplit - and forced to come up instant tactics (and/or a retro-fitted strategy).

No, no, no.

You need to have a product strategy in mind that spells out positioning basics (who's going to use the product and why), establishes the pricing rationale, provides at least a rudimentary guidepost for where the product's going, etc., etc., etc.

Another thing we've all faced as marketers is the situation in which we've been goaded (forced?) to just do something, do anything. "Something" must be done.

The something, as often as not, is helping fill the big gaping maw at the funnel opening that feeds (eventually, one hopes) the pipeline.

Money for something materializes, somewhere, somehow.


We can spend it on banner ads. Webinars. eMail blasts. Promotional deals. Guys with sandwich boards trolling the streets.

Just do something, anything.

If there is a strategy that you can call on, lucky you. But most of the time I've found myself in this situation, there's a readiness and eagerness to toss out the strategy because it's not working.

And who wants to spend all that time actually trying to figure out if the strategy's any good? Whether the problem is execution? Whether the strategy needs to be tweaked?

Matters not.

It's just not working.

Do something. Do anything.

Thus the campaign to nowhere begins. Someone's got an idea. Let's get going.

Activity, as my friend Sean says. Not action.

Waste of money.

You may get somewhere, but even that somewhere is going to feel like nowhere, absent a strategy.

There's a corollary to this rule:

In the absence of a strategy, people will go ahead and do what they think is best.

So the marketers will look at the product they've been given and make some sort of informed guess on where they can market it. Or they'll put on their blinders and latch on to whatever half-baked idea is floating around. They may do a bang-up of it.  (Great! Two-hundred tuna-fishermen attended our webinar. Too bad our product doesn't really do anything for them. Not to mention that we really should be selling to tuba players. Tuna? Tuba? Close enough.)

Which is not to say that you shouldn't make occasional small tactical forays into new areas. Just as long as it's part of your strategy...

Strategy's hard. It really means thinking things through. It means taking a risk by declaring where it is you want to go. It means the discipline and strength to give it time enough to succeed before.

Tactics absent strategy? You might think you're getting somewhere, but you're really on the night train to nowhere.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Once More, With Lawyers (or, How to Kill Citizen Marketers)

It's nirvana for anyone who wants to build a base of passionate customer advocates.

Imagine if people were so excited about your product that they not only bought it and spent time with it and talked to their friends about it, but organized gatherings to get together and enjoy it - gatherings that then generated news coverage because of the passion of the fans, and were copied all over the country! Who wouldn't want that?

The last thing you'd do is pull the plug on the whole thing and tell those excited customers to go home, right?

Well, not when your product sits at an uncomfortable intersection of entertainment, licensing contracts, and intellectual property law. The product in this case is an episode of the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 2001. While the series has inspired all kinds of intense fandom, this one stands out - it's a musical episode called "Once More, With Feeling," in which the cast of the show breaks out into song and dance numbers (and the plot actually explains why this is happening).

Fans loved it (and yes, I'm one of them). A CD of the soundtrack to the episode was released. A little out of the way bar I used to meet friends at for drinks in Washington played it regularly. And, at some point, the phenomenon became a 21st century Rocky Horror Picture show, with people arranging screenings where fans would come in costume, with props, and sing along. Here's a web site from the New York City incarnation of it.

What's really striking about it is that this all started with no input from 20th Century Fox Television, the show's owner; this was just fans - customers - who took it upon themselves to do it. And that's where the trouble started.

As you can see from that site, the sing-along events have been stopped. This was not a capricious move by Fox; they had been handed a six-figure bill from the Screen Actors Guild for residuals for performers in the episode. Fox didn't even realize the events were happening, or theaters were making money off of them. So they didn't really have much choice.

Joss Whedon, the creator of the series, has told fans that he's disappointed in this and wants to see the events start up again; Fox says they don't want to stifle it, but they can't allow it to go on without paying actors; and there are disputes between everyone involved, from the event organizer on up, about who exactly screwed up.

All of which made me wonder, "Who isn't benefitting from these screenings?"

The actors, of course, aren't collecting their residuals; of couse, with no events happening, they're still not (and a number of the shows stars have said that they loved that these things were taking place). It seems to me that the events are likely to spur some sales of Buffy DVDs and CDs, as current fans get more excited about it and new fans discover it.

And there's a whole big business around the series, which is one of those television shows that inspires intense loyalty among viewers; there are books, comic books, music compilations, action figures, and the like.

Given that it seems to me that the net effect of these sing-alongs was to create more demand for all things Buffy, and generate more money for everyone on the business end, and more exposure for everyone on the creative side.

This is an area where I think our laws about content and citizen marketers are on a collision course. Buffy fans going to a sing-along event don't think they're stealing money from actors; they feel that they are participating in a celebration of a shared bit of pop culture. And while Fox owns the show and the actors need to be paid for their work, who owns for pop culture space that's sprung up around it? Whatever the law says, the fans believe they have a stake in it.

With any luck, all involved here will figure out a way to get this back on track, to everyone's benefit. But there's a lesson here for marketers: when your product becomes something that customers are so passionate about that they will write about it, talk about it, sing along with it, create their own variations of it, and dress up like it, it's no longer entirely yours other than in a legal sense. All in all you'll probably benefit from that... but it does means giving up some control, not something that comes easy to any business.

Another factor will make these kinds of disputes more common: the 1998 US law that extended copyrights, often derisively (and aptly) referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act." Because there's big money in entertainment properties, copyright terms have been extended; things don't enter the public domain as quickly as they used to. Works with "corporate authorship," like movies and television shows, now don't enter the public domain until 120 years after they were created or 95 years after publication.

(As a side note, this is such a warping of the intention of intellectual property laws as they were initially conceived in the US that I would expect our country's founders to be horrified by their current incarnation. The goal was always to create a dynamic public sphere by balancing incentives for creators with public access to their work. Today, it's really about revenue protection.)

Without a vibrant public domain, citizen marketing is always going to be running afoul of the law, as the Buffy example demonstrates. Marketers who are serious about wanting to harness the passion of their customers need to be ready to not avail themselves of all the legal protections available to them; nothing kills customer passion like getting slapped down by the lawyers. Yes, you need to protect your intellectual property in reasonable ways, but you do need to factor your customer's point of view into your definition of "reasonable."

