Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Comment This!

I’ve engaged in a lot of discussion about comments on websites lately. I used to allow unmoderated comments on this site until the spammers forced me to change that. Then I had moderated comments. That changed when the flamers started. It took too much time to filter out the awful, off topic, and just plain stupid comments that people left. There was not enough spirited discussion and too much mean spiritedness.

Part of the problem is with Blogger. I’ve used Blogger for as long as I have had Tom’s Technology Take. I like a great many things about it. Most of all, I have tools for composing and uploading my writing to the platform. For example, I have a plugin for’s Writer that uploads directly to my blog. Lately, I’ve been using Microsoft Live Writer and really like it. It too can interface with Blogger.

Where Blogger really falls down is in comment moderation. There is no good way to verify that people who comment are who they say they are. You can leave comments using only the flimsiest and false information. There is no attempt to verify more than an email address which can be fake too. Subsequently, I saw a lot of comments from spammers and flamers that traced back to nobody. Without accountability for their remarks, some rotten people feel that they can be as nasty as they like. I’m sorry folks but I believe in basic civility.

This has come up recently at my hometown newspaper, The Buffalo News. They have had rather loose commenting rules ever since they introduced comments, about a year ago. This has resulted in comments that were:

  • from political operatives not real people;
  • really nasty;
  • racist, sexist, and every other type of “ist” you can think of;
  • full of unverified claims that bordered on defamation and some that crossed the border.

This has led to a change in their commenting policy. They are not eliminating comments but now require a login with a real name and phone number. They have my support. The Buffalo News doesn’t want to cut off discussion or even criticism. They just want people to be civil and accountable. What cracks me up is the number of people who got all up in arms about not being able to anonymously flame people. Makes you wonder at the health of our civilization.

Margaret Sullivan, Managing Editor, in her article about the policy change makes a compelling case for commenting. She wrote:

“The aim of publishing reader comments, all along, has been to have a free-flowing discussion of stimulating and worthwhile ideas — something of a virtual village square. “

This is what is missing when you turn off commenting - the exchange of worthwhile ideas. It is sad that good discussion has been drowned out by the buzz of virtual mosquitoes who only want to suck the lifeblood from civil discourse.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. I will turn commenting back on. It will be moderated. It will require a Google account since the Registered Users option didn’t do the trick the first time. Comments that are nasty, off topic, or plain counterproductive will be summarily eliminated. Comments will not be axed because they are critical or because I disagree with them. I will, however, kill anything that is not civil.

It is time to stand up for proper behavior. The Internet does not give people a pass on decency or allow them to be awful. Even if, as the old New Yorker cartoon said, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” you still have to act like a human being.

Author’s Note: I never publish two blogs in one day. I like to spread them out a bit. This was written but slated for publishing a week later. Wouldn’t you know it, someone asked again why I didn’t allow comments. It’s a sign maybe. Anyway, I have accelerated my schedule and am publishing this now as well as changing the commenting.

Broadcasters Throwing Away 70 Years Of Practice

It amazes me that an entire industry, when faced with something a little bit new, can suddenly forget everything they have ever learned. TV broadcasters (who started as radio broadcasters) and their advertising agencies seem hell bent on tossing out every lesson from the past 70 years as they branch out into Internet media.

Case in point – CBS. CBS doesn’t participate in Hulu unlike every other major and quite a few minor networks. Instead, they go it alone. To me that just means cutting off an avenue of distribution. That’s like refusing to put out your old programs on VCR and then DVD.

That, however, is not where they really drop the ball. Their worst mistake is when they forget decades of advertising wisdom on What do they do? They run the same commercial at every break in the online program. Every time. Over and over and over again. That flies in the face of all that we know about how to advertise in a broadcast medium. After the first run, no one is paying attention. By the fourth run you’ve actually annoyed your potential customer into no longer being a potential customer. It is not enough that you remember an ad. You have to not hate it too. Otherwise, that irritation translates to the product. You remember the product alright but not in a good way. There is a reason that one spreads ads out over time. It guards against desensitization of the message. goes a step further and will play multiple instances of a commercials in a row. The same commercial. It’s not enough for them to blast the same ad at you three times during the course of a program. They have to give it to you three at a time. That takes you from irritated to numb. Numb to their message, numb to their value proposition and numb to the product. In other words, completely desensitized.

Make no mistake – online programming is still broadcast media. It’s delivered through the Internet but is no different from TV on-demand broadcasting in every other way. On-line broadcasters seem to forget this. They treat the Internet delivered program as something alien and deliver advertising in ways that they never would over the airways or cable. On TV, if you see a commercial run twice during one show, you assume it’s a mistake. Oops! For shows delivered via the Internet, it is the norm.

