Dec 31, 2008

Why I Write

I’ve been giving some thought as to why I write this blog. I mean other than narcissism. I mostly write it for myself. Or at least I try to. I write about things that interest me. Thus far, I’ve limited that to things about advertising and marketing that interest me, though I may expand that as time goes on. Or at least my definition of “things about advertising and marketing.”

I am often surprised, but always happy, to find that people are interested in what I have to say. As many of you know, I started this blog as an experiment, not intending it to actually become anything long-term. I’ve tried to keep true to that spirit as much as possible and not write for an audience. Which may, in fact, be why I’ve found one.

I haven’t found advertising to be very interesting lately. There’s very little I see that excites me on an intellectual level though I sometimes wonder if the anger, bitterness and above all, despair that overwhelms so many ad blogs doesn’t somehow color that. Or it could just be that the fusion of technology and culture that defines the interwebs these days is far more interesting than anything on TV.

I’ve become addicted to Twitter this year. To the point where I’ll sometimes catch myself walking and tweeting. I try not to tweet when others are around-- most people still find it rude. I know I tweet with, for and at the 100 or so people I actually follow on Twitter. They are almost all people I know in real life and with whom I communicate by other channels throughout the course of the day. I personally find it rather unsettling to follow people I don’t actually know: there’s a voyeuristic quality to it, the sense of being a peeping Tom into someone else’s private life.

When I analyze why I like Twitter so much, I keep coming back to how much it reminds me of “the park,” that almost mythical playground where I spent so much of my childhood. You never actually planned to meet anyone at the park. You just sort of knew that eventually they’d be there. Not everyone and not all at once. But soon enough you’d have enough people for a three-on-three basketball game, or maybe even full court. And if you just wound up playing horse, well, that was okay too. And Twitter feels like that on most days. That if I have to go home early for dinner one night, there’ll be enough kids left that it won’t really matter if I'm gone.

But this post is about writing and I’ve always loved writing. Loved it since I was in fifth grade and a poem I wrote called “Lamentations” won some sort of citywide poetry contest and was published in a magazine of kid’s poems that’s likely buried in the bottom of one of my mother’s many closets. Loved it since I was in high school and discovered John Leonard and the emotions he could pull out of a simple newspaper column. And the internet has helped me get back in touch with all that, with everything I've always loved about writing. You see, the great thing about blogging is the complete absence of editors. Of anyone who can say “no” and stop something I think is really worthwhile from ever seeing the light of day. I imagine it feels a lot like glasnost must have, that sudden feeling of liberation from those whose job was to make sure everything you wrote toed the party line.

It’s been a real gift, that feeling of liberation, and I wanted to thank all of you for sharing it with me.

Dec 28, 2008

The Great Unleveling

One of the great things about television commercials was the way they leveled the playing field. It didn’t matter what your product was: you could create 30 seconds of magic that was the equal of anyone else’s 30 seconds.

But as brands (and ad agencies) are finding out to their chagrin, that’s not the case online, especially with social media. That’s because once someone is spending more than 30 seconds with your brand, the level of interest they have in the category your product or service falls into plays a large part in determining the amount of time they'll spend thinking about your brand. So that an insurance company’s sites and apps, no matter how cleverly done or beautifully laid out, are never going to play in the same arena as a lifestyle brand like Nike or HBO.

Look at the more popular social media apps and you’ll find they’re built around products people want to converse about in real life: sports, travel, movies, TV shows, rock bands. Not insurance, plastics, rubber bands or prune juice.

TV Commercials Raised Awareness

Now the significance of all this is that for the past fifty years, brands have been able to rely on marketing to "create a splash" for low-interest products and services. So that a clever TV spot with a catchy tag line really could have significant impact on brand awareness for the general public. That's because that TV spot was competing for your attention with other 30 second TV spots (as opposed to other brands.) So that even if you were playing in a low-interest category, you could still work your way into the national psyche.

For better or worse, that’s no longer the case. Brands in less alluring categories are never going to achieve the same levels of interest and awareness as their more compelling cousins. (At least outside of the B to B arena.) Social media is conversational media and people really just want to converse about the things that interest them. If a brand happens to intersect with their interests, that's all well and good. But they’re not going out of their way to talk about you or even think about you.

Shifting Expectations

This isn’t to say that brands that make low-interest products should just give up on marketing. But they do need to be realistic about the amount of interest consumers are going to show for things like rubber bands or insurance policies.

And by that I simply mean an adjustment of expectations. So that they’re comparing their social media mentions to other rubber band manufacturers and not to Apple. Aiming their web efforts at office managers and other people who order supplies, rather than the general public. Because as I noted in "Clicking Through The Internet," the general public has no reason to want to think about rubber bands, let alone interact with them.

Letting Go of Ego

It’s a shift that seems common sensical and basic on the surface, but it requires a huge psychological leap on the part of clients who have to learn to accept that while everyone they know may have seen their funny TV spots for their foot powder, no one they know is likely to download their Facebook app. That’s a giant hurdle for people who’ve gotten used to the ego stroke delivered by mass media advertising, an ego stroke that will no doubt prove hard for them to give up.

Unfortunately, they don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. Advertising is no longer a one-way push medium. And the nature of the product being advertised really does have an impact on how much time we spend with the marketing. Think of it as a mall or a Main Street: there are certain stores we’ll spend much more time in, browsing wares that are fun or cool or just plain interesting. Those may not be the stores that make the most money or are the most profitable. But due to the nature of what they’re selling, they get the most foot traffic.

The new advertising landscape will work much the same way.

Dec 23, 2008

Merry Happy

This spot, from Belgian agency Famous, is my favorite for the season. As I told Anca Radu, who was kind enough to bring it to my attention, it's beautifully shot, beautifully scored, moving... and it actually has more than a passing relationship to the product being advertised (Electrabel, a Belgian utility company.)

Thanks so much to all of you for reading my rambles this year, for challenging me on things you didn't agree with, and for spreading the word.

Happy, Merry, Joyful Holiday Season.



Everything In Moderation. Even Marketing

It’s a common enough experience: you sign up for email updates from a brand you genuinely like, and quickly find yourself the recipient of what basically amounts to spam.

