Is it the copywriting? The coupon? Or the beginnings of a neighborhood?

May 30, 2011

The headline and lead in the Sunday NYT business section naturally caught my eye. 

Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words

The e-mail marketer hopes that its staff of 400 writers and editors will keep it one step ahead of its discounting competitors on the Web.

I’d love it if catchy copywriting could carry the day for coupon web sites.  But I don’t believe it will work, and I don’t honestly believe it is the core of Groupon’s competitive differentiation strategy. 

With sales promotions, it’s all about the offer, and being clear about the offer.  Clever copywriting may have helped Groupon create the category, but it won’t be enough to keep them on top.

Compare Groupon’s headline today

71% off Seattle Drum School

With Social Living’s (the competitor from Amazon)

Chef Shop , 2.5 Hour Cooking Class, $33

Both headlines are basic, and Social Living’s offer is actually clearer.  Whether I even bother to click depends partly on my interest in drums vs. cooking, and partly how much time I have to screw around that today.

Groupon’s email teaser copy is a little more clever, but I don’t even know what the specific offer is until the second sentence.

Playing a musical instrument is a skill that will serve you throughout your entire life, like safe cracking, horse whispering, and puppy juggling. Add to your resume with today’s Groupon: for $40, you get four 30-minute private music lessons on…

Social Living’s attempt at clever is awkward but it gets the point across.

Hey, good lookin’. Whatcha got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ a little somethin’ up with us when you get this brand-new recipe for great savings out of the frying pan and into the oven? Heat things up with a 2.5-hour cooking class from ChefShop and you’ll be dazzling your dinner guests…

The NYT article hints that Groupon knows it needs a more robust idea going forward, and this idea is intriguing

The hope … is that its users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper’s weekend section.


Why marketing agencies need clients (besides the obvious)

February 1, 2008

As a group, ad agencies and design firms have among the worst web sites of any category of company.  I realize that’s a gross generalization but it is true much more often than not.  I know because I visit a lot of agency web sites in search of resources for my clients.   

The most egregious missed opportunity:  The number one thing a prospective client wants to see at an agency’s web site is examples of their work.  Yet, way too often the portfolio is unorganized and hard to view.  Check out Publicis’ web site to see just one example — what I think of as the “filmstrip approach.” You have to scroll sequentially through the myriad panels of individual images, most of which do not make sense out of context.   Yes, you can click on any frame to see more but the individual images don’t tell you enough to even know who the client is most of the time.   

The problem, I’ve concluded, is that when agencies develop their own web sites there is one essential piece of the equation that’s missing – the client.  The client is the one who insists that the creative work serve a purpose, the one who measures each creative concept against an articulated strategy.  What I too often see in these sites is creativity run amok, cleverness for its own sake that makes me think less of the agency instead of more, even from agencies that otherwise do great work.   

I used to use a creative firm’s web site as a litmus test for the quality of their work, but I’ve abandoned that notion because I’ve found there isn’t a strong correlation.  And I’ve resisted the temptation to link to many of these sites for the exact reason that I do work or will work with lots of these folks.  What I do, is point out to my clients that they play as critical a role in creative work as their agencies do.  To get great work, you need both.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

January 28, 2008

From today’s NYT:  In reply to a blogger’s complaint about a current Target ad, Target sent an email to the blogger that said “Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.”  (emphasis mine). 

Wow!  The notion that any company has the chutzpah to completely disregard a major communications channel takes my breath away.  I’m not commenting on how seriously they should take, the founder of which sent the complaint — I don’t anything about that particular blog, though I’d guess they’ve had record traffic today.   

I do know that “conversational marketing” is the most fundamental shift in marketing that’s happened during my career.  To eliminate all blogs – one of the major manifestations of conversational marketing — from consideration, with the arrogant-sounding, broad-brush, across-the-board statement that Target used makes me wonder what they’re doing over there in the marketing department.  (Jeez guys, at least don’t say it that way, even if that’s what you’re doing.)

Figuring out how to “participate” with the blogosphere is hard.  It requires resources and it’s messy because there’s no control on the number or quality of bloggers.  It requires a willingness to slog through a lot of meaningless drivel to make sure you don’t miss the important stuff and to engage on some issues that normally wouldn’t get your attention. 

Wikia and Big Think: Contrasts in user-generated content concepts

January 7, 2008

The New York Times today featured articles on two nascent web sites: Wikia Search and Big Think.

There’s an intrinsic marketing problem in launching any site built around user-generated content:  The site is useful only once there’s lots of user-generated content, which is really hard to get until you have lots of users, which you achieve by getting lots of press coverage for your new site.  But of course, the PR drives people to a bare bones site that doesn’t showcase the site’s vision very well.  The more interesting question is whether the core concept will be compelling once the site is well populated.  In this case, I think there’s one potential winner and one site that’s missing the mark.

