Friday, December 20, 2013

Lead Nurture Campaign Blunders - More Fun With Hurricane Electric

Email marketing and lead nurturing campaigns are not new. Done right, it can be a great way to draw in business. At the same time, one factor that you might want to consider when shaping your lead nurture program is the current status of the person in the campaign. Simply, if you have a customer or a prospective customer in your database with a negative relationship with the business, you may not want to include them in a default promotional program. Here's an example.

I'm pretty unhappy with Hurricane Electric right now. If you aren't familiar with the back-story, you might find this recent post amusing. While it's not a flat out "Hurricane Electric Sucks" post, I think you can detect the unhappiness in my tone -- and you're not reading the original emails. I don't think that the people over at Hurricane Electric would be surprised to learn that I'm not happy with them nor would I recommend their service going forward.

So imagine my surprise when I received an email from Hurricane Electric the other day offering to upgrade the service that I was just trying to cancel about a month ago. A new server? No. A cloud hosting option? No. An unused copy of Windows 8? No, something of even less use to me. That's right, they wanted to offer me an upgrade on bandwidth to the server that is sitting in their data center, idle. When you see something like that, it really catches your attention. How disconnected is it? Let me count the ways:
  1. We just finished a series of communications back and forth about how I wanted to cancel our service
  2. It was offering to increase bandwidth to a server that is essentially idle
  3. It promoted the idea that the increase in bandwidth would help our business earn more by increasing traffic and overcoming the limitations resulting from our current bandwidth
What stood out even more was that the bulk email listed the sender as the very same accounts payable person that I had just been arguing back and forth with about closing our account with previously. It's laughably bad. 

Know Your List
If you want to run a nurture campaign, consider reviewing your member list and removing anyone with cases or customer service issues. You also might want to consider using cases and other customer service issues as a trigger for a different type of email campaign as they may not be suited to an upsell campaign.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Insurance Companies Suck: Core Strategy Undermines the ACA

In all of the back and forth over the Affordable Care Act that you find in the media, one of the things that I've never seen addressed relates to inherent problems with the fundamental strategy behind the law. In the media, you may see concerns about the lack of a single-payer, medicare-for-all option or, on the other side of the spectrum, people complaining about the mandate requiring people to buy health insurance. While these two examples deal with opposite sides of the political spectrum, in one respect, they share a common underlying issue -- insurance companies suck.

Anyone who has had to deal with health insurance over a doctor's bill knows how frustrating it can be. And it's just gotten worse and worse over time.

Insurance companies use layers of contractual complexity to make treatment and treatment reimbursement horribly conditional. Why? Because, fundamentally, the way that an insurance company maximizes their profits is by paying out as little of the money as possible. Insurance is a wager that you, as the gambler, wants to be as safe and as predictable as possible -- I am sick, I go to the doctor, and the treatment is paid.

In the midst of the storm of the site problems, I read one post on Talking Points Memo that pointed to one of the challenges of individuals purchasing health insurance was that it was so complicated. And the entire reason it is so complicated is that insurance companies benefit from that complexity. They write policies that create a range of caveats to the "I am sick" equation in order to reduce the likelihood of a payout -- like saying that the roll of the dice doesn't count if they didn't hit the back wall of the craps table. Sometimes, they make these caveats deceptive so that you think that you're covered when you aren't. It's like playing 3-card Monte with some guy on the street -- you have a great chance of winning until you actually start playing.

This is why most states have insurance regulators and why we are forced to turn to "experts" in our HR department to help us navigate the contracts and, hopefully, prevent fraud. And yet, despite the existence of a regulation infrastructure in the states, the system has gotten progressively worse since I can remember.

The Pre-existing Condition
Perhaps the biggest sticking point surrounding health insurance was the pre-existing condition. This was the escape clause that would allow an insurance company to skip out on paying for various medical bills that might get too large and cut into their profits. Over the past decade or so, it also seems like they used it, increasingly, as leverage against churn. By that what I mean is, if you were unhappy with your insurance or you lost your job, the insurance companies forced you to keep paying for insurance coverage lest you be hit with the pre-existing condition clause when you get a new job or sign up for a new policy.

This use of the pre-existing condition was another driver for crappy health-insurance-in-name-only plans. If you were out of work or working at a job that didn't provide health insurance, you could get one of these plans and be able to say that you had maintained insurance coverage.

Underlying Fallacies of the Health Care Debate
I think that the think that pisses me off the most when I listen to a debate about health care is this idea that we make choices about the level of care that we want to pay for. Given the choice, it's hard for me to imagine somebody saying, "just give me half of what's required to make me well." Or, like the snippet from the Michael Moore film healthcare, "I know I lost three fingers in the accident, just repair one." These aren't decisions made by choice. In the same way, the decision to not participate in the healthcare system -- to not have coverage -- is not something somebody chooses. They may choose between having shelter or healthcare coverage, having food or healthcare coverage, or even -- like I might have back in my college days -- having beer or healthcare coverage, but it isn't healthcare or not.

Similarly, there is this notion that the reason that health care is expensive is because people with health insurance use too much healthcare because they don't realize how much it costs. It's as though we are choosing to take Vioxx instead of aspirin because we make decadent choices as opposed to the reality -- we take it because they, the experts, tell us it's better and more effective. In the old days of a lifetime relationship with a family doctor, efficacy might be measured by long term patient health. These days, profit plays a significant role.

I Don't Like My Existing Healthcare Plan
Which brings us to the issue behind the most recent round of controversies. I don't think that anyone actually likes their existing healthcare plan; rather, they probably prefer it over the idea that the available options are worse. Or more expensive for, essentially, the same crappy service. Because, like most of the airlines, we have been subjected to a historical degradation of service and the majority of the incumbents essentially offer minor variations of the same service, we don't see any upgrade in change.

The bottom line: insurance companies suck. And this is, fundamentally, what's wrong with the ACA. Rather than crippling an industry that most people have had terrible experiences with, the government essentially said, "heck-of-a-job insurance companies, let's give you more customers and more business." For many people, this would be the equivalent of handing over Social Security to the same corrupt financial industry that crashed the economy with the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Rather than stopping all of this "your surgeon was covered, but your anesthesiologist wasn't in network and so he wasn't covered' mess, they stomped on the gas and pointed all of us straight into the heart of darkness.

The Paradox of Choice
Here's a great link to psychologist Barry Schwartz's Ted Talk where he talks about how having more choices makes us less happy with our choice and also makes it more difficult to choose. In that way, another difficult aspect of the ACA is, inherently, one of the things that is supposed to be better about it -- more choices. The paradox of choice also plays into the health insurance offering -- with so many nuanced aspects to compare and options to segment, they can move you into a state of selection paralysis. This is another way that they are able to control the transaction.

In many respects, the importance of choice in health care is overstated. If we're sick and we need antibiotics, we don't choose which medicine to prescribe. We think we want choices, but, like a menu with too many options, more is not better.  

While the idea of more choices pays lip service to freedom, if you couple some of the themes in the Paradox of Choice with the idea that all of the choices are deal-with-the-devil options from businesses that many people have had negative experiences with, you're in for a high level of customer dissatisfaction, even if the product has been reformed and is actually improved. The reformed system may be better, but we are primed for not liking it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My Terrible, Awful Day at Dreamforce 2013

Each year,'s Dreamforce conference represents a mixed bag of experiences. On the one hand, it's an incredible opportunity to see a few of the ways that some of the world's top businesses are using software to evolve their businesses. And, if you work with the software, some of the breakout sessions can provide a great window into how to take advantage of certain features and functions.

At the same time, there is a dark side to entire Dreamforce experience, one that corresponds to crowds and capacity. There is a chaos that hangs over the event, a madness of conflicting schedules and oversubscribed sessions.

Back in the old days (that period when the year still had two zeros in it), the crowd helped contribute to the excitement. It was an era when there was still a lot of skepticism about the viability of the cloud and multi-tenant architectures. In that era, one of the most common question that I wound up having to answer was, "but really, who is using" In that environment, being in that sea of people was vindication.

These days, the crowd is more of a crowd than a bonding experience. What's more, instead of feeling like a giant user group, VIP passes and exclusive access options have turned the entire event into the equivalent of a crowded flight -- the people in first class get treated well, but most of us are stuck in the back with a middle seat, no leg room, and no recline.

Dreamforce is not like a traditional trade show in it's use of the convention center. Rather than many exhibits crowding a convention center floor, Dreamforce depends upon meeting rooms for technical breakout sessions. Each year, as the conference has grown, it's been surprising to see how the infrastructure has adapted to handle the expanding crowds broad agenda. Last year, when they closed off Howard street, held conference sessions in all of the surrounding hotels all the way to Union Square, and then blocked off the area around the Civic Center for the gala event, it struck me as a wonderful example of how San Francisco can come together and jump through hoops in an effort to host these kinds of things. In so many ways, the City is an amazing place.