Not because you’ve lost interest in the brand, but because they couldn’t control themselves: somehow they saw it as their duty to send you updates several times a week regardless of whether they had anything of value or interest to say. But updates for the sake of updates are most people's definition of spam, one that will soon have them searching for the “unsubscribe” button.

Now this is not some secret marketing formula I’ve cooked up: it’s common sense and most good marketers know this. So I’m surprised to see some of them throw it out the window when it comes to social media. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter and the like were immune from the laws of physics. So that I’m getting way more updates and information from certain brands than I could ever hope to process.

The worst offenders however, are those flogging their “personal brands” online. Too many of them seem to have taken the mantra “provide value” to mean that they need to retweet (literally, repost something someone else has already posted) every single blog post they encounter, rather than the ones that are truly unique or interesting or that come from a source most of their friends don’t have a connection to. (e.g. a video shared by a client in Shanghai.) And like spam, their tweeting instantly becomes noise-that-I-ignore.

One thing that strikes me about both of these situations however, is that the offenders seem to be acutely aware that there’s an audience out there watching them and so there’s a forced quality to all their emails and/or tweets, as if this was something they had to do rather than something they wanted to do. Whereas the best practitioners are clearly sending out information that reflects their own passions and if other people share in those passions, all the better.

Just something to keep in mind as we slog through the season of excess.

PS: There's an "Easter Egg" of sorts hidden (not very expertly) in this post.

Dec 22, 2008

Twitter News Feed

I wanted to share a very cool use for Twitter that I discovered inadvertently, via this article in the New York Times explaining Twitter to the unenlightened.

The author suggested using Twitter as a streaming RSS service for news stories. And since my Twitter stream has become clogged of late with endless retweets to links of dubious value, I was intrigued enough to experiment.

My parameters were pretty simple: limit the feed only to those news organizations that pushed out stories with links. No chatter, no back and forth – I only wanted links to news stories. And happily, there’s no shortage of news organizations, from TV and radio stations to newspapers and magazines, that publish these sorts of streams, In fact, many of them even offer specialized streams, so you can get sports news separate from science news separate from weather.

I set them all up on a separate account from my main one, and ran that account off different desktop and mobile apps than my usual account. (UPDATE: Running both off of Twhirl these days, since it supports two separate accounts being open at the same time)

The result has been a really useful and fascinating stream of interesting stories and perspectives I likely would not have found on my own, a stream that’s updated more or less minute-by-minute. I like the serendipity of discovering these stories on my own time, without the pressure of feeling like I need to read each and every one.

If you want to set up your own list, please feel free to use mine as a guide. And if there are any sites you feel I’ve overlooked, your suggestions are certainly welcome.

NB: Most of these twitter streams were tough to find—lots of trial and error and guesswork. Few (if any) of the parent organizations had any sort of home page link to them and Google was of little help, returning stories said news outlets had done about Twitter, rather than the actual feeds

Dec 21, 2008

My Favorite Facebook Promotion

As many of you who've been reading this blog for a while know, my family and I are huge basketball fans and the local team, the New Jersey Nets, are a particular obsession.

The Nets discovered social media this year, setting up well-done groups on both MySpace and Facebook (well done too, because they recognized the differences in functionality, layout and fan base and because each site provided links to the all their other social media sites: Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and YouTube.)

So I was more than a little thrilled last Tuesday when I received an update from the Facebook fan group telling me that they'd be giving out free tickets to group members (there are close to 1,000 of us.) And even more thrilled this past Friday when the actual offer came out and it was strings-free. No registration, no caveats, no value-detracting limitations.

All you had to go was go to Ticketmaster (the online service that normally sells Nets tickets) enter the secret discount code, and voila!

Ten minutes later I had four tickets in my possession. Not courtside seats, obviously, but center court and best of all: free. Had I paid for them, the tickets would have cost me $100 minimum. Another plus: the game is for Friday, December 26th, which falls in the middle of winter vacation so no worries about school the day before or after.

That's quite a generous promotion and one that's definitely increased this fan's loyalty. It's also a great illustration of how a "Prom King Brand" like a sports team can use social media effectively.

Now if only Facebook would make it easier to distinguish "official" groups from fan-created ones. Or to find them in the first place. But that's the subject of another post.

Dec 18, 2008


Today, in conference rooms at ad agencies all across America, the following words will be uttered "And we can make it an iPhone app."

That statement will be met with great glee and approval.

The iPhone app in question will not be anything potentially useful like the Amazon store app or fun and quirky like Ocarina. It will be a game centered around the client's product, something like "use the Clorox bleach to get the stains off the t-shirt." (If the agency is really thinking today, different stains will be worth different point amounts.)

The account team will have insisted that the app be required to capture names and email addresses, since that is the only way the agency could sell it into the client. The client will appreciate that.

The creative team will have spent several hours and several thousand dollars of billable time creating comps of the game as well as several variations on the little icon that lives on the iPhone screen. The client will appreciate that less.

Everyone will clap and cheer and congratulate themselves for being so forward thinking and so digitally savvy.

There will be close to 20 people in the room and not a single one of them will think to ask "Why on earth would anybody want to download this thing?"

Dec 17, 2008

Interview With Valeria Maltoni

I did an interview this weekend with Valeria Maltoni, of Fast Company fame, on her popular blog Conversation Agent about the Pay-Per-Post/IZEA issue and the future of social media in general.

Here's an excerpt:

In a recent conversation around the sanctity of social media at Amber Naslund's blog, you distilled the issues into three fundamental questions: (1) sponsorship worth; (2) audience; (3) credibility. To me these seem to be also the timeless principles that marketers and advertising professionals have followed or should be following? What changed with social media?
Read the rest at Conversation Agent

Dec 16, 2008

The New York Times Launches The Counter-Revolution

Ann Handley, of Marketing Profs fame, and I have often discussed how one of the most significant achievements of the Web 2.0 Revolution has been the overthrow of the editor.

For years, these gatekeepers determined what we read and, more importantly, what we didn’t read. Whether it was a magazine editor rejecting stories because the writer was unknown or a newspaper editor rejecting letters because they’d already vetted the two “pro” letters they planned to run, getting one’s name into print and in front of the masses involved overcoming significant hurdles.

