I don’t normally write about non-online advertising, but I’m glad to see I’m not the only one baffled by the recent Citibank ad campaign. Slate doesn’t get it either. Now that I know it was done by “The Napoleon Dynamite Guy”, I see where the aesthetic comes from. But why would a schlubby, nonspecifically foreign guy make me want to use a different credit card?I can almost see the fatcat Citibank executive, lighting his cigar with a $100 bill, saying “I’ve got an idea – get me the guy who did that movie the kids like… You know, that, what’s-it-called… Exploding Cannoli or whatever. Have him do our next ad campaign”. Just because something is trendy (or WAS trendy a couple years ago) doesn’t mean it’ll help sell YOUR product.Incidentally, I’ve had (far too) many credit cards over the years, and Citibank has been, by FAR the most annoying company in terms of junk mail and upsells. Veddy, veddy, veddy, annoying.
Sometimes companies are so obsessed with attracting new customers that they don’t realize they’re basically giving their most loyal customers the shaft. I shop at Drugstore.com and I’m constantly coming across coupons for “first time users” only. Hey, thanks for reminding me that you don’t appreciate my continued purchases.Here’s an even worse example. I’m a huge fan of the online music serivce, Rhapsody. I’ve been a member for years. In partnership with SanDisk, they recently launched a portable music player specifically optimized for use with Rhapsody. I decided to check it out today, and check out the offer: “Includes FREE Rhapsody To Go trial for new members“. Hey, that’s swell, but guess what? The people jazzed about this player are going to be existing Rhapsody members. If you’re in the portable music player business, and your company’s not named after a fruit, you better find your customer niche and give them all the love you can. The Sansa Rhapsody has a crystal clear niche (Rhapsody customers), but Rhapsody has the mistaken impression that the device will sell the service, instead of the more likely reverse.Why not give existing Rhapsody users a $15 coupon off the device? It’s the same cost as a free month of service for the new guys, and your built in audience won’t feel like they’re getting the shaft.
Someone calling himself (or herself) ToyMaker posted a long comment on my post about the Script.aculo.us based Gucci.com site relaunch. ToyMaker’s points about its usability flaws are valid and well-reasoned, but it got me thinking about the nature of luxury brand web sites and when is it appropriate for style to trump usability. The me of a few years ago would have argued “Never!” but now I’m not so sure.Think about the real world “usability” of the Gucci brand. Gucci products are difficult to find. They can only be found in highly upscale boutiques or department stores, and for vast swathes of the world there is simply zero availability whatsoever. If they were concerned about “usability”, they’d have a store on every street corner. Once you’re in the store, there are very few products on the actual shelves. They’re displayed mainly for visual appeal. If they were concerned about usability, they’d put every size of every product out on the sales floor. Many products are in locked cases. You need to ask for assistance to try things on. This wouldn’t be the case if Gucci were concerned with “usability”. You have to ask a salesperson for prices on many items – that’s terrible usability!My point is that there is much more to the shopping experience than getting in, getting what you want, and getting out – especially when dealing with luxury brands. Buying a luxury product is an inherently illogical process. No one – not a single person on Earth – needs anything Gucci sells. To convince someone to buy such a vastly overpriced product, it’s important to convince them the actual act of purchasing that item is an very special experience. In the real world, this means sparse boutiques, exclusive locations, and hands-on sales personnel. All these things slow down the purchase process, but are essential in “selling the experience”. In the virtual world, this can mean long load times, odd page layouts, and sometimes confusing navigation.Verdict: Yes, style – or, more accurately, “story” – can sometimes trump usability and standardization, for certain products. No, Gucci.com’s usability is not broken. Users may be slowed down by certain aspects of the site’s design. But that doesn’t mean the site is bad. Just that you’re not its target audience. Its target audience expects exactly what they get – a unique, rich, immersive experience – and Gucci.com provides that in spades.
