April 08, 2005NOTE: Digging through some old files, I found this little ditty. I've got all sorts of nuggets like this, sitting in emails and documents. Warts and all. Ah youth. So, I'll share them from time to time. This was originally written in November of 1998. (Notice the annoying double spaces after the periods. How late '90s.) So enjoy the thoughts of a much younger and idealistic me, and ask yourself "have things really changed, so much?" I mean about the Web, not me, silly.
The first generation of the web was the mythology generation. People told of their history. Companies explained their philosophies. People used it as if they were reading brochures.
The second generation was the catalog generation. People lined up to hock their wares and advertise their services. A few even provide the means of establishing contact.
We're now ensconced in the third generation of web sites: those that build community. Everything from customer support to helpful tips to find a friend is coming online as the world population searches for community niches into which they fit.
Some recent polls have shown that increased use of the Internet results in an increased feeling of loneliness. The means of curing that loneliness is finding company, and for the time being, the community appears to the panacea that users accept.
These days web users are looking for more than spinning logos and rapidly fading animations, they are looking for interactivity. Not with machines, but with other humans.
In the rapidly expanding definition of web development, we are quickly preparing to move from brochureware and customer support to the building of communities associated with products and businesses. Every web site has the potential to build a community. The challenge is not gathering the community. The challenge is in sustaining the community.
Donít get me wrong. The newbies entering the web everyday still need the basic information. They want to know the company principals. They want to know the latest press releases. They want to peruse the online catalog. But, the users of the web are thirsting for more.
What's this idea of community? If one person is interested in it, I'm willing to bet that at least 1,000 other people are, as well. We hold in our hands the ability to connect these people. Regardless of distance; regardless of time.
Show a guy from El Paso a white Ford truck and ask him to tell you about it. I can guarantee you'll get an earful. I can guarantee.
Why is it the direction companies will be moving their sites? Resources and capital. I don't care how much Billy in Omaha wants to start out a Web Board on why
There are children entering school who have never known a world without the web. There are executives retiring today on heretofore unimaginable business success thanks to the web.
It's much more than "How do you keep people interested?"
All this talk of one-to-one marketing is going to go the way of push. No one wants a personalized experience. They want other people who share their views to provide information. And they want that information confirmed or refuted by the experts.
The next stage of the web is the 24/7 town meeting. No one's opinion is quashed because it is too far left or too far right.
That's inviting pandemonium, you say. Is it?
I get 200 e-mails a day of how do you do this how do you do that. Do I really care about the content of the messages? Some of it is interesting, but what is incredibly compelling is the nature of the beast and the community of online newsgroups, online chat groups, and list-servs. They are the most dynamic and democratic communities ever assembled.
This isn't anything new.
NOTE: And then it trails off into gibberish. Well, less intelligible gibberish, as it were.
Flashback: The changing face of interactivity
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April 06, 2005Marketers, to making a sweeping generalization, tend to have a love affair with language. We're coo-coo for semantic arguments. And for making up words.
In this schizophrenic existence, we not only think that we understand the true meaning of every word in the language which we speak, we also seem to think that there are no single words in existence that capture the brilliance of our concept. So, we throw down at the drop of a hat on a particular term. And when we're not busy doing that, we either string along a number of hyperbolic modifiers to elevate our concepts, or we make up a word to describe it.
We have an emotional tie to language. Our mother tongue, for us, is a brand. Strange lot, we.
On the semantic side, marketers will argue, often to the death, on the perception-bending power of a particular word. I have seen more than one marketer leave the room gasping for breath as the whirlwinds of semantic arguments batter them about. And often, it's a simple word that causes all of the ruckus.
For a recent example of this dynamic, let's take the case of "What Exactly is a Brand" and "Empty Words Filled with Delusion," two columns in Business Week by Christopher Kenton of Marketonomy and Cymbic.
Now, I find myself having a visceral reaction to his stance. Wrong wrong wrong, I say. How could anyone think that? That's not what "brand" means. And so I start whirling like a proverbial dervish. Proposing arguments to the contrary. Researching examples. Trying to prove him wrong.
And apparently, I'm not alone. Kenton's Marketonomy blog is brimming with his feedback to marketers screaming marketing obscenities at him. He's got a week or two worth of content just responding to the feedback. He's already published "Brand Dialog," "Branding Claptrap," "More Brand Definitions," "Beyond Brand Semantics," and "Brand Semantics 102." (And quite frankly, I encourage you to read them all.) Not to mention the untold number of blog entries, like this little one right here, he has spawned with this.
And this is just one example of how this occurs, day after day after day, in meeting rooms and on telephones and in email around the world.
