Friday, September 28

Organizing Business: The MarComm Office And Beyond

Put Process Before Position
When you work with startups that aspire to be corporations, you would be surprised how often it happens. One of the executives starts developing an organizational chart. The first thing they do is develop silos — disconnected departments that report to managers who report to the head.

If you mention how startups need to be more fluid (and all companies for that matter), they rebuff the notion by harkening back to the days when they worked at some company where they made up titles like guru and ninja. "Like that?"

Expect them to smile as they assign absurdity to the redefined suggestion. No, not like that.

Put processes before positions. I learned this at 16. 

It applies to every department, but communication tends to be among the most confused. It's the reason so many companies report that their communication feels disconnected within the organization. The reason is that they fill positions without much thought for the process.

Many organizational charts end up with: marketing manager, designers, copywriters, public relations manager, public relations specialists, social media manager, social media specialists, web developers, web designers, programmers, app specialists, internal communication manager, international communicator, trade show specialists, and so on and so forth.

Given that this is just the communication department, there isn't any surprise many startups run out of money. They staff positions. Even if they don't, they eventually will because once an organizational chart is established, they will continually hire based on reactionary needs — we need more of this or that, as if people are produce and never mind that one of those team members doesn't do enough.

My first job was working at Wendy's. And while some people might take exception to idea that communication departments can be likened to quick service, they knew what they were doing. I've applied to it many permanent teams and ad hoc teams all my life. It's not the position, but the process.

How Wendy's organizes your lunch. The variables don't matter. 

In a perfect world, Wendy's will staff one person on the register, one person on drinks, one person to make sandwiches, one person on order assembly. They duplicate this for the front and back (drive-thru). In the middle, serving both sections, one person staffs the grill (they are designed to have two grills if they are extremely busy) and one person staffs the fries. There are also support people, at least one in the back room and management in a pinch.

Marketing In The RoundThat might sound like a lot of people and it is a lot of people. But these are not hard positions. There is a fluidity to the operation based on what needs to be done. The person on the register can also manage drinks and order assembly. The grill person can manage fries or even sandwich making in a pinch.

In some cases and depending on the skills sets of the team available, every process can be covered by one or two people. There were some days that I worked every back register team position, along with fries, and assisted grill. It wasn't easy (or what corporate would have wanted), but I managed. Unexpected slams happen. It's also why I became a crew manager before moving onto a different job.

I'm not suggesting that one person do it all in a communication department, although some companies require it. But what I am suggesting is that you establish and prioritize the processes you need and cross train anybody who doesn't have the necessary skill sets much like Geoff Livingston and Gini Dietrich came close to suggesting in their book Marketing In The Round.

If the future of business is integrated, then companies need fluidity.

This isn't a 1950s economy. We don't need 1950s organizational charts. We need fluidity.

Writers need to learn multiple writing styles to communicate across different mediums, including some programming language skills. Designers ought to be comfortable with some programming language skills. Everybody needs to be presentable and professional, both online and off. And depending on the reason for contact, public relations can be adjusted up the scale.

Sure, there are some specialties that are always worthwhile (like database management), but that is the point. If you can prioritize which specialists you really need around the processes you expect to utilize the most, then the positions and job descriptions will make more sense. And everybody will know more about what is supposed to be done, even when someone calls in sick.

It's not limited to communication either. Many marketing professionals I've worked with are also exceptional product developers and are especially adept at designing user interfaces on paper if not in code. Some of them become good at these skill sets because of their interaction with customers online or during marketing research sessions. Some of them are also good with sales teams. Others have intuitive ideas about operations, budget priorities, media buys, etc.

It really just depends. And that is the point. How do you create an organizational chart based on positions when you don't understand the processes or the people who might fill the jobs? Even if you could, you might never maximize your proficiencies or replace people when they move on.

Or, like many companies, you may jeopardize the morale of the entire organization by trimming the fat you allowed to come on in the first place just because somebody needed a specific title and nobody else bothered to learn their job. Isn't that why companies can sometimes lay off hundreds? I think we might be smarter or more sensible by now. Think about processes first and then fill your organizational chart and outsource when you really do need a specialty.

