Friday, December 12, 2008

Social network marketing and customer relations

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the December 9, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

All I wanted was an H2O™ mop.

You’ve seen them advertised on television. They look like the old-fashioned stick vacuums, only instead of a bag there’s a water supply, and instead of sucking up the dirt they steam it away.

Clever gadgets.

While I love the Swiffer Wet Jet™ for the tile floors in the bathroom and kitchen, I’m less than pleased with the sticky residue it leaves behind on the wooden floors. I hate feeling like I live in a movie theater every time I walk across the floor.

The H2O mop seemed like the perfect solution.

Of course, just because it works on TV doesn’t mean it works in real life — just look at those ShamWow™ cloths. When that guy in the commercial demonstrates them, while yelling at the camera, he can take a wet ShamWow and use it to leave behind a completely dry surface. In my hands, however, all a wet ShamWow leaves behind is water. Maybe I’m not doing it right. Plus, he never mentions that they can’t be washed with detergent, which means that they need their own separate wash cycle. I have no idea what happens if you disregard this instruction. Maybe they absorb all the detergent and the next time you use them they fill the house with foam allowing the guy from the commercial to sneak in and steal your CD player.

The point is, I wanted to know more about the H20 mop and, seeing as how I write about advertising and such, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the “social network marketing” that’s all the rage among cutting edge marketing experts.

Social network marketing, we’re told, is like having a thousand or more friends who share information, trade handy tips, and possibly even tell cute stories about a particular product. You know, just like in real life (if your real life is in Pleasantville).

Of course, in reality, social networking is a mish-mash of conflicting testimonies. I tried getting some information from YouTube and while I admit the results were entertaining, they weren’t particularly informative. One video shows a woman calling the company because her mop spread hot water all over, burned her baby’s foot, and scratched up the floor. That will happen when you fail to put the cloth on the end of the mop like it shows in the directions (which the woman complained had been “blurry”). In another video two girls filmed themselves sideways as they demonstrated that the H20 mop wouldn’t clean a stain off a carpet if you just leave it in one place, as opposed to moving it back and forth (as per the instructions). On the other hand, the frenetically energetic man on a morning show found it to be quite effective as he cleaned the floors for a family of five.

As for text reviews, I discovered that the H20 mop was “a piece of junk,” “everything I could ask for,” and “has no learning curve at all.” (Say what?)

Yep. That was helpful.

The only sane advice I got was from my wife.

“If you don’t like it, you can always get your money back,” she pointed out.

Of course.

The next step was finding out who sold them. The logical choice was Wal-Mart, so I gave them a call. After going through several “Your call is very important to us” messages combined with a brain-challenging puzzle which involved pushing various numbers in response to ambiguous questions, I was finally connected to a young girl who had obviously been wandering through on unrelated business when the phone rang and she decided to pick it up.

Either that or she was just plain stupid.

“Do you have the H20 mop in stock?” I asked.

“I’ll put you through to the chemical department,” she answered.

“I don’t think that will help,” I said.

“Well, I don’t know what we have in stock, I have to send you to the right department,” she answered.”

“Sure,” I said, “but the chemical department isn’t the right department.”

“Well I can’t answer your question,” she said.

That’s because you’ve got the brains of a turnip that’s been hooked up to an iPod for a hundred hours straight, I thought.

“I know that, but it’s just a mop, it doesn’t have anything to do with the chemical department,” I said.

“Is there anyone here who wants to talk to this guy?” she said, thoughtfully holding the phone a good six inches away so I wouldn’t hear.

I was on hold for about half a minute, fully expecting another voice to come on the line to deal with this difficult customer. I was somewhat surprised, then, when the same voice came back.

“Just hold on while I put you through to household supplies,” she said.

“That makes more sense,” I said.

“Well,” she said indignantly, “you should have said right at the beginning…”

She got no further.

“Just get me away from you!” I yelled.

To her credit, this was one instruction she seemed capable of carrying out.

In the end, I bought the mop. Not from Wal-Mart, mind you. Even though it turned out they had them in stock, I spent another half hour on the phone finding a different supplier. No way I was going to spend my money at a place with customer service that sounded like a bad sketch on Saturday Night Live.

When you come down to it, this is the foundation of social network marketing. It’s not exciting, and it’s not particularly cutting edge, but if your customer service sucks, you’re going to lose business. I doubt that all Wal-Mart stores have such catastrophically poor service, but those that do will suffer.

As for social network marketing, when you open your product up to reviews from every brain-damaged moron in the country, the results are bound to be less than optimal. Just because it involves the latest in communications technology doesn’t mean it’s a good medium for marketing.

I’d heard about the mop through traditional advertising and I decided to try it based on the old-fashioned “money back guarantee.”

The rest was a pain in the butt.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Nodding heads

I follow a number of marketing blogs (currently The Ad Contrarian is one of my favourites, but that's a different story). On Jonathan Trenn's Digital Street Journal he makes a point I think we all too often overlook when complaining that this or that person or group "just doesn't get it."

He writes of attending a conference in San Francisco during which he realized that the crowd of 400 "energetic people who are on the forefront of marketing communications and the technology that will make it possible" were all remarkably the same. In other words, "overly diverse" is not a phrase likely to be found in any news report of the event.

With that realization he goes on to say:

It’s imperative that we in social media seek to understand the diverse world that we’ll be looking to engage. It’s imperative that we realize that many of those that we see as “not getting it” will end up “getting it” on their own terms and in ways that will reflect their own cultural experiences. And it’s all the more important if we’re correct in our assertions that this is how we’ll be receiving our marketing messages, our news…the information that we need to live by. ("My Age of Conversation Post," Digital Street Journal, November 15, 2008.)

While Trenn is essentially speaking about two cultures (the targeted marketing audience, and the promoters/designers of the new media), there are actually three cultures involved with the whole marketing activity.

1. The targeted marketing audience: These, of course, are the people already using the media whom the marketers are hoping to engage in their marketing strategy. And woe unto the new media marketer who enters the fray without knowing the shibboleths and secret handshakes of the in crowd. To make matters worse, the culture of one in crowd can be radically different from the culture of another.

2. The promoters and designers of the new media: These are the people who are probably most represented at a site like ThinkBalm. They are definitely "plugged-in," "with it," and "on the cutting edge." They are smart, inventive, and most of all enthused. They are also, however, the people who come up with the names and terms used in these applications.

3. The targeted financing audience: These are the people category two people, are trying to convince to put money into the new media. They are, by and large, not part of the in crowd. They may not be technophobes, but they probably don't spend much time Twittering, keeping up a page on Facebook or MySpace, and have likely not even heard of Second Life, unless there's been a particularly juicy scandal about it in the news recently.

When category two people try talking to category three, the results often make about as much sense as a Dane speaking Swahili with a heavy Martian accent.

"You see sir, after you join up you can myrl an entry and..."


"Yes sir, it's kind of like spriging something in Sprigit, but it's called a myrl here."


"Um, no. Myrl. Or Sprig. It depends on what you mean."

"Problem is, I don't know what I mean. Let's just put the money in a damned television spot like always!"

The point I'm trying to make, of course, is that all too often when we complain some old fogey "just doesn't get it," the reason is that we haven't really tried to give it to him. And the applications themselves don't help. It was something I noticed years ago when I had one foot in the world of the programmers, and the other foot in the world of the users. While programmers were happily coming up with their own terms, many of which came from the heavily technical end while others consisted of in-jokes, the users were unhappily trying to figure out how to put a "string" in a computer and why there was a button called "query" when they weren't asking a question.

Second Life is a good case study, as I pointed out in a previous article (“When Boojums attack,” Metaverse Messenger, September 23). The “Debug Settings” have to be among the most offensively cryptic settings in Second Life. Not only does the term “debug” send most non-geek users running in the opposite direction, but their names seem to consist of ultra-technical terms combined with some kind of running in-jokes. As for their descriptions, they do little more than reiterate the names. CheesyBeacon, for instance, enables “cheesy beacon effects,” while the FlycamAxisDeadZone1 is described simply as “Flycam axis 1 dead zone.”

The support features are of limited help. To start with there are several, and most seem to wallow in a labyrinth of jargon. When faced with enough of this incomprehensibility, most users simply decide to go somewhere else. (15,000,000 registered users versus a few hundred thousand active residents — that’s a lot of dissatisfaction).

