Archive for the ‘Direct Marketing’ Category

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Polls

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Much like a first date, on a work blog you should never talk about politics, religion or eat an entire rack of BBQ ribs (unless it’s a delicious meat blog). So this week, I’m not going to bury the lead. When doing a large statistical analysis of any dataset, it’s important to check your work. When examining language, tone and intent to make statistical projections about belief, it’s doubly important to make sure the work is done properly—to dig deeper than just the numbers. This is paramount when trying to appear as a trusted news source. On Tuesday, my Twitter feed was blowing up over a screenshot from MSNBC and then later an article called Social media analysis: At the keyboard, Americans slightly prefer Romney. Apparently, a Twitter parody account with over 32,000 followers is one of biggest positive influencers for Mitt Romney.

NBCPolitics.com examined over 2 million tweets and Facebook posts in an effort to analyze a wide number of people who take to their keyboards to share their political beliefs with the world between bags of Cheetos and reruns of Law and Order. As they explained, “Social media analysis is interested in capturing and reporting that structural divide, while controlled national polls have a different mission: capturing a representative sample that proportionally reflects all opinions.” As festive as that sounds, the intent is to look at what people are saying outside the structured polling environment to get another angle for understanding the presidential campaign. The results were interesting; where Obama may be leading in the national polls, Romney was found to be leading the positive sentiment charge on the Internet. From there, NBCPolitics.com provided a topic and keyword chart to help visualize the massive amount of data into bite sized chunks resembling a couple of Smurf everything bagels, and this is where things started to get really intriguing.

You don’t even need to look closely at either the Obama or Romney charts to see some odd results which begin with an “RT” (for the Twitter-uninitiated, RT means retweet or sharing of a tweet) and end with a twitter username. This means there are a high number of retweets for a small number of people who might be skewing the overall results—especially if one of those accounts is providing comedic value. In this case, one of the largest Romney topics is the TeaPartyCat political parody account from Twitter.

NBCPolitics.com doesn’t really get into an explanation of some of the topics displayed in the chart other than the very cursory “this candidate is smart,” or “I think they are electable,” or “I’m voting for cheese,” so they don’t give us a rationale why these oddball topics were uncovered. I suspect the rush to get the article out allowed for some freedom to ignore the topics they didn’t understand, much to my excitement because it gives me something to blog about. The mere fact that they describe their work by saying, “NBCPolitics.com’s analysis, by contrast, explores the actual content of what is being said, providing a glimpse at what issues are specifically driving people’s opinions,” is most ironic. Their social media analysis is a glimpse into the political discussion, but potentially a false one, since it fails to explain the anomalies in the data. As explorers of the social media frontier, no one is going to confuse them with Magellan. The amazing Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight does a much more thorough analysis of political statistics with a lot less total data, but more importantly he tries to explain the outliers when looking at polls and results. While Silver may be dealing with more traditional political polls, the point holds. Often times the outliers are just as telling as the information you expected to see.

Here is some speculation as to what is going on:

1. So many people are tweeting the words TeaPartyCat unrelated to the parody account that the results are accurate.
2. There are enough positive Romney statements in reply to TeaPartyCat that the replies outweigh the initial tweets.
3. People who feel positively about Romney are retweeting TeaPartyCat without realizing it’s a parody Account.
4. NBCPolitics.com didn’t spot-check the results.

While there are many people who associate with the Tea Party and find LOL Cats adorable, I don’t suspect the first two options are viable. We are all familiar with The Onion effect, where individuals share a story as true from the comedy newspaper, but I believe that impact is also minimal. I’d hazard a guess that NBC just has a glaring failure to review their work. If you go to the article and look at the positive discussion of Romney’s electability there are some expected keyword results like “moderate,” “smart” and “Romney2012.” All three of these terms make absolute sense when doing an analysis of this type. However, when you produce a chart of this size and one of the major results is “RT TeaPartyCat” and that term has no contextual relevance, one would expect them to dig a little deeper or at minimum explain why the topic appears as a major result. Especially when you look at the result from a political perspective and understand that Romney is unlikely the preferred candidate for the Tea Party, although he might be polling well for cats.

