Misreported data is useless

My post earlier this year on “Bad Data is Worse than No Data” did not address what is likely a larger problem when it comes to auctioning data sets. Under cover of ‘best intentions’, misreported data is misinformation.

An example: I ride the train from the Connecticut suburbs to Manhattan most weekdays. Sometimes I do not buy a monthly ticket and buy a multi-trip or single ticket. The conductor asks to see everyone’s ticket. Recently when displaying a non-monthly ticket, a few conductors ask to scan the QR code. But not all of them do it and then and some do it only occasionally. When you ride the train a lot you do recognize the conductors on various trains.

Why does the MTA scan tickets? Data collection of course! At least I think. Actually I really have no idea. Some people display printed tickets that they hand to the conductor, others have the app. The result is the data is terribly incomplete, disparate and seemingly of little value. Even if the MTA were to report that their data collection only represents 20% of the riding public, surely they cannot make decisions based on these random data?

Often when I depart the train in Grand Central Station there are two MTA workers standing back to back with counters clicking away at (as accurately as they can) all the departing passengers. I am fairly certain that the MTA is not overlaying the counter data with the few scanned tickets data from the mobile app. If every ticket from every rider was scanned or recorded with NFC (Near Field communication) and entered into a database, then there’d be some juicy data to review – Actionable data!   That’s decidedly not the case today.

Because commuter train travel has been around for a very long time in the U.S. and most systems are antiquated whether it’s equipment or the tracks themselves. In order for a data collection system to be reliable (more or less) on the MTA a massive change would need to take place. When I’ve traveled on trains in Asia one cannot board the train in many large stations without a ticket. It’s hard for me to believe sometimes that conductors still wander up and down the aisles checking ticket and punching holes in tickets. I find most of the conductors to be pleasant and informed enough to offer concise answers to any travel questions about times and arrivals and changes. If they did not have to punch tickets what else could they do? How many conductors are actually needed on a 10-car commuter train? There are two on most trains now.

The data pulled from scans, and clicks, and transactions are varied and undoubtedly difficult to combine to get a better read. Is it actionable? I doubt its reliability and for that reason I think not. But that probably won’t stop the MTA from acting on what they do have. It’s better than nothing right? Not.

Is this any way to run a railroad?

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Why isn’t video calling more popular?

Video has a multitude of applications in the professional world and we use it all the time. If a picture is worth a thousand words (or at least it used to be), a video call is worth…more. I’ve always maintained that being there makes all the difference – that is in person front and center. If meeting in person is not possible, then a call is better than a text or email.

But what about video calling? Why has it not become a more prevalent business tool? This week I had a client ask if I could FaceTime so she could show me something. I have an iPad mini, so I agreed, and we had a nice 10 minute conversation where I could see her, she could see me and she could show me a few things that she wanted me to see. It was easy and effective.   And I don’t know when I will do that again. Isn’t that strange?

Video conferencing services (think Skype, Google Hangouts, What’sApp, Zoom.us, Join.me and what used to be oovoo.com) have improved greatly over the past few years and they can be used when getting together in person is not practical but we at least want to see the people with whom we are speaking. It’s different – and in my view better – than a standard phone conference call.

I’ve been working for quite a few years and before email you had to A) call people on the phone, B) go to see them in person, or C) send them postal mail and later an overnight letter. So why aren’t video calls more popular?

Well one reason may be is that millennials (supposedly) prefer to text or IM rather than talk on the phone. So naturally when it comes to professional meetings and relationships there’d be a reticence to embrace video calling in general. Millennial salespeople in general are the grand exception.

Another reason is that after years of NOT having video calls (something you saw in movies growing up), many people (me included) don’t want to have a camera on them while having a conversation.   I am sure you’ve seen video of the guy with the shirt and tie on camera who after the call stands up and is in his basketball shorts which nobody saw on the call.  Old-fashioned telephone calls do not present that problem.

