Lessons in business from the soul singer Adele

While it was highly uncharacteristic of me, I somehow managed to watch a good portion of the Grammys last night. To say that the young English soul singer Adele (full name: Adele Adkins) stole the show would be an understatement. Her six wins tied her with Beyoncé for the most wins by a woman in a single Grammy evening. Without out a doubt Adele’s album is outstanding. A one or even two hit wonder she is not.

However, the reality is it’s also highly unlikely that anyone familiar with American pop music would have predicted last night’s landslide months ago when the album “21” was first released. Yet now it all makes perfect sense. Here’s what I think we can all learn from Adele:

—Content is still King or in this case Queen. She didn’t sell hype, endorse soda, manipulate Google SERPs, spew excessively on Twitter, wearing clothing made out of meat or stage a fly-by-night marriage. No, actually Adele did it the old fashion way. She and her team created something of true value. Mind you, I am sure she benefited from social networking. But it was quality work that fanned those organic flames. It wasn’t spin, hot air and spammy tactics.

—Quality is important, very important. The efforts of her team was put into creating something beautiful, crafted, exquisite and memorable. It was not a case of let’s half-ass it and then pull out every trick in the contemporary marketing playbook to try to pass off a stale doughnut as French pastry. In short, it’s more cost effective and smarter to get it right from the start than to try to fix a train wreck with smoke and mirrors.

—Be mindful of spot on execution. What they did they did damn well. Some would say, myself included, to the point of perfection. Would anyone call Adele an innovator? I don’t think so. Her style is timeless classic soul. And when she performs she is 100% committed. Adele sings purely from the heart. But then again, perhaps in the context of today such conviction and a willingness to go against the grain is innovative? The question is, how much are you faking it? And maybe paying greater attention to execution would fall under being innovative as well?

—Show some class. Show some restraint. Respect who you are. While the majority of the other performances were over the top, Adele nailed “Rolling in the Deep” with minimal excess. Mind you, I understand it’s pop music. There’s always a certain amount of frivolity. But perhaps your brand shouldn’t part-take in sugar-coated contests and such just to get people to Like your Facebook page? Perhaps there’s actually more value in being yourself (i.e., something of value) over the long term than trying to be something else in the short? Quality over quantity, right?

—Even in 2012 there is no I in team. Award after award Adele mentioned her producer and thanked her fans. She consistently tried to shift the spotlight way from herself and pull her producer/co-songwriter into the mix. In spite of being sold as a one-woman show, Adele was transparent and shared her moment with her team. Which leads me to my last point.

—Be humble. I don’t watch such award shows often but I’ve seen enough to know that Adele was humble and authentic. She didn’t come off cocky, like she deserved it. Instead she was restrained, natural and nearly embarrassed at all the attention. In other words, she acted like a true professional. That said, you got a sense that deep down she wasn’t surprised. Obviously, their goal was to do a high-quality work of art. They achieved that goal. I am certain she knew this. If she was surprised, it was that so many others had noticed. So, is your brand acting like a giddy one-hit wonder or when you stand in the end-zone do you look like you’ve been there before? That that’s where you belong?

Kudos to you and your team Adele. You’re a beacon of hope for those of us who still believe in quality.

From bar napkin to zillionaire in 10 “easy” steps

Funny how these things happen sometimes. A friend of a colleague/friend read my “How YouTube and Facebook are Killing Innovation and Success” from a couple weeks back. She/he appreciated the insight and suggested we get together to discuss a collection of ideas she/he and a couple “partners” had been kicking around.

A day or so later we met. After an couple of hours of mostly highly discussion she/he popped the question: “Mark, what would you do?”

Below is a rough and obviously very high level synopsis of the answer that came off the top of my head then (and has been refined a bit since):

Note: Many of these are not silos. That is, the reality is they are interconnected and take form in an agile and interactive fashion. They tend not to happen in a nice and neat linear list as you see here.

  1. Develop your logo / brand identity. This includes domain name(s), social media profile handles, etc.
  2. Formalize your mission statement. Be clear and concise about your idea to the point that all partners agree and sign-off, be it informally or formally.
  3. Organize your collection ideas into a 10 slide “”pitch-deck”. There could be multiple versions of this pitch depending on the target audience. Regardless, each pitch should answer the target’s “What in it for me?” Note: This step is as much about aligning the partners as it is about organizing your pile of ideas and crafting your pitch(s).
  4. Sketch out a marketing plan and set some goals. For example, how many Twitter followers and Facebook “friends” equals “critical mass” and success.
  5. Set up social media accounts (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and begin collecting followers. Track that against goals and regularly assess how much resources it’s going to take to hit your targets.
  6. Set up a basic / coming soon / sign-up-for-beta website. Use any of the above content to flesh that out. Ultimately, the site should get beta sign-ups, help add FB Likes, Twitter followers, etc. The fact is, with barriers to entry so low, cutting through the clutter is a very difficult task. Most non-marketers severely under-estimate how difficult engagement really is. In other words, you’re not the only outfit with a great idea trying to get people’s attention.—Be sure to use Google Analytcis on the site so you can monitor: traffic, nature of the visits, clicks, etc. in order to gauge the level of interest. GA is essential. Collect and analyze your all data in order to refine the sketch of your marketing plan.—I’d recommend a blog on the site to communicate ideas, show progress, collect comments, etc. A blog is also good for SEO. That said, content generation takes time. Who’s going to do that? Reply to comments, manage the social media accounts (correctly), etc.?
  7. With that said, define roles. Of the partners, who is responsible for what, when, etc. Don’t assume. In fact, never assume. Also, there’s a massive amount of truth to, “The devil is in the details.” You’d be surprised how easy it is to not  on executing once you get past the idea on a bar napkin stage.
  8. As that’s all moving along, refine your wants-list into real business needs, (fairly detailed) functionality, wireframes (hand-drawn is fine), etc. and begin to design and develop the brand’s website. Your critical mass goals, sign-up progress and traffic will help to dictate your timeline.—The current rule of thumb is to get in the game with a raw but solid idea and refine as you go. None the less, you have to have some framework to start with. Especially, if there are multiple decision makers. It goes without saying that personalities change as the bumps in the road come bigger and faster.
  9. As all that’s moving along, develop a network for press releases and other “good will” type channels. Contrary to popular belief, big dogs (e.g. Facebook) don’t exactly go viral. Once the angel investors and VCs kick in their part those players open up their “little black books” of media contacts to fan the fire of interest in their new investment. When someone tosses in 5, 6 or 7 figures they aren’t just sitting around praying for “viral”. They’re playing puppet master. If you’re more grassroots and boot strapped then you might be limited to praying for viral. It’s up to you.
  10. Discuss if not formalize an exit strategy. You’d be surprised how well defining the way out helps to determine the path(s) you take. Building a house to live in and building one to sell are usually two very different approaches.

