Category Archives: What’s Going On

We Are At An Advertising Turning Point

Unless you never use the internet, you’re aware that something is happening in the next few days because every service and site you use is updating their terms of use. You may be wondering why you’re getting lots of emails to that effect or why sites are putting large banners to that effect on their homepage. It’s due to the start date of the GDPR. In case any of you don’t run digital businesses (which I suspect is most of you), the GDPR is a regulation that pertains to privacy and data protection for all citizens of the E.U. Because the internet is a global thing, many digital publishers and stores are extending the protections of the GDPR to their non-European consumers as well. I, for one, am very glad even though there is a good chance that it will force the ad tech business to change dramatically. It’s a big effing deal and we are at a turning point.

Let me preface this by saying that I got fed up with the ridiculous amount of tracking going on quite a while ago. Like many people, I think that tracking someone without their permission or a court order is wrong. I think it slows down the user experience and unbalances the trade of content for attention toward the publisher since tracking me beyond your content is infringing on some other entity’s territory. Besides that, it’s creepy. I don’t want to see a few weeks’ worth of ads for an item I looked up for a friend in which I have zero interest. I don’t care about ad personalization, frankly, although I know for many people it’s a much better user experience. I think only showing me ads for products and services that you think I might care about excludes product discovery and I have proof in that I’ve made many purchases based on content-based marketing but very few based on served ads.

I installed a browser extension called Cookie Auto Delete which wipes out cookies as you surf. That’s on top of Ghostery which blocks ads and other trackers. Because of that, I don’t see ads other than those targeted to things such as geography that don’t require cookies (actually, I don’t see a lot of ads period). Am I hurting my friends in digital publishing? I don’t think so since most of the cookies placed these days are not by publishers but by ad tech services that I think undermine the value of great content. They value eyeballs, not what lures the eyeballs.  Ads served directly by publishers and embedded in their content value the content. They’re not based on your ability to track me.

Am I overly sensitive? Not when I’m joined by billions of people who have installed ad blockers. If ad tech was doing a great job, that wouldn’t be happening. Would GDPR be necessary if ad tech companies respected consumers’ privacy? Of course not and I think it’s going to cripple any business that doesn’t respect its customers enough to work in the customer’s best interest. Tracking them like Big Brother doesn’t do that, does it?

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Filed under digital media, What's Going On

DIY Failure

What do you do when you’ve done almost everything right and yet your business is failing? It’s not a hypothetical question and the answers I’ve come up with kind of scare me a little. Let’s see what you think.

The town from which I moved has fewer and fewer “mom and pop” stores. Most of them have been replaced by national chains. Main Street used to be unique, interesting retailers. Now it’s basically an outdoor copy of most malls with chain store after chain store packed in next door to one another. I still read the local news from the town in which I lived for 35 years and I was saddened to see that another one has bitten the dust. Let me explain why it raised some questions in my mind.

It was a local hardware store run by a family who is well-known in the town. As one local blogger wrote, “They’ve been the go-to place for gardening supplies in spring, rakes in the fall, paint and keys and pest control and light bulbs and a lot more whenever we need it.” It wasn’t huge but as local places go it had a fair amount of inventory and I suspect that it could satisfy the Do It Yourself needs of most folks. Therein lies the problem. The owner put it well, citing irreversible challenges, including online sales competition and the loss of skilled DIYers to a keypad culture.

Guilty as charged, sir. Much of the time I just have Amazon deliver what I know I’ll need in a day or two. Of course, in my old town, fewer and fewer people actually even do things themselves, preferring to call someone. When I changed out my first toilet fill valve here in my new place, I did think to myself that I probably would have called a plumber and paid for an hour of his or her time to do a 10-minute job – 40 if you count the time it took to run to Walmart to get the part.

This family did everything right. They were never too busy to help you understand how to do a repair or improvement job as they made sure you had the right materials and tools. They personalized everything, something the online world is still learning to do. Did you pay a little more (and it really was a little)? Yes, but you also were 100% sure you had what you needed. The market has changed, however, and competing with Home Depot or Lowes or Amazon (for the smaller number of people in town who still did things themselves) became impossible.

What would I have advised them? More in-store classes, a better online presence establishing themselves as local, available experts, maybe get a kid to deliver. Yes, the big guys do some of that too, but having the local, familiar edge could make a difference. I’m not sure any of that would have worked, but I also know that most retail is still brick and mortar, not online. I do think that competing with online as well as with giant home improvement centers, however, is too much. The benefits of technology are generally good, but in this case, tech has disrupted the local ecosystem, much as introducing a non-native predator to solve one problem can cause many others. Any local grocery stores in your town? Not in mine. Auto repair, restaurants, clothing stores, heck, even car dealers are all heading down this same path. Could your business be as well? What can you do NOW?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

A.I. Aye Yi Yi

One of the hottest topics in business these days is artificial intelligence. One can hardly pick up a business publication of any sort and not trip over an algorithm. AI is being used to do everything from writing articles to running chatbots to protecting against fraud. There is one problem with AI, though, and that’s our topic today. 