Wednesday, September 26

Writing Tip: John Irving Starts At The End

While teaching editing and proofreading at UNLV, one of my students asked for tips on inspiration. Since inspiring yourself was fresh in my mind, I started with that (even though there are plenty more).

Most of those tips are more creative than strategic. However, there are some strategic elements to writing that anyone can apply. One of them is simple enough. It's something copywriters learn (often indirectly), but the technique is also employed by others — including John Irving, author of the World According To Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany (among others).

Author John Irving starts at the end. How about you?

Irving never writes a novel or a screenplay without knowing the ending first. He doesn't only need to know what happens at the end. He has to know the exact sentences themselves. He needs to know the atmosphere and tone. He considers all of it an "end note" to whatever he works on and toward.

The reason he does it is most stories have already happened before they can be told. It's often the conclusion that helps writers determine whether or not the story is worth telling. If you are late for a meeting, for example, you might tell why you are late if the cause was traffic, road construction, an accident, or some other event worth telling. You might not tell the story if the ending is unwritten — your struggle to always be on time, absentmindedness, or the inability to allot enough time.

You can take this step a bit further. Knowing the end is also what drives the inspiration. If you know the ending is exhilarating or interesting or educational, deciding how to begin tends to be more engaging for you as well as any future readers. There is an excitement.

Applying the end to advertising, journalism, and public relations.

Advertising. For advertising copywriters and marketers, the end can be determined in something as simple as a tagline (not the call to action, which is something else). The more timeliness the tagline — Just Do It, Drivers Wanted, We Try Harder, A Diamond Is Forever, and Got Milk? all establish the end of a story.

When the end of the story is strong, the rest of it will fall readily into place: It gives weight to Nike showing us extraordinary athletics applied to ordinary people. It gives meaning to the right Volkswagen being found by the owner/driver. It shows what Avis needs to do in order to overcome not being the biggest. So on and so forth.

As for the campaigns you don't remember, many of them have weak taglines or none at all. The campaign probably doesn't have any resonance to tie its individual pieces together. Maybe the story becomes so overinflated with creative that it's difficult to remember the point of the piece.

Journalism. New stories aren't much different. The end frequently gives away where the writer's head was at while they were writing the piece (even if they didn't know it themselves). It's always in the last few paragraphs where they button up their stories, conveying their own bias toward atmosphere, tone and foreshadow.

Sure, they might not always know the ending as verbatim as Irving might, but the ending almost always shapes the story: who they interview, how facts are prioritized. It's how they decide what story slant to tell, with the only difference being how heavily they allude to the end. And if they are any good, they are willing to change that end if their research, sources, and compilation of facts don't bear it out.

Public Relations. When you look at news releases, you'll likely find that the best of them have some semblance of an end while the worst of them (and most of them) do not. Or more specifically, the best of them sound like news stories. The worst of them do not (and many sound like weak marketing).

Part of the problem is how it is taught. So much emphasis is place on the first graph in the inverted pyramid that many press releases become vanilla. The same can be said about pitches. The best of them lead with two thoughts — the tease and the end — telling journalists exactly why they might care. The worst pitches are facts, without even a hint at why it was written beyond some client telling them to burp something out. It's not all the practitioner's fault. Many businesses don't have an end in mind.

How the end means more than how you get there.

It doesn't matter who you talk too. Listen for the end. Great leaders, great communicators, great speakers, and great writers alway know the end before they begin. It's the end that resonates.

I was in a business meeting the other day and I left feeling uninspired. It didn't take long to figure out why. The executive who called the meeting didn't have an end. He talked about problems, organizational charts, and push back from investors. But he didn't have an end. There was no win.

If he did have an end, it was grounded in uncertainty. It reminded me of a job applicant I met a few months ago when I was helping another client screen for talent. All he talked about was how much he hated his job and could not wait to leave. His story had an end, but not for the company he wanted to move to — unless that end was simply going to mirror the one he told.

