Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Clash and the art of listening to your audience

I am a huge fan of The Clash. They just had it--a swagger, a conviction, and a unique style that earned them the right to be called "the only band that matters." A book I'm reading right now includes a quote from Creem writer Bob Gruen that helps explain why they were so great:

The band would stay up every night and talk to anyone who wanted to talk. They weren't just out to meet cute girls. They were available to all their fans. It was the roadies' job to get their fans into the dressing room and the hotel, which was the opposite to other bands. They wanted to know what their fans were thinking. That helped inspire them.*
So what does this mean for you? No matter who your audience is, you have to do more than just listen--you have to create an environment that encourages honest feedback. And it can't just be because you want to sell something. It should be because you genuinely want to improve. The minute you stop listening is the minute you risk inauthenticity. And if you're not going to be authentic, what's the point?

*From Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash by Pat Gilbert

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

10-14 year olds prefer web to TV

A study cited in yesterday's New York Times indicates that for younger audiences, the web is taking "first-screen" status away from TV:

For children ages 10 to 14 who use the Internet, the computer is a bigger draw than the TV set, according to a study recently released by DoubleClick Performics, a search marketing company. The study found that 83 percent of Internet users in that age bracket spent an hour or more online a day, but only 68 percent devoted that much time to television.
If you're marketing to these audiences, there's another important factor to consider: the mobile web. With cell phones becoming an ever more ubiquitous part of the middle schooler's life, the best place to reach them is on the device that's with them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, as the web and the phone become one in the same, the ethics of marketing to teens will get even more complex.

NYT awards the gold to, Yahoo, Coke, GE, GM, others

The New York Times' Olympic wrap-up coverage included two stories about the big winners in media and advertising. Coke, GE, GM, United Airlines, and Visa produced the Old Grey Lady's favorite spots, and the paper also awarded Yahoo and the gold in generating interest on the web:

Benefiting from the growth in broadband Internet access, served up more than 1.2 billion pages and 72 million video streams through Saturday, more than doubling the combined traffic to its site during the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2006 Games in Turin. The popularity of the site will very likely make digital rights more significant in next year’s bidding for the 2014 and 2016 Games.


NBC, as the holder of United States rights to the Olympics, was the sole source for online video and the only media organization that could use the Olympics logos. But Yahoo, which offered a feature-oriented mix of news stories and slide shows, gave NBC a run for its online advertising money, or at least audience, attracting just as many visitors, according to Nielsen.

But maybe the biggest winner of all--fittingly--is Michael Phelps. According to a recent story in CNN, he's looking at between $30-50 million in endorsements. No wonder those medals are made out of gold.

Monday, August 25, 2008

When the everyday becomes a luxury, differentiation becomes even more important

Remember the menu question? Well, it wasn't about food, but a recent Time article shows why restaurants are such a great metaphor for marketing your organization to the 21st century consumer:

The U.S. economic downturn has claimed another victim: Bennigan's Grill & Tavern, the 32-year-old chain of casual-dining fern bars. Amid sky-high gas and food prices and tightening consumer spending, the chain's Texas-based parent company declared bankruptcy July 29, saying it would shutter 150 eateries. While the franchise outlets remain open for now, Americans who want to peruse oversize menus for oversize portions of unremarkable food in unremarkable settings may soon have to check out Applebee's or Chili's. Or Ruby Tuesday or T.G.I. Friday's. Or the scores of other family-style restaurants serving deep-fried mozzarella sticks beneath hypnotically rotating ceiling fans.

They're a lot harder to distinguish than they are to find. Bennigan's had an Irish theme, with burgers slathered in Guinness and a drink called the Blarney Blast, but it was about as Gaelic as Barack O'Bama...

Bennigan's failed a few days after the state of California banned trans fats, so it's tempting to blame its demise on an antiobesity backlash. But fast-food joints are doing fine. The real problem is that middle-class families are struggling, and food prices are soaring. In good times, a trip to the local Outback or Olive Garden could be part of the family routine; with gas prices near $4 a gallon, it's become a special occasion.

And Bennigan's--an Old Navy of cuisine, a Levittown of the dining experience--just wasn't all that special. If Americans still want chicken wings and chocolate desserts served with an Irish surname, they can always go to Houlihan's.

In a challenging economy, it's more important than ever to stand out so that you're the only option for your customers and to ensure that you get as much wallet share as you can. Trying to be all things to people is the quickest way to become an object lesson in the paradox of choice.

Photo: Ashley on Picasa
Hat tip: Matt G.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Viral: be a host, not a parasite

Good story in this morning's JG about viral...a snippet:

[V]iral ads...have been around for years and routinely appear on YouTube and social-networking sites. Forrester Research estimates interactive advertising, which includes viral ads, was worth $20 billion in the U.S. this year – an amount expected to triple by 2012.

