Thursday, November 12, 2009

More News in Battles Over Internet Marketing Scams

Techcrunch has another post news from the social network gaming scams this evening. It sounds like there's been a class action lawsuit filed against a number of the game companies who provide the infrastructure for the scammers. The ScamVille Lawsuit: Facebook, MySpace, Zynga And More Face Possible Class Action Suit gives you the story and some interesting related links.

After two weeks, you might think that this story would have run it's course, but I think we're just getting started.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More from the Dark Side of Internet Marketing

Techcrunch has a post up about congressional hearings next week into the marketing practices of a number of companies with linked to some questionable ecommerce practices. Similar to the social network gaming scams, the practice in question here involves getting consumers locked into a monthly subscribed charge that is very difficult to cancel. Here's how Michael Arrington describes the scam:
Immediately after an ecommerce transaction takes place, buyers are presented with an offer to take a survey and/or get a partial rebate on their purchase. If they click yes, their credit card information is transferred to the ecommerce company and the user begins a difficult-to-terminate subscription to a worthless service.
It's worth noting that the companies that have received letters about testifying are not fly-by-night scam businesses. Most are actually names that you will immediately recognize.
The companies that received letters:, AirTran Holdings Inc. (AAI), Classmates Online Inc., Continental Airlines Inc. ( CAL), FTD, Fandango Inc., Hotwire Inc., Intelius Inc., Inc., Orbitz, Pizza Hut,, Redcats USA, Shutterfly Inc. (SFLY), US Airways Group Inc. (LCC) and Vistaprint USA Inc.
So why would they participate in this type of business? Arrington notes that,
Ecommerce sites that use these types of offers can get CPMs for the ads ranging from $2,000 – $2,500, say experts we’ve spoken with, and they make up a material percentage of revenue.
The full post, Next Week: U.S. Senate Committee Hearing On Aggressive Internet Sales Tactics, has more links and example of what the offer looks like. Check it out.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Updated: Marketing the Social Gaming Ecosystem - A Series of TechCrunch Posts

Over the weekend, I was following a series of posts on Techcrunch that I wanted to share with you. As I've mentioned before, in following the job boards, there are a couple of types of jobs in the marketing category that I see popping up a lot recently. One of those revolves around marketing and lead gen for an assortment of social network start-ups. While there are trade-offs with any opportunity and any work environment, this is an interesting look at one market where the demand for marketing people is active. Hopefully, you'll find it educational. Caveat Emptor.

Here are the links presented in the order that they were posted:
Social Games: How The Big Three Make Millions
Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell
Two Companies That Said No To Social Media Scams
How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro: An Insider’s Confession
Scamville: Zynga Says 1/3 Of Revenue Comes From Lead Gen And Other Offers
Zynga Takes Steps To Remove Scams From Games

Techcrunch has continued to follow this story. Here are three more links on the topic.
Offerpal Tries Out A New CEO. Shukla, Queen Of Scams, Is Out.
ScamVille: New Offerpal CEO Admits Mistakes, Makes Bold Promises
Zynga CEO Mark Pincus: “I Did Every Horrible Thing In The Book Just To Get Revenues”

More news. After Zynga's CEO vowed to remove this type of advertising, they started running again. An interesting aspect is that they actually tweaked Michael Arrington's account so that it wouldn't display any of the offers. Here are more links:
“Horrible Things” Slink Back Into Zynga
Zynga’s FishVille Sleeps With The Fishes For Ad Violations
Zynga To Remove All In Game Offers

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Failures in Product Marketing: VMWare Fusion 3.0 Upgrade

For the past ten months or so that I've been using VMWare Fusion, I've been pretty impressed with it. To date, the biggest hassles that I've had with it revolved around the Windows installation and registration process. But for the most part, the software has run seamlessly and performed extremely well. So yesterday-ish, I fired up the software and was alerted to an available update -- Fusion 3.0. Normally, this means I go to the site, log in, download, install, and everything is good. This time, my fun began during the install process when I noticed the serial number field didn't pre-populate with the serial number.

Product Launch for Upgrades Goes Horribly Wrong
Instead of simply alerting me to an update, they were also alerting me to a case study in Product Launch gone wrong. Let's start with the positive stuff -- it looks like the demand for upgrade was so overwhelmingly strong that it blew out the new serial number registration system that they decided to implement. I say new because it may have been running for some time, but before yesterday I never encountered it. As a result, I spent half an hour struggling with their site interface, trying to understand why it couldn't find my serial number nor remember that I was a registered Fusion user. Based on comments from other users, I wasn't the only one -- from serial number recognition to activation codes, it looks like the number of people struggling was substantial. On the VMWare Blog, they even posted a 30-day trial serial number so that people could essentially bypass the system, giving VMWare and any of their customers that found their way to the blog a 30-day time-out to resolve the serial number issue.

How Version Upgrade Offers Should Not Work
Searching around the site, I also eventually found some other important data -- the upgrade to 3.0 was going to be a for-pay upgrade. VMWare wanted my wallet, but I was only able to discover that after searching their site. Now it's possible that I missed this information, hidden in the endless stream of conferences and roadshow notifications that they send to me, but regardless of the notifications that I received, when I went through the normal upgrade process, I didn't discover that things were different until I was halfway through the install process.

Pricing on the paid upgrade was surprisingly confusing:
  • For $39, you could download the 3.0 update
  • For $99 $59, you could get the download and a 12-month subscription that entitled you to software updates.
You'll note the strikethrough because apparently the original price was $99, but then they discovered that Amazon was selling a new package for about $65. Yes, for a time it was actually cheaper to order a new copy of the software than to upgrade. As a sidebar for you international site managers, comments posted on the VMWare forums indicate that while they changed the US$ amount, they didn't change the UK£ amount.

Now if you're like me (and a lot of others out there), the terms of this upgrade are quite confusing. Specifically, did getting the 'no updates' version entitle you to updates? On the VMWare message boards, debate on what the difference was between the two went on for a while. Finally, VMWare's Director of Personal Desktop Products weighed in with this clarification.
VMware Fusion 3 comes with free UPDATES to fix bugs and the like. So, VMware Fusion 3.0.1, 3.0.2, etc are ALL free UPDATES with any VMware Fusion 3 full purchase or upgrade. If we were to come out with a VMware Fusion 3.1, that is an UPDATE that would be free to all VMware Fusion 3 customers.

The Subscription offering provides MAJOR UPGRADE protection for 12 months. UPGRADES are major new releases with significant features. So, it will protect you in the event that VMware Fusion 4 is released in the next 12 months you will get that MAJOR UPGRADE for free with valid subscription. So, $20 gives you protection that if VMware Fusion 4 comes out in the next 12 months, you will get it for FREE as part of your valid subscription.

To summarize:
All VMware Fusion 3 customers will get UPDATES and bug fixes for free. If you buy the Subscription add-on, you will get MAJOR UPGRADE protection in the next 12 months.
While that may clear up the difference in the two price options, it doesn't really address the strategy behind the 'upgrade' offer. Specifically, what benefit or loyalty does VMWare provide to existing customers? While I picked up my copy of Fusion 2.0 with my system purchase and a $50 rebate, the list price for the software was about $60-70 list -- and there were a number of discounts and rebates that brought the price down to $40-50. In that way, the base upgrade price is equal to or greater than the initial price that I paid for the software. If this were a mind-blowing update or VMWare had done an exceptional job of building loyalty, an 'upgrade' that cost more than the original might seem like it makes sense, but neither of those are true. Instead, as a 'loyal customer', you start thinking about putting off your purchase until you can just buy new with a discount. Overall, their pricing strategy seems to fall a bit short.

It Gets Worse: Upgrade Insurance
The Upgrade pricing option is even worse. Essentially, what you are doing is paying $20 to VMWare as insurance against them making a major upgrade in the next year. The problem with this strategy is that in this case, the guy your betting with also has control of the results. VMWare controls their roadmap and they decide when they are going to release their next version. And if their next upgrade happens to take more than a year, you just gave them $20 for nothing. In fact, here's something that another poster in their community pointed out:
  • VMware Fusion 1.0 was released on: Aug 6, 2007
  • VMware Fusion 2.0 was released on: September 15, 2008
  • VMware Fusion 3.0 was released on: October 27, 2009
  • So if version 4 follows the same it too will be over a year before it will be released and therefore everyone who buys in this release frenzy will in all likelihood not get the next version and wasted $20!
It looks like the biggest reward from VMWare for being a loyal, early adopter is that the company gets more of your money.

In discussing this issue with one of my colleagues, he noted that many enterprise-grade software packages include a maintenance subscription charge, and that if you aren't current on that ongoing charge, you need to pay to become current before you're entitled to the lower cost upgrade. Since upgrade costs are typically significantly lower than the high initial purchase price, these maintenance subscription prices are just accepted. It makes me wonder whether this aspect of their pricing strategy isn't something that has carried over from their server products. Is this a case of server-room marketing not understanding a desktop consumer audience?

