Marketing or procrastinating?

by Jason on December 23, 2011 · 0 comments

Join procrastination club! photo by Nathaniel F

I’ve spent a lot of this week working on a new marketing program for January.  This is a good time of year to do that kind of thing, since most people are either on holidays or thinking about them, so getting a decision on a project during this window is like pulling teeth (though I did get one approval today, so add dentistry to my skill set…)

The thing is, spending a few days on something other than my core billable activity feels weird.  That said, I have mentors who say that working on marketing is the only core activity I should be doing, ever, but at this stage it feels like I might be doing it to avoid “real” work.

In other words, my marketing activities might be procrastination in disguise.

I’m pretty sure they’re not, but it’s been on my mind, especially as this project goes on and on for seemingly forever (I’m great at estimating technical work, but this is video and copywriting, which is new for me.)  Am I simply hiding from a slow period by “working on marketing?”

I think the answer comes from logging my work and measuring results.  There’s a cost to acquiring customers, and a cost for running campaigns, even if the only expenditure is time.  I’ll be able to directly measure the feedback that this upcoming campaign generates, and the key is to see if it’s working.  If it’s not, and I find myself spending time working on another system that’s almost the same, then yes, that’s procrastination.

For the first run through though, it’s solid marketing work, plain and simple.  Projects like this should be big enough to be capable of generating a measurable result, but small enough that if it’s a total failure (as many early lessons can be) then I haven’t lost too much in terms of sunk time.

Truthfully, this one’s a bit larger than I’d like, but I’ll be able to track if it was worth it in a fairly short period of time, so there’s a good outcome either way – there’ll be more customers, in which case I’ll double down on the program, or it’ll flop and I’ll know if I’m “hiding” from tougher work if I catch myself wasting time doing more of the same.

Photo by Nathaniel F

Marketing-driven design

by Jason on December 12, 2011 · 0 comments

based on Generic Pie Chart by Sean MacEntee

I hate when I have to admit that someone else was right, especially when I held such a strong position for so long.

For millennia (internet millennia, anyway, or at least since the dawn of software made for sale) there’s been a strong divide in many companies between sales/marketing and engineering. Marketing would seemingly promise things that they thought would be “cool” without knowing what it would take to make it, and engineering would stubbornly resist these whimsical changes to the precious algorithms.

See Dilbert for a zillion examples.

Having been on both sides of that battle now (often with the arguments being with myself as both packager and implementor) I see it a bit differently now.

There isn’t a single product or service that I’ve designed this year that wouldn’t have been better if I’d started with the marketing documentation first.  Think of it as marketing-driven design  Thankfully, most of my work for hire projects start this way via some kind of proposal, so I’ve managed to deliver value and excellence to my clients, but my internally developed projects, that people seem curiously resistant to purchasing?  Not so good.

Here’s the crux of it: describing what is simply isn’t going to be as compelling as describing what could be.  If a project has been completely built before the description is even started (via a gross misapplication of some extreme programming doctrine,) the marketing is going to be limited by what’s there.  The best you can manage is to talk about the promise of the next version, to which people will generally respond by waiting.  Marketing-driven design has not such constraint.

If you can describe what will be, and not commit any development effort beyond “is this even possible” prototyping, until you’ve got something that actually gets people excited, your chances are much better.

I’d write more on the topic, but I’ve got to go refactor a system to meet the “what I should have written in the first place” requirements that are based on solid marketing-driven design principles.

Image based on one by Sean McEntee

The iPad and the pricing paradox

by Jason on October 20, 2011 · 0 comments

iPad comics

Here’s something weird: the Apple iPad has managed to make cheap things expensive and expensive things cheap.

The expensive part’s easy. True story: I bought my first iPad because I had a meeting and I figured that displaying the pictures on it to the people around the table instead of trying to hook up a projector would make my presentation look, basically, more luxurious.

I didn’t get that deal, but I hold by that premise. More and more, people are using iPads at trade shows to collect email addresses, and even though the things have been out for a year and a half now, it’s still working. In the past, people wanted to touch the new thing. Now that more people have one, it’s a mark of quality that people want to identify with. In public.

But at the same time, the iPad’s made things cheaper. I can buy Kindle books for generally less than the print equivalent, and comics are something I’m watching closely as the major players move to same day digital. Now you’ve got something that used to be available only in print, at (a dwindling number of) collector’s shops, and you can download it and read it right away. The pricing is still being figured out, but in general, it’s cheaper than the print version right out of the gate.

Sure, a print edition might be more collectible, but those of us who studied just a tiny bit of math (and, uh, survived the 90’s collector bubble) have pretty much figured out that editions with print runs over a million aren’t going to be especially rare.

