Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What's Wrong With Meg Whitman

The political season is starting to ramp up and, as with other election cycles, I sometimes find myself surprised by the things that happen. One of my greatest disappointments this year happened when Techcrunch published a "guest author" with an endorsement of Meg Whitman. While Techcrunch has published some political posts in the past, my recollection is that most of them were much more issue-focused, typically centered around tech or policies that impact VCs or start-ups.

Of course, I wasn't the only one surprised by the post; the comments section raged. For me, the most amusing comments centered around blunders she made as CEO of eBay -- like in the execution of the acquisition of Paypal or the complete failure of the acquisition of Skype. While your average member of the public might equate "successful company, former CEO" to "CEO produced success", here in Silicon Valley business is one of our pastimes and it probably gets more coverage than sports.

But I found that the greatest irony of the Meg Whitman post was the positioning. The Techcrunch post (and others that I've seen) positioned Whitman as "the Silicon Valley candidate", leveraging her experience here as justification for her candidacy. Of course, if you look at the polls, Whitman isn't leading here in the Bay Area. Instead, she polls better in the central valley and conservative regions of the state where they're happy to eat up her parroting of Fox News-Tea Party positions.And when she did a press event in the offices of Yelp the other day, she faced a cynical audience who questioned her misrepresentative advertising.

Considering that Whitman has spent over $100 million dollars of her own fortune to put her campaign into the position she now holds, one marketing lesson that you can take from this whole experience is that, with a large enough marketing budget, you can buy some level of market adoption. This strategy seems oddly more in line with some of the tactics from Microsoft, like with Bing and Internet Explorer. Maybe instead of being Silicon Valley's candidate, Whitman should position herself as the Redmond candidate.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We Don't Need That Type of Marketing - Changing Cultures, Changing Minds

To a marketing pro, the absence of an established marketing program can look like a gold mine of opportunity -- no expectations, no limits, your opportunity to build and shape things, to put your stamp on everything. There's just one problem, that absence of program means that either someone (or a group of someones) didn't think it was a good idea; or they had no concept of it -- which, for them, probably translates as not a good idea.

On first glance, you might go into a situation like this with an eye on the gold mine and a belief that changing the culture might be challenging but not impossible. In all likelihood, what you are embarking upon is a sisyphean task with few rewards and very little gold.

You may have capabilities and personality traits that make it worse
Perhaps you're like me, sort of a marketing special forces unit. By that I mean, drop you into a chaotic situation where things are spinning out of control and objectives look difficult to obtain, and you are able to rescue things, to produce results, to make lemonade look like a cornerstone of the menu. Do people often call on you to rescue projects and activities that are in a desperate situation?

It's a great skill to have in a start-up environment, but when you're in a culture that doesn't understand how it got into the chaos, it probably won't understand the scope of your accomplishments. If things fail, nobody understands why they failed. And if everything is successful, there wasn't a tangible cost to getting there the wrong way.

The Problem With Marketing Recipes
If you cook, then you understand that when you're following a recipe, you often find yourself lacking one ingredient or another and substituting as appropriate. When you substitute, you usually attempt to stick within categories of ingredients based on function; substituting sugar and you might use honey, or molasses, or Nutrasweet; need an acid and you might substitute lemon juice, vinegar, or wine. We all understand these substitutions because we can taste them and tangibly understand them.

People don't understand marketing on the same level. They don't understand the difference between product marketing and PR. Where we see an ecosystem, they see a word -- marketing. While they can taste marketing in outbound deliverables, everything that went into that deliverable is umami, that sense of richness and depth of flavor that makes things taste good. And just like many modern eaters, people who don't understand are willing to eat bland, mediocre food simply because it looks like food.

Your Arguments Can't Save an Ecosystem from the Unenlightened
Your ideas are complex. They have inter-linkages and building those inter-linkages is the essence of marketing execution. People who don't understand can't see the inter-linkages; they don't understand fundamental concepts. And while you may envision a linear path to enlightenment through one piece of the puzzle at a time, few will grasp the ecosystem -- the Marketing Gaia -- unless they can see it in it's entirety ("can your team set that up in the lab so that we can review everything?"). And there you stand, like Al Gore giving his Inconvenient Truth presentation, trying to sell an audience not only on the interrelationship of things, but to bring them to the point of taking action and making a change...
  • We haven't introduced any new products, so we don't really need product marketing...
  • We're thinking about launching an ultra-low price model to compete with our low-cost competitor...
  • All we really need is an updated catalog... no a datasheet... no a catalog... can we get both...
  • This product isn't new, it's just something we've been working on for a while... can we get it out there so we can sell it...