The editor was an all-powerful judge. There was no transparency, no way of knowing what criteria were used in accepting or rejecting articles, letters, even TV shows. The editor was supposed to have a higher level of taste and to be an expert in predicting both the audience’s desires and enhancing the publication’s status. But reality was more like a game of follow-the-leader: editors (of all stripes) tended to hew to a very specific formula and had limited incentive to let new voices in.

There was also the intimidation factor: many people did not submit to publications (or TV networks) because they were afraid of rejection: they believed the editor did, in fact, know best, and that a rejection meant they were no good. Just as many were unfamiliar with the intricacies of submission (and believe me, they were intricate) - such things were purposely kept shrouded in an air of mystery to discourage the great unwashed from overwhelming the gatekeepers with their submissions.

Web 2.0, with its free and easy self-publishing techniques (everything from YouTube to Google Blogger) changed all that in a way whose effects are still being processed. We eliminated the gatekeepers. And allowed a whole new array of voices to rise to the top. Voices that were different and unique and enhanced the intellectual discourse. (Okay, “Sneezing Panda” videos don’t enhance the intellectual discourse, but you get the general drift.)

So it was with more than some dismay that I saw that the New York Times had decided to address the dilemma of how to deal with stories with hundreds of comments by reinstating the editor. Right now, when you click on the “comments” section of a Times article with, say, 478 comments, you don’t see the most recent comments or the ones that readers have voted up. What you see is the “Editor’s Selections” (see visual below)

Now the Editor’s Selections comments are generally erudite and display more than a passing familiarity with logical reasoning. But they’re also the editor’s selections. So that once again that gatekeeper is in there, deciding what the masses should see and what they shouldn’t.

That scares me, because it’s so counterrevolutionary. It’s as if the Times couldn’t wait to restore the ancien regime where the aristocracy knew what was good for the peasants and told them so.

Democracy is messy. That’s as true in politics as it is in content. But it’s the only way to ensure that all voices are heard and that the hierarchies that cause societies to ossify and eventually wither, don’t come back into place.

In other words, I wish the Times had the second tab in their comments section - “Readers Recommendations” show up first.

That would be keeping in the spirit of the revolution.

Dec 14, 2008

Odds & Ends

Blog Hos: “Social Media Is Special” brand Kool-Aid drinkers are all up in arms this weekends because one of their heroes - popular blogger Chris Brogan - took a $500 gift card from K-Mart in return for writing a blog post about it on his non-marketing related fatherhood blog Dadomatic. Intelligent discussion on the topic can be found over at Amber Naslund’s Altitude Branding blog. My Two Cents: Brogan’s Dadomatic - a group blog with feel-good posts like “How to Slow Down Christmas” is a perfect venue for K-Mart and for sponsored posts. (I mean it's not like anything's being compromised with the addition of a sponsored post.) That, and K-Mart has no place to go but up after their debacle last year where Wall Street Journal editor Laura Llandro was arrested for placing an errant pair of flip-flops in the wrong box, thus inadvertently saving about $9 on an $800 purchase. K-Mart was unrepentant and Llandro wrote a scathing piece on the experience that received prominent placement in the paper.

Too Many Comments?: I’ve noticed that the New York Times is trying out a solution to posts with hundreds of comments: an editor’s selections tab that’s the default comment tab. Interesting in that it once again places power in the hands of editors, e.g. people with their own agenda, rather than letting readers have the final say. Every revolution has its setbacks though.

Charlie Brown, Senior Copywriter: AdBroad is featuring this very funny video someone made spoofing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” - high production values and very funny script- brilliant spoof if you work in or around the ad business.

Mortgage Crisis, Part 2: Fund manager Whitney Tilson (a good friend of mine from back in the day, hence the plug) is on 60 Minutes tonight in a story spotlighting the second act of the mortgage crisis. If you’re really interested, you can download his presentation here (it’s in the right-hand column under “T2 Partners”)

Dec 11, 2008

iPhone Magic

So there’s a really amazing list of iPhone tips over at a blog called TapTapTap. But what’s more amazing is that none of these tips are to be found anywhere in the little iPhone manual that comes with the phone. (Not that said pamphlet really counts as an iPhone manual...) Nor are they easily found on the Apple site either.

And yet they’re all pretty basic tips. Like, for instance, if you’re in Safari and you hold down the status bar at the top of the screen, the page automatically scrolls back to the top.

Who knew?

Point is, they’re the sort of easy-to-remember tips that would make most people’s iPhone experience better and more useful. Not the sort of esoteric tricks involving AppleScript that one usually expects to find in these sorts of posts.

Compare that to the experience you get with a Blackberry, where your very first email is a message from RIM with ten useful tips and keyboard shortcuts.

Now if I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that Apple was trying to create a class of super user, the same sort of people who find the Easter eggs in software and who lord it over those who don’t know the difference between RAM and V-RAM.

By the same token, if I was cynical, I’d say it was a conscious omission, because if you’re selling the iPhone after all, things like user manuals just aren’t that necessary.

But truth is, I’m just baffled.

Anyway, if you own an iPhone, check out the TapTapTap post. I’m guessing you’ll learn something.

Dec 9, 2008

See Me In DC on Thursday

I'll be speaking this Thursday, Dec, 11th, at the Clickability/KickApps Summit "Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Government & Public Interest"

It runs from 11:30 AM to 3:PM at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC

Here's the line-up:

11:30 AM – 12:15 PM: Registration and Lunch

12:15 PM – 12:20 PM: Welcome

12:20 PM – 12:35 PM: State of Social Media, Alex Blum, CEO, KickApps

12:35 PM – 1:05 PM: Change and Social Media Tools—A Primer, Alan Wolk, Creative Strategist

1:05 – 1:25 PM: Social Media and Education, Mario Armstrong, NPR Technology Correspondent

1:25 PM – 1:45 PM: VOA Case Study, Todd Marks, Mind Grub

1:45 – 2:45 PM: Panel — Best practices & Tips: Sandy Carter (IBM), Mario Armstrong (NPR), Craig Stoltz (Stoltz Digital Media), Rebecca McMenamin (Voice of America), moderator: Michael Chin (KickApps)

3:00 PM – 4:00 PM: Networking reception and light hors d'oeuvres

If you'll be in Washington, stop by and say hello.

