Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's All Just A Little Bit of History Repeating

This is a post about AT&T, but first I'd like to take a little peek at recent history.

Remember AOL? No, not the sad shell of a company that TW is finally having surgically removed. I'm talking about the AOL of the mid-90s. The muscle-bound, money-machine that scooped up new subscribers by the millions.

Well, way back in 1996, that AOL, anticipating an unfulfilled hunger for online-time, and anxious to scoop up even more subscribers, made a bold move and switched from hourly billing to flat-rate pricing for unlimited access. If you're old enough to have participated in those heady years of tech nirvana, you remember what happened. System traffic jams of unimaginable proportions. And they were unimaginable because even though AOL had done usage modeling, made informed predictions, and beefed up their server farms, they weren't even close. Usage demands surged past their most optimistic expectations leaving them reading headlines like "America Offline." There was almost nothing wrong with their usage modeling formula, they'd just neglected to incorporate one important data point: human behavior. This was an all-you-can-eat plan that didn't give you heartburn, so when users were offered an unlimited Internet connection for a flat rate, they did the logical thing. They just kept it running.

That same year, AT&T got into the ISP biz and launched WorldNet, also for a flat-rate. And, what do you know, they also ran into usage issues. In fact, by 1998, accessibility rates during peak times were so dismal that they infuriated their users (isn't it cute how some things never change?) by arbitrarily cutting them off after three hours. 

At first, Mike Keady, a company spokesman, announced that although it was a test, they'd probably make it policy. But he later withdrew that statement and said they'd study the results before making a decision. He explained that the policy was implemented to save the network from overcrowding. Now here's where it gets interesting. Keady said, "We implemented the time-out simply because some people are hogging the network. We found that 4 percent of users were using 50 percent of the resources." *

So, at long last, here's my point. AT&T's WorldNet experience was miserable to all involved, but shouldn't it have been instructive? Isn't it a fundamental rule of any organization to analyze failure and course-correct to avoid repeating costly mistakes? Guess not because in an extraordinary example of "a little bit of history repeating" (song credit: Propellerheads), AT&T seems to resurrected their 1998 script and has handed it to AT&T president and CEO of Mobility and Consumer Markets, Ralph de la Vega.

In response to dismal iPhone service, particularly in high-use urban areas like San Francisco and Manhattan, according to an AP report by Peter Svensson, de la Vega told stated a group of investors that while AT&T is upgrading its network, it's also giving high-bandwidth users incentives to "reduce or modify their usage." He said that 4 percent of AT&S's smartphone users were consuming 40 percent of their broadband capability, and "the company is [...] working on getting the data hogs to cut down their usage." OMG! It's deja vu all over again.

As an iPhone user who lives in Manhattan, I have a high level of interest in AT&T's service problems. Except, if I'm understanding Mr. de la Vega correctly, he's saying it's not AT&T's lack of performance at issue, he's saying it's actually my fault. That even though I'm paying a nice chunk of change for a service plan that includes Internet connection, downloads and data transfer, I should have understood that when they said "unlimited" what they really meant was, "unlimited up to the point where your selfish, bandwidth hogging habits begin to tax our insufficient broadband capabilities, silly girl."

OK, Ralph. My bad. But wait, remember 1998? When AT&T thought the answer to an overtaxed data network was to cut people off? How'd that strategy work out?

"There is fashion, there is fad
Some is good, some is bad
And the joke is rather sad
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating"

History Repeating by the Propellerheads

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rock & Roll, Christmas, and Brand: Thoughts from the N. J. Turnpike

As part of my post-Thanksgiving holiday return to the city, I spent 7 hours driving through 3 states, taking assorted friends and family members to their homes. 7 hours worth of driving can give a person ample time for reflection. 7 hours worth of Christmas music on the radio can give a person a nasty migraine. But at about the 5 hour mark of my odyssey, something became remarkably clear. Every year, it's practically a requirement for recording artists to release Christmas songs, sung and orchestrated with numbing sameness. Even Dylan, with his aural version of  40-grit sandpaper, delivers the traditional songs in traditional versions.  But hidden within the Christmas music oeuvre, there exists a small collection of wonderful songs, familiar to the ear, yet modified to reflect the unique essence of the singer. Something people in marketing would call "brand identity".  And in a monthlong Christmas music marathon, these are the songs we'll remember. 

Here's an example. Since 1934, when it was written, "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" has been covered by everyone from Aerosmith to Wynona. Listen to a handful of the dozens of versions, and, save for some vocal embellishments, you'll find they're all faithful renditions of a perky children's tune. Except for one. Bruce Springsteen took the song and and did something that none of the other artists did. He didn't simply sing the lyrics and tune, he integrated his sound into the song. It's recognizable as the "Santa Claus" we all know, yet it's completely unique. The tune has been subtly modified, and from the arrangement to the driving intensity of the delivery, it's a Springsteen song as surely as if he'd written it.

