Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wrapping Up 2011: My Noteworthy Stories from the Year

The end-of-the-year rehash of stories has been going on for ever -- for traditional media, it's a great way to rerun content and occupy time and space during the holiday break. Some blogs that publish regularly like to do the same sort of thing. In my case, I really wanted to come up with some sort of stupid, bad-marketing award for UPS and their international shipping. But then, as I looked back over the year, I realized that 2011 was packed with stories that seem bigger, stranger, and stupider.

For me, I think that the biggest WTF story of the year has to be the Netflix trainwreck. Netflix took shoot-from-the-hip to a whole new level, alienating their customer base and destroying their brand equity. For me, the service went from a small, unquestioned recurring charge for the convenience of new DVDs and occasional streaming content to an unnecessary expense. But beyond the "what this means for me as a customer" story, the whole thing unfolded in such a bizarre way. While you might want to use elements of the story as "a teaching moment", it sort of begs the question of how you might find yourself down that path in the first place.

If you had to pay for subscriptions to Techcrunch, 2011 would have been the year that I canceled mine. Somewhere between the AOL acquisition and the subsequent merger of AOL and Huffington Post, the site made a pretty significant pivot from the type of content that had initially drawn me to it. Gone were the insider stories that brought you trends and insights from the technology world; instead, their content became sort of a yet another 'press release+' site. Even when I occasionally click back looking for old content or for any news on a slow news day, I remain put-off by the layout. In contrast, Michael Arrington's personal blog tends to be much more of what I liked in Techcrunch -- real analysis of some of the things going on in the high-tech world, punctuated by a post about a company. Ironically, I just clicked over to catch this story about yet another departure from the Techcrunch old guard, Heather Harde.

I wrote several posts on the economy, jobs and hiring in 2011 that generated some good traffic. My post Growth Hacker vs VP of Marketing drew the most traffic for the year, with my post on daily deal sites following close behind. None of my posts will break any traffic records at Comscore, but sometimes it's nice to know people actually do read your posts.

Themes That Sparked My Brain in 2011
There are several areas that really lit a fire in my thoughts and will probably continue to shape my thoughts through the next year.
  • Moneyball, Stats, Analytics, and Big Data
  • The Internet of Things
  • The Psychology of Customer Experience
I think that these topics are converging in ways that will shape and reshape our world for years to come.

One of the Most Interesting Things that I Read in 2011
While I didn't post a link to this on the blog, I find that it keeps coming up for me in conversations. Long and short, here is a link to an interesting post from a Google engineer on what's wrong with Google+. I love the way that he explains platform -- and the unexpected repercussions when implementing platform at Amazon. It's a long post, but after you get through it, you'll walk away with an appreciation of why even some Google products that seem awesome just don't work the way that you might expect them to -- or evolve in the way that you might have liked them to.

Anyway, I think that's enough rehashing 2011 leftovers for me. Here's wishing everyone a wonderful new year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cool Tech from the Holiday Blogging Desk

Apple sent out a post-Xmas promotional email this morning that featured an interesting device / gift, the iBike Dash Cycling Computer.  They also sell the deluxe model. Being the cyclist and technology nut that I am, this link actually pulled me through for a look.

In years past, my friends and I have talked about how cool it would be to be able to use your iPhone as a bicycle computer. In our minds, it was the potential of being able to carry one less device combined with all of the cool functionality that is native to the iPhone that held such great promise. So I clicked through to check it out.

Brief Aside: My History of Using Cycling Computers
My first cyclometer was a Cateye Solar. This wonderful device logged speed, distance and cadence. When my Cateye Solar died, I didn't replace it (not much money and most cyclometers didn't display cadence). When I upgraded to my current bike, I went ahead and purchased a new Vetta cyclometer that just logged speed and distance -- my main interest at that point was simple distance tracking. But when I started training for The Death Ride, a coaching seminar that we attended recommended using a heart rate monitor. I have always been skeptical of heart rate monitors -- I've seen to many people addicted to the tech of cycling and miss the part about finding love in basic time on the bike. But the argument for using a heart rate monitor -- to maximize your body awareness and better manage your pace for demanding rides -- made sense to me.

My next (and current) cycling computer is the Polar 720i. It tracks all of the important cyclometer stuff -- distance, speed, and cadence -- but it also adds heart rate, elevation and temperature. It also uses this data to do an approximate calculation of calories burned. You can even add a power calculation by taking measurements off the chain, but I didn't see any ROI in investing in that option. Having logged many miles using the Polar, I can say that there are things that I like about it and things that I don't, but it has become the standard by which I measure other cycling computers.

Several years ago, Garmin introduced a cycling computer that integrated a GPS into the system -- functionality that I feel like marked the next logical advance in cyclometers. But when I looked at the early models, it seemed like there were some issues that outweighed the cool features for me (I think software support was one issue). Since then, I've hoped for improvements, but I haven't been logging enough miles to actively track the technology evolution.

Using the iPhone as a Cycling Computer: the iBike
The iBike brings the promise of using your iPhone as a cyclometer to reality. Basically, the unit is your iPhone, combined with a waterproof handlebar mount, and some Bluetooth-based sensors that can allow you to track speed, distance, cadence and power. Since it uses your iPhone, you have GPS tracking for route and elevation. All cool features.

One thing that I've always hated about the Polar is that it only works with Windows -- there's no software support for Mac -- it's one of the only reasons that I actually own a PC. Since the iBike works on the iPhone, I would expect that their software might have actually be better than the Polar, but I haven't explored it in detail. Another thing that might be cool about the iBike is that, since it uses the iPhone, they have more flexibility in designing the interface. In short, you might expect that this flexibility would translate to more options for you, the user -- I don't know if that's true, but it could be cool.

Of course, after looking at it more closely, the iBike has a pretty serious downside -- battery life. The site specs say "5 hours of continuous operating time when used with the spare battery". While this might be great more than enough for casual riders or shorter weekday rides, if you want to log serious distance on this thing, I expect that your going to wrestle with battery issues. This strikes me as the fatal flaw with this whole concept -- say what you will about the capabilities or problems with the Polar watch, even if you ran it continuously, you don't have to change the battery more than about once a year or two. It's also unlikely that your battery will die when you're in the middle of a ride. That may not be a big issue when you're riding back and forth to work, but if you've been out to Pescado, just left San Gregorio and you're on your way up Tunitas Creek, you're probably not going to find a place to plug in and recharge.

Imagine the Possibilities: ANT+
All that being said, the aspect that I found most interesting about the iBike is it's use of ANT+ sensor technology. Before reading about it in the iBike specs, I was unfamiliar with ANT+. Here's a clip about ANT+:
ANT+ facilitates the collection, automatic transfer and tracking of sensor data for monitoring information anywhere, anytime.  The key advantage of this unique managed network is device specific interoperability which enables wireless communication with other ANT+ products.  This interoperability function (added to the base ANT protocol) now facilitates the reliable transfer of data between sensors and display devices such as watches, heart rate monitors and bike computers.  Applicable in sport, wellness management and home health monitoring, ANT is proven with several million nodes shipped to date.
ANT+ is basically an interface standard for communicating with these motion sensors. On the site, they also show an announcement at Interbike where Fox has combined ANT+ sensing with their mountain bike shocks and a special adjustment mechanism to make dynamically adjusting shocks. Imagine your mountain bike adjusting it's suspension based on the terrain and your desired ride characteristics. Cars have been doing this kind of stuff for years, but there are wires and electronics and systems. With ANT+, small wireless sensors can be integrated into devices that previously would have been implausible. When linked to an intelligent central brain, imagine the possibilities. Very cool.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Unemployment Numbers and 'Given Up': The Hidden Side of an Economic Stat

With the economy still swirling around in the toilet and the politicians attempting to use the unemployment numbers to support their various positions, we are treated to a monthly dose of "the unemployment rate went up, down, or remained at fill-in-the-blank" from the news media. Often, this is published with the same matter-of-fact indicator status that one might use to confirm body temperature. Are we getting better? Are we still sick?

One number that they talk about not being counted are the number of people who have "given up", people who have been out of work so long and been unable to find work -- so they have essentially given up looking (or at least going through the vehicles typically used to track unemployment). Of course, this number gives come conservatives fits. "How could you just 'give up' when you don't have a job" is one of those threads on conservative channels that I've blog coverage of. 

But there is a hidden side to the unemployment numbers, and my guess is that it would probably be a better measure of the "health" of the economy if you could adequately measure it. Think about all of the people that you know who are frustrated or unhappy in their current jobs. Think about all of the ones that are actively searching for work even though they currently have a job. Now imagine the number of employed people who are working and would like a new job, but have given up their search.

