Archive for December, 2011

Santa 2.0

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

In the mid 80’s, when my dad got fed up with horrible rabbit ear reception for Cleveland Browns games, we got cable television. Glorious cable television! And after we smacked the side of the TV to make it display in colors other than shades of green, a whole world of video entertainment opened up to me. This included all three movies that were aired over and over and over again on HBO. One of which was the classic War Games. In the movie, Matthew Broderick’s character finds a backdoor into a military computer allowing him to hack in and play a game called Global Thermonuclear War. However, the game isn’t what he thinks. It really leads military monitors at NORAD to believe the United States is actually going to war with the Soviet Union.

While the film provides us with a somewhat happy non-apocalyptic ending, it does play on the Cold War tropes of the end of the world through nuclear war and genius child hackers using computer technology that looks like a Commodore 64 attached to a 8-track tape player. It was also my first experience with the idea of NORAD and the utilization of emerging technology. Fortunately for us today, our experiences with NORAD and computers are significantly more positive than the impending doom portrayed in that classic film.

Unless you are living under a rock, or maybe under an old Motorola Razr, you are probably aware of NORAD’s annual Santa Tracker which provides up-to-the-minute updates on Santa’s trek around the globe to deliver presents. I suspect there is a GPS unit inside Rudolph’s nose, but that’s probably a conspiracy best left undiscussed like Area 51. The Santa Tracker idea started in 1955 with a fortuitous accident. A local newspaper ran a Sears ad with a phone number to call Santa, except it was off by a digit leading children to dial up military personal expecting to hear about an attack on America and not an attack on holiday gift giving. For more information about this wonderful story, I highly recommend Daniel Terdiman’s CNET article, Behind the scenes: NORAD’s Santa tracker.

From phone calls in the 1950’s to the digital communication of today, the Santa tracking program has exploded to include with video and Google Maps integration, a NORAD Facebook page which caused me to lose at least fifteen minutes of work productivity (sorry boss), a Smartphone app, and of course in my wheelhouse @NoradSanta on Twitter. All that’s missing is the API integration allowing Santa to check in to Foursquare all over the world, but only at “nice” locations.

My wife and I don’t have children, so our Christmas morning revolves around sipping coffee with Bailey’s, wrangling the cat into an elf costume, and pelting her with catnip filled mice until she gets worked up enough to attack the tree (my wife, not the cat). So pretty normal behavior for a couple of adults during the holiday season. While we won’t be glued to the computer getting updates on Santa’s location, this doesn’t mean that the tracker isn’t the coolest thing since sliced cheese. If you have little ones, I highly recommend you spend some time interacting with NORAD’s Santa tracker because at minimum it will help you get them nestled in their beds at a reasonable hour.

It’s interesting that in 1955 no one would have thought to call this a viral campaign. But in reality, no matter what your online interactions are, you never know how an accident can turn into something truly successful and positive, like bringing in nearly two thousand volunteers to work with the people who spend their days at one of the most important military installations in the United States.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a dial-up modem so I can play a game of chess.


Let Me Google That Sweater For You

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

I’ll be upfront about two things in this blog post. One, I don’t know the first thing about search engine marketing. Two, I sadly do not have my own ugly Christmas sweater. But if you put a discussion of both of these things together in one blog, I’m probably going to read it. This morning it actually happened when I came across an article from Multichannel Merchant about paid search results and ugly sweaters.

A little background – the closest thing I have to a holiday sweater is a dark green wool one I bought back in 1998. I love this sweater. Despite the worn spots on the elbows and the random holes in it, I’ll probably wear it until my wife insists I burn it, or someone furtively sneaks into my closet and makes it “disappear” Godfather-style (think of waking up one morning with just a sleeve in the bed). Beyond that, my holiday-sweater experience is limited to what Hollywood believes flyover country people wear everyday in the winter, my mom’s appliqué holiday sweatshirts, and that freaky clown sweater Wil Wheaton was photographed wearing. An informal, yet scientific poll of the three people on Twitter who responded to my inquiry reports that 66% of people own ugly Christmas sweaters because they get invited to ugly sweater holiday parties. However, 33% of people do seem to enjoy the sweaters simply for their festive nature.