The Bottom Line
The long and short of the VMWare Fusion 3.0 upgrade is that I'm going to wait. While I'm certain that there are benefits to the upgrade, the pricing issues make upgrading anything but a slam-dunk. Meanwhile, in all of my searching through the VMWare forums, the 'sales collateral' that I received the most exposure to was different users posting issues that they were having with the upgrade. Essentially, the process of trying to upgrade let me straight into a word of mouth lion's den -- and one that sold me on delaying instead of purchasing. It's an interesting lesson.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Comcast and Twitter: Social Networking and Customer Service Converge, but is it better?

Here's an interesting post over on TechCrunch this evening. It's a look at Comcast, and how they are approaching customer service and Twitter. Comcast is promoting this concept that "Twitter has changed the culture of their company." Now, instead of just providing sucky service and having a public network of problems, they engage customers when they complain (using Twitter). Apparently they now have ten people working, actively monitoring Twitter for complaints, then engaging them.

On the surface, this is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for businesses, particularly consumer-facing businesses with poor service reputations. But if you look at the comments in the Techcrunch post, there's an implied question -- does responding to a disgruntled customer (if you can't do anything to change some of the core problems that are making the customer unhappy) really equate to better customer service?

While the basic question may seem silly or irrelevant, keep in mind that is now offering a Twitter-to-Case extension on their App Exchange platform. What this means is that, in a matter of clicks, you too can start monitoring Twitter, listening to for customers who are complaining about your business. And while that may seem like amazing, enabling technology, if you don't have a real strategy for solving the issues raised by those unhappy customers, your new technology may not be a solution.

Anyway, I just wanted to call your attention to the link -- it may get some thoughts rolling in your head, kind of like it did mine.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Updated: WOMMA Offers Updated Guidance on Endorsements and Testimonials

This is going to be a two-click link, but I follow John Moore's Brand Autopsy blog for updates on this kind of info, and this seems like the most fitting way to reference the link.

Here's his update post:
Understanding the New FTC Guidelines

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More on Disclosure - Best Practices from WOMMA

When I was looking for a quick roll-up of something brand and word of mouth related, one of the first places that I looked was John Moore's Brand Autopsy blog. In addition to some analysis, he links to a webinar from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

For your convenience, I've embedded it here.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

FTC Publishes New Rules for Word of Mouth Marketers

In case you didn't see this somewhere else, I wanted to fire out a quick post on this new ruling from the FTC regarding "sponsored conversations" and disclosure of those relationships. I haven't had time to go over the information in detail, but here are some initial links for your reference.

Here's the link to the FTC site

And here's a couple of links to some good posts on Techcrunch about the news.
FTC Values Sponsored Conversations at $11,000 Apiece.

This is Not a Sponsored Post: Paid Conversations, Credibility & The FTC

Here's a good quote from the TechCrunch post explaining disclosure practices:
In the meantime, brands and bloggers can only benefit from disclosing the nature of endorsements. In the realm of new media, transparency and ethics speak louder than the value proposition of the product itself.

The FTC could not be reached for comment at this time in reference to the delineation between consumer bloggers and subject matter authorities who blog. We will update this post once we receive a response.

Update: The FTC responds

When asked if the FTC views bloggers equally and whether or not it recognizes levels of authority on par with traditional media, Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices, clarified its position and perspective, “All bloggers aren’t the same and we are not saying that all bloggers are marketers. Most of them are ordinary folks musing or sounding off. The question as we put it in the notice we published today is whether, viewed objectively, the blogger is being sponsored by the advertiser. (We list a number of factors to consider.) Independent product reviewers, whether offline or online, would not be viewed as sponsored by the company whose products they are reviewing.”

Engle further observed the distinction between expert and consumer bloggers, “But if bloggers regularly receive free products from a company, the blog audience might view their reviews differently than if they went out and bought the products on their own. Under those circumstances, bloggers should disclose they got the products from the company. This is consistent with the WOMMA code of ethics. And, companies who use bloggers to generate buzz about their products by sending free merchandise should have a policy that their bloggers should disclose.”
More soon...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Interact with People at Conferences

I meant to highlight this when I saw it, but better late than never. This was actually posted several weeks ago on Techcrunch, right after they had their TechCrunch50.

Greetings by Michael Arrington
It’s time for a quick primer on the proper way to interact at conferences and other business events. Since I just came back from one of those types of events, this is on top of mind for me.

What’s surprising is how few people get it right and move a conversation towards their business goals. The rest let ego and sloppiness get in the way, usually leaving people on both sides of the conversation frustrated. I’m here to help.
It's definitely worth a read. Check it out.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Job Boards Have Started To Roll

Note: I first started this post back at the beginning of September. Since that time, I've continued to see increased activity on the job boards, plus whispers from contacts that suggest things are starting to turn around again.

Starting around the beginning of September, postings on the job boards seemed to start ramping up. Economic confidence appears to be showing more signs of confidence. Of course, being on the front end of this wave can be a mixed blessing.

If you're unemployed, any fish on the line is a good thing -- sometimes it's just a question of how good. For job seekers, problems arise when tight markets and limited opportunities force you to deal with those companies that look at a struggling labor market as an opportunity to exploit. Some companies approach the labor market like the stock market -- buy low, sell high. These companies attempt to leverage employee (or potential employee) desperation to save some money on salary-based operating expenses. Carried to the extreme, some use economic events to cull their ranks of expensive talent, replacing them with new, 'more desperate' staff as the hiring market transitions -- think pro sports and the salary cap.

When times have been tough and you're at the front end of the ramp back up, companies may try to leverage your despair to undercut your salary negotiation position. The funny thing about this is that, while this approach may make sense on a by-the-numbers strategy, it overlooks the fact that 'human capital' is not equal to traditional corporate assets. A key factor in your performance is psychology. When was the last time an enterprise software or a manufacturing tool went through a period of reduced performance because it was sad, frustrated, or felt exploited?

This corporate strategy starts with the idea that anyone can be replaced with little overall difference in the operation of the business. Want to fall on your sword? Big deal, there are thousands of marketing pros out there, just waiting in line to take your underpaid, overworked place. It's the worker-turned-factory-production-equipment concept applied broadly across all parts of the business.

While it's easy to hate the 'exploiter' strategy, businesses can find a lot to like about it. The Exploiter mindset is often an institutionalized value. So even if you hate it, don't go in expecting it to change. Unless you're stepping into a senior executive role where you have the ability to shape culture, you're probably not going to be able to change it directly. For most exploited employees, change usually means finding work with a new, less exploitative employer. And for potential employees, that means that a focus of your new job will be looking for a new job.


So what's the take-away from all of this? Back in this post that I wrote in July, I noted an article talking about recruiters looking for "soft candidates", candidates who already had a job and were less interested in changing jobs. To that end, keep in mind that whenever you get into negotiations for a new job, no matter how desperate your current situation feels and how good the new job looks -- always approach the deal with the idea that you can walk away, that there is another opportunity waiting just around the corner. Ultimately, there is only one you and whatever you sign on for is going to eat a big chunk of your life.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Nice Post on Advertising and CPM

This afternoon on Techcrunch, there's a nice post from guest author Shelby Bonnie, the CEO of Whiskey Media. The post, Let's Kill the CPM, goes into why we should reform the traditional method for measuring many aspects of advertising, Cost per Impression.

While I find the post to be an interesting read and I agree with the weaknesses of CPM-based advertising strategies, I think that the real answer to advertising strategy requires a much more thought-out approach than simply hanging ads on a site. Unfortunately, that's the way that many organizations approach their marketing, and it's so closely modeled to traditional advertising that the practice requires little justification within the traditional business structure.

The ugly truth is that One-Size-Fits-All is a poor formula for any advertising strategy. While I'm a big fan of CPC advertising and Adwords, I also know that as a blog operator, while running Adwords is convenient and easy, the idea that anyone will be driven here by my content and then click through one of the Adwords ads is almost funny. Meanwhile, over on the SV Fashionistas blog that JJSakura has put together, some of the affiliate banners are actually producing click-throughs and purchases. As noted in Kill the CPM post: "All Impressions Are Not Created Equally".

Anyway, it's worth a read.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Defense of Eric Cantor's Use of His Blackberry

One topic that arose from the President's health care reform speech was a furor surrounding Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va, Minority Whip) and his Blackberry. Rep. Cantor was caught on video, eyes down, focused on the screen of his phone and not "paying attention" during the President's speech. Across a spectrum of media that I tuned into yesterday, there were repeated comments about his behavior. Most of the commentary that I heard ranged from disappointment to exasperation, with a general consensus that the behavior was rude.