Now imagine trying to explain any of that to a client who is looking into the use of the immersive Internet for his company. "The challenge before us," says Trenn at the end of his blog post, "is not only to overcome the barriers of those who seek to resist the changes we are embracing; it is also to develop a deeper understanding of the diverse peoples that are becoming users of social media."

This also includes the users on both ends — not just those already in Facebook, MySpace, Second Life and the rest, but those trying to use these platforms as business tools.

"If we fail to do that," Trenn concludes, "we’ll simply be a bunch of nodding heads mistakenly thinking that we are the future of communication."

And most nodding heads happily sit looking out the back window of cars with no clue what's coming up.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hell hath no fury

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the November 11, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

Asking advocates of social network marketing and virtual world promotions about the Return on Investment (ROI) can be as controversial as walking into an Al Qaeda hangout and asking their opinions on B’nai Brith. But then this is nothing new. Promoters of non-traditional advertising have always been a bit touchy on the subject. To illustrate, let me give an example from before the days of the Internet.

Many years ago I was commissioned to analyze a software program for a large diamond company. The company spent a fair amount of time sending informative and unsolicited articles about diamonds to newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations in the hopes that some of these would be published and aired as actual news stories. Although it didn’t cost them much, it did put a certain drain on resources, and they wanted some idea of their ROI. The purpose of the program, which had been designed in Europe, was to measure the value of published articles in terms of advertising dollars. They chose me because I had previously worked with them through the advertising firm I'd been with and they knew me as a systems analyst with marketing knowledge.

My job was two-fold. The first phase consisted simply of analyzing the program in terms of its actual operation. Did it work? Were there bugs? Could the bugs infect the users and make them sick? That kind of stuff. The second phase consisted of actually examining the purpose of the program and its effectiveness. Could it, in fact, give them some idea of their ROI?

Well, phase one was no problem. It was picky and time-consuming, but it was nothing I hadn’t already done a hundred times before with software for the ad agency, some of which I’d written in the first place.

Phase two, however, began to feel like a Philip Marlowe novel: a minor, seemingly straight-forward mystery that rapidly escalates into a far-flung conspiracy involving hidden motives and faceless men uttering threats from the shadows.

The core of the mystery involved the algorithms being used to determine the monetary value of press releases used by end recipients. If, for example, an article explaining the traditional method of determining the right price for an engagement diamond (yearly salary divided by six) was used in a newspaper or television spot, what did that represent in terms of advertising dollars? (Keep in mind that because these were ostensibly “news stories,” they didn’t really mention the diamond company, and therefore their value would be less than a similar sized advertisement.) At first everything looked fairly conventional. Values were given not only for the medium (newspaper, television, radio), but also for each particular medium (
Toronto Star, CityTV, CHUM). A quarter page story in a weekday edition of The Globe and Mail would receive a score of, say, 0.4, while the same story in the Saturday edition would receive a score of 0.6. This would then be multiplied by the value of a quarter page ad in the same edition. The result would be the value of that story in advertising dollars.

The problem was, the more I looked, the more it seemed that many of the values, to put it kindly, were completely arbitrary. As with all advertising, audience is of particular importance. A full page story about engagement diamonds in a publication aimed at teenagers would have far less value than a quarter page story in a publication aimed at people in their twenties. And while there was some sense to the program’s determination of values for print media and radio, when it came to television I had the feeling the software writers had picked values out of thin air.

Although I had some expertise in the day-to-day mechanics of the advertising industry, I was by no means an authority, and so I began consulting with the head of traffic (advertising buys) at JWT where I maintained a good relationship, even though I was no longer working there. The idea, of course, was that he could clear up the ambiguous data. Instead, where I had merely been somewhat puzzled by what I’d found, he, on the other hand, was completely mystified. Not only did the values I’d been suspicious of make no sense, he told me, but neither did many of the values I’d accepted as basically valid.

When I took this to the project manager she seemed remarkably unsurprised, leading me to think that she’d been harboring suspicions which had led her to hire me in the first place. When she told me that the software was already in use in Europe, I asked where they were getting the figures from. She said she’d try to find out. The next day she got back to me, much subdued, and told me that the project was going to go ahead and could I please wrap up my report and get it in to her.

All in all, a very peculiar experience, but also a very valuable one in terms of marketing. I learned that hell hath no fury like the proponent of a non-traditional advertising method whose ROIs are examined too closely.

Today we have a whole host of new marketing techniques ranging from viral YouTube videos to promotional events held in virtual worlds. And while a good number of consultants are more than ready to explain the vast potential of these new media, anyone who asks about the actual ROIs is liable to be skewered to the wall and branded a reactionary.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t value to be found in these wild and wooly media; merely that trying to determine it is a bit harder than trying to determine the state of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health.

Next week we’ll look at some of the prevarications as well as the straight-shooters in this modern mine field.


Monday, November 3, 2008

The brave new world of social network marketing: Part 1

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the November 4, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

I have a confession.

For the past few months I’ve had a growing suspicion that much of the “new” marketing innovations employing social networks and virtual worlds just don’t work.

It started when I wrote an article back in July about the problem marketers face in Second Life due to its lack of real mass media (“Second Life circa 4 BC,” July 15, 2008). In it I noted that not only does Second Life not have any form of medium that reaches a majority, or even a large minority of residents, but that such a medium was unlikely to ever appear.

As time went by I began exploring the many claims being made for “social network marketing” through such media as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. On the surface it made sense. Certainly there are a lot more people involved than there are in Second Life, and the idea of creating a marketing buzz through a network of people is unquestionably appealing. Furthermore, there appeared to be a number of marketing success stories — a rarity for Second Life.

But then the novelty began to wear off and before long I found myself noticing some of the same problems I’d seen for virtual worlds. While a company might find it advantageous to set up a presence on Facebook in which contacts can be kept informed about the latest products and improvements, it really amounts to little more than a sim capable of handling a larger number of people: if you don’t belong to the group, you’ll never hear from them, and if you do belong, it’s because you’re already a fan.

Of course the idea is to create “brand evangelists,” customers who feel so included in the existence of a brand that they proselytize it with an evangelical zeal. This way, while your brand may only have 500 “friends,” those “friends” are going to tell their “friends” and so on and so on.

Nice idea, but the more I looked at the “success stories” the more my suspicions grew. Take this case of MySpace marketing held up by Dave Balter of IMedia Connection back in the summer of 2006.

“Recently,” he says, “in a campaign for the blockbuster film Superman Returns, MySpace was hired to create a Superman Returns profile, and then engaged users to share with friends through simple activities like adding the Man of Steel as a buddy or posting a comment on their new Superfriend's page. The cornerstone of this promotion was to find people with vast networks who could spread this message to more people, faster and more effectively.”

And how well did it work? It’s true that Superman Returns debuted to the number one spot on the Fourth of July weekend, but considering that it was a revival of a previously successful movie franchise, I suspect it would have done at least that well even if advertising had been restricted to posters plastered on telephone poles in all the major cities. The fact is, Superman Returns earned a disappointing $84 million during its first five days (the traditional time period for measuring a “weekend”), and only $250 million for its entire run. As openings go, especially openings for the Fourth of July weekend, it really wasn’t anything to write home about. Three years earlier the much-maligned X2: Xmen United beat it by a million, and only a year before War of the Worlds brought in $100 million over the same period.

For its overall run, Superman Returns comes in about even with Night at the Museum. This is not good company to keep. But the real question is this: did having a few hundred “friends” on MySpace increase the bottom line by so much as a fraction of a percent?

Somehow I doubt it.

Yet that’s one of the big success stories. The rest look like testimonials for the classifieds of a neighborhood newsletter.

Consider the examples offered by Social Media Optimization in an article boosting the advantages of social marketing. Having already featured a bicycle shop in Texas that was using MySpace to reach potential customers, they wrote about an ice cream company, Cold Stone Creamery, which created a kind of ad for YouTube in order to publicize a new flavor. In the video two ice cream flavors are joined in wedded bliss. A special profile was created for them on MySpace. “I think the power of YouTube and MySpace and the connection it’s made with young people is important for not only Cold Stone, but for every company to investigate,” said Kevin Donnellan, senior director of advertising and public relations for the company.

