Is One Positive Day tomorrow? Rats!

Blogs and other user-generated content (UGC), coupled with search engines, have made negative news spread like online viruses. This news can be extremely harmful to a brand. Often the damage is unwarranted.

A good example is the fall-out two weeks ago over the punishing flight delays that jetBlue subjected many of its customers to. Kevin Hillstrom of The Mine That Data Blog observed that in the week following these delays, more than 7,500 articles had been written about them in blogs and other UGC. The number is sobering.

It’s especially concerning when you consider that no company is perfect, and jetBlue is better than most. From the top down, they are organized around the customer experience. Their blunder shows that with even the best of companies, stuff happens.

In his open letter to the marketing blogging community, Kevin asks writers Rats in the NYC KFC-Taco Bellto think twice next time before braying about whatever company publicly stumbles. Outrage over poor customer service is fine, but restraint is also in order. Most reasonable people would agree that jetBlue does not deserve 7,500 voices screaming for blood. People were inconvenienced, not poisoned.

On the other hand, poisoning would probably merit outrage from a blogger, right? Or how about the threat of poisoning, from rats in a restaurant, as shown in the photo above?

Here’s why this is an important distinction. I promised Kevin on his blog that I would participate in his One Positive Day pledge. In this pledge, I as a blogger would not “go negative,” so to speak, just because the opportunity presents itself. In this pledge, I will not succumb to the temptation of talking about poor customer service merely as a way to elicit strong reactions from readers — strong reactions that would presumably garner stronger readership.

Kevin proposes that One Positive Day, his moratorium on UGC negativity, would be enforced on the first day of every month. Starting tomorrow, March 1. So I only have a few precious hours to post this photo, which was taken from video footage of a Greenwich Village KFC-Taco Bell — the restaurant that made the news, and YouTube, for being an after-hours haven to dozens of cavorting rats. Yuck.

Repeat after me. Yuck. Okay, enough of that. Tomorrow is a new day. A much more positive day. I promise, Kevin.

Is the music industry returning to street corner busking?

The headline in the February 22, 2007 edition of Rolling Stone was ominous: Labels in Free-fall. It certainly looks that way. It reported that total sales of the top five CDs in January, 1997 was 865,144 units. This January sales fell short of that by 67% — only 285,702 units sold. Yes, that’s a free-fall alright. It’s also just the top five albums. Total album sales for the same two months was a drop of much less, 38%. That is, a drop from 55 million CDs sold in January, 1997 to 34 million this January.

So is the sky really falling? Or are these figures simply showing shifts in how people are buying music? The answer, I think, is both. There will definitely be winners and losers. And a lot of the losers are Rolling Stone advertisers.

Let’s look again at the numbers.

First, consider the affect that the long tail phenomenon is having on sales. Although the top five CDs have dropped by two-thirds, the drop was far less severe if you add up all CDs purchased. A drop of 38% is pretty horrific, but it’s a long way from 67%. Why weren’t they closer in magnitude? The answer is exactly what Chris Anderson describes in his book. The masses are buying a greater variety of music, stealing unit sales from the blockbuster CDs. The superstars are far less super than they were in ’97.

The article ignores that fact, because it is too busy bemoaning the imminent death of the album, and consequently, the death of the record label. I don’t argue that both are evolving fast. But dying? It’s all in how you define things.

Now let’s look at the CD. The numbers cited combine online and bricks-and-mortar CD sales. But they are deceptive, because they look at a CD, or “album,” as something that is sold unbroken. Buying individual songs is not included. What’s more, small retailers are also ignored by the source of this data, Nielsen SoundScan. Retailers can only participate if they have “Internet access and a Point Of Sales (POS) Inventory System.” My favorite independent record store has one but not both. What’s more, labels can report sales of their CDs, but must pay $500 per year for the privilege.

Single-artist labels are also disqualified. That means Ani Difranco was off the radar in 1997, when her Righteous Babe Records sold her CDs only (and sold them by the tens of thousands). This year there’s no telling what self-publishing artists are being ignored by Nielsen sales figures. And admittedly they’re the best we’ve got at the moment.

Now let’s look closer at what a record label is good for (here’s a hint to their post-millennium relevance: A record “label” literally is the donut-shaped paper glued to the middle of a vinyl 45 RPM single or a 33 RPM “long-playing record”). There was a time when artists needed a label, both literal and figurative. They needed help producing and distributing their music. Much has changed.

A co-worker, who is a niche recording artist in his spare time, describes a very different time not very long ago. Back then his home recording studio was a room with many expensive pieces of hardware, all wired together. When everything was fired up, the room became an oven. Voltage coursing through the system produced a perceptible signal hum, which itself had to be eliminated during the production process by – you guessed it – another costly gadget. All of this required money and ingenuity. My friend had enough of both to produce his albums, but most artists didn’t back then, and still don’t today.