How much of a role does personal vanity play in the aversion to video calls? When you have a telephone conference call you are not at all concerned with how you look. But when a video-conference call is on the schedule most people at least give a passing thought to their attire and appearance. In time I expect familiarity with video calling will make that aversion less of an issue.

Another issue with video calls is that the participants must be fully focused on the call as they are visible to others. In a typical phone call, you can and most people do multi-task, whether that be reading your email, looking at the internet, writing a list, all while participating in the call. If you’re on a video call, you must be fully focused on the conversation.

Will video-calling ever be the default? I’ve always thought so but also thought that I’d be one of the early users. I am less sure of that now. How about you?


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An Agency guy’s confession – No tears for Papa John’s

As a business consultancy and marketing agency I’ve had occasion to work with many different and mostly great clients. In the biz, you’re not supposed to talk about client relationships other than to say how great your clients are and how lucky you are to work with them. For most of my career that’s actually been true, but not in the case of our agency’s short engagement with Papa John’s from several years ago.

Reading this year about the trials and tribulations of Papa John’s and its founder and former CEO John Schnatter, I have a bit of schadenfreude in watching him and the company squirm. I have an expression I’ve used for years – ‘The fish stinks from the head down’. My team and I never met Mr. Schnatter but the behavior of the specific franchise group lead with whom we did work, was ridiculously unprofessional.

I can’t even say that Papa John’s was a client since they never paid us for anything. Yes I had a problem with that too. The main issue is that the group in charge did not want to work with us but had taken over when the prior franchise group leader was fired. He was the guy that hired us. Doomed from the start? Well in this case yes, but it didn’t have to be that way.

Since this was several years ago and the budget was very limited we initially embraced a 100% digital strategy. That did not fly with the PJ leads and they (on behalf of the very nice 12 or so franchisees), denied a digital strategy in favor of their traditional approaches using broadcast media. Remember that the budget was limited. Very limited. The franchisees themselves were in favor of our approach given the limited budget. They liked the measurability of digital campaigns as opposed to traditional broadcast media. When we resubmitted a plan using some broadcast media, they reluctantly agreed and were ready to proceed as long as our agency worked for peanuts. Naturally we rejected that idea and I resigned the account once this became clear.

The behavior of the PJ franchise group leaders was shocking and disturbing to me at the time. It still is today. The ironic thing is that in meeting with some of the franchisees themselves, I found them to be smart, hardworking and reasonable people who mostly did not realize the heavy-handed approach of Papa John’s until after the fact. We interfaced with the digital team lead at Papa John’s headquarters (by phone and email). Every person we encountered at Papa John’s had an attitude of ‘been there done that. We know better.’ And had zero interest in any new approaches. In my opinion, that comes from the top down (see above). If I sound a little bit bitter it’s not intentional.   Had nothing happened with the CEO I’d not be giving it much thought. But things did happen and I feel there’s a connection.

I don’t know the actual culture inside Papa John’s headquarters having never been there. It’s hard to believe there’s much good feeling and team spirit in the organization today. Not listening or being deaf to change has gotten Papa John’s to where it is today. Fixing Papa John’s brand and company will be extremely difficult but I hope for the sake of the franchisees that they find a solution. But that seems a long way from happening.

In the meantime you won’t find me shedding any tears.



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Can AI make health-related 911 calls better?

Recently I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the difficulties of recruiting telephone operators for 911 calls. With the U.S. unemployment rate at less than 4% at first I did not understand why it’s difficult to fill a job that pays something close to $20/hour. Until you begin to dig deeper.

911 operators have to be as good in hour 8 of their shift as in hour 1. Is that even possible? As a believer in technology solutions I began to wonder if artificial intelligence bots would do a better overall job of handling 911 callers? On the positive side bots don’t get tired. And they learn iteratively. But the lack of humanity involved in using bots in what is a very human situation is a huge red flag.

If you’ve never thought about it, there are no alternative 911 services. No private UBER-like 911 companies to help callers. At least not quite yet. Getting taken to the emergency room (which almost universally happens when calling 911 for a medical reason) is the default option. Yet with insurance coverage today, there are increasing amounts of people who decidedly do NOT want to go to the Emergency Room because of the cost, which can be hundreds of dollars if not thousands.

