Category Archives: Huh?

Gurus And Ninjas

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it’s supposed to be a day for love but I want to focus on something I don’t love: gurus. OK, it’s not just gurus. It’s ninjas, wizards, mavens, and other self-proclaimed experts. I’m sick of them and, more importantly, I’m wary of the damage they cause. Let me explain and maybe I can bring you over to the dark side.

First, let me be clear about whom I speak. Generally, these are people who seem to spend a hell of a lot more time explaining how great they are at something rather than actually doing anything worth noting. Their professional profiles use words like ninja. I did a quick search and came up with over 60,000 results for that word on LinkedIn. Do any of them know what a ninja actually is? According to Wikipedia, it’s a

mercenary in feudal Japan. The functions of the ninja included espionagesabotageinfiltrationassassination and guerrilla warfare.[1] Their covert methods of waging irregular warfare were deemed dishonorable and beneath the samurai, who observed strict rules about honor and combat.

I’m not sure any businessperson wants to hire a dishonorable assassin but I could be wrong. Yes, I get that the meaning of words changes over time but if you mean to say you’re an expert, say it. Maybe they can’t because they’re not really experts at anything other than self-promotion.

Speaking of misused, overused job titles, let’s move on to “maven.” A maven is an expert, actually a “trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass timely and relevant knowledge on to others in the respective field.” The key words here are “trust” and “expert.” I’ve checked out a few “mavens” and when well over 75% of their social followers are fake and they’ve been in their field of practice for under 5 years, I think they’re neither trustworthy nor experts.

We all have personal brands. Some of us work very diligently at getting that brand out there and others of us do great work and hope that work speaks for itself. I’ll admit that I probably should have done more self-promotion over the years although in my defense there weren’t the opportunities to do it on one’s own as there are now. I still rely on clients to bring me other clients and on readers of the screed to do the same. I try to connect with people I know and respect, focusing on quality.

Does any of this make me a guru? A maven? A freakin’ ninja? Nope. I’m just a guy who’s been at this for longer than most of the self-promoters have been alive and who has already made most of the mistakes they’re going to make, probably using someone else’s business to do so. Is it self-promotion to say I’ve already learned from the mistakes they’re going to make so they won’t happen in the first place?

If you’re a guru, act like one. Be the one who dispels the darkness and takes towards the light. Be a counselor and an inspiration. A ninja? Not so much.

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A Not So Super Formula

Super Bowl Sunday is not only a celebration of the NFL championship. It’s also a day celebrating commercialism is in its glory. While some forms of it are heinous (think of the price-gouging going on in and around the stadium), I think most of us enjoy checking out the commercials each year. Some are funny, some are just dumb, but all of them are selling us something.

Photo by Andrae Ricketts

The commercials got me thinking about another form of selling that made news this weekend. You’ve probably heard about the memo released by a member of Congress concerning the investigation into how Russia interfered in our election. Putting aside the politics (we don’t do them here), it provides a very instructive thought about marketing.

Much like the release of a new movie or any other product, the memo was preceded by a campaign to raise awareness of it. There was a hashtag used to build that awareness along with demand and various friendly outlets promoted the fact that the memo was something all Americans should see. That’s where things go off the rails a bit since the reason given why we should all see this document was that it contained new, critical information. The promise was that once we all saw this information, our perception of how the investigation was being run or even its entire existence would be called into question. That, dear readers, is the lesson.

The memo was released and while to some it was a big deal, the general response to it was that it’s a big dud that contained nothing new and was somewhat misleading. In fact, some of the folks who were hyping its release are now backing away. What it shows us is the problem with overselling.

Overselling in its simplest form is selling more than you have to offer. If you’re an airline or hotel, you sell more seats or rooms than you have because there are usually cancellations or no-shows. It another form, overselling is going well beyond the substance of what you have, teeing up the consumer for disappointment when they find you’ve underdelivered. It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do.

Isn’t hyperbole part of selling? I don’t think so. In fact, I think great selling is about helping a prospect gain clarity about their situation while hyperbole is about obstructing reality to a certain extent. Overpromising and underdelivering, whether in releasing a report or running an ad in the Super Bowl, is a formula for failure in my book. Yours?

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Getting The Message

You may have read about a missile alert issued in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. A worker mistakenly believed that there was an incoming missile attack and issued an alarm. The initial report was that he had hit the wrong button on a drop-down menu. As it turns out, he had missed the part of the incoming alert message that said it was an exercise. The message itself also included the words “this is not a drill” (it shouldn’t have) which proved to be confusing at best and terrifying at worst.

As I read about this, I thought about how many times employees don’t hear the messages we send them. This particular employee had a track record, according to reports, of confusing real-world events and drills several times over the last decade. While I’m not sure this is the individual I would want in a critical role, that fact that he was should have reminded his management to be absolutely clear when giving him instructions.

You don’t think this kind of miscommunication could happen in your business? Well, maybe not, but let me ask you a few questions.

  • Do you ever tell your staff that it’s OK to fail and yet punish people who do so at review time?
  • Do you ever tell people to innovate and yet get mad when they don’t follow protocols you’ve established?
  • Do you ever tell anyone to work carefully and yet push them to make an unrealistic deadline?
  • Do you ever refuse to prioritize their work with them and instead tell them that “everything is a big priority”?

