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marketing

I recently got a robocall call from a home security company, offering me a free system so they could get a foothold in my neighborhood. I considered it for a moment, and then hung up, even though I want a home security system. Why?

Because I assumed they were lying. Do they really mean free, or are they just waiving some fee? Do I really think it’s going to end up costing me nothing? Clearly not.

Every time I get on an airplane, the pilot lies to me.

If there’s anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable, please don’t hesitate to ask.

I’ve rung the call bell exactly once in all my miles of air travel, to ask a flight attendant to throw away a half-full cup of water. I had a two-year-old on my hands and nowhere to put the cup. She glared at me as though I had asked her to disrobe and sing show tunes.

How do you think your boss would react if you went into your next performance review and said, “I did everything I could possibly have done as well as anyone could possibly have done it. I am flawless and perfect.”

Yet that’s what most companies do with their marketing and communications. And when a real issue comes up, only then do they admit there might be something possibly that could maybe be ever so slightly better, and now that it’s been raised to their attention, they’ll address it immediately.

Your customers and prospects, especially the ones you want to attract and keep, know as much or more about your products and services as you do. They know the flaws as well as the benefits. They know how you stack up against your competitors. They know if you’re cheaper or more expensive. They know if you’re easier to use, or provide more value.

In every industry I’ve ever worked in, our prospects were extremely intelligent and well informed. When they came to us, they had done their research. They didn’t want a sales pitch; they wanted an honest exploration of whether or not our products could meet their needs. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work for companies who felt confident responding honestly, knowing that we would prevail.

Why is “We’re only human” an excepted tenet of life, but a last resort and an admission of failure when a company says it?

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you admitted to your customers that you know the truth as well as they do, are sincerely working to make things better and value their input in the process?

Could that really be a bad thing?

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I don’t consider myself a particularly trendy person, but I do live in a funky little town on the edge of a college town. I walk all over the place for exercise, walk through campus a lot, and I keep my eyes open. I’m also spending a lot of time on Pinterest these days, planning a future wardrobe for when I hit my goal weight. All of these things are causing me to see a trend. Simple is in.

(Forgive me if I’m the 9 millionth person to say that, but I’m trying to look at the larger implications here.)

I live less than a mile away from one of the best farmers markets in the country. All of the food is organic and grown within 50 miles. We’ve been written up in The New York Times, in fact. The man I buy my green beans from was quoted in the article.

The trend in bicycles among the urban hip is for simple, single-speed bikes called “fixies” that don’t even have brakes. Major manufacturers, inevitably, are copying the style, but the coolest looking people in my town are riding bikes that look like they were pulled from a dumpster.

One of the most sought-after sneakers among the cognoscenti is called the GAT (German army trainer). A plain white style issued by the German army, they have obviously influenced trendy sneaker design for the last few years. You can hunt them down online cheap, or you can buy a designer’s version for $500.

I’m wondering what it is in the Zeitgeist that is causing people to return to the simple, unadorned and honest. It may just be a natural pendulum swing, and I’m sure the economic decline of the last decade played a huge part. When no one has a lot of spare cash to throw around, price and value obviously become a much bigger consideration. But I think it goes deeper than that.

Social media also embodies a more personal and honest style of communication that goes hand-in-hand with this attitude. Whether social media helped cause it or evolved at the right time to benefit from it is something we probably can’t figure out, nor do we really need to.

How does this affect your marketing and communications efforts? It’s no secret how I feel about transparency and openness, and the role social media plays. But are you too complicated for your customers? Does your corporate brand feel simple, honest, personal and valuable? Or complicated, insincere, distant and self-centered?

Are you offering the $50 product that offers real value, or the $500 product that is mostly show? And of course I mean that metaphorically. (Unless you’re in the sneaker business.)

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I’m halfway through the new Steve Jobs biography and it’s really making me think. I never paid much attention to Jobs when he was alive, other than having a general sense of his brilliance and his mercurial, intense personality. The book is bringing me a new appreciation and I think it’s essential for anyone whose job involves understanding a marketplace and delivering a great product, or enjoys pondering what makes a great leader.

By no means am I endorsing Jobs’ methods and style without reservation. There are multiple tales of his managerial caprice, and his cruelty and childishness aimed at employees, industry leaders and, most distressing, his family. I truly believe that great leaders can be–must be–empathetic and respectful. But there is no doubt that Jobs had qualities that only come only once in a blue moon.

