How The Kindle And iTouch Can Save The Comic Book Industry

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It's well documented that I'm not just a marketing geek, but a comic book geek as well. So I get excited on occasions when those two loves cross paths.

(And I know I'm not the only marketing dude with ink-smudged fingers...I'm looking at you, Brogan and Naslund.)

That's why I got nervous when I saw this recent AdAge video featuring John Cunningham, VP of Advertising for DC Comics. The video (which is only 3 minutes long, so go watch it) frames the Kindle as some sort of potential comic book killer. Here's an example straight from the video:

"This is a business that is very low margin and very low print-run. So, if 10% of the readers migrate to an e-device, that is going to throw off the economics for 60% of the books that are published in this country - and that's probably a low guess."

To fearful folks in the publishing industry, I want you to really focus on what I'm about to say next. Go ahead: get comfortable and really take this in.

Are you friggin' kidding me?

Seriously, are ya? Because fear-mongering about Kindles and iTouchs is beyond short-sighted. Have you learned nothing from the music and movie industries? (Curious about why I mention music and movies? If so, read this great post by Jeremy Meyers for some insight.) And I don't mean to pick on John - he redeems himself as I'll explain later in this post - but acting like the Kindle is going to kill Batman is LAME.

Future Business Models

In fact, rather than kill the comics industry, electronic readers like the Kindle or the iTouch could end up saving the comics industry.

If this business is so low-margin and frugal, any additional profit should be considered. Here are a few business ideas for comic book publishers:

  • Allow me to buy single issues at a cheap price. You already have the content and you'll spend nothing on paper or distribution. It's almost pure profit for you. (Sure, you'll have to allot some time for scanning and development, but not much.)
  • Allow me to pay a subscription fee for back issues. I would gladly pay $5 per month to browse back issues of the X-men and I'm sure I'm not alone. The interaction doesn't need to be robust - just assign a scanner to an intern and collect the (electronic) checks. It'd be the Netflix of comic books.
  • Allow me to subscribe to the electronic version. Comic books get mangled in the mail and delivery can be spotty (I know from personal experience). I would gladly pay a slightly reduced rate to have the files sent to me each month. It would be consistent, trackable, and automatic.
  • Create a website or app that allows me to create my pull list and then prompt me to purchase directly. There are iPod apps that do this, but no real market leader. With this, you would have an ongoing source of income from a customer who asks to be contacted. Plus, consider the market research capabilities (i.e. imagine lots of readers with The Fantastic Four on their pull list who suddenly stop ordering it - that's immediate notification that something about the book has gone sour.)
  • Wrap in author/artist interviews or other bonus material with each comic book and charge me a premium rate. Again, this is content that doesn't take much effort to create - just figure out how to package it. Remember that fans open their wallets for access.

There are lots of options. But try something - anything! - to stay competitive in the market place.

No Zero Sum

The point is - and this speaks to John the DC VP's quote - that this industry is not a zero sum game.

Marketing guys (myself included) question why people would buy more than one copy of a comic book and wonder about the limited resource of time. "It's illogical to read the same thing in paper and also read an electronic version, isn't it?" "If people only have an hour per day to read, we're competing for time in the hour, aren't we?"

Maybe not. Internal reporting from Amazon shows that Kindle users are actually consuming more content (or at least paying for it). John Wall from the Marketing Over Coffee podcast mentioned that "[a]n analyst was reporting [at Amazon's Kindle launch] that Kindle users buy 2.7 times the number of [electronic] books they would physical books" (minute 2:21).

I might not peel off another $4 to try out a new comic book on the stands, but I might download one for 99 cents.

Will People Pay For Online Content?

John Cunningham, the VP of Advertising at DC, later goes on to say:

"I think the key is not to figure out how to ferret out the pirates; it's to come up with a digital delivery system that you can - early on in the process, and that would be sometime in the next 12-16 months - come up with a way where you can convince people [that] it's worthwhile to pay for this stuff because they don't believe that digital stuff should be paid for."

Things like "people won't pay for content online" get said so many times that we eventually assume that it is correct. But that's not necessarily true.

People will pay for your content if it's priced correctly and if the process is convenient. You already have delivery systems: they're called iTunes and Amazon.com.

I've bought every issue of Proof available. Why? They were 99 cents each, they download straight to my iTouch in about 30 seconds, and I can read comic books while looking like a regular businessman on the train (petty, but true). Simple, cheap, and convenient.

BitTorrent is difficult to understand and use for the vast majority of Americans. A lot of people are like Julien Smith as recently featured on the Media Hacks podcast:

Mitch Joel: "If you know as a consumer that you can grab a song off of BitTorrent or it's 99 cents, your value of that is diminished."

Julien Smith: "No, I disagree. I buy a lot of song on iTunes and I have BitTorrented music before. But I will tell you: iTunes is my first choice...because of the fact that iTunes will automatically put it into my [darn] iTunes and onto my iPhone right away. I choose it first even though it costs more, and I'm not the only one" (minute 34:15).

Simple, cheap, and convenient.

And here's the kicker: one of the key comic book audiences is the most likely to pay for content online. Despite conventional "wisdom," the Pew Internet Project reports that "[o]nline adults under age 30 are more likely than other age groups to pay for content online" (Online Shopping PDF, page 13).

Yowza.

What Do You Think?

Am I right or am I wrong? Have you seen a comic book company doing work specifically for an electronic reader? Would you consider buying comic books online if it was simple, cheap, and convenient? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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(Image courtesy of marceatsworld via Flickr)

Engagement Design and IDEA 2008

Information architecture isn't enough. Sure, it's important - I gave some tips just two weeks ago - but it's not the only organizing structure we need to consider.

That said, it may be confusing when I wholeheartedly recommend you attend the upcoming IDEA 2008 conference held by the Information Architecture Institute on October 7-8 in Chicago. The reason I suggest it is because they don't just stop at information architecture - the conference examines the interaction and engagement that is possible in a web 2.0 world. (Note - This post is in no way sponsored by this or any other organization. It's just me talking here.)