Dec 8, 2008

Social Media Is Nothing Like High School

There’s a meme that social media is a lot like high school. I’m not sure it’s true though. In fact, I suspect social media is the polar opposite of high school.

Let me explain.

That meme comes from the fact that for many, success in social media is defined as having the largest number of friends, followers, blog comments, etc. It’s an easily defined measure of importance that they feel gives them bragging rights

But check in with any actual high school student and I’m guessing they’ll confirm that the “cool kids” at their school in fact, have some of the most tightly edited groups of Facebook friends.


Because if you’re a “cool kid” you can’t be seen hanging out with just anybody. You only want to be friends with other “cool kids.” And the more exclusive your friend list, the better. It’s the kids on the outside who are going around trying to friend everyone at the school and earning the reputation of trying too hard. The “cool kids” on the other hand, are decidedly uninterested in knowing anybody outside of their little circle of exclusivity. Or, to look at it another way, they don’t need external validation of their status.

And while I’m not advocating a return to adolescent pettiness or stuffing rival CMOs inside a locker, there is a lesson for brands here. Which is stick with the people who already think you’re cool. In social media anyway, where people are really only just there to socialize.

Don’t try and reach all sorts of people who barely know your brand or who aren’t particularly interested in it. It just makes you look desperate and, especially in a social media setting where (as we all know by now) Your Brand Is Not My Friend™, it’s really quite annoying.

By sticking with people who already think you’re cool, who want to hang with you, you’ll build up a far more dedicated and valuable base, people who are open to your message and who may, in fact, help spread it.

I’ve written before about “Personal Prom King” brands-- those offbeat brands for whom we have a strong level of affection and loyalty. (Mine, for instance, is Thor-lo socks.) And that’s a great place to start. If your brand is really low-interest, you may need to find another, slightly larger group to attach yourself to: maybe crockpot users, if you’re a spice manufacturer.

The idea here is to narrowcast, to find a small, narrowly-defined group of people who’ll be your loyalists and to whom you’re one of the cool kids too.

You may not wind up being the coolest brand in social media. But you won’t be one of the geeks.

Dec 5, 2008

Research I'd LIke To See

Was wondering today if any research had ever been done into how brand image affects people's online product reviews.

In other words, if you buy an iPod and hate it, are you less prone to write a negative review because you know that most people love iPods and think they're cool?

Or, on the flip side, if you own a Toyota Camry, does the flack from the whole "Saved By Zero" fiasco make you less likely to write a positive review, even if you love the car?

Not looking for educated guesses here-- it would seem obvious that some are influenced. What I'm interested in is actual research into what degree people are influenced and what percentage of them are.

Dec 2, 2008

The Great Twitter Ponzi Scheme

I’m constantly amazed at the number of articles written about how to gain more followers on Twitter. And the number of people who spend considerable portions of their day following this advice by trolling for extra followers and trying to boost their "numbers."

Because like the current real estate mess that hedged on the erroneous belief that an unlimited pool of buyers existed, the Twitter Ponzi scheme hinges on the equally erroneous belief that there is an unlimited pool of people looking for social media experts.

And of course nothing could be farther from the truth.

There’s an extremely limited pool of people who actually find this stuff interesting. Most of whom. I’d guess, are already on Twitter and so they wind up passing the same links and experts back and forth, like some cyber game of Hot Potato.

Now like any good Ponzi scheme, the Twitter one rewards the people who get in on the ground floor. So the Scobles and Kawasakis all have thousands of followers and followees and have built names for themselves based on the cleverness and/or usefulness of their tweets.

But their success doesn’t make it easier for the next round of wannabe Twitter gods: it makes it harder. Much harder. I mean there are only so many ways to say “Pownce is going out of business” in 140 characters or less. Let alone link to the half dozen articles about it.

This is where the Law of Diminishing Returns, that thing you learned about back in high school economics class, kicks in. Every new “expert” becomes less valuable than the one prior, since there’s considerable overlap in the sort of specialized information they’re providing. By the time you’re up to your thousandth “expert” there’s little in the way of extra value. Except perhaps to see patterns in the chatter though (a) this can be accomplished via Twitter’s “Trending Topics” list and (b) can just as easily be seen by looking at the tweet streams of 500 people as 5,000.

Ponzi schemes work because they promise unlimited return for limited investment. And because some people actually do win: the players who get in early. Well, those early slots are long gone now. So do yourself a favor: use Twitter to connect with the people who actually matter to you. As Mack Collier preaches daily, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

Don’t be a sucker.

Nov 30, 2008

Maximum City

Here's a recommendation for those of you who watched the tragedy in Mumbai unfold and whose interest in the situation extended beyond the fact that much of the news was being reported via Twitter and other social media.

I picked up Maximum City a couple of years ago and found it to be one of the most enlightening books I've read in a while. The author, Suketu Mehta, is one of those modern men without a country-- he was born in India, emigrated to the US when he was around 14, and then, as a 30something adult, he returned to Mumbai with his Indian-American wife and two young sons as a reporter for a US magazine.

Since most of his extended family still lives in Mumbai, he's not exactly lost there, but comes to realize just how American he's become. The book, which focuses on the not-exactly-intertwined lives of everyone from a transverstite dancer to a Bollywood star, offers a great overview of this booming city and he spends much time exploring the Hindu-Muslim violence that shook the city in the early 1990s and provides the backdrop of what happened last week.

He spends a fair amount of time exploring the differences between the Indian and American psyches and one anecdote that still sticks out for me is when Mehta notices that even in the fanciest apartment blocks, the common areas are filthy. He attributes this to the fact that unlike Americans, who regard common areas as everyone's responsibility, Indians feel that their home ends at the doorway of their apartment and thus common areas are someone else's problem and fair ground for dumping garbage and cigarette butts. It's a small-but-crucial social difference and it's moments like this that give the book its true grace.

Here's the link to buy this 2005 Pulitzer finalist on Amazon.

Nov 25, 2008

Your Obama Is Not My Friend

I’ve read a number of articles lately suggesting that President-elect Obama and/or the Democratic National Committee take advantage of the huge list of names he compiled during the election campaign and call upon those people to help his new administration get legislation passed.

And while none of those making these suggestions have been affiliated with the transition team, it’s scary (though hardly surprising) to think that a number of self-proclaimed internet or marketing gurus would recommend this path.