Blendtec makes blenders – REALLY POWERFUL blenders. To give people the idea of just how powerful the blenders are, they created a series of clips entitled “Will it Blend?“, and have uploaded them to YouTube. Check out the one where they turn a bag of marbles into a cloud of glass dust.Many companies like to create online advertising campaigns in virtual walled gardens – keeping all content within their own web site. The assumption being that, by having full control over the “experience”, the marketer can fully absorb you into the carefully crafted aesthetic world of their brand, thus building a stronger connection with you.This is entirely wrongheaded. You need to bring your advertising to where the people are. Even as the web fragments into more and more millions of web sites, the vast majority of users spend the vast majority of their time on a handful of web sites. “The web” can no longer be treated as a single medium – individual web communities such as YouTube need to be treated as distinct media in and of themselves.Your own web site is the virtual equivalent of a real-world boutique. Sometimes a boutique is exactly what you want. That’s where people go to buy your stuff. But if what you’re selling is a message, you don’t hang ads up all over the walls of your own little boutique – where people only come in randomly or via expensive promotional efforts – you plaster the walls of the subway, the billboards on the highway – where the people are. Subways are loaded with unpleasant imagery – yet Apple, one of the most image-conscious brands on the planet, has no problem slathering the walls of subway stations with iPod posters.Refusing to advertise via sites like YouTube and MySpace because you don’t have full control over the experience is as ignorant as not advertising in subways because they are filled with vagrants and overflowing trash barrels, or not advertising on highway billboards because there are smelly smokestacks nearby. You need to advertise where people actually are, even if you don’t fully “own the experience”. People don’t hang out “on the web”, they hang out on specific sites. Be there.
I’m extremely excited to announce that I have accepted the position of Digital Technology Director at Hill, Holliday in Boston, where I’ll be working with their Interactive team to create new ways to reach customers with Internet technology.I want to give a huge thanks to Baba Shetty, Hill’s Director of Media + Interactive, for seeking me out for this position based almost entirely on the contents of this blog. For several years now, I’ve been writing about marketing, branding, and innovative web technology – even though my job history has primarily been that of your basic, everyday web monkey. This experience should serve as a lesson that blogging about something you’re passionate about can truly change your life. It may not happen overnight, but with patience and persistence, eventually the right person will take notice.So, what will I be doing at Hill, Holliday? Basically, I’ll be combining my technical skills and obsessive industry watching to help their Interactive Marketing team create compelling web experiences that truly expand the definition of “online marketing.”One example of how Hill, Holliday has proven itself as a leader in this area is WhatsYourPolicy.com – an interactive site that has managed to build a passionate, loyal fanbase centered around an insurance company.Hill, Holliday’s Interactive team is small, but unbelievably talented. It feels like I’m working at a startup, yet we’re steering the creative direction of some of the world’s biggest brands. Plus, we get all the free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee we can drink. My day-to-day role hasn’t entirely been fleshed out yet – I’m sure I’ll be doing a wide variety of things. But, hey, doing things is what I like to do.
Jason Fried of 37signals started an interesting debate on the Signal vs. Noise blog. His post decried advice from Consumer Reports to research products in a store, then purchase online to get the best price. Jason feels that the brick and mortar store is providing a valuable service, and following Consumer Reports’ advice is exploitative and immoral. I think that’s a valid point, and I’m definitely guilty of this form of exploitation, but what I find more interesting is this question: How can stores change their business models to prevent this behavior?Company-owned single-brand stores are one semi-solution – Apple doesn’t care where you buy your iPod after you play with one in an Apple Store. But this doesn’t do a customer any good if they want to compare multiple brands.What if “big box” electronics stores behaved more like permanent trade shows – holding no inventory of their own, but renting space to various product vendors to show off their wares. Customers would see companies’ products in the best possible light (no giant banks of monitors locked at the Windows login screen at the wrong resolution), demonstrated by genuine experts. The exhibiting companies make money no matter where you make your purchase, the “store” is getting paid what it needs to keep the facilities running, and the customer gets help from truly knowledgeable people.It’s not a 100% solution, but I could see something like this hitting the strip malls in the next decade or so.
Last year, Kathy Sierra wrote a post on her Creating Passionate Users blog that really stuck in my head. It’s called “Physics of Passion: The Koolaid Point“The takeaway is this:The most popular and well-loved companies, products, and causes have the strongest opponents.This doesn’t sound particularly insightful until you realize that the tail can wag the dog in this phenomenon. Often times, appealing to a limited audience can do your company more good than appealing to everyone. This, I assume, is the reason I behind Microsoft’s “Poop Brown on Puke Green” Zune music player.
Of course, if they really wanted to be bold, they wouldn’t have wimped out and also offered them in “iPod Black” and “iPod White.”
Someone on Flickr hypothetically asked what Seth Godin might think about balloons being used to sell cars. Seth not so hypothetically responded on his blog, basically saying: “Because it looks like [they're] trying.”Not a bad answer, but I think it goes a little deeper than that.Where does one usually see balloons? At special events. Balloons imply that a special event is currently happening. At a place of business, “special event” usually implies “really good sale.” A car purchase is a huge expense, and most people would like to think that they’re smart enough to hold out for a really great sale before buying a car. Of course, the balloons don’t always mean any particularly great sale is actually happening (what car dealership would ever claim there is NOT some sort of sale going on when you walk through the door?), but the subconscious response could easily be enough to get the prospective customer onto the lot – old fashioned high-pressure sales tactics can take it from there.
