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Thinking outside the (eBay) search box

More than a million people sell on eBay regularly, and by some
estimates, more than half a million people do it as their full-time job.

The prevailing wisdom is this:

  • Sell a commodity
  • Sell it cheap
  • Do good enough customer service that you have high ratings
  • Wait for your fair share of search traffic

So, a prospect goes to eBay, types in "Elmo" and sees all the
listings. Common sense tells the prospect to find the cheapest one from
an acceptably rated bidder. The end result is average stuff sold to
average people for slightly below average prices. The long tail kicks
in and there’s a business! eBay does its share by putting a part of its
profits to work in promotion and in affiliate programs and in ads on
Google, etc.

You, loyal reader, can already guess what’s coming: average stuff for average people is no way to make a living. In fact, the big eBay success stories, the ones that people talk about, are the Alan Greenspan paintings, the grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary, or the woman who sold the Pokemon
cards for a fortune, etc. In other words, buzzable stuff. Unique stuff.
Remarkable stuff. Stuff that got sold despite the search box, not
because of it.

That’s all fine if you’re running a circus sideshow, but what about
the hundreds of thousands of people that just want to sell typical
stuff and don’t have great copywriting talent? They need a different
strategy, one that gets them attention off eBay and builds an asset
they can profit from.

7 years ago I helped a friend at Yahoo by writing a short book about
the short-lived Yahoo auctions business. I argued that the asset
sellers should build is permission. That the way to make a living as a
seller on eBay is to have a list of people who want to get a weekly or
monthly email from you outlining your latest and greatest auctions. And
to do that, you need a specialty, you need to be real and you need to
be trusted.

If I collected Fiestaware, for example, I’d look forward to an
update from a trusted source on her (and everyone else’s) Fiestaware
auctions, sorted by desirability.

Instead of running a rolling garage sale, you need to become an
expert. Someone who is seen as knowing what they’re talking about, and
someone who can reach out to possible buyers instead of waiting for
them to find you.

I’m selling my treasured canoe
on eBay. Without this blog, it’s really unlikely that I’d get even a
bid or two on it. Of course, if every eBay seller had a blog like mine, they’d
be fine, because they could just post their auctions as I just did, and
they’d get plenty of traffic. But building thousands of blog posts over
nearly a decade is a lot of investment just to sell a canoe.

For the seller who doesn’t have that asset, we’ve just launched SquidBids.

Here’s the page I built about my canoe auction.

It doesn’t work so well if you’re doing what I’m doing, which is
selling just one item. But imagine that someone decides to specialize
in antique teaspoons or even bulldog puppies… the idea is to build a
blog, a twitter following, a FaceBook social graph, and even a
SquidBids page that:

  • establishes your reputation
  • earns you a following
  • gives you a tool to notify people about new listings

The goal, to make a really long post short, is to create an environment where people will pay extra because it’s you
who’s doing the selling. And that happens when you give your audience
things. Give them information and access and insight. Point to auctions
that aren’t even yours… if it’s good stuff.

This feels hard. It takes time. But it’s far far easier and more profitable then wishing and hoping that someone stumbles onto you. If selling on eBay is actually your business, you need to start setting out the breadcrumbs that make you worth more than the next guy.

It always comes down to human nature. We’d rather buy from a friend.

Some books

The Houdini Solution

Surrounded by Geniuses

I liked them both.

Also, comic book fans, if you haven’t seen this yet, it’s something that will thrill you.

And I just read Scott Adams new book, which he certainly doesn’t need my link to promote, and it’s exactly what you’d expect if you read his blog. He can write.

I’ve been reading a lot of Max Barry lately. Sort of what happens if an accessible Kurt Vonnegut starts writing about marketing.

And lastly, Fred has a challenge going on at Donor’s Choose. A very cool idea.

Sputnik and Roger Bannister

Big marketing lessons here:

1. when you do something that everyone said was impossible, or that they never even considered, you get remembered for a long, long time.

2. once you demonstrate that the jar actually doesn’t have a lid on it, people start jumping out left and right.

There was no space race before Sputnik. We didn’t even have something called a space program. Even Arthur C. Clarke, who invented the idea, didn’t expect it would happen.

The other thing to remember: There was a Sputnik II. There’s just about always a sequel, so don’t worry about making the first one perfect.

This changes everything

Never mind the buy 1 give 1 (a great idea). Don’t wait until November when you can directly buy laptops for kids right here: One Laptop Per Child — XO Giving. I just bought five. (Hit the Donate button).

