Archive for the 'Business' Category

Free Ice Cream and Five Other Truly Evil Marketing Tricks

January 12, 2011

Spoke at Refresh Austin last night about the evils of free ice cream, among other things. Great group of folks and spirited discussion on fighter brands, where marketers should draw the ethical line, and more. The presentation’s here. Thanks Refresh for the warm welcome and great conversations!

Yes, the presentation’s linked in a kludgey way instead of being elegantly embedded. Seems to be one of the drawbacks to being hosted on WordPress instead of on my own domain. So this is a fine time to announce that, as time permits, I’m migrating this blog over to I’m doing so in part for technical reasons – the ability to embed video or slides, for example. I’m doing so in part for business reasons, as the migration makes for a better SEO and visibility play. And I’ll also make changes for thematic reasons. I’m a marketer, so marketing will continue to be a dominant theme. But I’d like the freedom to be a little more personal than ‘egghead marketing’ allows me to be. So look for a few changes in how the blog looks, what I call it, and the range of content.


You Are Who You Sell To

December 19, 2010

Had a conversation this am on Twitter with a couple friends about innovation and Yahoo!. Two words that, you may notice, rarely occur in the same sentence these days.

Their premise: Yahoo! is arrogantly mismanaged and misses opportunities to lead by, for example, opening an API that would allow developers to innovate on Yahoo! Groups by adding new features.

My premise: you are who you sell to. In health, you are what you eat. You can’t work off a breakfast of Twinkies and three helpings of macaroni and cheese for supper at the gym. In business, you are who you sell to. If your customers are cutting-edge, you are too..or you go out of business. If your customers are late majority or laggards in the technology adoption lifecycle model, you’ll find your management team adopting their characteristics.

In some businesses that works. If I more to Fort Worth, Texas and open a western wear store, I’ll probably wear boots. Showing up in an Armani suit and Gucci loafers wouldn’t be the best choice.

In technology businesses that can be a problem – or not. When I was at Dell we soundly beat Gateway based in part on their decision to target the first-time PC buyer. Those (at the time) late adopter customers were more risk-averse and required a lot more handholding than our customers. So our service and support costs were lower. Is it a coincidence that they were always slower to adopt the newest graphics chipset or other innovation? Is Yahoo! constrained in its ability to innovate by an innovation-averse customer base? Would their customers welcome innovation, or be confused or put off by it?

[I’ll think about it while I log into Facebook. Wow, look at all the complaints about the latest minor interface change! “Every change makes Facebook worse,” reads one. Sounds a lot like an old-timer railing against the kids on his lawn and the music on the radio. Or a late adopter – and, as we know, those people have all flocked to Facebook and taken it as their own.]

Yahoo! might have done better had they decided to embrace their customers’ non-leading-edge identity (just as I’d embrace Fort Worth by wearing boots if I moved there to sell western wear). Jupiter Jack has embraced their customers’ low-tech identity. I’d never buy one, but I find their positioning as “hands-free calling for people who have never heard of Bluetooth” smart. They know who their customers are and aren’t and know how to think like those customers. And they know to innovate only in ways those customers care about, understand and appreciate.

Yahoo!’s in a tougher place. Their Groups customers are leaving for Facebook Groups and, now, the revised Google Groups. Google Groups used to look and feel pretty much like old Usenet. Why was Google able to change their interface while Yahoo! can’t? I’d argue because Google has acquired customers willing to change and trained them to accept more changes. Yahoo! has actively targeted late adopters. If you disagree, look at Yahoo! stores. If that’s not Jupiter Jack for small business, I don’t know what is.

You don’t have to be leading edge. It’s fine to be Jupiter Jack. But when your customers want you to be Jupiter Jack and the market judges you as an entrant in the Bluetooth Innovation World Cup, you’ve got a problem to solve. And it starts with deciding who you want to be.

