Monday, October 27, 2008

Skype Gripes and Swipes

I've heard plenty of gripes about Skype. I've heard analysts and bystanders say that Skype can't compete with other VoIP platforms. I've heard it's got security holes. I've heard people say it's annoying to talk from your computer. I agree that ebay paid too much for Skype.

Despite all this talk, Skype is now used for real business. As far as I can tell, it's at least as popular as fixed line.

In other words, these gripes and swipes simply aren't true. While it is true that Skype is essentially a proprietary client, and other softphones are "standard" SIP (I know enough about SIP for the idea of standard to be in quotes.), meaning they should be able to call one another, in fact this isn't of much concern to anyone. People still use regular phone numbers and for all intents and purposes, SkypeOut and SkypeIn are no different than the interfaces of any other VoIP interfaces.

For all the talk of Skype security problems, I have not heard one live actual account of a security breach due to Skype. I spoke to one of the Skype founders who told me the same thing. Not one live incident. If you know of one instance, by all means comment (and I don't mean you heard of it or read it on the Internet -- I mean, do you know an individual who had such a problem, not an IT manager who claimed it was a problem).

The bottom line, basically is that Skype has got it right. I can't put my finger on exactly what is right, but everybody has it on their desktop. Today, it's absolutely acceptable to tell a business contact to Skype you, and it's relatively rare for anyone (at least in the technology industry) to say they don't Skype.

The main convenience of Skype over other forms of communication is what people in the industry call "presence". That means I know if you are available before I, um, "dial", the, um, "device". It's also convenient that it's free, you don't really dial, and you see people's name instead of their telephone number, but those features don't change the basic functionality the way presence does.

Presence is revolutionary for two reasons. The main reason is that we no longer need to set fixed meeting times. I recently set a teleconferences with a collegues defining the time as "Some time between 4-6 pm. Look for me on Skype." We didn't have to sit by our desks, worry about stopping in the middle of the previous call, or any of that. We just "saw" one another online. Another meeting was defined by "Wednesday or Thursday afternoon next week when we are both online." Obviously, these weren't the most important meetings on my schedule, and they didn't involve more than 2 people (though Skype is amazing for that, too.), but you get the idea. Using Skype is changing our concept of scheduling. I don't know whether this is good or bad, it just is.

The other reason presence is revolutionary is that getting a phone call really never needs to be an annoyance anymore. Although sales guys have my Skype address, they don't take advantage of it any more than my regular fixed or cell number. I'm an extremely accessible person, being as I have customer-facing as well as spokesperson roles at my company. It's easy to find my cell phone phone number.

Despite my accessibility, my experience is that the best sales people are never an intrusion. With Skype, if they want to call, the usually will open a "chat" first and ask if it's a convenient time. Yes, they could have done the same thing by picking up the phone, but somehow, the quick chat is much less of a bother. Sales people who don't use Skype are starting to be much more of a bother to me than those who have access to knowlege about whether I'm online.

Given this, it makes sense that Skype would also integrate a feature that would allow me to define "work" and "real" friends, and define my status accordingly. That is, when I'm at work, my work colleagues would see me online, but they wouldn't see me online when I am at home. If it integrated with Plaxo to adopt those attributes, wow, I'd really be in heaven then.

Meanwhile, feel free to Skype anytime.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Uncommon Marketing: Out of Touch

In my last entry, I talked about common sense as a marketing tool, and in this blog I talk about common courtesy as a marketing tool. You can apply this one to social networking if you like; it works for both analog and digital relationships, so to speak.

I can't begin a discussion of lead follow-up without the soapbox introduction. (start soapbox)Can you believe that in this day and age, the best way to keep track of the people you meet is by exchanging a piece of paper with ink on it? Even if the person has inconsiderately used glossy colored paper or if the card is two-sided, you can still fit in some scribbled notes in the margins. Nothing invented to date can take the place of having that pile of cards with notes on it. You get back to the office and scan the cards in and put the notes down in a database file, but fundamentally, we are still using little cards to introduce ourselves.

