Saturday, May 23, 2009

Branding, PR, and Crisis Response in Internet Time

I've got a couple of quick posts to tie together for you tonight. I know, it's Memorial day weekend, and you're probably thinking about a whole host of things that have nothing to do with work -- where you're going to go camping, what you're going to grill, what you're going to say about that blog that just posted a very unfavorable article about you...

The first stop on this journey is a post on Techcrunch, Deny This Last.FM, posted by Michael Arrington yesterday, the Friday beginning Memorial day weekend at around 8pm pacific time. And, in case you aren't keeping up with your tech on the weekend, here's a follow-up, Another Blanket Denial by Last.FM, posted earlier today. This post includes a response from a Last.FM developer, and I'll quote the following comment, "This accusation was made the evening before a three-day holiday weekend in both the UK and the US. Yet again, we were not given the opportunity to respond."

Finally, tied together with those, is this nice little post from John Moore over on Brand Autopsy. This one was posted back on May 5th titled, The 10-10-10 consequences model, referencing a concept from business writer Suzy Welch. In Suzy's model, the 10-10-10 concept she analyzes decisions by taking "a few moments to consider the consequences of a decision that may occur in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years." John Moore ramps her concept to look at things in Internet time and how that might affect a brand. Here's a quote:
Except, we need to amp up Suzy’s 10-10-10 thinking to account for how quickly information spreads online. 10 minutes. 10 hours. 10 days. That’s a more workable 10-10-10 consequences model for marketers dealing with issues worthy of explosive online conversation, such as the marketing disaster recently faced by Dominos Pizza.
So if you're with Last.FM, you might be asking yourself -- is this simply some blogger, some 'Magnolia-fan' that thinks that 'Jay and Silent Bob are clown shoes'. Or, framed in the context of the Internet, is this the equivalent of a massive chemical leak at the factory? While John's post is a nice look at the importance of a sense of urgency, I'm not sure that most businesses have response mechanisms that have been engineered (or reengineered) to deal with this pace. The don't have the mechanism to weigh the threats, they don't have the mechanism to measure the response, and they don't have the mechanism to respond at that pace.

Sure, Oprah's on Twitter. And you'll probably find some wired CEOs that are so closely tied to their company that they would be aware of things and prepared to respond to something like the Last.FM issue -- but what about the mechanisms that are supposed to monitor these kinds of things? By the time Monday rolls around, there will have been 72 hours of communication, amplified on a global scale.

Anyway, there aren't really many easy answers to any of this and I know it's a three day weekend, so I'll let you get back to your time off. Enjoy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Stuck In Traffic - A Quick, Lightweight Post

As you're driving down some multi-lane freeway, have you ever noticed that as you start to pull up beside to the car rolling along in the next lane, they will start to match your pace. For many of us here in Silicon Valley, this can be a challenging concept, because the rules don't apply when your traveling at five miles an hour and stuck in gridlock. But assuming that you're rolling at the limit (or slightly above), you'll probably notice that the car next to you -- that you were gaining on -- has suddenly found a strange new excitement for life, and is matching your speed.

Welcome to the world of marketing to the masses. No matter what you do, no matter what you say, regardless of any plan or intention on your part -- when a group of people start to use your product, there is a pretty good chance that there's another group of people that are going to do exactly the same thing simply because they learned that others were doing it.

Viral Marketing Made Simple
People write books and publish sites on viral marketing. While there are probably some practical strategies that you can adopt to help you be a better virus, before you go too far down that path, you might be reflect on what you learned while you drove to work. That's right, that individual that made you so frustrated, the one who wasn't going where you were going, the one who you only know by the explatives that you shouted at them -- that guy just echoed your behavior simply because you were going the same direction, you pulled up next to him, and he became aware of you.

And for those of you out there that responded to my recent viral campaign, just a quick reminder that talking on your cell phone without using a hands-free device is illegal. Also, any gestures that you saw and that you may or may not have misintepreted, those gestures were simply exhibitions of my enthusiasm for the product.