The entire incident reminded me of an earlier post I did on how age and demographics affected perceptions of using a Blackberry or a laptop during a meeting. In this case, it appears that the media has tapped into that demographic that is uncomfortable with this kind of behavior.

While I suspect that it's unlikely to find me defending a political position that Rep. Cantor holds and it normally wouldn't bother me to see him swimming in bad press, in this case I feel inclined to defend him. While I understand that for some, it probably isn't good formal meeting etiquette to text or check email during a meeting, short of presenting the illusion of an enraptured audience for the video cameras, what was the harm here?

It's not like he was driving a moving vehicle or operating heavy machinery. He wasn't being asked to make quick decisions on-the-fly. Realistically, he didn't really have to do anything other than sit, quietly (for the most part). It wasn't like his phone rang or he was talking during the meeting (I gave a couple of presentations at a conference in Beijing where the audience members talked on their phones during the presentation). It's not even like this was a dimly lit theater, where the glow from his phone would distract from the movie or the stage performance.

This was a presentation, not a conversation. It wasn't like the President was running through a list of statistics and formulas, where absorbing every moment and every data point were critical. Theoretically, if that were the case, you would expect that he could get a detailed review following the speech, either from the transcripts or through notes taken by his aides.

What's more, who knows what he was using his Blackberry for. Maybe he was looking up the history behind one of the medical cases sited by the President during his speech. Perhaps he was sending a note to his staff to pull all of the data relevant to a specific point in the presentation. Or maybe what he was doing wasn't related -- perhaps planning a secret romantic encounter or he might have just been looking at NFL news and planning for his upcoming fantasy football season. He might even have been doing several of those things during the speech.

Meanwhile, take the guy four seats to the right or to the left of Cantor. What do you think is on his mind? Medical cases? Instructions for his staff? Romantic encounters? Football? Some of this is all about the illusion of attention and behavior; simply put, acting for the camera. In many ways, it's similar to the note pads that candidates use to write on during the televised debates. The purpose of 'taking notes' is not the notes, it's to manage the candidates' appearance during 'off-screen' camera shots -- within the context of an event that is structured like a conversation.

For me, the bottom line is that I don't think that Rep. Cantor's behavior with his Blackberry was inappropriate. Put into a different context, if the speech was that exciting, the content was that compelling, or the event was that engaging, he would have put down his phone. Or not picked it up in the first place. All too often we are asked to pretend to listen politely to bad speakers and lame content -- or people format their presentation content to follow a predictable structure that alienates their audience on technique alone. It's like the pre-flight safety presentation -- is there anyone on the plane who isn't already familiar with the basic content presented, and if there were a change to the content, do you really expect anyone to hear it since you've already lost them by using the same old script?

Imagine if Rep. Cantor Had an iPhone
What if, instead of having a Blackberry, Rep. Cantor had an iPhone? While he might have been texting, browsing the web, or looking up his favorite section of the Constitution (there's an app for that), what would have happened if he were using it to play a game, tipping the phone back and forth or moving it in 3D space? I would say that, if you're behavior is such that you stand out more than the presenter, then etiquette dictates that you've crossed a line. Perhaps, somewhere in there, we can offer some etiquette guidelines for when and how it's okay to use your phone in a meeting and when it isn't.

When You Should Avoid Using Your Phone (for texting, not voice calls)
  • When the glow from your phone display is the brightest light in the meeting (not including dim participants), you might consider refraining from using your phone.
  • When you're engaged in a direct conversation.
  • When you're in a meeting where somebody asks you a question and you need to have the question repeated.
  • When you're participating in a social network where the other people in the meeting are linked to you but expecting you to be focused on the meeting.
  • When you haven't turned your volume off.
When It Should Be Okay to Use Your Phone (for texting, not voice calls)
  • When the other meeting participants bring a phone or laptop to the meeting.
  • If you get a text from another meeting participant.
  • When you the one who sets the meeting agenda and rules.
  • When it's a large, boring meeting, and you are not the center of attention.
  • When you want to show off your techno-nerd chops.
  • When you want to look like you have something more important to think about.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unique Customer Experiences in the Bicycle Industry - My Bike Shop

My bike shop is tucked in the back of a little strip mall not far from Santa Clara University. I say my bike shop, because this is one of those places that truly delivers a Word of Mouth recommendation for customer experience. I also say my bike shop, because if you thought knowing the In and Out secret menu or how to order at Starbucks made you part of an exclusive club, you're still probably SOL when it comes to making it into the inside circle here.

But this post isn't really a Rosetta stone for decrypting the inside language of the bike shop, this is about customer experience.

Not Much Walk In Business
If, by some strange twist of fate, you happened to walk into my bike shop from off the street thinking about buying a bike, they probably aren't going to sell you one. My bike shop doesn't carry a lot of inventory, so the first thing that they will probably do (assuming that they choose to recognize you) is to try and understand why you are there. Part of the fitting process is understanding what you're looking for from cycling, and if it seems like you're one of those people who needs bike Tour-stage winning bike to ride around the park, you probably won't find it here.

My bike shop often sells custom fit bicycles. If you're going to my bike shop to buy a bike, you're probably unlikely to walk out of the store with one on the same day. Also, San Jose has one of the only velodromes in the country, and my bike shop sells track bikes, but if you're one of those bike messenger wannabe's that thinks a fixed gear bike would be cool, they probably won't sell you a bike. The number of mountain bikes for sale in my bike shop -- zero.

My Bike Shop Does a Lot of Business in Repairs
Repairs. Ongoing bicycling maintenance. Relationships with the community. My bike shop understands old school cycling, bicycles and components that last for decades, that can be repaired (and have been repaired) for decades. My bike shop doesn't promote mechanical parts that will be EOLed in five years. From my Italian shift levers to the rubber pieces in my bicycle pump, I can go to my bike shop and get my stuff fixed. As I mentioned in a previous post, I often ride on sew-up tires. These days, most bike shops don't sell sew-ups and few people know what they are -- I trust my bike shop to glue on my sew-ups, and their sign about about sew-ups is probably what made me a customer almost ten years ago.

My bike shop makes you part of their family. They keep two repair stands close to the front counter, and a bench / bleacher seat on the other side of the counter. During the day, it's not uncommon for customers to be sitting around, hanging out in the bleacher seats, visiting with the guys working on bikes. Conversations range from cycling and club rides to politics and bad jokes. Sometimes the language is NSFW. The kid at Performance is just turning a wrench, but YOUR friend is actually fixing YOUR bike.

A Couple of Funny Things
When your a customer of my bike shop, you'd better be riding -- because deep down, you know that the only reason that they let you in the club and that they're willing to do business with you is because you are a cyclist. You aren't just one of those people who buy an off the shelf experience and logo-wear, you are serious about cycling and about the time that you spend in the saddle. Deep down, you and everyone at the shop knows that the only reason why you are allowed to be there is because there is a part of you that lives and breaths cycling. And that's why, if your not riding, you're a disappointment to you and all of your friends. If you're not riding, it means that you don't care, so why should they.

The second funny thing about this whole post is that this word of mouth recommendation isn't. While I stand by my comment that my bike shop is the best bike shop I've dealt with (ever), I'll leave you to guess what shop that I'm talking about. I mean, if my bike shop were suddenly flooded with goomers, my stuff might never get done. Can you imagine how many hours I might have to wait, sitting in the bleacher seats exchanging bike stories if all of you were there too?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

TechCrunch Highlights Microsoft Site Photo Localization

Here's an interesting post from Michael Arrington at TechCrunch. It points to an image that's used on the standard Microsoft site and on their site for Poland. The image is of a meeting. In the US version, there is a black man sitting at the meeting. In the Polish image, someone has used Photoshop to replace the head of the black man with a white guy's head. Check out the blog post to see the images and for the full story (plus some interesting comments).

The translation world is packed with embarrassment horror stories -- it will be interesting to see how this one unfolds and how big it becomes.

Mediocre Product Marketing Is Ruining Obama's Approval Rating

Continuing on the theme from my last post, I think it's important to recognize why we're not getting bold reform -- mediocre product marketing.

As a country, we didn't start out with the idea of a 'mediocre reform' product. During the ramp up of the election, there were a lot of promises made about making real reform. Since that time, the job of specifying the product and ironing out the details has fallen to our very own product marketing team, Congress. Acting like a consensus product team that's focused on making safe choices, Congress (with the aid of the White House) has gone the path of safe, uncontroversial features. And while we keep expecting Obama to step in like Steve Jobs, demanding innovation and insisting on a noteworthy product, instead he has chosen the passive management approach, determined to let the country sell what his Congressional product group has designed.

It's one of those great rules of marketing, compromises and safe product choices do not make extraordinary products. They don't engage and excite customers. They don't inspire passion.

Where's our Purple Cow?
Recent polls have also marked a decline in Obama's approval ratings. While conservative columnist David Brooks points to a decline in support from 'independent voters,' economist Paul Krugman writes about declining support among Obama's progressive base. Whatever your political point of view, the real takeaway from this is that nobody is passionate about compromise.