People signed up to support Obama during the election campaign because they wanted him to become president. They may have done so for any number of reasons, but it can not be assumed that their goal was to also help the Democratic Party win local elections or advance its partisan goals. So you run the risk of majorly pissing off millions of people who thought they were just signing up for an election campaign if you start sending them propaganda from the DNC.

Now Obama’s team has displayed a great deal of common sense and I’m feeling pretty confident that this won’t actually happen. But I bring it up because it’s a common mistake many marketers make in regards to names they’ve “captured.” They assume that because you’ve given them your email address in order to do one thing (play some game on their website) they’ve got carte blanche to bombard you with offers and emails and "news updates."

All of these pitches will be rationalized to the clients as “special offers” and you’ll have the opportunity to turn them down. But I’m not sure that marketers realize just how pissed off we are when they pull this. Especially once we’ve seen how good it feels when they don’t.

A few weeks ago I highlighted the Whole Foods Facebook page and how their coupons are just coupons: no signing up involved. That leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling about Whole Foods. And so I’ll go back to their Facebook page over and over and actually make contact with the brand. Which is something I won’t do with brands who demand my name and email address in order to get to the “good parts” of their website: the content I actually came there to see.

Giving something to consumers without demanding some sort of false “proof” that your plan worked (e.g. 10K email addresses) because you realize that doing so only diminishes their feelings towards your brand is the future of what was once called “brand advertising.” It’s the simple realization that long-term gain always trumps short-term profit, yet it’s a concept the vast majority of marketing and advertising types have trouble wrapping their heads around.

That’s why they’re busy writing articles urging Obama to squander the good will he’s built up by misusing his election database. And why they’ll be scratching their heads in surprise when he doesn’t.

Nov 21, 2008

Blog Comments: How Many Are Too Many?

Quick follow-up poll based on the last post. At what point do you decide that there are too many blog comments to bother reading through them all and joining the conversation?

(NB: I don't think I've ever had more than 25 comments on a post, so this isn't about The Toad Stool, but about more popular sites like Huffington Post, Gawker or even the New York Times, where the number of comments frequently reaches well into the hundreds.)

Nov 20, 2008

What Is A Blog? (And Why It May Not Matter)

This started off as a Twitter conversation between Marketing Profs Ann Handley, Digitas’ Jon Burg, Ad Age’s Todd Andrlik and myself. But I thought it was worthy of a blog post.

When is a blog not a blog? When does it start being an online magazine?

That’s a question we’re going to have to ask ourselves more and more both as blogging changes and as the online versions of newspapers and magazines adopt blog-like features, commenting in particular.

Take the Huffington Post. I’m not quite sure how the site, which became one of the most listened-to voices during the last election, still qualifies as a blog. I mean it's at a point where she could easily publish it as a glossy monthly, should she so choose, given the all-star cast of writers and breadth and depth of content. Even online, I’m not sure what distinguishes it from other well-done magazine or newspaper websites (New York magazine and The New York Times come to mind), all of which seem to have commenting features of one sort or another along with video and other multimedia (remember when that was a buzzword) content.

And while perhaps we need a new term for sites like HuffPo (“magablog” and “blogazine” were both suggested during the Twitter conversation) I don't think that's what's important.

Rather, what’s important here is how the lines are constantly blurring. How technology is letting us take the best features from one medium and employ them in another.

That’s the future of journalism and indeed all media. And it's an exciting one.

Nov 18, 2008

Motrin Controversy: Lessons Learned

I originally left this as a comment over on Amber Naslund's most excellent blog, Altitude Branding, but since I'm always nattering on to clients about how "repetition is not a bad thing in social media" I decided I may as well practice what I preach and repost it here.

Now that a little time has passed, I see a few things happening with regards to the Great Motrin Twitter Controversy, none of them particularly positive:

1. BACKLASH: As more and more moms (like Amber herself, for that matter) are speaking up and saying “Motrin might have worded the spot a little differently, but you know, it wasn’t all that big a deal” the buzz is growing that a mountain was made out of a mole hill and that many of the mountaineers had no small degree of self-interest (and self-promotion) in mind.

2. OVERREACTION: This was not the release of a multi-million dollar national campaign. It was an ad that Motrin and their agency assumed would induce a small chuckle and I'm sure they were expecting nothing more than a few positive comments come Monday. Yet to hear the Social Media Gurus crow on about it, they should have had a dozen people set up in a secret underground social media control room, monitoring everything from Twitter to Orkut as if this was a space launch or something. What’s forgotten is that people cost money. As in salaries paid. And that unless Motrin (and their agency Taxi) had a very good reason to believe the spots would be controversial, there was no need to spend “all weekend monitoring it.” They responded in 24 hours as it was. But to hear certain of our peers yammer on, they should have been sending Harry & David gift baskets to everyone who so much as issued a negative tweet about the ad.

3. POOR RESEARCH: A little digging and I figured out why this was such a hot button issue. And I’m not that smart. It seems that the idea of babywearing is a major tenet of a parenting philosophy called Attachment Parenting. Many people regard this philosophy as fringe, at best (you can Google it to learn more). But babywearing has recently become trendy with families who have likely never even heard of attachment parenting. For those who believe in the value of attachment parenting, babywearing is not a silly fashion trend- it’s a core belief, and so they are understandably upset when people (and advertisers) refer to it as a fashion trend and not a key tenet of an entire child rearing philosophy. Someone should have known this. (And this goes for the aforementioned Social Media Gurus, few of whom seemed to grasp that this was precisely the issue.)

BOTTOM LINE: We’re all still learning how to do this– clients and their advisors. The takeaway from this is that social media makes it much easier for protesters to come together quickly and make their voices heard. And that social media happens whether you want it to or not.

Nov 16, 2008

Did Motrin Suffer From NASCAR Blindness?

So just about every blogger even remotely associated with the marketing and PR industries has done a post about the whole Motrin/Twitter/MommyBlogger controversy, many of which can be summed up as “they should have been monitoring the conversation.” Which is akin to saying “they should have been monitoring the Japanese air force” on December 8th, 1941.