Contrast this with anyone successful and you might notice they always have an end. It might be conveyed in a vision. While that vision might be subject to change from time to time, you can still wrap your head around. It's the end that inspires people to listen just as it inspires what someone might write.

Monday, September 24

Thinking Different: New Ideas For Solar

Sometimes watching the various communication gaffes and tit-for-tat soundbite stalking during campaign season is almost unnerving. It makes for a case study example of all the most basic public relations rules (e.g., there is no such thing as private communication) and sometimes entertainment, but it really doesn't move much forward. It's an exercise in attempting to drive up negatives. That's about it.

But what the nation really needs are solutions, and I don't mean some of the solutions that are typically presented as contrasts during the political season. I mean the kind of solutions that don't subscribe to red-blue ideas. Here's one example of what we ought to be hearing from a presidential candidate.

How to make alternative energy work without the nonsense. 

There have been many schemes cooked up around solar energy. The worst of them, probably, was Solyndra. It received at least $70 million from a Department of Energy loan guarantee without much of a business model, proving why government is best left out of corporate investments based on preferred policy and not profitability. Government could have created the market instead of the company.

What might have worked is a government program that gave distressed homeowners (and then later expanded to other homeowners) guaranteed loans to have solar panels installed on their homes. They could make the purchases from any U.S. owned and operated solar panel company, creating jobs fueled not by government directly but by consumer choices in the new market.

The loans would be paid back, plus a modest interest rate, from any excess energy sold back to power companies (not the already distressed homeowners). The immediate benefit for the homeowner would be a reduced power bill, thereby either increasing their disposable income or stretching any benefits from local, state and federal programs. The immediate benefit for the power company is that it can sell any excess back on the open market. And then it gets better.

Once the solar panels are paid off, the distressed homeowner could collect excess income from the power the solar panels generate. If they are on a federal program, half of the energy sold could be deducted from what they normally receive in government aid (giving them a modest boost and freeing up government program money) and move them closer to independence, not further away from it.

It would also reduce the environmental impact of solar farm schemes that aim to turn large parcels of land into solar wastelands (and displacing whatever ecosystem that exists there). Instead, it moves solar panels where they belong — on real estate already wasted (e.g., roofs). At the same time, the guaranteed increase in demand would eventually lead to cheaper solar panels, opening the market to people who can purchase them outright without having to wait 25-35 years to see a return on investment or seek government assistance.

This kind of program wouldn't necessarily work everywhere, but it would in Nevada and many other states with a similar climate. It would have been especially worthwhile to Nevada because the state doesn't currently export any significant energy (fossil or otherwise). Indirectly, however, it would benefit every state because this idea would lead to energy independence and possibly rein in volatile energy prices.

Diatribe is dangerous because it depresses new ideas. 

What does this have to do with communication? Everything. As long as people are polarized between moving toward alternative energy (without a clear understanding of it or its economics) and tapping traditional energy solutions, everybody is too busy trying to sell their plan without looking for new ideas. How can they? They are too busy selling whatever is on the table.

While I am certain that my little idea isn't perfect and would probably need some fine tuning (thousands of pages if it is a government job), it's an illustration of what might be possible if people invested their time in solutions rather than whose idea and ideology it might be or what they can get out it.

Instead of politics, it produces a win for every stakeholder, while stimulating the economy, protecting the environment, and nurturing energy independence. It helps people in need, opens a new market, lifts the economy, and brings in private enterprise (without looking like a payoff to past campaign donors). It is absolutely ridiculous these things need to be at odds. At least, I think so. What do you think?

Friday, September 21

Imagining Futures: Social Media For Groceries

Every weekend, my wife sets time aside to fill our grocery list. We used to go together, but our schedules have made this almost impossible and our new shopping system a little less spontaneous.

I cook four nights a week. She cooks three. So my list is written up nice and tight, while she still likes to search for coupons and buy a few spontaneous treats or plan a meal depending on what she sees.

