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Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

Facebook’s Next Business Model

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 16, 2012

Chillin with my PeepsVC Chris Dixon muses in a recent post that Facebook has yet to uncover a business model that will support its IPO valuation and drive future growth in that valuation.  As he puts it:

Facebook relies on an old internet business model: display ads. Display ads generally hurt the user experience, and are also not very efficient at producing revenues. Facebook makes about 1/10th of Google’s revenues even though they have 2x the pageviews. Some estimates put Google’s search revenues per pageviews at 100-200x Facebook’s.

The good news for Facebook is there is a lot of room to target ads more effectively and put ads in more places. The bad news is that, if there is one consistent theme in both online and offline advertising, it’s that ads work dramatically better when consumers have purchasing intent.

I think he’s right about the ad model.  Google has uniquely cornered the market in delivering an ad at precisely the moment the user is searching for something to buy, hence the remarks about purchasing intent.  A banner ad, on the other hand, lurks in hopes that someone with purchasing intent will happen to see it at exactly the right time and place to make a difference.  Given the odds, it’s no wonder the ads make 1/10 the revenue despite 2x the pageviews.  Unless Facebook can engage the timing and content properly to capture purchasing intent, that isn’t likely to change.

So what’s a poor Facebook to do?

Let’s get back to basics: what exactly is Facebook?  If Google, from a monetization standpoint, is the place you go to find something when you want to buy, what is the analogous elevator pitch for Facebook?  It’s pretty simple, really:

Facebook is a platform for chilling with your friends.

Doesn’t that really capture in a nutshell what people do with Facebook?  Put aside what marketers wish they were doing (yeah, we all go there to worship the sugary soft drinks that use those adorable polar bear cartoons as mascots), this is what’s really going on with Facebook.  And guess what, isn’t owning the world’s leading platform for chilling with your friends apt to be extremely valuable?  It’s got to be.  If for no other reason, look at how big a part of the economy entertainment is.  In 2010, Arts, Entertainment, Recreation, Accomodation, and Food Services amounted to 3.6% of the nation’s GDP.  That’s the platform Facebook has available to tap into.  It’s not as good as say the 5.9% that is the retail trade Amazon and Google tap into, but heck, it’s still not bad at all.  It is a sufficient market on which to base a huge business.  Look at what Apple has been able to do with music alone, for example.

The key for Facebook is to get focused with laser-like precision on how to monetize their Chillin’ Platform before the opportunity seeps away.  Eyeballs and leisure time are fickle as those old enough to remember things like pet rocks and CB radios will tell you.  Right now, Facebook is focused on advertising revenue, but they could get a lot more creative and, given all the capital they’re raising and the opportunity available to them, they should be getting very creative and testing everything under the sun.

What are some potential ways to monetize a platform for chillin’?

-  Social games are an obvious first choice.  Facebook has to relentlessly build this platform and creates as many barriers around it as possible.

-  Making Dates:  Dinner anyone?  They should own Open Table.  Movie Times?  Why am I going to Google to figure that out.  Hook me up.  Make it easy for me to plan and coordinate a date.

-  Music:  Gotta be part of any chillin’ for me.  While we’re at it, plug in media of all kinds.  If Google is gonna do hangouts, Facebook needs to up the ante in some chillin’ fool kinda way.

-  Vacation and Travel:  The ultimate chillin’ game and big bucks involved too.

-  Party Time:  Coordination, invitation, planning, decorations, photos (oops!), eats and drinks.

-  Devices:  What devices do we have around when chillin’?  What facilitates communicating the vicarious virtual thrill of chillin’?  Video, phones, cameras, yada, yada.  But what else, and how does Facebook uniquely home in on all that?

Being successful with all of this will require Facebook to think BIG.  I mean Steve Jobs kinda BIG.  They have to seriously simplify and amplify the act of chillin’ in ways that only a platform can accomplish.  If they do that.  If they can reinvent chillin’ the way Apple reinvented music and the phone, they’ll be here for a long time and folks buying in at today’s market caps will stand to make a lot of money going forward.

This is a big time innovation and UX problem: reinventing the art of chillin’ with your peeps.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy, user interface | 2 Comments »

Why I’m Dropping InstantSlideup Like a Hot Potato

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 15, 2012

This is one of those minor personal rants that come up from time to time.  What good is having a blog if you have to be all serious and to the point all the time?

I recently had tried a little piece of software called “InstantSlideup” (not gonna link to them as I don’t want to help their link authority).  It’s purpose is to offer a slide up message (can be advertising or anything you like) at the bottom of a web page.  It’s unobtrusive in the sense it doesn’t block much of anything, yet it catches the eye a little bit.  That’s my preferred method for these sorts of things.  Popups that totally stop you in your tracks really bother me, although I do understand their efficacy.

In any event, I had it up and running on my CNC Machinist’s blog and all was well.  That site is one I use both for my hobby/passion around machine tools, as well as to run a small microISV business, and just generally to test out various online marketing concepts.  InstantSlideup is in the category of “nice to have”, but not “must have”.  A must have for me would be SEOMoz (see, I gave them a link).  My experience with InstantSlideup is that while it helped a lot more people to “discover” my product home page on the site, most of the new audience weren’t interested enough to convert.  Net net I was ahead on conversions, but by a lot less than the traffic would imply–gotta analyze yer analytics carefully!

Anyway, I liked it okay, a bit expensive for what I was getting, but I decided to hang in there with it.  Until now.

I’ve been pretty successful with this site, digital marketing works and works well given the right strategies.  I’ve put together a very analytics-driven approach (call it Big Data for Small Business, if you like) and have been tuning it up for about 3 years now.  I get circa 1 million uniques a year roughly doubling every year, which is very good compared to my peers in this rather odd niche space.  Unfortunately, this also led to the undoing of InstantSlideup.  The thing is, their SaaS version (and I always prefer the lower hassle of using SaaS to installing it myself), was a one size fits all that only allows 100,000 impressions per month.  Here is the kicker:

When the 100,000 impressions runs out, they don’t just stop running your slideup ad, they start running THEIR slideup ad on YOUR site!

I couldn’t believe it when I saw this was happening.  I guess I should not have been surprised.  We live in a world where most businesses take the liberty and ask forgiveness later.  Even a casual look at all the privacy controversies we’ve seen swirling so far this year should make that clear.  Yet somehow, this just seemed beyond the pale.

There is that certain kind of marketing that’s all spam all the time.  Shoot the prospect into a landing page that has no navigation so they can’t escape.  Don’t give them too much information because Heaven forbid, they might stop to think instead of filling out that contact information.  Get on the phone and machine them into the purchase any way possible.  The darned thing is that it works.  It even works pretty well.