To get back to the point at hand, Google search activity for “Christmas Sweater” and “Ugly Christmas Sweater” has increased since 2008, which may be when American hipsters decided that you could wear festive sweaters ironically with skinny jeans. Because of that, different companies have come up with web advertising search strategies to take advantage of the annual spike in interest. In particular, the article discusses six companies using paid search to target those looking for such a sweater. Four of these companies then link to their Christmas sweaters. The other two don’t link to a googly-eyed Santa staring out into the holiday expanse; in fact they don’t even sell something in a wool or poly-cotton blend. The strategy of the latter companies not even selling Christmas sweaters is what interests me. For the person searching, it must be like going to the vending machine for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and finding only off-brand bags of party mix. Or even worse, looking for a new and amazing brunch spot in the Twin Cities and getting ads for a gas station breakfast sandwich — a somewhat acceptable substitute, if you are willing to leave your pride at home. Is the short term benefit from purchasing unrelated search for non-existent products worth the long-term potential hit of turning off customers?

This leads me to the essential question the author, Tim Parry, asks: “Is this a good practice because it blocks retailers that sell Christmas sweaters from getting visibility, or is it a bad practice because the consumer clicks and doesn’t get a Christmas sweater?”
Most of my holiday shopping is done at the panicked last minute. I can just imagine my frustration if I were to use Google to search for that much needed holiday sweater shipped second-day air, but instead was led to one of these companies that had no holiday sweaters at all. I highly doubt that my heart would grow three sizes that day. Rather, I’d probably hurl a few choice words about these companies at my cat, who would just shrug and continue to groom herself. In other words, paying for ads with search terms not specifically related to what you are selling seems a bit disingenuous.
I don’t know that I’d call this paid search tactic deceptive, but it certainly isn’t the type of thing I’d want to experience as I make a mad dash from website to website trying to find the perfect mix of functional, festive, wooly and ugly. But if it actually works, I doubt you can blame companies for using the marketing tactic.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a bright red tie that plays Jingle Bells.


Have Yourself a Merry Little Facebook

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Between the dining room and living room in my grandparents’ old house there was a white arch. Every holiday season, that arch would be covered from top to bottom on both sides with holiday cards. Decked out in vivid greens, reds and whites, with religious symbolism or irreverent reindeer, cards would travel from as far away as Arizona and as close as down the street to end up taped to my grandmother’s arch. Growing up, seeing all those cards from people I knew, or possibly would never meet, was as comforting as the baked ham and cheesy potatoes we’d eat for Christmas dinner. Those cards were a tangible, physical reminder of the many people my family could call friends and loved ones.

As I moved around in my twenties and early thirties, I lost track of that feeling. I had forgotten how nice it is to receive a simple reminder in the mail. Now, we send eCards for birthdays, and the Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn and “OH MY LORD I can’t ever get away from you people” nature of Social Media, the perception of the value from sending a piece of mail has been diminished. Instead of cards taped to an arch, we have fleeting “happy birthday” posts on a Facebook wall, or an online photo album of pictures we won’t ever remember to check. The reality is, while we are constantly warned that what you post to social media sites will be out there forever, well wishing messages on Social Media sites are fleeting.

Which is why I was surprised that an unlikely source, the Social Media blogging platform Tumblr, was what reminded me about the value of simply getting something in the mail. This time last year, I was gearing up for a trip to England with my wife for a wedding. As part of that, I dropped a quick note to some of my Twitter/Tumblr internet connections asking if they’d like a postcard. I was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive response. So I collected the addresses and carried with them me across the pond.

I spent a cold and snowy day in Cambridge reliving the semester I spent there in college and in the early afternoon, nipped into a warm pub next to a roaring fire to write my postcards over a pint of beer. Shortly after my messy scrawl filled the back of pictures of Cambridge, I dropped the cards off at a post office and promptly forgot about them.

Much to my surprise, shortly after returning from my trip, several of my internet friends had posted pictures of the postcards I sent them. Many had been stuck on the fridge with a magnet or taped to a mirror. It was a simple reminder that someone had made more of an effort to make a human connection with them than just some translated ones and zeros on a monitor. And there’s a lot of value in that.

I recently joked that if every man, woman and child sent something like eighty additional postcards a year that we’d have the USPS budget shortfall taken care of pretty quickly. While that’s never going to happen, I’m going to try and do my part. Not because of any intellectual reason, but rather because postal mail means something more to people. My wife and I have moved well past fifty on our holiday card list and hopefully some of those cards will end up taped to a white arch as a simple reminder that my wife and I care.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go fight with the mail merge function in Word to get my address labels printed.