Personalization: Power to the Printers!


What’s the difference between the pesky magazine subscription inserts that fall into your lap when you’re trying to read an article and your personal business cards that you slaved over, shelled big bucks for and stake your reputation on? To the manufacturer, not much.

To the printer’s eye, it’s all just ink on cardstock. Ask the consumer though, and the difference is obvious: one is obnoxious advertising that you didn’t ask for, the other was co-created by you to be perfect. The difference in those points of view has never been greater and that spells opportunity for manufacturers.

(Good) Content Producers Add Value for Money
Artists and content producers have long known about that ability to add value to simple production materials. That’s why Renoir canvases go for millions of dollars and your art school homework gets $5 at a garage sale. By arranging their paint or design or text in certain ways, the artist has the potential to sell their products for a profit. For the manufacturer making the materials used in production, it doesn’t help them a whole lot. It’s better than making generic widgets maybe, but the author of the content has the best chance to make the money.

Things are different these days. The modern trend of mass customization through micro-quantity manufacturing is fueling a major Do It Yourself movement. People are empowered to produce their own content and products and want to do so, to show the world how unique they are.

Digital Manufacturers Enable Production for Money
This enables a really amazing opportunity for manufacturers that produce personalized stuff. Technology improvements now allow one-off production of things that used to require production runs of thousands. With the right tools in place, they can accept content produced by customers in the form of graphics, text, video, etc. and turn it into a tangible product. And sell it at a premium price. To the manufacturer equipped with digital production technology, they couldn’t care less whether they’re producing one order of 1,000 pieces or 1,000 orders of 1 piece. Except that they can charge a lot more for orders of 1 piece, even though their production costs are basically the same. After all, it’s just ink on cotton or toner on paper to them.

What happens to the content producer who sends their original design to a t-shirt shop now? They get the opportunity to see their work come to life in a real way, even if they have to pay to get it. That’s something I guess – it wasn’t even possible a few years ago. Meanwhile, the t-shirt shop that produces the item takes home a very large percentage of profit while effectively outsourcing their design development for free. At least the designer gets a cool shirt out of the deal.

Testing the Boundaries of Lifestreaming

It seems that everyone is opening up online these days. Tools for lifestreaming like Twitter and Posterous encourage publishers to share all kinds of details – how else are you going to fill a 24 hour day? Each person has a different idea of what’s appropriate to post in a public forum but there are implications for the reader who digests all of these personal details as well.

Flipping through the channels last night, I ended up watching a rerun of Extreme Make Over Home Edition, usually good for a heartwarming story. The Kadzis family was featured and they seem very deserving of a new house, having adopted several special needs children and working in their community.
What made last night’s show so unusual was that the day before the crew arrived to start on the new house, George Kadzis was rushed to the hospital, seriously ill. They knew that he had cancerous brain tumors and he had just taken a turn for the worse. The rest of the show made me feel a little strange because while all of the cool, entertaining things going on at the house were happening against the depressing backdrop of George’s deteriorating condition.
The segments where ABC interviewed the family were especially awkward and I kept feeling like I shouldn’t be watching it. It was too personal. Even ABC recognized there were some moments too sacred to be broadcast and agreed not to film George in his hospital room. (Although they did have cameras there and included some wide shots with his face blurred.)

With that experience fresh on my mind, I was made aware of another person’s turn for the worse this morning via Twitter. Baby Stellan has a serious heart condition. The only reason I know that is that his mom writes about her children, including Stellan’s struggles, at her blog. The blog is well written with beautiful photography and has a lot of dedicated readers.


Prayers for Stellan
Once I was made aware of the story from a Twitter friend, I could easily follow the unfolding events by reading MyCharmingKids.net, following the #Stellan hashtag or reading MckMama’s own Twitter feed (Stellan’s mom.) Seeing the resulting stream of activity is just heartbreaking.

In both cases, I felt surprisingly sad for people I’d never met before. There’s nothing wrong with that; I think we’re all called to have empathy. But it does take an emotional toll when you take on the worries of others.