Seth Godin is one of my marketing heroes, and he thinks there is a better way.  Aside from the digital marketing, Seth’s approach of building a Tribe, is more what I’m after.  I think it works as well or better than the all spam all the time crowd, although it is more work.  Yet even Seth acknowledges that the all spam all the time approach often beats us down.  Well I’m feeling feisty this morning, and InstantSlideup took one too many all spam all the time liberties.  So I gave them the boot off the site and off my credit card and I’m letting folks know exactly why that happened here.

Eventually, I will stop and write the little bit of code needed to do a slideup and the site will have slideups again.  Maybe I’ll just open source that little bit of code so others can do likewise.  OTOH, this feisty feeling can only last so long and I have a lot of other things to do first.

For the record, here are some things I would have considered doing instead were I running InstantSlideup:

-  Send a message well in advance, not at midnight when the impressions ran out, reminding the user that based on history they’re within a few days of running out and tell them how to deal with it in just a few clicks.  Perhaps they’d like to just temporarily no show the slideup.

-  Tell the user they’ve exceeded the impressions but that you’re going to comp them another 10,000 impressions on a one-time basis.  Present them with the immediate opportunity to upgrade to 200K impressions for a slight additional charge.  After all, a site exceeding impressions ought to be one of your star customers.  Why not treat them as such and make them feel special?  I’d have not only paid at least 1/2 of another license for the impressions but I would have written here about this kind of treatment instead of doing the blog post I am.

-  Send the message, but just make the slideup go dark until the impressions are reset for the next month.

See how much nicer not being all spam all the time can be?  Isn’t that how you’d rather be treated by a vendor?  Shouldn’t a vendor of marketing tools, of all possible businesses, be more sensitive in these areas?

Cheers!

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

Why Adobe is Losing the Hearts and Minds of Developers

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 13, 2011

I’m annoyed today.  That’s my problem not yours, but hopefully you will at least find my story interesting, amusing, or perhaps a cautionary tale depending on the business you’re in.  If not, there’s a lot else happening on the Internet, most of it probably more interesting.  If you like a good rant, read on…

It’s irony day.  Not long after writing that one of the key attributes of a PaaS is helping companies secure sales leads, I’ve personally run afoul of Adobe’s App Marketplace.  It’s a silly thing really, but the way they’re running it is worse than not having a marketplace at all.  I see shades of the same in a lot of other would-be ecosystems whose leaders, the companies that set them up, are doing just enough to get buy, but are not really helping to do what they should be doing.  First, some great examples of ecosystems that work:  Apple’s AppStore and Salesforce’s AppExchange.  Haven’t heard Benioff lately, but he sure beat Apple to the punch on that one, let alone many others.  I will also say that while I don’t always agree with what Salesforce is doing, they’re smart people, they reach out and are reachable, and they help me to understand why they’re doing it.  Plus, a lot of what they’re doing is awesome.  I have less experience with Apple to go on, but have heard good things from friends.

Now on to my tale of customer service and developer relations with Adobe.

First, there are a gazillion people out there who work for Adobe and have words in their titles like “Product Manager”, “Evangelist”, or “Developer Relations”.  These are people one would think should be highly approachable and interested in anything new or unique that’s happening with their platform. After all, they make their contact info fairly available.  The platform I’m referring to for this article, BTW, is Flash/Flex/AIR.  Many would like to sweep it under the rug and place all bets on HTML5.  You’d think that in that sort of atmosphere, Adobe would want to work hard to stand out as a beacon for their developers.  But it’s been a pretty foggy night and the beacon isn’t visible.

I have so far contacted no less than 5 of these folks to tell them about some work I’ve been doing with Flash/Flex/AIR.  It’s not like I’ve invented Cold Fusion or anything (well of course I didn’t mean the software, they did invent that), but I happen to think it is cool stuff, and it is certainly unusual.  Rather than being a flashy (pardon my pun again) bit of marketing adware, or some game, I’ve actually been building software that is more traditionally done as desktop software written in C++ and the like.  It’s something that is <gasp> useful and in fact being used by professionals at some of America’s foremost manufacturers.  I’ve stretched the envelope pretty far from most of what I see being done with Flash/Flex/AIR.  These are rich UX apps that are for the CAD/CAM market.  Just getting these Adobe products to run against the large volumes of data and high performance graphics required by such a market was no easy feat.  So you’d think someone out there might think it was interesting.  Might at least respond to the queries, anyway.  Nope, no response whatsoever.  These were all people, BTW, who are highly visible in the blogging community, giving talks, yada, yada.  Probably way too busy to take time out to talk to everyone who is using their platform, and I say that in all sincerity, not trying to be snarky.  They don’t know me from Adam, but you’d think there’d be someone more junior it could be delegated to, or they could dash off a quick note in response or something.

On to the Adobe Marketplace.  They have a special marketplace for AIR apps and it looks like a pretty neat place.  “Cool beans!” sez I.  And so I promptly applied for a listing.  My status as publisher was granted almost immediately, last May.  And there things have languished ever since.  I can go into my little control panel and see my app still sitting there waiting for review:

Adobe AIR Marketplace

I marked with a red outline my submission date last May, that I am still queued for review, and the one place I could find anywhere about how to get help.   Trying to get help, as it turns out, was a terrible idea.  It basically just wound up annoying me enough to write this post.  You see, I wound up on chat with a representative named “Neela”.  She basically had nothing to offer.  First, rather than reading my detailed explanation of what had happened, she assumed I wanted information on some app I’d bought that was listed on Marketplace.  She was at pains to tell me that Adobe could in no way help with this and I would need to contact the developer.  I then proceeded to explain that I was the developer, I was an approved publisher for the marketplace, and I very much did expect to get some help from Adobe.  Each time we had a go round, the software for the chat would fill time while she dealt with how ever many other parallel chats she had going.  It automatically generates little messages to keep me warm.  So I’d get 3 or 4 after each of my responses that were like this:

Neelu : I'll be right with you.

Neelu : Thank you for waiting. One moment please.

Neelu : Thank you for the information.
Neelu : Sorry for the wait. Please do stay online.
That's verbatim, BTW.  And there were only 6 or so different messages, so I got to know them all quite well.  Classic Eliza-style simulation of a human.  Eventually, Neelu came back again:
Neelu : Please contact marketplace to get help on this. 

Bob: Marketplace provided this chat. How else am I supposed to contact them?

Neelu : I am sorry, we don't have any information, you need to contact with the individual developer who develop the software.

LOL, as you can see, things go circular after a bit. So my last response was that I would do what she recommended after I got done writing a blog post about the terrible customer service Adobe was giving me. I got a one word response back, “Okay”, and then the chat window unilaterally closed itself leaving me sputtering in its wake without even a chance to escalate.  If you’d seen my beet-red expression, you would have been laughing your heart out at me.