And yet, for everything that worked well last year (other than what was probably a traffic nightmare for San Francisco), this year was marked by a conference out of sync with the city and the weather. With the November timetable, suddenly all of the outdoor overflow areas became unusable. Travel between downtown locations meant getting soaked between sessions. And while this year's gala event location at Pac Bell park had the potential to provide an well structured venue for an outdoor event, the predictable fall rain meant transformed the event into something into a gathering under the dry parts of the stadium to eat hamburgers and hot dogs, while watching some music on the television. Even the bus rides to the park were challenged with the traffic and the construction on Fourth street.

For the past three years or so, hotels in San Francisco sell out several months before Dreamforce. I knew it was bad this year when I was registering and the Dreamforce hotel interface was listing Hotels in Monterey. Another indicator is when the motels in the ugly parts of the Tenderloin/SOMA area are charging over $300 per night (it leaves you wondering what the people who wind up staying there end up thinking about San Francisco). Even funnier was when I mentioned the crappy hotel situation to our Salesforce account rep and he sent me a link to the housing page in the registration app (#worse-than-a-chatbot). So, invariably, I was forced to commute into the city from the South Bay each day. And while the hour or so commute on Caltrain isn't too bad, what it does add to Dreamforce is a lot of extra steps, the need to carry everything you need (or take back from the event), and it puts a serious damper on any evening events.

For me, the worst day turned out to be Wednesday. The third day of Dreamforce is a day that is punctuated with sponsored events and after-parties. But when you have the added commute to the overcrowded city, it can be a bit taxing. I decided to head out early that night and grab an express train home. Unfortunately, like many commuters that day, my trip home was hindered by a downed power line near the Hayward Park stop on the Caltrain line. I wound up standing in a packed train, waiting from about 6:50 until shortly after 8:00pm before we even started the journey down the peninsula. After a slow ride and a bus bridge at San Mateo, I finally arrived in Mountain View sometime after 10pm. I, like many of my fellow commuters, went home tired and unhappy -- questioning the wisdom of returning to the city for the last day of the conference (I ended up driving on Thursday, but I heard that Caltrain had another day of delays that morning).

Dreamforce: Too Big to Be Meaningful
As I've mentioned in the past, when you attempt to create an illusion of personalized experiences that are clearly generic scripted repetitions -- like the Safeway checkers reading your name off of the receipt like they know you -- it almost seems worse than doing nothing. It's like saying to the customer, "oh yeah, you are important to us, we value your business" with an accompanying satirical tone and an eye-roll. You're personalized customer experience is a mockery of personalized customer experience.

In may ways, that is what Dreamforce has become. In the old days of the conference, the entire experience was like a multi-tenant architecture. You sat, side by side, with your colleagues on the platform. Big companies, small companies, you shared an infrastructure and you shared the challenges of the crowd. You were just as likely to wind up sitting in the front row as you might be at the back of the venue. When you attended the event, you were part of a community.

Now, it feels more like you are part of a herd -- sorted, weighed, and routed as is most profitable. With VIP lines and exclusive access, you are often reminded that you are in economy class, not good enough for business or first -- despite spending what probably amounts to a premium, regardless of the size of your business. Yes, you are a customer, but as a customer appreciation event, this will leave you feeling like you are second class.

Consider this: in five years of attending the conference, only two of my five account representatives have made an effort to meet with me during the week of Dreamforce. If the customer-facing roots of your organization can't interact with your customers that have paid $1000 to come to your party, are you really holding a party for your customers? And can you really call yourself a customer-focused business?

Think about that. As marketers, most of us have considered road shows and customer events. We all understand the costs and the challenges. We've all consumed our share of free food and drinks at business events. Now imagine asking your customers to pay to come to your customer event. What kind of experience would you expect that they were expecting?

I used to think that it might be helpful to bring a team of attendees to Dreamforce; perhaps a couple of people from the sales organization, somebody from IT, and an exec or two. But considering how large Dreamforce has become, I've come to believe that, even if they were excited to participate and be a part of the crowd, the real benefits that they might have gained two or three years ago have faded, washed away in a sea of lines, generic experiences, and diverse business/software platform interests. Should I be battling with the people who might be there for Or the developers who don't know about Heroku? Do I really need to hear another pitch on the latest version of Portal - now Communities -- when the pricing model is so disconnected from anything that makes sense for our business?

Would you pay $1000, then wait in line behind a thousand people if you could only ask one question? And, if you did all that, how would you feel about the experience if the answer that you received gave you less information than already got during your online research?

Can Dreamforce Be Saved?
This question is actually several questions rolled up into one.
  • Has the conference grown too large for San Francisco? 
  • Would it work better if it was relocated somewhere else that could handle the size of the event?
  • Has the conference itself become too diversified and lost it's focus?
  • Is there any way to make it effective in connecting with individual customers while hosting the massive crowds?
In many ways, I think that there are elements of Dreamforce that are intertwined with San Francisco. While a location like Las Vegas might be able to handle the large crowd, there is a reason that so many Internet businesses have found their home in San Francisco. The city speaks the language of software start-up and part of the dream in Dreamforce is a harmony with this world. And yet, there is little question that the San Francisco infrastructure is overwhelmed by the conference crowds. Housing, transportation, conference room capacity, all are being taxed beyond their limit during the event. Without limits, I expect the reality of the conference to just get worse and worse.

As for the diversity, there's always the dream of serendipitous interaction and the potential engagement with technologies and applications that you might not otherwise have imagined. And yet, when crowds become overwhelming, it's less about serendipity and more about traffic and road rage. Perhaps the bigger question is, what is a realistic take-away from this in-person experience?

So when you consider the world of modern marketing and making individual connections, it seems so antiquated to provide such a generic, impersonal experience. As the provider of the leading CRM platform, you'd expect the experience to be more personal. But perhaps that underscores the difference between the hype and the reality -- in the same way you'd expect Facebook marketing to be... better. Big data and algorithms are powerful, but they are hard-pressed to achieve something greater or overcome something as powerful as a long line or a frustrating commute.

And so, the spectacle will probably continue. And as it does, the evangelism will probably ebb -- or continue to ebb -- and instead of something amazing, it will become something amazingly horrible. My terrible, awful day at Dreamforce probably would have been better if all of the hotels in San Francisco weren't sold out and I was staying in the city and hadn't been stuck on Caltrain for over three hours. But without that Caltrain experience, I might not feel so compelled to ask is the entire experience really worth it?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Don't-Let-Go Business: How Hurricane Electric Earned a Blog Post

I know that it seems like much of the posts that find there way here are lately arise out of some business or service pushing my buttons, so I promise that I'll put together something that's not an angry tirade soon -- maybe after this post.

Recently, I found myself embroiled in a situation that serves as a great reminder about how technological progress shapes business expectations. It's the kind of thing where, one day you're selling the "must have" advertising like a Yellow Pages ad or a Thomas Guide listing, then "suddenly" you wake up to realize that your product is obsolete, usurped by the Internet and Google. Not only do you have to re-envision yourself and your business to adapt to the new market climate, but you also have these longstanding relationships with some of your most loyal customers that have stayed with you all of this time. How do you handle dissolving these relationships?

As with other moments in the lifetime of interactions with your customers, how you behave as a business shapes your customer's perception of you and your future reputation, regardless of how awesome the relationship may have been.

Our Story: Longtime Hurricane Electric Customers
When you look back to 2006, it doesn't seem all that long ago. And yet, in the world of servers, 2006 is two to three generations in the past. And when it comes to web hosting, so much has changed since that time. Back in the day, many companies were running on dedicated servers in co-location data centers. The idea of using virtualized servers and grid computing wasn't really in play and a multi-tenant infrastructure was a tough sell for some in the IT world. Amazon Web Services officially launched in 2006. Technologically speaking, 2006 was in many ways BC, Before Cloud.

When you look back through time to those thrilling days of yesteryear, there were some common Internet provider business practices that just seem laughable in today's market. Back in those days, it was all about the box. In 2006, as we compared data center providers, having a local provider like Hurricane Electric -- versus, say, Rackspace -- offered some potential advantages in the event that you needed to do some level of hands-on maintenance to your server box. While it may not have any any real practical advantage, it helped comfort the IT guys who didn't really want to loose touch with the physical hardware. Another common practice was a set-up charge for a dedicated server. Essentially, since you were getting ready to run a server, this helped subsidize the Internet hosting company's costs in case you suddenly went belly-up ala so many dot.coms and start-ups. And it was not unusual to have longer initial term hosting contracts, year or multi-year agreements.