In my mind, these results don’t make sense. However, with a little spot checking on their part, they could have provided some really useful information. As we say around our office, ‘we need to make it easy to get right, and hard to get wrong.” However, when trying to formulate statistical arguments around language usage this mantra can be a challenge. Or as Bill Livingston, a favorite sports writer of mine said, “Empiricism, my friends, is a drag.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if my wife is going to finish that rack of ribs.

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Your Email Address Isn’t as Private as You Think

Monday, August 13th, 2012

It’s almost football season again. Crisp fall air, bright blue skies, half-grilled/half-frozen brats, cold beer and the slow march of despair from week one to week seventeen that every Cleveland Browns fan experiences—at least this year with the training camp injuries and suspensions, we’ll get a head start on that journey. It also means a plethora of unsolicited emails from companies who scraped my email address off the Cleveland Browns’ website to offer me a myriad of NFL branded products – ranging from the useful (inflatable tailgate chairs with TWO cup holders) to the obnoxious (officially licensed vuvuzela/cowbell combo instruments for the football fan you already hate). We understand that email marketing is an effective tool to reach potential targeted customers. But we also know that a Wild West mentality toward email addresses doesn’t benefit anyone who wants to sell their product, services or even candidate when there’s a high level of competition for audience’s eyeballs.

With that thought in mind, I was extremely disappointed to come across a Minnesota Public Radio article about our state’s Data Practices Act and the lack of privacy for email addresses. The Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA) deals specifically with access to government data and the presumption that government data is accessible to the people, much like a state level Freedom of Information Act. While I highly recommend everyone read and think about the article, the short summary is that an individual recently requested the email addresses of people from a number of cities who signed up to receive alerts about local government happenings. It revealed that based on the DPA, the information is considered public and cities are legally required to disclose the email addresses to the requestor. There’s only speculation as to why these email addresses have been requested. However, since the person asking for them is married to someone running for political office, campaigning is probably a safe assumption. But what if he wants to sell them? Or operate a very focused local phishing scam? Or in requesting all of those email addresses he is able to find the one he wants for other nefarious purposes? In this instance, I highly doubt that is the case. However, as Mat Honan discussed in Wired, it doesn’t take a whole lot of data for a pretty vicious hack to occur. If a previously undisclosed email address can be coupled with just a few other pieces of an individual’s data, a whole Pandora’s Box of private information can be opened up.

Now that I’ve gotten my scare tactics out of the way, this is really a question of state policy and its relationship to openness. One would hope our legislators would err on the side of caution when it comes to divulging people’s electronic information. That said, the reason we have the DPA is to prevent the government from hiding its doings from the public. Specifically then, legislators have chosen to exclude specific types of information as protected and then assume anything not explicitly protected is open for disclosure. That’s the rationale in this scenario, since personal email addresses aren’t excluded, they aren’t protected from DPA requests. Cities then have no choice but to comply with the DPA. So while I might wish the state would be judicious with access to personal data, there’s a very real reason the DPA supports the ability to disclose/supply more information rather than less. On one hand, it’s a question of privacy, on the other it really gets to the modern technology question of time, money, effort and accountability related to using government collected data. Let’s frame the problem this way. If I want to reach out to an entire community of people (say 5,000), there’s a cost associated with each attempt to contact every person. Be it making phone calls or the printing and postage expense to send a mail piece, there’s time, effort and money baked into each contact attempt. Email is a little different. If you are doing the deployment yourself, you have time and money spent on the software, designing the email and setting up the email list, but after that, costs drop significantly with each deployment. It’s a lot cheaper to send an email a day to a list for ninety days than it is to send a postcard daily over the same time period. It’s problematic. However, just because I want to get snow emergency notifications via email so my car isn’t towed, I don’t want to then expose my email address to any myriad of people with unknown other intentions.

While I certainly come down on the side of minimal disclosure when it comes to personal email addresses, there is some space for debate where it might be acceptable. I just can’t predict what that need might be–which is the crux of the problem where laws and policy lag behind technology.

If the courts haven’t decided if a Facebook “like” constitutes protected First Amendment speech, it’s easy to understand how complex it is to decide if signing up for snow emergency notifications or city council meeting agendas makes your email address public information. The solution isn’t simple and debate on the issue is essential to getting it right. However, in the meantime we shouldn’t just hand them out willy-nilly to anyone that asks. Unexpected benefits would be fantastic, but it hardly outweighs the inadvertent consequences that could come from disclosure.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to email a guy about the officially licensed Cleveland Browns mood rings (they are just a solid brown color designating sad resignation).