My guess at this point is I never will get listed. Maybe if they’re monitoring social media enough to see this blog post. I know I’m not wasting any more time on them, and you shouldn’t either.

This is why developers ask themselves why they should spend money on tools rather than using free Open Source all the way.

Adobe, dudes, if you are listening, you just broke my guitar loading it into your airliner. You know where that leads. What were you thinking?

Posted in business, Marketing | 3 Comments »

Why Do the Cool Kids Keep Missing the Tragically Knowable?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2011

I just read an article on GigaOm about Facebook (Techmeme caught it too) app vendors being up in arms because Facebook’s new spam control was too strong and knocked out a bunch of legit apps.  It isn’t just Facebook, we read these stories constantly about various Valley companies.  Mostly they are companies that don’t have enough grey hairs so far as I can tell.  Twitter is another one that keeps thrashing around.

I don’t get it.  I’ve been spending a lot of time lately telling various Marketers that Marketing is a Product.  It has a UX, you want to delight your prospects with it, yada, yada.  I guess I need to be telling Product Guys that Products are Marketing after I read stories like this.  They can be A/B tested.  They can be trialed.  You don’t have to roll out changes wholesale and wait to see who screams, and then frantically roll back what doesn’t work.  In fact, it’s much better if you don’t.

Look people, in an online / social / connected / mobile / viral / cloud world, the distinction between marketing and product blurs to the point of being nonexistent.  It all carries a message and a User Experience that either strengthens or weakens your position.  And, it is all Tragically Knowable.

Talk to your customers.  Listen to your customers.  It isn’t hard to do.  You’re supposed to be Social Networks for Heaven’s Sake.  Once you get good at it, you’ll realize it’s actually a lot of fun.

Why screw around with your entire audience and momentum when you could do some tests and do what’s right?  I don’t care how brilliant the wunderkind at the top may be, they are wrong sometimes.  Save us poor customers and prospects the pain.  Life is short, we don’t need any more pain, and we’d like to get on with just loving your products if you’d let us.  Quit doing stuff that was Tragically Knowable.

Posted in Marketing, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Google: Stop the War on SEO and Get Some Better Algorithms

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 4, 2011

Interesting post on Quora (are they posts or questions?):

Is Google intentionally trying to kill rank checking (SERP lookup) by closing their Web API?

I found it as a result of doing some research on how to get Google search results programmatically–turns out you have to cheat as Google really is working overtime to obfuscate and deny programmatic search results.  They do this through Terms of Service that object to programmatic access and limiting their supported API to custom search for sites, which doesn’t return the search results you’d typically see.  Let’s leave aside the impact of personalization, which is also very hard to turn off, but which I think of as a relatively good thing according to my White Hat definition below.

This business of fighting against SEO is a bad thing born out of weak algorithms.

Okay, calling the algorithms bad and weak has got to be picking a fight with a company that prides itself on not doing evil and on algorithmic prowess.  What the heck am I on about now?

Let’s start with a very odd analogy.  Assume you’re trying to encrypt data.  At the same time, you want to create a tool that measures the strength of the encryption as simply as possible.  What would you do and what else would the tool be good for?

I would create a tool that measures the apparent randomness of the encrypted string.  The other thing the tool would be good for is as a metric for compression algorithms.  If a string is truly random, there is no apparent intelligence there–it is well encrypted.  If a string has any patterns to it whatsoever, those patterns could be exploited to learn something valuable about how to decrypt or further compress the string.  For example, “e”  is the letter that appears most frequently in English text.  If we don’t obscure that so letter frequencies appear random, we have a valuable clue for decryption.  If we don’t take advantage of the relative frequency of various characters, we have an inferior compression algorithm.  Either way, randomness is not a bad proxy to measure encryption or compression even though it doesn’t measure it directly.

What does this have to do with SEO, for Heaven’s sake?

Let’s differentiate White Hat (Good) from Black Hat (Evil) SEO strategies in a particular way to make the point:

Black Hat is gaming the system to provide an unfair advantage to search results that otherwise would be considered undesirable by searchers.

White Hat is understanding the system in order to gain insight into what searchers are doing to make it easier to find your valuable content.

Can you see where I’m going?

Content Farms are Black Hat.  They throw together a mish mash of relatively low value content in order to brute force their way to the top of search results.  We all know one when we click-through their links.  With Panda, Google is working hard to push them back down the results.

But, why, OTOH, is Google acting like it is Black Hat to want to understand how your pages are ranking against various queries so you can do better at designing pages users can find more easily?  The only way it could be Black Hat is if Google’s algorithms are not very good at understanding what good content really is.  So they have to keep changing things up to prevent gaming the content with slick strategies that can emphasize any old crap in the results.

Getting back to my encryption example, Google needs some sort of simple test to identify good content.  Perhaps all this personalization and +1′ing will do the trick.  But Google, while you’re wrestling with the problem, recognize one important thing:  Computers don’t understand Language!

Yes, I know you of all organizations must know that well, but you’re threatening to show a lack of understanding while throwing out the baby with the bath water in this war on SEO.  You’re denying legitimate content creators the tools they need to help you get their content into the right hands.  Meanwhile, the Bad Guys are not going to listen to your Terms and Conditions anyway.  They’ll figure out how to game you over and over again.  Why penalize the Good Guys in the process?

Lest you think you can win this arms race in any meaningful way, consider the difficulty of truly stopping the analysis of keyword rank.  All the players have to do is put their application in the Amazon Cloud or go to a P2P system to distribute the load across many machines and you’ll have no idea whether you’re facing one SEO Tool you could try to block or a zillion hand typed queries from legit searchers.

This talk of Clouds and P2P brings me to another thought–search engines of all kinds should take advantage of elasticity to add value.

The infrastructure of any search provider must have elasticity as search demand is not constant–it has ups and downs.  I first thought of this watching Amazon’s algorithms for making recommendations for what I should read next on my Kindle.  They’re better than nothing, but they’re actually not all that good.  I’m sure they’re missing out on the opportunity to sell me a lot more books based on how often I go root out books searching by hand, and how I usually go through a lot of their recommendations before I find something I really like.  I don’t know whether Netflix does a markedly better job, but I have been impressed that they run contests to see if anyone outside Netflix can come up with better results and then they try to add what they learn back into their engine.

Search engines should be asking what they could do with the extra cycles to improve search results.  There won’t be enough elasticity to improve all results.  Some of the problem with search engines is likely not that they don’t know better algorithms, but that they’re too expensive to implement at scale.  Perhaps the secret is knowing how and when to implement them to the extent they can in order to bring up the poor user experiences to better standards (or to optimize user experiences that are particularly valuable by some metric).  For an Amazon-style E-tailer, should they apply the extra cycles finding things for shoppers who are known to spend more?  Google could do the same, but that would be somewhat Evil in that organizing search results to increase ad click-through seems fraught with peril.  OTOH, what if Google invested the elastic spare time in more expensive algorithms focused on high volume searches that are known to produce lower quality results?