The solution, of course, is to turn off the source if it becomes a problem. That’s easy enough when you’re talking about turning off a TV show but it’s a little more difficult in the always-on, everyone’s-a-publisher world of lifestreaming. I don’t have any answers for this one, just processing out loud.

Please pray for Stellan and spread the word as appropriate. If you’d like to, you can add a graphic to your Twitter avatar to help raise awareness.
Likewise, pray for the Kadzis family. You can also make a donation by following the instructions here.

Trendwatching Made Easier

Staying on top of trends is a key to serving consumer markets. Companies that can identify trends and react are at a natural advantage.
With so many potential sources for information, it can be daunting to keep an eye on the things that matter. Use a combination of Google and Firefox to make it easier.
To start, get Firefox. Then get the excellent SEO for Firefox addon installed and set up the way you like it. The plugin adds useful information and links to search engine results pages like Google’s.
Once that is ready to go, head to www.google.com/insights/search. There, you can get information on the topics you’re interested in. If you’re looking to sell products in the U.S., you can filter the query to only apply to product searches in your geographic area. Submit your query and you’ll get a bunch of useful tidbits. The information we’re interested in is “rising searches,” located in toward the end of the right hand column.
The rising searches section shows the queries that have recently become more popular. They aren’t the most popular over all, they’ve just been moving up lately. If the results look like the kind of thing you’re interested in, click on the icon below to add it to your iGoogle homepage.
Adding the Insights for Search gadget effectively creates a persistent search query for any term that rising up the charts. You can fill one of your tabs with a bunch of variations on your search and create a trends dashboard. Google also makes it easy to jump off of the gadget to learn more about the emerging trend. Mouse over a term, then click the g icon to go to a SERP. From there, SEO for Firefox takes over.
Instead of the regular results page, you’ll get a truck load of enhanced features that are great for research. You can see the sites that are already ranking for that term, along with their estimated traffic and number of backlinks. If the sites look weak, you could consider creating content to compete with the sites and capitalize on the emerging topic at hand.
Underneath the query box, you’ll also see other research tools. You can quickly see how much it would cost to compete with PPC ads for the term and about how often the term is searched each month.
All of these tools are already available, but the Google/Firefox combo makes the task easy enough to keep an eye on things each day.

When Going for Word of Mouth, Sweat the Small Stuff!

It’s easy to ignore an acceptable business transaction, one that fulfills all or most of a customers expectations. But if a company can deliver the must-haves first AND surprise the customer with more, it will be hard for the customer to avoid spreading the word.
I ordered some business cards from Moo the other day. They are not like other web based printing companies and that’s a good thing. The thing that made my experience really fun and memorable, and the reason I’m writing about it now, is what happened days after I left their website.
Moo.com is not for everyone. The cards are expensive compared to other vendors online and the turnaround time is an unimpressive 5 business days. The design choices are neat but have very limited options for customization and there is no phone support. From a logical, features point of view, the site really doesn’t cut it. But Marketing is not all about logic.
It was easy enough to get my cards designed and I finished my order feeling okay about the whole process. They even sent me order confirmation details from a fictional personality named Little Moo, using snarky, sarcastic language. Fun, but a lot of people are doing that these days.
My view of Moo went from ordinary to remarkable when I got my cards in the mail.

Instead of packing the cards into a big brown box, they were delivered in a sturdy, handsome desktop display. The Moo logo is subtly included on the box in silver foil and my cards look great stacked inside. True to their personality, they also included an extra business card printed with a meeting crossword game, just for fun.
The effect was that I immediately wanted to show them off. It feels good to see your name on a high quality item and I was excited about the display. It was unexpected. The carrier itself makes you want to slide out a few cards and start handing them out.
For companies producing personalized products, the moment of unboxing is critical. When I was shopping around for a business card vendor, I compared the features like a rational shopper. But when I was opening up the packaging, I was excited to see what I would receive – at a fulcrum point for potential experiences. By nailing the product packaging and including surprise extras, Moo left a great final impression.
The attention to detail may cost a little more in materials and product development time. But the differentiation created and emotions produced make it worth it.