Those are the same type of confusing, conflicting messages as the guy heard in Hawaii, and just as in that situation the chances are good that the recipient will mishear and push the wrong button (or, as in this case, the right button at the wrong time). Putting aside the fact that the Hawaiians did themselves no favors by allowing one individual to issue an alert (they’ve remedied that – it now takes two to do so), or that the individual in question had made similar mistakes in the past,  the fault lies just as much with the supervisor who issued conflicting instructions (This is an exercise/this is not a drill). It’s a mistake no supervisor can afford to make unless they enjoy creating terror in their businesses. Now, who wants that?

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Your Focus Is Fake

Over the weekend the NY Times published an article about a company called Devumi that sells followers. As the piece says:

Photo by Jehyun Sung

Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online.

Since social media is, well, media, an outlet’s ability to charge is based upon its reach. Since everyone has the ability to be a little piece of the media these days, having a bigger audience or the ability to demonstrate great influence by having hundreds of thousands of followers is a big deal. Take Facebook where:

up to 60 million automated accounts may roam the world’s largest social media platform. These fake accounts, known as bots, can help sway advertising audiences and reshape political debates. They can defraud businesses and ruin reputations.

I’ve seen this happen first hand. I was working with a client and we were approached by someone (actually a pair of someones) who wanted to work with us. They proudly showed off their 1million+ Twitter followers as evidence of their ability to impact what we were doing. They seemed a little shady so I ran their Twitter account through one of the services that examine followers for signs that they’re fake. 95% of their followers were bots or fake accounts. No deal.

The Times piece is really excellent because the thing it points out to me is something that is important to you, or should be. The reason having fake followers works is that brands are too focused on reach and not enough on results. The thing those fake followers won’t do is to buy. Yes, you can buy fake click-throughs as well, but I’m quite sure that your conversion rate will plummet if you do so since no bot-master is going to spend a nickel going through your sales funnel. When celebrities (or celebrity wannabes) inflate their follower totals, it’s part ego and part to demonstrate their popularity. Does anyone look at real-world results that might point to those things? Ratings? Box-office? Ticket sales?

Have you ever heard anyone giving out advice (marketing or otherwise) tell you to be fake? Probably not. Authenticity is the underpinning of great marketing today. There is no incentive for Twitter or Facebook to fix this since their financial well-being is partially judged by how many people are on and use their platforms. It’s a shame, and if we did politics here we could talk about how this same problem has gone beyond marketing products and services and into influencing our political system. You can fix it, however, by measuring what matters. Reach doesn’t really matter. Results do. That’s how I see it. You?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

Looking For The Truffles

This Foodie Friday I’m going to run the risk that I’m going to burst a balloon. If you received some truffle oil as a holiday gift, the odds are overwhelming that there isn’t any truffle in your truffle oil. That’s right: much like true extra virgin olive oil, which is generally often neither “virgin” nor “olive oil,” truffle oil is generally some sort of oil infused with something called 2,4-dithiapentane. Sounds yummy, no? As Tony Bourdain said, truffle oil is “not even food! About as edible as Astroglide and made out of the same material.”

Norcia black truffles.

Norcia black truffles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should not really be the real bearer of bad news here. As far back as 2003, publications were reporting on this and the NY Times did a piece last September on it that was widely read in foodie circles. You might think I’m going to use this as the jumping off point for another rant about deceptive advertising, and as appealing a thought as that is, I’m heading in another direction. Much like the “Where’s The Beef” question, seeing truffle oil on a grocery shelf (heck, even Walmart sells EVOO with “truffle aroma”) makes me wonder where exactly the truffles are. Real truffles in oil don’t last long, you know, so they’re probably not in things that sit on a shelf.

Come to think of it, vanilla extract has the same issue. Much of what you see in the stores isn’t real vanilla and there’s no vanilla in most vanilla things, but vanillin, a chemical compound. Unlike truffles, you probably can buy the real thing at your local store but it’s not 98 cents a bottle, believe me.

What does this have to do with your business, other than making you feel as you did when you found out there isn’t a Santa Claus or Easter Bunny? More than you’d think, actually. When you put up a sign or create a website that announces you as a service provider of some sort, people have an expectation that you can, in fact, provide said service. When you advertise a product, customers expect that the product will do what you say it will. They don’t want to have to look for the truffles nor do they expect that what they’ll find will be fake or something that mimics the real thing. If you’re selling your expertise, have some, even if it’s narrow. I’m surprised sometimes when I speak with people who claim to know something about a piece of this crazy business world how little they actually do know. They might have read a book and can fake their competence, but there really isn’t a truffle there.

A vanilla-flavored extract isn’t the same as vanilla extract. Truffle flavored oil assuredly has no truffles. Make sure there is validity in whatever you’re claiming to be or much like olive oil brands and truffle oil distributors are being sued (there were “four class-action lawsuits filed in New York and California accusing Trader Joe’s, Urbani Truffles, Sabatino and Monini of fraud of ‘false, misleading, and deceptive misbranding’ of its truffle oil products'” you’re heading for big trouble.

