Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Teenagers vs. The Internet: Teens Win

Today I was talking to a friend who has a teenage daughter. One night a month or so ago, she was babysitting and brought along her new phone. Which mom and dad are paying for. Since IM worked, she assumed it was free. I'm sure you see where this is going.

A one-day $900+ phone bill later, they had a talk with her about her IM-ing habits. I recalled the discussions I'd seen about a teen racking up 14k messages in a single month, and people claiming to have seen twice that.

The math is just astounding, until you realize how they're doing it: Every kid has a contact group of all their friends, and every IM goes to all of them. They've built their own follow lists, and are tweeting constantly.

In other words, teenagers have already routed around Twitter and created a distributed system to solve this use case.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do you love your customers?

Forget the money for a second. They're all broke, just divorced or downsized, moved back in with Mom and Dad. But you get up each morning looking forward to seeing them, talking to them, spending time with them.

Oh, and selling them stuff. Stuff that you know they're going to totally dig, because you totally dig it. And they love you right back for selling it to them.

Who wants to be that guy?

But you're not. "That guy" -- the sleazeball that's always pimping the latest multi-level marketing crap at parties -- doesn't really love his customers. He loves their money.

You love them for what they are. You're one of them. Except that you're good at something most of them aren't. Maybe you write music. Or you're a painter. Or you're just really good at finding great new restaurants. So you do it for them.

"Do what you love ... yadda yadda ... heard it all before."

Close, but not quite. Maybe you heard it from Seth:

Do what you love and don’t worry about the consequences.

Or you saw the Venn diagram everyone uses to tell you what to do with your life:

But maybe you also heard that you have to always put the reader first. To start from what your customers need and give it to them.

But all of this advice is missing something important.

Who are your customers?

Who do you want to spend your day with?

If you love building and painting choppers, you'll probably spend lots of time with bikers. You like grooming Pomeranians? You'll be with little old ladies and gay men.

Is that who you want to spend your day with? Every day?

Because once you've picked your niche, once you've picked who you're going to follow, that's who you're going to spend your working life with.

Pick them on purpose

Contrary to every other piece of advice I've seen on this, I'm telling you to pick your customers first. Don't start from your interests and look for a market. And definitely don't pick a market just because it's a market.

Look for people you like. People you're willing to spend time with. Lots of time. Too much time.

If you don't love spending time with these people, it'll show. You may get by for a while, finding the intersection between what they want and what you want to give.

But if you love them, you'll be willing to follow them where they want to go.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is Google the general-purpose Napster?

Napster has become an icon in the war between entertainment industry giants on one side; and fans, legal activists and computer programmers on the other. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) technically "won" that battle, but they seem to be losing the ongoing war. And the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is intensely interested in that outcome.

It's hard to discuss the issue though, because there are so many players involved. Because they're actually fighting for or against different things. And frequently they're using arguments that have more to do with politics than with their actual goals. For instance:

  • Fans talk about sharing and mix tapes, while admittedly lots of them just like free stuff.

  • Legal activists talk about first amendment and fourth amendment rights and fair use, but often in the larger context of resisting the corporatization of government.

  • Computer programmers talk about non-infringing uses of technology and the technical impossibility of implementing certain regulations, while often echoing the legal activist's resistance to corporatization.

  • The recording industry talks about piracy, theft, and the rights of the artists, while their real concern is control of the marketing and distribution channels.

This last point is the one I want to look at.

The official position

The RIAA has long held that any duplication of an audio recording made without the express permission of the copyright holder is, and should be, illegal. This is not technically correct.

There is, at a minimum, the fair use doctrine, which holds that works can be copied and reproduced for the purposes of comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. So the RIAA is already stretching the truth, although they have been fairly direct in their efforts to limit the scope of fair use and restrict its application, but so far these exemptions exist.

Based on creative accounting

Have they stretched any other truths? Courtney Love and Janis Ian both argue pretty persuasively that protecting the artists is not what this is all about. Even a million-selling album barely makes the artists any money, while various industry segments take all the profit.

But repeated studies, some of which Ian mentioned, have shown that Napster users actually spent more money on new CDs. So why would the RIAA oppose it? For that you have to look at what music Napster users were buying. It was more likely to be back catalog or from a minor label. And the RIAA is designed to promote blockbuster releases from Top 40 artists.

So killing Napster was really about restricting the number of choices listeners have, and making sure the record labels own all of the remaining choices.

It's not the music, it's the information

Seen in this light, it's more clear that the RIAA is not in the music business per se. They are in the marketing and distribution business. And Napster performed both of these functions for free. And did it better than the RIAA could, because it directly reflected the preferences of the users. It's no wonder the RIAA attacked them.

So here is the iconic battle: The status quo industry controls information and access. The upstart provides information from the users, to the users, without industry input. Industry uses legal means to squash the upstart. But the genie is out of the bottle.

Who does information now?

In the generic terms I just used, you can see echoes of this battle in online search and advertising. Google, through their PageRank algorithm, represents the preferences of their users. Marketers coming from the broadcast model, where money equals attention, claim a lack of "fairness" in the system, saying that the content producers should control how their sites appear in indexes.

The battle is playing out differently this time, for a few key reasons.

First, Google got very big, very fast. By the time traditional marketers realized what was happening Google was already dominant.

Second, traditional marketing was fragmented and highly competitive. They didn't have a single trade group dictating the market the way the RIAA was controlling the bulk of the music industry.