Most of us work under "at will" employment conditions. Basically, this is sort of an agreement between you and your employer that says, if you don't like it, you can always quit and do something else. As a society, we've established this as a theoretical free-market check-and-balance against the demands of the work environment. And it works. Sometimes.

When someone is hired for a job, they often came from an existing job. When the job market is bad, people don't get hired and they don't change jobs. They are stuck in their existing work environment. Sure, they may have been looking for work from the safety of their existing job, but they have been looking for work. But if you already have a job and you make the effort to look for work -- if the economy is bad and there are limited opportunities -- at what point to you take that time and energy and focus it on something else? What does 'giving up' look like when you already have a job?

While it may be impossible to estimate the number of people with jobs who have given up looking, you can imagine the hidden cost on the economy. When it comes to marketing through customer service and front-line employees in the service industry, employee happiness is often correlated to positive customer experiences. And regardless of how much work they do and how much output you get from them, your unhappy, wanting-to-change-job employees are probably giving less than 100% of what they are capable of -- it's like an audience watching a bad movie, just because they haven't walked out of the theater doesn't mean that you have their interest.

What Real Economic Recovery Looks Like
When I hear the government and the media promote declining unemployment numbers, I prefer to look at the situation in a different light. Back in the era, the job market was so strong that many companies couldn't find bodies to hire. During that time, we often had to hire people who sucked simply because they were the best available body -- and you didn't feel bad about cutting somebody loose who sucked because they were likely to be picked up by some other company. We truly were free agents at that time.

In a recent piece, economist Paul Krugman called what we're in a depression instead of a recession. He noted that, while it wasn't as bad as the Great Depression, just because things don't suck as bad doesn't mean that they don't suck. How will I know that the Great Economic Downturn is over? It will probably start with a few handfuls of key employees jumping ship for another company. Then, like when key Google people started jumping for Facebook, established companies will start adding salary and benefits instead of cutting them -- they will need to remain competitive. Next, you'll start getting lots of emails and phone calls again, from recruiters desperately wanting you to consider some company.

Sadly, I don't think that we're anywhere near the start of that world, because it isn't going to come from austerity, belt-tightening, and tax breaks for 'job creators'. If you look back to the era (not as a bubble but as the time when there was economic job security in as much as there were opportunities to work for anyone that was willing), then you might suspect that real recovery will only take place when we experience some of the conditions associated with a bubble or a boom -- namely more job opportunities than we have bodies available.

So what do the era, the housing bubble, the social networking boom, and the green tech boom have in common? In the early days of all of these growth spurts, a new market appeared. In the race to compete for these opportunities, people invested time, effort, and money chasing the potential windfall -- like sailing and trying to catch that puff of air to fill your sails and carry you along.

Some of these booms are short-lived. There are only so many opportunities for an entrepreneur to build Angry Birds and dominate the iTunes App Store before their software becomes yet another game in the half a million apps. Large competitors learn from the fast-swimming pioneers. But a bigger part of the problem that we have is that the entrenched interests in our system have enough influence to strangle the life out of the up-and-comers, like traditional energy interests lobbying to undercut green tech or the ILECs strangling the competition out of broadband.

Remember back around 1998 and the Internet Tax Freedom Act?  
You might call it early-boom, but 1998 was in the time before e-commerce had really taken hold. There wasn't a lot of money being made on the web. There was no streaming media. Traditional media was still the main source of content. There were no blogs, no Adwords, or Adsense. Maybe it's because there was so little money there or maybe it was a brilliant, prescient moment -- but somewhere within the halls of the government, they managed to come together and protect the Internet from being taxed.

I write this not from some sort of pro-tax/anti-tax canard; but rather, here is one example government legislating the protection of potential economic bounty -- the future interests of competition -- from the lobbying, money, and powerful influence of the existing, entrenched players. Imagine if, back in 1998, Time-Warner had the foresight to see their empire collapse. Imagine if media companies could have lobbied for a tax on streaming traffic -- or perhaps a tax on any content that wasn't streamed.

Today, the entrenched players can clearly see the potential money in the Internet and they work to reshape their control market using things like DMCA, SOPA, and Net Neutrality. Imagine if, instead of attempting to rein in these markets, we were pushing to expand the markets through things like universal broadband internet access. As strange as it may be to imagine, there are people without access to the Internet. Remember when Google announced it's extremely high-speed Internet access initiative? There was almost a mini-boom of cities lobbying to win that contest. Why? Because the benefits of ubiquitous high-speed Internet access is easy to understand -- not to mention that it would also likely translate into jobs.

I Know, I Digress...
Sometimes when you are sailing and there is no wind, you find yourself scanning the water looking for signs of a breeze. The media is always looking for stories, looking for changes to report. Most recently, as a result of the holiday shopping window, they report that consumer confidence is higher than it's been in quite some time... but employment prospects look to remain flat in early 2112. They take you on a roller coaster ride with the news.

Recovery? For some, that may be as simple as having money to spend -- or less of a sense of guilt (or a political agenda) for not spending it. And while the economist definition of a depression or a recession may be measured by an economic tick here or a stock-market indicator there, for me, I'll believe it when I feel the winds of an economic boom blowing and that sense of energy and excitement of new possibilities on the horizon. Until then, we just have to fend off the damned cannibals that want to keep us trapped in a stagnant life raft. Does anybody have a motor and a compass?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Just Got Screwed by UPS: Hilarious Marketing Double-speak

So I was just in the process of trying to ship some marketing materials to Japan, hoping to reach offices in Tokyo in time for Semicon Japan. I dropped them off with the shipping department on Friday. Now, for those of you that haven't shipped overnight to Japan -- there is no overnight to Japan. Basically, the fastest you can get it there is two-day. All well and good.

Well, in this case, the shipping department selected UPS, but here's the funny part -- UPS offers two tiers of international shipping: UPS Worldwide Saver and UPS Worldwide Expedited. Now, if you were really, really wanting it to get there fast, which would you choose based on the name of the service?

Contrast that with Fed Ex. From slowest to fastest, their services are: FedEx International Economy, FedEx International Priority, and FedEx International Next Flight (which is basically, call them and they will get it there ASAP).

Bottom line: Don't choose UPS Worldwide Expedited expecting it to get there fast. In this case, FedEx wins in marketing and semantics -- I only wish that we'd used them instead. I think I press to switch all of my shipments to FedEx.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Social Media Engagement Comedy: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback

It's not unusual for businesses to monitor the web and social media looking for mentions. Companies like Dell, Comcast and Best Buy have noted social media customer service programs designed to engage people over social media, listened for disgruntled customers and making efforts to resolve issues before they turn into Dell Hell.

So along comes this story of Governor Sam Brownback and a Kansas teen. Here are a couple of the details from Talking Points Memo.
A Kansas teenager got in some trouble with her school for comments she posted on her Twitter account -- in which she claimed to have trashed Gov. Sam Brownback (R) to his face during a field trip.
And her post:
Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot
And then what happened:
But as it turns out, Brownback’s office watches Twitter for comments about him. Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag told the event organizers about the comment, “so that they were aware what their students were saying in regards to the governor’s appearance,” the Wichita Eagle reports, also adding: “We monitor social media so we can see what Kansans are thinking and saying about the governor and his policies.”

Brownback’s office flagged the tweet to the event organizers, who in turn passed the complaint on to Sullivan’s school. This got her called to the principal’s office:
Imagine if Dell or Comcast had the option of calling the principle at your school to 'discuss' your complaints about their product. Imagine if, instead of contacting you about your product problem or your complaint, they attempted to contact your boss or the company president. Instead of engagement for resolution, this event essentially amounts to hostile engagement.

Considering that I've since seen several reposts of this story, the whole thing blew up far beyond a simple negative post on Twitter. Lesson one of social media engagement should probably be obvious. Of course, politics is different than customer service. One might argue that, if this were a political post from an ideological zealot, there would be no way to change the dialog, to resolve the complaint.

But instead of reflecting on the politics or on the 'tell your principal' approach to the dialog, it's probably a worthwhile thought experiment to think about the possible outcomes and to try and how this should have gone. Imagine seeing this tweet come across your wire -- what would have been the right way to resolve this situation? Is there a way that you could improve the outcome? In some cases, this kind of media explosion might actually be a welcome result. Are you prepared to resolve issues that you face on social media?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moneyball, Big Data, Analytics, Correlation, and the Evolving World of Marketing

Recently, one theme that's been running through much of my thoughts is wrapped up in the ideas presented in Moneyball, the book and, more recently, movie starring Brad Pitt. And while I have not seen the movie or read the book (other than a short excerpt), I've listened to several extended interviews with Michael Lewis.

