Friday, January 11, 2013

why it's so hard to blog regularly

i think it only fair that i explain my erratic posting behavior, since you, the 17 folks who apparently think there's something worth reading here, continue to return -- a fact at which i am simultaneously surprised and amused.

the truth of it is -- and i realize this sounds ridiculously simple -- blogging (or maybe i should qualify that by saying, "for me, blogging...") takes a fair amount of time and energy.  i admit to being something of a perfectionist when it comes to writing, especially my own.  so the thought of crafting something that i may later return to and realize i could've done so much better is vaguely, at turns, both depressing and annoying. what if i don't say it well? what if people simply don't find these crazy rants informative or meaningful or provocative? what if i don't remember to include something important? 

it's true that many good blog posts are not lengthy and leave out more than they include.  seth godin, one of my heroes, has a blog and today his post is exactly 75 words long. that's about half of the words it's taken you to get here.  and he actually said something interesting, which, after now appx 180 words, i realize i've still yet to do.

being naturally curious (and feeling the pressure to make this post do something, anything to warrant your continued attention), i set off on a google search for "the world's shortest blog post."

i love the internet. of COURSE there's content that indexes on this query. here we go:

The world's shortest blog. this appears to be a site where interested democrats could donate to an account that would be used to pay a bounty to a person who would ask then President George W. Bush how many times he'd been arrested. it even had a companion page but it's unclear what was supposed to happen here.

Jane Fonda.  seriously, she has a blog called "shortest blog ever." it's a weird little story about how she's not feeling well, in addition to some pages about her filmography and a curious recipe for brussel sprouts.  brussel sprouts are my next-to-least favorite food, second only to liver, but i guess others like them.  (and so if that's you, here's the payoff for reading today's "blog about nothing.")

Takey Tezey.  An unusual thing about a family who lives on some kind of boat.  but this is really not a very short blog post, so not sure if i missed the point or didn't read enough of it (but then again, it was supposed to be short so i didn't feel compelled to do so).

Wondering about the end of the world in Tiffin, OH.  This one qualifies.

And finally, the best of the lot... Lish McBride, a very funny writer, writes "the shortest blog entry in the history of blog entries," and then asterisks the statement, saying "*This is probably a lie. There are probably much shorter blogs entries out there. I'm way too lazy to look into this."

Lish had the right idea.  Maybe THAT should have been this post.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

The real audience and the actual audience (a tribute to Barron Blackman)

barron in 1979, with ruth pritchard
so the last couple of weeks have been extremely challenging ones, as my team and i endeavored to stand up a new global integrated website.  it was a massive undertaking -- 15 million words, 1100 pages, ultimately to be rendered in 16 languages.  we were pulling much of this content from a constellation of 50+ hard-coded legacy sites, none of which shared any sort of common taxonomy or nav with any of the others.  it would be like going to a rag-tag orphanage and saying, "ok children... we're now going to change your hair color, eye color, facial structure, height, weight and body type, as well as what you say and how you speak and where you live and go to school, so that you appear to have the same parents and all these other kids appear to be your siblings."

anyone who's ever done this knows what a beast it is.  you have to try to drag in an enormous number of people, each of whom is typically invested in his/her unique environment and doesn't often understand how the whole is better than the sum of the parts.  sometimes they come willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming, and sometimes not at all.  we had some of each of these in our project.  to try to drive to a specified completion date, we pressed on without complete input, hoping that we were getting it right enough to start and we'd fix the rest on the fly.  one thing we didn't do, though, was to involve our distribution network, because we weren't intending to change any of the extranet tools they use to interact with the business.  it was supposed to be business-as-usual for them; our thought was that their input on the website itself would be represented by our internal group of testers as well as a number of external users we surveyed for content organization, site usability, intuitiveness of navigation, etc.

