Cooking On The Road

Foodie Friday, Myrtle Beach edition.  I’m on the annual golf trip with my buddies (our 21st, thank you) and as you might expect I get to do a good chunk of the cooking while we’re here.  That’s not a complaint.  This area has a serious lack of high-quality restaurants and over the years our group has figured out that staying  in and spending the money on high quality ingredients trumps paying for mediocre food dining out.  I certainly don’t mind cooking.  There is lots of willing and competent help here and those who can’t cook are eager to clean up the mess.  Perfect!

There is one thing I have learned over the years that actually is a pretty good business thought too.  If you’ve ever been on vacation and tried to cook in the rental’s kitchen you know that you are facing a serious challenge.  I think the same company puts the identical dull knives, glass cutting board, and crappy pans into rental condos everywhere.  I don’t mind the mismatched dinnerware nor the 2 slice toaster (ever made toast for 12 in a 2 slicer?).  I do mind the ridiculous – and dangerous – other equipment.  What do we do?

We bring our own.  A couple of good knives, a full-sized rubber cutting board, some serious BBQ tools, a large pot and/or non-stick pan with a lid can make all the difference.  It also requires some smart meal planning choices.  You have to accept that you’re going to stick to basics that don’t require a lot of pans and hopefully very few steps.  Roasted large cuts of meat and better than individual steaks and braises are better than sautes.  You plan your product based on conditions as well as your ability to support it.  Which is the point.

Different conditions, a changed situation means you need to plan ahead, figure out the appropriate resources, and adjust your strategy.  Doing hat you’ve always done and which has satisfied your customers in the past might not have a chance in the situation you’re facing.  No one starves on this trip – we eat quite well, actually – but I don’t even think about making the stuff I’d prepare at home in my fully stocked kitchen.  I don’t try to make it all perfect; I do try to keep the boys fed and happy.  You can think about that the next time the marketplace puts you in a strange business kitchen.

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What Goes Up

One thing on which those of us in media could always count was the constant gradual increase of prices.  Oh sure, unit rates might drop as audiences came and went, but the underlying metric – the cost per thousand views (CPM) of a target audience – would almost always increase except in times of exceptional economic downturn.   When pricing the CPM of an in-demand target such as young adults, the increases could be pretty substantial. 

That truism may no longer hold.  Witness the start of this piece from the Media Daily News:

In what could be the first material sign that even network prime-time TV is not immune from the physical laws of a rapidly expanding media universe, the average cost of broadcast prime-time inventory has eroded for the first time since the recession. While the rollback is small — the average prime-time cost-per-thousand (CPM) of buying adults 18-49 on the broadcast networks fell 2.4% to $43.06 in 2014 — the fact that it declined at all during a non-recessionary period may signal that even the most premium advertising inventory has hit the wall on Madison Avenue.

It’s all the stuff you read about in economics class coming to pass, I guess.  Inventory is no longer a scarce commodity although one could argue that if we’re still approaching every impression as equal we haven’t learned much.  Cross-platform content may be triggering cross-platform buying, and the lower CPM’s from those newer platforms might just be a drag on the older ones.  The reality is that we’re moving from buying demographics to buying behaviors and so many of the old measures just aren’t applicable.  Men 25-54 can’t really be aligned with “people who visited a car dealer website in the last week” even though both can be purchased.  That said, the trend lines for all the CPM’s are headed downward which can’t be a good thing from any ad-supported business model.

I guess if you’re a buyer you don’t mind so much.  The problem is that over time much of the high quality bait (read that as content) for the audiences you seek may wither away, lacking adequate financial support from the inventory it generates.  The audiences will go elsewhere, of course, but maybe not to something that’s ad-friendly (or ad-supported).  Penny-wise and pound-foolish?

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Time Shifting

The New York area was not built for cars.  Putting aside the crumbling infrastructure, the number of cars on the road has far outgrowth the roads’ capacity.  Fortunately, most people living in the city proper choose not to own a car and use the excellent public transportation to get around.  That’s not so true about many of my neighbors here in the suburbs as they commute to their jobs.  They deal with the crappy roads, bad weather, and interminable traffic jams for one reason: convenience.  They’re not tied to a train or bus schedule.  

There is a lesson for all of us in that which is manifesting itself in media.  People would much rather have control.  While the old model of media was audiences sitting down to watch content at the same time (at least within the same time zone), there is research that shows that model is long gone.  The folks at Hub Entertainment Research found that the growth of VOD, DVR’s and OTT services continue to erode consumers’ association of TV shows with a particular day-and-time, linear schedule.