(For those of you who missed it: Motrin ran a tongue-in-cheek spot about pain caused by “babywearing” (carrying the baby in a sling or similar contraption) which pissed the living daylights out of many mommy blogger types who took off after them on Twitter and then all hell broke loose with rebuttal videos posted to YouTube and the aforementioned blogosphere chiming in.)

But what I see here is yet another case of NASCAR Blindness, of a marketer not realizing that different things have different meanings and different ramifications, depending on the circles you travel in and that not everyone is on the same page about child rearing.

To wit: I schlepped both kids around in one of those Baby Bjorn contraptions as did just about everyone else I know. (My oldest is now 10, so it's not like it's a new trend either.) Living in Manhattan, in particular, it was just easier to get around without having a lug a baby carriage down into the subway. But I’d never encountered the term “babywearing” until today.

Investigating further, I discovered that “babywearing” refers both to average schlubs like myself and to people who subscribe to a somewhat controversial theory called “attachment parenting.” More importantly (here’s where the NASCAR Blindness comes in) I found that to many people, anyone with a sling or a Bjorn is a “crunchy granola” or “hippie type” with all the accompanying stereotypes.

Which leads to a good deal of sensitivity and defensiveness of the part of babywearers in those parts of the country where a Bjorn is seen as evidence of a hidden passion for hairy legs and tie-dye and where attachment parenting is viewed as suspect at best.

And that’s something Motrin and its agency should have picked up on: a quick glance at any of the major mommy boards will reveal that there are a number of topics that readily lead to heated vituperative battles of the sort usually found around issues like abortion and the death penalty. And that few of the combatants have anything resembling a sense of humor. They feel judged, they feel embattled and the last thing they need is some drug company poking fun at them. Good-naturedly or otherwise.

The fact that this all broke out on Twitter is a sidebar. The bigger issue is being blind to things that may seem benign to you but are in fact trigger points to a vocal segment of your audience.

And that's something we need to monitor on a more regular basis.

Nov 12, 2008

Cutting Back

In my leafy upscale NYC burb, obesity falls into the same category as alcoholism and spousal abuse: you rarely see evidence of it and certainly no one talks about it. If anything, anorexia seems to be far more of a problem around these parts.

Which is why I was taken aback by the magnitude of the problem last week during our week-long vacation to Disney World. Where I’d have to estimate that somewhere between 20 and 25% of my fellow guests were morbidly obese.

Now by “morbidly obese” I don’t mean “needs to lose about 50 pounds.” I’m talking people who are somewhere north of 350 pounds. Whose bodies have become so unwieldy they often need electric scooters to get around.

The saddest thing to witness was just how many of them were young (under 35) and how many children and teenagers there were who were well on the path to adult obesity.

It’s pointless to try and affix blame for their condition; I’ve no doubt the reasons are as varied as the people afflicted. But it’s foolish not to look at them and see a major health care crisis in the making, with all its myriad implications.

As marketers (since this is, after all, a marketing blog) there are steps we can take to help stem this epidemic.

New York City recently passed a law that required chain restaurants to prominently post their calorie counts and nutritional information right on the menu. And like almost everyone I've spoken with, I’ve been shocked to learn how caloric many of the foods I’d enjoyed are, especially ones I’d assumed were fairly healthy.

The main culprit behind these 700 calorie turkey sandwiches is supersizing. I am not a light eater, but I rarely get close to finishing one of those monstrosities (and their “wrap” cousins) which are easily the size of two regular sandwiches. And if supersizing pushes something as prima facie healthy as sliced white meat turkey into the caloric stratosphere, you can imagine what it does to less nutritionally sound foods.

In conjunction with that new law, the NYC Department of Health began running ads on the subways and in bus shelters (see the example above) reminding people that the average adult needs about 2,000 calories a day to maintain their current weight. A number that helps put all those 1,200 calorie lunches into perspective.

And so I’m calling on those of us who work with food industry clients to push them to normalize their portion sizes. The current economic downturn offers a perfect rationalization for the return to healthier sized portions. Show them how you would promote these new sizes and why it would be good for them and for America in general. (One example: Normal sized portions are environmentally friendly since much less uneaten food will get tossed aside.)

We also need more awareness, a la the NYC Department of Health ads, of just how much food we really need to be eating. I mean I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people talking about that 2,000 calorie number (which, I realize, is a number appropriate for sedentary adults.) Because as any good doctor will tell you, diet is strictly a numbers game: calories in/calories out.

The advertising and marketing industry is often accused of pushing our current unhealthy eating habits on Americans, of making fast food and big food seem sexy and desirable.

It’s time we pushed back.

Nov 11, 2008

Marketing Profs Seminar: Twitter Like You Mean It: The Right Way To Tweet Your Brand

This Thursday, November 13, I'll be doing a webinar via Marketing Profs on how companies can best use Twitter. It's a combination of Twitter 101 (e.g. how to set up an account, what an @ message is) and actual strategies that companies can use on Twitter along with some best practices suggestions.

You can read a full description (and sign up to attend) here.

Nov 10, 2008


Alltop, all the cool kids (and me)

Guy Kawasaki, former Forbes columnist and Apple evangelist, has a very cool blog aggregation site called Alltop, made all the cooler by the inclusion of The Toad Stool.

The site describes itself as "an 'online magazine rack' of popular topics. We update the stories every hour." It's a great resource since it covers a world of topics beyond boring ones like advertising and marketing.

Check it out here

Letting Go Of Twitter

With all the coverage it got during the election (even MSNBC referred to it as one of the stars) it looks like Twitter is about to break.

Big time.

Remember the Second Life Lemmings? Well this is part deux. Every agency knucklehead and marketing manager with an 8th grade reading level has figured out that Twitter is something they should know about. They don’t really get it, why it matters, why anyone would really want to use it. They just know that if they don’t pretend to understand it they’ll be marked as out-of-touch dinosaurs.

So watch over the next few months as they all trip over themselves to be the one to lead the new Twitter effort after having read an article and a couple of blog posts about it.

Now what this means for those of us who’ve been on Twitter for a while is a whole new wave of people are going to come washing up onto our shores, making all the typical newbie mistakes while pretending that they’re experts. (e.g. lots of people calling tweets "twitters" and using @ messages when they meant to use DMs.)

And what we have to do is let go.

