The relationship between offline and online

Two recent articles that are related, at least in my head, around the theme of offline and online interactions.

First, David Carr (NYT media reporter) wrote on Monday about how Amazon “needs” Barnes & Noble. The theory is that while people love e-books and/or books delivered to their door (cheaper/easier) they “discover” content in the physical book store. Interesting note that Amazon sales dipped when Borders went off of business. If books fall out of sight they fall out of mind as well. Part of why I think this is interesting is because it runs a little counter to the theory in “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson, which, in a nutshell, suggests that online is better for helping content find small audiences since the online shelf space is infinite. Obviously these are two very different kinds of discovering, but opens the question of what the retail world looks like if B&N, and other retailers, fall by the wayside.

Second, from Ad Age: Meredith is going to turn into a print publication. For those who aren’t familiar, AllRecipes has been around since the original dotcom boom and is a wildly popular site for, well, recipes. That Meredith is turning this into a print pub is beyond fascinating. It’s just within the last 12-18 mos that both Gourmet and Everyday Food (MSL pub) got shuttered. I still think there is a market for print, it just gets smaller and more niche. Not sure that AllRecipes fits the bill, but will be interesting to watch how they try to make the leap.

Look Out The Window: Write the Press Release First

Talk about a great way to look out the window! According to this article from Wired, the way to pitch an idea to Jeff Bezos at Amazon was to write a press release. (You only need to read the first three grafs of the Wired piece — the rest is about Amazon’s foray into cloud computing.)

What a brilliant idea this is. Not because press releases are so important (they aren’t, and sometimes aren’t even needed at all.) It’s that the exercise of writing the press release first is the epitome of looking out — rather than in — when evaluating a new idea. It forces you to answer the question: Is this interesting to anyone but us?

I’d love to try this.

Look Out The Window

I believe one of the key roles that any marketing and communications professional needs to play is representing the view from outside the four walls of the company. I think people on the agency side fulfill this role rather naturally, but it’s also an crucial role for those of us on the client side.

What do I mean, exactly? My former colleague Leah Holzman had a great expression for this idea that I use to this day — you need to “look out the window.” If you only focus on what your business needs, you will have a much harder time moving your message into the marketplace. That’s because the people you need to leverage to spread the word — journalists, clients, conference organizers — don’t care about your business. They care about their audiences and their business objectives.

Some of this is about business empathy — the ability to think about the needs and wants of the people you interact with instead of only focusing on your own needs and wants. But it’s also about a few specific habits that can help you fulfill your role to look out the window:

1. Read a lot. You need to read as much as you can within your industry, but get beyond that, too. My regular media diet includes the NYT, the WSJ, the New Yorker, AVC, Feld Thoughts, and Seth Godin. I also pick stuff up from my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook feeds.

2. Share what you learn. Part of your role of “looking out the window” is to point out the view to others in your organization. When you see a story on a trend that is related to your business, but in a slightly off-beat way, send that around. I’m not talking about the really obvious stuff — people should pick that up on their own. But, for example, I recently shared two stories — one from Morning Edition and another from AdAge — about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as the new place where marketers learn about consumer trends. This isn’t directly related to our business — we sell email intelligence solutions to marketers. But it’s indirectly related and gives a sense of what some of our clients and prospects are thinking about.

3. GOOTO (Get Out Of The Office). If you spend all your time talking to people inside your organization it’s hard to figure out what matters to people outside your organization. If you are in PR you should have a natural role in speaking with media, a great source of outside information. But anyone in marketing should be talking to clients, prospects, partners and prominent people within your industry.

What your your tricks for “looking out the window”?

The Future Will Be Won By Marketers With Balls

{With apologies to my many sister marketers. I also mean ovum.}

This past Sunday the New York Times ran a Sunday Review piece titled Can Social Media Sell Soap? I don’t know if it can sell soap, but it can sell pants.

So, this is an anecdote. And I’m aware that the plural of anecdote is not data. But that is sort of my point.

I’m friends with Ann Taylor on Facebook. Truthfully I’m not even a 100% sure why. I do like Ann and have a lot of their clothes, but I don’t usually friend brands. Anyway, the Ann feed is what it is — pictures of stuff. They don’t post so often that it’s annoying and since I am generally a fan I don’t mind having the posts in my feed. (Ironically the posts where they try to be “social” are the ones that usually annoy me. We aren’t *actually* friends Ann. Knock it off.)

One day I’m scrolling through my feed and I see a post from Ann Taylor with a fabulous pair of black and white print, cropped pants. My immediate thought was “Oh my god, I must have those pants.” So what did I do? I didn’t post, I didn’t comment, I didn’t “like” it. I went that weekend to my local Ann Taylor, tried on the pants and bought the pants. And no, I’m sorry, but I did not post a note to all my friends saying “Hey, I just bought these pants.”