By the end of this post, I aim to convince you of the importance of the emerging engagement design, how companies can use it to grow business, how agencies will change in response, and finally persuade you to study engagement design at IDEA 2008 or elsewhere.

There's No Marketing Funnel In Web 2.0

This blog is based on the idea that marketing is changing - rapidly and fundamentally. Forrester Research describes a key component:

"The marketing funnel is a broken metaphor that overlooks the complexity social media introduces into the buying process. As consumers' trust in traditional media diminishes, marketers need a new approach. We propose a new metric, engagement, that includes four components: involvement, interaction, intimacy, and influence."

We need to look at information architecture and engagement design in exactly this way. Imagine that information architecture is the skeleton - very web 1.0 - organizing and presenting information in a way the webmaster believes is most beneficial.

Now, imagine engagement interaction as the body and soul in web 2.0. Instead of guessing what will most benefit her readers, webmasters can (must!) interact with her readers to determine how they use her website.

Businesses Engaging To Sell

Business is changing as well. In the report Use Personas To Design For Engagement, Forrester outlines three business who, with the help of their agencies, harnessed engagement interaction through the use of personas. These businesses found the key to interaction design through:

  • Analytics: QVC and Critical Mass rated website functions on their usefulness to particular users and designed the website around those highly-rated features.
  • Usability: Thornburg Mortgage and Enlighten ensured that their new website features truly served their current and potential customers.
  • Advocacy: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and WHITTMANHART provided supporters with a website that kept them more involved as well as facilitated their donations.

In all three cases, harnessing engagement design resulted in huge increases in business.

Agencies Need To Change Too

As IDEA 2008 speaker and engagement savant David Armano described in this video, the roles in your marketing agency need to change to accommodate this shift in business. David claims that engagement design exists as the design of behavior with three elements: human, technical, aesthetic.

Of course, this requires a very different agency layout with IT sitting over in the corner, the writers up in the loft, and the designers on another floor altogether. Formerly siloed roles are becoming both more blurry and moving closer together. Creative departmental overlap will be key as we move to a user-focused model.

Forget the days of the "star" designer. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Talent Myth, "the organizations that are most successful at [coordinating efforts of many different people] are the ones where the system is the star."

It's a wildly exciting time. Again from David: "Marketing, design and 'branding' are on a violent collision course as communications, experience and messaging become indistigusible [sic] to the average customer/user."

So Who Cares?

Well, hopefully you. Readers of this blog are usually keenly attuned to marketing, advertising, PR, and social media. And it is this world that is changing.

Events like IDEA 2008 are essential for hearing from the best minds in the business and plotting out how your business or agency can flourish in a web 2.0 world. My boss recently sent me to an IA conference run by Adaptive Path and I found it immensely useful.

I'm not sure if I'll be going to IDEA 2008 myself (sponsor now being accepted!), but I encourage you to attend. Like I mentioned, this blog is all about the changing world of business and marketing. Hearing from the best minds in the business can only help you.

Watch this blog for updated about my attendance. If I do go, I will do my best to live blog and tweet while there. Until then, think about how your organization can harness engagement design. I promise that your customers and supporters will thank you for it.

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Handy Hints For Fixing Your Confusing Information Architecture

Courtesy of recursion_see_recursion via Flickr Information architecture isn't sexy. In fact, good information architecture (or "IA") shouldn't be something your website visitors even notice.

Information architecture is basically how your site is designed. We've all seen site maps - those are basically outlines of your IA. It's the organization of your website, how things are arranged, and it needs to make sense to your visitors.

Unfortunately, not enough businesses focus on their IA or they assume their customers use their site in the same way they would. This blog post explains why you must pay attention to your IA and includes some handy hints to figure out if it's working.

I Can See Clearly Now

The non-profit Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement (IDEA) recently released a study called Finding Information: Factors that improve online experiences. One of the main findings was that visitors are looking for "simple, accurate, fast, and easily navigable web sites." Visitors to websites reported feeling lost on websites or not knowing where their desired information was in much higher percentages than the designers of the websites.

Your designers may have the best of intentions and be highly creative, but it's up to you to ensure your customers can find the information they need and know where they are on your site at all times.

Website navigation starts with your IA. Here are some handy hints to help you determine whether your website is easily navigable and, if not, how to start fixing it.

Handy Hints

  • Speak their language: In their free ebook, "Humanize it," Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon recommend thinking about the language you use with your customers and, I would add, the language they use with you. "Identify terminology that best represents your brand position and identity and use it consistently." This is a great way to get your customers to use a standard lexicon. In terms of IA though, don't forget to use the language they use to find you and to navigate your site. Keyword research is a great starting point to figure out your customer's language. Then use these keywords in your IA.
  • Test it out: Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller recommend having your employees test out the site in their best-selling book, A Complaint is a Gift. "Once customers are at your Web site, make it easy for them to navigate. Ask every single employee to spend time at the company's Web site and then take all their feedback and improve what customers are experiencing" (page 214).
  • Keep an ear to the ground: Sometimes (most times) your customers don't tell you that your IA stinks. Many don't have the terminology to do so and some are so turned off that they don't want to do business with you again. So listen to what they are saying about you elsewhere. Again, from A Complaint is a Gift: "Blogs are extremely important to monitor because they are opinionated conversations being conducted...It's almost overwhelming, but monitoring helps" (page 208). Look for your business' name along with phrases like "can't find," "where is," and "confusing."
  • Value and implement customer feedback: If you are lucky enough to receive customer feedback on your IA, don't let it go to waste. Bruce Temkin writes in his free ebook, "The 6 Laws of Customer Experience," that "[i]nternal measurements may provide a sense of how the business operates, but they don't give a true evaluation of customer experience...[which is companies should implement] letting customer input drive priorities, decisions, and investments." As this applies to commerce, it also applies to your IA.