We don’t own Twitter. The way we’ve come to use it is not the right way. It’s the way that feels best for the collective “us.” But it’s not the only way. Twitter will evolve, the way Facebook did when it went from being a college site to a place where 30 and 40somethings reconnect with work friends and high school buddies.

From a marketing POV, we can only do what we do best: observe, synthesize, and react. The “new” Twitter will not be the same Twitter we know and love. There will be many more people on it, people whose interests are less business-oriented, less self-promotional.

So it falls on us to be more like scientists: to take our knowledge of the past, watch how Twitter mutates and evolves and report back on the changes going on with predictions as to what this means for our clients and ourselves.

In other words, it’s time to let go of the Twitter that was and fully embrace the Twitter that will be. And limit the amount of whining about how much better it was "back then."

Nov 4, 2008

NASCAR Blindness in Adweek this week

A variation of my NASCAR Blindness post appears in Adweek this week as the featured column.

You can check it out here. Please leave your comments on the Adweek site if you care to. (And no I did not set up some of the initial comments to prove a point, as a couple of friends have (jokingly) suggested.)

Nov 2, 2008

Campaigns '08: Brands, Messages, Marketing Lessons

A couple of weeks back, I got together with CK (Christina Kerley), David Berkowitz and Michael Leis to do a bunch of panelcast videos on marketing and the election.

The video above is but part of the results (click on this link to see higher quality versions on, expertly edited by Michael Leis.

Oct 31, 2008


We're heading down to Disney World tomorrow with the kids for a little R&R (emphasis on the latter R-- not too much of the former in Disney.)

While I'll have internet access, I probably won't do a whole lot of posting.

Now I can think of few places as bizarre as Disney World to witness the election results-- I have this vision of Mickey on a stage in front of Cinderella's Castle, reading the results while Minnie leads the Obama supporters in a cheer and Donald fires up the McCain camp.

Either that or a ceremony at the Hall of Presidents where a hologram of the winner appears in the space next to W at the end of the night.

So I'll try and do a post on what that was like

Oh... and be sure to check out Adweek on Monday.

Casual Gaming For The Common Man

Social Net game developer Playfish just received a $17 million VC hit. But more than that, they may have figured out a way to make money off of Facebook.

London-based Playfish makes easy-to-use trivia type games like GeoChallenge, Word Challenge and Who Has The Biggest Brain. On a site like Facebook you can play against your friends and/or check to see who has the highest score.

As Playfish CEO Kristian Segerstrale noted in an interview with Techncrunch, unlike traditional online games “people play our games with the same people that they would play cards, play board games or go bowling with in the real world.” In my experience, their games are fun, easy to learn and a great way to kill a couple of minutes between tasks.

What I find particularly interesting about Playfish though is that they're trying to monetize their Facebook fan base. To wit: This morning, I logged on and saw this message in my "Notifications" box:
Since I like playing Geo Challenge, and know a lot about European geography, I was intrigued enough to click on it. After several levels, I came to this screen:
$4.99 if I want to play it.

Now I didn't bite this time... I don't like GeoChallenge that much. But I might in the future if I'm feeling particularly flush. Or I might have bitten if the price was $1.99. And I'm sure plenty of other people have bitten. If just 5% of their 10 million active monthly users sign up, that's a $500,000 profit on what's basically an add-on to an existing game.

It's the standard "create something people really enjoy using and then, once you've got them hooked, monetize it" ploy, but it's particularly well done. Why? Because Playfish is just charging you for the extras. Not the primary service. So they're not taking anything away, not penalizing you for not paying. They're just giving you the option to do more.

Twitter, to give but one example, might look at this with particular interest. Because what if Twitter started charging $5/month for "pro" features, the stuff we've all been asking for, like the ability to temporarily unfollow someone who's livetweeting from a conference or respond to a direct message via email. Lots of people might sign up for it and those who didn't wouldn't feel ripped off, since the service they were using hadn't changed.

Something to think about.

Oct 29, 2008

Kick Apps Today

I'll be speaking at the Kick Apps/Clickability Seminar today, Thursday, October 30th.

It's called The Social Media Equation: Customer Relationships = Company Success and I'll be doing the Your Brand Is Not My Friend talk.

If you're interested, it's at the W Hotel in Union Square at 3:00 PM. I go on at 4.

Oct 27, 2008

Affordable Luxury In The Apocalyptic Economy

One of the most interesting marketing studies I’ve ever read was something that crossed my desk about 15 years ago. It was about a concept called “Affordable Luxury” and its lessons may be particularly apt as we head into a period of economic turmoil.

Affordable luxury was the name the authors (and I forget who wrote the study or why) gave to items like high-end espresso machines, cashmere sweaters, Tiffany key rings and the like: high-end items that spoke of a certain familiarity with upper class tastes, but whose price tags kept them within the realm of possible for middle class Americans. One of the things the study found was that the most die-hard consumers of these items were not upper class or even upper-middle-class, but rather middle class professionals who worked in high education/low salary type jobs like teaching, social work and journalism.

The notion was that these people, many of whom had grown up in upper middle class families, and all of whom certainly had classmates and peers working in higher income professions, needed some way to reassert their white collar status, a badge that said they too had the taste and income necessary to participate in the exploding market for high-end consumer goods. This group, the study went on to say, was particularly fond of recognizable brand name items because of the way these messages were immediately telegraphed by a Tiffany, Braun or Ralph Lauren label.

I find myself coming back to this study as of late, because the current economic crisis is going to put real luxury items beyond the reach of many more people. And I keep thinking that this may bode well for purveyors of today’s affordable luxury items. Take Whole Foods, for instance. A consumer who is cutting back on restaurant meals may feel justified in spending an extra $6 for a hunk of gourmet cheese. Starbucks too, may benefit, as the newly brown-bagging office worker may make the calculation that the money she’s saving on lunch enables her to spend an extra $1.50 on coffee. Again, in both of these situations, the benefit is more psychological than actual: “I’m drinking Starbucks coffee, therefore I am still a member of the white collar club.”

Other industries that may benefit are small consumer electronics. So while a new $1200 Macbook may be out of the question, a $199 iPhone might prove doable. Ditto a pair of $99 Bose headphones. Blu-ray DVD players (or their successors) may also see a bump as people factor in their relatively low cost vis a vis the necessity to cut back on movie going.

