Unintelligent design?

I was speaking with some colleagues late last week about a meeting they sat in on with a (potential) new client. The client was planning to launch a new brand. “The what” (that the brand does or sells) has been omitted here to protect the innocent. Okay, let’s play ball! AU style…

– My colleagues and I agreed that the name was at best questionable. Trust me, none of us believes in political correctness but this name is such that it immediately excludes what could be a significant part of their target market , as well as the buyers, site / store owners, etc that stand between the brand and the consumer. For example, would you choose a name that purposely offends (for example) creationists? Probably not. As I understand it, the brand is supposed to be a new twist on 1960’s type themes (i.e., peace, love, understanding, etc.) Yes, I too like irony but it can certainly lean towards “die by the sword” pretty easily. Trust me, this one does.

Strike One… Right out of the gate they’re causing confusion, not being authentic nor consistent. Worst of all they’re going to upset some people somewhere. True, that’s always going to happen. But unless your image is anti-establishment then the risk of offending should be mitigated.

– The name is also a pretty common term. Granted they are trying to apply it to a different vertical but if you search for this term you’re going to get a lot of results. Sure, there are ways around this with various search manipulation techniques but why waste the energy? Let me put it this way, if you search for “Alchemy United” you are going to find *the* Alchemy United. No doubt, picking a name is tough.

Strike Two… A new brand is already a needle in the proverbial haystack, why make it more difficult to be found via web search?

– In the end, my colleagues got the impression that they didn’t get the gig. The brand supposedly went with someone with “more experience”. Fyi, these colleagues of mine are hardly under-qualified. Strangely enough the brand was hoping to be positioned as new, fresh, in favor of positive change, etc. In theory this sounded like a great gig but between you and I, I think my colleagues are better off waiting to see what’s waiting for them around the bend. There’s no sense getting trapped in the short term when the long term always has something better up ahead. You just have to keep your eyes open.

Strike Three… If they’re gonna talk the talk, then they better walk the walk. The greater the disconnect the more likely the consumer is to smell something fishy and spend their money on someone more legit. Does anyone really believe McCain stands for change?

Today is list day at AU – List #1

This one is yanked out of From the Publisher Section of CIO Mag (www.CIO.com, Sept 2008). Look in the Mirror by Gary Beach. The article is about Mr Beach’s thoughts on what makes a good tech sales person (but the majority of these apply to just about everyone. Both professionally and personally.)

10 – Understand your business
9 – Possess competitive intelligence/knowledge
8 – Provide ongoing support after the sale
7 – Have a strong technical background
6 – Are aware of business trends
5 – Offer solutions to problems rather than meet sales quotas
4 – Provide a high level of service

3 – Are honest and trustworthy
2 – Can think long term
And most important… 1 – Deliver on their promises

Great list. Another classic case of common sense that isn’t common enough.

We’d also like to add one, a tweak on #10 – Understand my business (if you’re gonig to try to sell to me)

Today is list day at AU – List #2

From the Sunday paper insert rag Parade (www.Parade.com) of all places. Yeah, *that* Parade. “The Secrets of America’s Great Presidents” by Doris Keans Goodwin. Here’s a run down of secrets but read the article, there are anecdotes with each that are very insightful.

Here are Ms. Goodwin’s 10 attributes that have distinguished great Presidents:

1 – The courage to stay strong
2 – Self-confidence
3 – An ability to learn from errors
4 – A willingness to change
5 – Emotional intelligence
6 – Self-control
7 – A popular touch
8 – A moral compass
9 – A capacity to relax
10 – A gift for inspiring others

(Btw, the list doesn’t appear to be in any particular order.)

Obviously, much like the other list today, many of these can be applied to all of us on a daily basis. More healthy food for thought for your AU state of mind.

Live by the search. Die by the search.

When it comes to successful web sites there’s no doubt that search is important. However, one needs to be careful not to build a business model that puts too many eggs in basket. Especially when you don’t have control over that basket. Especially when you don’t really know what’s inside the black box in basket. Especially when that basket is called Google.