Focus on the goal: a seamless online experience for your website visitor. Allow them to find what they want quickly and not get lost. Once you simplify it to these basic tenants, you can then use Occam's razor to strip away anything that hinders that goal.

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Social Technographics: Forrester And The ROI Of Social Media

Last week, a lot of you read my guest post about the ROI (return on investment) of social media. There is no doubt that social media is changing the ways people interact online and hence, the way companies communicate with their customers. The thing that is still missing is quantifiable data about these interactions. We're in a theory stage - we know what's right because we have experienced it - but we are still waiting for proof in numbers. Forrester Research made a giant step in the right direction when they introduced social technographics.

Social technographics is an analysis of consumers' approach to social media - not just which ones they use, but understanding how they use the medium in their daily life. You can download the full report on Forrester Research's website (there is a fee) or read the book on the same topic published April 21, 2008: Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. (There is also a ton of free goodies at the Groundswell blog.)

I sat in on a webinar last week where Charlene and Josh expounded on their work. Josh summed up the goal of this work: "Think about what you want to accomplish, not the technology." There is so much fascination about what technology can do that marketers often forget the question is what technology can do for you. The webinar came back again and again with the message to use this data to inform a strategy for your clients. (You can find the resulting Q&A published post-webinar here.)

How's It Work?

Charlene and Josh categorize web users into six sections based on the level of their activity, from Creators to Inactives. I have not seen a clear but simple ranking system like this before and I certainly hope it is accepted as an industry standard. The real value, however, comes from their detailed analysis of each category's activity.

I won't go into all of the details of their work, but they go into serious detail about each group. There are some valuable insights to be garnered from their work. But the research does not get lost in either theory or numbers - there are very specific, actionable suggestions.

What's The Catch?

There isn't one as far as I can see. Charlene and Josh set up a system and fill it with data very valuable to marketers. Forrester is one of the top organizations in online research and analytics (if not the very best), so it isn't surprising to see this level of work from them. I do, however, have two small concerns.

  • One nagging concern is the age of the data (all from Q4 2006). While this isn't grievously old, there have been trends in that time that might change the data somewhat (Facebook opening up, Twitter emerging, etc). That said, I understand the huge amount of work that goes into collecting and analyzing this amount of information, so I can't fault Forrester that much (plus, I think the underlying theories are probably unaffected).
  • The second concern is the wording of the questions. For instance, when asked whether they do the following activities at least monthly, respondents were given several choices, including "Use social networking sites" and "Watch peer-generated video." I wonder how responses would have changed if they offered examples like MySpace, Facebook, Eons, and Gather for the first question or YouTube and Google Video for the second one. (I read a report recently that mentioned a large section of people who claimed not to go online because they did not realize they were online when they logged into Hotmail or searched on Google.)

The Gist

As mentioned before, social technographics should be used to build your strategy. "Rather than pursue Social Computing technologies based on fashion, marketers need to think about how they want to engage with their customers and prospects - and create content, features, and functionality that create a path for participation." 'Nuff said.

If you're going to take seriously the new business model in a Web 2.0 world, you owe it to yourself to be equipped with the best research. As far as I can tell, this is it.

4 Reasons Not To Rely On Market Research Alone

I was freezing my tush off a couple of weeks ago at Wrigley Field and inquired to my good friend why he had made the unlikely (in my mind, at least) switch from marketing to insurance. It seemed to me that he was turned off by the manipulative and predictive nature of old-school marketing - as though statistics and market research would tell exactly how someone would behave. Then, just yesterday, I read both David Oglivy's chapter "18 Miracles of Research" in On Advertising and Hank Williams' post Who Needs Market Research. The stars seem aligned to answer a few questions about market research, including: Why can I not rely solely on market research and how can the online channel help?David Ogilvy

Sure, research is helpful to some extent. As Ogilvy said, "Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals. (pg. 158)" But you are making a severe mistake if you expect focus groups, polls, and testing to divine your strategy like a Magic 8-ball.

Market research (especially customer-focused research) must be taken with a sizable grain of proverbial salt. Here are four reasons why:

1. While I think there is some use of market research, I agree with Hank Williams' hypothesis that content and experience are much more important. People cannot articulate an experience they've never had. Focus on producing good content and a good experience - not whether people claim that they understand how they think they will respond to a hypothetical situation. And even if you have the product or advertisement, do you really think people will respond the same way to it during a focus group at the mall as they would in their own homes?

2. Often times, people can't articulate their feelings about a product at all. Malcolm Gladwell has a few intriguing examples in Blink. From Gladwell: "It [the Aeron chair] looked different. There was nothing familiar about it. Maybe the word 'ugly' was just a proxy for 'different' " [said Bill Dowell, research lead on the Aeron]. The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different. (pg. 174)"Malcolm Gladwell

Not only can someone not tell you about an experience they have had, they often can't articulate one they have had. (Think about all the stories of witnesses picking the wrong suspect in a line-up.)

3. Market research produces a false sense of certainty. Many businesspeople are cowards (admit it, you've seen them). They want to keep their job rather than do their job, so they spend all day making sure they don't get in trouble (read: take risks).

Listen up, college students: Marketing does not bode well for the risk-adverse. And market research is often the tool of the risk adverse. It excuses the peon's work to the manager, the manager's decisions to the VP, and the VP's guidance to the President.

Gladwell goes on, this time using television shows as an example.

"Viewer didn't actually hate [All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show]. They were just shocked by them. And all the ballyhooed techniques used by the armies of marketer researchers at CBS utterly failed to distinguish between these two very different emotions.

But testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary is another matter, and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation. We like market research because it provides certainty - a score, a prediction; if someone asks us why we made the decision we did, we can point to a number. But the truth is that for the most important decisions, there can be no certainty. (pg. 175 - my emphasis)"

4. People knowingly or unknowingly lie or give the answer they think they ought to. It's an unpleasant truth. Spend any time in politics and you will become a believer too.