Broadcasters forget this again when they try to add false interactivity into the show. They don’t allow you to do obvious Internet actions like mouse over a character and have his or her bio popup. You can’t pause a show that has a product placement in it and get information about a product that interests you right there and then. Nope. Instead, they give a choice of what silly commercials (they call it an “experience”) you want to see again and again. Unfortunately, there is no “None” option available. Why not vary the product placements from showing to showing. For digital media that’s not that hard to do. TV Sports does it all the time. Next time you watch baseball on TV look behind the batter. The little sign changes and is localized. You could do that on a TV program with a billboard in the background for instance or change what’s playing on a TV set.

The behavior of is probably the most egregious of the broadcasters but you see the same advertising patterns in all of them and on Hulu. They constantly run ads in ways that they never would on TV. Instead, they let opportunities go by for more interesting interactive behavior. Broadcasters don’t seem to know how to embrace the potential of Internet delivered shows while forgetting everything they know from 70 years of TV and radio broadcasting.

Broadcasters have to get this right and soon. The Internet is quickly becoming a major form of delivery for their products. Advertising is advertising. A commercial is a commercial. That doesn’t change because it’s delivered in packets instead of electromagnetic radiation. Sorry but the Internet did not change everything.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Whereby I Commit Heresy

It is axiomatic that when you develop a product you listen to your customers. Throughout the development process, even before product conceptualization, you are talking to customers. You get their opinions, wants, desires, and hopefully needs. Most Product Requirements include something about the “Voice of the Customer”.

Although listening to customers is a good thing, if it is adhered to too strictly it can really screw up product development. That’s right, listening to customers can mess up your products. Heresy! See, I delivered on my promise.

Here’s how customers can tank your product.

Customers don’t know always know what they need. They more likely know what they want but not always what they need. When gathering data, customers will talk to you about features and technology but not business. Take servers. We keep making faster servers whose CPUs are mostly underutilized. One of the reasons that server virtualization has taken off is because server manufacturers built in too much capacity. They did that because their customers told them too. What customers needed was better application performance. They just assumed that meant a faster processor or more memory. Talking to customers about problems and behaviors yields a better response. It’s just harder to do.

Which brings us to the next problem – customers answer the question you ask of them. Asked if you want a faster server who won’t say yes. A lot of companies don’t dig in deep to find out what they plan to do with that extra performance. If you asked what is the biggest issue they have with applications and infrastructure you will likely get a different answer. Worse yet, sales and marketing people tend to introduce features into the conversation that customers never even thought about. How many times has someone suggested a feature to a customer, had the customer said they liked it, but then the same customer wouldn't buy it. It happens all the time.

Even if you understand what someone needs, that doesn’t mean they can pay for it. Years ago, when I was a product line manager, I was told repeatedly that my product line needed SGI drivers (it was that long ago). There were lots of customers who wanted it, need it even. When we queried those same customers as to how much they were willing to pay for those drivers, we got a different answer. To have listened to the “voice of the customer” would have committed us to an expensive development, test, and service effort for something that no one would pay for.

The biggest problem is dealing with conflicting needs. Unless you have an incredibly homogenous customerbase you will not find a clear picture of what everyone needs. Instead, you will get a fragmented view based on competing needs. How do you resolve these conflicts? Who do you listen to more? How do you make room for innovation? To put it simply, you can’t be all things to all people so compromises will have to be made. That can be difficult especially if you are just chasing features.

Here is where you see the effects of big customers. Big consumers of your products tend to dictate that their needs come first. Wal-Mart is famous for this in consumer goods as are large banks for IT. The problem is that they are not all of your customers and may not be where your growth is. By catering to a few powerful customers, you risk alienating other customers and making it difficult to break into other markets. You might also spend a lot of resources on features with narrow appeal. Even worse, large institutions tend to be conservative. Given too much credence they can stall innovation in your products leading to slow death for the company.

The overwhelming problem with listening to customers is that it isn’t enough. You have to understand their business and industry. Only then will you have enough context to figure out what they really need and what they are likely to need in the future. A great product anticipates future needs instead of simply meeting current known ones.

So listen to your customers. Just not too much.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How To Mess With Your Brand in One Easy Lesson

I usually write about technology or the computer industry. It’s what I do. Every once in awhile though, I see such marketing idiocy in other industries that I can’t help mention it. Today was one of those days. According to the New York Times GM wants the people who work for the Chevrolet division to stop using the word “Chevy” in reference to their cars. It appears that they only want to use Chevrolet. That tips over from a simple “Huh?” to “What the…?”

Chevy is not just a nickname. It is an integral part of the brand and has been for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s not a ‘57 Chevrolet Bel-Air. It’s a ‘57 Chevy! No one calls the flagship pony car a Chevrolet Camaro. Everyone knows it as the Chevy Camaro. That is awesome branding. And Chevy rhymes with heavy as in heavy metal which makes us think of loud music and fast cars. That’s what men especially like in cars. Why mess with that?