But the strategy could backfire, according to Allen Adamson, author of the recently published book “Brand Digital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World.”

“It could get people talking, but you also have to be careful – people may be too busy or don’t want to work that hard to figure out what the heck it’s about,” said Adamson, who is managing director at brand consulting firm Landor Associates. “With this, people may not connect the ad to the brand at all, and you may end up shooting yourself in the foot.”

Another problem with viral that the AP story above doesn't cover: you can't start your own virus--that's up to your audience. You can put something out there and promote it, but it only becomes truly "viral" at the whim of the audience. B.L. Ochman summed this up very nicely in a post last week:

You can't dictate what people will find funny by labeling it "hilarious". People have brains and are smart enough to figure out what they like without being hit over the head. Labels like "hilarious video" or "viral video" that are not created by viewers are bogus.

You don't tell us what's hilarious or viral. We tell you.

Today more than ever, you can't fake authenticity. You can't plan spontaneity. And you can't dictate the terms of the conversation. What can you do, then? Create things that are worth talking about. Easier said than done, but it's definitely worth the extra effort and expense.

Maybe the best way to think about viral, then, is to consider yourself the "host": you provide the environment for the virus to thrive, but it's up to others to spread it. By trying to force the conversation, conversely, you become a parasite, latching yourself onto your audience in hopes that you'll infect them. And we all know how well people respond to parasites.

Not the prettiest metaphor ever, but it seems to fit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Safe is risky; risky is safe

You have about three seconds--maybe even less--to capture your audience's attention with your billboard. One way to do that, as this Moderinsta billboard for Stop Handgun Violence shows, is by embracing controversy. Sure, that's easier to do when you're promoting a polarizing political issue. But think how this translates to your product or service. What can you do to push the envelope? Remember, advertising isn't cheap, but it's a lot more expensive when no one notices your message. This is another case where--as Seth Godin might say--safe is risky, and risky is safe.

Hat tip: Ad Freak

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Those Nike people know what they're doing

This Nike spot would have been my #1 pick among all those mentioned in Paste Magazine's "10 Best Songs in Commercials During The Olympics." Yes, even at the risk of people asking me where my lapel pin is, I liked it more than Paste's top choice, which is pretty good in its own right. But pairing a great lyric from The Killers with a combination of images featuring the agony of defeat/thrill of victory, Lance before and after, and Oscar Pistorius (an especially bold choice given the controversy earlier this year) make this one of the best brand boosters I've seen in a long time.

What's your favorite, and why?

Hat tip: Ad Freak

Abbreviations and your audience

One of the keys to writing well is focusing on your audience--making sure what you write is specific to their needs, while remaining both concise and precise. Today more than ever before, however, it's easy to take the whole "concise" thing too far, given the increasing role that abbreviations and non-standard language are playing in communication. The main problem with such abbreviations is that unless you're certain your audience knows how to decode your writing, you're making them do too much work.

This has gone well beyond common acronyms like "lol," "ttyl," and "brb." A lot of writers--especially younger writers--have gotten used to saying more with less, and it's becoming a bad habit. Remember, the more formal the communication, the less likely it is that abbreviations and slang are going to be received well. Remember too, that it's your job as a writer to make it as easy as possible for your audience to understand what you're saying. By taking shortcuts, you're asking the audience to do the majority of the work--and giving them an excuse to focus on something else that's easier for them to understand,

Monday, August 18, 2008

Your audience's favorite subject IS your audience

I read about a study last week that found teens are only "sorta" interested in the Olympics. The problem isn't that the Games are boring, but they're suffering from the same challenge nearly every medium and message faces today: they have to compete against text messages, blogs, cell phone conversations, and other content all focused on teens' favorite topic: themselves.

Now teens aren't alone in this: we all like content that's all about us. There are a couple of differences between millennials and the rest of us, however:

1. They're the first generation to have easy access to tools that allow them to create their own content, which means that content about themselves is always accesible, and

2. They're not predisposed to choose old media over other options.

In other words, we Gen Xers and Baby Boomers aren't less self-centered; we're just more conditioned to turn on the TV and less conditioned to create content.

This is a crucial point to remember when crafting your message, whether or not you have a Olympic-sized budget or idea. If your message isn't about your audience, it's not going to have much of a chance of cutting through. You can't just talk about yourself. Today's gold medal communicators start by figuring out how their message is relevant to their audience, and they focus on that. Do anything else, and you'll be lucky to make them even "sorta" interested.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Message in a bottle

Looking for an example of a differentiated message? Well, look no further than Arrogant Bastard Ale, one of the brews available at J.K. O'Donnell's Irish Ale House. One glance at the home page, and you know they're not trying to appeal to everyone. In today's fragmented communication environment, that's a risk worth taking. In fact, the real risk is playing it safe.

