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Bravery and Wall-e

At every turn, Pixar messed up the marketing of their new movie. It has a hard to spell name, no furry characters, not nearly enough dialogue (the first 45 minutes is almost silent), no nasty (but ultimately ridiculous) bad guy, hardly any violence and very little slapstick. Wall-e didn’t get a huge Hollywood PR campaign or even a lot of promotion, it doesn’t feature any hot stars and as far as I can tell, the merchandising options are quite limited.

Can you imagine the meetings?

Can you imagine the yelling?

Pixar, recently purchased by Disney, could crank out multi-billion dollar confections. They know all the moves, they have the chops to create merchandising powerhouses. And with just one movie a year, they certainly must have been under huge pressure to do just that.

And yet, instead, they make a great movie. A movie for the ages. A film, not 90 minutes of commerce.

The irony, of course, is that they’ll make plenty of money. Bravery often pays off, even if paying off is not your goal. Especially if that’s not your goal.

Marketing isn’t always about pandering to the masses and shooting for the quick payoff. Often, the best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing at all.

The magic of low-hanging fruit

Imagine that half the cars in the US get 10 miles per gallon. And half get 40 miles per gallon. Further stipulate that all cars are driven the same number of miles per year.

Now, you get one wish. You can give every low-mileage car a new set of spark plugs that will increase fuel efficiency by 5 mpg, up to 15. Or you can replace every 40 mpg car with a car that gets 75 mpg, an increase of 35 miles for every gallon driven.

Which is better?

It turns out that the 5 mpg increase is far better for overall mileage than the 35 mpg increase, even though it’s smaller both as a percentage and absolutely. That’s because the 10 mpg hogs use up so much gas. They’re the low-hanging fruit, not just easy to fix, but worth fixing.

As marketers, we’re tempted to tweak the already tweaked, to turn the 100 to 101, to optimize for the peak performances. That long tail is very long, though, and if there’s a way you can raise the floor (instead of just focusing on the ceiling) you may be surprised to discover that it can have a huge impact.

Simple example: It’s way more profitable to encourage each of your existing customers to spend $3 than it is to get a stranger to spend $300. It’s also more effective to get the 80% of your customer service people that are average to be a little better than it is to get the amazing ones to be better still.

How to organize the room

One more post about conferences. (Except it’s really about any meeting).

Easily overlooked, but incredibly important: the way you arrange the room where people speak.

The venue owner (hotel/convention center) wants something easy. Your boss wants something cheap. You want something tried and true so you don’t get blamed. The end result?
Mediocrity. Boring sameness. What a wasted opportunity.

In the scheme of things, a great room at a conference is a bargain. Spending what it takes to make it work has a huge payoff. That said, here are some thoughts:

“What does this remind me of?”

That’s the subliminal question that people ask themselves as soon as they walk into a room. If it reminds us of a high school cafeteria, we know how to act. If it’s a bunch of round tables set for a chicken dinner, we know how to act. And if there are row upon row of hotel-type chairs in straight lines, we know how to sit and act glazed.

If it’s a place where we’re used to saying ‘no’, we’re likely to say no. If it’s a place where we’re used to good news or important news or just paying attention, we’ll do that.

You can use this Pavlovian reaction to your advantage, or you can be a victim of it. A non-traditional arrangement can make people sit up and take notice. A rock concert feel is going to raise the energy level of even the skeptics. A circle with no tables makes people feel naked. These are tools, and you get to choose.

If you have to serve lunch, serve lunch. Big round tables, lots of talking. Then have people stand up and go hear the speaker. In a different room, with a different setting, one that works. No one ever heard a speech that changed their lives when sitting around a round table having just eaten a lousy lunch. Mixing the settings serves no purpose, wastes time in the long run and saves very little money.

Do you see that this is just more marketing? You tell a story with where you put the chairs.

If you could do one thing, make one choice, it should be this: make the room too small. Standing room only. People hanging into the hall. Watch what happens to your energy level.

If you’re speaking TO people as opposed to encouraging a wide ranging discourse, put the stage along the narrow wall of the room. (in a 30 by 80 room, that means the 30 side). Making the room narrow and long is far better than wide, because it puts the audience in the plane of the speaker.

This also makes it far easier for the audience to see the speaker and the slides/screens at the same time. This is critical. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people stare at the screen and avoid the speaker, or find themselves bouncing back and forth.

iMag: That’s the projection of the speaker on the screen. This is pretty expensive, but for groups over 500, it’s almost mandatory in our 1984-esque world. If you want to get far more bang for your buck, hire a second cameraman, with a hand held camera. When you switch from one view to the other, you add enormous action to the event.

Screens: Big screens are a lot more reasonable than they used to be. Get the absolute biggest and brightest you can afford. Bigger! Big screens, near the speaker. Really close to the speaker. That’s a big help for the audience and for your energy.

