Saturday, October 30, 2010

Connecting the Dots: Lobbying, Legislation, and the Intersection Between Business and Government

I wanted to call your attention to this great two-part story from NPR. I happened to catch part one earlier in the week and I was blown away. It's not just the investigative journalism. What I like about this story is the way that they have taken a story that you know, the Arizona immigration law, and turned it inside out. While you know about all of the spin and messaging that gets thrown around in the public debate about the law, this story points to some of the underlying drivers behind the legislation.

From a marketing standpoint, I think that there's a broader take-away here. Part of what you can see in this story is a window into the larger ecosystem of the business of crafting laws, lobbying, and selling to the government. And while a simple conception of corruption might be a quid pro quo exchange that resulted in a legislator profiting from their influence, the intersection of business and government is an interwoven fabric of questionable practices and influence. That being said, when the government privatizes portions of its operations, businesses will look for ways to sell more and to expand their markets.

Here are the links: 
Part One:
Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law by Laura Sullivan
Part Two:
Shaping State Laws With Little Scrutiny by Laura Sullivan

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Corporate War Stories from the Battle of

Among my other activities, I've been actively involved in projects evaluating and administering over the past four or five years. And while I would love to be able to characterize the whole thing as easy and fun, in reality, the experience has been quite a bit less than that.

I'm not talking about the software platform here -- is, hands down, one of the most amazing software tools that I have worked with. Instead, the battle has been a culture war, shaped by a cast of players with a variety of agendas, concerns, and a tremendous amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt. I've spent a fair amount of time analyzing, reflecting, and explaining, so maybe some of this will be helpful for you.

Knock Knock
Part of the challenge comes from the way that first gets through the door. In the old days, your average sales guy in smaller companies used ACT to manage their contacts. In that kind of environment, CRM and Contact Management are often interchangeable words, and from the IT side of the world, it could be considered a personal preference decision software dictated and configured by individual sales guys. It's these same sales guys, or their front-line marketing colleagues, that start the wave to bring into the organization.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Down the Web Hosting Rabbit Hole - Bluehost Terms of Service

I've been doing some research into web hosting providers for a couple of different projects. One of the projects involves looking at a simple shared hosting provider for small business and web development. A couple of quick searches on Google will produce a series of top ten web hosting provider sites, each with reviews and some categorizations for specialization (my expectation is that there is some sponsorship-based promotions driving a number of these). You can also find links on the Wordpress and Drupal sites pointing to preferred hosting providers.

I don't really want to run through the list of all of the providers that I looked at; rather, I want to point out what came up as a big surprise to me with one -- Bluehost. Over the course of my review and analysis, I was pretty impressed with the offering from Bluehost. They're listed on the Drupal site and they rank up well across a host of the different top ten sites. They offer a wide range of software easy-install scripts for everything from content management to business tools. But one of the biggest differentiators for me was that, unlike most shared server providers, they offer SSH shell access to your server root. All in all, their service looks impressive and their cost seems very reasonable.

Gotcha - the Bluehost Terms of Service Agreement
More often than not, you don't expect to find surprises in contract forms like user agreements and terms of service. For a web hosting provider, you probably expect things like no hosting illegal content, copyright-infringing material, or porn. You might also expect no spamming, malware, or other malicious activities. What surprised me in Bluehost's terms of service -- and you probably would not expect to find in a ToS -- was a prohibition on profanity. That's right, if your site contains profanity, they can shut down your service.

I was so surprised by this that I did a deeper Google search and found multiple complaints and concerns about Bluehost and profanity. One even included a transcript from an online chat with their customer support regarding the policy. To be fair, I haven't had an opportunity to contact Bluehost regarding their policy -- I was looking for an email address to request a comment, but I couldn't find one. Some of the complaints expressed concern or suspicion that the policy (or it's interpretation) might be shaped by Bluehost's location in Utah.

Ultimately, I don't really care to explore what drove this policy or the moral prism by which web site content might be interpreted. As someone who publishes a blog that's often targeted to business readers, I am very conscientious about the content that I publish and how it might be picked up or read in the workplace. And as a professional spokesperson for numerous businesses, I also understand the importance of keeping communications with certain frameworks. That being said, as a writer, I reserve the write to use whatever language I deem appropriate and I'm not about to have my web site hosting provider function as a censor.

