Friday, February 25, 2011

More PR Follies on Techcrunch

I always find these amusing, and they also seem like worthwhile cautionary tales to share. If you're following Techcrunch, you might have already seen this one.

Seriously, Timothy Johnson, Your Idea Of How To Do PR For Clients Is A Joke

Surfing, Silicon Valley-Style: What is the Lifespan of Your Business?

When you travel and people hear that you're from California, they usually imagine Baywatch -- oceans, beach, and surfing. Here in Northern California, the ocean is cold and the surf is 30 minutes away or more, depending on traffic. Instead, most of us here ride waves of business driven by cycles of technology and the economy. From semiconductors in the 80s to the Internet era in the 90s and on to today's social, streaming, web 2.0 wave, you can see the rising forms grow, carry us, and finally break over time.

Once and a while I'm called on to help an MBA student work through some project assignment. Typically, the assigned case study projects require some historical analysis of a business decision at a select moment in time. The funny thing about history is that your knowledge of the broader story means that your decision can't really be unbiased. Imagine an example of a case study for a pen computing platform set back in the 1990s. Regardless of the actual issues presented, knowing that pen computing will fail, doesn't the smart decision include a common denominator of "take the money and run"?

Most companies have a lifespan. Often in calculating business strategy or imaging a business in theory, people tend to imagine the company as going on forever or at least having a lifespan similar to IBM. Here in Silicon Valley, it's easy to look across the landscape and see the empty skeletons of former titans, market leaders that were not immune to time and the evolution of technology. Whether it's the old Boreland campus in Scotts Valley, Sun Microsystems various campuses, or the once great empire of SGI that's now inhabited by Google, time has claimed all of these former corporate stars.

While it's easy to see exit strategy as an important factor in start-up strategy, what about more established companies? We keep seeing parts flying off of the Yahoo motor, yet it's still trying to race down the road. Remember when they were one of the blue chip Internet stocks? Think about all of that money that they've spent over the past ten years in failed acquisitions and technology development -- would they have done better pocketing the cash?

Companies that start to run amok tend to give off a dying vibe. You start to hear stories -- problems with the work environment, layoffs, crazy control systems and cost cutting measures. If the work and stress of building a start-up brings the excitement of growth, riding the wave of a company in decline is all about the stress of waiting for the wave to collapse on you. 

Having a sense of history about the lifespan of a business also bakes in a certain amount of cynicism. When you find yourself in an interview, you're always looking around trying to get a sense of where the company is in it's cycle of life. Are the people excited? Too busy to spend much time talking? Do they look they are having fun?

Just because a company seems like it's in decline doesn't mean that it's not potentially a worthwhile opportunity. In the same way that there are people who thrive in the chaos and excitement of growth in a startup, there are some people who are well suited to managing a company's end-of-life -- it's just that marketing pros are not usually in that group. Growth and marketing kind of go hand in hand. Typically, companies that in decline are looking for replacement followers of their existing strategies, not pivots. Of course, if you're brought in chartered with bringing transformation, then you may be able to turn that wave into an interesting ride.

While I'd like to wrap this up with some sort of exciting take-away thought, I think that the best way to leave this is with the same kind of feeling you might get at the beach, watching the waves form, move through space and time, then break. Big ones. Small ones. Waves of different shapes and different heights. Maybe the waves aren't as big as you expected. You should have been here yesterday.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growth Hacker vs VP of Marketing

Just a brief follow up thought related to the idea of the growth hacker concept referenced in the link in my previous post. The core premise behind the growth hacker is that startups in earlier stages need to be focused on growth -- dynamic, agile, and even experimental. Often, when people think of qualifications for a VP of Marketing, they think grand plan, strategy, and years of experience in a specific industry. What this may also translate to is limited adaptability outside of a focus industry and correspondingly, a less agile, less dynamic engine for growth -- someone who just wants to replay the classic hits.

I suspect that the right fit actually falls somewhere in the middle. A good marketing pro doesn't just repeat the same formula. Every business, every situation, every moment is different. While the idea of a growth hacker relentlessly experimenting, trying to crack the growth nut is a compelling image that captures a sense of necessary urgency, for me it underplays the importance of fluency in a broader vocabulary of the practice. First and foremost, before you can ever begin to conceptualize and hack growth programs, you need to have a strong understanding of those same programs and the language that their constructed from. You can't play guitar simply by watching music videos and you can't hack a .php form by simply browsing the web a lot or even reading stories about code injection.