While one might sympathize with the guy (Dan Savage) in this article where is his value add? What is he doing that’s so unique? Yes, it’s simple but his game is to play the spread in difference in price. Great! Ride that wave as long as you can. But did he not expect that somewhere along the line that the rules might change?

“Stuck In Google’s Doghouse” by Joe Nocera (NY Times, Sat 13 Sept 2008). True, stories like these aren’t exactly new news. That said, people continue to pursue approaches that rely on the strength of their search placement instead of focusing on the quality and value add of their product/service. Those are parameters you can control. Those are points of differentiation that you can market. But when the success of your marketing plan is just a gimmick that is subject to the tweak of an algorithm then having a smarterer guest-centric approach is probably in order.

Prevention is the best way. Yes it is.

Strike up another vote for being proactive. No pun intended. Please invest the 2 minutes in: “Prevention Is The Best Way” by Richard Carmona.

Unfortunately, if this whole Wall Street mess is any indication, we seem destined to continue to be a society of Management By Crisis (MBC). At this rate one has to wonder if a comet is going to hit the earth before we see it coming.

Btw, Dr. Richard H. Carmona served as the 17th surgeon general of the United States (2002-2006). He is national chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease (www.FightChronicDisease.org) and president of the nonprofit Canyon Ranch Institute (www.canyonranchinstitute.org).

We need to stop thinking about healthcare as if it’s some sort foreign entity. We are people and we need to take care of ourselves. We work for companies as well as exist in a society and that must also make an effort take care of us. Without us there is no commerce / society – and vice versa. It doesn’t matter what came frist – the ill citizens, or the ill society. We need to find solutions that address the whole disease and not just mask the symptoms of particular body part.

Made to Stick. Not.

In Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine (21 Sept 2008) was a Questions For with Mr Charles Murray (as interviewed by Deborah Solomon). Murray wrote “The Bell Curve” back in 1994 and has a new book out called “Real Education.”

In short, this guy has issues. Marketing issues to be exact. He might be right, not everyone is cut out for college. However, where he goes wrong is taking such an exclusive position. The fact that he’s an old white male only compounds that problem (but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.)

He would have been much better off selling this idea as being inclusive. For example, he would get a lot more buy in if his message is, “We all need to find what we love. What we’re best at. What will make us get out of bed in the morning. For some of us that’s college. For some of us it is not. Regardless, we as a society need to be firing on all cylinders. We need everyone to contribute the best they can at what they’re the best at…” He could have went on to talk about the number of people who get a degree and never use that degree. He could talk about the number of people who go to college because their family expects them to and they just end up dropping out.

Ultimately, he should be talking about how it’s best if everyone is happy and doing something they’re happy doing. How his new plan is about getting everyone to where they need to go – not telling people, “Sorry you, you and you can’t go here.” Being exclusive is only going to alienate those who you’re not including. Duh! And in this case, Mr Murray is excluding quite a few people. This is an idea that needs to be addressed. Mr Murray just needs to use a message that raises the tide instead of trying to sink other boats.

As a side note, and somewhat in the defense of Mr Murray, the fact is there is a certain amount of intended “‘over-booking” built into the college admissions system. Colleges admit students knowing they probably won’t graduate but also knowing they’ll pay. Like they say… When you want the truth, just follow the money.

Gimmicks are no substitute for having a company / brand that matters

“Rewards That Reward” by Lars Meyer-Waarden and Christophe Benavent is a fairly insightful overview of what are commonly called customer-loyalty programs.

“Rewards That Reward” was mentioned in an article in the WSJ print version but for some reason it’s not (yet?) on the WSJ web site. That’s certainly disappointing to say the least. Luckily it could be found on MIT Sloan Management Review (http://sloanreview.mit.edu).

Naturally, there are a couple things worth pointing out:

– In the 3rd or 4th paragraph they state: “Indeed, the proliferation of loyalty programs offering the same kinds of rewards has destroyed a key reason for them in the first place: differentiation.” We disagree – somewhat. It’s not the programs that lack imagination, it’s the marketing departments behind them. The last thing the world needs is another cookie cutter answer. Having a loyalty program isn’t enough to differentiate. The program itself must differentiate, or at least somehow be positioned to appear that way.