I’ve had the good fortune to have never called 911. And if I did I’d expect some sense of compassion and willingness to help on the receiving end. I would not care about the phone call the operator took right before mine, or the one right after my phone call. Call me selfish that way.

911 operators have an incredibly difficult job. The article suggested that the average telephone operator makes about $18/hour. Think about the fact that 911 operators are only be paid a bit more than 10% over the operator taking calls for a retail company. 911 operators handle life and death situations on a daily basis. Oddly enough the qualifications are to have a high school diploma and to have good typing skills. That’s a pretty low bar for a very important job.

911 operators have the same kind of day every day.   Being a 911 operator for any length of time can’t be easy either. Every call is literally an emergency. The pressure has to be incredible since there are no calls to say thank you or good job. Think about doing that for 8 straight hours every day. There has to be a cumulative negative effect of being a 911 operator. Are there many good days at work? Any?

It seems to me that 911 operators should be paid double or more what a normal telephone operator receives. Since I am a realist I have zero expectation that any municipality will consider paying 911 operators $40/hour. But what about an AI bot-system that can answer all the calls, determine which ones need to be stepped up to a human, and which ones can be handled by the bot in terms of taking down the information and responding as to what happens next?  Is that unfathomable?

I know it probably sounds a little crazy but leaving things the way they are is even crazier in many ways. AI has come a long way and there is still a way to go. But what is becoming a larger problem has to be dealt with in short order and new approaches should be vetted.

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Long live the King? Marketing the Kings of Beers has changed

I recently returned from a six-day trip to Montana. I had never been to Montana before and it’s absolutely spectacular, in July at least. I cannot vouch for January. The photo is from a hotel bar in Three Forks and what shocked me is there wasn’t a tap for Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller or Coors. Beer consumption in the United States continues to decline and tastes have changed.

The Wall Street Journal article from Wednesday August 1  points out the overall decline and the concerns from the largest companies Anheuser-Busch (AB InBev) and MillerCoors. The ongoing rise in popularity of craft beers is evidenced by what I saw in that bar in Montana. For the record there were other occasions in Montana in which only Bud, Bud Light, Coors, and Miller were on the tap.

The beer kings have seen this coming and have started or purchased craft breweries to meet the changing taste of the shrinking beer drinking public. In addition to Bud and all its related cousins, AB InBev owns Michelob, as well as the following brands –

3 Rolling Rock 4 Busch 5 Shock Top 6 Natural 7 Johnny Appleseed 8 LandShark Lager

Craft Ownership 9.1 Goose Island Brewery 9.2 Blue Point 9.3 10 Barrel 9.4 Elysian Brewing Company 9.5 Golden Road Brewing 9.6 Four Peaks Brewery 9.7 Breckenridge Brewery 9.8 Devils Backbone Brewing Company 9.9 Karbach Brewing Company 9.10 Wicked Weed Brewing

MillerCoors (100% owned by Molson Coors) has its own lineup:

Miller Coors Molson, Blue Moon, Colorado Native, Crispin cider, Foster’s, Killian’s, Grolsch Hamm’s, Henry Weinhard’s, Keystone Lech, Leinenkugel’s, Mickey’s, Milwaukee’s Best, Olde English, Old Vienna, Pilsner Urquell, Red Dog, Saint Archer, Sharp’s Smith, & Forge, hard cider Steel Reserve, Terrapin Tyskie.

Beer brands that were popular through the ’90s are no longer the dominant force. That people today prefer not to drink their dad’s beer (or grandpa’s for that matter), should not come as a surprise but the acceleration of that decline makes it almost seem as if somewhere a switch was flipped.

From the WSJ article: ‘Miller Lite, Coors Light, Bud and Bud Light have all lost share to upstart labels. “The big things are declining. The smaller things are growing,” AB InBev Chief Executive Carlos Brito told investors in March.