In the meantime, a book that used to sell for $3.99 now sells for $2.99, or $.99, or ultimately the 99 cent sweet spot that used to be reserved for mediocre hamburgers.

On a device that makes my horrible graphic mockups worth 30% more on the average pitch meeting.

Exciting times.

I got a real kick this summer over reaction to the CN Tower’s latest attraction, EdgeWalk, where people get to walk around the outside of the tower, 1,168 feet up.  It’s priced at $175, positioning it as something lots of Toronto residents (the blog and YouTube commenters, anyway,) felt was a ridiculous price.  Me? I thought they should have started at $350.  Maybe $500 with some perks.

Guess what? The call centre was overwhelmed on opening day.

And it’s possible that there weren’t enough reps available to take orders because someone listened to the people complaining, but my point today is this:

It’s important to listen to your customers, but it’s vital to know who your customers are.

I’m going to guess that the people who were complaining about the pricing haven’t been to the top of the CN Tower, on the inside, since they were kids and their parents footed the bill (admission packages range from $23 to $65.) But even if they go every week, so what if they think it’s too much?  They live here.  There are 2 million people going up those elevators every year, which means lots of tourists looking to make Bob from accounting back home jealous with a killer vacation pic. And then there’s the corporate team building stuff where people don’t have to pay, they just have to be insane enough to go do it.

If you think $175 is too expensive, that’s fine. There are only 10,000 tickets each year (it’s real scarcity, since they can only fit a certain number of tours through the schedule safely) so they just need .5% of their customer base to take the deal for a sell out.

Sometimes it’s good to polarize the buyers and the non-buyers really strongly, and I think it’s a great tactic for positioning an attraction like this.  After all, people who choose to try something like this aren’t like normal people.  They’re getting a story to tell, one that’s going to set them apart from the rest of the people at the office.  That’s worth something.

Oh, and I’m not going to do EdgeWalk, by the way, even though I think it’s a bargain. I have no problem telling you it’s not because I’m cheap; I’m just terrified.

Update: Still don’t think it’s worth it? Take a look at Stacie’s blog post of the experience and try to put a price tag on those photos and the stories they tell, both now and in the years to come.

Steam remembers your credit card number but forgets your birthdayThe above image is in reference to Steam, the game distribution platform, but it applies to most online retailers and services. With the recent rumblings about why Google (and others) want real names – i.e. to track identities better so ads can be more profitably targeted, it’s great to remember that these powers could also be used for good.

Outside of message boards, how many company send birthday emails? How many send actual physical cards? And why don’t you?

(Image via Reddit)

Bench Advertising Kills!(Via Corrupt Camel)

Granted, the first thing I think of when I see one of those “you just proved bench advertising works!” ads on a bus shelter is generally “you just proved you have unsold inventory!” but since I don’t much like driving I’ve got some extra brain bandwidth while I’m being chauffeured past these signs, and here’s where I ended up:

Why is it so seemingly awkward for people to use their service to sell the actual service?

I think there’s a little bit of mental holdover from the “make money with tiny classified ads” (that teach you how to make money from tiny classified ads, ad infinitum) and other Ponzi-like schemes that are preventing people from doing their best work, but it boggles my mind that, in this case, bus ad people aren’t taking notes from which customers stick around (which would be a clue that they’re successful) and borrow some of their concepts to promote the overall service.

Or maybe bus ads are inherently unprofitable to run and there are no success stories. Or maybe the “you just proved…” ads have been tested to be the most awesome tactic ever.  I don’t really know, but the things bug me.  If it didn’t break my rule against rewarding behaviour I don’t like, I’d have an entry on my todo list to buy as much outdoor advertising as I can, at least in my neighbourhood, to ensure the messaging I see every day fits how I want the world to look.

(As an aside, how awesome would it be to be able to think up a sustainable business model that allowed you to put ads all over town reminding you that you’re awesome, or maybe just that you should get back to work? Hmm, maybe there’s a segment of realtors that got into the business purely as a way to have a tax-deductible means of putting up really good photos of themselves around town.)

Anyway, my main point with bus ads is that using unsold inventory to sell more space seems like a poor means of positioning if you want to get maximum value for your service, and that would hold true for most ad sales that have a finite pool of inventory. TV networks can get away with running ads for their own product because one of their jobs is to increase viewership, which then increases the rates they can charge for ads, which, by the way, is the purest form of using ads to sell ads I’ve found, with Adwords arbitrage being at the absolute other end of the spectrum.

For everyone else, even – or especially – if you don’t sell advertising or lead generation services, it’s a fun exercise to look at what you sell and see how it itself can be used to generate more of your core business, be it in the packaging, the experience your provide, or some other differentiator that brings prospects back to your offer.