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Long Tail Is Connected To The Big Dog

With yesterday's announcement of Blockbuster filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, we pass yet another milestone in the disruptive path from the world of before the Internet to our modern online world. And while Blockbuster's announcement isn't much of a surprise -- travel through any neighborhood strip mall and you can find an empty shell of a store that once was a Blockbuster or a Hollywood Video -- it still stands a noteworthy milestone.

The subtitle of this whole story might be "the one-time big dog of the video rental industry was brought down by the Long Tail." Or maybe a variation on Clint Eastwood's line from A Fistful of Dollars, "the Long Tail on the one side, a vending machine on the other, and Blockbuster in the middle." Of course, it didn't work out for Blockbuster like it did for Clint.

You can look at the fall of Blockbuster from a variety of angles. From a customer experience marketing perspective, I like to reflect on all of those times when Blockbuster took an arrogant, self-serving approach to customer service. Many of their worst customer service issues could be rolled up into one phrase, "late fees." If there were no late fees, there might not have been a Netflix. Late fees inspired Netflix and served as a key differentiator early on. Think about the number of those angry, frustrated Blockbuster customers, just growing over time. In the end, did they have any passionate brand champions?

For me, the other interesting take-away is the traditional media versus the Internet. Whether it's retail, movies and music stores, or traditional media, so many of the businesses have built revenue models based entirely around content delivery. The Internet has changed that and is continuing to change that. Successful businesses have this integrated into their framework. Traditional businesses that innovate around this notion continue to thrive. What's comic is watching some of these companies and businesses that try to dig in their heels, build bigger walls, and hold back the oncoming wave.

Early this year, one of the major studios signed a deal with Netflix and Redbox to delay the availability of their new release movies for 30 days. The idea was that, during that 30 days, more people might buy new release DVDs. Blockbuster was exempted from the limitation.

Speaking for myself, I did not buy a single new release DVD or Blue-ray disc (not a significant change in my buying behavior). I also didn't make an effort to find a Blockbuster to rent a newer release movie -- I simply didn't care. My Long Tail of content is much broader than they see. Whether it's blogs on the Internet, 400 channels on the cable television, video games, or simple quiet time, I have so many more options for my attention that I simply don't care about most movies as content. As content, they haven't done anything exceptional to win my attention recently. Meanwhile, their content deliver business continues to search for ways to further confound and frustrate me.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Search Engine Optimization and Google Instant

Here's a link to a post on Techcrunch written by Eli Feldblum, the CTO & Co-Founder of RankAbove, a provider of scalable SEO solutions for SEO professionals working at or on large web properties. In this post, he provides some analysis of how your keyword results may change as a result of Google Instant.

Guest Post: How Google Instant Can Help (And Hurt) SEO

Monday, September 20, 2010

On Code Monkeys, Technology, and Your Audience Culture Vocabulary

Over the years I've run into a number of former colleagues who say something like, "I still remember that fill-in-the-blank design that you did. It was so funny. That was great." I even had a colleague from my work 10 years ago approach me recently, asking for help in creating an new cool t-shirt. It's a narcissistic temptation to take on a project like that, but keep in mind that the project path is filled with pitfalls, not the least of which is your vocabulary.

While we are all extremely proud of the creative genius that lives inside of us, it's easy to forget that your creative trophy was the unique convergence of ideas in time. There was you and your audience. Your creative piece said something in a language that you held in common. You could understand, they could understand, it wasn't too far out and it wasn't cliche.

Creatively, the danger you face when you try to communicate with a culture that you aren't immersed in is, that even when you use the words, you won't actually be communicating. If you don't live in the world of code monkeys, you won't really be able to talk with the animals. It's like when your parents tried to talk to you using 'your' vocabulary -- they just sounded silly. But just as generations of parents have tried to communicate with kids using 'their' vocabulary, marketers, designers, and communicators try to connect and capture audiences that they don't understand. Probably the most common result is cliche.

Now the cool thing about cliche is that many people can't really tell the difference between art and cliche. Often, if you create a "cool" work of art that is similar to "cool" stuff that your audience has seen or design in a context that is familiar to them, they will accept it -- perhaps even be very pleased with it. As designers, this is our bread and butter, the thing that keeps food on the table -- but don't confuse this with the art that speaks.