And that's why what I would say to Bluehost is, in the words of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz to Michael Arrington, "F*ck Off!" I will be taking my web hosting business elsewhere.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Solved: An Easy Workaround for Some iPhone 4 Reception Problems

If you have an iPhone, then you're certainly familiar with the challenges of AT&T cellular coverage. While AT&T's network performance has gotten a lot of press around the iPhone, their service has been problematic for ten years or more -- that's one of the reasons why I used GTE (which then became Verizon) back then. I think that part of the issue is that the GSM signal simply doesn't perform well going through building walls, so when you're inside -- or your antenna is obstructed -- you have signal problems. The worst part of this is that "inside" is a word often used to describe you at home, work, or somewhere else interesting.

We've all seen the press on the iPhone 4 and it's antenna, but what you might not know is that the iPhone 4 also holds a secret workaround for some reception problems. What's the solution? Facetime.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Aftershock, Income Inequality, and Why Everyone is Angry at the Economy

The other day on NPR's Fresh Air, they had Robert Reich on, talking about his new book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future. I found the interview both entertaining and informative. The basic thesis of the book is that, in terms of recovery from our current economic troubles, we're hosed. According to Reich, the underlying issue with the economy isn't just about banks or stimulus, it's about an income inequality and the impact that it's having on the overall economy. Reich goes back and highlights a figure from the Great Depression who addressed some of these issues, then points to some larger changes that would be needed in order to bring jobs back to the economy and purchasing power back the middle class.

One quote that I found particularly amusing, Reich pointed out that when they go to mainstream America and tell them that the recession ended back in June 2009, that people laugh at them. The people who are out of work, underwater on their mortgages, and struggling to make ends meet are keenly aware that if your indicators say that we're out of the recession, then your indicators suck.

This is something that is an underlying pain point for the current administration and one of the issues that's driving trends as we move toward the election in November. Regardless of what the economic dashboards say, regardless of what the stock market numbers say, the Main Street economy sucks. But there is actually a bigger theme behind this.

For some time now, there has been the adoption of this idea by the media and in political circles in Washington that if the stock market numbers are high and the market appears strong, then the economy must be healthy, happy, and thriving. The Bush administration used this same logic to make a case for the performance of their economic policies, despite poor employment numbers and a generally lifeless economy. It's also a core message to the whole concept of 'trickle-down' economics, "they are doing well and it's only a matter of time before that starts to trickle down your way. Wait for it... Wait for it..."

But one job is not always equal to one job. Remember when they wanted to make "burger assembler at a fast food restaurant" count as a manufacturing job -- it makes it easier to mask the gushing flow of manufacturing jobs leaving the local economy.

When the financial system was on the edge of collapse, our government rushed in the paramedics to rescue the financial services industry. We bailed out Wall Street. We bailed out GM. We bailed out the banks and AIG. But when it came to saving the suffering middle class through programs like extended unemployment or mortgage relief, the people we elected did little to help. Those initiatives sank and drowned. For home owners that found themselves in loans that were underwater, there has been no adjustment, no correction, no bail out, just a continuing parade of foreclosures and terrible unemployment. This sense of inequity is part of what's driving the anger.

On Marketing and Message
If you look at all of that anger and the energy behind it, then connect it to messaging, you can see some of the challenges that the current candidates are facing. For Democrats, they position themselves relative to the bail out and say, "see, we saved the economy," but that doesn't match the reality that people are experiencing or perceive that they are experiencing. It doesn't really matter whether there was a victory on paper or not -- it's like telling someone who's computer was infected with a virus, "I've been able to rebuild your operating system, but all of your files, your photos and your data are gone."

Meanwhile, Republicans say, "see, we told you the bail out was a bad idea. They just made matters worse." But with marketing and message, people gloss over history, so it doesn't really matter that the collapse and the TARP bailout both took place under the a Republican president, nor does it matter that when it came to the stimulus bail out, Republicans sat on the economic Titanic and fought to prevent Main Street access to lifeboats.  Whether or not Republicans offer a solution or a recipe for anything other than a return to the policies of the previous administration doesn't really matter, instead there is an audience that can connect with single message that bailout equals bad idea.

If you follow Reich's thesis, real resolution won't happen until this income inequality can be addressed. And with most of the current approaches centered around "the health of Wall Street" as though it were an engine instead of an indicator, the larger outlook will probably remain bleak (or worse) for some time.