VGA cables: Have more than one. Switchers are cheap. Nothing worse than having speakers stumbling around swapping laptops. And put the cables and the laptops up front, not in back to be controlled by a tech guy who doesn’t care quite as much as you (or the speaker) does.

Music: Every time you introduce a speaker, play loud and inspiring pop music. Not for long, but enough to cue people to remember the way they feel at the Oscars and stuff. After all, those memes are there waiting for you to leverage them.

Marching bands: Yes, they’re cheap. No, people don’t like them particularly. I’ve seen this done a number of times, and people are more amazed and aghast than impressed.

Aisles: Watch a room fill up. People always sit on the aisle, don’t they? Don’t do rows of 40 or 50 chairs with no aisle. Have lots of aisles. Every ten chairs or so. Why not? Makes it faster to get in and to get out, and doesn’t hurt your density so much.

Lights: Make it dark in the audience. Make it light on stage. This works every time. Practice the lighting in advance, even for a smaller group.

Q&A: For large groups, don’t do Q&A. It sucks all the energy out of the room and stilts the end, “Well, if there are no more questions…” Instead, solicit questions from key people in advance, write them on index cards and have someone raring and ready to go with a microphone and a finite list of questions, bang, bang, bang. It’s not a press conference, it’s a speech.

Small groups: Even groups of two–don’t go along with a lousy setting just because that’s what is offered to you. Why would you pitch yourself or your project in a noisy restaurant, seated on a banquette, with one person on your left and two on your right? Don’t do it.

If you are using a laptop for a small group, get one with a big screen. Get a simple USB remote. Don’t use live web access if at all possible. And make sure that the right person sees the screen (and you) at the same time. If you can’t do these things, don’t use the laptop.

If you’re willing to travel to meet with someone, put in the extra effort to do it in a setting that works. Befriend the admin, befriend the maitre d, even from 1,000 miles away. Both you and the person you’re meeting with benefit when you create a room that works.

Five easy pieces

You really don’t understand a concept until you know what it’s made of. The taxonomy of marketing (filled with a bazillion tactics) is murky at best. The tactics are so numerous, expensive and sometimes emotional that we easily focus on the urgent instead of the important. Perhaps we could try a different approach:

Never mind the "P"s. Marketing has five elements:
Products (services)

DATA is observational. What do people actually do? Wal-Mart uses data to decide if an end cap is working. Google Adwords advertisers use data to decide which copy delivers clicks and sales. The library can use data to decide which books to buy (and not to buy). Paco Underhill uses data to turbo charge retail. Data is powerful, overlooked and sometimes mistaken for boring. You don’t have to understand the why, you merely need to know the what.

STORIES define everything you say and do. The product has a myth, the service has a legend. Marketing applies to every person, every job, every service and every organization. That’s because all we can work with as humans is stories. I want to argue that data and stories are the two key building blocks of marketing–the other three are built on these two.

PRODUCTS (and services) are physical manifestations of the story. If your story is that you are cutting edge and faster/newer/better, then your products better be. Average products for average people is a common story, but not one that spreads. When in doubt, re-imagine the product. Push it to be the story, to live the story, to create a myth.

INTERACTIONS are all the tactics the marketer uses to actually touch the prospect or customer. Interactions range from spam to billboards, from the way you answer the phone to the approach you take to an overdue bill. Interactions are the hero of marketing, because there are so many and most of them are cheap. Unfortunately, all lazy marketers can do is buy ads or spam people. Which creates an interaction that belies your story, right?

CONNECTION is the highest level of enlightenment, the end goal. Connection between you and the customer, surely, but mostly connection between customers. Great marketers create bands of brothers, tribes of people who wish each other well and want to belong. Get the first four steps right and you may get a shot at this one.

Some questions marketers must ask: Does this interaction lead to connections? Do our products support our story? Is the story pulling in numbers that demonstrate that it’s working?

In that light, what are you working on? If it’s not one of these five, not going to seriously change the dynamic of your marketing, why exactly are you bothering?

My guess is that your organization spends almost all of its time on the interactions. Once you see the world through the prism of the five pieces, you can get in balance. Or, you could be Jack.

Learning from frustration

I’m moving this week (new mailing address: Box 305, Irvington, NY 10533).

That meant a grueling marathon with the single worst voice routing VR system the world has ever known: Verizon.

Rants online can be good for the soul, but it’s way more interesting as a marketer to learn from what’s not working.

Most often, a frustrating situation is frustrating not because the tactics were broken, but because the strategy is fundamentally flawed. In this case, Verizon is acting like a monopoly (they’re not, at least not any more) and they are viewing customer interactions as an expense, not an investment.

If you view calls from paying customers as expensive, then your goal will be to cut the cost of these interactions. That means fewer hours, more voice recognition and more wasted time by your customers. Once you’ve gone down that road, everything else seems like a soft-hearted, expensive compromise.