Seems Like I'm Posting a lot of Stuff from Techcrunch Recently

If things are getting weighted too much to stories from Techcrunch, I apologize. I just wanted to link to two or three stories that I picked up on today that I think are worth a read.

The REAL story behind the 104-Year-Old who joined Twitter, by Mike Butcher is a great post gets down into the heart of an Astroturf vs real Word of Mouth aspect of marketing.

There We Go Again. No, Micropayments Won’t “Save Journalism”, by Robin Wauters is another interesting window into the challenges and conflicts between newspapers, journalism and traditional media versus new media and the web.


Stand Firm Craig (and Jim), by Michael Arrington captures a window into a story you probably won't see in the mainstream media -- Craig's List versus the State of South Carolina. Sometimes, when I see things like that, it reminds me of the great controversy surrounding whether or not it would be okay to sell liquor by the drink... in Overton Square, Memphis, Tennessee about fourty years ago. Can you imagine the horror and the tragedy if such a thing should come to pass?

Copyrights, Content, and Digital Rights Management

Not to go to far down this rabbit hole, but there's an aspect of copyrights and digital rights management that was on my mind earlier today. I was thinking about some articles that I had been reading, helping a friend that's working on a project for her MBA program. Specifically, I was thinking about writing a blog post talking about one of the articles and thinking about how to cite and credit the author. Somewhere in that process, I began thinking about how I came to read the article -- the method of transmitting that content to me. That's when this thought struck me.

Remember Books? Consider books in the era of DRM...
How many times have you read a book, then loaned it to your friend (or visa versa). While only one copy of the book was purchased, it's entirely possible that it may be passed around to several readers. Somehow, despite the author's loss for not having sold a copy to each reader, the book business has managed to hang around for several hundred years. It's survived through the advent of radio, television and the Internet (maybe). It's survived that crazy, no-profit content sharing system -- libraries. What's more, even in the face of little or no profits potential profits to authors, people still write books.

Depending on which direction you're looking at it from, there are certain aspects surrounding the debate of content and rights that can border on the absurd. While it's probably pretty easy for a pro-DRM industry spokeman to shred some of the parallels with books and libraries, consider this recent contrasting example from the digital world.

In a recent TechCrunch (I think) post, I read where some group that publishes to the Kindle, (Amazon's Wireless Reading Device), changed their permissions when it comes to text-to-speech. So, while the Kindle is capable of reading and speaking the text, at least one publisher considered that a threat to their audio book business and canceled that service for their publications. Oh, and according to the Techcrunch post, it also affects any publications that you have already "purchased".

Somehow I don't see the library or the bookstore retroactively canceling a characteristic of the item that you just bought. There's a lot more food for thought down this path, so I'll let you wander and snack as you see fit.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

How Did We Get... Here?

If you learned everything about life from watching movies, you might see your life as sort of a flowing, unfolding path, building to some dramatic finale. I remember listening to this Radiolab show talked about this odd aspect of humans and how, as we go through life, our mind actually rewrites the story in our head (I think that this might be the episode). Inside our mind, we actively construct and reconstruct the narrative that we tell ourselves about our lives (of course, I may have simply constructed that story in my head).

With the evolution of the modern economy, our professional lives have shifted from something planned and predictable to a crazy roller coaster ride that leads us into strange and unpredictable places. Even in regions and places where people once expected lifelong careers, going to work, building a life, and having a predictable pattern that they structure their lives around, the idea is gone. In the great landscape of career analogies, we have shifted from an "agricultural" job market -- where we once worked the soil of a career, year in and year out -- to become "career hunter-gatherers" -- nomads wandering the landscape looking for places and opportunities that will support us (Welcome to the Silicon Valley Tribe!). Now you're here, but when you left high school and went to college, when you started your first job, did you really expect to be doing what you're doing today?