The Great Irony of the Bailout
The great irony of the bailout is that people that directly benefited from it are also angry and frustrated. Here is an interesting segment from the episode of This American Life titled 'Crybabies' that aired recently on KQED. Continue through the intro on 'Outrage' to this first section on Wall Street. Here's a synopsis from their site:
Act One. Wall Street: Money Never Weeps.
Ira with Planet Money economics correspondent Adam Davidson on why—even after everything President Obama has done to save Wall Street, actions which have led to record profits and bonuses—Wall Street seems ungrateful. Adam and producer Jane Feltes head out to a Wall Street bar where they're told by three finance guys that there's no reason to thank the President for saving their jobs. Planet Money is a co-production of This American Life and NPR News. (14 minutes)  
A Populist Pressure Cooker 
Overall, a poor economy stresses its constituents. People are unhappy and looking for change, but finding themselves powerless to make changes. Stuck in an underpaid, overworked job with increasing productivity expectations? If there are no jobs, you have no freedom to change jobs or find a better situation, and there is no pressure on the employer to make your work environment better. And like a stove with the burner on high, tensions and stress within our society keep increasing.

Take California as an example. We have a situation where the laws and ballot initiatives have mandated levels for the majority of spending for the state, making real change impossible. Meanwhile, term limits, super-majority requirements and the demographics of the legislature mean that most budget 'problems' get rewritten and pushed into the future. Several years ago, frustrations with this situation exploded in the recall and the election of a populist reformer. And yet, despite publicity, a famous name, and host of proposed reform programs, nothing really changed and no problems were solved. Nowadays, you often hear proposals of revolutionary reform like a Constitutional convention, but I haven't seen the signs of a real movement for anything like that. And so, with politics what you have now are people spinning messages of reform on top of a system and product that isn't really going to change fundamentally.

In Reich's interview, he noted that the current policies were not reforming the economy sufficiently to change the imbalances highlighted in his book. However, he was optimistic that, over time the government would come to understand that the reforms-to-date were not sufficient to correct the bigger picture, and begin implementing stronger reforms. I don't agree with him on this point. A conspiracy theorist might suggest some sort of overarching system that benefits from keeping the pressure cooker on high, but I think that the truth is much simpler. Like a business with shrinking markets and uninspired products (fill in your example here), government and politicians intrinsically avoid bold vision or substantial change. Imagine if we had some sort of entrepreneurial start-up incubator model for new government policy and reform.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Leading Indicators of a Craptacular Marketing Job

When you're a marketing goomer that gets wrapped up in projects that involve the finance and accounting side of the business, you often find yourself rubbing shoulders with the people that Dilbert called "the trolls in accounting." And you're probably also likely to find that they have an almost religious hatred of your role and all it represents (spending money). That being said, over the years I've worked with a lot of people in finance and accounting and got along well with most of them. Often I find that we share a sense of practicality and an overall disdain for puffery that tends to mask a lack of real substance.

One of the funniest places to find this kind of puffery is in job listings. As an example, I recently came across a listing describing a necessary skill as being able to leverage adoption techniques and four key performance indicators of a successful Customer Value Journey (I probably can't use that phrase -- it might be trademarked). And while there is probably a line of candidates forming with platitudes on their lips and gold in their hearts, you won't find me digging into the resources of my background looking for Carlos Castaneda books or channeling my business-metaphysics background.

Sometimes this stuff just seems crazy. I once worked for a company that based their performance reviews on values that fit an acronym of the company name. Imagine if the Constitution had been written like that. Back in the era, I interviewed with a company that basically had no idea what they did, and I couldn't even get a sense of their direction during the interview (we mutually agreed that we weren't a good fit). The saddest part of the whole thing is that, when you see stuff like this on TV it seems funny, but it's different when you know that there are so many people who are desperate for work and willing to take even the suckiest jobs.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Mythology of Product Positioning - Freedom, Rooting, and the Evolving Android Ecosystem

Right now, your head is swimming with lies and half-truths. But it's not just you, it's everyone that you know, everyone that you've ever met. You didn't plan it. It just happened because your brain is sucking up information like a sponge, absorbing the data your exposed to without the capacity or ability to effectively analyze it.

Every day, we are like a computer on the Internet connecting to web sites and servers that our computer thinks it knows -- we take in information from sources that we deem credible and assume that there are no underlying messages in the bits of code, no malware. Many established marketing practices count on this relationship -- from celebrity endorsements to astroturfing -- there are a wide range of techniques designed to "spoof" your information authentication credentials.

True, false, or somewhere in between, these pieces of information come together inside our heads, forming the mythology of things that we know (or think that we do). This mythology lives inside of our heads, providing structure and guidance for how we perceive things and how we handle new information -- our ongoing set of authentication credentials.

