Monday, March 31, 2008

When Free Isn't Enough

Last month I wrote a post about Chris Anderson’s Free: Why $.0.00 is the Future of Business. From there I updated the post with Trendwatching’s Free Love trend briefing. It was while reading the Free Love briefing that I discovered A website where visitors are presented with a revolving choice of free jewelry. In the spirit of research I choose a pair of earrings and ordered them. The earrings were free + $5.99 in shipping costs, a bargain by any definition. The transaction was easy, order follow-up was appropriate and the earrings arrived 1-2 weeks later. Unfortunately 1-2 weeks later was just long enough for me to forget the name of the company I ordered them from.

The earrings arrived in a non-descript padded envelope. Within the envelope the earrings were in multiple small plastic bags crammed into a blue mesh jewelry bag. That was it - no packing slip, no collateral encouraging me to buy jewelry and no mention of what company the jewelry came from. The worst part is the packaging of the earrings and the lack of attention to detail has taken what started out as a great experience where I had a positive impression of the company and turned it into a negative experience. There was nothing special that would encourage me to pay for jewelry from the company. Instead I feel relieved that the earrings were free and that I didn’t pay the SRP of $59.99.

Free is great, it gets people interested, but it’s equally important to think through how to make free into a profitable equation. For that could be as simple as upgrading its packaging and including some well though out collateral. Perhaps a mini catalog of jewelry available for purchase. At the very least, when sending a customer a freebie, remind them whom the freebie is from.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Virtual Interview with Rohit Bhargava on Personality Not Included

This past Tuesday Rohit Bhargava conducted a book launch experiment using social media. Through his blog, Influential Marketing he invited his readers and fellow bloggers to send him five interview questions about his new book Personality Not Included. Rohit gets coverage for his book and the bloggers participating get a nice interview for their blog. All of the participants and links to their interviews (when published) can be found here.

I loved Rohit's book launch idea and am happy to participate in it. So without further adieu following is my virtual interview with Rohit on his new book Personality Not Included.

Valerie: Was it companies that have excelled in building a personality or the widespread lack of personality in companies that served as the inspiration for Personality Not Included?
Rohit: I think it was probably the widespread lack of personality that mostly led me to writing this book. First because I thought it was a message that people needed to hear, and second because I thought it would be very useful to a large number of organizations."
Valerie: If you had to choose one company that was most in need of a personality, what company would it be?

Rohit: Hmm, tough to choose one company, but I can definitely single out a few industries. They are the usual suspects, but industries like cable television, airlines, and banks. The nice thing is, there is hope for all of them, as I share some stories in the book of efforts in each of these industries that offer a hope for all of them.
Valerie: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for a company that knows that it needs to become more authentic, but isn’t sure how to go about it?

Rohit: The single best thing any company can do is to lose their "employee silencing policy" as I called it in the book. This means allowing employees to have a voice and share more openly about what they do. I realize this is a tough prospect for many companies because it means giving up control ... but if they believe these employees are not already talking about where they work and what they do, they are misleading themselves. Being more open about this lets you tap the most powerful potential brand ambassadors you have, your employees.

Valerie: In your opinion, is it easier for companies that align themselves with a cause to be viewed as more authentic to their customers and prospects or does social integrity not play into the authenticity equation?

Rohit: This is a really good question. I think that it certainly plays a part, but having a social cause is not a necessity in most cases. There are industries that are exceptions ... pharmaceutical companies for example will rarely do a patient oriented campaign without some sort of cause element. The point your question comes down to is whether a brand offers something compelling enough to believe in. An element of the book is helping brands to identify what this is. In some cases, it would certainly involve a social cause ... but not all the time.
Valerie: What is the consumer’s role in crafting the authenticity of a brand? Should the brand be the leader or should the brand acknowledge and embrace consumer change, such as unexpected brand embracement by one or more subcultures?

Rohit: The most authentic brands are the ones that have the types of relationships with their customers where they are heavily influenced by their customers. I don't think requires a subculture (ie - niche) element, though. You raise a great point about change, though - because customers can very often be the best agents of change if a company is willing to listen.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making Dental Sexy

A shout out to my colleagues at Delta Dental, we knew dental was sexy, and here's the proof. Inspired by David Meerman Scott, Dr. Helaine Smith brings us the Healthy Mouth, Healthy Sex ebook. You can download it from her blog.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Organizational Change vis a vis Things Fall Apart

I recently finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s a story about Okonkwo, an African tribal man who spends his entire life trying to prove his strength. Toward the end of the book his tribe is changing, it’s embracing peace instead of its usual stance of war. Okonkwo believes so strongly in the old ways of his tribe that it becomes impossible for him to embrace the tribe’s new way of thinking.