In terms of measuring result quality, they have a variety of proxies for that too.  They’re known to use live human reviewers sort of like Secret Shoppers (only I guess they’re Secret Searchers).  With all the toolbars and other gizmos out there measuring our every move, they can determine how long people spend on a search result’s page before popping back into to search to look at the next one.  Let’s not forget Personalization either.  Surely all of those signals can be put together to identify trouble spots where more powerful algorithms might be put to good use.

There’s got to be a better way than going to war against SEO in general.

Posted in Marketing | Leave a Comment »

There’s a New Sheriff in Town and His Name is “Content”

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 24, 2011

Just read a great top-level overview of Google’s Panda on SEOMoz.  If you haven’t been following Panda, or you’re not involved with marketing much, it is Google’s latest algorithmic attempt to minimize the ability to game search results.  This article is at a good level for CEO’s, Board Members, Investors, and other Interested Parties to understand the flavor of this huge watershed event for marketing on the web.  I’ve talked to a number of companies that were impacted by Panda.  In most cases, the impact hurt their search traffic because they’d been relying on SEO games to get the job done.  In a few, it has transformed their search traffic for the better.   Those few are companies that had been almost overly focused on content.

Dilbert.com

Google wants to interfere with the SEO strategy of manipulating search results mechanically by delivering search results that searchers actually like.  Towards that end, Panda lets Google blend in subjective evaluations of search results to tune up their search engine and start to de-emphasize those sites we all come across that aren’t really that enjoyable or even informative despite great search ranking.  This is mainstream when you start to see Dilbert cartoons about it, and it is life threatening for Google when we read that measurable amounts of web traffic have left the general web and gone to sites like Facebook.

Marketers should expect a lot more of this sort of thing over time.  It will be increasingly important to quit worrying about SEO voodoo and start publishing content people are delighted to find.   I have been saying to everyone that will listen:  Marketing is a Product.  It has a User Experience.  Make sure yours is one that delights would-be customers lest they not only tune you out but have an increasingly difficult time even finding your content.  First impressions will matter more and more as feedback loops like Google Panda and Social “Like” buttons that affect search results are not going to give you a second chance if you blow the first one.

If you’re running an established business that focuses most of its efforts on SEO manipulation, start thinking about how to ramp your content quality up quickly.  If you’re an entrepreneur thinking about bootstrapping a business or an investor wondering where to invest, you need to add another couple of tests to your framework for evaluating potential ideas:

-  Is this space crowded and noisy due to an abundance of great content, or is it one where there is a tremendous hunger for scarce content?

-  Does this company already have a track record for producing differentiated content that is driving traffic?

-  Does the company have content creation talent on board and does it understand how to use content effectively?

You want to be a big fish in a small content pond when you’re starting out if you expect to be noticed.  And importantly, it’s hard to farm out the best content until you have a critical mass of folks familiar with your market and products who want to contribute.  Make sure you have the ability to operate with great content until you’ve spanned that gap.

There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Content.

Related Posts

Small Businesses Need a Minimum Viable Marketing Strategy

Pitfalls of Free Content and an Inbound Marketing Strategy

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy, venture | 1 Comment »

Small Businesses Need a Minimum Viable Marketing Strategy

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 18, 2011

I’ve taken to thinking that marketers should view marketing on the web as a product.  As I said in my post on the Pitfalls of Free Content and Inbound Marketing:

Marketing is a Product that has a UX and Competes Like Any Other Product

It’s easy to forget because we don’t charge for it that Marketing is a product too.  In particular, online marketing is increasingly indistinguishable from an online software product.  It has a User Experience that we want the consumer to be delighted with.  It has Business Logic and is the System of Record for critical Enterprise Value if you want to get all Enterprise Software about it.  Think about Marketing as a Product and you’ll find some breakthrough insights.

And don’t assume you don’t charge for marketing either.  You’re charging your customers the highest price they pay for anything you sell–you’re asking them to give you their trust.

If we’re going to think about Marketing as a Product, then the concept of Minimum Viable Product makes a lot of sense for Marketers to think about as well.  MVP is all about the idea of not building in every possible feature and refinement.  It’s about building as little as possible to make a product that you can get in front of customers sooner, so you can learn from their feedback.  Doesn’t that sound exactly like what marketers should be doing to avoid making mistakes that were tragically knowable?

I was reminded of all this while reading through a brief post and subsequent comments from Hubspot, called “How Valuable is Social Media, Really?”  In the post, some charts are presented that show Social Media produces very few inbound visitors but its conversion rate to leads may be higher.  Readers are implicitly invited to speculate that the obvious conclusion–Social Media is not valuable–might be wrong and follow on posts will reveal why.  I opined as how I saw it as an inventory problem:

We’ve got 4 to 8x the volume from the non-social and only a 50% better conversion.

It ain’t enough.

Reminds me of Bing. I get much better conversion from Bing searchers–makes me think it may be a better engine. But so many fewer show up than Google that it doesn’t matter.

Someone else raises the issue that the cost of getting the different kinds of visitors affects the ROI and therefore may change the picture.  But as I say, we have an inventory problem (potentially).  If I can only get x conversions from Social Media and that number is sufficiently low, that’s the inventory available for marketing dollars in this kind of program and it doesn’t matter what the cost is unless it is to make the program even less attractive (e.g. if there are too few leads AND they’re very expensive, we really don’t like this kind of spend).  Last aside, they talk about conversion to leads, but that isn’t conversion to revenue.  I have also remarked and believe that optimizing the wrong metric is the root of all marketing evil, so we may have been led down a primrose path on that one (though the $ money bags on the chart are a tacky misdirection if so, LOL).  What we want to optimize, in other words, is not leads but actual sales.  Marketing and Sales departments fight like cats and dogs over that one all day every day at nearly every company.

What does all this have to do with a Minimum Viable Marketing Strategy?

It’s a perfect example of why you need one–to avoid the distraction of programs that can’t produce enough results to make a difference even if the results that are produced may be good and cheap.  Put another way, when you are small, one more good, cheap, but relatively insignificant marketing program is just like one more good, cheap, but relatively unimportant feature on a product.  You don’t need the distraction, shouldn’t spend the time and money, and it won’t move the needle.  Cross it off the list until you are much bigger.  You’re looking for big hits.  Test as many small ones as you can until you find the big ones and then double down.  These numbers, at least what we have so far, don’t make Social Media look like a big hit for the business as described.

