Friday, January 16, 2015

When did spam become an accepted marketing practice?

If your like me, you've become increasingly frustrated with your email inbox. Somewhere in 2014, perhaps earlier, it seems as though we passed a milestone. Over the course of the year, I've noticed that more and more businesses have adopted spam as a marketing practice. Sorry, in the parlance of the industry, frequent customer touches, lead nurturing, trickle marketing, or -- if you ask me -- spam.

What makes this so frustratingly bad is that most of these are not trying to sell you Viagra or investments in Nigeria, those are easier to block and filter. Instead, these are emails that come from businesses and services that you use.

Perhaps the foremost example of this is Twitter which, in 2014, seems to have decided to send copious emails to each and every account you may have. These emails range from "did you know that so-and-so said such and such?" and "Today on Twitter" to "do you know so-and-so?" You look at these things and think, "dude, I signed up for Twitter and I've used your service. If I wanted to know what happened today -- or find somebody -- I'd log into Twitter and do that." The worst part of it is, if you click the unsubscribe link, it will unsubscribe you from "this type of email". And then it shifts is spam efforts to a different type of email -- from "what happened today" to "do you know" or something to that effect.

Screw those guys. This "semi-opt out" behavior is the kind of thing that builds animosity towards brands. It would be no trouble to include a button to opt out of all of their various 'marketing' emails (like more upstanding retail emailers do), but they don't. Instead, they tell you if you want to 'fix' your email preferences, you need to login -- enabling them to pad their engagement stats. See how successful our email marketing programs are? Again, screw you guys. May your gourmet cafe be filled with nothing but Spam.

Of course, it's not just Twitter. LinkedIn seems to think it's the San Jose Mercury News, or something to that effect. For some reason, they decided that I need at least two or three updates a day. "Remember that guy you worked with 15 years ago? It's his birthday today."

More Anecdotes of Email Marketing Gone Wrong
Another example comes from a colleague that works with a diverse technology company. One day they were contacted by this group, an industry association about advertising in their buyer's guide. Normally, he says, they don't do much advertising, but this is a niche industry. So they decide to move forward with the ad. After agreeing to do the ad, he realizes that the company doing the buyer's guide is not the people that he normally deals with in the industry association, but a third party group that apparently, returns some of the money that they make to the industry association.

So it turns out that this company, Multiview, doesn't just work with one industry association, they work with a number of them. And so, suddenly having been added to the "this guy spends" pool, more emails begin streaming in from Multiview, each one targeting a different industry, each one trying to scrape some more money from the business. So he starts creating filters to block them from his inbox. But the emails keep coming in because each name is different. And he can't block Multiview all together because they committed to the stupid buyers guide.

The whole thing reminded me of old call center place advertising place that I worked with when I was just out of college years ago. It's one of those places where they run a phone room, ostensibly for the firefighters or something like that, and call businesses trying to get them to advertise in something or other. Back in the day it was a tabloid newspaper. I can't tell you how many business card sized ads I created back then. This was one of the things that raised a flag on Multiview for my colleague -- after committing to the ad, they said that the could produce the artwork for the business, no charge.

When I learned about this story, the thing that simply boggles my mind is why these industry associations would let their brand be used in this way. While I'm sure that cash is a nice incentive, you have to ask yourself, what is it doing to the brand. But then again, Twitter is sort of doing the same thing to itself. I will say this about it though:

If the emotion that your brand generates is an unhappy, deal-with-the-devil discomfort where engagement is required by some sense of obligation outside of the core relationship, your brand is on thin ice. Once that sense of obligation goes away -- or if the pain of the experience exceeds the pain of not maintaining that obligation -- your user / customer / partner is gone. What's more, it won't be a sad departure, it will be a spit-on-your-grave departure because that ill will that you're building, it doesn't just go away.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

XBox One Sucks

After repeatedly attempting to fix the XBox One, I have deemed it a lost cause. It's a complete POS. If I had a little more Elvis in me, I'd shoot the damned thing. Will you be joining me in the line to return yours tomorrow?

XBox One FAIL: Microsoft Xmas Nightmare Continues (updated)

Ah, the joys of Christmas. A quiet day where you can sit around and play with your new toys -- unless your toys don't allow you to connect to XBox live and play with them.

So far, no connectivity for me. These are the days when you start thinking, "If I have to pay for a year of XBox live and Live is unavailable during that time, shouldn't Microsoft be refunding me for the time that I wanted to play, payed for access, but couldn't get on?"

Seriously though, right now I'm building a significant level of regret from having purchased this POS system in the first place. If someone were to ask me right now, would I recommend the XBox One or any other Microsoft product, the answer would be an unqualified NO.