So, I start by flipping this on its head. Verizon spends a fortune on advertising and outbound marketing. How much of that budget would they have to allocate/invest in order to turn their customer service into a discussion-worthy best in the world? Or at least enough to keep people from switching in disgust? Not much, it turns out.

This leads quite easily to the first conceptual breakthrough: waste your time, not mine! Be open 24 hours a day, because, after all, the amount of customer service you need to do doesn’t decrease if you work fewer hours. In other words, spread your people around so they can talk when your customers want to talk.

Wait, you say, we can’t afford to have our trained engineers working at night, or they won’t work those hours.

No problem. Instead of using a VR system, just route the calls to a different time zone, to alert, kind, English-speaking folks who will carefully enter every detail into a database,  including the return contact info and the best time to call back.

Now, when I call, I spend less than a minute or two with you. The phone is answered on the first ring. Someone sympathetic gets every single detail. Magically, using the best technologies of telemarketing, my cell phone rings at the appointed hour and the right person with the right expertise and the right file in front of them is sitting at the other end, just waiting to talk with me! Instead of wasting my energy with six (yes, I had six, and that was just today) people who couldn’t help me, I get to talk to one who can. In fact, this process actually saves Verizon money.

Wait, there’s more.

We need deadend safeguards, too. That means after someone has been on hold for more than xx minutes, the call automatically gets escalated to a more powerful person who can take action right then, right there. (Can you agree that this should happen after 4 hours? What about 40 minutes?)

It means that you don’t ask me to type in my phone number or account number, but if you insist, then at the very least you make sure that the person who eventually gets my call doesn’t ask me for my number again! Getting this wrong for three years in a row is not an error. It’s arrogance.

If you have to put me on hold, don’t play bad 1980s music. Play me Bill Cosby or Steven Wright. Or why not give me a choice of 100 songs/audiobooks to choose from?

Here’s the big lesson, I think: The person calling in is a person, a customer, potentially a blogger, potentially the CEO of a company you might want to sell to tomorrow, and yes, the person you’ve spent all that time and money marketing to.

It’s not about technology. A small firm could accomplish all this with a decent Radio Shack answering machine and a better attitude.

One swell foop

It’s not very often you hear people use the word "fell" without the obligatory "swoop", but the combination is common enough that we all know what it means.

Except it rarely happens.

We expect that a big marketing campaign can fix our market share problems in one fell swoop.

Or that a consultant can reorganize our operation and get it working again in one fell swoop.

Or that a new product launch is only a swoop away from setting things right.

Of course, that’s not what happens. It’s more like 35 semi-fell swoops that do the trick. And deep down, we realize that.

But, now that we’ve said it out loud, now that you acknowledge that you’re going to need 35 web visits or permission-based emails or 35 different conference appearances or 35 blog posts or whatever, drip, drip, drip… if you know that you need 35, not one, how would write/appear/act differently?

A foop is different than a bang.

Saying thanks in a conference presentation

I hear quite a few presentations given at conferences. Approximately 5% of the official welcome speech consists of a litany of thanks. The organizer is busy thanking the committee that handled the arrangements, the sponsors, the executive director, the tireless volunteers. I’ve heard people try hard to read the names superfast, or really slowly, or mumble through them…

Not only is this a total waste of time for most attendees, it doesn’t even satisfy the core objective, which is thanking and rewarding the folks who helped. And it certainly doesn’t encourage others to look forward to helping out.

The list is impossible to remember, said too fast and dull.

The solution is pretty simple, thanks to Powerpoint and digital cameras.

Prepare for the talk by taking pictures of each person. If they’re shy, you can even do photographs in groups of two or three. Good photos, clever photos, funny photos… photos that are interesting are best.

Then, create a new presentation. Put each photo on its own slide, preferably with a well designed ID below it (it should be on a black box, with a nice sans serif font reversed out. Like you see on cable TV news.)

String one after the other. Build a dissolve transition between each one. Program it to put up a new slide every two seconds–don’t go too slow!–and to loop the presentation.

Ten minutes before you’re due to start, while everyone is finding their seats, run the presentation. It’ll cycle 5 or 10 times before you start speaking. When you get up, start your presentation and just dive into the meaty stuff.

Every single person you feature will be famous! "Hey, I saw you in that loop!"

And you won’t have wasted your valuable presentation time.

Simple conference idea

At the next conference you run, allocate an hour for table sessions.

Divide the number of attendees by 10. That’s how many tables of ten you need. Give each table a theme or topic (entrepreneurship, shoe collectors, whining about the economy, whatever). Post the themes online for people to sign up in advance for each table. First come first served, you don’t get to see who’s at the table till you get there.

A month after the conference, do you think people will remember the table where they spent an hour? When you force people through mild social anxiety, they thank you for it later.