Product Positioning and Baseline Product Mythology
Most people don't make substantial rewrites to their knowledge mythology. With products and marketing, this often means that the first messages that they receive function as the ruler by which all future interactions are measured. Talk to someone about your iPhone 4 and they will probably ask you reception problems. If you talk with someone who doesn't use Facebook, they'll probably touch on privacy concerns. Sometimes these mythology memes may be constructed out of a single experience, "that company was late delivering my product once. I know that they are not a reliable supplier."

The battle for product positioning starts early, and those first experiences can be critical. If your price is too high or your product is too buggy, most people probably won't give it a second look. On the other hand, if you can create favorable impressions early, you can probably ride that mythology long past any connection to reality -- and the emerging market for Android phones is proving to be a great case study in that behavior.

Android Phones and the Myth of Free and Open
In the early positioning of Android phones by Google and the media, the meme was basically:
The iPhone is a closed system, limited and controlled by Apple. With Android, you have an open source phone OS that enables you to unlock any capabilities of the phone and use it however you want. All of those limitations that Apple has imposed like what software applications you can run on your phone are not limitations of Android. Multitasking, video streaming over your cellular network, Wifi hotspots -- whatever you want, downloaded from wherever you choose. 
Now, as you start to see Android phones propagating across the various carriers, you're also seeing where the carriers have applied the same approaches to Android phones that they have traditionally used for other phones -- limiting capabilities, locking the hardware down, and tightly coupling unique carrier-based software that can't be removed. Some have even opened their own application stores so that they can control that revenue stream. In short, they have taken the "open" platform and closed it. But, while it has some of the gadget-focused tech media upset, Android unit sales continue to race along.

Here's a link to a recent post on Techcrunch's "MobileCrunch" site. John Biggs has noted, along with a number of commenters, that T-Mobile has basically implemented a version of Android that prevents you from "rooting" the handset. If you try to "jailbreak" these handsets, embedded hardware will restore the unit to it's default state. MG Siegler has authored a number of other posts with concerns about the evolution of Android in the carriers' hands. The long and short of these concern's boil down to this -- that the carriers have looked at Android and recognized it as an opportunity to produce handsets with an advanced OS and minimal (if any) licensing fees.

What transforms this from a win-win for the carriers into a win-win-win is that consumers still see this as the free and open alternative to the iPhone. It doesn't really matter what the interface looks like. It doesn't really matter whether they would ever root their phone (or jailbreak their phone if they had an iPhone), they have already bought the sales pitch on the "free and open" OS message, and it will be about two years and a completed contract before they have the freedom to change their minds.

My point with all of this is that it no longer matters what the original position really was. It doesn't even matter if some (or most) Android phones just suck. It doesn't matter because, in their campaign to sell the "it's just as good as a xerox", they found a soft feature that they could promote and differentiate on.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Multi-tasking Projects, Time Management and The Invisible Gorilla - What Are You Missing?

In this recent post, I posted some videos and links to The Invisible Gorilla. And while the site features a number of interesting videos that highlight what we see and what we don't, since watching those videos I've found myself reflecting back on them quite a bit.

One aspect of the Invisible Gorilla tests that I think may be a bit understated is the way that the test engages your brain with deeper thought processes. I suspect that when the test gets you to count, your brain shifts gears from basic experiential observation into a more conceptual, internally focused mental process. While counting is probably one of the simpler functions like this, anyone who has found themselves lost in thought for extended moments in time has undergone a similar brain-processing experience. It's a little bit frightening if you've ever experienced it while driving.

While it's easy to connect this concept to the point of "why you missed all of these little details" that were going on around you, what I think get's lost is sort of the reverse side of the equation. If you create an environment where you expect someone to keep up with little details, they are never going to be able to lock in and engage in the deep thinking tasks. You'll never get an accurate count if you're watching for detail changes. And if you're expecting creativity, analysis, or complex code, you need to create an environment that frees your processing engine from these types of distractions.

In today's modern business environment, creating that kind of environment can be difficult. Most businesses attempt to minimize G&A expenses, so that usually means fewer resources to offload administrative tasks on or to route interrupts through. As we've democratized tools for managing our own activities, we've added interruption outlets. Finding ways to mitigate these distractions is a real management challenge.

It's also worth noting that as a creative manager, if you're dealing with management and administrative issues, it's probably going to be difficult for you to mentally shift gears and visualize complex creative or code interconnects. Instead of attempting to jump from complex analysis of one project into the other, consider some strategies to help you mentally shift gears into the type of mental processing that you need for the task at hand. Sometimes, this can be as simple as taking a moment to "refresh my memory on this" and reviewing the entire issue before responding or making a decision.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Needs Social Networking Anyway?

