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Friday, December 31, 2010

Digg Down

I register only mild interest in Digg, the content aggregator that has seen better days. Digg has had, and presumably continues to have, a significant user base, but it never captured my involvement. Even so, Digg tempts me to ruminate.

The idea of sharing interesting Internet finds sounds good, and apparently for many, it worked. But you can see where things can go wrong. I’ll enumerate, just so that I can use a bullet list:

  • People will try to game the system. Those with something to sell or gain just might find ways to make their enthusiasm count more than that of  ‘the average person’.
  • Trolls, louts, loudmouths, and other irritants of the Internet will gain control of the stage.
  • Interference from the aggregator.

Digg bases its business (and it is a business) on trends, and on the hope that items will go viral. The concept of ‘going viral’ seems under-examined. People treat it as a pot of gold at the end of a hopeful rainbow.

In truth, ‘going viral’ means word of mouth. People talk about the products and services that please them. The noise of a claque might create temporary interest, but that interest will wither if unaccompanied by some satisfaction for the consumer. Social media helps get the word out, but the consumer’s judgment proves final.

It looks like Digg could not find answers to any of the problems bulleted above. I won’t prognosticate, maybe Digg will return to glory. I see Digg, however, as one more disappointing use of the Internet.

I do not blame Digg, though I hazard to say that Digg jumped the shark. The Internet grows less into a repository of information—remember the Information Revolution?—and more into a place of scams, diversion, and self interest. As a follower of trends, Digg did what all trends do. Trends fade. Digg, it seems, has faded.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Search Engine Automatonization

Repetition lies at the bottom of Search Engine Optimization. By frequently using certain words relevant to your website, you can convince search engines of the relevancy of your website to others. Makes sense. As Gertrude Stein wrote, "There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence."

The result of such insistence may not prove entirely positive, however. That chiming in your ear might be the same words written over and over.

Does SEO batter the reader? I begin to think so. The possibility of engagement with such tailored and straitened writing seems unlikely.

I do not advocate writing with a thesaurus always in hand. That makes for an unnatural reading experience. But limiting your vocabulary within the strictures of Optimization only limits your communication.

I have the happy faith that search engines will continue finding ways to combat the optimization. Their livelihood depends on providing search results useful to those searching. Websites that sound like other websites, that provide the depth of content farms, will not retain interest for those seriously searching for results.

Good writing will. Good writing that provides original outlook, trustworthy information, and clarity of expression, satisfies people more than the limited vocabulary of SEO keywords.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Social Media is Dead

There, I said it. I don’t (quite) mean it, but it needed saying. I will now tell you why.

This blog has been quiet for several months. Partly, the world just got in the way. Tributary Communications World Headquarters moved, and so forth. When and so forth diminished, I felt that the hiatus here should continue. Something about Social Media bothered me.

Social Media interests me when it provides useful information and fresh opinion. Entertainment works, too. Without those elements, Social Media becomes a shoddy effort to beguile. I have been seeing too many shoddy efforts to beguile. I present here examples of what’s been bugging me:

  • Excitement. New products, slightly improved products, same old products, all presented with dynamic dazzle. It wears thin, doesn’t it?
  • Opinion. We all have opinions. Sometimes these opinions  elucidate, aid, inspire, or otherwise profit us. Sometimes, however, opinion obscures and congests. Measure the worth of an opinion by its freshness of thought, not the rumble of its thunder.
  • Information. Speculation is not information. Opinion is not information either. I would say that information is immediately provable. Guesses do not count as information.
  • Prognostication. Projecting what a new release of a product might entail makes a good parlor game. More often, it just muddies the water.

Social Media is so darned rushed that the content suffers. Too many people cranking out too much stuff. Social Media is not dead, but I think I heard it wheezing. Earnest effort, and a breath of fresh air, and this useful (essential) tool will be healthy again. I accept as my duty that I should take my own advice to heart.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Aggregator Wars

Link aggregator sites like Digg, Reddit,and Stumbleupon seem popular, judging by how busy they are. The situation has grown more interesting with Digg apparently losing marketshare lately and Reddit growing. Change never ceases.

These sites allow users to present content in the form of links. They curate content, sort of. Enthusiasm (supposedly) fuels these sites, but much of that enthusiasm is self-serving, as you might guess.

When I first saw Digg, the voting system that pushed stories to the top of the list immediately put me off. Popularity rules. Could this system be gamed? Well, I guess so.

Furthermore—for me at least—these sites depend too much on the ephemeral Now. What’s hot today is cold tomorrow. Shrug.

The styles of the three sites range widely. Digg is slick and coolly professional. Reddit looks homemade, and in fact offers a lot of homemade amateur stuff. Stumbleupon is more like Digg but with a stronger gaming aspect. I feel like all three demand a commitment that I do not want to make. You have to consume your share of the content vigourously.

The developers of these sites possess a generic sense of content that distresses me. Their vision of content entails nothing more than stuff people will consume. Maybe I’m stuck in an old paradigm, but I would like to see some curatorial force behind the onslaught of stuff. Instead, we have popularity contests.

To be honest, I prefer Newser, which has a People magazine vibe to it. The headlines are juicy and lots of pictures tempt you to waste your time. It’s an online newspaper. It works.

Do these sites have a future? They do not rouse my interest much. Twitter and Facebook seem to have them beat. That too could change.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Gmail’s Permanent Failure, by Adam Rifkin

I really like this TechCrunch article. Here are some reasons:

  1. It is not overlong but it manages to touch all the needed bases of Rifkin’s subject. All writing should be EXACTLY the length to cover the subject properly. That’s a truism, and you can take it home with you.
  2. His ad hoc subject matter carries relevance not just to him, but to all of us Gmail users. This is not an essay written in the desperation of providing content, but to understand and expound upon a specific situation.
  3. Rifkin takes a local, personal experience, and expands its relevance to a greater audience.

The thrust of the essay hits home because Rifkin nails a sore weakness in the Google. The giant lacks feel for the user’s experience.

Google is curiously lunkheaded in terms of  communication. It would seem that the effort of empathy has not been proclaimed positively at the company. Instead, the user must measure up to the well-schooled creators of the company’s myriad products and services. Google’s aristo glow is a fake if they can’t talk normal to regular folk.


Google’s collegium of high gear prototypes loses the Get It test. And their funneling answering machine to stroke your issue presents a hopeless future. Service is merely advice.

Google doesn’t care because caring is not part of the program. The program turns to proliferation of product while scanting on service. Google is too busy to respond adequately. Instead, Google relies on failsafe technology. The people part is abandoned. Hi, my name is Why Bother.

Selling Real Estate

My wife is studying to become a real estate agent. I have accompanied her the last few weekends to check out open houses. Doing this let me see interesting opportunities.

Beth always identifies herself right away that she is not a buyer but intending to enter the profession. The agents have been varyingly helpful, within the human norm.

As an agent, you have the resources of the company for which you work, but you largely work alone. I have had the opportunity to talk shop with some of these agents. The smart ones understand that strong communication is essential.

I do not know that the challenges of selling a house are larger than selling other things, but the scale of the purchase certainly adds considerable concern. Agents must be able to communicate clearly with prospective buyers, to overcome the fears and confusions associated with that scale of concern.

The agent must reassure clientele that:

  1. His/her knowledge of the business is adequate
  2. He/she understands the needs of clients
  3. He/she is scrupulous, both in the sense of perspicacity, but also in the sense of ethics.

Should an agent dress up particularly when showing a $3 million house? I was asked that. This is one of the things one must decide. A blanket answer does not exist. Regard the specific situation and decide.

That same agent asked me to help him with some of his communications. His company puts out quarterly flyers that associate with the agents. He wants to be sure that this effort ties in with his own initiative.

I can help him, because I think in terms of the language. This is a matter of training, both in the sense of taking courses, and in asserting my own course of study. The language of communication for these sales situations must be dynamic, concise, accurate, and clear.

Temptations to skirt these necessities abound. A lovely house was two miles from the center of town, not “steps”, as the flyer reported. Perhaps one was to understand that by steps they meant 5000. Why even attempt to suggest closer proximity? The ruse is obvious.

Some people will accept the necessity of sump pumps in the cellar. For others, no gilding will suffice. Words of communication must be framed by verities. Show the house in good light, but acknowledge the faults. Those faults can be ameliorated or accepted.