Transparency is a Thimbleful of Water

October 30, 2010

When Jeffrey Eisenberg gave an inspiring and thought-provoking talk last Thursday at Innotech Austin, he talked about how transparency is no longer a choice for companies. Your information will be out there whether you like it or not due to the number of employees, customers and competitors using social media. Your choice, he said, is authenticity.

I agree with Jeffrey that the debate on transparency is over, but for different reasons and with a different conclusion. In my view transparency is not enough. It comes from a group of executives agreeing that transparency, in this modern world, is a good thing. They then decide what to be transparent about and set a timeline to disclose it. The marketing person (you or me) “crafts messaging.” Transparency is implemented as translucency – selective disclosure. It’s a wall of glass bricks where you can see that someone’s in the shower but can’t see what Monty Python calls “the naughty bits.”

Is transparency good? Sure. A man dying of thirst in the desert won’t turn down a thimbleful of water. But it’s nowhere near enough. Companies that talk about transparency are simply disclosing marginally more information than is required by law. Calling a thimbleful of water a sea change is asinine.

OK, what about Jeffrey’s concept of authenticity? Authenticity is about being who you are. That’s good, right?

Before we got busy with kiddos my wife and I indulged a passion for traveling in rural Mexico. I’m not talking about Cancun or Baja. Every single time we got as far off the beaten track as possible, visiting towns that were only accessible by train or on foot. We slept on rooftops and in homes in towns where there was no hotel because no one visited. I remember a conversation with a family about domestic animals. After we revealed that we had only a cat to our names, our hosts looked at us with pity, the way a social media addict looks at a person without a smartphone. They thought we were beyond dirt poor. So they welcomed us into the three-room house in which they, as people of means (with two pigs, many chickens, a goat and two cows) lived. I’m not mocking these generous people. On the contrary, they were fantastic hosts and taught us a lot. And the food was authentic.

At the grocery store I can buy Old El Paso salsa with the word “authentic” on the label. It does not taste the same. Sorry Jeffrey, but the word authenticity is too easily abused. Just like transparency. The more syllables a word has, the more easily it is twisted – that’s why MBAs and lawyers love their polysyllables. So where does that leave us?

It leaves us in search of a word so direct and real that to abuse it would be unthinkable. I suggest “honesty.” Be honest with your employees, customers, prospects and even competitors. Honesty doesn’t mean disclosing earnings and salaries when the SEC doesn’t require it (although some companies do).  Honesty means telling people the facts unless there’s a good reason you can’t tell them. And when you can’t, honesty demands that you don’t waffle. Instead, you say “I can’t tell you that and here’s why.” You can choose to keep information private in an honest way.

Admit to not being transparent and you admit to failing in the implementation of your communications strategy. Admit to being inauthentic and you admit to wearing a tie and sport coat when you’re more comfortable in jeans. Admit to not being honest and you acknowledge a major failing in your character. See the difference? You’ve moved up from the nickel slots of corporate communications to the high stakes poker game of integrity. Are you ready?

This is a huge challenge to marketers when our three favorite words are Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Are you ready to leave that behind? Can you?

After all, marketing has shifted from advertising to conversation. Want to end a conversation? Try not being honest. As soon as the other party figures it out, the conversation ends. Want to end a conversation with your spouse? Try “crafting messaging”, setting a timeline, and selectively disclosing information about something important, like what you’re spending money on. But be careful. You may end more than just a conversation that way.

Transparency is a timid step in the right direction. It’s pointing at the moon, not launching a rocket to go there. Authenticity is better but it’s too easily co-opted, messaged and massaged. Try honesty.

And if the three syllables in honesty give enough wiggle room to “craft messaging” rather than simply saying what is, then we’ll have to settle on one syllable. (I know you’re thinking by now that it’s “rant”, but it’s not.)


Just be true.

Photo by michael.dreves

Flaming Turdbag Competitive Strategy

August 22, 2010

What’s your flaming turdbag competitive strategy?

