Special Message: Chellie Pingree

February 25, 2008 at 7:04 am | Posted in Collective Responsibility, Communication, Decision making, General, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility | 3 Comments
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I have tried to make this blog in no way personal. I have made extreme efforts for it to avoid my former bastion, the realm of politics. It is only on this rare occasion that I write this special post. I hope you read it and consider it carefully.

Chellie Pingree was my boss as president of a national, non-partisan advocacy organization in Washington, DC. Originally founded by a Republican, and supported over the years by politicians of every stripe (including Dem. Russ Feingold and Rep. John McCain), Common Cause has been the citizen’s lobby for over 30 years. And under Chellie’s leadership, we expanded from the traditional topics of campaign finance reform and electoral ethics to also include media consolidation and making sure every vote is counted with new voting machines. These were issues that effected all Americans.

Now, Chellie is running for Congress and she’s got a real shot at winning. And I have to tell you, I cannot think of a better person to have in the Congress. Chellie is without a doubt one of the best, and most ethical, leaders I have ever met.

I encourage you to visit her website, join the Facebook or MySpace group, and, if you can, help her campaign financially. You don’t have to live in her district in Maine to support her; after all, when she is in Congress, she will do the right thing for the country, not just her district. Please read up on her life, her work, and her beliefs. Regardless of party, we want good people in Congress who will make the right decisions when the going gets tough. And Chellie is that kind of person.

I’ve taken myself out of politics but I can’t get politics out of me. Regardless of your party affiliation, I trust you won’t think less of my blogging efforts. A big part of marketing is communicating what you believe is important about the subject to the audience. I hope I have done that today.


3 Marketing Disasters (Sort Of)

January 29, 2008 at 6:29 am | Posted in Advertising, Boomers, Communication, Companies, Decision making, DTC, General, Generations, Marketing, Merck, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Pharma, Politics, Responsibility, Schering-Plough | 2 Comments
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I started thinking about this blog entry in response to something I saw while standing on the Clark and Lake El platform.

Adventures in Stupidity

The last train car was wrapped up in advertising for the new Samsung Blackjack II. And the URL? http://www.blackjackll.com. That’s right, they used Roman numerals in the URL! Does anyone there know the internets? Are those written as ones, or “i”s, or “l”s? Or just a two? Guess what? None of these addresses work. Samsung spent all this time making a phone and didn’t think about how to communicate it. Fire your marketing people.

The Old Way: Marketing Lies

When I got to work, a friend emailed me Dan Froomkin’s new article. The Center for Public Integrity (a non-partisan and highly regarded beltway watchdog) assembled 935 instances in which members of the Bush administration lied or mislead the public regarding Iraq. Despite what side of the aisle you reside on, you have to admit we might have gotten sold a pack of false goods there.

Froomkin’s article is different from a marketing perspective though. The folks at Samsung just made a stupid mistake; they didn’t think about the arena in which they were operating. The Froomkin article is about flat-out lying. And it relates to a trend that has been going on for several years: people – highly intelligent, well-educated CEO-types – do not seem to understand that you can’t lie anymore.

The New Way: Leveling With The Customer

Marketing is changing. While there is still a healthy serving of “spin” (or “creating a compelling narrative,” as I prefer to think about it), this is changing because of the massive amount of information online combined with incredibly advanced search capacity. There is a glut of information available to the customer. (My job in the future will be more about creating value for the customer and my next blog post will be about the yet-to-be-created position of Chief Conversation Officer – subscribe so as not to miss it.)

Yet still, these old-school guys think they can lie and steal and no one will find out about it. Sometimes they get the money before someone finds out (see: Enron) and sometimes they just get busted (see: following paragraph). Forget the subterfuge: just tell the truth. If you make a quality product, you won’t need to lie about it. And if you don’t make a quality product, why are you working for those people, anyway?

Poison Pill

Which bring me to my third marketing disaster. Much like the Froomkin example, it deals with a huge organization knowing that it is lying to people. It turns out that Vytorin (with the eye-catching ads comparing people to food) does not work and is actually worse than a generic worth a third of the price. This isn’t the debacle; this is simply a bad product. The debacle is that 1) Merck and Schering-Plough continued to spend millions on marketing this drug after they knew it was ineffective and 2) that S-P execs allegedly sold stock after the trials failed.

Of course I care about the health risks. And of course I care about the older folks who bought this useless drug instead of food or other medication. But for right now, let’s focus on the sheer stupidity in a company brazenly lying to the public. The halls of business are positively littered with the bodies of executives who thought they could get away with it. And maybe in the old days, they did. But this is a new world.

