Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The possibilities and pitfalls of website personalization.

"Advertising is, actually, a simple phenomenon in terms of economics. It is merely a substitute for a personal sales force--an extension, if you will, of the merchant who cries aloud his wares." 
~Rosser Reeves

In the B2B digital world I inhabit, online personalization has reached the "we must" phase. Clients are saying we must deliver personalized site experiences based on past purchases. We must create mobile experiences pivoting on location. We must offer messaging and content that speaks to each visitor's industry, even to the specific company. We must speak to specific technology needs at just right technical level.  In short, if you want our work, agency people, you must deliver brilliant and effective alljustforyou.com and #moreyourwaythanburgerking customer experiences.

Of course, personalization is nothing new in marketing. Just about anyone who's worked in the industry for over a decade has done a "personalized" direct mail campaign. Yes, I've been at it longer than a decade, so yes, I did plenty of "Dear <name>"work. The targeting based on certain factors--where the potential customers lived, what kind of car they drove, the number of pets they had--seemed to have potential. But there was nothing personal about the personalization. It was your name, maybe in an interesting font if you were lucky.

However, in the land of digital, marketing can be far more personalized than just a name shoved into a salutation. Some would say scarily so. Location, past purchases, previous browsing--these are merely the basics. Mash up the long trail of data that is you with some freakishly specific third-party data and what do you get? You get Rosser Reeves' "substitute for a personal sales force." But instead of merely crying aloud his wares, he's coming to the screen nearest you, informed about what makes you tick.


Of course you've seen the Minority Report world of advertising. Of course that'll be possible someday, probably not that far in the future. But let's talk about what's possible right now, with an eye towards what's most applicable to B2B.

Possibility 01: Convenience and usefulness
An airline site that remembers my home airport, a rewards app that proactively lets me know I have enough points for a suite in my favorite city, and a retail clothing site that has a sense of my aesthetics. These might seem basic, but that's their brilliance. At its best, digital personalization often equals life simplification.

Possibility 02: Understanding
If you know I'm a hardcore tech-head, get me to the gory details quick. And speak my language fluently, with none of that annoying neophyte baby talk. Psychological studies have shown mimicking to be a powerful bonding tool, and has even been shown to increase tips. So nothing like delivering micro-targeted content to bond with a customer.


Yet not all's right in the land of "right content for you, right when you need it." Just because I know a few things about you doesn't mean I can sway you. Otherwise, successful dating would merely require intensive data gathering. Here are a couple ways we might come short with personalization.

Pitfall 01: When did I become a stereotype?
Hey, just because someone's in construction doesn't mean he's a hardhat-wearing, country-listening hammer swinger. What if he's the CFO of Bechtel? More likely a data-driven, Rolex-wearing shareholder meeting leader. It's easy to default to stereotypes, and it's easy to get burned by them.

Pitfall 02: Where did all the surprise go?
Call this the Steve Jobs "a lot of times customers don't know what they want until you show it to them" principle. With personalization, you can end up winnowing out the unexpected that resonates, delights, and surprises. And how do you find the unexpected? Well, that's where marketing requires moving beyond connect the dots.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ai Wei Wei and the art of choosing.

So is the photograph of acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei dropping a Han Dynasty vase art? I'd argue not really. As a photograph, it rises to the level of interesting, but to give it the crown of capital-A Art seems questionable. But don't get me wrong. I think it captures something brilliant and deeply artistic: the art of choosing.

When Ai dropped that vase, it was his unlikely and bold choice that was art. Eyes resolutely on camera, there's no doubt in his choice. Instead it is all defiant commitment in the face of anyone who'd question breaking something that seemed almost timeless.

I just happened to watch a documentary on Ai the other day, and at one point one of his many artists said that he was merely following directions, that he was just the hands awaiting guidance. And sure enough, Ai himself said that he really just made decisions. Others would execute the statues, the stadiums, the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds.

Just so happens I'm also reading "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works," by former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and University of Toronto B-School Dean Roger L. Martin. In it, they say "strategy is choice." That simple. And that hard.

If I drop a water balloon, there's nothing interesting about that choice. It's the same as the million other dropped water balloons. But despite its expectedness, I have made a choice--one that's roughly a million times less provocative and infinitely more forgettable than Ai's.

