Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blog has moved!

I've officially moved my blog to this address:

Actually it's been there for about a year, but recently I switched blogging platforms from Blogger to Squarespaces, so if you're seeing this message you're being left behind!

If you're subscribed to the emails or the RSS feed, you don't have to do anything.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Agile Marketing: The Movie

I can't believe I started by saying "OK, people."  Talk about your crappy opener.  But with six minutes and thirty-eight seconds remaining, I had to press on.  And plus Alexis had just brought down the house.

Let me back up.  In April I had inadvertently coined the term "Agile Marketing" in an interview.  It means applying certain principles of agile development to the world of marketing and advertising, and it's a nice metaphor for how we approach marketing at Smart Bear and something I'll be writing about more in future.

A few months later I was selected to do a pecha kucha at the Business of Software conference (run by Joel Spolsky & Neil Davidson).  A "pecha kucha" is a rigidly-timed presentation with twenty slides, twenty seconds per slide.  It's a fun format that encourages brevity, sparse slides, and focus -- attributes you've wished upon many presentations.  So now you can see the fun: business and geekery in a single six-minute-forty-second package!

The day of the conference I learned I was presenting second, behind Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit.  And his presentation was really great.  Not great in the sense that I was inspired, or learned something, or came away with a new idea; it had none of that, it was satirical.  But it was hilarious.  This was a bad thing.

Bad?  Oh I forgot to tell you.  See, this was a competition.  The conference attendees would vote for their favorite pecha kucha presentation.  Now I know, life isn't a competition; my value as a person on planet Earth isn't established by whether people vote for some presentation at some conference.

Except that, yeah, it kinda is.

So before I started my talk I tried to reset the mood with an old improv comedy crowd warm-up routine where you get everyone all excited and clapping and then make a dramatic sweeping motion to silence the house immediately.  It's a weird effect because you don't utter a word or explain what you expect them to do beforehand; the weird part is that it works every time.

So here it is.  (And please forgive that "OK people."  Sheesh!)

P.S. If you like talking about the stuff in the video, run over to the Business of Software networking and forums website and get involved.  This isn't just another pile of threaded conversations; it's real software entrepreneurs talking shop.

P.P.S. If you're wondering about the panda peeking over the PIP at time index 2:40, here's your answer.  And poor Eric I referenced at 3:57 is Eric Sink.

P.P.P.S.  Alexis won.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The leading provider of meaningless marketing solutions

Why do so many marketing departments strive for ambiguity and meaninglessness?

Witness, for example, this gem of a company description.  As Dave Barry would say, I'm not making this up:
Omniture, Inc. is a leading provider of online business optimization software, enabling customers to manage and enhance online, offline and multi-channel business initiatives. 
Huh?  Turns out they do web analytics.  Oh.  They could have just said so and spent the rest of their words telling you how they're different from other web analytics companies.  

What's the purpose of this language?  Does the phrase "a leading provider of" mean anything to you?  When you read it, do you whisper under your breath:
Awesome, I found the leader!  They lead the other providers around like cattle.  Well, they are a leading provider, not the leading provider, but still, one of the leaders!  I'm impressed.
Nah.  At best you gloss over it -- an overused phrase, devoid of meaning.  At worst you lose interest and click the "Back" button.

Perhaps the worst offender is the word "Solution."  What is a "solution," and how does it differ from, say, a product?  The main menu of many web sites makes me choose between "Products" and "Solutions."  How oh how do I choose?

My favorite example is AT Systems.  Their proud motto:

Now that you know the company name and their motto, here comes the question: What do they do?  After you guess, have a laugh; go here for the answer.

So back to the question: Why do marketing departments churn out meaningless phrases?

Possible Reason #1: Fear.  Generic, widely-used phrases don't offend.  They avoid lawsuits; it's hard to sue over meaningless words.  This excuse might work at Big Company Inc, but in a startup you can't afford to be bland and wishy-washy.

Possible Reason #2: Laziness.  Saying "A leading provider of business solutions" is a lot easier than taking the time and effort to nail your message.  It's hard!  You have to know your customer, boil your company down to its essentials, and be succinct and evocative.  It's easier not to.

Possible Reason #3: Incompetence.  What if you don't actually know what sets your product apart?  What if you can't articulate the niche your company owns?  What if you can't describe your perfect customer?  Then you have to resort to generic phrases.

None of these excuses are valid for small companies.  If you can't articulate your product in a few, choice, specific, words, your potential customers won't get it either.  You have to do the work yourself because you don't have TV ads and 300 sales reps to pick up the slack.

I'll leave you with a tragic example of what not to do.  See if you can guess what this company does:
webMethods (Nasdaq: WEBM) provides business integration software to integrate, assemble and optimize available IT assets to drive business process productivity. webMethods delivers an innovative, enterprise-class business integration platform that incorporates proven integration technology with next generation capabilities into one interoperable set of tools that delivers a unique combination of efficiency, agility and control. webMethods combines industry leadership with a zealous commitment to customers to deliver tangible business value.
Take a scalpal to your marketing content.  Make every word count.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Five ways to listen to customers instead of goin' fishin'

Lots of small business bloggers tell you to listen to the customer and build accordingly. But some people take it too far.

I recently had an experience with just such a company. They had finished their product demo and I was wrapping with a few standard questions.