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It might be raining, but my teeth are sunny

Monday, July 16th, 2012

At some point during my glorious ten-day raincation in England, I received a voicemail on my cell phone from an Ohio dental company regarding open enrollment. After 15 minutes of dumb jokes to my wife about how ironic it was to get a call from a dental practice while I was in Britain, something struck me as odd. The call came from a North Carolina phone number, and it came to my cell phone that has a Cleveland area code. In other words, it violated the FTC’s Do Not Call policies because it clearly came from an autodialer hitting up all phone numbers by area code without any intelligence backing it. Naughty!

Now, next to clean teeth, nothing makes me smile more than when I don’t get unwanted solicitations on my cell phone. That said, the prospect of traveling over 700 miles for dental care is a little excessive, even for a sparkling smile. The call was annoying, but frankly I’m probably not going to report it to the FTC. What really stuck in my craw, or got my goat, or even shimmied my scarecrow, is that they assumed my interest in their offering was based solely on the area code of my phone and not my physical location—but more on that later.

Maybe I could head over to Cleveland to get my teeth cleaned before I hit up a Browns game. Then at least I could take advantage of the season ticket offer my wife got by phone a while back. She had purchased tickets to a Cleveland Browns game (I have the best wife ever) when we traveled home for Thanksgiving, which put us on the call list for season ticket campaigns even though we live in Minnesota. Now I love the Browns like Charlie Brown loves trying to kick a football, but I can’t afford to purchase season tickets and fly to every Browns game. I mean, I’m doing okay, but I’m no Mitt Romney. All of these instances exemplify the fact that these organizations failed to use geographic data from a prospect or customer’s address to refine their target audience.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, our historical assumptions about where someone may live are not necessarily still valid. I can call my parents on a phone with the same area code as theirs while no longer living close enough for surprise visits. I can also have four email addresses (or more depending on how many Facebook wants to give me without asking first) that are likely tied to my home address (or at least zip code) in some fashion – from buying things online to signing up for the Chicago Tribune so I can read Rex Huppke, America’s most beloved workplace columnist. With my cellphone, my physical address is even more intimately tied to my home address. The reality is that no matter where I am, if someone wants to market to me, there should be a home or business address associated with my account even if they aren’t going to send mail to me.

Reputable email marketing compilers, as well as telemarketing firms, typically have more than an email address or phone number when selling their services. It’s essential to include geography when determining who to call or email. We tend to think that because email is “cheap,” you can just send out a message to anyone and everyone and see what sticks. For some services that’s great, but if you want me to go see a Pixies concert in Toledo, you are wasting my time and your goodwill, and if you want me to see Nickelback anywhere, don’t hold your breath.

It’s important to think through a campaign and make sure you are reaching not only the right people, but the right people in the right location.  It isn’t hard to make that assumption and then you don’t end up trying to sell Chargers tickets to a Chiefs blogger who lives in Brooklyn.  I can’t think of any marketer that wants to see their multi-billion dollar organization making it into a blog because they failed to do the simple things during a marketing campaign.  Every marketing campaign needs to respect the importance of geographic data to be a success, or at least to ensure examples like this don’t end up being an educational tool for the rest of us.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take advantage of this great deal on a haircut and manicure in Peoria.

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This Blanket Has Klout

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

A little while ago Klout, an organization that scores individuals based on their perceived social media influence, changed their algorithm for measuring that influence. For two weeks or so after the change, the Social Media Gurus were abuzz blogging non-stop about how they were no longer going to spend any time talking or writing about Klout (and the irony of blogging about not blogging wasn’t lost on me). While there is a lot of excitement about using “Big Data” from social media to target potential customers, in reality, any tool that claims to measure social media influence is going to be fraught with problems and misconceptions about its value. There is an inherent struggle to interpret the massive amount of information being shared through mediums such as Twitter and Facebook, and contextualize the meaning of what is being said.