From Ogilvy: "Respondents do not always tell the truth to interviewers. I used to start my questionnaires by asking, 'Which would you rather hear on the radio tonight - Jack Benny or a Shakespeare play?' If the respondent said Shakespeare, I knew he was a liar and broke off the interview. (pg. 164)"

In addition to saying what they think you want to hear (as in Ogilvy's example), remember that many people even today carry deep biases. Watch the exit polls after this year's Presidential campaign. I guarantee the exit poll results will be significantly different from the actual voting in favor of McCain. While people want to say they will vote for a woman or an African-American, things change when they're alone in the booth. The same behavior applies to products and advertisements

Why The Online Channel Improves This Process:

People experience websites and the metrics (time on page, pageviews, clicks, bounce rate, etc) prove their interests. You can be certain of this because metrics don't lie.

Despite all this, we have spent decades believing in and promoting the old way of market research. It was to be expected - we had nothing else to go on.

Now, however, web analytics free us from market research. Instead of asking "What would you do in this situation," we can actually measure behavior, with certainty, in real time.

There is no reason to run a focus group at the mall or pay for phone interviews. Almost every demographic is well represented online. The results are more accurate and it costs far less. Why would you do it the old way?

If your company still partakes in these practices, re-read #3. Someone there needs to be assuaged and reassured. They are so uncertain of the product or ad that they cling to something tangible: people gathered, surveys marked in pencil, spreadsheets checked and cross-checked.

Sure, sometimes it is a useful exercise to do the old customer-focused market research. It can sometimes serve a purpose - whether in extracting customer opinion or forcing businesspeople to solidify their positions. But market research ought not be a manipulative tool. You cannot neither predict the future nor truly influence behavior with just market research. My friend from Wrigley understood the distastefulness of this.

Build a relationship with your customer. Listen. Engage them. Foster trust. Develop these skills instead and you'll hit it out of the park time.

Monthly Metric: Bounce Rate

Someone lied to you if they told you statistics were boring. Website metrics show just how your audience is using your site and you ignore this data at your own peril. A bounce rate is when someone comes to your site and immediately leaves. They bounce off of your website for whatever reason. A bounce is undesirable - you want people to come and stay on your website! Bounce is the opposite of sticky.

Time vs. Pages

I had always understood bounce determined by time - that this figure was measured from people leaving a site in a certain increment (usually 2, 5, or 10 seconds). So I was surprised when I read in Website Magazine that they asserted that bounce rate "is calculated by dividing the number of total page visits by those visits that did not result in an additional page view."

This seems insignificant, but really there is a huge gap. True, both methods measure engagement - how much your visitors care and want to get involved with your website (in the case of bounce, the answer is "not much"). However, the magazine's definition is critically flawed (and I don't mean to pick on Website Magazine - many others define bounce rate the same way).

If bounce is determined by page - measuring the amount a given page is the last page viewed against the aggregate number of times that given page was the first page viewed - this does not mean the user was instantly turned off. Co-worker Mia described this page-derived metric as indicating "not an unsuccessful visit, but unsuccessful engagement."

For instance, I can search a site, take several minutes to read and digest a page's information, be satisfied, and leave. This wasn't an unpleasant visit - I got the information I was looking for - but it was unsuccessful in getting me interested in what else the site had to offer. Shame on the marketer for not including links or other content that might entice me to another page, or offering some reason to further explore that given topic. But that does not mean the content or design was flawed in some way. In this manner, I think it's clear that determining bounce rate by last page is inherently flawed.

However, the time-derived metric is incredibly handy. Robust metrics engines like WebTrends can be programmed to measure any increment of time on a given page (though you'll probably have to ask your IT guy for help - the usual default setting only measures in minutes which isn't small enough for our purposes).

So, what can I do (and what does Jesus have to do with SEO)?

This uber-geeky battle of the bounce rates might not mean much to you - you're probably interested in ways to fix high bounce rates. Let's look at some common problems that might be plaguing your website.

  1. Bad design: If your website design looks cheap, people will logically think the content is cheap as well. Make sure your design is professional - check with an expert and ask others' opinions (if you're on a tight budget, use SurveyMonkey or another free tool to send around to friends and family). One important note: there is often confusion over cheap vs. simple when it comes to design. Google is simple and it works. Sites trying to sell you pirated DVDs from China often look cheap and it doesn't work. Even useful sites like Jakob Nielson's walk the line (though he's likely proving a point about usability, so he gets a pass). Use your best judgment.
  2. Bad content: People can tell when they're on the wrong site. Maybe it wasn't what they were looking for. Or maybe your misspellings or wacky fonts or wrong information instantly turned them off.
  3. Bad site architecture: Think about this from the user's perspective. I worked with a client whose homepage (i.e. www.company.com) was where user's had to click whether they wanted the American or European versions of the site. They lost a fifth of all traffic due to this terrible landing page. Enable your visitors to get the right information quickly and you will have a better bounce rate.
  4. SEO: Search engines crawl certain information - title, header tags, first couple paragraphs. If you are overly clever or leave the crux of your argument at the bottom, the right audience isn't going to find it. If Jesus had been a blogger, he would have had SEO woes. The parable of the mustard seed would have brought in gardeners and horticulturists - not exactly the point of the story.

Homework

For more detailed directions, check out Avinash Kaushik's wonderful post at Occam's Razor. He skims over the time vs. page argument that I wrote about, but he delves into some great suggestions for finding out more about your traffic and improving bounce rates. I especially recommend #2 (Measure the bounce rate for your traffic sources) and #4 (Measure the bounce rate of your AdWords, AdCenter, YSM (PPC) campaigns).

Many companies, especially small business owners, think they don't have the time to properly measure metrics. The truth is that they can't afford not to.

It's logical that you need the right audience at the right time in the right place. Bounce rates are a perfect way to determine whether that's occurring. Potential business could be floating to other websites instead of yours. Don't be the metrics fool.

Water Bottle Guilt (Now with Diagrams!)