Lest we leave the subject thinking I am not a Social Media believer, let me just say that my own business experience suggest much better numbers are possible for Social Media.  For example, my CNCCookbook business is my test bed for these kinds of experiments and gets numbers more like this:

Minimum Viable Marketing

We can see that Social is generating quite a lot (15%) of the traffic to the site.  However, its conversion to leads is just the opposite of Hubspot’s numbers, being lower than many other sources.  Being a heavy content marketer, I’m of the opinion (unproven), that getting so many visitors is worthwhile and I will eventually nurture them to conversion.   In addition, I suspect referring sites link to me partially because of my content and partially because I have a following on the social communities peculiar to this space.  For example, I know a lot of machinists through the social who may then go on to connect.  FWIW, while I have tried Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and maintain presences on Facebook and Twitter for CNCCookbook, these are very poor sources of leads and visitors.  The richest sources are niche communities totally focused on the market CNCCookbook is in.

Here is the more interesting thing to consider, though.  If you’re looking for the minimum viable marketing strategy for the CNCCookbook business, which programs should you focus on?  Which should you ignore?  FWIW, I have sorted the data series in order of most to fewest leads produced.

For example, the Paid category (largely Google AdWords) has a very high conversion, but doesn’t yield enough leads.  I spent months tuning it until I was only paying for clicks that actually yielded profitable business.  That mostly resulted in long tail keywords, which are cheaper to bid for than mainstream more generic keywords.  Unfortunately, they have an inventory problem–not enough long tail searches with profitable economics.  Will I keep running the AdWords campaign?  Yes, the work spent tuning is sunk cost.  But I won’t spend more time trying to improve AdWords other than to monitor that the ROI stays profitable and cut it back when it doesn’t.  In retrospect it wasn’t worth the amount of time I spent on it and shouldn’t have been part of the minimum viable marketing strategy for CNCCookbook.

For this business, the cutoff is after email.  It isn’t worth focusing on Bing (and I definitely wouldn’t buy ads there) or PPC.  My email is worthwhile, largely because it is low effort and consists mainly of periodically asking my customer base to refer their friends (hence the very high visit to lead ratio).

What I should do next is find some more things to test, and that’s what I’m doing.  Keep in mind, your mileage not only can but will vary–you have to test, test, test to know what works and what doesn’t.  Double down on what works, cut what doesn’t, and keep some powder dry to keep testing new things.  Cast your net wide and don’t get focused on going deep except in a very few areas that are well proven.

Conclusion

Small Businesses should look for a Minimum Viable Marketing strategy.  Don’t get distracted (as I did) trying to optimize programs that can’t possibly produce the results you need.  Run some tests and ask yourself how much improvement you would need to see in those tests before a program would be in your top 3 or 4.  PPC was never going to get there for me, so I never should’ve invested in improving those results.  It would’ve required hundreds of percent improvement, and I had proven viable programs already doing much better.  Focus on those and keep enough bandwidth to keep testing new possibilities.

Posted in Marketing, strategy | 3 Comments »

Pitfalls of Free Content and Inbound Marketing

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 13, 2011

Free SignLet me start this article by saying it’s not intended to be a negative article against free content or inbound marketing.  Rather, I want to talk about some of the strategic considerations when you use these tactics.   I believe wholeheartedly that, properly employed, there are no better tactics for building your customer base and getting the word out.  Let’s also define “inbound marketing”, at least for purposes of this post, as follows:

Inbound Marketing is giving away valuable content for free in order to attract an audience and earn the right to sell them something.

This may not be exactly what firms like Hubspot who are experts on the topic use, but it is how I think about it and it will work well for this discussion.

This post was motivated by some thinking that’s been going on in the back of my mind about inbound marketing that all bubbled to the surface when I read John Jantsch’s “When Free Becomes Free For All — 5 Reasons Free is Hurting Us All“.   Along with Seth Godin, John Jantsch is one of my top two favorite marketing bloggers. But, with this latest post, I think John has missed some key points and gone off the track.  Rather than debate his 5 points up front, I want to drop back and paint a more strategic backdrop for understanding the value of free and I also want to call attention to the alternatives.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy:

“It has been said that free is the worst form of marketing except all the others that have been tried.”

Let’s start from that premise when considering John’s proposition that too much free is damaging by asking, “What are the alternatives?”

Just enough free to get the job done and charge for the rest?

Pay walls?

Intangible costs and friction like registration landing pages you go through over and over again to get one white paper, webinar, or slide show at a time?

I’ll bet John will have a hard time defending those alternatives, I know I would.  As an aside, ironically, I had gotten a new Hubspot email (one of two this morning, easy there boys) offering me a white paper that looked valuable.  I clicked to the landing page and was immediately presented with an old style fill in the form to get the content.  Now I know you want to capture the individual’s contact information, get them on your house list, yada, yada.  But I’m on Hubspot’s list–they’re emailing me for cryin’ out loud and I haven’t opted out. They can tell I’ve clicked through with silent instrumentation.  This is an artificial and annoying barrier that cause me to think them slightly less enlightened and to click off the page and go on about my business.  They either did it that way through sloth or because they are trying to “qualify” me by making me do the work of reentering my information.  Either way, it cheapens the Inbound experience.  If you’re going to be Inbound, be inbound.  Once you get someone’s information, treat them as you would want to be treated.  End of rant, these guys should know better.

Distracting as it may be, the anecdote relates to John’s complaints about free.  Let’s talk about the 5 things he worries about (paraphrased):

It doesn’t hold the content consumer accountable.  

If it’s free, they can sign up and then no-show.  This is a variation on the VP of Sales contention that you have to charge a lot or the customer won’t respect you.  My problem with this perspective is it reflects artificial scarcity and a presumption about the stage that the prospect has reached that isn’t justifiable.  When you’re engaging in Marketing, you’re not yet at the stage where you’re entitled to demand a price.  You’re not ready to close a sale.  You’re earning the customer’s trust and any artificial scarcity or cost interferes with that trust, just as my experience with Hubspot made me trust them a little less.

With respect to artificial scarcity, the history of any market is a march to commoditization unless the participants find a way to create defensible unfair advantage that limits competition and creates artificial scarcity.  Other than via legal entanglement, content is not amenable to unfair advantage through limited availability because it can be reproduced and communicated too easily. Your only opportunity for unfair advantage is to make your content better than the other guy’s.  Leaving aside all that, think about monopolies, patents, record labels and other cases of successful artificial scarcity.  Do you want your marketing to reek of that?  As I said, you’re earning trust, not selling patent-pending titanium toilet seats to the Air Force.

It would be awesome to see my two marketing blogger idols, John and Seth Godin, debate this proposition.  My impression from Godin’s writing and tactics for self-promotion is that he totally gets this business of creating unfair advantage through better content and then making it even more unfair by aggressively giving it away until it goes viral.