Friday, October 19, 2007

Return to sender: why I may not be reading the mail you send me, e- or otherwise.

I get a lot of e-mail and snail mail, mostly from organizations trying to sell me something, or trying to get me to make a donation to them.

Some I open and read; most I don't.

Leaving the non-profits looking for my check (or credit card number) out of the mix, what makes me open the e-mail or the envelope and actually take a look inside?

  • I have a real relationship with you. Admittedly, we're stretching the word "relationship" pretty thin here, but in thin-speak, this will generally mean that I've purchased some product or service from you.
  • There's something in it for me.Which I can tell from looking at the e-mail header (30% off coupon!) or from the outside of the envelope (30% off coupon!) And remember, I'm only going to know if there's something in it for me if I can tell without opening whatever it is you're trying to send me.
  • There's something that I might want to know about. And please define 'something that I might want to know about' very narrowly. Everything in your catalog does not constitute something I might want to know about. Here's what I might want to know about:
    • Peripheral products: If I bought the duvet cover, I might want to know about the pillow shams or sheets. If I bought the laptop, I might want to know about the mega-memory spare battery or traveling power adapter. For the most part, what I don't want to know about is the same damned product - or sort of product - I just purchased. Realistically speaking, just how many different duvet covers do you think I'm going to buy in a year?
    • Product recalls/defects: Please do let me know if that duvet cover is going to burst into flames if I fall asleep reading a book while under it. Ditto for the laptop.
    • Something interesting related to the product I bought: By all means tell me if that particular duvet cover won "Duvet Cover of the Year", or is going to make a guest appearance in The Office. I like fun facts as much as the next guy.
    • Something I might find interesting based on other things I've bought. Or magazines I read. Or donations I've made. Or my zip code. Go ahead. Make an educated guess. I'm all for it. But in this day and age of micro-marketing, how is it that the Republican Party can't figure out that I'm not a Republican? (Although, in truth, I don't mind seeing them spending their money on me - plus I get to see what they tell insiders about evil, amoral, corrupt, weak-kneed, pro-terror, tax-and-spend Democrats.)

 And as with the "what's in it for me", give me some clue on the outside of the e-mail or the envelope about why I should want to open it.

Also keep in mind that no body likes to feel suckered. For years, I got a big, important looking letter from a car dealership where I had my car serviced a couple of times. On the outside of the envelope, there was an important sounding message letting me know that someone important sounding was looking to buy 1998 Beetles. I thought, hey, maybe someone's making a movie and really needs my car so the hero can careen around Haymarket knocking over fruit carts.... Of course, what they really wanted me to do was trade-in and trade-up. No thanks.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Can You Measure the Value of Integrity?

People don't like us much, and they don't trust us.

That's a hard truth for marketers: ours is not a much-loved profession. Lynn Upshaw of the UC Berkeley business school talks about this topic in a recent MarketingProfs piece:
A Yankelovich study a few years ago found that as many as two-thirds of Americans believe that businesses would take advantage of the public if those businesses did not think they would be exposed. As many as one-fourth of Americans agreed that there is literally nothing that business can do to recapture their trust once it is lost. ("State of Consumer Trust," 2004).

We live in a time of omnipresent scrutiny by citizen journalists, regulators, attorneys general, and virtually anyone with a computer and a point of view. The risks of shaky integrity have never been more real. Now would be a good time to measure how well a brand's marketing helps or hinders its perceived integrity, which is to say its ability to build and hold customer trust.
This is true, and any discussion of how to restore trust needs to start by accepting that consumers are not wrong about this. Consumers believe that businesses will trick them and take advantage of them because businesses regularly do this, from the kinds of shiftiness chronicled on the Mouse Print blog to blatant betrayals of public trust like dangerous products, pollution, and other misdeeds.

And while I hate to say this, marketing is particularly problematic area, and I am regularly appalled by what passes for acceptable behavior for marketers. Regular readers know that I have a serious problem with marketing to children, for example; I think it's nearly impossible to target kids with commercial messages designed to persuade without crossing an ethical line. (The fact that agencies hire child psychologists to design those messages and take advantage of kids' incomplete emotional and intellectual development only makes it worse.) Claiming to be "green" by doing some tiny thing that will have little effect on anything is questionable. Blanketing public space with advertising may be good business, but it's bad citizenship. And so on, and so on.

Upshaw shares some thoughts about how one might measure a "return on marketing integrity." I think that's a noble idea, but there are some problems here.

The first is that companies that have truly solid reputations for honesty can build those reputations in part because the average reputation. If the consumer's assumption is that everyone will rip her off given the chance, you can define yourself as one of the few organizations that won't do that. If the assumption was honesty, that wouldn't work.

I suspect that this only works for those who make serious commitments to the highest ethical business practices: in other words, the superstars of marketing (and corporate) integrity. That's a real investment. The problem is that if you only get halfway there, you've probably got nothing measurable to show for it, because your reputation is not yours alone.

Every time a spammer sends a phishing scam via email, your email becomes more suspect. Every time someone creates a rebate program which requires buyers to jump through hoops, wait twelve weeks, and still not get their check, your straightforward rebate program is tainted. Unless you've got great brand recognition and a sterling reputation, in the consumer's eyes, you're just part of that undifferentiated mass of shifty bastards who can't be trusted. Making some incremental improvements probably won't change that.

So should we just forget it? No, and that's why I welcome Upshaw's ideas though I am skeptical. I doubt that you'll ever be able to show much in the way of financial return on something as subjective as "integrity."

There is, however, something else, something harder to measure and less easily traded and leveraged, which is knowing that you're doing the right things in your professional life. Perhaps that needs to be an end in itself.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


I had to laugh the other day when I came across a web site for a company that made web conferencing software and saw a big ad for their annual User Conference splattered across the top of their home page. Join us in Orlando!....

After all, their value proposition was all about saving time and money, improving efficiency, increasing productivity, and growing green by replacing costly, pesky, jet-fuel consuming in- person meetings with online versions.

But - of course - even in this day and age of second lives and virtual everything, human contact matters.