And now for the Bonus Tip:

Don’t quit your day job until your have to. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Having your back up against the wall can be inspiring—provided the partners agree on who’s going to bear that burden.

How YouTube and Facebook are Killing Innovation and Success

We’ve all heard the stories. The twenty-first century equivalents of Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyon and Paul Revere. Amazing and larger than life.

First, there’s YouTube. Three former Pay Pal employees sketch out an idea on the back of a bar napkin (so to speak). They proceed to pursue the idea. Why? Because they can and they’re the types to do so. They launch quickly, continue to tweak, etc. and the site goes viral before the word was in the mainstream lexicon. As the story goes, less than two years later they sold to Google for well over a 1.5 billion dollars. Billion,

And then there’s Facebook, as “documented” in the film “The Social Network.” Mark Zuckerburg & Co whip together an idea, or stole it depending on who you ask. From there they rocket from stuffy East Coast Harvard to West Coast “swimming pools and movie stars” and onto billionaires and millionaires in less than two hours of running film time. With a little help from naiveté and Sean Parker, of course.

Both stories are impressive and inspiring. In that context, it doesn’t get much better.

Unfortunately, they are also both an exception to the rule. And not just small exceptions but are probably at the extreme edge of the exception scale. Winning the Power Ball lottery or dating a super-model is probably going to happen to you sooner than your idea becomes the next (me-to?) YouTube or Facebook. Yes, these thing can and do happen. I’m not here to squash dreams. But is looking to score the equivalent of back to back to back hat tricks in the World Cup a wise and realistic use of your energy?

Presuming you’re going to put some life-saving on the line, add stress to your life and your family (where before there was none), etc. perhaps there’s a better way? Perhaps, a business plan, or at least the draft of one?

Please note: I’m not a big fan of a business plan, as a plan per se. On the other had, the process of: collecting ideas; writing them down; organizing them so they make sense; flipping them upside down to look for holes; fully vetting your ideas; a draft a mission statement; assessing the size of the market and how you’re going to motivate and communicate with that market; defining goals and success and how those will be measured; sketching wireframes (if it involves a website) or the offline equivalent; formally and thoroughly analyzing the competition; reasonable and objective estimates of the resources required (i.e., time, talent and money); best case(s) and worst case(s); showing this collection of organized ideas to colleagues; and then stepping back yourself to see if the reward warrants the risk…

Well, there’s something to be said for a business plan forcing you to accomplish that.

The point of this exercise it’s only to prove yourself right, it’s to prove yourself wrong. You’re probably going to go forward anyway—as most entrepreneurs do—just make sure you know what you’re up against. The fact is, plenty of top flight squads have swaggered onto the pitch presuming victory over a less  worthy opponent and gone home humbled and without the victory. Yes, over-thinking it can be dangerous. However, I’m willing to bet that the non-victorious under-think more than they over-think it. Do you believe there’s no scrapheap of failed YouTube, Facebook, etc. wannabes? Just because that heap isn’t good Hollywood material doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit I have a soft-spot for spontaneity. I appreciate being quick to market. I embrace the agile mindset. When it’s time to run, I’m ready to go. Foolish! Hungry!! On the other hand, when it’s asked, “Nice. Which direction is this next YouTube/Facebook headed?” and “How are you going to get there?” the answer should be more than a couple pages of bullet points, most of which are the usual pages (e.g. About Us, Contact Us, etc.). Frankly, that type of swagger raises a red flag. Your opponent, the devil & his details, are probably smiling. The W is all but theirs.

The bottom line…Odds are you’re going to need to put the uber long-shot myths aside if you want Justin Timberlake in your “based on a true story” dream come true movie.

Finally, I’d like to end this with this thread from Quora.com:

http://www.quora.com/Startup-Advice-Strategy/As-first-time-entrepreneurs-what-part-of-the-process-are-people-often-completely-blind-to

Some serious food for thought in that one, yes?

A Simple New Year’s Resolution for a More Successful 2012

We’ve all done it. We aim high and mean well but end up not reaching our own expectations. Sometimes it’s frustrating being human. Yet there’s got to be a better way. And there is!

As the story goes, a couple weeks back I came across an (audio) interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson (author of “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently”) via Harvard Business Review’s HBR IdeaCast. From there I drilled down and around a bit and found an HBR article that I presume to be more or less a synopsis of her book. Then within that article were links out to other supporting articles.

When all was said and done I found the whole bundle insightful, relevant and (given the time of the year) highly share worthy.

The simple New Year’s resolution is this: resolve to consume these six articles. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did. Don’t panic, they’re all bite sized.

“What Successful People Do Differently”—An interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson

“Nine Things Successful People Do Differently” by Heidi Grant Halvorson

“Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything” by Tony Schwartz

“Get Your Goals Back on Track” by Heidi Grant Halvorson

“A Better Way to Manage Your To-Do List” by Peter Bregman

“How to Teach Yourself Restraint” by Peter Bregman

Dig in. I hope you find this collection as valuable as I do. Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

The Taming of the Screw

Earlier today I had coffee with a respected colleague. We both have unique perspectives so it’s always refreshing to meet for some engaging banter. As it often does, the conversation turned to the economy (old vs. new), the internet (web 2.0 vs. web 3.0), and how such dynamic parameters impact companies/organizations in pursuit of growth.