many years ago, i went to high school with a guy named barron blackman, who was one of the most brilliant, creative people in my circle of friends.  we stayed in touch throughout college and afterwards, during which time he formed Ate Trax, a small media production company, with his younger brother and another friend of ours.  Ate Trax -- and barron directly -- was responsible for some of the most creative B2B industrial work i've done in my career, including for square D company, where i worked in the early 1990s.  here's a clip of barron trying to help us market some important educational content that wasn't seeming to get noticed via traditional means:

the square d sales force, which was the target audience, ate this stuff up with a spoon and actually learned something from it ... but the company's executives didn't care for it, thinking it too funny for business purposes (i find it interesting that 20 years later, not much has changed in this vein, despite the huge popularity of humor as a marketing driver and educational tool).  barron had a way of describing this, which was to talk about the "real" audience and the "actual" audience.  the "real" audience is the people who are the target for what you're trying to communicate.  the "actual" audience is the people who will naysay or even kill your great ideas because they don't understand the "real" audience and believe themselves to be the target of your communications, even though they're not.

in the case of our website, these channel partners turned out to be the "actual" audience.  they'd been using the legacy constellation of sites for so long that the new site, because it was different, was automatically worse even though it fixed obvious problems.  for example, in the legacy constellation, additions of products or capabilities were simply tacked onto the bottom of lists because it was easier than trying to figure out how to insert them in the code to keep the list alphabetically organized.  in the new site, items appear in logical alpha order automatically.  but when one has neural pathways that say "in this site, F comes after R," that kind of change can be difficult. these folks are looking at products pasted squarely in the middle of the page and not seeing them.  this is typical in web updates, and usually these issues resolve themselves fairly quickly as users revisit the site and re-form those neural pathways to match the new nav.

the real audience is not having issues -- we know this because on the server we can see them moving about swiftly, downloading with abandon, apparently finding material with no issues.  the actual audience, on the other hand, wants us to make the new site look like the old site.  this is rather like saying we should build a new house with the same creaky boards and bad lighting of our old houses, which doesn't make much sense.  so we're busying ourselves with giving them tools to sort of guide their journey in the new house; links pages that say "ok, what you had in that cabinet before is here now" and "this new closet has all the stuff that was wadded up into a ball in that space under the stairs"  so they can find what they're looking for more easily.  i'm hoping it will work.

barron sadly took his life last week; he had just turned 51.  he'd been struggling with depression and a host of other issues for many years.  i'd not been in touch with him in some time, and i feel terrible about that.  but i'll always remember his comments about "the real audience and the actual audience."  his advice, as i recall, was to stay focused on the real audience and hope that the actual audience eventually comes around.

in keeping with my company's social media policy, it should be noted that this blog represents my personal views on marketing and communication, and not necessarily those of my employer.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A tale of 2 cities: Dallas vs Youngstown

so, finally ... it's today.  after massive -- ok, just 2, but it still felt massive -- weeks of build-up, the packer/steelers craze has reached full tilt here in milwaukeeville.  today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which most days is not what i would call an icon of journalistic excellence despite its coupla Pulitzer prizes for local reporting, could not bring itself to avoid mention of The Game in ANY section.  sports, ok-- obviously.  even local -- i get it.  but the food section featuring a giant 2-page story on green and gold vegetables? seriously, enough already.  fortunately, we also get the Chicago Trib (which i think of as the "real" paper) so we could also see the continuing coverage on the mess that is egypt. and curiously, my response to that issue is also "seriously, enough already."

i personally am a steelers fan by birth and a packer fan by marriage, so clearly the best option for me would be to spend the next 5 hours under the covers or getting buried in a 6' snowdrift in my front yard.  but instead i am blogging about it, which, really, is sort of the same thing.

