Impolite Company

You know how people tell you that there are certain topics never to be discussed among “polite company”?

I don’t get that.

“Just remember, we never discuss combustion, or split-second decisions, in polite company. That’s the received wisdom. Avoid those issues or people will think you’re a boor.”

“Really? Those are the two forbidden topics?”

“Yes – they make people uncomfortable.”

“Dang. Because the house is on fire, and we all need to get out NOW!”

“That’s impolite!”

“OK.”

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An AmeriCAN Adventure

Starting Tuesday, my family and I head down to Parris Island (South Carolina) to see my 19-year old son David graduate from Marine boot camp. We’re immensely proud of him and can’t wait to see him again, and meet all his new buddies. I’m sure I’ll be uploading photos along the way via Twitpic.

Mystic the Marketing Lab will be taken care of by someone staying over here with a huge St. Bernard. Should be lively for them!

Also, today is the unveiling of an important blog post – one on which I expended more thinking and writing time than anything I’ve ever written before. I put in on my personal blog (Steve’s Leaves), and it’s called, Are you an AmeriCAN?. It’s likely to be controversial and thought-provoking; designedly so. Your comments and discussion are welcome, and hopefully I can stay involved despite the travel.

I deeply appreciate the editorial comments on the early version of this post from my ad-hoc “advisory board” yesterday, drawn from Twitter connections of many political perspectives – you know who you are, and I really appreciate your frank and helpful input, which shaped the post significantly.

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Mystic Speaks

I was quite surprised to discover this week that my dog, Mystic, is actually considered to be quite the successful marketer in her circle of influence. In fact, she has quite a social network, and, as I discovered when I sat down to interview her (between doggie treats and luxurious naps), dogs can teach us a lot about influence and branding.

Me: Mystic, you seem to be pretty popular in the neighborhood after one year. What would you say is the essence of your Personal Brand?

Mystic: Well, for me it’s all about what we call canine benchmarking. It was clear in our walks around town that best practices in the area of impression management meant a head held high, a glossy coat, and turn-key approach to adding value by sniffing backsides. The rest just takes care of itself.

Me: Did you approach this challenge by trying to define your own niche, or did you seek synergistic partnerships with other leading canines?

Mystic: I took a both-and approach. Obviously, when you’re a startup, you’ve got to achieve some sort of critical mass, so I made sure to relieve myself in the sight of some of the bark-leaders in the neighborhood. Eventually, once I had some best-of-breed backers, I had to recontextualize in order to unleash my own brand positioning. Which usually involves lying on my side and drooling.

Me: What metrics do you use to ensure that your brand is top-of-mind, and not mired in the long tail?

Mystic: Just remember two words. No, not “Down, Girl!” Trend Analysis. All the canines in this vertical maximize insights from these data points.

Me: Final question: I’ve been told that you – and perhaps some other influencers in your sub-group – roll around in your own…you know, doo-doo. What’s up with that?

Mystic: Every dog quickly learns about leveraging recurring assets. When the input/output ratio is unbalanced in the supply chain, you have to morph past deliverables into current value-added resources.

Me: In other words, you just harness back-end action items to produce a fresh brand presentation.

Mystic: Exactly. Can I go out and pee now??

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Door-to-Door Eco-Robbery

I’m mad. About light bulbs – and customer “service”.

Let me explain why, with a parable.

Let’s say you lived in a fairly well-off neighborhood. Everyone is now gearing up for the holidays – decorations are coming out, lights and displays are appearing…and, of course, the stores have been running sales since Halloween. It’s another American Christmas season.

One day you go out to check the mail, and lo and behold, someone has hung a Christmas wreath on your door. It’s decorated with sparkly balls that have smiley faces. And with it is a note from your mortgage company, explaining that latest studies have shown that Christmas wreaths lead to a 15% increase in overall societal happiness – in light of that, they are delivering wreaths to every one of their customers because…well, who can question such a good cause?

Even the president, and all the in-vogue politicos, have been mandating happiness measures. So it must be right.

You look to your left, and see that a wreath is hanging on the Goldblum’s front door. And to your right, on the Al-Mahdi”s door – another wreath. You think that perhaps your Jewish and Muslim neighbors might not approve of this gesture – and furthermore, you have your own favorite wreath already and don’t particularly care for this one hand-delivered to you without your consent.