First a little background:

Wikia Search (by Wikia, the for-profit sister organization of Wikipedia) launched the alpha of its search engine today. The idea behind Wikia is laudable – it will rely on the user community to fine-tune search results by allowing users to rate search results for quality and relevance.  To his credit, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales admits that people using the search engine “should understand that they are part of the early stages of a project to build a ‘Google-quality search engine.’” Read the article. 

The Times also featured a large article on Big Think – a kind of YouTube for intellectual ideas.  It features video interviews with public intellectuals from a variety of fields, broken down into short snippets on various topics.  Users can post comments, creating an online debate, and also post their own original ideas. 

Of the two sites, Wikia Search has much less value as of today – the search results are laughable and the features to allow users to refine the content aren’t really there.  Yet I can easily see its potential. 

Big Think worked diligently to pre-populate its site with interviews of intellectuals and celebrities ranging from John McCain to Calvin Trillin, to Alan Dershowitz.  But I have a much harder time ever seeing it succeed as founder Peter Hopkins envisioned it:  “a web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube did for bulldogs on skateboards.”  The sad truth that is that most people are pretty darn dull when they’re giving a monologue to a camera.  The short snippets are banal and the longer pieces are downright tedious.  (No, I didn’t check out every single example — but enough)  The big opportunity is to figure out how to empower the user community’s version of Charlie Rose or James Lipton to truly engage with Alan Dershowitz or you or me.  Till then, Big Think will have a bigger problem than just chicken and egg.

Web sites that are too smart for their own good

November 3, 2007

Seth Godin wrote yesterday about the benefits of customizing your web site so that you don’t treat everyone the same.  Seth’s a very smart guy and this is a major trend.  But I’m a contrarian. 

I get quite annoyed when I point a friend to something on a web site, but they don’t see what I see.  Or when I return to a web site multiple times and it has changed, so I have a hard time getting back to something I want.  This is especially annoying when it appears that the site thinks it has “learned” something about me from my online behavior but doesn’t tell me what that is.

Give me a little less intelligence, and a little more predictability.

Figures Lie

November 1, 2007

Check out this ranking of Seattle-area startups.  My friend Marcelo Calbucci publishes this list each month.  I thought I knew about the majority of local startups, but there are many here that are new to me.

Even if you don’t care about the Seattle startup community, it is still interesting to check out this post to see the disparity between Alexa traffic rankings and Compete traffic rankings for many of these companies’ web sites.   The travel service Farecast is ranked as the 20,054th most visited site by Alexa and as the 1,969th most visited by Compete.  How can that be?! 

You may well be asking a more basic question, i.e. What in the heck are Alexa and Compete?  These are two web services that attempt to quench the thirst for knowledge about how popular any web site is.   For both of these services, you have to download their toolbar.  Then just go to any web site and the toolbar will display the ranking of that site as well as how it is trending.  E.g. today, is ranked at 2,327 by Alexa.  You can click to see a graph of how the site has fared over time. 

As you can imagine, venture capitalists love these services.  And so naturally startups are constantly trying to make sure their rankings “look” good, even if they have to go thru unnatural acts to do so – e.g. a company might invest heavily in an online advertising campaign starting a couple of months before they go out for a fund raising to ensure they can show “traction”, even though they wouldn’t otherwise spend that money in that way at that time to build the business. 

That’s not great, but of more concern to me is determining how accurate the rankings are.  I’ve been skeptical of Alexa since the beginning because Alexa creates its rankings purely from the traffic data of people who have the Alexa toolbar.  An excerpt from Alexa’s web page that explains the ranking process: 

Alexa computes traffic rankings by analyzing the Web usage of millions of Alexa Toolbar users. The information is sorted, sifted, anonymized, counted, and computed, until, finally, we get the traffic rankings shown in the Alexa service. 

For the record, both services include lots of non-ranking-related features that they suggest are the reason people download their toolbars.   But in reality, no one I know outside the investment community or web business community has either toolbar (or frankly, even knows what they are).  So aren’t we all just talking to ourselves?  

Compete, a more recent market entrant, has a much better story to tell – that they combine multiple data sources to create their rankings.  An excerpt from Compete’s web page that explains the ranking process 

We balance multiple data sources, including ISPs, ASPs, Opt-In Panels and the Compete Toolbar. We strongly believe in our multiple data source strategy and its ability to detect and correct for bias across diverse data sources to ensure accurate projections.

That sounds good, and I’m more inclined to believe their rankings, though of course I have no way to objectively assess how accurate they are.   

The good market force at work here is that Alexa’s success and vulnerabilities almost certainly prompted Compete to – well – compete.  As a result, interested parties are no longer relying on a lone source of information in an area critical to startups’ funding.