This is a story about tools and bravery and marketing.

The tools: when you give a kid a net connection, access to wikipedia and to the rest of the world, things change fast. Things you wouldn’t necessarily predict. Like a ten year old who can diagnose his dad’s illness. Or a farmer that can ask his daughter to find out where to get a new part for the tractor. Or…

The bravery: When Nicholas Negroponte and his team started this project, they had nothing but obstacles. The status quo of software and hardware and skeptics stood firmly in his way. And he took a lot of grief for the effort. Even when you’re doing nothing but good, fear of change is going to cause a lot of people to object.

The marketing: Everything, even laptops for kids, works its way through the innovation diffusion curve. That means that most countries, most organizations and most communities aren’t going to adopt this tool for a few years. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect… these things take time. Smart marketing embraces the curve and doesn’t insist that it must change for this project, right now.

One kid (or five kids) at a time. It’s enough. It’ll happen.

A great story

About leadership, brand, authenticity and acting small: Brand Autopsy: How Tiffany Saved Michael’s Life.

Thinking about Bizdev

Some ideas to get you started:

  1. Who goes first? Most biz dev is supplicant driven. You need a license or traffic or cooperation and you are forced to figure out who to call and to make your pitch. The posture of the licensor is to work to avoid trouble (saying "no" is always safe) or to maximize the money on the table (which kills the best deals.) What happens if the licensor turns it around? What happens if they proactively seek out aggressive, smart, successful organizations to run with their brand or property?
  2. Who lays out the deal? Most licensors are hesitant to offer a deal first, because if it’s accepted, they have to say yes. As a result, there’s a lot of fencing back and forth (sometimes this lasts for years… I’ve seen it many times). The most successful deals are the ones that are simple and quick. The goal isn’t to have the biggest piece of pie, it’s to have the biggest pie.
  3. How easy is it? You’d be amazed how many people will do a deal because it’s easy. Because they feel respected. Because they trust the other person. When you get all lawyered up on both sides, little good can come of it. If I were a bizdev person, I’d try to close every deal, yes or no, within a week. Even acquisitions.
  4. Who’s responsible? Disney says that they don’t test the toys with their name on them. Shame on them. The value of the license/traffic whatever goes up if the customer is treated well, so both sides need to be clear about what the standards are and both sides need to be on the same side when it comes to controlling and patrolling those standards.
  5. Is a big advance proof of good intentions? In the toy and apparel and book businesses, licensees usually indicate their aggressiveness and dedication with big advances. Ironically, the hits usually come from the stuff where the advance wasn’t so big. That’s because small (or no) advances encourage organizations to experiment and to promote without being in a defensive posture.
  6. Is it a waste of time? At the risk of contradicting some of the above, most biz dev deals are a total waste of time. That’s because they are safe, because they are either risk-free and boring or because they do nothing but leverage the existing brand without adding anything new. The question is still the same: "Is it remarkable?"
  7. Are you measuring? Bizdev can be pretty glamorous. But does it work or just make press releases? If you measure, you’ll know.

Business development

A friend of mine wears only Armani eye glasses.

Of course, the glasses aren’t actually made by Armani. Or, if you think about it, designed by him. Perhaps they’re sold by Armani stores, but I’d guess most of them are sold in stores that are totally unrelated to the company.

So what, exactly, explains the success of the line?

Licensing, affiliates, franchises, partnerships, traffic exchanges, joint ventures and co-promotions live in a netherworld. While they are all important marketing techniques, they often come under the rubric of business development, a department where there is little structure and few rules.

Bizdev is hard, but worth it. Hard because there’s no ‘retail’ deals. If I want to license the Armani name I can’t just pick up the phone, get a rate card and use it. No, it takes months or even years. In most cases, there isn’t even an easy way to figure out who to talk with.

So most marketers avoid it altogether. Don’t you think that Pop Tarts filled with Kraft cheese singles would be a hit? (They’d taste terrible, but kids and harried moms would go wild.) So why not a simple licensing deal or joint venture? Because there’s no such thing as simple in this industry.

Take a look at the growth of the web. Most companies end up doing it solo, when it would have been so much easier to grow in concert. My friend Dev worked on a company that figured it could make money on the click after you bought something from a store. That’s a wasted page anyway… you just finished buying, the page says thanks and you go somewhere else. Wouldn’t it be great to just put that page to work? Sure, but doing that deal isn’t so easy.

