best of 2009

People hate year end lists.

But at the end of each year that I have blogged, I have done a list of top / favorite posts from the previous year. You can peruse previous years here: [2005] [2006] [2007] [2008]

I basically do the year end list for two reasons:

  1. Me. I enjoy going back in the archives and rediscovering posts I had forgotten. Doing the year end list also helps me organize each year’s good stuff from my not-so-good stuff
  2. You. New readers that joined later in the year may not have waded back through the archives. Or regulars may have missed one of these.

The criteria for the list? Some got lots of traffic or lots of commentary. And some are just ones that I really like.

In 2010, I hope to write more posts more here and cut back on writing what could be a good post here in 140 characters on Twitter instead. Either way, I’m sure that there will be more posts here in 2010 because my writing time will no longer be solely devoted to Brand Zeitgeist which, after several delays (mostly caused by me), will be published this Spring.

As always, thank you for reading, commenting on, and spreading the ideas that I publish here.

the one where I talk about international marketing

In late November, I was fortunate enough to be included in the third of three groups of American entrepreneurs invited to London by British Airways as a part of their Face of Opportunity conferences.

I’ve often said that it should be a requirement for all high school or college students to travel abroad. I was lucky enough to travel internationally at that point in my life and it helped to make sure I didn’t have a myopic worldview.

Today, I would think anyone in business could easily see the implications of the global economy. And I would hope that anyone who spends anytime online can see the global associations caused by the Internet.

But they really don’t.

Yes. Online connections can be made with anyone in the world. Some of my first heavy commenters when I began this blog back in 2005 were a woman in Canada and a guy in Russia. Even today, when I look at my Google Analytics traffic map or my Twitter followers, it blows me away that people from all over the world are reading my thoughts.

But just as barcamps, tweetups, conferences, and other real world meetups help cement relationships that we build online with fellow countrymen (and women), I think these real world meetings are even more important with the global community.

There’s the old saying that you really don’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. People in your same country share your same cultural shoes. You really don’t understand a foreign culture until you’ve lived it for a few days.

And this is especially important in marketing. While participants in the groups that I spoke to at the British Airways event had many questions about doing business internationally — especially about logistics, one other common question was about international marketing. No matter the group you’re marketing to, it’s all about understanding the target group’s values, traditions, and worldviews. You cannot market to a culture that you have never personally experienced.

You also have to understand the current and long-term trends as they apply internationally to be successful in creating a global marketing strategy. One of the most striking quotes from the Face of Opportunity conference came from one of its best speakers, Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham:

“We (the British) ruled the world in the 19th century, you Americans owned the 20th. This is Asia’s century, and how we all play that will define commercial success for the next 100 years.”

The worldview we have become accustomed to is changing. And when developing a global marketing strategy, you’ll have to throw away all the old ways of thinking and preconceived ideas. An incident during another presentation at the event highlighted this issue. A speaker used the example of the Chevy Nova not selling in Spanish speaking countries because the name supposedly translates into “it doesn’t go”. A member of the audience interrupted and called the story bogus as proven by Snopes and others:

Assuming that Spanish speakers would naturally see the word “nova” as equivalent to the phrase “no va” and think “Hey, this car doesn’t go!” is akin to assuming that English speakers would spurn a dinette set sold under the name Notable because nobody wants a dinette set that doesn’t include a table.

But I think most business people’s knowledge of international marketing only goes as far as the Chevy Nova and other false examples like baby food in Africa. If you’re planning a global marketing strategy, you need to start fresh with thinking approaches to marketing and not rely on old models as the world is a drastically different place than just a few years ago. Of course, as previously mentioned, the best thing you can do to help your marketing is go experience the country you’re planning to expand into.

But here’s the thing. Even if you don’t think you’re a global business, you are. If you’re online, you’re global and you need to think that way.

