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Meatball Mondae #4–No middlemen, no insulation

Perhaps the biggest change the new marketing brings is the easiest to overlook, mostly because it’s so obvious.

Every organization now has the ability (and probably the responsibility) to deal directly with the world. With customers, with prospects and with those impacted by their actions. No middlemen.

The president of the bank isn’t used to hearing from a customer about to lose her house. A retailer in Tucson isn’t used to hearing from a potential customer in Nebraska. A rock star is used to being entertained by A&R guys, not by maintaining a permission list of 100,000 customers and 55,000 MySpace friends.

This direct connection is an asset or a risk, depending on how you look at it.

The asset (the only asset, pretty much) that can be built online is permission. The privilege of marketing to people who want to be marketed to. This asset is big enough and valuable enough to build an entire business around (witness Scott Adams and Amazon) and it upsets traditional power structures in just about every industry.

More important, it leads to the idea of "no insulation."

Sonos makes a device that would have been inconceivable only ten years ago. The Sonos system is a remote control (with an LCD screen), a hard drive, and a box. The box hooks up to your stereo speakers, and the hard drive holds all your MP3 files. You can use the remote to review your entire music collection and play it anywhere in your house. Add more boxes, add more rooms. One hard drive can be used to let your daughter play Mahler in her room while you listen to Coldplay in the kitchen.

While the idea is simple, and installation is a snap, the products Sonos replaces weren’t simple or easy. As a result, multi-room speaker systems were sold by consultants—the sort of private services that cater to multimillionaires and their homes. At a recent CEDIA Show (the conference for installers), one of the categories was “Best Installation over £100,000.”

If you were in that business (companies like Runco and Stewart Filmscreen), you catered to the CEDIA installers. You let them be the middlemen, the service and support people, the installers, and yes, the folks that made most of the profit. The installers guided many of the decisions that their clients made, and you were at their mercy.

Sonos sells a product for about a thousand dollars. That’s less than the gratuity on most custom installations. As a result, Sonos decided to use the Web to allow consumers to interact with them directly.

In addition to a well-designed discussion board, Sonos invested in motivated, well-trained online staff members, who are seemingly everywhere, answering questions within a few minutes of them being asked. Sonos has pleasant technicians answering the phone on weekends. They not only publish their email address, but actually answer queries (and helpfully) in a matter of hours.

Of course, Sonos is still happy to work with the CEDIA crowd. But by embracing the ideas of accessibility and speed, they have made their product appealing to people who could easily afford to spend ten times as much.

How will their competition catch up? How can their competition simultaneously jettison their entire sales force, dramatically increase the quality of their customer service, lower their end pricing by 70%, and make the product consumer friendly? They can’t.

When everyone was playing by the same rules, when all suppliers relied on insulation in order to maintain margins and keep throughput efficient, it was a terrific system. But as soon as one player in the industry can use a direct connection to the end consumer, the rules change for everyone.

[Find out more
about this series. Here’s last week’s installment. Here’s a comment from last week. And here’s one more.]

Radiohead and the mediocre middle

I got a ton of email this week about the Radiohead rollout. The short version: Radiohead (a million-selling rock band) launched their new album as a pay-what-you-want MP3 combined with an expensive boxed set. This is the sort thing I’ve been talking about for seven years and many unknown bands have been doing for at least that long.

A lot of pundits have jumped in and talked about how this is the next big thing. That the music industry is finally waking up and realizing that they can’t change the world… that the world is changing them.

But that’s not the really useful insight here. The question is: why did it take so long, and why did we see it from Prince (CD in the newspaper), Madonna ($120 mm to leave her label and go to a concert promoter) and Radiohead?

Most industries innovate from both ends:

  • The outsiders go first because they have nothing to lose.
  • The winners go next because they can afford to and they want to stay winners.
  • It’s the mediocre middle that sits and waits and watches.

The mediocre record companies, mediocre A&R guys and the mediocre acts are struggling to stay in place. They’re nervous that it all might fall apart. So they wait. They wait for ‘proof’ that this new idea is going to work, or at least won’t prove fatal. (It’s the impulse to wait that made them mediocre in the first place, of course).

So, in every industry, the middle waits. And watches. And then, once they realize they can survive the switch (or once they’re persuaded that their current model is truly fading away), they jump in.

The irony, of course, is that by jumping in last, they’re condemning themselves to more mediocrity.

The end of the poll

For some reason, Americans love polls. We make very big decisions based on what we think everyone else is doing or going to do. I guess people don’t like to be ‘wrong’ even if wrong means doing what they believe in.

Gallup and others got very good at scientific polling. While traditional polls are often quite wrong when question bias or moving issues are at stake, they got pretty good at measuring conventional wisdom.

