Jan 172012

Help Us, Help You

Before becoming Chairman of the Direct Marketing Association, one of the things I’d noticed over the years was that the association didn’t have a ton of primary market research on itself, sort of a classic case of the cobbler’s children having shoddy shoes.

Today we are launching a new survey to help us establish a baseline for awareness and perceptions of all aspects of the DMA on behalf of all members of the marketing community.  

Whether or not you are a DMA or EEC member – in some ways, it’s even more important for non-members to take this – I’d greatly appreciate you taking 10 minutes to fill out this survey. It will help us continue to reshape the association to meet the needs of the community, as this survey will serve as the foundation for our new strategic plan, membership outreach and communications, conference programming, councils, and everything else we do.

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Nov 032011

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

One phrase I’ve heard a lot over the years is about “Selling the sizzle, not the steak.”  It suggests that in the world of marketing or product design, there is a divergence between elements of substance and what I call bright shiny objects, and that sometimes it’s the bright shiny objects that really move the needle on customer adoption.

At Return Path, we have always been about the steak and NOT the sizzle.  We’re incredibly fact-based and solution-oriented as a culture.  In fact, I can think of a lot of examples where we have turned our nose up at the sizzle over the years because it doesn’t contribute to core product functionality or might be a little off-point in terms of messaging.  How could we possibly spend money (or worse – our precious development resources) on something that doesn’t solve client problems?

Well, it turns out that if you’re trying to actually sell your product to customers of all shapes and sizes, sizzle counts for a lot in the grand scheme of things.  There are two different kinds of sizzle in my mind, product and marketing — and we are thinking about them differently.

Investing in product sizzle (e.g., functionality that doesn’t actually do much for clients but which sells well, or which they ask for in the sales process) is quite frustrating since (a) it by definition doesn’t create a lot of value for clients, and (b) it comes at the expense of building functionality that DOES create a lot of value.  The way we’re getting our heads around this seemingly irrational construct is to just think of these investments as marketing investments, even though they’re being made in the form of engineering time.  I suppose we could even budget them as such.

Marketing sizzle is in some ways easier to wrap our heads around, and in some ways tougher.  It’s easier because, well, it doesn’t cost much to message sizzle — it’s just using marketing as a way of convincing customers to buy the whole solution, knowing the ROI may come from the steak even as the PO is coming from the sizzle.  But it’s tough for us as well not to position the ROI front and center.  As our Marketing Department gets bigger, better, and more seasoned, we are finding this easier to come by, and more rooted in rational thought or analysis.

In the last year or two, we have done a better job of learning to embrace sizzle, and I expect we’ll continue to do that as we get larger and place a greater emphasis on sales and marketing — part of my larger theme of how we’ve built the business backwards.  Don’t most companies start with ONLY sizzle (vaporware) and then add the steak?

Jun 022011

Try It On For Size

Try It On For Size

I’ve always been a big fan of taking a decision or a change in direction I’m contemplating and trying it on for size.  Just as you never know how a pair of pants is really going to fit until you slip them on in a dressing room, I think you need to see how decisions feel once you’re closing in on them.

Here’s why:  decisions have consequences.  No matter how prescient leaders are, no matter if they’ve been trained in chess-like (three-moves-ahead) thinking, they can almost never perfectly foresee all the downstream reactions and effects of decisions.  Figuring out how to create “mental fittings” is a skill that I think is critical for CEOs and other leaders.

When I try something on for size, I’m usually trying to accomplish one of a few things.  Sometimes, I’m simply trying to see how words sound when they come out of my mouth.  As Homer Simpson periodically muses, “did I think that, or did I say that out loud?”  There’s no substitute for articulating a new phrase, or theory, out in the open and seeing if it sounds the way YOU expect it to.  Other times, I’m trying to see how different messages or stories play with different audiences.  Will employees think it’s exciting when we announce X, or scary, or confusing?  Will a customer understand the new positioning of our company when you include the new product?  Will investors understand the story in 9 words or less?  Finally, there are times when my objective in trying something on for size is to understand specific downstream effects of a decision.  Throwing something out into the open and taking copious notes as people give you their “blink” concerns and reactions are invaluable.

Of course, the main thing to avoid when trying decisions or changes in direction on for size is creating chaos!  There are a few ways to create chaos.  One is by having your “try it on for size” conversation with an employee turn into a de facto decision because the employee takes your words and then deliberately acts on them.

Alternatively, the same thing could happen inadvertently because even though the employee knows intellectually not to act on your comments, he or she starts to incorporate them subconsciously, thinking they are likely to become the law of the land.