many of the stories in the paper today quoted people talking about the SuperBowl as a "national celebration," a "break from mid-winter blues," and even "part of America's civil religion."  it seems to me these make too much of the thing ... but then again, when 1 out of every 3 US households are watching, i guess it's a pretty big deal.  many people would correct me here and comment on how this isn't just a US event -- it is, they would say, a truly global behemoth with quite possibly more than a billion people worldwide tuning in.  of course, these same people are sadly misguided in that assessment, given that a truly global behemoth would be just about any World Cup event, with a global audience minimally 30 times that size.

what bugs me most about this is that (and no offense to the sport fan readers, including the one with whom i share my life) the size of the game and the accompanying hoopla drowns out stuff that has the sad misfortune to occur within the swirling vortex of all that is the Super Bowl.  for instance, earlier today i asked that same sports fan, "what do you think it would take to get people to focus on something else besides the game?"  he looked at me blankly.  i pressed on, "what about a terrorist incident? what if another city got attacked?"  he said, kidding, "well, it would depend upon when and where it happened, and how close that was to gametime."

in a terrible ironic twist, he just called me regarding today's shooting at Youngstown State.  and so i wonder how much attention Youngstown, Ohio will be getting today.  will the networks dispatch crews from Texas to Ohio for continuing coverage, the way they would have if this sad event happened yesterday, or tomorrow?  or will they just report on this story up to gametime, take a break for 4 hours, and resume as though nothing had happened in that stretch of time?  will they just run crawls under the game footage, bringing us up to date in words, so as not to disturb the pictures of Rogers and Roethlisberger living up to their potential the way Jamail Johnson, the 25-year old who was shot and killed about 3 hours ago, will never get a chance to?  it will be interesting to see which city -- Youngstown or Dallas-- is more in the headlines today.  i am a betting woman, and i wouldn't be picking the former.  i've had ESPN on for the last hour or so, and haven't heard a word yet.

when i was thinking about this post yesterday, i was planning to make it all about the hoopla -- the ads, the BEPs twitter-led halftime, the event craziness and the other things that make it a marketer's dream.  i was going to talk about the possibilities for local companies and organizations in any community to ride along on the hype, as was so cleverly done by the Wisconsin Humane Society and its local Puppy Bowl.  but now all i can think of is what's going on -- and what's not -- in Youngstown.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

the third dog

so.  it's been a year.  actually, for those of you who like to acknowledge the passage of time in arcane ways, it's been 1 year, 6 weeks and 1 day.  if we had been marking my blog posts on the molding of your kitchen doorway, there would be a giant gap between the last post and now, as though some weird growth hormone had alluvasudden kicked in.  when i was a child (well, okay  ... until the time i was 17 and was forced to acknowledge that it was likely i'd be vertically-challenged for the rest of my adult life), i would occasionally ask my mother to do that doorframe thing.  she refused, at the time claiming the house was dirty enough without us intentionally writing on the walls.  with the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, i now know it was because SHE knew the growth hormone was not going to kick in.  she was 4'10," married to a guy who was 5'2," and mother of 2 other girls who were maybe 5'1" (including the one who says she's 5'3").  indeed, my mother was no idiot, and she was clearly aware of what was not going to happen, pencil marks be damned.

anyway, there are a number of reasons why i've been absent from this venue, and trust me, they're all good.  but the one about which i must opine today presents itself in the form of Bosco Levy, the third dog in the Levy household ... and today's marketing metaphor.

Bosco is a rescue dog who came to us last summer.  he'd been nearly starved to death and you could see his ribs from across the room.  you'd think that would've made him a mean, aggressive dog (ask anyone who knows me well about how i get when there's no chow), but he's really a very sweet creature -- in fact, almost overly so.  he has what, in dog training parlance, are sometimes called "attachment isssues."

this means he sometimes is a giant pain in the ass, like when you've got a giant basket of laundry in your hands and he gets under your feet,  and both you and the laundry go flying.  or when you step outside for a minute and he nearly commits doggie suicide by attempting to jump over the 2nd-level deck railing.  or when you're on the phone on a very important conference call, and he decides he needs to sit in your lap RIGHT THEN. did i mention that the act of covering the afore-mentioned ribs has made him an 80-lb dog? he cannot actually fit in my lap, but that doesn't keep him from trying.