While reading this book I was struck by how companies and their employees go through this conflict on a daily basis. Companies are built and destroyed by the culture they create. And that culture can change at any time for a number of reasons, such as the appointment of a new CEO or the implementation of a new growth strategy. Employees are expected to be resilient and adapt to the changes around them. However, without a strong leader, someone who is willing to take the time to explain the changes, the meaning of the changes and the vision the changes are meant to deliver it becomes seemingly difficult to accept them. This failing leaves a company with a string of Okonkwos, feeling petulant to the changes around them until they’re left with no other choice but to leave. It’s a good reminder that humans are innately resistant to change, but with a strong, charismatic leader, change becomes easier and cultures can be built around it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Getting rid of the bad tables

Seth Godin’s The Bad Table post got me thinking about the group insurance industry. The post challenges readers to think differently about their “bad tables” (you know, the ones crammed in the corner near the noisy kitchen or next to the bathrooms). It suggests giving special service at the bad tables to make the entire experience equal with that of the good tables, but equal in a different way. The reason this makes me think of insurance is because the group insurance industry is famous for handing out lots of bad tables, usually to small groups. Insuring small groups can be risky because there isn’t a large pool of people to spread risk across. However, because small groups tend to have higher premiums (to account for the riskier nature of their size) they usually end up funding the discounts that the larger groups enjoy. And for their trouble, they get treated as second-class citizens. Many insurance companies create great new benefits, but usually with the fine print of “not available to groups of 50 or less members.” That leaves small groups paying more in premiums for fewer benefits. While not all insurance companies are guilty of this (Delta Dental extends new benefits to groups of all sizes), many are. Getting rid of the bad tables is something every business should strive to do. It wont be the easiest assignment, but it could be the most creative.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A clever campaign by USPS and HBO to promote the John Adams miniseries

The United States Postal Service and HBO are partnering for a clever marketing campaign to gain exposure for both the upcoming John Adams miniseries on HBO and the lost art of letter writing. The campaign is called Power of the Letter. Participants can customize and send a free John Adams greeting card via Cardstore, enter to win a trip to Colonial Williamsburg and watch clips from the upcoming miniseries. The greeting cards all contain quotes from John Adams' correspondences with his wife Abigail Adams and contain the miniseries information on the back of the card. They're also customizable to the point where you can include your own imagery and words on the inside of the card. Once the order is completed the USPS will pick up the postage tab. Mail is further being utilized to promote the campaign via the special Power of the Letter cancellation stamp being used which reads: "Let us dare to read, think, speak and write." John Adams 1765

If you're familiar with John Adams you'll remember that he was a prolific letter writer, making the partnership between HBO and the USPS very fitting. It's a beautiful example of how two organizations collaborate to put together a marketing campaign befitting to both.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Verizon’s attempt at customer retention

I recently switched my phone service from Verizon to Comcast. It wasn’t because I felt one company was better than the other. I’ve had problems with both in the past. It was because Comcast called me on a day that I happed to have the time to listen to their sales pitch. They got my attention by telling me that they were reviewing my account and discovered that I wasn’t getting as much value from their services as I should be. The solution was simple – switch my phone service to Comcast and I would pay no more than I was currently paying for my cable and Internet service alone. Plus I’d get a $100 Amex gift card (which two weeks later I still haven’t received) and HBO and Showtime at no additional cost. And my rates were guaranteed for two years.

A few days later I received a UPS Next Day Air letter. I wasn’t expecting anything important, but I opened it anyway. To my surprise and annoyance (mainly annoyance) it was a letter from Verizon telling me if I leave now I’ll miss out of great new savings. To give them credit their bundle package pricing is better than Comcast, but their form letter was completely inapplicable to me. If they had bothered to look at my zip code before they sent the letter they would have realized that one of the services they were trying to sell me, DiretTV, isn’t available in my neighborhood. They should have also anticipated that I’d need a little more education on why DSL might be better than the cable modem I was used to, or, if DirectTV was available in my neighborhood, why moving to a satellite dish would be preferable to cable.

That was the beauty in Comcast’s method. The phone call gave me immediate access to a person that could answer the questions I had about switching my phone line. They also didn’t pressure me with urgency. I told the person I was speaking with that I’d have to think about the offer and the sales rep gave me her direct line and told me to take all the time I needed, the offer would be open when and if I wanted it.