Mostly, she alternates between two stores, Albertsons and Smith's. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, sometimes depending on sales and the day of the week. Price, quality, produce diversity, butcher diversity, and name brands in stock all make a difference on who wins for the week.

Recently, I've noticed another factor that might contribute to how we shop. Both stores are starting to promote apps to make things easier. It's sounds great, but let's be honest. Despite being electronic coupon books, the current apps don't really do enough.

Grocers have to stop thinking mobile and start thinking physical. Specifically, apps cannot be modeled after what exists. They have to be modeled to promote customer objectives. I know it will likely make shelf renters cringe over the loss of impulse buying, but groceries are prime social business candidates.

Many grocery stores are going mobile, but not nearly enough. 

For starters, both of them want you to enroll and provide your email address. You know why. Customers come last. These apps aren't about you. They are about the store and adding you to an email list. Good grief. Isn't it sufficient that I wanted to shop at the store enough to download an app? Never mind. Let's move on...

Abertsons. The app is unattractive and not very intuitive from the start, but that's not the trouble. Other than e-coupons and a store locator, there isn't anything surprising or inspired. Let's point out one flaw.

For example, one of the marketing points is to make your shopping list using the app, but that lacks a tangible physical connection. Since it isn't tapped into the store inventory, you can add items you will never find in the store. It doesn't sync your list against its own e-coupons. And it doesn't organize the list by store layout (or even department), which means a lot of wasted time.

So other than advertising and maybe six e-coupons, why do I need this app? The first generation app is mostly useless, but at least I could try a few things before signing up for an account and spam.

Smith's. It's a better looking app that not only works for Smith's, but all Kroger grocery store brands too. Good enough, but then what? The weekly ads and e-coupons are nice enough, but each one wants you to sign in to add them to the shopping list.

So I did. It's much more intrusive than Albertsons, but I played along and added my Shopper Rewards number. My registration failed, it said, because my number is already in use. Right. By me.

I skipped that step and then had to confirm my email. Do they know how frustrating it is to leave an app to do that? I went to my desktop to save a step only to find that the confirmation hadn't even arrived. I double checked it and resent it from the app. Nothing (not even in my spam folder).

There is nothing like technology to remind you how fragile brands can be. That's as far as I got.

How to reinvent a grocery store app that works for the customer. 

First things first. Scrap the accounts on the front end. You can entice me later with things that make sense — special account-only offers and recipes that I don't have at home — but let people shop in the meantime.

The first thing people want and need is a store locator, which both apps are already equipped with (so that's easy). But after the store is located, the app ought to adjust to a physical layout of the store.

Then, when I start to add items to my list, the app ought to check approximate store inventory, apply any e-discounts and coupons, and arrange the list using a geographical layout of the store. That way you are sure that all your dairy items are picked up in the dairy section.

The app ought to allow for branded and non-branded items. Consumers have different tolerances for different items. Sometimes not having Comet in stock can be a deal breaker. Sometimes it just matters what napkins are on sale. Flexibility is the key and helpfulness raises the bar — e.g., maybe you can segment and merge lists based on regular purchases like milk, eggs, and bread to help people skip retyping everything. All this would not only make sense, but also merge the high tech and high touch.

Want to go a step further? Some grocery stores allow orders and pick- ups anyway. So it only makes sense to have the 'option' to send the list in advance of a shopping trip (along with any special butcher cuts and deli meats). The customer can choose whether they want to do more shopping in the store (while only their special items like meat and deli are prepped) or have everything bagged (assuming you are specific) in advance for a nominal fee of $5.

If $5 sounds too light, you have to think long term. As long as it's done right, people will have a hard time giving back the hour or two they saved. If you want to go a step further, add $20 for delivery.

All of it delivers on the brand promise that both groceries are missing right now. Grocery apps are great but they need to marry the in-store and out-of-store experience. At the same time, it would win over customer loyalty and reduce wait times because the app might already have your debit card info for the express self-checkout or (perhaps) already be factored in by the assembly team before hand.

Wednesday, September 19

Interesting Opinions: Wi-Fi Is Not Enough?

