This Foodie Friday I’d like to talk about something I hope you have handy in your kitchen: a table of substitutes. There is nothing worse than doing your mise en place and realizing that you’re out of something you need for what you’re making. Maybe it’s sour cream for a dip you decided to whip up to watch TV (use plain yogurt – Greek if you have it!). Maybe you need some buttermilk but only have regular (combine a tablespoon of an acid – lemon juice, vinegar – and enough milk to make a cup). How many large eggs can I substitute in when the recipe calls for jumbo?  Even understanding how to substitute dried herbs for fresh is important (use 1/3 as much dried as fresh). Having a list of things which can serve as alternatives is very handy and can often save a dish.  

We need to do that in business too. When we don’t have the proper things for what we’re trying to accomplish, we need to figure out substitutes. Maybe the higher-ups aren’t giving us the resources we need or maybe the budget isn’t big enough to cover the project at hand. We need to think about alternatives and reframe the problem. Maybe there are exceptions to what we perceive as the norm – organizations who have faced a similar challenge. Can those exceptions point us in another direction?

There are some things for which there are no substitutes.  Good people, for one, and smart, out of the box thinking for another.  I realize that you can’t cook a piece of chicken and call it beef.  Then again, you can substitute turkey for veal in some dishes so maybe chicken for beef isn’t so far-fetched.  That sort of thinking is something in which every organization needs to engage.  What business model can we substitute for our own if things begin to fall apart?

My table of substitutions is tucked away in a kitchen drawer and I rarely need to use it.  I used to have one for my business tucked in a desk drawer – people I might want to hire, companies to replace current partnerships if they fell apart.   Where is yours?

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Filed under Consulting, food

What’s Up?

You might have heard about the latest information from the Pew Research Center about how most of us seem to get our news these days.  If the study is accurate, you might even have heard about it on Twitter or found it in your Facebook news feed.  You see, according to the study, clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook users (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family. That share has increased substantially from 2013, when about half of users (52% of Twitter users, 47% of Facebook users) said they got news from the social platforms.  

What makes me a little nervous is what the Pew folks go on to say:

As more social networking sites recognize and adapt to their role in the news environment, each will offer unique features for news users, and these features may foster shifts in news use. Those different uses around news features have implications for how Americans learn about the world and their communities, and for how they take part in the democratic process.

Having worked with professional reporters and journalists, I can tell you that they don’t just report what they see since sometimes appearances can be deceiving.  The problem, both in journalism and in business, is that instant analysis is often wrong – who can forget CNN, The Boston Globe, and others having to retract reports around the Boston Marathon bombing?  When the reportage is immediate from many people who are untrained in evaluating information (what’s the source, how reliable, etc.), the chances of something being way off base increase dramatically.  Couple that with the built-in selectivity, in the case of Facebook, of algorithms which filter what you see unless you dig a little and one can see how “news” found on social media can easily be “rumor.”

I think social media can play a valuable role in surfacing breaking stories.  Twitter is soon set to unveil its long-rumored news feature, “Project Lightning.” The feature will allow anyone, whether they are a Twitter user or not, to view a feed of tweets, images and videos about live events as they happen, curated by a bevy of new employees with “newsroom experience.”  This is a good thing, in my opinion.  What’s not is accepting what we see there as gospel until there are multiple, professionally trained sources weighing in.  Yes, sometimes they’re wrong (see above), but when they don’t try to compete with the instantaneous stuff found in non-professional sources, they generally get it right.  What do you think?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Idiotic Injecting

No one that I know enjoys going to the doctor and getting an injection. Whether it’s as simple as a flu shot or something more complex such as a regimen of allergy shots, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience. 

Today’s topic is an injection of another sort, but the experience isn’t enjoyable either. It turns out that AT&T has jumped on the “no free lunch” bandwagon with respect to offering wireless hotspots to its customers. A Stanford computer scientist and lawyer was travelling and discovered that the AT&T hotspot to which he had connected was serving ads over web pages he was accessing. When he went to Stanford’s home page, for instance (a page that has zero ads on it), he saw a pop-up ad for jewelry and AT&T itself, and the ads persisted for several seconds until he could close them.

