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Here’s an interesting question for the next telemarketer who calls you, or for the next clerk or customer service person you touch base with: "What’s the name of the president of your company?"

There’s a reason it matters. If the leadership of a company are cut off from vivid, direct contact with the front line, they are cutting off important information. Not just data, which is easy to summarize in a graph or a report, but visceral information that they remember and take action on.

Years ago, I took a friend to a chicken slaughterhouse in the Bronx. You pick a chicken, they bring it into the back room and bring you back fresh chicken parts. The thing you notice when you are walking to the car is that the bag is warm. A little different from the supermarket. Something you never forget, actually.

That’s how most CEOs and top managers make decisions. Not based on unemotional data, but on emotion-rich, experience-based stories. And if management isn’t permeable to the outside world, the whole organization is going to suffer, isn’t it?

End your tasks, end your job?

One reason for organizational paralysis is that it’s easy to believe that if your tasks go away, your job goes away.

If you’re the district manager for the Yukon Territory and the company stops serving the Yukon, you’re going to get fired, aren’t you? If you are the product manager for the evangelical market and it’s determined that this market isn’t growing fast enough, what’s going to happen to you?

It’s no wonder, then, that groupthink and politics and natural defenses kick in every time strategy is discussed.

The thing is, in most organizations, when the Yukon gets shut down, the district manager does get laid off. Big mistake.

As soon as management starts conflating people with tasks, they’ve  guaranteed that the organization is going to get stuck. Probably soon. A better plan: rotate your people and continually reward and promote and challenge them. Make a big deal when someone makes the case for shutting down her task. Make it really clear through your actions that tasks come and go, but good people stay.

The secret of writing to be read

Are you Foucault or Gladwell?

Steven Johnson has done some interesting (but not surprising) research on the complexity of the work of a few writers. Basically, short, simple sentences not only sell more books, but spread ideas farther and faster.

The really cool part is that authors have fingerprints. From one book to another, we keep the same style.

“I can’t afford it”

That’s not true.

At least it’s not true almost all the time. Very few of your prospects literally can’t afford it. What they are really trying to say is, "it’s not worth it." As in, it’s not worth reprioritizing my life, not worth the risk, not worth what I’ll have to give up to get this, not worth being in debt for.

One response to repeated cries of "I can’t afford it" is to lower your prices. A better response is to tell a better, more accurate story, and to tell it to the right people. The best response is to make something worth paying for.


Thanks to the internet, surveys are a lot cheaper than they used to be. And the prevalence of roll-your-own amateur surveys means that we all have a lot to learn.

A survey can teach your customers or it can help you learn from them.

And it might be a real survey, or it could be a census.

The traditional understanding of a survey is that the goal is to LEARN from your population and that you will ask a scientific sampling, not everyone.

You can TEACH people with a survey, though, simply by asking them questions that help them notice things they never noticed before. "Do your prefer option A or option B," might just be a way of getting people to notice that you even have an option B. 

The very act of asking a question may change the experience for the customer. One small firm I know shows prospects a book of testimonials. Then they say, "I hope that when we’ve completed our job for you, you’ll be willing to write one too." That seed increases the likelihood that people are going to be looking for something good to say, which increases the likelihood that they’ll enjoy the event.

Of course, this can spiral out of control pretty quickly. Push polling, in which faux pollsters call people up and ask them questions with patently false assumptions about competing candidates, for example, is just wrong.

But don’t forget the hybrid solution, which I call a Trident survey. "4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum…" Hardly scientific, but publishing the results made dentists feel better about recommending the gum and made people with teeth happier about chewing it.

Which leads to the question of how many people you’re going to ask. Professional surveyors almost never ask everyone. They carefully select a representative sample (not so easy) and invest in each interview, thus scaling the results for the whole population. That’s how Nielsen works.

There are plenty of inexpensive ways to ask EVERYONE your question, though. That turns your survey into a census. A census only works, of course, when the response rate is close to 100%, because uneven response rates are going to skew your results.

Analytics is a form of census survey. You can track how everyone who visits your website behaves. Focus groups, on the other hand, are a poor use of just about anyone’s resources, because they are inherently not surveys at all. Without a skilled moderator, all you get is useless (but extremely vivid) data.

So, I guess I’d summarize the survey question by identifying four kinds of surveys that are worth doing:

  • Census surveys designed to teach your market, not you. The act of asking the question is a marketing tactic.
  • Public non-scientific surveys (or census surveys) in which publishing your results to the group helps change the group’s behavior.
  • Professional surveys designed to extract really meaningful data from a small group.
  • Census-based analytics in which you are extracting data about behavior from the entire group.