When I worked at NaviSite, my two closest colleagues and friends were my fellow Opinionated Marketers, John and Sean. (John, of course, you know from his opining here. Trust me, Sean is just as opinionated.) NaviSite, when we were there, was an agglomeration of small Internet services companies, pretty much scattered all over the place:  Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Texas, California. John, Sean, and I communicated daily - sometimes incessantly. We would e-mail periodically, and pretty much IM throughout the day. If we found that our IM conversations were getting to long, we'd get on the phone.

We also saw each other in person irregularly - Sean drove from Syracuse to Andover (where NaviSite HQ was) every couple of weeks, John flew in from DC (and, later, Houston) every month or so. Yes, our working relationships were forged through a lot of IM-ing and conference bridge calls. But our friendships were guaranteed when we saw each other in person.

What did facetime get us that virtual didn't?

  • Hang time: When John and Sean were in town we'd have at least one lunch and one dinner together. We also go to take walks around the parking lot (more fun than it sounds).Here's where we really got to know each other, and learn what made each of us tick.
  • Nuance time: I don't care how good the audio and video are, you really miss the facial expressions, body language, and intonations that help you understand what people are saying - and just who they are.

We were all in the same group, so we were working together pretty closely, participated in a lot of the same meetings, etc. But if you're not in the same group, and the only time you're with people is for an official meeting that's conducted virtually, you'll never get to know the people you don't have to know. No running into someone in the kitchen or caf. No getting to meet the guy in the office next to the person you're there to see. Business might be conducted more efficiently when it's all virtual, but sometimes you're going to miss out on the spark divine that gets struck during a more casual encounter. Creativity, communication, networking, you never know...

If it works this way with internal colleagues, it certainly works that way with customers.

Obviously, it's more a business "thing" than it is a consumer "thing." I don't really need to know L.L. Bean's grandson now, do I?

But if you're in high ticket, B2B - or doing consulting work - it's absolutely essential to put a face on things once in a while.

Not for every encounter, or course, or even for every other one. There's much to be said for virtual meetings. If nothing else, they're far easier to cancel and reschedule if something comes up. And there's no question that without travel time on either end, they're more cost and time efficient.

But sometimes you - especially in the early going of a relationship - you want to be eye-to-eye. You want to know what your customer looks like, what's on the office walls, what they take in their coffee. You want to get to know whether that pause in the conversation means they're thinking about what you said, rolling their eyes, or staring off into space. You want to see how they interact with others around them. And the customer, of course, wants to size you up, too.

John, Sean, and I haven't worked together for over 3 years. We were, in fact, all pink slipped on the same day when "our side" lost out in a major post-acquisition political shoot-out. We were all laid off via phone calls. We let each other know the news via IM. We got together on the phone that afternoon.

But - thanks to those non-refundable airline tickets from Houston - we all got together in Andover the next week for our final farewell dinner at The Chateau - attended by about 50 or so of our former colleagues, and with the tab picked up by a couple of Navi VP's. It was a lot more meaningful that we got to say our final good-byes with hugs, rather than emoticons.

These days we keep up with each other - and work on projects with each other - virtually. And with phone meetings. And - blessedly - with occasion "reunions". One's coming up.

IM looking 4ward 2 c-ing u both. (:))

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Yet Another Advertising Obituary

Does a week go by without someone announcing that advertising is dead, and now we must shift all of our marketing efforts to social media (even though half the country isn't even using these media)? Not usually. I thought that this MarketingProfs piece was going to be another of these premature obituaries for advertising, but it turned out to be a new twist: advertising is dead, advertorials rule!

Generally, when I read anything like this:

Advertising is dead. If you're a marketer... save your money.

Consumers have been over-advertised to and over-sold.

Unless you're conducting a white sale, fire sale, or going-out-of-business sale—and halving or quartering your prices—advertising won't get you a bang, a whimper- or a nickel for your buck. Not anymore.

... I move on, because the writer has established that they don't know what they're talking about. Yes, traditional advertising has lost its dominance. Yes, the media landscape has changed. Yes, marketers need to adjust their spending.

In this case the writer goes on to tell us that we should do lots of advertorials, because - in a nutshell - consumers aren't smart enough to figure out what they are.

The advertorial delivers valuable, documented information that relentlessly leads readers to the inevitable conclusion that the solution to their problem or need is... whatever it is you're selling.

It doesn't look, taste, or smell like an ad, and the consumer's anti-ad third eye will never see it coming.

Well, at least it's a change of pace from someone telling us to spend our whole budget on Twitter or Facebook.

Here's the obituary I'd like to see: one announcing the death of "this is the perfect tactic!" pieces, as if any one tactic would ever be the solution to every marketing problem. Here's another: the death of marketing approaches that assume that consumers are too dumb to know when they're being sold.

I really like MarketingProfs but in the last couple of weeks I've read a piece from a multimedia producer explaining that video is the solution to all problems, and now a piece from a copywriter announcing that advertorials (which, hmm, require a copywriter) will solve everyone's problems. I hope this is not a trend.

It's fine to see people talking about the benefits of the type of work they do, but these pieces have read more like... well, advertorials... than useful content. A case study on how to use advertorials? Great. Examples of how video has enhanced sites? Cool. Pieces like this? Can we find a good burial plot for them, please?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #2

This post is the second in a series inspired by Pragmatic Marketing's 20 Rules of Product Management rules for technology marketing.

RULE #2: An outside-in approach increases the likelihood of product success.

Pragmatic describes this approach as:

...developing solutions in the context of the total customer experience. Product managers, executives, and marketers in technology companies regularly meet with people in the marketplace and observe how they do business in order to understand the full scope of their usage requirements and their most significant obstacles to adoption.

The most important thing they do is to live in the prospect’s world and look at all the touch points that matter.

Can I get an "Amen" here?

Let's face it. However brilliantly, presciently, and uniquely imagined a product is; however seemingly a product idea springs full blown from some Medusa's head, there is no substitute for solving a real problem experienced by real people in a way that will really work for them.

How do you get real?

The key is in those five little words "observe how they do business."