It takes some work, but you do your digging and find out that this “free” wreath (worth about $17.00) is actually going to cost you $75.00, paid for on your mortgage bill, spread out in monthly payments over three years. WHAT? You’re going to be ripped off for something you didn’t ask for, don’t want, and perhaps even don’t believe in?? An outrage!

Far-fetched? Not at all. Let’s just change a few details, and you’ll know why I’m mad.

In Ohio, the First Energy Utility has taken upon itself to deliver unasked-for compact fluorescent light bulbs (the kind with mercury in them) to its millions of customers – and is charging them a pretty penny for the privilege. Now, these supposedly high-efficiency bulbs have gained the imprimatur of the eco-politically-correct crowd, and the utility feels that it must impose these bulbs on its customers.

    The utility will charge average users 60 cents a month extra on their electric bills for the next three years — $21.60 all together. That covers the cost of the bulbs ($3.50 each), their delivery and the delivery of the power consumers would have used if they didn’t have them…but the company — and therefore you — are paying too much for the bulbs, said Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. A five-pack of similar bulbs costs $13.99 from Ace Hardware’s Web site.

Beside the fact that the program is a form of robbery, what really irks is the fact that people are not being left with the freedom to make their own choices, based on intelligent shopping, personal conviction, and genuine need. And if you look at the reactions, this exercise in eco-bludgeoning is creating a firestorm (see here and here). I’ll just extract two comments:

    How is it even legal for any company to require customers to pay for items they neither ordered nor wanted? If CEI is allowed to get away with its lightbulb plan, it will set a very dangerous precedent.
    $21 for 2 lightbulbs? Not fair to anyone except possibly the workers getting paid to deliver them. I just purchased a package of 12 of these for less than $21. That means I have changed out all my bulbs and already have cut my electric consumption. Why didn’t they just mail coupons for a couple bulbs in our bills if they were serious about us cutting our consumption. Oh that’s right, it was a mandate so they wanted to insure they kept profits the same with generating output lowered. I think I’ll tell the boss I want the same pay and I’ll work at least 10% less, lets see what they say. It’s a bad deal and I’m tired of everyone reaching in my wallet without my permission.

Now, I don’t live in Ohio – so what’s my beef? Well, a few days ago I heard that the green-shirted volunteers were in our neighborhood here in NJ, and what did I find on my doorknob? Two unrequested and unwanted bulbs.

On Saturday, I went onto the NJ Clean Energy website and left the following (with my e-mail):

    We just had 2 (unrequested) Project Porchlight light bulbs hand-delivered to our door. I would like to know:
    1. What I am being charged for this, one-time and monthly,
    2. The actual bulk cost of one of these bulbs on the open market,
    3. What you are paying for this program, per household

Thank you.

On Monday, two e-mails drop into my InBox, from a person who will remain unnamed. One was inadvertently copied to me, the other was one of those futile “Would like to recall that last e-mail” messages (oops – too late!). In it, my message was sent to a handful of internal people for consideration, with the following note:

Do you have any suggestions on answering the below.  Not sure if you have/want to give them detail.  I can cover with the general explanation about the SBC charge and how NJCEP is funded, but want to run it by you……

Now, frankly, I’m not interested in general explanations about how the NJ Clean Energy Program is funded. Here is an explanation of the Society Benefits Charge (SBC) which already consumes 3% of our bill. What I want to know is if I am being charged even more for something I neither want (I do have a problem with these mercury-containing bulbs) nor have asked for. And I want to know the numbers if I and other NJ residents are being gouged like our fellow citizens in Ohio.

Whatever you may think of green initiatives, various types of bulbs, and the like, that’s not the issue here. This is an issue of having something shoved down our throats due to an in-vogue agenda, and being charged for the privilege. I don’t care whether it’s wreaths or bulbs – it’s just wrong.

We called the utility and, after long delays getting to anyone who could even address the issue, someone said they’d come get the bulbs back. Fine. But I still await an answer about the costs of this program to those of us who are being serviced by the utility. I’ll let you know what we find out.

Update: here is the e-mail response from the utility:

As I mentioned, I had to go to several sources top to see what numbers are available to you that may answer your specific questions.