The technology marketing gap

by Jason on August 18, 2011 · 0 comments

I really enjoyed This Week In Startups episode 177 with Arnie Gullov-Singh from, who had lots of good insights as someone generating revenues from social media through celebrity endorsements.  Here’s my pull quote from the episode, in regards to Klout, which is a semi-competitor with, but relevant just the same:


It’s very common in our business, digital marketing, for technology to get ahead of what marketers actually want. Marketers are literally just coming to terms with the fact that social media exists and that Twitter exists and… I think we always make this mistake, we’ve been doing it for the last 12 years where the technology gets 2 or 3 years ahead of what marketers want. I think it’s useful to be able to go into the long tail occasionally, the challenge is always the scale that you get. What you end up with is a good story… most marketers in digital look at it as something to impress their boss that they did something cool in digital so saying I found, you know, some people that are influential about cabbage, I think is a nice story to say that you did that, but how much scale you really got…

The scale thing also came up last week at a Google Engage event, where the idea came up that pay per click is awesome but sometimes there simply aren’t enough people searching for the keywords you’re buying (which lead to interesting ideas about teaching your market to search for your stuff…)

Key insights: for marketers, be aware of the outcome you want.  If you want to play with the latest shiny object, be aware that you’re going for a cool story, not necessarily massive success.  For technology providers, be aware of where you are on the curve.  If it’s early days, pitch the story to get business now and plan for down the road to where the scale catches up and you’re now uniquely positioned to be able to deliver.

Books by Orwell, photo by markhillary

A quick followup to my post on Infinite innovation vs sufficient suckage, which was actually born out of the ideas in this post.  There’s a pattern emerging, which I mentioned earlier, about companies positioning their crappy offerings as “slightly less crappy” as the ones from the established player in the market.  We’re seeing it in Canada’s mobile phone market, interestingly, from these players themselves: each major brand has a downmarket brand that’s completely independent and offers reduced or eliminated fees compared to what you’d pay from big name X.

I honestly don’t know how many consumers don’t realize that the “rebel” brand is the same actual company as the one they’re poking at, maybe it’s completely transparent, maybe not (my nonscientific research suggests that not a lot of people know that Bell Mobility owns Virgin Mobile Canada, as one example) but that doesn’t matter today.

What’s going to happen (or has it happened already) when a few of the big players get together to invent a demon to better position their offerings against?  Kind of a 1984-ish “we have always been at war with Eurasia” thing, but on a corporate level?

I see this pattern with founders leaving their original company to start a competitor, where the story seems to be “this is my chance to do it right” combined with “I’m not happy with the direction my first venture is going under the current ownership, and I’m here to save consumers” but what if we accelerate that and imagine that there are founders who are working, right now, to build a company with the explicit but unspoken intention of an exit via sale to a larger firm, the proceeds of which would fund the build of “version 2.0”?  Like I said, this already happens as founders reboot, but the difference here is that it’d be part of the plan from the outset.  A still risky, but possibly better funded, and possibly fraudulent education, if you will.

Or, if you’re feeling more paranoid, there’s the conspiracy model, where a group of companies secretly fund a potemkin rival that they can all position against.

I can see a day, not far off, where as part of the pre-launch sequence for a venture there’s the founding of a seed company to test what customers truly won’t stand for.  It’s valuable market research, plus you’ve got that out of the gate “finally an alternative to the ridiculous practices of brand X!” positioning to capture the imagination of the public.

These ideas are somewhat cynical, a little paranoid, but I don’t think they’re too far of a projection of what I’m seeing right now, and it’s not limited to tech, but if the current bubble continues to grow I think it’s the best environment to watch for an accelerated microcosm for these ideas.

(And it should be obvious, this is mostly a thought experiment and in no way suggests that any company, mentioned or not, is doing or planning on doing something that’s not above board. It’s just one of those inventions that might already exist that I wanted to write down so I could refer back to it if (or when) it actually happens.)

Photo by markhillary

Wired iPad app free for subscribers

I don’t know what made me happier yesterday: the fact that the Wired iPad app is now free for subscribers of the print magazine (especially with a postal strike looming) or the way in which they told me: “hey, click here to get the app, and pop your account number in, which by the way is this.”

In the past, I’d get mails like this at the office (just like this time,) but I’ve got at least three different mailing addresses and oddly don’t remember my subscriber numbers, so I’d have to save the mail to remind myself to set the thing up when I’m home, assuming I can find a magazine with a mailing label.  As it happened, my copy of Wired comes bagged, and one had just arrived, so the mailing label was gone, which means I’d have to remember to set up this free thing for a whole month (or more, see aforementioned postal strike comment.)