–Kent Bernhard, Jr. gives a much better a great play-by-play account of the British Airways Chicago-to-London Face of Opportunity events for Portfolio.
–Disclosure: British Airways provided my travel expenses for this trip.

do as they say not as they do

Q. — As a general rule, what industry (as a whole) has the worst web sites?
A. — Ad Agencies.

I’ve noticed most agency web sites have a few common characteristics:

  • Rule #1: Flash!
  • Staff / Management Bios: Wacky, fun, and meaningless. There is a über-creative photo of the person pretending to have fun.
  • Site Navigation: Not at the top, bottom, left, or right. In order to click around to the other pages on the site, you’ll need to take a bus to another location.
  • Contact Info: Phone numbers, emails, etc hidden on the most illogical page possible.
  • Office Pictures: Two ways to go here. 1) If it’s an “agency” of one guy with a Mac in his bedroom, then you’ll see some creative use of stock photography. 2) If it’s a real “agency”, the wackiness continues with pics of the foosball table, the aquarium, and the video game area to show potential clients how their billable hours are being wasted while creativity happens.
  • Philosophy: Starts off with “We’re a new type of agency.” and the rest is filled with meaningless jargon and buzzwords.
  • I don’t think we can say it enough: Flash!
  • Portfolio: Just a few logos. Maybe a shot of an ad. The ROI is never mentioned. This link is always called “the work”
  • Blogs: All staff members seem to take turns “writing posts” by copying / summarizing chapters out of the advertising textbooks they couldn’t sell back to their college bookstore.
  • Content: It seems everyone shot down everyone else’s ideas until there was no content left
  • Timeliness: Site is never updated. (except for every few years when the whole thing is torn down and replaced with something similar.) Rinse. Repeat.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Your thoughts?

UPDATE: I published this just a few hours before CP+B launched their new agency site. Looks interesting. http://beta.cpbgroup.com/

your company’s looming social media disaster

Think about if you’ve met any of these cutting edge people…

  • Remember when the Macarena came out? You probably danced it at some public gathering for the few weeks it was popular. Then it went away. And then a few months later, you were at a gathering and a person played the song and thought they were on the hip cutting edge.
  • Someone in your organization just discovered the concept of viral video.
  • Has someone in the last year or so asked you if you were gettin’ jiggy with it?
  • You get chain emails from them that were debunked on snopes.com years ago.

You’ve met these people, right?
These people are currently signing up for Facebook and Twitter accounts.

We’re over the adoption curve hump of Facebook and we’re steadily climbing it for Twitter which means people who aren’t necessarily online competent are now using online tools.

I’m sure you have at least one friend (probably more) on Facebook that you’re embarrassed FOR them because they post inappropriate things, spam you with requests, don’t realize that their friends can see their conversations/posts, etc. They’re new to the space, and still learning the ropes until they find out the proper etiquette.

For as much as the online world is an open-source / free-wheeling / anything-goes community, we all know there are rules…many of them unwritten ones. The community generally supports, instructs, or ignores individual newcomers when these “rules” are broken. (ALL CAPS, spam, chain emails, etc)

But that only goes for individuals. When a company / organization steps out into the water, it’s expected that they know how to swim. And that same supporting community for individuals becomes a lynch mob for corporate entities who make even minor mistakes. You’ve seen it happen.

And just as there are individuals who are laggards to the social media party, there are now companies who see the train passing by and figure they better get on — even if they don’t know what they are doing.

I am not saying that there is a “right way” to do social media. As I once tweeted

how to spot a true “social media expert” — google their name and the phrase “NO, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!!

But if your employees are venturing out onto social networks and are carrying the mantle of your organization, they need to at least understand the basics of social media and somewhat be cognizant of the “online rules”. Anything else is just asking for a disaster.

Many companies don’t see this looming disaster because they just see small numbers of customers engaging in social media with the organization and don’t understand the deep implications of making a mistake there. Remember this: Your email list, facebook fans, twitter followers, etc are some of your most important customers. These are the people who have stood up and said I WANT to engage with your company. They are the 20% of the 80/20 rule.

Why are you leaving this important group with the interns or inexperienced employees who have no idea how to talk to them?

the little things

People get excited about and take photos of little bottles of shampoo.

Studies show that tips increase when the diner is given an after-dinner mint and the tip increases even more when the mint is personally handed to the diner by the waitstaff.

Free wi-fi is appreciated (and sometimes abused.)