And that, in a nutshell, describes our initial relationship with Hurricane Electric. At the time, they were great, and a good fit within the prevailing business climate. Their hosting services did well, we were a couple of hops off of the main Internet connect running through San Jose, and all was good. During the server build process, we had spec'd one system, but for one reason or another, it wouldn't work with the drives that we had spec'd, so Hurricane offered us a 'free' upgrade to a dual CPU server board that had come off of a recently decommissioned system. As I say, we were happy.

So, jump ahead four years to 2010. With the server getting old in server years, we approached Hurricane about a plan to replace the box with a newer model, ideally with the current one running in the foreground while we built up the other one. Despite four years of consistent, trouble-free business running on hardware that was essentially theirs, Hurricane Electric wanted to charge us another set-up fee. Instead, we began looking at alternative hosting solutions.

In today's hosting environment, virtualized servers and cloud environments allow you to sign up with a credit card, build a server from a control panel, pay nothing for the server until you build it, and, ultimately, pay only for what you eat. Storage, CPUs, processor cycles, bandwidth can all be metered. When measured against the cost of hardware and colocation rent, the cloud was really a no-brainer decision. So move we did.

Leaving Hurricane Electric
This is the part of the story where things get really sad, where Hurricane Electric moves from becoming a respected local partner to one of those companies like AOL that make it very difficult to escape their clutches. Once we had our new cloud server up and running, we reached out to Hurricane Electric to shut down our service. First, Hurricane told us that we needed to send them written notice on company letterhead along with why we were leaving. Next, they told us that we've been under an automatically renewing annual contract and we wouldn't be able to cancel our agreement until Q2 of next year.

Since 2006, we've made consistent monthly payments for our dedicated server. We have been a consistent, no-hassle revenue stream. But now, like AOL's dial-up service, our needs and the terms of our agreement have become hopelessly outdated. And yet, within the halls of Hurricane Electric's accounting and customer service groups, they would rather cling tightly to a few more months of revenue than create a positive customer experience. Somehow, all of that historical value that we represented to them is no match for a couple of months payment. In short, they do not connect this portion of their business with reputation and positive word of mouth.

Where we could have dissolved the relationship with a simple "their service offering ceased to match our needs," we moved into a "their service offering may have been acceptable at one time, but even if they were an okay match for your requirements today, I would not do business with them." In the same way that I would never give AOL my credit card information -- anyone who has ever tried to disconnect from them knows how difficult they make that transaction.

Auto-renew contracts can be a convenience to customers, but too often auto-renew is used like a club, hammering the customer with a commitment that doesn't match their needs. Because it's employed in scams and borderline scams by businesses that look to surreptitiously trap customers in leech-like transactions, businesses should be hyper-vigilant around the use of this tool. When your business becomes knowingly collecting funds well past the useful life of the contracted service, you've entered the land of scam. Let's apply a new term, scamification, to our lexicon.

As marketers, it's particularly frustrating to see this kind of behavior from a business. When you think about all of the battles that you have to go through, justifying budgets in order to attract and win customers or to build reputation, only to watch all of those efforts flipped on their head when other parts of the business act aggressively to piss off the customer, it makes you crazy. Radio and print ads? Wasted. Those billboards? Pointless. When you compare the cost of what you might spend to publish a case study or a customer testimonial, then compare that to the negative word of mouth created by an angry customer -- or attempting to be former customer -- and yet, they don't get it.

After all is said and done, I would not do business with Hurricane Electric again. I would not recommend them to you either. While I would not put them in the same category as those scam businesses that trick you into an online transaction, then leech off of your credit card while you try to find a way to cancel their service, their business behaviors are such that it certainly reminded me of that type of business. Caveat Emptor.

Monday, October 21, 2013

United Airlines On Twitter: My First Sighting of Actual Next Gen Customer Service

For several years now, we've heard the tales of companies monitoring social media so that they could respond quickly to customer issues as the blossomed on Twitter and Facebook. I remember reading stories about Comcast investing huge amounts on their social media customer service infrastructure. So it's always struck me as kind of funny when you're facing an issue or a complaint, then you post something on Twitter only to hear the sound of crickets. Nothing. Silence.

In some ways, I think of this more as the legend of social media customer service. Like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, you hear stories, but you never see any actual evidence of their existence.

I remember one time experiencing a very frustrating issue with Comcast, then attempting to use every outlet possible to contact their customer service. It turned out that the long wait on the phone was the fastest -- I never saw any response on Twitter.

So imagine my surprise the other night when I was sitting at SFO, wrestling with a flight delay for a red eye back east on my way to a technical conference the next day. Normally, I try to avoid red eye flights, but it was the best option for balancing my schedule requirements with the exhibitor set-up schedule. But, since the conference was in one of those not-an-airline-hub locations, my red eye was supposed to connect with a regional jet later that next morning. The flight delay was looking, increasingly, like that connection was not going to happen.

It's times like this that I miss the old days with my Red Carpet Club membership. The customer service people in the Red Carpet Club would always give you straight answers and they'd do everything that they could to help you out. So when I went to the customer service station inside the terminal to discuss what things looked like, I got some vague, disappointing news.

The best that she could tell me was that, not only was I likely to miss my connecting flight, but all of the flights leaving Newark that next day were full. They couldn't get me on another connecting flight until after 10pm the next night. Besides not really being thrilled about the idea of spending 24 hours with United just to make a west-to-east cross country flight, arriving at midnight would mean that my show set-up day would be lost.

Not satisfied with the answers that I was getting there, I decided to let the problem simmer for a bit and headed over to gate to chat with the workers at the gate desk. They took a look at my flight schedule and determined that I was indeed looking at problems. But, rather than settling for that, they dove in and found that they could put me on standby for a 12pm flight that was booked full but probably wouldn't wind up being full. While it wasn't a perfect answer, it struck me positively enough that I took to Twitter to comment, particularly since this wasn't the first time that the UA people at the gate were quite helpful to me. Twice this year flying out of New Orleans, the two guys at the gate have jumped through hoops to arrange or rearrange my schedule and and save me from a potential nightmare of flight delays and being stranded at various airports. Those guys were awesome and the two women at the counter this time also receive a ton of thanks.

Anyway, to wrap up this long story, I was surprised to receive a reply to my Twitter posts from @united. I happened to catch it just as we were finally boarding the delayed flight. I was so surprised, that my first thought was -- is this from a real person or an automated chat bot. When I arrived in Newark the next morning, they had replied again to tell me that they were real. And, @united, I would have replied with a DM if I get some time to sort through the stupid Twitter interface to figure out how that once easy-to-navigate function works in the current version of the app.

So, my take-aways from that trip:
  1. The weekend red eye may be a problematic flight. End of the day on a weekend seems like a good recipe for delayed flights. Yet another reason to avoid the evil red eye.
  2. Don't give up on customer service. Have patience and a positive attitude -- there are some of them out there who really will jump through hoops to help you if you give them your support.
  3. There may not be a Bigfoot or a Loch Ness Monster, but there is a social media customer service team at United Airlines and they do listen to Twitter.
By the way United, don't think that this makes us all squared up on everything that we've been through together -- we still have some pain points. But that being said, more than the customer service support, your little note made my day. Chappeau!

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Suburban Silicon Valley

One a recent Sunday, I found my way headed down to the Farmer's Market in downtown Mountain View. Once upon a time, this was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, with a short drive through the neighborhoods to the quiet downtown. My most recent Sunday was spent battling traffic, fighting for parking, and dodging the dynamic obstacles created by people who seemed to have just managed to eek out passing grades on their driver's tests. In short, Sunday morning traffic is looking a lot like what traffic used to look like on a Friday evening.

Over the past couple of years, our quaint little downtown has been gradually transforming. Increasingly, downtown Mountain View has been getting more and more crowded. It used to be Friday and Saturday night were difficult. These days, it's hard to find a day or a time when you can just pop on over to downtown for a quick bite without running around, hunting for parking.

For those of you who are new to the area, downtown Mountain View has changed a lot over the past twenty years or so -- as with all of the downtown areas in the little cities throughout the bay area. Over the years, each city has taken their own different approach as toward managing their downtown, with a myriad of results. From the gentrified mall-on-a-street experience on Burlingame Avenue to the it's-always-changing-but-never-really-changes aspect of downtown Palo Alto, our towns always seem to be looking for the right formula to make their downtown area special.

Probably the best thing that Mountain View did for downtown was when they opened up the parking areas along Castro Street for restaurants to serve food outside. It made downtown Mountain View the land of the sidewalk cafe. This one small change quickly transformed the area from yet another little downtown to a go-to experience when the weather is nice.

The change was good for restaurant business downtown. Between open air dining and a host of start-ups that all took off back around 2006, weekends were often busy, weekday lunches were usually crowded, and there was a general excitement in the air. You could feel a real Silicon Valley vibe in the air.