And then there’s the example offered by Stephan Spencer, who bills himself as a “scientist turned web marketing virtuoso.” On his website, Stephan Spencer’s Scatterings, he waxes poetic about Weird Al Yankovic’s use of MySpace to revive his flagging career. Over a few months the has-been singer had already gained 219,033 friends!

So tell me. Do you have Weird Al’s latest records? Didn’t think so.

After a while it became obvious that the success stories all view increasing numbers of “friends” as the sole criterion of “success,” while quietly ignoring the issue of whether they’ve actually had any increase in sales. Those who legitimately seem to have experienced measurable gains tend to be independent musicians, for whom any exposure is better than none, and small to middle-sized businesses which use the social networks to keep in touch with already-existing customers.

This is the brave new world of social networking?

* * *

Next week — social marketing continued in “Hell hath no fury.”


Sunday, November 2, 2008

I've got a secret.

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the September 30, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Brands are constantly being scolded for their pitiful attempts to break into Second Life. They build a few buildings, offer a few pointless freebies, and then sit back waiting for avatars to come flying in. It doesn't work, it hasn’t worked, and it’s not likely to work.

Consultants, such as Millions of Us, try to convince them that they must offer something to the community, and in some cases the suits have even listened — with varying results. The release of the newest Harry Potter movie was promoted with viral giveaways, and Evian offered samples of their water which were accompanied by free skins that were perceptibly better than the default skins we all get as newbies.

But no matter what they do, it never seems to be enough. The stink of failure covers them like a car that’s run over a skunk.

You could even feel sorry for them if they weren’t so oddly blind to the ultimate problem.

Let's back up a few years. There once was a time in which not a single company had an presence on the Web. There were many reasons for this, but the main one, it has to be admitted, was that there was no such thing as the Web. Once it was invented (by Al Gore, according to rumor), a few of the more forward-looking companies tried their hand at creating virtual stores where customers could get information about their products and even make purchases. Some were more successful than others, but those who made a go of it had several characteristics in common, such as creating sites with value-added services, a running tally of in-store stock, and even methods of contacting real live people for help.

But even the best-laid sites would have withered away if the companies behind them hadn't done one very important thing —they told people about them!

I can still remember the first time I saw an ad on TV for something (can’t remember what it was) which included the URL for their Web site. “Will anyone actually take the time to visit?” I wondered.

Well, people did. Today, of course, it’s rare to find an ad that doesn't include information on finding their online presence. “Call, visit or click” is a phrase that I find occurring with amazing frequency in ads from TV commercials to the printed page.

You see, here’s the thing: if you’re going to do something cutting edge and avant-garde, if you’re going to set up a new approach to doing business, you have to tell people!

This isn’t a secret power-principle of business — or at least it shouldn’t be. If you want people to visit the smart, efficient, clever, dynamic, or what-have-you website, you have to let them know it’s there.

So let’s pop back to the present and take a look at the companies that came into Second Life. Coke has always been considered one of the successes, mostly because they didn’t end up with a complete, abject failure. But the bar for success in virtual world marketing, it has to be admitted, has been set pretty damned low. Still, let’s credit them with their little triumph. How did they spread the word about their sim? Well, by word of avatar-mouth, for one. Then there was…uh. Well there was word of avatar-mouth — damn, I already mentioned that one.

The fact is, aside from the short spurt of publicity they gathered when they first came in world, the bright boys and girls behind the bold new marketing concept never told anybody about it.


Or maybe I missed something. Perhaps you can recall some TV commercials from the time which ended with an invitation to visit their new virtual land in Second Life? A tag at the end of magazine ad with the SLURL of their corporate island with an offer of a free virtual Coke? Anything like that? Anyone?

No. I didn't think so.

The fact is, to the best of my knowledge, not a single corporation which has attempted in -world marketing has bothered to clue in their customers. None.

Does this strike anyone else as being, oh…I don’t know. Brainless? A tad dim-witted? A few swings short of a playground?

So here's a bit of advice for anyone contemplating yet another marketing blitz in the untapped world of Second Life: when you do it — tell people about it! Put the information in your real world publicity. Generate interest. That is, after all, part of the reason you want to come into Second Life in the first place, isn’t it? To generate or renew interest in your brand? Well, everything else aside, a good start is by letting the general public in on the secret.

And of course, as more companies include references to Second Life in their advertising, the more people will be drawn to our humble little world which, in turn, will also mean a larger audience for in-world promotions.

See how that works?

Tell people, ya nitwits!


Friday, October 24, 2008

Thurber's Legacy

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the September 23, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

According to most pundits, the recent monetary crisis has dealt a devastating blow to the future of online, non-traditional advertising. “Are ‘experimental’ marketers doomed?” asks Adotas. “Credit crunch hits new ad technology” utters Utalk Marketing. “Investment in bullshit ads plummets,” gloats Gawker.

Kind of reminds me of the great High Street rout during the Ohio flood of 1913.

In March of 1913 Ohio experienced the worst natural disaster of its history when heavy rainfalls caused massive flooding of the region. The worst of it occurred along the Great Miami River, and in Dayton the flood water rose to twenty feet in the downtown core. The stress of the rushing waters ruptured gas lines causing fires that burned unchecked as the fire department watched helplessly, unable to gain access. In the end over 400 people died and more than 20,000 homes destroyed.

Although I was born and raised in Canada, I knew about the Ohio flood because it had been featured in a story by one of my favorite authors — James Thurber.

In his “The Day the Dam Broke,” Thurber tells of the teaming mass of humanity which fled down High Street in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “‘Go east!’ was the cry that arose,” he wrote. “East away from the river, east to safety. ‘Go east! Go east! Go east!’” As the panic took hold, more and more people joined the throng. “Black streams of people flowed eastward down all the streets heading in that direction.” Before it was over, some had run more than 12 miles to escape the raging waters.

Except, of course, in Columbus there weren’t any raging waters. The entire incident had been nothing more than a massive misunderstanding. “Suddenly somebody began to run,” says Thurber, suggesting the ultimate cause. “It may be that he had simply remembered, all of a moment, an engagement to meet his wife, for which he was now frightfully late.” Under normal circumstances, one person running would have been unremarkable, but with the flood waters rising in neighboring regions, any quick movement could be interpreted as an attempted escape from impending doom. “Inside of ten minutes, everybody on High Street, from the Union Depot to the Courthouse was running. A loud mumble gradually crystallized into the dread word ‘dam.’ ‘The dam has broke!’”

In a similar fashion, the recent panic concerning “experimental” advertising has been sparked by little more than a single voice: that of Emily Steel whose recent article in the Wall Street Journal appears to have set off a stampede with more than a few similarities to that which occurred in Columbus almost 100 years ago.

“In recent years,” she writes, “marketers have set aside a portion of their ad budgets to experiment with digital technologies such as Web video, mobile phones, gaming and virtual worlds. But with broader economic turmoil reaching Madison Avenue, these ‘experimental’ budgets are among the first to hit the cutting-room floor.”

From this single source, a tidal wave of acquiescence has arisen. And while there is undoubtedly cause for concern — just as in 1913 there were some very real flood waters in Ohio — Steel’s dash for safety may possibly be just a trifle premature.

Fortunately, not everyone has joined her in flight. Adam Needles, of Propelling Brands, offers a thoughtful critique of the Wall Street Journal piece, focusing especially on the author’s neglect to differentiate between the many different forms of “experimental” media.

“She makes broad-based assumptions in her piece about marketers’ priorities and about the capabilities of digital and new-media initiatives,” he writes. “She also lumps together everything from mobile marketing to place-based media to advertising on social-media sites to embedded advertising on games and virtual environments in the same boat. She finally ignores the blurring of the lines over time between traditional non-interactive advertising, on one hand, and emerging interactive PR/social-media based digital marketing programs, on the other hand — making it harder to substantiate the reality of the exodus she predicts.”

To Needles, Steel’s biggest mistake, however, is that “she is not thinking like a marketer.” And to a marketer, “[d]igital and new-media initiatives are, in fact, just what the doctor ordered in the current environment.”

When times get tough, the real marketer begins looking for the edge, and to Needles, the edge is in the new media. Citing such advantages as low cost, two-way communication through social networking sites, and improved tracking, he puts forward a compelling argument.