Moneyball is sort of about baseball, but what makes it interesting for marketing is the analytics theme. You're probably already familiar with the basic story -- A's general manager Billy Beane takes over and is forced into an extremely low payroll. In order to be competitive in a league where the New York Yankees can afford to spend more than three times his budget, Beane turns to analytics and statisics to look for undervalued players and player characteristics that can help win games on a budget.

There are a lot of interesting posts on Moneyball and business. Here's a good one, Moneyball – Lessons from Baseball for Voice of the Customer, that I thought pulled together a good summary. If you had to put it all together, you could boil it down into a core recipe:
  • Measure as much as possible
  • Log your data
  • Look for correlations (or non-correlations) -- find the numbers that matter
  • Question conventional wisdom
  • Learn to play by the numbers
Keeping stats isn't new. Baseball tracked batting average for years, and players were often listed by batting average. But the team with the best batting averages didn't always win. In the early days of the web, the big measure was clicks. If someone convinced you to post an ad on their site, they would then tell you how many clicks the ad had -- and that was considered the measure for success. Like tradeshow badge scanning leads, these numbers could easily be padded with tricks like cool give-aways. Clicks don't equal quality.

Modern marketing runs on web scale. With today's web, we interact constantly with the data engine, supplying test results that dwarf some of the some of the most sophisticated focus-group programs of the past. With tools like Google's Website Optimizer and A/B or Multivariate testing, even small businesses with modest marketing budgets have access to sophisticated experiment engines. But, just in case you're one of those old-school marketers and you missed the memo, a revolution has taken place and everything has changed.

Analytics versus Design
In the web world, we've been working with analytics for quite some time. One of my favorite stories about the power of analytics comes from a time when I was visiting Google a couple of years ago. There, they were showing off their Web Site Optimizer tool and talking about how they had looked at redesigning the page to look more like their Google Analytics page. However, when they ran the A/B and multivariate tests, they found that the new design didn't perform as well as the existing design.

Contrast that with this quote from a post about Fab on PandoDaily:
The difference was pronounced in a recent meeting Goldberg had with a Valley-based recruit for a technical position. Within in ten minutes of the interview the two were fighting. Goldberg asked what he’d do with the Fab homepage, and the recruit gave the usual spiel about A/B testing the layout to see which products made people click more, and how the data said they should be laid out on the page. He called the product placements on the front page “ads,” and Goldberg balked. They aren’t ads, he said, they’re editorial. “We aren’t trying to make people buy certain things, we want to guide them through a story,” he says.
So which is more important, Design or Analytics? Style or Stats? Perhaps, more importantly, can you find the right balance between the two?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Interesting Marketing Reading

I came across this site while doing a search for examples that I could use to explain why multiple contact channels could be confusing to customers. It turns out that it's easy to find information that explains the importance of multiple contact channels when it's "for customer support, contact us through our toll free number or email or on our Facebook page or Twitter." Unfortunately, finding an explanation for why it's confusing to say "for customer support, contact Bob at this number, Fred at this number, or Carol at this number" turns out to be a difficult search.

Needless to say, in the process, I came across this site, Customer Innovations. There are some great examples of the psychology of customer experience here. Dive in and you'll probably spend a while reading!

Friday, November 4, 2011

PR and the Superheated World of Political Zealots:

The radio show Marketplace recently ran this story of an Alabama small business owner who found himself rocketed into the public spotlight over comments that he made to the local Birmingham paper about the immigration law that Alabama had enacted. Based on the story, here's a quick synopsis of what happened:
  • A restaurant owner is quoted by the local paper expressing concerns about losing workers as a result of the newly enacted law
  • A local conservative radio host focuses attention on the story
  • The story goes viral on anti-immigration web sites
  • Restaurant is deluged with negative reviews and hate mail from around the country
On the one hand, this type of story should stand as a warning to anyone who faces commentary on a politically charged issue. To quote the Marketplace story:
The incident shows just how risky it can be for a business owner to take a stand on an issue. Stephen Craft is dean of the business school at the University of Montevallo, near Birmingham.
Stephen Craft: You hate to drive the voice of the small business out of public policy; however, for better or worse, it is predictable that there's going to be some repercussions when you weigh in on a controversial subject.
In short, you probably want to avoid speaking out on controversial issues. Of course, this assumes that you can identify "a controversial subject". But, as I wrote about in a previous post, sometimes you just find yourself in the midst of a controversial subject.

Being an expert or having unique access to the facts doesn't matter
Often these reactionary explosions have little to do with the material substance of the story. Consider this example from the ongoing saga of whether Michael Arrington is a racist. In essence, CNN approached AOL and Michael Arrington about an interview for a documentary on start-up accelerators and Silicon Valley. Here's Arrington's own synopsis:
- I was told by CNN it was about startup accelerators, not minorites.
- CNN then created a clip that highlighted me saying I didn’t know any black entrepreneurs, even though later in the conversation I corrected myself.
- CNN then wrote two articles, one of which was the top story on CNN last week, focusing on my race problems.
- Only a very few people have seen it. I haven’t, and I’m in the absurd position of not having seen it myself (to know how they edited the long version) and defending myself from people who also haven’t seen my interview.
Arrington's complete post on the repercussions of the CNN controversy are captured in this post, Racism: The Game. Both of the posts that I've linked to are worth reading, not just for the back story, but because it's important to understand that there is no uncontroversial position in this quagmire. Rather than looking at this story about substance, think of this as a media equivalent of profiting from credit default swaps during the sub-prime mortgage era. They have no interest in the public good, the facts, or right and wrong; they profit on the energy created from the controversy. What better way to cover a wildfire than to bring matches along with your cameras.

Managing PR in the Internet Era
In the traditional world of PR, both of these 'events that turned ugly' started out down the right path. Most businesses seek out media coverage and are thrilled when they are rewarded with it. In that same way, traditionally, you look to engage with the media when they contact you, to be responsive to their questions. But in today's superheated world of political zealots, your innocent responses and expressed expertise may be used as the spark for a viral content wildfire. You may want to think about strategies to avoid becoming that spark.

Consider the Michael Arrington racism saga as possibly the most telling example of a cautionary PR tale. These weren't off the cuff remarks, the CNN people contacted AOL's PR team. Arrington was a go-to media personality for them. Arrington has dealt with controversial topics (like the women in tech story) and ensuing fires at Techcrunch. This was not simply an example of a bad interview, of someone who stumbled on their words or unknowingly spoke out of turn. Nor is it the cautionary tale of someone being interviewed by The Daily Show, only to have strange questions and interview snippets used for comic effect. As Arrington says, "It was a “gotcha” and that’s that."

And while the Arrington story reminds us that expertise offers little protection, the story about the restaurant owner is a good reminder that it can happen to anyone, to any size business. Speak to the media or publish something, and you could find yourself at the center of a media scandal. Not to say that you should never say anything, never publish anything. But when it comes to managing PR in the Internet Era, like the classic line from an instruction manual states, "Care must be taken..."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Classes in the Workplace

For me, one of the interesting aspects of the Frank Rich piece that I previously linked to was bringing together the idea of surprise over the great sense of mourning at the loss of Steve Jobs coming from participants in the #Occupy Wall Street protests. As noted in the Rich piece, some media figures characterized this as hypocritical.
Yet those demonstrators who celebrated Jobs were not necessarily hypocrites at all—and no more anti-capitalist than the Bonus Army of 1932. If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius—in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on—was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured. Those in Palin’s “real America” may not be agitated about the economic 99-vs.-one percent inequality brought about by the rise of the financial sector in the past three decades, but, like class warriors of the left, they know that “financial instruments” wreaked havoc on their 401(k)s, homes, and jobs. The bottom line remains that Wall Street’s opaque inventions led directly to TARP, the taxpayers’ bank bailout that achieved the seemingly impossible feat of unifying the left and right in rage against government—much as Jobs’s death achieved the equally surprising coup of unifying left and right in mourning a corporate god.

That bipartisan grief was arguably as much for the passing of a capitalist culture as for the man himself. Finance long ago supplanted visionary entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling among America’s top-tier university students, just as hedge-fund tycoons like John Paulson and Steve Cohen passed Jobs on the Forbes 400 list. Americans sense that something incalculable has been lost in this transformation that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
Anti-Business, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-Success, Socialist, Communist and Un-American
Historically, and with particular energy during recent years, the political right has tried to apply a broad brush of anti-capitalism. During the Cold War, it was used to equate the values of the political opposition with the values of "the enemy." During the Obama administration, it's been used by the right as an avatar for "Obama is black" and to channel the political energy drawn from that. Rich's piece is, in part, an effort to debunk aspects of #OWS as they have been characterized in the media, with a key one being the idea that #OWS was anti-business.