Now, I spend a great deal of energy getting upset about this kind of thing. Emotional and mental. Over one little word. Or several words. And it's not out of the ordinary for me to do this. I have a great deal of repressed anger. But, this one had me especially twitterpated. Fuming, if you will. Even if you won't. Until, at some point, mid-argument, I have a moment of clarity. A minute when my semantic addiction is momentarily quelled. A break in the clouds.
Here's the thing. He's not wrong. He just has a different semantic argument for his definition of the word "brand." It happens to be completely at odds with my definition. And that, to quote Stuart Smalley, is okay.
And why is that okay? Because I'm not his target market. He's writing for Business Week for heaven's sake. I can't even tell you the last time I picked up Business Week. It's a good pub, I just don't read it. And that's the point.
You see, Christopher Kenton is probably exactly the kind of marketing voice that the Business Week people want to hear. And I'm willing to bet there is a vast universe of clientele to whom he can preach that message and gain acceptance. But I am not one of them. And I'm willing to bet there is an equally vast universe of clientele who thinks he's full of hooey.
So, rather than get all lovey-dovey, I took all my argument energy and funneled it into thinking about semantics. Because that's where the really interesting dynamic lies. Lays? Lies. That's where we'll find the really interesting thought.
And that led me to thinking how marketers, like me, get all up-in-arms about language misuse when we're equally guilty of abusing the language ourselves. Kathy Sierra over at Headrush captures this -- quite brilliantly, I might add -- in "The new geek speak / neo-marketing language."
Recognizing myself in those words, just as I had in the pages of Why business people speak like idiots, I break into a cold sweat. So, I start searching for someone on which to pin the blame.
It didn't take long.
I've decided to lay blame on 8th grade English teachers. Globally. Sorry folks. You're the problem. Or someone of your ilk. It's okay, carrying this burden is no more difficult than trying to control a classroom of pubescent people. No worries.
But here's why you're getting the blame.
Along about middle school or junior high or whatever, everyone gets introduced to Shakespeare. Usually, in the form of The Merchant of Venice, or another one that's easy on the digestion. Romeo & Juliet. Whatever. Something Shakespearean. It's not the work that really matters. It's the trivial tidbit that the teacher drops into conversation as if it were nothing. Just a random aside on Shakespeare.
But, in actuality, this little mention goes off with the force of a small atomic explosion in the burgeoning marketer's quickly wrinkling brain. And it buries itself there as a fact. And the worm continues to turn, until the wee little marketer becomes you, a full-fledged marketing type, with the power to mold words and ideas. That's when the little culprit starts wreaking havoc.
So what's the seemingly innocuous phrase that causes all of these problems? Here it is. Are you ready? Okay, here we go:
"Sometimes," the teachers always say, "Shakespeare couldn't find the appropriate word to capture his thoughts..." (Wait for it, here it comes.) "...so he would often make up words."
That's it. That's our excuse. Deep from the recesses of our brains. Shakespeare did it. And Shakespeare is, arguably, one of the greatest manipulators of the English language. And he had to make up words. He had to make up words because no word existed.
Thanks a lot English teachers.
Now, mix this with the right amount of marketing ego. (For an example of that ego, return to the top of this diatribe.) Ouch. It's dangerous. Sodium and water dangerous.
That's why we wind up with marketing thought-leaders using words like multilogue and blogosphere and long-tail and blego and brand. Because we're drunk on semantics. And that's why we wind up passionately defending our views of the words that do truly exist and do have a particular meaning to us. Because, when it comes right down to it, it's all about our love of the brand that is language. A love of semantics.
So that's my take on why marketers tend to be schizo in regard to language. First, we love language. And we love toying with language. We love semantics. Second, blinded by this love, we dwell under the misconception that we know everything there is to know about language. And third, because of this purported knowledge, we think we deserve the power to make up language when we have the inkling that no word exists that captures our brilliance so succinctly. And finally, and truly worst of all, we all think we're right.
Strange lot, we.
I know I'm right, but feel free to tell me that I am. That's why the comment function is available. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong, but feel free to post anyway. And please, whether you are right or wrong, feel free to return. And I will be happy to tell you how I am right about something else.
Isn't it semantic?
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April 05, 2005For those of you who have actually taken the time to review my resume, you will see that way, way down at the bottom, near the beginning of my idealistic, young career, I was a literary agent.
Now, keep in mind, this has been on my resume, basically, since my resume has been in existence. And my resume has been on the Web, in various iterations, for a very, very long time. I am old. I have dealt with that. Move on. So, even without any effort with that newfangled search engine optimization, that little resume bullet entry tends to pop to the top of search results every now and again.