When we make choices in business, why do we expect the obvious ones will somehow work out for us? Why are we surprised when they have no impact on the market, why they sway so few customers? Of course going for pure shock value doesn't work, either. Dropping a baby would capture our attention, but repulse us entirely. Ai's choice with the vase is provocative, relevant, and executed with conviction--which, to my thinking, is the perfect combination.

It's also the epitome of the art of choosing.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Overcoming inertia: the key to Tesla changing the world.

I had dinner with my father-in-law a couple nights ago. He’s an old-school businessman, so no surprise our conversation turned to a common theme: business today versus back in the day. Somehow that conversation veered to a grandchild who goes against the grain. I could tell my father-in-law sees the kid’s quirkiness as a flaw, but I think it’s potential for creative new ideas—which, from my perspective, makes him a perfect candidate for business.

To avoid conflict, we started talking cars. Safe territory, right? Wrong. I said I’d love to buy a Tesla. He balked at the idea of electric cars in general.  So I looped back to business, emphasizing how critical innovation is in every industry these days, and Tesla is as innovative as they come.

I told him that Elon Musk is a fascinating leader—a powerful intellect, brave to the bone, full of monumental tenacity. And with the Model S, he’s getting crazy positive reviews. Tesla has thousands of Model S pre-orders and hundreds of free supercharger stations on the way. On top of all that, the company is targeted to have great margins with American-made vehicles.

My argument had zero traction with him. He still thought EVs were idiotic and doomed to failure. I just hope the world proves him wrong.


The world establishes norms to function—cultural, legal, technological. Changing these norms can be a challenge, even when there are clear benefits to doing so. Yes, we shifted from Walkmans to iPods, but only after it became clear iTunes had the music we wanted. We had mp3 players already, but technology wasn’t enough to create a shift in norms. Great songs were. Then the change was easy: throw away the bulky old device, buy the silvery new one and download away.  In other words, and to bastardize basic physics, something had to push us to overcome inertia.

A similar shift has to happen in order for Tesla to succeed. Right now there's lots of resistance, from a clear lack of charging stations to a vague sense that all things green require sacrifice. And as Elon Musk has said, even government regulations are aligned against new thinking on a car. My father-in-law would certainly agree with Musk's frustration with rules against everything from headlight color alterations to mirror redesigns--even if he'd wonder why anyone would want to noodle with something that works just fine..

But one by one, Tesla is knocking down that resistance. Who can resist free rapid charging? Who wouldn't want  0-60 in 4.1 seconds? Who wouldn't want an American car that far exceeds the quality and innovation of any car in the world? 

Not me. I'd be happy to have a Model S in my garage.

Monday, February 4, 2013

9 & 3/4 thinking: Oreos dunking in the dark.

Like a good ad guy, I watched this year's Super Bowl. But if I'm going to remain a good ad guy, next year I'll probably be working the Super Bowl shift. The best ad at the Super Bowl wasn't on television. It was on the Oreo cookie twitter feed. It aired (so to speak) during the game--but more to the point, it was concepted, approved, and executed during it as well. 

Lights go out, tweet goes live. Bam. Retweets like crazy, trackable brand lift in minutes.

Advertising has always been about immediate gratification and cultural relevancy. And as a result, agency folks are used to facing unreasonable deadlines. There's a tired repartee that's been around forever that goes something like this:

Creative: When is this due? 
Account: I got it moved out, thank you very much. Client wanted it yesterday, but I got them to push it out to right now.

After the Oreo tweet, this will no longer be a joke. It's going to be an expectation. Not to sound like a Zen koan, but relevance is this very second. Anything older than that has already been talked about ad nauseum. 

But hey, I'm already a day late with this post, so it's dusty old news. First thing this morning, Forbes had already posted a breakdown of how the tweet was created.

Friday, January 25, 2013

NetFlix does long-term strategy proud.

Remember back a few years ago when it seemed so smart for NetFlix to proactively shed its mail-order DVD legacy and focus on the wide-open possibilities of streaming media? No? People in the know said Reed Hastings was a bold, visionary genius--for about a week.

But then customers began complaining about paying extra for their beloved DVDs, which quickly blossomed into an online rant-fest. Customers left, prompting even more to leave. Industry folks then ran with the negativity--apologies were suddenly insincere, offerings lame, content negotiations doomed, company vision foolish.  Quickster seemed as smart as New Coke, and the only thing plummeting as fast as the company stock was Hastings' decision-making cred.