Just for fun -- and to confirm some things that I already suspected -- I decided to fire up the XBox 360. As expected, it connects to XBox live, it remembers my XBox live profile and, more importantly, it WORKS. With the XBone, I feel like one of those poor bastards who got stuck with Windows 8 instead of Windows 7 or XP, older software that actually works.

And just for comparison, I restart the XBone -- it still doesn't work. I think it's getting ready to make it's way back into the box and get returned to the store. This device is still just not ready for public consumption, which is laughable when you think that this system came from the people who have years of experience making the XBox 360.

XBox Live Hack, Cloud Services and Nightmare of Christmas

This morning I got fired up the XBox One Console to discover that I wasn't connected to XBox Live. After several attempts to reconnect, I noticed the alert message complaining about a problem with "Core Services". While the XBox One offers some limited functionality when it can't connect to the XBox Live cloud, connectivity is a core part of how many games on the platform work, so when it can't connect, it's not happy. So problems with XBox Live equals problems for the XBone. Not a great Christmas present.

A quick check online revealed stories like this and this about hacks to the XBox and Playstation networks. These types of denial of service attacks are compounded on Christmas as many new systems are fired up for the first time and a wave of actual new users attempt to connect to the system. It's similar to what happened a couple of years ago when Apple's networks suffered under the load of a ton of new iPhone and iPads coming online. Still, you'd think that companies like Microsoft and Sony, as aspiring online media content hubs, would have a more robust, scalable infrastructure in place.

Seriously, it's one thing to have been surprised by a scaling impact a couple of years ago, but if you're building a modern cloud platform now, it's like approaching a yellow light from a couple of blocks back and being 'surprised' by a red light.

But this is also one of the reasons why designing the XBox One to be so fundamentally linked to the cloud seems like a strategic weakness. While it's true that many of the modern games depend upon Xbox Live connectivity in order to provide multi-player support, with the Xbox 360, you can do just about everything else even if you don't have access to a network. Trying to play some of games on the XBone this morning, I've suffered repeated failures -- even without attempting to use any networked component.

Frankly, I'm glad that I'm not depending on this device to be the cornerstone of my media center.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

XBox One Platform Follow Up

This is just a brief follow up on my earlier review of the XBox One platform. We started a new game -- Dragon Age Inquisition -- last week after burning through the buggiest Assassin's Creed ever.

I can safely report that we've experienced no crashes, freezes or glitches on the platform in the new game. I still don't love the software interface, but if good code runs on it, the system works.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Uber and the Moral Problem of Surge Pricing

Here is an interesting piece about the economics of surge pricing from an editor at the Harvard Business Review. It comes as Uber faces more outrage when, in response to the recent Sydney hostage crisis, surge pricing kicked in on Uber.

While it's easy to feel a bit cynical about the motives of a business when they promote the socially good aspects of their business practices, it's surprising to see the reality of an amoral profiteering engine, the Uber pricing algorithm. It makes you wonder, will people maintain a long term business relationship with a company that operates with no moral or ethical framework? Or, does a business need to find some mantle of good citizenship to wrap itself in lest it become a pariah?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Whole Foods and the Myth of the Workplace Team

Here's an interesting post that I came across from a guy that worked at Whole Foods in San Francisco. My Whole Foods nightmare: How a full-time job there left me in poverty by Nick Rahaim details some of his experiences working at Whole Foods. It's an interesting read. I think that there are a couple of interesting take-aways from the piece.

From his description, it sounds like a strong bond developed between co-workers. The irony is that, while many businesses try to build this kind of connection, in Whole Food's case, it appears that the unifying factor is salary and union concerns. Imagine if that weren't the case and, instead, that team approach was directed entirely toward the customer experience.

In the piece he references a store meeting where they are are given a "vote" on which benefits to cut because of "Obamacare." In the article, he points to Whole Food's stock price, but possibly a better indicator would be profitability. Essentially, shareholders reap increased profits on the backs of the underpayed "team" members. Its surprising that they don't fold more of that profit back into the engine of the business. And yet, this is the problem with the alignment between the performance of a stock and the "success" of the business.

There is another irony in that, Whole Foods tends to cater to an upscale customer, and that most are probably shopping there because they feel a sort of "harmonizing with all of society, hippy coop" sort of vibe. And Whole Foods exploits this image, through in-store experiences and interactions with the staff in the store. It's also part of the reason why people are willing to pay higher prices and Whole Foods is able to command higher margins than many of their competitors. What do you think the impact would be on the Whole Foods customer base if Whole Foods employees -- the friendly staff that the store's customers interact with -- were broadly thought to be treated in the same way as employees of Walmart? It seems like a rather precarious business strategy.