It makes me wonder if (especially younger members of) the marketing department brought up the uselessness of lying. Surely they do Google searches of their company, they know the regulations involved in pharmaceuticals, and they’ve heard all the stories of companies being discovered of lying. Did not one of them raise the issue? “Maybe we should just confess? Instead of spending millions marketing a junk pill and making thousands from shady stock deals, we should consider the billions we may be fined or that will be lost in company stock after this is exposed?”

Instead, they kept quiet. Now, in addition to losing their own jobs and likely an executive or two, they risked countless lives and have further degraded an industry already in peril. What kind of golden parachute do you get for those results?

The Gist

I know this is wearing on a bit, but my point is this: there is an epic change occurring in business. The marketing guys are no longer the sniveling spinmeisters. Now, we are responsible for good business and good communication.

Feel free to comment on either other marketing disasters caused by stupidity (Blackjack Deuce) or dishonesty (Bush, Merck/S-P). Or, better yet, comment on how the marketing department saved your company’s ass through honesty or open conversation. Those are the stories up-and-coming marketers really need to hear.

Marketing My Engagement

January 24, 2008 at 6:05 am | Posted in Communication, Decision making, Email, General, Marketing, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility | 1 Comment
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I got engaged a week and a half ago. I did not blog about it because it didn’t have to do with marketing and it was kind of personal. But, unbeknownst to be, the way I handled the news had a big effect on how I market myself.

On January 13, I asked the Beautiful Girl (BG) to marry me. We spent an hour and a half calling her family and mine – that’s how long it took for just immediate family, mind you! – and we were exhausted by the end of it.

Now, I hate talking on the phone. It is a tedious, blind, unnerving exercise. As a writer, I would much prefer it if conversations came with a backspace button.

Instead, I simply changed my status to “engaged” on Facebook and approved an evite to go out for an engagement party to which I had contributed names and contact info of recipients. This would avoid:

  1. More phone time
  2. One of those self-congratulatory emails to everyone in my contact book
  3. Using time and energy I don’t have. (In addition to the engagement, the past couple weeks have been quite full enough with a potential mortgage and closing, finding renters for our current apartment in winter in Chicago, the detail of the move, car trouble, and BG has been sick this week. Isn’t that enough?)

I was attempting an experiment in active communication but passive conversation (and being a wuss about the phone).

What I forgot is that not everyone is like me. From the way they communicate to what they hold important. BG and I have been dating for almost two years and admitted we were planning nuptials at least six months ago, so the actual ring-on-the-finger bit was less climactic to me than perhaps others viewed it.

Plus, many of my friends and family are not online. I am online and/or writing for at least nine hours per day. This has altered the way I prefer to transfer information. But because I was thinking from my own perspective rather than that of my audience, I came off as a jerk. And maybe I am. So, this is the official apology to disappointed friends and family (especially Alexia and Mandy, but all the others too). If I wasn’t writing this at 5am, you would get a personal phone call, but I promise to try once the dust settles here.

One surprise from this experiment was the lovely, organic dialogue that came from several friends who did notice the change on Facebook or read the evite. They were able to contact me at a time of their own choosing in a medium of my choosing (emailing me, writing on my Facebook wall, etc). It was very natural and now I have those messages to keep and reflect on.

So this exercise reminded me to always, always, always consider how your audience will receive a message. I spend so much of my day thinking about how to craft the message that I let down my guard in my personal life regarding the reception.

Water Bottle Guilt (Now with Diagrams!)

January 10, 2008 at 5:38 am | Posted in Advertising, Collective Responsibility, Communication, Decision making, General, Marketing, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility, Usability | 5 Comments
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Updated: Welcome Fast Company readers! If you like the post below, don’t forget to subscribe. Enjoy!

This morning I was reading an insightful post at the QualityWriter.com blog where Phil mentions the new Starbuck’s ethos ad. Basically, for every couple of bucks they make selling this water, Starbuck’s will give a nickel to a poor, starving kid (examples Kebede and Abu found here).

I’m not going to comment on the usual rant material here. I find giving money to poor kids generally good, Starbuck’s and their ads generally so-so, and the taste of their coffee pretty damn awful. That aside, I did want to comment on the recent trend of water bottle guilt.

Fast Company details all of the stomach-churning, mind-boggling details in the cleverly named Message in a Bottle article from this summer. But the gist is this: a whole bunch of people thought they were doing good by switching from soda (“pop,” if you will) to water. Everybody felt good and felt better about themselves, too. Only after a couple of years and a huge increase in the water business, did we question all of the plastic bottles we were throwing away. All this while tension in the middle east rose and wars started and “oh yeah!” that plastic is not only clogging our landfills on the back-end, but it’s a petroleum product to start out with!

