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.