For example, Klout proposes that I am influential not only on topics such as humor and beer (no surprise there), but also tea, parties, and cats – which may actually categorize me as someone thirty years my junior, and a girl. While technology is helping us to slice and dice larger and larger volumes of data at an ever increasing rate, without the human impact of analysis, there will always be shortcomings to any system that purports to provide strong analysis of social media interactions. There should be excitement for marketers with services like Klout, but that energy needs to be tempered with an understanding that any information from “Big Data” is likely to be flawed because of the sheer volume of information processed and the inherent challenges of understanding it.

Klout’s premise is that social media has “democratized influence” and that applications like theirs can help you to isolate the appropriate influencers who can help drive a valuable return on marketing dollars. In other words, instead of wandering around in the dark sending messages to every potential customer, you can find key people on various social media platforms and let them do the heavy lifting for you.

Here’s one example of this mindset. I was recently offered a free fleece dog blanket from Subaru as a Perk from Klout. While I don’t own a dog, or a Subaru in which to comfortably place a dog on a fleece blanket, the intent was probably to get me talking about Subaru to the people I communicate with on social networks. So even though I didn’t get a blanket, here I am using this example, so I suppose it actually worked. Now can I retroactively have my blanket please? I know it isn’t a lucrative as the payout a vapid reality star gets to attend a party, but free stuff is free stuff.

So on one level, their marketing ploy worked even if I didn’t get a blanket. I had Subaru at the top of mind and told the story of how they wanted to give me a free doggie blanket to talk about them. Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of interaction on the Subaru twitter page and even a few conversations about the blanket. So for their organization, it makes sense to extend their marketing to reach out to influencers that aren’t engaged with their brand. However, for many businesses (especially smaller ones) this might not make sense. There’s significantly more value in reaching out to your own followers and creating positive shared experiences than in trying to reach out to people who aren’t already willing advocates of your brand. When planning a marketing campaign, it’s easy to get distracted by the new, bright and shiny toy and ignore what has already made your organization successful.

It's unbelievable that EMF still exists.

I speak from experience when I say I’ve reached out to companies on Twitter, said positive things and they haven’t felt the need to respond. While on the other hand, I had a one-hit wonder band comment to me humorously after I made a dumb joke about them (EMF for those of you old enough to remember them). So the question is: how many times can you ignore your “arbitrarily calculated” influential customers on a social media platform while spending money encouraging new influencers to promote your brand? I think the example from Subaru, being heavily invested in responding to their customers, seems to be the exception to the way many organizations treat Twitter and Facebook. Am I more likely to keep saying nice things about companies or organizations that make me feel good in return, or will I just give up? If you are serious about growing your business outside of traditional or historical marketing channels, you need to evaluate your customer acquisition strategies beyond the latest and greatest product a social media company is trying to sell you, and look at people who already appreciate your organization enough to want to engage you on one of the many social media platforms.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a Corgi and a Forrester so I’ll have a place to keep my new fleece blanket.

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2880 Minutes of Silence

Monday, January 16th, 2012

We were somewhere northbound on Minnesota Highway 61, of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, when I posted a photo to Twitter of me at an ice bar enjoying a frosty beverage and shivering. Shortly after that picture, I went silent for nearly forty-eight hours. As we continued our drive north to the Bearskin Lodge, our cellular reception slowly faded. When we got so close to Thunder Bay, Ontario that my Blackberry actually went on international roaming, I did the unthinkable and shut it off for the weekend. My wife and I had joined eleven of our friends for a ski weekend in Northern Minnesota, and while the idea of propelling myself forward on fiberglass sticks at death-defying speeds wasn’t compelling for me, the opportunity to jab my wife with the pointy end of a pole was appealing enough to make me unplug from the electronic world for a weekend.

Those are not cell towers in disguise.

I wasn’t technically shut off from the electronic world. While there was no cellular service in our location in Superior National Forest, we did sort of have internet. The lodge had a satellite connection that was on such a tight bandwidth restriction that half of one “cat playing a piano video” would max out the connection for the day. Seeing as I didn’t want to be the cause of a digital Tragedy of the Commons, I turned the Wi-Fi off on my phone and didn’t turn it on again until the drive home on Sunday.

