Learning From Portmanteaus

Foodie Friday, and today we’ll start with a word that may be new to some of you: portmanteau. A portmanteau is a combination of the most recognizable parts of two words. We have many of them in the food world and use them to label a host of new things – utensils, dishes, even fruits. You probably use them all the time without knowing what they’re called.

Ever ordered a cheeseburger? Portmanteau – cheese and hamburger. Ever used a spork? A spoon and a fork. Cronuts, frappuccinos, Clamato, even Tex-Mex all qualify, as do pluots, tangelos, and turduckens. So stop petting your labradoodle (see what I did there?) and think about what those food creations can show us in the broader business sense.

Many of these things were evolutionary.  Adding cheese to a hamburger or putting some tines on a spoon (or was it enlarging and rounding the center of a fork?) was something I’d call part of a gradual change and more of an adaptation than an invention.  We do that a lot in business and it’s a smart way to address the ongoing needs of your current customer base.  The flip side of that is revolutionary change, something that’s entirely new and probably unexpected – the cronut falls into that category.  When we create revolutionary change we run the risk of alienating all of those who love what we’re doing but it’s probably the best way to attract a customer base that has ignored us thus far.  In my mind, great businesses do both types of change – evolutionary and revolutionary – because stasis isn’t an option and consumers are always looking for new and better.

Some food portmanteaus are just bad marketing.  The P’zone – a pizza calzone – is a freaking calzone and neither revolutionary nor evolutionary.  Tofurky (tofu and turkey)?  Really?  If you’re foregoing meat, why label a product as if it is the very thing the customer is avoiding?  That said, those things represent the notion that we constantly need to innovate.  The most successful companies often do nothing more than execute a new twist on an existing product or service better than their competitors.  It might be revolutionary, it might be evolutionary and it might be called a portmanteau.  I call it good business.  You?

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Cat Videos Can Be Good For Business

Many of the travelers on the interwebs spend their time watching cat videos. There is no denying it and you’ve probably done so yourself if you’re being completely honest. Kind of sad. Trillions of dollars of investment in hardware, software, and infrastructure all you we can gasp at how cute kitty is.

As it turns out, there may actually be a reason why so many of us watch cat videos and what’s really scary is that there might be a business lesson buried within that reason. Now before you become fixed in your opinion that I’ve finally lost it, here is what Dr. Radha O’Meara of Massey University in New Zealand has to say about them:

“Cats appear to perform oblivious to the camera. That seems quite a contrast to other similar videos online. Especially other ‘cute’ videos …things like videos of babies and dogs. Cat videos are comparably much more popular and cats don’t seem to acknowledge the camera at all and just do whatever they like, they are oblivious to it. I think that’s really appealing to audiences who are so used to being under the gaze of the camera these days.”

She goes on to say that the unselfconsciousness of cats in online videos offers viewers two key pleasures. It first allows viewers to imagine the possibility of freedom from surveillance and also to experience the power of using surveillance without it causing problems for those being watched.  Without getting off track and onto a rant on privacy, I find something useful in that notion which I can summarize in three words:

Cats don’t care.

We can learn from that.  Obviously not in the “we shouldn’t care” sense – you know that’s not remotely close to what I advocate as good business behavior.  I mean it in the sense of being who we are or what our corporate identity is at its core.  Many firms spend a lot of time worrying about refining their image instead of being honest about what lies behind the brand and letting consumers appreciate them.  If we behaved more like the cat in the videos – openly, honestly, and without a care about who is watching – perhaps we’d get the attention most companies and brands are constantly seeking.

What do you think?

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Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. For you gentiles in the audience, this holiday follows the pattern of many Jewish celebrations – someone tried to kill us; divine intervention saved us; let’s eat. In this case, that intervention took the form of making a single day’s supply of oil last eight days following a battle, and the food eaten this holiday is traditionally fried food in honor of the oil. It’s the last part on which I want to focus today’s screed.

No, this isn’t a rant on latkes (fried cakes of potatoes and onions) and besides, it isn’t Foodie Friday. It’s the tradition part and how the customs of the holiday got me thinking about business.  As with any holiday, whether a religious holiday or not, there are customs.  Foods we make, maybe clothes we wear, etc.  Even within your family it may be one family member’s house for a particular celebration that never changes from year to year (think Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, etc.).  These are traditions and they give a sense of comfort and continuity.  They’re great things but not, in my opinion, in a business setting.

How we get into trouble is by honoring most business traditions. Some of them are fine, but not many.  Most of the contexts which prompted the creation of a legacy business process (which is, after all what traditions are) have changed.  Those changes have been dramatic, and thinking “that’s how we’ve always done it” can be a death knell.  What we need to do is to look back on the tradition and ask “why.”  Why was this, at some point, the right answer to a business problem and what can we learn from it to adapt it to current conditions?

I’ll make latkes and light candles and honor the traditions of the holiday this evening.  When I go back to work tomorrow, it’s with an open mind and a mental library of traditional business answers from which to build new traditions that suit today’s challenges.  You?

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It Ain’t Me Babe

You might think from the title of today’s screed that I’m going to get into another Dylan rant. Nope. I’m just borrowing a song title from him because it was the first thing that popped into my head when I read something.

twitter fail image

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realize that research can be boring but here is the factoid that blew my mind: 40% of Facebook accounts and 20% of Twitter accounts claiming to represent a Fortune 100 brand are unauthorized. That comes out of a research report from the good folks at Nexgate. They analyzed the 32,000 social media accounts associated with the Fortune 100 between July 2013 and June 2014 to compile their State of Social Media Infrastructure, Part 2 report. The findings are disturbing, at least to me, and should be a warning to anyone in business who manages a social media account.

