Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Fending For Yourself On Facebook

We used to be awfully smug when I was working for network television. After all, if an advertiser wanted immediate national reach there were no other options. If they didn’t want to go through the hassle of buying dozens or maybe tens of dozens of individual markets in spot television, then they had to come to one of the big networks. Over time, cable TV cut into that dominance but adding a few broad reach cable networks into the mix didn’t hurt us too badly. Until it did.

Today, the audiences for network TV are big but they certainly have been bigger. More importantly, there are many others with comparable audiences and advertisers have a lot of choices. More often than not, when the channel of choice is digital, the medium of choice is Facebook. They bill themselves as a content platform but that’s not really true. They’re a publisher. They curate content from others and control the content that appears, just the way the TV networks used to do before they started creating many of the shows themselves. Slowly, they’re learning that they are responsible for the content that appears on their platform since they’re picking and choosing. Publishers (think the Times or Journal) are responsible when their publications (platforms?) are used to spread lies or infringe on copyright. There is one area, however, in which they claim no responsibility at all.

This is from an Ad Age article:

When Facebook’s Campbell Brown addressed an auditorium full of magazine executives in New York Tuesday, she did not mince words: The social network is not here to save their businesses…It was a sobering and frank message for an industry looking for answers. Facebook has endured criticism from media companies for encouraging them to invest resources into its distribution platform. Facebook has persuaded publishers to push into live video, fast-loading Instant Articles, longer Watch videos and other offerings, for example, but none have reaped significant returns.

In other words, while we encouraged you to invest in our platform and grow our engagement with audiences using your content, you’re on your own when it comes to reaping the rewards. In fact, it’s worse than that since Facebook now demands that publishers pay for any significant visibility. Facebook is in a position analogous to where we were at the TV networks 30 years ago. We didn’t realize at the time how tenuous our grasp on our audiences was nor did we do a good job of working in a balanced partnership with our advertisers. Facebook manages to piss off the marketing community almost as often as they do privacy advocates. As one analyst note said, “Facebook is at risk of being massively unfriended by its 7 million advertisers.”

Personally, I’m wondering why they have as many as they do, given their attitude to their audiences, to content providers, and to marketers. Yes, I get the numbers but I also know that there are many other choices in marketing today. Maybe the digital platforms of the TV networks? Remember them?

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Break Up Facebook

I’m a capitalist. I’m a big believer that the free enterprise system should be left to work pretty much without outside interference. We can have a lively discussion as to whether that really ever happens (I don’t think it does) but I think we can agree that where the free enterprise system needs to have some controls imposed are when the system results in anticompetitive and/or anticonsumer behavior. Historically, the government takes action at that point, as it did with Standard Oil and with original AT&T. I think we’re at that point again with Facebook and I think the company needs to be broken up.

Many of you don’t remember the old AT&T. It controlled local phones, long-distance services, and the manufacture of most telephone equipment. You can read a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the breakup here but the net result was that phone services got more competitive, equipment improved, and the number of wireless services and broadband providers we have now is a result. AT&T was a  monopoly, and when its monopoly power was removed, it struggled.

Facebook is a monopoly. They’ve become so massive that you can’t escape their data collection system. They’ve bought any company that seems as if it might become competitive. They aren’t “winning” because they have a better product; they’re doing so because we don’t really have a choice or because they’ve cheated. Facebook bases its business model on anti-consumer behavior and, frankly, lying. They lied to publishers. They lied to video creators.  They lied to the government about data collection and the role they played in spreading misinformation and propaganda while accepting money to do so. They’ve lied to you. Think about the number of times you’ve read about some horrible thing the company has done only to promise it won’t happen again and they’ll be better. Until the next time.

Germany just did something that could show us the way. Germany’s antitrust regulator has told Facebook it must stop forcing users to allow it to collect and combine their data from sources outside Facebook. Among such sources are Facebook-owned apps like WhatsApp and Instagram as well as third-party websites that include Facebook features like the “share” button. Since Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising based on that data collection, this is a great first step.