Here is a non-all inclusive summary of our conversation in no particular order:

  1. Now more than ever, the parameter settings (so to speak) that grew a successful company to Tier X, is quite often not the same settings to get to Tier X+1, Tier X+2 and beyond.
  2. Early growth is like pounding a nail. However, at some point that nail turns into a screw. The brute force of a hammer that drove the nail is all but useless for turning screws. Simply pounding harder is not the answer. In fact, it’s a false assumption that is distracting and counter productive. Pounding even harder qualifies as insane.
  3. By definition, change (e.g., growth) requires change. In addition, more is more and better is better. Simply repeating more of yesterday’s this-works is probably not the formula for a better tomorrow. Believing otherwise can be dangerous.
  4. While culture starts with HR, it’s management’s role to set direction, motivate, maximize productivity and reinforce that culture. Culture doesn’t just happen. If the culture is failing it’s not the fault of staff.
  5. While few, some things have not changed. As in sports, victory is shared by the team. However, the responsibility for coming up short belongs to management/leadership.
  6. While certainly not a panacea, tool selection (i.e., technology) can be the deciding factor between getting to Tier X+2 and Tier X+4.
  7. Bureaucracy is not absolute, it is relative. In other words, what’s counter-productive for a Tier X company can be best practices and M&Ps for a company a tier or two up. The challenge is making the transition from controlled chaos to focused, efficient and low noise.
  8. Act like the company you want to be, not the company you used to be. In today’s environment, yesterday as an anchor is no longer a positive.
  9. As organizations grow what is required to sustain that growth evolves. For example, entrepreneurial leadership is often replaced with a more seasoned approach. Darwinism dictates that organisms that don’t evolve die.
  10. If growth were simply a matter of scaling up sales then there would be a glut of multi-million dollar companies. The difficulty of scaling marketing/sales aside, there’s more to sustainable growth than more sales. Higher volume increases noise. Therefore, noise reduction is also critical.

The bottom line…we both agreed that in spite of the macro-economic gloom and doom there continues to be  opportunities for growth minded organizations willing to evolve.

There are no silos in The Guest Experience

“Obsess About Your Customers, Not Competitors” by Lior Arussy (DestinationCRM.com, August 2011). I hate to say, “I told you so,” but I told you so. Just check the AU Success Realized page and you’ll see it in black & white, literally.

That said, it’s not rocket science—just stop for a moment and think about how you think. Do you differentiate one brand experience from the next? Not usually, right? Bad service is bad service and great service is great service. Keep in mind that there is always a brand on your tier (or lower) that is willing to raise the bar. If that brand isn’t you then you will forever be playing catch up. If Guests don’t care about silos they certainly don’t want to hear excuses either.

Again, think about it. You’ve done it yourself. You’ve taken a lower tier brand experience and applied it up a level or two. Your competition isn’t just to your left and right, it’s behind you too. When was the last time you looked behind you? As for inspiration…it’s right in front of you. It’s every time you leave the house.

There are two essential bits that I want to pull from Loir’s article:

“Naturally, those experiences shape his expectations. This person’s definition of a great experience is influenced largely by the vendors that serve him. Welcome to your new competitors—the best-of-the-world companies that are obsessed with customers, not competitors.”

“Don’t let industry thinking be an excuse for inferior customer experience. The ultimate competitive advantage will not be achieved by making product-to-product comparisons or catching up to the next vendor. Rather, a true edge will be achieved when customers are standing in line to purchase from you.

Indeed, customers will vote with their wallets. So it is time to immerse yourself in their world. Measure yourself against the best vendors in the world serving your customers. Ask yourself this: When my customer has been asked to spend $10,000, how has he been treated by the vendor?”

Thanks Lior. Thanks for further validating the Alchemy United state of mind.

Are you a big duck or a small talker?

In the course of doing some business yesterday, I stopped for a quick lunch. While I wasn’t intentionally trying to ease drop on the table next to me I heard one person say to the other, “…but we’re not a big company…” They all then proceeded to piss and moan about the symptoms of lack of process, lack of structure, wishy-washy management, etc.

I’m as agile and unstructured as the next guy/gal. On the other hand even I understand that there is a difference between the burdens of bureaucracy and adding value by working smart via appropriate process/structure. If a problem keeps bleeding, the answer is not to make excuses and let it keep bleeding. The answer is not to apply yet another temporary band-aid. The simple answer is to fix the problem. Yes, quite often that entails doing things you don’t normally like to do. But that’s why they call it work.

It’s easy to tell when something needs to be addressed or not. When the amount of time lost—note: time spent complaining is included here—exceeds the amount of time it would take to solve the problem, then you know you have a problem that needs to be solved sooner rather than later.

Naturally, you should also be willing to revisit that solution when necessary. In other words, yesterday’s best answer might not be the optimal answer for tomorrow. “That’s how we’ve always done things,” is not an acceptable answer.

The bottom line…

If you want to be a duck, then walk like one and talk like one.

The transformation follows the act(s), not the other way around.

In other words, successful small companies don’t become larger companies and then add the necessary bells & whistles. It’s actually quite the opposite. Successful small companies embrace the necessary bells & whistles as the means to becoming better (bigger) companies. Of course the bells & whistles are going to be a function of an organization’s culture, the personnel involved, etc. One size does not fit all all the time.

Fast. Cheap. Right. Pick Two and a Half

Anyone who has gotten within ten feet of a project of any size understands the classic adage:

—Fast

—Cheap

—Right

Pick two.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you go with Fast and Cheap. Fair enough, not every effort demands or allows for the premium package. F & C is also a sign of the times. Budgets are tight and markets are as fluid as ever. However, not picking Right does not mean you should abandon all sense of best practices and PM common sense.

For example, let’s say you decide to refinish a chair. The ultimate solution would be to take it to a professional with the proper experience and equipment and let him/her work their magic. Your next choice might be to get the right equipment yourself (or borrow it from a friend), buy a “Furniture Refinishing for Dummies” book and slot out a weekend to get the job done. But maybe its a chair of not much value and all the top choices would be overkill.