OK, that's all very nice, but why is this important?  Thank you for asking. It's important because sometimes, in all of our conversations and postings about businesses and social media, we forget to talk about brand. When businesses begin to utilize social media tactics and channels, they still need to be aware of doing so in a relevant and consistent brand voice. It's wonderful to have employees tweet for your company, but have you provided them with your brand messaging guidelines? Do they understand how to communicate in a voice and tone consistent with your brand?
Developing and communicating a strong and relevant brand identity has been critical for every component of traditional marketing efforts. It's no less important in the social media world. Online, it's your conversations and interactions that are key to conveying who you are and what you stand for. What are your words saying about your brand?

P.S. If you're interested, another song that transcend holiday mediocrity is the version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by James Taylor. A melancholy version, as it was meant to be, with reinstated original lyrics, "...if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." And, while you're at it, listen to the Judy Garland version (same link), who sang the original.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Social Media Strategy Step One: Answer These 5 Questions...

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal Technology Report referenced a surprising finding from a recent Nielsen study: 

"In August 2009, 276.9 million people used email across the U.S. as well as several European countries, Australia and Brazil....up 21% from 229 million in August 2009. But the number of users on social-networking and other community sites jumped 31% to 301.5 million people."
The good news is that more and more organizations are taking notice and rolling out their own social media initiatives, or making preparations to do so. However, what many of them are failing to acknowledge is that social media isn't a one-size-fits-all channel. As your organization begins to put together a plan for social media, consider these five questions. The answers can help ensure your initiative will meet your goals strategically and cost effectively.

#1: "Whom am I talking to?" If your organization is like many others, it has multiple constituencies. Clients, customers, strategic partners, vendors, donors, the media, your board, the list goes on and on. The point is, your communication objectives are different for each of them, which means that before you start talking, determine whom you're speaking to.

#2: "What am I communicating?" If this sound like a 'stupid simple' question, don't be fooled. It's where many smart organizations get tripped up. No doubt you've put together reams of branding documents with details about your organization down to the molecular level. Save it for the brochure. Social media isn't a monologue about your brand. It's a dialog with your constituency. Sure, branding is part of it, but the most important thing to communicate to your social media community is that you're listening to what they have to say.

#3: "Who speaks?" Social media is about conversations, so you must determine who in your organization is going to be doing the talking. There's many way correct ways to go about it - for example some organizations have a team of social media communicators who are identified when they're on duty, i.e., www.twitter.com/jetblue. Some organizations have a single social media communicator, like Kate at Safeway's Community Blog. However, avoid being anonymous. No one wants to have a conversation with a logo. Social media thrives on honesty and transparency.

#4. "What do we do about online criticism?" If someone takes the time to post a complaint or criticism, consider it your lucky day. It means they think enough of your organization or product to want you to get it right or at least give you a chance to respond. It means you have the opportunity to not only save a relationship, but strengthen it and burnish your reputation. So make sure your social communicators know how to address complaints in a positive way (i.e., "We're sorry you encountered that problem. Here are the steps we're taking to ensure that it gets fixed...."), are empowered to act to remedy an issue, and know the escalation hierarchy.

#5. "What social media channels are the right ones for us?" This is one of the most important questions organization can ask themselves. The answer is - it depends. Among other things, it depends on:
  • The answers you come up with for questions 1-3
  • What your objectives are
  • How your social media executions will integrate with, augment, or replace your website
  • How much budget, time and/or staff you can commit

photo: Leo Reynolds 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mad Men 2009

"He not busy being born is busy dying."
Bob Dylan,
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

Few people would argue that advertising is going through troubled times and that some sort of metamorphoses is necessary for its survival. The specifics of that change, and how it might be successfully implemented, is a reasonable topic for debate. But only the most entrenched and myopic insider would argue to defend the current model of an industry as broken as advertising.

That, however is what seemed to be happening in the pages of Ad Age last week. Jeff Goodby, co-chairman and creative director of an ad agency, Goodby Silverstein, has taken umbrage at the central thesis of a new book by
Bob Garfield, a radio and print journalist, but most famous for being a snarky ad critic for Ad Age. The book, "The Chaos Scenario," posits something that most people reading this (hi mom) probably already know - there is an "historic reordering of media, marketing and commerce triggered by the revolution in digital technology."