When I read the article with Glenn Lurie, an AT&T executive who sees every new consumer device before they are released, I was surprised. Although it is not his call alone, he has taken the position that Wi-Fi is not enough.

"We try to look for all the opportunities in the world to get the OEMs to understand that they shouldn’t be building two devices," he said in the All Things D interview. "They should be building one device with Wi-Fi and 4G. It’s more efficient for them than having two [product] lines."

He believes it is a simple matter of education. Consumers must learn that they need always-on connectivity, he said. Naturally, eliminating Wi-Fi only would serve AT&T too. More connections means more subscribers and more subscribers means a better revenue model if they choose AT&T.

I appreciate his candor, but the comments immediately following the story tell another story. Even with the best of intentions, Lurie is out of touch with the customer. People see subscriptions as traps.

Understanding the consumer mindset and product usage. 

It really isn't that hard to understand. People opt for Wi-Fi only iPads and tablets so they don't have to pay for another cellular subscription. Many of them believe the phone subscription is enough.

From the consumer perspective, it makes sense. It even has an historic context. The number one reason that newspaper and magazine subscriptions dwindled is because people are genuinely tired of subscriptions that eventually begin to feel like utilities — fees you have to pay for the basic services.

Among monthly fees, publications are frequently the first to go. Especially if your income is unstable (tip workers, etc.), elective subscriptions go twice as fast. So you have to pick and choose from a long list of fundamental and elective expenses.

For most people, mandatories include: electric, gas, water, municipal services, mortgage payments, car leases or payments, car insurance, telecommunications, mobile telecommunications, cable or satellite, and taxes. Now add health insurance (especially with new government requirements) and life insurance. Immediately following those payments are the electives, ranging from gamer accounts and clubs to gym memberships and lawn care. All of them cause a dwindling supply of disposable income.

Where do iPads and tablets fit? For many but not all consumers, it's closer to the bottom because those who opt for Wi-Fi only are satisfied with using their smart phones when they are on the go and Wi-Fi only when they have access at home, work, the hotel, and a growing number of other venues (both public and private hot spots). In fact, given how many places are adding Wi-Fi and AT&T's support of such hot spots to cut down on system overload, it seems more likely Wi-Fi is preferred (doubly so because some functions require Wi-Fi access to work). All things considered, why pay more?

Obviously, some people do have a need. The split between the products is generally 60 percent Wi-Fi only and 40 percent 4G. The slight advantage Wi-Fi has is a lower model price and no subscription fee after you purchase the product. But there is even more to the story.

AT&T and other providers have contributed to Wi-Fi only sales with usage throttling, data usage caps, service issues, roaming charges, high overage changes, etc. Maybe it's not the consumer who needs to be educated. AT&T could learn something about consumers and make 4G more tempting.

Making a better future to marry Wi-Fi and 4G. 

I'm not one of the many people who equate AT&T with the evil empire. I genuinely prefer them as my phone provider, think they have better customer service, and they recently did us right by offering advice on how to handle our phone service (for three phones) while traveling in a foreign country.

So how do carriers sell always-on connectivity? For starters, they could break away from device subscription models and replace them with account subscriptions instead. If you already have an iPhone, your iPad subscription is, gasp, inclusive because you're less likely to use both at the same time.

Or, they could implement lifetime plans built into the product price much like they did for Amazon Kindle (with a better fallback for usage overages). Or, they could give people the option of buying 4G-ready devices without a subscription, allowing them to add it (or drop it) at their leisure.

Of course, they could improve their system so it isn't affected by high-usage customers (thereby killing the throttle concept). And, if they are among those who want to regulate Internet traffic and bandwidths, they could give it up and stay focused on their core service to provide a better experience.

Simply put, it's not education that consumers need. They need an incentive, especially those who get along fine without 4G connectivity, using their iPad mostly around their already Wi-Fi friendly home.

Remember. AT&T is pushing "Think Possible." And right now, people think Wi-Fi everywhere, which is a better fit with Steve Jobs's old vision to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind. Something like that makes subscriptions optional.