As for me — what do I know? I’m merely a hack with pretensions of mediocrity. But I can tell you this much: when the crowd starts to run from the flood waters, it can be damned hard to get them to stop. In Thurber’s account, militiamen attempted to restore order by riding about in trucks with megaphones calling, “The dam has not broken.” The immediate effect, however, was “to add to the confusion and increase the panic, for many stampeders thought the soldiers were bellowing, ‘The dam has now broken!’”


Monday, October 13, 2008

User-created content: great for users, but hell on advertisers

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the October 14, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

A TV commercial can cost hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions of dollars. The reason is two-fold: not only are vast numbers of people watching the shows (and hence the ads), but the production costs of TV shows put their creation well beyond the means of the average person. Even with a few hundred channels, there is still a limited number of programs because it takes big corporations and big bucks to make even the cheapest reality show. So what would happen if a technology came along that allowed people to create their own shows for free?

The answer is simple: ad revenue would disappear. With an almost endless number of new shows, strategic ad placement would become impossible and the worth of an advertising spot would plummet. Shows with ads would lose audience to shows without. Ads may be placed on the service distributing the shows, but they would have little relevance and be easily ignored. In short, advertisers would essentially ignore the platform and the only way it could make money would be to charge for its use.

As most of you probably realize, this situation is not hypothetical — it’s YouTube. And while nobody can doubt the success of the site in terms of users, its earning power has remained stubbornly untapped. A 2006 article in the Bivings Report by Erin Teeling (“YouTube: Show me the money!”) pointed out that even though the video-sharing service was still in its early days, it had already racked up some impressive statistics: 6.1 million videos, a total of 9,305 people-years spent watching them, roughly 500,000 profiles, and a ranking of 8th most popular site in the US. But these bright and shining figures merely served to cast a darker revenue shadow. “Underneath these amazing user stats,” said Teeling, “there are financial problems. It seems that YouTube and other sites like it that depend on free, user-generated content, have yet to figure out a way to turn site traffic into profit.”

Along with the difficulty of trying to monetize user-created content, Teeling’s 2006 article lists a number of other YouTube drawbacks that sound eerily similar to those facing Second Life, including copyright infringement and the risk of a brand’s association with “offensive or questionable” content.

Google bought YouTube in 2006, but as recently as this past June the corporation had to admit that its famous Midas touch wasn’t working. Sarah Arnott’s article for the UK’s Independent (“Google admits it still can’t make money from YouTube”) quotes Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and chief executive, as saying that while there was obviously money to be made from the site, they still hadn’t figured out how to do it.

In only a few months, however, the situation appears to have changed. This week Google unveiled a new advertising plan which shows every chance of succeeding. Anders Bylund of The Motley Fool, a major investment online magazine, explains that since “six of the ten most-watched videos of all time are straight music videos,” the plan is to incorporate “unobtrusive but easily accessible links” to the online stores selling the actual songs. This will give viewers the opportunity to buy their favorite tunes instead of always having to go to YouTube. And as Bylund points out, “this is just the first example of YouTube growing into a full-fledged e-business platform.” Corporations whose content appears on the site can “claim ownership of the user-uploaded videos they used to want removed and add some cash-generating shopping links to them.”

But while we may look for guidance to Google’s YouTube solution (while keeping in mind that it has not yet proven successful), we cannot transfer it directly into Second Life. YouTube content sits on a neutral background easily accessible to advertisers: Second Life content sits on a background owned by the creators of the content. While real-world companies may be able to make deals with a few Second Life content providers to give space for related advertisements, it’s hardly a universal remedy. One example would be Coca-Cola renaming the popular in-world blues venue “The Junkyard Blues” to “Nestea Live Music Stage at Junkyard Blues.” And while we applaud the idea behind the tactic, it is still little more than a sponsorship package. Coca-Cola would be na├»ve to believe that residents are going to start drinking a particular beverage merely because of a banner hanging over a stage — especially a beverage that has no traditional connection to the music. (Now if the Junkyard Blues stage were to be sponsored by Johnny Walker or Southern Comfort the results might be more positive.)

The Google approach to YouTube provides a new service that will both improve the YouTube experience and earn ad revenue. The Coca-Cola approach to Second Life, on the other hand, provides nothing new and brings little, if any improvement. But more important is the involvement indicated by these two approaches. The new Google strategy has all the earmarks of something from the mind of a dedicated YouTube user, while the Coca-Cola strategy feels more like a pretty good idea cooked up in a board room among people who have visited Second Life only long enough to “get a feel” for it.

The key point is simple. Those who are truly interested in breaking into the virtual world are going to have to forego their corporate approaches and learn to love the world for its own sake. At that point it’s quite likely that the key to serious ad revenue or marketing success will suggest itself: first and foremost as an enhancement to the experience, and secondly as a means to make boat-loads of money.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When Boojums attack!

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and silently vanished away
For the snark was a boojum, you see.
-- Lewis Carroll, "The Hunting of the Snark"

Recently I suggested that a client change the name of his product (a platform for virtual tradeshows) and completely revamp his website. Not only was the name meaningless to the average prospect, but his website seemed to be talking about something entirely different.

Names are important. They’re the first thing most people ever know about a product or service and should convey something about its nature. All too often, however, names appear to be chosen as an afterthought.

Truly bad names can be avoided with a bit of thought. Whoever came up with “Poolife” for a pool cleaning service obviously wasn’t completely clear-headed at the time. Other times the name itself may be fine, but as a URL new and unwanted meanings emerge. As an example, “John,” of the Bad Product Names blog, tells the following (possibly apocryphal) story.

An employee at a software company was fired for visiting a particular website. Which site was it? Experts Exchange. But why? It seems like a legitimate site that one would go to in order to find help on various topics.

The answer, of course, was its URL: Other famous problematic URLs include Who Represents (, Therapist Finder (, and the classic Pen Island ( — although the last is actually a sophisticated joke.

Most often, however, the problem isn’t a bad name (such as “Crooks Accounting”), but a name that fails to give any real information, and the technology industry is the worst culprit. Matthew Stibbe, of the Bad Language blog, calls technology product names “a rich vein of terrible writing”:

For example, what are the following products from one well-known manufacturer: dv8000z, PSC 2350, vp6300? One is a printer, one is a laptop computer and one is a projector. How can you tell? How can you differentiate one product in a given range from another? The answer is, quite simply, that you can’t. (Matthew Stibbe: Bad Language.)
This is essentially what I faced with the creator of the virtual trade show platform. He was first and foremost a programmer and engineer with a stunning amount of expertise (bluntly put, he’s something of a bloody genius), but when it came to describing his service he could only speak to fellow programmers. With the change of a name, however, and a bit of guidance on articulating the purpose of his service, he was able to create a new website which showcased his product in an intelligent and engaging manner.

But names aren’t the only culprits, and sometimes even the worst of them can be overcome with good products. “Bowel Buddy” is a popular brand of cookie in certain regions, and Fluke Trucking actually capitalized on its rather unfortunate name with a clever tagline: “If it’s on time, it’s a Fluke.”

What’s worse is when bad instructions and “help” features drive away existing clients.

The people who chose “Second Life” did themselves proud. Not only is it understandable, it describes the service in two concise words. It’s just too bad the name was the extent of their communicative talents.

One of the most common complaints against Second Life is its difficulty — but why? Learning to move your avatar and interact with things really isn’t hard, and while camera movements require a bit more time, surely most people have mastered it in under an hour.

So what makes Second Life “difficult”?

I would have to lay the blame on its almost aggressively incomprehensible jargon. I used to be a programmer (many, many years ago) and the one thing I would never think of doing is playing with another programmer’s debug settings. Yet in SL the Debug Settings are precisely where we have to go if we want to enhance our in-world experience.

And then, when new residents finally discover the value of Debug Settings, they’re faced with the almost offensively cryptic nature of the options. What, for instance, does AutoMimeDiscovery do — check the surrounding area for unspeaking, white-faced avatars trapped in invisible boxes? And what about CheesyBeacon, DisplayAvatarAgentTarget and FlycamAxisDeadZone1? The descriptions accompanying them are little more than a reiteration of the names. CheesyBeacon, for instance, enables “cheesy beacon effects,” while the FlycamAxisDeadZone1 is described simply as “Flycam axis 1 dead zone.”