When the debate shifted from a discussion of principles and values, from a leadership discussion focused on the moral imperative of "the right solution" and the essence of the product to a discussion about compromise, a host of audiences instantly became unhappy. They knew that their interests were being sold out.

Instead of focusing on the essence of the design, our Congressional product marketing group is moving toward selling us a crappy product using a laundry list of non-essential features (look, it also has a calendar, a clock with seven different time zones, and an alarm with 148 different ring tones). This non-design approach to design, the feature creep / baffle-em with BS method, is why you get some of those products that are packed with features, but essentially unusable. It's also why Apple's iPhone, with it's 'one-button' interface marked such a design contrast to every smart phone that preceded it.

Crappy Product Marketing Meets Lack of Executive Sponsorship
Keeping everyone focused on the essence of the design starts with defining that core mission. Imagine, in the debate about health care reform, if the objective was defined more narrowly and more boldly. What if, instead of trying to patch the system, the objective was defined something like this: We believe that everyone in America has the right to essential health care and that maintaining the public health is a fundamental component of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Like "provide for the common defense", we are going to ensure that we provide for the common need for health care. By eliminating the costs and concerns of essential health care from individuals and businesses, we can build a better, stronger workforce, stronger companies, and a stronger country.

Perhaps, if we started with some core design goals, our Congressional product development teams could create a decent product and we might get some bold reform.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Economic Downturn and The Recovery

When you're a marketing pro, you're always monitoring the ebb and flow of economic currents, markets and trends. Recently, there's been a lot of news coming out about promising economic indicators that seem to point to a possible end to the economic downturn. While we're all hopeful that the economy has turned around, one trend that hit my radar centered around news stories about people who are still struggling to find a job.

While the economists can debate whether the downturn has ended, how fast things might ramp back up, and where things are going from here, the job-struggle story fits in with something I've been thinking about lately. Politics? Perhaps, but I think it also touches on a couple of good Silicon Valley marketing themes.

Has there been any real change?
While the Economic Stimulus package focused on 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects and the TARP bailout was an "all hands bail", throw-buckets-of-money-over-the-side in an effort to right the sinking financial industry, neither of these efforts focused on core transformation or revitalization.

During the past eight years, the government kept pushing the meme that Wall Street was profitable and therefore the economy was strong. For the Bush crew, job statistics were Yet Another Inconvenient Truth. While some may buy into the economy is great message, for most of us that work, the job market is one of our key economic indicators. There are a bunch of us out here in Silicon Valley who remember a time about ten years ago when it wasn't uncommon to have two or three companies fighting to hire you.

These days, the job boards tell a different story. Beyond the few opportunities, what's also telling is the kinds of opportunities that you see listed -- a lot of the openings are administrative positions, openings that may be there from turnover and consolidation. You don't see a lot of the types of positions that you'd associate with growth and new product development.

Reform Takes More that Duct Tape and Chewing Gum
While some may see the 'dot-com' bubble as a result of a land grab across the emerging Internet, the real driver behind all of the dot-com growth was free-flowing investment and the push to develop new opportunities. The build-out of the Internet -- that investment didn't simply represent web sites with sock puppets and pet food, it also included broadband networks, infrastructure, and all of the tools needed to build those next generation platforms.

And while a lot of the growth was written on bad paper that was funded by our retirement savings, the opening of a newly accessible market with broad reach spanning across a range of economic sectors -- network infrastructure, hardware, software, and even the potential for an average goomer to create a web-based business -- combined with some easy entry points and little personal risk for entrepreneurial failure meant the dot-com boom was big for everyone.

If you want to see another example of a new market opening up, look at what happened with Apple launched the iPhone application store. According to Apple, it now receives 8500 new applications and application upgrades every week for review -- and they've reviewed over 200,000 applications. That's over 200,000 entrepreneurial ventures.

Bold initiatives. Whether that means eliminating the risks in being an entrepreneur through programs like eliminating the fear of losing health care coverage or whether it means programs that open opportunities and markets (like a mandate to transform the nation's broadband network infrastructure, increasing bandwidth and making availability to everyone equivalent to lifeline phone service) are what we need. The goal shouldn't just be to bring the economy back to the point where it was at just before the banks started to fail, it should be to bring it back to a time jobs, investment and innovation were the norm.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fun Post - A Low Cost Sports iPhone Accessory

I'm getting ready to head out for a ride on the bike, but I've got a quick, non-marketing iPhone tip that I thought I might share with you. If you work out or do anything active, you might have considered some sort of water resistant sports case for your phone.

Save your money. My secret - Ziplock Snack Size bags. They are the perfect size for your iPhone and you can actually use the touchscreen while the phone is in the bag. They work great and you can't beat the cost.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TweetDeck may be my new favorite iPhone Twitter Application

Recently, one of my colleagues was talking about the idea of rolling out an internal version of Twitter, and that lead me to some recent exploration into Yammer, a closed "enterprise" tool with some Twitter-like functionality. While doing a bit of experiment with it, I came across a feature that I've heard about with Twitter, but been unable to figure out how to take advantage of -- specifically following hashmark tags.

While researching that, I came across another Twitter client, TweetDeck, that makes it easier to do things like following tags. Tweetdeck features a handy multi-column interface that makes it easy to view and manage multiple Twitter accounts at the same time. So far, I'm pretty impressed. While the user interface takes a little bit of time to get used to (very tiny buttons), once you get the hang of it, it seems pretty powerful. It has a lot of cool functionality built in too.

I also loaded the iPhone app -- I love the interface on the iPhone, but I was able to get the app to crash pretty quickly, just by trying to open a link. There were a bunch of comments about the app crashing, so the jury's still out on the best Twitter iPhone app. Tweetdeck is free, so that is one plus!

TweetDeck is definitely worth checking out.

Can You Make Money with Blogging and Adsense?

It's funny how some 'mainstream' technologies find their way through the cracks, eventually permeating even the most conservative business cultures. I've had several recent discussions with business people about the potential benefits of social networking tools like Twitter. I've also provided a couple of tutorials on Blogger, Adsense, and affiliate programs. I want to highlight one question that stood out though

Can you make money from Adsense through blogging?
One thing to keep in mind with Adsense -- part of the reason why Google's Adwords are such a great program -- is that they are designed to add value and relevance to a search. When you are searching for a keyword and the ad shows up, it's related to what you're looking for.

Now compare that to being part of Google's content network. When you write a blog post, the people who visit are coming there because they've been drawn by your content. In fact, your content could be at the end of their search, not the beginning. If they got there from search, they may already have seen the ads that appear on your blog. And while it's possible that your visitor may have searched "category, widgets" and came across your review of the "ultimate widgets in that category", then saw an ad for the "top widget" and decided to click there, what you're really talking about is a very long, unique sequence of consumer behavior. How many times do you really expect to hit that profile?

That's not to say that including Adsense advertising in your blog is bad or that it's impossible to make money -- it's just important to remember why you're visitors are there and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why I hate the Bicycle Industry

I started riding the bicycle before Greg Lemond won the Tour de France. Put simply, I'm old school. But the funny thing about that is, I wasn't always 'old school', once upon a time (or several times as the case may be), I was new school.

When I first started riding bicycles back in the 1980s, I was a lot like many cyclists today. I caught the bike bug and I was into the technology and the new things that might help make me a better cyclist. My first bike was a Cannondale, a cutting edge aluminum racing bike. I also started with the first generation of Shimano's new SIS, or shift index system. This system, with gears that click into specific positions, was the drive-train that would define all other bikes going forward.

I rode the newest and the latest (for a year or two), always looking for ways that technology and innovation might help improve my ride. I had my first pair of Oakley's (Factory Pilots) and my first pair of Look pedals the Christmas that they came out. I also went jumped through hoops at the bike shop to get my bike set up with one of the first BioPace chainring sets (oval chainrings that are now out of fashion). And who can forget burning through two Cat-Eye Solars over the course of about two years.

How I Became 'Old School'
After about two years of riding, I started seeing changes that I couldn't afford to keep up with. For me, the first big break was when Shimano's DuraAce line moved to seven speeds. While traditional 'friction' shift levers used tension to position the derailleur and select gears, index shifters used a ratcheted mechanism that required using a matched derailleur, shift levers, chain, and freewheel for the system to work. In all, an upgrade to the system could cost several hundred dollars, a steep upgrade for the college student budget.

Early index shift systems were also tough on components -- I was burning through a freewheel and chain in a single season (lots of miles, lots of shifts). Somewhere in there, I discovered that when I turned the indexing off, the bike would still function flawlessly -- the only thing that was broken was the indexed shifting. Shifting old school also enabled me to put a seven speed freewheel on my bike, making it as good as a modern one, without using the latest technology.