Updated: Welcome Fast Company readers! If you like the post below, don't forget to subscribe. Enjoy! This morning I was reading an insightful post at the QualityWriter.com blog where Phil mentions the new Starbuck's ethos ad. Basically, for every couple of bucks they make selling this water, Starbuck's will give a nickel to a poor, starving kid (examples Kebede and Abu found here).

I'm not going to comment on the usual rant material here. I find giving money to poor kids generally good, Starbuck's and their ads generally so-so, and the taste of their coffee pretty damn awful. That aside, I did want to comment on the recent trend of water bottle guilt.

Fast Company details all of the stomach-churning, mind-boggling details in the cleverly named Message in a Bottle article from this summer. But the gist is this: a whole bunch of people thought they were doing good by switching from soda ("pop," if you will) to water. Everybody felt good and felt better about themselves, too. Only after a couple of years and a huge increase in the water business, did we question all of the plastic bottles we were throwing away. All this while tension in the middle east rose and wars started and "oh yeah!" that plastic is not only clogging our landfills on the back-end, but it's a petroleum product to start out with!

Hey, I'm not blameless. We recycle, but I'll still buy water from time to time. But the sheer guilt that is growing at an exponential rate is what I'm fascinated in. The problem has a lot of angles - the environment, oil and global politics, waste in a country of plenty, the blur between what we need and what we want - so I thought we could use a little visual assistance. Though it is positively not comprehensive, I put together a venn diagram of sorts to being to plot the aspects of water bottle guilt (both the diagram and this post are positively facetious, however).

It features Kebede (or is that Abu?) in the middle of our messy little problem. In what way do you feel guilty about the burgeoning water bottle crisis and its effect on humankind? Click on the image below for some ideas:

Guilt 2 200×200

What's After Web 2.0? Thoughts About The Personal Browser

If Web 1.0 - typified by online newspapers and emails - was about one to many content production, and if Web 2.0 - typified by WordPress and twitter - is about connecting people through a many to one publishing model, then what comes next? I used to think it would be something of a network or matrix - many talking to many. But don't we already have that? What's really missing? Instead of thinking macro, we need to be thinking micro. Here are some thoughts on the personalized internet browser. If we already have everything we need in terms of connections to other people, then the next logical iteration of online behavior is to make our communication and shopping more personal. What if there was an internet browser that knew who I was?

Let's take online shopping: I imagine we could have a browser that automatically loaded my preferences, including clothing sizes, preferred brands, etc. And I'm talking across the internet - not just on a particular site. If I look for jeans, this browser would load size 34x32. It would place Izod in front of Sean John. Blue and black shirts would be listed before green. If I got a hankering for rugby shirts all of a sudden, it would respond in kind.

This system would be as much or more based on exclusion as it would about inclusion. I can assure you that I will never ever ever buy anything from Nike, but I do like Converse and Simple. This is an an important distinction if you want me to buy something from your store. (More about the importance of exclusion in Rob Walker's article in Fast Company this month.)

Instead of cookies used between my computer and Amazon, and my computer and Barnes & Noble's, and my computer and Best Buy, they would all be integrated across the board. This browser would recognize items rather than stores. For instance, if I am shopping for a book, I wouldn't need to go to Amazon, B&N, and Powell's individually. I could search for the book and get a list of prices from each online vendor. Likewise, book recommendations would not be based on a particular site, but rather the internet at large.

Here are a few other problems that would be solved by the type of browser I am describing:

  • Why can't I move my half.com wish list to Amazon or another retailer, and then why can't I morph that into a wedding registry on TheKnot?
  • Why do I have to log in to MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster separately to see if I have messages or to see what my friends are doing?
  • Why can't I crop and size a photo and use it to create a SecondLife avatar which would then be used as a basis for a World of Warcraft character?

These are not difficult steps to take, relatively. We already have the information and we are quickly becoming adept at manipulating it. Now we just need to make it dynamic and customizable which is far less difficult. Sure, someone will need to develop a smart cookies and a nice interface and a business model (uber-targeted ads, perhaps?), but it is certainly within reach.

To sum up, the standards then for the personalized internet would be as follows:

  • Customized (and customizable) based on the person
  • Based on inclusion and exclusion of items
  • Online shopping based on item rather than store
  • More power to the user, less to a particular vendor
  • Bring together all the information from various sites into one dashboard

What do you think? Is this all crazy talk? How far away is all of this? Who will be the first to seize onto it (Apple, Google, a dark horse)? It will almost certainly be internet-based rather than software, so that already puts companies like Microsoft at a bit of a disadvantage. But it is anyone's game. I want my personalized internet!

Good For Consumers (And Businesses): Social Media Gets A Glimpse Of Measurable ROI

We recently had one of the worst weeks ever. It included (but certainly wasn't limited to) taking the car in to replace an insanely expensive hose, losing our heat during a Chicago winter, getting sideswiped by a Chicago trolley right after leaving the dealership, and the subsequent arguing with and lying from the trolley driver to the cop about how she was not involved. Needless to say, there were not a lot of bright spots in the week. But when the dealership tried to squeeze another $470 from us for a CV boot, I did a little research. Yelp.com and a few other sites extolled the virtue of the mechanic right down the street. He did the job in a couple of hours for $188. Amazing.

What does this all have to do with online marketing? Well, I was not surprised when I read this study from comScore. Not only are 1 in 4 internet users consulting reviews before purchasing offline, but they are willing to pay more if the service is ranked as excellent. It seem that after the year of exuberance that was all about Facebook and twitter, business is finally getting around to answering the question of how social media effects ROI.

If you have been questioning this yourself, you are not alone. I have seen at least 5 webinars in the past week and a half on this question alone: How do we determine our ROI on social media? And there are two distinct undercurrents in this discussion: 1) a low-lying anxiety on the part of marketers regarding keeping up with current trends and 2) trouble convincing an old-school CEO or other higher-up that this is of value to the company. I am a victim of the former and may blog about it in the future, but relief for the latter is beginning to emerge.