That means looking at the current processes in place, at the input, the outputs, the end results. Who does what to whom? How do they do it? Where do they hit roadblocks? Little snags? Where does the ball drop? What happens when that happens?

 There are a number of ways you can do this.

One is to actually go in and observe. This is more easily done with a customer (who's already using your product) than it is with a prospect, but some of the most informative hours I've spent in the field have been spent dogging the heels of a customer.

Years ago, when I was product manager on a mainframe financial support and reporting system, I spent the night at AT&T in New York City when they closed their books for the month to see how they used the system. And I do mean spent the night. I started hanging up with them sometime in mid-morning on a Friday, and parted company at 4 a.m. on Saturday.

Boy, was I exhausted.

And, boy, did I see some areas where that system could be improved.

I've done this a few times since, and it's been a very effective way to figure out where your product needs to go. (I've never done it for a from the ground up, from scratch product, but I can certainly see where knowing the actual process people go through beats your imagination, common sense, limited knowledge, and intuition - no matter how wonderful they all are.)

Another technique I've used pretty effectively - again, with existing products, not newbies - is open-ended interviews with customers/prospects, in which you get them to talk about "things": business, processes, behaviors, wish list, druthers, etc. When I've used this method - based on Voice of the Customer - I've employed both detailed note taking and recordings. (Voice of the Customer was quite in vogue at one point. I'm not sure if it's still au courant. When I was using it, they suggested having two people on every interview, one to ask the open-ended questions, another to take notes. It also called for the interviews to be transcribed, and reviewed looking for key themes and ideas. I'll have to check and see if V of the C is still around and about.) 

A third approach I've taken is coming up with "A Day in the Life" scenarios, in which you construct the hour-by-hour activities your target customer goes through, and figure out where your product can be inserted to relieve some of the pain that invariably occurs in even the happiest work day. (And, no, you don't have to include bio-breaks and lunch - unless you're product solves the need for either.)

The bottom line is that the product has to "fit" the customers needs and desires. Your products should always solve a true problem and provide a true benefit - not just benefits-on-paper that may be sold to the economic buyer, but that never materialize for the actual users. You never want your customers to be stuck with exchanging an existing problem for a new one - using your product. This won't happen if you build a product outside-in.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

BT Wants You to Give it Away

Generally speaking, telecoms don't like it when you share a wireless network. If you're sitting in an apartment building and decide to make your home wifi network open and unsecured, then the neighbor can use it - instead of paying a monthly broadband fee. In fact, your terms of service likely prohibit doing this, though it's unlikely that your provider can really tell that it's somebody next door, not a family member in the next room, connecting.

That makes BT's decision to encourage this, by way of the offerings of a Spanish outfit called FON, really interesting. Here's what FON does: you buy a router from them that creates two wireless networks - a secure one for your use, and an open one that others can use.

If someone else wants to use it, the can, but there's a catch. If they are also FON users, it's free. If not, they pay. The idea is to make wifi more available by letting users create their own hotspots - and you can make money doing it under some of their plans (clearly intended for, say, a coffee shop owner or other such commercial enterprise).

Here's what BT is doing:
BT will encourage its three million broadband users to pick up a FON router and start sharing signals. The router provides two channels: one for public access, and one for access by the owner. The public channel is bandwidth-limited so as not to disrupt the user's own connection. Other "Foneros" can access the public channel for free, while non-Foneros can pay a few dollars a day to use the access points.
FON has signed a similar deal with Time Warner in the US.

I love this, because it shows telecoms thinking like marketers - real marketers, who see services in terms of customer benefits and appeal. That's been quite rare in that industry, and so I think this is a notable change:

For BT, the move makes its broadband offering more useful to customers, who can access the Internet from more places, and BT doesn't need to build out a new wireless network itself. BT's Gavin Patterson, a managing director, holds out hopes that the FON scheme can someday "cover every street in Britain."

Making their service more useful to customers? Now there's an idea! I hope this kind of thinking spreads through the telecom industry, whose focus has usually been limiting users in order to create more opportunities for revenue collection.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Skype: Doublespeak over IP!

Apparently Skype isn't just for free phone calls, it's the cost-effective way to spread untelligible business babble! Forbes writer Daniel Lyons, in his Fake Steve Jobs persona, comments on Skype founder Nikklas Zenstrom's weird comments on Ebay's acquisition of his company - in which, it's become quite clear, Ebay paid far too much:
Zennstrom says Ebay “overshot in terms of monetization," which the Journal translates to mean, "eBay overpaid" and which FSJ translates to mean, "I robbed you big-time, frigtards." Then comes this doozy: “We had to chart the trajectory of growth and how fast that would run, (but) we found out that was a bit front-loaded.” Yeah. Front-loaded. See, they thought by now they'd be doing a zillion million free phone calls by now, but instead they're only doing a billion million free phone calls. Key thing when you're selling free stuff is you gotta have volume. And scale. So you can leverage synergies and distribute empowerment across multiple platforms freeing up resources and effectively achieving economies of scale ...
Lyons/Fake jobs calls is "bullshitspeak," which is pretty accurate. It's easy to understand why Zennstrom wouldn't want to say "Ebay paid way too much for my company, because we aren't producing the revenue we said we would," but everybody knows that's just what he's saying. So now on top of looking like the guy who fooled Ebay, he looks evasive, too.

Friday, October 12, 2007

No Web Dessert Before Dinner

Back in the 90s, many marketers dreaded the inevitable web eye-candy request from an executive. You remember them: "Can't we have... I don't know, something that moves on the home page? It's so boring." Yep, the well-crafted copy that explained what the company was about and why a visitor should care, the images chosen to bring key ideas to life... boring! Let's add a stock ticker scrolling across the page! Now we are the web elite.

You would have thought that the success of sites like Google and Yahoo! (before they tarted themselves up and became the current visual nightmare) would have demonstrated that well-organized content that meets a user's needs is the most important thing on a site. No, not really.

But technology has advanced and it's not scrolling stock tickers (or the hideous Flash headers that were on one corporate site I was involved with - I'm sorry, they made us do it), it's video. Video is hot. Video is now. Video will solve all your problems!

