Saturday, July 31, 2010

Meet the new free. Same as the old free.

I’m seriously annoyed by “x is the new y” being used as an explanation for anything.

To elaborate: I come from an old family. Not old in coming-over-on-the-Mayflower old; old as in the sense of me being the youngest child of the youngest child in a family where every other sibling had kids at 20 while my parents had kids at 40.

As a result, I have some really old cousins.

One of them just celebrated his 70th birthday and came to Wisconsin from Montana, his four-year-old son in tow.

(Lest you get entirely the wrong idea, his oldest son is 48.)

I couldn’t stay long at his birthday party, but I did sneak a peek at his cake. “70 is the new 30” was written in black icing across the white frosting.

Well, no. Seventy is not the new 30. Seventy is 70. It may be a more active 70 (and in the case of my cousin, more of an active 70 than he may have bargained for), but it’s still 70. Turning your back on the truth in the interest of creating a slogan accomplishes nothing.

Fine, but it’s hardly worth the while of even something as base-level as a blog to get bent out of shape over icing on a cake. What’s up?

This: Free is the new pay-for.

You know where I’m coming from on this: So much more of what we do as marketers has to do with giving away stuff. And if not stuff, money.

We fritter away gobs of time figuring out what to give away, the channels to give it through, and who best to give it to, all in the interest of selling something to someone at some point down the road, and I think the whole process has gone too far.

Not to bite the hand that fed me canned spaghetti for a decade, but the most egregious example of this is publishing. Many publishers give away all their product online to anyone in hopes that someone might click on a link somewhere – just click on a link, mind you – and justify the price the publisher charges for a banner ad.

That might be the worst revenue model ever. It’s like driving to Las Vegas and putting everything on 27 red. It makes the let-me-sell-your-stuff-on-eBay model look better than Amway.

The most recent example of this came today, with the news that makers of online subscription-based games are going to waive the subscription fee and charge for upgrades within the game itself.

In other words, your character is free, but he’s a schmuck. Lifting him out of schmuckdom costs money.

As an alternate revenue model, that makes sense – assuming the game-makers investigated thoroughly and determined there was no way of charging on the front end and making real money selling virtual armor to virtual warriors. (I understand the revenue model and know it works, but it still blows my mind.)

If the game-makers didn’t ask that question, shame on them. Who knows? They might have been able to charge a one-time $10 fee and become the sole distributors of virtual rocket-powered maces.

Another unrelated example. In the topsy-turvy world of trading cards, the cards we gave away to promote a product usually wound up being worth more than the card set they were promoting. At the height of this phenomenon, the promo-card lines at the National Sports Collectors Convention extended outside the exhibit hall and around the convention center – and the sets these cards were promoting were sleeping with the fishes.

The promo cards did their job; they promoted their respective sets. Problem was, through their perceived scarcity they assumed the value and collectibility of the sets they were promoting. There was nothing left for the product being sold.

Figuring out what and how much to give in promotion of a product isn’t nearly as easy as it seems – especially in an online environment, where if you’re not giving away tangibles to sell intangibles you’re dealing with expectations that your branded app should be free, your content and creative should be free, your coupons should be free, and your trial subs should be free.

Enough, I say. Here are my ground rules for determining what to give away in a world that demands free yet shows an amazing ability to acquiesce and pay the price.

First, respect the product. I used to be a product-is-cheap-give-it-away guy until I read the marvelous book Once They Heard The Cheers by W.C. Heinz. Heinz revisited an old boxing trainer named Jack Hurley who was bemoaning the effect television was having on boxing. “They don’t respect the product any more, the way they’re giving it away,” he said, and in the case of boxing he was right. Opening up boxing to the masses, putting it on TV and giving it away, killed it as a spectator sport.

Maybe boxing was doomed either way, because if it didn’t take to the airwaves people would have stayed away from the fights anyway and watched whatever was on the box, but at least then the product would have had integrity. It would still have been boxing, not a show called boxing. Matches would not have been made because they look good on TV.

Fast-forward to now. Never lose sight of what you’re trying to sell, and give away or discount as little of that as possible. Giving away complementary items is acceptable if you’re absolutely positive you can’t sell them. Giving away the stick to sell the razor blades is fine, but if you can sell the stick too, so much the better.