Over the course of the next ten years or so, I found myself trending toward the traditional cycling direction. I replaced my BioPace rings with round ones. While the industry marketed the latest advances in clincher tires, I rode my sew-ups. And while the ads frequently talked about the latest generation pump, my original Silca kept working flawlessly (with the occasional replacement of a serviceable part).

My understanding of bicycles also changed. While my early years of cycling found me ogling and dreaming about the first generation carbon fiber frames, my Aunt got a custom-fitted, hand-built Serotta frame. As I watched her go through the process, I saw the value of getting a bike that was built to fit you. I also learned the importance of frame alignment, and getting a bicycle made from materials that a trained mechanic could true on an alignment table.

Working At The Bike Shop
I also spent a couple of years working for the local bike shop, and it changed the way that I viewed the bike industry. As cyclists, we see the world through the lens of our community -- when someone has a mechanical problem on the road, you offer to help them. Through the lens of the community, selling a bicycle is about educating the customer and working to fit their requirements and size. Sometimes that means that the customer needs a product that you don't carry. If you're building an honest long-term relationship with a future cycling customer's business -- service and repairs, accessories, etc. -- you direct the customer the the correct fit. However, many bike shop 'businesses' depend on moving inventory. That often means pushing bikes and product on customers when the fit really isn't there -- sometimes because standard sizes limit how close you can fit someone's requirements, sometimes it's simply because you have a customer with money and a product that you need to move. There are exceptions, but the dynamics of the bike-shop-to-customer relationship is a tricky one.

The challenges of this relationship are magnified by an industry that focuses on promoting technology like it was color in the fashion industry. On the road bike, this year's technology goes on a season-long advertising campaign through professional bike racing -- if you want to see what the high-end bicycles will look like, watch a few stages of the Tour de France. And it's not just the bikes, it's also the sunglasses, helmets, tires, cycling computers, energy bars, you name it. Today's bike racing innovation is product that they're probably going to try to jam down your throat nine months from now, knowing that you won't want it by the time next years race rolls around.

Distributor controls and product line limitations are another factor that's shaping your bicycle retail experience these days. Blame it on the economy, on Internet sales, or possibly just the age of the industry, but when you go into most bike shop these days, you'll probably see fewer choices than you might have in years past. For a bike shop to even carry certain products, distributors require them to stock their shelves with percentage of their selected brands. As I wandered through the area bike shops last week, most stores ONLY offered me a choice of lycra-backed gloves from Pearl Izumi. And several limited my choice of water bottles to these new Camelback bottles with a bizarre drinking valve.

I like crochet-backed gloves with a medium-thickness palm pad. What store did I find a pair like that (and a normal water bottle)? It sucks trying to give back to the community and not having an outlet.

When Old School Finds a New Ride
Just so that you don't think that I'm some crazy retro-rider, I did finally upgrade my bike to a more modern one several years ago. My original, technologically outdated Cannondale served me admirably for 15 years. Drive trains had expanded to nine speeds, shifting had moved to the handlebars, and yet somehow my bike still seemed to roll across the miles. It didn't prevent me from occasionally wandering into the old Wheelworks in Palo Alto, dreamily ogling one of the Serottas that they used to display. And then, back in the year-2000 time frame, the start-up that I was working for went through a successful IPO, and I finally found myself with enough spare cash to get a new bike -- the top-of-the-line Serotta (at that time), a Legend Ti.

Before I actually ordered it, I remember once again becoming infected with the technology bug, imagining riding an ultra-light, comfortable titanium frame, flying up the hills like I was being pushed. Of course, it never actually works out that way -- the great promise of the technology is always outweighed by the lumbering fat guy sitting on the bike.

That being said, it probably won't surprise you that the new bike also brought in a new wave of gear -- new shoes, new shorts, a heart rate monitor, and expensive tires. In preparing for the Death Ride one year, I even upgraded my drive-train from 9-speed to 10-speed (next time you're climbing five mountain passes, ask yourself how much you'd pay for one just one more easy gear). All that being said, I've become very selective about the products that I use and the specific reasons why I prefer them. In most cases, the gear and the accessories that I choose have been proven through miles, hours, and daily use. Once upon a time, that 'level of selective' might have put me in the category of "I ride a Brooks Saddle" crazy; but once upon a time, your neighborhood bike shops all carried Brooks saddles. That doesn't really hold true any longer.

Six years ago, when I found crochet-backed gloves with moderately thin palm pads (at Sportmart), I bought a second pair a month after riding in them. They were nowhere near worn out, but I knew that it might be a long time before I was able to find another pair of cycling gloves that worked as well.

Ultimately, I probably don't hate the bike industry. What I really hate is the idea of product churn simply for the sake of churn. My gloves weren't overcome by software bloat. They weren't replaced by some technologically superior product. Like so many other cycling products, they were simply phased out because there is a segment of the market that buys into the new technology dream. But what worries me most is that, for all of it's technology and innovation, bicycling is a market that depends upon some classic products and some classic brands. It's a market where ultimate quality wasn't the technology, it was the artisan craftsmanship. What happens when there's just no room in the market for those types of products?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why I've been Quiet

Over the past week or so, I've been a bit quiet -- part of the reason is that I've been taking a break. During that time, I've spent a bunch of time on the bicycle (which is cool), but it's also left me really tired (which keeps me from writing). But it also leads me to a series of posts on bicycles, cycling, and the business of the bicycle industry.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Ups and Downs of Search Engine Marketing to Me on Google

Once upon a time, if you searched 'Marketingtome' or 'Marketing to me', this blog was your top result on Google. I say once upon a time, because I did that search about a month or so ago and the results held true. While I was helping to set up the Silicon Valley Fashionista blog, we were talking about search and the Fashionista pointed out that Marketing to Me was unfashionably gone from the top results of a Google search.

Gone Like Wii at Christmas
Sure enough, a couple of quick searches proved just how difficult it's become to find this blog (and other Blogspot results for that matter). When you deal with Search Engine Marketing, this kind of frustration isn't uncommon, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

If you've just started seeing some strange results, let me know if you have any insights. If you're doing optimization, two words... Good Luck. And if you're at Google, feel free to include your insight into why 'Marketingtom' and 'Marketingme' outperform Marketing to Me with my request for an interview. Hell, I'd settle for a Google Its It and my blog showing up in the search results, but you don't get through any doors without trying.

Monday, August 3, 2009

More Marketing Stuff To Think About Courtesy of Techcrunch

Some good marketing tidbits from Techcrunch:

The first is a link to a post on PR that came out over the weekend. 10 Words I Would Love To See Banned From Press Releases by Robin Wauters is another one of those explorations into why press releases are written to following a predictable structure and using so many of the PR-speak phrases that have become cliche. I've seen this same topic written about in a couple of places on line, but if you haven't been through it, the post does give you a sense of how tired people get with formulas and repetition. That being said, having written some of these same words and phrases, sometimes there is a strategy behind the madness.

The second post I'm highlighting, Pre Philosophy: Why are Palm’s ads the way they are? by Devin Coldewey, is an great exploration into branding, generating buzz, and whether their recent series of ads are actually helpful for selling their product. Perhaps they could have benefited from reading John Moore's blog and his discussions of creationist versus evolutionist branding.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

More Quick Posts

In the past couple of weeks, there have been some great posts on Techcrunch -- the kind of news you probably won't see if you aren't following the site and linked into the tech world.

Internet and Security
There have been posts like this one, The Anatomy of a Twitter Attack, talking about how Twitter's core operations were infiltrated by a hacker. It's a great lesson in the challenges facing modern internet security and a cautionary note for how you deal with your passwords. I would call it a must read (but you may not be able to sleep afterwords).

Marketing to the Premium Segment
Another post recent post highlighted some analysts numbers about Apple's marketshare -- and is an excellent stepping stone into some exploration on branding and product lines. The Mac Versus PC Debate Has Never Been Clearer deals with how Apple, while it dominate in overall marketshare, totally dominates the 'premium' market for PCs (over $1000) with 91% marketshare.

One interesting aspect of this article is how it highlights how all of these voices outside of Apple that keep saying Apple needs to create a low cost product. Contrast that to Apple's actual position in the market. One my consulting MBA students tells me that this was also a topic theme in a recent class. When Mercedes introduced the C-class, it's low-cost entry level product line, overall sales and revenue were impacted:
  • Profits dropped as high-end, high-margin product (S-class, AMG models) sales dropped.
  • C-class unit sales took off, but profit from these lower cost, lower margin sales did not make up for the drop from the high end.

  • Buyers who liked the exclusivity of the brand found themselves drawn to 'more exclusive' brands like BMW with a higher entry-level price.
  • Overall market perceptions of quality went down. Concerns about quality carried across all model lines.
Now keep in mind that I don't have the specific data that supports these points, so I may be misrepresenting some of the data. However, the key message is that selling more isn't always better and that reaching out to a lower price segment can have a negative impact on your premium customer base. I'd love to hear your comments and anecdotes.

