Friday, October 31, 2008

Another good BSS event

It's not quite NCAR's Super Science Saturday, but there's another fun Big Science Saturday event coming up.

Each fall and spring, the first-year engineering students at CU host a Design Expo to show off their design projects. The projects are judged by working engineers from various companies around the area. For three hours during the day, though, the Expo is open to the public and the public can vote on their favorite project to win the People's Choice Award.

You can find more information on CU's Integrated Teaching and Learning Program website. It's another good opportunity for me to expose the boys to science and engineering in action.

We'll see you there!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Brilliant viral video from

Someone just forwarded to me a viral video from that I love. In fact, I forwarded it to about half a dozen people myself. As I write this post, their counter states that it has been sent to 9.2 million people (one can never trust counters like that, by the way).

I love it because it is entertaining and pretty effective, at least in delivering a message. I don't care about the particular political position it takes. I love it because it's a very entertaining way to send a message to people to get out and vote. I would love to see if it actually delivers votes, but I doubt we'll ever know.

I would love to use a viral video like this in a marketing campaign, but there's one problem. The ability to predict the popularity of a video is very limited. The Jib Jab guys never were able to replicate their original success with follow-up videos, and YouTube is a graveyard of attempted viral hits.

As I mentioned in my radio post, home runs are hard to predict. To extend that baseball metaphor a little further, base hits are far more predictable and drive in just as many runs.

Radio ads really work (2 of 2)

On the last post on this topic, I mentioned that one of the reasons that these two ads work is because of sheer repetition, which is required in almost all forms of advertising. We're all familiar with single commercial events that leave a lasting impression, like the Apple Orwell's-1984-with-the-sledgehammer-through-the-TV-screen ad. But the likelihood of an ad becoming iconic like that is less than one in a million. For instance, can you name another Super Bowl ad from that year? I'm sure there were others that spent a lot of money on high concept ads.

The point is, you can't count on single ad home runs, much like you can't count on videos going viral. You can count on repetition, however. But I've already pointed out that repetition isn't enough. While necessary (if you don't want to bet on home runs), repetition isn't sufficient. So what else makes these ads successful?

They're also successful because they're unique. The Lennox Financial owner/spokesperson has a southern accent, speaks with authority, educates when he speaks, and has an attention-grabbing presence. His simultaneous authority and folksiness serve to make listeners pay attending and trust him. Most chief executives do not have screen or radio presence, but this guy does, and they have made the most of his abilities.

The Advanced Tax Solutions ads are equally unique, but in a very different way. There is no company representative in the ads. Instead, all of the ads are read by Irv. Irv's an old guy, a kind of grandfatherly character of whom you're never quite sure if he's still all there. But when Irv's folksy, clumsy delivery is combined with actual customers describing their situations and the company's successful resolutions, it comes across as very believable.

Obviously, uniqueness works well for these guys. Of course, uniqueness doesn't always work. Remember the Quizno's rat-like things?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Radio ads really work (part 1 of 2)

First, a two-part confession:

(i) I have never had the opportunity in my marketing career to use radio as an advertising medium.
(ii) I listen to sports talk radio. Not exclusively, but enough to seriously compromise my snooty, high-brow, elitist literati posturing.

So, I found myself thinking today about two series of ads that I have heard forever on sports talk radio. One is for a mortgage company, Lennox Financial, and the other for Advanced Tax Solutions, a firm that helps people who are in hot water with the IRS.

Here's what I find interesting about these two series of ads: I can tell you the name of those companies off the top of my head.

Not that I'm the market for either of these services, mind you. I have no need for a new mortgage (and I already have a great mortgage guy, Bill Zuetell at Lendmor), and I have been a dutiful citizen with regard to the IRS. I don't think about these services at all. Ever.

But if the need arose, or if someone asked me about these types of services, I am able to come up with the names of these firms and have a good enough feeling about them to call them. That is the definition of effective advertising.

So why do these work? I think there are a couple of explanations.