Goodby, exhibiting a stunning obliviousness to the seismic shifts happening in how the world communicates and consumes media, published a rebuttal to Garfield:
"Sorry, Bob, Adworld's Not Dying." Goodby pooh-poohs the idea that the almighty :30 broadcast ad is one cough away from flatlining. To be fair, he's not totally blinkered - he admits that the ad and media world are looking a little thin and pale these days. But his prescription for a cure is at best, dodgy, at worst, deluded. He claims salvation is just a matter of pasting advertising's outdated business model onto the Internet and creating "advertising that people like." He goes on to say:

"...I firmly believe we don't want to be advertised to in private, with nothing to discuss around the water cooler. We like the social interaction of enjoying or hating these ham-fisted corporate efforts together,"
Now there's a revealing choice of words. Is "discussion around the water cooler" really a useful measurement of ad effectiveness? Because if I were a brand and the choice for my ad dollars was A). Produce fodder for water cooler conversation, or B.) Create an open communication channel and ongoing dialog with customers who pro-actively seek out my messaging, I'd have to go with the dialog.

The truth is, the current business models for advertising, media, and the music business are indeed dead. But that doesn't mean we eulogize and bury them. They'll be reborn as something new, just not in any form that Goodby is likely to recognize or be comfortable with. As the music industry is discovering, you can spend you last dime going after every 14 year old who file shares (yeah, as if these guys never made and shared mix-tapes in the '80s) but you're not going to stop the practice. It just boggles my mind to think that they'd rather go down protecting their status quo than try to figure out how to transform themselves into something that fits this new world order. Meanwhile, a computer company (one that has definitely found our electronic device G spot) stepped in to fill the void and gave us iTunes - new world order 1.0.

I say, wake up and smell the Twitter. It's not that ..."we don't want to be advertised to in private." We just don't want to be advertised to - full stop. The world is engaging in a global conversation where everyone, if they want to, gets a say. Sure, a ton of it is babble and clap trap, but so is a ton of TV and I still manage to find my way to "Glee", and "Mad Men" and "Weeds". Good stuff has a way of making its presence known. Passive media consumption is over. As is appointment viewing, single channel media distribution, and brand messaging that doesn't invite conversation. Today's consumers expect to be heard. Technology has given them a voice and they like the sound of it.

So, yeah, advertising is dead, but that's the good news. Because the advertising Goodby is talking about, while no doubt, entertaining, can't begin to create the kind of consumer/brand relationship that's found in the interactive context of the Web. And, like it or not, advertising is being reborn as something new.


advertising, Jeff Goodby, Bob Garfield, marketing, brand conversation, digital technology, Twitter, media

Monday, April 20, 2009

PR and Damage Control in the Age of Twitter

Ashton, Oprah, Dominos, and Susan. Names that have one important thing in common - they were all involved in seminal social media events. I don't know if last week was the tipping point for the phenomenon we call social media, or not, but it sure felt like it to me.

Gaga over a middle-aged, plump, frizzy-haired goddess.
On Saturday, April 11th, the by now galactically famous episode of "Britain's Got Talent" aired in the UK and the glorious Susan Boyle entranced an audience of skeptics with a voice of extraordinary beauty. The official YouTube posting of the performance appeared almost immediately and garnered over 800,000 viewings in 24 hours. By Wednesday, the video had been viewed 5.6 million times and, as of today, the video reports over 32 million views. According to an article in Mashable, however, tracking company, Visible Measures, that tracks over 150 video sharing sites, counted 93.2 million views on Sunday and predicted that number would hit over 100 million today. Although the press covered the YouTube frenzy, it was e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook that spread the word, person to person. The kinds of information that are typically spread in this way, like jokes, urban legends, apocryphal stories, and corporate blunders, have never quite hit the numbers necessary show the footdraggers that we are no longer operating in beta - social media has launched. But after witnessing how quickly the world can coalesce into a massive and powerful communication organism, only the staunchest Luddite can deny the shift. And they do so at their own peril.

Ummm, make mine without cheese.
And peril is exactly what Dominos Pizza found itself in last Monday when two astoundingly stupid Dominos employees posted a video on YouTube showing one of them stuffing cheese up his nose before he used it to garnish a pizza, among other health code violations. That evening, Tim McIntyre, a Dominos spokesperson, was alerted to the video by someone who'd seen it online. When company executives learned about the video the next day, they made a fatefully disastrous decision to do nothing in the hopes of not fueling the fire. With no presence or experience in social media, they were sadly unaware that information is no longer controlled by corporations or by the press. Technology has set it free, put it in the hands of the public, and it dances to its own tune these days. There are new rules for corporate communication, and the rules say the conversation is happening, with or without you. If you don't proactively own it, someone else will. On Wednesday, with its reputation damaged and perception of quality in negative numbers, Dominos opened a Twitter account and posted a video on YouTube of it's CEO, Patrick Doyle, offering a heartfelt apology. It's a start, but when Mr. McIntyre was quoted in a NY Times article the next day saying, “Well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter,” I suspect there's still a bit of a learning curve. Social media isn't broadcast. If the company isn't using it to monitor and participate in conversations, they're missing the point.