Among the best of the webinars and white papers discussing social media ROI are those from TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony. Anyone who is trying to convince their fellow employees about the value of social media must read their white paper, Making the Case for a Social Media Strategy. (Just so you know, I'm not connected to the company at all - I just really do like their work.)

They begin by going through an evolution of digital communications and present research on what people are doing online. They then explain how social media is a blurring of communication and content (the two activities people do the most online) and give salient examples of how struggling industries (especially newspapers) are embracing social media and seeing profits skyrocket. Among the quantifiable ROIs:

  • momentum
  • influence
  • prototyping
  • direct conversion of buzz into sales
  • market feedback/testing
  • crowdsourcing
  • recommendations

And each of those quantifiable ROIs has at least one example from a major, dynamic company. Consider these:

  • Crowdsourcing: "Intuit created a community with discussion boards on their site so customers can help each other with questions...According to Business Week, this community now has over 100,000 members discussing topics across 50 subject areas." CEO Steve Bennett's 2005 annual report letter to shareholders stated, "positive word of mouth creates a durable advantage for Intuit that translates into sustained revenue and profit growth."
  • Recommendations: "Analysis of [Petco's] web traffic revealed that users that [sic] sort the list of products by customer ratings spend 41% more than users who search with other methods like popularity or price... Emails that feature customer review content receive 50% higher clickthrough rates."

Helpfully, there are also cases where social media hurt companies, but a fair review notes that it was not the tool that caused the problem, but the poor PR skills of the company. Many are not adept at responding quickly, especially to a crisis situation. These examples serve as a good warning to be prepared for what you are about to take on.

In the end, social media is just a tool. But this study and others can give you the quick-and-dirty version (with stats) to help convince your more traditional bosses. It's a scary new world but at least we're all in it together.

Marketing Done Right or How Miley Cyrus Showed Me The Future of Marketing

[If you like what you read here, be sure to subscribe.]   I have a confession: I attended the Miley Cyrus - Hannah Montana show on Saturday evening. I am not a fan - suffice it to say I attended for the benefit of others. My future cousins in-law had a blast and I got to see a friend doing what he does best (thanks Jason!). Though difficult to concentrate in the midst of 10,000 pre-teen girls shrieking at top volume, I did see some rather striking examples of marketing done right. All of it was so smooth and so integrated into the show, I think it was an example of what entertainment will be like in the years to come.

  • Props to sponsor HP for recording video segments run during breaks in the show that integrated their sponsorship with their (and Miley's) charity work. It was the normal thing ("X percent of your new printer will be donated to Y"), but the production value was great and both kids and parents got the message.
  • Award for the most ingeniously simple marketing scheme: OfficeMax. You might be asking yourself why HP and OfficeMax would be sponsoring a kid's show, but the sheer volume of well-off parents was proof enough. I saw more limousines (Hummer limos included) than I have for any rock show. Regardless, OfficeMax was giving away signs at a table outside the main doors with a word balloon printed on the front. The idea was that the kid wrote something ("We LUV you Hannah!") and held it up during the show. However, OfficeMax also included their logo prominently on the back of the sign. That way, each little kid was jumping up and down promoting OfficeMax to every person behind them.
  • I noticed several un-uniformed young adults handing out what appeared to be surveys so, of course, I grabbed a couple. They start out pretty innocuous - age, gender (boy or girl, rather), frequency of interaction with Hannah Montana/Disney.com, excitement to see the show, etc. Then it asks you to name the sponsors of the show. A little weird, but ok. It only started to perk up my interest when out of the blue it asks about my printing frequency. Then the subsequent four questions are about my printing habits, with HP prominently in the first position of the multiple choice. The survey is a great touch-point, makes the child (or more likely the parent) notice HP's sponsorship, and it provides valuable information to the sponsor.

In all, well done by the sponsors of the show. None of the marketing was too invasive, but it certainly did not get lost either. There were lots of chances to wrote down the URLs displayed on the video screens during breaks, most of which included a situation where the sponsor was providing content or an opportunity, rather than encouraging parents to visit the website and see our exciting new line of, uh, printers (snore...).

Of course, no Hannah Montana marketing article could fail to mention the PR stumble regarding MileyWorld.com getting sued for false promises, but let the parents fight that out. And I learned that the t-shirt sales (occurring inside the venue) were not sanctioned by the Miley or Disney - so the bootleggers were making tons of money off her image. The girl might only be 15, but her handlers should be all over this if it is true. They are needlessly tarnishing her reputation and losing tons and tons of money.

But regardless, I commend the marketing at the show. (And if you haven't seen MileyWorld.com, check out the great benefits of membership - click on the "Tickets" tab, for instance.) Plus, I never would have listened to those songs otherwise, but many actually had a good message for kids, especially little girls. There was a song entitled "Nobody's Perfect" and others that talked about the power of friendship and self-confidence. Sure, it's a little schmaltzy, but the kids ate it up. And that's what matters.

Advertising as Social Trust Factor

Joseph Turow quotes a study from the '40s that details probably one of the first "truth in advertising" studies. He states:

"Between June 1941 and June 1942, the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] examined 362,827 print ads and found that only 20 percent of them carried false and misleading representations. Of the 1,000,450 radio commercials the FTC examined, only 2 percent were found to be false and misleading" (pg. 34).

While 20% still seems very high, consider that this is a measurement from a time where oversight was in its infancy. Today, there is far more governmental and non-profit oversight of advertising. (Consider the amount of legal jargon in any given pharmaceutical advertisement these days.)

So when I see picture like the ones shown here, it makes me think about the effect of truth on the society as a whole. As hilariously detailed here, there is a vastBK 100 difference between fast food advertising and the actual product. I'm not coming at this from a legal standpoint. When advertising is so removed from the actual product, doesn't that effect the social contract between the producer and consumer?