Downtown Mountain View also plays as an interesting contrast to Murphy Street in downtown Sunnyvale. Over the years, Murphy Street has waxed and waned. There are times when it has been packed, crowded with bars and restaurants, full of people and activity. Then other times, you could go down there and it was like a ghost-town with empty buildings and a handful of people on the street. It's always a reminder of the contrast between there and Castro Street.

When Busy Becomes Too Crowded
It used to be that parking was easy in the lots just off of Castro. On a busy night or a weekend, you might have to park two blocks away, but it was seldom difficult. Then, on weekends you needed to hunt for a space, and even the multi-level garage filled up. Then Thursday nights got to be as bad as Friday. Now, it's common all week.

Coming home on Friday night, I couldn't help but notice the traffic. While it's not unusual to see traffic backed up on southbound 101, with crowds headed to south San Jose and points beyond, I rarely see southbound Central Expressway being equally backed up. Lawrence, San Tomas, Montague and eastbound 237 were all full of people headed from the places where there are offices to the places where there is housing. And by the time I got to Mountain View, I was blown away by the back up on southbound El Camino going into Sunnyvale -- gridlock from Bernardo back past 85. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think that they were all going to the same place, I was just struck by the volume of cars on roads that usually have much less. We appear to be in the process of a pivot from Silicon Valley to Silicon Parking Lot.

Increasing Population Density: The Beaver Dam of Silicon Valley
Anyone who lives here understands the challenge of housing in Silicon Valley. Rents are high and the cost of buying is always one exponential level higher than most salaries can afford. Our ranks our full of people who would love to own, but ownership tends to be the super-thrifty, the one-time windfall recipients, the speculators and the people who bring a fat wad of cash from somewhere else. With all of this pressure on the market, housing is scarce.

The solution to this used to be further and further out of the area. Development in Pleasanton and Livermore pushed out into the central valley, while south San Jose pushed into Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Locally, there has been an ongoing push to higher density housing and development in places that didn't have housing before. I remember a quote from one of the Mountain View city council members when they approved the first zero-lot homes between Dana and Villa, "I was skeptical that anyone would buy them, but then I was surprised how quickly they sold."

And with the success of Santana Row, cities and neighborhoods throughout the area keep building these types of developments, celebrating the idea of mixed use property and two-to-three story townhomes. In a few years, this style of building may be more common in the area than the iconic Eichler. In the downtown Mountain View area, we've seen the blocks that used to be the lumberyard or single story office buildings leveled and replaced with three-story residential buildings. In the area that I used to work in Milpitas near the Great Mall, they have dozed entire blocks of single story commercial properties and they're replacing them with three-story housing.

While you might think that all of this housing would relieve some of the pressure on the housing market here, it hasn't. There are bidding wars on houses, lotteries to get into some of these developments, and demand to consume the growing supply.

What it all adds up to is a lot more people in the area. More people, more cars, more traffic. And at the same time, we're not really adding any infrastructure. No new lanes on the freeway, no wider roads, no new trains or subways, no new bus routes. In some cases, we're adding more parking, but that doesn't really count. And while it's true that we probably have more people driving electric and hybrid cars in our area than other parts of the country, they are all still cars.

We are drowning in traffic. The flood of vehicles on the roads, of people in lines at stores and restaurants. And it's not something that can really be managed on the local level. Here in Mountain View, we can't keep them from zoning more high-density housing in Milpitas. And while we're happy to see a healthy Google bringing jobs and supporting the local economy, the idyllic park-like setting around Shoreline is looking more and more like urban rush-hour all the time.

The Relationship Between People and Infrastructure
While I would love for this to be a "You Kids Get off My Lawn" post, that sort of assumes that we have lawns. But seriously, there is a real world relationship between the infrastructure and the number of people it can support. Imagine if Silicon Valley was a stadium. There are only so many seats in the stadium. You get to a point where, it doesn't matter how many people want to come inside, you can't sell more tickets than the stadium can support, because there are real world limits -- bathrooms, seats, exits. Right now, we're in a situation where people just keep printing and selling tickets into the area.

Is it reasonable to accept a future where all of our roads are crowded like the Bay Bridge at rush hour? Can we find some place to put a "lot full" sign on the area?

Realistically, I don't think we're going to be able to manage or limit the number of people coming into the area. Instead, I think we need to come to terms with what this increasing density means on our transportation infrastructure. Otherwise, we can look forward to the day when VTA Slow-Rail -- the light rail train from Mountain View to San Jose takes about an hour -- seems like Elon Musk's Hyperloop. That is, assuming that you can get a seat.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Macys Lost Our Dollars: Store Credit vs Customer Service

We've been customers of Macy's for a long time. A long time. For many things, Macy's is an ideal shopping solution:
  • They have lots of brick and mortar locations, making it easy to browse, to make returns, and to buy gifts for people that they can easily exchange in their area.
  • They do a good job with their online shopping experience. The interface is reasonably intelligent, you can return stuff to the brick and mortar stores, and the pricing is usually consistent between online and the store.
  • They have periodic sales and competitive pricing.
  • Most of the merchandise that they stock is typically above-average quality compared to most discount retailers.
These are the kinds of things that we look for in a modern retailer, the benchmark for being able to make a purchase without worrying too much about the caveats and and considerations that might make you look carefully for alternative vendors before you buy.

And, like most department stores these days, Macy's has their own store credit card.

Store credit cards have historically been a way for retailers to make some money on finance charges and entice you to buy in their store. Historically, it's been sort of a win-win for retailers as it increases the likelihood that you'll an active customer while they make money selling their stuff and on finance charges. It's typically such a good business that store workers are given bonuses on the number of credit cards they open up.

In the past, these store credit cards were reasonably tolerant of consumer behavior. It reminds me of the old days when my cell phone bill could be fall a couple of months in arrears, then the phone company would remind me to pay it -- which I always did -- and we would repeat the cycle. Then suddenly, out of the blue, the phone company would freak out if the bill was three or four days past due and threaten to cut off your service. Sometimes you just want to say, "hello, this is the real world calling -- where am I going to go? I've been a customer for six years on the same expensive plan and you have me under contract." But this is the disconnect between the modern science of Accounts Receivable and our traditional understanding of customer service.

This same this-is-the bill-payment-rule-and-we-swear-we're-not-being-dicks-even-though-we-are approach to accounts receivable seems to be expanding to all ends of the business world. In the B2B world, you find yourself rolling your eyes when you hear about your several hundred thousand dollar a year in revenue customer who can't get the $5K replacement part shipped out because they're on credit hold. You get nicknames for the accounting department like, "the sales prevention department". And you wonder -- in all of those accounting classes, do they just not teach the importance of the customer? Do they not teach about how essential the customer is to the balance of the whole business equation and about how so much of our marketing dollars are spent on getting the customer excited and making them happy so that they keep giving us money?

So here's our story of how Macy's finance group sucks and why they cost the company business
We buy a lot of stuff at Macy's -- not just at holdays, but throughout the year. Our charge card and our credit line go back all the way to the 1990s. Within the household, several of us love shopping on line, so it's not uncommon to wind up purchasing things every week or two. A lot of times, it's just clearance items. Sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn't, which means a trip to the local store for a return. We've bought luggage there, small appliances, even my mattress.

Since multiple people sometimes shop using the same charge number, it's not unusual for charges on the card to be different than you'd expected. And on several occasions while we've been in the store shopping or returning stuff and shopping some more, we found out that we still had an outstanding balance on the card. Typically, this is easily remedied because you can pay on the account at any of the cash registers. Sometimes, after becoming concerned about how the account got behind, not only did we pay the balance, we payed extra in order to maintain a surplus balance. All well and good. Until recently, when we wound up pulling a credit report and discovered that Macy's had reported several delinquencies.

The Definition of a Clerical Error
Imagine a scenario when you are at a cashier you ask the cashier for your balance so that you can pay it. What happens if the cashier tells you the wrong number? Under some circumstances, that might be difficult to prove, but it doesn't take a detective to understand what happened when the difference on the amount paid is under the balance by less than one dollar and is, essentially, a transposition of numbers in the amount. That, my friends, is what they call a clerical error. Whether that's the clerk telling the wrong number or entering the wrong number, it's a pretty understandable wrong number.

When that small difference unknowingly hangs in the balance for over 60 days, it raises a flag with Macy's accounting software. And that became a hit on the credit report.

So after we learned about the credit report issues, we spent some time with Macy's financial services customer service to clear everything up. For the most part, they were reasonably nice and understanding. They said that they would clear the issues off of the credit report and everything sounded okay.

The Last Nail
Fast forward a couple of months. It looks like the credit report has been cleared up and everything is good. We're sitting around one evening doing some online shopping, and they have a nice clearance sale on coats. We find several that we like, but they don't have stock in any of the stores within 100 miles, so we can't go and try them on. We decide to order all three, expecting to return at least one. But instead of selling us three coats, Macy's sold us zero coats that night. The transaction was rejected.