Dude, where's your tweeps?
Late Thursday night, Ashton Kutcher became the first person on the planet to snag one million followers on Twitter, beating out his rival, CNN, by only a few hours and a couple of thousand followers. And what does that have to do with anything? Well, look at it this way: A 31-year old college drop-out actor, famous for producing a show about pulling pranks on celebs has succeeded in aggregating a willing listening audience of 1 million people, while the MBA suits at Dominos, who launched their Twitter account with the obtuse name of dpzinfo, have managed, in the midst of the most press they've ever had, to only round up 1,333 followers. And Oprah? She opened her Twitter account on Friday. As of today, 3 days later, she has 424,986 followers.

And now, on an entirely personal note, a message to Susan Boyle: My dear, you sing for all of the underestimated, ignored, written-off women of the world. Your voice is an instrument played with unimaginable grace and purity. But what moves me to tears is you, as you stand there, sloughing off 47 years of being invisible, confident in your gift and knowing that, at last, you are on the right stage, at the right time. You knew what you had, and now all the world is gaga over a middle-aged, plump, frizzy-haired goddess. Brava!

social media, Susan Boyle, Ashton Kutcher, Dominos Pizza, Oprah, You Tube, Twitter, Facebook

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Marketing Conversations: Listen & Speak. Repeat.

Photo: Kimberly Faye

Peter Kim, whose eponymous blog can be counted on for smart insights and analysis, recently posted about the need to take the use of social media by brands to the next evolutionary level. His big points (which I totally agree with) are:
- Brands are using social media to be disruptive and get attention, but aren't using it to create relationships with their customers.
- Ad agencies are using social media the same way they've always used the web, as something scotch-taped onto their "real" campaign. Still clueless about real integration.
- As the Cluetrain Manifesto pointed out 10 years ago, companies are still clinging to the notion that employee, customers, partners, vendors, are all separate markets. They're not. Not only do the boundaries often overlap (employees are also customers, clients might also be partners) but these markets want to talk to each other. And those conversations are the ones that companies need to be enabling and participating in, if they're going to be competitive and survive.

Chris Hall referenced this post in his blog, but I think he may have missed the point a bit when he admonished online blogger and twitterer activists from "imposing their collective wills upon millions of other group members because they have realized that they have a platform."

First of all, I'd like to know how he assumes that this "vocal" minority doesn't speak for the majority. And second, taking a step back and considering the historical context, might provide a better insight into what's happening now, and what we, as marketers, should be doing to bring value to the conversation.

Of course, I had an opinion about all of this, and responded the following on Chris' blog:

I think what we’re witnessing is the messy business of evolution. For years (actually, forever), consumers had no voice. Marketing that drove the sale of products was a one-way conversation. They spoke, we listed. Recourse for complaints was limited to boiling your blood pressure trying to reach a human in customer service, sending a letter that, if you were lucky, got a form-letter reply, or boycotting the product which provided little beyond depriving yourself of something you probably needed.

Web 2.0 gave consumers a voice and the audience to speak to. Heady stuff for a group kept silent for so long. So it’s not surprising that anyone who got a little taste of the power of the pulpit could sometimes be a little indiscriminate in its use. Who hasn’t seethed at the cable industry’s arrogance, incompetence, and unapologetic disinterest in customer relationships? So bravo to the guy that recorded and YouTubed his cable service repair guy napping on the sofa because he’d been on hold with the home office for so long that he’d just dozed off. And bravo to the Motrin Moms for finally voicing the anger of so many women at Madison Avenue’s often reductive and insulting attempts to portray the complex balancing act that women who are some combination of wives, mothers, and workers, have to pull off.

It’s also not surprising that companies are reacting by sometimes overreacting. They’re not used to hearing from the great world that lives on the other side of the tv screen. Those nameless, faceless “target demos” who make up their customer universe. It must be a little scary to hear their voice after all these years.

I think, as marketers, consultants, and advisors, it’s our job to help both sides understand this new context. Motrin missed a huge opportunity to engage with this group of angry moms. As the incredibly prescient Cluetrain Manifesto guys (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, & David Weinberger) wrote, way back in 1999(!), “Markets are conversations. People are speaking to each other in a powerful new way. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.”

Instead of their knee-jerk reaction, Motrin should have started a real conversation. What were the specific things about the ads that offended women. If this isn’t the right way to portray them, tell us what is? How do these women see themselves? What are the important things in their lives?

It’s not a matter of simply listening. Conversation is an exchange of information, thoughts and ideas. The last word goes to Cluetrain: “The community of discourse is the market. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.”

What's your opinion?
Photo: Kimberly Faye

marketing, social media ,social networking, cluetrain manifesto