Astroturfing: Health Care and Insurance Reform

I happened to come across an interesting article from Think Progress on the battle for health insurance reform earlier today. The article, EXCLUSIVE: Infamous Astroturf Lobbying Firm Behind New Anti-Health Reform Group, by Lee Fang does a deep dive into some of the PR groups behind some astroturfing of the issue.

Here's a quote:
The new anti-health reform front group known as the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, is being managed by the lobbying firm known as the DCI Group. After being contacted by ThinkProgress this afternoon about its sponsorship of CPPR’s press conference last week, DCI Group staffers acknowledged that they coordinate PR for the front group. Not be confused with Conservatives for Patients’ Rigths, another front group opposing health reform, CPPR has been organizing lobbying efforts against health reform and publishing op-eds across the country with misinformation about the public option.

Tom Synhorst, a former staffer to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Bob Dole, joined fellow right-wing operatives Doug Goodyear and Tim Hyde to form DCI Group in 1996. The firm quickly flourished working for the tobacco industry, coordinating a sophisticated astroturf campaign to build public opposition to tobacco regulations. Ironically, before helping to manage this “patients’ rights” campaign, DCI founded “Smokers’ Rights” groups across the country for the tobacco lobby. Indeed, DCI has specialized in manufacturing “grassroots” support — using telemarketers, PR events, and letter writing campaigns — to achieve policy results for narrow corporate interests:

Guilt by Methodology
Assuming that there is some legitimate business justification for astroturfing, the approach leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think it's worth understanding the mechanics and the practices because you may find yourself faced with a situation where people are asking you to implement programs that -- if they come to light -- could be considered astroturfing. One good resource that I've found for this is PR It's an interesting read, and I apologize if it carries a political message that conflicts with your personal ideology; regardless of your view, the site is a good exploration into 'black hat' and 'gray hat' PR.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Wendell Potter, Health Care PR, CIGNA, and What It Means to Have Ethics

I referenced this story in a previous post on health care reform, but I'm just listening to the replay of this morning's Forum program on KQED (here's a link to the page with the audio). They have Wendell Potter, former head of Corporate Communications at CIGNA. The broadcast (and some other things that I've heard) refer to him as a whistle-blower, exposing the secret workings of the insurance industry.

The show is worth a listen. Beyond that, I think that it brings up an important topic point -- how do ethics intersect with the products and the messages that you're promoting? Does your job enable you to feel honorable?

'Chapeau!' ('hat tip' with a Tour de France spin) to Wendell Potter for work he is doing now -- here's hoping that, like a great start-up, he will help change the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Late Night Music Posts

Here it is, another late night. While I started to crank out a bunch of marketing posts, I found myself in another late night of downloading and listening to music. On my listening list for tonight is David Bowie.

One of the things that I've always liked about David Bowie (at least, through some of his hit songs), is the way that he structures the song. Bowie really understands the classic structure of a rock and roll song, building tension to a dramatic primal scream moment, then... "ah... wham, bam, thank you ma'am", you get the classic rock and roll scream moment... and release. The classic feel is supported with rich full sound and a nice blend of guitar, keyboards, and horns -- depending on the tune. Each little clip is a story, an event, a trip from one place to another.

Sadly, when I've tried to watch things like the Ziggy Stardust concert movie, it doesn't really work for me -- it just seems to wander into spaces that I don't go. And it's not like watching it I can figure out why. It just doesn't work for me. In an odd sort of way, that's one of the cool things about Bowie -- I think that there's a bunch of things that he does that don't work. But whether it works or not, Bowie goes forward, planting fields of sod, looking for that special fruit -- or reinterpreting the things that he does or has done, seeing if it will yield fruit in a different light. There is a core art to everything, even the things that don't work.

Seriously though, take a song like "Suffragette City". While it's sound certainly draws upon the roots of rock and roll, it's new, different and unique. It captures one of those essential elements that makes Bowie so cool -- a classic feel that takes you some place entirely new and also noteworthy in it's own way.

An Interesting Bowie Juxtaposition
Recently, I happened to catch Bowie performing for an Isle of Wight festival on one of the HD channels. I caught an interesting song performance that my "old Bowie" sensibilities had missed. "I'm Afraid of Americans" is an interesting song. Contrast it with "Young Americans". The whole comparison/contrast is full of surprises, but possibly the biggest one is that, while "I'm Afraid of American's" seems like a Bush-era protest song, it actually goes back to a 1997 album. That being said, the performance that I watched in the Isle of Wight Festival rang deeply as a Bush-era protest song.

Here's hoping that your music library keeps you up later than you expected...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Real Grassroots and Why the folks in DC are Underestimating the Support for Reform with Public Health Care

We just went through open enrollment on my health insurance. I probably have what get's labeled in the media these days as "really good health insurance". But before the annual 'open enrollment', every year businesses have to go back and renegotiate health insurance coverage, securing rates and renegotiating what is covered and what isn't.

In a perfect world (like the one portrayed in the media-spin of the anti-healthcare reform), the open enrollment transition would be seamless, but in reality, it isn't. Even as you move from coverage year to coverage year, aspects of your insurance coverage changes.

Consider this quote from an actual letter that I received today:
Our records indicate that you recently filled a prescription for Fill-in-the-blank-medicine. You will need to discuss one of the different prescription options listed above with the health care professional who wrote your prescription. He/she has been notified of this change.
Just for fun, I'm going to list some of the arguments that that this letter debunks.
  • We don't want health care reform because we don't want the government coming between you and your doctor.
  • What difference does it make? The medicines are all the same, right?
  • "We appreciate the opportunity to serve you and strive to provide the best customer service and the highest quality benefit plans for you and your family members." (quote from the first paragraph of the letter)
Imagine if you were a manufacturer, and once a year, your supplier said, "I've decided to switch you from 10mm bolts to 7/16" bolts. They are almost the same size. You won't be able to tell the difference."

Why It's Viral and the Folks in DC Don't Get It
One letter, one medicine, one time. That's my story today. But think about how many people get these, have gotten these letters -- not just at open enrollment, but also when they get a new prescription. For me, it was frustrating enough to prompt me to write this post. It wasn't frustrating enough to publish a blog saying Fill-in-the-blank health insurance provider sucks. But I haven't had to talk to them on the phone yet. I haven't had to go through customer service, trying to explain why, after years of taking these medicines, this one works and the other one doesn't -- having to prove it to them, once again. Just like the other medicine and the last insurance company. Or the time before that.

Now imagine how many people have been affected by this same kind of thing. Or worse. Sure, it may just be a minor nuisance, but it's one of those straws that add up in terms of brand perception. And, in that way, there's an aspect of the whole health insurance that gets grouped together into a collective brand. And while twenty years ago, there was probably a percentage of people who were willing to buy into the idea that "the industry may be bad, but mine's okay", what we've seen play time and time again is that they really are all the same. At least in terms of their bad behavior.

On one level, forcing you to switch medicines could be put on the level of a restaurant that only carries Coke or Pepsi. You can probably put up with that choice for one meal, but if you've gained any sense of connection to your brand (assuming that the products were essentially equal), you're still likely to be resistant to being forced into a long term switch. Now imagine if you had worked with a 'highly trained, soft drink professional' who carefully matched your drink to a list of requirements. In that scenario, most people won't just be 'slightly irritated', they'll be building a level of anger and resentment that will be hard to quell.

What's more, think about the underlying reason for imposing this switch. It isn't because the product that you're choosing is no longer available or difficult to get. In fact, it isn't done with any sense of customer focus or customer awareness -- it's done simply because they have negotiated better rates with a different set of medicines and they can earn larger profits by forcing a switch. And they are going to force this upon you because you don't have a real choice.

Closing Thoughts
If the health insurance industry was really a competitive marketplace and their goal was to "win" customers, then you would probably have a handful (or at least one) insurance company with a standout reputation and brand ID. As sucky as most airlines treat customers, you still hear about standout companies like Singapore Airlines, companies that deliver on their 'commitment to customer service' message, that really WOW customers and generate real word of mouth.

For the health insurance industry, people are like gasoline in your car -- an expendable resource designed to take you to a destination (destination profits). If you know one that's generating real WOM buzz, let me know -- I'd love to find out that I'm wrong. Ultimately though, I don't think that there is an organization like that -- and I think the awareness of that fact is much broader than people realize. And that's why, when this current 'racket' with the health insurance industry starts to collapse, it's going to fall hard. Whatever they do, they haven't done anything to earn any brand loyalty.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Another Health Care Reform Post or Why We Need a Serious Overhaul of the System

First, a couple of links to some articles that I came across a few weeks ago, then some commentary.