Angry Trout and Brains on Fire

Brains on Fire is an identity company that helps companies create sustainable movements by encouraging customer enthusiasm. They’re way out in front when it comes to understanding and maximizing word of mouth. At the Brains on Fire blog, they have a recurring feature called The You Don’t Need Us Awards. In other words, companies that already get how to engage their customers. Considering how most companies operate these days, that’s high praise.
I was traveling on the North shore of Lake Superior last weekend (hearty people up there – it snowed mid-May!) and encountered a company that definitely does not need help with their identity: The Angry Trout Cafe. Here’s why

  • They believe in a cause For the Angry Trout, that cause is sustainability. A lot of companies claim to be ‘green’ because that’s what people want to hear these days. This cafe’s owners are true believers that walk the walk and don’t apologize for it. It’s impossible to miss the fact that the Angry Trout believes in the sustainability ideal and practices it despite the difficulty involved and despite unpopularity with some people.
  • They are consistent From the way the food is prepared to the way the waste is handled, this place reinforces their message at every turn. Organic food is just the start. They use stoneware that lasts forever, buy all of their furniture and art locally and use small cloth napkins to save on water. They even run the entire place on 100% wind power. An they’ve been doing it all since 1987.
  • They have a manual Going beyond simply leading by example, the Angry Trout seeks to evangelize the sustainability movement. They have recorded their story in a fun, useful book called The Angry Trout Cafe Notebook. It even includes recipes to their excellent food along with practical information on their way of doing things. A store copy is available to read while you wait for your food or you can purchase your own copy and spread the word. A written history is key to creating and sustaining culture.

Whatever you believe about sustainability and a Northern Minnesota cafe’s ability to change the world, there is no denying that sincere passion is a powerful thing. The Angry Trout doesn’t need branding workshops or an identity company’s services. They get it naturally.

Help a Reporter Out – Easy and Cheap PR

For a small business owner, PR campaigns are tough. It’s hard to reach out to reporters on your own and going through an agency is expensive. Help A Reporter Out is an easy way to get a boat load of opportunities to get published, and it’s free.
By signing up for the service, you are offering to become a source. Reporters that need a subject matter expert will forward their requests to Peter Shankman, who organizes them and forwards them on to sources. You can sign up to receive the requests here.
The only problem with HARO is the volume. A typical email could contain about 30 inquiries and they’re sent 3 times a day. You may only be interested in 1 in 100 topics so it presents a real information overload problem.
Luckily, Gmail’s filtering rules are perfect for sorting through mountains of information. Here’s how I’ve set up a filter to send me relevant requests:
1. Sign up at helpareporter.com with a gmail address
2. Create a new filter in gmail that looks for “shankman” as the sender
3. Create keywords to identify the inquiries that are likely to be relevant
4. Skip the inbox, apply a label (‘HARO’ will work) or forward it on to a different email address.
(If your RSS reader supports authenticated feeds, you can even turn that gmail label into an RSS feed and read it there. Google Reader does not have that option.)
Once you have the right email message, it’s easy to ctrl+f to find the appropriate query. Gmail even highlights the term that triggered the filter. As always, be take care when reaching out to these reporters and make sure you can really contribute good info. This could be your opportunity to build a relationship with a valuable contact in your industry.

I remember that / I love that

Oh yeah! Thinking about something or someone that hasn’t crossed your mind in years is a pleasant experience. I remember that! It’s kind of like scratching an old itch, an echo of the feeling you get when an answer is stuck on the tip of your tongue but then, there it is… Got it!

Sometimes that nice moment of realization is translated to the memory itself. “I remember that!” becomes “I love that!” I’m reminded of this phenomenon every time I run out and buy a song I was recently reintroduced to only to realize later that I didn’t especially like it in the first place. That’s why I’ll accept a Facebook friend request from someone I wasn’t even high school friends with. (Although I have gotten over that one in time – I ignore most friend requests lately.)