The last straw from me was the realization that Facebook is monetizing data from people who don’t even have a Facebook account. When people navigate around the internet, sites that use Facebook’s advertising pixel or other social APIs linking back to Facebook (like the “Like” button) send data about those site visits back to Facebook. Facebook collects that data on everyone who visits these sites, whether they’re a registered user or not. You might not be on Facebook but that doesn’t stop them from selling your data. It’s also why any ad-based digital publishing business is probably going to have to survive on crumbs since Facebook scarfs up most of the ad dollars since they have most of the data. Yes, I know Google grabs just as much but it’s a different business model. Search isn’t display.

Break up Facebook. The digital world needs its walls to crumble so that new businesses – better and more ethical businesses – can survive. Start by breaking off Instagram and What’s App. Don’t let them make any new acquisitions of competitors. That’s where I’d begin. You?

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Stew

It’s nearly 80 degrees here on this Foodie Friday and one might think that winter is gone. Not so fast – it will be in the mid-40’s tomorrow so we’re not yet past stew weather. Stews are a winter staple and since there are endless variations of them, one can’t really get bored with making them.

Some folks think of stews as a thick soup but I think that vastly underrates the dish. I wouldn’t serve soup over noodles or mashed potatoes, would you? As it turns out, they teach us a bit about managing too.

One thing that’s great about stews is that the longer they sit, the better they get as long as you don’t raise the temperature too far. You need to choose your protein – generally meat – wisely. You want the inexpensive cuts that really aren’t good for much else since they contain a lot of connective tissue. They require lengthy cooking (pressure cooking excepted) so that tissue can break down and the meat can transform into tender loveliness.

The meat needs to be seared properly. That means you can’t overload your pan or the meat with steam and not brown. You don’t want to put too much flour on the meat or into the stew to help thicken it or you end up with a gloppy mess. Let the collagen from the meat do its job. If you need more thickening, use gelatin (look it up!) which does the job without changing the flavor or adding lumps.

So why is this appropriate for our business blog? Your team is your stew. You need to find the right ingredients, which are often the overlooked cuts. The best stew meat comes from the muscles that do a lot of work but need help in transforming into dinner greatness. Dig deeper for people, especially the ones who’ve been working hard but maybe not getting the recognition they deserve. You need a sturdy pot that can hold the heat. That, dear readers, is often you, the leader of the team. Great stews have lots of individual components, each of which needs to be added at the right time or it will get mushy. This speaks to the need to pay attention to the individuals on your team to bring out the best in each of them. Pull things together, apply some gentle heat, and give it time. Your team is a magnificent stew!

Here is a list of stews. It is quite varied, but the dishes have a lot in common while still being quite distinctive. Your stew – your team – will be too. Go out and pull it together.

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Five Feet From Where?

If you’ve been reading the screed on a regular basis of late, you know that my recent experience of purchasing and moving into a new home has provided wonderful fodder for my rants. Today will continue the trend.

One thing that I asked the builder to do as part of the deal was to put up a five-foot fence in the back yard. He agreed and yet another adventure in communication began. It dawned on me as this adventure progressed that there is a great business point contained within.

I live in a community that has an HOA – a homeowner’s association. I’d never lived with one before and so wasn’t really used to the fact that most of the people living in “neighborhoods” down here live with the fact that a board can tell them everything from what color they can paint their home to the type of trees they can plant to the type and height of the fences they can erect and where. To build my fence, I needed HOA approval, and that’s when the fun started. I couldn’t get that approval until I actually owned the home. Until then, the developer’s regulations applied, meaning the fence could only extend five feet from the side of the house and be no more than four feet high. I wanted to live with the HOA rule of the fence being five feet from the property line, not from the house, which in my case meant it would extend an extra eight feet from the house. I also wanted the HOA to approve a five-foot-high fence. You with me so far?

