Maybe You Don’t Need a “Tricked-Out” Office.

I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, where I just had a meeting. Tomorrow, I’m having a one-on-one at a Panera. When not at either of those, I can be seen at Caribou Coffee or Einstein Bagels.

Seriously, I should just replace my regular office address with those 4 logos.

I know it’s a cool talking point to have an office with a basketball court, foosball tables, tiki bars (I’ve had that one before) and more. But do we really need it to be creative? I’m not suggesting everything has to be steel and grey in our workspaces. Far from it. I’m just wondering if we need so much excess in order to 1) impress clients and 2) come up with good ideas.

More often than not, I find myself going to their turf, not mine. Or I find us meeting on a neutral turf, like the aforementioned coffee/bagel places. And the more I’m going to their place or a neutral place, the more I’m wondering about the importance of having an office that’s “sick,” “tricked out” or whatever else you want to describe an office beyond belief. It may not matter as much because lately, I’ve noticed business is really becoming an Away Game, not a Home Game.

All of which leads me to put some things in perspective. Seems to me that when they do come to our place, they should see the work, the work, the work. In all its splendor. First and foremost. Yet some agencies are hiding behind it in their toys.

I don’t doubt that fun items aren’t good conversation pieces either. But consider this: If you had to pick one thing they talk about later, do you want them telling their peers about the ultra cool and swanky (whatever item here) in the lobby or the cool campaign/ideas/brainstorming session the agency had with that client?

The former is nice, but the latter is killer.

It’s entirely possible I’m just in a Monday sort of mood but sometimes it feels a little too fluffy for our own good. I’m not talking about small items that show personality here and there. I’m talking about items worth thousands and thousands that are more distracting. A conference table that used to be the wing of a jet plane is cool to look at, but again, do we need it to be successful? I like seeing and sharing pictures of fun office environments as much as the next person because it’s not my money on that overhead and in the back of my mind I’m wondering – what if that money was used on something more practical that people could benefit/learn from?

The ideas we come up with are worth far more. All I’m saying is let’s make those the star more often. That’s what helps build trust. Not the 50 foot lava lamp.

Agree? Disagree? Looking forward to your thoughts either way.

NBA’s Hammer Will Fall Hardest On Midwest

Welcome to the 2022 NBA Season. We’re 10 years removed from the lockout that claimed the 2011-2012 season and the landscape sure looks different. It should be an exciting season in the East/Central Division, which of course, is comprised of:

Chicago
Detroit
Miami
Orlando
Washington

What’s that, you say? Where’s Milwaukee, Indiana and Cleveland? Why, they fell victim to contraction. But so did Atlanta and Charlotte. Yet the Eastern Conference wasn’t the only conference affected by the Stalemate of 2011. The West was forever changed too, with the disappearance of Memphis, New Orleans, Minnesota and Sacramento.

Bulls fans will notice a lot of Midwestern teams in that mix for good reason.

For all the talk we hear from Commissioner David Stern about a brand that’s becoming global, the NBA is killing its small markets here at home with silly ping pong ball draft luck and revenue that isn’t spread to small markets that need it most.

Drive through the Heartland and you’ll see nice towns like this all along the way. Minneapolis. Milwaukee. Indianapolis. Cleveland. The big name free agents aren’t coming there and they’re not going to go there. Their stadiums are not in the best condition, yet owners want financing to come from a taxpayer population that’s hurting economically as it is. But if Jay-Z and a Russian billionaire want a stadium built in Brooklyn, it gets done in a couple years.

I don’t always understand the words coming out of ESPN’s Jalen Rose, but he made an astute point recently in saying that, in other leagues such as the NFL and MLB, you are traditionally compensated for bad seasons with the opportunity to draft the very best players coming out of college (or high school). There is no such opportunity in the NBA. If you have the worst record in the league, you have a better chance of drafting the best player, but not guaranteed. When your team is based in New York and it doesn’t work out, that’s not the end of the world. When your team is Indiana, that’s devastating.

Once in a while, the dumb luck works out. You’re San Antonio and your ping pong ball comes up in a year where Tim Duncan is available. You’re Cleveland and you get to draft LeBron James. And what happened even then? Tim Duncan came thisclose to leaving San Antonio for Orlando and well, we all know where LeBron went (sorry, don’t mean to reopen old wounds, Clevelanders).

