Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement

Yesterday, I attended the Web Managers Roundtable at the Grosvener Auditorium at National Geographic.  The Roundtable is a monthly get together of web managers from around Washington, sponsored by Aquent, Omniture and other companies.  The subject of the talk was “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”

Betsy Scolnik, President of National Geographic Digital Media, provided the introduction to the main speaker, Jim Sterne. had 73 million visitors last year.  They overhauled all their sites in the last two years, investing in major hardware and software upgrades.

Jim Sterne then presented on “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”  Sterne has written six books on Internet advertising, marketing and customer service.  He is also is the producer of the annual Emetrics Summit  (in DC, Oct 14-17) and is the founder of the Web Analytics Association.  He’s been involved in web marketing since the beginning – I saw him speak way back in 1998.

He defined marketing optimization as measured, incremental improvement.  You examine the data, see what’s working, and adjust your site accordingly.  “If you treasure it, measure it,” in his words.  With web analytics, you can test strategy and messaging on your site.

He believes that we’re just at the beginning of the web analytics evolution.  Web sites are swimming in data on visits, page views, click-throughs, etc…  And now, with services like Omniture, Web Trends and Google Analytics, that data is easier than ever to access and present.  But the question is, what questions do we want answered?  Which numbers matter and what actions do we take based upon them?

The good thing is that this data eliminates decisions made in a smoke-filled room or by the whim of a CEO (“I want a red button.”)  Everything can be measured now.  With A/B testing, you can try two different versions of the same web page and see which performs better.  With multivariate testing, you can try multiple elements on the same web page in several different versions and examine the results.  Companies are also adjusting their offers based upon user behavior – think how Amazon changes their home page based upon what you buy or look at.
Smart companies are using this information to gain insight into consumer behavior.  There’s a marked difference between what people say they do (“I exercise regularly.”) versus what they actually do (“I never miss a happy hour.”)

Why does this matter?  Because the Internet is where people learn about your organization, it’s where you’re defined.  Consumers don’t know the different parts of your organization.  They expect messaging to be coordinated across all media – web, print, call center, etc… And they want you to speak to them in their language.

Brendan Hart and Ted McDonald from then discussed their marketing analytics efforts.  Sterne was theory; they were reality.  In their view, marketing optimization is an art and a science, since consumer behavior is constantly changing.  They’ve focused on a set of Key Performance Indicators.  Out of the wealth of data available, they suggest following the numbers that are most relevant to you – visitors, page views, time spent on site, newsletter signups, orders, etc…  To do so, they use Omniture with an Excel plugin to produce weekly traffic reports.  These reports are distributed across the organization and people are trained in how to understand the data.  Content is adjusted accordingly.  For example, they expanded a section on the “Seven Wonders of the World” that proved to be popular.

Overall, the philosophy they’ve followed is Strategize, Optimize, Monetize.  For example, they tried out a “subscribe” button on their home page and then changed the color and made it bold, because it performed better this way, and led to more subscriptions.

What was interesting was the divergence between theory and practice.  Sterne is right – web analytics are a powerful tool.  However, these tools still require humans to examine the data and take action based upon their interpretations of that information.

Schmap and Photo Rights

My favorite Pebble Beach pic was included in a Schmap guide.

I’ve let Schmap use several of my photos. Here’s how the describe themselves:

Schmap is a leading publisher of digital travel guides for 200 destinations throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The innovative technology behind Schmap Guides is also used by clients, partners and bloggers to power schmapplets – a range of fully customizable map mashups and map widgets.

They found my pics through Flickr. On Flickr, you can choose to make your photos available though a Creative Commons license… or not. I have my photos listed under a Attribution-NoDerivs license. This is a pretty broad license – I’m saying that other people (even for-profit companies) can use my photos as long as they attribute the picture to me (by running my name under it) and that they can’t remix it into other works of art.

There’s been periodic discussion on Flickr and elsewhere on Schmap and other services and the ethics of sharing photos. Some take the perspective that the photographer always must be paid for use of their photos. I, however, am not a professional. I take pictures because I enjoy them. If some little magazine or web site wants to use them, and can’t pay, that’s OK. I’m more interested in getting my pictures out there, sharing them with the world, than with making a profit.

A similar debate took place in the early years of the Internet. Shouldn’t writers get paid for their online content? As a writer, I think they should. Early attempts at renumeration for writers, like “micro-payment” schemes and putting things in “walled gardens” have largely failed. Why? Because the web is awash in written content. Nobody (and that means you and me) wants to pay. And now, for better or worse, the web is awash in free photos.

If you’re not going to get paid, why take pictures and put them online? Or, for that matter, why write? If you enjoy these activities, you’re going to do them, and not care about the value the market assigns your efforts. That, in my view, is the mark of the true artist.

Blogging Under Your Real Name

An excellent post by Penelope Trunk on blogging under your real name. As someone who’s been online in one form of another since 1996, I couldn’t agree more with her advice.