When I looked at BuzzLogic.com yesterday, it reminded me of Groove.net, the site I spent years maintaining, but am no longer involved with. Groove, for those who don’t know, is a “fat client” application that enables really unique forms of collaboration – and it was intended to be as revolutionary as the web browser.Sorry to say it, but Groove Networks failed as a company. Sure, they were bought out by Microsoft, but they were bought at a bargain basement price. Why didn’t Groove catch on? Because the company sold it as a solution, not a product.But wait – isn’t conventional wisdom that you’re supposed to sell solutions, not products? Well, that depends. It depends on who’s making the decision to purchase. How many digits are in your product’s cost? If there are five or more, you’re selling to a company – in the form of an executive board, and “ops” committee. If there are four or less, you’re selling to a flesh and blood human being.Human beings are not persuaded by bullet points or buzzwords. They want to see something cool. And don’t force people to “self-select” what their role is – so they can receive a stripped down subset of information about what you think matters to them. Just show them what it does, and let them decide how they can best make use of it. Some of the most successful products became successful because they were used in ways never intended by their creators. Lotus Notes was NOT created as an email system, but email is what made it successful. MySpace was originally created as a site for promoting independent rock bands. Groove was originally designed around using specialized collaborative tools – but it ended up being used 75% of the time for simple file sharing. And, of course, duct tape and WD-40 – ’nuff said.And if you’re a company nobody’s heard of, you are definitely selling to flesh and blood human beings – because the only people who are going to know about it are the bleeding edge early adopters. These people have heard about the product not because its an efficient business “solution”, but because it’s cool technology. These people are the least likely to be impressed by bullet points and buzzwords, and the most likely to be impressed by live demos and “30 day trials.” Even if what the product does has nothing to do with their job, these are the people who will spread the word to the appropriate person in their organization.So, when do you sell solutions? Well, you sell solutions if you’re actually selling solutions. Solutions have many moving parts. If your company is in the business of assembling multiple tools in ways uniquely tailored for each customer, you’re selling a solution. An eCommerce platform is a solution. An .EXE file is a product. Also, you sell solutions if you are truly selling – as in cold-calling, Glengarry Glen Ross style – to people who have no idea who you are or why they want to talk to you – but are easily swayed by slick pitches over the phone. Of course, this style of marketing is slowly going the way of the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I doubt BuzzLogic is cold calling to get customers.”Champions” within a company – usually early adopters – buy products. Ops committees buy solutions. Ops committees are in the business of defining problems and allocating resources (primarily money) to get the problems solved. They do not have time or inclination to learn about the gory details. They just want to throw money and a human resource or two at the problem and know that it will be resolved. Buzzwords, bullet points, and “marketecture” are totally appropriate ways to sell to this audience. However, unless you’re Microsoft, Oracle, or SalesForce.com, you’ve got a problem. Throwing large amounts of money around to solve complex problems is a very risky venture. Companies mitigate this risk by buying solutions from known, big players, who have proven their capabilities with other large, successful companies.Groove failed because they sold solutions as if they were Microsoft or Oracle. Groove made some huge deals, but most of these deals were not made with Groove Networks, Inc., but with “that new company from the guy who made Lotus Notes”. Groove had Ray Ozzie as an unfair advantage, and still failed. If you’re a tiny startup without a Ray Ozzie on your board, and you try selling solutions in this manner, you will fare even worse.Summing up: If you’re just starting out, just sell the product. Make it cool, make it easy to use, make it sexy to geeks – these are the only people looking at it! Once you’ve grown big enough that executives are reading about you in the Wall Street Journal, then start selling solutions – and tack a couple zeroes on the price. You’ve earned it.
Entire web companies seem to be springing up as quickly as pre-fab blogs these days. If there’s one shining beacon through all that clutter, it’s DEMO, the annual conference about new technology that is truly innovative. One company I’ll be keeping an eye on is BuzzLogic. BuzzLogic is peddling software that helps you track “influence” in blogs and social networking services. In other words, who is talking about what, and more importantly, who – exactly – you need to talk to to get your product talked about. Interesting stuff. Unfortunately, their site is heavy on marketese and low on specifics right now, despite its glossy Web 2.0 sheen. More on that in my next post.