Third, Google had a business model before they came under attack. Which means they had money for legal defense.

Fourth, and possibly most important, Google knew the fight was about information and access. They weren't distracted by arguments about artists and creators.

Which side are you on?

"You're not promoting the right thing ... Stop listening to what users say they like, I'm the one paying money, I'll tell you what people should like ... It's not fair, I've spent all this time and money on market research and your system is saying that my product still isn't popular ..."

It sounds like the same arguments the RIAA made. Companies with a vested business interest are unhappy that people don't like their product, and they're trying to shoot the messenger.

Where are you in this fight? Insisting that Google should list you because you paid more? Or analyzing what PageRank says about how people view your content, and giving users what they want?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Have you done all the marketing you can? Are you sure?

Has every person in the world who could possibly benefit from your product already bought it? Wait, let's back up to an easier test. Has each one of them even heard of your product? If not, what have you done today to make sure that they hear of it?

Have you identified each potential user of your application? Not just a general description of the type of user, I mean personally identifying information. Do you have their email address? Why not? How do you plan to get it?

How many people have seen your sales pitch and not bought? What are their email addresses? How many of them would have benefitted from your product? Why didn't they buy it? How do you know?

What can you change in your sales pitch to convert more of those views into sales? How do you know?

What can you change in your product to increase the population of people who would benefit? How do you know?

This isn't black and white, where things either work or they don't. This is the squishy grey area filled with actual people, who may buy (or not buy) for reasons that they don't understand themselves. If you think getting this "right" (think about why I put that in quotes) is faster or easier than building your product, then you don't even know how much you don't know.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Naked cynicism


Sales is a tricky thing. If you've got a good product that you really believe in, you can make a fortune just by convincing people that you're right.

But sometimes, it's just a "good" product. Nothing wrong with it, but not so different from lots of others on the market. So why should people by your product instead of someone else's?

Good marketing beats good product development every time. Just look at Microsoft. That's what you're competing against. Even with a better product, you have to have better marketing to win. And good marketing is measured by one thing: Is it effective?

Is there a line between strong advocacy and manipulation? Between creative license and deceit? How long do you have to be in the business before you stop caring, and just go for naked cynicism?

That’s why characterizing your prospect as a ruggedly independent thinker — immune to "herd think" — is a very powerful selling technique indeed.

If you can position your prospect as a renegade, and your product as a symbol of that individualism, it can form a powerful buying motive.

Just be sure and let your prospect know there are other people who feel the same way.

Update: Looks like someone agrees. Scion's current ad campaign tagline is "United by Individuality." Okay then.

When newspapers are gone, will you miss newsstands?


Marketing guru Seth Godin asked the question today, "When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?" Before getting into the various sections and showing how the web covers each of those areas better, he offers this opinion:

Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand... I think we're okay without them.

But are we?

The presses and trucks -- the machinery of creating and delivering the paper -- are transparent to most people. But the newsstand is a user interface. Any UI designer will tell you that the interface influences the type of interaction you have with the underlying system. What type of interaction do you have with a newsstand?

Newsstand in web terms

First, the newsstand serves as a "portal" to divergent news sources. It provides a rough snapshot of what the different publishers think is worth reading about today, all in one place. No matter what your interest, you can go to the newsstand and know that it's represented there.

Then there are the cases where someone discovers an interest while at the newsstand. The user who knows what she is there for, but sees the same screaming headline in 144 pt type on three different papers and decides she wants to see what's happened in the world. Or the user who wants to read something, but doesn't know what until he browses. This second type of user is very common in airports.

The newsstand also serves as a feed reader, always showing the most recent issue of periodicals and dailies, with older issues sometimes available behind the counter. Just as there are people who don't know or care about RSS readers, there are people who have been reading magazines for years who don't track when the new issues will be out. They just check the stand every day or so until they see something new they want to read.

Don't make me think

Both of these functions, the portal and feed reader analogues, are zero maintenance for the users. At most they might ask the proprietor to start carrying a new title. But the mechanics of delivery, storage, display, are all handled for them. With no subscription, no ongoing cost, and the incremental cost entirely under the user's control.

So Seth is right, we probably won't miss the newspapers. But will we miss the newsstands?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Being Useful Is Better Than Being Right

Being right isn't nearly as important as most IT people think. Understanding why that's true is one of the fastest ways to build trust and respect with the non-IT management in your company.

Let's try an example where it's better to be useful than to be right.

Suppose you find out there is a structural problem with your building. It is severe enough that the building could collapse at any moment.

Being Right

You look up the emergency notification policy in the employee handbook. There's a number to call. You call it and explain the details of what you've discovered. They start asking questions about evidence, as you get frustrated that they're not responding fast enough to this emergency, and why don't they get it?

Being Useful

You pull the fire alarm and everyone leaves the building.

Business Prefers Useful

Executives like to get things done. They got where they are by being good at getting what they want. The respect and respond to that trait in others.

So if you want to be recognized as someone who can get things done, you need to actually get some things done. If excruciating detail is what it takes to convince someone they should listen to you, then use detail. If a convenient metaphor will make your point more strongly, then use one. Of course it will gloss over important details, that's why we use metaphors. They simplify reality in a (hopefully) useful way.

Find a good balance betwee rightness and usefulness, and you will take control of your career like you never imagined you could.