The builder was happy to put up the fence but he would have to do so within the builder regulations unless I wanted to wait almost 2 months, the time it would take to close on the house and go through the HOA approval process. I won’t bore you with the details, but I managed to get the approval much faster (it helps to have golf buddies with good connections). The fence was going up as of last Friday and should be done by Monday, move-in day.

I drove by the new house on Friday and sure enough, the five foot high posts were in the ground, exactly five feet from the house and NOT from the property line. Despite many emails and calls back and forth, somehow the point of the delay – to get a variance to get five feet from the property line and not from the house – was lost even though the message about extra height got through. The fence company was told five feet from the house and they were not happy when they got the call to reset all the posts. Of course, there were also emails asking for proof that the variance had been granted (they’d received the copies several weeks before). As of right now, I’m looking at posts five feet high sitting five feet from the property line (and 13 feet from the house) awaiting the rails and pickets to be attached, hopefully, today or tomorrow.

What’s the business point? No matter what you think you’re communicating to someone, it’s always a good idea to review it again, especially when it involves something that’s not easily undone. Have the person repeat the instructions back to you. Make sure that nothing was lost in the communication. In my case, “five feet” wasn’t the issue. Five feet from where certainly was and that’s what got lost somehow. Good teams are all built around great communication. So are good partnerships and great customer service.

Frost wrote Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Apparently, that something is unclear instruction and faulty communication, right?

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Lucky Or Good

I have a rant for you today and I’m going to say upfront that it is not political in nature although as you read it you might think that it’s my intention to make it so.

One of the things I’ve noticed in business is that we tend to put people who are rich or successful (and usually both) on a pedestal. We assume that they know a heck of a lot more than we do because they are rich or successful. We listen to them give speeches and prognosticate on business and the world. The reality is that more often than not they’re more the beneficiaries of “right place, right time” than they are smart.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a few examples in tech. The founders of Google at one time said they’d never take ads because it might throw in to question the purity of their search results. It took a non-founder, a person you probably have never heard of, to convince them that great computer science is one thing but running a business that has investors is quite another. Advertising is what makes Google profitable. Are the founders smart or lucky?

Think of all of Google’s products or Facebook’s for that matter. Besides the “core” product, what have they invented that demonstrate that they’re not just a one-trick pony? YouTube? Instagram? What’s App? Sorry, all acquisitions. Most of the features or products they have were created elsewhere and either bought or copied. Think about how many failed products or features those companies have produced. I’d suggest that they, like many in tech, we much luckier than they were good and yet we venerate many of them as if they were Einstein.

Then there are those in business who were born on third base. These are the ones who came from money and often are working in a family business. The positions they’re in can command respect but unlike those people who advance into those positions via hard work and demonstrating talent, these folks are often unsuited for jobs several levels below where they are. I’ve encountered several of them in my career and did my best to avoid them in business dealings.

Would I rather be lucky than good? I often say exactly that, mostly after a wayward golf shot hits something and ricochets back into a good spot. Studies have shown that we can create luck by being extroverted, observant, and positive It also helps to have perfect timing as many of those who got rich in the early internet days did. The really smart ones got out, recognizing that when a rogue wave throws you out of the ocean rather than drowning you, use the dry land to run away.

This isn’t prompted by anything other than a two-hour car drive which afforded me some time to think. I’ve been both lucky and, I think, pretty good. Life isn’t a zero sum game and I don’t begrudge these charlatans their success. I do, however, wish some of them would stop confusing their success or the jobs they hold with who they are as people and what skills they possess. Hopefully, none of us are doing that, right?

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Slow Down

“Fail fast” has become one of the mantras of our age. The notion is that iterating fast failures will get us to the desired result faster than taking our time and seeking a more perfect answer. I agree that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that at some point the cost of reducing variance and getting to the perfect far exceeds the benefits derived from actually getting there. But I’m not so sure that slowing down and taking a bit more time is a bad thing. Let me explain why.