Again, fair enough. You just want to give the old chair some new life. None the less you probably shouldn’t ignore all sense of Right.  At the very least you should sand the chair down a bit, give it a thorough washing and possibly slap on at least one coat of primer before you repaint. Deciding to completely bypass Right and just paint the chair “as is” in most cases would be a mistake. The type of mistake that you will eventually regret. The type of mistake that will just have to be redone again the minimal Right way.

On a more practical level, let’s say you want a website and you want it Fast & Cheap. These things happen sometimes and you have to deal with the cards in front of you. But that doesn’t mean all sense of Right should be abandoned. In fact, in order to keep Fast & Cheap on target there still needs to be a minimum commitment to Right.

Here are a few rules I’ve come up with that will help your Fast & Cheap project shine:

Fast & Cheap Rule #1 – Remove as many unknowns as quickly as possible. This is essential. Looking at the map while you’re flying forward is dangerous. For example, if your core team is familiar with web host X, CMS Y and copy writer Z then stick with those. Unless there is some irrefutable and compelling reason to switch horses then stick with what you know as much as possible. If someone doesn’t have a working understanding of a particular tool or element, get them up to speed ASAP.  Mitigating unnecessary distractions is essential to efficiency. Avoid shiny new objects and any other unknowns as much as possible.

Fast & Cheap Rule #2 – Define the destination as quickly and as tightly as possible. There’s no sense embarking on a high-speed journey if you don’t know where you’re going and what provisions you might need to get there. Running fast for the sake of running fast might be fun in grade school gym class but it’s no way to get a quick & dirty project done on time and within budget. Be smart! Figure out where you’re going before you turn the key and stomp on the gas. One or two wrong turns at high-speed could result in undesirable and costly consequences

Fast & Cheap Rule #3 – Ask Why. Then ask What. Before you ask How. Obviously, closely related to Rule #2. For example, don’t start talking about the website’s design until there’s an agreed upon Why and What. For iproperty development the boilerplate I also recommend using is:

1) Who is the target audience?

2) What are their expectations?

3) What content and functionality is necessary to meet those expectations?

4) How does that correlate to the wants and needs of the brand?

Again, it doesn’t matter how Cheap and Fast you’re moving if you get to the wrong destination. It doesn’t matter if you pick a website design that looks nice if it’s ultimately inappropriate for the Why and What. You could get lucky. But why rely on luck when investing in a bit of time can do the trick? Yes, there is no doubt design is important. But its true value exists within the context of the business needs (i.e., Why and What). If you believe that defining the Why and What is too overwhelming then proceed at your own risk. Some might say, “We can’t afford the time for that.” No actually, the reality is you can’t afford the risk of not filling in these blanks. Ultimately the time invested now will be a bargain to what you pay later if you don’t get lucky.

Fast & Cheap Rule #4 – Listen to your able and trusted resources. Let’s say you take your car to the shop because you’re having a problem. The mechanic takes the car for a short drive and then puts the car up on the lift to have a closer look. Shortly thereafter he/she comes back and says you need services X, Y & Z. Do you say no thanks and then specify he/she replace A and/or B? Or do you ask for an explanation and then more likely than not proceed as recommended? At the risk of repeating myself a slight bit, unless there is some irrefutable and compelling reason not to listen to your able and trusted resources then stick with what they recommend as much as possible. A quality resource is not going to speak just to be heard. If the idea sounds feasible and their explanation reasonable then follow their path.

Fast & Cheap Rule #5 – Hit the expectations reboot button. Once you’ve run through the previous steps, do a quick loop back around and share what’s been documented in order to get everyone—resources and stakeholders—on the same page. It’s going to be worth reminding everyone that the meal is closer to fast-food than it is white table cloth fine dining. Even so, someone at some point is going to be tempted to discuss the wine list. Simply put, there is no wine list in this phase. Therefore, start a list for future enhancements. Not only will this list eventually come in handy, but it will also be a polite and positive way to say no not now.

Conclusion – Pardon me if this sounds a bit direct and honest but Fast & Cheap is not an acceptable excuse for being mindless. Sometimes cutting corners is necessary. But doing so with no seat belt on and while wearing a blindfold is foolish at best. Some times it’s necessary to be fast and be cheap but there’s no need to top that off with a stinky pile of hasty.

A Final Note – While this article focused on Fast & Cheap, the truth is many of these concepts apply no matter what two and a half options you pick from the list. And while you can’t have it all, the fact is there are smart ways to get the most from what you do have. All you have to do is look and think before you leap.

A Classic Case of Sisyphean Marketing Strategy

For starter, I want to acknowledge that this is not “Client-friendly SEO Guidelines – Part 3″. Yes, I had promised that next. However, I decided to push it back a week and slide this one in instead. Call it agile planning, if you will.

As the story goes, I had lunch with a colleague earlier in the week. JK—not his/her real name—is a fairly hardcore SEO aficionado. JK’s motto is:  Tune it. Tweak it. Tighten it. Repeat. JK is also fond of: Mo’ traffic. Mo’ traffic. Mo’ traffic.

We got past the usual formalities, as well as rejoicing over the USA Women’s soccer victory over Brazil and then shifted into talking shop. JK had just started with a new client/project a few weeks back. It was for an e-commerce outfit. I had seen the site and it appeared then that it was going to be quite a challenge. I was curious and asked how it was going.

JK’s quick and boastfully proud reply was:

“Great. Traffic is increasing. Alexa ranking is improving. We’re adding pages to farm in more traffic. And thus far the impact of Google’s Panda update seems to be minimal.”

I wasn’t surprised. JK does good work. We talk SEO all the time. But then again we both knew there are a handful of standard tricks to grab the low hanging fruit. Not that there is anything wrong with that. You’ll understand my positioning here in a moment.

I toasted JK’s accomplishments, paused and then queried, “Mind if I ask some Guest-centric and business fundamentals questions?” JK smiled and firmly nodded affirmative. Here are some of the things that were discussed over the rest of the meal. Mind you for some of these it might be too early to tell. That is, there’s not enough data yet. Also, admittedly not all are JK’s area and/or role. None the less, we needed to discuss  something and JK’s project was this afternoon’s feature.

