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.