Yep. That helps.

Residents are often encouraged to use the available support features, but many find the explanations to be a labyrinth of jargon. When a new resident (read “new customer”) is faced with enough unfathomable jargon, the natural reaction is to simply go away — a problem with which Second Life is quite familiar (15,000,000 registered users versus a few hundred thousand active residents).

Part of marketing your product or service occurs up front with things like names and advertising campaigns. The rest takes place behind the scenes. If you’ve succeeded in acquiring new customers, don’t chase them away with incomprehensible instructions. Bad names, bad URLs, and bad customer features can all add up to some pretty nasty Boojums which, if not dealt with quickly, can lead to your customer base “softly and silently” vanishing away.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Reach - "The Spot"


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jingles that jangle, jingles that sing

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the August 26, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

“If you’ve got something to say,” David Ogilvy once advised, “then say it. If not, sing it.”

Okay, so the great advertising guru wasn’t what you’d call a “fan” of the jingle, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place. As we noted last week, jingles have been a staple form of marketing since Wheaties’ first aired theirs in 1929.

Still, Ogilvy’s got a point. “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form,” he said, “but as a medium of information.” If you consider your marketing strategy to be a means of providing prospects with pertinent information about your product, then song is definitely not the way to go. On the other hand, once you’ve provided the information, there’s nothing wrong with a little mnemonic to help them remember, and music is one of the best mnemonics in existence. At the age of five I could spell “encyclopedia” (albeit the American spelling) thanks to the Jiminy Cricket song, and who didn’t learn their alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”? Even dance steps can be imparted through the use of a catchy tune, such as “The Hokey Pokey” (which also taught us that “that’s what it’s all about”).

But while jingles are widely used on radio and TV, they’re still a relative rarity when it comes to the Web — and even more of a rarity in the virtual world.

There’s really little reason for this neglect. With faster connections, more powerful computers, and an increasing use of the Internet for watching everything from television shows to YouTube videos of professors having a meltdown over cell phones, sound has become an integral part of the Web experience.

For the Second Life merchant I would make two recommendations. First, combine your store or product with a web site. Although residents generally search for merchandise in world, there is increasing web traffic having to do with virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, and a web site gives you the opportunity to fulfill Ogilvy’s prime directive of giving the prospect information. Second, create or buy a jingle and use it judiciously both in world and on the web site.

The last thing you want is to overburden visitors with a repetitious, annoying jingle. (Well, okay, the last thing you want is for Earth to be struck by a killer asteroid, but that’s a different matter.) One way to avoid this (the annoying jingle, not the killer asteroid) is to insert it into your music stream at regular intervals matching those of television or radio commercials.

Another way is to use a jingle that isn’t so annoying it makes your visitors want to see Earth struck by a killer asteroid.

If you have a band, or know someone with a band, you can experiment with creating your own jingle. Be very cautious, however. It’s one thing to ask a buddy to whip up a short tune for you; it’s another thing to tell him you’re not using it because it sucks worse than the last season of Happy Days.

Another option is to actually pay for it. Admittedly, there are sites out there which will provide jingles for free. One of them, The Jingle Generator, is an automated program in which famed ‘70s record producer, Tommy Silk, puts together a jingle you can download on the spot. Tommy Silk, of course, was responsible for innumerable gold records, and when I say “innumerable” I mean that literally, since there’s no way to actually count to zero. A fictional character, Tommy’s jingles are all identical except for the lyrics which change according to the type of business you select. The site itself is really nothing more than a promotion for Intuit’s QuickBooks accounting programs.

On a more serious note, however, a growing number of services are ready and willing to create web jingles for reasonable prices. Internet-jingles is dedicated to “adding sound to sound websites,” Web Jingles promises “Your sound, their senses,” and Premiere Jingle Service promotes jingles “Because Nobody Hums a Newspaper Ad.”

One of the more notable among these is Sound Strokes Studios (“Talent worth knowing”) which has been in the jingle-writing business for 20 years, the last ten of which have included web jingles. With clients like IBM and Apple, they’re unquestionably major players in the field. The husband and wife team of Cory and Andrew Paganini is uniquely suited to putting the right words to the right music since Cory’s father is a newspaper man while Andrew is a direct descendant of violin virtuoso Paganini.

“I always start with a strong slogan,” says Cory Paganini, who writes the lyrics which Andrew then puts to music. For one of their clients, Canadian Free Stuff, she used the tagline, “No need to travel.” Set to a light Latin beat, the message that you can get free stuff while sitting at home in front of your computer is pleasantly, and memorably conveyed.

Regardless of whether you create it yourself or hire a professional, a good jingle will help keep your product or service in the minds of your customers. But don’t cheat. “Some of the people on radio stations have used our jingles and cut them short, putting in their own call letters,” said Cory.

That’s just not nice.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Reach: "The Miracle"

Another instalment of "Reach," a window into the JMT advertising agency.

Click on the image to see it full size.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ears, worms and marketing

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the August 19, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

Scrambled egg,
Sitting on the plate, you’re there to stay,
I know you won’t get up and run away,
Oh, how I love my scrambled egg.

I had a plan. It’s shot now, of course, but I actually had a plan. After broaching the subject of taglines last week I was going to look more closely at communicating with the customer. And then Phoenix Psaltery had to go and write about scrambled eggs in his music column.

Of course, he wasn’t writing about scrambled eggs as such; he was writing about the method Paul McCartney had used when composing “Yesterday,” which consisted of singing the phrase “scrambled egg” in his head as he wrote the tune. While Lennon and McCartney later decided to go a different direction with the lyrics, Phoenix decided to try his hand at creating something closer to the original, resulting in the verse at the top of this column. I suppose you could say it’s a Psaltery and McCartney composition. (Sorry, Phoenix, but it just doesn’t have the same ring as Lennon and McCartney.)

Anyhow, the point is that the tune Yesterday, accompanied by the words “scrambled egg,” has been running through my mind for a couple of weeks now.

There’s actually a name for this phenomenon. The Germans call it ohrwurm, which translates as “ear worm.” Most often it’s a tune, but it can also be a phrase or even a single word. Whatever its nature, the ear worm lodges itself into our consciousness and refuses to let go.

For advertisers, of course, this can be a godsend. A catchy tune combined with words which either directly or indirectly refer to the product can stick in listeners’ minds and carry the message continuously for weeks, months, or even decades. Sometimes it can continue to work long after the product is past its prime. I’ve not seen a Brylcream commercial for at least 30 years, but hearing Jessica Simpson say “just a little dab” while shilling for ProActive acne cream can bring to mind their jingle: “Brylcream, a little dab’ll do ya.” And while cigarette commercials are a thing of the past, I often hear, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should,” when people in a restaurant praise their food.

General Mills is given credit for creating the first modern advertising jingle with: “Have you tried Wheaties?/They’re whole wheat with all of the bran.” And although that came out in 1929, it was still popular enough in the late ‘50s that the tune comes back to me as soon as I read the words.

Back in 1929 General Mills was on the verge of dropping their Wheaties brand due to poor sales. With only 53,000 cases being sold a year, it seemed like a lost cause. However, when they discovered that more than half those cases were being sold in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the same area they were running a local radio campaign featuring their new Wheaties jingle, they decided to take the jingle nation-wide with the result that Wheaties became one of the most popular cereals in the country.

Sometimes a jingle can even make its way into the popular music scene

While stuck at the Shannon airport in Ireland in 1971 during a three-day fog delay, William Backer, vice chairman of Backer Spielvogel Bates, found himself inspired by the way the passengers on his flight “gradually shed their ethnic and national prejudices” as they grew into a little community. “Here were all these people from different places talking over cups of coffee and Cokes.” The result was the Coca Cola song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” which made it onto the pop music charts.

But while effective, jingles have become a thing of the past. Any poll about the top ten jingles invariably shows that 80% - 90% are from 20 years ago, or more. ‘‘The 15-second commercial makes it harder and harder to make a musical statement that is more than a sung slogan,’’ Backer lamented back in 1989. And as recently as 2005, Eric Korte of Saatchi & Saatchi told the Boston Globe that “the jingle is dead.”