But Hastings had his day yesterday. Subscribers are up beyond even the rosiest projections, and so is the stock price. And suddenly the focus on streaming seem seems smart again, and so does Hastings.

Who could ever doubt he's smart? I've read some awfully damning opinion pieces on Hastings, and no doubt he can be a trip. But few CEOs can traverse topics as diverse as cloud technology and the entertainment industry--and I know of none who do it so well.

More importantly, his bold, forward-looking strategic decision from years ago appears brilliant once again. In this rapid-fire environment, years can seem like an eternity. But it isn't. And in my mind, that's a primary reason why strategy matters.

Netflix isn't alone in its commitment to longterm strategy. It's how Amazon has successfully moved from book seller to everything seller. They find new angles and commit to them. It doesn't always work out--Mechanical Turk anyone?--but often does. Amazon Web Services, for example, dominates the cloud market because they committed to it long before most had even heard of it.

In a damning Hastings article in Vanity Fair about 11 months ago, an investor said: "Last year, you couldn’t take a step without people asking about Netflix. This year, everyone is here for the funeral.” In 2013, I assume everyone will be there for the resurrection.

It takes courage to commit to true strategy instead of short-term tactics misnamed "strategy." But the payoff can be a business that thrives over time. Here's a quote from a Fortune Magazine interview with Hastings:
Our intention is to get Watch Now service to every Internet-connected screen, from cellphones to laptops to Wi-Fi-enabled plasma screens. We want to make it available everywhere over the next several years.
The date of that interview? May, 2007.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

B2B marketing: a struggle between emotion and rational thought

"People who work in businesses are humans first." I've heard a variation on this theme at least a hundred times over my career. Of course creatives say this; they nearly always aim for emotional connection--mostly because they think it works, but also because emotion-filled creative work is more fun to do than B2B fact-fests. More surprising are the number of cautious-by-nature clients and account folks who've said pretty much the same thing.

Supposedly there's even quantitative research backing emotional B2B marketing, according to a white paper from B2B marketing agency Upshot. Their SVP of planning, Lionel Knight, says this about it:
"[Emotion] absolutely has an impact on [potential B2B customer] reactions to marketing messages. B2B marketers should work to inspire their audience with creativity, be it a conference event, a website, a sales presentation or advertising.” 
I swear I gave that spiel verbatim as a CD.

So then, why isn't there more emotion-based B2B advertising? First of all, I think it's hard to do, and even harder to do well. Emotional ties to something like infrastructure as a service aren't exactly self-evident. And you can only turn so many times to tear-jerker stories about a B2B product helping terminal patients or disadvantaged elementary students before sentimentality fails. Same with humor. There's a fine line between quirky and dorky.

Another reason to approach emotion with care: miss the mark with emotion and sentimentality and dorky could be the least of your problems. Being fake is nearly unforgivable for many business and technology folks. And fake happens when ads are done by agency teams who don't understand the technology they're selling--but who are dedicated to bringing emotion into the work.

And let's not forget the importance of rational thought. Yes, we humans are emotional, knee-jerk creatures. To use Jonathan Haight's excellent metaphor, the subconscious is the elephant part of the brain, going wherever fear, excitement, or lust directs it. But there's also the elephant rider, the tempered conscious brain that can, at times, take control of the situation and make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions. And if a company is buying a multimillion dollar technology solution, chances are good that someone is making a good-faith effort to be a skilled elephant jockey.

It's a matter of leveraging emotion and reason, at the right times and in the right balance. Even Aristotle knew to hit both pathos and logos. A few examples of companies that know how to achieve the right mix:


I loved DraftFCB's "the human element" campaign. Even its tagline does the pathos/logos dance. And their "solutionism" work continues this blend, albeit with more emphasis on logos.  It's not as brilliant as human element, but still very good at speaking to both the emotional and rational.


Accenture's "high performance delivered" campaign uses text to deliver logos, imagery to serve up pathos. Although I will say that, in reality, phrases like "$7 billion in annual sales" are really emotional ploys dressed up as hard business numbers.


My obvious choice. I've loved the mix of smart and humane that they and Ogilvy have sustained for nearly two decades. Just go to their website. Or watch their 100th anniversary video. Stunning.