It's true that the booths at trade shows have barcode scanners, but they are useless. They offer no way to identify the real leads from the giveaway-vultures, and now way to put in personal notes next to the name of the person whose badge you have scanned. And of course, only the exhibitors have the scanners at the booth. Even if the scanners were useful, they are useful in the minority of situations (trade shows) and for the minority of participants (exhibitors only). Booth visitors have to take a slip of paper or other physical reminder they have been there.
(end soapbox)

Given that you've been to a trade show or networking event and have collected either scanned bits of digitized contact information or information rendered on thin dead tree scraps, the next step should be to do something with the information gleaned. Amazingly, this step is overlooked by the overwhelming majority of people. The most "professional" booths scan your card and add you to their newsletter list, which is ok, but it doesn't actually create any useful business contact.

It is rare for you to get any direct personal mail from the person you met, or from the person they said you ought to meet in their company. I wish I could think of any logical explanation for this behavior but I can't. Well-organized sales people are the only follow-ups you get. You can immediately tell these people are using a lead management system. You have to wonder, why don't all the staff use the lead tracking system? Why shouldn't product managers, financial managers, and ops managers track their contacts in an organized manner? It's really a matter of common sense.

It's also a matter of common courtesy. If you meet a new person and say you will be in touch, the idea is that you want to be in touch. Maybe you are secretly hoping they won't hold you to it, because actually you don't have any business interest in staying in touch. One of the beauties of online social networking is that you can "friend" these new people or add them as business contacts, without any obligation to really have a communication.

In fact, it is much more common for me to go to a networking or other event, meet someone I frankly have nothing in common with, and have them friend me on FB or LinkedIn than it is for me to meet someone I have real business interest in and have them send me a personal communication. Think about that for a moment. People would rather add you to their "network" for no particular reason than contact you for a business reason.

But you know what, at least some of the blokes you send out there DO add those guys to their business network and now have another "link" when needed. Some folks are too reserved even to add the link or friend the people. Now, when you think about who you are sending to expensive trade shows, you have some insight about their effectiveness. It's easy to find out who in your company at least LinksIn or Facebooks, right? It is the ones who have more than a couple of hundred friends/contacts, many of whom are from the industry. Before you book those tickets for your staff, check their LinkedIn profile (If you targeting European markets, check their Xing profile.).

Hopefully, you don't have to resort to this methodology with your sales people, because the sales people are tracking their leads already, and you have a quantitative idea of who is or isn't effective at large events through an automated system.

One final word on follow-up. Amazingly enough, if you do follow up and send a personal e-mail, most people don't answer you. I can understand they might not really be interested, or they are overwhelmed, or whatever. In fact I know why they are overwhelmed. When I don't get an answer, I have a tendency to send them another e-mail or two before giving up. No wonder they can't keep up with the flow. If they'd just answer me in the first place and say they aren't interested, it would reduce their incoming e-mail by 50%. It would also be just plain decent.

I know that you are thinking "gosh, if I answered all those annoying sales people, it would eat up my day". Truthfully, that is just ridiculous. I answer all those annoying sales people at my job, because it is my job to work with suppliers and offer my company various marketing options. I can't know about them if I don't talk to those annoying sales people. I often tell them right up front it's not interesting, and then they go away. Sales people work on commission and if there is no chance of commission, they go away very quickly.

Having common courtesy is so uncommon these days it leaves an amazing impression, even on people who will not do business with you. No matter who you are, there is some way to get through all that e-mail in a courteous way. You might need an auto-reply, but frankly I doubt it. One of my most memorable e-mail exchanges was with Guy Kawasaki. I wanted to add this blog to alltop, a library of top blogs and I wrote to the info address (or whatever it said there). Guy personally answered me and we exchanged a few mails.

I don't know who you are, but if you are reading this blog, it's safe to say you aren't busier than Guy. It's worth asking yourself, what is it that is preventing you from having the common courtesy and business sense to simply behave professionally and politely with all of the people in your network on a weekly (if not daily) basis.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Uncommon Marketing: Giving it all away

The longer I'm in the industry, the more it appears that the most commonly overlooked marketing tools are common sense and common courtesy. Note: today's entry talks about traditional marketing with no mention of social networking.

