Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Phish Reunion: A Study in How NOT To Treat Your Most Passionate Customers (Fans)

Many folks who do not follow the jam band music scene remain peacefully unaware of the frenzy Phish fans are in after this week's rumor on the Rolling Stone website that the band will play the super-mega music festival Bonnaroo. The debate centers on differing opinions on whether the band should headline a music festival packed with other musical talents or whether the band should host their own music festival. This argument--which is intelligently summarized in several blogs including Mr. Miner's Phish Thoughts and The Lefsetz Letter--is especially electric because the band has been on a hiatus that began after their rain-soaked musical debacle of a festival in August of 2004.

Whether or not the band should headline Bannaroo isn't the real issue, in my opinion. But it is representative of a more deeply rooted and growing hostility by long-time, fervently passionate Phish fans toward the band, their new mega-manager Coran Capshaw and their corporate management company Red Light Music. And what's caused this bitterness among the music-loving masses, you ask? I argue that it's the lack of connection and community between the band and its ardent and amorous admirers. And in this new social era where brands (or bands) can more easily connect and communicate directly with their fans (customers), remaining silent like the band has done is about the lamest marketing tactic around.

Since the announcement of Phish's reunion and their reemergence from solo tours and silence, we've heard little from the band on their future plans, their feelings about the last four years, and anything that would help humanize them and connect them to those of us who love them the most and who are essentially responsible for their rise to the ranks of fame they currently enjoy.

All this silence from the band and their brigade, while the negative buzz swarms around them like bitter bumblebees, is both deafening and disappointing. How simple would it be to write a blog post, contribute to a community conversation on Facebook, or reach out on Twitter where the bass player Mike Gordon occassionally tweets? Upon glancing at the band's official website there are very few communications directly from band members that don't appear to have been scrubbed in the PR machine. A few examples include one letter from June 2008 from Page McConnell, Phish's keyboardist, "Mike's Corner" where his last post was from July of 2003 and in "Fishman's Forum" where drummer Jon Fishman's only post was from May of 2000.

Companies large and small are joining their customers in online conversations through communities, forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of other social tools. This helps these companies deepen their relationships with their customers and inspires greater brand affinity because of these connections. Many other musicians get it too. From Dave Matthews
(another Redlight managed musician) to Imogen Heap musicians are using Twitter to connect with their fans.

So what's up with Phish? As the band gets pummelled in what I'd call a PR nightmare, their voices are conspicuously silent. They haven't bothered to write one blog post to thank their "Phans" for their support over the years. Not one band member has commented on other blogs to share their own reasons why they want to headline a music festival like Bonnaroo instead of hosting their own. And noone from Phish, including Mike Gordon, has Twittered to tell their most loyal Phans--many who were shut out of the ticketing process for their reunion show at Hampton Colliseum--how much they are valued and what steps the band plans to take to keep those folks engagaged.

Is this silence one of those tired old marketing tactics where brands refuse to comment in an attempt to minimize the effects of negative criticism? Or is it mere laziness by the band and their management company who appear to be more focused on profits than people? Whatever the reason, this silence could cost the band dearly. Because even the most dedicated phans are questioning not just their plans to see Phish's probable summer tour, but doubting their devotion altogether. And let me tell you, former customers of brand--or fans of bands--rarely stay silent.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is target marketing dead?

I’m reading a terrific book by John Berendt, former editor of the New York Magazine also known for his marvelous book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Set in Venice, Italy this somewhat autobiographical story, The City of Falling Angels, deconstructs the true events that surround the devastating 1996 fire that destroyed Venice’s historic Fenice opera house. In one particular scene the author tells a delightfully comic tale of an evening he spent reveling at a Bacchanalian Carnivale in the company of the mysterious Massimo Donovan, the creator of—in his own words—“the world’s best rat poison.”

Unlike the poison of his competitors, what makes this rat poison so effective, its culinary creator contends, is that it is concocted of cuisine that is corollary to the region where it is sold. “’My competitors approach rat poison the wrong way,’ he said. ‘They study rats. I study people… Rats eat what people eat.’” Essentially Signor Donovan adapts his rat poison to match the food preferred by the culture where he sells the poison; for Germany, he makes poison that is 45% pork fat, for France he includes a lot of butter, for India he adds curry, and for America he uses “vanilla, granola, popcorn, and a little margarine.”