Beyond vision and program execution, there is an equally important aspect to having a grander vision -- an understanding that some growth vehicles have a dark side and not all hacking is white hat. Look at Zynga and some of the other social game companies profiled in the Techcrunch Scamville series. While Zynga was able to ride these questionable practices to an IPO and, theoretically, some operational reforms, several of the companies that used this approach got burned. The recent stories about JCPenney and some of the more noteworthy SEO manipulation highlight kind of issue. Understanding the risks and being able to weigh those against the potential benefits requires some conceptual understanding beyond simply figuring out an execution path.

Ultimately, whether you're a VP of Marketing or a Growth Hacker, the bigger problem is that often people simply want to repeat a lightning strike. Sometimes, beyond time and space, there is some luck involved. Just because Twitter took off at South by Southwest, doesn't mean that going there is a strategy. And yet, simply understanding how something like South by Southwest has impacted a number of social networking software startups should be part of your marketing vocabulary. In that way, I would thing that the job description should probably read something like, "creative, experimental problem solver with a broad marketing background and a solid vision of the big picture needed..." But somebody like that can probably also solve the problem of what title that they should have.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are you a Growth Hacker?

I was doing some typical morning, poking around the web browsing and I came across an interesting topic that I thought I would share with you. I've been thinking about what to write on the topic, but I've got errands to run and a day to work through, so I thought I would start with sharing a quick link with you.

This is Find A Growth Hacker for Your Startup by Sean Ellis. Read and enjoy.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Animated Look at Where Good Ideas Come From

Here's another RSA whiteboard animation worth watching.

Motivations In The Workplace Animation

A friend sent over a link to this earlier this week, tucking into an NPR planet money post. In discussing, the presentation has been around for a while, but the animation is really what helps make this interesting.

There are more video presentations that have been animated using this whiteboard style of animation posted on YouTube, so check them out if you get a chance.

Follow-up On Google Hiring: A Kinder, Gentler Google

Following up on my post, If Google Posts A Job Opening, Does It Really Count As A Job Opportunity, I came across this article that was pushed out on Twitter by Google Recruiting (@googlejobs). Google tries new angle on hiring by Richard Waters of the Financial Times is an interesting read into how Google is trying to change their hiring practices and culture. I felt so moved by the piece that I thought, maybe I should go ahead and send them my resume and apply for a couple of openings. I am one of those "people with entrepreneurial, rather than purely intellectual, talent." Then I got to the last sentence of the piece, "It is currently receiving 75,000 applications a week," and, remembering my original post, I decided to write this blog post instead.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yet Another Reason to Read Job Postings

If you have a steady job, your current employers and the people that you work with may look twice if they find you looking at competitive job listings. Even in those toxic work environments where everyone is disgruntled, most of the time businesses culture makes it taboo to look at competitive job listings. And while we could probably do a deep dive on why that taboo exists, let's look at why you should be looking at competitive job postings instead.

Forget about being disgruntled, frustrated with your job and wanting to leave -- job listings are an excellent research platform. Tucked away in those listings are a host of requirements for software that you should be familiar with, technologies that you should understand, and programs that you should have run. These aren't just job listings, they are your own personal MBA case study series detailing a similar business problem and how other companies have solved them.

It's probably also worth noting that if you come across a job listing that references tools or practices that you don't use, it's unlikely that you would be able to ramp a program up quickly simply to make yourself a good candidate. However, if you're one of those disgruntled people who are actually seeking a new job, being familiar with the terms and practices will also help you explain why you aren't using those tools so that when the interview comes, you are ready.