– This study was done in France between 2005 and 2007. How French your customer might be is up to you to decide.

– About half-way in they add, “Companies can use customers’ ages, incomes, sex and other factors to draw general conclusions about what motivates them…” But there’s a far better idea – just ask the guests  One-size-fits-all is obviously out, but there’s no reason to guess. Chances are pretty good the solution is going to be web based so just let your guests decide what they want for dinner and how they want it cooked. Obviously, that too becomes part of the guest’s profile that can be used to customize other communicated with them.

– They later say, “… An important step in designing rewards, then, is to make sure customers perceive them as being valuable.” Needless to say, duh! Sadly, there are companies who are going to find that level of guest-centricity as being some sort of stroke of genius.

For further reading the WSJ article did recommend for reading: SloanReview.mit.edu/wsj.

Web 2.0 Expo > Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services (http://aws.amazon.com) has been around for over a couple years now. At this point you’d have to be pretty far out of the technology loop to not have heard of cloud computing, computing in the cloud, etc. There have been countless articles on cloud computing and how it can reduce costs, streamline organizations, etc. At the Web 2.0 Expo there was an afternoon session on AWS hosted by Amazon.

There was an overview of the various services. That was followed by speakers who talked about their company’s use of AWS. That was followed by a couple bits by some VCs. All of it very inspiring. Again and again the point was made that AWS (read: for the most part their computing and storage services) provided flexibility at a fraction of traditional costs. Amazing stuff.

There is no doubt this is the future. On the other hand instead of asking, what am I doing now that I can do more for less. Maybe an even better question would be, what can now be done that just couldn’t be done before? What is the clouds’ first killer app going to be? That is THE question.

Web 2.0 Expo > SynthaSite.com

UPDATE: Monique V from SynthaSite checked in and did mention they do have some design templates that allow the header to be customized. She added that it’s not obvious which ones those are but that they are working on resolving that. Hey, at least they’re open minded as well as responsive.

Popped into NYC to catch O’Reilly’s (the tech book publisher) Web 2.0 Expo (www.Web2Expo.com) at Javits Center. True, I could have stayed home and found most of the stuff online but that’s no fun. There’s something to be said for a free happy hour. As it is those beers came in handy, my head feels like it’s ready to explode from too much information.

– SynthaSite (www.SynthaSite.com)

The exhibitor listing says: “SynthaSite is a free web publishing application that enables anyone, anywhere to publish their own website. SynthaSite’s SaaS platform is Ajax-based, enabling it to run on any browser and any operating system. The product is designed with user-friendly characteristics such as desktop-like features, widget capabilities and a drag-and-drop interface.”

This is the third do it yourself site builder that I’ve exploreed. The other two being Go Daddy’s (www.GoDaddy.com) Web Site Tonight (which is not free unless you want ads on your pages), as well as Microsoft’s Office Live (www.OfficeLive.com) which is free and without ads.

Bottom line, for price and ease of use Synthasite is the way to go (as these 3 offering stand today). However…

– I checked out their featured sites. One of them had a Share button (e.g., Digg, etc.) Clicking on that button opened up the selections in the same window (thus taking me away from the page I was thinking about). Call me lacking in short term memory but I would have liked a pop up or at least a new tab/window. That said, it’s quite possible this isn’t a SynthaSite issue. It’s also possible that enabling sharing isn’t a major concern for you.

– The same complaint holds true for their Help option. It’s hosted by Get Satisfaction (www.GetSatisfaction.com) which is certainly no foul outsourcing the cookie cutter services. But don’t open it up in the same window and take me away from where my problem is. No big deal, just right click or Crtl-click and open that way.

– I did a whip up a quick test site. In doing so I was immediately asked to put in a site name and pick a template. Fair enough, you have to start somewhere. What I was looking for was some sort of status bar or somehow letting me know what I’m doing now and what’s next. Similar to a check out on an e-comm site. Please keep in mind that I took a what-if-I-was-a-novice perspective – which I believe is SynthaSite’s typical target.