The most obvious is repetition. These ads have been on for at least a couple of years with the same theme. However, there are lots of ads that have been on the radio for years with the same theme that are not nearly as memorable, so there's something else that works for them.

Each of them has a unique ad design that they have kept constant over the years. The Lennox Financial ad features the company owner describing the current state of the mortgage market and the implications for the homeowner. And he always closes with the same line: "It's the biggest no-brainer in the history of Earth."

Similarly, the Advanced Tax Solutions ads are also a constant, seemingly unchanged over many years. They come on during Irv and Joe and, in fact, are all read by Irv. They always feature client testimonials, with the actual client on the air responding to questions from Irv.

These ads have been on forever, so they should have made an impression in sheer repetition alone. But I'm sure there are other ads that have been on these stations forever that I can't recall as well. Why is that? I'll discuss that in my next post on this topic.

Separate quality control from sales?

Our refrigerator died yesterday. Actually, it didn't die, but it was very sick, with a compressor that couldn't keep it cold enough anymore.

The cost of a new compressor was well over $500, and almost half the cost of replacing the fridge. We decided to replace the compressor, rather than the whole fridge, although someday I'm going to revisit the economics of that decision. For now, it just annoyed me to have to spend SO MUCH money just to keep an old appliance alive. The repairman also was in our home until almost 10 pm doing the work.

Although the repairman was helpful and doing his best to be empathetic, I was in a bad mood about the whole experience and couldn't wait to get this guy out of our house.

After he presented the invoice and accepted payment, he handed me a customer feedback form for me to complete, insert in an envelope, and seal. I took a minute or two to do so.

The first couple of questions were about the quality of service: did the service person explain the problem clearly, was he courteous, on time, etc. I gave the guy some credit because, other than taking longer than he estimated, I thought he did a good job.

Then the next several questions, taking up about 2/3 of the entire sheet, were questions for selling new services:
  • Does anyone in the home have allergies?
  • Dry skin?
  • Does the air conditioning keep the house cool enough?
On and on ...

Was this a quality assurance questionnaire, or a sales questionnaire? There were so many sales questions that it made me question whether the company really wanted to measure service quality at all. I think they couldn't care less. They just want to put me on a mailing or phone list for having my heating ducts cleaned or to have my air conditioning serviced.

At the end, they had a numerical rating scale for their service quality. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would have given the guy an 8, even though I was annoyed with having to pay all this money and have this guy in our house all evening. But after being hammered with more sales questions, I gave him a 6.

Not that they care or that they'll even look at it. They'll mostly be annoyed that I didn't answer any of their sales questions.

While selling should be a regular part of a company's interaction with a customer by any employee, there is one area where the presence of sales is inappropriate. Sales should not be part of quality assurance, other than the implicit message that the customer should want to buy more because the company is so focused on quality.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Missed the Red Bull Soapbox Derby

I just realized that by choosing to go to the NCAR SSS, we missed the opportunity to see the Red Bull Soapbox Derby, which looked like it would be crazy, goofy fun. The boys would have loved it and I would have had the opportunity to show them the wacky, fun side of science. (And, as a marketer, I really respect what Red Bull has done in their market.) Oh well, we can't do it all.

NCAR's SSS was great

The boys loved the event, much more than they did two or three years ago when we went last.

Their favorite exhibits were the velcro wall and the TV weathercaster demo. Here are Maddox and me, just after I threw him at the velcro wall (sorry for the quality .. I only had my phone with me).

And Maddox in front of the 7 News weathercaster green screen reading his cue cards:

And the boys enjoying the final video product:

They also enjoyed the stormchaser truck, the hand-cranked kid train, and the tornado maker. After closing with a visit to Mustard's Last Stand, I have to say it was a terrific day.

Friday, October 24, 2008

NCAR's Super Science Saturday is tomorrow

As you all know, my family has long held Big Science Saturday (BSS). Not to be outdone, the National Center for Atmospheric Research will hold their annual Super Science Saturday tomorrow here in Boulder.