Here's an interesting article from the Ezra Klein, blogging for the Washington Post. He summarizes the Congressional appearance of Wendell Potter, the former head of Corporate Communications for Cigna. Potter worked in the industry for more than 20 years, and this PDF reads like the testimony of someone who decided to break loose from the tobacco industry. To quote from the Klein article:
What drove Potter from the health insurance business was, well, the health insurance business. The industry, Potter says, is driven by "two key figures: earnings per share and the medical-loss ratio, or medical-benefit ratio, as the industry now terms it. That is the ratio between what the company actually pays out in claims and what it has left over to cover sales, marketing, underwriting and other administrative expenses and, of course, profits."

Think about that term for a moment: The industry literally has a term for how much money it "loses" paying for health care.

The best way to drive down "medical-loss," explains Potter, is to stop insuring unhealthy people. You won't, after all, have to spend very much of a healthy person's dollar on medical care because he or she won't need much medical care. And the insurance industry accomplishes this through two main policies. "One is policy rescission," says Potter. "They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment."

And don't be fooled: rescission is important to the business model. Last week, at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Rep. Bart Stupak, the committee chairman, asked three insurance industry executives if they would commit to ending rescission except in cases of intentional fraud. "No," they each said.

Potter also emphasized the practice known as "purging." This is where insurers rid themselves of unprofitable accounts by slapping them with "intentionally unrealistic rate increases." One famous example came when Cigna decided to drive the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust in California and New Jersey off of its books. It hit them with a rate increase that would have left some family plans costing more than $44,000 a year, and it gave them three months to come up with the cash.
Beyond the health care questions, it's another interesting insight into the challenges of having to be a spokesperson for a product or an organization that violates your moral sensibilities.

On a side note, while looking for the link to this article, I came across a bunch of other interesting Ezra Klein posts including this one that references the South Park Underpants Gnomes. Based on that alone, Ezra's probably worth following just for the writing.

A PR and New Media Test Case - Where do you get your news

Techcrunch had an interesting post about PR. Michael Arrington fired out an interesting post about this article by Clair Cain Miller in the New York Times (now behind the NY Times registration engine - I would have used it as source material for more direct quotes but I'm a bit too busy to go through the reg process, so you and they now get the "to the best of my recollection" version of quotes).

The article centers around the launch of a company named Wordnik, and it highlights some aspects of how their PR team operates. According to the article, the launch of the company (and a great deal of modern PR) was being done strictly using word of mouth communications across social networks. One section has an exchange between the PR pro and the client. The strategy goomer says, "we should let someone at fill-in-the-blank know something." And the PR goomer says, "I'm linked to Big Named Tech Goomer there on Facebook or Twitter. I'll send him a note."

While they try to spin it differently, there's an aspect of this type of PR that is pretty much the same as PR used to be -- some people with a big Rolodex of people talking to some other people who are characterized as notable, influential or may otherwise possess some large 'potential' audience. The real difference is simply in the names and the communication platforms.

No More Gatekeepers
In Meatball Sundae, Seth Godin frames the concept as the end of the gatekeepers -- when everyone can publish, you are no longer limited by the traditional gatekeepers, the publishing media that got to choose what they published. The Internet enables this technology, and it gets rolled up into RSS, blogs, and a host of methods for pushing your 'news' out into the stream. As an example, the article cites Redfin, and notes that they didn't do any media outreach -- they simply published news on their site.

From that basic premise, you have an interesting problem. One theme of Michael Arrington's post surrounds a section of the article where, in preparing for the launch, the Wordnik team0 decides to avoid the tech blogs. Here's the quote from the original article:
Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour that includes briefing bloggers at influential geek sites like TechCrunch, All Things Digital and GigaOM.

But Roger McNamee, a prominent tech investor who is backing Wordnik, is also in the room, and a look of exasperation passes across his face at the mere mention of the sites.

“Why shouldn’t we avoid them? They’re cynical,” he says, also noting his concern that Wordnik would probably appeal more to wordsmiths than followers of tech blogs. “That’s where I would be most uncomfortable. They don’t know the difference between ‘they’re’ and ‘there.’ ”

Without missing a beat, Ms. Hammerling changes course, instantly agreeing with Mr. McNamee’s take. “I love you for that,” she intones. “I’ll leave the tech blogs out. Let them come to me.”

Instead, she decides that she will “whisper in the ears” of Silicon Valley’s Who’s Who — the entrepreneurs behind tech’s hottest start-ups, including Jay Adelson, the chief executive of Digg; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo.
To which, Arrington counters with this:
The result? Not much. Wordnik is flatlining at an abysmal amount of traffic. Comscore and Quantcast don’t even register the site as a blip.

Compare Wordnik to Topsy, another recently launch service. Topsy launched on TechCrunch exclusively. The domain now has 577,000 results on Google, compared to 56,000 for Wordnik. And the traffic difference is stunning:
So much for the great power of content, social networks and end of the gatekeepers, right? Techcrunch is a gatekeeper. Well, that's where all of this gets kind of funny.

PR and Bloggers vs the Main Stream Media
A couple of weeks ago, On the Media had a clip on Michael Arrington and Techcrunch that was pretty amusing. OTM took aim at Arrington for posting stories that might originate from little more than rumors shared between VCs at a Silicon Valley lunch. The question was whether Arrington and Techcrunch handled these types of rumors (stories that could potentially be used to manipulate stocks) appropriately, along with how that decision was impacted by any financial connections, etc. You can make your own judgment about how impartial some of the mainstream publications are, but what I liked about Arrington's comment on OTM could be boiled down to loose quote, "When I hear it, I call one of my friends there at the company. If they say that it's true, or worth looking into, I publish. As news unfolds, we update."

Think about that for a moment -- millions of dollars in investment and stock, thousands of web site impressions, the success or failure of some emerging companies and technologies might potentially revolve around whether Michael Arrington has a good feeling about the news. Techcrunch and Michael Arrington have become gatekeepers. All because he started his blog. And people read it. And it didn't suck. And it had news that was interesting to some people. And so a bunch of the people who were at the old party, the one with the bland food and the boring entertainment, went to the new place with the spicy content and the happening atmosphere.

The Evolution of a Gatekeeper
The voices that people listen to are not always the voices are polite, on message, or even accurate. When I was in the PC components industry, one of the review sites that mattered was Tom's Hardware. While it was always great to see them review your product or compare it to others, they often got things wrong. Still, they had a strong audience following among PC power users.

As a reader and a content consumer, I benefit from the Gatekeeper function that Techcrunch provides. For me, the content and editorial brings me news and opinion that I might otherwise miss, and it's one of the few sites that I try to follow everyday. Admittedly, I've not tried to push some Yet Another Web Startup Company through the promotional gateway, but maybe that's the underlying question that's missing from the conversation between the article and the Techcrunch post. Is Wordnik a purple cow or another me-too solution to an unimportant problem? Ask my gatekeeper.

It's probably also worth noting that, if it weren't for Techcrunch, I wouldn't have had any exposure to the original article -- or if I did, it didn't rise above all the other noise to reach my attention.

Searching for a Job in in the Recession

Here's a little something that I came across on Crooks and Liars. The post from Susie Madrak describes how the recession is affecting the job search market. The emphasis of the post is that, when we fall into a recession, employers become increasing selective about the candidates that they look to hire. Not only does the hiring market become a 'buyer's market', providing employers with substantially more leverage over a prospective hire, but it also shifts the employer's behavior. Here's a quote about what employers say that they are looking for:
they would prefer to fill positions with “passive candidates” who are working elsewhere and not actively seeking a job.
While we're all familiar with that old axiom about it being easier to find a job when you have a job, think about what this means, extracted into some sort of theoretical expression of marketing, economics, and buyer behavior. Using the "Blue Ocean" metaphor, as the market gets more tense, this group of decision makers would rather increase their fishing in a place that yields fewer results (assuming that the quality of the result will be higher) than using a broader net and then perform an actual analysis of quality.

Turning the Posting Fountain on

I've come across a bunch of interesting stuff and I want to post, but I've been so buried with some pressing deadlines for next week that I haven't had time. I've decided to knuckle down and crank a bunch of these out. Without further adieu...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My day of learning about Agency Programs at Google

From my Twitter posts, you'll see that I spent last Thursday at an event focused on ad agency programs over on the Google campus. All in all, I think it was a great event, and I really appreciated the opportunity to participate. As with any event like this, the first question is really where to start -- particularly when there is probably a series of posts that I could put together to cover the day's topics... but we've got to start somewhere.

First impressions
It's hard to suppress a level of excitement when you get to visit a place like the Google campus. While there's a level of excitement when you visit any campus-level organization (Microsoft, Apple, HP, EA), the Google campus still carries a unique aura and brand impression. Whether it's all of the great things that you've heard about -- the cafeterias and the food, the other amenities, or just the culture -- there's just something about stepping into the environment that has been ranked as the best place to work. In that way, when it comes to branding, the investments that they have made in workplace environment are probably worth more than a series of Superbowl commercials telling everyone about how great that they are.

