Direct-to-Consumer marketing is not as easy as it might seem

I’ve been involved with DTC for a large part of my career.   I met and did some business with Lillian Vernon a good number of years ago, and if you don’t know her or her company you might find that to be an interesting history lesson. In fact recently named CBS Chairman Strauss Zelnick was principally involved in the purchase of the Lillian Vernon Company showing he is a direct marketer at heart even before his days at RCA/BMG and Ripplewood Holdings. I suspect Mr. Zelnick would concur that marketing direct-to-consumer can be a very successful and effective method, but is far from easy. He will need that consideration in his newest role as running CBS is not going to be easy either.

Online marketing has created an environment where anyone and everyone has the opportunity to market a product direct to consumer bypassing the more accepted retail model. Author/marketer Tim Ferris detailed a DTC path to riches in his well-known book ‘The 4-hour work week’.   I believe Mr. Ferris is among the few if any people who have such a successful DTC business that they only need to work on for 4 hours per week. Why? Because it’s really hard!

I had a conversation with some 30-something online marketers recently in which I advanced that DTC marketing is challenging. They seemed somewhat surprised, which in turn surprised me.   As if there were a key and all they had to do was find it without knowing where to look. While it remains true that online DTC marketing affords a chance for all to ‘take a shot’ at marketing a product or service, it’s far more involved than making or buying a product, slapping up a website, landing page or offer on social media, and then waiting for the orders to come in. As I say time and again, ‘if you build it, they may NOT come’.

In the digital marketing arena, search marketing and influencer/social media marketing have been paramount in launching successful DTC brands like Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club. Yet those successful stories are the exception and are not the rule.   Just because marketing has become more democratic, does not mean it’s easy as pie, contrary to what growth hackers and online marketing gurus would like you to believe. Research, testing and good old-fashioned hard work are at the root of every successful direct marketing story. That hasn’t changed in 100 years.

Is it getting easier or more difficult achieve direct marketing success online and beyond? While barriers to entry remain low, attention spans are shorter than ever, competition from all over the globe is fiercer than ever, and success is far more fleeting than people realize. Unlike the world of direct response television, digital advertising performance should be judged over an extended period of time (meaning more than three months which to many new marketers seems like a long time).   Since digital advertising is the tail wagging the marketing dog, particularly among the non-deep pocketed, it’s important to evaluate performances on an ongoing basis without making too many changes too quickly which can make it more difficult to obtain learning from results.

Being a celebrity can help garner attention and engagement with a DTC brand. It doesn’t remove the requirement to test and measure campaign performance. It’s not the celebrity doing the heavy lifting in the back room, but the long-term success of the marketing effort will still be based on a campaign’s concept and execution.

‘Winning’ means remaining humble and cognizant that success is hard-earned and fleeting and increasing your speed of learning will lead you to abandon campaigns that do not work more quickly and ride the crest of the success wave as smoothly as possible with the knowledge that all waves have to come ashore.

Are you discouraged? Or are you ready to take a shot? Or maybe a bit of both?

Posted in Advertising, Direct marketing, Direct response, Direct Response Television, Entrepreneurship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will smartwatches become ubiquitous?

I don’t know if it’s the same for people living outside of a major urban area, but there are increasing amounts people of all ages wearing smartwatches (and in particular Apple watches).

While I am still not a giant fan of smartwatches initially having wondered were people just too lazy to look at their phone, it’s clear that they are not going away. Apple has led the smartwatch charge and there’s a certain cache associated with Apple products in general (i.e. you are willing to spend more than on Android products) and the Apple watch fits right in.

You might be surprised to know there are a number of quality Android watches. Watches from LG, Samsung, and Huawei have fine features and are all considerably less expensive than an Applewatch. Any of the Android smartwatches work with an Android phone meaning you needn’t have a Samsung Galaxy phone to use a Samsung Galaxy smartwatch. But if there are people wearing Android smartwatches out there I am not seeing them or recognizing them. I can however easily recognize an Applewatch. It’s just another example of why Apple does a much better job of brand integration than Samsung, LG et al.

An article last month, ‘Apple Watch vs. Samsung Galaxy Watch: Which Smartwatch Is Best?’ appeared in summarized the different offerings –  It made me think a little more about an Android watch but I am not quite ready…yet.

I’ve noted previously that smartwatches are incredibly interruptive if you are with someone that is wearing one. Right in the middle of your conversation the watch flashes, buzzes or whatever and you the wearer cannot help but look down to see what’s happening. At that moment it’s not great to be the other person.

I guess there’s a feeling that looking at your smartwatch is less interruptive and faster than looking at your phone. After all why else would people wear one? With all the technology in our day-to-day lives, we’re all learning to deal with the onslaught of messages to figure out how much is too much. It’s a messy process that will take time to play out.

Will smartwatches become ubiquitous? I say mostly likely yes. Whether that’s a good thing or not, well that’s another story.

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Reading is faster than podcasts – and everything else

I’ve come around on Podcasts, (or is it podcasts?), except when it comes to the fact that they are called Podcasts.   A bit more on that later.

It’s a well-known fact that people can read faster than they can talk, listen, or watch. As someone who reads for more than 5 hours a day, speed is important since there’s simply too much to learn and too little time. I enjoy watching videos professional and otherwise and have more recently become an occasional podcast listener.

I like podcasts well enough but they take a while to get to the point. And it’s not always easy or practical to skip ahead. There are times when I am traveling by train that listening to a podcast is a welcome relief from all the reading I do. Watching webinars, and video presentations are also worthwhile overall, yet I often think that I could zip through the content so much faster on my own. I know I am not alone in that thought.

Seth Godin is promoting that ‘Podcasting is the New Blogging’. I think that’s true to some degree but it won’t replace blogging.

My problem with the term ‘Podcasting ‘is that it’s origination is with Apple and the iPod. Even when they first began to be called podcasts I wondered why they weren’t called Recorded Audio Broadcasts (RAB’s) or Recorded Audio Programs (RAP’s). After all that’s what they really are in essence. Apple wisely has done nothing and the result is that the term podcasts will live on, even as most people do not realize its derivation.

Is long form reading becoming less prevalent?   Or does it just seem that way? Listening is easier than reading for many people. Watching is better than listening for many more people. Not long ago BuzzFeed ‘axed’ its podcast team in favor of video content.

On the subject of video, for what it is worth, I acknowledge that 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 tutorial is worth…more.

But reading is faster. WAY faster than every other way of conveying information. This includes talking despite what some people think about New Yorkers. With all the various forms of content available to people, in general attention spans have dwindled. Long form reading is less popular than anytime in memory as in since books were invented. A recent article in the Washington Post – had the author @JenHoward note she had to work to ‘recover her former reading self’. I totally understood what she meant.

I believe that the ability to sustain long narrative reading and complicated concepts requires focus and attention. This focus is eroded by the practice of reading an endless stream of blurbs. If you can overcome the tendency to mainly consume information in bite-sized pieces you will be rewarded (via long narrative reading), by gaining a deeper understanding of the topic.

So challenge yourself to read more in general, and more long narratives be it books, fiction or non-fiction, long-form articles, and papers. The fact that it can be hard is a good thing for your overall growth and cognitive function. And it’s still faster than anything else.

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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,, and what used to be 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.

Posted in AI, Artificial Intelligence, Living in the World Today | Leave a comment