i love this dog desperately, but he just wants to be too close.  and this, dear readers, is where i'm going with today's post.  often in marketing, you hear people say "we've got to stay close to our customers."  and as a general rule and correctly practiced, that's ok.  it means we need to be keeping our eyes open on their behalf, checking in with them occasionally, and absolutely being there for them when they need something, asap or sooner.  it does not mean we should be stalking them, following up unnecessarily, or pestering them with repeated requests for lunch or drinks, no matter how big our expense budgets are.  or putting our giant doggy head underneath the elbow that's holding the coffee cup and making a big mess of the kitchen table.

it also means we shouldn't be purporting to give them something for free when really it's not free at all.  earlier today, i wanted to download a "complimentary" document from the website of a firm with whom i've done business in the past, which is why i'm on their email list.  (and by the way, they sort of abuse the privilege of emailing me, but that's for another post.)  so i click on the link, expecting to get the "free" document, and see one of these ubiquitous contact form things that wants to know my name, my company, etc.  this is annoying for at least 2 reasons:

  • I AM A CUSTOMER. shouldn't they already know my name, address, etc? i'm on their frigging email list, for goodness sakes. why are they asking me to spend my time giving them info they already have? if my time is money, then is the document really free? or does it cost, actually, the amount of money represented by the amount of time it takes me to fill in their stupid contact form?
  • even if i weren't a customer, it's disingenuous to call the document "free" when i have to give them something of value to get it.  i suppose they don't think of my personal info as having "value" -- except when they're attempting to quantify the value of the "free document" program to their superiors -- but still, it pisses me off, and that doesn't really work to their benefit, does it?  even Bosco can tell you that the cookies are not likely to come out when i'm in this particular mental state.
i'm hopeful that eventually Bosco will chill out and realize that i'm still gonna be here for him, whether i'm upstairs, or around the corner or tied up on a call for a couple of hours. and so hopefully we as marketers will be able to relax and realize that sometimes less is more, and that you have a better shot at getting somebody to contact you based on a "free" document if that document is in fact really free. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

is your brand kicking your customer's seat?

the guy behind me is kicking my seat. not hard enough to make me turn and give him the death-stare (which is most effective on little kids but also works on some adults), but hard enough to be mildly annoying. I’m now having to sit up ramrod-straight, which my mother would have appreciated but which still is a minor inconvenience on this short 40-minute flight.

it makes me wonder if there’s a brand analogy for this – when a company or product inconveniences you enough to be irritated, but not enough to do anything about it (at the moment, at least). is this the insurance company that forces you to endure phone-tree-system hell, the cable company that responds to your reports of intermittent outages but doesn’t ever really fix the problem completely – yeah, that’s you, Time Warner – or even the crazy potato peeler that does a pretty good job until you accidentally shift your grip just an iota and –youch! – where’s that box of Band-Aids?

we know from experience that customers will actually put up with a truckload of crap from poor brands, products, services, and companies because doing anything different is just too hard. in industry parlance, this is called “switching costs” and in my view applies to both the economic and emotional hurdles that one has to vault in order to deal with something new.

switching barriers are thought to be most significant in situations where complex processes are in place – imagine, say, a conveyor line in a manufacturing facility, where replacing something typically has huge time/money implications – but I’d argue that consumers confront them in virtually every situation where satisfaction is lacking.  because at some point, the nature and/or amount of perceived benefit that can be gained from the switch exceeds the pain (both financial and emotional) that has to be endured to receive that benefit.