Let’s turn this one around from a unpleasant problem to a prescription for success:

Make sure you are accountable for your content and it is so good that it is irresistible.  And then give it away.

That formula will knock the cover off the ball of Inbound Marketing every time if you can deliver.

Eroded Value

John’s description of this point is worth repeating:

When content is consistently given away it loses its value–not only for the producer, but also in the eyes of the content consumer. How good can something that’s free really be?

This lumps thoroughly researched, well-presented, useful content in with shoddily veiled pitch fests.

My problem with this argument is two-fold.  First, it goes down the traditional Mad Men marketing and sales path of assuming consumers are sheep.  I know it can be easy to fall into that trap, but John knows better.  Consumers are better judges of your content than that.  The ones that matter know a “shoddily veiled pitch fest” from useful content.  Go back and read the endless admonitions to content creators for Inbound Marketing about delivering value.  If you’re not delivering enough value that it’s obvious to consumers, you may have accidentally produced a pitch fest.  Blame yourself, not the consumer.  Value is in the eye of the beholder, not the author.

Finding great content is hard.  If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be so much controversy over search, there wouldn’t be so many bookmarking services, and there wouldn’t be a long tail.  The great content would be obvious, plentiful, and easy to come by.  Instead, there are relatively few Duct Tape Marketing or Seth Godin blogs, so we read them incessantly and don’t take them for granted.

This brings me to my second point–be aware of the state of the free content ecosystem in your space.   John Jantsch’s Duct Tape Marketing content plays in the most crowded on-line space that there is for great free content–marketing.  The bar in that space is absolutely sky high–so high there is almost no oxygen up there.  Social Media, Email Marketing, Inbound Marketing, Affiliate Programs, on and on.  There is lots of great marketing content available free.  Whenever a content market gets that big and there is so much great content available, value is eroded.  You can’t take it back by deciding not to give it away.  There’s too many struggling for competitive advantage by giving their great (or even pretty good) content away.  Markets are eating their own dogfood, drinking their own champagne, and practicing what they preach.  It’s tough love, but you better get over it.

I’ve come to believe this is a key strategic point for entrepreneurs to consider.   Not every space is as crowded as the Marketing space.  In fact, very very few are.  Most spaces are still very much starved for great free content.  For entrepreneurs, when you’re evaluating a space, do a careful evaluation on your chances of becoming an early Thought Leader there through your content.  You want to be a big fish in a small pond where the bar is set extremely low for your content.

Lowered Expectations

John says:

This creates an atmosphere where content producers can simply slap something together with little value because, “What are they going to do, ask for a refund?”

I’ve nothing new to say here other than that you are accountable for your content and you have to make it so good that it is irresistible.   If you don’t and you’re in a crowded content ecosystem like marketing, you’ll never be noticed.  May as well go buy banner ads on AOL or Yahoo.   If you don’t and you’re one of the first fish in a small content pond, you’ll be noticed but vulnerable to a fast follower.  You will also miss igniting the level of passion for your content that you may otherwise have had, which will slow people passing on and talking about your content and prolong the window for the fast follower to take you out.

Blocked Revenue

“When the expectation is that all of your content, speaking and presenting will be made available at no fee, your business’ greatest potential asset is cut off.”

First, if your only business is content, you need to think carefully about your strategy.  In the ideal case, you have something else you’re making the money on besides the content.  Inbound Marketing is a wonderful no-brainer if you do have something else to sell.

Second, even if you don’t have anything but content to sell, who says it’s all or nothing?  Will they pay to see you deliver your content directly?  Will they pay for you to apply the mind that produced that great free content to their problem?  Will they tolerate ads in the content?  Will they pay to have your content in a different format, perhaps one that’s easier to consume or more compact?  Thinking of books that are compendiums of content that already exists where curation and packaging is the value.

Seth Godin is a master of this.  He gives away books he’s actively selling.  He encourages buyers to give their book to someone else when they’re done reading it.  It works for Godin, why not others?

Community Buster

Having spent a fair bit of time in the Social Web both personally and professionally, this is one I totally do not understand:

When people are invited into a community where everything is free, there’s actually less chance of building a strong community. Community builds when there is value.

That has not been my experience in the least, and I’d like to see such a community to understand what it’s real underlying problems are, because they’re not due to “free”.  Let me give two strong examples:  Stack Overflow and Quora.   Everyone reading this must have heard of one or the other.  They’re completely free, they are strong communities by any measure I have ever seen, and they deliver huge value.

Free has some really odd dynamics where behavior and community are concerned.  People will polarize around and defend free in ways that you just don’t see for things people pay for.  Try to make your living attacking virtually anything Open Source and you will see.  Free begets fanaticism because it creates obligation.  If you give somebody something for free, they feel an obligation to reciprocate in some way.  If they pay you, however little, they have discharged that obligation.  This is problematic for companies that want to be the cheapest offering in their space.  To me, they attract the worst of all worlds.  They don’t get the fanatical support of free, and they’ve attracted a legion of penny pinchers who feel no obligation and who are ironically much higher maintenance than the sort who buy premium products.

People generally have good intentions.  Give them a lot of valuable free content.  Set them up in a free community where they can get free help and give free assistance and I have seen magic happen multiple times.  If you find yourself in a space where no such resource exists, stake it out quickly–it will turn into a gold mine and you won’t be sorry.

Conclusion:  Marketing is a Product that has a UX and Competes Like Any Other Product

It’s easy to forget because we don’t charge for it that Marketing is a product too.  In particular, online marketing is increasingly indistinguishable from an online software product.  It has a User Experience that we want the consumer to be delighted with.  It has Business Logic and is the System of Record for critical Enterprise Value if you want to get all Enterprise Software about it.  Think about Marketing as a Product and you’ll find some breakthrough insights.

And don’t assume you don’t charge for marketing either.  You’re charging your customers the highest price they pay for anything you sell–you’re asking them to give you their trust.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, Marketing, strategy | 2 Comments »

What are Customers Looking for From Social Businesses?

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 23, 2011

There’s a great conversation going on right now around what Customers are looking for from Social Businesses (e.g. what is Social CRM, really?) between Dennis Howlett, Paul Greenberg (via Dennis), Mitch Lieberman, and no doubt several others I haven’t yet tracked down.  It starts from a survey IBM did on what businesses think the value of being Social is versus what Customers think:

Social CRM PerceptionsLike any great discussion topic, there are layers of data and possible interpretations that become a Rorschach tableau on which to justify one’s personal predispositions; hence I won’t hesitate to share mine!

The money quote is the one Dennis plucked from Mitch’s piece:

Customers do not want a relationship with your business, they want the benefits a relationship can offer to them.