  • Viewers time-shift more TV than they watch live. According to consumers’ own estimates, the average viewer watches 47% of their TV shows live and 53% time-shifted.
  • Among Millennials, time shifting is even more common. Viewers 16-34 say that only 39% of the TV they watch in a typical week is live.
  • A plus for traditional TV providers: most time-shifted viewing still happens through a set top box. DVRs (34%) and VOD (19%) account for more than half of all time-shifted viewing.

There is good news and bad news in this for content creators and their distribution partners.  Obviously where people can skip ads, they generally do:

  • 81% of VOD users say that when fast-forwarding is enabled, they fast-forward through most or all of the commercials during a show. In fact, almost half (49%) say they fast-forward through every ad.
  • The results aren’t much different among DVR users: 89% say they fast forward through most or all ads, and more than half (56%) say they use fast-forward at every commercial break.

The good news is that the library of content most providers/distributors have has become completely accessible.  Think about it – years ago, if yu missed an episode and failed to tape it (and it was tape!), you were screwed.  Not even remotely true today, and every one of those additional views is an opportunity for monetization.  That might be through ads or it might be through encouraging a subscription via the availability of the content.

Don’t assume that consumers taking control is unique to either commuting or to media.  Look at your own business and I’m willing to bet there are examples of how consumers are doing just that.  Like media, there are opportunities that come out of the disruption.  Are you ready to jump on them?

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Do More

This was not at all how I planned to start this week of blogging but sometimes reality rears its ugly head and our plans need to change.

Over the weekend I learned that a friend passed away.  He was relatively young – in his early forties – and while I’m at an age where death pays a visit in my world a lot more often than it used to, this one has shaken me up.  You see, this is a guy whose life was seemingly very much on track up until about 2 years ago.  He had some physical challenges – very bad arthritis – which made his job in golf difficult.  Things started downhill.  He tried to start a business but it never quite got off the ground.  His marriage broke up.  His social media activity became less frequent as did his general communication.  I even heard he was homeless at one point.  While none of the obituaries mention a cause of death, it may have been as simple as a broken heart, deep depression, or as complex as a suicide.  I don’t know that it matters.

I wrote something on this topic a year and a half ago:

We all know a person who displays symptoms of things not being right in their lives. Those symptoms could come in the form of substance abuse or a big weight gain. Maybe their personality has changed – gone from light to dark. If you care about that person, you probably think about a way to say something that asks about what’s going on. It’s hard – people have feelings, after all and they are probably just as aware as you are of what they’re doing. Probably more so.  The ensuing discussion can be hard for both of you.  Sometimes it can derail a friendship.  More often, it begins a healing process, but only if you care enough to say something.

I tried to follow that advice with this friend.  I tried to help with the business start-up, doing the digital work and marketing.  I invited him to come cook with me (he had professional training and loved a kitchen).  Other invitations to meet up went unanswered.  In short, I tried.  And yet I feel as if I could have done more. I didn’t really “say something.”

It’s easy to say that his family should have been helping – he has a lot of family in the area.  Who knows – maybe they were estranged.  Maybe he wasn’t keeping them informed.  How many of us tell our loved ones all is well when the reality is that our world has fallen apart?

I’m sorry to start the week on a down note but PLEASE.  If you have people in your lives who seem to be lost, helping them find their way is really about helping you too.  Be that selfish.  Do more. Don’t wait and don’t be afraid.  They might be gone before you overcome your fears.

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Menu Boards

This Foodie Friday I’d like for you to think about menu boards.  We’ve all seen them as we dine out.  In some places they’re chalk boards, whiteboards in others.  Usually they contain a listing of the day’s specials but in some places the entirety of the menu is out there.   What always impresses me and makes me hopeful that I’m about to enjoy a really good meal are those places where the board doesn’t contain a lot of items and where there aren’t printed menus.  This tells me the chef is concerned with what ingredients were available that day and looked the best.  Sure, there are generally a few dishes that are the restaurant’s staples – dishes for which they’re known and/or their clientele has indicated they love by ordering them often.  But when you go back to a place and there are a half-dozen dishes that weren’t there the last time, it shows an attentive kitchen that cares about the food and the customers.

I’m bringing this up because the same thought holds for strategy.  We need to write our strategic thinking on menu boards and not on stone tablets.  Like the ingredients in a market, conditions change. The way consumers use media changes.  How they communicate with one another changes.  Our goals – and theirs – evolve.  Pouring through data may show us a new, underdeveloped audience.  Our budgets may grow or shrink.