(Preview of coming attractions: Giving away the e-reader – but not the iPad – to sell the e-book. Bad idea. Death of Kindle.)

I know this is hard in the case of startups; after all, how are you going to tell the world how much better your mousetrap is if no one uses it to catch mice? Well, you can demonstrate, you can blog, you can set up a MousetrapCam to show your product in action, you can run focus groups -- you have many more options than you might think.

Second, respect your audience. They expect to pay for things of value. Fulfill that expectation by showing the value. As part of a Super Bowl promotion Denny’s gave away Grand Slam breakfasts to show they were a good value. The only problem is, Grand Slam breakfasts were a good value before Denny’s gave them away. Were they a better value afterward? Denny’s subsequent giveaway-free ad campaign, overwrought as it was, still did a better job of showing the core value in eating at Denny’s: You get a lot of good, plain food for cheap. Giving away several million breakfasts got Denny’s nowhere down that road.

Next, be honest about the probable end result. For a time last year, eMusic gave away 50 free downloads in virtually every consumer product. The downloads came attached to a monthly subscription, but it was no problem to sign up using one credit card and e-mail address, download your 50 free songs, cancel your membership, sign up using a different credit card and e-mail address, download 50 more songs, cancel that membership, and continue down the line as long as the credit cards and e-mail addresses held out.

eMusic was thinking the giveaways would generate more subscriptions when in reality they generated more giveaways. If you hand out chocolate bars to everyone who stands in line, how many people will buy chocolate bars and how many will get back in line?

Finally, take the long view. Will the fact that you gave away 5 million chocolate bars in January mean anything to sales in December? Think about the most notable large-scale giveaways of the last 12 to 18 months: eMusic, Denny’s, Kentucky Grilled Chicken. Are any of them not struggling? Think about TV game shows and the cars they give away. Are they not the cars that aren’t selling? And do they sell any better after they’ve been given away? It only seems like a solution.

Is free the new pay-for? Absolutely not. Free is the refuge of the timid marketer unwilling to ask buyers to pay their far share.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

That's "Cohan" with a "C," Dammit!

"I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right." Many people supposedly said it, George M. Cohan actually said it before he became one of Jimmy Cagney’s characters, and what does it mean in a world where “newspapers” means everything from The New York Times to Glenn Beck to HuffPo to Keith Olbermann`s tweets, and it’s all instant and so out there? (Full disclosure: I love Keith Olbermann’s tweets. Yeah, I’m that liberal.)

Let’s call this the George M. Cohan School of Marketing, and let’s start with Marketing 90 – Marketing for Morons, GMCSM-style.

First, companies exist to sell products, not engage in conversation. Companies engage in conversation because it’s currently needed to sell some products to some people on some levels. Old Spice didn’t do personal short-form videos because it thought it was fun, period. Old Spice did it’s a fun way to ultimately sell more Old Spice.

Second, a willingness to engage in conversation is bad if all it does is generate negative responses. At some point the positives – wherever they come from, whatever they say -- have to outweigh the negatives, or it’s all been an exercise in brand unbuilding. Ask Toyota.

Third, companies want to drive. They want to control the direction and the content of any conversation, and they want to keep the conversation short because short conversations are more profitable. A company that answers 99 percent of customer calls on the first call benefits doubly: first, because customer-service time is money, and second, because the person on the other end wants their problem solved right away. As conversations go, this is the surest win-win.

Let’s stay with the customer-service call for a minute. Someone calls a company with a problem, and more often than not they have a solution in mind. The company has a solution to that problem in mind as well, and it probably is not the same solution as the caller’s solution. The company’s challenge is to steer the caller to the company’s solution and have them accept it happily.

The company steering a caller to the company’s solution is the ultimate win-win-win in conversational marketing. The company delivers its preferred solution quickly to a caller, and makes them happy.

That’s why any organization that wants to engage in a conversation with its audience should start with the most basic conversations (which, not coincidentally, are the conversations where the organization has the greatest control): The sale. The followup. (“So how do you like your steak?”) The customer-service call. Know in advance how you want these conversations to go, and have contingency plans when they don’t go that way.

Get these right, and you can test out of Marketing 90 at the GMCSM and move on to Marketing 101 – Not Caring What They Say About You.

The conventional wisdom is that a thick skin is the one thing needful in the social-media maelstrom. Well, yes and no.