The stated reason is (now get this) to build a stronger brand through consistency. Okay, I get it. Take away one of the most recognizable, most salient parts of your brand to make it stronger. Wait. I don’t get it because it makes no sense. Emerson was right when he said “ A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. It doesn’t get more foolish than this.

There are several reasons why customers attach a nickname to a company, product, or brand. They are:

  • The real names is long. This is why we don’t say “International Business Machines”. IBM is easier on the eyes and tongue.
  • The official name is lame and/or stupid. Really, there is a reason Apple doesn’t make everyone say Apple iPhone. It’s a great fruit but not a great name. The logo is iconic and the Mac and “i” branding are memorable. Apple was smart enough to stop stapling their real name in front of everything back in 1984.
  • The nickname better captures the brand. Great names capture something about the brand that speaks to the audience. What says total car awesomeness better, Chevrolet or Chevy?
  • The company or brand is named after a real person or persons. Often companies named after founders sound like a law firm. That’s okay if you happen to be a law firm. Otherwise, not so much.

HP is a great example of the power of a nickname over the official name. The real name (Hewlett-Packard Company) is long and sounds like a CPA firm. If they were to insist that everyone in the company call it Hewlett-Packard and never say HP, it would look downright silly. Those two letters represent the natural brevity and tendency to toss around acronyms that is part of the computer industry. The nickname “HP” has become a big part of the brand and hopefully they would never mess with that.

This is yet another indication of a company that has lost its way. Can you imagine Ford saying “Don’t let me catch you referring to the Mustang as a “‘Stang"? No. They’re not that stupid. They realize (I hope) that that kind of identity is like free extra cheese on your pizza. Viral brand identity is a precious gift so why screw with it.

What is ironic is that this is a company that has no problems with GM instead of General Motors. So, GM, hear me now – I will never buy a Chevrolet. I might, however, buy a Chevy. Especially if it’s a Chevy Camaro. Even better if it’s free.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What Am I Missing?

So, I’m reading Facebook and see a posting from Starbucks. It tells me that I can download ten songs from iTunes on their dime. Okay. I’m not a fan of iTunes but I’ll take it for free. Then I made the supreme mistake – I looked at the comments. To begin with, I couldn’t imagine what the comments might be saying. A coffee company that you have chosen to hear from offers you free tunes. What more is there to say? You can say “Thank you”. That’s a bit vacuous but at least it’s appropriate. What else could there be?

I started paging through the 152 (that’s right! 152 and growing!) comments to see if there was a theme or some meme that I was missing. There were several as it turned out. They could be classified as:

  • Inane – comments like “I love Starbucks"!” and “yummy!” They don’t add much to the sum total of the knowledge of the human race but at least they are harmless. Besides, even Starbucks needs to hear the love from time to time.
  • Reasonable Complaints – mostly that people have a hard time downloading the songs or that they’re not available in Europe. These are okay too in that it’s good information. Doesn’t change the world but some marketing flunky at Starbucks will find it valuable.
  • Whining – folks who complain to hear themselves talk. I love the misspellings in these. It says something about the people writing these comments. If you are going to complain at least take the time to do it properly. And it’s not spelled “sux”.
  • The Haters - by far my favorite comments are the ones that say how much they hate Starbucks. Why would someone friend a company on Facebook if they hate them so much? It stretches credulity until it is paper thin.

This leads me to two thoughts. The first is that although social media is about creating community, it doesn’t always work out that way. Clearly, if you have people who friend you just to whine, complain, and say they hate you they have no real interest in belonging to a community. This is one of the biggest problems with social media for marketing purposes. Not everyone is interested in forming a positive community around your product. Quite a few just want to make themselves feel good by dumping hate on you. Unfortunately, social media is like a bug light for antisocial personalities.

The second thought was how difficult it is to control social media. This is yet another risk of social media that needs to be managed. Simply put, you can’t control your message and image the way you would in other media. All it takes is a bunch of complainers and haters to ruin whatever positive thing you are trying to accomplish. Give something away for free to gain a little brand loyalty? Some idiot who only means you ill ruins your effort. This is the same reason I no longer allow comments on this blog. Between the spammers and flamers it wasn’t a healthy conversation. At least with Facebook, it stays in the community of mostly good customers. On Twitter, it gets broadcast to the world. Ouch!

Social media opens up a whole can of risk that wasn’t there before. Part of that risk comes from the unprecedented access we give to our brand. Anyone with an ax to grind or who just wants to rain on everyone’s parade can mess with your message. The worst part of it is that you really can’t reply. If you get into a back and forth with a complainer you will turn off the people who are there for the right reasons. All you can do is hope that the inane and reasonable outnumber the whiners and stupids.

