Jun 222007

What An Ugly Way to Use Email

What An Ugly Way to Use Email

From our friend Andy Sernovitz comes this tale of horror about how Vonage is using viral email.  Talk about creating NEGATIVE word of mouth.  Yikes!  This qualifies Vonage for my customer service Hall of Shame with Verizon, United Airlines, WebEx, and FedEx/Kinko’s.

Thanks to my colleague Margaret Farmakis for the inspired headline.

Jun 202007

Must Read Post on Entrepreneurship

Must Read Post on Entrepreneurship

As usual, I’m a little late to the party, but let me echo Fred’s and Brad’s sentiments and endorse Marc Andreesen’s new blog.  If you’re an entrepreneur or like thinking big entrepreneurial thoughts, this is a gooe blog to add to your blogroll.  My only critique is that some of his postings are really long — but they’re worth it.

His most recent post, which finally prompted me to post this, is a list of reasons why NOT to do a startup (it also includes a good list of reasons TO do a startup).

Just a snippet to pique your interest, but you have to click through to see all of it — the richness is in the details…

Why do one?

The opportunity to be in control of your own destiny

The opportunity to have an impact on the world

Why run for the hills?

A startup puts you on an emotional rollercoaster unlike anything you have ever experienced (I blogged about that here and here)

You get told no — a lot

So a belated welcome to the blogosphere, Marc, and to everyone else, enjoy!

Jun 152007

Is Permission Still Relevant?

Is Permission Still Relevant?

My colleague Stephanie Miller wrote a great post on our Return Path blog this week entitled Is Permission Enough? The essence of her argument is:

…permission is not forever…Subscribers opt in and then promptly forget about their actions…Nor is permission a panacea. Opt-in doesn’t replace relevancy and keeping your promises.

And she goes on to give great examples of how marketers abuse permission and a great checklist of times marketers shouldn’t ASSUME permission, which is where the trouble starts.

So I concur — permission is never enough from a sender’s perspective.  But you still have to have it.  Why?  Read on.

I’d like to extend Stephanie’s argument from senders to receivers and question whether permission is as relevant as it once was in terms of how ISPs, filters, and blacklists determine whether or not to block mail.

The argument for permission as a relevant filtering criteria goes something like this:

1. Unsolicited commercial email = evil. It is the true definition of spam.  If I don’t ask for it, you have no right to send it to me.

The argument against permission as a relevant filtering criteria is more nuanced:

1. It doesn’t matter if something is opt-out quadruple opt-in. Users think of spam as “email I don’t want,” not “email I didn’t sign up for.”  As Stephanie says, bad email I signed up for is even worse than unsolicited email in some ways.  And look at the other side of the argument as well:  would you really mind getting an unsolicited/unpermissioned email if the content or offer was highly relevant to you, e.g., you seriously consider clicking through on it?

2. Permission can be easily faked or loopholed. Companies can operate multiple web sites and email lists and gather addresses from multiple sources and then point to the one “proper permission site” and claim that’s the origin of all the names on its list.  And companies can set up privacy policies in such a way that they can automatically opt users into multiple lists without the user’s permission unless the user reads the fine print.

3. Permission is hard to measure. Besides the fact that permission can be faked, the main way that blacklists and filters try to measure permission is by looking at spam trap hits.  Sometimes this works — the cases where the spam trap addresses are newly-created addresses that never sign up for lists.  But most ISP and other spam trap networks also include recycled email addresses as well — addresses that were real and probably did sign up for email newsletters and marketing at one point but have since gone inactive.  Yes, a mailer that hits this kind of spam trap address is probably guilty of sloppy list hygiene and poor or nonexistent targeting and customer segmentation.  But does this mean they’re a truly egregious spammer?

4. Reputation trumps permission. The world of reputation systems is driving quickly to the point where we can tell much more accurately and automatically if a mail stream is “good” or “bad” as defined by users in terms of complaints and as defined by infrastructure security, authentication, and various other metrics.

So where I come out on this is that permission is FAR LESS RELEVANT than it used to be for receivers as filtering criteria, but probably not 100% irrelevant yet.  Perhaps in a couple years as reputation data-driven filtering becomes refined and the norm, we will be able to be more accepting of highly targeted and relevant unsolicited email (as we are sometimes with highly targeted and relevant postal mail), but I’m not sure the world is psychologically there just yet.  There’s still too much egregious spam in the inbox, and as a result, while users primarily think of spam as “email I don’t want,” they also do still think of spam as “email I didn’t ask for.”

But for now, senders can certainly rely on permission — if and only if it’s up to date and contextual — as “first pass” screen on relevancy.

Where do you come out on this?

Jun 132007

The Very Unfriendly Skies of United, Part II

The Very Unfriendly Skies of United, Part II

In Part I, I described United’s horrendous customer service as it holds its customers hostage to pay an extra $44 to get out of a complete unsittable seat into a slightly better seat at 6 a.m. in the morning for no good reason.

Tonight, I am pleased to report that I have landed at LaGuardia on United, an hour late already and nearly 1 a.m., only to have them tell us that we have to sit on the tarmac for an hour because they can’t get their act together and open up a gate for us.