Alarmed that the balance issues had returned, we were sent into a panic. However, the balance on the account was paid and everything was in good standing. After digging into the cause, we learned that the crew at Macy's finance had reduced the credit limit on the charge account from $2000 to $100. The transaction wouldn't go through because the cost of the three coats was over they limit. Apparently, this kind of thing is not uncommon. In researching this, we even found the story of an employee who got a $50 limit card along with a coupon for a discount on the first $100 worth of stuff that they purchased on the card.

Boycotting Macy's
I'd like to tell you that we're absolutely not going to buy anything from Macy's going forward. But the reality is that, we're not that absolute. But Macy's is now on our avoid list. Shopping and buying habits are hard to change, but Macy's card services is pushing us to change ours. Given a choice, we will probably opt for shopping elsewhere.

Thanks to their card services team, Macy's marketing group has just been handed a tremendous weight. a giant turd that they have to overcome to win our business. As a professional marketer, you feel for them -- perhaps because you've felt their pain and the sense of sabotage courtesy of the accounting group.

Monday, September 23, 2013

First thoughts on iOS7 - User Interface FAIL

As iOS was officially made available to the public, I went through the pain of downloading it and updating my phone. I say pain because the traffic to the server meant that several of my initial attempts to download it failed or dropped partway through. Oh, and there's that part about needing to update to iTunes 11.1 before you can install iOS7.

The iOS update for my phone was about 1.24GB, so that download was one that I started before I left for lunch. However, once I had the download, the install was surprisingly quick, probably less that 15 minutes, but I wasn't watching the clock closely. In the process of doing the update, iTunes also explained to me that if I wanted to listen to podcasts, I now needed the Apple Podcast app. If you're someone that prefers planning ahead and you don't know, you may want to get that one as well.

So I've got everything installed now, and I'm just left with my first impressions of the new software, which I can sum up in one statement:

I like the new features, but I hate the new interface.

There are a bunch of great new features in iOS7 -- long overdue features.
  • You can block contacts (calls, IMs, etc) in iOS7.
  • You can turn WIFI or Bluetooth on or off from a simple one-button click using the controls that slide up from the bottom of the screen.
  • Theoretically, iOS7 is better at managing your battery, so you don't have to be as conscientious about killing apps.
  • Folders now page. I went from Games1, Games2 and Games3 folders to a single Games folder.
But as for the interface, I find it horrible.

I hate the "flat" design. While I can appreciate the push back against some of the overdone skeuomorphic elements, stripping them out completely turns the interface into a rather cartoonish rendering. In this USA Today interview, this is how Jony Ive explains it:
"When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn't need physical buttons, they understood the benefits," says Ive. "So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way."
Ive is referring to iOS 7's more simplified and almost two-dimensional feel, particularly when it comes to app tiles. The so-called skeuomorphic template established during Jobs' time — where real textures and objects are mimicked, such as the green pool table felt of the Game Center app — was laid to rest in favor of a less fussy look. Game Center is now just a series of colorful bubbles.
For years, interface designers and artists have looked for ways to add dimension with 3D textures and effects in 2D space. They do it not because we're uncomfortable touching glass, but because 3D illusions make environments immersive. It makes it easier for us to establish order and structure, to find things that stick out -- like buttons. Not stupid 3D like the glasses, but simple, basic depth of field. Perspective.

And then we have this explanatory quote for the graphics from Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering:
"This is the first post-Retina (Display) UI (user interface), with amazing graphics processing thanks to tremendous GPU (graphics processing unit) power growth, so we had a different set of tools to bring to bear on the problem as compared to seven years ago (when the iPhone first launched)," he says. "Before, the shadowing effect we used was a great way to distract from the limitations of the display. But with a display that's this precise, there's nowhere to hide. So we wanted a clear typography."
This is the justification that they're providing for using the ultra-fine type and for elements like the face on the clock app actually keeping time. Now, you could attribute my dissatisfaction over these elements to the anti-glare screen protector that I use or to the recent addition of reading glasses to my tool bag, but this ain't working for me, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be problematic for the parents and grandparents that were a pretty strong iPad demographic.

Hard to read is an understatement. Combine the ultralight fine type with the stripped 3D visual cues and what you have is possibly the worst interface to come out of Apple, ever.

Wrapping it Up
In working with artists, designers, and creative people for over twenty years, one of the things that I've learned is that they all go through phases of creative infatuation and boredom. "I'm so bored with this color, that logo, or this technique." Often the creative voice will express itself in a response to this, exploring new ideas and strange new worlds. Sometimes new ideas bring in an influx of life, windows into the unexpected. Other times, they just don't work. It may be a good idea, an interesting direction, or the spark for something greater, but by itself it's not ready for prime time.

In the art world, passing through these kinds of phases and periods is perfectly acceptable. Not every Bob Dylan album is Blonde on Blonde. Sometimes you need to go through a Good as I Been to You to get to Time Out of Mind. But when you're providing tools that are used by schools, businesses and people around the world, there's a lot less room to creatively swerve if you're making a wrong turn.

This is why it's important to have an editor. You need someone to work with the creative voice, to direct it and filter it. You need someone who understands the need to explore the outer limits of those ideas and try them, but who -- at the end of the day -- can align them with larger goals of the narrative (or the business).

Consider Disney. As tired and recycled as so much of their generic promotional materials are, they continue to connect with their audience and move that product. They may stretch a concept here or there, but they remain focused on their core business identity. Sometimes larger creative businesses like Hallmark cards will empower creative spin-offs like their Shoebox line, empowering the exploration of ideas that don't seem to fit within the existing brand.

I can see the creative pendulum swing in the new interface -- the response to so much design out there being a copy of your original work along with the frustration surrounding the overuse of some of the skeuomorphic elements that were being used -- but this interface change has crippled the device. If I can't use the phone without magnification, then it is not user-friendly. Instead of being invisible, iOS7 has become a barrier to using the device.

So here you have this trade-off -- some great new features versus a horrible new interface. You might think twice about upgrading, but then you're saddled with the other terrible anchor -- compatibility. Everything going forward is built around this version, not the older one. MacWorld has a possible path if you want to attempt to revert back to the previous version, but the reality is that this isn't something like Windows 8 where you can just blow it out and install Windows 7. Having recently been forced to upgrade to Mountain Lion from Snow Leopard, I came across another one of those stupid designs gone wrong -- the reverse touch-scroll direction implementation designed to make the touch experience more tablet-like. With Mountain Lion, it's a simple setting that can be turned off -- we don't have that flexibility with the iOS7 interface.

While I look at aspects of iOS7 as the design equivalent of a retro 8-bit style that has become hipster-popular, I hope that the lack of utility will force the company to correct this course. But ultimately, this will be an interesting measure of the new Apple. Will they be able to find there way past this or will we see a bunch of corporate shills running around providing cover for this directional blunder? Only time will tell, but my phone contract date is looking like an important milestone for my user experience.

As a postscript to this thought, you'll see a number of places report that the interface improves once you get used to it. Remember those videos where a baby is able to pick up an iPad and use it? That's because before iOS7, the interface didn't require you "to get used to it". It makes you wonder whether they did any UI testing on the toddler demographic (side note: I'll bet toddlers love ultralight type faces and 8-bit graphics too).

For me, I've found that the new interface has succeeded in doing something that no previous version has been able to do -- it's reduced the amount of time I interact with the phone. And not because it's streamlined the functionality, rather, because I just don't want to interact with it. Using iOS7 is like choosing to drive in traffic -- it's a daily exercise in frustration. It's truly mind-boggling to think that this came from Apple.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Interesting Cross-section of Marketing Spending

I came across this post, The Battle for the Marketing Cloud, on Pandodaily yesterday. Mostly, it's an overview of the current dynamics of the market for marketing software. However, there's an interesting tidbit in this, an overview of marketing program spend percentages -- it's something that you might find useful in presentations and benchmarking your own programs.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

More On US Data Monitoring vs. Cloud Computing

Here is another link to analysis on the potential impact of US data monitoring on the cloud computing industry. This one features numbers and links to an interesting white paper that looks at the potential revenue losses to cloud computing companies here in the states.

Snowden’s gone but his impact on cloud computing remains

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thoughts on why Apple's current ad campaign sucks

If you've watched much TV lately, you've probably seen this Apple ad.

Sitting around this weekend, it occurred to me what I really don't like about this campaign. In one word, melancholy.

From the quiet, sad little keyboard track to the shots of people having fun at a distance, the whole ad seems more like an excerpt of a depressed video diary. It's like the ad is saying, "I am a sad, disconnected viewer, looking into a world that I can't touch, that I can't participate in. The only sound I hear is the melancholy sound of my own world."