It found that the average firm had 320 accounts on various platforms, but that many were false. How exactly any company, even these very big ones, can keep up with 320 accounts is beyond me although I suppose you could convince me of the need for very granular Twitter accounts, for example, with which to do customer service. 2.29 accounts per firm indicated that they had probably been hijacked, while social spam on accounts grew a staggering 658% since mid-2013.  Links to porn, malicious software, and worse are rampant.  I suspect that using the excuse that “it wasn’t us; it was an evil person using our good name” isn’t going to cut it.

Obviously the first thing any smart business should do is to  create an inventory of legitimate accounts.  From that you find the other accounts and ask that they be taken down.  It’s also important not to just “set and forget” what’s going on within the real accounts.  People do manage to hack their way in and spammers have figured out ways to hijack threads.  In other words part of “listening” is hearing yourself as part of the conversation and taking action when your own voice seems inauthentic.

Make sense?

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Finely Chopped Onions And Business

Foodie Friday, and this week it’s about chopping onions.  No, it’s not a screed on how cutting up onions relates to being in business without crying although that’s not a bad idea for some Friday down the road.  This week, it’s about a legendary chef – Marco Pierre White – and his technique for chopping onions more finely than you’ve ever chopped them before.  There are practical reasons for doing so as he explains. The video I’ve embedded demonstrates his technique, but it’s actually something he says in the video that’s our subject today.

First, the chopping lesson:

Did you hear what Chef White had to say as part of his demonstration?

‘Perfection is lots of little things done well.’

He picked that up from Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point. He is the father of modern French cuisine. It’s a great business reminder too.  We talk a lot in this space about many “big” things but the reality is that we can’t ignore the most basic skills if we’re to continue to improve as businesspeople.  We might be focused on the big idea, but if our basic writing skills are inferior, the brilliance of our idea won’t be expressed.

Chopping onions is probably the most basic of cooking skills.  I’ve seen friends spend a full two minutes chopping an onion when had they learned the proper technique and practiced they would be able to do so in under 30 seconds.  It’s a little thing, but improving all of the little things is sometimes the only way to improve the whole.  As an aside, it’s a heck of a lot more fun when the tedious things go quickly and efficiently both in the kitchen and in the office.

Striving for continuous improvement is a noble goal.  Our focus should be on big steps forward.  The way to get our businesses to take those steps just might be through improving all the little things, especially when we’ve done a good job on the big ones already.  After all, a team that keeps hitting singles and not making many outs eventually scores a lot of ones, even without any home runs.

You agree?

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Sick Days

I feel like crap. I’m told that I sound that way too. Congestion in my chest has migrated up into my head and the pressure in my sinuses is killing me. It’s actually hard to keep my eyes focused as I’m trying to get this written.

I know you’ve been here too. Unless you live in a sterile environment like Howard Hughes, we all get a bit under the weather from time to time, especially when the seasons change. I’m going to keep this brief today.

While once in a while you and I can have a sick day, we can’t ever allow our businesses to do so. Sure, the people who are the faces of our enterprises get sick or fight with their significant other or have other problems. That’s when we encourage them to stay home, or at least take them away from dealing with customers until their physical or mental health returns.

Our customers and partners want to be able to count on us.  While they may be sympathetic to our personnel issues or to other things that can make a business “sick”, they aren’t going to be working with us for long if there is a chance that our illness will spread to them.  Obviously I’m not being literal.  But our problems can’t become their problems.


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The Other Side Of Ad Blocking

Yesterday I posted about how some publishers, in a drive for revenues, have gone way too far with respect to ads.  Their loyalty to their investors has beaten down their loyalty to their users which has precipitated the rise of ad blocking software.  Today I want to look at another side of this except it’s far less fun that simple ad blocking.  This side is criminal.

I have been working off and on with a group of folks trying to get a niche sports site off the ground.  Their traffic has been growing steadily and was fairly impressive for a year-old operation.  We discussed how they were doing their marketing to grow the traffic and how a company I won’t rat out here had been doing a good job in helping them grow.  As I drilled down into their analytics, it became very obvious that a lot of the traffic – close to 90% of it – was coming from machines and not from human users.  The firm they were using was buying traffic from robots.  Lots of it.

It’s not particularly hard to spot something like that if you’re willing to look.  Which is why the latest report from the Association of National Advertisers and WhiteOps is so disturbing.  Some of the findings per analysts at SunTrust Robinson Humphreys:

  • Up to 50 percent of publisher traffic is bot activity, just fake clicks from automated computing programs.
  • Bots account for 11 percent of display ad views and 23 percent of video ads.
  • Digital advertising will take in $43.8 billion next year, and $6.3 billion will be based on the fraudulent activity.
  • More than half of traffic from third parties claiming to lift publishers’ traffic numbers comes from bots.

In other words, fraud.  Despite the incredible growth of digital advertising over the last few years, it’s still a nascent industry, once which still has many doubters in the marketing community. The reports aren’t helping but let’s not shoot the messenger. Publishers can take countermeasures – how many of them do? I spent 10 minutes and not only identified fake traffic but could pinpoint the sources and recommend installing filters to block it.  I suspect that no publisher wants to blow up a significant part of their traffic – my client certainly didn’t want to.  But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away and will lead to much bigger problems down the road.  I don’t think it’s a road we want to travel. Do you?

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks