Tag Archives: Reality checks

How Did We Get So Far Off Track?

I started working in the digital world in the mid-’90s. While I wasn’t exactly there for the dawn of the digital age, I was a relatively early member of the group of executives that began building businesses on the internet and on walled gardens like AOL used to be. A couple of things that have happened recently have me shaking my head, wondering how it’s all gone sideways.

First, I asked Twitter to send me something:

Keith Ritter, your advertiser list is ready! The list attached includes the advertisers that have included you in a tailored audience. These advertisers have included you in one or more tailored audiences. Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

I figured since I do a fair amount of cookie-blocking and other means to prevent tracking that I’d turn up in a handful of audiences and I was right. I appear in exactly 9 audiences. However, the rest of the 57-page document (not a typo) listed the similar audiences Twitter has decided I fit. They market me as a part of these audiences and I have no control over it. I can opt out and it will change the ads I see on Twitter. It won’t however, remove me from these audiences. I am included in over 1,000 of them, my data used and sold quite unwillingly.

Then there are the constantly apologizing folks at Facebook. This article in the NY Times is both frightening and disappointing. It talks about how Facebook “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.”  Their privacy track record is abominable and every week it seems there is another apology and a promise to do better. Fool me once…

It’s taken years for the marketers and publishers to push back on the rampant fraud and abuse of programmatic ads. Social media is rife with “influencers” who buy fake followers and regularly violate FTC regulations on advertising. It seems that everyone under 30 is either a ninja or a guru. Fake reviews for products that are complete rip-offs are everywhere (run a link to an Amazon review through Fakespot if you don’t believe me).

All of this leaves one question: what the hell happened? How did the digital business world get so screwed up? At some point, Facebook and many other digital businesses decided that making money is way more important than serving their users is, I think, the basic answer. I’m all for making money, as my business track record shows. There are limits, however, and I have a fundamental belief that making money can only happen over the long term when you respect the customer. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Because most of the people who use digital have no concept about how they are tracked and marketed, most businesses treat them as morons and therein lies the problem.

I could rant on but I’ll end it here with a plea. To any of you who are in the digital world, please resolve to get back on track. Way back when in 1995, all we wanted to do was to amuse a few people and keep them engaged. Yes, we sold ads but we also didn’t track people once they left our domain. We didn’t treat them as numbers or rubes. You shouldn’t either. I get that the tools are more sophisticated and more powerful and that the world has changed. Basic business principles and human decency haven’t, have they?

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Filed under Reality checks, Huh?, What's Going On

Back To Basics

I played a number of sports growing up. Thinking back on it, no matter which sport I was playing, when the season began the coach would inevitably talk about getting back to basics. He usually meant the building block skills that a team had to have in order to be successful. If you don’t think that’s important, watch one of today’s major league baseball players try to lay down a suicide squeeze bunt. That basic skill has almost disappeared.

No, today isn’t going to be yet another old guy rant about how the world has changed for the worse, Instead, as we approach the end of one year and the start of another, it’s a reminder that now is a great time to do a little back to basics thinking. It’s harder than you think because what often happens during the course of a year (or longer, depending on when the last time was that you did this exercise) is that the basics get forgotten in the heat of battle. So here are a few of the fundamental questions that I’d be asking myself and my team right about now.

First, what are we trying to accomplish? That sounds overly simple since making a profit is pretty much what every business is trying to do unless you’re a non- or not-for-profit organization. What are you trying to make happen? What problems that your customers have are you trying to solve?

Next, how are you measuring success? It’s not just the cash register ringing or the bottom line overflowing with black ink although clearly basic financial items are important. How many new customers did you attract? How is your reputation? What good have you done for your customers, your partners, your vendors, your employees, and your community?

After that, take a look forward. What do we need to do in order to be successful in this next year? How do last year’s results, both good and bad, direct us forward? What can we start doing and what should we stop doing, whether it’s meetings, products, reports, or something else? What could happen in the marketplace that will affect us, both positively and negatively? Do we have a disaster plan?

Finally, is the view you and your organization had of the world at the start of this year still the way you see it going forward? If you don’t think that things change that much, think back 5 years or even (gulp) 10. You wouldn’t have had a mobile strategy or a social media plan then. You probably didn’t pay a heck of a lot of attention to your website or online reviews. You sure had better be active in all of those areas today even if you’re not a digital business.

Those are some of the basics I see as necessary for success. What are some of yours?

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Filed under Reality checks, Helpful Hints, Consulting

Those Pesky Joneses

You might have missed something in the financial news yesterday that reminds us of a really important business point. The good folks at Verizon wrote down the value of Oath, which is what they renamed their acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. I’ll let the good folks at Bloomberg relay the facts:

Verizon Communications Inc. is conceding defeat on its crusade to turn a patchwork of dot-com-era businesses into a thriving online operation.

The wireless carrier slashed the value of its AOL and Yahoo acquisitions by $4.6 billion, an acknowledgment that tough competition for digital advertising is leading to shortfalls in revenue and profit. The move will erase almost half the value of the division it had been calling Oath, which houses AOL, Yahoo and other businesses like the Huffington Post.

For you non-financial types out there, writing down an asset is the accounting term used to describe a reduction in the book value of an asset due to economic or fundamental changes in the asset. In other words, something isn’t worth what you paid for it any longer. Oops. These were acquisitions that Verizon made to transition into taking on Facebook and Google as a content providing, eyeball-generating ad brand. This latest stumble comes on the heels of several others that Verizon has made over the last several years (a JV with Redbox, their failed news site, their awful app store and of course, V-Cast). When you basically spend $4.8 Billion and flush $4.6 Billion of it down the write-down toilet as they did the other day, you might need to rethink your strategic direction.

When you think about it, what Verizon did is not all that uncommon in business. They forget what their core competencies were and chased the latest shiny object. Big mistake. Where would we be now if all that capital had been invested in 5G networking or in WiMax? Video and advertising is something in which hundreds of companies are engaged. Yes, it’s highly profitable but it’s also dominated by two behemoths and subject to the ebbs and flows of consumer interest (whatever happened to MySpace anyway?). Why would you try to keep up with those Joneses?

It seems as if FiOS, their high-speed broadband service has been abandoned. They’re no longer expanding despite the fact that demand for very high-speed internet is everywhere. 5G is years away and technically challenging. Does anyone remember the dream of WiMax? Those are areas in which they are the Joneses and people have to keep up with them. None of us in business can forget what made our ventures successful because we think the grass is greener in some other business’ yard. Don’t chase the Jones’ success. Create your own.

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Faddie Friday!

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic today is really Faddie Friday. What got me thinking about food fads was hearing yet another discussion about keto diets. You know – low carb, no carb, no fun. I’ve been doing a variant of this for many years (and lost a lot of weight) but it actually goes back to the invention of the Atkins Diet in 1972. I’m not a full-blown keto person but I do watch my carbs and try to cut out sugar and foods that I know are high on the glycemic index.

Atkins is far from the only food fad. At one time, fondue was all the rage. I’ll bet if you dig deep enough into a closet or your garage you’ll find a fondue set, maybe one your mom handed down. Nothing like a communal bowl of hot cheese, wine, and seasonings, right?

Now we have fads such as juice cleansing, kale, and bacon, which down here in the South is not so much a fad as it is a way of life. What’s interesting to me is that fads aren’t the same thing as trends. You can think of it in business terms. Fads are those two-day blips in your revenue while trends are the steady direction of those revenues. Fads are jagged, trends are smooth. Food fad – kale. Food trend – healthier eating. Got it?

You need to think in those terms as you approach your business and how you run it. I’ve lived through several management fads and they weren’t all as benign as kale. Ever hear of Six Sigma? How about Business Process Re-Engineering? Matrix Management? Or one of my absolute favorites, MBO – Management By Objectives. Even though it was created by one of my favorite management people, Peter Drucker, it was cumbersome, time-wasting, and not quick enough to react. Obviously, I agree with much of the thinking behind it but the actual implementation could bog you down.

I bring all of these up (and it’s far from an exhaustive list) to remind each of us that we have to watch out for fads. I was told by a senior executive many years ago that the internet was both a fad and a scam. He had a little trouble figuring out the difference between a fad and a fundamental change. Take the time to distinguish between the two and you’ll be far better off than those who don’t. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

More Fake News

It’s holiday time, and holiday time is shopping time. Now if you’re anything like most people, a fair amount of your shopping is done online. Even if you don’t actually buy from an online retailer, you probably do a fair amount of your research using online reviews and they are our topic today.

A marketing solution provider called Uberall released its “Customer Review Report,” which analyzed how consumers evaluate reviews online. They found that consumers think brands should be very active online responding to reviews. In fact, 65% of consumers think brands should respond to every online review every time, whether the review is positive or negative. Other observations from the study were that 18% of consumers believe brands should respond only when the review is negative, while 10% feel they should never respond, and 6% think they should only respond when the review is positive.

How do you feel about it? Personally, I think it’s critical that brands monitor the reviews of their products and not only should they respond but they should also verify. I’ve found that review verification sites such as Fakespot provide a wonderful service. I recognize that some brands actually pay for fake positive reviews in order to mask the crappy stuff they’re selling. That’s short-sighted since the revenues they make will be far offset by the costs of returns, customer service calls and maybe even lawsuits. Running an Amazon URL through Fakespot or ReviewMeta can save you a lot of trouble and also tell you a lot about how well a company curates its reputation.