What struck me about this was how it tapped into many aspects of workplace culture that we all deal with. For many people in the workplace, few things are more frustrating than managers or colleagues that receive accolades for not doing anything, collecting fat salaries and workplace kudos while skating by on the hard work and talent of others.

And while this perceived inequality may just be an aspect of our cultural DNA, the natural reaction of humans working in groups juxtaposed against the perceptions of self, there is also an underlying aspect that connects back to Steve Jobs versus Finance -- Steve Jobs did stuff. His success was built on the creation of things, not collecting money from some Bluto-style counting game (one for you, two for me, one for you, three for me).

Most of us have have little animosity toward those that work hard and to the success that comes through entrepreneurial efforts. This is part of what makes Tony Stark's character in Ironman likeable. Similarly, we have an established hero mythology for "the guy that rose up through the ranks to lead the organization" and it's implied understanding of the values and principles gained through participating in the mechanics of the business operation.

This is one of the more enticing prospective benefits of working in a start-up. While most organizations inevitably draw a certain amount of slackers and free-riders that surf the waves of bureaucracy, there's not really any room for dead wood in a start-up. It's also usually small enough that people can recognize strong contributors.

The Reality of Social Classes in the American Workplace
One point that I would counter the themes in Rich's piece is the notion of an absence of social class here in the US. Even here in Silicon Valley, there are entrenched social classes in the workplace.

Ask any admin if there is a hope of escaping their role. Try to find a job outside of the field or the industry that you have been working in and you will come face to face with an entrenched establishment. While social class may not be defined at birth, it's not far off from the career chip concept from Futurama.

In career social classes, your status typically doesn't advance more than 1-5% of your salary annually. Your class may be defined by token milestone adjectives like "senior", but realistic changes in your status tier often require changing companies. Often, attempting to break this career social class structure is real goal behind going back to school, relocation or changing jobs.

This is also the American Dream that lies at the heart of working at a start-up -- the opportunity to re-invent yourself, to escape the bounds of your existing career class and redefine yourself through your ability to respond to a new set of challenges -- the new frontier. One of the reasons that people like start-ups is that, because start-ups tend to have more needs than resources, there tends to be greater opportunities to expand the boundaries, to be entrepreneurial, to win success though initiative and innovation.

Hope Springs Eternal
As I noted in this previous post, it's unlikely that we'll see an Arab Spring in the business world. Nor is it likely that we'll see things go the way of the London riots. Don't expect a revolution or transformational class reform in the workplace. And while the odds are pretty good that, of the people dreaming of a more open career environment with less rigid social classes, few are anti-business. After all, the first step in the entrepreneurial dream comes from envisioning the possibility of a change, from thinking different.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Class Warfare and Occupy Wall Street - Frank Rich in New York Magazine

Here's a link to a great piece that I came across by Frank Rich published in New York Magazine. The Class War Has Begun is a nice look at how the classless nature of American society -- or at least our concept of social equality -- has affected class struggles since the great depression. There is a lot of food for thought in this. It's sparked a couple of interesting post ideas for me. Check it out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guidelines for New Reporters -- and Bloggers?

I did another run through Jay Rosen's PressThink blog the other day and I came across this great bit of content. This is Voice of San Diego’s “new reporter orientation” guidelines. In reflecting on the list, it's not just interesting blogger food for thought, it's an interesting set of guidelines for creative and product professionals.
Voice of San Diego: New Reporter Guidelines.

We only do something if we can do it better than anyone or if no one else is doing it.
* We must add value. We must be unique.

Three things to remember for each story:
* Context
* Authority
* Not just what is happening, but what it means

There is no such thing as objectivity.
* There is such thing as fairness.
* But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
* We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
* We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.

Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.
* We don’t have a dogmatic or ideological bent. But we do believe San Diego can and will do better.
* We can have better infrastructure, a healthier environment, a better education system, a responsive, efficient and transparent government, a better understanding of our neighborhoods’ challenges, a thriving economy and an ever-improving quality of life. If anything, this is our bias.

Be the expert.
* Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.
* No “he said, she said.”
* The day we write a headline that says: “Proposal has pros, cons” is the day we start dying.
* There is no such thing as 50/50 balance. There is a truth and we work our damndest to get there.
* Sometimes two viewpoints don’t deserve 50/50 treatment.
* Most of the time there aren’t two sides to something, anyways. There are 17. Who’s not being represented? If they’re not speaking up, how can you represent them?
* We don’t just “put things out there.” We’re not “only asking the question.”
* We don’t ask questions with our stories. We answer them.
* We don’t write question headlines, unless they’re so damn good that we can’t resist:
* We don’t do this: “Did City Official Take Bribe?”
* Or, to cite a recent example: “Did Wikileaks Hack Servers?”
* We’d maybe do this: “How Did a City Official Ended Up With Millions in Donations?”
* We’re not someone’s goddamn transcription service.
* They can relay their own news. In a world where leaders are able to communicate directly with their constituents very easily, we have to a.) make sense of what they say and b) find out the things they don’t want to say. It’s the only way to effectively use our limited resources.

Tell the truth.
* This means not being mealy mouthed and not being bias-bullied.
* Stand up to bias bullies. Tell them why you did something. Let them challenge you on it.
* If someone calls you biased, don’t be scared. Don’t dismiss it either. Reflect on it and answer with conviction.
* Don’t go quote-hunting for something you know to be true and can say yourself. Don’t hide your opinion in the last quote of a story.
* Take a stand when you know something to be true or wrong.

Care about your beat more than anyone else.
* It is your way to make San Diego a better place to live.

Focus on big problems
* David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has a quote that can be paraphrased this way: Journalism is good at solving small problems or taking small bites of a big problem. It’s not good at solving big problems.
* It’s easy as a journalist to take a stand against a six-figure salary. It’s easy to take a stand against an expensive meal on an expense report.
* Why do we take stands on those things and why are we afraid to take stands on bigger issues?

If you can’t find a good answer any of these three questions, drop the story:
* Why did I choose this story?
* Why will people care? (Not why should they care, but why will they care.)
* Why will people remember this story?

Avoid ‘churnalism’
* It’s not your job to have everything on your beat. It’s your job to have the best things.
* Don’t worry about getting scooped. Worry about not consistently making an impact.
* Love the title of this Columbia Journalism Review story: “The Hamster Wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere.”
* A quote: “The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.”
* Another: “You say, ‘Why not have it?’ I say, ‘Because it isn’t free.’ The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.”
* We are a small group with limited resource. Everything we do must [pay off for the users.]
* We can learn a lot from sports journalism. (That’s for a different day.) But here’s one great quote to always keep in mind from “Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.”

Avoid the news voice whenever possible.
* Sometimes it’s necessary.
* But you should never write a story [the way] you think journalists are supposed to write it. Write like you would if you were trying to get your friends interested in an email. Lighten up. Be creative. Have fun. Be conversational.

Bring us in the implications, not the event.
* So it’s not “Booze Ban Voted Through Council Committee.”
* It’s “Booze Ban Has One Final Hurdle Left.”

Don’t be boring. People don’t spend their free time on boring things.
* That’s it.

Don’t tell me stories about “critics” or “some”
* I don’t have a clue who “critics” or “some” are. But they managed to be the most quoted people on the planet.
* I need to know who they are for that viewpoint to carry any validity.
* And I need to know what, if any, financial stake they have in the issue. Honestly. (Just a sample of headlines in the news in a five-minute search this fall: “Some say Escondido police union’s flier crosses the line…” “Some say new constitution would solve state’s woes…” “Critics say Washing Oily Birds Is Wasteful…” “Observers Say Time Right for Santander IPO…”
* I’ve read stories that use blanket “critics” in different spots to describe people on the opposite ends of the arguments. It was so confusing.

Have fun! Be creative! Push the envelope!
* You don’t do this for the money. So let’s have some fun.
* Try something that’s never been tried before. Or try something that someone else did somewhere else. Don’t do a story just to do it. Or because it’s an interesting exercise.
* Think about what will impact people or policy makers. What will they want to read or what will force them to make a change?
* Be a student of today’s great journalistic innovations.
* Be a leader of today’s great journalistic innovations.
My sense is that there are a lot of publications that could benefit from applying these guidelines.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pervasive Politics: Right Wing Ideologs and Economic Tensions Invade Non-Political Discussions

The other day, I was reading a post about jobs in the online version of EE Times. The post reflects on the notion that, even in sophisticated manufacturing like the technology that comes to life in wafer fabs, the trend over the past forty years has been an exodus from the US. While technology has been going global, jobs have been going away from the US. The post then talks about an EE Times effort to try to build a list of what the top jobs for the future are with these trends in mind.