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What Has Happened?

Maybe it’s because the start of the year is also a time of reflection, but I continue to be appalled at the state of the online advertising business. It’s not so much about the fact that 2 players – Facebook and Google – gobble up the majority of money spent. In fact, in terms of ad revenue, Facebook by itself is twice as big as the newspaper business, according to eMarketer, and will be bigger than the entire print business shortly. Google is twice as big as Facebook. There’s a third player – Amazon – on the way to suck up a huge share of the ad pot as well.

While that isn’t the problem, it does mean that the rest of the industry is fighting over relative crumbs. When you’re desperate, you might do things that you know are wrong or foolish and that’s where I think we are. In fact, I think we’ve gone way over the line from foolish to criminal.

Some examples. Yesterday while I was reading an article via the web browser on my phone, up popped the screen you see on the right. Those of you who have an Android phone know that what you see looks very much like the Google Play store and it seems as if there is a critical app update I need to make. It is an ad, of course, trying to get me to install what I assume is malware. Had I not noticed that it was in a web browser and not in the native Play Store, I just might have clicked.

This is why the online ad business is doomed or at least the part that’s outside of the big 3. On the consumer side, people are forced to use ad blockers to prevent malware from infecting their devices as well as interrupting their tasks with annoying popups. On the business side, publishers keep pushing ads knowing that some percentage of them are scams or worse yet unable to do anything since in many cases they’re not the ones selling the ads. They’ve offloaded that to third parties and 74.5% of US digital display ad dollars transacted programmatically will go to private marketplaces and programmatic direct setups.

Speaking of those third parties, they might just be the worst thieves in the bunch. They claim to be there to help publishers increase revenues or marketers to buy efficiently yet they inject numerous fees, both known and hidden, into the process, siphoning off at significant (upwards of 25%) amount of the available money in the transaction. Those hidden fees, by the way, might just violate any number of local and federal laws.

So what has happened to the ad business in which I grew up? What has happened to agencies being honest brokers and nearly full transparency on all sides? Where is someone in the ad chain (looking at you, ad networks) saying “no” to scams, malware, and the other crap that serve no purpose other than to encourage adblocking or to harm someone? Anyone?

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The Razzie Goes To…

I went to see a movie Saturday afternoon and ended up seeing a lot more than I had intended. It became a great learning experience about trying to solve one problem and creating a much more severe issue in the process.

The movie itself was fine (“Darkest Hour,” a little long but great performances). It was what I saw going on several times in the lobby which provided the learning experience. Apparently, this theater has a policy that kids under age 17 cannot attend a movie Friday-Sunday after 4pm without an accompanying adult. That’s right – any movie, even a G-rated one. It’s a relatively new policy too since there were several people there who had thought they’d go into one theater while their teen-aged kids went to see something else. They were engaged with the person taking tickets as well as with the customer service desk and someone I assume was a manager. The exchanges weren’t going well.

A few things from which we all can learn. First, this policy is nowhere to be found on the theater’s website or Facebook page. From the comments on the Facebook page, some parents had even dropped off their 15-year-old kids only to be called to come back since they weren’t being admitted to a PG-13 movie. If you’re going to make a change in your policies, make them loudly and often. Obviously, people do check movie times before showing up – how about making sure that every time your theater displays that your new policy does as well? BY the way, there is still no official announcement of this on their Facebook page despite numerous (negative) comments about it.

Second. This theater could not care less about customer service. How do I know? Two ways for starters. The person at the customer service desk was doing anything but serving the customer. They had a “take it or leave it” attitude and when I heard someone say “we won’t be back to this theater” his dismissed it with a “that’s fine.” He also said the policy was a safety issue and when one mom pointed to her three 13-year-old girls, asking if they looked dangerous, his response was “yes.” Really?

The other thing that this theater does it to respond to every Facebook comment, good or bad, with exactly the same cut and paste copy. There is no acknowledgment of the specific issue nor anything beyond a link to their corporate customer service page (they’re part of a chain) which is basically kicking a local issue into a much larger, less likely to be served bin. The funny thing is the copy: We strive to give you the best experience and would like the opportunity to give you a 5-star experience, next time. Not so much, and why would anyone with an issue come back?

I do understand why this policy is in place. The theater has had trouble on Friday and Saturday nights with teenagers acting up: making noise, throwing food, using their phones to take pictures, etc. As with most things, it’s a very small group that causes the problem and the theater’s management has chosen to paint with an extremely wide brush in an attempt to solve it. In the process, they’ve alienated many customers. There is another multiplex showing most of the same movies not very far away. Which would you choose as a parent?

I wonder if they did a cost/benefit analysis? What would it cost to hire extra security on weekends? How about a few more ushers? How many admissions and concession sales are lost to the new policy? Moreover, what is the value of the goodwill seeing the extra security vs. the negative effect of this? What 16-year old wants to be told they need to have Mommy go with them to the movies?

They give out The Razzies to films or acting performances in films considered to be the worst of the year. I’d give this theater one for their “problem-solving” and customer service performances. You?

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