There was a study a few years back that found that 20% or so of Yelp reviews were fake. You can spend $1 to get one written and you just might end up having to pay up to $40,654 to the FTC for having done so. Online reviews are a great source of, if not THE best, information for consumers and a generally accurate reflection of how your brand is perceived. You should influence that perception through positive interaction and not through creative writing. Most of all, you should respond, especially at this time of year when it’s a crucial sales period for most brands. Are you doing so?

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Filed under digital media, Growing up

How About A Bowl Of Sugar?

Foodie Friday, and this week I’m revved up about a food issue which also raises an issue with every business. You are probably aware that there is an epidemic of diabetes in this country. According to the Centers For Disease Control, 1 in 3 adults in this country has pre-diabetes (elevated blood sugar) and over 9% actually have the disease. This incidence is much higher here in the South with some states having well over 11% of the population affected. Having spent a few years here I can tell you that there is a lot of sweet tea and other sugar-added foods sold everywhere.

What’s got me off on this rant today is what I would call yet another nail in the coffin of those who will contract the disease. Apparently, some genius at Post Cereals felt it would be a good idea to make a cereal named after Sour Patch Kids, a candy. I guess we can commend them for dropping all pretense for most breakfast cereals being anything other than candy and just calling it what it is. You think I’m hyperbolizing? You can literally pour a bowl of some breakfast cereals and half of what you pour is pure sugar. Golden Crips cereal (called Sugar Crisp when I was a kid) is almost 52% sugar. Honey Smacks (formerly Sugar Smacks) is over 55%. You would be better off feeding your kid a Snickers bar – it’s only 45% sugar.

There is a greater question here for anyone in business. Post isn’t the only company doing this. General Mills sells cereal with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the front. I refuse to believe that the folks at Post or General Mills don’t have an understanding that what they’re selling is fostering an epidemic. It’s easy for them to shrug their shoulders and say “well, responsible parents will let their kids eat this only in moderation.” So why change the names of the aforementioned cereals to delete “sugar? Why isn’t the nutritional information for Reese’s Puffs on the General Mills website? These are dangerous products, folks, and they raise the greater business question. Should we make products that we know are doing great harm? Just because we can do something, should we? Isn’t it possible to sell the healthier alternatives you already make to kids and stop pushing something that you know puts these kids on the road to diabetes?

It doesn’t have to be that way. When scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer and attributed it to the use of CFC’s, many companies that used CFC’s as the propellant in their spray products changed to something else. The products are less dangerous and the hole is healing. Having a conscience to go along with having a bottom line isn’t inconsistent nor bad business. It’s quite the opposite. Selling kids bowls of sugar under the guise of “making your day better” really is a sad way to make a buck, don’t you think?

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Filed under food, Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Carrying Yourself Like A Pro

I went to see my parents last week and my Dad and I got to talking about business as we often do. In the course of the conversation, we got into how things are different today from when I broke into the business world and not all for the better. No, today isn’t another chapter in “Keith Is A Cranky Old Man”, but please bear with me if I sound like one along the way. Like the proverbial pile of pony crap, there’s a pony in here someplace.

When I got into business and for the first 20 years I was there, things weren’t all that different from when my Dad was in the same business. The business model was the same and the processes for conducting business was pretty much the same. He was more of the “Mad Men” era than I was although I caught the very end of it in many ways. Things started to change two decades in – they got faster, more complicated and far less personal than when he was a TV guy.

One thing that didn’t change was you had to learn how to carry yourself like a pro. You had to learn how to interact with clients. You had to learn how to dress and to drink (yes, three-martini lunches were real). The older sales types would rib us younger guys mercilessly but they were training us, much as professional athletes will mess with rookies even as they’re teaching them how to dress and behave. I feel as if that’s gone today in many ways and I’m not a fan.

What’s changed now, another two decades in, is that there is so much unprofessional behavior that I’m beyond angry – I’m kind of sad. People who I barely know will ask me to make an introduction to someone they know I know. It seems as if many younger people operate in a transactional way – what can you do for me – rather than on an interpersonal way. Carrying themselves with character and decency seems a foreign notion. Showing up on time and dressed for business (not in a tie, not in a suit, but not in jeans and a T-shirt either) when you have a meeting are foreign notions.

The people who don’t need loans are the ones to whom banks want to give them. I always tried to look like I didn’t need a loan when I went in to ask for one. I carried the same thinking into my business life. Look successful. Carry yourself as if you are and understand the metrics that identify you as successful in your job. Be a pro. Don’t whine. Pitch in. Care about others and the team as much as you do yourself. Is all of that short for grow up?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Thinking Aloud