What struck me about the post was not the flavor or the content, it was the comments. The usual political rhetoric surrounding who's to blame for the economy quickly bubbled to the surface. It's not the first time -- comments on posts about Solyndra were more focused on themes of political corruption and questions about the validity of climate change.

I was similarly struck by a similar experience surrounding's Dreamforce conference. At Dreamforce, they connect you through a Chatter application that enables you to engage with all of your fellow conference attendees and to follow conference threads. One of the keynote events featured Marc Benioff discussing technology with Eric Schmitt. In addition to his current role at Google and past roles at Sun and Novell, Schmitt has also provided technology guidance to the Obama administration -- technology, jobs, and the potential solutions to the ailing economy was one of the topics that came up. You could almost feel a tense ideological discomfort coming from some of the audience in Moscone South that afternoon, and that tension boiled over into the Chatter stream in days that followed. Again, no comments on Schmitt's reflections on the challenges of a hardware business or a market leader from his days at Sun. Instead, the comments were about how awful it was to bring politics into a business conference.

On the same day when I read the EE Times post, I happened to catch this segment of NPR's Marketplace Money radio program. It's a discussion with commentator, David Frum about his decision to step back from providing commentary on the program. The long and short of his discussion is that, while he still considers himself a conservative, he doesn't feel like he represents "the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days". Why? Here's how he explained:
We have got a sick patient -- the American economy. And we can see that the patient in the next bed -- the European economy -- he's looking even sicker and there's a real risk of contagion. And what I think we have to do at a moment like this: Have a very, very open creation of money and credit. This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here's where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn't necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree.
In short, I think this underscores that sense that ideology and rhetoric have overshadowed analysis and reason. The take-away: if you get two experts to agree on what the solution is but the solution doesn't match your beliefs, then you need to find another expert.

The worst aspect of this superheated ideological energy is that it bodes poorly for the prospect of real, corrective action. To understand just how bad it is, consider this great article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about California's struggling economy and a reflection on the Schwarzenegger years. A colleague recently forwarded me this link after we spent some time talking about statistical analytics and Wall Street finance. But if you had any doubts about how bad our economic situation is, consider this quote from the article:
San Jose has the highest per capita income of any city in the United States, after New York. It has the highest credit rating of any city in California with a population over 250,000. It is one of the few cities in America with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, but only because its bondholders have the power to compel the city to levy a tax on property owners to pay off the bonds. The city itself is not all that far from being bankrupt.
These are real, complex problems. Put in product terms, these are critical issues. We need corrective action. We need solutions. Put in Frum's terms, the doctors tell us that our sick patient needs medicine -- but there is still a vocal segment that insists on faith healing or that sickness is divine will and some sort of grand moral failure. Unfortunately, in many of our business and communication channels, analytical discussions of solutions are often being taken hostage by this ideology and political rhetoric, by the voice of anti-science, anti-reason, and anti-analysis. It leaves you wondering whether as a society, we're going to let be able to prevent these macro forces from running everything into the ground.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Netflix versus the Content Owners

In other amusing business news, we see the return of comic antics of Netflix, having gone through their midlife crisis where they decided to separate from their long-term relationship with DVDs and run away with their hot young streaming business, they've now decided to get back together with their DVDs and work things out. Of course, when I see stuff like this, I'm often reminding of this presentation on Netflix corporate culture which I would loosely summarize as, "as you get bigger, you are faced with greater chaos, but instead of creating processes to manage this chaos, we focus on hiring more smarter people who can overcome these issues." Is this a manifestation of a Wile E. Coyote strategy?

Mark Suster has some interesting thoughts on the whole thing in this post, Netflix Redux: Is It Ever OK to Fire Your Customers? For me, I think that the bigger question is how Netflix, the company that kicked Blockbuster's ass and seemed to be poised for a leading role in the online content distribution world a year ago, has stumbled so severely. Now, they seem to be leading a comic dance into irrelevance, piling misstep onto toe-crushing misstep. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, for an organization that has invested so much in recommendations and understanding their customers, their recent moves seem disconnected and out of touch with their base.

As bad as these recent moves have been, I don't think it's all Netflix's fault. Unfortunately for the Netflix team, they are sort of like where Apple might be in the content world if the iPod didn't become the market leading digital music player, if there wasn't an iPhone or an iPad -- or at least if there were serious competitors to those devices. Consider:

Netflix beat Blockbuster through their long tail model and efficient customer service. Even when Blockbuster tried to play catch-up with long-tail, no-term rentals, Netflix still overwhelmed them with a ton of momentum from frustrated customers used to the movie rental status quo.

As the world's largest DVD warehouse for rent, Netflix was still able to balance long tail customers with new release customers, providing an adequate balance for both. But then, the movie studios and the content providers decided that they wanted a larger piece of Netflix's action. Forcing the deal to make Netflix and Redbox delay new releases for one month was the first strike in the crippling of Netflix. While Netflix probably expected that it wouldn't impact their business significantly since so much of their rental was long tail, I suspect that the underlying assumption that a new release was not immediately available cut into Netflix's traffic -- imagine if all of the Twitter posts that you could see were from 30 days in the past. I know that, as a user, I quit trying to time my DVD returns in order to ensure a copy of that movie that I missed in the theater and really wanted to see.

Blue Ray turned out to be a problem as well. I signed up for the Blue Ray program, paying an extra couple of dollars a month -- only to struggle with the realization that only one device in the house played Blue Ray DVDs. Wanna watch that movie on your laptop before you go to sleep? No way.

All of this lead to a pretty serious disconnect with Netflix's DVD rental service. The last couple of DVDs/Blue Rays that I had sat around here for nearly two months. Admittedly, work was busy and a whole host of other excuses (thankfully, no late fees), but think about the disconnect. I had over fifty movies in my queue, some from a year back. And when I thought about watching a movie -- or advancing one from my queue -- it wasn't the one that they were hyping on television... I couldn't watch that for another month or two. Instead of working together, the great entertainment marketing engine had fractured to the point where none of them were getting my attention.

Of course, there was always streaming -- Netflix did a great job of implementing streaming movies on my iPhone. It worked great, and for a time, I actually found myself watching a bunch of video content on my phone. Unfortunately, their streaming library (like my time) was limited. While it was a nice supplement to lunch, it wasn't holding up as my go-to content provider.

And this is where you get into that whole "like Apple" situation. Early on in the iTunes world, the content providers agreed to Apple's license terms because Apple was going up against free. It was all well and good until Apple started to handle a significant volume of their content traffic -- suddenly, they wanted a bigger piece of the action and $.99 per song wasn't good enough.

As Netflix became the go-to source for movie rentals -- and customers sat around with all of this streaming movie access to play with (and let's not forget how Netflix had secured client relationships with so many hardware vendors), people began using their streaming services. Sure, there were other providers and other models, but with Apple you had to pay to watch and Hulu was a new service that you had to try. With Netflix you already had an account with streaming enabled, all you needed to do was try it -- you were already online, managing your account. What's more, in terms of adoption, all they needed to do was to function adequately; after all, it was already included in the cost of your Netflix account (This is also a source of the problems they experienced when they changed their pricing structure. Instead of just including streaming, Netflix essentially forced all of their existing customers to remake a purchase decision over something they had never really decided to purchase in the first place). 

As the amount of streaming (and their success) increased, others in the value chain started looking for a larger piece of the action. From the cable people like Comcast who watched as Netflix ate their bandwidth pipe and kicked the ass of their sucktastic OnDemand product to the content providers who realized that people would actually watch streaming content instead of Yet Another Real American Lip Sync and Dance Idol -- or any craptacular network show overstuffed with commercials. In some ways, streaming the content long tail turned out to be an effective competitor against the broadcast of the 'syndicated' content archive over 700 channels of commercial television. 

It was at this point that Apple said, "if you don't like our terms and want to sell your content to iPod users, fine -- go sell your content to them through some other channel. We go through iTunes, but you can see if you get your customers to go through some other channel before they go through iTunes. You're plan might work, but we'll bet that people will buy more through us. These are our terms -- your choice." Hardware and infrastructure provided leverage against the content forces. Unfortunately, Netflix didn't have that infrastructure to use as leverage. Netflix versus Hulu? Netflix versus a network-focused content channel? In this war, the platform didn't matter. No leverage, only customer base.