Demographics also are at work. Industry research has shown young white males still prefer beer, but their numbers are declining as a percentage of the population.

African-Americans favor spirits, and the percentage of liquor consumers that are Hispanic is rising, the research shows. Women’s per-capita alcohol consumption has risen, but they prefer wine and cocktails.

Millennials drink less than older generations, hitting alcohol volumes more broadly.’

Years ago there were a number beer brands that were known for being inexpensive and people would buy them for that reason. While that still exists to some degree today I don’t see ordering a beer in a bar to be a strictly financial decision. Beer cost is less important than it used to be. More likely it’s beer’s perceived ‘empty’ calories, the carbs, and the sugars that are cause for pause when deciding what to have.

Twenty years ago most people hadn’t even heard of an IPA (India Pale Ale). Today people are more sophisticated in their beer taste and know if they like a more hop forward IPA or less. Far different from when beer was beer and it all tasted much the same. For the beer drinker it’s never been a better time.

For companies like AB InBev and MillerCoors, they acknowledge the change by the de-emphasis on their flagship brands and focus on an ever-widening list of craft beers. As long as the big boys have the distribution in place they’ll remain a factor both at retail and in bars and restaurants.

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The Direct-to-Retail model is fading away

If you know anything about direct response marketing, you know that it’s been around for awhile, is currently the rage, and looks and behaves little like it did just ten years ago. In 2008 direct mail had already taken several hard hits and was in decline. Direct response space advertising had begun to wane but the frequency and effectiveness remained strong. People were still watching cable and satellite TV and Netflix was still shipping out DVD’s and Hulu was only just born.

A great deal has changed since 2008 including changes in the ways people consume information, buy products, and view media in general. Add to this the continued rise of Amazon as a buying platform and you can see how direct marketing has itself been disrupted. Recently two longstanding direct response industry associations have been either absorbed or disbanded, i.e. the DMA – Data and Marketing Association better known as the Direct Marketing Association was absorbed by the ANA (Association of National Advertisers), and the ERA – Electronic Retailing Association no longer exist. This did not seem possible ten years ago.

For many years when launching a product via direct response television, radio, direct mail, or space, it was common to consider the product a ‘success’ when it went to mass retail. There still might have been direct response advertising even after the product had gone to retail, but it was as much a drive to retail as a drive to a direct sale. And buying ads at direct response rates is always less expensive.

Twenty years ago fulfillment of direct response product orders took weeks not days. Managing data was far from easy, and remarketing to direct response buyers was by mail and phone. Think about that. Going to retail was SO much better.

Today, launching a product via direct sale is very en vogue. Companies like Dollar Shave, Harry’s Razors, Warby Parker and Bonobos are examples of direct response launched companies that have some brick and mortar retail outlets. Here’s a list of 19 from Business Insiderhttp://www.businessinsider.com/online-direct-to-consumer-brands-with-retail-stores-locations-2018-2 . But the bulk of the sales for those companies all remain direct response. And that’s the way they want it since those direct sales are substantially more valuable than selling through a third party brick and mortar or online retailer like Amazon.

It’s also understandable that for most companies where there’s already a third party retail model (think Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, etc.) in place, a discussion on how to get more direct sales is ongoing. The direct response buyer is clearly more valuable to the bottom line than the retail consumer. Of course that’s only true if companies can keep those consumers coming back!

The convenience of online ordering and shipping has been the tipping point. Pricing differences to the consumer at retail versus direct response are becoming minimal. This allows the consumer confidence in not worrying about price in one channel versus another. Another huge advantage of driving the retail customer to buy direct is the ability to re-market to these customers via email, SMS, or other direct messaging platforms. Finding the right messaging cadence and frequency isn’t easy but it’s worth the effort.

Retail brick and mortar stores will not disappear from the landscape. But it’s clear that the amount of retail outlets will diminish for most brands. Brands having retail showrooms will continue to be the next wave. Going direct-to-consumer is the future if not the present.