What’s more useful is the knowledge that the extremists on either end of the spectrum want free stuff, are certifiably nuts, or both.

When I was in the magazine business we received a letter from someone who signed himself The Mighty Billy Becker. The Mighty Billy Becker wanted his image put on a coin and the coin shown on the three major networks (it was a time ago) during their evening newscasts. If this was not done he would … I can’t remember. I think he just wanted it done because he was The Mighty Billy Becker.

I’m pretty sure I saw The Mighty Billy Becker on Twitter the other night, trying to wrangle some free dryer sheets.

The conundrum with The Mighty Billy Becker and his pals is the same conundrum as the baby crying in the middle of the night. When do you give the bottle, and when do you let them cry themselves to sleep?

The Targeted Application of Common Sense says in the case of the extremes to be unfailingly polite but not to appease. It sounds right, but try it sometime.

However, if you can approximate politeness without appeasement at the extremes you can then turn your attention to the middle, which is quieter but infinitely more useful from a marketing standpoint.

The middle is occupied by four basic types: the Gabber, the Time Waster, the Sincere Good and the Sincere Bad.

The Gabber desperately wants to talk to someone. He must be desperate or he wouldn’t be trying to strike up a conversation with a corporate monolith.

The Time Waster has settled on your interactive stuff – videos, games, apps, blogs, whatever – as the stuff he wants to waste his time on. Somehow you managed to create something that to him is more engaging than the fluffy-cat version of Call of Duty. Don’t argue with them; as that famous marketing professor, Van Morrison, once said, “It ain’t why – it just is.”

However, realize that engaging with your stuff is not the same as buying your product. The key to successful online marketing is to not confuse the destination -- your products -- and the road that takes you there -- the sale -- with the sign that points the way. You can get there without the sign. You can't get there without the road, and if you have nothing at the end, what does it matter?

The Sincere Good truly likes your product, and has taken the time to tell you why. If your radar’s good and you can pick these people out from the extremists, listen to them and then reward them – or at the very least, cultivate them. They’re deserving.

The Sincere Bad really want to like you but are prevented by some significant flaw from doing so. Again, listen to them and reward them, ideally by solving their problem. They may have come to you through conversational channels, but their dilemma is classic customer service, and the same rules apply.

In the end, all these types of conversations can be successfully conducted if you keep one simple trait in mind: respect. Respect your product; don't cheapen it by giving it away to the person who yells the loudest. But respect the people who sincerely want to have a dialogue with you. Answer their questions truthfully, politely and promptly, just as if you were a small shopkeeper and they were standing at the counter in front of you. Because in this particular realm, they are.

Do these things and you won't have to worry about what they say about you. You'll have it under control.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Willie And Me Would Rather Follow The Money, Thank You

As you may have surmised from reading previous columns, there are schools of marketing and then there are Schools Of Marketing, and just because you get straight A’s in one doesn’t mean you’re not going to flunk the other.

For instance, I had one client who graduated from Dartmouth’s school of marketing but washed out of Marketing For Morons at the Roger McGuinn School Of Marketing (“To everything there is a season/And a time to every purpose under Heaven”). I had another who matriculated at the knees of Mr. Proctor and Mr. Gamble themselves and had a Harvard MBA besides, yet he could not have gained admission to the Little Ricky Nelson School Of Marketing (“You can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself”) if he had crab-walked from Cincinnati to San Francisco.

It works the other way, too. I’ve worked with cum-laude graduates of the Bob Dylan School of Marketing who couldn’t pass the entrance exams for a correspondence course.

The only difference between the two groups of grads is that the Bob Dylan U. grads have summer homes and boats the size of three-bedroom ranches while the Dartmouth guy … well, he has a boat the size of a four-bedroom ranch and a four-bedroom ranch the size of a paper mill. But only because he had a good tutor.

So out of all graduates of the various schools of marketing and Schools Of Marketing, what would be the ur-marketer, the Mary Poppins, the Michael Jordan, the Mac, the standard by which others are measured?

I’d take a graduate of a Big Ten university who did his graduate work at P&G and his post-graduate work at the Willie Sutton School Of Marketing.

The Big Ten education (and full disclosure: I don’t have one) is just right: not too big and snooty and not too small and easily denigrated. I don’t want my ur-marketer to have to struggle uphill or coast downhill right out of college.