Beyond the simple wow factor of going to the campus, I was also struck by how big the campus actually is. As an long time Mountain View resident, I've probably been to the Shoreline business park more than most, but I was still a bit surprised by the size and capacity of some of the buildings over there.

The Day's Events
The event was focused on programs for ad agencies, providing a dog-and-pony of all of the different tools ranging from Advertising programs to support tools to help you track, monitor, and optimize your content. The day was divided into three overall events.
  • Introduction and Keynote
  • Tools and Programs Review Sessions
  • Hands-on Demos of Tools and Products
The Keynote Presentation
After a friendly welcome including some background on our location and the campus, the Google team launched into the keynote presentation (I would site names, but I didn't capture them in my notes). The keynote focused on the history and evolution of the Internet, and how that evolution was reshaping the way that we engage with customers. The presentation was packed with a bunch of great stats and tidbits on the volume of Internet traffic, but one concept that I liked was the speaker's approach to dividing up this history of the web into three periods:
  • 1.0 - Brochureware: the web is used basically like an electronic brochure with phone numbers and some contact info.
  • 2.0 - eCommerce and the Internet as a sales channel: the emergence of companies like Amazon and eBay, and an increasing comfort with the concept of engaging in online commerce
  • 3.0 - Engage with the customer: the rise of social media, video, community sites, etc.
While I felt like it was odd that many of the aspects typically ascribed to "Web 2.0" were actually "3.0" in this presentation, I think that his breakout still managed to capture and underline some important aspects (and still prevalent misconceptions) of business and the web. This wasn't a "you should get into social networking and 'web 2.0' because it's the latest trend", it was more of a "here are some trends (like purchasing habits and search) that shape the web and how Google's toolbox can help you reach customers and measure programs across a broad spectrum of media".

The Presentation Sessions
What was underscored by all of these presentations was that Google is all about providing you platforms that enable you engage with these communication paths in a cost-effective, measurable way. We went through an overview of Google's search advertising programs, their content network, and a session on some of the tools available to help you manage these programs. If, like me, you've run an some of these campaigns before, some of the content of some of these presentations was a little too entry-level, but as with most things if you can extract a kernel or two, it was probably worth your time. Two take-aways for me (beyond looking at some of the tools), were some strategies for image advertising campaigns an understanding of what Google is doing with television advertising.

The Hands-on Demo Sessions
The demo sessions were a chance to get a detailed drill-down into some of the agency tools and platform options with product managers for the different tools. While Google offers some options for old-school, blanket-exposure marketing, the most powerful aspect tends to revolve around putting your information in front of a potential customer during those moments when they are most likely to be looking for it.

There's also the web site and metrics tools like Web Site Optimizer and Analytics that Google provides to help you improve your content focus. One of the best things about Google's platform of tools is that virtually all of them are free. Everything is wrapped around making your website and your programs more efficient.

Initially, I was working a longer analysis that was a much more in-depth look at why modern commerce, the web, and search marketing and optimization require a different mindset than the traditional marketing/sales path. This was one of those moments where, as you write and focus on analysis, your writing takes you down a path you didn't expect to go. I wrote a big chunk, but it read like a big left turn in the middle of this post, so I've cut it out of here and I'll post it separately. So if this post seems a bit flat on analysis, keep checking the blog -- I should have more in the coming days.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Search Engine Land

This is the source of the original Techcrunch post that I ran across on Twitter this morning. I haven't had time to dig into the site in great detail, but I building your library of SEO resources can be extremely helpful since the rules are somewhat dynamic.

Here's the Link -> Search Engine Land

SEO 3250 -- Search Engine Optimization, The Upper Division Class

An earlier Twitter post that I came across today and retweeted - the link to the video from Matt Cutts with Google reminded me of a great resource in terms of SEO issues. In one of my browsers I have Matt Cutts' Google blog bookmarked on my old computer -- but I can't seem to find the bookmark since I switched to my newer system.

There's a bunch of interesting video topics from Matt on YouTube. Here's an interesting one that I found one I started searching. This one is on companies that get burned for "BlackHat" SEO practices. This is a good one to bust out when they say, "why can't we do this"...

Rahooo... Werewolves of Silicon Valley

2:00 am. Another one of those nights where I got caught up in listening to music too late into the night. As a creative person stuck in the corporate world -- a rock and roll person trapped in a world where you don't have time to connect with your music -- it's easy to forget the spirit of things that inspire you. And that's why, sometimes it's nice to just get caught up actually listening to the music that fires your soul.

With that in mind, here's my creative question for you.

In 1966, Bob Dylan, noted folk singer who wrote great protest songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" picked up electrically amplified musical instruments and started down a brand new path. His new path was not well received (many in the folk scene didn't like electric rock and roll). A sample of this can be heard in the recording (available on CD), The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966. During the tour, the electric set generated anger and controversy. In the recording, you can hear someone in the audience yell "Judas" at the end of "Ballad of a Thin Man", followed by lot of applause from the crowd. There's another person that yells something (one blog says it was, "I'm never going to listen to you again"), but it's hard to tell what it was. Dylan responds with, "I don't believe you. You're a liar." But one of the best parts of that recording is where, as the band starts to crank up "Like a Rolling Stone", you hear Dylan turn to the band and say, "Play it f___g loud." If you've ever wondered about "Like A Rolling Stone", there is a piece of its soul captured in that moment -- the essence of rock and roll.

We can't all be Bob Dylan. Most of us won't reshape the way the word perceives art, culture, and life. But, as Joseph Campbell might say, the tale of the hero is allegory, the story of an individual, faced with adversity, and demonstrating exceptional behavior. Idealized behavior.

Have you channeled your creative hero recently?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why the Current Politics of Healthcare Reform are Bad for Silicon Valley

While I avoid going political in my blog posts, some recent experiences became entwined with my thinking about the debate on healthcare reform, and a marketing-relevant post was born.

While you might not know it if you just listened to the current debate in Congress, most Americans support a government-run, public medical program. Over the weekend, the New York Times/CBS News released a study that showing 72% of Americans support a government-run, public program for medical coverage. I mentioned that to one of my colleagues during lunch yesterday, and his expression went from surprise to concern / fear of government management and a list of talking points with seeds in the FUD arguments being used to keep any sort of national healthcare program from being implemented.

But rather than going down through the long path of the debate over public healthcare, I wanted to take a quick moment to focus on the costs and potential costs for businesses -- but I want to approach it from more of a Silicon Valley point of view. For many Silicon Valley companies, a significant portion of their workforce are contractors. Part of the reason behind this is that, between health insurance benefits and the freedom to flexibly expand and reduce their workforce, it's easier and cheaper for them. As a result, there are a lot of contract jobs here in Silicon Valley. What these all have in common is that they actually pay more in salary than permanent positions, because once you take the cost of health insurance and benefits out of the picture (offload it on the individual), they can afford to pay more.

Nobody WANTS to NOT have health insurance
So if you're a worker here in the valley, the salaries and the opportunities in those contract positions look pretty good, but if you're permanently employed, moving to a contract position can be a serious gamble. If, at the end of your contract period, there is a gap in your employment status, the health insurance companies can use that as a window to begin denying you coverage based on "pre-existing conditions". As a result, the people who are more likely to take contract positions are more likely desperate, unemployed.

Transforming the Entrepreneurial Market
Now imagine a system that freed and employees from having to worry about healthcare coverage costs. Here in Silicon Valley, a company that was ramping to build there innovative product could afford to pull in best and brightest, secure a commitment from them for long enough to complete the project, then release them back into the talent pool with risking any sort of organizational integrity. And for the employees / contractors / talent, you now have more flexibility to take risk, secure in the knowledge that if you take a gamble on an organization like an emerging start-up, your exposure is significantly reduced.

One frequent counter to this type of arguement (yet another FUD) is that this type of program will wind up costing businesses. It's ironic though, when you think about it. Take Wal-Mart for example. It's widely recognized that Wal-Mart goes to great lengths to ensure that they don't have to provide health benefits to most of their employees. If it were a profit for them in providing health benefits, there employees would have them. Instead, they push that cost out, making businesses that pay those costs look like suckers.

Imagine leveling that playing field...
Remember when Internet investment took off? Call it the bubble if you want, but one aspect of that period was a tremendous amount of investment and growth. What if one of the factors that contributed to the growth was the competitive landscape -- the potential that some small start-up company might grow up and compete with AT&T. Or Microsoft. Or IBM. Or Intel. That some company might grow up to be Cisco. Or Google. Or Yahoo (well, that one didn't quite work out the way that you might have expected...) What if that potential was the thing that brought in investment? What if...

Sadly, Washington is more likely to work predictably, so my expectation is that we're unlikely to get any real reform. Is real change the audacity of hope?