  • Churn rate: Up? Down? No change? What are the top reasons for churn? Are there particular keywords, PCC campaigns, etc. that are more prone to churn?
  • The marketing sweet spot: Is price the sole driver? Might emphasizing value be a better play? Would value attract a less churn-ful buyer?
  • Conversions: Was increasing traffic also increasing sales? Was the average size of sale increasing? Why? Why not?
  • Cross-selling and up-selling? Does influencing the buyer’s profile of purchases reduce churn and/or increase a Guest’s value over time?
  • The Guest Experience: What was being done to improve the UI, UX, design, service, etc.?
  • Building the brand: Does more traffic, more customers and more sales equate to establishing and building an actual brand?
  • Guest expectations: Were they being addressed? Can you have a brand in 2011 and not address Guest expectations?
  • SE Old: Is the nature of SEO changing? Are not social networks becoming the “search” tool of choice? Then that?
  • Exit Strategy: The ultimate question is, is anyone else willing to pay to acquire this business as it is currently modeled? Is the strategy sustainable?

After numerous volleys the conclusion was simple. It is a classic case of what I’m going to call a Sisyphean marketing strategy. In other words, X amount of traffic is going to convert; Y number are going to churn out; in order to meet growth goals Z, there is a simple minded (if not one dimensional) objective to just keep increasing traffic. The fact that there are quite a few other vectors that all intertwine didn’t matter. The best practices of great brands’ seemed to be nowhere in sight. Or should I said, in site?

Truth be told, JK said the client was comfortable with the Sisyphean marketing strategy. Said formula was what established them and they were convinced the formula was the key to future growth. The fact that just about every other parameter on the pitch had changed in that time frame didn’t seem to be a concern. In terms of doing their best, yes within the narrow context they defined they seemed to be doing their best. While I certainly do appreciate simplicity and focus I would think that those in similar historical circumstances probably have other lessons to teach. JK just mumbled something about mo’ traffic, mo’ traffic, mo’ traffic. The cheque came, we ponied up our credit cards and went back to working.

But there seems to be an alt-moral to this story. Sometimes doing your best isn’t good enough—that is, eventually it can become less and less appropriate. Sometimes doing what’s right, what needs to be done is what’s in order. Granted, that can be difficult because it means letting go of a “sure thing.” I also means taking up a new cause, a new learning curve and that too can be a bit frightening. Or in JK’s case it might actually mean less billable hours.

Being focused is great. However,  it’s not always as simple as running full speed ahead with blinders on in the same direction. This type of determination can be dangerous for a business. Hopefully you’re thinking of the same VW car commercial that I’m thinking of right now. If not, pop over to YouTube and watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-Vdb9yON-E.

Friends don’t let friends blame IT

“7 IT lessons from the collapse of Borders” by Frank Hayes (ComputerWorld.com, 7 March 2011). Truth be told I am by nature a geek. Not that I’m necessarily a shiny new object kind of guy. But I do appreciate technology, it’s application, and it’s potential for positive impact. While I don’t wear my geek pride on my sleeve, I do consider myself a card carrying member of the Geek Union Local 0101.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been reading articles similar to thee one by Frank Hayes. These memories go back to the mid-80’s. That’s a long time to repeatedly blame the same player for not making the championship. Mind you, IT has its faults. But so does marketing, operations, HR, finance, etc. And while I hate to wear out the sports analogy, business is a team effort. Everyone must work together.  When there’s a win, it’s a team win. And when there’s a loss a good coach will suck it up and accept responsibility. In short it’s hard to image IT being 100% responsible 100% of the time for 100% of the project that failure. Hard to believe, right?

The point I’m getting to is that Frank’s article inspired me to send him an email. I felt compelled to let him know that I found the post-game analysis of the decline of Borders very interesting. However, the perpetration of the myth that it’s always IT’s fault also needed to be addressed. Once I sent it, I figured the matter was closed. Nope! Here is the version of the letter that appeared in the 9 May 2011 print issue of ComputerWorld. Yes, I guess they do still print letters submitted by readers. So here’s another one of the record books that cleared the Editors’ Hurdle.

I enjoyed Frank Hayes’ March 7 2011 column, “Seven IT Lessons from the Collapse of Borders.” It was s great Monday morning wrap-up.

But I do take issue with one statement, where he says that “no one in IT was able to convince management to reinvent Expert.” Expert was Borders inventory management system, and Hayes points out that it was unable to scale as Borders grew.

Why is IT being made the scapegoat once again for C-level incompetence? I think that Expert’s shortcomings would have been pretty obvious. I can’t imagine that one needed an MBA to see how the system (and I’m not just talking about technology) was failing. Hayes seems to imply not only that IT staff were the only ones who could see the problem, but that IT was also the only one responsible. Really?

If the fall of Borders was IT’s fault, then what were the executives responsible for?

I’m growing tired of IT taking one for the team. And it’s one thing when Marketing and other departments pin one on IT. Let’s face it, they’re not going to admit any guilt themselves. Buy why is Frank Hayes reinforcing a myth and a stereotype?

Well said, right?

Maximizing The ROI From Your FB Fan Page

“70% of Local Businesses Use Facebook For Marketing” by John Paul Titlow (ReadWriteWeb.com, 8 March 2011). It’s safe to say I spend quite a bit of time online. Reading, looking, analyzing, working, searching, testing, conversing, evaluating, collaborating, etc. I am a champion of technology and innovation as a means to enabling David to take on Goliath. Or at least to let David be less of a dull boy in the sense of what all work and no play can do.

That said, I am also a believer in the fundamentals—both online and offline. My philosophy is that technology and innovation are tools. They are a means to an ends, not the ends itself. While occasional they can be panacea-esque game changers, the majority of the time using any given means is much more basic than that. Often it comes down to two things: finding the right tool and using that tool correctly to its full potential.

Based on my experience of interacting with brands on Facebook, I am willing to say that the title of John Paul’s article should instead be, “70% of Local Businesses Use Facebook for Messaging. 10% of Those Are Actually Marketing. The Other 90% Are Probably Wasting A Lot of Time.”