This story represents an amazing adaptation of the traditional theory of target marketing: the technique marketers use to categorize their audience into demographic buckets to market to them more effectively. The methodology maintains that the more marketers understand their customers—by lumping them together into easily defined categories like homemaker, teenager, or the “Ward Cleaver” father figure—the better able a company is to make certain assumptions about them including what like what they like, listen to, or look at. This purportedly provides clues that help companies determine where to advertise and how to craft their messages so they will resonate best with each target market.

But the new internet age, and its evolution into one giant social network, calls into question this long-valued and oft-touted marketing strategy of old. As Chris Anderson eloquently captured in his book The Long Tail, the ubiquitous 24/7 online access provided by the net has opened us up to a wider variety of movies, music, and media than ever before. And because of the diversity of available content on the web and in the world around us, and the ease with which we can access it, we are no longer a generation of predictable personas.

What I mean is that very few folks fall into simple stereotypes these days and I’m a perfect example of that. For instance, I’m a mom. But that isn’t my entire identity. I’m also a thirty-something professional woman, a political activist, a writer of six different blogs, a generous non-profit supporter, a lover of New Orleans funk music, and an addict of the online “game” Second Life. So I dare anyone to lump me into a category. C’mon, I dare ya!

The point I’m making is that marketing has changed—majorly! In this post post-modern, mashed-up, media-savvy era where viral voices and mavens influence what’s hot or not, the techniques we marketing professionals practiced in the past no longer apply. Sure elements of them can still be part of our toolbox. But if we don’t think differently and acquire some new tools and skills that help us adapt in the ways we reach our constantly connected customer base, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant or worse.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Plant and Kraus: how singing a different tune inspired music--and business--innovation

When looking for examples of business innovation it's not difficult to to find some stellar samples. I wrote about how the innovative pairing of Lego branded children's toys with the Star Wars "empire" (pun intended) has culminated in a joint brand strategy with epic potential (Lego Star Wars video games, toys, online presence, etc.). I stumbled recently upon another unique pairing that illustrates the genius creativity and risk-taking audacity often behind the most truly innovative ideas. Coupling the one-of-a-kind singing styles of legendary Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant with the luminous voice of the undisputed goddess of bluegrass Allison Kraus brings, imho, true music--and business-- innovation.

This inspiring story all started when renowned music producer T-Bone Burnett contacted Plant and Kraus to work together on a tribute concert. Neither artist had ever considered working with the other, and it was Burnett's out-of-box thinking that led to this monumental collaboration.

When watching coverage and concert footage of their collaboration from the show Crossroads featured on the MusicHD channel--originally aired on CMT--I was struck by how transformative the experience was for each musician. Both artists clearly came from rich musical backgrounds with their roots firmly planted in both blues and bluegrass heritages. But together they were able to make music that neither of them had imagined possible.

Robert Plant contrasts the bluegrass/country style of singing with his own masculine, ego-driven renditions of Led Zeppelin songs and seems to expose more of his personality in the process. He steps out from behind the microphones and high-tech music production techniques and finds his voice again. In contrast, Allison Kraus discusses how her previous musical experiences had remained primarily acoustic. And in her singing you notice that the addition of drums and an ethereal electric guitar echo elicit a uniquely confident sound not often found in her classical bluegrass songs.

This new combination is utterly stunning. Burnett expertly combined Plant's smoky and sultry singing with Kraus' clear and contrasting voice, and as a result produced a rich, complex sound whose texture transcends the music categories that follow these celebrated artists, thrusting them into a whole new genre of music I've playfully labeled "soulgrass." It's this new sound that makes this creative combination not only musically innovative, but innovative from a business perspective as well. By combining artists with two decidedly different sounds--and fan bases--the project widened its appeal and will undoubtedly cross sell into both the rock and country categories. I've even heard some of their songs played on local popular music radio stations.