Within these strictures, I take my duty as removing obfuscation and duplicity, highlighting verifiable features, and trusting that an honest delivery will find the proper audience. I know that an urge to sneak by exists, but that is a bad implement, and one I will not use.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Writer as Slob

I was just reading a blog that I like. It supplies good information that I can use. Unfortunately, it is a mess of typos and poor grammar. I read Internet as well as anyone (I speak it pretty well, too), but I find the situation problematic.

At best, the sloppiness produces distraction. The missing apostrophe or the ‘e’ before ‘i’ situation cause me momentarily to lose track of the sentence. At worst, I am confused, like when the run-on sentence leaves me lost.

I like the blog because it supplies good information, but I hate accepting the sloppiness. Should I even recommend it to people? Should I contact the author(s) and let them know? Or are low standards the norm now?

Content Farms, Sucking Our Lifeforce

Content farms are high production sites for content. Check out this brief rundown. Content farms provide the disappointing muck you find at the end of many a search. They illustrate how the information revolution can go astray.

People perform Internet searches exactly 27 bajillion times a day. Canny entrepreneurs have discovered that providing likely content for those searches, and tacking ads to that content, will create revenue. The more page views, the more revenue. It is a business model, and it works. Whee haw!

A  fearsome amount of content must be created to satisfy those 27 bajillion daily searches. Production has been honed with algorithms to determine what topics and data people seek. At the scale of content farms like Direct Media, whatever effort expended to check data and maintain decent levels of grammar simply cannot match necessity. Slapdash is the byword.

So what else is new? This is Web 2.0. Deal with it. One finds oneself thinking that. Alternatives remain, however. One can choose to avoid the crap and stick with good content.

Crafting good content cannot be a mechanical exercise. I stress good here. Good = original. Original means an ad hoc reaction to and presentation of a subject.

Many templates exist for a good blog post. These templates include ideas like asking questions (thereby eliciting reader response), numbered lists (people love them), use of keywords (search engines love them), an 8th grade vocabulary (just 8th graders apparently read blogs), and so forth. These are good ideas, useful to keep in mind. Like with all rules, though, these can be usefully broken at times.

The surprise factor still scores points. I base this assertion on no statistics. I just know that I tire of the same old. I also know that new things, original things, intrigue people. Content farms offer no surprises, and barely any content. Content farms cheat readers with the barest minimum of pay off.

My thesis is that readers will follow you if you take a left turn where the content farm authors always take a right. Surprise—in subject, in vocabulary, in viewpoint—will carry the day. That is my hope as a writer, and my belief. Originality is still a good thing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Elevator Pitch

The following is the elevator pitch for my company. If anyone would like to offer criticism, please leave a comment, or write to me directly at tributary.communications@gmail.com.


Tributary Communications

Focusing Your Business Communications

Tributary Communications uses social media to build your customer base, increase your profits, and save you time. Interested? Here is how:

Internet: I will create a focused and effective web base for your business that customers will be drawn to.

Email: I will develop targeted email campaigns tailored to the specific needs and interests of your clientele.

Social Networks: I will create a profitable social media presence that will engage customers with lively content and a clear sense of your business strengths.

Blogs: I will set up your blog and either write strong content or edit yours so that customers will want to visit your blog regularly.

Is That Ringing in Your Ear a Death Knell?

Seth Grodin, author and—can I call him this?—marketing guru, announced on his blog that he was through with traditional publishing. The blog post is here. This should surprise no one who reads his blog, he has been clear about the possibility. Does this signal the end of traditional book publishing? Well, how should I know?

I do know that many options exist now. You can deliver your work by website, pdf, e-reader, or print on demand, and give the publishers a bye. This is one more example of when traditional businesses should get on their toes rather than back on their heels.

Grodin has established himself, so this step is not so precarious as for a lesser known writer. A lesser known writer can still succeed with the new alternatives, but must put the effort in.

I do not hear the death knell of publishing in Grodin’s decision. We will still need publishers, of some sort. They did not just select what to publish, they got work designed, printed, and marketed. those services were valuable. If you do not want to do all that, or cannot, then publishers provide the service.

Publishers unwilling to change may hear a death knell to the way they did business, but if they are savvy they might see a need for gatekeepers. I hate saying that, because publishing has been a guarded playground for so long. We have so much ‘content’ now, however, that filtering seems necessary. The market will settle the matter of course, but the market is pretty weird right now.

Grodin points out that with traditional publishing, you sell to an editor. Nowadays, you can sell to the reader. That’s who I always wanted to read my writing. Possibly we can move away from the model of publishers creating crap excitement with celebrity tell alls and copycat memes, though I suppose there will always be a market (and a marketing) for that.

So publishing will have to change, just as the music and movie industries had to change. Death knells are heard by pundits but that has more to do with their own clamor than actual events. It is certain that those who cannot change will find themselves forced from the playing field.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Is Marketing Lying or What?

Marketing attractively presents a product or service to prospective customers. Having gotten that difficult definition out of the way, I would like to look closer at what marketing encompasses.

In the wine business, I performed marketing in two ways. I met customers face to face, and I wrote reams of marketing material with newsletters, brochures, and shelf talkers. Naturally, I tried to present our wines in the best light.

Presenting products or services in the best light represents the essence of marketing. At what point does “best light” actually obscure the truth?

Truth is a fuzzy word in this context because everyone has their view about things. Good marketing should not make anything up,  however. That is not the same as tellin’ it like it is, but honestly, the goal is to give a good picture.

I did not work on commission so I lacked that consideration. Still, inventory concerns and supplier relationships, among other forces, influenced me when I directed selection ideas toward customers. That’s business. But I wasn’t trying to hoodwink anyone.

In the end, customer satisfaction rules. You cannot afford to disappoint customers in the slightest, whether you work on commission or not.

In these circumstances, I did my best to hear what customers wanted. Why not? We had a good selection. Each wine is an individual statement, and everyone’s taste differs. Something accurate and positive about a wine could always be said. Besides, we did not carry faulty wines. Whether I would purchase a wine need not enter the conversation.

Marketing, then, presents what is good about the product or service. This does not mean hiding flaws. To do that will bite you in the ass every time. Every time!

Big companies like Google and Microsoft cannot get marketing straight so I offer a numbered list of marketing rules.

  1. Explain the product or service clearly. That fuzziness in your head after reading Google explain Wave or Microsoft explain Live is not your fault.
  2. Explain pricing clearly. In other words, do not act like a cable company.
  3. Regard problems with your product or service as flaws to be fixed not features to hide.
  4. Learn from your competitors but do not copy them. Create your own niche using your own innovation and distinction.

Buzz Off—Thoughts on Content Delivery Systems

Leo Laporte recounts how Google Buzz failed him here. His problem brings up several points for me.

Point One: we are dependent on content delivery systems. These systems may or may not work all the time. Human error, of course, can occur. Furthermore, and of more concern, the delivery systems created by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so forth, do not share the same goals as the people using their services. For the content delivery systems, users are data mines. The content delivery systems seek the most extensive mining rights that they can get. We are mere West Virginias in the eyes of these big businesses.

Point Two: Guess what? The content delivery systems do not care about the content. The content delivery systems care about getting eyeballs to look at their ads. They want more entrants into their revenue streams, not quality content. By the way, a good synonym for revenue stream is revenue.

Point Three: For all the information and opinion and content out there, there aren’t a lot of Leo Laportes. That is, there are few distinctive voices, people you remember and want to listen to. Or there are, but there is just so much out there that it is hard to discern. Kind of overwhelmed here. Are you?

Looking at myself as much as anyone, I would recommend that people put more care into content. Not every issue needs your opinion, or mine. Typos and other evidence of rushed work should not be considered acceptable. Perhaps we could resign ourselves to offering just our A material, possibly high B as well.

I think my final  point should be this simple: take control. Must we be at the mercy of content delivery systems? The Internet vitalized many of us because it allowed us easily to broadcast our work. We found that we need not pay obeisance to the possibly contrary motives of publishers and editors. Shall we return to that freedom?

Discontent with Content

I began writing on my own when I was sixteen. I did not know what to write, I just knew that I wanted to write. I claim Robert Benchley as my first model as a writer.