Coincidently,  a couple days ago I decided to check up on the FB Page of a local e-commerce company that I have had some discussions with over the last year or so. The initial meeting centered on technical changes they were making to their CDN and from there they were planning to ramp up their marketing. “We want to be in the Internet Retailer Top 100,” I was told by the owner of the company. A noble and impressive goal indeed.

The time had come to check on their progress.

Facebook Fan Page 101 - Screen shot 1Sadly, this outfit is a text book example of the 90% who are not actually marketing. At the very least they are not using the tool to its full potential in spite of having a significant number of Fans (i.e., people who Like them), as well as (from what I recall) sizable revenue.

It’s time for a free AU makeover:

Recommendation #1—The Page’s profile image should always be the brand’s logo. That image, as small as it might be, is what catches people’s eye when Page status updates show up in a fan’s News feed. Marketing 101: The logo should be consistently associated with every message delivered by the brand.

On the other hand, if the primary image is always in flux then there is no easy and consistent way for a FB News feed skimmer—we skim updates in Facebook, and then we read, don’t we?—to pick out this brand from that stream.

Recommendation #2—Don’t assume that people are taking the time to visit your page. It’s better to assume most people are digesting their fire hose of updates via their News feed. That is, what FB plops in front of them once they login. When they spot something worth stopping for they do, else they just keep scrolling. Unless there’s a good reason for them to go to your actual Page chances are good they aren’t going to make that extra effort. It’s just not necessary.

Here is a representative sample of Status updates I pulled from the Page:

Facebook Fan Page 101 - Screen shot 5Facebook Fan Page 101 - Screen shot 4Facebook Fan Page 101 - Screen shot 3Recommendation #3—Always provide a link back to the specific page/product being mentioned in the message. Since this company uses Google Analytics on their website they should also be using Google URL Builder to tag their links. I am of the belief that each URL that is pushed out is a “campaign” and should be treated as such.

As it stands now it is almost impossible to measure the effectiveness of their Facebook Page as a sales/marketing tool. Analytics might show Facebook at the source but that’s too vague. By definition, no measuring means they are not marketing. At best they are merely messaging. (Note: In the not to distance future I am going to do an article on how I like to use Google URL Builder.)

Recommendation #4—Stop doing Status updates and instead post Photos. The caption to a photos doubles as status update. The benefits are two fold. First, when you post a photo to a Fan Page, Facebook also includes the Share link when that photo shows up in a fan’s News feed. Making it easy for people to Share your brand’s message forward to their friends is one of the most powerful tool of social media in an online marketer’s tool box. Second, this is where flyers and other special one-off images can be distributed (instead of using the page’s profile photo). For example, in the first Status update above, there should be a photo of the Everywhere Knit Pant.

Recommendation #5—Adopt the usage of a third party tool (e.g., Postling) so Status updates can be scheduled to be pushed out throughout the day. One and done isn’t ideal. It appears as if someone is doing an update first thing in their East Coast morning and then that’s it. It easy to imagine that a fairly high percentage of their fans probably aren’t even seeing their messages.

Also, depending on how they decide to use URL Builder, this company could make the hour scheduled one of the tag values. This would allow them to identify the most productive time(s) to post. Maybe lunch time and/or evenings maximize results? Maybe there’s a time of day that generates less clicks but more sales?

Facebook Fan Page 101 - Screen shot 2

Recommendation #6—I would give serious consideration to reducing the number of times the exclamation point is used. I am a passionate and excitable person by nature and even I found the excessive usage to be tiring. Based on what I understand their target market to be I would add that exclaiming almost everything is probably inappropriate as well.

Recommendation #7—There’s got to be a more inspiring tag line than, “Happy Shopping!”

Recommendation #8—Also adopt the use Twitter. It certainly can’t hurt. Worst case it would add a minute or two per message being sent. Yes, those URLs should be tagged such that Twitter campaigns can be differentiated from FB campaigns. That extra step takes some time but it’s the different between truly marketing and merely messaging.

As you can see there is significant opportunity for improvement. The good news is, most of these recommendations can be done with minimal additional investments in time. That said, an outfit of this size and brand of this stature should probably have someone dedicated to being responsible for their social media marketing efforts. I’m not suggesting that this is worthy of a full-time position. At this point there’s probably not enough incremental sales to justify that amount of budget. On the other hand, I am suggesting that just winging it for a couple minutes a day is leaving quite a bit of sales on the table.

Betting the Farm on Natural and Organic Foods

“Zen Management Makes Millions” by Lee Lusardi Connor (NYReport.com, 1 February 2011). Truth be told, I still do quite a bit of reading offline. I imagine my brain has been trained to consume more comfortably and completely when I’m not always nose to screen. Admittedly,  I struggle with my lack of green-ness in this area. It’s Friday, so let’s not get too distracted.

I mention this because I wish you could see how much of this article I’ve circled, starred, drawn arrows to, etc. So rather than reiterate such a high percent of this interview I’ll just saay that if you and your organization are looking for a road map for the future that is both socially and environmentally conscious, and not just about dollar and cents, then invest some time in this article. I promise you won’t regret it.

Side note: While Applegate Farms’ Stephen McDonnell probably knows better than I do, I disagree with his presumption that the sales of natural and organic food is going to level off around 2018. To me that’s like saying that the need for all of us to eat and live healthy is going to level off. That doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Make Your Next Website Your Best Website

“Tips for Successfully Managing a Website Redesign” by Phil Edelstein (WebsiteMagazine.com, February 2011). At this point there are plenty of organizations that are on their second, third or maybe even fourth iteration of their website. What’s interesting is that there still seems to be a noticeable number who are not satisfied with the results they are getting. This article on Website Magazine makes a number of good points. However, I’d like to take a moment to supplement and refine Phil’s recommendations.

First, let’s start with the idea of redesign itself. To simplify what is now such an essential tool to be just a matter of “design” is understating the context and significance of the matter. While I’m certainly not going to belittle the skills and education of my design colleagues and friends, developing an effective iproperty in 2011 takes much more than attractive aesthetics. I would suggest using a term like “re-launch” or “re-architecting” over the misleading “redesign”.