The little things that you think you can easily cut — are the same things that are making your whole thing tick.

hey brother, can you spare a dime? I’m a little venti

Starbucks is concerned that you think a $4 cuppajoe is an extragavance in a tight economy. They’re planning an ad campaign to rid your little mind of the “myth” of a $4 sbux treat.

Since they’re knee-jerking and killing the high-end coffee brand image they’ve cultivated for years, I’m willing to help out in this endeavor. Here are some other budget conscious ideas for Starbucks and their customers:

  • Order a venti double decaf hot water and make ramen noodles with it
  • Ask your barista to write a “the way I see it” quote on the side of your thermos filled with Folgers
  • Forget all these ‘value paired’ Starbucks breakfast combos. Two words: Pop Tarts
  • Why stop with breakfast? Go lunch and dinner. Two more words: Tuna Casserole — an artisan blend of store-brand tuna mixed with store-brand mushroom soup, government cheese, store-brand noodles, and topped with a crunchy store-brand corn flake blend
  • If rough times last until this fall, pick up an unfinished pumpkin latte off of an unbussed table. Pour it into a discarded jack-o-latern at the curb and enjoy a rustic pumpkin soup.
  • Water down the drinks.
  • Save electricity on the grinding. Pour the beans out in the parking lot each morning. Let the traffic crush them up. Sweep up, place in the espresso makers, and introduce the new “Asphalt blend”
  • Charge for wi-fi access … oh wait.
  • Put Starbucks kiosks into the local Dollar Stores.
  • Get Obama to bail you out
  • Organize customer biscotti potlucks
  • What’s your idea? Put it in the comments.

marketing using fear

the_screamIn today’s economic climate, I see lots of companies abandoning sound marketing strategy and retreating to adopt a fear based marketing strategy. While fear can motivate, it also camouflages real underlying problems. If you want to survive these unsure times, you need to have a plan that will keep you afloat today and lets you emerge as a stronger business at the end of the tunnel.

First off, kneejerk short-term strategy is always a bad idea, both in grim times and in upbeat ones. When you’re implementing plans that reflect what’s going on today, you also need to look at what those plans mean for tomorrow. Ask yourself if the cost cutting changes you’re proposing would also make sense if it was a boom time. If they don’t, then you’re making a mistake.

Right now, lots of companies are pulling back on customer service options, cutting off communication paths to potential markets, and cutting back on the quality/quantity of the goods they sell. All bad ideas because they hurt long term relationships with the customer.

And it’s a slippery slope. Sure, eliminating one customer service rep, cutting the ad budget, or making a quarter pound hamburger with 3.5 ounces of meat saves a few bucks today. But when you think you’ve gotten away with it, you are tempted to go further and further. Eliminate an olive today and become a hated industry tomorrow.

I’ve heard some marketers say it’s a great time to make the most of the situation and use the fear that’s out there to the company’s advantage. I say becoming an advocate of today’s fears makes you look like an idiot tomorrow after the real or supposed danger has passed. Remember the companies who thought it was a really smart marketing move to capitalize on Y-2-K? They marketed their products using fear of the millennium bug in the same way that lots of companies are using fear of the recession today. Fear marketing hurts your long term brand equity.

I’m not saying that you should keep marketing as if nothing has happened. The zeitgeist has changed. People have adjusted their buying habits. The first thing you need to do is reevaluate the mindset of your customer and adjust your marketing plan accordingly. If you’re a necessity, then there may not need to be much adjustment. If you’re a luxury, then major modifications may be needed. Or maybe you need to really step back and figure out if your customers view you as a necessity or a luxury.

But as you adjust, remember this: A strategy of fear makes you look weak. It infers that you’re unsure. And just like animals, people can sense fear.

There is a huge opportunity for marketing right now. I’ve always said you should market against the grain. While everyone is cutting back on marketing, step yours up. It will be more impactful. And while everyone is running fearful and pessimistic marketing, be bold and market like you’re going to win.

maybe you should cancel your meeting

Here’s something that sounds weird coming from me: Most conferences and meetings are a complete waste of time/money/resources for both organizers and attendees.