But I'm Just a Marketing Goomer...
As I mentioned in an early post, I never expected to be working in the corporate world. And yet, as I've moved through the nomadic path of my career, I've found myself traveling deeper into the corporate landscape. While my writing and creativity were my essential tools early on, over time I've found a need to learn a whole different set of tools that I never would have considered pursuing in the preceding years -- and I'm not just talking about learning about the markets that you sell into or learning how to use a new software tool. While I've had to build some expertise and understanding of the many markets that I've worked in, I've also found myself wandering into strange territories. For example, in the past six months, I've downloaded programming and software development tools for two different software platforms. What's more, I don't think that I'm unique in being pulled this way -- this seems like a common direction for a lot of us in the Silicon Valley tribe.

This strange evolution leads to a lot of introspective thinking. How did I get here? Why am I now learning how to apply these complex technologies, to design and manage computer networks, to develop software and write programming code? What happened to all of the people who actually studied this kind of stuff in school? What do I know that they don't? I'm not going to pretend that I know more than them, but why am I being pushed and pulled into these solving these kinds of problems? More importantly, as I've now become some sort of weird hybrid/mutant creature, what am I?

On Marketing and and Mutants
The thing about marketing is that, in one sense, it's all about categorization and being part of a group. You learn about the customer so that you can divide them into categories. As customers, we are drawn to products, brands, and images that we believe match a category that represents us. When you're looking for how to position a product, you're looking for ways to define categories that will help the customer be a part of that group. You apply this same categorization practice on a personal level every time you search for and apply to a job.

So what happens when the market changes, or when the 'what you do' is undergoing such a radical transformation that it's hard to determine what category that you fit into? What happens when the old definitions start to fall apart, when the 'where you are going' is so different that there isn't a category defined yet? How do you know what job to look for if you don't know the title? How does somebody rank what you're worth or value the unique aspects that you might bring to the table? Who sets the benchmarks for the category?

Creole and an Interesting Aspect of Synthesis
A few weeks ago, I came across this radio segment about Creole languages and a linguistic experiment. While I have always associated the idea of Creole with Louisiana, Cajun food, and the synthesis of flavors, I wasn't familiar with Creole as it applied to linguistics. From the transcript of the program, "Creoles are hybrids that come into being when people who speak different languages live side by side." As the program also noted, "Creoles and islands kind of go together." Basically, a Creole language becomes the hybrid that servers for communication on the specific island.

So, back to introspective land here -- if you think of each company, each specialty, as a language, one question that you may want to ask yourself as you synthesize your new hybrid is... are you becoming something and speaking something that is useful to someone outside of your own island? Will the world that you are targeting recognize your new language or will they simply scoff at your very bad French? You may be able to make an awesome roux, incredible crawfish etouffee and seafood gumbo, but if you're trying to feed very unadventurous eaters, you still may have an uphill battle just trying to get them to taste your food.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bait and Switch Marketing Comes to iPhone Apps

The other day I happened to be flipping through TechCrunch and I came across a post talking about reMail, an application that had just been release that would provided full text search of your email from your iPhone. The post also noted that the app was in it's Beta period and that it was free during that time. So I downloaded it.

Since TechCrunch draws some serious traffic, I sort of expected that the app might not be free when I got there, but the iTunes store listed it as free and everything looked good. So I load the app onto my phone, fire it up, and it takes me to a screen that says, "I'm sorry, our server is full. Do you mind taking a survey? And if you give us your email, we'll notify you when we have space." So I go through the survey, and the questions include a couple that you would expect like "about how many emails do you have in your mailbox", etc. Then they get to the big question, "would you be willing to pay $3.99 a month for this service?"

The Curious Case of Free iPhone Apps That Cost Money
I have several apps on my phone that I got for free. Airshare is a great example. It allows you to use your iPhone as a web server to share and view files over a wifi network. I picked it up for free during it's two week initial release period. It costs money now, but I've recommended it to several people who have since purchased it. Contrast that with Jott, a cool app that recorded your notes, then transcribed them to written notes that showed up on your iPhone. It used to be free, but then they moved to a pay model. While it got some periodic use as a free service, once it became clear to me that I would need to pay a fee, I removed it.