And, credit where credit is due but really shouldn’t have to be said… but has to be said, let’s not forget that there’s a link to the app in the email as well, instead of a “search for us in the app store,” which, a ridiculous amount of time hasn’t worked anyway since I use the Canadian store.

“Free” doesn’t always mean easy, but this execution was almost perfect.  Kudos to Wired for getting that together, and thanks for the app – between this and the Bloomberg Business Week one, I’m really loving the iPad right now.

Anwyay, let’s take a step back and look at execution.  It turns out that this kind of email integration with your CRM is actually relatively easy to do, from a no-to-low coding perspective, by subscribing to a 3rd party email newsletter/autoresponder service. Even with lower-end email systems; most offer the ability to add custom fields to each record and to display the data in the messages that go out.  The trick, especially with the more affordable services, is to manage to add addresses without requiring a confirmation email.  This is important, because you have a business relationship with them, but some won’t confirm if they receive a mail asking them to click a link. (By the way, the Wired mail had a “manage your preferences” link.)

The “bolt-on” approach to email integration can be a little tricky as well if you’re looking to fully automate your process, and even if you get the glue to stick, it’s important to remember that users can opt out of this kind of marketing at any time, so this kind of plan needs to be designed to be loosely coupled if you’re bolting on another service.

The alternative to email integration would be no integration at all.  You could simply create your own email delivery system and add it to your application, which obviously takes work, and adds a whole level of long-term maintenance complexity that’s often overlooked: it’s generally a bad idea to send messages directly from your server. Your host may have rate limits, your IP address might be blacklisted already from a previous user, and you might send too many mails to a certain gateway over a set period of time, triggering alerts and potential blacklisting again, just to name a few issues.

The third option for email integration, which is what I’m now recommending to clients unless they’ve got a specific goal that aligns with an existing email marketing system, is to do the custom code inside the application, but leverage the growing number of delivery services out there including PostageApp, SendGrid, PostmarkApp, CritSend, and Deliver, in addition to Amazon’s recent offering. (Note I got that list from a Quora post by Jon Lim, who works for PostageApp, and that’s pretty cool that he listed his competitors like that.) This allows you to outsource what I believe is just the right level of expertise, without exposing too much of your customer data to an outside service that might get hit with a data breach like the Epsilon one in April.

And please note, I’m not in any way endorsing spam-like tactics here, just scenarios like the one I opened with, where for example Wired had some important information that provided me with great value, and it was important for both of us that I received that message.  Your email integration needs will vary, and could just include notifications from a service, or transaction results post-purchase, for example, which aren’t directly tied to marketing, except for the parts that are 🙂

Sucking a straw

I only took one undergrad economics class but then I boosted that with stuff like Freakonomics, so I’m 100% qualified to talk about this today.

Some wireless carrier ads got me thinking today.  Rogers has this data sharing plan, which, if I’m not mistaken, lets you share your data plan across multiple devices for $10 extra per device per month, so basically $20 to get started, which I guess is what you’ve gotta do if you use non-iOS devices and can’t share your internet for free as part of the core feature set.

Now Telus has come out with their seven minute abs: if you go with them, you can share between a phone and a tablet for free, which is a $20 savings over Rogers for that scenario, assuming all other plan aspects are identical.

There’s no word from Bell (the other major carrier) but let’s assume they get on the train too, and offer something even better.  Well, something that’s slightly less crappy, anyway, given that Apple devices get this stuff for free.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t really competing on price, which tends to be a race to the bottom and usually doesn’t happen between established companies because they got where they are by realizing the whole bottom-racing thing. For this one, it’s one feature that they’ve done the math on and figured out how much it’ll cost in lost incremental revenue (and I suspect it’s not a lot of users that would use it anyway) without sacrificing their core ARPU (average revenue per user, yo.)

So what’s next?  Does Rogers up the ante, go to the innovation bucket, and make their plan more attractive in some other way?

I can’t predict the future all of the time, but in this case history is a good guide.  At some point, we’re going to make the magic transition from constant innovation to sufficient suckage.  The carriers will rationalize that they each suck sufficiently less than the other guy, in their own unbiased opinion, and things will stop getting better.  The price will be what it is, until someone else comes in and pokes something with the marketing stick.

I’m not even picking on the carriers that much here – this happens in almost every business.  Except maybe Apple, who I think could have closed their R&D lab for 5 years and still kept on top this year, but imagine what they might have done if someone else was close to them?  (If you’re not an Apple fan, you’ve probably got some other counter example.)  It’s pretty much standard practice, anyway.

But does it have to be?

Are we reaching a point where communications technology is intersecting perfectly with global availability of all kinds of resources is going to make the cost of infinite innovation actually achievable, at least in some industries?

Photo by bradleygee