His singular focus on quality, for instance. He insisted that even the insides of Apples should be well designed and put together, even though no one would see the result. That kind of dedication to quality sets a standard that permeates the organization.

In an age where nearly every corporate decision is made by committees backed up by market research, Jobs pushed through decisions in record time, because he was absolutely certain he knew what consumers wanted, even if they didn’t know it themselves. While that attitude went hand in hand with his arrogance, there is no doubt he was right far more often than he was wrong.

My favorite example so far is the decision to produce the iMac in multiple colors, which added considerably to its production cost. But when I read that section, I knew without a moment’s hesitation that it was the right decision. (I have the benefit of hindsight, of course, but I like to think I would have known it at the time.) Too often in corporate America, we’re afraid to make decisions that we know in our hearts are the right thing to do, because we can’t prove the decision empirically, and thereby avoid the potential of risk. That fear stifles innovation and kills passion, both inside a company and with customers.

Apple’s marketing and messaging, which Jobs drove with daily attention uncharacteristic of the average CEO, lifted Apple products above the usual purchase decision process. When I bought my first MacBook, I didn’t compare specs with other non-Mac laptops, the first time I’d made a major tech purchase without exhaustive research. For a variety of reasons, some practical and some emotional, I just knew I wanted a Mac. The “Apple-ness” of Apple products, both tangible and intangible, is the company’s most valuable differentiator, and exists because of Jobs’ vision and stewardship.

Perhaps Jobs’ most significant quality was his unwavering certainty that he and the people he worked with were doing more than building products; they were changing the world. This philosophy influenced his decisions on product design, marketing strategy, advertising and, really, everything. And the fact is, he did change history. (I’m reading the book and wrote this post on my iPad.)

If you have a hard time remembering what it was that attracted you to your job or your field, if you’re stuck for ideas of how to excite your customers, or if you’re feeling uninspired as a leader, this book could help you find a new spark.

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Nothing new to anyone, I’m sure, but my bank just called me at home. I listened because, you know, it’s my bank. Maybe something weird was happening with my account. He thanked me for being a customer, so I knew it wasn’t them calling to tell me a check had bounced or anything. Then he offered to send me $20 worth of coupons in appreciation. Then he offered to enroll me in a program that would… and I said, “No, thanks,” and hung up.

Calling me at home is the LEAST effective way to sell me something, other than perhaps running up to me in the street, tugging my sleeve and shouting, “Hey, mister!” But as soon as I hung up I thought, “Wait, I wonder what that program does?”

From a quick search, it does not appear that my bank has a Facebook fan page. If they did, I would be inclined to join it, because I find that’s a good way to get information from businesses I have interest in, provided they do it well. If my bank used their Facebook page to talk about the service they were offering me in a straightforward way, I might read it. And if I saw that people in my network “liked” that service, that would make me more inclined to sign up for it.

No big revelation, just further evidence that you need to reach your customers where they are in the ways they want to be reached, even if you’re selling something they want.

photo by Rego – twitter.com/w3bdesign

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Photo by Arenamontanus

There’s a Southern States store not too far from our house, a slightly anomalous reminder that Carrboro isn’t exclusively a haven of tattooed hipsters and Prius-driving professors. We go there to buy cat food and litter, and plants and planters in the Spring. I just got back and the woman parked next to me was wearing riding boots, so I guess she was there for oats or Pony Chow or whatever horses eat.

They generally have very helpful customer service and friendly staff. But there’s one thing that always bothers me about going there. When you go to check out, the first thing they ask you for is your phone number. The nice young woman who checked me out today asked, “Is your phone number in our system?” The woman at the next register applies a different approach. She barked “Phone number?” at her customer. (I’ve gone through her line before.)

Generally when they ask I say, “No, thank you,” and they leave it at that. I find it a bit intrusive and time-wasting, but here’s the main thing: I’ve been shopping at that store for maybe 20 years, and not once has anyone even tried to explain to me why they want my phone number. I just assume it’s so they can more effectively spam me in some fashion. Maybe it’s for market research. Maybe it’s so they can send me a coupon for a free truckload of cat litter. But I have no idea.

I give the same information freely at Harris Teeter because I get discounted prices for being part of their VIC program. (I looked on the page for about 30 seconds and couldn’t find a definition for “VIC” so I’m going with “Very Important Customer.”) They make the value proposition clear to me, and in exchange, they get lots of data about my shopping habits and the overall habits of Carrboro shoppers.