If you do not know Benchley, he wrote charming humorous pieces for The New Yorker and similar magazines from the 20s to the 40s. I liked how he could take any modest, homely subject and create something fun to read.

His writing had three things that made it work, and that I envied:

  1. He had a voice. A Benchley persona existed that the reader knew and could relate to. He was an average guy (though not really), faced with average problems (though not really). He was not a faceless content producer.
  2. He had a subject. That Benchley persona could fuss about the travails of travel, or the silliness of opera, and it scaled perfectly. Again, readers could relate.
  3. He had an audience. He was a popular writer, yes. He won an Academy Award for a short feature that he acted in, derived from one of his pieces. Audience is not just a numbers game, however. It encompasses the idea in the writer’s head that someone could relate to what one writes. Benchley knew that he had something that would engage readers. He was distinct from his contemporaries James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and S. J. Perelman, all excellent in their own ways.

Nowadays, the stakes seem higher for writers. Production must be maximized. Writers must engage and entertain a highly distracted yet voracious readership. This leads to a problem.

A kind of blankness has entered the connotation for content.. Have you noticed? The term includes not just different types of writing—information, opinion, promotion, distraction—but different ways to present content. Content is pictures, videos, and writing: stuff. All carefully manipulated and delivered in tsunami-sized quantities.

I want to remain with the Benchley model.

Keywords, fan boys, and Top Ten Reasons have made content mechanical. I need information and want opinion, but the all too obvious noise of the machine overwhelms the message. Do you agree? Or should we just accept rushed, “crafted” writing pockmarked with keywords and typos?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Communication as Translation

When we communicate, we bring a thought or an emotion to another person. In reaching the person with whom we communicate, the message changes. Our message has been translated.

You know that when you use the word dog, it provokes a highly personal image or concept in your mind. We all experience dog differently. When we speak, we translate our idea of dog to others, and hope for the best. We do this with every word that we use. Perfect communication cannot happen. As humans, we do not really expect perfect anything, do we?

But we have to try.

I return to the demise of Google Wave because it illustrates something important. The application failed, at least in this incarnation, not because it did not work but because its value and use never reached the understanding of enough people.

Expertise is tricky to maneuver. Experts must bring their knowledge to the level of their audience. They must find language that conveys their intent. That means jargon is right out. Vocabulary must inhabit the reader’s comfort zone. Use cases must be relevant.

Google botched the communication. I hope their Facebook Killer receives better care. The translation of the idea of value must reach millions of people, most of whom are not engineers.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Google Wave Explained?

The following from Lifehacker ‘explains’ why the author loved Google Wave:

I loved Wave's ambition. From a purely technical perspective, Wave pushed the edge of what was possible in a browser; it promised a new federated communication system; it's open source and uses an open protocol; it's a platform that developers could customize and extend with gadgets and robots. From a user perspective, it had the guts to try to introduce a whole new paradigm of communication, one that combined document collaboration and messaging into a single interface. It demonstrated real-time collaboration in a browser the way no other webapp had yet. It made group discussions/brainstorming/decisions much, much easier.

I don’t want to sound like a dummy (who does?) but this does not help explain Wave. Too many generalities impede my ability to see how the app could help me specifically. Look at the language:

  1. “I loved Wave’s ambition”. The author provides a vague indication that Wave offered new ideas. Users wants results not ambition. Next sentence.
  2. “Wave pushed the edge of what was possible in a browser.” Ditto, but at least the reader knows that Wave is browser-related.
  3. “It promised a new federated communication system.” More ditto. Okay, it is a collaborative tool, but how does it differ from, say, Google Docs?
  4. “it’s open source…” This speaks to how Wave was created and how it can be improved and changed, but does not describe its function.
  5. “it had the guts to try to introduce a whole new paradigm of communication. Still more ditto, and still not backed up. User don’t want try, they want can. This basically repeats #2 and #3. No specifics yet.
  6. “combined document collaboration and messaging into a single interface”. This is getting somewhere but still says little how it differs from other collaboration tools.

I won’t go on. I infer that Wave is snazzy, but beyond that, little resounds for me. An underlying problem reveals itself here. Excitement attached to generalities is hype.

If the author, or Google, put more emphasis on actual use cases, Wave would have a much better chance of surviving. Give us potential users something to latch onto beyond ‘innovative’.

I offer Evernote as an example of a company that gets the message across. Evernote  constantly provides tips on how to use the application, offering loads of specific uses. For instance, take a picture of a business card with your smartphone, save it to Evernote with a tag, and later collect the info in your address book. There is a clear use of the application.

With Wave, the emphasis stuck on the blurry concept of innovation. Google failed to reveal the tool itself in any useful and functional way. So Wave is now no more.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wave Goodbye

Our friend Google decided to rid itself of Wave, the collaboration tool or whatever it was that it developed. Wave never caught on. It represents one more item hoisted up Google’s flagpole in the hopes that someone would salute.

And so Google seems more and more like Microsoft, clumsily cluttering the Internet mindspace with more halfhearted endeavours. It is embarrassing to see such large companies flail. They can afford to, for a while, but it remains perplexing to watch.

Don’t you find it odd that Google could not come up with an elevator pitch for Wave? Seemingly, the people who developed Wave were so bound into it that they could not explain it to outsiders. Something about collaboration but why would one prefer Wave over, um, email, or Google Docs? What need out there did Wave fulfill?

Google provided Wave with the form of a promotion, but never gave voice to an actual, energized expression of Wave’s positive benefits. What was the motivation for this product? I am afraid it was less that it was a great tool for users than another way for Google to collect user data. I think users sniffed that out. Oh well,  on to the next project.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Do You KNOW? How DO You Know?

I learned an important lesson from my 10th grade English teacher. I find it useful to remember that lesson. For me, it entails the essential nature of education.

We all have different ways of learning. The developmental psychologist Howard Garner identified different intelligences (or inherent learning patters). Go here for more information on Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Much of the education offered even now seems focused on a single, model intelligence, the perfect student. Education becomes an obstacle for anyone who does not fit the perfect student model.

Received wisdom confronts us every day, so we should learn to recognize it. My 10th grade teacher faced the curriculum necessity of teaching us Poetry. Gag! Hack! I think the class largely agreed that this was a waste of time.

I remember that teacher fondly. He not only got us through grammar in what seemed like record time, he also helped me, finally, to understand the subject. He was a good teacher.

Having to read poetry seemed about as dull as English class could get. The teacher set the class back on our collective heels, however, by beginning with a question: What is poetry?

Students offered their ideas, that poetry was writing that rhymed, that followed strict meter, that used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. That sort of stuff. That was our experience, that was what we knew.

Our teacher did not refute us. He simply said, Who says? We had to consider.

He proceeded to show us work that did not conform to those rules. Not just modern stuff, John Milton 300 years ago got by occasionally without rhyme. Of course our teacher had us read e. e. cummings, who regularly and thoughtfully broke those assumed rules. Discussion in that class became eager and interested. And we were talking about poetry!

Understanding that I need not follow assumed rules opened me up to becoming a writer. I needn’t copy other people and how they proceeded, I could make my own way.

Here is the lesson for me. Most people would assume that a stream of brief, random observations from strangers would not interest them. Nor would a service that tracks their location and broadcasts it publicly. Twitter and Foursquare both enjoy strong and growing followings. I do not know the future of either but currently they both show life.

We can learn important lessons at those points of obstruction and assumed wisdom, or we can go along with the assumption. You can begin by believing that people don’t want X, and be done with it. If you begin with the assumption that people do want X, perhaps you can be working towards something useful, productive, and visionary.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foursquare, Part Deux

I have been using this service for more than a week now. I see why companies might be rubbing their hands in anticipation. I also see the service fizzling away.

The deal depends on whether users can remain involved with Foursquare long enough for companies to make use of their interest. A class of users likes the game of it but is that class big enough to support the service?

It is not my problem but I cannot help pondering. If businesses can add a worthwhile dimension to Foursquare, basically to replace the game of gathering badges with something more appealing, the thing can work. I am just a casually user, much like John and Jane Q. Public. I am bored with it. Yet the call of location seems powerful even so.

The but that I see is this: the effort required by the user/customer. If one needs to be frenetically on top of the Foursquare game to gain from it, drop off will occur. Businesses need to make the experience simple. What they give must be easy to get.