This is neither an idle question nor a gratuitous vulgarity. The fact of the matter is that any business prospers by solving problems that others are unable or unwilling to solve. Some businesses achieve modest success by solving modestly distasteful problems. But if you want big success and loyal customers, look for the business equivalent of a flaming bag of poop on your customers’ doorstep. Solve that and win big.

First example: Wal-mart. Their retail competitors in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s chose to not compete in small towns. These locations were logistically difficult to serve and customers there were loyal to the local merchants. So K-Mart, Sears and other competitors stayed away from those small towns, just as you’d step around a flaming bag of poop on your doorstep. Wal-mart developed the logistics expertise to serve small and midsize towns and, in doing so, grew into a behemoth. The embraced what their competitors considered a flaming turdbag and consequently defeated those competitors.

I know not everyone likes Wal-mart for various reasons. Whether you like them or not, they became the world’s number one retailer by innovating on multiple fronts. Much has been written about their innovation in information technology and logistics. But the innovation that really mattered was embracing a flaming turdbag.

Second example: Fedex. Guaranteed overnight delivery anywhere isn’t easy. For UPS and USPS in the 1970’s, it was about as attractive as a flaming bag of poop. So they stayed away from it. Fred Smith of Fedex, in contrast, built an entire business around that promise. Urban legend says that his business plan got a C in graduate school. We know this isn’t true because Smith never attended graduate school. But the story sounds credible because business school professors, like venture capitalists, like things that scale easily, infinitely, and without a lot of sweat (which is why they love SaaS, software-as-a-service, models). They certainly don’t like flaming turdbags.

Embracing a flaming turdbag doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it’s a sure road to failure if you embrace the first one you see. Nearly all of them can and should be stepped around by customers, competitors and you. Fire is dangerous. Poop is stinky. Combine the two, and who wants to deal with something like that if they can avoid it?

But when you see one that customers can’t avoid and competitors repeatedly refuse to solve, look at the situation carefully. How can you solve it? How much will customers pay you to solve it? How much of a lead in the market can you get? If you look at examples like the music industry, you’ll reach the conclusion that competitors will let you get pretty far ahead before dealing with a flaming turdbag like digital downloads.

Do you have a flaming turdbag competitive strategy? If not, is your competitor going to take your customers by embracing one?

I’ve Been Giving You Bad Advice

July 12, 2010

After a conversation with a friend who’s recently made a great career move, I realized I’ve been giving bad advice for some time now. Not terrible advice,  just not as good as it could be. Based on a couple of career learnings (read “missteps”), I’ve always counseled people to “only get involved in a business where you can be passionate about the product.”

Seems reasonable enough, and seems to fit with my career learnings. But there’s something deeper that I figured out over coffee with my friend.

Whatever industry you’re in, products come and go. It’s hard to remain passionate about every version of every product you’re ever involved in marketing. And yet, the best marketers seem to do it. What’s their trick?

Turns out they give almost the same advice I do. Only, instead of “be passionate about the product”, they say “be passionate about the customer.” Big difference. Most businesses serve only a few types of customers. Think of a toy manufacturer – thousands of products, hard to care deeply about each one. But if you’re passionate about making children happy, taking each one of those products to market will be a delight.

Apologies if the advice I gave formerly damaged your career and landed you on skid row. But it still wasn’t bad advice. It’s just that my friend’s advice is better.

Photo by Bob Formal

Making it Sound Easy – Even When it’s Not!

April 8, 2010

Wow! Five easy steps! Signing on to wi-fi in a coffee shop normally requires one or two steps. Thanks for simplifying it for me!

I especially enjoyed the scavenger hunt for the Ripple TV (whatever that is). The code is in small letters, requiring customers to walk across the coffee shop. As long as you’re forcing your customers to jump through hoops, throw in one more: require them to do the ‘Hokey Pokey’ prior to connecting for even more fun!

Are you adding extra steps to the way you serve customers? Are they really necessary? (If the competition doesn’t find them necessary, they’re probably not. And you’re probably losing customers to that simpler competition). Recruiting a Marketing copywriter to make those extra steps sound easy and fun is the very essence of turd-polishing.