Next time you make a list of the top 10 things you can do to grow your organization, non-profit or cause, add bizdev to the list.

Data vs. Software

The last ten years online have been breathtaking, not because of software (which isn’t much better) but because the treasure trove of data keeps getting better and better. Wikipedia, all by itself, is worth the price of admission.

This site gives a glimpse of the amazing collection of fixes and addons you can find for Firefox and other browsers. I highly recommend it. I can only marvel, though at how hard it is to do some things online. Why can’t I, in one click, grab all the links on a page and save them as a text file?

While I’m at it, I think we’re on the edge of two big software breakthroughs. The first is programs that live on the web instead of your desktop (I know, we’ve heard a lot about how this is the next big thing, but it’s almost here) and second is in desktop software that is truly web-aware. That knows the definitions of words. That can update and correct and conform my address book. It’s all still lousy, all still in the dark ages, but there are glimmers of hope.

For now, the data is far far ahead of the tools.

PS Randy came through with the magic tweak I asked for above. Really nice of him, though of course it shouldn’t be bespoke! If it’s something you’ve been wanting to do, here’s how: First, make a bookmark. Second, go edit the bookmark by hitting "organize bookmarks". Change the URL to this: javascript:(function(){as = document.getElementsByTagName("a"); str =""; for (i=0; i<as.length; i++) { str += as[i].href+"<br>\n" }with(window.open()){document.write(str); document.close();}})()    that’s it, done. And Joost just sent a clickable version:  javascript:(function(){as=document.getElementsByTagName("a");str="<ul>";for(i=0;i<as.length;i++){str+="<li><a href="+as[i].href+">"+as[i].href+"</a></li>\n"}str+="</ul>";with(window.open()){document.write(str);document.close();}})() Whenever you hit that bookmark, it’ll open a new window with all your links on it.

Meatball Mondae (#2)

Talking ’bout a revolution…

Everyone studies the industrial revolution in school but most of us don’t really understand it. The basic idea, it seems, is that Henry Ford, Eli Whitney and some guy with rifles invented the assembly line and the whole world changed in about a week.

Actually, we’ve had several industrial revolutions over the last 250 years. While the assembly line, the invention of the corporation and improvements in transport appear to be the obvious causes, it’s easy to forget that in just a few generations we saw changes in every element of what it meant to be in business. Standardized quality control, innovative product design for utilitarian products, employees (!), branding, investment, advertising, insurance, product development… the list is miles long.

Why care?

Because just sixty years ago, there was another revolution. This one was caused by the triumph of mass marketing. General Foods, General Motors and the rest of the consumer-focused Fortune 500 are organized around a single idea: that efficient factories making average stuff for average people could triumph.

GM had a great run. So did tons of other companies. They figured out how to make stuff in large quantities. Run big factories. Hire and manage large numbers of people. The age of advertising ushered in a revolution that had more impact on organizations (and the planet) than any that came before it.

The Meatball Sundae is an idea that’s possibly even bigger than that one. When mass marketing dies, the future of the companies that embrace this approach dies too. We’re living through a wholesale change, but all most of us can do is worry about the color of the links on our blogs.

The Meatball Sundae has a subtle but subversive lesson: change the media, and the organizations change too. Kiva instead of the American Heart Association, Amazon instead of the local bookstore, MoveOn instead of the DNC.

We’re spending a ton of time arguing about tactics, social networks and adwords. Behind the scenes, an even bigger revolution is brewing. It’s the one where entire organizations change in response to the lever of the change in marketing. Henry Ford could have said, "we’re all manufacturers" and been right. Today, we can say, "we’re all marketers," and we will be just as right.

Every time the deck is reshuffled, the early players profit. You and I don’t have the chance to build a mass media company ever again. But every organization has the chance to reinvent and grow in the face of the huge opportunity today’s shift brings.

This sounds hard. It’s not. Once you understand the key forces at work (I figure there are about 14 of them) it’s actually easier to go with the flow than it is to fight it.

This is way too conceptual for a blog post or even a useful book, so I guess I’ll ask the question this way: If you were alive in 1947 and knew what you know now about the last sixty years of mass marketing, what would you have done? What would you have built? Was it just about making better TV commercials?

[This post continues from the first in the series. Each week, I’ll try to point to other blogs that riff on these thoughts. Last week’s: here and here and here.]