Every one of those factors will require an adjustment to our planning.  Not making those adjustments is the equivalent of living with an outdated, printed menu. I always shake my head when I see a Caprese Salad on a menu in the dead of winter.  That dish is the essence of Summer and it demonstrates laziness and a disdain for quality.

Strategic plans are living documents and need constant tweaking.  Erasing and rewriting the board is a good thing, not a demonstration of vacillation about goals or tactics.  While it’s absolutely critical to establish a strategy — to know why you are doing what you’re doing and how you’re getting to those goals, it’s also critical to keep checking and adjusting.

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Signal To Noise

One term you might have seen when you’re looking at stereo systems is Signal To Noise Ratio. It’s exactly what you’d think – the relationship between the desired signal and whatever background noise is present. I like what Wikipedia has to say about a variation on the theme: 

Signal-to-noise ratio is sometimes used informally to refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in a conversation or exchange. For example, in online discussion forums and other online communities, off-topic posts and spam are regarded as “noise” that interferes with the “signal” of appropriate discussion.

Part of what we do as marketers and business people generally is to gather information. We listen (at least I hope you do) to all of the sources of data, especially social media. In theory this allows us to gain insight into the concerns of our customers, the opinions of our brand, and the actions of our competition. However, as it turns out, these social signals have a huge signal to noise ratio, at least when it comes to brands.

The folks at Networked Insights did a study for Fast Company.  You can read the results here but the fact that blew me away is that in some cases as much as 95% of the social buzz on Twitter about a brand was spam.  They defined spam as tweets from fake accounts, social bots, coupon offers, the brands themselves or celebrity endorsers – basically anything that isn’t a true consumer writing.  The categories most weighed down by spam are those in which consumers make a lot of purchases, such as shopping, finance and tech. Significantly less spam occurs in categories such as religion, sports and science.

Most importantly, the nature of the conversation changes dramatically when the signal to noise ratio improves as the spam is removed.  More granular and nuanced topics emerge from the background noise (spam) and you get a better sense of what really is important to consumers along with how they’re feeling.

It’s critical to listen.  It’s just as critical to do whatever you can to improve the signal to noise ratio so that you’re gaining valuable insights and not just more data.  That’s true whether it’s social, analytics (is your data filtering out bots, your own employees, etc.?) or any measure you use to make important business decisions.  Got it?

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Influencers

Have you ever heard of influencer marketing?  You might not have used the term but I’m pretty sure that it’s a familiar concept.  Simply put, influencer marketing is getting people who hold sway over other people’s decision-making to endorse your product or service.  On a really basic level it might be the audiophile friend you consult before purchasing your new speakers.  Maybe there is another person you know who is very into tech and can help you choose a new phone.

Influencer roles throughout the decision process

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you take that from the realm of your personal friends to more prominent people – journalists, celebrities, experts – you’re moving to more broad influencer marketing.  To a certain extent, influencers are simply people within a subject area who already have established trust with an audience.  Finding them and messaging them in the hopes that they will say nice things about what you’re selling is influencer marketing.

There are some big plusses with this tactic, the biggest of which is that there is a demonstrable effect on sales.  According to a Burst Media study, advertisers who implemented an influencer marketing program in 2014 earned $6.85 in media value on average for every $1 they spent on paid media for such programs.  That’s an excellent return.  Obviously, it’s not easy to find market specific influencers, especially as you drill down to the consumer level but there are firms that do this.  I could write a few hundred words more on how you can work your own data to do so but that’s not my thought today.

Instead, I have a couple of caveats should you be considering – or currently doing – influencer marketing.  The first is that there is a tendency to get fixated on quantity and not quality.  Maybe you identify someone who has a large social audience – lots of friends on Facebook, hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Instagram  followers.  That person may have  a large megaphone but very little influence.  One mom who can get her 5 close friends to buy your product is better than a mommy blogger that’s widely read but mostly ignored.

More important is that there are a lot of fake important people out there.  I can point you to several people who claim to have large followings and, therefore, great influence.  Having run their accounts through the tools that identify fake followers it’s pretty obvious that they’ve bought hundreds of thousands of them.  When 97% of your 1,000,000+ followers are fake, that’s not an accident.  Don’t get fooled!

Influencer marketing isn’t new – some people trace it back to the 1940’s.  As with so many things these days, the tools have changed but the marketing smarts that drive their use haven’t.  Stay smart!

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