What's that mean? That means that even if you didn't notice that, there are quite a few people who do. And they tend to email me. Asking for advice. Now, since I tend to send practically the same advice to every generic query, I thought it might be wise to post that letter here. So, that in the future, I can just reference it with a link. Or maybe, just maybe, I'll spend some time optimizing this page for literary agent, and it will pop to the top instead. Smart huh? Not really. All I've done now is insure that I'll get even more pointed questions. But that's not all bad. Because it will force me to think.
So, anyway... Now is about the time you begin to ask why I'm subjecting you to this much-unneeded insight into my life. Well, there is a reason, sassy pants. Stick with me. The reason is that it just dawned on me that the main theme of my response -- mitigating risk to make yourself seem more attractive -- has as much bearing on the literary world as it does the marketing world.
In marketing, it is all about mitigating risk.
For the marketer, it's mitigating risk. If you don't buy our product, you won't seem cool. If we don't blog, we won't hear our customers. If we don't buy an ad, no one will know who we are. If we don't have an RSS feed or we have an RSS feed that no one can find, people are going to ignore us. (This last one is true. Just ask Scoble.)
For the consumer of the message, it's mitigating risk. If I go to the Web site, I don't have to talk to a sales person. If I subscribe to the RSS feed, I have an opportunity to avoid spam. If I comment on the blog, I have the opportunity to be heard. If I buy this thing, I will be cool and everyone will love me.
So, now, with the stage set and the constant concern of mitigating risk in mind, we begin our response to the frustrated fiction or short story author. Join us, won't you?
[Enter stage left.]
Dear Struggling Author:
First of all, I don't generally respond to these types of requests. But, lucky for you, I have a blog that allows me to assault all of my readers with this. Ahem. I mean, I admire your drive and the avenues you're taking to find a home for your work. Thank you for the inquiry.
It has been quite some time since I have been in the literary game, and the reasons I chose to leave that line of work are, I think, evident to you. It's a rather callous business.
It doesn't sound to me as though you're doing anything wrong. On the "free" or "minimal cost" side of trying to land a contract, the business is very much a try, try, try again type of existence. One person will tell you you're a horrible writer. Another will tell you you're a brilliant writer. And even then, neither will accept your manuscript. It's a matter of finding a needle in a haystack. Continually pounding the pavement, until you find an editor or agent who values your work. And is willing to take you on. And, even then, it's a challenge to pick the honest agents from the dishonest agents.
So that wall which you feel your head hitting? It's that agents don't like risks. They only like to represent published authors. So, even if they think you're an excellent writer, those agents are not willing to bang their respective heads against walls to get to the publishers. You have to show unmitigated rough-hewn brilliance to make that the case, or have something else going in your favor.
Why? Because guess what? The publishers don't like risks either. And they use agents to mitigate their risk. They are sinking a great deal of capital into producing a book. And that doesn't even begin to touch the editorial resources, the marketing resources, and the management resources needed to bring that chunk of pulp to life. The distribution. The promotion. The word-of mouth. To make that thing sell. It's a big gamble.
So what's the point? The point is that publishers, like agents, prefer to publish published, proven authors. This, they believe, leaves them open to far less risk. Never mind that most sophomore efforts fall flat. At least people buy them.
Chicken or the egg, hunh? So where does that leave you? It leaves you with spending your own money to bring your work to life. If you can walk into an agent or publisher with a demonstrated success, they are much more likely to listen. You have to show them that you are working to mitigate their risk. That, in essence, they are betting on a somewhat sure thing.
Here are just a few ideas of how to go about this:
- Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. And then blog some more. Develop a following. Expand your voice. Understand your audience. Engage. Nuff said. (If you can get each and every one of them to promise, in writing, that they will buy your book, that helps too.)
- Join a literary community. There is a wide variety from which to choose, and they often publish compendia of member authors' work. Or they may even have a monthly. This can be a very easy first step to gauging your market and the acceptance of your work through a third-party vehicle. Mitigating risk all around. Who doesn't like that?
- Read Publishers' Weekly. Figure out who is publishing what. Find the editors who work on your kind of book. Try to discern which agents are representing the authors you feel are your peers. Do your homework. That is, do some of the agent's work ahead of time. This will make you more attractive to the agent.
- Try the electronic publishing route. Publish your book, or a short story, as a PDF and give a portion of it -- or all of it for that matter -- away for free. Mind you, if you've only got one book in you, this is a problem. If your book is 10,000 pages, this is also a problem. But, it's my bet that you've got a few books in your head and they're not all 10,000 pages, so this technique will give you discernible metrics as part of your pitch.