P&G teaches you everything you need to know about marketing consumer products – and any marketer who says she doesn’t market consumer products is a liar.

The Willie Sutton School Of Marketing … now that holds a special place in my heart.

You all know the origins of the Willie Sutton School Of Marketing, don’t you? Okay, some don’t. Those that do, excuse me a moment.

Willie Sutton was a bank robber. When the police caught him and asked him why he robbed banks, he looked at them like they were a bunch of South Carolina Tea Partiers and said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

So many of the tough decisions in marketing aren’t tough at all if you simply couch them inside the question, “So which way is the money?”

Here; perfect example. We had a client that made licensed merchandise, and he had a choice: pick up a license quickly and relatively cheaply to make licensed products for a brand that was a household name but not necessarily something that you could envision as a licensable brand (no, not Preparation H), or spend considerably more time, money, and effort to be one of several licensees for a brand that’s been a licensed-products staple for decades.

Even though my client would have the cheap license all to himself, we recommended that he expend the effort to compete in the larger arena.

Why? Because that’s where the money was. It was such a huge money pie that even one-seventh of it would be significantly larger than all of the other pie.

Our client found that out the hard way. He went against our advice not once but three times, and was out of business within two years.

Here’s another example. My consultant friend Mike was telling me about a case he was cleaning up. A new marketing manager took over at a reasonably large-sized manufacturer and was faced with an immediate choice: roll out new products or redo the advertising for the current stuff.

She didn’t have the resources to do both, and didn’t want to split efforts between the two. And the company was doing fine; there was no overriding reason to do either one, other than the drive that possesses all marketers to do something.

“I know what I’d do,” I told Mike. “I’d do the products.”

“Me too,” Mike said. “But she did the advertising. And I’m doing the cleanup.”

In this case, doing the advertising was a cost that didn’t get anyone closer to the money. It was an exercise in portfolio-padding. Doing the products would have been immeasurably harder and less glamorous, but done properly it would have provided a direct line to the money.

You can guess the rest. The marketing director split when the bean-counters asked for ROI, the product-development process rusted up, and Mike was called in at no small cost to knock off the rust and do what should have been done in the first place.
One more example, and then I’ll shut up. One of my clients was deciding whether to expand into new markets or try to extract more from its current customers.

There was plenty more to be extracted from current customers, at little or no incremental cost. The dollar amounts to be had there were at least as great as those possible from the new customers. But man, the idea of new markets sure did sound appealing.

You know this one, too. We recommended grabbing the money that was being left on the table. The client opted for the new market. Acquisition costs have been through the roof, customer retention has been lousy, and meanwhile that additional income from current customers is still there, ready as a dust bunny to be sucked up.

It works for big-picture issues, too. Think Apple wasn’t chasing money when it introduced the iPod? The money was going into digital music, and money has been going into portable music for 75 years. Apple went ingeniously and stylishly into portable digital music – where the money was.

Here’s a contemporary example with implications for the future. Media – and money -- are rapidly heading toward a Three Musketeers model: One media for all screens, and all media for one screen. How is your marketing message going to thrive in that environment? How are you going to extract an advantage from that environment – or is your competition going to extract an advantage at your expense?

Do me a favor. From now on, if you ever have a difficult marketing decision to make, ask yourself: What direction does the money go? Things will snap into focus more clearly than the view from under a pair of Blue Blockers.

Which, coincidentally, got where they were by following the money. It’s everywhere.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Delusion And Dipsomania At The Field Of Dreams School Of Marketing

Of all the great schools of marketing, from Penn to Johnny Paycheck, the most scandal-ridden is the Field Of Dreams School Of Marketing.

If it had a political-science department, the chair would be Karl Rove. If it had a football team, it would be coached by Rich Rodriguez and would number Reggie Bush among its recruits. Its business school would have Jeff Skilling as dean. And so on.

You do know the Field Of Dreams School Of Marketing, don’t you? If you build it, they will come? I tell you, more sins have been committed in the name of If You Build It They Will Come than even Tiger Woods can dream of.

Here’s why. In the course of If You Build It They Will Come people forget to build a meaningful way in or a way out. Sometimes they even forget why they built the thing in the first place.

It’s like constructing the Bellagio in the middle of the Bob Marshall National Wilderness Area and then thinking to yourself, “Now where did I put that casino?”