Once you have embraced that shift in mindset, inventory your business needs, expectations and short and long term objectives. Phil suggest you figure out what you want. Frankly, I’m not a fan of wants. There are plenty of organizations that got what they wanted but not what they needed. I firmly believe the goal is to figure out what you need.  Remember, this next investment isn’t just about design. This means that your resources—both on your internal team, as well as anyone from the outside you might engage—should be capable of defining and discussing business needs. It is also ideal that you have some internal discussion and agreement about needs before you reach out to anyone else. The list you compile will serve you well when you’re building your team.

However, don’t do too much before you pull in a vendor. Ideally the vendor you hire should be able to add value by being both objective as well as offering new ideas. They shouldn’t just listen and take notes (i.e., about your wants). They should be able to participate and help you move past wants and define your needs. The better your business needs are understood and universally agreed upon, the more likely they are to be met. There’s no panacea here other than communication and collaboration. This step is essential so don’t focus on how long it takes. Focus on getting it right, whether that’s two weeks or two months.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip over the idea of wireframes and how that fits into the process prior to actual design. I will say, yes do wireframe. Even if they are sketches on the back of the proverbial envelope. Nowhere is it written that wireframes have to be formalized in Visio or a similar tool. The point is to take your needs and render them visually without being distracted by a formal design. Sure, there are some great tools for testing the actual interactions but let’s not go there today.

At some point things will progress and you’ll be ready to discuss and define the design slice. Some of you might scold me for saying this but don’t be afraid to look at the gazillion templates and themes that are already available. I’m not suggesting you purchase some generic off the shelf design. I agree that brand and branding is important. However, I am suggesting that it makes sense to collect multiple reference points and give your creative proper direction. They should have to start in a complete void. Be sure to look at site in other industries as well. Quite often you can pick up an idea or two that will help. And finally, when evaluating a design don’t look at it from your perspective, look at it how others are going to see and use it. Often you might be making a first impression. For example, the flashy Flash intro might be cool but those get tired pretty quick.

Most of all, be available, be willing to participate and communicate, and never lose sight of the fact that you are making an investment. This isn’t going to just happen overnight, nor is it going to be all fun and games all the time. Chances are good you’ll have other priorities you’ll have to juggle. There will be some difficult decisions and probably even some rattling of swords. But this is serious business with what should be a fairly healthy budget investment behind it. Don’t underestimate the need for teamwork, agility, participation and communications. Ultimately, you’ll only get out what you’re willing to put in.

In most cases a website is marketing and/or selling something. It might be a product. It might be a service. It might an idea or a non-profit’s mission. But ultimately, it’s selling. In order to get your ideal salesperson and/or marketing manager you’d invest a reasonable if not significant amount of time. You’d be thorough and diligent. You wouldn’t just take the first person that walks in off the street. Nor would you just throw your new hire at a desk and say, “Okay, get to work.” Start your relaunch process with the hope of hiring the employee you never had but always wanted. There’s no doubt that’s going to take more than just “design.”

Conquering Business Superstition

Quite often business life is not much different than personal life—although it should be.  When off the clock,  cause & effect applied incorrectly is called superstition, myth, etc. Yet the same misdirected correlations between 9.00a and 5.00p is called a project, or worse still insight. Same use of illusion but a different belief in its legitimacy.

Let’s discuss an example. Over the last couple weeks I’ve been in two and a half conversations centered around e-commerce. Each conversation naturally touched upon shopping cart abandonment. Before I continue I want to state that I agree that shopping cart abandonment is an area online retail outfits should study and certainly be aware of. That said, some seem to pursue it like the holy grail. Unfortunately, in many cases obsessing on the myth means something else is probably not being addressed.

  • Specifically, the checkout process is not rocket science. If the overall process is that complex then keep rehashing it until it’s concise. Good enough isn’t good enough. Yet somehow we all continue to wade through crummy checkouts.
  • The truth is, regardless of venue/medium, people don’t buy everything they pick up. I believe they call it window shopping.  Online it’s probably even worse. There’s no getting dressed and driving across town. It’s just a matter of clicks.
  • The truth is, people will have to leave a site sooner later. Sure, if there’s a problem on a particular page it should be fixed. But staying indefinitely is not going to happen.
  • Focusing on abandonment is only half the picture. What about all those who didn’t add anything at all? Granted, I’m more casual about my commitment to e-comm but in all my reading and meeting no one seems to discuss such a measurement.
  • What if marketing is driving in leads with the wrong expectations? For example, “free shipping” is not free if there’s a handling charge. While the difference might be correct on a technical level, to most guests it probably qualifies as sticker shock or bait & switch. Yet there are sites that advertise “free” shipping. It’s certainly possible the targeting and/or message is wrong.
  • What if the site just kinda sucks? (Yes, I purposely used kinda.) That is, once the visitor stays a while reality sets in. They don’t like the look. The don’t like the feel. The might not even like the product. Doubt (aka the sales killer) arises and the sale is lost. Let’s face it, abandonment is a function of commitment and some sites just aren’t worth committing to.

The truth (as opposed to the superstition) is that in the 2.5 cases mentioned The Guest Experience of each site is “loose”. The sites do not qualify as awful but they are not tight in a 2010 sense either. If a guest was determined or already comfortable with the brand/site then each are sufficient. One the other hand, it terms of an experience that might inspire someone to part with their money, all three fall under the average column.

Guests want an experience. They want a story. For many, buying online is still a special event. By that I mean when someone asks, “Where did you get that?”, they want to respond proudly and with something meaningful.  Simply throwing some goods online might have worked 5 or 10 years ago. It’s not where expectations are today.

Believe what you want to believe. That is your right.  However, if that belief does not bring about the necessary change (read: results) then it’s probably time to admit you’ve been on the short end of a superstition and/or a myth. Not to worry, the solution is to stop and look at the details of the challenge objectively. Don’t get sucked into the accepted and standard convention just because it’s convenient to do so. There are plenty of people and websites willing to sell superstition and myth (because it was what was sold to them).