- Find an editor with a stable of published authors who is willing to edit your piece for a price. Agents and publishers use editors as filters. If the editor has a good eye, it is likely he/she has publishing contacts who respect his/her vision. If you're paying that author, you're mitigating the risk that you're wasting their time.
- Look to small, boutique publishers who are willing to split the costs with you or who will publish your work for a small fee. If all that you want is your work in print, this is the best way to go.
To be perfectly blunt, agents, editors, and publishers, despite claims to the contrary, are not the "entry level" for most authors. They are a secondary or tertiary level. They are the pros, not the minor leagues.
So, if you've tried the free-assessment route and no one has snapped you up, you may be a shade or two short of brilliant. That means, you're going to need to spend some of your money to get into the game. If you believe in your work and know it can sell, then you're going to have to take the initial risk. You can't ask the agent or publisher to take it for you. Once you have proven the viability of your work, agents and publishers will be much more likely to take you to the next level.
I hope this has been helpful. I've tried to be as honest as I possibly can without completely taking the wind out of your sails. It's a hard business. But, if you believe in your work, you will find a way to get it published. And if your public is clamoring for more work, agents and publishers will suddenly become much more receptive.
[Exit stage left.]
What do you think? Think I'm off my rocker or is this a fair assessment? I'd love to hear your views. If you have any energy left after reading that diatribe, please feel free to comment. Otherwise, go rest. And then return to read another day.
Author or marketer the quest remains the same: mitigate risk
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April 04, 2005I've noticed something intriguing, as of late, and it has the potential of becoming a recurring theme. It has to do with the treatments of screen shots in print. More and more, I'm noticing that every screen shot I see (and I see more than I care to see) is cropped to remove the product "chrome" (the surrounding nuts and bolts of the product) from them. Showing the guts, but not the face, of the product.
It's happening in publications, in corporate literature, and on Web sites. And it's not good.
Now, let me preface this rant with one thing: I tend to hate screen shots. You have to have something pretty compelling and, well, pretty, before I get too excited about slapping it into a piece of marketing drivel. But, I realize, from experience, that I'm in the distinct minority here.
I understand that, for many, the screen shot -- like the picture of your building in your PowerPoint presentations -- is the anchor of credibility. It's your way of showing that you've arrived. That you have a real product. Never-you-mind that any number of us can probably draw a non-existent product that looks as real as your real-product screen shot, if not more real. I'm pretty sure that it would be prettier, given pictures don't have functionality requirements.
Now, do I think slapping screen shots into content is the right way to do things? No. Does that mean everyone is going to automatically stop doing it? Thankfully, no. I don't need people hanging on my every word.
So, I know that we are all going to have to deal with screen shots as marketing content. And, if we are going to use screen shots, I become more concerned with how we use them. More importantly, how do we use them correctly?
Here's my thing. Unless you have a contractual agreement to the contrary, any chrome cropping or identity cropping should be in direct conflict with your product reference and usage guidelines. It should be spelled out in your style guide as such. If you don't have those kinds of guidelines, get to writing, buddy. You need to have them. Even if you only have a Web site. (And by the way, a Web site is a product.) Someone is going to want to take a shot of it at some point. Don't ask me why, but they will.
But our product and Web shots don't really look that different from anyone else's, you say. Our screenshots don't set us apart. Our logo does.
Deep breath, Rick. Okay. I'm going to try to remain calm here, but for shame for shame! Tsk tsk tsk. If this is your line of reasoning, then your screen shot is saying far more about you than you would like. But mostly it is saying this: I couldn't care any less about my users if I tried.
In a perfect world, every product would carry a look and feel that was unique to the company that designed it. I don't care if it's on screen or not. Every product needs to be a champion of the corporate brand. (Do you think the iPod looks the way it does because it's an mp3 player?) If your company thought it was a good idea to create and sell a product, then they darn well better think it's a good idea to make it unique. Because if it looks like everything else... Sigh. This is a rant for another time. Feel free to call me and I'll give you an earful. Or come back later for a tongue lashing in a future post.
Now where was I? Oh yes. Suffice it to say, I am not privy to the terms of your media, partnership,or customer contracts. And, clearly, I haven't read your style guide (although, I would like to do that; I love those things). You may have partners that are paying to private label products. If so, then this cropping treatment is completely acceptable. If they are not paying for that privilege, however, it is not.