The use of social networks by businesses requires ease of use for the public. Your Facebook page must have good information, good deals, good events: good stuff that is worth my bother. Likewise Twitter and Foursquare must deliver the company’s goods briskly and clearly. Forget the razzmatazz. When we’re all on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and all, we will want just the refined stuff, not your tv promotion.

Foursquare, and all the other efforts out there, must bust a move to maintain consumer interest in their tools. Then businesses that will keep these services afloat can dip their beaks. Tricky stuff. I will not say impossible, but some keen folks will have to be on their toes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Yesterday, I signed up for Foursquare, the location service, or whatever it is. Officially, I don't get it. I do a little bit, but am doubtful of its overall heft.

From what I glean, it is a game, somewhat, but also a tool to find people you know. You use the service to announce where you are, though not really.

It listed a number of points near me. I clicked on those places and received credit and points for being there. I did it from the chair I am sitting in now. So that’s a bit of a fake.

It is Twitterish, but connected to places. Think of sitting at a restaurant and “Hang on while I post to Foursquare about this place.” That could be obnoxious, but so is the ubiquitous cell phone.

Foursquare has earned a lot of buzz, and it has pocketed real VC money, but is this thing going to fly? I do not see how, but I am no seer.

Foursquare was popular at the South by Southwest conference. A meet up service at a meet up: that will work. I wonder how much of the excitement is that localized? Is there room in West Virginia for this?

Buzz is a flutter. It makes the world glow and prospects loom. Maybe Foursquare will provide return for investors. The challenge is to see the whole machine and not just the noise it makes. I will continue with Foursquare for a while but do not feel commitment in the offing. Do you think it will last?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Smart Phone

The slippery slope invited me to get a new phone. Verizon offered me a freebie if I would stay with the service. No particular complaints with Verizon service, unlike all the talk I hear about AT&T, so I signed up for a Blackberry Curve.

A whole new gizmo.

My previous cell phone was a phone. You could text, take pictures, sort of maintain a calendar, but it was either laborious to do so, or sub par. I rarely used it for anything but calls. This Blackberry was made for these tasks. I am learning to perform them.

I have yet to reach wizard status in keyboard proficiency—some muscle memory gains still  remain for me—but I can now produce a message without typos.

I can send those messages, and pictures, to Facebook and Twitter. Immediacy is fun. The camera aint bad. Just yesterday I took this picture and uploaded it while out walking:


I have gingerly approached apps. Here we reach an area of resistance. I do not want to pay.

I have never made a purchase from the iTunes store. This is not Ludd talking, This is the guy who does not want to go all spendy with digital wonder. Talk about slippery slope.

The iPod, the Kindle, and now smart phone apps siphon money from your credit card as quick as envy. That anytime urge can be requited with alacrity. I do not want to join that. Such purchases that I make shall be done after cool contemplation.

And though the iPhone looks sweet, I am glad I got a Blackberry. Apple’s penchant for highlighted design at times seems misplaced. The efficiency with which the iPod click-wheel, for instance, moves, triggers unnerving increases in volume. It’s a cool toy, and it is just a wee bit stupid.

Armed with a new ringtone, “Voodoo Chile”, from the essential Blackberry site Crackberry, I am ready to move forward into the 21st century.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fake Bus Stop

According to a note at Kottke.org here, a nursing home in Germany has placed a fake bus stop out front, to capture wandering Alzheimer’s patients. These patients almost entirely lack short term memory, but retain enough long term memory to recognize a bus stop as the possibility to get back home. The idea sounds nice, and I hope that it works.

I mention the fake bus stop here because it calls to mind the idea of recognition. Not to liken customers to Alzheimer’s patients, but it is true that the customer’s needs should be foremost in marketing thinking.

For Alzheimer’s patients, the world no longer looks familiar. My father suffered dementia late in life, which from my lay perspective differs little from Alzheimer’s. For his last years of life, the home he lived in for 25 years no longer seemed familiar, and he wanted to go to his home on Fresh Pond Avenue. He had left that home a lifetime ago.

Product knowledge varies widely among customers. Some approach products with highly refined critical acumen. Others simply see the most expensive or the most renowned as the best choice for their needs. You can try to educate but you cannot force critical understanding on people.

Instead, rely on what your customers will recognize. If technical data fail to impress, accept that your customer must hear another approach.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Goof for Google is a Goof for Microsoft

Windows Secrets has an article here concerning Microsoft’s effort to share your personal information with Windows Live. Google Buzz backfired with similar methodology, a lack of initial opt in. Do you think Microsoft will be luckier?

Data mining has become spectacularly important nowadays. So many companies tempt us with goodies just so we will ‘share’ (though we may not always realize it) certain personal information. I am reminded of the cartoon by James Thurber in which a doctor says to a bedridden person, “I don’t think of you as my patient, I think of you as my meat”. My merest interest  is a commodity for our friends at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and all the others.

Okay, I get that part. And I am willing to accept a certain amount of discomfort for what these companies offer me. I just don’t understand how tone deaf these companies can be. Microsoft mimics Google almost exactly by opening our private relationships to the public. Maybe they’re in collusion, just wearing us down.

Just a side observation but neither Google  or Microsoft has yet to show any marked aptitude towards social anything. I do not predict this latest effort of Microsoft will change my thinking.

The Art of Seduction

The title is from a post by Seth Grodin, here. The first sentence reads: “Carole Mallory was Norman Mailer's mistress.”. Okay, I’m seduced. Norman Mailer + mistress = intrigue.

Unfortunately, that sentence is a throwaway. Grodin does not expand on the Mallory/Mailer relationship. Instead, he weakly links this ‘seduction’ to the point that marketers try to seduce. I expected more from Grodin than this prestidigitation.

Grodin states that Mallory seduced Mailer, which I file under assumption. It is not common knowledge and smells more like Grodin’s underlying attitude. He does not back up the statement or expatiate, so the value of it lies only in underwhelming intrigue

This post has nothing to do with Mallory and Mailer. His attitude in fact impinges on his point. The seduction of this blog post bears no intrinsic basis to his intent. That sort of cheat wears thin. Readers recognize when they have been taken.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Breaking News:The Internet was Invented Last Night!

Last night, while you slept, various entrepreneurs, tech geeks, and visionaries invented the Internet. They produced something you should have been dreaming about. They made a useful tool for business and marketing communications. You are going to want to get up to speed with it.

Even though you were not involved in the invention of the Internet, those who were kindly left room for you to “do your own thing”. If you have a product or service to offer, or if you have customers or clients, the Internet can help you stay in touch with these essential people. Businesses staying in touch with their customers is a good thing.

The Internet offers different ways of connecting with your customers. For instance, something called email. Through mysterious means involving electrons or whatever, you can send electronic messages to people. Email is a quick and efficient ways to communicate with your customers. Give it a try.

The tubes of the Internet let you easily and effectively show people what you offer. You can write stuff, present pictures, music, and movies, anything that will attract customers and that you deem appropriate. It is all very exciting in a science fictiony way.

You can also integrate your business socially with the public using what are called social networks. But why would you want to do that?

Value accrues from establishing a stronger connection with your clientele and customers. Social networks let you speak to their enthusiasm. You do so by sharing your own enthusiasm and  knowledge. Millions of people use such networks as Facebook and Twitter. Not only will you connect with customers, but they will spread the word, too. That is social networking.

This fancy new thing, the Internet, shows a lot of potential. It  will probably catch on. Though you are late out of the block, you can still help grow your business by making use of this great new communication tool. Get in on the excitement while it lasts!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Search Engine Disoptimization

A couple of questions:

Are you satisfied with the Internet searches that you do? Me neither. For whom does a search engine optimization serve? Not those of us using these tools to search.

I rarely look beyond the first page of a search. Beyond that, the optimized crap sites beat off any usefulness that one might find.

The gaming of search engines will change because search engines will change. It is not in the interest of Google, Bing, et al. to send searchers to optimized sites that lack useful or original content. We search because we want content not keywords.

Search engines will catch up to the current spamming protocol, and a new gaming cycle will begin. Until then, it behooves those of us who add to the Internet’s inexhaustible content to play nice. Let us produce good content, and leave the gaming to a minimum.