Boy, is this fun.  Frontier, anyone?  Jet Blue?  Even American with a connection in the dreaded O’Hare?

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Jun 072007

Book Short: Shamu-rific

Book Short:  Shamu-rific

I re-read an old favorite last night in preparation for a management training course I’m co-teaching today at Return Path:  Ken Blanchard’s Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships.  I was reminded why it’s an old favorite.  It has a single concept which is simple but powerful.  And yes, it’s based loosely on killer whale  training tactics.

Accentuate the positive.

The best example in the book is actually a personal one more than a professional one.  The main character of the book has a “problem” in that he chronically works late, then comes home and gets beat up by his wife about coming home so late.  The result?  No behavior change — and probably even a reinforcement of the behavior because, after all, who wants to come home and get beat up?  The change as a result of the new philosophy?  The wife thanks her husband when he does come home at a more reasonable hour, makes him a nice dinner, etc. which makes the husband WANT to come home earlier.

That’s probably a poor paraphrasing of the story, and as I’m typing the story out here, boy does it sound a bit 1950s in terms of its portrayal of gender role stereotypes.  Nonetheless, I think it makes the point well.

Try it out sometime at work (or at home).  Pick a behavior you want to see more of out of a direct report, especially one that’s linked to another behavior you don’t like.  Accentuate the positive.  Make the person WANT to do more of it.  And watch the results!

Jun 062007

The 80 Percent Rule (Not the 80/20 Rule)

The 80 Percent Rule (Not the 80/20 Rule)

I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said about the Republican Party that there are a lot of people in it with a lot of different views, but that as long he agreed 80% with someone, he was solidly “with them.”  The older I get, the more I find this to be a great rule of thumb.

Certainly in politics, it must be true.  In a two-party system that handles an infinite number of issues, you’re never going to agree 100% with someone.  You just have to get close.  That’s why it will be interesting to see how things like the candidacy of Giuliani works, with him running as a pro-choice Republican.

I also find it true in the non-profit fundraising world.  I am currently raising a lot of money for Princeton from my classmates, and of course everyone has different opinions about what the University is doing today, in particular about some of their policies around admissions, expansion, and athletics.  But in the end, the argument that “you’re never going to agree 100%…but are you at least at 80%?” seems to work well to persuade people to donate.

And of course, this 80% rule is very true in running a business as well.  You can’t expect your employees to agree with 100% of your decisions.  But your employees also realize that they will never agree with 100% of their company’s decisions.  At about the 80% rule, with enough transparency around decision-making to make the missing 20% at least seem rational, you have a winning formula.

Jun 042007

A New (Old) Favorite Returns as a Blog

A New (Old) Favorite Returns as a Blog

Andy Sernovitz’s very cleverly-named Damn, I Wish I’d Thought of That is back, this time in blog and RSS feed format as well as, of course, email newsletter format.  Andy is a Return Path alum and does a great job of crystallizing smart and clever ideas for marketers into manageable nuggets, particularly around viral and word-of-mouth marketing (Andy wrote a great book on WOM marketing, which I reviewed here).

He was nice enough to interview me for his blog.  As a teaser, Andy asked me (and a bunch of other people) three questions:

Great marketing comes down to one simple idea: Earn the respect and recommendation of your customers, and they will do the rest. What is your advice for any company that wants to …

1 … make people happy?

2 … earn respect?

3 … get a word of mouth recommendation?

The full interview is on Andy’s new site here.

Jun 042007

Google en Fuego

Google en Fuego

Google announced on Friday the acquisition of RSS publishing powerhouse FeedBurner (media coverage  here and here).  I was fortunate enough to be a member of FeedBurner’s Board of Directors for the past year and had a good window into the successes of the business as well as the deal with Google.  It was all very interesting and good learnings for me as an entrepreneur as well as a first time outside director.  My original post (the “fortunate enough” link above) contained all the things I love about FeedBurner in it, so I won’t rehash those here, but I will try to distill my top 3 learnings from my experience with the company:

  1. Creating value through focus is key in the early stages of a company. The FeedBurner team had a relentless focus on publishers.  That’s what produced the value in the company that Google acquired in the end — massive publisher distribution and great brand and technology behind it all.  Had the company gone on to do a couple more years independently, the team would have had to split focus between publishers and advertisers.  I have no doubt that they would have been able to do the job, but a dual focus is more complex to execute well and harder to balance in terms of priorities.
  2. Running a company is all about improv. As many people know, FeedBurner CEO Dick Costolo is a former, I’d argue current, stand-up comedian/improv actor (see his entertaining and informative interview on Wallstrip here).  Dick proved that those skills, while perhaps not as expensive to acquire as an MBA, are probably even more essential to running a company.  You have to be able to elegantly manage chaos with a smile…and you have to constantly be quick to think on your feet.
  3. Being an outside Board member was fun but had new challenges. It’s hard to know how much to be involved with a company when you’re neither management nor investor.  I was constantly worrying that I wasn’t doing enough for the company, but I was also trying to be very conscious of the fact that it wasn’t my company to run, only to advise.  I think Dick and I got the formula pretty close to right, but it wasn’t obvious.

Congratulations to Dick, Steve, Eric, Matt, and the rest of the team at FeedBurner for a job well done!

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