Ouch! Those darned selfish customers, we just want to be their friends!

OTOH, there is an evil part of me that speculates that an awful lot of our “friends” are not much less mercenary most of the time, particularly if they’re just business acquaintances, so why are we surprised?

The other reaction to the chart is that in terms of measuring whether customers want a relationship, they didn’t ask all the right questions and may not have interpreted the ones they did ask very well.  After all, “Feel connected” and “Be part of a community” are pretty much content free touchy feely BS.  What sort of person do you have to be to seek that sort of companionship in the bosom of a corporate entity?

OTOH, if I consider a more realistic view of Social Interaction, all the areas that scored big on learning seem perfectly Social.  And, when I look at “Purchase”, it makes me wonder what that really means.  Here is a chart from IBM that shows why Consumers go Social:

Why Consumers Visit Social Sites

Presumably, this is the chart we’re meant to compare and contrast with.  Let’s consider some of these categories and ask whether they have a place, even indirectly, in the business Social world.  Consider it a way to think differently about your Business Social efforts in order to increase engagement.

Connect with friends and family

The desire to “Feel Connected” and “Be Part of a Community” is evidently much less important in Business Social.  The corollary seems obvious: if you want to increase this motivation for connecting, get some friends and family in there.   Family is hard, but there are countless Social sites where people go to meet and interact with others who have similar interests.  When I was with Callidus, one of the most popular components of our User Conference was a session we called “Birds of a Feather”.   This was essentially a beer bash organized by industry vertical where customers could go compare notes.  The session had two parts.  First, we had our domain experts present, one at each table.  Their instructions were to listen and only chime in when nobody could answer a question.  They were told to act strictly as a resource and not to try to guide what was going on.  Second, we had a closed session where all the Callidus people left.  Customers were welcome to talk about us, our competitors, or whatever else they needed to in our absence.

I can think of no reason why this “Birds of a Feather” type interaction couldn’t be done in an online Social context nor why it wouldn’t be extremely popular.  Some vendor or other probably already does it and I am just not aware, so please chime in if you’ve heard of it.  In a broader sense, think about whether your Social CRM efforts are purely hub and spoke, meaning they force too much interaction with your company and not enough peer to peer to do very well in this context.  Get out of people’s ways and facilitate their getting to know one another.  Empower the gregarious networkers whether or not they are customers.  They will keep the party rolling.

Access News and Entertainment

This ranks pretty high on both scales.  If you haven’t already figured it out: content is king.  Give away as much valuable content as possible.  Call it Best Practices or whatever it takes, but be the best educator in your space and do it for free.  Free means not even pestering incessently for contact information.  BTW, at my last company, we had a Best Practice Community filled with content that went over extremely well.  Some of our highest landing page conversion rates came from the signups for the community.  People didn’t see a signup to join a community as egregious in the way a signup for a White Paper seems to be.

Sharing

Several of the entries amount to “Sharing” of one kind or another.  Too often businesses see Social as just another direction to point the megaphone.  Are you giving your customers voices too?  Are they empowered to share?  Are they encouraged to share?  Are your customers actually trying to share and then getting shouted down or smothered by the people in your company that run the Social program?

This is one of the hardest things for businesses: giving up control to the customer, even just a little bit, doesn’t feel right.  But go talk to your best Salespeople.  Aren’t they good listeners?  After all, Social isn’t some High Priesthood that takes years of learning and arcane knowledge to master.  It’s just people.  Go ask people who are good with people how they’d solve a problem and then try that in the your online Social context.

Bottom Line

These are just a few thoughts about turning some of the Social Debate and information on its head to try to get new insights.

If your Social isn’t, well, Social enough, try thinking about it from your Customer’s standpoint.  Forget about what you want from them, give them what they want from you.  Establish reciprocity, and the rest will follow as best it can.  Forcing the issue won’t necessarily help and it may very well hurt.

Postscript:  The Pepsi Refresh Failure

In his post, Dennis refers to the Pepsi Refresh failure :

The Refresh Project accomplished everything a social media program is expected to: Over 80 million votes were registered; almost 3.5 million “likes” on the Pepsi Facebook page; almost 60,000 Twitter followers. The only thing it failed to do was sell Pepsi.

It achieved all the false goals and failed to achieve the only legitimate one.

While Ad Contrarian views this as Social Media’s massive failure, and an indictment on Social in general, I look at it differently.  I don’t think Pepsi’s problem is merely about what they measure or how they engage.  It’s a lot deeper.

How much do you and your friends talk about Coke or Pepsi?  I think the longest conversations I’ve ever heard happened because some restaurant had the wrong brand and someone made a snide remark afterward.  Is it any surprise that while such brands can bribe people in various ways to visit, that these people don’t really want to engage?  These Pepsi guys could’ve saved their $20M.  Rather than asking why Social didn’t increase sales, they could as easily have not spent the $20M on any marketing at all and wondered why it didn’t affect their sales.  Heck, if Coke would save the money they spend to advertise at the beginning of every movie I see I would thank them, “Like” them on Facebook, or whatever.

At some point I will do a post on what sorts of brands benefit from Social or not, but for starters, just observe whether parties who should be interested spend much time talking about it.

Similarly, Dennis in his post touches on some cultural issues companies may have that will ultimately prevent them from being very Social.  Some Company cultures are flat-out anti-social when you expose Customers to them.  But, these two points are peripheral to my main theme, which is to try to think out of the box or at least in your Customer’s corner of the box where Social is concerned.  You have a lifetime of monkey-see monkey-do formal marketing to overcome, but it’s worth it.

Posted in business, Marketing, Web 2.0 | Leave a Comment »

This Product Roadmap Kerfluffle is Getting a Bit Silly

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 18, 2011

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a big Kerfluffle on right now over whether SaaS companies should share a product roadmap with customers or not.  The charge against is led by Kashflow CEPO Duane Jackson, who says sharing your roadmap is flawed because:

- Reduces agility

- Creates expectations that make it harder to delight customers

- Introduces competitive risks

- Sets companies up for a fail if they have to change their roadmaps

Coming at it from the other corner is Dennis Howlett, who thinks it is “bonkers” not to share the roadmap and insists customers have a right to know and prudent customers will insist on knowing.  In a third corner is Ben Kepes, who seems to have decided that while the arguments to share make sense, the success of KashFlow and others (37Signals to name one high profile example), and because he says as a small business owner, he knows it just isn’t that important because the decision cycles are so much shorter.

I’m coming down on the side of Dennis and sharing the roadmap

I’m on the side of sharing for multiple reasons.

First, the arguments against sound an awful lot like companies are afraid their customers will have too much control.  Sorry, but that’s no way to partner with your customers, and I believe above all else that it is critical for you partner with your customers.  That is the road to delighting them.  Why live in fear of your customers when you could partner with them?