Of course, if their product was no good, the message wouldn't matter. But by positioning themselves uniquely, Arrogant Bastard comes across as a brand that's not watered down--a pretty nice match for the beer itself, actually.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Made to Stick sticks it to the GM ad

I'm not the only one who sees some contradictions in GM's heavy rotation Olympic ad. Here's what they're saying on the Made to Stick blog:

[I]t seems to be a rare specimen: the self-refuting argument. First, there’s the primary argument, made via the titles: “…goes for miles and miles on every gallon,” “hybrid,” “biofuel,” “clean diesel,” “fuel cell.” I.e., GM is Rainforest Pure. GM = Green Motors.

Then, at the end of the ad, as the song comes to an emotional close, comes the rejoinder: the HUMMER logo. Brilliant! Objection sustained.

The GM spot has made me dream of launching my own ad, with a (tough but inspiring) Lucinda Williams song playing over a montage of great moments in feminist history — from Seneca Falls to Rosie the Riveter, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Betty Friedan to Carly and Hillary. And then, with a dramatic flourish, as the cymbals crash and fade, comes: the HOOTERS logo.

From a marketing standpoint at least, it's time for GM to pick a side: stand by the Hummer and lose any environmentalist aspirations, or promote fuel efficiency and new technologies at the expense of Hummer porn. Regardless of whether the perception is based in reality, the Hummer stands for everything that environmentally-conscious consumers hate about gas-powered vehicles, so GM can't have it both ways. And because they're trying to do just that, I think the worst is yet to come for our shiny, blue friends.

Shiny, blue, and cheesy as hell

On Sunday night I turned on the Olympics for a few minutes, and this GM spot showed up. In the midst of the company's current troubles and the general national malaise about gas prices, the economy, and life in general, it rang more than a little hollow. Sure, the ad is pretty, but it ain't that pretty. Is this really all GM has to say about its products? You'll notice they ditch the word "Hummer" pretty quickly (don't blink at :13, or you'll miss it). Why not get rid of it altogether, and the rest of this one-size-fits-all, trite, let's-pat-ourselves-on-the-back message, and instead devote a full :60 to the Volt? Kind of a metaphor for not being able to let go of the past, no?

Hat tip: The Truth About Cars

Monday, August 11, 2008

The menu question

A few weeks ago, I asked the following question:

[W]ould you rather go to a restaurant that:

  • Has a huge menu (so big you can hardly get through the whole thing) that stays the same every time you visit, or
  • Has a one-page menu that changes every time you visit?

Assuming the quality is consistent, which would you choose? And why?

As I mentioned, the question related to a marketing issue and wasn’t really about food. It must have hit a nerve, though, because the post received quite a few comments and even more e-mails, most of which took the restaurant analogy and ran with it.

So what was the point? Well, I’ve been working on some web usability studies for clients, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that less is more—on the web and elsewhere. I believe in the paradox of choice to some extent, but I still think people want variety. The challenge is providing variety within a constraint, which sounds like a contradiction in terms even though it's not. The answers I received--almost everyone chose the one-page menu that changes frequently--reinforced my belief that there’s a distinct difference between giving your audience something new--and high quality--every time you see them, as opposed to just throwing everything out there at once and hoping they’ll discover the good stuff.

Part of the problem is that people just don’t have—or aren’t willing to give you—the time to wade through a huge menu. Jon summed this us nicely in his comment:

I hate facing a menu that I cannot completely read before ordering. I hate that!

And Heather, a new reader from Oregon, added this:

I always get intimidated with a too long menu, like I might miss THE special dish...because I couldn't find it!

The issue of quality isn't just about what you might overlook. It also involves the time and attention an organization will give to things when it's trying to do too much. Beth made this point in her comment:

I find that restaurants with too many offerings end up being a jack of all trades, master of none.

As did Julianne, who knows her stuff when it comes to both restaurants and marketing:

I have talked to enough chefs to know that when they are able to choose the dishes for the day guided by the season or inspiration or fresh ingredients or a new wine on the list, and they can set the menu to express their talents and training, that they then bring enthusiasm and pride to this dish, and it's likely the best you'll ever taste.

The challenge for all marketers—not just restaurants—is keeping things exciting, satisfying our need for fresh options but making those choices clear and easy to find.
Arienne made this point in her comment about restaurants with constantly changing one-page menus:

These are almost always the best places to dine because you explore something new.

And sometimes, as Joe stated, the element of surprise itself is what draws people in:

One of my favorite restaurants in Denver does not even have that. They walk up and tell you the 3 choices you have. And...I have never went to Denver without eating there!