In its place, advertisers have been mining existing songs to plug their products. Debbie Harry’s “One Way or Another” accompanies a woman cleaning her floor with a Swiffer; Springsteen’s “Like a Rock” propels Chevy trucks across the screen; and a Jeep driver, accompanied by several woodland creatures, belts out “Rock Me Gently” as he tools down the road.

So why do I bring this up in a column on marketing in virtual worlds?

It all happened when I dropped in to visit my mother. She’s just turned 80 and is an active resident in Second Life. (Her avatar name is lillian Morpork — the last name taken from the Disk World Series, of which she’s a huge fan.) I was showing her a few tips and tricks and noticed that she had her speakers on. It struck me that if an 80-year-old woman is surfing the net with speakers on, surely almost everyone else is too.

And that means that every time they visit your store, they’re listening to whatever music you have streaming on the parcel.

So why not make it work for you? Obviously you don’t want to blast customers with a continuous jingle loop, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t intersperse your regular music with a commercial or two.

Like taglines, however, jingles can be tricky. The trick is to create something that is catchy yet directly related to your product.

Which is exactly what we’ll look at in next week’s column.

And until then, I’ll leave you with this little ditty which I hope will stick in Phoenix’s mind as thoroughly as his stuck in mine.

My bologna has a first name,
It’s O - S - C - A - R,
My bologna has a second name,
It’s M - A - Y - E - R,
Ooh, I love to eat it every day,
And if you ask me why I’ll say,
‘Cause Oscar Mayer has a way
With B - O - L - O - G - N - A


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Reach: "The Pitch

This is just an experiment I'm working on with the Bitstrips application. It's a series called "Reach," dealing with the ups and downs of the almost-typical advertising agency JMT. I don't know if the humour is going to be too "inside," so to speak, but I guess we'll see.

Click on the graphic below to see it full size.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You too can be a Fluke

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the August 12, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

Born in 1921, Bobby Fluke passed away on Saturday, July 26, at the age of 87.

Of course, the likelihood you’ve heard of Bobby Fluke is about as remote as Michael Jackson’s chances of becoming Obama’s running mate, but he plays an important role in this week’s discussion (Fluke, not Jackson).

When Bobby inherited the trucking business started by his father in 1920, he made a few small but significant changes to assure its success. One of these was the imposition of three simple business rules: (1) don’t carry steel or auto parts, (2) don’t accept hauls of more than 300 miles, and (3) remember to thank your customers every day. “Bobby taught me those rules in the 1980s,” said Ron Foxcroft, who bought out the business in 1983. “When you think about it, the people who are struggling in this industry today are the people who move steel, auto parts, and go long distances.”

The other thing Bobby wanted to do was to come up with a catchy tag line for the business.

Shira Linden, a writer for Marketing Newz (and no relation to Linden Lab), defines tag lines like this: “A tagline consists of a few short words that communicate to your target market what your company does and how you’re different from competitors. A good tagline should position your brand in your audience’s mind and sum up its essence or benefit in a way that your audience can relate to. A great tagline uses memorable phrasing and creates a personality.”

But when the name of your company is “Fluke,” what are you going to do?

What Bobby did was pure genius, resulting in a tag line known and loved by most of the population in south central Ontario.

Tag lines are one of the most effective ways to drive recognition of your product or service. “Melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” “Just do it.” “The quicker picker-upper.” “You deserve a break today.” For most people, these phrases are essentially synonymous with the brands they serve: M&Ms, Nike, Bounty, and McDonald’s.

Despite their simplicity, and in many cases their seeming inevitability, good tag lines generally take considerable work. Rhonda, of the Rhonda Report, offers four rules for making a tag line work.

1. Make it short and easy to remember.

2. Make sure it conveys something special about you.

3. Use it to convey something special you want your customers to remember or feel.

4. Use it repeatedly and prominently.

Perhaps one of the most common mistakes is to create a tag line so abstract it could apply to almost anything. These generally consist of a string of words separated by periods: a technique many companies obviously believe imparts gravitas, but in reality merely results in a string of words separated by periods. Because they don’t actually say anything, such “tag lines” are confusing, pointless, and generic. Even worse, the same words keep getting used over and over — much like the indecipherable jargon that appears in mission statements issued by organizations from steel conglomerates to charities.

Just take a look at these beauts. “Create. Organize. Share. Connect.” “Experience. Share. Connect.” “Connect. Share. Live.” “Create. Share. Connect.” Believe it or not, each of these is a tag line for a separate company. What do the companies do? Who knows? Who cares? They could apply to anything from closet organizers to data processors. (One of my favorite exceptions to this rule is Behr Paint’s tag line: “Good. Better. Behr.”)

But even if you come up with a cohesive statement, that doesn’t mean the tag line is necessarily going to work for you. It must also connect in some essential way to your product or service. Although “The quicker picker-upper” could apply as easily to a vacuum cleaner as a paper towel, it definitely has something to do with cleaning. Likewise, “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” is pretty well restricted to sweets of some sort.

McDonald’s recent (well, relatively recent) change from “You deserve a break today” to “I’m lovin’ it” manages to work, but mostly because McDonald’s is a well-known brand and poured millions of dollars into pushing the new tag line. As a classic, however, “I’m lovin’ it” fails, and used by a smaller, lesser-known company, would likely have faded into obscurity leaving behind little more than a footnote on marketing blunders.

Another common mistake is using the tag line to make over-blown claims. Budweiser’s “King of beers” works because they didn’t use it until they had captured over 50% of the beer market, at which point “King of beers” was nothing more than a simple truth. But with a few similar exceptions, anything that smacks of hyperbole is going to be rejected by the consumer. You don’t claim “best,” “greatest,” “unsurpassed,” or “pre-eminent” unless you have some solid proof to back it up.

With so many ways to go wrong, it seems like a miracle that anyone ever actually succeeds in creating an effective, memorable tag line — and yet it can be done.

Don’t hurry the process. Brainstorm, preferably with as many people as possible. Write down key ideas, then find creative ways of communicating them. And once you have a good tag line, stick to it. The whole point is to make it inseparable from your brand in the consumer’s mind. If you keep switching tag lines every couple of months none will be effective. This doesn’t mean you can’t create separate ones for specific campaigns, but your core-brand tag line should be virtually inviolate.

Bobby Fluke knew these rules instinctively. He wanted people to remember his name and to associate it with punctuality. With no training in marketing, and saddled with the name Fluke, he came up with one of the best tag lines in trucking history.

“If it’s on time, it’s a Fluke.”

Go ahead. I dare you to forget that one.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Value added -- without the tax

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the August 5, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Last week we looked at one of the fundamental rules of marketing: don’t promote the product, promote what the product can do for the customer.

This week we’re going to carry that a bit further by looking at what value can be added to the product. When WordPerfect was the big word processor it offered its users a mega-featured package which could be used for everything from writing a letter to sophisticated desk top publishing. But what the company was perhaps best known for was their superior customer support. With a 24-hour number staffed by amazingly knowledgeable experts willing to stay on the phone for as long as was needed (or call back if required), the WordPerfect help line was a legendary piece of value-added marketing.

The more customers think you’re doing for them, the more loyal they’re going to be, and the more vocal they’ll be in recommending you to their friends.

Too many producers make the mistake of assuming that the public harbors a deep fascination in their business. Even when a potential customer is in the market for something that you sell, they’re not necessarily interested in the product itself; they’re interested in resolving a particular issue in their lives. The product is a means to an end. “Don’t make the mistake of believing that the consumer has a natural interest in your product or service,” advise the authors of How to Advertise. “Most strategies [of advertising] focus too much on the product, too little on the consumer. Instead of parading product attribute, talk about consumer benefits.”

But we’ve already covered much of that. The good marketer takes it a step further. Along with promoting the consumer benefits of the product, they also promote the consumer benefits of the company itself. As WordPerfect showed, great customer service can be invaluable in building and maintaining a large, loyal customer base.

In Second Life, the Virtual Kennel Club has put this into practice with lucrative results.

First of all, they truly understand what they’re selling. Although an outsider would say they’re selling dogs, VKC knows that what they’re really selling is far less tangible: companionship.