– There’s an option for password protect. Ok, I understand what that’s for but I’m not so sure your average novice will. Also, maybe what I’m assuming is not how SS implemented this feature so a brief explanation, as well as an example would be nice since this can be a useful and powerful option to use.

– In the Manage Site area the home page shows up as being called index. This too could be confusing for the web-dev challenged.

– On the plus, you can actually use SynthaSite to build a site and then export it to host it yourself. Not sure why you would want to do that but the fact that they allow it is a healthy open minded approach. Points.

– I did wish there was more flexibility with regards to editing the template. For example, there was no option to upload a logo that would appear in the header. Go Daddy let me change the header, and I believe the CSS. I would anticipate that level of customization is coming but the logo feature – especially for businesses – is a no brainer that should be there now.

– The help is a forum. IMHO, at this point these things should be a wiki, or there should at least be a How To wiki as part of the more dynamic forum based help. For example, “How do I….” and then as the app is enhanced and changes that wiki page can be updated. Nothing is more annoying than finding a solution in an old forum thread that is for a previous release of an app.

The wiki could also be used as a place where the user community can post their solutions. Maybe I’m looking for a good calendar. As the (RSS feed) “eco-system” evolves I want to know which one is going to work best, or what experience other had with each. Each user shouldn’t have to reinvent their own wheel. I mention this because when I helped a friend set up a free Microsoft site the “installed” options were pretty weak. We ended up to looking elsewhere for a calendar, photo gallery, etc. If I’m new to any of those things or just want to move to something new/better then suddenly I have to look around, test it out, etc. My feeling is that most of the time some one has already done what you’re trying to do. I just want to see that and know how they did it. Bingo! Done!! Having to reinvent the wheel in a Web 2.0 world is a big no-no.

– As harsh as this might sound, the main problem I have with all these do-it-yourself sites is that in order to really appeal to the target they’re after they’re still to difficult to use. Yes, they are simple and easy. But what I’d like to see is what can best be described as page wizards. Say I want a form for having people contact me. Well, then walk me through not only building the form but also suggest to me some fields and why or why not I might want to use those. People who are intimidated by stuff like this don’t want to play around. If you frustrate them, they’ll just shut down and walk away.

– In the name of no-brainer-ness, another option would be to have site templates. In other words, have all the basic pages for various types of sites pre-made and ready to go. Then just let the user fill in the blanks, and if they feel it necessary tweak a bit. Even being versed at this kind of stuff I’d rather have a frame to build on then to always have to build from scratch. Then the next step would be such that people could share their templates with the greater SynthaSite community. Just as templates with WordPress, Drupal, etc.

Just to be clear, I do think SynthaSite is off to a great start. While I’m sure there’ll be others, this is certainly one worth watching. If I were Microsoft I’d kill their Office Live option and buy this outfit. For a person / club / company to get into the web game for free with something this slick only shows you how far we’ve come. But what’s more exciting is how much brighter the future is going to be. So grab your sunglasses and check out SynthaSite.com.

How Comcast is making Verizon’s move to fiber even more genius

Full disclosure, I don’t like Comcast. At all. One of the worst customer service experiences in my life was with Comcast. Given the choice between Comcast and the Titanic, I’d take my chances on the Titanic. With that said…

“Comcast Treats Lightly” by Don Sweeting (Video Business Magazine, www.VideoBusiness.com, 8 Sept 2008). Btw, Don also does a noteworthy blog: www.ContentAgenda.com/Sweeting.

There are only two ways a company can get away with supplying less for the same price:

1 – Their competition is doing the same. In this case I don’t know of any other ISPs capping their customer’s usage. Internet access via cell? Yes, those often come with some sort of cap. But not DSL, cable or fiber.

2 – They have no competition. The truth is, from a marketing perspective, no company ever wants to give the other side a bat to be beaten with. If Comcast feared (for example) Verizon saying, “We have no limits. But those cable guys do” then they wouldn’t do it. No fear = no competition.

Btw, from a more technical perspective what you’re also seeing is the limitation of cable broadband. For those who don’t realize, when you have cable broadband you are actually sharing the pipe with others on your street. So if one user is sucking up all the bandwidth and thus compromising the experience of everyone else then Comcast obvoiusly feels it’s worth it to “confront” those heavy users. It wouldn’t be surprising if the next step is peak vs. off-peak pricing. It makes sense especially if the competition forces the issue.