A Must Read Courtesy of Sir Richard Branson

“15 Small Business Lessons from Richard Branson” as reported by Ann Handley (American Express’ OpenForum.com, 23 September 2010). In a word, brilliant. So much so that nothing needs to be added.

A Spin-free Culture Will Save You Money

“Patagonia, from the ground up” by Jennifer Wang (Entrepreneur, June 2010). It’s worth mentioning that the sub-headline is: While the rest of retail was tanking, Yvon Chouinard’s outdoor clothing and gear company was having its best two years ever. Here’s why.

Regardless of economic conditions the question everyone is constantly asking is, “Where are we headed?”. Today’s answer for both the means and then ends is Patagonia. As you read you’ll quickly realize that Yvon and Patagonia live in a spin-free zone. They not only talk the talk and walk the walk, they live the life as well.   Patagonia is not successful for what it  sells or how it markets. It’s much deeper and basic than that. Patagonia is successful because of what and who it is. And in doing so, it creates its own destiny.

I can guarantee it’s not staffed by zombies who are only showing for the pay and the benefits. Might that imply that the size of great companies will be limited going forward? Yes, it certainly seems that it does. It’s often said that smaller companies are more agile. Yes, but that still doesn’t quite explain it. The true difference is the level of passion and commitment. It’s not the size that matters per se. It’s how the size makes it easier to instill the culture consistently throughout the organization.

Let’s close with a good pull quote to engage you:

EM: Why do you compare yourself–and entrepreneurs in general–to juvenile delinquents?

YC: Yeah, I think entrepreneurs are like juvenile delinquents who say, “This sucks. I’ll do it my own way.” I’m an innovator because I see things and think I can make it better. So I try it. That’s what entrepreneurs do.

So, how much budget do you think Patagonia saves not having to force their marketing to spin an image that really isn’t there?

A Tweet Is Not A Like

“5 Winning Social Media Campaigns to Learn From” by Zachary Sniderman (Mashable.com, 14 September 2010). Full disclosure, this isn’t Clearing The Editors’ Hurdle as much as it’s Shameless Self-Promotion. But we don’t have a category for SSP. Maybe we should?

The point to be made here is not in the article itself. It’s more or less well…um… crap. None the less, if you have a moment, please read it so that that comments that follow will have the necessary context. I don’t remember exactly but I must have eaten my take no prisoners Wheaties that day. It’s the only way I can explain how I ended up ranting a bit. It happens but it’s not something I usually do, especially on Mashable.

That said, that’s not even what the bottom line is here. What is  interesting is that one of my comments got 5 Disqus Likes and the other 2.  In other words, I hit a chord with others. What’s even more interesting is the article itself had over 2,300 tweets and about 350 FB Likes/Shares. Ultimately, an opinion is subjective. On the other hand, when reading that article as an objective profession it still has a fair share of stink about it.

One has to wonder how many of those Twitter and Facebook people actual read the article. And then from there, how many actually bothered to think about it. My belief is, not many. Actually, all the tweets could very well have been similar to my “This is crap” but we can’t tell. Come to think of it, am I the only one who assumes that a tweet is synonymous with a FB Like? But it’s not, is it?

80% is the new 100%

“Use the 80-20 Rule to Increase Your Website’s Effectiveness” by Oleg Mokhov (SixRevisions.com, 2 September 2010). While we apply the rule somewhat differently, Oleg and I are certainly in agreement. It’s the ultimate rule to follow because it can be applied to everything, not just web sites.

Three other good rules that all play well together are:

— Divide and conquer.

— You can’t be everything to all people all the time.

— How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

For example, if your business is about a particular set of core services, focus on communicating those 80% of the time. when sending an email blast target it such that it connects with the interests and expectations of 80% of your list. If the web site is about selling those services then put 80% of your time and effort into defining those pages. That’s not to say shouldn’t trust your gut and igore your hunches. Just be fully aware that you are doing so when you do.

If you get distracted by the 20% you will ultimately only dilute the 80% that really matters. Stay focused! As a general rule, as you are fine tuning X, shoot to get it 80% r complete and correct. When that dust settles, go back to the remaining 20% and attack 80% of that. And so on, and so one. As a result of focusing 100% on only 80% you will  be more effective. In addition, you and your team will  have more senses of accomplishment more often. Good motivators are always a good thing.

The bottom line is that in all likelihood you will  build a customer base such that 20% yields 80% of your business.  80% of your team will be happy 80% of the time, and so on. Now if only life were so easy.

Tomorrow Is Here, Now

“Master the upcoming culture change” by Paul Glen (ComputerWorld, 23 August 2010). While on one hand this article was encouraging there are also some fundamental oversights.

1) What upcoming change? It’s already here. To believe that it’s coming is a recipe for missing it. Anticipate proactively and don’t just stand there flat footed waiting.

2) The purely technical has been a commodity for some time now. Again, realizing this is the first step to moving forward.

3) Business and technology have always been tightly integrated, or should have been. Business is and always will be an exercise in holistic understanding and approach. The sad irony here is this divide isn’t closing. Article after article, writer after writer all continue to say the same thing: The gap between the business and IT need to close. Yet, that doesn’t happen.

4) One of the smartest things IT (Information Technology) can do is change it’s name. Aside from being dated, it’s encourages a mindset that continues to leave IT out of sync with business. The bottom line, IT needs a serious re-branding.

5) While it’s not Paul’s fault this article could have been written 10, 20 or maybe even 30 years ago. What’s shocking, given the historic trends,  it will probably written again and again in the future. But let’s hope otherwise.

To finish on an upswing, this really isn’t only about IT. It’s about business, period. IT and Business must work together and circle up. All involved have to make an effort to prepare for the future. That responsibility can’t just sit on IT’s shoulders. IT needs to understand and embrace Marketing. And Marketing needs to understand and embrace Technology.

Today AU, tomorrow the world – Part 2

“Renaissance Men Wanted: Big Problems Need Big Innovators” interview of author Vinnie Mirchandani by Thomas Wailgum (CIO.com, 14 June 2010). A quick follow up to yesterday’s post. Looks like Mr. Mirchandani casts another vote for an AU state of mind.