Here’s an example. A company that makes flexible tubing decides it wants a microsite to showcase its people, who are tremendous – they’re the New York Yankees, flexible-tubing division – and its products, which are splendiferous. If Tiffany made flexible tubing it would look like this.

I don’t have a problem with microsites. If you have a significant portion of your constituency roosting on the Internet a microsite is a good idea. People appreciate a place on the Internet to waste time. That’s the one thing the Internet’s lacking. (And to think the Defense Department created this whole Internet thing.)

It could be that an agency sold the company a microsite. Ad agencies like microsites more than three-martini lunches. Actually, ad agencies like selling microsites (with the optional SEO package, leather, and a sunroof) over three-martini lunches better than they like Nutella scooped out of the jar with a finger. Presumably a different finger each time.

Right. So the ad agency builds the microsite, flings open its doors, and for the longest, longest, longest time all you hear are crickets. Crickets who are not in charge of buying flexible tubing for their organization.

Wha’ happen? This: No one asked whether customers, or potential customers, want this level of interaction with a flexible-tubing maker, the flexible-tubing maker failed to create a clear connection between its main site and the microsite, and everyone forgot to think about what they wanted to ask for at the end, what sort of behavioral act they wanted this site to elicit.

In short, the flexible-tubing maker got hosed.

Let’s go through what should have been done. The tubing-maker should have asked its customers (including potential customers) how they want to interact with the company, realizing full well that nothing – nothing – beats a face-to-face sitdown. Nothing has and nothing will.

Then once it asked and got the answers, the company should resist every admonition to ignore the results and say, “Yeah, but if we build it they will come.” Because they won’t.

They have told you how they want to interact with you. Believe them. No matter how neat your idea is, it won’t sell one more piece of flexible tubing.

However, if your customers indicate they do want to interact with you via a microsite or some other piece of Internet bric-a-brac, build as many roads in as the traffic will allow and your budget will hold. If you have built a better microsite the world will not beat a path to your door. You have to create the paths – and once created, keep them open and maintained. That means ongoing everything: changing copy on the main Web site, changing content on the microsite, full SEO, links from blogs, links from LinkedIn and Facebook, the kitchen sink. In the Internet world you cannot survive on merit alone.

Finally, make sure you know beforehand what end behavior you are trying to elicit from your effort. The Targeted Application Of Common Sense says you have to get something out of the deal. Do you want a purchase, a contact name, a survey filled out, the start of a dialogue, a quote, or something else? Provide visitors a clear path out – but make it a toll road.

Now, a different example. Our church has a fall schedule and a summer schedule. The summer schedule has one service a week; the fall and winter schedule has two. Yesterday our church voted to continue the summer schedule indefinitely under the premise that one energetic service is better than two less-energetic services.

At the same time, the church has a building project on the drawing board that includes a half-court gym and new classrooms. The church expects a major increase in attendance, membership, and excitement once the addition is built. I personally know about a hundred guys who would attend church more regularly if halfcourt three-on-three games were part of the service.

In this case, if the church builds it they will come – but if the church doesn't build it, and instead makes it harder for them to come, will they come? It seems counterintuitive.

What's the difference between these two examples, outside of the fact that one building is real and one is virtual? With the church building, the payoff at the end is well-defined, and the means to that end is clear and obvious. A new building in a relatively small community is obvious; people can see it, their curiosity is piqued, they peek, they come through the door, they attend. If you build it they will come -- but only if it’s able to do its own marketing,

Listen, I never liked the movie Field of Dreams. I found it blatantly manipulative in the worst traditions of Hollywood. And I never cared much for If You Build It They Will Come as an excuse for marketing. It’s the lazy way out.

What’s the non-lazy way out? Do everything for a reason. Know the reason beforehand. Drive your audiences to a place where they can drive sales. Tammany Hall used to ply voters with rotgut, shove a dollar in their pocket, drive them to the polls, walk them up to the polling place, tell them to make their mark by the star, and after they did, shove another dollar in their pocket, walk them back to the car, and drop them off at the nearest bar.

That was not waiting for the votes to come in. That was not If You Build It They Will Come. That was reaching out to the customers. That was building something -- a political machine -- and providing a clear way in and a clear way out.

What it built made Sodom and Gomorrah look like a kiddie carnival, but for its myriad illegalities, that, my friends, was marketing.