The web changes this. It changes this because polls done on the web are as far from scientific as possible (they don’t even measure what the web thinks, never mind what everyone thinks) yet they are shrouded in the same respectability, the same graphs, the same nomenclature.

A web poll is nothing but a traffic stunt.

Which makes this note from Allen Wastler at CNBC so ridiculous. They ran a gimmicky poll, the results didn’t turn out the way they wanted so they took it down and snarkily blamed those that voted in the poll.

Polls aren’t going to go away. They make great traffic bait. But they are clearly sliding from their position of trust. (Which is just fine with me).

Secular Christmas + Creativity = Halloween

Christmas has always been the king of retail holidays in the US and it probably always will be. Many families spend 25% of their discretionary income each year on gifts and trinkets for the holiday.

But Halloween is coming on strong. What’s fascinating to me is that this is the only holiday (perhaps in the world) where there is an arms race of creativity. Every year there’s new stuff, new ideas, new ways for yuppies and boomers and everyone else to spend time and money.

We launched SquidBoo a few days ago (sorry about the pun… Megan couldn’t help it) and within 48 hours it was filled with pages like:

Pumpkin Carving 101, Patriotic Pumpkin Patterns, Hairspray Halloween Costumes, Infant Baby Snail Halloween Costume – Perfect Outfit for a Boy or Girl!, Pumpkin Carving, Clowns: the freakiest things on earth, The Addams Family Halloween Costumes, Disney Villains, Boutique Halloween Costumes | Custom Costumes for Kids and Adults, The Simpsons Halloween CostumesHalloween Costumes for Lazy People, All Hallows Eve – Halloween!, Halloween Fun Activities, What can you do with Pumpkin Guts?, Harry Potter Halloween Costumes, Halloween Parties, Costumes & Decorations, Spooky Music & Decorations, Last Minute Halloween Costumes, All About Halloween, Star Wars Costumes, Mary Poppins Costumes for Halloween, Best Pumpkin Carvings, Childrens Halloween Costumes and even Wisconsin Haunted Houses.

Halloween represents a real transition point, imho, between a backward-looking tradition and a Make-magazine how-smart-and-clever-are-you do-your-own-thing festivity of the future. In other words, a growth industry that depends on betting on the ego and smarts of your customer.

Teaching your customers a lesson

Megan points us to this photo of a package returned by the post office. For being less than 1% short on postage.

Obviously, it’s cheaper to deliver the package than to go to all the trouble to void the postage and send it back just because it’s a penny short. So why bother? To teach her a lesson. To be sure she never does it again.

A million pennies adds up, after all.

While monopolies can get away with this, you probably shouldn’t try. Yet businesses (and non-profits!) do it all the time. We overreact to slightly bad behavior because we worry, "If we don’t slam this door shut, then everyone will do it…" So we yell at the church member who parks the wrong way, or we grudgingly change a policy but loudly proclaim, "but just this one time!"

Hey, it’s not the Supreme Court (fortunately). You’re not setting precedent every time you interact with someone. The best thing a marketer can do is have the attitude that customers deserve a little slack now and then. If it gets out of hand, then you can start acting like the post office.

How to create a great website

Here are principles I think you can’t avoid:

1. Fire the committee. No great website in history has been conceived of by more than three people. Not one. This is a dealbreaker.

2. Change the interaction. What makes great websites great is that they are simultaneously effortless and new at the same time. That means that the site teaches you a new thing or new interaction or new connection, but you know how to use it right away. (Hey, if doing this were easy, everyone would do it.)

3. Less. Fewer words, fewer pages, less fine print.

4. What works, works. Theory is irrelevant.

5. Patience. Some sites test great and work great from the start. (Great if you can find one). Others need people to use them and adjust to them. At some point, your gut tells you to launch. Then stick with it, despite the critics, as you gain traction.

6. Measure. If you’re not improving, if the yield is negative… kill it.

7. Insight is good, clever is bad. Many websites say, “look at me.” Your goal ought to be to say, “here’s what you were looking for.”

8. If you hire a professional: hire a great one. The best one. Let her do her job. 10 mediocre website consultants working in perfect harmony can’t do the work of one rock star.

9. One voice, one vision.

10. Don’t settle.

How to create a good enough website

For most people, that’s all you need. A website that’s good enough. Not that breaks new ground, establishes a new identity, discovers new ways for people to interact online. Just a good enough website that didn’t kill you to launch.

To be clear, the following advice assumes that:

  • You’re not trying to reinvent the idea of a web page–that the page is a means to an end
  • You work with other people

So, here’s what you do. First, realize that traditionally, the job
of designer has been linked with the job of programmer. There were very
good reasons for this. Designing a page that can’t work is silly, and
changing the design every time you change the way the page works can be
time consuming and expensive.