In what ways do you ask your customers for their information? Are you asking them to register on your website? Are you making it clear to them why they would want to give you their information?

Are you asking your customers to follow you on Twitter or Facebook? What will they get out of it? Are you making the value proposition clear?

And just as important, are you living up to it? I follow lots of businesses and companies large and small in social media. Some of them do a great job of sharing useful information. I also follow a couple of small businesses on Facebook, a few run by friends of mine, and mostly what I get from them is, essentially, spam. “Come here and buy stuff! Hey, we’re open tonight and selling things!” If we weren’t friends I would have stopped following them by now.

Information is a valuable commodity and people are bombarded by requests for theirs. Think about why you’re asking, make sure your customers understand what they get, and be sure to honor the promise.

photo by Arenamontanus

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Tech break in the Hilton bar

I was listening to the Quick ‘n’ Dirty podcast in the car yesterday, hosted by Aaron Strout and Jennifer Leggio. It’s becoming one of my favorite social media podcasts. They cover useful topics, have great guests and have a nice interaction between the two of them that makes it fun to listen to. Plus, they seem to mention Kyle Flaherty on nearly every episode. Highly recommended.

Aaron and Jennifer were having a conversation about some fairly in-depth social media topic. I think it may have been location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla (I would go find it in the podcast but I’m writing this while The Boy is napping, and every precious moment counts). At one point, one of them said, “Yeah, we’re dorks,” and the other repeated it. “Yeah, we’re dorks.”

I’m used to hearing “geek” uttered proudly these days, and “nerd,” of course. (Mike Schneider sent a tweet announcing the arrival of his flight to Austin for SXSW that said something to the effect of, “The nerd bird has landed.”) I use both geek and nerd in my short bio.

When I was in high school in the ’80s, you didn’t want to be called a nerd or a geek, and certainly not a dork. Obviously things have changed. This isn’t going to turn into some sort of linguistic or sociological treatise. I do not intend to cite Revenge of the Nerds (Dir. Jeff Kanew. Interscope, 1984.)

I just find it increasingly fascinating that the future of corporate marketing and communications is being written by the geeks, nerds and dorks. When I started my first serious business-related job in the early ’90s, if you were going to compare stats with a business contact, it was the final score of last night’s game or your golf handicap, not the size of your hard drive. (I would say “how much RAM you have” but I can’t remember if we had RAM back then.)

Marketing used to be the domain of the firm handshake and the elevator pitch. I met a lot of marketers in the ’90s who were probably ex football players. These days, at least at social media events, I meet a lot more people who were probably in the AV club.

In the age of search engine optimization, Web analytics, targeted email campaigns, widgets and iPhone apps, it pays to be comfortable with technology. If you’re the kind of person who likes to play with gadgets and spend Saturday afternoon on the computer instead of on the links, you’re more likely to respond positively to Facebook or Twitter, or the next thing that comes along, or the thing after that.

Of course, this is only a bubble. We’re deep into a period where technology, communications and marketing are becoming intertwined. There are people at the cutting edge and others being left behind. But in a few years the holdouts will have retired, the baseline will have been raised and the new people entering the profession will take the technological nature of marketing for granted.

And high school students will have to find some other basis for making fun of one another. I have no doubt they’re up for the challenge.


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I got a lot of positive comments on my Four Step Plan for Getting Started in Social Media. It reminded me that people are at all different levels of knowledge and interest in social media. When you spend all day thinking about it and using it, it’s easy to forget that lots of people still want the basics.

So, here are some basic steps for getting started on Twitter:

What Twitter is good for

• Many of the advantages of blogging in a short, quick format.
• You can support your other communications channels and activities by promoting them on Twitter.
Hashtags allow you to gain a presence in and around events, conferences and issues.
Twitter search can show you who’s talking about what.
• It’s still a relatively small community in many professions, allowing you to make connections.

What Twitter is not good for

• Twitter is a tool, not a strategy.
• You have to be interesting to get followers; it’s not the place for heavy-handed sales pitches.
• It’s a firehose, and it’s getting worse. You need filtering tools to find the value (TweetDeck, Seesmic Desktop, Hootsuite).

Getting started on Twitter

Create an account, using your real name, and set up your profile.
• Use the search function to find people to follow in your industry, and follow who they’re following.
• Get to know the standards of the community and the way people use it.
• Think about all the useful and interesting information you encounter every day.
• Start contributing.

Originally published on Conversations & Connections, my SAS social media blog

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