Good content is directed, logical, and clear. To produce that can be our Grail. Optimization that diminishes content diminishes the message! Providing searchers with value is the message. Trapping unwary surfers is not.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Apple Jam

Antenna problems with Apple’s iPhone 4 produced an unusually strong backlash. The echo chamber of fans and rabid press make interpreting recent events difficult, but safe to say that Apple flubbed the sitch to some extent.

Apple reacted slowly to the problem, that is, to the complaint of dropped calls. The company neglected to come forward quickly to confirm that a problem exists, or at least that they heard the complaints and were taking them seriously. That lack of response allowed speculation to grow.

Ars Technica quotes Steve Jobs about the iPhone drama:

Haven't we earned the credibility and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, of our motivations, the fact that we're confident and will solve these problems?

No! It does not work that way. The press is supposed to ask questions. And the more questions left unanswered by Apple, the more agitation that will show in the press. Let Apple and its prepositional phrases take care of public reassurance.

Google’s misstep with Buzz bugged me because it suggested something institutional about the company, thus the product. This current brouhaha likewise gives me a bad feeling about Apple. Such bad feelings keep customers away, they really do.

Has the game changed with Apple now so large?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Working with SMEs

Writing often presents the challenge of translating Subject Matter Experts. By this I mean bringing their expertise to those of less, or no, expertise in the subject. Such writing is a matter of simplifying, clarifying, and making accessible.

The writer performs this task first by asking questions until the subject is understood. One does not become an expert that way. The expert’s commitment differs from the writer’s. The writer learns the salient points of the subject then delivers those salients to the reader.

To perform this translation properly, the writer must:

  1. Avoid jargon. Jargon, here, consists of specialized terms, acronyms, and other terms unfamiliar to the general public. When jargon is unavoidable, as will happen, the writer must carefully define the term. Otherwise, the reader will feel excluded from understanding.
  2. Identify what’s important. This means understanding the aims and audience of the material being written. For instance, to teach someone how to use a computer application, one need not understand how the electrons dash about in the chips. The writer writes within the grasp of the intended audience.
  3. Make the subject local. The writer must relate the subject to the reader. The reader always thinks, what’s in it for me? If the writer cannot make that evident, the reader will lose interest.

I interviewed numerous Subject Matter Experts in the wine business: winery owners, winemakers, and winery reps. I discovered that winemakers from one region were often quite ignorant of other regions. California wineries might compare their wines to those from the Rhône Valley in France. The wines could be fine and delicious but the resemblance to those Rhône wines could best be described as promotional. One must not presume the breadth of expertise but instead ascertain for oneself.

The simpler and more direct the language, the clearer the writing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Writing Craft

We all assume that we can write. We believe that our thoughts transfer to the reader perfectly. We learned writing in school. It is second nature for us.

In truth, writing is an acquired skill. How did we acquire it? Through rigidly specific drills and writing exercises, with an overlay of confusing grammatical exegesis. Schools prepare us to write for school situations, not real world ones.

To write well in the real world requires active study and practice. Business letters, application documentation, ad copy: whatever sort of writing you need to do, you must practice. This practice entails identifying strong examples of this writing and studying the mechanics.

Application documentation, for instance, demands clear direction and logical, simple steps. Ad copy needs to develop reader interest and a call to action. In all writing, understanding one’s aims and one’s audience are both paramount.

Do not assume that your writing conveys what you think. Intention ≠ accomplishment. This leads to Part 2 of writing well: reading well.

Words are the tools of writing. read your own work doubtfully. You invest in it, and that investment can skew your perception. Ponder these questions:

  • Are your words accurate?
  • Is your intention met?
  • Have you written enough or too much?
  • Is the tone appropriate?
  • Are you mimicking received forms?

Be honest in answering these questions. The more that you can remove claptrap, and emphasize your intentions, the better your writing will  be.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dimensions of a Blonde Joke

This post begins with a joke that I heard long ago. Blondes are the butt of it, but that barely figures in the interest of the joke for me. Here is the joke:

A blonde was walking along until she came to a river. She wanted to cross the river but no boat or bridge was available for her. Just then, she saw a blonde on the far riverbank. The first blonde called over to the second, “How can I get to the other side?” The second blonde shouts back a reply: “You are already on the other side!”

Don’t get caught in stereotypes here. This joke is less about dumb blondes than you might expect. Rather, it concerns language, perspective, and context.

The language that the first blonde used seems clear enough. Her mistake lies in how the word other relies on context. Don’t feel superior, you have committed similar errors.

Had the first blonde said your side, the joke would not exist. The second blonde inhabited a different context than the first. From her perspective, where the first blonde stood was the other side. I explain this because the ostensible humor of a blonde joke is a red herring. That stereotype conceals an important message in the joke.

To communicate well depends on rigor. One must understand one’s own context and perspective, and that of the audience with whom one communicates. Failing that, one falls into the trap of stereotypes. And that is no joke. To communicate well takes serious attention and mindfulness, but we can do it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Top 6 Best Worst Business Practices

In no particular order, they’re all great!

  1. Be dismissive. Everyone loves to have their concerns brushed aside. Reply to a customer’s complaint with a simple “yeah, yeah…”. The customer will see that you mean business and will be suitably chastened. Works every time.
  2. Trust your enthusiasm. Since you willingly spend $100 for a bottle of wine or $1000 for a laptop, your customer would naturally be pleased to do likewise.
  3. Let your opinion reign supreme. You have been in the business a long time and you know what is best for your customer.
  4. Don’t let customers distract you. Customers are usually well-meaning but does it always have to be all about them?
  5. Overpromise. A promise is a commitment. To overpromise is to make extra commitment. Who can complain about that?
  6. Underperform. The reasoning behind this corollary to #5 should be obvious: it leaves the customer wanting more.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I want an iPhone

Here is a link to a Youtube video that is NOT appropriate for work, due to language. I link to it because it typifies certain attitudes prevalent in business. If you choose not to follow the link, here is the gist:

A customer comes to a store and asks for the new iPhone 4G. The store rep says they are currently out, but offers similar alternatives. The customer will hear nothing of alternatives but fixedly desires an iPhone 4G. The store rep repeatedly attempts to reason with the customer, explaining how the alternatives could be preferable to the iPhone 4G, but the situation devolves to profanity-laden dismissal of the customer (hence my warning).

I often saw situations similar to this in the wine business. Not to the degree of profanity, but certainly to the point of frustration. Customers would be focused on a certain product. If that proved unavailable, the customer would hear no alternatives. As a retailer, one wants to provide an alternative. You can only tell such a customer so much, however. They are caught in an enthusiasm.

We all fall for enthusiasm, or hype. It is not logical, but it happens. Even among diehard fans, the iPhone has its issues. Dropped calls, lack of cut-and-paste, lack of turn-by-turn GPS, and antenna issues have all been cited over the years. Even as fans complain about these issues, they remain loyal to the iPhone.These issues simply are not deal killers.

Getting one’s back up over a customer’s loyal preferences serves nothing but to widen the divide. In the wine business, we did blind tastings. These often led to surprises and revelations for consumers, when some well known wine does poorly or little known one wins tasters’ preference. Even with such ‘proof’, many people remained loyal to their initial preference. It is not logical but there you are. Emotion often prevails.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ways to Shake up Your Writing

I read somewhere that The Grateful Dead decided to shake things up when making their first studio album in years, In the Dark. One idea: turn off all studio lights while recording. According to bassist Phil Lesh, results weren’t so good. Still, there’s a useful bottom line here. Find a way to surprise yourself when your writing struggles.in the dark

Sometimes, you just have to kick out the jams. I have tried all the following tricks, as part of a study in process. They seem to change my approach, which in turn changes my writing. Mileage may vary.

  1. Use pen or pencil if you usually use a computer; use a computer if you usually use pen or pencil. OR try a typewriter! I am pretty certain that you access different parts of the brain by this change.
  2. Change  location. If you normally use a desktop,  switch to a laptop and go somewhere. Or borrow someone’s system, or use the library computer. You surroundings make a difference.
  3. Write with your off hand. Yes, this is awkward  but it slows  you way down. This immerses you in each word. Again, I believe you access different parts of the brain (where different ideas may lurk).
  4. Even a different word processor can give you a fresh outlook. Different tools bring different results.

I play Free cell  a lot. Look at the game: sorting card decks by suit and by alternating colors. I feel that playing the game places my mind in a logical, patient framework that seems conducive to a writing mindset. It may only be a trick but try it. Better yet, try accepting the struggle as part of the process.