The lesson to be learned here is this: to inspire innovation it's important to step outside our comfort zones and explore new and creative combinations of ideas. We too often get stuck in our think holes (a concept adeptly explored by my friend and innovation consultant Chas Martin in his article titled Think Holes: How Predictability Undermines Competitive Advantage).

So next time you're out of jelly to go with that peanut butter, reach for a new ingredient. You may just find that peanut butter and peppers are the perfect pair to inspire the next craze in food fusion.

Friday, February 15, 2008

will the real social media expert please stand up?

I've been in several circumstances lately where the subject of social media expertise has bubbled to the surface of conversation. There appear to be some diverging opinions on this subject so I thought I'd pose the question to you, my loyal readers. But first a deep dive into the idea.

One of the facets of social media I find most fascinating is how many flavors there are to the concept. To some folks participating in social media simply means using an RSS feed to get their daily fix of news stories or other content they've chosen as personally relevant from an aggregate of sources. Others take it a step further by posting their own MySpace page, Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, or some combination thereof. Some--and this number continues to grow steadily--take it even further and become *gasp* bloggers themselves.

Being a blogger personally--yet arguably far from an expert on the subject--I will say that blogging alone doesn't necessarily deliver a deeper familiarity with social media, other than experience using blogging tools like Blogger (which I use for this blog, obviously) and Wordpress (yes, I write another blog using that tool as well). But if the blogger is working diligently to increase his or her blog traffic, more than likely he or she is also taking one additional step to include every button or widget possible--tools like Technorati, Digg, Stumble--meant to drive the maximum traffic to their site.

So whom of these folks would win the coveted title in the battle to become a social media expert? To claim "guru" status in this growing field, would one need to be an avid blogger blogging about the social media movement while featuring their blog on their Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace pages which also include YouTube videos of them sitting and writing their blogs? In essence does just checking the box marked "all of the above" catapult you into the realm of virtual social media virtuoso? I can hear the collective exclaim of glee as all you bloggers start polishing your bios in hopes of starting that coveted career on the conference speaking cirtuit.

You want to know what I think? Probably not, but I'll tell you anyway. I think that it is virtually impossible to become an expert in a field that is as ever changing as Britney Spears' hair color. Sure someone can know a lot about what it takes to successfully drive site traffic through a well thought-out SEO, tagging, and linking strategy. And that same person could also be skilled at contriving creative concepts to ride the viral marketing waves that ebb and flow on Facebook. But to be an expert in a field that changes from one day to the next is akin to placing your hand in a running river; you can trap a small bit of water for the moment, but once you lift your hand again the river rushes on.

IMHO, there is a bit of a social media master in each of us. We all probably know more than we realize as we attempt to stay on top of concepts, software applications, and methods that are meant to make marketing "easier" by facilitating our ability to have deeper connections and conversations with our customers (a vague term that could mean readers, consumers of media, purchasers, etc.). Experts we may not be, but afficionados we probably are. And that's ok with me. Because as long as what I'm doing works at the moment, that's what counts. That is until "Whatever 3.0" comes along and the process--and my learning curve--begins all over again.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

content: the next killer app

It's difficult to remember how we did research before internet ubiquity. I vaguely recall spending hours at my friendly neighborhood library digging through something called a card catalogue and pouring over microfiche in search of relevant newspaper or magazing articles. [Any youngins reading this post probably think I'm speaking crazy talk at this point.]

These days research on any topic is merely a click or two away. And with the growing database of user generated content at our fingertips--from written to audio and video--the availability of information from experts and everyday folks continues to grow exponentially. This "content" phenonenon is great for marketers who know how to use it to their advantage.

In my last post I wrote that content is king. I kind of took it for granted that everyone knows what I mean by that. In case I was wrong I'm here to clear up any confusion. Content in this context is essentially information; it is the plethora of articles on any topic under the sun--from how to choose the right environmentally friendly automobile for a family of 22 to which hair growth tonic works the best for middle-aged house cats.

Unfortunately, many marketers mistake marketing materials such as collateral, white papers, case studies, and the like for content. I suppose it is, in a way. But the type of content that packs the most powerful punch are articles, Webcasts, podcasts, and other content that provide information on a subject without any sales or product pitch.