According to a flyer that Ryan brought home from school, they will perform experiments and demonstrations with various energy sources, highlight the sustainability of natural resources, and teach kids about the effects of their energy choices. They'll also have a hand-crank kid-powered train, Segway rides for older kids, and a super sticky velcro wall.

It's no BSS, but I think we'll have to drop by to check it out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I finally finished voting

When I started this blog, I never intended to post about political issues, but ...

The citizen initiatives in Colorado are out of control. I just spent about two hours going through all of the issues on the ballot. On the ballot for Boulder city residents, in addition to the national, state, county, and city candidates, there were:
  • 14 proposed amendments to the Colorado constitution
  • 4 proposed amendments to Colorado statutes
  • 2 Boulder County issues
  • 7 Boulder city issues
Don't we have a representative form of government? Why am I having to decide all of these issues? Isn't that why I elect city council members, county commissioners, state legislators, and governors?

The reason people are putting these issues on the ballot is because they don't like the decisions made by their government, so they're attempting to go around the government directly to the voters.

The problem with that is that voters don't have enough information to make sound decisions. The complete text of the ballot issue is far to complex and dense for the average voter to ever get through, and the summary text and summary arguments for and against each measure can never capture all of the important implications of the measure. (I'll ignore for the moment the dozens of related TV and radio commercials, every single one of which is misleading, generated as a result of these measures.)

This is a recipe for bad laws to be passed that take forever to unwind.

I consider myself more politically aware than the average citizen, and I happen to have a little free time on my hands right now to give considerable thought to the issues, but when I sealed up my mail-in ballot, I had a queasy feeling that I had made some mistake or that I had missed an important consideration. Voting should make me feel like I'm advancing the interests of my state by taking part in the electoral process. It should not make me feel like I just contributed to my state becoming a social, cultural, political, or economic backwater due to silly citizen-enacted laws.

The way to get better laws enacted is to change the people making the laws, not to go around them. Colorado needs to raise the bar on citizen initiatives to make them more difficult to get on the ballot. In that way, only the truly important issues will be considered. This will also require voters to think harder about who they elect as their representative, hold them to a higher standard, and demand more accountability.

Lawmakers get paid to understand and interpret all of the implications of important issues. If your representative still doesn't do what you want regarding an issue important to you, run for office yourself. Don't try to push the decision responsibility on an ill-prepared electorate.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Microsoft finally did something right

I have to say I really like the new Microsoft "I'm a PC" commercials (here is an example), which were created right here in Boulder by Crispin Porter + Bogusky. These have been written and blogged about ad nauseum (including the recent revelation that they were created on a Mac), but I'd like to throw in my two cents just to raise the nauseum level one more notch.

(Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Apple products.)

Building your brand requires that you emphasize your strengths while moderating your weaknesses. Microsoft's strength is that its software is ubiquitously deployed and forms a complete solution, particularly for the enterprise. There are several weaknesses with Microsoft's products, including not seamlessly integrating with different media types, forcing customers into a lockstep upgrade path, and a history of unreliability or instability. Microsoft as a corporation is also seen as a monopolistic corporate bully. All of these weaknesses, and more, have been highlighted in Apple's 'I'm a PC/I'm a Mac' commercials (see them all here).

From Microsoft's press release, they state that the new ads highlight "real people celebrating their connection to the community of one billion Windows users worldwide," and they achieve that by featuring an amazingly broad array of users, clearly highlighting Microsoft's ubiquity.

At the same time, they are moderating some of their weaknesses with their choices of users to feature. They show a hip, urban DJ, thereby implicitly addressing the media integration weakness. They show schoolchildren in Africa, addressing the corporate bully issue. This is great stuff.

Do the Mac commercials do the same (highlight the strengths, moderate the weaknesses)? They certainly highlight their strengths in ease of use, stability, and media capabilities. Some of Apple's weaknesses include lack of enterprise solutions, price, a closed iTunes system, and a narrower set of third-party applications. I just reviewed about a dozen of their ads, which hammer on their strengths, but saw very few examples of effectively addressing weaknesses.

For once, I have to give the slight edge to Microsoft.