Writer’s Block 101

Yesterday, I linked to Thoughtwrestling's tips to beat writer’s block. Of course the only cure for not writing is to write, as the post reminds us. That IS the cure.

It proves helpful, however, to consider the wherefore of blocks. What holds you back from producing what you need to produce? Here are some questions to ask.

  1. Are you clear about your aims?
  2. Are you competing or comparing yourself to some model of production or effect?
  3. Are you functioning in the present or lost in the future?
  4. Are you functioning in the present or lost in the past?

Do you see what these questions imply?

One develops blocks when the act of writing becomes controlled by outside forces. Let’s look at the above questions.

Question 1. Your goal might be to produce a 500 word piece, or get something done by Tuesday. These goals differ greatly from the plan of writing a cogent piece on a particular subject about which you feel strongly and have researched deeply. This is labor of little excitement. No wonder you flail. Jump into the subject, not the result.

Question 2: You might be comparing yourself to some other writer. The Anxiety of Influence, as critic Harold Bloom had it. That anxiety can be positive if it thrusts you towards your own original expression. The more that you are pulled to that model—which is ultimately foreign to you—the more the task becomes impossible.

Question 3: The goal of your writing is the writing itself! That is, not to sound mysterious, the concise and logical thought connection of your piece. Your mission lies there. When you start tussling with the imaginary reception of your work, you lose impetus. You have to trust your methods and ability, not your hopes.

Question 4: Past successes distract. They cause you to repeat earlier successes. Alas, that bird has flown. Find a new bird.

Beating a writer’s block is as simple as Thoughtwrestling makes it. Just keep writing.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Do You Suffer Writer’s Block?

Thoughtwrestler offers “Top ten tips for beating writer’s block” here. Of course it is facetious. Many forces can get in the way of writing, and they are all lame excuses. It is good to remember what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s work: That’s not writing, that’s typing.

Exactly! Keep the keyboard clicking, or pen or pencil scribbling on paper: that is writing. By the way, for much of Capote’s latter career (and that of Henry James, as well), writing consisted of speaking the material to a transcriber. That’s not writing, that’s dictation! Try dictating, if that will help.

When pressed to produce, either by deadline, or whatever other need, we get ahead of ourselves. We see a marathon ahead, or at least a rugged 10k. Races are run one step at a time, and writing is written one word at a time: word concatenating with word. Remain in that mindset.

Here are some rules that I have come up with for handling blockages:

  1. Don’t perfect until you have something to perfect. That is, assert your rewriting muscles only after you have written the thing.
  2. Don’t erase. Save the bits of crap. Keep the flow going. That might not be crap after all.
  3. Find a relevant quote or article or something to bounce your thoughts against.
  4. Don’t think. Write your thoughts.

The poet Charles Olson was accused of going all around the subject. His response: I didn’t know it was a subject. That aint bad. Do not let boundaries confound you. Step over and be surprised.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reasons to Favor a Product or Service

What distinguishes one business from another for consumers? Seems like a short list:

  • Convenience, how easy to get to or use the product or service
  • Price, how much it costs
  • Knowledge, how knowledgeable the staff is
  • Pleasantness, how pleasant the staff and sales environment is
  • Quality, how well the product is made or the service provided
  • Uniqueness, how different the product or service is, a niche  item, perhaps


Many stores are available or the website is easy to use. Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks are ubiquitous, Look! There’s one over there!


Surprisingly, price seems to sit lower on the consumer’s list than other items. People care, but don’t they get dazzled by other features? Is the iPod really the best mp3 player? I certainly never gave the question a chance, I ran right to the Apple  Store.


Customers appreciate knowledgeable help but may end up making do with the knowledge base at Big Box stores. The wine store where I worked had a strong reputation for supplying knowledge to customers, we all knew what we were talking about. Our clientele was largely loyal, but they would head to Costco or New Hampshire State Liquor Stores for super prices on those items that they knew about.


Whole Foods offers a more pleasant shopping experience than other supermarkets. The stores are clean, and the staff is encouraged to be friendly. That makes a diff.


People appreciate unique approaches, so long as they understand the point of the uniqueness. The Apple Store only sells Apple products, but the space age look of the place and the superfluity of knowledgeable staff makes it a different place to shop.

* * * * *

Bottom line, identify the salient aspect of your business. The wine store that I worked at was competitive in price, but it was our knowledgeable staff, our delivery service, and our business ethics that put us on the map.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Death of Facebook

I make no prediction with the title, just a thought experiment. Facebook is huge and commanding. No need to cite Ecclesiastes: we have all seen the growth and demise of people, companies, countries, and civilizations. Fortunes change, for better or worse.

Facebook could blow it—mighty companies have fallen before—because hubris seems evident. Right now, however, no satisfactory alternative to Facebook exists. I mean by that, a comparable service in terms of breadth as well as function. Twitter, for instance,  barely compares to Facebook as a service, but it siphoned interest from Facebook. Other competition will surface.

Facebook began as an online meet and greet. Business and self-promotion entered the realm, and that is a different energy. Games too have become a central attraction for Facebook. These elements are profitable but won’t the competing energies serve to tear at the fabric of Facebook?

Television, radio, and newspapers offered a service at the price of advertisement. We were entertained or informed, but we had to see ads. Facebook offers the structure for entertainment and information but does not, itself, provide content. It depends on an interested populace. Users cannot be static if Facebook is to continue its success.

Users are fickle. What will keep the content supply going? How can Facebook keep fickle users intrigued? That is for Facebook to answer. En garde Twitter, as well.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Miss You, Newspaper

I no longer read the newspaper. I daily read the Boston Globe online, but it is not the same thing. In truth, I only read the sports section,and even that is an exercise. I miss the paper.

Reading the paper while eating breakfast was a minor pleasure. I would leaf through the whole thing. And I would do the crossword, too. It all made productive sense.

Reading the Globe’s sluggish web pages on my laptop makes a poor replacement. You must want to read stories spread over several slow-to-load pages. I suppose if I Kindled up, I would have a better experience with online reading but I mean to drag my heels with e-books. I mean, e-readers are just one more thing to yearn for.

Newspapers had lots of ads, but they were not animated, did not cover what you wanted to read, and were otherwise less distracting. Monetized blogs offer an experience similar to what online newspapers offer. However well the blog itself is designed, a gallimaufry of color-uncoordinated ads compete for the favor of my eye.

The monetized experience of online content is an over-eager land grab that is messing up the landscape. Communication bows to commerce, yet the commerce  seem second rate.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Buzz and Wave

Google’s Buzz and Wave each arrived on the scene with promotional thud. Perhaps these products could be useful but the misstep in promotion leaves them dangling.

Google misplayed Buzz from the start by opting-in Gmail clients. Doing so made Gmail address books public. That feature should not be foisted upon users. Let them choose.

Through the murk of Google’s presentation, I glean that Buzz is sort of chat and stuff, and Wave is something about collaboration, or whatever. It  is unclear to me what new territory these two products claim. Gmail and Google Docs seem to provide much that these whizbangs offer.

I could research, but I do not want to. I especially do not want to watch the videos they offer instead of written explanation. Youtube is for wasting time on less esoteric stuff. If Google cannot clearly make the case for these products, why should I bother to investigate? I shouldn’t.

From what I heard and read, Wave sort of had mystique and Buzz sort of had buzz, and both sort of screwed the pooch. And there you are, the sort of promotion.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Social Network Invitation

Online social networks have become popular business tools. Are they essential? To determine that you must answer a few questions.

The first question simply asks, What interest would a customer or client have in your Twitter or Facebook presence? Do you have something worth their while?

We will accept as given that your product/service serves people’s needs. That does not mean people need to read your promotions. No. Content is value. The meta value of your marketing is noise for the consumer. Judging from how these networks are used, that is a hard concept to understand.

Price promotions always garner interest,  but do you need a Twitter or Facebook account to deliver that? No, again. That is more a ruse to bring people to your site than a gift of content. Send emails or otherwise go to the people with your deals. Save social networks for social—that is, human—contact.

Tips and expertise, freely given, offer much more meat on the bone. Provided, of course, people are interested. It could be that only a small portion of your customers appreciate that sort of depth. Assume nothing. If interest exists, serve it. If not, do not feel obligated to produce something for an imaginary audience.