[Thanks, Kip, for the germ of this idea].

No such thing as price pressure

Your sales force and your customers may scream that you need to lower your price.

It’s not true.

You need to increase your value. If people don’t want to pay, it’s because you’re not delivering enough value for the money you’re charging.

You’re not selling a commodity unless you want to.

Random thoughts about the Kindle

Might be of interest to investors, readers, writers, designers, marketers, etc. Or not…

Two months ago, I got a Kindle. It’s a fascinating device, unlike almost any other launched by a significant tech company. Here’s why:

1. It’s for women and women
are buying it. The bestseller list of Kindle titles is much less
tech-heavy than Amazon’s list was in the early days of the web. An
Oprah book is #1. And the colors and feel of the machine don’t feel
like the current uber-geek tech dream device.

This is a fascinating strategy. It means that typical technology
marketing and adoption strategies aren’t in play, since most tech
devices go after nerdy men. It means a slower start (since paying $400
for technology is a stretch unless it’s your passion) but also possibly
a much bigger finish.

2. I just got rid of 3,000 books in preparation for an office move.
That’s two decades worth of reference books. I realized that most of
the books I bought I didn’t use any more (thanks to wikipedia and
google) and that buying books in anticipation of giving them to someone
else was generous but not actually happening in practice. For the tiny
slice of readers that account for a huge pile of book sales (300 books
a year adds up), moving those purchases to the Kindle is smart for
Amazon and smart for the reader.

3. It changes (at least for me) what it means to buy and own a book.
Delivery is very fast, and I feel a lot less badly about stopping a
book on page 10 if it doesn’t interest me (sunk costs should be
ignored, but that’s hard to do–if a book’s not worth reading, one should stop). As a writer, this raises the bar even
further in terms of keeping people with me past chapter one if they’re
using this device.

4. The Kindle does a fine job of being a book reader, and a horrible
job of actually improving the act of reading a book. This is a surprising
design choice, I think, and a mistake. Here are three simple examples
of how non-fiction books on the Kindle could be better, not just
cheaper and thinner:

–Let me see the best parts of the book as highlighted by thousands of other readers.
–Let me see notes in the margin as voted up, Digg-style, by thousands of other readers.
–Let me interact with hyperlinks and smart connections not just within the book but across books

I can think of ten others, and so can you. Instead of making this a
dead end (like a book) they could have made it a connector (like the

Word processing didn’t work because it was typing but a little
cheaper. It worked because it was better than typing. Email didn’t work
because it was mail but a little faster. It worked because it was
fundamentally better than snail mail…

5. The pricing of books is whacked. $9.95 is a publisher-friendly price, not an author-friendly or reader-friendly price.

My first thought is that every Kindle should ship with $1,000 worth
of free books on it. I offered Amazon rights to as many of my books as
I control if they would just agree to put em free on every Kindle. They
declined. I can think of a hundred authors who would be delighted to
put one or more of their backlist books in front of this book-hungry audience.

Once you have a device that lets you get any book in a few seconds,
one that eliminates both paper and inventory (the two enemies of every
publisher and bookstore) then the marginal cost of a book drops
dramatically. And as we learned at the iTunes store, when something
costs a buck, it’s a fundamentally different purchase than when it
costs $10 or $20.

The funny thing is: I’ve heard from a few publishers about my comment about pricing, and they’ve pointed out that authors would be hurt if the price was lowered, because, they argue, the royalties would go down. This is nuts, of course, because volume would go up, and the author percentage rate would go up as well (no paper costs to pay for). The power stays with the author, because the author is not a commodity.

Some publishers are worried that Amazon would get too much power if the Kindle succeeded. I think the power is going to continue to accrue to authors with direction connections to readers… that’s the real asset. Amazon doesn’t care which author sells, just as long as something sells.

What happens to reading habits when you can buy all the books you
want for $40 a month? What happens to book consumption when books
become social objects, commented upon by you and your participating
friends or network? The conversations surrounding books are often a prime driver behind book sales ("You haven’t read it yet?) and the conversation-enabled Kindle takes that to a whole new level.

How does a classroom or corporate book circle or book group change
when 20 or 50 people each spend a dollar or five dollars to engage in a
spirited device-based/book-based discussion around a big idea?

6. As an author, I won’t write directly for the Kindle until it has
a big audience and it offers more than just a linear reading
experience. When that happens, though, when thousands of writers start
using this portal to reach millions of readers, it becomes a killer
app. Not until then, though.

A lot has been written about how cool the screen is. It is cool. A
lot has been written about the offbeat interface (not so good) and the seamless
downloading (a wonder.) This is all irrelevant to me. What’s worth
commenting on is how close the Kindle comes to revolutionizing the way
ideas are sold and spread, and how short it comes out in the end (for now.) My bet is that this
is just round one. Round five could be/should be powerful indeed.