One last warning: round off. 98.2% is a bogus result. "Most" is a lot more accurate. The ultimate purpose of most traditional surveys is to make decisions. Alas, your audience is often the very worst group to help you make a decision. When you let a survey be presented as accurate, it becomes the silent decision maker in the room and leads, often, to mediocre products for the middle of the market.

Thanks to John for the question.

Two live gigs (and a seminar for non profits)

Some of you have been asking about live, public events. Here are two:

THE Conference on Marketing: in Florida. The real reason to come is that Malcolm will be there. February 4-6.

Marketing to Men, Women & Boomers:
in New York. Coming up soon, November 12 and 13.

And if you run or seriously influence a non-sectarian non-profit, I’ll be doing a free seminar in my office  on December 10th. Here are the details.

Internal marketing

In the middle of its biggest growth spurt ever, just before Christmas, Apple fired 800 of its employees for stealing. They were caught grabbing $100 rebates on the iPhones Apple had given them for free.

The impact of this sort of action is pure marketing. It sends a powerful message to every other employee (and eventually the public). Most organizations would waffle, or hesitate at the scale of the firing or try to come up with an excuse for the really really good employees.

There are hundreds of stories you can tell to your staff. Even when you don’t try, you’re telling a story.

The New York Times Bestseller List

Cumulative advantage is a powerful side effect of story telling. Get out front, even a little, and you sell more because many people like to invest in a winner. We like to read what other people are reading.

A classic example of cumulative advantage is the power of the Times’ list.

Rebecca has a good post about the list but she misses the two key points.

The first: The Times’ list is completely fictional. Made up. Divorced from reality. The stated goal of the list is to find (and promote) books that Times editors want people to read, not books that are actually selling a lot. (The editor of the Book Review told this to me years ago). So, they make up ‘rules’ to appear consistent. When Harry Potter was selling like crazy, they invented a new list so that they could take JK Rowling’s books off the real list. When diet and other books started selling a lot, they made up a new ghetto (miscellaneous) for those books. When books started selling in places like Wal-Mart (thus driving the snootiness factor down) the Times penalized sales in chain outlets. And books like the Bible are banished because they’re not current enough.

The second: the list is easier to manipulate than ever before. The identity of reporting stores is becoming easier to find and the leverage of being on the list is high enough that authors can profit just by buying their own books in enough quantity.

The best part… it doesn’t matter. Cumulative advantage is so powerful that even though the accurate reports of book sales often completely contradict the Times list, authors and others still obsess over it. We’re always looking for clues, especially in crowded markets.

The thing that amazes me is that there are so few bestseller lists in other markets. Consumers want them. Producers can leverage them. It’s an opportunity, I think.

Joanne is coming! (Meatball Mondae, part 5)

Everyone is a critic.

One of my dearest friends is Joanne Kates, the
restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail, the most important newspaper
in Toronto. Joanne carries a credit card with someone else’s name on it
(I promised I wouldn’t say who). Despite her precautions, her picture
is posted in the kitchen of dozens of top restaurants. Why? Because
once a restaurant knows that Joanne is wearing a wig and sitting in the
dining room, the staff can influence the review.

Once a server
knows it’s her, he can make sure the service is perfect, the food is
hot, and the check is calculated properly. Once he knows it’s her, he
can guarantee that the staff will do their best.

You’ve already
guessed the problem with this strategy. The problem is Zagats (and
Chowhound.com, and a thousand other restaurant blogs). There isn’t just
one Joanne Kates in Toronto anymore. Now there are thousands.

You can no longer be on the lookout for Joanne. Now you have to be on the lookout for everyone.

[Look for the rest of the series here. Notable trackback from last week here.]

What’s a logo worth?

Have you noticed that every single car made has a logo on it? Jeans, too. Not business shoes, but computers, certainly. Phones. Not ties, except maybe Hermes. Not most jewelry, either.

It’s funny. We probably wouldn’t take $50 or $100 to plaster a logo on the back of our business suit, but we pay extra for a logo on a TV set.

Pencils, yes. Very few foods, except maybe Oreos. Watches, certainly. But not most of the furniture in your living room (though if anyone could do it, it would be Barbara Barry).

Is a logoless car worth more or less than the typical kind? Why do we not only put up with it, but expect it and like it?

Apparently, it’s not just a pencil, it’s a lifestyle.