As a result, web design became a sacred art, one done only by the
blessed few, in caverns far away from where mortals tread. In addition,
it became expensive, because design changes (which marketers love to
make) got in the same queue as programming changes.

We need to start by divorcing the two practices. There’s no longer a
really good reason for the two to be so closely linked, especially
since disciplined use of CSS and testing pays such dividends.

Start with design. Don’t involve the programming team until you’re
90% done with the look and feel of your pages. It’s cheap to change
design if it can’t by supported by programming, and cheaper and faster
to have design done in Photoshop before you commit to cutting it up and
coding it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and beg you not to create an original
design. There are more than a billion pages on the web. Surely there’s
one that you can start with? If your organization can’t find a website that you all agree can serve as a model, you need to stop right now and find a new job.

Not a site to rip-off, but an inspiration. Fonts and colors and layout. The line spacing. The interactions. Why
not? Your car isn’t unique, and your house might not be either. If
you’ve got a site that sells 42 kinds of wrapping paper, why not start
by finding a successful site that sells… I don’t know, shoes or
yo-yo’s… something that both appeals to your target audience and has
been tested and tweaked and works. No, don’t pick a competitor. That
will get you busted. Pick a reasonably small but successful site in a
totally different line of work. Say to your designer: "That’s our
starting point. Don’t change any important design element without
asking me first. Now, pull in our products, our logo and our company
color scheme and let’s take a look at it."

At this point, some people are aghast! Shouldn’t the web be a design contest on top of everything else? I don’t think so.

Now, take your finished Photoshop pages and get every single person
who can possibly veto your project to say okay. THEN give it to
engineering to make it work.

[Boy, am I in trouble. People hate posts like this one. They read all sorts of things into it that I don’t intend. I’m certainly not against bespoke design, or designers. I certainly don’t believe that all engineers are bad designers or even difficult to deal with. The point of the post is most definitely not to encourage you to commit copyright violations or even ethical ones. It merely works to recognize two things:

1. If you are unable to agree on an existing site, you are sure going to spend a lot of time and money trying to agree on a custom one.

2. The process of design and user interaction is best done separately from the process of server speed, database structure and uptime.

Forgive me!]

What you’re up against

This guy
makes swords.

Actually, he bought charcoal, built a furnace, smelted his own
steel, created his own ingots, then created his own magical pastes. He
sharpened and built a blade and on and on and on to build an
astonishing tatara.

Do you really think an enthusiast is going to buy your ordinary tatara in order to save a few bucks?

Meatball Mondae #3 (Columbus Day Edition)

Google and Discovery

Google and the other search engines have broken the world into little tiny bits. No one visits a Web site’s home page anymore—they walk in the back door, to just the place Google sent them. By atomizing the world, Google destroys the end-to-end solution offered by most organizations, replacing it with a pick-and-choose, component-based solution.

Columbus is the center of a popular fable about discovery. He set out to find something, got lost along the way and instead gets credit for an ever bigger find. The analogy of the web is pretty much a stretch, but here goes: people don’t always find you the way you want to be found.

Not only are there literally a million ways to discover you and your offerings, but rarely people hear your story the way you want it to be heard. The idea of a home page and a site map and a considered, well-lit entryway to your brand is quaint but unrealistic.

I can clone a frog from one skin cell–and get the whole frog.

Can I clone your brand from one interaction, from one web page, from one referral? Whether I can or not, I will.

The means that bundling is harder than ever.

Bundling was the glue that held together almost every business and organization.

Bundle donations and parcel them out to charities that deserve them. (That’s the United Way).

Bundle TV shows and present them, with ads, on your TV network.

Bundle the items in your industrial supplies catalog and hand it to the business buyer.

Bundle thirty businesses and house them in one big office tower.

The Yellow Pages is a multibillion-dollar business that consists of nothing but bundled ads for local businesses. No one wants to keep a flyer for every business in town, but everyone has a copy of the Yellow Pages.

Book publishers bundle authors and share the expertise of their staff, their sales force, and their capital in order to bring books to readers.

We’ve been doing the bundling so long, we forgot we were doing it.

The world just got unbundled. Like it or not, there you are.

[This is the third in a series. Here’s an interesting comment post from last week.]


If I had to pick one word to describe what’s new, what’s different and what’s important about now vs. then, it would be "choice."

The choice of more products.
The choice of more retailers. Many a click away.
The choice of more consumers to ask for an opinion.
The choice by marketers over who to market to (precision increases).
The choice of workers to be virtual or flexible or change careers.

I used to have one choice to make a phone call. Now I have a dozen. I used to have one place to buy insurance for my company, now I have thousands. One bank near my house, now ten thousand a click away.

I have more choice in who to hire, who to work for and most important…

More choice in who to listen to (and who to ignore).