Instead, I talked with people. I laughed and drank a few beers. I hiked and played broomball and did the sorts of things I did before social media became such a large part of my life. To be honest I had an easier time staying unplugged from Twitter for forty-eight hours than some folks had going thirty minutes without asking me if I could survive forty-eight hours without Twitter. It was a relaxing weekend, and a nice reminder of the value of getting away from the non-stop, always on, post-modern world of being connected to everyone all the time. It was nice to escape the Pavlovian response of checking my Blackberry every time that little red notification light starts flashing like someone just tucked a hockey puck into the back of the net.

While I didn’t actually have a life altering epiphany while I was away in the woods, it was really nice to get away from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Gmail for a weekend and it really did allow me to recharge my batteries—of course that could just be the wicked bump on the back of my head from a particularly vicious fall during Saturday night’s broomball game. Either way, there’s something to be said for shutting it down for a few hours here and there to regain perspective on what is really important. It isn’t always about personal branding development while measuring the ROI based on cross-platform, value-added, thinking outside the box, content creation. Sometimes, it’s about getting a really bad night’s sleep on a tiny bed and spending some time talking to people without a computer screen as an intermediary.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I realized the value of this ethos as I trudged alone through the snowy woods on Saturday. It wasn’t the thick wool socks and gloves, nor the Thinsulate boots and coat, or even the fleece lined hat keeping me warm. It was the burning embers of desire to have a loved one suffering with me out on the trails protecting me from the cold. In other words, one man’s harrowing tale of being in a world without electronic communications is another man’s story of growing a lumberjack beard, reading Walden and coming to the realization of what is really important—having your loved one be just as miserable as you. Honestly, based on how lost I was using the lodge map, a GPS unit would have been nice as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go post a bunch of photos of my trip to Facebook because sometimes even new habits die hard.

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I Like You Is the New I Love You

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

“Will they or won’t they get together?” It’s a theme Hollywood has built an empire on and then ground to dust by the fourth season when every dedicated fan pleads “just get them together already.” By that point, most of us are wishing the show would end in a dramatic series of events like Romeo and Juliet. Just give us some finality to the story so we can get back to giggling manically at people getting hit by large padded swinging objects on Wipeout (Note: I don’t actually watch Wipeout, but I do make my wife replay the commercials over and over and over again). However, it’s the magic words “I love you” that drives the audience to wait for the big payoff. Those words reward the time and effort involved in watching twenty-two episodes and approximately 15 hours of insurance commercials a year just to see the main characters ride off into the sunset together. It’s the validation we’ll be rewarded with a happy ending rather than a conclusion of tragic love we learned about while drooling through the Shakespeare unit in high school English.

In social media, “like” has replaced “love” within the context of emotional validation. Like my Facebook update. Star my Tweet. Heart my Tumblr post. +1 my Google+ +thingy. Review my restaurant on Yelp. Check into my store on FourSquare. Enjoy my bamboo on Pandabook. Despise my minions on EvilGenuisSpace. It’s enough to give anyone validation exhaustion. It’s especially tiring when businesses expect it from us rather than friends or family and they are simply looking for the unrequited type of love.

“I’m the top garbage disposal distributor in the Northern Midwest Southeastern Region; follow me on Facebook to learn more.”

“We’ll cut your cat’s bangs just the way you want ‘em. We are the Twin Cities top hair salon for pets. Learn more on Twitter!”

It isn’t so much the volume of companies that want you to like them, it’s the volume of companies that want you to like them but fail to provide any value in return. Generally it’s repetitive status updates sharing a website link or the exact same tweet every day. Maybe it works for your business or maybe the one-way street method of communication is being ignored by current customers, or worse being passed over by your potential customers. While the tenants of direct marketing still apply to social media, it isn’t as tangible or front of mind as mailing a coupon. While I always have Twitter in hand (thanks to my smartphone), I don’t remember marketing messages for long. If your tweet doesn’t have an immediate impact, I’ve already moved on to the next one. I’ve probably thought a hundred times that something is cool, but it doesn’t stick in my head for more than five minutes because I’m not really engaged.

Social media needs to be interactive. You need to “like” your customers as much as you want them to “like” you. We can’t all be selling Ding Dongs or sneakers or the world’s most amazing fish tacos that can drive an unrequited relationship without customer interaction. So if you want to be successful on social media, you need to give your customers a reason to like you, and more often than not, it’s by letting them know that you like them too. I may have grown up in a Sam and Diane Cheers world, but I know Sam would have moved on to someone else well before the surprise end of season four. It’s the same thing for businesses. If you don’t give your potential fans or followers a reason to like you, they’ll pass you right over for someone else. If social media is a part of your marketing efforts, make sure you are directing those efforts in the right place—meeting your customer’s needs.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to get my cat’s hair cut before her audition for Feline Wipeout.