He discovered that the ISP was tampering with HTTP traffic – that’s what serves web pages. It is using a service from a third party to inject the ads and to monetize the traffic. AT&T is far from the first “free” service to do this – Comcast and Marriott are just two others. But as the professor wrote:

AT&T has an (understandable) incentive to seek consumer-side income from its free wifi service, but this model of advertising injection is particularly unsavory. Among other drawbacks: It exposes much of the user’s browsing activity to an undisclosed and untrusted business. It clutters the user’s web browsing experience. It tarnishes carefully crafted online brands and content, especially because the ads are not clearly marked as part of the hotspot service. And it introduces security and breakage risks, since website developers generally don’t plan for extra scripts and layout elements.

In other words, while you might have accepted that as your ISP the folks at AT&T will see and record everything that you’re doing, you might be concerned about an outside company doing so.  Moreover, as a publisher, your beautiful content environment is now sullied by ads from which you derive zero revenue.

If you’re on an AT&T hotspot, you’re already an AT&T customer.  I don’t believe you can log on if you’re not and you’re probably paying them handsomely each month (I know I am).  This sort of nickel and diming might help revenues (I wonder how much in the scheme of things) but it doesn’t help with customer satisfaction. That’s a point from which any business can learn.  Idiotic injection from my perspective.  Yours?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

Speed Kills

I was reading a sports business newsletter this morning and I came across a quote that prompted a business thought. The speaker – a host on ESPN – was reflecting on the demands placed on journalists these days. What she had to say about the need to be fast was this:

The whole Wells Report is like 400 pages. I don’t have time to read 400 pages, but I have to go on the air to say something about these 400 pages. I may have read a good third of it. That’s where we are right now. The whole need to produce an opinion has overshadowed the need to produce reporting. When I was growing up, people were watching the news and expecting unfiltered, objective news. Now, if it isn’t about clicks, it is about drawing attention to yourself and making your opinion stand out and that is difficult.

The Wells report, for those of you not following the story, was an independent review of the deflating of footballs by the New England Patriots during a playoff game last season. I think what she had to say applies to any of us in business and it’s instructive.

We get so much information on a continual basis. Inevitably, some higher up asks about what’s going on and there is a rush to judgement. Many of us feel the need to produce an opinion even though we don’t feel as if we’ve had the time to adequately analyze and reflect on the information we’re getting. That’s dangerous and, in my book, often counterproductive.

We all have opinions – just check your Facebook feed and you’ll see dozens.  I think we all like to believe that we base them on facts, but that same feed will show us that many times that’s just not so.  When that request for information is made, the person asking is generally not seeking your opinion.  They want a cogent analysis of factual material.  The problem is that we’ve all become accustomed to getting the answers fast.  After all, in a world where much of the learning of humankind is at your fingertips and is just a search query away, our sense of patience has all but disappeared.  The quote’s reference to “unfiltered, objective news” applies to the expectations we have in business.  Unfortunately, so too does the emphasis on speed and the need to place yourself front and center.

Like you, I get asked for quick answers.  I’ll often give one along with a disclaimer that it’s an informed opinion but not necessarily reflective of all of the facts and request the opportunity to come back with a more informed answer.  If I know the person asking is going to take immediate action on my answer, I might even ask for a brief delay before I respond so I can gather up some more objective information.  How do you handle it?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Becoming A Steakhouse

It’s Foodie Friday, and my mind is turning to steak. While I enjoy grilling steaks as much as the next person, most of our efforts here at Rancho Deluxe can’t compare to the product put out by a good steakhouse. It got me thinking about why that is, and it turns out there are some really good business points one can take away.

Steak at Peter Luger's

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At first I attributed the biggest difference to the meat itself. After all, high-end steak places serve nothing but prime meat, and generally, it’s been aged. As with any business, NOTHING can take the place of top-shelf raw materials. You can’t make a great product out of inferior ingredients. So on a special occasion, I splurged on an aged piece of Prime porterhouse thinking I now had the ability to replicate that great steak at home. While it was very good, it was definitely NOT the same.

Then there is the cooking method. Top steak places might use a broiler that is heated to 1,000 degrees or more. While I do have a high-end broiler in my oven, I don’t think it gets quite that hot. A charcoal grill can get quite hot using lump (not briquette) charcoal, but it’s a different experience than most steakhouses. Still, it came close in terms of providing enough heat to do the job.