Don't get me wrong -- I have an appreciation for the challenges facing software producers, particularly within the iPhone application landscape. Few people embark on the journey to develop and build an application as a pro bono exercise. People need to eat. People need to get paid. I've also paid for applications and functionality that I use regularly (e.g. the one time charge for the full version of the crossword puzzle software '2 Across').

I also paid for the camera ruler app, expecting to gain more utility from it that I have actually received -- nine times out of ten, it's easier to find a tape measure than go through all of the steps required to measure something. Am I unhappy about the five bucks that I paid for the camera ruler? Not really -- I expected it to be of greater value on that one time out of ten when I didn't have a ruler or a tape measure handy, and the small outlay of cash wasn't a bad gamble for that moment in time when something like that would come in handy.

A third comparison that I would make is with the tip calculation software that I've installed. Early on, I saw several apps designed around this problem, but most wanted a couple of dollars for the app. Eventually, somebody created a free tool to address the problem, and I have that one. I think that its revenue model is advertising plus the potential to link / register users for a centralized platform for tracking some of that data, but I haven't followed that through. I mention that because I think that Airshare faces a similar challenge from competitive apps. I haven't done a detailed comparison of the apps in that category. Assuming that there's a free product out there, I can't say whether Airshare outperforms the free version, but it certainly presents a challenge for the App Developers. Like the web, a good idea is no guarantee of exclusivity within a segment. Does Airshare win because they were first to market? While being first to market means that they probably get a larger initial adoption base and are able to better understand the challenges that mass deployment exposes, many of these applications are still essentially lightweight dashboards so the scope of the technical problem that they solve is typically not a barrier to competition.

Finally, one last app example goes back to my days of living on the Blackberry. One of the challenges that Blackberry users face using the default version of the phone is viewing emails with foreign language characters like Japanese or Chinese. Fortunately, there was also an active community of app developers for the Blackberry, and there was an application that you could download and install that provided support for international characters. However, the pricing model for the software that I'm thinking of was an initial charge plus a monthly subscription of about ten dollars. Now, this functionality -- basically an essential capability if you want to communicate in Japanese -- is supported by default on the iPhone. Also, it turns out that there are some ways that Blackberry users can add this functionality without paying for the subscription service. Meanwhile, one subscriber that I know feels like he's being charged for something that is available for free -- which doesn't help with any branding or Word of Mouth equity. In that way, the subscription model tends to suggest a relationship in which the value of the service provided will competitively outperform the free version. This also suggests that over time, service and offerings either need to improve, or price needs to go down -- if your business is in it for any sort of longer term relationship with the customer. To use the accounting term, there should be some sort of "mark it to market" calculation in your pricing.

So, what apps are you willing to pay for?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Recent discussion of economics

Recently, I ran through this with an engineer that I worked with and it seemed like news to him, so I thought I would share it with you.

Do you want to know how the economy is really doing?
  • Do a quick job search -- look for the position that you would target for your next job. How many openings do you find?

  • Do a quick search for apartments in your area. Think about your "minimum requirements"... How much is your monthly rent these days?
While this isn't an exact science, if you do it once a week (or maybe once a month), you'll get a better idea of what the economy is doing -- or you'll get a few of the statistics that matter -- what the economy means to you.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Quid Pro Quo and Pay for Post Blogging - They Think You're Stupid

There's an interesting post up on Techcrunch today, "News Flash: Paying for Coverage is Still 'Taboo'". This post by Sarah Lacy is about yet another Pay for Posts blog service, or possibly a re-spin of a company that had also contacted her in the past. It's not really a new topic, but like Sarah notes in her post and what I think is rather amusing -- this is one of those "Yet Another Great Idea to cheat Google until Google comes back and crushes your page rank" plans that always turns out poorly for all those involved. Well, I guess all involved except the guys at the top of the pyramid.