I bought the pants because of Facebook. It’s unlikely I would have gone to the store that weekend unprompted, although I sometimes do. Even if I had, the pants were way more compelling styled on the model than they were hanging on the rack. Not 100% sure I would have noticed them in the store. Facebook sold me pants.

Here’s the problem: No one at Facebook or at Ann Taylor knows that Facebook sold me pants. Maybe, maybe, maybe if the folks at Ann Taylor are super-sophisticated they can see that sales of those particular pants went up in the days following the post. Even then there is some skeptical C-person saying “Yes, but how do you *know* the post caused the spike in pants sales?” They can’t prove it.

The reason I think the future will be won by marketers with balls (and ovum) is because some things can’t be measured and they never, ever, ever will be measurable. But in a world drowning in data, the pressure to prove your theories will be intense. Don’t get me wrong — I love data. I love using data to make smarter decisions. But it doesn’t answer every question. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. Sometimes you need to just believe that putting your message in front of some significant number of people on a regular basis induces those people to take some action. That some number of those Facebook friends bought the pants. (And a cute top to go with them. Did I mention that?)

The real problem, I fear, is that in a world of “data-driven” marketing, marketing starts to become really restricted. Marketers focus on only implementing strategies and tactics that can be measured. The might win some, they might lose some, but they can show a quantity. “I did this, we got this. I will do this more. I will do that less.” The strategies that can’t be measured get abandoned or at least so poorly funded as to be meaningless.

So the future will be won by the ones who can take a risk. Who can take that leap of faith and do the thing that they know is making a difference even when they can’t definitively, beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt prove that it made the difference. They will be using data. Tons of it. They just won’t be so chained to it that they can’t see the opportunities that lie just beyond the reach of the spreadsheet.

Your PR Program Will Fail If You Don’t Do This

I have a pet peeve. (Actually I have a lot of pet peeves, but that’s a subject for my personal blog.)

I really get frustrated when people start discussing marketing tactics in the absence of a business objective. Let’s do a whitepaper! Why? We should host a webinar! Why?

PR, in particular, is a function that is prone to failure if you don’t have a strong objective defined. To illustrate this I’m going to outline a couple of specific objectives and some ideas on the tactics that would help meet that objective. I think it will show how very different the activities will be depending on the objective.

Objective #1: We need to raise money. For fund-raising you want hits in TechCrunch, ValleyWag, Business Insider and similar publications that are read by the VC set. You want to articles to focus on what makes your business hot and interesting. You also want to try and get on “The Top XX Start-ups to Watch” lists. Profiles of your founders can also be good, especially if they make the business seem hot/cool.

Objective #2: We are a B2B company and we need revenue. You need articles in the top trade publications that are read by your prospects. And you need those articles to focus on the problem you solve. Research is very helpful here — can you publish data that shows that some (large) percentage of companies struggle with the problem you are solving? Remember that negative news gets more ink, but positive news can work too. You also want to focus on speaking engagements at your industry’s top conferences. Thought leadership is the focus of your efforts so content creation is the key. Think about hiring a few freelancers to keep it cranking out.

Objective #3: We are a B2C company and we need more users. I’m not a consumer expert, but here you want to think about placing articles in mainstream articles that are focused on how cool your service is or how you solve a consumer problem. But you might also consider that this is an objective that doesn’t have a PR solution. You might need SEO instead, for example.

Objective #4: We are planning an IPO. This objective is similar to #1, but the audience is different. You aren’t looking for VCs anymore, you are trying to impress institutional investors. So you want mainstream business publications like WSJ, NYT, BusinessWeek and so forth. But the story is also different now. You want stories that illustrate a combination of growth (nowhere to go but up!) and stability (this is no flash in the pan business!). Data that shows the size of the market you are going after are important.

Objective #5: We are hiring (and man is it harder than we expected given the economy). Also similar to objectives #1 and #3 in terms of possible publications to target, but here the story is about how great your company is to work for. Focus on culture, unique perks and the opportunity to be part of something cool. Think about what positions you are most focused on. The messages that will attract engineers might be different from those that will attract sales guys. Also, submit for “top workplace” awards. Start with ones that cover your local market since they tend to be easier to win, then move to national awards.

See? Five objectives, five really different PR plans. Outline your objectives in order to figure out the activities that are most likely to meet those objectives. Your chances of success go up exponentially when you know what success looks like.