The transfer factor is multiplied when an old item is presently unavailable or if it achieves cult status. “New York Seltzer Water was the BEST!” or “I LOVED Married with Children and watched it every night!”
Just don’t let it get too mainstream. “Nah, I didn’t really get into Transformers much – I was more of a GoBot man.”

Our memories are unreliable and surprisingly pliable by present forces. Nostalgia is a powerful thing and the smart marketer will remember that. So will the smart consumer.

Logical Marketing: An Oxymoron

I’m a pretty logical thinker. I like to systematically break down a problem into its base parts until I understand all of the variables. I love figs. When I need make a decision (especially when spending money) I’m obsessive about research, listing pros and cons and triple checking my work. The problem is that people don’t really make decisions based on logic, myself included.
The truth is, we’re much more primal and impulsive than we like to think. If it were possible to be completely honest about why I do the things I do or buy the things I do, I wouldn’t find a list of benefits or features. I’d find emotion, needs, justification.
The truth is, even logical arguments aren’t logical if you look closely enough. I’m reading Godel Escher Bach right now (a real mind bender!) and it shows that there is no completely self evident statement. You can always question the assumptions of an argument into statements and then question the assumptions of those statements, on and on indefinitely. Eventually you need to just accept that a concept ‘feels right.’ In other words, you need to take a leap of faith.
So despite my love for data points and even though it makes me feel better to have all the background on an issue, it still comes down to feelings. My takeaway from a Marketing point of view: speak to emotional benefits, indirectly if need be, and take a flier on a project every once in a while.

Beyond ‘copy & paste’ knowledge

Because I wear several hats at work, I tend to be kind of a jack of all trades but a master of none. That’s okay for most applications but I’m resolving to go deeper in a few areas.

I recently took the Strengths Finder test to better understand my own style and how I interact with others at work. One of my top themes as identified by the test is a desire to learn and continuously improve. That rings true to me because I do like to take on new challenges and stretch my thinking. (I love trivia too, Jeopardy rocks!)

I find that when I’m learning a new skill, there is a progression of understanding:
1. There is no understanding but there is an interest in the results
2. Borrowing knowledge from others, I can mimic tactics to get some of the results
3. Because of thorough understanding of the dynamics, I can create original ways of driving the best results

I usually end up somewhere between 2 and 3 before moving on to the next skill. This tendency to skip around to new topics leaves me with a fairly wide breadth of basic knowledge within the Marketing discipline but few areas of true expertise.

Because remarkable results are usually only achieved with original tactics, I’m required to partner with an expert to get the results that I want or I fall short of being great. I’m all for outsourcing, letting the pros do their work. But for personal reasons, I also want to contribute. I want to become an expert that people go to when they recognize a need for a special skill.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working to identify one or two or three skills that I can commit to and really dig into this year. So far, I’m thinking writing for persuasion and HTML…

Neo’s specialist, the Keymaster

Arguments as Justification

As marketers, we tend to craft our messages according to what we think will be the most effective way to convince someone of doing something that we want them to do. Logic is a classic example, although not always the most effective (people are emotional and irrational beings!)
But it’s interesting to notice that sometimes our arguments don’t need to convince people at all, only help them justify. Even if a sales pitch is rejected on a logical level, it can serve as a useful justification if the customer wants that end result to begin with. If that’s the case, the customer is likely to use the argument to justify that action to self and to others. The argument doesn’t even need to make sense – just look good enough to avoid a feeling of guilt or embarrassment.
It all brings to mind the classic marketing resource National Lampoon’s Vacation. When the car salesman tries to pitch Clark on the Family Truckster, Clark doesn’t bite, “I’m not your ordinary, every day [fool].” But he wants to go on vacation and ends up buying thing anyway. Once he gets home he uses the same lines on his wife that the salesman used on him: “If you think you hate it now, wait till you drive it!”