Posted in Direct marketing, Direct response, Direct Response Television, Direct sales, Disruption, E-commerce | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has Facebook become tedious?

There are those that will say Facebook already was tedious.  A couple of weeks ago while guest lecturing a Fordham grad school class, I asked the students if they used Facebook more or less than five years ago and almost all heads nodded in agreement that it was definitely less. I did not explore this further with the class but based on what I hear in my own life’s network most are not nearly as active on FB as they once were.

I can think of a number of reasons how this came to be. Before I lay out a few, I want to be sure that as least as far as I am concerned, there are several really good things about Facebook. What is best about the platform is that it connects people and families inter-generationally.   My late mother-in-law did not ‘join’ FB until 2015 and she had a little help getting started from her daughter.   I don’t recall my mother-in-law ever responding to anything yet I knew she loved to look at all the photos of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. No other social media platform comes close to doing what FB does that way. If you have any doubts that FB is here to stay, you should reconsider when you think about what could take its place in terms of connecting families.

Then there are regular old FB ‘friends’ outside of your family members. If your FB friend roster is anything like mine it’s a rather eclectic group and most of my FB friends simply don’t post. For a platform that’s been around for nearly fifteen years (but I’ve only been aboard for about 11), the way the online world was in 2004 is very different from today. Competition for screen time has been cranked up. An article in the Motley Fool earlier this year noted that time spent on FB by the average user is approximately 27 minutes per day for “daily users” and 41 minutes per day for “monthly users”. Do you come close to that?

Also from the Motley Fool article:

‘To put Facebook’s engagement levels in perspective, it might help to compare it to Snapchat. Snap (NYSE:SNAP) boasts about how engaged its users are, with those under 25 spending over 40 minutes per day. Recently leaked data revealed that the average user spends about 35 minutes per day. Facebook tops that number by nearly 20% — and on a much larger scale.

Snapchat had just 178 million daily active users in the third quarter. Facebook had about 1.35 billion for the same period, and growing at a similar pace.

Average time spent on Facebook is comparable to Instagram, which posted last summer that its users under 25 spend 32 minutes per day in the app. Those over 25 spend just 24 minutes per day. (Instagram didn’t specify whether it was counting daily users or monthly users, but it’s likely the latter, per Facebook’s standard.)

Five reasons FB has become tedious – you may have more.

  1. Posts from what appears to be a limited amount of FB friends that appear more often than others, and who post about the same things all the time. Boring.
  2. As mentioned, competition for screen time is keen. I know many who prefer Facebook-owned Instagram for social media posting to Facebook. And if you are under 30 FB is even less important.
  3. Modeled content based on what I click is now boring. It wasn’t at first but now it is. Please stop with the suggested articles on why my beloved NY Mets stink again this year. Yes I know I can turn it off. But I never turned it on.
  4. There has been some discussion that a non-advertising supported (i.e. paid subscription) model has been considered. COO Sheryl Sandberg alluded to this whether she meant to or not. A Washington Post article claimed the yearly cost would be $18.75. Well within reach for most people.
  5. Suggestions on wishing Happy Birthday to my Facebook friends. That’s really boring. As is FB geo-targeting that one of my FB friends is ‘nearby’. This approach did not work for Foursquare. And pardon me if I think that FB asking me to wish Happy Birthday to deceased friends https://wp.me/pn6jX-US is worse than boring.

Things I feel are still good about Facebook

  • There are lots of pictures and stories about my family. Lots and lots of pictures.
  • Invitations to events work well on FB and have not gone crazy. As yet.
  • Messaging to some close friends gets to them faster on FB than via email or even SMS.

Like any social media platform (or any business for that matter) Facebook will need to evolve in order to stay relevant. The great quote attributed to Mark Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg in the movie ‘The Social Network’ – “That’s the beauty of it – it’s never finished”, is true. Longtime FB users will never go back and use the platform the way they did at the beginning. Adding new users suits FB’s goal of bringing the world a little closer together. But for now Facebook is just more and more….boring.

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