Luckily, a musician can record and produce albums today with nothing more than the processing power contained in a notebook computer. Buy-in, in terms of both money and intellect, is much lower. As for distribution, deals can be cut directly with sites such as iTunes (are you listening, Freedy Johnston, you neo-Luddite, you?).

My friend is even considering placing a Paypal option on his music site. The site would accept donations, from anyone, regardless of whether they ever buy one of his songs. He tells me that others he knows can make an average of $20 a day, from total strangers, who just like what they’re doing and want to support their art.

It sounds a lot to me like busking. That’s what musicians used to do — and still do today on busy street corners — to earn a living or a little beer money. They strum their guitars, leaving their guitar boxes open for passersby to drop donations into. The kindness and charitable nature of music lovers has always been the lifeblood of musicians. I’m seeing things come full-circle, in an era of improved access to the music that touches our souls.

This was the meta message of Steve Jobs, in his essay last week that seemed to bite the hand that feeds iTunes. The Apple Computing CEO suggested that everyone would sell more music if digital rights management (DRM) was removed from the recordings that he and competing online music stores sell. Removing DRM would be the ultimate honor system. It’s as though he’s proposing to stop charging people a formal admission to hear their favorite artists. Instead, the artists come outside, into the open air, and sing their hearts out for those who toss their coins into a guitar case. Purchases of songs will remain retail transactions, but purchases will be made out of ethics and generosity and not punitive DRM constraints. 

Representation and distribution were handled by official record labels, and not musicians themselves, out of necessity. Technology required it. This system worked for over 80 years but nothing lasts forever.

Jobs’ anti-DRM essay is a signal that there must be a redefinition of the record label as we know it. Although labels won’t go away, the change will be significant. Instead of the label holding all of the power with most musicians, it will be the musician who can decide which street corner will serve his or her art the best. The label will manage the street corner. That is all. They’ll keep it clean, and maybe help to draw a crowd.

In 2006, Time Magazine called the person of the year “You.” Is it possible that in 2007, Rolling Stone will be forced to crown, as its label of the year, “The Musician?”

Sticky ideas are made not born

Memes are ideas that spread like viruses. Some are more contagious than others. What makes an idea contagious is a quality that makes people want to share it. Memes must also be memorable — they have to stay with their “host” long enough to spread. A common cold wouldn’t be nearly so common if it didn’t last long enough in our bodies for us to sneeze or cough. It’s the same with memes. They don’t have to live in us forever in order to be successful, but they do have to find a host and take it for a ride.

In order to be memes, ideas have to be sticky.

An example of a sticky idea that has come and gone is that Elvis Presley is still alive — that his death was faked. Another, which is leaving our consciousness in half lives, is that Halloween trick-or-treating is dangerous because of rampant poisoning of the candy being given out. Did you realize that this was an urban legend? This meme — or sticky idea — reached its apex in the 1980s and drained Halloween of a lot of its fun for subsequent generations of kids.

Sticky ideas are the tools of the trade for marketers. They are of particular importance to interactive marketers, since email and other online communcation can spread a meme like wildfire. Stickiness can make selling a product that much easier. Here are two ideas, one sticky, one not-so-much. They both deal with our immune system:

  • Zinc in lozenge form can help our immune system by interrupting the virus that causes a cold, thus preventing it or lessening its severity
  • Probiotics in foods like yogurt can strengthen the immune system and fight things like upper respiratory infections, since healthy bacteria in the gut are part of our body’s natural system for fighting disease

These are two ideas about staying healthy. Both have the support (in terms of communicating the idea and selling products) by major food and drug companies. But only one of them was sticky enough to be the topic of conversation yesterday, when I was walking to lunch with a couple of business associates.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we were talking about lozenges and not yogurt. The idea that a lozenge can help you feel better — especially with a new, exotic ingredient (zinc) — resonates.

On the other hand, eating yogurt, or taking a pill, with live bacteria in it? As a way to stave off illness? Yuck. It may be true, but it doesn’t stick. I’ve heard this concept for years, but I still don’t think it’s going to catch hold in a big way. Probiotics may continue to grow in sales, but I’m putting my money on zinc.

Made To StickThose ideas were built into the product. You can’t do much to change their stickiness. But many can be altered, like an engineered microbe, to better connect with an audience. This is the theme of a book by the Brothers Heath (not to be confused with be-bop jazz greats The Heath Brothers). The book is called Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

They contend there are six aspects to a sticky idea:

  1. Simplicity — Is it easy to grasp? (“A mineral we don’t get enough of in our foods can cure our cold …”)
  2. Unexpectedness — Like a joke, does it have a punch? (“… and it’s zinc!”)
  3. Concreteness — Does it draw a clear picture? (“… which you can buy in lozenge form.”)
  4. Credibility — Can you believe it? (“I’ve heard it’s based on clinical trials …”)
  5. Emotions — Does it make you feel something? (“Even if it doesn’t work, it’s just good to feel like I’m doing something about colds …”)
  6. Stories — Can it be verbalized? (“… and I think it does work. I started taking zinc just when I was starting to feel a cold come on, and it lasted just three days!”)