In fact, when any media, customer, or partner uses product screen shots, your company should be requiring that those screen shots appear with all of the product chrome intact. (Detailed callouts from those screens are fine, so long as the accompanying screen appears in full chrome somewhere). A copyright attribution to the company and any applicable patent information must appear in the fine print, as well.
I know this sounds like a minor point. However, the look and feel of most software products is a critical component of the corporate identity. In toto. Not a little chunk here or a little chunk there. But how the entire screen flows together. Especially for small companies. (This goes for your Web site, as well. Or any onscreen presentation of your intellectual property.) This is where your customer lives and breathes. Where your customer interacts with your brand on a regular basis. And, as such, the seemingly lowly screen shot carries a great deal of brand equity.
Do I like that little fact? No. But, I don't especially like gerunds either, and I still make a habit of knowing how to use them correctly.
Suffice it to say, that unless your brand equity is being purchased in some way by the publisher of the screen shot, you need to be defending your intellectual property by requiring the appropriate attribution. If you don't, you're just giving away intellectual property and market presence by allowing others to proffer your technology as their own. Others claiming ownership of that technology without appropriate licensing starts your whole company down a slippery slope. A stitch in time and all that rot. I've run out of platitudes for the day.
So the next time you think a screen shot isn't all that important, step back and rethink it. Or save your time and mine. Go ahead and pull your logo from the piece, as well.
Phew. You made it through another tirade. Congratulations. Do you think I'm niggling on unimportant points? Or is this something with which you've experienced difficulty? Please comment away. Laud me or leave me, but please return.
Curtail the cropping of screen shot chrome or compromise your collective brand impact
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April 01, 2005I was planning to write something incredibly funny and entertaining for April Fool's Day. I was going to tell a whale of tale. Fame, fortune, all would be mine. If I could only craft the right little fib. This, however, is not it.
I seem to think I'm a pretty funny guy. I find myself laughing at my own jokes quite often. While I do not generally find this laughing to be infectious for others within my immediate vicinity, it is not a huge leap for my imagination to pretend that you, dear reader, are chortling along, as well. Ah, the disconnected connectedness that is the Internet. So nice. And, of course, I can continue this deception because I'm just dull enough to believe my own hooey.
But, then again, there's a problem with trying to be funny.
You see, like the folks who wrote Why business people speak like idiots, when I'm put under too much pressure to be funny, I'm not. And the harder I try, the less funny I become. If you force it, it falls flat. You have to let it flow.
So, I got a bit down. No April Foolin' for me. But then I thought: Wait a second, you're in marketing. Spin baby spin.
So I decided to blame it on Seth Godin, instead. There is no April Fool's post because Seth was a little dark cloud. And being a little dark cloud myself from time to time, I decided to close ranks with Mr. Godin. People honk and flip me the bird in traffic, too. I'm with you, brother. So no funny funny from me.
But, wouldn't you know, it got me to thinking.
Probably the main reason I didn't come up with some joke is because, honestly, more often than not, this is the day that I play the fool. Oh alright, this is one of the many days that I play the fool. I'm not really that funny. And I can accept that. It's almost a role I relish. I play the straight guy. Other people's jokes are funnier because I fall for them. This is my role. And without me, those people aren't the jokers. Or so I tell myself. If a comedian tells a joke and there's no one there to laugh...
On April Fool's Day, I am the target market.
This is a role with which I am familiar. I like being the target market. Sometimes. And, it's important that I know that role. It's not my job to be crafty or devious. It's my job to be duped. And the people who do the best duping are those that tell mostly truths to formulate their lies. Those that are clearly over the top rarely fool even numbskulls like me. It's the nonchalant that gets me nonplussed.
Today is the day, above all others, that it's just my job to absorb. So, I went through the day being deceived and entertained. Especially by those who made their stories almost seem believable. And that, led me to my little pearl of marketing wisdom for the day:
Like the best April Fool's jokes, good marketing communications never seems forced. When it's forced, it's disingenuous. It's hypocritical. It doesn't work. And your target market refuses to cooperate. But when it's subtle and natural and in character. Then, you have a winner.
So be the market when you can. Play the fool from time to time. See your joke from the other side of the table. We all get so wrapped up in our machinations that we forget to do this, sometimes. And it truly is worthwhile. And I'm trying to do it more often. Because I hope it will make me better at what I do.
See, now I'm pretending that I'm the person reading this blog. Wow, this guy is funny. But he doesn't shut up. And I don't really get his point. Strange. When will this end? Oy.
I want the last five minutes of my life back.
Without your comments, this will only get worse, so comment, won't you please? And then, if it's not too much trouble, only if you have time, don't go out of your way on my account, or anything, but I really would appreciate it if you could return.
More fool than joker
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