Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Timed Out

I’m exhausted and I bet you are too. It seems as if there is just too many things screaming for my attention and it makes my brain hurt. More importantly, I and many others have maxed out on our ability to spend time with various things. This is important and has ramifications across many businesses, including maybe yours.

There are only 24 hours in a day. While many of us would like to follow the old Warren Zevon line about “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” (he is, by the way), we do need sleep and that cuts into those 24 hours. But the rest of the day is one demand for our attention after another. In fact, many businesses are built entirely around their ability to grab and hold our attention. Any advertising-based business certainly is. So are many subscription businesses such as Netflix or HBO. Video game studios need to hold us to justify the $50 price tag.

So what happens when we all are maxed out and have no more attention to give? It then becomes a land grab for share. We can’t make more “attention hours” during the day. This is from a media research firm called Midia:

Engagement has declined throughout the sector, suggesting that the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritizing between them.

They’re writing specifically about video games but it really applies across the spectrum of attention-based businesses. Attention does not scale. There is only so much time in the day and only so many ads one can see much less pay attention to. Yet ads are everywhere and that’s why they’re becoming less and less effective. We’re ad blind because it’s all noise. 99.5%+ of people don’t respond to banner ads and I’m willing to bet that some of those who do click do so by mistake.

So let’s start the week by asking ourselves how we get beyond the attention economy. Better service does. Better products too. Fortnight has by being a great experience that’s free. It’s not just a game – it’s become like the old virtual worlds we thought would be big back in the 1990s. E-sports are taking away from real sports, maybe because anyone can dunk in virtual basketball. We often see more fans watching people play videogames in person than we do attending real games. How are they winning the time-suck game?

Thanks for giving me some of your attention today. Who else is earning it and why? More importantly, how can your business do the same?

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The Mysteries Of Food

It’s Foodie Friday and today I’d like us to consider some of the things about food that I, for one, find mysterious. As usual, there’s a business point we can take away from these questions as well.

Let’s start with an easy one. What are the different flavors of Froot Loops? Purple in food tends to imply grape and yellow, at least in cereal, makes me think banana. Well, as it turns out, there is exactly ONE flavor and it’s neither strawberry red or blueberry blue. Why do the loops taste different to some folks? It’s a mystery.

Why are French Fries called that? No one knows, exactly, although there are a few theories. They’re “frites” in France and “chips” in Britain. The History Channel attempted to get to the bottom of the question but came up without a definitive answer, just theories.

Why are deviled eggs called that? I know that “devilling” originally meant making it spicy or searing it over high heat. What changed in the interim? Why is steer meat “beef” and pig meat “pork” but chicken is…well…chicken? Why are the holes in Swiss Cheese disappearing?

I could go on but I’m trying to show you that even the most basic things that we take for granted can raise questions, and those questions often don’t have definite answers. We find that all the time on business but we have to be willing to ask the questions first. One of the most formidable business weapons is an inquiring mind. A mind of that sort which is open to having their assumptions rebutted is an even greater tool. This happens in science all the time and that’s where many great discoveries are made as knowledge grows based on questioning the world around us.

You might not know what’s in surimi (it’s fish, not crab) but you can enjoy it just the same. Still, you might ask why “Krab” or “Froot Loops” or “Cheeze Whiz” are spelled that way. That first question leads to many others (not the least of which is do I really want to eat this). We need to constantly question thing in business too, don’t you think?

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By Any Standard

I have to admit it – I’m a sucker for the major award shows. Watching the Oscars last night made me think about some of the “awards” many companies give themselves. You can usually find them talking about them as they sell themselves. You know the drill:

    • We have world-class customer service
    • Our employee benefits are the best in our field
    • Our products are cutting-edge

And on and on. Now, having come from the sales world I’m not necessarily averse to a little hyperbole, but there is a line, one which is often crossed because there aren’t any standards. It’s an issue that affects businesses in a lot of ways, some small and some pretty egregious. It’s often the small ways – the little white lies we tell ourselves in planning or product meetings – that lead to the big ways – the hyperbole we broadcast in our marketing and set false expectations among customers, partners, vendors, and others.

Think about the differences between Consumer Reports and Amazon reviews. Consumer Reports has rigorous testing standards. It maintains editorial independence and accepts no advertising in the magazine. It buys the products it reviews and pays retail prices for them. While they’ve been sued over bad reviews they’ve never lost a case. Their reviews are objective and all products in a category are held to the same standards.

Compare that to Amazon or Yelp or Google reviews. The reviewer has no objective standards for the most part. They have no idea if common standards for a product category exist nor how to measure or apply them. The JD Power surveys try to aggregate the consumer point of view in a way that reduces personal bias which is better than pure subjective reviews. After all, who hasn’t felt like broadcasting a bad review of something to the world? Maybe the product was fine but you had a nasty experience with customer service so you trash the product as well on your review.

Many businesses do the same thing in their marketing. They don’t use objective standards and end up setting false expectations. I think many industries would do themselves a favor by objectively assessing how well individual brands meet reasonable performance expectations. I remember we used to take an annual survey of media buyers in the TV industry. On the face of it, we did a good job of assessing ourselves and our competitors objectively. The truth was many of the sales guys knew when the survey was being fielded and would wine and dine the buyers to make sure we got good reviews. Subjective standards don’t work.

How do you market yourself? Do you have enough information about your performance on an objective basis? Can you get some?

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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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