So now I had the equivalent ingredients and a similar cooking tool but it just wasn’t the same. Putting aside that I was doing the cooking and not just being served, I realized that there was one more huge difference: practice. Steakhouses cook 1,000 steaks a week or more. If I do 24 in a year it’s a lot. But it’s a good business point.

There is no substitute for practice, and the more times we do things – presentations, analyses, whatever – the better we become at them. That’s noticeable to the recipient.  Having great raw materials – that includes people – and a great methodology coupled with the right tools to do the job and a LOT of practice can produce a great steak.  That formula’s also capable of producing greatness in your business if you’ll let it.  Will you?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Coleridge And Your Data

Someone probably made you read Samuel Coleridge‘s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner along your educational way. It contains a couplet that got me thinking about data:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

We spend so much time collecting and attempting to analyze data and yet it seems difficult to “drink” from the overwhelming amount we have.  I wonder if we keep an eye on the reasons why we gather data in the first place.  In my mind, there are  two main reasons to collect data:

    • To form actionable business questions
    • To measure how where we are today is different from where we were yesterday

Let me take a second to discuss them.  When we gather information from a customer or potential customer, we should always have a reason for doing so.  Otherwise we’re just filling up our data storage with bits we’ve got no need to store.  A recent IDG Connect study found that the biggest hurdles facing companies in terms of data were poor data quality and excessive data, so we need to think before we gather.  Some of the information they will give you (name, email, maybe a physical address); other information you’ll take yourself (usage patterns on the web and/or mobile, information our of social profiles, etc).

We ought to be using some of that data to educate our fans about our brand and industry.  That falls under the “actionable” category.  What results do we want from them?  How can we tell if we’re moving the needle?  One big day of traffic might be an aberration but trends tend not to lie over time.  I like this quote from the report:

The true value of Big Data is in the ability to leverage it for development of an informed strategy. Organizations need to move beyond a focus on just managing data to extracting trends and insights that will drive business outcomes.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information you have, you probably have too much.  It’s probably not properly focused.  We need to collect as little data as possible – it’s much easier to drink a glass of water than an ocean.  It should be just enough to generate insight and not enough to foster confusion.  Which are you doing?

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Lightening The Load

If there is one thing that seems to have happened over the last 15 years, it’s the growth of ADD.  That’s right – it seems as if most of us have some sort of Attention Deficit Disorder which manifests itself via an inability to stay focused and patient as we use our devices.  After all, what’s more frustrating than clicking on a link and waiting and waiting and waiting for the page to load?  Sometimes it’s due to a lousy connection to the internet.  Most of the time, however, it’s probably due to how the publisher has built the page.  I can hear you muttering that “he’s gone all wonky today” but stay with me.  There is a broader business lesson here.

Web pages are a series of elements.  The page code processes them and does everything from display pictures to send analytics data to a server  to format text to pull ads out of a marketplace.  Each of these things takes a little time and the more of them there are, the longer it takes the page to load.  Graphics intensive content – slide shows, autoplay videos, etc. – take a VERY long time to get ready.  I think part of why people use ad blockers is because they very often cut load times substantially.

GQ, according to an article I read in Digiday, focused on decreasing page load times.   Maybe that was less convenient for their writers or editors, but they decluttered their article pages, moved to a unified content management system, and did some other things that resulted in an 80% decrease in page load times.  That focus on their reader has paid off:

For GQ, having a faster site, along with features like new article pages and article recommendation widgets, has paid off in helping audience growth. Traffic jumped to 11 million uniques in July, the first full month of the relaunch, from 6 million in June, per the site. (Those are the site’s internal Omniture figures; comScore’s July numbers weren’t available at press time). Median time spent on the site rose to 7.8 minutes in July, from 5.9 in June. The benefits have extended to advertisers. With people spending more time on the site, along with bigger and repositioned ad units, the interaction rate on ads rose 108 percent.

The lesson for any of us is that staying focused on the customer experience pays off, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate (who would have thought ad interaction would rise!).  Maybe lightening the load made their wallets heavier. Not a bad tradeoff, right?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media