You know, there are a lot of ways that you can look at this:
  • You can approach is as John Moore does in Brand Autopsy with his concept of "Creationist Word of Mouth versus Evolutionist Word of Mouth".
  • You can question the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of the people who promote this type of approach
  • You can explore some of the many ways how "true" content trumps misdirection: Google search results versus "the old competitive model" that included paid listings in the search, etc.
For me, what this reminds me of is the thing that happens in a corporate meeting every time I try to explain how Google's Adwords program works. Invariably, as my audience starts to understand how ads are positioned and billed, somebody in the room is dreaming of ways to beat the system. What usually follows is a several minute period where they force you through an exploration of their various "cheat the system" ideas. Somewhere deep within our DNA there's probably a "gaming the system" gene that's responsible for some fundamental aspects of evolution -- like our ability to craft stone tools. But it probably also means that the first pyramid marketing schemes were created not long after the first markets were opened (and probably well before the Egyptian pyramids were built).

And while, deep down you hope for some sort of great moral clock that's building a list of the cheats and will eventually enact retribution and balance (ala Google), some of this is really a battle for the low ground. In my mind, most products being marketed this was are going to be average at best and likely much lower than that.

Is "Noise" Really Word of Mouth?
If your best selling point is "blank million people can't be wrong", do you really have something worth talking about? One of my favorite questions when I talk to someone in a start-up is, "how are you going to change the world?" Admittedly, while there are some people who will be moved to purchase something simply because other people talk about it and recommend it, but real "Word of Mouth" has a different flavor, a different taste that's driven by passion. It's sort of like the difference between butter and margarine -- while it may look the same and be used in the same way, it doesn't taste the same regardless of how much somebody tries to tell you that it does. It certainly doesn't cook the same.

Now they want you to believe that there's no difference between butter and margarine. They think people in the world can't tell the difference between butter and margarine. They're selling the world on the idea that, if you just tell enough people that there is no difference between butter and margarine, it will be so. Most of all, they want you to put your reputation on the line (your permission asset) and tell your friends and family, from your heart of hearts, that there is no difference between butter and margarine. Or that margarine tastes just like butter only better -- richer, fuller, more umami. Hey, they'll give you a dollar... cause they make a buck on each tub of margarine they sell... until your friends wise up.

While all of that may make sense if your trying to unload a giant lot of one-time-only infomercial-style products, if you have a real product or a real brand, there's only one word for the whole idea -- quackery.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Light Side Topic Thread: Movie Reviews and Critique - Slumdog Millionaire

I was working on a couple of marketing related posts and I thought I might take a break from thinking about business. The other day I found myself caught up in that sort of creative analytical thinking that happens when you watch a good movie, so I thought I might share some of that here. If you find it amusing -- or you have your own analysis -- please feel free to share either in the comments or send me an email.

Slumdog Millionaire
I watched Slumdog Millionaire on DVD the other night (Netflix rental, fyi). First, I have to say, I really liked the movie, it's definitely worth watching and I recommend it if you haven't seen it. I wasn't sure what to expect from the film, but in the days preceding the DVD release I happened to hear an interview with the director on Fresh Air on NPR. One of the things that I found most interesting in the interview was about that was the idea of capturing the city of Mumbai over the course of time. While it's an interesting perspective, in watching the film, that wasn't something that really grabbed me.

Rather than doing a detailed review or summary, what I really want to focus on was something that struck me about two days after watching the movie -- the end of the film. While I wasn't particularly moved by the ending -- I found it rather predictable in a way -- I was struck by the similarities between Slumdog Millionaire and Scarface with Al Pacino. In that way, in the end your left with an interesting perspective on the idea of the millionaire -- but here's what I found cool. Think about how Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead brings an alternative perspective to the telling of Hamlet. Now consider the classic movie like Scarface, the story of a guy that grows into a successful mobster/drug dealer, etc. Now consider Slumdog Millionaire from the perspective of a story about that same character, told from a different perspective. Nice.

It's nice to see a movie come along that isn't "yet another Hollywood widget".