Stop freaking out my marketing minions, this is a GOOD thing. For there will be a perfect time to share those marvelously motivating marketing messages. Once you have helped your audience become knowledgeable--experts even--on your topic du jour as it relates to your product or service, he or she will be ready to be spoon fed your tasty messages.

Perhaps this concept is more easily demonstrated than simply described. I once worked for a software company that provided business intelligence and analytic solutions to large corporations and the government. We weren't the biggest, most recognized name in the business so the challenge we faced was reaching potential customers before our big name competitors did. The question we faced was esentially: how do we find folks when first they discover their problem? Answer: you reach them when they're in the research phase.

So we developed a content Website; one that looked like a magazine and provided articles and other content developed by knowledgeable and reputable sources. Few if any of the articles contained language about our products or company. All related to the business challenges our customers faced that would require them to need the solution we provided.

So my point is this: stop spinning your wheels marketing to minds not ready to hear your message. Instead, use your energy to create content that helps your customer better understand his or her problem. Not only will you reach them when they're ready, but you'll position your company as experts in the field, filling the role as a trusted advisor willing to help to help them solve their challenges.

For those curious about the Website, you can find it here:

Another invaluable resource for this approach can be found at this terrific marketing site:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

are social media strategies considered marketing or pr?

This question is a puzzling one. I know many marketing professionals--eyes wide and tongues wagging with the enthusiasm of a energetic puppydog--anxious to jump on the social media bandwagon to reach new potential customers; the particularly technically savvy youthful types with expendable incomes (otherwise known as the "holy grail" of target markets). Yet I also see social media plans coming down the public relations pipeline. So what gives? Is it the marketing or PR department who is in charge of a company's social media strategy?

A recent IDC report on purchasing behaviors highlights what many of us in marketing already knew: traditional advertising is out, content is king. This means simply that people (aka the market) respond better to messages when these messages are communicated in the context of content, lets say in this case an article or an influential blogger's opinion (present company included? *blush*). Consumers are generally skeptical and can practically smell it when they are spoon fed marketing messages meant to influence their buying behavior.

Given this premise, it would seem that the new social media approach to written content, like reaching journalists or influencing how companies are written about by bloggers, would fall in the PR camp; the undisputed camp of written content creation. And getting bloggers to blog about you is similar to--and just as difficult as--getting the traditional media mavens to include your company/product/service in an article. In this case add the complexity of trying to influence the readers-at-large in hopes that they Digg or Stumble you, and you've got a tough job; a job perhaps best handled by your friendly neighborhood PR professionals.

But what about many of the other content-related social media "tools" (*cringe*)? Aren't Web sites like Flickr, YouTube, and Second Life all about content too? Well, yes. However there is a significant difference between the type of content featured by bloggers and journalists and that included on these other media sites: who posted it. These sites and others like them all feature content created and posted by the public-at-large. This is also known as "user generated content." [I realize the definition of "blogger" continues to morph and that more and more of the general public are beginning to blog. Sigh, another added complexity.]

It is in this space where the question of "who owns it" becomes a little murky. One might say it is the domain of PR to influence how the company/product/service is featured in any external content, written or otherwise. Yet I can also envision a legitimate corporate marketing campaign that asks viewers to create content--like photos, videos, or avatars--and post them to these sites as part of a contest. This gets the users and the public engaged with your campaign and--pay attention, because this is your ultimate goal here--commenting and forwarding the videos to virally spread your message for you. [For example, see Intel's "What Would You Do For A Duo?" contest video.]

Another component of social media that falls a little more squarely in the lap of the marketing department are the social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn. These sites rely on the formation of groups to get messages out. Also, the observed behaviors of friends in your network by other trusted friends can ignite an idea and help it spread like a brush fire. (For example, my friend joined the group "Confused About Social Media" and I want to join too because I trust her and am likewise befuddled by the big idea.) Certainly companies can post traditional ads on these sites--which is not a terrible idea, by the way--but the most valuable features of these tools, I argue, are the micro-communities that culminate around the interests of its members.