Probiotics don’t stack up nearly as well on the stickiness meter. I give the yogurt wheeze high marks for #2 and 4, but medium or low marks for the rest. Especially #5, Emotions, which I think is a key to a sticky idea.

The fact is, no one likes to think much about their lower digestive tract. A finely tuned gut may make you healthier and happier, but please, keep it to yourself, buddy. I’m trying to eat.

The next time you face a marketing challenge, use this checklist to ensure your marketing proposition has what it takes to spread virally. Although I find the Brothers’ Heath list one that was designed as much to fill a book as it is to exhaustively explore stickiness, your idea cannot go wrong if it scores high for all six criteria. It will become sticky, and earn the right to be called a meme.

Voice recognition arrives one solution at a time

The Smart ShopperVoice recognition seems to be a theme in my life lately. I just finished setting up Naturally Speaking on my wife’s computer, so she can save wear-and-tear on her joints by dictating instead of typing. Then I read a piece by David Pogue of the NY Times, about another terrific productivity tool: Voice mail services that take your calls and convert them into email text, for you to review, sort and save. Finally, I read about the device pictured here, which allows you to rattle off the groceries you need and have it assemble your marching orders as a finished list.

Someone has already commented on the engadget blog entry where I learned about this device that it will fail. The reason: You can buy a lot of groceries for its purchase price.

As a marketer, I would disagree for two reasons:

  1. The long tail — We’ve observed that nearly everyone listens to music, yet relatively few listen to any particular artist. Some really obscure artists have made successful careers for themselves, thanks to lowered distribution costs.* Because of this same long tail phenomenon, a $150 device will be bought by enough people to be a success, especially because the concept behind it is sticky.**
  2. It helps ease a reviled chore — In my entire life I’ve only known one person who actually enjoys buying groceries. Just one. Everyone else just wants the stuff to magically arrive in their kitchen. Although it doesn’t go that far, this Top 10 New Product winner (at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas) does help family members collaborate on a job almost nobody enjoys.

I predict it will do quite well. I’m also confident that this is the beginning of a trend in technology. There will be more voice recognition tools, helping us get more work done. And more often than you might imagine, they will be combined with the cell phone. Sooner rather than later.

In November I was speculating that some day in the distant future, mobile voice recognition would help automate the construction trade. This past week has made me think this future is closer than anyone might imagine.

*Watch for a post from me later this week on the future of the music industry, as music labels become nothing more than the distribution arm that a recording artist needs to survive.

**Watch for another post this week on the art of making a product or concept sticky. It’s a review of a great book that expounds on the last third of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

Get out your yellow highlighter to emphasize your most important web copy

Two of my favorite sites use a technique to make their short, punchy web copy even stronger.

  • 37signals is a smart, irreverent Web 2.0 developer of web-based collaboration and development solutions. I’ve praised one of their products in this blog: Basecamp, an ASP alternative to MS Project. They market their products through a web site and attached blog that aren’t afraid to break with convention. That includes the way they draw your attention to important sales copy.
  • Very Short List (VSL) does the same. It’s a fun, free subscription email and web site that delivers a list of exactly one interesting product, service or web site every single day. The copy they employ to describe each “VSL” is always short and clever. To further aid in scanning, VSL highlights important points in their message.

VSL Thumbnail - Click to enlargeBoth use the technique you see in the sample graphic (click to enlarge). They use a text highlighting technique that any web site could adopt but few do. It’s a clean if somewhat “cute” alternative to bold and italics.

Is this new formatting based on science? In other words, do metrics exist to show that this technique improves readership, or helps convert readers into customers?

No. Josh Fried of 37signals admits in, “We don’t have metrics [to support our design changes]. It’s all gut.” (I agree wholeheartedly by the way, with Brian Clark, author of He cautions in this post that listening to designers and one’s instincts can be a dangerous practice when the outcome could be a major decline in the bottom line of your business.)

So right now web marketers appear to be flying blind when they are using this technique to showcase important copy. This could be remedied.

I’ve made a point to talk to anyone I know who conducts eye tracking heatmaps to see if they’ve ever seen any evidence that this hinders or helps a reader through the thicket of online copy. And if they haven’t, would they like to give it a try?

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on whether this hip spin on copy formatting will prove to be more than a novelty.