Here’s the thing – the above scenario happens once in a decade at best. Big market teams have an opportunity to replenish their roster with free agents EVERY YEAR. Therefore, the NBA becomes a league that’s wonderful if you live in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia. If you’re bad this year, you can get better next year or soon enough, regardless of which way the ping pong balls bounce.

Besides drafting changes, there’s the revenue sharing issue that should’ve been discussed so long ago, it’s amazing we’ve waited to do it now. Think about this: According to league sources, 8 teams in the league made $150 million in profit combined. The other 22 teams lost a combined $450 million. The argument I’ve heard here against revenue sharing is that it rewards underperforming teams and punishes overachieving teams. I don’t see it as a reward as much as leveling an unbalanced field. And let’s look at the NBA from a season ticket holder perspective – obviously if you’re a team, you’d like to have long-term commitments from fans than single game sales. But how in the world can you ask economically challenged markets to make this commitment when owners are trying to get those same budget-strapped fans to finance the new home for a perpetually mediocre team or when fans can watch a game from their big screen/laptop/smartphone instead?

For a long time, the poster child of consistent small market success in the NBA was Utah. Each year in a bygone era, Stockton and Malone would keep the Jazz competitive and even get them to the Finals a few times. Later, the heirs apparent to that duo were Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Neither are in Utah and longtime Coach Jerry Sloan finally stepped down. Maybe it was time and he was tired. Or maybe he realized that without big changes, it will be much harder for any small market to be a consistent contender in the NBA.

How do we fix it and keep a more level playing field so the brand of NBA basketball survives in the Midwest? Besides ditching a ping pong ball draft and implementing greater revenue sharing, I think Bill Simmons has some pretty great ideas on how to fix the NBA and he foresaw all this happening last year.

I know some of us who are fortunate enough to live in big cities may not care. But if we care about not only the brand of the NBA going forward but the continued economic viability of major American sports in general, we can’t have leagues where the Haves are defined by the number of skyscrapers and the Have Nots by the number of cornfields.

Metra’s brand would fly higher with tech upgrades

Blessed to be in a city with solid public transportation, not a week goes by that I don’t use a bus, El and Metra train to get me from Point A to Point B. And while you have to put up with the usual annoyances (Exhibit A: Man talking on cell phone at ridiculous decibels), I’ve found that the CTA is doing a good job of meeting expectations in forecasting the arrival/departure times on buses and El trains – in fact, technology has made it about as smooth an experience as you can expect in a city as big as ours. We can tap a Chicago Card to a designated payment area and we’re on our way. We can look down on our mobile devices and see thanks to apps like Buster, the 156 really will be here in 4 minutes. Things are indeed getting better. Not perfect, but better.

But when Metra asked for a 30% rate hike, I had to give pause. The mode of transportation that has billed itself as the “Way to Really Fly,” for as long as I can remember needs to justify the hike by making improvements that not only make the transportation experience more enjoyable but still enables Metra to live by that tagline. I’m getting a little tired in this economy of people saying that they need more money or else without clearly explaining what they intend to do with it. After all, Metra’s passengers aren’t made of money either. So just being able to continue service isn’t good enough.

First, unless you get a special express train with fewer stops, you’re not flying on Metra. It makes a stop every few minutes and many of them at that. The advantage of Metra is not dealing with sitting in traffic on the Eisenhower. But it’s not like we’re talking about a bullet train here. Only so much that can be done about that logistically speaking, which brings us to point #2, something that can be implemented.

Metra is losing money partially due to its own inefficiencies. In other words, if Metra is going to come to a Board saying, “we need to hike rates 30%,” they’d better have some upgrades too in order to make boarding and ticket processing “The Way to Really Fly.” For example, when 15,000 Millennials descended on Grant Park earlier this summer from the suburbs to see an outdoor concert, Metra had to take their tickets manually. This meant the old standby of asking each passenger where they were going, taking their money, giving them change and giving them their ticket. On to the next person. On a completely packed train of people that don’t have simple monthly/weekly passes, that means you’re going to miss getting the tickets of some people by the time it gets to the station in Chicago. That can be 5, 6, 7 dollars or more with each person missed. 