You’ve probably encountered something that’s the product of AI. A fair number of game summaries one finds in the sports pages (physical or digital) are, in fact, written by machines. Same with many company summaries in the financial section. The main problem with these pieces is that they’re great at populating a template with all the facts and not so great at figuring out the “why.” You might also have used an online chat function to get some customer service support. More often then not, that’s AI at work as well. But that’s not the business problem I want to discuss.

The problem with most of the AI solutions I read about is that they’re all geared toward helping a business but they’re not focused at all on helping the customer. If you’ve ever wandered into an AI-driven customer support phone line you know what I mean. Get outside of what the algorithm can handle and your blood pressure is sure to soar. While the bot on the other end knows all about you if you’re able to identify yourself in the way the AI is designed (frequent shopper number, etc.), if you don’t know what phone number was used to create the account or you’re a frequent shopper without a frequent shopper ID (some folks don’t live being tracked, you know), it’s hard to get support. Humans are still better at solving many non-standard requests.

I get that sharing all your data – what you read, what you watch, where you go, what you eat, etc. – can help a company give you better recommendations. The problem is that many of the companies use that as a pretext to sell you products you might not really need. Can any of us really know how the data was used to create a recommendation? When a fitness app tells us we’re having sleep issues because our data says so and says we need to buy a new mattress, can we trust that or is it an affiliate deal that brings the fitness app a commission? Maybe we just ought not to have that nightcap instead if we want to sleep better?

I think the use of AI in some areas is fantastic. Fraud protection, for example. It’s easy for AI to spot something that’s out of place in your credit card use and send you an alert. That’s customer-centric. Using a bot to cut costs while providing a lesser experience isn’t and that’s my issue with much of the AI work that’s going on now. What’s your take?

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Filed under Reality checks, What's Going On, Thinking Aloud

It’s Your Lucky Day!

It’s Foodie Friday and if you’ve been paying attention to the calendar, you’ve already had a month full of pizza, wine, heavenly hash, tater tots, frozen yogurt, plum pudding, and tortellini. Oh – that list only gets us part way through the month. Today, for example, is National Banana Bread Day as well as National Toast Day. Over the weekend, we can celebrate Tortilla Chip Day, Clam Chowder Day, and Chocolate Covered Nut Day. Finally, we can end the month celebrating pistachios, Kahlua (I assume the drink and not the pork), strawberries, pancakes, and chocolate souffle, each of which has a day.

Got indigestion yet? Maybe it should be National Bicarbonate Of Soda Day? Oh – that already exists (December 30). You can check this handy calendar to find out what days you can celebrate if you’re ever looking for a reason to party. Some of the things on the calendar are just silly and some, like the upcoming Pancake Day or the recently passed Pizza Day, get way more attention than others. That probably has to do with some important businesses getting behind the days (lots of free pizza deals on Pizza Day!), particularly those businesses that really have to stretch to tie into the “normal” days during the month: President’s Day, Groundhog Day, and, in some places, Mardi Gras. Despite some of the silliness, there is a legitimate reminder in all of this.

Think about Festivus. This, as you probably know, is the entirely fictional creation of the Seinfeld writers based on the actual family practices of one of the writers. It’s a way to celebrate the season without participating in the commercialism of the season. In my mind, it is the most prominent made-up day of them all. As Allen Salkin, the author of a book on Festivus wrote, “Festivus is completely flexible. There’s no ruling force telling you what to do. Nobody owns it.”

You need to think about that as you create your own day. Besides being great promotional platforms, these days can inspire lots of social interaction so that the onus is not just on your business to promote your day. While it may take some time to become known and anticipated by your customer base and the public at large, I believe the investment is worth the effort. Find what might be some doldrums in your calendar and make your day a tentpole event. The key thing is to make it fun, make it authentic (even if authentically tongue in cheek), and make it YOURS.

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Filed under food, What's Going On

Snowing Our Ignorance

It’s snowing here in Central North Carolina. Again. Is that unusual? Well, the area usually gets less than 6 inches of snow a year and we’re about to get 4 or so. We also got a few inches several weeks ago. When we got a dusting (and to my Yankee friends I know that 6 inches are pretty much just a dusting) of snow last year – maybe half an inch – the area came to a complete halt and schools were shut for 4 days. You can imagine what 4 inches will do. Fortunately, by the weekend it will be near 70 degrees so the accumulation shouldn’t be around very long.

Photo by Catherine Zaidova

Other than venting about the golf courses being covered in white, why do I bring this up? Because it’s symptomatic of something which has business implications. Increased snowfall, extreme temperature changes, and other weather phenomena are indicative of something going on. It’s pretty clear that something has changed and yet there are those who turn a scientific and factual issue into a political one. Folks, you can call it climate change or you can call it Fred but no matter what you call it, it is real.