Precision Words

March 7, 2010

Sometimes you’re asked to contribute marketing copy to a non-marketing deliverable. Maybe a login page.

Here are the fields to fill in, here’s the ‘submit’ button…over here on the right, let’s fill it out with a little marketing copy. You know, just something that makes the customer feel good about logging in. Fluffy, feel-good marketing stuff. That’s what you do, right?

You’re the only expert in that meeting who understands this: marketing copy is a tool. Not a filler. Words either deliver or dilute the message.

So don’t let yourself be sent off with that blank template to fill out until you’ve answered the key questions. What is the goal of this login page? Who’s logging into what? Why would they want to? Why do we want them to?

Then go craft the language as a precision tool that accomplishes the goal as surely as a Phillips screwdriver slides into the crossed grooves. Edit ruthlessly. Suddenly marketing goes from being the fluffiest part of the business to the most disciplined and demanding team in the house. Pretty cool, huh?

Thanks to @chilkari for pointing out that this applies to ALL writing, not just marketing copy

photo by saebaryo

My Tweak is Your Monkey Wrench

January 24, 2010

This post isn’t just about Marketing. It’s about workplace etiquette in a world where work is complex and requires relying on people who know how to do things that we don’t. People like your mechanic, your Web developer, your accountant…even, sometimes, your marketer.

Because surfing the Web doesn’t make you an expert on Web design any more than watching NASCAR qualifies you to change a spark plug. You know what you want and that’s fine. Don’t assume, though, that because the change looks small to you it’s actually a small change request. Which means this: unless you know exactly how much work is involved, don’t call it a ‘tweak’.

We use the word ‘tweak’ to convey ‘I don’t think this is a big deal.’ Sometimes, though, it is. We don’t know the difference because we aren’t the ones who know how to do that work.

So I suggested requesting ‘changes’ rather than ‘tweaks’. No one will freak out. In fact, they’ll thank you for letting them assess the size of the requested changes, rather than characterizing what could be several hours of work as a ‘tweak.’

Photo by Dunechaser. And yes, that’s Kaylee Frye as a Playmobil person

Dance of the Sugar Plum Smartphone

December 6, 2009

When playing with data, few things are more fun than putting two possibly unrelated sets together and speculating about the relationship. First, let’s consider this Neilsen data showing increasing smartphone adoption. More and more people are capable of running a Google search on whatever burning question comes to mind, no matter where they are. Even, perhaps, at the ballet.

Now let’s look at search volume for the string ‘how long is the Nutcracker Ballet’ over the past few years. Notice the increasing heights of the December spikes. Is the increased adoption of mobile platforms driving an increase in furtive Googling sometime right after the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?

No, the time axes aren’t the same. But you have to admit it’s fun to look at data like this and speculate. Happy Holidays!

Who’s Educating Who?

October 16, 2009


Why do marketers use the phrase “educating the customer” so often? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Customers aren’t buying. If they don’t know that our solution is what they need, they must need education so they can become as smart as us.
  • Our solution isn’t complete. Customers need to be educated in order to know that we sell computers, but they’re on their own in terms of finding a monitor.
  • Our solution isn’t meeting customer expectations. The data we sell is the best we can produce, but when customers look at it they say “there are errors in this data.” We need to teach them that their standards are too high. (Would a restaurant with this attitude last a second?)

None of these scenarios are flattering to the marketer. And they’re all, frankly, a bit arrogant. They start from the precept that we know more than the customer. Our job is to smarten the customer up. School is in session. Because our solutions are complex.

Customers’ problems, on the other hand, are quite simple. Even in the technical realm, they just want the network to be up or the software to do whatever it is they bought it to do. B2B buyers want to get on with business, and consumers want to get on with their life. A solution that does that will be welcomed.

And a marketer who assumes the role of pupil and says “customers, please educate me” will do very well indeed.