All of these responses were great, but my favorite came from Sarah, who agreed with a lot of the points made above while putting her usual unique spin on things:

I don't like to sacrifice quality for quantity. Restaurants with giant menus generally have something to satisfy any palette, but none of the dishes excel....I also feel that a restaurant that's always changing requires an active, involved owner and/or chef, whereas the place with the huge static menu requires some yahoo with a clipboard to merely keep an eye out for the Sysco truck while some 16-year-old stoner chops a bag of onions before peeling a crate of potatoes and rinsing off last week's fish to get rid of the ammonia smell.

There are several analogies between your organization and these two types of restaurants. One big issue, of course, is whether it's being managed by an "active, involved owner and/or chef" or "some yahoo with a clipboard." Today more than ever, it’s important to do a few things well instead of being all things to all people--and that takes time and attention that generalists just can't give.

It also comes down to how today's audience interacts with your message. On the web, for example, we know that people who visit your page spend just a few minutes on your site before leaving. So when you're thinking about what should go on your home page, and how much content to include overall, think "today's special," not "everything on the menu is good...what do you like?" You need to spoon-feed your audience nothing but the best options you have to offer, with confidence that when they're hungry for more, they'll return to you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Taking "The Real Thing" a step too far

Given increasing concerns about nutrition and obesity--especially childhood obesity--these are hard times for soft drink companies. So what's a company like Coca-Cola to do? Well, according to this New York Times story, the folks at Coke think it's time to share a few details about their secret recipe. Little did we know, however, that one of the most prominent ingredients is bullshit:

In a campaign introduced last month in Britain, Coke divulged a few facts about the formula. It has “no added preservatives or artificial flavors.” Its mastermind, Dr. Pemberton, selected “the best spices from around the world"...


“When we talked to consumers about Coke, we realized they didn’t know that it has no added preservatives or artificial flavors,” said Cathryn Sleight, marketing director of Coca-Cola Great Britain. “We felt it was important to reassure Coke drinkers of this fact.”

Now I don't know about you, but "reassure" seems like a bit of a stretch. The point isn't whether anybody is losing sleep wondering if there's anything "unnatural" in their soda. Isn't it more likely that Coca-Cola may be trying to subtlely infer that Coke isn't as bad for you as all those empty calories might lead you to believe?

Here's a simple rule: don't try to fool people into thinking your product is something it's not. It doesn't work and it makes consumers lose faith in your brand. After all, if you're overstating one thing about your product, why should I believe that everything you say isn't overstated?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bright ideas from Brandweek

Looking for some quick inspiration? Brandweek's "Bright Ideas for 2008" is the perfect jump start for your brain. Number 10-- "Greenrating"--is a must-read cautionary tale for anyone hoping to hop on the environmentally-friendly bandwagon (suffice it to say that you'll want to make sure that bandwagon is a hybrid). And if you want to find out the latest about "Lickertising"-- discussed on SBB back in February--just click over to number 6. It's juicy stuff.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

20 lessons learned (or relearned) while on vacation

Some of these are about communication, marketing, and advertising. Some aren't.

1. It's good to give your brain a break.

2. The cooler something is, the less marketing it needs.

3. "Multitasking" is a myth (more on this later).

4. If you're in a kayak on the ocean, you won't miss anything if you leave the Blackberry in the car (see #1).

5. If you think of exercise as a chore, it will seem like a chore. If you think of it as fun, it's more likely to seem fun.

6. Word of mouth beats every other form of marketing. Almost every significant dollar I spent was based on a recommendation from a friend.

7. It's easier to deal with 200 e-mails in one chunk than one at a time.

8. It's easier to really get away when you have confidence in the people you work with.

9. It's easier to really get away by working hard enough to earn the right to really get away.

10. But no one is irreplaceable. Not even me. (See #8.)

11. Billboards are ugly but effective.

12. XM radio is great for long road trips. Between that, Internet radio, and in-car distractions, I have more skepticism than ever before when it comes to radio advertising.

13. The longer someone has known you, the less you need to rely on well-thought-out verbal communication.

14. Don't fall on your back while doing something stupid (no permanent damage, and yes, that's all I'm sayin').

15. If you have a chance to see Niagara Falls, see it from Canada--if for no other reason than to go to Canada.

16. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is pretty cool, but I have a few great ideas that would make it so much cooler. I'm holding out until they hire me as a consultant, though.

17. If someone opened a Cheesecake Factory* in Fort Wayne, it would do very well. In fact, maybe I'll do just that.

18. Vacations are a good time to think about what's next.

19. Summer is short, so sit outside.

20. There's nothing like going back to where you're from to remember who you are.

*But don't go to Cheesecake Factory if you're away from home. Go somewhere like this.