It's like, instead of selling Apple products, their goal was a PSA suggesting that you give up this connected world and trade it in for Prozac.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Marketing and Game Theory

The other day I was catching up on some of my podcast listening. This episode of the Freakanomics Radio podcast, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, has a couple of great observations about game theory and it's relationship to marketing. Quoting Levitt from the transcript:
the difficulty is that game theory really only applies to a narrow set of problems. That’s a set of problems where there are just two or three, or a very small number of actors. And it really does much better when either the game that is being played is repeated an infinite number of times, the same game is played exactly over, and over, and over to infinity, or it’s played precisely once. It turns out that in the middle ground of there being a handful of participants, or a handful of plays, game theory doesn’t often do such a great job of solving our problems.
And this:
There are two things that are important to doing well in strategic settings. And the first one is knowing enough and being skilled enough to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. So you cannot do game theory unless you can say if I do this, she will do that, if I do that, she will do this. Because that is so fundamental to game theory that if you aren’t in the habit or don’t have the ability to understand how someone will react, you have no hope whatsoever. The second trait, which is valuable, is to be able to look many steps into the future. So you can be only so good at game theory if you can think to yourself if I do this, then he does that. Really good game theorists, the most skilled ones will say if I do this, then he’ll do that, then I’ll do this, then he’ll do that, then I’ll do this and he’ll do that. And that’s kind of the difference between a really good chess player and a not so good chess player is being able to see down the road much further.
Rather than comment extensively on these quotes, I think it's worth noting the observations relative to marketing. Many marketing activities involve making grand projections based on a small set of data. It's also a good reminder that many of our activities involve putting ourselves in the shoes of others. Without this fundamental understanding, our ability to make effective observations and predictions sucks.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are We Finally Done With 3D Movies?

And I thought I was the only one who thinks that the 3D format sucks! Here's a story I came across this morning that gives me hope...


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Exploring the Impact of Government Data Monitoring

I don't have to comment on here, but I came across a couple of noteworthy stories that you may or may not have seen in this weeks news.

First, this story about a family who discovered that a coincidental Internet search of "pressure cookers" by the wife and "backpacks" by the husband resulted in "how to get a visit from the cops".

Next, we have this piece from the Guardian, looking at the potential impact of government data monitoring programs on cloud computing. Will this be the death of the Internet?

Full disclosure: this post is published on Blogger, a Google product, and is accessed over the Internet. Therefore, it is potentially subject to the concerns raised in the above stories. Caveat emptor.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Celebrity and Story: Marketing at the Intersection of Fantasy

Several years ago while I was riding my bicycle up a lot of hills, I changed the inner chain ring on my bike from a 30-tooth gear to a 28-tooth gear. This makes it easier to pedal up hills. In the days leading up to installing it and actually riding, I had dreams of effortlessly pedaling up mountains. Not just sleeping dreams -- my idle moments were often filled with fantasies of easily spinning through the steepest sections of Old La Honda. Of course, that first time when I actually road up Old La Honda with my new chain ring, reality came crashing in -- climbing the hill was work. It was still work with 28-teeth, and when your body and your mind are loaded with physical labor, it's really not possible to say whether it's easier or not -- it just feels like work. This is reality.

Sales and marketing is all about selling the dream. It's about connecting with the customer's imagination and helping them live their fantasy. It's the customer, imagining themselves in that new car, enjoying the road. It's them walking into the casino, feeling like James Bond on his way to the Baccarat table. It's them, gloriously unifying their global business and solving all of it's communication problems with a single piece of enterprise software.

People don't dream about features and specifications. Sure, I was dreaming about a chainring with 2 less teeth, but I wasn't dreaming about teeth. People don't dream about two more megapixels; instead, they're more likely imagining clearer pictures or capturing more image detail. While they may fixate on 2GB more RAM, what they are probably imagining is a faster system and not waiting for screens to load or things to process.

At the same time, a powerful fantasy has roots in reality to help make it tangible. Try selling someone on the idea that the system is faster or the camera takes better pictures without giving them a reason why, and they'll have trouble connecting with it. That specification provides an anchor for the fantasy, something to tell them that this can be real, that this is not simply a fantasy. Features and the believability of a fantasy are closely related, and it's why it often helps to attribute benefits to a branded terminology.

The Celebrity Narrative
As I mentioned in my previous post on celebrity and story, most of what we imagine that we know about celebrities springs from the characters that they've portrayed. Perhaps you fell in love with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Natalie Portman in Garden State. While we all know that in real life these actresses may not be anything like the characters that they portrayed, our understanding of the actress is filtered through a lens of that character. So when we see pictures of Kate Hudson or read interviews with Natalie Portman, we focus on the parts that reinforce our expectations that the actress and the character are the same. We forge our archetypical hero.

The entertainment industry understands how powerful this fantasy engine is, so it directs a lot of effort into reinforcing these fantasy structures. That's why actors and actresses are often cast in roles that echo characters that they've portrayed in the past. Everyone knows the word typecasting, but we always usually think of it in terms of the limitations to an actor's career -- we don't usually think of it as a branded narrative.

Some of these narratives are so powerfully entrenched that they become intertwined with the celebrity. Take the recent example of Harrison Ford at Comic Con -- he can't escape his Han Solo / Indiana Jones narrative. Sure, he's acted in many other movies and played many other roles, but many public expectations of him revolve around that narrative center.

Selling the Dream
At the end of the day, if your product or service doesn't connect with an audience and inspire them to dream, you are going to have a hard time selling. In some ways, your role as a marketer is about finding the dreams, understanding the fantasies, and reinforcing them. But this is not just attention-grabbing image we're talking about -- this is about the deeper elements of the narrative. It's not just features. It's not just fantasy. It's the intersection of the two. Something that seems both impossible and plausible at the same time, a reality that is just a couple of simple steps away.

Friday, July 26, 2013

F Those Guys: LinkedIn Markets by Inciting a Riot

In the past two weeks, I've had to answer five different rounds of questions about a Linked In "Company page". When I say five different rounds, that's essentially questions about the same topic, repeated five times in five different ways from five different people. Well, truth be told, one of those was the same person relaying a stream of conscious question that was about the same topic but raised in a slightly different way.

For your average moronic observer (like the guy who raised the question twice), it's a simple question of WTF, this area is hot, people are submitting inquiries, there is interest, WHY AREN'T WE DOING SOMETHING?!?  Meanwhile, you and I, we're trained marketing pros -- we're sitting back, glassy eyed thinking, "what is this about"?

Linked In's company page feature is not new. It's similar to company pages on Facebook. It's a dynamically created page assembled from their database based on people selecting that company as where they work. From there, the page can be expanded with supplemental content. All well and good. Linked In also enables people who register with a company domain email address to become 'Admins' for the page. This ad hoc approach to administration is not new either, but it does raise important things to consider about who is publishing your company data and on which sites. If your company chooses not publish on Facebook or Linked In, should you have to monitor these types of sites that enable ad hoc administration and publishing?

But my real concern with Linked In's company page is that their product section. If you don't have products listed, they have a link that allows you to send a message to the company to let them know that you'd like to see their products and services listed on the page. This is the source of my recent round of WTF emails.

Essentially, Linked In wants to incite their visitors to shame our business into building content for their site.

So, as a marketing pro, the question that you have to ask is who is the audience for this and how do they use this content? How is it different from content that they have elsewhere? And why should we have to add content to their site when they could simply link to our web site?

While I understand using Linked In to help with hiring or to research social relationships in a business, I'm at a loss to understand how putting information about our products and services on their site is supposed to help our business -- unless our business is recruiting or sales consulting.

The Shame Engine
The really stupid part of this Linked In issue is the whole "send a message" aspect of this. Let's call it a shame engine. Essentially, it's similar to social shaming apps that try to drive behavioral change by socially publishing information about what you do so that you'll feel obligated to behave differently that might otherwise. Of course, it's one thing when you choose to use one of these things, it's another when you are simply subjected to it. That's kind of a dick move.

But using a Shame Engine is not limited to Linked In. Microsoft recently released an app for Windows Phone users called "Where's my App?". The app is supposed to help Windows Phone users find apps that are similar to software that's available on iOS or Android. But if you can't find a Windows Phone version of the app, it allows you to "send requests to app developers, encouraging them to develop for Windows Phone".

Ultimately, I think that attempting to leverage this approach against a business in this way is a significant marketing misstep for company using it. For Microsoft, it smells of desperation. With Linked In, there has always been sense of skeptical discontent inside the corporate firewall -- this is likely to push policies on restricted use.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Celebrity, Image & Story: On Lainey, Gossip, and Branding

It is with a touch of reluctant embarrassment that I must confess... that I often find myself reading certain celebrity gossip blogs.