Me: What's on your roadmap?
CTO: We're going to listen to what you need.
Notice how it evades the question, like a politician. He might as well have said, "The future is whatever you think it should be." Perhaps he's trying to demonstrate receptiveness to feature requests, but it's a non-answer.

Follow-up questions failed to uncover a roadmap. Maybe because they don't have enough customers to know where to go? The next snippet provides more evidence for this theory:
Me: Do you have any questions for us?
CTO: Yes. What is your biggest business problem that you would like someone to solve?
Fishing for ideas? Are you asking me to define your next product for you?

This isn't "listening to customers," this is a rudderless ship. Having clear goals and confidence is compatible with customer-guided development. What you should be doing is active listening:
  1. When a suggestion appears, notice and write it down. Restate it in your own words and repeat it back to ensure you understood correctly.

  2. Dig into feature requests until you find the root pain point. This means back-and-forth communication so do this on the phone or in person, not email. Often there are ten ways to address a problem and you have other customers and a product architecture to consider.

  3. Ask them to order their suggestions by importance. Often a list of twenty suggestions yields only two deal-breakers. No priority levels are allowed, just an ordering; otherwise you end up with seven "Priority 1" line items.

  4. If you can't (or won't!) implement something, admit it. Explain why so the customer understands you're being pragmatic and forthright, not dismissive.

  5. Collect feedback proactively. Most people won't send an email to support with a feature request; they've been conditioned by most companies that such things go unnoticed. One way we've started doing this recently (with much success) is through a Uservoice page.
Notice in all cases you're simultaneously engaging the customer and honing the suggestions. Engaging means the customer feels like you're genuinely listening and giving thoughtful consideration. Honing means you'll leave with concrete things to consider.

Even admitting something is impossible is constructive because then when you do accept a suggestion they know you mean to implement it. You're displaying honesty and setting up reasonable expectations. People know all twenty of their ideas can't be done; they'll appreciate honest rejection.

Companies that listen are both rare and beloved. Listen, don't fish.

If you have more ideas for active listening or dealing with feature requests, please leave a comment for others to enjoy!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting early: What if there were no election day?

In Texas we have early voting. For two weeks leading up to the election, you can vote by mail or in person. In Austin, where I live, you can vote in any of 26 locations, open twelve hours a day including Saturday and six hours on Sunday.

I went on a Tuesday morning.  It took me less than ten minutes to vote.

Of course now all you hear about is election day chaos with long lines, machines breaking down with no paper-based back-up, and voters on the west coast influenced by election returns from the east coast.

What would happen if there were no election day, just early voting?
  1. Voters wouldn't be affected by state returns, time zone differences, and the news networks "calling the race for whomever" every ten minutes.
  2. Lines would be shorter because polling locations are open for many days instead of one.  Shorter lines means more people actually vote.
  3. The quasi-laws requiring employers to allow employees time off to vote could extend to the extended voting period, causing less disruption as people take off different days and times rather than all at once.
  4. The time pressure to report results vanishes.  You have at least the two weeks to accumulate numbers, plus some pre-determined number of days after that.  Now you can recount close races and double-check numbers without the time pressure and scrutiny of Wolf Blitzer and the Fantastic 12.
  5. Some swing states in this election aren't used to high voter turnout (Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania) and are anticipating problems with insufficient number of voting booths, long lines, and not enough back-up ballots in case a machine fails.  With the voting spread out over more time, it's easier for each location to have enough back-up paper.  You could even extend the number of voting days if you needed to.
I suppose you lose the suspense and drama of voting day results reporting, but it seems like democracy would be better served.

What do you think?  Leave a comment.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Love the messenger

I'd had Korean food before, but as this was my first trip to Korea House I wanted something different, something authentic, maybe even adventurous. Friday lunch at Smart Bear is usually interesting.

PJ recommended the bibimbap, a bowl of rice covered in Korean namul with beef and an egg. Perfect, but when our waiter got around to Hannah -- herself Korean -- she ordered the dolsot bibimbap. Ooo, it's a sign! So when it was my turn I asked the waiter the obvious question: "What's the difference between bibimbap and dolsot bibimbap?"

His answer: "Dolsot bibimbap better."

That's it! Better. Well of course I ordered the dolsot, and it was fantastic. Turns out "dolsot" means "stone pot." The dish is served in a hot stone or ceramic pot hot enough to sizzle and cook anything that touches the sides. The rice gets crispy, the egg cooks, and the veggies and meat stay extra hot.

At this point, my long-time readers will expect me to make some point about how marketing messages need to be more specific than "it's better," how differentiation always trumps ambiguity, and how every phrase should be meaningful. But actually, his response was perfect.

It was perfect because it wasn't in an ad, wasn't in a datasheet, wasn't part of a 30-second elevator pitch mechanically regurgitated on a tradeshow floor. It was from an old Korean guy who works his ass off at Korea House, possibly seven days a week, probably related to the owner. He barely knows enough English to parse my question -- certainly not enough to articulate the answer -- but he did his best to push me to the right choice, the one that was $1 more and 2x better.

It's the messenger, not the message, that makes the experience wonderful.

So yes, on websites you do need to be specific because websites aren't relationships; they're attention-getters and information-distributers. But as soon as the human relationship begins -- whether by sales pitch or tech support or tradeshow booth -- the most important thing is to be genuine in your passion, knowledge, and desire to make your customers successful.