As I said in my comment, blogging is a great way to increase your visibility online through that arbitrer of importance these days, Google. If Google can’t find you, do you really exist? We’ll leave that philosophical question for another time. In practical terms, being online has greatly helped me find jobs, expands my network and allow old friends to track me down.

Why did I initially decide to go online? Vanity. I was a writer of short stories who felt that I should be more widely known. My stories had been accepted in some very very small literary publications with circulations of less than a thousand subscribers. The process of your story being accepted by one of these journals is to snail mail it to an editor and wait 3-12 months for them to get back to you. This ancient process still exists today.

After AOL announced that they would provide space on the Web for their users, I taught myself HTML and published several pages online. (Unbelievably, they are still there.) I was not a computer person or a geek, just a frustrated writer who wanted to publish his short stories online. I’m not sure how much the world was interested in my tales of adolescent longing but my vanity led me to a whole new career as a web person.

Salman Rushdie: 1989 and Now

Salman Rushdie was recently awarded a knighthood by Britain, an act which caused more than one anti-Western rant from the medieval ayotollahs of Iran and Pakistan. The usual threats of violence from the usual dark quarter of the world. This honor by Britain reminded these hateful clerics that Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, a novel considered blasphemous (by some) to Islam.

Rushdie has been under a sentence of death since 1989, when the book was first published and the clerics of Iran took offense. Only recently has he felt safe enough to emerge from hiding.

What’s been forgotten over the years is that the hostage-taking Ayotollah Khomeini wasn’t the only one outraged by The Satanic Verses. This excellent article in the International Herald Tribune reminds us that the book was published to great controversy. Like the recent cartoon conflagration in Denmark, not everyone stood behind the right of free speech in an open society.

In a March 1989 Op-Ed article in The New York Times titled “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult,” Jimmy Carter argued that “The Satanic Verses” was guilty of “vilifying” Muhammad and “defaming” the Koran. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” Carter wrote. While condemning the death sentence and affirming Rushdie’s right to free speech, the former president argued that “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.”

It’s just a novel, words printed on the page, a novel that billions of people will never see or even bother reading. A novel cannot violate a religion. A basic tenet of Western civilization is the right to offend people – we must not go backwards on this.

I had heard of Rushdie in 1989, after reading his book Shame in a modern literature class. The fatwa by Khomeini made The Satanic Verses a bestseller. I remember racing through book stores in DC, looking for a copy. I wanted to buy it to show my support of free speech, to show the Ayatollah that we wouldn’t be intimidated. Your religion doesn’t dictate what I can read.

I couldn’t find one anywhere – it was the iPhone of its day 😉 After I got a copy from a friend who worked in the publishing industry, I started the book and found it incomprehensible, a wild magic realism narrative that I couldn’t understand. All this trouble for a book?

Since then, I’ve gone on to enjoy other Rushdie novels, especially the brilliant Shalimar the Clown.

Looking back, it’s tempting to believe that America and Europe supported the absolute right of free speech. However, when faced with the very real threat of violence, people don’t always live up to their ideals and seek to justify censorship.

What will we do when the next of these conflicts arise?  Will we stand firm or compromise our values?

Reverend Billy Comes to Silver Spring

reverend billy in Austin
Reverend Billy preaches against Starbucks in Austin, TX.

Reverend Billy came to the chain-ridden streets of Silver Spring to minister for our sins. What did we do wrong? Americans shop too much, according to the Reverend, with our dreams dictated by major brands and our lives enslaved by credit card debt.

With this type of message, you would think that his movie, “What Would Jesus Buy” would be a humorless polemic. But what distinguishes the Reverend from the whole crop of latter-day alarmists (for example, the food police) is the humor and humanity he brings to his evangelical message.

I first encountered the Reverend on the streets of Austin during SXSW. He and his joyous band led a gospel-style procession up Congress Avenue, singing out to everyone, “Stop shopping! Stop shopping!” Like the Pied Piper, he soon had a delighted throng following him, for the choir was truly rocking and the lyrics were hilarious indictments of our own materialism. He led a crowd up to a Starbucks and preached against the sins of this ubiquitous company, and for all of us to make better choices with our dollars.

This humor and appeal to our better nature is on display in the new documentary, “What Would Jesus Buy.” This film, which screened at SilverDocs, follows the Reverend and his choir around the country at the height of Xmas shopping madness. Produced by Morgan Spurlock, it’s a funny and occasionally horrific look at the excesses of 21st century America. We have too much stuff and spend more than we have to buy the latest products pitched to us.

Where the doc comes alive is when we see Reverend Billy and his wife, Savitri D, struggle with their mission. Are they really making a difference? The Reverend answers affirmatively, if they can just change one life. And they do, by blessing an infant outside a Target – a really touching moment.

This sets up the final confrontation with the forces of the “shopacolypse” as Reverend Billy goes into the belly of the Beast (or Mouse) to spread his good news.

