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Black, white and grey

When I was growing up, most marketers wore a white hat.

White hat marketers have jingles. They buy TV commercials. They tell the truth about what they sell and how they sell it. They offer a money-back guarantee and honor it. They belong to the better business bureau and to the Lion’s Club. White hat marketers donate money to charity because it’s the right thing to do. They build long-term relationships with people and with organizations. They belong to associations. They go to trade shows and have big booths staffed with struggling models, often in bathing suits. They offer a free bonus–and clearly state what you have to do to earn it. They have a sales force that sticks around.

Lately, there have been a bunch of black hat marketers in our lives. One firm offered to put my new book on the bestseller lists–not by selling more, but by manipulating the system. Many websites manipulate the search engines to rank higher. Companies are organized around spamming people. Firms hire squads of clickers in the developing world to boost their income or to punish their competitors. They say they are giving away something but are really harvesting names. There are rings of people who trade links to influence their Alexa rankings. Squadrons of fraudsters work the eBay universe, just barely staying a step ahead of the system.

It’s a slippery slope. Is it okay to vote for your site a million times in an online poll? What about encouraging your readers to vote for you a million times? Digital systems have so much leverage that sooner or later, a line gets crossed.

I worry that it’s inevitable that black and white are mixing. That brands we trust send out spam, but call it a legitimate use of their privacy policy. That they hide the results of this test or that ruling because the law permits it. I worry that their webteam is under so much pressure to deliver results that just a little black hat SEO feels just fine. It’s easy to shade your accounting and even easier to lie about your online presence.

Online, where a bit is a bit, where no one knows you’re a dog, where a big company looks just like someone in their garage… sometimes the people who succeed the most are the ones acting the way we’d least like them to. I wonder what happens next.

Does free mean free?

People are getting very strict in how they define "free."

Patrick Hurley writes,

"Hi Seth:

So I took my two kids to the Oakland Museum today to check out the Disney exhibit.  Very informative.  Everyone liked it. 

We even got to have our picture taken in one the sailing ships from the Peter Pan ride courtesy of USA Today.  Nice touch I thought.  We were told that it would be waiting for us in my email box when we returned home.

Sure enough, there was a link (albeit in my junk folder).  I clicked on it and ……………….. was taken to a survey.  Sorry kids.  Instant gratification delayed.

Okay, I thought, I’m a marketer.  I can kind of understand and accept this, even though it absurdly "required" that I provide my income level and gave no option to decline.  I completed the survey and……… was taken to a page notifying me that I’d have to pay a $1 "administrative fee" to the photo fulfillment company, Foto Fetch.  That would have been a deal breaker but my kids really wanted the photo.  I tracked down my wallet for my credit card, typed in all my personal data and got the photo.

My good feelings toward USA Today after this experience — gone.  Wiped clean.  The quid pro quo that I expected — me receiving a photo from the good folks at USA Today in exchange for possibly having some branding on the photo frame or receiving a special subscription offer — was instead a complete rouse. The file folder in my brain titled "USA Today" now has a sticky note on it with a sad face."  [end of story…]

On a similar note, Gil got his "free" cell phone in the mail today. He knows it’s not really free, he had to sign up for a two year contract. BUT, also, just to make a few bucks, the box is stuffed with come-ons, offers and other subterfuge. Is it really worth the few cents they earn back?

Exactly how many times are you going to get tricked by a "free iPod" site?

Even when I was seven this irked me. "Mom," I’d say, "We really don’t get 33% more toothpaste free… we have to buy the toothpaste in order to get it."

And finally, today I got an email from a ten-year-old girl who had read Free Prize Inside. She was complaining because there really wasn’t a free prize inside the box.

The best free stuff is really and truly free. All you get in return is loyalty, consumer satisfaction and word of mouth.

Pictures work

Amy Cham sent me to the: Similarity Web.

X is for X Ray

Darren has a lens on his blog now, a very useful click magnet of resources for bloggers: A – Z of Professional Blogging.

Burning chicken entrails helps too

Several people have pointed me to: CNN.com – Indian Web sites go with the flow – Jun 26, 2006.

Experts say using a combination of astrology and numerology, the ancient sciences will help you choose the right colors, font, placement of graphics and navigation bar to make the perfect Web site.

These, of course, are the very same experts who know the gender of Britney’s next kid. I missed that day in school when astrology got classified as a science.

But hey, it’s easier than working on the content.

Dividing by zero

When you first learned division, you were told it was against the law to divide by zero. As if something horrible would happen if you tried.

Check out the cover of this cookbook. There are way more than a million copies of the series in print. The key tagline? "Nothing is made from scratch."

Can you imagine ten years ago pitching that idea? It goes against everything a cookbook stands for. It’s inconsistent. An oxymoron. You’re a moron. That’s like dividing by…

Oh. It worked.

The clearance bin

I love this:  Dollar Bin | iStockphoto.com.

Cleaning out inventory? Making more room on the shelves?

Even in a world of unlimited inventory, humans can’t resist a garage sale.

Ten things programmers might want to know about marketers

In my travels, the group that wants to know the most about marketing, and seems to know the most about marketing (except, of course, for marketers) is engineers. Software engineers and programmers, to be specific.

Why? I think it’s because online marketing is particularly interesting and often allied with programming techniques. That and the fact that programmers toil long and hard and get bitter pretty quickly when some marketing dork screws up their efforts.

So, if there are ten things I’d tell you, Professor Engineer Software person, it would be this:

  1. Marketing is not rational. Programming is. Works the same way every time. Marketing doesn’t, almost in a Heisenbergian way. If it worked before, it probably won’t work again.
  2. Marketing is even more difficult to schedule than bug fixes. Marketing expenses are easily timed, of course, but the results are not. That’s because there’s a human at each end of the equation.
  3. Most marketers have no clue whatsoever what to do. So we do unoriginal things, or stall, or make promises we can’t keep.
  4. Just because Sergey is both a brilliant programmer and a brilliant marketer doesn’t mean that all brilliant programmers are good at marketing.
  5. People often prefer things that are inelegant, arcane or even broken. Except when they don’t.
  6. Truly brilliant coding is hard to quantify, demand or predict. Same is true with marketing.
  7. There is no number seven.
  8. Unlike mediocre programmers, mediocre marketers occasionally get lucky. When they do, they end up with a success they can brag about for a generation. But that doesn’t mean they know how to do it again.
  9. Just because some marketers are dorks doesn’t mean your marketer is a dork. Some programmers aren’t so great either. Be patient.
  10. Without marketing, all your great coding is worthless. Push your marketer to be brave and bold and remarkable. Do it every day. Your code is worth it.

Flipping the funnel down under

How a composer on the other end of the earth (at least the other end from where I am) helps customers find him: the amber theatre.

A lesson learned at the mall

Retailers that spend on real estate, win.

The most expensive real estate in my county is a mall filled with stores. And those stores are jammed with shoppers. Almost none of them fold, none of them appear to be struggling. Almost all of them are expensive.

Two blocks away, independent stores, stores that cheaped-out on their real estate investment, those guys are struggling.

Well, you’re not in retail, maybe, or you’re virtual, so what difference does this make to you?

Question: what’s your "real estate"?

For most of us, it’s people.

Expensive people are just like expensive real estate. If you invest in them, you may just find they pay off. Some businesses work as hard as they can to pay people as little as they can (witness the fights over the minimum wage). What sort of growing business wants the minimum wage? If your business is people-based, as opposed to machine-based, why wouldn’t you want people who command more than the minimum?