In the end, it will be interesting to see how all of these content distribution channels shake out. I suspect that, as with their relationship with Apple through iTunes, many of the content owners underestimate the value of the Netflix software portion of the distribution pipe. However, it may be too late -- content cost increases and price plan changes may have already cost Netflix it's leadership position in the market. In this case, it's not only the coyote's fault, the content owners at Acme keep selling him solutions that blow up in his face.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Remembering Steve Jobs

Since the day that it was announced that he was permanently stepping down as CEO, I've been trying to find words that seemed to do justice to all that is and all that has been Steve Jobs. As someone who never met him or dealt with him personally, it might seem a bit silly to express some grand sense of loss. And yet, as it sometimes happens when moments like this come around, you find yourself rather encumbered with an exceptional and overwhelming sense of loss.

As a kid in Palo Alto back in the late seventies, I remember attending a local computer fair (probably 2nd West Coast Computer Fair, 1978 San Jose) with one of my friends from school. I remember the Pet computer. I remember Apple. Of course, life being what it is, I found myself being relocated back to the south and it wasn't until my senior year that my high school got several Apple IIs and I found myself programming them to solve calculus problems. After that, my on-again off-again relationship with technology kept me mostly away from computers until 1989 when I was introduced to the Apple Macintosh in a document design class. Who could have guessed that this little device would be such a force in the threads of my life.

My instructor for that document design class was physically disabled, but the Macintosh included settings that enabled him to work with it -- something that I don't think was available on the PC at the time. I remember being awed by this technology platform that wasn't just technology -- it changed lives, brought hope, and enabled the future.

Looking back to the PC/Mac wars, as Mac users we often faced inquisitors and skeptics -- PC users pushing the idea that a computer was a computer, that there was no art, no design, no meaning, no purpose. The technology was just a tool. They called us the "cult of Mac", religious zealots dreaming of some crazy ideal, duped into buying a crappy product at three times the cost of a low-cost PC.

In that great culture war, Steve Jobs wasn't just some brilliant marketing guy at the head of a global business, he was Joan of Arc. He wasn't just selling products, he seemed to understand something deeper -- that the essence of what we were dealing with here, if done right, could be transformational. We could change lives, make the world a better place, think different. Philosophy and principles, not just technology at the lowest common denominator. His part was cornerstone, it was the foundation, and it was the focal point for where we were headed. In this mission, we were a community, a family.

Years ago, as my mother suffered through a painful process of dying of cancer, we endured many months of draining decline. By the time she passed, the inevitable had long since been written and the painful conclusion seemed more like a welcome release than a dramatic loss. Tragic. Sad. But finally, relief that the suffering was over, that it would get no worse.

This is where I found my thoughts going when they announced Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO. Amidst all of the other events in my life and the current events in the world, a part of my thoughts were with Steve Jobs and his family.

Steve Jobs changed the world. He made our world a better place. You probably can't throw a rock without hitting someone who's live he has touched -- and improved. I never met Steve Jobs nor dealt with him personally, but -- like many -- I surfed some monster waves from the ripples he created. And I feel a tremendous sadness in his passing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

#OccupyWallStreet Versus Astroturf: Jefferson Airplane and Hearing The Sound Of Real Grass Roots

My original thoughts for this post started a couple of months ago, but the coverage surrounding the #OccupyWallStreet protests re-energized the idea. As you listen to the media talking about the #OccupyWallStreet protests, you keep hearing a couple of themes being echoed -- small, lacks organization, lacks a single voice, lacks a goal, lacks focus.

To a certain extent, you can contrast aspects of this to the coverage of the birth of the "Tea Party", which seemed to start with a host of generally focused messages, bus tours, and press exposure, even while the actual number of people in the crowds were rather lackluster. And yet, despite connections to conservative political organizations like FreedomWorks, many in the media characterized the Tea Party Movement as a grass roots effort.

Part of the problem -- and it's inherent to the nature of astroturf -- is that it can be difficult for people to tell the difference between a grass roots voice and an astroturf voice, between an authentic crowd and a sponsored crowd. While there are organizations and sites that attempt to drill down into media campaigns and look for astroturf roots, even if you're interested in those kinds of issues, you probably don't go check those sites regularly. 

In today's media culture, it's easy to forget what a crowd sounds like. From television shows like American Idol to the musical world of Autotune, modern music is usually harmonious and on-key. Even crappy-in-real-life performers can go into the recording studio and receive enough audio processing to make them sound like they have talent. Modern audiences expect harmony. They expect orchestration.

Contrast this with the Jefferson Airplane. Jefferson Airplane songs often sound like a collection of dissonant voices trying to shout over one another. They are loosely harmonious yet packed with discord. On occasion, they seem to come together to a chorus, but even in those moments they're clearly composed of separate voices. But don't think that this is simply the result of a bad sound system or poor live performances -- listen to several live performances and you'll see the same songs performed in a similar style. This is protest music. This is the sound of a crowd. This is what grass roots sounds like.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tradeshows, Show Labor, and Unions: Customer Service and the Politics of Collective Bargaining

In the current political climate, it's not hard to find examples of the war between corporate-funded anti-union political efforts and the besieged unions that they target. Recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and with the battle over FAA funding highlight a few examples. For Republicans and their corporate sponsors, focused efforts on scuttling any entities that enable an organized opposition is a strategic theme and unions are frequent targets because they usually fit that description. And while many Democratic candidates seem happy to receive money and support from unions in a "the enemy of my enemy" theme, few are willing to battle for unions in the same way that they might have once done in the past.

Unions have a branding problem. While I don't have poll data or numbers, I can say with some confidence that from wherever you are right now, you probably can't through a rock without hitting someone who has a negative opinion of unions or, at the very least, can tell you a negative story with labor unions as a theme. Think about the amount of negativity surrounding organizations that helped establish the principle of worker's rights, paid time off and the standard work week.

For anyone in the marketing world who deals with tradeshows, the stories are legendary. Union electricians are required to screw in a lightbulb or plug in a computer with astronomical charges and one-hour minimums. Want to display large capital equipment -- forget about it; the cost of drayage (unloading it from the truck and transporting it to your booth) will be more than shipping it across the country -- even with gas at $4 a gallon. You also hear all about the cities where the unions are bad -- Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco -- and about how much better it is to exhibit in right-to-work areas across the south.

There are many rules in place for safety and predictability -- you probably wouldn't want some sales/part-time marketing guy driving a forklift, running a drill, or connecting high-voltage electrical circuits. But safety rules often just become clubs -- clueless sales guys are capable of plugging in a computer monitor and even seasoned tradeshow veterans who know the rules can find themselves sandbagged on the floor, held hostage by an on-the-spot rule interpretation, then jacked for anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars of charges. Sometimes these experiences can feel more like organized crime than helpful customer service.

The Internet is Killing Tradeshows
Unions are no more responsible for the death of the tradeshow than they are for killing the daily paper. The Internet has supplanted tradeshows as the vehicle of choice for information gathering, customer service, and engagement. Why travel? Why display? ROI is the bottom line and, no matter how important we might think that it is to have face-to-face experiences with customers, it's harder and harder to justify the expense against shrinking ROI.

Scan the industry and you'll find few tradeshows that are actually growing in size and fewer exhibit companies supporting those events. Even on the expo services end, Freeman bought Champion. Practically speaking, all of this consolidation also means fewer jobs. Like my friends in the printing industry faced, it doesn't matter if you are really good, there's just less work out there.

Jobs versus Efficiency
Year's ago while working at a tradeshow in Chicago, we had one union guy who had been working there long enough that his son was also there working. He told us the story about how, years before, the shop steward had chewed him out for using a rachet-drive tool. "You're costing us jobs," the steward had told him.

Economists might point to this as being one of the challenges that encompasses the labor transaction -- when you are paying someone by the hour to complete a task, they make more money if the task takes longer. There is no incentive for the task to be completed quickly. I once had one show laborer take a full eight-hour day to assemble one Ikea bookshelf -- if all of their products required similar assembly times, Ikea would be out of business.

The costs and hassles associated with these aspects of tradeshows is part of the reason why most companies will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting caught in that web. And with fewer companies participating or scaling down their presence, the macro effect for labor pool on the floor is fewer opportunities to make money. This can translate into squeezing the available opportunities even more as if the remaining geese could produce the same amount of gold eggs as the once prolific flock.

Back to the Branding Problem
The efficiency disincentive inherent to billable hours is a key element in the labor union branding issue. Like all of those little customer service issues that have plagued Dell and Comcast, these negative customer experiences with labor unions become viral, word of mouth brand-busters and actually transcend hourly labor to affect collective bargaining as a broader brand. Teachers, for example, don't typically operate on an hourly model, but the collective bargaining Teacher's Union often is often connected to broader brush negative characterizations. Instead of being able to ride a technical expertise brand image or even a socially responsible brand, labor unions are all saddled with an anti-productive, anti-cooperative mantle.