The definition of organic search is going to change

Great one… “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close To You” by Clive Thompson (The New York Times Magazine, 7 Sept 2008)

About three-quarters of the way in you’ll find:

“Laura Fitton, a social-media consultant who has become a minor celebrity on Twitter — she has more than 5,300 followers — recently discovered to her horror that her accountant had made an error in
filing last year’s taxes. She went to Twitter, wrote a tiny note explaining her problem, and within 10 minutes her online audience had provided leads to lawyers and better accountants. Fritton joked to me
that she no longer buys anything worth more than $50 without quickly checking it with her Twitter network.”

More and more often there’s a story about someone using their network cloud – so the same can be applied to Facebook to some extent – to solve a problem that prior to hyper-connectedness used to be solved by traditional search (e.g., Google). Granted, this could be one of the reasons why Google wants to exert influence on the cell phone market. Given that their biz model is built on search it makes sense that they are more than a little concerned. True there are already sites where one can post a question, and wait / hope for an answer. However, cloudsourced answer(s) can come almost instantly; from birds of your feather; and are probably more accurate and/or suitable.

The real story here… At this point, who needs Google?

The future of software and therefore the future of business

“Embracing The Software Service Economy” (www.CIOInsight.com, August 2008)  is an (edited and condensed) interview of Mr. Timothy Chou as given by Paula Klein.

Regardless of what side of screen / browser you sit on it’s hard to imagine a business that isn’t directly or even indirectly impacted by software in some way. In a few minutes this article will brief you on what’s it all about and where Mr. Chou predicts it’s all going. You might also recognize Mr. Chou as being the author of “The End of Software” (Sams, 2004) as well as “Seven” (www.lulu.com/activebookpress).

Another quick read that beats having to digest a whole book just for a couple good to know thoughts.

Xerox’s CEO Anne Mulcahy words of wisdom

From the 1 September 2008 issue of Computer World (www.ComputerWorld.com) Don Tennant does a interview of Ms. Mulcahy that’s worth checking. To read the complete interview click here.

Btw, Mr Tennant is Computer World’s editor and writes a great blog with a pretty broad perspective . It’s not just techie computer stuff. Don’s insights can be found at: blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Later in this interview you’ll find:

AM : There were plenty of less-than-perfect decisions. For us, the worst decision was no decision. It’s the things you don’t deal with. It’s much easier to fix mistakes than to fix inaction.

Break out the champagne. We’ll drink to that!

When will they learn? (Best Buy to buy Napster)

“Best Buy To Buy Napster” by Joseph Palenchar, TWICE (www.TWICE.com) on Monday 15 Sept 2008.

With all do respect to (the long gone) Shawn Fanning, as well as to the powerhouse Best Buy… Has the Napster brand ever made money? What could Napster possibly have that Best Buy can’t buy elsewhere without all the baggage? One would think $120,000,000 could buy BB quite a bit of – human and technological – resources.

Let’s face it, risk is a function of confidence. Best Buy probably should have considered, Goliath, Wall Street, Kid Rock, etc. before they put $120 million where their cockiness is. It’s true that only 20% of the music market is digital (video even less) so there’s still loads of long term promise in that space. That said, regardless of how deep your pockets are it doesn’t make much sense to put any amount on the horse that has yet to stand in the winner’s circle.

Life isn’t fair (unless you work on Wall Street)

It’s all over the news, another one of Wall Street’s (alleged) finest is down on their luck. And apparently luck is the key word here for Lehman Brothers and the like. For one of the many NY Times stories please click here. Can someone please explain to us how in the best of times these outfits are allowed to declare themselves geniuses and then anoint themselves with over the top bonuses, as if they had in fact mastered the universe. Yet, when the current they’d been swimming in – at what we were told were actual world record breaking in speeds – changes they all suddenly are calling for a lifeguard.