Another is by creating false expectations and disappointment if you decide an idea doesn’t fit when you try it on, and then you scrap it, leaving behind a trail of the idea for others to see and discuss.  All the same can be said with customers or investors or any other stakeholder.  Your words as CEO or any kind of a leader can be quite powerful, and trying something on for size can have real unintended consequences if not done carefully.

In all cases, the best antidotes are communication and judgment.  Make sure if you are trying something on for size internally that you communicate early and often to your audience that all you are doing is just that – trying something on, and follow up with people afterwards to make sure your intent really sunk in.  But judgment is also critical.  Pick your target audience for a fitting on carefully, make sure to blend trusted internal AND external associates, and make sure to rotate who you talk to about new things so you don’t develop a consistent bias in your idea generation.

May 122011

GEOITS

GEOITS

This is another gem that I picked up years ago from my boss at MovieFone — the “Great Employment Office In The Sky.”  It’s a simple but powerful concept:

  • the organization is grappling with a difficult employee situation, and
  • the likely path is that the employee needs to leave the organization either immediately or sometime in the future, and
  • it’s impossible for the organization to figure out how to get from A to B for whatever reason, then
  • the employee resigns of his or her own accord, or
  • the employee does something that leaves the organization no choice but to terminate him or her immediately with no gray area

This has come up time and again over the years for us, and it’s an incredible relief every time it happens.  I hate admitting that.  We try to be swift (and fair) in dealing with tough employee situations.  But the reality is that it’s quite difficult.  The easiest termination situation I have ever had as a manager — ironically the first one I ever did almost 15 years ago — was still hard, because (a) we’re all human, (b) difficult conversations are difficult, and (c) even the most clear-cut situations usually have some element of fuzziness or doubt lurking in the background.

I don’t know why the GEOITS happens.  It probably has a lot to do with employees being perceptive and also recognizing that things aren’t going well.  I am not sure I have a settled or consistent view of karma and larger forces at work in the workplace.  But I’m glad there is a GEOITS at work at least once in a while!

Mar 032011

Come Fly With Me

Come Fly With Me

I do a lot of travel for work.  That means I spend a lot of time on planes, some of which is “wasted” – or at least time that can’t be productive for work in the traditional sense of being connected, or in a lot of cases, of even reading.  One thing I’ve always appreciated in my career but have grown even more attached to of late is traveling with colleagues.  Any time I have an opportunity to do so, I jump on it.

First, I find that I get solid work time in with a colleague in transit.  A check-in meeting that isn’t rushed with a hard stop, interrupted by the phone or visitors, and in-person.

Second, I find that I get more “creative” work time in with a colleague on a flight, especially a long one.  Some of the time that isn’t in a structured meeting invariably turns to brainstorming or more idle work chatter.  Some great ideas have come out of flights I’ve taken in the past 11 years!

Finally, my colleague and I get more social time in than usual on a plane.  Social time is an incredibly important part of managing and developing personal connections with employees.  Time spent next to each other in the air, in an airport security line or lounge, in a rental car, “off hours” always lends itself to learning more about what’s going on in someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong – even when I travel with someone from Return Path, we each have some “quiet time” to read, work, sleep, and contemplate life.  But the work and work-related aspects of the experience are not to be ignored.

Jan 122011

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

I’ve recently started writing a column for The Magill Report, the new venture by Ken Magill, previously of Direct magazine and even more previously DMNews. Ken has been covering email for a long time and is one of the smartest journalists I know in this space. My column, which I share with my colleagues Jack Sinclair and George Bilbrey, covers how to approach the business of email marketing, thoughts on the future of email and other digital technologies, and more general articles on company-building in the online industry – all from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Below is a re-post of this week’s version, which I think my OnlyOnce readers will enjoy.

Last week I published my annual “Unpredictions” for 2011. This tradition grew out of the fact that I hate doing predictions and my marketing team loves them. So we compromise by predicting what won’t happen.

But the truth is that the annual prediction ritual – while trite – is really just trend-spotting. And trend-spotting is an important skill for entrepreneurs. Fortunately it’s a skill that can be acquired, at least it can with enough deliberate practice (another skill I talk about here).

Here are five habits you should consider cultivating if being a better trend spotter is in your career roadmap.

Read voraciously. I read about 50 books every year.  About half of them are business books, and I also mix in a bit of fiction, humor, American history, architecture and urban planning, and evolutionary biology.  I keep up with more than 50 blogs and I read all the trade publications that cover email.  I also read the Wall Street Journal and The Economist regularly.  What you read is a little less important than just reading a lot, and diversely.