Monday, September 17

Making Social Physical: Social Media In Restaurants

Every time I read a story that pits high touch against high tech, digital against physical, or the Internet against brick and mortar, it annoys me. These articles are worthless. The advice is nonsense. The agenda is forcing small business owners to pick one thing or the other because the future is coexistence.

I was reminded of this recently when a mutual group member (David Lopez) of mine posted an article about Mobile Point-of-Sale (POS) technology in restaurants. This article doesn't pit high tech and high touch against each other. It marries it. And this technology is only the tip of the iceberg.

The customer perspective of handheld devices.

When I was traveling in Vancouver a few weeks ago, two restaurants had already adopted mobile point-of-sale handheld devices. Specifically, the server asked us if we needed anything else and we said no, so she pulled out a handheld device. Right there, she swiped the card, allowed me to review the charge, and we were done. The handheld even listed tip options, automatic tip percentages (5-20 percent) or hard dollar amount.

Contrast this to the traditional method practiced by most restaurants. You finish your meal and the server eventually brings out the check. Most people let it sit there awhile, finishing up any remaining edibles and conversations. Eventually you slip in a charge card and it sits around until the server has time. They pick it up, take it back to the register, and then bring it back to you to sign (and calculate the tip in your head).

The traditional method means something as a simple as paying a bill can take five to 20 minutes or more. The tech-savvy solution clocks in around two minutes. The customer wins because several points of contact become one point of contact (and you can leave when you want) and the restaurant wins because everyone who has spent time in restaurant knows that table turns impacts the bottom line.

The only semi-odd thing about it, from my perspective, was having the server stand by while writing the tip. I generally tip 20 percent anyway (a old good habit from my days as a reviewer), but it felt awkward. But I imagine this feeling would pass pretty quick if it was considered a norm.

POS technology is only the beginning: iPad menus rock.

One of the restaurants that adopted POS technology went one step further. At LIFT, the menus are iPads (and better than their website). It is the most amazing experience. The menu is divided into sections — appetizers, lunch, dinner, dessert, wines, etc. You pick a section, scan the list, and then pull up a picture and description of the dish you are interested in before placing your order.

I can't remember the last time comparing and picking a dish was so easy. There were no guesses or surprises. It also helped establish one of the best first pre-meal impressions of a restaurant ever.

The iPad menus really made my creative wheels spin too. There are so many remarkable things a restaurant can do with social technology and take it to the next step. What if customers...

• could tap their smart phones to the menu and receive the menu app?
• could tap their smart phones and subscribe to a content rich blog attached to it?
• could tap their smart phones to enter a contest to win a free lunch?
• could order their meals or request specific seats before they arrived?
• could receive a survey the next day instead of trying to do it at the table?
• were invited to an upcoming special event or special menu sampling?

After just completing a two-year social media contract with a restaurant in Las Vegas, I can attest to the fact that although social media can deliver a return on investment (30-80 check-ins a month, noting that only about 10 percent of all people actually check-in), traditional social media models don't go far enough for restaurants. The primary reason is that they are too focused on impressions and captures (local searches, of all things) and not focused enough on the customers at the table.

Specifically, most restaurants are so comfortable with the old media model — impressions in magazines, phone books, etc. — they have been conditioned to think that applying old media rules to new media is all that can be done. Sure, some of them receive a lift if they implement a social media program, but the real magic of a successful restaurant in the future will not be social media as another marketing silo.

Restaurants that look at technology as an extension of their physical location rather than a means to attract people to a physical location will be the ones with the best bottom line. And those that do it in the United States now (while the recession still makes people think twice about eating out) will be light years ahead of their competitors in the future. This post only scratches the surface.

By the way, I would like to add something about LIFT, given they helped inspire the story. Hands down it was the best meal, best service, and best experience of every restaurant we visited while in Vancouver. And as someone who once wrote dining reviews of some of the finest establishments in Las Vegas, I would have given them five stars, perfection. And yes, the harbor view helped too.

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