Great Ideas Aren't Limited to Niche Specialists...
While it may seem like I'm saying that you need to have an niche specialist in order to produce memorable creative, that's not the case. A one dimensional view of a niche will also produce flat creative. Great ideas connect with our humanity and communicate to the parts of us that exist beyond stereotypes and categorizations. They draw upon our cultural knowledge, carrying us in a rhythm that we understand, only to surprise us with something new.

As designers and communicators, ultimately our most effective connection point is that common humanity -- we may be engineers, we may be executives, or we may be consumers, but we are all human. Sure, we may want to believe that fart jokes are low-brow humor and that we're above it, but this same commonality helps carry many Hollywood movies and sell iPhone applications. That's not to say that your next ad campaign should be based on a fart joke -- but it might make more sense than those initial ads for the Palm Pre.

More Net Neutrality - T-Mobile's Text Tax

Here's another good technology post from Techcrunch. This is a guest post from Scott Jones, CEO of ChaCha. ChaCha provides a service where you send questions and they send you a text with your answers. This is a good breakdown of Net Neutrality and Mobile -- Why Net Neutrality Needs to Be Extended to Mobile Platforms.

Remember when mobile Internet was thought to be the savior of an open Internet and Internet broadband. Mobile Internet was going to free us from the limited number of offerings available from the wired carriers. Don't worry -- the carriers will fix that...

A Good Analysis of Intel's Recent M&A Activity

Most of us around the valley always look at these Intel acquisitions and roll our eyes. They always fail. Of course, it's one thing to say that, it's another thing to write a more in-depth analysis of it. Here's a great one published yesterday over on TechCrunch. Why Intel’s M&A Binge Will Fail – Buying Growth is Not a Strategy by Steve Cheney is worth a read.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Multi-tasking, Distracted Driving, and How We Pay Attention

NPR's Science Friday program this week featured an intestesting segment on How We Pay Attention. As part of the show, they included these two video tests available on their site.

Watch the first video, then watch the second. I wound up wrestling with frame drops from YouTube, so you may want to try and let the entire video load before you watch it.

1. Here's the first video:

2. Here's the second video:

Here's a link to the Science Friday segment on attention on NPR.
Here's a link to the book that's referenced in the segment. I won't mention the title as it might work like a spoiler for your video tests. FYI, there's more great stuff on their web site.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Interesting Look at How Google Does Hiring

I came across this post from Don Dodge on Twitter earlier today -- or I should say that I came across it because Google retweeted it. It's a very detailed overview of the Google hiring process. It's worth a read. While I don't think that there are any great revelations in the piece (to me it feels like it was drafted by their PR group), it's interesting overall.

Also noteworthy is his reference to the practice of asking phone interviewees their GPA and SAT scores. The SAT question was new to me but you can file that one under reason number 421 why I won't be hired at Google any time soon - I don't remember my SAT scores. Of course, back in my day, all the schools in the south used ACT scores - I took the SAT for my own amusement and I don't remember what I got, but that won't matter. The underlying subtext of this piece -- and many of these tests and questions -- can be summarized in one simple statement from Google hiring master Yoda: too old; too old to start the training and enjoy the compensation and the benefits or the cafeterias; too old.

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tax Incentives and Economic Stimulus - Macroeconomics from a Marketing Perspective

As we sit here on Labor Day weekend, there are a lot of news stories being published about the poor economy, the high unemployment rate, and about how much these things suck and that they don't seem to be getting better with any speed. In politics, the current economic situation typically get's split into two solution paths:
  • For Republicans and conservatives, it's all about tax cuts. The strategy basically boils down to the proposal that, "if we can just make it less expensive for business to buy new equipment, they will buy new equipment, grow their business, and that investment will trickle down through the economy."
  • For Democrats and some liberals, it's about economic stimulus. This strategy basically boils comes down to the idea that, "if we spend money to fix roads and the transportation infrastructure, then all of those people who build roads will have money to spend. When we fix the roads, it will make transportation easier for everyone and society will benefit. In addition, it will make it easier for manufacturers to transport their stuff."
Now I realize that these two positions overly simplify the debate over economic stimulus and how to fix the economy, but this simplified approach will make it easier to get to the issues that I want to focus on. Keep in mind, I'm not an economist, just a marketing professional with an understanding of politics and some common issues that businesses wrestle with.

Tax Incentives, Infrastructure Stimulus, and The Myth of 'If We Build It, They Will Come'
Everyone remembers that quote from Field of Dreams, but this is a common theme in the business world. Despite MRDs, PRDs, user profiles and various other customer requirements documents, business people (sales, marketing, and engineers) love to design and build without taking customer usage or markets into account. Often, these forays into bad design result from good intentions, but like kitchen-sink functionality, the sum of it's parts is often worse than a simpler, more well-designed and focused product. That being said, let's ask some questions and do some target market analysis to evaluate the actual opportunity for success from the various approaches.