It hit me recently following a trade show I had visited. As the marketing guy at the show, I have several roles: marcom (booth manager), competitive intelligence (visiting other booths with a high level of curiosity) and lead generation (approaching potential customers or partners.) Within this framework, I can't help but noticing the absurdity and lack of common sense of the giveaway and lead follow-up cultures. In this post, I'll talk about the giveaways and speak of lead follow-up in a future post.

The marcoms of the world have an established giveaway exchange system going. At the end of the show, nobody wants to ship extras back home, so we give them away to whoever is around during those last few hours of the show. In other words, we swap with other marcoms. We also trade info during the show about who has what, so we know who we want to swap with, if we haven't already just gone by and boldly asked for the item we want.

On the other hand, when I go to booths with genuine interest, either as a potential partner, customer, or supplier, almost never am I offered a giveaway. Since what I really want is information, I never ask for one, unless I've been tipped off (and as the lead generation guy, I might not have a good marcom to tip me off).

In other words, if you are sending giveaways to trade shows, you can be pretty sure that the majority of them are going to marcoms or giveaway-hunters. Almost none of them are going to the people you want them to go to, that is potential customers or partners.

Just to give people an idea of the cost of participating in these shows, companies who do booths put out from US$20,000 (for a tiny booth and associated costs), on through upwards of $1M for the big booths and big productions. Generally, the total costs for a medium sized booths runs in the neighborhood of $300-500K. Giveaways are a small part of the outlay, something like $5-$10 a piece. The total might be $1000-$3000 if you give out one to every serious booth-visitor at a good show.

In other words, if you are already spending half a mil to show up in the first place, it's worth putting in the extra grand to be remembered. After all, that's why you made giveaways in the first place. Most brochures don't make it to the hotel room, much less the luggage of the person who took them. Most people have poor filing systems for business cards (more about that in the lead follow-up post), so that's not going to remind them. Give them an item, they will at least pack it and get it home and remember the visit to your booth when they unpack.

Some companies will claim they just don't have giveaways or don't give them out at shows anymore. Yeah, right. We all give them out less than during 1999, but any company with one or more salespeople either has giveaways or an open account for alcoholic beverages at the duty-free (or both, depending on the target market).

I used to have common-sense ideas about giveaways, but I've been proven wrong repeatedly. For example, I said not to get things for the kids, because people just give them to their kids, instead of remembering the brand themselves. However, I must have tripped over that noise-making light-emitting bouncy-ball at least half a dozen times this week. I used to say don't give useless gifts, but I swear I've dreamed about Light Reading monkeys and Hatteras cows (boy, am I ever sorry I googled that one). My common-sense theory is that it should be visible and useful, but given that the most memorable giveaways for me were neither, just go with whatever strikes your fancy. Just don't forget to give it away to people who you want to remember your company rather than just swapping with your fellow marcoms.

If you are making a cheap (under $2) giveaway as a way to get people to come to your booth, then you want to proactively give it away, by having a booth hostess actually offer it graciously to passers-by. This mostly is relevant to companies doing mass branding campaigns, or in very targeted conferences. Bottom line=common sense. If the gimmick is for a purpose, use it for that purpose. If it is not, don't bother to produce it.

Incidentally, I found the booth stinginess syndrome runs over into coffee and chairs. Many booths have drink or food bars, or comfortable sitting areas. The concept is that if you spent a quarter of a mil, you want as many people as possible to visit the booth.

Yet in several cases I was either refused a drink or asked to leave the booth area if I wasn't talking to a company rep at that moment. I found this particularly odd at booths which appeared empty. If your booth is empty, you should be pleased that me and my buddy are free-riding at one of your 3 empty tables. If we are there, at least your booth isn't full of your own staff with no visible interest from anyone else.

Even for a customer truly in need, there is something off-putting about stepping into a 20-foot square space with 8 logo-shirt-clad sales guys ready to jump you. OTOH, if you are a competitor, it warms your heart to walk by a booth with nothing but logo-shirts. Plus, just between you and me, I'd rather waste the coffee on anyone in the industry who might have a good word to say about us afterward than to my own staff, who I can treat to cheap instant coffee at the office when we get back.