  • As previously mentioned, the bulbs were delivered by local volunteers so there is no direct cost to you for that.
  • CFL open market costs vary by retailer and type. To give you an idea we offer a 14 watt CFL for $.95 through our online store.
  • As also mentioned, the overall funding for NJCEP is through the Societal Benefits Charge (SBC) that the main gas and electric utilities companies charge (not municipality owned utilities).  The charge can be found on your utility bill each month.  If you are unable to locate it, I would suggest you contact your electric utility company to find out what the monthly charge is.

To give you an idea, in 2008, an average residential electric utility customer contributed approximately $18 to fund these programs and an average residential gas utility customer contributed approximately $14.

The 2009 budget for the Energy Efficient Products Program is $23,315,444.  That budget supports several initiatives, including discounted ENERGY STAR lighting in retail stores like Home Depot and Lowes, incentives on clothes washers, room air conditioners and dehumidifiers, an on-line energy audit, a refrigerator recycling program and activities related to the Green NJ Resource Team of which Project Porchlight is a member.   If you wish to look at further the NJCEP’s 2009 Budget Filing can be found on our website and there is a specific section on ENERGY STAR ® Products to help you get a better understanding of the overall budget for this portion of NJCEP.

–If I’m reading this correctly, this bulb drop-off initiative is a component of a larger program, which we have no choice but to pay for, for various green initiatives, including Project Porchlight. The cost of this aspect of the program appears not to be publicly disclosed as a line item. I really wonder if a voucher program would not have been far more effective and customer-focused – providing discount vouchers for any type of energy-conserving bulb, if desired, purchased at market price somewhere instead of having people hand-deliver something that may or may not be desired or a good “match” for customer lighting needs.

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ROI in Social Media – Where Does it Belong?

What’s the ROI of Social Media?” I hear that question all the time, and it drives me crazy.

What’s the ROI of your cell phone? What’s the ROI of using a computer? What’s the ROI of breathing?

At one point, it was legitimate to think about the ROI of, say, a cell phone. But no more. It’s simply an assumed part of doing business, and living. You might think about the return on a specific model or plan, but you don’t wonder any more if you should use a cell phone or a smartphone. It’s about as much a question mark as getting dressed in the morning.

Networked communications – social media – is now a part of life. We’re past the stage of wondering if people are going to communicate and do business via these mechanisms. It’s just a matter of how we, as individual people or businesses, are to engage. Computers, internet, texting, cell phones, social platforms – they’re all networked communications, they’re ubiquitous, and they’re growing in influence.

People breathe. They drive. And they communicate in networks. Period.

That’s why it’s silly to ask, “What’s the ROI of Social Media?” Instead, we should ask, “what’s the potential ROI of this or that specific social media tactic or campaign?” Because you don’t measure the ROI of an assumed cost of doing business.

You don’t ask for the ROI of a medium. You determine if that medium/channel/approach is going to be a viable and potentially profitable place to be. Then you create a strategy. Then you look at the harder metrics of ROI over time on a tactical level, while also seeking to measure “softer” and, when possible, harder $$ returns on the use of that medium over the long haul.

Social Media/Networked Communications are a fact of life. And, there are some things we do because we know that, in the long run, they make business better. What’s the ROI of honesty and transparency? Don’t look for some short-term dollar figure – look at the long-term reputation value. What’s the ROI of getting closer to your customers, of improving communications, of putting a human face on your business, of being part of the marketplace dialogue, of creating strategic serendipity? What’s the ROI of creating opportunities through people-connections? When something is the right thing to do, you do it, knowing that in the long-term, it’s good for business.

That’s why we should instantly dismiss the question, “What’s the ROI of Social Media?” It’s exactly the wrong question. Should companies be involved in networked communications? In every way that makes sense, yes – because it’s smart, it’s right, it’s where the people are. Now – what specific strategies are best, and what measurable tactics should be employed? That’s when we move into ROI territory (and that’s when you start reading The Brand Builder on ROI…).

Then again, you can always take comfort in the return on doing nothing

(Update: Because I kinda jumbled several lines of thought into this one blog post rant, I decided to create a little video to try to clarify some ideas. Thanks to all the commenters and twitter-folk – esp. Olivier Blanchard – who contributed their thoughts to the discussion. Feel free to keep it going! And while you’re at it, read this common-sense social-media-in-business perspective from @jasonfalls – great reality check! Then check out Shannon Paul’s recent musings on ROI. And, if you want to get beyond the narrow ROI/tactical issues into future business design, check out this forward-looking post by David Armano)

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Connected Dots in My Opportunity Network

Today, I’m in Orange County, California, at a small, focused workshop on the use of social media in business.