The VKC experience starts at the point of purchase. There are no “boxed” dogs with pictures on the front to show what they look like and a few rezzed examples so you can see how they move. Instead the customer arrives at a dog farm where the various breeds roam free. There the buyer has the chance to actually interact with the animals and make an informed choice. Once the choice is made, the customer buys that particular dog. He can take him into inventory, or simply walk off with the dog following, but there is no copy of that dog left behind. (Once a dog has been bought, another of that breed rezzes a few minutes later at another location on the farm.)

So right off the bat, there is a perceived connection between an individual dog and its new owner. The entire transaction is made as personal as possible.

But the added values don’t stop there. Knowing full well that Second Life residents are often faced with mysterious malfunctions of scripted objects and inventory items that sometimes softly and silently vanish away, the VKC has “veterinarians” standing by to help. If your dog disappears you merely go to one of the scripted vets, say the name of your dog and he’ll rez beside you complete with all the tricks and behaviors he’s learned under your care. If there’s a problem the scripted vet can’t help with, there’s always the VKC group whose members seem dedicated to helping out fellow dog owners.

“But wait,” as the old commercials used to say, “there’s more.” The VKC also holds regular training classes and competitions where owners can come to watch, learn, and show off the often complex tricks they’ve taught their dogs.

Simply put, the VKC has built their product into a brand. And a very successful brand in terms of in-world companies. When we talk about branding, this is essentially what we’re talking about: associating the product in the consumer’s mind with the value-added features.

Building a community is one of the best ways of adding value to a product. Harley Davidson owners haven’t just bought a motorcycle, they’ve bought a membership to a world-wide club. Linux users form a large family with shared interests and goals. VKC dog owners consult with each other on how to get their dog to sit in the car so they can go for drives.

Adding value like this takes work, but in many ways it’s an easier and cheaper way of marketing than simple advertisements. And while not every product lends itself to being the centre of a community, there is always a way to help add value.

You sell: fashion. You offer: a small studio where customers can take pictures of themselves wearing your clothes against a backdrop of exotic locales. If your products are of a particular style, such as Egyptian or steam punk, the backdrops can reflect this.

You sell: business equipment for in-world enterprise. You offer: free or cheap conference rooms which customers can use for meetings and presentations.

You sell: gifts and greeting cards: You offer: an automated procedure which will send customers a reminder for their friends and lovers’ rez days, birthdays, anniversaries and so on.

No matter what you sell, adding value to it will help you sell it. And selling it, all the experts agree, is the key to making money.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Don't promote your product

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the July 29, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Ad Nauseam

Advertising is a blend of two entirely different motivations.

The first is that of the people who make the product — the producers. Their motivation is simple: buy my product because I have rent due, mortgages to keep up, alimony payments in arrears, gambling debts to take care of, and hospital bills to cover if the gambling debts don’t get taken care of.

As you can tell, while producers have fairly basic needs (more money), many of them lead very complicated lives.

The second is the motivation of the people for whom the advertising is intended — the prospects. While the producers want one thing (money), the prospects want many, many things. And these things are seldom the products being offered by the producers. They want security, an ego-boost, romance, escape, power, a feeling of superiority, excitement, relaxation, and the knowledge that they are clever, capable, and able to leap over tall decisions with a single bound. Meanwhile, the producers are trying to sell them cars, refrigerators and coffee.

When advertising is fuelled by the producer’s motivation, its sole aim is to promote the product. “Buy this!” it shouts. “Buy now while supplies last!” “This is the best X in the world!” (or in our case, in Second Life). In a way, the naked appeal for money is touchingly innocent. To the producer, the money in a prospect’s pockets is self-evidently disposable since it isn’t doing anything really important — helping to pay the producer’s rent, mortgage, alimony payments, gambling debts, and hospital bills. It’s like a child who can’t understand why his parents would rather use their money for roof repairs than buying him a new Transformer toy.

The problem with promoting the product is that it offers nothing of interest to the prospect, who (heartless, indifferent person that he is) really doesn't give a damn about the producer’s personal problems.

For example, let’s look at coffee drinkers: specifically the young-to-middle-aged woman who, while reasonably content with her life, still harbours barely-recognized urges for something more exciting. She may be a house wife or an office worker, but when it comes to coffee, all she really wants is something hot and mildly stimulating to drink while she takes a break and escapes into the plot of her latest romance novel. Such a woman is remarkably resistant to the simple plea: “Buy my brand of coffee!”

But what if we make the coffee part of a romantic plot?

Between 1987 and 1993, the advertising agency of McCann-Erickson did exactly that with Nescafe’s Gold Blend instant coffee. Their television campaign, which aired over several years, told the story of a man and woman (Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan) who meet and romance each other over cups of coffee.

Corny? Yes. Effective? Definitely. Not only did the commercials result in an almost instant 10% increase of sales, they also inspired a novel, Love Over Gold, which became a best-seller.

McCann-Erickson identified a large demographic of coffee drinkers and then, instead of telling them, “Buy this coffee,” presented them with a well-crafted romantic story: a story that just happened to revolve around a particular brand of coffee. They weren’t selling Gold Blend; they were selling excitement and romance.

Of course it’s nice when we can combine the appeal to a prospect’s need or desire with clever creative work. But the appeal alone can be extremely powerful. Half a century ago Victor Schwab gathered together 100 of what he considered to be the most effective ad headlines. Here are a few of them:

“A little mistake that cost a farmer $3,000 a year”

“How a new discovery made a plain girl beautiful”

“When doctors ‘feel rotten,’ this is what they do”

“Five familiar skin troubles — which do you want to overcome?”

Certainly these ads don’t suffer from an excess of creativity, although David Ogilvy once said, “If it doesn't sell, it’s not creative.” The point is — they worked. While many of the headlines now sound dated (“Are we a nation of lowbrows?”), and some have become so hackneyed the modern reader would likely ignore them (“New shampoo leaves your hair smoother — easier to manage”), at the time, and for many years after, they hooked readers with their specific appeals to common needs. And even now, aren’t you a little bit curious about the “little mistake” that cost the farmer $3,000 a year, or what doctors do when they “feel rotten”?

Don’t promote the product. Identify what the product can do for the prospect and then promote the hell out of that. To return to Ogilvy: “When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire.” Who in their right minds would pay out good money for a fire extinguisher? The answer, of course, is anyone who associates it with security against a fire.

Take some time to figure out what your product can do for people. And not just “people,” but specific types of people. The Gold Bond coffee commercials were targeting a specific demographic. Had they been targeting a different demographic, say men between the ages of 18-24, they would have used a far different approach. What the advertising agency did was identify a need, and then position the coffee as a promise to fulfill that need.

Al Ries, the marketing wizard who was instrumental in introducing the concept of “positioning,” puts it another way. “Marketing doesn't deal with products,” he says. “Marketing deals with perceptions.”

What perceptions can your product match? What desire or need can it fulfill? When Black & Decker stopped trying to market power drills and started selling quarter inch holes, their sales soared. Lexus doesn't sell cars, they sell luxury. Coke doesn't sell pop, it sells tradition.

If you promote the promise, the product will make you money. If you promote the product, the money will be little more than a promise.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Second Life's not-so-secret treasure

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the July 22, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Ad Nauseam

Second Life’s not-so-secret treasure

Try to imagine the scene. It’s 1922. November 26. But there’s no winter chill in the air: with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the very idea of winter seems little more than a hallucination brought on by heat-induced delirium. We’re in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, a spot once favored for the burial of ancient pharaohs — until the pharaohs realized it was also favored by grave robbers and moved their treasure-filled tombs to more anonymous locations.

Although most Egyptologists are convinced the Valley of the Kings has been mined-out, Howard Carter is certain that a little-known king, Tutankhamen, is buried here. Following years of searching, he now stands before the doorway of a previously undiscovered tomb. With his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, standing beside him, he breaks open a small hole in the upper left corner and holds up a candle to test for noxious gasses. When the candle remains burning, showing that whatever else may lie within, the air at least has oxygen, he inserts the candle and looks inside.

“At first I could see nothing,” he later says, “but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold — everywhere the glint of gold.” For a while Carter doesn’t move, still trying to come to grips with the objects before him, objects which are not only shrouded in darkness, but which appear to be jumbled together with no regard for order. Finally Carnarvon, unnerved by Carter’s continuing silence, asks, “”Can you see anything?” Carter replies with one of the most famous lines in archaeological history: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Marketers have been searching for the treasure rumored to exist within Second Life for many years now, and still there are precious few who have peered within and, when asked if they can see anything, respond by saying, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Other virtual worlds appear capable of triggering this response. Certainly there is little difficulty in making out the wonderful things available in Habbo Hotel, Penguin Island, and the myriad other promotional treasure troves. So what makes Second Life such an enigma?