By all means, if your booth is bustling, kick out the freeloaders. Otherwise, offer me a coffee; or you know what, say coffee is on the house, but we are sending Bill over here to chat you up for a few minutes. At least find out if I am someone you want to know or offer your services to. You can be pretty sure that if you ask me what my company does, I will answer you; that's what I came to the show for.

At the very least, scan my badge, something more intelligent that booting me from your booth. Rather than saving $5 on bottle of fizzy drink, you can be building a story for your boss about how many people visited your wildly successful booth. Incidentally, I can tell you that just by this common courtesy I ended up talking to a number of people I had didn't have any business with. Mostly nothing came of it, but in some cases we were able to refer one another to someone who was of interest. It's called networking, but the basis is just common sense and common courtesy. Again, you've spent the time and money to be there: chat up everyone you possibly can. (Incidentally, I am serious about the $5 fizzy-drink; exhibition organizers force you to buy the drinks from their approved caterer, and that's what they charge. You get some plastic cups and a paper-bucket of ice thrown in for that price, if it's any consolation (which it isn't because you're paying $150/day for the mini-fridge rental).)

Again, I'm not saying you must offer this common courtesy to anyone, but if you aren't planning to, get a meeting room instead of open tables, and keep the coffee maker in the meeting room. Don't get couches. (In general, don't get couches and comfy chairs, unless you are a furniture manufacturer. You don't want people lounging around in your booth.) But if you are thinking "drinks attract people", attract them. Don't let your attraction go to waste by being inhospitable.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Community Atonement

One of the great things about Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, is that you don't have to make up the text yourself. Let's face it, none of us remember all the things we did wrong, and even if we did, we mostly don't admit they were wrong.

When I read through the list they give me in the prayerbook, there are some I am pretty sure I've done, like giving bad advice. I give lots of advice, so for sure I have given bad advice, and I need forgiveness for that. I've definitely been stubborn and insensitive and done bad deeds unintentionally. On the other hand, there are those things on the list that I'm pretty sure I didn't do this year, like having sexual relations with a family member.

It was pointed out to me, however, that the text doesn't refer to things that I did, but rather to things that we did. It doesn't say, Lord forgive me. It says, Lord, forgive us. If you've been following this column, it shouldn't be surprising to you to hear that this had a special meaning for me this year, as I reflected on the responsibility we have as members of a community, not just to do the right thing, but to influence others to do the right thing. The text of the prayers makes it starkly clear. We aren't just responsible for our own actions; we are responsible for our actions as a community and for the actions of members of our community.

For most of us, this is something of an annoyance. I have enough trouble keeping myself in line; you want me to watch that troublemaker, too? Unfortunately, the truth is that what others do influences our lives. For example, in most Western societies, people recycle because of social pressure, not because there is any real incentive. In this context, it's obvious that what our neighbor does has influence on our lives, and that our behavior influences theirs.

The same goes for our online behavior. Recently I read an article that one of the mobile operators is now reporting that Google searches for "Facebook" are outnumbering searches for pornography. You may debate whether this is an actual change in behavior; but at any rate it illustrates something about social behavior. Shifts in behavior online happen rapidly, and are immediately measurable. (One of my favorite sites in this area is, and I follow their blog regularly.) You might argue that people no longer have to search for pornography when they are lonely; now they can just search for other people. It sounds pretty good when you put it that way.

Regardless of what it means, online social networks are one of the most obvious places where you can see that our behavior influences others. Just as an example, Jeff Pulver posted that friends don't bite friends, so anyone following him (and he's one of the most influential Facebookers around) probably won't add the Vampires application. Not that it's a real bite or anything, but in that particular circle, that particular behavior has become unacceptable.

The tools available for sharing what you consider moral or amoral behavior have rapidly expanded. People know what you are doing through status messages, what you are reading through shared RSS feeds, and what you do for fun through applications you add to your profile.

More than ever, we are responsible for our influence on our colleagues and friends. Let us resolve to use that influence for the good, so that next year we will have a longer list of things we have influenced others to avoid, not just avoided doing ourselves.