That's kind of the message of this MarketingProfs piece by Jerry Bader, who is a senior partner at - surprise! - a firm that does multimedia for the web.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not anti-video. You can do great things with video. Video can bring concepts to life, put a more human face on your staff, demonstrate product features, and - of course - entertain.

What it can't do is correct fundamental problems. So when I read this:

A well-crafted, expertly presented marketing message is like a seduction: If you're not generating any excitement, don't expect to produce any sales, either.

Boring mission-statement gobbledygook and keyword-laden palaver are not the same as an enticing video. An engaging business story, well told, is like a juicy wet one planted right on your audience's lips.

... I find myself thinking, well, no kidding. Yes, good video is better than bad copy. Also, good movies are better than terrible books, and big things are bigger than small things.

If you haven't managed to articulate your message in words, guess what? A video is going to provide the same confusion in an exciting new way.

It's also important to remember the limits of video. Video demands more of the user. It means they need to be visiting your site from a location where they can play your video without annoying everyone around them. (Unless your target market is jerks.) It's content that they can't scan while they're on a boring conference call. It's content that will be more challenging for users with mobile browsers. It's content that might do something simple and annoying like make them turn off the music they're enjoying in iTunes just to hear what you have to say.

There are two unforgivable multimedia web sins. The first is automatically playing audio - this makes me me leave a site, never to return, especially if it's in an ad. The second is content that you cannot get without listening to an audio clip or watching a video. If you're going to make me work that hard to hear what you have to say, I'm leaving. These are both especially horrendous mistakes on B2B sites - and, by the way, you'd better hope none of your potential buyers are blind or deaf!

Video is a great extra, but it does not replace copy. If copy is bad, fix it. If your site is really boring, it means that you probably have content that's off-target or design that obscures important information - fix it.

Bader uses the analogy of a whipped cream on your dessert at the beginning of his piece... and I wish he's followed it through. You site architecture, graphic design, and most of all copy are the main meal. Make sure it nutritious and tasty for your visits. Then, serve up a great dessert in the form of multimedia.

If a rat head is "rendered commercially sterile," does that mean it's OK to eat if you find it in your green beans?

It is always instructive to see how a company responds when they're in the negative news.

Earlier this year, Bigelow Tea did an excellent job using their web site and blog to communicate to their customers during the Don Imus flap. (Bigelow had been a sponsor of Imus' show, before it went down in inglory for his untoward comments on the Rutgers University women's basketball team.)

So, I wondered just how Allen Canning was doing in response to one of its customers finding a rat head in a can of green beans.

Not so good, I'm afraid.

First, they offered her $100 as a "gesture of good will" if she signed a liability waiver.

Now, I don't know about you, but if I found a rat head in a can of green beans, I think I'd be looking for a little more than a hundred bucks. Who knows what the going rate is, but it's got to be more than that - even if it was just the head.

Allen Canning is country folk - they're located in Siloam, Arkansas, in the Ozarks. So maybe the odd rat head in the green beans isn't that big a deal. I'm guessing that Siloam may be hunting country. Maybe even squirrel hunting country. People eat squirrel (which, no doubt tastes like chicken). A squirrel is a rodent. A rat is a rodent. Thus....

Or maybe Allen just likes to low-ball. Apparently when Marianne Watson found an "amphibian leg" in green beans, she was offered $25 and a cookbook. (It's unknown whether the cookbook had recipes for frog's legs, or rat-head stew. Who knows? Maybe the head is the best part.)

Not that there are a lot of ways to make this better, but the Allen spokesperson made things worse.

"There's no way that product could have hurt her," Allen Canning spokesman James Phillips said in a telephone interview. "This rodent was rendered commercially sterile. We cook each can individually at a temperature up to 265 degrees"...

Phillips says that the incident is rare and that the company produces millions of cans a year.

"If you would calculate the frequency of this on a calculator, it wouldn't fit because the number's so small," said Phillips.

All this may be true - and oh, what a relief it is - but Allen Canning may have been better served if they'd offered a bit more 'we hate when this happens, but here's why a) there was no danger, and b) it rarely happens.

However awkward the above  factoids were, they were no near as off the mark as Phillips insisting that Allen Canning is the victim here, not Marianne Watson.

"You can be assured that the people who've been hurt by this is us. She's trying to ruin us through the media."

No doubt Allen Canning has been hurt, but it doesn't appear that Marianne Watson has any particular motivation to "ruin" them. (She claims that she doesn't intend to sue for damages, but that she went public so that no one else would find a rat head - or the remaining, unaccounted for parts - when they went to put supper on the table.)

But who knows? Maybe Allen Canning smells a rat here. They have asked Watson to send the head to a lab for testing - presumably to figure out whether the rat head was actually canned, and not an ingredient added after the fact by a fortune-hunter. After all, wasn't there a story a while back of some woman claiming to find a finger in a taco, only to find that she's put the finger there herself so she could sue for big bucks? I can't remember where the finger came from.)

Watson may send the rat head in - but to a lab of her own choosing. She's in Utah. Maybe she could send it to CSI: Las Vegas, and they can figure out whether the rat had actually been cooked at the requisite 265 degrees. (And just in case I ever need to cook a rat head, are we talking Centigrade or Fahrenheit?)

Allen Canning's web site doesn't do a much better job than their spokesman. When I looked, there was no mention of the incident, just this unfortunate content on their News page:

Wondering what kind of news we’ve got in the can?
Click on the links below to find out!

In this day and age, when everything is "news" within a few minutes, it's crazy for a company to respond (and not respond) this way. Something that, a few years ago, could have been shoved (or vomited) under the table, makes its way to everyone with Internet access. And that's a lot of folks who are going to think twice before they open a can of Veg-All, or Popeye's spinach - both Allen products - let alone a can of green beans.

This may be unfortunate, but this is The Information Age. Even a small, out-of-the-way company like Allen Canning - especially a company like Allen Canning, which is in just the type of industry where everyone who's ever wielded a can opener will identify with the story - needs to be better prepared for this type of incident.

Just as every company needs a business continuity plan, they need a "how we'll respond" plan. Obviously, nobody can anticipate every bad thing that could possibly happen - darn, we were all prepared for another amphibian leg, and instead we get a rat head - they can and should have a checklist ready - not just who will respond, but how they'll respond.