I have literally watched conductors try to remember whose ticket fare they collected and whose they didn’t. The system just doesn’t work well. Apparently Metra has taken to hiring “observers” to discreetly ride trains to ensure fares are being collected when conductors happen to miss them, but is this really the most cost-efficient way to monitor the situation? No.

On the other hand, if the conductors had an electronic swiping device that enabled people to not only pay by credit card but also pay by Chicago Card by tapping it to a conductor’s device, I’d say you cut the transaction time by 5-10 seconds per person. That may not sound like a lot until you calculate multiple train cars on a Saturday, when half of Chicagoland is heading to museums, sporting events, concerts and more.

I may not know all the details of I.T. needed to bring this into reality, but I have to believe that if it can be this easy on a bus or El train, Metra needs to bring itself in line with those modes of transportation too. Because the whole providing a paper ticket and punching it thing is more than a little dated, if not wasteful environmentally-speaking. With card processing technologies like Square, it becomes all the more easier. Or here’s a not-so-radical thought – take a page from airline boarding procedures and have an electronic processing terminal(s) at each station with one agent per terminal who takes a ticket, scans it and lets the person on board. No conductor has to rack his brains remembering whose ticket fare he collected and didn’t collect.

One more note to Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who said recently that details of the rate hike were still being ironed out – I’m sure the hike is a necessarily evil in these times and although people won’t like it (who does?), transparency of how you’re spending these new dollars is critical. So remember the places online where you can communicate that message clearly and often – i.e., your website, Facebook Page and Twitter account for starters.

Fewer missed fares, more in Metra’s pocket, easier experience for conductor and passenger alike. Now your brand has got a way to genuinely and really, fly.

1st Gen E-mail Is Over – Does Your Marketing Reflect It?

“Wait – what do you mean? Are you saying e-mail is going away? No way does e-mail go away. Everyone uses e-mail.”

I figure that’s the response I’d get from a headline like the one above. But e-mail marketing in its 1st generation form should be history. E-mail in its next generation form is where we should be thinking and how we should be acting in our marketing efforts already. Right now.

Why? Spammers and Yammer.

1) Spammers are ruining e-mail as we know it for the good marketers who have valuable messages the recipient can benefit from. The filters of unsolicited mail will only get stronger so we have to make our messaging more simple to identify with, customized as well as equipped with subscription and link mechanisms so people can continue the relationship if they so choose.

2) People won’t need internal e-mail as much with services that enable them to communicate in real-time formats like Yammer. The speed of how we connect within the company is ramping up quickly. In this internal context, regular e-mail with its lag time and ability to clog in boxes looks like a dinosaur.

Knowing this, what do we do as marketers? First, we relax. Second, we adapt to this development by equipping our e-mails and e-newsletters with springboards. In other words, we stop doing e-mail that doesn’t give people anywhere to logically go from there. Otherwise what you’re sending out there is a lot like the direct mail issue I mentioned earlier. No links to more info? No landing page or blog? No place to channel the conversation further toward an appointment and hopefully a sale? No ways to become a Fan, Follower or Connection from there? No pictures they can share or video they can watch?

Then I don’t get it.

Closing a customer when the e-mail starts and ends with that message is hard to do. Even if you’re designing it as something to be read in 60 seconds or less, you’re doing so with the intent that the person subscribe to get more of those e-tidbits. Yet, strangely, some things get sent out without them.

We should incorporate RSS Feeds into our content, giving people the ability to subscribe to us or providing even the option to choose certain sections of content that’s relevant to their world. And while we have e-mail and people use it, we need e-mail subscription sign-ups. It means we have to be more visible than ever before when it comes to producing great blogs, great videos, great e-books, great social interactions that aren’t just about how we’re having 3 for 1 Bud Light Specials tonight.

If we’re going to do e-mail, let’s do e-mail that respects the person’s time by getting in and out of the person’s life in a reasonable period. If they want to spend more time than that with us, they’ll Like, Follow, Connect, Subscribe and Download. The first interaction should not be a company’s life story nor should next steps be just about only a phone call or e-mail. That’s done as far as I’m concerned.

If all this sounds like it’s only going to get harder for you as a marketer, well, you’re right. But I see this as a good thing. People still crave answers to their challenges as much as they ever did. We just have to get smarter and more sophisticated how we pave the road from them back to our solution. We can’t blast away at them with nothing but ads that have virtually no response mechanisms or only “old school” methods like dialing a phone number. We have to create online and offline channels that enable them to learn more about us and understand our offerings – on their terms.