“perceived” is an important idea here. lots of brands have managed to get companies to switch just based on spin. this has been the case since the beginning of time in the wireless industry, where the level of marketplace churn – people moving between service providers in search of a decent-quality phone, with a simple, affordable plan, and coverage that actually enables you to use them both – is unparalleled.

remember what happened when they introduced number portability? I got in line immediately, if not sooner, to move from my then-current crappy carrier to its competitor, which was also crappy but it was at least a type of crap I hadn’t yet experienced. I then learned that the new crap was in fact worse than the old crap and switched back. Didn’t you?

my point…and I do have one …is that your customers may be closer to making the switch than you’d think. are you doing everything you can to ensure their complete surprise, delight and satisfaction with your company, brand, product, and services? Or are you kicking their seat just a little bit because it’s easier than figuring out how not to kick it and you’re pretty sure they’re ok with your crap and wouldn’t be motivated to check out somebody else’s?

and now, please excuse me while I move across the aisle -- where the seat behind me is unoccupied.

photo credit: the

Sunday, November 8, 2009

sneers & jeers for tiers

I know a PR dinosaur who insists the world of media relations should be regarded as some kind of medieval caste system in which there exists a “top tier” and a “second tier.” This is, of course, completely ridiculous, but in the interest of fairness to the prehistoric world, let us examine why the dinosaur believes this to be true.

In ancient times –- say, 1980-something, before widespread acceptance and use of the Internet and www -- it used to be that media outlet reach was the holy grail for pr professionals. Large newspapers like the NY Times and the Wall St. Journal, key news magazines like Time, NewsWeek and USN&WR, the wire services and the 3 broadcast outlets -- yes, this was pre-FOX and CNN,too -- delivered the largest audiences available.

Back then, if you worked in a pr agency, there was no better path to a continuing client retainer than favorable coverage of that client in one or more of those outlets. Since the metrics at the time were equally antiquated (see my post regarding clip counting and calculating value based on ad rates here), many pr folks made the argument that focusing on these “top tier” outlets made the most sense because coverage by those outlets would deliver the greatest value. And therefore, any publication or media outlet which had a smaller audience was defacto a “second tier” organization irrespective of the content it provided, the nature of its readers/viewers, or its ability to shape or drive perceptions.

Fortunately, some of us have been able to grow 2 additional toes on our hands and feet, lose the giant teeth and simultaneously expand our understanding of modern media relations. IMO, this view includes the following:

PR value is driven by an outlet’s ability to persuade the target. To be sure, it’s still a great thing if you can score a highly positive story in the NYT or the WSJ… but the problem is, how do we know your lovely bit on page B12 below the fold in the 4th column was even seen by a fraction of the publication’s readers, let alone what they thought of it? On the other hand, we know exactly how many people viewed a Youtube vid and what at least some of them thought based on the comments they left.  Plus, and it's a big duh, i know, content is king.  As REO Speedwagon said (in roughly the time of the afore-mentioned dinosaurs), "talk is cheap if the story is good."  We all know viral is here to stay, so it makes sense to get over the fact that people actually believe things they read and hear from sources other than the media moguls.

The most influential people don’t necessarily work for the largest outlets. In fact, there’s been much ado over the fact that those “top tier” folks are increasingly looking to the blogosphere, specialized content providers and other independent voices for story fodder and perspective. If you’re in, say, “green” arena, it’s good to have the ear of folks like Tom Friedman at the NYT … but you ignore Joel Makower, who writes for Green Biz, at your peril. I routinely see Joel’s ideas and stories surface in mainstream outlets, and he’s heavily quoted as an expert in the field. You don’t often see journalists quoted, except on stories about journalism. (Friedman is an exception to this, but then again I’d argue he’s not your average journalist-bear).

Immediacy trumps reach. I’m no psychologist, but I’d bet heavily there’s some scientific data indicating that a person’s ultimate perception of an issue is heavily influenced by the first information he/she gets about the topic. One may change one’s mind, of course, as more information becomes available from various sources … but it’s tough to undo the impact of the initial salvo. So the weapons of choice for savvy pr practioners have to include Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other real-time digital communications. As I said in "citizen reporting," breaking news has moved from the province of broadcast media alone to become something any human with a cellphone can create, without the benefit of editors, lawyers, or corporate communications policies. So instead of thinking, “I have to build a relationship with CNN” … think “what’re the folks at CNN looking at right now?” and participate there. This is the equivalent of skating not to where the puck is, but rather to where it's headed.