People are deluged these days. Marketing messages overwhelm them. We don’t have 100 channels of entertainment nor even 1,000. There is an unlimited and expanding number of sources, both physical and digital, of entertainment. Walk into any supermarket and the product offerings in almost any category boggle the mind. Why is this a big deal? Because I don’t think you get a second chance. If you’re not solving a problem and creating value for the customer right out of the box, you’re dead. That means that you have to get it right the first time.

How many apps have you installed and removed from your phone because they didn’t meet your expectations the first time you opened the app? Was version 2.0 better? Who knows – they had their chance. How many new restaurants have you tried that were disappointing either in food or service and not returned? Did the menu evolve and new a manager show up to fix service? Who knows or cares – there are plenty of other options.

I’ve noticed it in a bad habit I have. My brain is often working too fast as I’m listening to people and I will often respond before I’ve listened to all the information they are trying to convey to me. I need to slow it down a bit so my first answer to them is the right answer and not something that I need to revise.

If you make things, do market research. If you write things, proofread them and put them aside to read them again in 5 minutes instead of hitting “send”. We all feel the time crunch and the need to get stuff done, but slow down a bit. Your results will be better and you’ll actually save time since you won’t need to do it all over again as more information changes your thinking. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

The Easy Way Out For Whom?

It seems as if I’m writing a series of posts inspired by my having decided to purchase a new house. I guess when we shake up our lives a bit we get inspired, or at least we get confronted by how some businesses are a lot better than others in many ways.

Today’s tale is yet another head-shaker. One of the things I found myself needing as I planned out my new digs was a few pieces of furniture. Like many people, I took to the internet to browse online and I found things at both Wayfair and Ikea that were priced well and seemed to be of good quality. The closest Ikea store is three hours from me and Wayfair only operates online, so I did my ordering via the web.

The orders showed up pretty much on time. There was a delay in the Ikea boxes due to the fact that I wasn’t at the new house to receive them. Of course, while Ikea told me the time window in which things would arrive, they never said someone had to be there. A call to customer service and we rescheduled delivery for a few days later. If you’re telling the customer when the boxes will arrive, why not also tell them they need to be around while you have their attention? Wayfair’s deliveries were just placed on the porch without incident.

That, however, is far from the end of the tale. The real fun began after I opened the boxes. I needed to assemble the furniture and of course, the first step is to make sure all the pieces and hardware had arrived safely. They hadn’t. In two cases, one from each company, a key piece of the item was damaged and not just cosmetically. I needed replacement pieces before I could go any further.

This is where the head shaking begins. Ikea’s website says:

If you are not able to visit the store, and only one piece of the unit is damaged, call us within 365 days of the purchase with your receipt information and we will be happy to deliver the missing items within 7-10 days.

Wayfair’s policy is:

Through our online portal you can:

  • Order free replacement parts (e.g. table legs, missing screws)
  • Replace the entire item for free
  • Get in touch with Customer Service

Be sure to complete this process within 30 days of your delivery date.

No problem in either case. I contacted them and told them exactly which parts were damaged, even using the part numbers out of the assembly manuals. Want to guess what I was told? Neither company ships parts. Instead, they would ship me a complete item. I could then take the damaged part from the box and throw away or donate the rest. Huh?
These are not small items. A large bookcase from Ikea and a desk from Wayfair, each of which weighed around 100 lbs in the boxes. How is it possible it costs less to send a complete item than to have some system for having inventory replacement parts? I get that these items come pre-packaged from many manufacturers. I’m also sure these companies can track which parts of which items often show up damaged (that’s what data is for, right?). Why not order a stock of those parts instead of devastating your margins by shipping two complete items and only getting paid for one?
Many of us in business do things because it’s the easy way out. We don’t take the time to question a system that seems to be working even though it’s not optimal. When things have “always been done that way” or when a report shows up regularly and heads right to the recycling bin, we don’t ask ourselves “why” often enough. The system these two companies have doesn’t really work for anyone except the folks in the warehouse and the shipping companies. The margins are bad. The customer has to dispose of a lot of wood and packaging they don’t want or need. But I guess they think it’s working. Are you making the same mistake?

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