Don't Get Busted
While there are a lot of great marketing research justifications for looking at competitive job listings, they probably aren't strong enough to keep you out of hot water if you get caught breaking the taboo. While all environments are different, most employers not only want to think of you as content, they also like to think of you as too busy to be looking at competitive job listings during your work day. So while looking at job listings is probably more productive than managing your online farm, both will probably leave you equally cooked.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why the Keith Olbermann Leaving MSNBC Story Gets a MarketingToMe Blog Post

When I got home on Friday evening, I found out that the day's Countdown program was the last and that Keith Olbermann was leaving MSNBC. I was so surprised, so incredulous, that I did a quick scan through the various news sites to confirm the story. Over the course of the surrounding weekend, there wasn't much in terms of details or explanations. And while this may not be a big story for some, I personally feel a sense of loss and can't shake the sense that it stands as a significant milestone in cultural history -- maybe not "the day the music died", but certainly the symbolic end to something much larger than the show itself.

Organizations in Transition
When it comes to the what and why of the end of Olbermann's relationship with NBC, most of what's being published right now tends to focus on a history of trouble between Olbermann and NBC management. The spin coming through many of these stories suggest that the events weren't connected to the Comcast merger and that Comcast had no role in the events. One piece that I read even suggested that Friday's events had been months in the making. However, even a casual business observer will note the lack of an elegant transition, a winding down like someone giving two weeks notice or a retiring. This didn't happen with message planning and a gradual release. And while I wasn't watching MSNBC on Friday night, my understanding is that the channel was still broadcasting Olbermann promo commercials after the announcement of the last show.

Clearly, whatever took place in New York on Friday, it was more explosion than scripted event and the surrounding events have been efforts at messaging damage control. If you play out the various possible scenarios, it's hard to imagine a viable one where NBC wanted to keep Olbermann on the air -- unlike most employer/employee relationships, broadcasters have much broader flexibility in how they define their relationships. If this had simply been Keith upset, they could have continued to run Countdown with a guest host while trying to work through a cool down period. If there was any bridge left, they could have brought him in occasionally for special events or commentary.

A Deeper Cultural Loss
We lost more than a political voice with the end of this show. To get to the heart of this, you have to peel back a few layers, dig down beneath partisan political rhetoric, the left and the right, and the theater of the term "wing". At the heart of the Countdown concept was a news show that riffed on the the traditional structure and tone with a unique, playful intelligence. Take the concept of counting down the top five news stories, something more akin to an MTV or VH1 video program. Traditional news programs always lead with the top story and work their way down a closing light moment like waterskiing squirrels.

Olbermann also brought a unique cultural intelligence to the television news role. Equally at home quoting from classical literature or sports history, Olbermann used using a wide range of cultural references to bring verbal flourish to the world of Yet Another news story. Instead of reducing things to the lowest common denominator, he elevated the common denominator, bridging low and high brow. In the same way that a typical Sports Center viewer had a deep awareness of the history of sport and a high sports IQ, Olbermann's Countdown assumed its audience was intelligent and that the show wasn't their only source of content. Instead of Yet Another politics or news show, Olbermann made the show feel more like getting an update on the news from one of your friends -- one who was just as likely to be irreverent as serious.

And while I would love to use specific examples of broadcast moments where Keith was so much better than so many broadcasters, it's hard to present good examples without starting a partisan back-and-forth. While I might find places where Olbermann dug deeper, understood the bigger story and continued to question a story, someone with a right-wing, anti-Olbermann bias might call him badgering or worse.

Much has been made of the politics surrounding Keith Olbermann. There has also been a lot of speculation surrounding Comcast management's political interests and how that may affect content. In some of the left-right comparisons, MSNBC is often painted as the counter to Fox News, representing a left-leaning political spin. I think that Jon Stewart's assessment of MSNBC as hopelessly muddled is probably a more accurate analysis.

But regardless, one of the messaging points that keeps surfacing is this idea that MSNBC is maintaining their commitment to liberal voices through Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Ed Schultz. This is one of those great examples of trying to promote messaging that supports an image that simply doesn't match your actions. Going down a list, from the cancellation of Phil Donahue's show through the network's back and forth with David Schuster and it's well-publicized ongoing conflicts with Olbermann, NBC has repeatedly acted in ways that suggest no commitment to any sort of left-wing or liberal messaging. At best, their support seems to be a limited tolerance, driven by a general recognition that "liberal" content provides them some measurable level of audience and some base level of product differentiation. I suspect that within the internal ranks of the NBC organization, those that still speak with any sort of liberal know that there is a limit on NBC's tolerance of their voice.