No to blame the victim/we're the victim. No this "product can't hurt" - sure, you may not die from eating it, but I'm having nightmares about it, and I imagine Marianne Watson may be too.

Yes to providing assurances and facts (which Allen Canning did). Yes to pushing for testing - it's certainly understandable in an era a false and attention getting claims, let alone specious lawsuits. And yes to combing your web site, ads, etc. for a LOL howler like "Wondering what kind of news we've got in the can?"

Obviously, the answer to that particular question can only be 'not any longer.'


Information/quotes used in this post comes from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Another Twitter List

And not a dumb one this time. I've complained before about some of the ridiculous "marketing via Twitter" lists that have turned up; Ann Handley at MarketingProfs offers up a pretty sensible one that serves as nice place to start thinking about how Twitter can be useful.

I still am skeptical. Twitter is entertaining, and I use it myself, but most of these ideas are things that work better when they are primarily done via other media (like blogs). Twitter does, however, provide a nice adjunct to that.

At the same time, I've discovered that some Twitterers use it mainly to say, "Hey, look, I wrote a blog post!" That's something I find tedious; that's why I use an RSS reader. And there is, of course, Twitter spam now.

A couple of specific issues and questions I have...

1. Has anyone ever studied how Twitter users actually interact with the service? When I signed up I had tweets going to my IM, and that stopped within hours - it was just an irritating annoyance. Now, I mainly see tweets through the Twitterific Mac Twitter client. (The idea of them going to my phone just gives me a headache.)

This makes me wonder how many others do that; for me, Twitter is very ephemeral. It's useful for quick notifications of some things, like what Woot is offering right now, but - to pick an application one commenter on Ann's post mentioned - terrible for things like job postings. People could easily miss them.

It would be helpful to see some statistics on where tweets are actually going - the web? phones? IM clients? other desktop clients?

2. Twitter's infrastructure is, frankly, not ready for prime time. There are outages, things often don't work right, there are constant display problems. This is not surprising for a free service with no clear plans to be profitable, but it's something a marketer should bear in mind if he or she is thinking of making Twitter the centerpiece of a campaign. Will Twitter be working correctly the day you launch? Probably, but...

3. Twitter is a very select subset of early adopters who like these kinds of things (and yes, I'm one of them, once I go through my obligatory "Bah! Humbug!" phase). Twitterers are probably not your market, and almost certainly not representative of your market. Which is why I get chills when I hear people talk about using it for marketing research.

There are, of course, some research activities where this doesn't matter. Brainstorming? Floating trial balloons? Sure, it's a handy thing. But the day someone says, "Well, we floated this on Twitter and everybody thought it was a hit!" you need to eject them from your office and send them to a seminar on research to go learn something. Twitterers are not a good sample of anything except Twitterers. When I hear the "Twitter for research" concept, I never hear the necessary qualification after it, and that's a recipe for bad research driving bad decisions.

If your market includes tech-oriented people, you certainly should be paying attention to Twitter. Just keep it in perspective.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What is it you guys do again?

In the course of my travels, I came across a web site that had a name similar to that of the company I was really looking for.

I paused for a moment to try to figure out what exactly this company did. Well, that was quite a pause - and it wasn't exactly the pause that refreshes.

I am going to disguise this company (and their messaging) because my guess is that they're small and trying to make their way in the world, and probably the last thing they need is some smartier-than-thou marketing consultant moaning and groaning about their web site.  Microsoft: fair game; little guy, play fair!

I know what it's like to be small - and criticized. Years ago, shortly after my company had unveiled a new web site, we interviewed a fellow for the job of VP of Engineering. Although it was pretty clear that I was in charge of marketing and, thus, had likely had something to do with the web site, this guy - who looked just like Mr. Bean - launched into a monologue on how terrible our web site was. How the images were ridiculous, the navigation clumsy, the content devoid of content. Furthermore, our collateral was out of date and misleading. He waved a fistful of our old collateral that he had gotten somewhere along the line.

Despite his criticism, I like to think that I would not have been so thin-skinned and eager to reject this fellow if he hadn't clearly written on the top of his resume that his prime attributes included the ability to see all sides of an issue, operate as a conciliator, and defuse friction-filled situations. Hah, I say, hah.

He didn't get the job.

Of course, maybe his criticism was exactly what I needed. And it may be exactly what the nameless company needs. So, what I'll do at some point is drop them a note and let them know what I think.

Anyway, here's what they say about themselves for starters.

Nameless, Inc. has achieved tremendous results for our customers by offering software solutions that really work for them.  Nameless also delivers large and measurable returns on the major investments our customers are making in our technology.

Admittedly, I have rewritten their copy, and theirs is actually better and more interesting. But this is the rough gist, and the point is that I read this intro paragraph and came away with absolutely no idea what these guys do - other than it's software. (This is no small something, of course. I've read home pages without learning whether a company provided hardware, software, or services. All I knew was that the offered "solutions for something.")

On to exactly where Nameless customers achieve their phenomenal results. Why through productivity (leverage those resources!), scale (watch your business grow!), greater efficiency, customer satisfaction, better decision making....

Then we start getting a bit more of a clue about what Nameless actually does, because we now we're told that they help make sure that the information that their customers need in order to make those better decisions is going to be right where they can get their hands on it.

Now I get it. Or at least I think I get it. Nameless develops some type of data management software.

Wouldn't it have been easier if they'd just said so to begin with?

Nameless makes data managent software.

There, was that so hard?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Marketing Delusion: "They Love Our Ads!"

Over at Church of the Customer Blog, Jackie Huba rightly calls out self-absorbed marketers who think the world just wants more ads. The quote, from a Yankee Group analyst, is too great not to share:
"The day is coming when wireless users will experience nirvana scenarios -- mobile ads tied to your individual behavior, what you are doing, and where you are."

Ads on my mobile phone - now that's nirvana! I hear people complaining all the time that all they can do with their phones is talk to friends and family, or sent them text messages, or surf the web. No ads. It's a total bummer, you know?