I do several events a year as a marketing speaker. Since, no matter what business you’re in, everyone needs information on marketing — I get to go to meetings for a diverse range of groups and industries and be a third party fly on the wall. As I have worked at these meetings and conferences over the past several years, I have noticed a few things:

  1. Most attendees are not there for knowledge. They’re there to play golf, go to the casino, work on a tan, wine/dine, etc.
  2. If God did a session where He dispensed Perfect Knowledge, there would be at least two guys after the session talking about why His ideas won’t work in their business.
  3. During that break after God’s session? The conference organizers paid the hotel $15/person for coffee. Seems like this is where to cut the budget, not in the programming.
  4. Panel discussions and cock fighting are similar activities. Put several huge egos on a stage and see who can win with a moderator who doesn’t understand what the panelists are talking about.
  5. The amount that people corporate expense accounts pay for alcohol/food/etc increases exponentially during a conference.
  6. Instead of paying for good speakers who know the content and can be entertaining while they present it, let’s just have some executives get up and read in a monotone voice the slides that someone else prepared for them.
  7. There are hundreds of people who have mutual interests together at the meeting. Very few of them make connections with each other except for maybe a greasy business card exchange.
  8. 99.99% of presenters have no idea how/when to use a PowerPoint deck.
  9. Interesting presenters/speakers with new actionable ideas are given 10 minutes to speak. Presenters/speakers reading old information verbatim off their slides are usually given 2 hours.

There are lots more — but the biggest problem that I see over and over is this:
The entire concept behind the meeting is to get a bunch of people who think the same together and have them listen to people who also think that same way.

Mark is getting calls to come to meetings during a tough time for people in his industry and wonders why some of these gatherings aren’t just cancelled. And I agree with him. If your conference / corporate meeting will consist of the “same tired old subjects from the same tired old white guys”, then yes, you should cancel the meeting. And remember that some of those same “old subjects” include new things. If your meeting is just giving lip service to viral-marketing-facebook-web2.0-social-networking new media buzzwords, then re-write your agenda. This is not just current recession/depression/end-of-times thinking. I would say it’s an even bigger problem in boom times as more meetings attended means more missed opportunities.

Having said all this, I have been to many great meetings and conferences that were beneficial for the attendees — while they were at the conference. Even if you have a great experience at the meeting, the real danger time is the day you return to the office after the conference. The kitsch and tchotchkes that were picked up in the exhibit hall get a place on the desk, but what happens to the knowledge? Most often, it’s lost. People and companies that can implement ideas picked up at a conference or meeting are the ones that you see succeed.

I hope you don’t cancel your meeting. While everyone else is sitting on their hands waiting for the storm to pass over, I hope you use this time to put together a meeting that will cause inspiration and action — both at the meeting and when everyone gets home.

(that’s the end of the blog post — here’s the commercial)
If you’re looking for someone to present new ideas and shake up your organization’s thinking at a conference/meeting, you can find more info on how to bring me to speak to your group here.

ad and marketing phrases that I hate

Don’t make me hate you. Don’t use these.

new state of the art website
As opposed to our old website which was run by steam and coal.

got (insert product here)?
We got milk and that was enough. Thanks.

free gift
Ever paid anyone for a gift that you received?

“sports minded business / salespeople”
Respond to a classified employment ad with these words and you’ll either find an idiot sales manager or a pyramid scheme. Or both.

anything that’s “crazy”
Why do car dealers, furniture stores, etc feel it’s a sales boost if their customers think they suffer from mental illness?

these prices are too low to advertise
Original use of this phrase is based in early 20th century antitrust law which also launched the concept of MSRP. But the law only applies to the manufacturer/retailer relationship. 99% of the time you hear it today in ads, it’s baloney.

any phrase in a “conversation” spot
Jim, have you thought of having those hemorrhoids looked at?

cyberspace
1997 called and they want their ____ back.

anything that comes out of the mouth of Sprint CEO Dan Hesse
Isn’t it amazing that these devices can tell everyone how much you hate shaky camera work?

we have to reduce our inventory
The whole point of being in business is to reduce inventory.

I’m sure there are more that annoy me, but these were the ones off the top of my head. What about you? Leave your suggestions in the comments.