Comcast? NBC? Does it Really Matter?
We may never know whether this was personal politics, corporate politics, or just business. The events don't smell like the moves of the Food Network, putting all of their old chef-stars out to pasture so that they can replace them with branded celebrities that Food Network owns the marketing rights for. Instead, this feels more like that first power-play in the content carrier revolution, when the newly crowned Comcast-NBC merger states emphatically, "whatever, I do what I want!"

As long as the government continues to approve of mergers like the Comcast-NBC deal, as more and more of our emerging communications platforms get wrapped up in consolidated ownership of content, distribution, and infrastructure, and as long as we continue to tolerate politically active corporate entities like Clear Channel, News Corp., and Comcast controlling huge chunks of our communications infrastructure, we'll see the lines between politics and business messaging erode any existing framework of open communication.

Olbermann's New Show
But if you have any doubts about what was behind all of this, the news came through that Olbermann will be getting a new show on Al Gore's Current TV. Like me, you'll probably have to jump through a few hoops to find the channel listing and see if your local version of Comcast even carries the channel.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

If Google Posts a Job Opening, Does it Really Count as a Job Opportunity?

We've all heard about Google's exclusive hiring practices and how they go through extraordinary efforts to hire what they consider only the most exceptional candidates. So it struck me the other day as I waded through a LinkedIn job search where where the first two or three pages of results were Google listings, if Google posts a job opening, does it really count as a job opportunity?

Consider this recent news from Google, Google gets 75,000 job apps in a week - for 6000 openings. That works out to about 1200 applicants per job. While you could look at this from a lot of angles -- hiring on internet scale, the compelling value of Google's work environment strategy, or even the real sucktacular nature of the economy -- let's think about how many of those 1200 people actually have a shot at that job. While you could argue that 1 in 1200 is a lot better odds than you have for winning the lottery, your odds of winning the lottery are simple probability. For those 1200 individuals, there are factors for qualification, differentiation, and probably a bunch of invisible, unspoken ones as well. For many of those 1200 applicants, the odds of winning the Google job lottery is actually zero.

Is a Google Job Listing the Equivalent of Spam?
Out of that group of 1200 people applying for an opening at Google, my guess is that there is probably a list of preferred candidates drawn from employee recommendations or other more direct submissions. But let's assume for a minute that the process is open. Following on the themes that I talked about in one of my Please Hire Me posts, how do you differentiate yourself in a pool of over 1200 people? Imagine a person reading 250 resumes per day for per position with a constant stream of new resumes coming in all of the time -- and that's just reading them, not following up, etc. If you think about that kind of scale, at best you're looking at an algorithmic scan of them all. At worst, you're looking at a giant pool of resumes that are simply ignored.

Think about what that means in terms of timing for when you submit you're resume. In the old days, you might have a week or two to position yourself, customize your resume, and focus your cover letter. If you're submitting to a position at Google, all that time you spent has just put you in the back of a chronological line 1200 people deep -- 1200 people whose 15 or so skills listed as requirements also match the position.

Finding the Deeper Meaning in Google's Applicant Volume
If you think about that pool of 1200 or so candidates and the difficulty of filtering that pool, you might start to wonder whether that type of process would yield a top-tier, unique candidate. Or even the most qualified. So, if you can't find the perfect drop of water when you're looking at the lake, why would you use a process that created so much water? What if the purpose of having so many candidates isn't to look at the candidates, but rather to provide statistical data that supports the idea that you looked at lots of people before you selected the candidate that you chose? The question is, are those 75000 resumes really about 75000 candidates or simply better justification for the 6000 that Google does choose, assuming that they fill each position from the pool that was generated that week. What about the candidates that they target and recruit, like from Apple or Microsoft?

The funny thing about all of this is that many job search sites (like Linked In) include check boxes so that you can just search listings from a specific company. When you look at the numbers, perhaps what they need is support for exclusion filters or Boolean search terms like, "not Google".

UPDATE:  I did a some research and experimentation using the Linked In search function. It turns out that there is Boolean support in Advanced Search. You can use AND, OR, or NOT, but they have to be in capital letters. While I was able to make this work in the Keyword search field, the company field doesn't appear to support Boolean search. So, if you want to filter Google out of your search results, you can add NOT google to the Keywords search, but you also risk filtering out jobs that might include Google as part of a skill or a capability.