The worse things get, the more these badges will matter, as consumers struggle to hold on to whatever vestiges of an upper middle class lifestyle they once enjoyed. It’s a sign of where our culture is that these talismans can hold so much value, but observing this is not the same as endorsing it. I suspect we’ll see this sort of “badging” work its way into social media, where people become fans of and align themselves with easily identifiable upscale brands. It’s free, and again, it provides us with a way to promote our status as the sort of people successful and sophisticated enough to appreciate high-end consumer goods.

One final point here: this is a difficult topic to bring up because, as Paul Fussell noted in his landmark book Class, Americans do not like talking about social class or even acknowledging that social classes exist. We are all middle class, the mindset goes, unless we’re homeless or Mr. Howell. That’s all well and good, but the reality is quite different. As marketers, we need to acknowledge that reality and find ways to help our clients adapt to it.


In the homestretch of my busy end-of-October conference schedule here.

Tomorrow (Monday, October 27th) I'll be part of a panel discussion at DPAC 2 (Digital Publishing and Advertising Conference) called How Can Marketers Show Off Their Social Advertising Skills? hosted by my friend David Berkowitz.

My fellow panelists are:
Don Steele, VP, Digital Marketing, MTVN (MTV Networks) Entertainment Group
Mike Church, Eastern Region Manager, Cross Platform Solutions, YouTube
Darren Herman, Group Director, Digital Media, The Media Kitchen

Should be fun and it's always easier to share the spotlight than to be a solo act.

Marriott Marquis Hotel, NYC
12 Noon

If you're there, stop by and say hello.

Oct 23, 2008

Boards Summit Tomorrow, Friday 10/24

I'll be speaking at the Boards Summit tomorrow here in NYC, doing the Your Brand Is Not My Friend™ presentation.

It's a fun presentation, with a serious message, so if you're around, please stop by. There are a bunch of other great speakers scheduled, including Noah Brier and Michael Lebowitz so you'll definitely get your money's worth.

It's at:
The Crowne Plaza Hotel
1605 Broadway at 49th Street

I am on at 2:30.

» Here's the link for more information and to register.

Oct 22, 2008

The Real Digitial Revolution - Political Edition

I'd been a fan of The Huffington Post up until this election season, when if devolved into a competition for not-very-bright-or-talented lefty journos to try and outdo each other with the most over-the-top articles on why Hitler, Stalin and Lucifer had nothing on McCain, Palin and their supporters.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find this very thoughtful piece from Arianna Huffington herself on why the internet has meant the death of Rovian politics. And self-centered creature that I am, my first thought was how this is yet another example of The Real Digital Revolution.

Allow me to explain.

Huffington's thesis (which she credits to Google CEO Eric Schmidt) is that thanks to the evolution of the internet, we are now able to rapidly fact-check and disprove Swift Boat, Obama-is-a-Muslim-terrorist, Trigg-is-really-Palin's-grandson and other smear campaigns. Or at least contain the belief that they are true to a much smaller segment of the population.

And she's right. It's hard to imagine that as recently as 2004, there was no YouTube. No real blogosphere. No real social media. So, as Huffington points out, if the tradtional media outlets of the day did not move full-force to disprove a rumor, then it was left to fester and spread and we had no real way to know the truth.

The same is true, in a (generally) less malevolent way, about product information. As I've noted in The Real Digital Revolution, it's only recently that we can fact-check the information advertisers feed us and learn the truth about products. From consumer feedback to expert reviews, we now get the real story about about whether "new and improved" really is new and improved. And so the power of The Big Lie is greatly reduced.

The question-- both in politics and in advertising, is whether we are currently experiencing a brief-lived Golden Age of honesty that will vanish like Brigadoon as the forces of darkness learn to manipulate the new media landcape.

Or if the Age of Reason really is here to stay.

Oct 18, 2008

Curing NASCAR Blindness

CK pointed me to this post on Wizbang from a self-described "southern stay-at-home mom with a hick accent and a limited vocabulary."

It's all about why she and people like her still L-O-V-E Sarah Palin. Even after Tina Fey.

It's worth reading if you fear you suffer from NASCAR Blindness, especially the comments, to get a sense of what the other side is thinking and to realize that they are not all knuckle draggers and mouth breathers.

You'll be surprised.

Oct 16, 2008

Five Reasons Why Whole Foods Gets Facebook

So I have to give Whole Foods credit for textbook use of Facebook this month (Even if their location that is currently (an easily walkable) 3 blocks from my house is moving (to a not as easily walkable location, a half mile away) later this month.)

I logged onto Facebook this morning to find an update from my Whole Foods Fan Page offering me a $5 coupon on any $25 purchase. And, as anyone who has ever shopped at Whole Foods knows, it's pretty easy to spend $25 in one visit.

But what Whole Foods – whose high prices may be threatening its Prom King status- did, was the sort of maneuver more brands need to do in the social media space: they gave something of value to their customers.

Here’s what they did right:

1. They offered a somewhat sizeable coupon to their Facebook fans… and their fans friends… and anyone else who came along. How? The coupon is also hosted on an external site.

2. They also have a separate web page on their own (non-Facebook) site for their offers because even though they are a Prom King brand with a well done Facebook page, they realize that Your Brand Is Not My Friend™. (They also realize that these sorts of web coupons get passed around a lot, so that trying to isolate it on Facebook is likely futile.)
Whole Foods Deal Page

3. Their Facebook page is well done and provides utility for the customer base. It mostly links to their external resources (the well-done corporate blog and a corporate charity foundation page) and provides video recipes for customers to follow.
Whole Foods Facebook page

4. The Facebook group message is signed by Winnie Hsia, an actual person who works at Whole Foods and who often comments in an official capacity on the corporate blog. Not some faceless corporate entity, which is the way too many brands approach social media in general, not just Facebook.
Whole Foods Facebook update

5. They did not try and upsell me. Just “here’s the coupon” and they got out of their way. (NB: By "upsell" I mean they did not try and push a useless Facebook app at me (you know one of those apps half the brands on Facebook seem to have, apps that merely replicate something that exists elsewhere in a superior, unbranded form) nor did they try and push me to share my favorite recipe with my friends or any other "engagement" tricks users ultimately find annoying.)

Excellent use of Facebook all around. Even if they are moving the store.