TV adapted. Radio adapted. Newspapers and magazines tried to adapt but aren’t doing a bang-up job of it. Now it’s direct mail and e-mail’s turn at bat.

The way we market through the mail, both in direct and electronic form, needs to change. Or it won’t matter how many days the Postal Service trims from its schedule because we won’t be effective or appreciated in any of them.

How has your brand been adapting? Or have you not yet? 

There’s A Brand Waiting For You In Your Office.

A new Accenture survey of global marketers yielded some results that at first, may not seem that extraordinary. Among them, marketers said the three most important business issues were improving customer retention and loyalty, acquiring new sales and increasing sales to current customers. The survey went on to say that in the coming year, marketes expect to see their marketing budgets flatline or decline.

OK, that’s probably not a shock to hear. But CMOs also expect to see company sales grow in the coming year. Is this a mixed message? Not necessarily. The translation I see is that in order to move forward, marketers will be expected to do more with less. This is not necessarily as bad as it might seem. How?

Think about the most precious internal resource you have to be developed and most of us will arrive at an answer made of flesh and bone, not machine.

Yes, we have to get routinely smarter about what our customers want and using analytics will help with that. But we also have to get smarter about what our employees want – and that’s the side of the equation that I believe gets missed all too often.

If you have ever worked in an environment where employees are an afterthought, you know this. It’s seen in “meet these deliverables or else” career plans that managers don’t like doing and employees dread. It’s career planning as punishment rather than collaboration. Mass layoffs and severance offers are the routine answer to cost cutting rather than brainstorming on what we can do better to show more value or entice greater referrals. Employees see themselves as being there just to do a job – nothing more, nothing less.

The question we must ask is this: We work so hard to brand ourselves to the outside world but how often do we brand ourselves to our own people? What do they genuinely feel about us and can we be honest with ourselves to hear it? You can’t fake enthusiasm for your own workplace. It’s readily apparent and genuine or you’ll see forced smiles and sarcasm if not outright complaints.

Where does the enthusiasm come from? For one thing, a company that treats its people as investments rather than role fillers. Managers who are passionate about understanding what makes their people tick personally, not just professionally. What do they like to do in their spare time? How can you reward them with more of that thing they love? It’s time to look beyond the annual reviews and raises but instead think about your people’s lives on a regular basis.

This isn’t just touchy feely stuff. In fact, here’s how it can benefit your brand.

Just picture how that enthusiasm can positively affect customer retention and loyalty. Let’s say your customer calls up with a technical question and he’s not happy. Your patient employee takes the time to carefully walk the customer through the question like anyone else, but in the course of helping that person, also learns the person is a New York Jets fan. The person is sent a handwritten thank you card for calling with a Jets hat, wishing his team best of luck on the upcoming season.

Who’s going to forget that? Who’s not going to tell someone else about that? I think you get where I’m going with this. An investment in training that employee might just have led to a better customer service experience and in the larger picture, a tremendous feeling about the brand. Or perhaps they felt such an investment and support from the company for their own personal/professional goals that such a positive desired result came naturally – they’re not just doing their job. They’ve bought into a mantra. A mission. A purpose.

Think about your top 5 competitors. Are their technological differences between you all that different? I’ll wager the answer is no. You’ll invest in technology and so will they.

The true difference is your workforce. Your people with their various talents and skills are the differentiators. They are the people on the front lines who often have to deal with customers face-to-face. And even if they don’t, shouldn’t we treat them as the walking, talking representations of the overall brand they are anyway? After all, they do leave the office and associate with others, you know.

“Yes, but what happens when they leave the company? Won’t our differentiator leave with them?” I expect to hear this a bit. It’s natural for people to come and go. The question is how much and how often they’re leaving. Obviously if half the company walks out the door within a year, you need to take a hard look at your own management practices and communication style.

When it’s hard for them to move on to a new opportunity because the culture is so terrific and tears are shed on all sides, something that is special is happening – really. Because it’s a family-like atmosphere at that point.

Is it possible that we could do more with less by looking inward to the brand in front of our faces that we haven’t developed? And in doing so, could we find our outside sales and customer loyalty rising as a result of our internal investment?