NetworkThere’s a story behind this, which has everything to do with encouraging you to create your own opportunity network.

Here’s the tale…

At some point in the distant past (maybe 1.5-2 years ago? don’t remember exactly), I came across Kirsten Wright in the blogosphere. I liked how she was writing, and I sensed something that I try to stay attuned to – young, budding entrepreneurs who use social networking and “get it.”

We commented on each others’ blogs and tweeted regularly, and in fact, I had Kirsten design a custom Twitter background for me as she was contemplating starting her own adventure as a freelance designer. But we were a continent apart and, unlike many with whom I’ve connected on these networks, our paths never crossed in real life, even as we continued to share professional perspectives sprinkled with small talk.

In the meantime, a group of us in North Jersey began to meet semi-regularly for lunch, and on one occasion Scott Bradley, a young marketing entrepreneur recently out of Boston College, joined us. Unfortunately (for us), he soon moved back to the Orange County area; since I knew Kirsten was there, I made sure they got connected.

Fast forward some months: Kirsten and Scott get to know one another, and decide to plan and put on a local workshop on using social media for business. I thought it would be so cool to find some excuse to be there, but opportunities to get to California for business had been quite scarce for a while. However, I got a call from someone who’d connected with me on Twitter because of a mutual involvement in pharma; she’d had a panelist for a conference drop out, and would I be interested in helping present at the Public Relations Society of America conference in San Diego in November??

San Diego – yeah, anytime. I’m in. Then I find out the Kirsten and Scott had to put off their workshop in Orange County (only 1.5 hours from San Diego) and re-schedule it for….the day after the PRSA conference ended. How perfect is that?!

And now, I’m learning some stuff from them, about WordPress and Facebook and SEO. I may actually need some of their consulting services in the future. Meanwhile, they continue to build their opportunity network(s) here as their entrepreneurial ventures grow.

And what will the future hold? I can’t look into a crystal ball and predict specifics, but I’m entirely confident that new opportunities for everyone in this room will continue to open up.

Is this a great time to be alive or what?

(Image credit)

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Are You a Kool-Aid Drinker?

I am. Let me explain.

We tend to talk about “true believers” as those who have drunk the Kool-Aid, with the obvious tie-in to Jim Jones and his followers. It’s an apt analogy, however unfortunate the original incident – one who has drunk the Kool-Aid actually, in this sense, is so convinced of something, that they move forward with conviction where others would hold back.

Now there are people who abandon all common sense and do ridiculous and harmful things because of “true belief.” No matter how much Kool-Aid you drink and how sincere your belief that gravity is suspended in your particular case, you’ll still be picked up with a spatula if you jump off a skyscraper. That’s the dumb Kool-Aider.

But, there are also those who feign enthusiasm and commitment, for as long as it seems to be prudent and fashionable to do so. Think of the car salesman who vigorously sells the marvelous virtues of Subaru, then loses his job, is picked up by the Toyota dealer down the street, and appears to have Camry-Aid in his veins the next week. That’s not a true believer – that’s the faux Kool-Aider.

An intelligent Kool-Aid drinker takes a reasonable look at what seems right and true and good, and out of a deep sense of conviction, puts all the chips in. It’s not Kool-Aid in this case – it’s vintage Bordeaux, and the commitment is not one born out of convenience or happenstance, but genuine belief.

My enthusiasm for Social Networking is Bordeaux-ish, and I am quite convinced that in many of my valued friends found through blogging and tweeting and meetups, I see the same thing. With realistic understanding, we embrace the new world of networked communications, not because it’s a panacea and the provider of whiter teeth and longer life, but because it’s powerful and transformative. We believe in (as Chris Brogan might put it) “human business” and are seeking to practice it.

And that’s why we tend to have such a visceral reaction against the Dumb or the Faux. There’s no need to be unrealistic, and we certainly abominate the attempts to corrupt these approaches with cheap sales pitches and scams. We’re not into cheap perfume or streetwalker dress. We just want to know each other, learn together, and change the world. That’s not so bad.

So, for all that, let’s enjoy the Kool-Aid together. Better still, let’s hoist a glass of Bordeaux today. It’s a great time to be alive!

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