Granted, one has to feel some empathy for almost anyone who loses their job. We’ve all been there at one time or another. But it’s difficult to shed too many tears for people who (hopefully) pay more in taxes than most normal people make in a couple of years. Live by the sword, die by the sword, eh? What’s really sad is the millions of little guys who are really suffering Wall Street’s consequences.

It’s hard to believe that there isn’t anything criminal about this mess. Talk about a lesson in what leadership is not.

From “Ah ha!” to “Oh no!”

“Evolution from Without” by Denis Pombriant (CRM Magazine, Sept 2008)

“Data: A Flashlight to Sales Innovation” by Lareina Yee, Tom Stephenson, Eric Kutcher (CRM Magazine, Sept 2008)

Get the ideas, and then figure out ways to see if they work.  But don’t stop there because yesterday’s “ah ha!” is tomorrow’s “oh no!”

Dot? Period? Yawn!

This is a copy of the letter that was inserted in with the WJS this past Saturday. Please give it a read and then we’ll follow with some analysis.

August 30, 2008

Dear Wall Street Journal Reader:

On Saturday, September 6, you will receive a new magazine from the Journal, appropriately called WSJ. – the masthead’s punctuation mirrors that of the newspaper, but the content of the magazine will highlight a
different side of our and your personalities.

WSJ. will blend the best of Journal writing with a design aesthetic that is quite unique. It will examine style with real substance, profiling individuals whose influence on fashion, collecting and philanthropy is profound, and assessing whether that influence is justified. We will not be suspending our critical faculties, and we will certainly be exercising our wit.

Whether it be an insight into the art market or an account of an international journey that goes far beyond the borders of the pedestrian, the Editor-in-Chief, Tina Gaudoin, and her team of Journal journalists will provide you with a magazine that is distinctive and distinguished. Look for WSJ. in your September 6 issue
of Weekend Edition. Once you’ve had a chance to read it, please send me
your thoughts.


Robert Thomson
Managing Editor
The Wall Street Journal
Dow Jones & Company

In super tiny print at the bottom of the letter head it read: “A second issue of WSJ. will appear in December 2008. WSJ. is available in select geographic markets to subscribers who receive Saturday delivery of The Wall Street Journal and on newsstands.”

On page A7 on the Saturday/Sunday issue there was a small 1.5″ high box two columns wide.
The copy read: WSJ. Magazine Preview: Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick for the Republican vice-president spot, talks about her workout and fitness routine. Go to WSJ.com/Lifestyle”. There’s also a square photo of what one would assume is Ms. Palin running along a lake.

While reading this letter over my morning coffee a series of machine gun thoughts began to ricochet around the kitchen:

1 – For those of you who didn’t already notice, this new publication is called WSJ. Not sure if that’s “WSJ period” or “WSJ dot” or “WSJ something else”. Shouldn’t that be clear?

2 – Why would the brand widely known as WSJ – even their web address is WSJ.com – start a new brand called WSJ.? What overpaid genius decided that the best way to establish a new brand is to begin with a cloud of instant confusion?

3 – “…but the content of the magazine will highlight a different side of our and your personalities.” LOL, so different that the name is different too, eh? By a dot/period.

4 – What exactly does “masthead’s punctuation mirrors that of the newspaper” mean? Why is Mr. Thomson speaking in publishing industry jargon? How is that going to help this communication?

5 – “We will not be suspending our critical faculties, and we will certainly be exercising our wit.” Joke #2? Or is interviewing the woman who could very well end up being one heartbeat away from being Commander-in-Chief about her workout and fitness routine considered to be “critical”?

6 – In the letter there’s no mention of an specific web site or sub-portal within the established WSJ site. We’re coming up on 2009 and they’re rolling out an information/entertainment source and don’t make any mention of web presence?

7 – Why the ultra small print? Why hide those details? Why not just say, “For more details please check out www.WJS.com/WJDdot”?

8 – While we certainly realize the WSJ is about as business as business gets, and that Mr. Thomson is an editor but can this letter get any more dull? If there’s something to be interested in and/or excited about – like Ms. Palin views on Iraq, the falling dollar, etc? – it’s not coming through in this copy. With a debut like this will the advertisers really care?