One thing’s for certain. It’s a heck of a great place to start.

 

What types of initiatives is your company using to build the internal brand? Is it helping result in a better customer service experience, happier employees, etc.? Share if you’re comfortable doing so.

The Daily Herald Betting Far More Than $20 Per Reader

Newspapers need a new pricing model that reflects the online age of readership.
I’ve got 3 ideas on how to help.

The front page of the suburban The Daily Herald, penned by the Editor, shouted the newspaper’s stance loud and clear: “Why our digital news cannot be free.

The 139-year-old newspaper has officially made the decision to charge for most content from the paper online. If you want to read The Daily Herald online from now on, you’re going to have to pony up $19.99 a month to do so. And by the way, no other paper in Chicagoland is charging digital readers on this kind of scale.

On paper – no pun intended – it seems to make sense that people should pay for digital content. We pay for books on news, we pay for TV and radio on news, so we should pay for papers that provide news, right?

Well…it’s not quite that simple as some would make it out to be.

Journalists and Editors say their content has value and needs to be paid for, because advertising isn’t bringing in enough revenue. Readers say the minute they’re charged money to read online content that they’ll go elsewhere to find it.

How does it all shake out?

The answer comes down to this: Is the content exclusive and original?

I have nothing against paying to read outstanding, exclusive content I can’t find anywhere else. But I have plenty against paying to read decent content that I can find elsewhere.

If a reader can get that content elsewhere from a source that isn’t charging for it, that’s where they’re going to go. So the paper has to provide content that’s spectacular and can’t be found anywhere else. Is the Herald’s content spectacular? It certainly has good columnists. But can I find solid reporting and opinions of the issues elsewhere? Honestly, much of the time the answer is yes.

The New York Times can get away with charging people a decent monthly flat rate for its digital version because it’s The New York Times. Let’s be honest. Is such a price worth it for unique reporting on the news of Bolingbrook and Hinsdale? I’m not trying to be rude here, but I’m wondering if local news reported on DuPage County is worth that investment to people these days.

Let’s look at the issue from a different medium – radio. When Howard Stern went to Sirius Satellite Radio several years back, people wondered if we’d hear the last of him as a result. Well, like him or hate him, Mr. Stern has a loyal, passionate fan base who know they can’t get Howard Stern or anything close to him anywhere else. The investment is a no-brainer for them because the content is original and exclusive. Is it working? Did you not see the gigantic contract he signed for more years on the air at Sirius?

For the same reason, like him or hate him, this is why I think Glenn Beck probably made a good move in asking people to pay for his content too.

So here are 3 ideas that might make more sense for smaller newspapers like The Daily Herald:

  • Subscribe by Columnist
    My suggestion is simple. If the columnist is good, people can pay through a Newspaper App Store to subscribe to that columnist. If the columnist is ordinary, they don’t. So there’s no waste in subscribing to a newspaper or magazine full of other stories I don’t want to read. On the other hand, if it’s a Chuck Goudie or Mike Imrem, they read who they want. Why force people to read a person who doesn’t have value in their eyes?
  • Subscribe by Story
    Come on. How much of that paper do you end up throwing away because you haven’t read the whole thing? And how many of us read the whole thing anyway? Enable us to subscribe by certain topics (or even possibly keywords) that ensure greater value for the readership because we stand a greater chance of reading what we want, when we want it.
  • Preview, then Pay
    Each story is previewed with 50-100 words, which then means the reader has the option to pay for the rest of that story if they want. I’ve certainly seen this strategy employed by other websites and if the content is powerful enough, I’ve paid to read the rest.

If structured correctly and reasonably, the newspaper actually has the ability to make more money through these methods than a flat rate. Plus, they’ll know which columnists bring more value to the paper through the quality of their stories being purchased. While it might not be free, the win here for readers is that they pay only for what they’re interested in reading.
If they don’t explore these alternatives, what you will find with the Daily Herald and other papers like them will be a smaller, more concentrated readership of people who value the content. The question of their survival will be how small that readership becomes. The paper has to go through growing pains of potentially trimming staff and printing fewer papers, but this is a natural progression of where the world is going. Bottom line: Do I see charging people $20 a month across the board to read online content as a good growth strategy? No.