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Hairless QR Codes

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

The six of you that faithfully read this blog may remember that last summer I traveled to New York and was inundated with QR codes and felt the need to share my disappointing experience at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve thought a lot about QR codes since then, but didn’t feel compelled to write about them (there’s enough hyperbole being typed about them already) until a coworker sent me an interesting article from Shelly Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. QR in the New Year? is worth a read if only to get a thoughtful story beyond the statistics and rationale for using QR codes.

Her results, much like my experiences as an end user, were mixed. She explains, “So, I think what we end up with is simply a project that isn’t an overwhelming success or failure.” That’s a pretty blah result and hardly a motivation to keep plugging away with the effort involved to manage information for the mobile market. So if her results were mediocre with a concerted effort to make them useful to the museum consumer, why are they being slapped on everything from rental cars to bald spots? Okay maybe not bald spots yet, but if Google Earth is looking to advertise, I’ve got a large available space. Call me.

I can just see the meeting right now.

“Hey Bob, what do you know about QR codes?”

“Not much, but I hear the kids love them as much as they love the Twitter.”

“Well, we don’t have a budget for it, but let’s slap a bunch of them on our marketing materials and have ‘em link back to the main page of our website. It’ll be great!”

Six months later they don’t understand why people aren’t scanning them.

A new article from BizReport explains how people are interacting with QR codes and they found the following scan rates. “Newspapers and magazines are where most QR Codes are being found and scanned (35%) followed by on packages (18%) and on websites (13%). Surprisingly few were scanned from billboards (11%) or a piece of direct mail (11%).”

This makes sense to me, but the one I don’t get at all is the 13% that scanned on websites. If you are sitting at a desktop, laptop or using a tablet, why in the world would you whip out your mobile device to scan a QR code on a website to see a smaller version of where you already are? It would be like printing a tiny map on a highway sign. I don’t quite understand the logic there. When I was in New York City, I struggled getting a good angle to scan a billboard QR code, and if they were implemented on roads Burma Shave style, I’d be concerned about people accidently mowing down cows that have liberated themselves from an idyllic Midwestern pasture. According to Ad Age, some of the other interesting places QR codes have appeared are in the subway (with no cell reception) and on in-flight magazines where even Alec Baldwin isn’t allowed to have internet service to play Words with Friends. Finally, and possibly my favorite, MillerCoors teamed with some Seattle bars to allow patrons to scan a QR code and get a cab. While well meaning and a great experiment, the manual dexterity required to operate a smart phone was a little too much after a few frosty brews—which probably also explains why Apple keeps forgetting iPhone prototypes in bars.

The Ad Age piece continues to explain, “Experts cite three reasons that QR codes haven’t caught on. First, people are confused about how to scan them. Two, there’s little uniformity among the apps required to read them. Last, some who have tried the technology were dissuaded by codes that offer little useful information or simply redirect the user to the company’s website.”

I think the third part of this argument is the most compelling because people will eventually figure out the first one, and the second will shake out as the technology advances. If you want a QR code campaign to be successful it really needs to consider three factors. It needs to be optimized for mobile platforms. My Museum of Modern Art experience illustrates this. It was nice to have the QR codes, but I couldn’t get information to load on a Blackberry or iPhone because the landing page was too complex to be managed by most smartphones. QR codes should be used sparingly. Marketers should not just slap them on everything because that’s what the cool kids are doing. If all your advertising, products and collateral have a QR code that leads back to the main page of your website, not much is accomplished except annoying your potential customer. Which leads into my final point, QR codes need to have a purpose. Lead users to product reviews, or give us a coupon (but just one because how are we supposed to manage them all on a phone), or provide something of value. Make the pause required to pull out the phone, select the app, and wait for the camera to scan worth something. If the code provides value, people will keep using it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to wash this black Sharpie QR code off my bald spot.

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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 www.noradsanta.org 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.

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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.

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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.

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