Hey, I’m not blameless. We recycle, but I’ll still buy water from time to time. But the sheer guilt that is growing at an exponential rate is what I’m fascinated in. The problem has a lot of angles – the environment, oil and global politics, waste in a country of plenty, the blur between what we need and what we want – so I thought we could use a little visual assistance. Though it is positively not comprehensive, I put together a venn diagram of sorts to being to plot the aspects of water bottle guilt (both the diagram and this post are positively facetious, however).

It features Kebede (or is that Abu?) in the middle of our messy little problem. In what way do you feel guilty about the burgeoning water bottle crisis and its effect on humankind? Click on the image below for some ideas:

Guilt 2 200×200

Debunking 5 Bamboozles About Cookies

November 16, 2007 at 6:08 am | Posted in Books, Communication, Cookies, General, Marketing, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility, Turow, Joseph - Niche Envy | Leave a comment
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Joseph Turow’s book, Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age, is driving me crazy. He is happy building up premises and then leaving out the keystone: the logic of human interaction. Never does he consider that online marketers are giving people what they want. I’m not going to whine for the online marketers of the world – there are some skeezy guys out there – but after 100 pages I still have not heard what it is that online marketers do that is so terrible. However, I will cover the crux of Turow’s argument in (many) subsequent posts. In this post, I would like to debunk a number of myths floating around the interwebs and whispered in hushed corners around the globe.

First, let me say that personal data is stolen online every day and identity fraud will only grow in coming years. Consumers should take every precaution to protect themselves and act carefully while purchasing or even interacting online. Those like Turow, however, will run about, gnashing their teeth, while shouting that the sky is falling. One example is his crafty use of language about cookies.

A cookie is part of your web experience you ideally do not even know is there. For instance, let’s say you wanted to buy Turow’s book on Amazon.com. If you have used the site before and haven’t erased your cookies, you will notice that the site greets you by name. This is thanks to a cookie. Cookies are also responsible for the recommendations Amazon gives for other books based on your previous buying history. When you go to log-in, a cookies is the reason the site remembers your username. Cookies even allow you to use the ubiquitous shopping cart while you are browsing. Cookies aid the user experience, save the consumer time and energy, and give valuable (non-personally identifiable) information to a website owner so s/he can tailor the website to ensure you have an even better experience the next time you visit.

Cookies are not viruses, spyware, or even programs. They are simply little pieces of data passed back and forth between your web browser and the website you are visiting. I do not want to downplay all concerns – any interaction between your computer and a website has the potential for problem. But the myths propagated by Turow and others create undue anxiety. I’d like to respond to the following statements from his book (all of which can be found between pages 74-76 of his book, if you would rather just skim it at the book store):

  1. “If spam endangered marketing because it angered consumers over information delivered to their computers without consent, cookies put online marketing in jeopardy because of the information they allegedly could retrieve from consumer’ computers.”
  2. First of all, how many people know what cookies are and how they work? Not many. And even if they know, this statement is complete speculation and allegation. Spam didn’t kill email and cookies aren’t going to kill web browsing. Besides, people will either not mind cookies because they contribute to the user experience or they will disable them. Simple enough.

  3. “…This article pointed out that cookies ‘aren’t able to grab an email address’ or to probe an individual’s computer. That may not have been understood by everyone who reacted with alarm to cookies’ existence.”
  4. The two statements I draw from this are that A) The people who were concerned about cookies were ignorant and B) Turow should feel obliged then to correct these misunderstandings (he doesn’t).

  5. “An online firm could not tell anything about a site visitor…unless that person wanted the firm to know. That bothered marketers…’Ever since the Web gained prominence as a commercial medium, marketers and publishers have demanded some way to understand how user move through their sites.”
  6. The emphasis above is mine. Turow weaves in this conspiratorial language throughout his book – the evil marketer demanding(!) that they have some undefined personal information – the horror! What is really important in the above quote is the word “their.” While some people like to believe the internet just springs forth like manna from heaven, it actually takes a lot of work and money to produce. And those producers want to provide the best experience possible. Legally gained and innocuous information helps on both accounts. It really gets under my skin then when I read this unsubstantiated, fear-mongering garbage.

  7. “Nevertheless, such incidents and the very presence of cookies worried people that the new medium might threaten users with theft of personal information.”
  8. I concur on one level – let’s get as much protection from identification theft as possible. But putting marketers in the same boat as hackers, spammers, and other online miscreants is patently false at best (if not libelous to some degree). Cookies ease the process for users, especially while shopping, especially for less experienced users.

  9. “Consumers’ reluctance to go online for fear of losing control over personal information seemed like an additional problem that could kill what many still considered a huge potential commercial resource.”
  10. Ah yes, and thereafter did Amazon and eBay shutter their blinds and close up shop. Oh wait, that didn’t happen? Online shopping grew exponentially? It seems pretty obvious this statement is bunk.