Facebook is an anchored landing site. People do not just happen upon your page. Your page, then, should apply to the curious. Explain your offering, declare its essentials. If you can develop a conversation, all the better.

Twitter is random. Your messages float in a babbling stream of stray notes. Toothsome morsels of information or observation pass cheek by jowl with scams and bother. The look of Twitter, with an abundance of blind links and @whosis, is confusing, at best. Your program with Twitter must include distinguishing marks. Stand out or stand down.

A final thought: the current services will change, and new possibilities arise. You will be changing with these changes.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Twitter Experience

I have doodled with Twitter for two years now, reading (much) more than writing. It has yet to become a part of my lifestyle, but I see value in its use. Even so, I see it as a batty environment.

I recently started a new Twitter account, one more oriented to business (my business). My previous, personal account was less thematic. I never felt like sweating over it. Why should I? This latest attempt seeks to discover how Twitter can be worked. I know that it can be.

It can be overworked, too. I searched for likeminded Twitterers, and tweeted a few tweets (sorry, folks, the New York Times does not approve of the term tweet). This activated a few followers. Some were legit, some were spammy.

You see a lot of halfhearted attempts at utilizing Twitter. Our friend, the widow of that African potentate, readily wrote at length and with keenly apposite typos to attract my attention. Twitter spammers just heave a yoo hoo through the transom. I guess something will catch.

This can all be regarded as mud puddles. Watch your step. Stick with the interesting stuff. I do not really want to participate in Twitter’s 1984, so I will probably not mark anything as spam or whatever. I will just grunt sub voce

I find the use of Reply produces a stressful blur. The @whosis function directs you imperfectly into a conversation that enigmatically slips past your understanding. The conversation looks hysterical at times, crossed wires and histrionic reply.

Not always, I must emphasize. I ignore a lot of links because Bitly-shorted URLs with nothing but “wow” to intrigue me do not cut the mustard. I guess I expect mustard not just to be cut, but to be cut well. Clearly-defined links to useful  content exist a-plenty, and that provides a big plus to the Twitter argument.

The hierarchy of interest bubbles weirdly. The celebrated, of whatever sized fish bowl, get to collect precipitously on the Followed side of the important ledger. They do not need to listen to you (rather me). They choose the appropriate Oprahs to follow, and leave the riffraff to poke their measly replies hopefully into the stream.

Okay, I am being snide. Canny users reveal themselves in the constant effort of their posting. MUCH is useful, entertaining, and worth the time, but the minefield has the relentless voice of hyper commerce.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Empty Words

We use certain words often and hopefully. We intend these words to convey something unspecified yet powerful. Those vague, unspecified words prove problematical.

To me, words like wonderful, terrific, and awesome convey little of what a writer intends. Their respective derivational seeds have grown through usage into nondescripts. All three of these words—you can make your own list— connote no more than good. In speech, bolstered by intonation and body language, these words produce more effect. For writers, though, they represent weak, slack options.

These words fail because they no longer anchor to any firm impressions. For instance, wonderful. When you use the word, do you mean “full of wonder”? Really? Your product, service, or opportunity is really full of wonder, like Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole? Naw.

Let the excitement ride in the words themselves, not in the ringing blandishment of received locutions. Write right.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wine Scores

The wine writer Robert Parker turned the industry on its ear when he established a 100 point rating system. His scores were taken seriously by retailer, wholesaler, and consumer alike. People would cite his score for a wine as an intrinsic fact of the wine.

Parker’s assessments are reasonable enough—knowledgeable if hyperbolically voiced—but, look, the scores take words away. The numbers hardly anchor to anything except a vaguely wrought system. They represent a shorthand for the lazy consumer.

As a writer in that environment, I had to maintain pressure on the fallacy that a 90 point wine is somehow 1 better than an 89, like the 11 on Spinal Tap’s amp. Taste and perceived value cannot be so rigidly quantified. Metrics must be brought into the human encounter, which is to say a wild card is constantly at play. Keep an eye on that wild card.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Creative Tension

Here is an article on Creative Tension. It brings up some interesting thoughts about creative problem solving, but it seems to locate itself within a context of desperation that works against potential benefits.

The creative mind, which we all possess, works constantly on problems. The basis of psychoanalysis resides in the uncaptained choices that we make. That is, the unexamined life that we live. Without examining the processor of our experiences and actions, we spin out of control.

I took from this article a sense of actions serving intensified need. Yes, the article warns against succumbing to the anxiety of this condition, but it ramps up the tension at the same time.

This topic compels me to quote the poet John Keats on Negative Capability:

“…that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason - Colerdige, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.”

Irritable reaching after fact & reason, within the business context, blurs a ton of the creative possibilities. Creativity is always tense, because it is alive. Balancing that tension with clear thinking is the larger quest.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lack of System Design

Some business websites provide illustrations of lameness in vivid ways. We do not ask for this service, but they provide it anyway.

Let us say that you went to the website because you wanted some information. Perhaps you wanted to know something about the product or service that the company offers. Are you psyched to diddle around the site to find the information that you seek. No, me neither.

Time for a bullet list.

  • Organization: let’s have some. Treat the home page as a table of contents, with a clear map to where things are.
  • Clutter: get rid of it. Opt for content and not distraction.
  • Formatting: use it. Break content into logical and comprehensible units.

Most business sites require certain elements, like:

  • Contact Info, including social network options
  • Directions to physical locations, including maps
  • Service or product descriptions
  • Service or product pricings

Identify these clearly. They are why people come to the site.

Finally, eliminate verbiage. Use words sparingly, allow meaning not noise to prevail.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Don’t Take It Personally

Here is something that I have seen on numerous occasions. In speaking about a problem with a business, the representative of that business starts taking the situation personally. Doing so never turns out well.

My wife and I had a problem at a hotel recently, and were speaking with the general manager of the establishment. There were multiple screw ups and we were irritable. Our irritation gave voice. The general manager eventually said, I do not appreciate your tone. That was a giveaway.

Sorry, it is not the general manager’s job to critique our tone. We were getting a runaround and were annoyed. It is not that customers have a right to be rude. We had an occasion to be annoyed, and the person delegated to respond to our annoyance was not satisfying us.

The GM should have focused on cooling our anger, not take a stand. Taking us into her office would have been a nice touch, rather than argue in public. Making us feel that we had to fight with her soured us completely on that hotel.

Mistakes happen, and irritation results. Rectifying errors and soothing irritation will keep customers. Defensiveness will not.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tone Deaf

For years, I worked for a wine retailer/wholesaler, mostly on the retail side. At busy times of the year, like Christmas, our wholesale salespeople would lend a hand in the store. They would help customers choose wines.

The wholesale staff was as wine knowledgeable as were we who worked in the store. Their appearance in the store, however, would occasionally reveal a different attitude towards what we sold. They referred to what they were selling as product.

It is a product, but speaking of it so, using that word, misses a key element in the wine tasting experience. People at a wine shop or restaurant buy more than a product, they buy something magical, something that thrills, intrigues, and pleases. To call such a potion a product mishandles that magic completely.

What you sell may be a product to you, but to the person buying, it could be anything. Effective selling demands sensitivity to the ticking need of the customer.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bad Taste of the Week

This past week, the opportunity to attend a business seminar became available. The seminar sounded useful.

To accommodate the supposed huge demand for this seminar, potential participants had to sign up online at 2:00 one afternoon. If I was quick, I could participate in this seminar. I do not doubt that demand outweighed available places.

I got online at the appointed time. I filled in contact info, plus a quick questionnaire concerning why I wanted to participate. When I reached the bottom of the questionnaire, I found that I had to provide my credit card number for the full price of the seminar, close to $10,000, or for one of 10 easy payments of nearly $1000.

That is a lot of money to spend so precipitously.

I think the price could be worth it, though it is too rich for my blood.  I do not complain about that. In all the communications leading up to this opportunity, however, price was never mentioned. That information was saved for the last minute.

I find it hard not to regard this offering as a scam. To produce such a feeling of desperation so that I could spend $10,000 gives me no warm feeling about the seminar. I feel like those offering this seminar were just jerking me around. Is the value of the seminar so weak that it needed trickery to sell it? That seems like the logical inference.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Nordstrom Update

Beth received a card from the Nordstrom salesperson that helped her a week ago Saturday. The note thanked Beth for shopping at Nordstrom and wished Beth well in the job search that Beth mentioned. Writing such a note may seem like a small thing, but it pays dividends.