You know, of course, that we don’t do politics here on the screed and my point isn’t that we need to acknowledge that the weird weather everywhere is the result of climate change. The point is that any businessperson can give their own interpretation about what they see going on in the market and in their own enterprise. The problem is that sometimes their interpretation conflicts with the empirical evidence – the facts. A single data point isn’t a reason to change your entire strategy, but when you have enough data points to produce a reliable trend, attention must be paid.

There are some very famous studies that were conducted by Stanford in 1975. They showed how people’s opinions are often unmoved by facts. One need not go a heck of a lot further than your own Facebook feed to see one person trying to change another’s mind using some fact-based evidence and failing miserably. The cold weather and snow here remind me that you can deny the facts but that denial won’t keep the snow from falling. Question the sources of information, question the interpretation of information, but once those questions are answered, don’t deny the facts. You still will have to shovel up the aftermath regardless. Make sense?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

50 Years On

As I sat down to write this morning’s screed with Dr. King’s birthday on my mind, I realized that it’s been 50 years since that horrible year of 1968. I was 13 at the time and if you’re younger than about 55 today you probably have no memories of the almost non-stop bad news. It’s hard to believe but things seemed even more screwed up and polarized that they do today. The day Dr. King was shot is one of my indelible memories and the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months later snuffed out a small glimmer of hope that Dr. King’s legacy might come to fruition soon. It took another 40 years for that although there are valid arguments that we as a country are still waiting in many ways.

With that, what follows is my post on celebrating Dr, King and his message from a few years ago. It’s about listening, something many of us don’t do often enough. Maybe you can give it a try this week?

Today is the day we pause to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.  I went back and looked at my post from two years ago, which was about dreams – specifically one of Dr. King’s dreams becoming a reality.  That was sort of focused on what he saw – his vision.  Today I want to focus on one of the great man’s best qualities that influenced how he acted to make that vision real.  I think it’s applicable to business.  No, it’s not going to be another ethics rant (although those are never out of style in my book).  Today, it’s about the most important skill I think all great businesspeople – and great leaders – possess.

To me, great leaders serve to fulfill the needs of their people.  For Dr. King, it meant endless meetings with various groups to understand their concerns and explain how broadening civil liberties to be more inclusive could help meet them.  For those of us in business, it means paying more attention to the concerns of our customers and co-workers than to our own agenda – these folks ARE our agenda to a certain extent, along with the underlying needs of our businesses.  In a word – listen.

Everyone wants to feel as if their ideas and thoughts are being heard if not acted upon. Without someone hearing them, acting on those concerns is impossible. Listening, then speaking, brings trust.

I know this isn’t a new thought in this space but it came to mind on this day thinking of Dr. King.  If you go back to the early days of Dr. King’s involvement in the civil rights movement, it’s pretty clear that he was a reluctant leader. He was drafted to lead and was kind of unsure of himself.  As he listened to the members of the community and other clergies, he realized that he was simply a voice for the community and their agenda became his agenda.

Many of you will be familiar with Stephen R. Covey, who wrote that we ought to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I think Dr. King if he read pop-psychology, would have appreciated that.

What are you listening to today?

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Filed under Growing up, Helpful Hints, What's Going On

Snow In The South

It snowed here in North Carolina last night. I awoke to find maybe two inches of the white stuff. Having lived almost my entire life in New York and Connecticut, my immediate thoughts were “how pretty” and “no big deal.” Then I remembered where I was. We got what I would call an overnight accumulation here last February (under an inch, seriously), and it closed the schools for four days.

In my mind, there is about a foot/inch ratio which applies to the level of hysteria and inconvenience here. An inch of snow here is the equivalent to a foot up north. The local TV stations have been nothing but the weather for the last day and the excitement in the reporters’ voices as they stand by some highway pointing to a dusting is palpable.

There is, of course, a business thought or two in all of this. One is that of perspective. My perspective on snow is very different from that of my neighbors, most of whom rarely have ever had to deal with it. Don’t let your own perspective corrupt your ability to get inside that of your partners, vendors, and customers.

Next is emergency planning. Despite the rarity of snow here, many of the roads were pre-treated with brine before the snowfall to help keep the roads clear. That means the authorities have both the equipment and the knowledge (brine actually works better than rock salt and is way more cost effective than clearing the snow later) to be proactive. They had a plan. Can you say that you have a plan, the tools you’ll need, and the knowledge required to handle most emergencies that happen in your business?

I’ll probably just hunker down today and let nature take its course. It’s a sunny day with the temperature back above freezing so the snow won’t be here long. Nevertheless, it’s been here long enough to remind me of a couple of business truisms. You?

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On