So, unless you already have a strong brand, solid message, and loyal customers, think twice about social media. You might not get what you want.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Risky Social Behaviors

Management (the practice not the people) is, to a large extent, about risk avoidance. Managers spend a lot of their time managing risks. Through a combination of experience and knowledge, managers mitigate market, financial, technology, and legal risks in order to provide a positive outcome for their organization. That’s a big chunk of the job.

Given that, I’m amazed at how many managers and professionals don’t understand the risks of social media. Whenever I talk to managers about these risks I hear the same refrain – It’s new! Sorry, that’s no excuse. It is not an excuse because it is an electronic communication like any other. For risk management purposes, social media is no different than email or a website.

The legal risks of electronic communication are well known. They can roughly be summarized as risks associated with:

  • eDiscovery – why would anyone think that social media including Twitter or Facebook is not discoverable? If search results, websites and email are then so are these. The same rules apply including the FRCP in United States. Keep in mind that Electronic Communication is not defined as email but as electronic records of all sorts. This includes private accounts in the same way that private email accounts may be discoverable.
  • Privacy – people forget that a lot of social media, especially Blogs and Twitter, are public forums. You don’t have an expectation of privacy in an open forum. If you wouldn’t stand in a crowded room and shout it out, don’t Tweet it. The same goes for Facebook if you don’t set your privacy controls to kill. Leave them wide open and you are publishing to the world.
  • Defamation – public speech that is intended to harm is not protected speech in most countries. If you call someone a thief or a liar on Twitter you may as well have put up a billboard. Trash a competitor’s product in your blog? You had better be able to back up what you say.
  • Agreements – a recent story about a lawsuit that accused an ex-employee of using LinkedIn to solicit another employee to leave garnered a lot of attention. So what? Solicitation is solicitation. The media is irrelevant. Social media does not give you a pass on sticking to contracts and other agreements including non-competes.
  • Misrepresentation, Spam, Phishing etc. – again, the rules don’t change here. If you are NOT who or what you say you are or you are a scummy spammer you are acting legally or ethically by using Twitter or a Blog comment instead of email.

What is different is the ease of which one can fall into legal or ethical traps. We have been trained to think before we send the email. Social media with it’s quick, short, rapid fire bon mots encourages impulsive behavior. For the manager the real risk is that things can happen without people thinking about it. And these comments last for a long time. For the average corporate drone, the danger zone is in not remembering that these are not private communications. If you Tweet that your boss is an idiot, the boss can fire you it. It’s no different from taking out an ad in a newspaper. You are likely violating part of your employment agreement (folks, you really should read those before signing them) and giving cause to terminate you.

Use of social media does represent special marketing risks. Most of these risks are derived from a fundamental misunderstanding of social media – that it’s open. Twitter, for example, is a broadcast media. From a marketing perspective you can think of it like television and radio. Some obvious risks are:

  • Forgetting you are talking to the world – I got into this on Twitter some months back. I objected to the use of swearing on Tweets by my alma mater. I was concerned what it would say about my school when they write posts like that. Clearly, they forgot that they were not talking to just a small group of like minded people. Full disclosure: people who know me will tell you I can swear like a sailor, though never in business situations. The risk to my school’s brand was my complaint not the words themselves.
  • Not reaching for the shut off valve – legal risks aside, trashing competitors and individuals in public irritates people. Even worse is the back and forth that a lot of techies engage in. Sorry but no one wants to hear that. It’s one thing to point out your competitors shortcomings in person. It’s quite another to scream it all over the Internet. Playful poking is one thing as is thoughtful discussion. Trash-fests turn people off and make them stop listening.

Here’s a few tips and reminders to guide you through the social media forest.

  • Remember, it is eCommunication and media like any other. The same rules apply.
  • Do not assume privacy exists just because you want it to. If someone can see it, it’s in the open no matter what your intentions were.
  • Think before you Tweet or post.
  • You are publishing. Act like you are publishing even if it’s so you don’t annoy your friends.
  • Remember that you can be punished, socially or legally, for thinks you say. Social media is a form of saying.
  • Managers, be clear on what you expect and where the boundaries are. You can’t exert total control over your employees lives outside of work nor should you try. Just make sure they know how to keep private thoughts private.
  • become proficient with privacy controls and use them appropriately. Parents, this goes especially for your kids. School administrators do trawl around in Facebook for threats and inappropriate behavior.
  • No innuendos or in jokes. You lose the wider audience and annoy people. In the same vein, don’t trash talk.
  • Don’t mix personal and business communications. If you usually Tweet about your cat I will not expect to hear about your company’s new product. I might care about one or the other but probably not both in the same context. That means I’m not listening when I should.

Above all else remember that social media allows you to tap into a wide community of people. Don’t be a jerk and don't’ be creepy. People will treat it as if you acted like that in person. That can’t be good.