For me, the tax incentives for businesses to invest in their capital equipment is fairly easy to deconstruct. While it's easy to see that businesses have a lot of money and business spending certainly drives the economy, businesses don't behave like individuals. You won't find a business sitting around waiting for the price of an XBox to drop $50 before they buy one. Instead, if there is a market, or a demand that they can't meet with their current equipment, then they will invest. And while the tax incentives may help tip the scale in terms of some ROI edge cases, it isn't the kind of thing that you can count on for long term growth -- if you could by a refrigerator every year because you got a credit on your taxes, would you go through the hastle and cost to do it particularly when this year's model doesn't change functionality much beyond last year's model?

Meanwhile back in the other camp, while I like the idea of smooth roads and infrastructure, at best this is only a partial solution -- like the number of companies that added 'app-stores' in the wake of Apple's success with the iPhone. While it's probably a feature that has been long neglected, is it a platform-changer? In other words, does it change the status quo enough to open up new investment, new growth, new technologies and markets? Instead, I would suggest that it's akin to trying to solve the problems of traditional media by having the government buy new printing presses.

Market Successes in the Heart of the Economic Downturn
If you want to find the engines for economic resurgence, look at the markets that have been successful in the past year or two and what's driving them. Here are a couple that I would highlight:
  • Green Tech
    • Solar
    • LEDs
    • Hybrid vehicles
  • The Smart Phone Economy
    • Smart Phones
    • Applications and software for smart phones
    • Social networks
These market segments have been growing in spite of the struggling economy. What's driving them? What's the secret to success? Why are average, everyday consumers spending for precious dollars for products in these segments in spite of the bad economy? More importantly, what can we do to facilitate these markets? Or markets like them? Here are a few topic areas -- some of which have come up, others haven't.
  • Expanded wireless spectrum availability or mandated investment
  • Expanded broadband coverage
  • Expanded communications network bandwidth
  • Network Neutrality
In the end, should we be focused on paving the highways or the 'Information Superhighway'?

Monday Morning Reading: Paul Carr's Post on Techcrunch on New Journalism

Skimming through Techcrunch this morning, I came found myself reading through Paul Carr's post, Rollover Minutes: How Adam Penenberg Has Legitimised New, New, New Journalism. Again. It's an amusing read in terms of the state of journalism, traditional media versus online media, and the great myth of the firewall between editorial and advertising.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Compare Best Buy in-store pick-up to Barnes & Noble

I happened to be out shopping and I noticed this in front of the Best Buy at Santana Row -- a reserved parking spot.

Bait and Switch: How I Almost Bought a Book at Barnes & Noble, Then They Lost My Business

So I'm doing some analysis and putting together a roadmap presentation for future implementation of In doing some research and trying to build some graphics, I came across an interesting site that lead me to an interesting book, Enterprise Architecture As Strategy.

The more that I looked at the book, the more I realized that I was interesting in buying it. A quick found that Amazon offered the lowest price, but Barnes and Noble wasn't that much more expensive and they offered the option of in-store pick-up. Since we're on the front end of a 3-day weekend, it seemed like a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. The web site noted that one of the local Barnes & Noble stores had the book in stock. However, as I started to reserve a copy for in-store pick-up, I noticed that the price had jumped from the competitive online price, back to the list price which was significantly higher.

Just to check that this wasn't some sort of error, I made a quick call to the store and they confirmed that the price would be higher for in-store pick-up. The store would not honor the lower price.

Needless to say, I'm not going to buy the book from Barnes & Noble. Further, now that I understand their pricing policies and the difference between their online price and their in-store price, I don't expect to shop there again. Don't get me wrong -- I appreciate the concept of a brick and mortar bookstore, of being able to wander and browse. I don't even mind paying a premium for a good in-store brick-and-mortar experience. The biggest problem that I have is that, with this online reservation system, I've essentially bought the product online and, as a convenience for both B&N and myself, I make the effort to go pick it up.

It's possible that this pricing strategy makes sense when you add up all of the costs in some complex number and accounting analysis, but in plain old consumer speak, the underlying message from B&N reads like this:
We have a great resource for finding books online. We are also very competitive with other book stores on the internet. But we're better than the internet because we have actual stores, so you can come pick up your book. Oh, we forgot to mention -- if you are going to make the extra effort to come to our store and get your book, we're going to charge you more for your extra effort.
Other retailers have found ways to successfully sell online and brick and mortar without using this two-tiered pricing scheme. Apple, Best Buy, and Costco are just a few of the companies that operate effectively in both worlds. In that way, the Barnes & Noble pricing strategy may be one of the best indicators that B&N's business strategy still hasn't adapted the Internet.