Conservative politicians and anti-union corporate interests like to pitch competition as the only viable solution for the billable hours dilemma. In essence, they push the idea that, instead of being charged for high-priced rigger and the use of the automated lift, all you really need is to find a guy who is hungry enough that he is willing to climb up a 25' rickety ladder at the lowest price.

While this of mindset has eroded our economy and sent most physical labor jobs overseas constantly seeking the lowest wage with the least worker's protections, most of us that are involved in tradeshows aren't interested in destroying the labor market or asking people to do things that we wouldn't do ourselves. In his post, Stop Blaming the Unions for Trade Show Failures in Chicago, Keith Johnston of PlannerWire writes,
I have heaped a fair share of blame on unions for their part in the rising costs of trade show exhibiting for a long time, In fact, I have a posts where I call out all of the sides to rethink how they are working together at McCormick Place here in Chicago. 
I will lay blame where it is due and now, it is not the unions, not by a long shot.
It's a good post (and a good blog) -- worth a read. But while costs are certainly a contributing factor in the dying tradeshow industry, costs are not really at the heart of this labor union brand problem.

So what is the answer?
In our current political and media environment, ideological zealotry often drives message on a foundation of perceptual relativism over substance. Science, facts and tangible experiences often come up short. For some percentage of the anti-union crowd, facts or amazing customer experiences will never change their position. Short of the public humiliation associated with being caught on record embarrassingly booing police, firefighters or some other public servants that they've previously lauded as heroes, these people are probably a lost cost. But what about the rest of us.

Imagine a transformation of the customer service relationship on a much smaller scale. Imagine what might happen if a tradeshow was able to negotiate a flat fee for all show labor and services. Imagine if, instead of being billed on an hourly rate, you could just get help when you needed it, perhaps more than you needed, but it didn't matter how long it took (assuming that it was completed before the show started). Imagine if the show management was able incentive the workers on the floor to reduce the amount of work that needed to be done on the floor and that shows with less work were more profitable. Imagine how this might change the customer experience.

Early engagement. Rapid resolution. These are the kinds of techniques employed by businesses that have struggled with customer service issues -- imagine how they might be implemented in tradeshow labor. Would it solve the branding problem? Maybe not completely, but it might be an interesting step forward. Or at least an interesting thought experiment.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Geico Guinea Pigs - Awesome Multi-dimensional Ad Campaign

Because they run so many ads, most of us have seen at least a few Geico commercials. Some of their thematic concepts can be rather tired and they seem to have no hesitation about continuing to ride them into the ground. But when it comes to advertising campaigns with creative ideas and humorous concepts, they also seem willing to take some chances.

They have a new Guinea Pig ad that had me laughing when I first saw it broadcast. Sure, it used the tired old talking animal approach, but it took it and used it in some different ways. It was altogether unexpectedly good. Good enough that it got a word-of-mouth recommendation from me to my girlfriend. It got even better when she pulled up the YouTube video on her iPhone -- and they included a link to download the Geico Guinea Pig game for her phone. I know what you're thinking -- the game is going to be really crappy, right? Wrong. It was actually a reasonably well done little casual game -- surprisingly well done. We were suitably impressed.

So, hat-tip to the team at Geico and here's a little word-of-mouth viral push: a link to the Geico Guinea Pigs YouTube video -- good marketing!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Arrington Has A New Blog

There's not much point in speculating on the direction that it may go, but Michael Arrington's new blog, Uncrunched, has launched and the comments are totally worth a read.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Job Application Process and Marketing - The Hidden Message Behind the Differences Between the Front Door and the Back Door

Just the other day, I happened to come across a job listing with this listed as the application process that you must follow or, "Applications that do not adhere to the format will be ignored." According to the job post, you need to send an email to a specified address with a specific subject line (I've stripped that information out in order to provide a layer of anonymity). Here is how they specify that the rest of the email should be formatted:
- In the first line of the e-mail include your education details
- In the next 3 lines include your last 3 job titles, employers and duration
- In the following line include your desired salary
- Include 3-5 bulleted points listing your top strengths and your top measurable achievements, please be concise
- Attach a writing sample
- Attach a summarized one page resume -- preferably in .PDF format
Now it's not unusual for businesses to look for ways to screen candidates, but this one struck me as really pushing that envelope. I began to reflect on the entire approach, what it said about the position, about the company and about the process.

Why Would You Ask A Potential Employee to Structure an Application This Way?
The most obvious answer might be to establish a screening process that reduced the volume of submissions. Of course, the question that this points to is, what volume of submissions do you need to hit for it to be too much? At one end of the spectrum, you probably have numbers like Google, while at the other, the number may be zero or one. Even with the volume of resumes that they receive, Google doesn't force candidates to jump through hoops like this.

When it comes to demand generation marketing and the front door of the company, most businesses have strategies for addressing inquiries and screening leads. While web-to-lead forms may provide a low-pass filter that helps increase the likelihood of a lead qualification, we also use techniques like lead scoring to further automate the filtering process. What's more -- if you scan enough leads (assuming a certain amount of data beyond basic contact info), you can develop your own internal sense of scoring pretty quickly. Long story short, if the goal of this "structured" method of pre-screening is to streamline the process, the underlying message seems to speak more to laziness or lack of capability on the part of the reviewer than an actual process improvement. That's probably not a message that a business would want to communicate.

Another objective of this process structure might be an effort to escape the automated loop of volume job submissions. By asking candidates to do something different, this might filter out candidates that only had a casual interest in the position or make bulk applications -- application spam. But the corresponding question that you have to ask is, if you need the candidate to escape the existing application ritual, is it necessary to create such an extensive list of requirements? Stepping through a web-based form could achieve the same goal. Clearly, there is some deeper motive at play.

Please Be Concise
I think that the most telling aspect of this requirements list is the statement, "please be concise." The statement, along with many of the accompanying requirements, carries the tone of a school teacher setting down homework requirements for students. And it's just as pretentious as that college instructor who said it the last time. Layered underneath the words is the message, "our arbitrarily imposed structure is more important than you."

Clearly, this is not a job where you have the opportunity to transform their operations. This is not a position where they expect to be awed by their candidates. This is role that will execute on a specific set of parameters as though they were working the line in a factory. Creative ideas? Alternative approaches? We have no use for them here. Did I mention that this list of requirements is for a marketing role?

Communications and Your Customer
Imagine if this set of communications rules were customer facing. Instead of job requirements, imagine if you were to use this kind of framework or phrasing in your RFP. Of course, that hypothetical doesn't quite match because to make it truly similar, you would need an existing standard for RFPs, but then force customers to restructure their existing materials to match your RFP format. The whole prospect seems ludicrous. So, why would it be okay for prospective employees, for potential contributors to the health and well-being of your business?

When the economy is bad, some businesses treat is as a license to push employees harder, to drive the business on the desperate sweat of workers who can't afford to demand better. In a market where jobs are rare and your flexibility to change is limited, some use it as an opportunity to make people lick boots and jump through flaming hoops, they promote fear and profit from it.

If you're a marketing professional and you see a job listing like this, I would suggest that you close the listing and walk away. The language that they use suggests that they aren't open to new ideas -- your work here noteworthy, just another homework assignment. No creativity. No fun. Just work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Real World Gamification

I came across this interesting story of gamification yesterday. It's an interesting read.

AIDS Puzzle Solved By Computer Gamers

Techcrunch, Soap Operas, Start-ups, Exit Strategies and Hunter Thompson - This Ain't The Bubble of Love

If you missed the news -- or failed to Tivo your soaps -- the drama surrounding the staff at Techcrunch has continued through the week and into the weekend. Sunday morning while going through my usual blog-reading ritual, I came across this story, TechCrunch Writer Skewers New Editor In Resignation Letter, over on Talking Points Memo. Anyone that's been watching already had some idea of where this was going, it was simply a matter of which writer.

Here's a link to Paul Carr's last post, I’m Leaving TechCrunch. Here’s Why. It's worth a read. If you're into the soap opera, you can also read Erik Schonfeld's, Paul, I Accept Your Resignation. The whole thing is probably the best example of a Silicon Valley gossip story since Valleywag was gobbled up.