Use social media (wisely). Julia Child once said that the key to success in life was having great parents. My advice to you is quite a bit simpler:  make friends with smart people. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others have given us a window into the world unlike any other. Status updates, tweets, and – maybe most important of all – links shared by your network of friends and colleagues gives you a sense of what people are talking about, thinking about and working on. And you can’t just lurk.  You actually have to be “in” to get something “out.”

Follow the money. Pay attention to where money gets invested and spent. This includes keeping an eye on venture capital, private equity, and the public markets, as well as where clients (mostly IT and marketing departments) are spending their dollars and what kinds of people they are hiring. Money flows toward ideas that people think will succeed. A pattern of investments in particular areas will give you clues to what might be the big ideas over the next five to 10 years.

Get out of the office: I think it’s hugely important for anyone in business, and especially entrepreneurs, to spend time in the world to get fresh perspectives. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but our head of product management, Mike Mills, frequently refers to the NIHITO principle – Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office.  Now that’s not entirely true – running a company means needing to spend a huge amount of time with people and on people issues, but last year I traveled nearly 160,000 miles around the world meeting with prospect, clients, partners and industry luminaries. You don’t have to be a road warrior to get this one right – you can attend events in your local area, develop a local network of people you can meet with regularly – but you do have to get out there.

Take a break. While you need information to understand trends, you can quickly get overloaded with too much data.  Trend spotting is, in many ways, about pattern recognition. And that is often easier to do when your mind is relaxed.  Ever notice that you have moments of true epiphany in the shower or while running? Give yourself time every week to unplug and let your mind recharge. As Steven Covey says, “sharpen that saw”!

Dec 132010

The UnEmployee

The UnEmployee

We have a few people who I think of an UnEmployees.  They are people who we have almost hired over the years (sometimes more than once), but never have, people who are in our industry and are friends of Return Path.  Sometimes they are clients or partners, sometimes they aren’t.  Sometimes they have a token stock option grant as advisors, sometimes they don’t.

In any case, these people have played an incredibly valuable role in our company’s development over the years.  They are extra “eyes and ears” for us that have often served up valuable information before any of our regular employees heard things.  They have made powerful connections for us with other companies in the industry.  They know us well enough to know our products and strategy and have given sound advice — unasked for, but always appreciated. They’re probably more valuable to us as UnEmployees than as employees!

Our UnEmployees aren’t industry luminaries or CEOs, and they’re not classic advisors or  Board members.  They never meet as a group, and there’s nothing really formal about the relationship.  I’m not sure if other people have had this experience with their companies’ ecosystems, but I’d recommend creating it if you don’t.

Aug 202010

Feature Request, Part II

Feature Request, Part II

In Part I, I asked for time zone alerts on cell phones for off-hours and a mechanism for alerting people when they’re replying-to-all when they were bcc’d.

Today, I ask for an iPhone (and I suppose Android) app:  turn a photo of a whiteboard into a Word or PPT document!

Feb 252010

New Blog of Note in the Direct Marketing World

New Blog of Note in the Direct Marketing World

Gene Raitt, Chairman of the DMA, has launched a new blog today called DM Unplugged.  It’s not an official DMA property.  Gene won’t be the only contributor — over time, other DMA board members (including me) and thought leaders in the direct and interactive marketing communities at large — will contribute as well.

This is one small, though notable, development in a series of things the DMA is working on as it transforms itself.  Look for some truly “unplugged” commentary on this blog about both things happening in the industry and transparent views into things happening at the DMA as well as invitations to contribute to the discussion on both.

Filed under: Marketing, Uncategorized

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Sep 292009

Closer to the Front Lines, Part II

Closer to the Front Lines, II

Last year, I wrote about our sabbatical policy and how I had spent six weeks filling in for George when he was out.  I just finished up filling in for Jack (our COO/CFO) while he was out on his.  Although for a variety of reasons I wasn’t as deeply engaged with Jack’s team as I was last year with George’s, I did find some great benefits to working more directly with them.

In addition to the ones I wrote about last year, another discovery, or rather, reminder, that I got this time around was that the bigger the company gets and the more specialized skill sets become, there are an increasing number of jobs that I couldn’t step in and do in a pinch.  I used to feel this way about all non-technical jobs in the early years of the company, but not so much any more. 

Anyway, it’s always a busy time doing two jobs, and probably both jobs suffer a bit in the short term.  But it’s a great experience overall for me as a leader.  Anita’s sabbatical will also hit in 2010 — is everyone ready for me to run sales for half a quarter?

Filed under: Return Path, Uncategorized

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