In some ways, B&Ns approach seems like a surrender to the idea that their retail store experience offers no value add, no opportunity to upsell or to add items to the customer's cart. Now it's likely that they have done much more in-depth studies on their customer's behavior, but it truly seems like their pricing strategy was designed by someone who was more worried about in-store customers using the online system to cut into their margins. Compare that with Apple, where you can schedule an appointment online for an in-store shopping experience.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Breaking Bad: the AT&T MicroCell and Your Craptacular Mobile Signal Strength at Home - Initial Review

If you found this post, it probably means that you have poor cell coverage at home and you're wondering whether the AT&T 3G MicroCell can solve your problem. I've had the AT&T MicroCell running for several days now. While my time on calls using the 3G MicroCell is still somewhat limited, I wanted to share some operational experiences with you.

General Background
The 3G MicroCell has been offered by AT&T as a solution for improving your coverage in areas where the existing cell signal is week. Functioning like a wireless router, the device connects to your broadband connection and provides an access point for up to 10 AT&T phone lines. Note that these phone lines must be registered with AT&T, and it only works on 3G phones. Also, like a wireless router, it's signal radiates out from the unit and walls reduce the distance that the signal can go.

Set-Up and Configuration
As noted in my earlier post, set-up and configuration were fairly straightforward. You need to be able to log into your AT&T account on line to register the unit, and when you first set it up, it wants to be close to a window so that it can get a GPS signal. It uses GPS and a registered location for 911 tracking. My only comment on this is that I'm surprised by how long it takes for the unit to train.

Basic Performance
Once I activated the 3G MicroCell, I've been getting 4-5 bars throughout my home. The unit alerts you when you are connected to the MicroCell by changing the network display indicator on your phone. However, even with the unit centered inside my home, when I go outside, I find the signal falls off quickly.

I haven't dropped a call while talking on the 3G MicroCell when I've been in 'strong' coverage areas of my home, but I have experienced several calls where the call quality had issues. Basically, the call seems to experience some sort of packet drop -- like someone turned on a metronome and every click is a moment of silence. A couple of times, I've wound up redialing the person in an effort to correct the issue.

The place were the 3G MicroCell causes the biggest problems is when you get close to the edge of coverage. Theoretically, the MicroCell should shift your coverage over to the strongest available 3G cell signal (your local tower); however, if you have been on the 3G network for any length of time, you probably already know that switching networks is one of the times when calls frequently drop. And drop they do -- so far I've dropped nearly every call near the edge of the 3G MicroCell coverage. Of course, even if the switch between networks was seamless, you are probably still moving into an area with craptacular coverage, so you'd expect some issues.

Yesterday, I actually wound up unplugging the 3G MicroCell.  For whatever reason, yesterday my iPhone decided to stop receiving incoming calls -- this has happened to me before. Instead, I would simply get an alert that there was a new voice mail on my phone. After restarting my iPhone several times and wrestling with the same issue, I decided to unplug the 3G MicroCell.

Is the 3G MicroCell the Solution for You?
If you have really bad cell service in your home (0-2 bars), you might want to consider the 3G MicroCell. However, the decision may not be straightforward. Here are some guidelines that you might use to make your decision:
  • If you are in a location where the 3G MicroCell is all that stands between you and no coverage (like your cabin in the mountains), you may want to consider it. The device will create a cell signal. However, it definitely has issues with range and it's not clear how much bandwidth requires on your broadband connection. If you have multiple people using the 3G MicroCell at the same time, I don't know well it will perform.
  • If you are in a location where you have spotty coverage in your home and you can expect to be inside or within the 3G MicroCell coverage area for extended periods of time, you might want to consider it. The device would be a better supplemental solution if it didn't take so long to activate.
  • If you have spotty coverage but you frequently run errands while talking on the phone (going in and out of the coverage area), I wouldn't recommend the device unless you intend to plan periods of time when you don't leave the coverage area. I experienced too many call drops at the edge of the 3G MicroCell network to recommend it as a solution.
  • If you have 2 or more bars of coverage in the area around your home (inside will always be worse), I wouldn't recommend the 3G MicroCell. The dropped calls that you experience are inconvenient, but you'll probably experience more headaches with the device than without it.