After reading over this post, I realize I have failed to firmly answer your question--well, the question I posed in the beginning. Perhaps that is because the corporate world itself continues to grapple with how to and who should develop a corporate social media strategy. I would hope that any company's marketing and PR teams would work together to develop a cohesive social media plan. And that best practices learned from various teams and business groups would trickle up and down the ladder so that others can learn from your favorite feats and your most frustrating flops.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

my #1 pick for best out-of-box business move

Andy Grove, one of the inspirational founders of chip giant Intel Corporation, was recently interviewed about his thoughts on how big companies can overcome the glass ceiling of growth. He touted the importance for corporations to think way outside-the-box and consider entering entirely different industries to achieve the type of growth Wall Street expects of them. As an example he praised Apple for their innovative move into the music industry and retail giant Walmart for adding health clinics to some of their stores.

This got me thinking; what would I consider the most innovative move in recent memory that exemplifies this right turn approach to driving new business? As I sat on my couch pondering this point my attention mindlessly drifted to my six year old son who was embroiled in an intense battle between good and evil with ubervillian Darth Vader in the Lego Star Wars game for the Wii. And as I watched my son gleefully blow Darth Vader's little Lego head off it occurred to me how unbelievably creative and ground breaking a move it was for Lego to release this version of the game.

By making the animated characters Lego pieces instead of people, the company avoided the blood and guts animations typically prevalent in fighting games. This opened their product to a whole new market: what I call the "post-todds"--six to 9 year olds who are "too old for baby toys" (read in dramatic hands-on-hips whine) but not old enough for the typically violent video fighting games. What's even more genius about this move is that most parents of children this age are in their mid-thirties. This the same generation who, as kids, had their own minds blown by the original Star Wars movie trilogy. [How do I know this? Um, because my husband and I and nearly all our friends encompass this exact demographic.]

If you add the extension of the Lego brand into the Lego amusement park and the Lego science fairs and building contests, you have a darn terrific example of a risky right turn business move that has paid off in exponential dividends. Add the Lego Website which includes the "Lego Network"--a tool that allows kids to build their own Web pages--and you've got a dose of pure marketing and product genius at work.

I pause to bow in honor of the Lego marketing and product departments while chanting "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy."

All tongue-in-cheek aside, this is exactly what Andy Grove was talking about. When faced with fierce competition and price pressures the best thing for an organization to do is innovate. Step outside your company's comfort zone and embrace a new direction. You never know, you might just be the next BIG thing. Or at least you could be the talk of the playground. And that is an honor EVERY company should covet since those kids are really consumers-in-training.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

are you an armchair marketer?

"I want to work in marketing. That sounds like fun!"

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that phrase uttered I'd be writing atop my yacht stationed in the crystalline aqua-blue waters of the Caribbean.

Marketing is a funny business. The job itself seems coveted by every liberal arts or literature major in colleges from Alaska to Zurich. It is glorified in Hollywood movies where smartly-dressed account executives work in hip glass and leather adorned offices and toss around creative concepts like NBA basketball stars running down the clock. And it conjures images of jet-setting and hob-knobbing, cosmopolitan in hand and Prada bag on hips.

It's not simply the freshly scrubbed collegiate set who thinks they'd make the next Donny Deutsch. Professionals from nearly every background think they know how to market simply because they are consumers of marketing. These "arm chair marketers" seem to believe that marketing takes little skill and even less experience; all you really need is a good eye for design or catchy tagline or title to make it in the biz.

Ah if it were only that easy. The irony here isn't that it takes both skill and experience to be a good marketeer. I mean it is kind of like me pursuing a career as a brain surgeon or electrical engineer without any relevant training or experience. But I digress. The true irony is that marketeers and the business of marketing is quite the opposite of glamorous most of the time. Not only is it hard work to constantly conjure the next cool creation or concept. Marketing is incessantly vilified by consumers, parents, professionals--just about anyone who receives incoming messages, which is pretty much everyone on the planet.

What most of us don't realize is that every business, commodity, service, product--every single market venture--needs marketing in some way, shape, or form. Nonprofit organizations need to attract donations or volunteers, attractions need visitors, products need customers, even governments need the support of their constituents. And it is the marketing professionals, with their experience and skill, who help connect the right messages to the right recipients to help drive the heartbeat of the global market economy.