This all sounds so much like arguments I’ve heard from Product Managers against Social Product Innovation Sourcing (aka Ideastorms).  It sounds like the arguments I’ve heard against Social CRM.  “We’re afraid of what our customers might say or the standards they might hold us to under the public spotlight.”

Hey guys, get used to it.  The whole world now operates in that spotlight courtesy of the Internet and all the many ways it gives your customers to get the word out.  You can’t just choose not to participate, especially if your competition is wholeheartedly embracing it.

Second, having worked with customers of all shapes and sizes, from small to gigantic Fortune 500, I’ve never had a problem of having a customer back me into a corner I couldn’t get out of. You’ve read all the advice about authenticity, honesty, and candor with Social Media?  Guess what, the Social Media guys didn’t invent that stuff, it’s simply the right way to deal with your customers.  If I don’t have a roadmap that’s baked well enough I can talk about it, shame on me.  That means I’m waiting for some sort of Monkey-on-a-keyboard A/B testing to figure it out for me and that’s not going to happen.  That’s a vision-less product organization and it is doomed to be inferior for a lot of more fundamental reasons than lack of a roadmap.

If I can’t have a well-reasoned conversation with a customer wherein I explain the business reasons why I have to change my roadmap and they don’t get it and can’t abide it, shame on both of us.  Shame on me for being unable to sell it, and for not having delighted the customer enough elsewhere to get the benefit of a doubt.  Shame on the customer for being so high maintenance and not understand that their best course is for me to be successful and that means satisfying more than just them.  I will tell you in all honesty that’s never happened to me, despite having to break the news of roadmap changes more than once.

One of the best product managers I’ve worked with (Hi JP!) used to have a saying about this.  There are no stupid features and no “No’s”.  There is only prioritization, and that is fluid.

Third, let’s talk about the competition.  Are they truly that clueless that they don’t have their own roadmap that’s pretty similar to your own?  Particularly when it comes to things customers are asking you to sign in blood for?  Don’t you think their customers are asking them for the same things?  Of course they are.  Those areas are not secrets and you’re kidding yourself if you think they are.  On things that are truly visionary and innovative, precisely the kinds of things you don’t want the competitors to know about because they’re not thinking of them, who says you have to share the whole roadmap?  There’s your opportunity to delight customers and confound the competition right there.

Things your audience is begging for are not plums waiting for you to pick and hold up for the adulation of the crowds.  They’re cases you got blind sided and should’ve paid closer attention to.  Fixing them is the elimination of a negative, not the creation of a positive.  If you think otherwise, you are the man to be in charge of innovation at Microsoft, because that’s always been their problem.

Best Practices for Sharing Product Roadmap

Okay, so let’s get past the argument and talk about how best to share product roadmaps, because there are some important ingredients to maximizing the benefits of the practice.

1.  Everyone does not get to share the roadmap and it isn’t public. As SVP Engineering/CTO, I have insisted that deep roadmap dives be presented by the CTO and/or Product Managers and not by Sales.  Roadmap entries need a firewall separation from the negotiation and sales process.  Getting to see the roadmap is a tightly vetted process.  Only real serious customers who are also good customers get to see it.  We will not drop it on leaflets out of airplanes to every lukewarm lead that comes along.  The salesperson that wants a Roadmap Briefing for their customer has to make an impassioned plea for why that makes sense.

2.  The roadmap is high level. It talks about areas of focus at the 20,000 foot level, and it calls out just a very few key features for each area of focus.  Features you’re absolutely certain you must have as part of the area of focus, and are therefore unlikely to change unless the whole focus changes.  It is not a detailed Market Requirement Document replete with UI mockups, giant bulleted feature lists, and all that stuff.  It’s just enough so that if the customer says they need “X”, you can tell them when you will be focusing on that area, ask to understand the exact problem they’re trying to solve, and render an opinion on when you might (or frankly might not) attempt to solve the problem.  The goal of such discussions is to assist the customer with the phasing of their own roadmaps, and to help them to understand whether the strategic direction they’re moving in matches your own direction.  In other words, is this marriage going to get better, or are we really destined to go our separate ways?

3.  We do not change the roadmap as part of a negotiation. We accept input that will be factored in, but we’re not going to talk about the outcome until post-sale.  This is a strong ingredient in selling what we have, or at least what we’re firm we intent to build.

4.  The roadmap is fluid.  Get the disclaimer out there right up front.  We’re not here to negotiate contractual obligations.  We’re hear to share our best thinking, and that can change based on new information.  We will promise not to act arbitrarily and capriciously, and to communicate well.  But we will also promise to be good businessmen intent on maximizing overall customer satisfaction as best we can.

5.  We do not talk much about how the features will work. Instead, we talk about the problems we intend to solve.  Benefits, not feature roadmaps.  These are not joint UI and Architecture design sessions.

6.  We’re very honest about not doing something, and very diplomatic about how we say “No”.  Product roadmap sessions are not the time to say “Yes” no matter what.  They’re the time to get some cards on the table and understand the problem the customer is really trying to solve.  If it’s a problem you think many of your customers have to solve, there is a strong business reason to tackle it, and you should say so.  If you don’t you need to get that out front too.  There are really a couple of different key “No’s” to be able to deliver:

-  This doesn’t make good business sense for very many of our customers, so therefore we aren’t going to go there.  If we hear more requests for it, we might revisit.

The subtext, particularly for smaller companies, is that the customer should want you to be successful by working on areas with the broadest demand.  Discuss this candidly and you will have implicitly helped that customer to understand their problem better too.  I have more than once seen a customer walk out of the discussion and wonder whether they might deep six the idea themselves if nobody else was doing it.  Customers know when they’re being unreasonable.  Those customers that know it and don’t care may not be the customers you want to divert your whole roadmap to satisfy anyway.

-  This makes sense, but it can’t be done immediately.  We’ll slot it into the roadmap, but it will be out there a ways.

Do not talk about your roadmap for more than 4 quarters out.  Anything beyond that is baloney anyway.  So the worst case answer is, “Yes, that makes sense, but it won’t be this year.  We’ll keep you in the loop and work with you as our roadmap unfolds.”

More than one very smart person has said negotiations don’t start until you say “No”.  Be honest with your “No’s” and your customers will respect your candor more so than the sucking up, even if they are handome and powerful men.  You may scare the odd sales person along the way, but they’ll recover when the customer decides to trust because they’ve had a real conversation with you and buys as a result.

Follow those 6 Best Practices, and you and your customers will be very happy that you’ve chosen to share your roadmaps.  Pray your competition decides not to share theirs.  Guess which meetings will make the customer feel like they have a better partner?

 

Posted in business, Marketing | Leave a Comment »

 
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