Priorities are useful -- I'm not saying that one shouldn't perhaps have a list of folks who are "must-go-tos" vs. "if-i-have-time-fors" on any particular topic ... I'm just trying to make the point that those priorities should be carefully framed based upon whom you're targeting, what you want to convince them of, and what types of results you're trying to achieve, not simply how many people may (or may not) be listening.

If you’ve got the bad luck of working for a dinosaur, or having one work for you … just try to sit tight and muddle through as best you can. We all know what happens to them, eventually.

photo credit: fugsgirl

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are people drawing their shades on your brand?

ok, this is a long set up but hang in with me...

as willy & hoover would tell you (if they could speak English), i'm in close contention for the dubious honor of world's worst cook. despite this, they continue to beg for food at the table, with varying degrees of success related, more often than not, to the level of puppy-eyes that they manage to deliver.

today, their efforts paid off with a hunk of something called "amish friendship bread."

the recipe for this bread apparently has been around for decades. it essentially involves a yeast-based starter, to which you add flour, milk, and sugar, and then you divide the mix into 4 portions. you keep one of the portions for yourself, and give the remaining 3 to your friends (hence the "friendship" in the name).

i got a starter portion from my neighbor, and, not wanting to disappoint her or develop any bad amish karma, followed the directions that left me searching for friends who i thought might actually do this as opposed to laughing hysterically and throwing the stuff away (which is what i would have done, had i received it from one of them).

a note from one came back with a comment that i thought was particularly compelling. it said, among other funny things, the following:

We have had this starter twice before, and I am always smitten with it. I vow every time that I won't let it die . . . ever. But then you end up with a freezer full of bread, 10 new lbs. and a bunch of friends who draw the shades when they see you coming with the dough.

yes, a long set up indeed, but hence the title of this post.

are your customers' friends drawing the shades when they see that dough -- your brand -- coming their way? i've mentioned before my point of view that turning customers into advocates is really the only true, sustainable way of building the virtuous cycle that delivers a strong brand. but what happens when your advocates run into challenges that keep that word-of-mouth, pass-the-bread-starter mojo from taking hold? minimally, a few things:

1) your advocates start to qualify their advocacy (as if "qualified advocacy" weren't already an oxymoron, of sorts.) if so many of their friends could have a bad experience with your brand, it must be that their positive one was a fluke. so as they go around, they'll say things like, "you know, i got a great product/service from brand x, but i heard others didn't."

2) your advocates start to lapse into neutrality. nobody wants to deliver positive word-of-mouth on a (potentially) bad brand, so often they won't say anything at all about it. if pushed, they'll go with something like, "yeah, i looked around at a bunch of different options, and this is what i ended up with. it's ok."

3) your advocates start to reverse polarity. it's hard to believe this can happen, but it does. when confronted with lots of bad examples from their community on whatever the brand in question is, the former advocate will begin looking for things that aren't yet wrong with the product/service ... but maybe all of a sudden it's not quite as good as he/she thought it would be. and when asked (and sometimes, even when not prompted), the person will say something like, "you know, i got this thing and i really regret my decision."

these conversations between friends matter more than any other element of the marketing mix. don't believe me? read andy sernovitz. read chris brogan and julien smith's "trust agents." think about times (and be honest) when your mind about something got changed, not because of something that actually happened to you but because of something somebody else said about what happened to them.

net net: don't set your advocates up to fail by delivering great experiences to a select few while you treat the rest of your target poorly. otherwise, when the advocates come calling, they'll find the shades drawn, and nobody home.

photo credit: wikipedia