Sure, there are some instances where we expect to be messed with. I do not actually think my McDonald's hamburger will look like it does on the billboard. Where else is a little duping assumed to be part of doing business? Used cars. Compassionate conservatism. We understand this is just price of doing business in the world.Wendy 100

But my issue with the fast food pictured here is not the advertising. Rather, the issue here is a terrible product. The photographers who took the awe-inspiring pictures sprayed hairspray on the burger and covered it in Vaseline to show the best a burger can be. I have no problem with that. The problem is that the reality is so much less than that which was advertised.

We do not expect our ads to reflect reality. And with competent oversight organizations, there is a minuscule amount of actual lying (as compared to the Turow figures from the early 20th century). The best advertising is truly making a good product and improving the lives of consumers.

Sometimes this just means doing your job really, really well. It also means viewing your business from a user-centric perspective - not just how they interact with your product (though this is important), but also how your product plays into their lives right now.

This story from Zappos is a great example of how simple quality is doing more for advertising a product than any number of ad spots. I encourage you to read the story and note that the quality of the shoes is not a focus. The focus is on the human interaction. The relation between the Zappos story and the fast food example above is the oft-overlooked reality that we aren't really buying products - we're buying the experience. It seems overly simplistic, but the best advertising is providing the best product with the most focus on how it effects the customer.

This may sound like a bunch of feel-good wankery, but count the number of times this does not happen to you today. When you buy coffee, how often does it drip down between the lid and the seam in the cup? When you put that cup of coffee into the beverage holder of your car, does it block your access to other dashboard controls? Add up these instances during your day today and you will agree that my argument is neither overly-simplistic nor a focus of most companies.

Holiday Solicitation Emails, Part 1

A friend suggested that I post about holiday solicitation campaigns. Not to sound prideful, but I have done a lot of these campaigns - both online and offline - and seem to be pretty good at it (the checks have come in, at least). I will outline what I think are good things to keep in mind; less of a definitive checklist and more a list of handy tips/opinions. Five important notes:

  • Most of my experience is in the non-profit/advocacy/political realms, so give proper weight to a particular tip depending on your industry.
  • This game is always changing. What works online (or offline for that matter) is not static.
  • I will meld as much as possible the online and offline strategies. They are similar, obviously, because the goal is to persuade someone to give. Some of this will be evident (i.e. message length will effect your number of pages in direct mail - not the case with email). I will attempt to point out if a tip is applicable solely on the online channel or in direct mail (DM).
  • If you find these tips useful, subscribe to this blog (see the gray box on the right side) so you don't miss part two and three.
  • Forward this to your development department. It can't hurt.

Timing:

Ideally, you would have started this process at least a month ago (sorry, I had just started the blog then). Give yourself a month to plot out the strategy, meet with the decision-makers to get their support, do several drafts, etc.

One email does not a campaign make. Since email doesn't cost anything, send out several (as long as you have new content and something to say). However, do not send out the exact same email twice unless you segment your list to suppress any people who opened it the first time around.

I like a strategy of one email per week for four weeks. It gives four touch-points - enough to highlight several aspects of the work you do, yet the campaign is short enough not to drag on.

Font:

Let's get granular! Your choice of font should be decided by 1) your conventions - keep things consistent, and 2) how your organization should be viewed. I recommend serif fonts (Times New Roman, Garamond) for a professional portrayal and sans-serif font (Ariel, Verdana) to seem down-to-earth. (Sans-serif is easier to read online, but decide for yourself depending on your org.)

Shoot for 12 point font. While your eyes may be spry, more mature adults have worse eyes and more in the bank. You do the math.

Some folks prefer the antiquated look of Courier - reminiscent of typewriter days of yore. These are usually people who also enjoy multiple font colors and garish backgrounds. We're not selling used cars folks, we're selling ideas and those are worth money. Like your Momma said, don't go out looking cheap. (And if you even think of using Comic Sans, heaven help you.)

Overall Design:

  • Small paragraphs are easier to scan than long ones. If this isn't the first blog you've ever read, you probably know what I'm talking about having seen what is out there.
  • Vary your sentence structure - no bunches of complex sentences or tons of semi-colons.
  • Short, emotive sentences are good. Remember that you have about 1.2 seconds to snag the reader or your email goes into the trash.
  • Bold and italics are OK, but only here. You need to communicate quickly and that means occasionally grabbing eyeballs. However, chose your emphasis sentences (or words) carefully and don't go crazy.
  • Is your logo visible across the top or in the upper-right corner (save the left for your salutation)? The eye and brain of the reader are able to discern in a split second whether s/he is affiliated with your organization and trusted org emails get read. Everything else is trashed.
  • Check what your email would look like with images turned off. Is some text still above the fold (high enough to be read in a standard computer screen)? Needless to say, do not rely on HTML images to communicate your message. It may look pretty, but what's the use if no one sees it?
  • White space is your friend. If you stuff in a ton of text, you end up looking like harried Ralph Nadar rather than classy Frank Sinatra. Go for classy.
  • Put your graphic designer on alert. You may want to show the incremental increase of funds from week to week in a visual form. See Howard Dean's bat for an example. You could have them put together different images for each week of the campaign prior to its launch if you know they will be busy (i.e. closing a magazine issue) or they can gauge it from week to week in respect to the money coming in. Either way, give them some advance notice.

Tomorrow, I will cover content and then Friday I will wrap this up with tips on delivery. I hope this is helpful and I hope this post does not sound like I know all about raising money online. I just know I'm pretty good - not necessarily the best. Use the comments section to send me your own suggestions or links to helpful articles.