It's not that I find the lives of celebrities that interesting. In my early years in the corporate world, I started reading through the entertainment news in order to expand my awareness of pop-culture topics -- basic research into the things that the people in the office seemed to be interested in. Now I think of it as light reading to build your marketing vocabulary -- without some pop-culture awareness, it can really be a struggle to communicate across generations. Left to my own interests, my cultural vocabulary would be even more alien and disconnected than it was 20 years ago. 

Perhaps now, as you read this, you're thinking that it's just me, my dirty little secret. In reality though, an interest in celebrity is everyone's dirty little secret. But rather than just me providing an explanation, here's Elaine Lui, Lainey from Lainey Gossip, with her TED talk The Sociology of Gossip (here's an amusing profile of Lainey). If her presentation doesn't sell you on why you should consider reading her blog -- or at least not feel guilty about your interest in gossip -- let me connect a few more dots for you.

First, let's start by looking at the entertainment industry as Lainey relates aspects of it in her TED presentation. Behind the celebrities there are a host of publicists and programs, all designed around marketing an image, a brand, a project, or a media product. The entertainment industry is PR, advertising and promotion every day, 24 hours a day. It's a story that is also business, full of messaging strategies that succeed and true tales of tragic messaging failures.

From a business perspective, a perfect current events example might be the story of Paula Deen. From her ascent, to her food and her brand identity, Paula Deen rose through the Food Network promotional engine to become a significant national brand. While the style of food that she promoted wasn't particularly healthy, her brand image was used by a number of businesses to endorse their products. When it came out publicly that she had diabetes, it was a problematic PR moment, a speed bump for the brand, but it didn't cause the entire brand to collapse. Likeable and homey image continued to sell. Until the more recent revelations of her 'racial' past when the brand suffered a catastrophic shot and the endorsement deals began to collapse.

On Lainey Gossip, Lainey sometimes refers to the idea of the school for "celebrity studies". They've also put together several "career prospectus" pieces that take a look at specific actors, their image and their entertainment business activities, then speculate about their career and possibilities. Celebrities and their image are wrapped in story. Take Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson, the stars of the Twilight series. The gossip blogs (and perhaps the promotion arm of the movie franchise) built them out to be a couple. Demographically speaking, it was very popular with their fan base. At the same time, other gossip blogs characterized the relationship as fake, a PR construction to help promote the films. Then there was the "affair" prior to the release of the final installment and the controversy that surround that. On one level, there is the story. On the other level, there are the questions that should be running through your mind as a marketing pro -- how much of this is manufactured? How is it shaped? What are the elements that work effectively and why?

The Illusion of Brand Identity
Brand is a story. It is an illusion. It's the conceptual framework that makes something seem special or more unique than something else. Paula Deen's brand was a friendly, down-home, comfort-food image. But how about the real Paula Deen behind that image? What is she really like? Perhaps the court depositions and the racist phrases are closer to reality -- or maybe they aren't. In reality, it doesn't really matter whether they are true or not; rather, that they had enough energy in them to change the narrative, to shift our perception of the story. At the end of the day, do we really know Paula Deen any better or do we simply have new brand story, a new image wrapper?

Perhaps because it is such an integral part of their business, the entertainment industry understands how important narrative is to celebrity and brand. Whether it's a crafted persona for an action hero actor, fake relationships or controversies and meta-news, a broad range of techniques and practices are used to increase visibility and awareness. Sometimes they are used to mask product aspects, like the straight publicity relationship of the gay actor, while sometimes they are simple promotion devices designed to raise visibilty -- like the 'leaked' nude sex tape.

But what is really interesting, and Lainey addresses aspects of this in her TED presentation, isn't just the details or the execution, it's the story outside of the story. This larger story framework, the narrative that encompasses the details, is the story of culture. It's a cross-section of demographic beliefs and expectations, of social values. This is the story that we want to believe.

Every day we willingly consume a diet of lies, half-truths and illusions, all with the purpose of supporting an existing internal narrative. We romanticize actors and actresses, idolizing their mythical persona with no real connection to the actual person in that role. And whether it's a carefully managed media or simply a case of selective hearing, we only absorb the things that support our narrative.

Take the story of Lance Armstrong and professional cycling. For whatever reason, we imagine that we know and understand the world of bicycle racing. It starts with the narrative that we know -- individuals, teams, and equipment, with the story of the event taking place through a snapshot of one or two hours of video clips. We build a framework of characters, personalities like Lance Armstrong, who we imagine we know. As we watch the race clips, our character, Lance Armstrong, acts and performs in expected ways. When we read interviews, he says the same kind of things. Even his books support the character that we know. And, as we watch him perform in the video race clips, we imagine that there is a competitive event taking place. We gloss over the business, the traveling theater being orchestrated around a cast of hundreds of paid performers and a media infrastructure that helps sell the show.

But we don't really know what it's like behind the surface of the illusion. We don't know what it feels like to get up in the morning with sore knees and a sore butt and a 100+ mile race day to look forward to. We don't know what it's like to work in a job where your performance is on display, when you're told to ride hard at this point or go slow at another point. We imagine the world of performance enhancing substances to be one like Popeye eating spinach magically crushing his competition, and not a standard part of the day-in-day-out body maintenance for performers that play the contenders. We imagine a lot but there is so much more that we really don't know. Was Lance Armstrong a rule breaker or a legendary figure-head an industry? Did he play the role that he did, say the things that he said, solely for personal gain or was that his job supporting the business, the industry? Dots of information from the media machine allow us to imagine much, but we really know very little.

Imagination + Fame = Tremendous Value Multiplier
In the world of infomercials, we're familiar with seeing the product that slices, dices and makes julienne fries, but the real sell comes when we start imagining how we would use the product. In that moment, the product has become real in a very special way inside your mind. In your head, the product moves into an idealized version of reality and plays a role in the narrative that you construct.  In that same way, 'celebrity' connects with the imagination part of your brain.

One of the things that I found rather amusing when I first came across the Lainey Gossip site was Lainey's 'Freebie 5'. Here's the basic description:
A concept inspired by Friends which I’ve called the Freebie Five - a list of 5 'unattainables' you’d have permission to tap without consequence from your significant other should the opportunity arise. The key to the Freebie Five is fantasy, whatever turns your crank. My criteria, however, is also determined by celebrity. Two bit no-names, no matter how hot they are, don’t rank. Because while intelligence is optional, fame never is.
While I'd never heard of it prior to finding her site, I've since found references to the same core idea in other areas that suggest that the basic theme is more common than you might think.

But, over time, one the thing that you'll notice as you read Lainey discussing her list, is how it changes and shifts, often centered around events or movies or public activities. Across a broader cross-section of people, you'll also find celebrities who capture the spotlight, only to see that spotlight fade from the public interest some time later. We all know the idea of 15 minutes of fame. But why is it that excitement from the attention rises and falls? Why is it that someone can appear on the list despite little, if any, direct knowledge of the person -- no idea whether they smoke, whether they smell bad, or whether you can share a conversation with them.

The reality is that we aren't enamored with the actor or actress, we are excited by the story. When Lainey is crushing on Robert Downey Jr., it's not the person, it's the media presence. It's a persona assembled in her mind from bits and pieces like Ironman, red carpet events, interviews and stories. It's a idealized character that doesn't include the ugly bits of reality that we all carry in real life like snoring, garlic-breath, or whether we remembered to put the toilet seat down.

We need to build these stories. We look for the pieces to construct our world. It's part of the reason why Playboy needs to include the Playmate profile, so that you have the framework to connect the photos and the image to a character, to make it human in your imagination. It's a lot like the perceptual processes that take place with change blindness and the invisible gorilla -- taking the perceptual moments and building them into something that seems tangible and coherent.

Celebrity, Modern Mythology and The Hero with A Thousand Faces
In his works on mythology, Joseph Campbell explores the idea of the monomyth, the hero's journey, a basic pattern that is found in many narratives from around the world. Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as "The Hero's Journey". While the structure of the monomyth exists in many books and movies today, the same kind of concept can be more broadly applied to celebrity gossip and popular culture. Examples of this can be found in some of the themes explored on Lainey's blog, aspects like celebrity relationships, motherhood, career strategies and public appearances.

As you watch the tides of celebrity day to day, what you can see is that these themes are more than just the minutia of life in the spotlight, they are often components in a media strategy, carefully played in order to paint the dots in a larger narrative. Some, like the announcement of Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy, are masterfully managed, while others can be seen as blundering media missteps. Others, like the efforts to address the media after photos of Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were published, were not so well managed. Sometimes, celebrities shape a story and it resonates. Other times it fails.

Here is a great post on Jessica Biel posting a photo on Twitter before the Met Gala. Essentially, Jessica Biel published an image of herself getting dressed and talks about having a tough time zipping her dress. As Lainey summarizes sarcastically, "Jessica Biel, she’s just like us! She has dress and zipper problems too!" From a messaging standpoint, Biel has attempted to shape audience perception of her, but her message didn't align well with her existing narrative. Minutia, yes, but it's an equally important reminder about message -- imagine if Larry Ellison tweeted images of himself putting gas in an SUV and complaining about $4 per gallon gas.