These days, you can't throw a rock without hitting yet another software service pushing social networking features. Social is the next killer app, or so we're told. Social is the feature that will vault your ho-hum service into the realm of Facebook or Twitter. Social is the must-have feature for services like touch is for smart phones.

The problem with social is that, while it makes sense to some, some isn't everyone. For all of those that are interested (or should be interested) in what somebody else is doing, there is an equal or larger number (I'll let you estimate the multiple) of people who not just don't care or can't be bothered -- knowing is an inconvenience. This is particularly true in the business world -- understanding why social is relevant can be difficult for many business users.

This issue is getting pushed to the front burner with the newest update to, Winter 11. With the Winter 11 release, Salesforce has activated Chatter for everyone -- force-feeding it to their customer base so to speak. If you're dealing with a user base that get's freaked out by changes or new technologies, this may have dropped you into a hurricane, but is it actually a tempest in a teapot?

Social Networking for Business
In the early days of Twitter, many of us dove into the technology, thrilled by the power of "follow". For many business users, follow was a cool idea, but Twitter wasn't secure for business communications. Then there was start-up company Yammer, and some similar knock-off companies that followed -- basically Twitter for business. We did some experimenting with Yammer, and while it did perform like Twitter, we struggled to find an effective use case for the platform. With Yammer -- simply basic Twitter functionality -- we found that emails and direct communications tended to supersede Yammer posts. Essentially, the problem with social was that it was like adding a layer of social to our social business interaction.

When they were first introducing Chatter at Salesforce's Dreamforce conference last year, initially I had the same feeling. Here was something that wouldn't really change the way that we use the software, instead acting like yet another add-on. But as I realized the potential impact of being able to follow key account or opportunity records, I started to get really excited. Here was an opportunity to roll up all of your important business activity into a single feed.

When Chatter first rolled out, I pushed and pushed to become part of the beta, and when we finally got it activated, my excitement turned to disappointment. While I had envisioned a system that, if you follow an account, would let you know when there were any related records that appeared (or were updated), the actual implementation didn't work that way. Currently in Chatter, you have to follow specific records to receive feed updates from those records, and it only generates feeds based on that record. In order words, you can follow an account and still not know if anything has happened (in terms of activity) on that account. Theoretically, this functionality will be implemented in a future release, but until that time, Chatter remains yet another social layer.

Don't get me wrong -- Chatter stands unique among most social networking tools for business in that it integrates business records, not just people. This has the potential to swing the balanced for business users that don't think that they care "what other people are doing." I'm truly looking forward to the future implementation of this functionality -- assuming they don't get side-tracked by adding some of the other "social" functionality features.

The Real Cornerstone of Social
While people and follow are often considered the core for social networking, I think that the real cornerstone of social is the aggregate feed. Whenever people ask me about Facebook or Twitter (particularly questioning their value), I try to explain it to them in terms of the feed. By simplifying and aggregating brief updates of all of the things that you follow -- and creating your own headline news -- you can more easily feel connected to the things that are important to you.

When Salesforce can get this functionality fully implemented into their platform with Chatter, it promises to be an incredibly powerful tool. Imagine following a key account in Salesforce and receiving an update whenever an invoice is sent to that account from an integrated Oracle system. Or maybe you need to see when your parts shipped from China. Imagine being able to get that data and review it on your iPhone while you're standing in the checkout line at Costco. Meanwhile, your account manager can customize their feed to follow any new cases created at their key accounts.

Simply put, the key to social is the customizable follow-feed relationship. With, Chatter, and your key business objects, you can see the lights coming, but there's still some time remaining before it runs over everything else. Hopefully they can get it implemented before they alienate the anti-social business users.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pawn to Queen's Four

There's no need to over-think this. You simply need to execute...
When I used to play chess more frequently, I always liked the Queen's Gambit opening. Rather than simply making the standard pawn to King's four opening, the Queen's Gambit can be a disturbing experience for casual players that have come to expect a certain rhythm to the opening of the game. "Is it a mistake," they wonder. "Why would he do that?"

In business, we often play a predictable game, not really executing moves as much as mindless stepping to a choreographed dance. While these mindless rhythms can help relieve us from a need to focus on unimportant details and provide us comfort in the stability of the process, they can also mask problems with analysis and strategy. Sometimes the people that you have to work with just want to keep it simple because they don't know any other way. Sometimes you can be successful in the business world by following predictable steps and telling everyone that you are a chess master -- and that's probably why I enjoy the Queen's Gambit so much.