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.