At the same time, there's another media at work here. The Biel image was posted on her celebrity blog site. While Lainey picked it up and commented on it unfavorably, it's possible that there is another audience in the general population, fans that follow her, that go to her site. An audience where this message resonates. Traditional celebrity gossip was subject to the filter of publications and media outlets. Now, the celebrity is able to reach out to their audience and connect directly.

This actually underscores an important change that has been taking place with the increasing importance of social media. While most of us could probably care less about the relationship between the two leads in the Twilight movies, the series built a particularly rabid fanbase, commonly referred to as Twi-hards. More than just passive fans, this audience channels their energy into aggressively communicating their expectations for the narrative back to the studios, the media outlets and the broader public. They campaign like a media tsunami. Here's an example. But, perhaps more important than this type of audience behavior, is the impact that it has on the narrative. Did Kristen Steward and Robert Pattinson get back together because they romantically reconnected or because their Twi-hard fan base demanded that their relationship hold through the final movie? And if it conflicted with their personal values, how much pressure did the studio put on them?

But This Is Business. Who Cares About Celebrity?
We all want to imagine celebrity as this mythical cast, performing in a pantheon of media and activity that is removed from our real world. In that same way, when people encounter celebrities, they are often interested in taking pictures, getting autographs, and documenting their encounters with their legendary figures. Celebrity is also relative. Your CEO may be a celebrity in your business, but virtually unrecognized outside of your company. Many Silicon Valley people might recognize Marissa Mayer, Mark Benioff, or Eric Schmidt, but how many people outside of the business world would recognize their names or know if that sat next to them on a flight?

At the same time, celebrity is a valuable commodity. Notoriety can help you command a larger salary, be hunted by recruiters, or have your opinion be considered. While lots of friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, or people in your LinkedIn network may not be a real measure of friendship, it does speak to some measure of communication influence. It is a measure of celebrity. How often to people turn to you for answers at work? How highly do the people that work with you in your industry regard you? You, the influencer -- this is an aspect of celebrity.

Celebrity is related to your personal brand. Your celebrity status is about who you are, how you promote yourself, and the narrative that people use to understand you. This is possibly the bigger lesson to understand from celebrity studies -- that the way people understand you, that the way they think of you is, essentially, a story. That story is a synthesis of who you are, and the role that you play in the narrative of the encounters that they have with you. Maybe it's your handshake, or when you talked about restaurants, golf, or wine. Maybe it's your cluttered desk, or the phone conversations with your girlfriend that everyone can't help but overhear.

Are you painting narrative dots that increase your celebrity status or making you seem like a trainwreck? Do you seem genuine in your interaction with others, like the stories of Robert Downey Jr., or do you seem nice when the cameras are on but hiding a mean, unpleasant personality like Reese Witherspoon's recent public drunkenness arrest in Georgia.

The Story and the Narrative Dragon
Here's something even more important to understand -- sometimes the narrative takes on a life of it's own. Sometimes you can't control the story, you are simply subject to the effects of being blown around by it. Take this example from the story of Sean Parker's wedding. Here, the story of his wedding started to catch fire as a story published by another media outlet. In several places, the Internet celebrity has attempted to change the narrative, to explain the events and shift the story away from "Sean Parker, anti-hero, eco-wrecker, redwood crusher and all around bad guy". What's more, while this story grew into a media storm, it started with an attempt to keep it private. According to Parker,
We chose a setting for our wedding that was a literal expression of our search for sanctuary — a place that was safe, private, and intimate. We chose a remote location (Big Sur), invited no press, and did our best to conceal that location from the press. We didn’t court attention — quite the opposite, we asked guests to check their cell phones and cameras at the door and we didn’t sell our photos to tabloids.
And yet, the story blew up. What may have started as the simple story of an ultimate nerd fantasy wedding,
a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to force 364 otherwise self-respecting adults to dress up in elaborate fantasy-inspired costumes, a feat of mischief that we were delighted to attempt. The Academy Award winning costume designer (for “Lord of the Rings”), Ngila Dickson, was our co-conspirator, and her brilliant designs exceeded even our wildest dreams.
transformed into a media dragon, a narrative monster. Here's how he describes what he took away from the experience:
The biggest mistake we made in wedding planning was forgetting about the media: that silent, invisible dragon breathing down our necks all along. Nothing has been more shocking to me than the media’s handling of this “controversy”: there were hundreds of articles written, and yet — incredibly — there was only one reporter who bothered to ask us for comment prior to publishing their story.
It's a story of dots, of tidbits crafted into a narrative. As noted earlier, we don't know the reality, we assemble a story from the pieces that we have available. In his critique of the media near the end of the piece, Parker talks about how, "social media has collapsed the traditional media roles of content producer, editor, publisher, and consumer into one and assigned those roles to literally everyone". This also holds true for what it means to be a celebrity, a public figure. As Parker notes, "the more we depend on social networks and other online services to share content with friends and family, the more we risk that our content inadvertently becomes public."

Ultimately, that's why you need to see yourself in terms of your brand, to understand yourself in terms of a media strategy. Because as much as people may want to imagine a world where our private life is not exposed or struggle to understand why Kim Kardashian is seen as a celebrity, this is our modern media. This is our modern reality. Sometimes you control the story. Sometimes, one little narrative dot can change the story and the story controls you.

Wrapping it up
If you've made it to the end of this long post, I hope that one of the take-aways has been an increased understanding of some of the interesting aspects of the celebrity industry. And, while it may feel a bit embarrassing to admit to reading about celebrity, you don't have to think lesser of yourself for it. If you do follow it and spend some time reflecting on the processes, themes, and aspects outside of the specific individuals, I think that you'll find yourself in a far better position to market in the modern world of social media. And should you become famous, you may want to keep these celebrity behavior tips in mind.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tiered Systems Suck: Lessons from Airline Customer Satisfaction

This morning I came across this article on Airline customer satisfaction, Airline satisfaction: below post office, above subscription TV. On the one hand, this comes as no surprise to anyone -- airline customer service scores have been terrible for years and, for most of us, there is a long list of painfully unpleasant events that rank above interaction with an airline. I suspect that if you could get across the country in four or five hours traveling by sewer, there would be a line of people opting for that instead of going through the airport.

But the interesting little tidbit in this article is the contrast between the customer satisfaction scores for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue compared to the other major carriers.
Low-cost carriers JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines led the industry with scores of 83 and 81, respectively; network airlines Delta, United, American and US Airways rated no better than 68, the survey found.
Now you can deconstruct these results in a lot of ways. You could wonder whether the results are shaped by the volume of traffic that the airline handles, or perhaps the demographic of the passenger. -- if travelers on JetBlue and Southwest are typically infrequent travelers that opted for the airline based on the low cost profile, they may have lower expectations for the results.

Fundamentally though, I think that there is a very different philosophy at play that makes a strong contribution to the contrasting perceptions -- the way that they view the customer. Both JetBlue and Southwest treat the passengers in their system equally. There is no first class. While JetBlue offers a pay-to-upgrade option for extra leg room, the default for both airlines is that all flyers are treated equally.

It's just a tiny variation in the business philosophy, but consider the implications of that difference. On Southwest or JetBlue, everyone on the flight is part of a community. You are equal citizens. When something goes wrong, you don't expect that there is some hidden intent at injustice based on the class of your ticket. Any perks you are awarded are likely equally available to everyone else and potentially available for a small fee.

Contrast that with the tiered service on the other carriers. From serving meals to people in first class to the cramped, unpleasant seats at the back of the plane, if you found yourself stuck in the lower priced ticket options on one of the major carriers, you are treated -- poorly isn't really the right word because it's worse than that; it's more of like testing the limits of human tolerance. Would you be willing to sit in this tiny space for four hours for $50? How about fitting all of your stuff into a carry-on for $50? Can you go without food for four hours for $200? It's kind of depraved and, when your in the system, everything is a reminder of that reality. The major carriers may try customer-service-oriented messaging, but for the majority of people on the plane or interacting with their system, it sounds disingenuous.

Airline customer satisfaction is similar to broader problems with the inequality inherent in the austerity programs. While 'belt tightening' may appear to be equitable to someone looking through the rose-tinted lens of first class, 'equally distributed' has a much larger impact when the standard for economy treatment dances with the definition of humane. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, while I find myself increasingly choosing airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, people in the main cabin class of an economy have no alternative carriers available.

If there is a take-away from these airline customer satisfaction numbers, it should be a reminder about the positioning of options in your product offering. Rather than differentiating products by crippling essential features and making lesser products unappealing, it's probably better to determine a base level service that meets the broad range of customer needs and wow your that base of customers with an amazing product.