The safest assumption is always that nobody wants to see your ad, nobody cares, and more than likely they'll view it as an intrusion. That means it had better be relevant and well-produced and useful. Will that lead to "nirvana?" No, it will lead to people not completely hating you, and thus perhaps paying attention. But it's like the DMV: the biggest compliment you're going to get is, "That wasn't too horrible."

If you click through from Jackie's post to the article on the expected Google Phone, you find that the scenario is actually that you get ads, and then you talk for free. I think there is a market for that, perhaps among young people or others who otherwise couldn't afford a mobile phone.

But frankly, the whole thing makes my monthly AT&T bill a great deal. Pay that, and just talk to people? Great. That's why I have a phone. Google's plans are interesting, but I think they're fundamentally different than what they've done elsewhere. Pay-per-click search ads work becaue they fit with what the user is doing - I'm searching for something, and the ads provide things that are often better than the organic search results, especially if I'm looking to buy something.

When I'm using my phone, I'm in a completely different frame of mind. The ads, rather than an enhancement of my search experience that also happens to make money for somebody, become a barrier to get through to do what I reallly want to do. That's a critical difference, and why I think the Google Phone's market - as the device and service have been described so far - is just for a "can't/won't pay the phone bill" niche.

And given the history of Google search and AdWords ads, even if they get it right initially - providing such useful information and services that you don't mind the ads - I think it's likely that an army of marketers will be there figuring out how to game the system. Google's search results, once excellent, are now as cluttered with useless links as everybody else's. AdSense results are often similarly unhelpful. If the phone is a success, expect the long decline to begin there too.

But hey, I could be wrong, and there may be some important details about this that we haven't heard yet. But until I learn about some innovative twist to this, I'm with Jackie: that "nirvana" sounds more like something out of The Inferno to me.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Silliness and its Metaphors

Metaphors are useful. People often think in metaphoric terms, so a well chosen metaphor can help someone understand a concept quickly and clearly in a way that long-winded explanations often cannot.

But there's a danger to metaphors; no metaphor really provides a complete explanation of anything, but it's a human tendency to stretch them a bit too far, assuming the things we are comparing are more alike than they are. This can lead to bad decisions.

It's can also lead to sheer eye-popping silliness, like this this blog post from Jason Calacanis offering the "official" definition of Web 3.0.

Web 2.0 is a metaphor. There is no real taxonomy of web services placing them into "1.0" or "2.o" categories, and people will debate what makes a site a 2.0 vs 1.0 site, a conversation about as useful as the old saw about angels dancing on the head of a pin. The nice people at Wikipedia - that would be all of us, by the way! - actually provide some wisdom that appears to have flown right over the head of Calacanis and the people he says are asking him for such a definition:
In alluding to the version-numbers that commonly designate software upgrades, the phrase "Web 2.0" hints at an improved form of the World Wide Web. Technologies such as weblogs, social bookmarking, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds (and other forms of many-to-many publishing), social software, web application programming interfaces (APIs), and online web services such as eBay and Gmail provide a significant enhancement over read-only websites. Stephen Fry (actor, author and broadcaster) describes Web 2.0 as "an idea in people’s heads rather than a reality. It’s actually an idea that the reciprocity between the user and the provider is what’s emphasized. In other words, genuine interactivity if you like, simply because people can upload as well as download"[6]. The phrase "Web 2.0" can also refer to the transition of websites from isolated information silos to interlinked computing platforms that act like software to the user. Web 2.0 also includes a social element where users generate and distribute content, often with freedom to share and re-use. The result is a rise in the economic value of the Web as users can do more online.
Get that? It's an idea. There was no Web 1.0. There was no Web 2.1 bug fix, Web 2.0 SP 1 service pack, Web 2.5. There will not be a beta of Web 3.0 before its release nor an upgrade path from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0. Moreover, there never need to be any such thing as Web 3.0, unless it becomes a useful metaphor for describing some major shift in the way the web is used.

The problem with stretching metaphors too far is that it's sloppy thinking that leads to sloppy conclusions, and one need look no further than the "offiicial" definition of Web 3.0 to see just how sloppy thinking can get:
Web 3.0 is defined as the creation of high-quality content and services produced by gifted individuals using Web 2.0 technology as an enabling platform.
Essentially, it will be Web 3.0 but the people making content will be smarter! That's not a bad dream but as a definition for the next major paradigm shift on the web, it's pretty dumb.

And it's hard not to miss the irony here; after hearing about the "democratization of content," which is a nice way of saying that people with expertise and skills will be displaced by amateurs, it's pretty funny that in the definition Calacanis has come up with is the suggestion that maybe that wasn't the best thing ever.

Web 2.0 is a somewhat useful metaphor (but not nearly as useful as some people think, given how much out there is not clearly old web vs. 2.0 web). Should someone manage to define an actual major change in web use that's so different that it merits a new metaphor, and is really happening among users, a metaphor to describe it would be useful.

Personally, though, I hope "Web 3.0" isn't that metaphor, because it sets us on a path toward someone like Calacanis someday deciding to tell us what Web 4.0 is, and the carnival of silliness will just continue.

Pragmatic Marketing Rule #1

Pragmatic Marketing has a very astute set of Product Management rules for technology marketing. (What they call Product Management has a mega-overlap with what I consider Product Marketing, by the way. But in some companies - especially smaller ones  - there is no separate product marketing role.)

I'm going to be working my way through Pragmatic's 20 Rules. This post is the first in a series.

RULE #1 If product managers don't do their jobs, the other departments will fill the void.

When I was a Product Manager, I used to say that everyone else involved in the product cycle walked around the table and picked off what they wanted to do, and what was left was Product Management. And at times this was unfortunately true. But good Product Managers aren't just pragmatic, they're proactive. And here are a few of the things that can happen when those other departments fill the void:

If you don't provide clear and supported input to the process, the engineers will develop what they damn well please. Hey, it's your responsibility to talk to your customers (and your prospects), check out the competition, listen to the analysts, learn about your industry, learn about your customers' industries, find out what your sales engineers and customer support reps are encountering, look at those RFPs, and glean market intelligence N.E.C. And it's your responsibility to translate all this "stuff" into product requirements that you communicate to your engineers.