Cutting It Close: Great Example of Current Events Marketing

I’m a huge fan of leveraging current events in your marketing efforts.  The Olympics are a great recent example.

And so is March Madness.  The NCAA tournament offers opportunities for lots of businesses to engage in basketball or tournament themed marketing.  For example, urologists promoting vasectomy.

No, I’m not kidding.  Apparently there is a little trend here with urologists promoting the procedure as a way to legitimately sit on the couch and watch basketball for two days.

I think this is both CRAZY and BRILLIANT.

Trash or Treasure: The Blu Dot Marketing Stunt

This week’s Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine features a fun marketing stunt. I’m not usually a fan of marketing or PR stunts — I think they backfire more often than they hit and they often reek of desperation.

But this one is fun — on brand, simple, social. Blu Dot, a maker of modern furniture, put some of its chairs out on the streets of New York City with a GPS attached. When people picked up the chairs and took them home, Blu Dot’s marketing agency reached out for an interview. Almost everyone who got a chair participated in the interviews. This lead the writer to conclude “As for the potential negative reaction to this marketing as street theater, there doesn’t seem to have been much. Maybe there’s a parallel to the way most Americans are said to loathe Congress in general but keep re-electing their own representatives: Marketing is an awful intrusion, unless we’re totally into the chair (or whatever) being marketed.”


Know Thy Market

In an article in today’s New York Times about the falling price of Champagne there appeared this quote:

“My job is to find a million friends across the globe that drink five bottles of champagne a year.” — Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger in Reims in the Champagne region of northeastern France

Now there is a man who knows his market.  Knowing who you need to reach — with as much specificity as possible — makes reaching them a lot easier.  I also love that he calls them friends, not customers.  What a fun way to think about your business.

What We Can Learn from NY’s Primary Election

I voted in NY’s primary election today.  I’m embarassed to admit this, but I knew very little about who was running.  I didn’t even recognize one of the three people running to be the Democratic candidate for mayor! (Good job basically locking that one up, Mr. Bloomberg.)

But there’s some interesting lessons here:

For comptroller I voted for someone because a friend of mine emailed me with a personal endorsement.  What’s interesting about this is that I was planning to vote for someone else who I actually had heard of and had run a cool TV ad.  But ultimately the personal endorsement of my friend — who is also very involved with NY poltics, so I trust his opinion on this specifically — won out over name recognition and a slick ad.

Do your fans endorse you?

For City Council I voted for the woman who’s flyer was handed to me as I walked into the polling place.  I figured if she could mobilize people on the ground and inspire them to stand on a corner holding a sign and handing out flyers then she must be pretty good.

Are you mobilizing fans?  Are you in front of prospective customers at the exact right moment when they are making a decision?

The Lesson of the Brown M&Ms

An recent episode of This American Life opened with the infamous story about Van Halen’s tour contract back in the 80s, which stipulated that there must be a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room and that said bowl must contain NO brown M&Ms.

Of course this contract provision was always interpreted as another example of the bizarre behavior of rich, spoiled rock stars. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all.  According to the TAL piece, and as described in more detail on Snopes, the M&M provision had a very important role to play.  Every venue that Van Halen played was different, with a different crew to set up and run the show.  Rock shows in the 80s were big, elaborate performances and the contracts ran for pages and pages and pages with technical specifications.  How much weight the stage needed to be able to hold.  How much electricity would be required.  On and on and on.  The M&M provision — buried deep in the middle of all this technical detail — was a way for them to check to see if anyone at the venue had paid attention.  If they got backstage and found brown M&Ms then you could be pretty sure that there would be some technical error.

I love this story.  I love it for the obvious reason — the sheer brilliance of using something silly for a serious reason.  But I also love it because I think it perfectly illustrates that details matter.  Van Halen didn’t have a contract rider that was, to quote David Lee Roth, as long a the “Chinese Yellow Pages” because they loved paying lawyers to write them.  They had that rider because every detail mattered.  Best case scenario the show would be ruined or some piece of property (the venue’s or the band’s) might get damaged.  Worst case scenario someone could get seriously hurt.

The fastest way to lose my respect is to tell me that you aren’t a “detail person.”  When someone claims to be a “big picture” thinker and therefore cannot be expected to pay attention to the details, I just roll my eyes.  Most often I think these people are just plain lazy.  Details can be dull and tedious and they are usually the less-fun part of a project.  It’s convenient, then, to be the big, strategic thinker who can come in, brainstorm endlessly, then relax while others get the actual job done.  Being detail-oriented is a basic skill that anyone can learn.  Sure, some people are better than others and some jobs call for more or less of it.  But there is no excuse for setting out bowls of brown M&Ms when your job is to know they don’t belong there.