Still, I found Paul Carr's piece interesting and inspiring on a number of levels. This post isn't so much about the current events at Techcrunch. Let's start with brief synopsis of the big picture story of the Techcrunch events:
  • Guy founds start-up based on unique product and experiences unexpected success. 
  • Start-up grows and grows, hiring people and expanding their audience.
  • Eventually, a larger company sees that success and thinks that they need them some of that money.
  • The big company eats the little company and two things happen:
    - The people at the little company realize that it is not a little company any more
    - The people at the big company run around saying, "Oh my god, oh my god, can you believe what they were doing? We have to fix this."
  • Big company people try to fix, little company people become former, and the combination makes that which was acquired not be that any more. 
In essence, this is little more than a cycle of life in the world of start-ups and M&A. Within this cycle, you'll also see the people from the little company -- people who have lived and breathed the birth of the little company entity -- passionately morn the demise of the little company. These people have tasted the fire and have dreamed of changing the world. They have seen the world of possibility.

What Does It Mean When You Buy A Blog?
So what does it mean when you buy a blog -- do you buy a writer, do you buy a voice, do you buy an audience or maybe even a community? Is it similar to what News Corp. got when they purchased MySpace? Is it what Time Warner got in it's deal with AOL? Perhaps it's like buying a cast of puppets, dreaming of all of the new ways that you can use them to make money, then pissing off the puppeteer and pushing him to quit -- even if you own the puppets, do you really own the characters, the voices, or the show?

It's hard to fault the founders of a start-up for finding an exit strategy and a payout. Finally, there is a financial return on all that work, all of those hours invested. Perhaps it stabilizes the business, perhaps it brings the infrastructure that you need -- there are many reasons that it may be a good idea, strategic justifications for the choice. But for the big company with the fat wallet, the equation is different. I think that I would have a hard time recommending the purchase of a web media property or the idea of 'buying' a relationship. Sure there are a host of meta-justifications that you can use -- it will look good to investors, expand our market opportunities, open a whole new world of consolidated advertising options, etc. -- but you can't buy the audience.

Paul Carr's post opens with a quote from Hunter S. Thompson. Full disclosure, I've always been a fan of Thompson and invested in many of his published works. It goes without saying that I'm not the only fan of Thompson. As with successful start-ups, there have been many that have attempted to mirror Thompson's style, to clone his formula -- maybe make it gonzo journalism in the cloud or gonzo journalism for web 2.0 -- then expect success. A common formula for the Thompson wannabes is lots of drink, maybe some drugs, a dash of crazy, then maybe try to write something. But try as they might, it's never the same.

Like many start-up guys, I think Hunter Thompson carried a certain amount of loathing for the take-over and monetization of the culture that was before it was 'The Summer of Love.' As a cultural record, gonzo journalism like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is deeply nuanced. Much of the joy and the humor is only really available if you understand the history, if you understand the culture, if you are the audience. For the rest of the world, it's just some silly story about some crazy guy who takes a lot of drugs. Inspiration? Or perhaps it's similar The Man Show once Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla left.

In life, in history, there are moments. They last for the blink of an eye and then they are gone. Even Bob Dylan is amazed by the things that he wrote when he was younger. But it's not a recipe. Sure, you can look around and find an amazing amount of genius cooking right here in the bay area -- the perfect environment to culture sourdough and free-form ideas -- but you don't get there just by being here. So while the world imagines a bay area like The Social Network or they dream of their 2.0 riches, perhaps they will sit back and think, "what we need is an office like Yelp with a beer keg and an Xbox room". We were just outside of Atherton when the VC funding kicked in...

Over the past day or two, I've found myself occasionally skimming through the Techcrunch headlines and bylines, looking for something... toothsome. Instead, what I've felt most strongly is a sense of absence. Something is gone now. Sure, I've seen a couple of posts from people who were theoretically in the drama, some from people who didn't appear to be involved -- but there is a meta-layer of energy that's gone.

And for Paul Carr, I wish him well and I'll probably follow him on Twitter. For Paul I would borrow this quote from Where the Buffalo Roam.
Well I guess if I had to swear one way or another, I'd say Lazlo wasn't insane. He just had very strange rhythms. But he stomped on the terra. Lord Buckley said that. It's hard to say he got what he deserved, because he never really got anything, at least not in this story. And right now, this story is all we have ... It's sad. But what's really sad is it never got weird enough for me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Branding Pivot: The Ladders Moves Away From Only $100,000+ Focus

In my bulk emails this morning, I received an email from The Ladders tagged with the subject line, "Bye-bye!" A quick review noted that they're abandoning their "only $100K+ jobs" focus, instead focusing on operating a curated board. Here's a clip from the email:
We're expanding, and today we say "bye-bye" to helping only those over $100,000 and "hello" to helping all career-minded professionals. TheLadders now takes all salary levels and shows the right jobs to the right person. So while we're saying goodbye to our narrower segmentation, we are not saying "goodbye" to keeping your job search on TheLadders relevant, focused, and targeted.

So, for example, you won't see jobs that pay half (or double) what you're currently making. You won't see jobs outside of your field — we still won't show sales jobs to finance professionals, or marketing jobs to technologists. And we won't be letting in scammy jobs, work-from-home schemes, or commission-only opportunities — we'll still be vetting every job and every recruiter before we allow them into our community.
I never liked the $100K+ positioning myself. I always felt like it put too much emphasis on numbers and not enough emphasis on the quality of the candidate or the job. My sense is that now, when the economy is so crappy and the job outlook so bleak, that finding any fish in the opportunity pond is a hunt. Still, other than a slight scent of despair, do you really feel like this expansion of their audience does anything for you? If you were an established customer under the old $100K+ umbrella, do you feel a greater sense of connection now that they have expanded their marketing circle?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Abortion Laws, NPR, Media Bias, Politics, Journalism and More - Some Light Weekend Reading

While scanning through some of my usual blog reading, I came across this post on Crooks and Liars. 'We Have No Idea Who's Right' - NPR Passes The Buck On Abortion Legislation Coverage and Jay Rosen Passes It Right Back, by Susie Madrak.
Jay Rosen's blog is Pressthink, and he's on the journalism faculty at New York University. (He's also the former chairman of the Department.) When he critiques your coverage, people tend to pay a lot of attention. Read his detailed take down of the NPR abdication of their journalistic responsibilities over a story about abortion regulation, and his response to the "both sides are mad at us, so we got it right" thinking that passes for actual journalism:
This led me first to the full post on Pressthink, We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR. It's a really interesting read. What I think you'll find in the piece is that it does a great job of elaborating and clearly defining many of the issues that people like Jon Stewart complain about when they criticize cable news -- only, in this case, Rosen is structured and comprehensive without pausing for laughs. It's a long piece, but after reading it, I went on the explore the rest of Pressthink.

My next stop was on this post, Why Political Coverage is Broken. It's another excellent post. But don't think we've just gone for a deep dive down the politics rabbit hole, there are some great marketing aspects to this piece. One concept that he touches on in the piece is the idea of politics as an inside game. Here's a snapshot.
When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.
He also connects that with a couple of other themes, one being what he labels the cult of savviness. Here's his description.
In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
What I find interesting with this idea -- and his connecting it to politics -- is that one aspect of modern marketing also revolves around this insider / savvy approach to connecting with your base audience. From tech media and rumors about new products and roadmaps to fashion marketing and even the whole idea of restaurants, foodies and 'elite' patrons, there is an aspect of modern marketing that involves building an insider community. In essence, this insider-elite is community building, but it's something more.

In the case of politics, this perspective makes it easier for us to see the aspects of PR and business that are used to sell us candidates, legislation, and political positions. In some of the examples highlighted by Rosen, you get the feeling that, rather than being engaged in democracy and real efforts to improve our society, we are left with the meta-data of politics and something less than even the lowest common denominator. Can the same be said for products and services that find life through the insider game?

For years, critics of Apple have approached Apple product users as cult-like, blindly purchasing Apple products without regard to feature set or functional performance. The 'technology pundit' class of the media has promoted ideas like, Apple really needs to make a netbook or they are doomed; Apple is working on an oversized iPhone to compete with netbooks and it needs to be revolutionary or it won't sell and they are doomed; Apple introduced the iPad, it's ho-hum, it lacks features, and it will never sell; how is Apple's iPad going to keep up with the features of the XYZ product, they are doomed. The simple truth is that, in the world of products, there is an absolute quality that exists outside of the marketing and PR meta-data. While the first wave of promotion may lead to crowds around a product or a service, consumers ultimately build loyalty and repeat business based on actual performance. While a crappy, over-hyped movie may open to crowds, they usually loose audience quickly.

All in all, the Pressthink blog has some interesting content with some interesting insights that may make your marketing wheels spin. Take a look -- you may find yourself with a weekend of reading material.