With apologies to Bill Clinton: “It’s the age group, stupid!”

Although virtual worlds are touted as being the playground of the young, Second Life stands out as one of the important exceptions. The “tweenies,” so profitable to the branding efforts in places like Penguin Island, are non-existent in Second Life. Anyone under 18 is relegated to a separate part of the grid. Furthermore, they make up a meagre 1% of the entire avatar count which in turn accounts for only .0.41% of the in world hours. So not only are they barely existent in Second Life, they are isolated and spend less time in world than any other demographic.

But what of that other sweet-spot demographic, the 18-24 year olds? The bad news is they make up a mere 23% of the avatars. The worse news is that they only account for 15% of the in world hours, a figure easily surpassed by those over 45 who make up 20%.

All in all, 75% of the avatars and 83% of the in world hours come from those between the ages of 25 and 90. In fact, those above 35 make up almost 50% of the time spent in world. Second Life, by and large, isn’t a playground for the young. But you’d hardly know it from the marketing forays.

Everyone from American Apparel to Much Music has made a bid for the youth flocking to Second Life without seeming to notice that it’s not youth who are doing the flocking.

And even when they do try targeting the more mature end of the population, the advertising companies generally muck it up. Is this because they’re still trying to come to grips with the vagaries of virtual worlds? Partly, but the fact is they’re screwing it up pretty badly in the real world too.

Chuck Nyren, an advertising consultant, makes some pretty compelling arguments that despite representing the largest disposable income of any group, those over 40 are poorly served by advertising. “advertising agencies are pretty much run by kids in their 20s and early 30s" he says in Advertising to Baby Boomers. Since “the general rule of thumb is that the best advertising is written to sell to yourself,” this means that “the wrong people are doing it” for the market.

Those of us who fall into the age bracket of 35 and older can understand what he’s talking about. Not long ago a Canadian bank created a number of TV spots designed to promote the idea that they were adapting to new demands from their older customers. “Can a bank change?” asked the ads, accompanied by different people holding up hand-made signs, an obvious reference to the Bob Dylan video, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This was accompanied by an instrumental version of Dylan’s anthem, “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

The creative was undoubtedly the inspiration of some under-30 who wanted to bring the idea of a changing bank to an aging population grown resentful towards banking policies increasingly detrimental to non-corporate clients. The Dylan tune, “The Times, They Are A’Changin’,” seemed an obvious way to bring the message home. Of course, those of us actually familiar not only with the essential message of the original song, but also with its lyrics couldn’t help but feel the spots were revealing more truth than the agency had intended. The line, “You’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone,” seemed all too appropriate to the attitude banks had been displaying over the past couple of decades.

But it’s not just misapplied pop songs which expose an ad industry flailing in the dark when trying to reach its most lucrative market. The ads themselves show not only a complete lack of understanding of their target prospects, but with their frequent (to the point of ubiquitous) portrayal of adults as inept, bungling fools, they reveal a remarkable disdain toward them.

When you couple this broad, industry-wide incompetence with the uncertainties inherent in coping with the emerging markets of virtual worlds, the result is a hodgepodge of misinformed and disorganized advertising efforts that please no one.

There are treasures of enormous value to be mined from Second Life, but while those peering inside are trying to adjust to the unfamiliar light, they should bear in mind that like those discovered in King Tut’s tomb, these treasures have been around for a long time.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Second Life circa 4 BC

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the July 15, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Ad nauseam

Second Life circa 4 BC

“If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

I always understood Judas’ complaint in Jesus Christ: Superstar. If you’re going to promote a message concerning the afterlife of the human race, a message that determines whether they’ll spend eternity in a burning pit or a flower-scented paradise, why not do so at a time that it could reach the largest number of people? Why not do it in the 20th century when mass media really came into its own?

Mass media is a powerful tool, and sometimes a powerful weapon — although not nearly as powerful a weapon as cynics like to believe (there are too many voices involved for any one influence to make them all sing the same tune).

There has always been some form of mass media. Churches, visited by virtually the entire population, had the ability to pass along certain messages both religious and social. The printing press enabled ideas to spread to an entire population — or at least to the literate among them. But in the 20th century the pace picked up exponentially. New forms of communication came into being. Radio and television broadcasts could be retransmitted across an entire continent. When Jerry Seinfeld says, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the phrase and its context become so widely known that it can now stand in as a handy and humorous reference to homosexuality. Even old-fashioned media take on new life with technology. A good example is the roadside sign.

In the early part of the 20th century the car increased in popularity. This meant that simple signs, little different from the one discovered in ancient Pompeii, acquired the potential of being seen by many thousands of people, thereby propelling a completely stationary medium to the edges of mass media. The Burma-Shave poems, each line of which was posted at appropriate distances along the highway, proved to be one of the most successful roadside campaigns of the pre-World War II period.

On curves ahead

Remember, sonny

That rabbit's foot

Didn't save

The bunny


Following WWII, however, gasoline prices dropped dramatically and industries previously dedicated to the war effort began turning out affordable automobiles. An entire generation of young adults grew accustomed to the idea of action and travel. As a result, America transformed into a nation of mass mobility. That scenic two-lane highway, winding its way through the countryside, was no longer adequate. Furthermore, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the nation’s head, the two-lane highway was a death trap in the event of a civic evacuation.

In 1956, to meet both domestic and military demands, Congress gave its approval for the National Defense and Interstate Highway Act by which 42,000 miles of new four-lane highway would be built across the country.

These new highways brought about a drastic change in roadside advertising practices. Due to increased speed, and wider roadways, the small, personable signs such as the Burma-Shave ads, were no longer viable. To catch the attention of the new motorist, ads had to increase significantly in size, thereby giving birth to the billboard.

Judas recognized that the modern world afforded countless new methods of spreading a message which would be seen or heard by a vast majority of the country’s population. As he so accurately noted, “If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.”

Just like Jerry Seinfeld.

Of the modern world, however, the most modern aspect is the virtual world. If we’re impressed by the modern marvels of mass transportation, how much more impressive is teleportation? In a world in which an entire building can be erected in an afternoon by someone sitting at home in his pyjamas and slippers, the modernity of the world outside pales in comparison.

Yet there is a paradox in this: for all its cutting-edge, George-Jetson characteristics, Second Life has no mass media.

There is no medium in Second Life which is seen, heard or read by virtually the entire population. This, naturally, has an enormous effect on advertising. It’s the reason so many experts have written off the platform as having no significant marketing potential. It’s also the reason why so much of the advertising that’s done in world is done so badly.

But if that’s bad news, there’s worse to come: Second Life is unlikely to ever have mass media.

Mass media comes with its own internal contradiction. Despite its appeal to a major portion of the population, mass media is most often experienced in isolation. "Television is like the invention of indoor plumbing,” said Alfred Hitchcock. “It didn't change people's habits. It just kept them inside the house."

We watch television on our own or in small domestic groups. We read newspapers either at the dinner table or sitting alone in coffee shops. Many offices have a radio going, but the number of listeners in any given group averages no more than a dozen. Our mass media reaches us most when we are least engaged in activity.

Second Life, on the other hand, is a world of activity. Seldom do people come in world to sit at a virtual table and read a newspaper, or settle back in a virtual armchair and watch TV. We come in world to socialize, to build, to create, and yes, to have sex. Nowhere in all this activity is there room for a particular medium to gain mass appeal.

Whether this means that Second Life, as the nay-sayers have pronounced, is useless for marketing, or whether it will ultimately give rise to a new form is yet to be determined. But the stakes are high and not just for us.

The fact is that what has happened to mass media in Second Life is rapidly happening in the real world, if for far different reasons. As media becomes more fragmented in its demographics, its power as a mass communication is weakened. It’s entirely possible that more young people between the ages of 14 to 20 have seen the YouTube video of Star Wars Kid than have watched a single episode of the OC.

What we do in Second Life, and the solutions we find to this problem of patchwork media, will give help pave the way in the real world to new methodologies in marketing and advertising.


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