To be clear, there’s still room in this world for the information put forth from journalists. No doubt about it. But newspapers have to create subscription plans that reflect readership habits of an online world, not a print one.

What’s your take? Do you agree with The Daily Herald charging $20 a month for online reading? What about charging for online readership in general? What are some examples of online content that’s worth paying for, in your opinion?

 

3 Times When Social Media Isn’t Right For You.

I’m a gigantic social media fan, but I can never automatically recommend everyone be on social media. True, I could analyze a company from a brand perspective and I’ll invariably recommend social media channels for them. But as I dig deeper, I come to realize that there are a few cases that it’s not right for. Less because it isn’t right for their brand or because their audience isn’t living on any social media channels, more because their internal culture just flat-out isn’t ready for it or isn’t fully behind it when they do decide to go down that path. I’ll give you some examples:

1. “I’m afraid of what people will say about us.”
If your customer service sucks, it’s going to get talked about whether you like it or not. So you might as well create a centralized place where you can funnel these thoughts from customers and respond to them accordingly. The beauty of social media is that it causes you to take a deeper look at your operation and see where there might be cracks in your service offerings. News Flash: We all make mistakes. Still, an overriding culture of fear or lack of understanding of social media tools can lead to overreaction – “Someone said something bad about us! Take down the Facebook Page before the CEO sees it!” Well, maybe you should just sit social media out for a while until you’re prepared to be honest with your organization’s shortcomings. Again, we all have weak points. If you don’t want to address those weak points, there’s an issue there that you’re glossing over. And the more you do ignore it, the more people will talk about that issue online in various places anyway.

2.  100% broadcasting rather than interacting.
I actually wrote a post about how the Cubs and White Sox in their Twitter streams were doing this within a monitored period of 72-hours – broadcasting almost entirely about themselves and not interacting with their fans on Twitter. Seriously, you’re telling me that nobody behind a computer in either of these front offices can ask daily questions of their fans and then respond to those questions? Come on!

The point here is that companies who want to exclusively post without any kind of interaction with their customer and prospect base are essentially just advertising to people. There’s nothing wrong with sharing all the pertinent news of your company with the outside world, but doing that without demonstrating any type of care for understanding their thoughts, wants, needs and questions is defeating the purpose of why they call it SOCIAL media. There are many other options to consider along an advertising or PR route if you want to go that way instead.

3. Expecting it to do everything while you do nothing.
Well, I just did some posts. Why isn’t my phone ringing?
Because you’re expecting Facebook to run your business instead of you. What phone calls are you making? What events are you attending? What appointments are you setting up? What prospecting are you doing (which you can partly do through social media among other things, by the way)?

If you’re in sales, then be in sales and sell. Social media can shine a light on your authority in wonderful ways but it can’t make up for a complete lack of sales initiative on your part. I’m not the world’s greatest salesperson, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I didn’t need to press the flesh with real people as opposed to being behind a laptop all day. It’s when they have met me and then gone online to learn more (or perhaps done this in advance of the meeting – even better), that some solid credibility is hopefully built. If you don’t know how to get out there into the world or you’re timid about it, you’re not alone. Lots of people are not natural-born salespeople or networkers, yet strive to get better at it. Just don’t hide behind social media channels and then blame them for the weaknesses you’re not willing to address either.

Honesty. Transparency. Strong internal and external communication. Willingness to admit when things go wrong and a demonstration of what they’re doing to fix them. Taking action instead of merely planning and giving speeches. These are some of  the areas that can propel a company forward. It’s the companies that want to appear perfect, robotic and transmitting vs. conversing that probably want to take a long look at themselves before plunging into social media.

Fortunately, I’m finding those kinds of companies that have yet to understand the reality that they employ human beings and not robots are fewer and farther between. Innovation by its very nature is to say that what you did before was not as good as what you are doing today. So if we can be honest that we are getting better than we were before in product/service development, why can’t we be honest about how we’re striving to get better in other areas of the company? I think that’s a positive, rapport-building story waiting to be told with an audience. Not run away from.

How has your culture shifted from a closed loop to a more open style to your benefit? Share it! Or do you see challenges due to your industry that you’re not sure if you’re ready to be “social”? Let’s talk about them here if you’re comfortable sharing.