Whatever your business, realize that customers need not come to you. Other options always exist. If you can show customers and clients that you listen, and that you care, they will likelier return.

Beth felt well-served by this salesperson, and maybe would seek her out the next time. This note reinforces that possibility. How does it do that?

  1. The note is friendly. Wouldn’t you rather be served by someone friendly than one who is cool and disinterested?
  2. The note shows that the salesperson listened and remembered. I worked for years in a wine store. Many customers absolutely relied on the sales help to remember the wines that they liked. Beth can expect this salesperson to remember Beth’s tastes and needs.
  3. The note shows that the salesperson was willing to make an effort. The transaction did not disappear from her memory. More chance of keeping a customer.

We all need reassurance that those offering services to us actually care about our satisfaction. That means not just having the technical expertise for the particular product or service, but also a willingness to serve us. Good service is a frequently seen slogan but less frequently seen in action.

When should one send a note to a customer or client?

  1. When you meet new customers. This establishes the relationship. It also allows you to indicate more deeply the services that you can provide.
  2. When special opportunities arise, like sales or events. Make sure that these opportunities have real interest for the customer.
  3. Holidays or other times when your product or service could be useful.

Be discreet with notes and other contact with customers. Avoid giving the impression of chasing customers down. Instead, keep the idea of serving the customer’s needs in mind. Allow your relationship with the customer to grow naturally. It will last longer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Google’s Hamfisted Buzz Promotion

I highlighted some instances of misplaying customers in my previous posts. Google’s launch of Buzz provides another instance of a company botching customer communication.

Google Buzz is a networking tool. If that phrase means anything to you—if you are hip to the buzz—you might be interested. It allows you to keep track of the people in your network.

Keeping track of your network sounds fine. Unfortunately, Google launched Buzz by adding it as a feature to Gmail. The people in your Gmail address book became your public network. With half a thought, one can see how that might create imbroglios, if not worse. At least let us opt in to this service, not thrust it upon us.

Google corrected this error quickly; you can now choose whether and how to participate.This incident must have starched the momentum that Google hoped to gain for Buzz.

The launch of Buzz showed Google in the position of not quite connecting the dots. Sure, maybe a lot of Gmail users will enjoy this service. Google failed to see how a certain number of people would not want to use the service, and especially have the service thrust upon them.

Beyond that, an issue of communicating what Buzz is and can do arises. The Buzz site tells you, “Start conversations about the things you find interesting.” Um,what does that entail?

Do you see from the Buzz page a clear indication of what it is about? I don’t. Rather than communicate the essence of Buzz, Google expected you to figure it out. Many will, and will set privacy settings accordingly. Those less savvy, however, were dumped in a situation they did not ask for. That is not service, and it is not communication.

And just to show that hamfistedness is not just Google’s problem, Microsoft opened Windows Live and Hotmail to public view in the same way Google opened Gmail. Despite the reaction that Google received with Buzz, Microsoft opted you in. If you do not want what you do on Windows Live made public, go manage your account. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nordstrom, Round 2


Beth got the wrong item at Nordstrom Saturday and returned to exchange it. (see previous post).

A formal swooping arrangement exists among Nordstrom help. Someone stopping to look at something triggers a salesperson to approach and offer help. It can be a trick to manage, I imagine, showing the customer space but being ready to help. I saw a salesperson target us and come over.

Beth explained the problem. No hassle with the return. The salesperson efficiently made the switch. Beth had further skin care questions. The salesperson showed less interest in this.

She suggested a product for Beth to sample. Beth did not want to use the open sample containers because while the sales staff uses gloves passersby do not. This was a sanitary concern. Though little product remained in the jar, the salesperson said she could not open a new one. Beth preferred not to try the sample. The salesperson said, There is nothing I can do for you, and walked away.

I was not fully involved in the conversation but saw no flashpoint to cause the salesperson to walk off like that. Being blown off shocked us. It made no sense. If it were really impossible to open a new sample for Beth, the salesperson could do something, like offer literature, speak to her manager, anything but leave a customer like that.

We stood there for a moment wondering what happened when another salesperson offered help. Beth felt that the good feeling that we had from Saturday’s visit was gone, and wanted to leave, but she explained to this salesperson what happened. This one apologized and persisted in trying to help Beth, to which Beth finally acceded.

She located samples that Beth could take—why couldn’t the first one do this?—and asked if Beth wanted to speak to the manager. Beth did not. It is embarrassing to complain. You end up feeling like you are to blame. Customers should never feel that way.

Beth has been a Nordstrom customer for a long time but with the bad feeling of this one incident she wondered if she should go elsewhere. Why should you ever feel bad about the store at which you shop? Such are the terms here.

The salesperson asked again if she should have her manager speak with Beth. Beth asked, Why don’t you? The salesperson replied that the manager would be mad at her for letting Beth go unappeased. High marks to this salesperson for not letting the problem be pushed under the carpet. I offered that Beth should speak with the manager and Beth agreed.

The manager listened, apologized, and made the right sounds. Customers want a sense of being heard. Corporations have their own dismaying bureaucracy that often leave us feeling helpless. I assume the manager acted upon this incident, and spoke with the first salesperson. Nordstrom clearly trains its staff carefully.

My immediate reaction, as party of the first part and not the manager, would be that the first salesperson should be fired. Her disinterest is problematic, and her touchiness makes her a bad choice for the job. Flouncing off as she did, and at so little provocation, is an issue. Customers do not need to deal with someone who has a weed up the ass, which is how we felt that she acted.

Takeaway this: the necessity of full presence in the job as it swirls around you. Hear the customer’s concerns and let go of the inconvenience that you feel you suffer. The job is about serving the customer and maintaining the company’s integrity. The situation here only got out of hand because the salesperson walked away. It takes less than that to lose a customer.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Macy’s versus Nordstrom

We went to Macy’s to find toiletries for our son. We sought some sort of powder that might keep him cool and dry and not irritate his skin. This is not a product that our son could successfully purchase himself. We are trying to gather him into the adult ways of taking care of himself.

Beth delineated what was needed to a salesperson. This salesperson led us to a display of some newly-arrived cologne. Newly arrived and $70 a bottle were the only descriptors that she applied to the product.

Beth went into detail, namely that our son is a very hairy young man and gets inordinately hot. The salesperson said, Have you tried electrolysis or laser? Well yes, that is an expensive possibility, but right now we are looking for some kind of talc that might prove soothing for his condition. She recommended going to CVS.

Does that serve the customer? Had our son, who remains foggy about the concept, asked for help, he would either have spent too much getting something he did not need, or been sent away with nothing.

At Nordstrom, we inquired hopelessly for talc. We did not just want talc. we wanted to know what possibilities existed. A Nordstrom salesperson assured us that options existed. She led us to the counter, and introduced us to a salesperson. We got a clear message that we would be helped.

The salesperson eagerly—perhaps too eagerly—showed us a line of products that would serve our purpose. She went a little far into the product line and care regimen, but the products made sense and she was helpful. A second salesperson came along and tempered the first one’s enthusiasm; this second salesperson saw that we were being overwhelmed.

We ended up selecting more than we intended, because I vouched that I would try these products in case our son chose not to. In addition, Beth got some skin care products, having been introduced to the salesperson in that bailiwick. Except for some excess eagerness on the part of the first salesperson, we felt like our problem—why we came to Nordstrom—was effectively managed.

The lessons should be simple here:

  • Disinterest is offensive. I do not want to go to that Macy’s counter again.
  • Listening is important. We came to the store to buy something, not anything.
  • Empathetic imagination is a useful sales tool. The salesperson at Macy’s never understood what we wanted, nor could she rouse herself to care. This was in fact a sensitive hygiene problem. The Macy’s salesperson offered no relief.

That Macy’s did not offer the product that we sought is not the problem. Treating us like yokels is. The salesperson’s willingness to brainstorm with us, even if it meant sending us elsewhere, would have kept Macy’s in our minds as a place to go to. We would have come back with other needs, ones that Macy’s could supply. Instead, it is Nordstrom that won the day.