Yes, there will be stuff that your developers come up with on their own - and a lot of it will be great. Plus, with all the other info you need to gather, you may not want to also have a viewpoint on nit-picky underlying technical choices. (You'd better have something to say about platform, however.) But you need to be the driving force behind what goes into that product, or you could end up with a magnificently engineered product that nobody wants or needs.

If you don't provide clear direction on who the target customers are, sales will go wherever they damn well please. Your products should have been built with some use and customer in mind, shouldn't they? Please let sales know. Now, we all know that they may ignore you, but they really do so at their peril.

It may, of course, be the case that your products are somewhat generic - every company can use a database and a word processor, no? So why can't we, with our generic "solution", go wherever we damn well please. (Sniff, sniff. Whine, whine, whine. I really want to sell to GE. And WalMart. And BofA. I really want to sell to CEOs. Why are you telling me not to go there?)

Here's why largely horizontal products need to be targeted to specific customers (where, depending on the product stage you're in, can be individual user types, industries, etc.):

  • Especially if you're a small company with limited resources, you have to start somewhere. By choosing a best-bet for your largely horizontal product, you'll build knowledge and expertise that will enable you to sell to others.
  • Once the early adopters have completed their early adopting, you need to ride the next wave. These folks tend to want to know who else in their industry/neck of the woods is using your product. Much easier to sell to Get-a-Life Insurance if One-Life-to-Live Insurance is on your customer list.

By the way, take a look at how most of the major generic technology providers are organized. Yep, it's by vertical markets. It may happen by accident or intent, but chances are that you're going to end up with customers clustered in certain industries. Make the most of it.

You can't, by the way, make sales do anything they don't want to do. Even if you're trying to make life easier for them, they may persist in going and doing what they want to do. Of course, sales being sales, they won't do this unless they can make money at it. And the world being the world, some sales folks will have some success going where they have no business going. Too bad the success won't come easily - and probably won't be repeatable.

And I've seen cases where a company strategically wanted to move in one direction, but couldn't get sales aligned behind them. Here's a hint: make sure the sales compensation plan maps to the strategic direction.

If you don't establish pricing, sales will make it up. Personally, I don't think there's anything that product management does that's more difficult than figuring out pricing. And you absolutely need to listen to what sales has to say on the matter. But it's up to you to determine the price that will work, that's commensurate with the value provided, that's not out of whack with the competition, and is what the market can bear. If not, you'll be in the wonderful of world of sales cannily figuring out what the customer has in their pocketbook, and establishing that as the price du jour. (Just watch out when customers get together and compare notes....) 

If you don't provide clear direction on who the target customers are, and what the message is for them, marcomm will go wherever they damn well please and say whatever they damn well want. Like sales, if you're not providing guidance to marcom on who the target customers are, they will come up with the programs on their own. These programs may make spectacular sense, they may not. Best not to leave things to chance.

Similarly, if marcom doesn't know what the product is and does, they will come up with their own story. Their story may make spectacular sense, it may not. Best not to leave things to chance. I worked in one company that was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when I saw a banner ad for one of our services floating by that touted our financial stability. I immediately called the ad person in marcom and pointed out that this wasn't exactly our strong suit. "But that's what our buyers are most interested in," she told me.

The people who will be filling whatever void you leave won't be evil or stupid. You may even want, need, appreciate their suggestions and advice. But if engineers are figuring out what's in the product all on their lonesome; if sales is pulling prices out of their ear on the way to a company that is not in a million years going to buy your product; if marketing is claiming that your product solves world peace when it really doesn't - they're all trying to do something that is neither their expertise nor their responsbility. It's yours. Take it and use it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Your Right to be a Pain in the Ass

When the federal Do Not Call registry came into being, it was a long-overdue victory for consumers. While telemarketing trade associations predicted dire consequences if they were not allowed to annoy people who do not want to hear from them and do not want to buy anything from them over the phone, consumers were utterly sick of them, spending money on services like caller ID and anonymous call blocking to keep them at bay, and legislators finally listened.

Well, sort of. Because guess what? If you put your number on the list when it was new, you're about to be dropped from it. You see, when you add a number to the Do Not Call registry, it only stays there for five years. This was, supposedly, in order to keep the list accurate - people move, phone numbers are reassigned, and so on. Except that the list is already regularly purged to remove disconnected numbers.

Of course, nobody's going to remember that their five years are up, and they'll start getting more annoying calls. The FTC doesn't see it that way, but at least one member of Congress is a bit smarter:

"It is incredibly quick and easy to do," Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "It was so easy for people to sign up in the first instance. It will be just as easy for them to re-up."

But Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., says people should not be forced to re-register to keep telemarketers at bay. Doyle introduced legislation this week, with bipartisan support, to make registrations permanent.

Sure, it's quick and easy if you know you have to do it. Unless the FTC is planning on sending postcards out to everyone on the list before they're dropped, nobody is going to remember to re-up.

Smart marketers will support Doyle's legislation, because smart marketers don't want to waste their money having telemarketers call people who aren't interested in talking to telemarketers. Unfortunately, this is an area where marketers often aren't very smart.

It's always frustrating to see marketers react to consumer attempts to shut them up by trying to find a way to weasel through. Pop-up blockers? We'll come up with new formats to make you look at our ads. Do-not-call list? Our associations will lobby to make sure names drop off of it. And so on, and so on.

My rule with telemarketing is quite simple: Do not call me, ever. Do not call me if I'm your customer, or if I'm not. Just don't do it. I hate being interrupted by phone calls. Friends, family, and clients can call me. Businesses can if the reason is "we suspect fraudulent activity on your credit card" or "we want to tell you that your order is delayed" or "we are confirming you appointment next week."

I'm a marketer, and I think the legal standard for telemarketing should be opt-in only. And real opt-in, not "by opening this bank account you are telling us we can bombard you with offers by mail and phone."

It doesn't help the phone companies are in on the racket: you have to pay them not to give out your phone number.

I'm skeptical about the new conversational, user generated, only welcomed messages marketing simply because I think marketers kid themselves about what is really welcomed by consumers. Do not call registries with this kind of hole in them are a great example. I'd love to see marketing organizations be good citizens and call on Congress to make numbers on the registry permanent. It's good business and it's just the right thing to do.