So the facts simply don’t bear out Turow insistence that cookies are part of some plot by marketers to steal information. He even begins the next section with, “At the end of 1997, a Forrester Research study estimated that online retail revenue would total a record $2.4 billion in that year, ‘driven in large part by new security technology, easier-to-use commerce sites and advertising that is helping to reduce consumers’ fear about shopping online.’ ” Websites being easier to use did not just occur out of thin air. There were a lot of smart people working very hard on the user experience. Cookies helped them understand user behavior so that web developers could clear the path to whatever it was the user wanted to do.

My goal with this post is to communicate that cookies are useful to online marketers because they help us help the user. There is no conspiracy. And if you aren’t comfortable with them, turn them off. It’s no skin off my nose. Whether through cookies, log files, surveys, or focus groups, online marketers will be studying your behavior to improve websites. Hopefully the cookie Chicken Littles will forgive us.


November 12, 2007 at 5:39 am | Posted in Boomers, Communication, Decision making, General, Generation X, Generations, Marketing, Net gens, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility, Tweens | 1 Comment
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Drew McLellan at MarketingProfs asks, “Can We Outgrow Marketing?” My first comment is here, Drew responds a few comments down, and then I reply here.

Because everything in marketing is changing at an amazing rate, will the older folks among us become unable to keep up? Is there an anxiety present now that never used to exist before? Or is it imagined pressure that drives us?

Pickin’ Ain’t Easy: The Paralysis of Choice vs. The Clarity of Priorities

November 9, 2007 at 6:17 am | Posted in Advertising, Anderson, Chris - The Long Tail, Books, Communication, Decision making, Free Choice, General, Heath, Chip and Dan - Made To Stick, Marketing, Online marketing, Personal Responsibility, Responsibility | Leave a comment
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I was surprised this month to be in such disagreement with the latest article by Dan and Chip Heath. (Normally their articles are spot-on and I’m sure their book is great.) They fall right in line with the current thinking from the svengali of choice – Barry Schwartz and The Paradox of Choice. Their basic premise is that people are confused or angered exponentially when they are given more things to choose from. If you give a person 3 things to choose from, they can happily make a decision; give them 20 things to choose from and they give up.

This couldn’t be more ludicrous considering the online channel. The Heath’s give the example, “companies that say, ‘Make the customer happy,’ but pay service reps based on criteria like speed or quotas. At that nexus, paralysis leads to frustration.” The problem in this and other examples is not choice – it’s a confusion of priorities and fuzzy goals.

They offer Mattel as another example:

“Mattel prides itself on the quality of its products, but the massive recall of Chinese-made toys illustrates the risks faced by companies caught between maintaining safety and cutting costs.”

This is not a rational problem of choice – this is a lack of common sense! Safety for children’s toys is the price of doing business, not a choice. The Heaths and Schwartz seem to view choice as a “one OR another” decision (which may or may not be correct depending on the situation). However, the examples given in the Fast Company article are problems of priority which is “one THEN another THEN another” with trumps thrown in. Mattel wants to make toys. Their priorities are costs, then quality of toys, then manufacture location, etc. with the trump of safety to stop everything if a certain line is crossed.

In his fantastic and oft-written about book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson debunks the myth of choice paralysis, saying that “choice is simply an artifact of the limitations of the physical world where the information necessary to make an informed choice is lost.” Like I have laid out in regards to priorities, Anderson remarks, “the solution is not to limit choice, but to order it so it isn’t oppressive.”

To boil this all down, I believe that search is to commerce as Occam’s razor is to priorities. The former is a tool used to assist with the wise decision-making in the latter. (I just thought this up last night, so feel free to correct me in the comments section.)

I think these two systems are largely defined by the medium and one’s view of humankind. Granted, the Heaths and Schwartz are discussing real life while Anderson and I are focusing on the internet (though clearly similarities in decision making exist across the board).

But the Heaths and Schwartz also tend to talk about people as though they are irrational morons. Now, I’ve worked in politics and personally have a dim view of people on a whole, but when we’re talking about individuals I somehow revert back to giving them the benefit of the doubt. Especially on important decisions, I think most people tend to be fairly rational. Do we really believe some Chinese toy manufacturer thought, “duh, well I need to make a choice between making these toys and poisoning the little kids that play with them”? I think it was a little more complex than that.

Choice, in the Heaths/Schwartz model, is a one-time decision. 1) I don’t think life operates this way and 2) the examples the Heaths give are rarely one-time mistakes. The examples are almost always longer decision making mistakes which are more about priorities than choices. Getting both correct would be wonderful in a perfect world; for now, I’ll stick to winning the battle of priorities rather than focus on the war of choice.

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