Marketing Adventures: Why Second Life Is Your Fault and How To Be An Online Marketing Pioneer

Joseph Jaffe has a post from earlier this month that is worth a read: Who's responsible for SL's lack of reach? First, I recommend that you buy his new book Join The Conversation (and send me one - money's tight right now!) and subscribe to his podcast Jaffe Juice on iTunes. He has great, down-to-earth marketing advice and insight that you should not miss. (A link to his blog is to the right in my blogroll.) Some background on SL (Second Life): It's a virtual, 3-D world where users explore, build, socialize and participate in their own economy (that's marketing-speak from the website). When it came out, there were a rush of articles proclaiming this to be the next new world, much like The Lawnmower Man was to herald in the new virtual reality. However, it did not all work out that way. While Linden Labs (the creators of SL) claim that membership is still growing, there is widespread belief that it is actually stalled. The avatar controls are notoriously difficult. Most important to us, many users felt the paid marketing/advertising was either ubiquitous or simply over-the-top.

And these are not unfair criticisms. But Jaffe makes a case that as adventurers in the virtual world, we, the online marketers, are to blame for an unsatisfactory user experience. Sure, we cannot change the controls of SL, but we do have considerable power over the type of experience people have.

For example, was their experience integrated into the SL life or was it jarring? If you create an island where everything is a branded advertisement, do not expect visitors to return. Create some reason why the users would want to return to your branded area. If they buy something today, it's worth pennies. If you snuggle with that customer for life, it's worth millions.

[Coke is a good example (disclaimer: this campaign was designed by Jaffe's company, crayon). MTV is kind of in between with good intentions, but a few trip-ups along the way. You can find any number of bad examples just by poking around (start with H.R. Block, yawn).]

On a similar note, I was talking to a neighbor the other day and was mining him for information about ads integrated into new game systems. I've read several articles about the failure of ads to have any effect, often the type like pixelated billboards in racing games. Of course gamers block that out. But he was gave me two other examples - one I think is decent and another I think is great. He said on Guitar Hero 3 that some car company (Honda?) built a secret level where you preform a song on the bed of one of their trucks. He felt it was over-done with all of the ads for the car company in the background. The lesson, of course, is that if you over do it, the user feels cheapened. However, he also told me about a skateboarding game where, when you customized your board and equipment, you were given a short explanation of a certain part, sponsored by the company that produces it in the real world. This "ad" was subtle, didn't interrupt game flow, and actually enhanced the gaming experience.

Whether in SL or gaming or any experience where you communicate something to someone else, think of the interaction from their perspective. Would you find this ad jarring? Can this message be integrated to a smoother way? Could it even enhance the experience? Why is this so rarely (or so poorly) done? Is it simply because it's more difficult, or is it just a different mind-set than churning out the 30-second one-way advertisement?

Fear (to be left out) gets us into new venues like SL or video games. And fear makes us panic when our brands are not immediately embraced. Jaffe is right - if you're going to be an adventurer in this virtual world, it's going to take some balls (that's my paraphrase). Go for the gusto, but don't forget the experience.

Review: First Impressions And Length Matters

I am into the double digits in regards to number of posts (in one month no less!) and I have already realized I could be messing up two very important things: the headline and the length of content. Here’s what I’ve done well re: headline:

  • Numbered/bulleted lists
  • Descriptive words good for headers (optimized search)

And here’s what I could improve re: headlines:

  • General/blasé headlines
  • Not enough hooks – numbers, question, etc
  • Most do not fulfill a promise
  • Do not think enough about the niche marketer reader AND the regular Joe
  • Focusing on my niche (regular people who have to be online marketers)

There are more for both categories, but these are the ones that seem most relevant to me this morning. I think I was in the middle in terms of having truly descriptive sentences. Check out Magnetic Headlines for great advice.

Secondly, how are the length of my posts? Throughout this process, I've been thinking that they were too long. This may or may not be the case. Jakob Neilsen has a great article on long vs. short articles as a content strategy.

Of my 13 posts, only 3 are longer than 600 words. Plus, my strategy is not necessarily to get the most traffic. I'm under no delusion that everyone in America will wake up interested in online marketing. Rather, I want a targeted audience and need to relax if my gross numbers are not through the roof. This strategy allows for longer articles since the audience is assumed to be more invested already in the content.

Plus, Neilsen mentions the benefit of having every third article longer than the others. This works out almost perfectly with the length of my articles. The basic truth is that I do not think in little blog posts - I think in fully formed articles. If I try to alter too much of what is my natural inclination, I think it will be detrimental to the blog.

What do you all think? Please feel free to write your thoughts in the comments section. Are you getting what you want out of this blog? Would this blog help the every day guy who is trying to market his stuff online? What headlines drew you in and which didn't? Are the articles too long or too short? In the end, this is all about what is good for the reader, so don't be shy.

Usability Tips: Do What Works and Keep It Simple

John C. Dvorak has a good article in PC magazine about web site entropy and website usability. I listen to Dvorak when he joins Leo Laporte on "this WEEK in TECH" - a podcast I highly recommend. This weekly podcast covers everything you need to know in tech which relates to marketing which relates to communications and on and on and on... I like Dvorak's examples that illustrate "keep doing what works." It's amazing how often I hear about a company that develops a great website, maybe even knows why they're doing great, and their first inclination is to change it. There is something about the internet that encourages constant change. Granted this is preferred over stasis, but change for the sake of change is not always good. If people enjoy your site, do not change the things they value. It seems self-explanatory, but it is shocking how often this happens.

Dvorak also mentions something at the end of his article that I think needs more illumination is that simple is better than complex most of the time. Why is Google one of the most popular sites? Take a look. Seriously, go to the site and don't search; just look at it. So much white space, so simple. I remember hearing an interview with Marissa Mayer discussing what an application had to go through before being posted to the front page (hint: it's A LOT). So when you go to Google.com and notice Maps and Images and such, those links have proved themselves to take up that space.

Compared to Google though, try out Yahoo or MSN. Try using one of these the next time you need to actually do something. They try to be everything to everyone and hence are doomed to be nothing to everyone (hyperbole, of course, since these two aren't hurting, but the theory remains sound).

The point is not to dumb-down everything; it's just to 1) do what you do really well and 2) don't worry about a whole lot else unless your audience wants it. When people (and more importantly, companies) start to think of their website as a tool, things will start to improve. If your website is a means rather than an end, you're one step ahead.