The packed house at SilverDocs loved it, especially when the Reverend and the choir appeared in the wings and began to sing a couple of new songs.  They’re trying to get distribution for the movie.

Nobody likes being preached to, whether it’s religion or politics. But Reverend Billy has managed to communicate his message through humor and satire. And it’s a message that stays with you because the Reverend doesn’t try to make us feel guilty, he tries to make us good.

The Mini-Retirement: Costs and Benefits

palm tree, Santa Monica, CA
In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss discusses the idea of taking a “mini-retirement” while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. His point is that we Americans have it all wrong. We work hard through our youth to save up for a retirement in old age. That seems backwards to him – we should have our fun now, while we still can.

This is something I’ve always believed in. “You have the rest of your life to work,” I’ve counseled others who have considered taking a few months away from cubicle land. We’re fortunate to live in this historically unique time and place where jobs are plentiful. You’re not going to starve and there will be work for you when you come back, at least if you’re lucky enough to be a college graduate in America.

However, mini-retirement has costs and benefits that need to be considered. In my own life, I’ve tried to alternate my creative pursuits (writing) and my career (web person). I’ve taken several mini-retirements so that I could write. Here are the costs and the benefits:

August 1991 – December 1992: I leave my nascent career as an Information Assistant in Washington, DC, and move home to Florida. I work as a temp while I write a novel. I’m completely broke, live with my parents and yet am really happy.

  • Cost: I’m “behind” some of my friends who are becoming successful in their careers.
  • Benefit: I write a novel, my most important life goal.

July – October 1996: The Internet has just begun to take off. I’ve created my first web site, so that I can publish my fiction. I leave my library job behind and take several months off to travel and write. I also think there has to be a way for me to find a job doing this new web stuff.

  • Cost: None. I don’t make any money for three months but I get a new and much better job as an Internet Content Consultant.
  • Benefit: I work on my writing and edit the script of an independent film, Carrots and Onions. Reading someone else’s screenplay convinces me that screenwriting is something I can do. Perhaps more importantly, with my web job I’ve switched fields. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a career not just a job.

December 2001 – May 2002: A few months after 9/11, it’s a terrible time for a mini-retirement. My plan, formalated earlier in the year, of taking a couple months off to travel and work on a screenplay stretches into a half-year of intermittent freelance work.

  • Cost: My finances suffer a major blow from the months of semi-paid freelance work. And when I finally find a new job, it pays less than my old job. My friends are buying homes, piling up $$ in their 401Ks, having kids. And spending lots of time in the office.
  • Benefit: Though it’s tough to see as I look at my bloated credit card balance, the work and connections made during this time will pay off later. I finish my script, Mount Pleasant, which in 2006 will win the Film DC screenplay competition. And, with plenty of time on my hands, I become part of the local film community and meet people I will work with in the 48 Hour Film Project (2003, 2006) and DC Shorts. I also get into photography, a hobby that will bring me much joy.

Mini-retirements are not without cost. However, they’ve added a richness of experience to my life that is truly priceless.

Tim Tate's Artomatic Stunt?

artomatic pic

I’ve met Tim Tate, the noted Washington glass artist, a couple of times. One of his glass sculptures, a really cool rocket, was stolen from Artomatic and held for ransom. It was only returned after a dramatic midnight exchange – Monopoly money for art. An individual named “The Collector” took credit for the theft. His aim was to increase this city’s appreciation of its art and artists.

This was a brilliant PR stunt, one that was expertly pulled off by “The Collector” or by Tate himself. It garnered both of them a story on the front page of Style in The Washington Post.

Did Tate set this up? Anyone who has met him would argue that he was certainly capable of such a masterstroke. After all, he’s a man who once had 99 films made about himself, including one that I wrote. But whoever did this crime is a marketing genius who should be applauded for bringing excitement and intrigue to the world of art in DC.

48 Hour Film Project

48 hour

I’ve done the 48 Hour Film Project twice. For those who haven’t experienced this weekend of madness, it’s a contest where you have 48 hours to make a short film. You pick a genre out of a hat and everyone has to use the same character name, prop, and line of dialogue.

On the weekend of May 5, a hundred teams from around Washington set out to make their short films. The results are being shown this week at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.

Both times I’ve done 48 Hour, it was an amazing learning experience – it’s like Hollywood in a microcosm, with all the highs and lows of any filmmaking experience, though on a smaller scale and budget than what gets made on the West Coast.

Here’s a story of my 48 Hour experience from 2003, when me and the team of Midnight Motley set out to make a mockumentary.

Uncle Sam's Podcasts

Uncle Sam wants YOU to listen to his podcasts!  Government web sites are increasingly using the tools everyone else is using (podcasts, videos, blogs) to communicate with the public.  A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted some of the many government podcasts that are out there.  For example, NOAA (the agency I work for) created a podcast on a research mission to Greenland.