Verizon’s attempt at customer retention didn’t make me feel as though they valued my business. They assumed that my only concern was cost. And even with that, they offered me a deal that wasn’t available due to service limitations in my area. Perhaps if they had taken the time in the past to occasionally ask me if I was pleased with my service, or tell me real ways I could save money, or even educate me on why they’re the better service provider I would have stayed. But now they’ve lost my business and made me feel like I was just a number in the first place. In contrast, Comcast took advantage of the existing relationship they had with me, called me with a valuable offer, listened to my concerns and didn’t pressure me into making a quick decision.

The example serves as a reminder that customer retention programs need to be personal if they’re to be believable. And if your customers don’t believe your retention efforts are genuine you risk damaging the relationship (and trust) for years to come.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A book review - Join the Conversation by Joseph Jaffe

I started reading Join the Conversation by Joseph Jaffe in December. It’s now March and I’ve completed it. I usually pour through a book within a week or two, but this book was different. And not in a good way. The book has good information, but it’s hidden in between sophomoric humor, euphemism crammed sentences and a self-congratulatory tone, making it hard to become engaged with the text. My advice - if you plan on reading this book start at chapter 18 (page 246). That’s where the real information begins.

I’d like to take a step back and explain why I’m writing this review. If it was any other book it would have been added to my pile of partially read books back at chapter 3. But Jaffe’s activities leading up to the book launch made me want to “join the conversation.” I happily blogged about bumrushing Amazon (the post was on an Emerson College class blog which has since been taken down. However, the text of the post is below) and I purchased the book from Amazon during the bumrush. I was excited about reading it and I recommended it to numerous people. But after reading it I felt let down.

The bottom line - Jaffe’s embracement of new media and his use of it is refreshing and awe inspiring. I still believe the marketing community has a lot to learn from him. That is where my real disappointment in Join the Conversation lies. The book wasn't able to live up to my impression of Jaffe.

Original Join the Conversation post

Posted: 18 Oct 2007 09:52 AM EST

I always find the best way of learning is by reinforcing the taught concept with a real world example, that’s why I’m so impressed with a piece of Joseph Jaffe’s Join the Conversation book promotion. In his new book Join the Conversation Jaffe writes about how to use social media to “bumrush the charts.” He uses examples, Black Lab’s climb in iTunes and Scott Sigler’s book Ancestor’s climb to #4 on’s top 10 listing. Taking inspiration from his writing, Jaffe, through his blog Jaffe Juice, has rallied his audience to purchase Join the Conversation through on October 21, 2007. The more people that purchase that day the higher Join the Conversation will climb. Join the Conversation looks like a great book, and the perfect catalyst for our Interactive & eCommerce class, with that in mind this post is your invitation from me to “join the conversation” on October 21st.

Valerie Conyngham

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Is it time to change your positioning?

If you agree with Jack Trout and Al Ries’ definition of positioning you would agree that positioning lies within the minds of your customers. So is it a cause for concern when your product is positioned in the minds of your customers in the same way a competing product is positioned in the minds of its customers? That’s the surprise that just revealed itself in a research project I was perusing. And to me that says the positioning is not a differentiator it’s an expectation of the product and so, not a position at all. If the same research was conducted five years ago it would have been likely that only one company would have claimed the position, but this particular product is easily replicated within a short cycle (names being withheld to protect the guilty). And the competition has worked hard over the past few years to turn all points of distinction into points of parity. My question is, what’s the smartest move? As I see it there are three options:
  1. Scream louder and push the message harder than the competitors
  2. Figure out a point of distinction that supports the positioning, but isn’t easily replicated by the competition
  3. Reposition
The first option is obviously the worst. If there’s one thing that’s apparent in today’s world of marketing it’s that screaming doesn’t work – at least not as a sustainable option. The second option is viable. But I worry that the company would continue to support a positioning that is shared, not by one competitor, but by all competitors and is no longer a distinct feature of one. It would require a lot of innovation to align the positioning back to a singular product or company. The third option requires more research. It would be important to understand if there was another aspect of the product that stands as a point of distinction between the competing products. It could be an enlightening process that would further support that a company has little control over its positioning. In the end, it’s your customers and prospects that will determine it for you. It’s an option that would require a new way of thinking, so it would be important to have a corporate atmosphere that would support a change in direction. I think it’s an important option to explore, keeping in mind that in the end you might be lead back to option 2.

photo credit: jamespuckey