Eat Media: Top 5 Mistakes I made in 2011


MISTAKE #1

Committing to Content Strategy without a Brand Strategy  When a client is not established yet, or in startup mode, brand strategy is part aspiration and part adventure — these are exciting times. But when you are working with an established company the rules are bit different and excitement is tempered by the stakes being much higher. Early this year we entered into a lengthy content strategy engagement with a large company that admitted it did not have a brand strategy in place — we’re “working on it,” they said. While we did a lot right: conducted internal interviews that identified disconnects in a +$1mm content strategy process, established baseline communication guidelines and fixed huge holes in a supposed “Agile” process — we never got over the hurdle of brand clarity. It nipped at us during every turn because we had no baseline to build on. Throughout the process of establishing and tuning the strategy we inevitably kept asking -  Does this fulfill the brand promise? Is this message on brand? We never had an answer. So…we never had an answer.

Lesson learned: Brand needs strategy and strategy needs brand.
Tip: Get 5 min of (non-marketing) C-suite time and discuss brand. Ensure this resonates with your stakeholder’s version of brand 
and buy this Four Steps to the Epiphany


 

MISTAKE #2

When you think small. You stay small. When we started the business 5+ years ago I had an imaginary number of 11 as a perfect head count. We had good reason for the smallish number (so we thought) 2 children under 2, experience managing/working with smaller teams and some (now transparent) quality of life requirements Tim Ferriss sold us. When you’re small you need to hire yourself (the owner) to do many things you wouldn’t otherwise hire yourself for if there was someone else more qualified. Sometimes this is challenging in a good way, like: Our mobile strategy work with Weendy. Other times it is challenging in a bad way, like: stuffing boxes when you should be wireframing. I now realize that establishing a business based on head count is crazy talk. We need to be the “size of amazing” and that number might be 5, 500 or 5,000. Whatever size is required to provide the best customer experience for our clients and our client’s clients, that’s our goal. Of note we are growing and looking to hire a Sr. Strategist. Now!

Lesson learned: We are our people.  Not the # of desks we have.
Tip: read this Minimum Viable Personnel article from Inc. 

 

 

MISTAKE #3

You can’t do everything, at once. Historically I’ve successfully* been able to break this rule, but time catches up, luck runs out and magnification points out flaws. During Q4 I put some ridiculous deadlines on my team and myself. (So ridiculous I’m embarrassed to list them out here.) It took attending Seth Godin’s Medicine Ball event and a LeanStartup event (on the same weekend) to realize I was pushing too hard. Specifically I realized that it was unfair to my family, friends, employees and investors for us not to be operating at optimal efficiency on every project. In our case, that means moving forward we are only taking on client projects that I am 100% committed to and if they are internal projects they need to have the ability to go big. If I don’t follow these rules I’m not just wasting my time but the time of those most important to me: family, friends and co-workers. Somewhere in a book, or on the Twitters, I picked up the line – “Do fewer things extraordinarily.” It’s a hard transition for someone infinitely fascinated in possibilities but it’s the right direction to take for 2012. (As of 3 weeks ago I stopped working on 3 pet projects and turned away 2 smaller jobs that would strain the team.)

Lesson learned: Not every good idea has a viable market. Having a great idea and bringing a great idea to life are two very different commitments with two very different responsibilities.
Tip: 2+2+2 = If you had 2 people that could work on 2 projects for 2 months each, every year, would you choose this project to be one of them? Ask yourself this whenever you are wondering whether or not to dedicate time to pet projects.

*Example: Rebuild house while living in it, while having a newborn and launching a business and coaching basketball. 

 

 

MISTAKE #4

Hiding behind email.  There is a strange device on my desk that gets less attention each year despite its power — the phone.  Three proposals last year with potential clients totaled over 400 emails. Let’s write that out in check format – Four Hundred Emails and Zero Sense. I should have trusted my intuition as well heeded last years #2 rule. Notwithstanding that flub-up I should have just picked up the phone and said, “Hey, let’s nail this down, on this call.” Instead, I wasted 33 hours on email (400 emails x 5 min).  Emails are great for binary decision making but not so much for back and forth conversations. You lose the nuances, pauses, concatenated thoughts and the process becomes less of a playing field and more like a race track.

Lesson learned: Pick up the damn phone! Emails rarely clarify things and almost always lead to more emails.
Tip: If you find yourself substantively rewriting an email — call instead.

 

MISTAKE #5

Not Celebrating.  The founders of Eat Media (that would be Britta and Ian) tend to be a fairly serious duo. Not Accenture Consulting, Brooks Brother suit serious but intense and focused serious — like Janáček – we tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves, to a fault. When we land a new account we tend to get right into solution mode, before the ink dries on the contract. Internally the team deserves to celebrate a win and too often we skip that part.  On the external/marketing side of things we tend to believe in that old adage of “great gets found”.  I think great “used to get found;” now what gets found is what gets heralded. Under promise, over deliver. Get paid a dollar, do a dollar-fifty worth of work. Great building blocks and inspirational bullet points, but announcing a win and celebrating that win with others gets both internal and external teams excited for you and with you.

Lesson learned: Lunch on the boss is not celebrating. Celebration is active and necessary.
Tip: Go a little crazy every once in awhile.

 

These are my confessions of a growing agency. What were your 2011 mistakes?

—Ian

@eatmedia

Like this article? Check out the Top 5 Mistakes I made in 2009, and 2010.

 


Three Brand Experiences and the Commitment To Becoming Amazing

As a customer I’ve often stated, sometimes out loud and littered with expletives, “Why did they treat me like that?”  As an agency owner I get to ask the more interesting question – “How did they treat me like that.” Interactions with brands, online or in-person, should always exceed the vending machine experience of -put money in-take product out-go home. But often that is exactly the experience we get.

 

I’ve come to believe there are only 3 types of brand experiences:

1- Exceptional experiences you tell people about. – Mailchimp

2- Terrible experiences you tell more people about. – FatCow

3- Average experiences you forget about. – Exxon gas station

I recently interacted with the following brands and I believe that a content-first strategy would help all these brands.

 

Exceptional Experiences:

Roku – So much untapped potential here.

Warby Parker – An A+ experience that is so good they could do much better.

 

Terrible Experiences:

Shoebacca – A favorite site that fails me over and over and over.

Adobe – How do you fail me? Let me count the ways.

 

Forgettable Experiences:

USPS – I need to mail a letter. Mailed it. Zzzzzzzzzz.

SurveyMonkey – If you’re going to do one thing well, do it really, really, really well.

 

If you are a decision maker at any of the above brands I’d be happy to help you commit to being amazing.

 

-Ian

 

 

The Internet is a Playground*

Every day nascent web startups gather buckets of funding with unproven concepts (see Color.) Unquestionably some startups need the money to move the next level. But others, armed with a product that goes WHZZZZ instead of Whzzzhz, simply desire the money while it’s still available. (See – 1999) Most startup founders do not start out as Jobsian geniuses with a fanatical vision of perfection and changing the world. This evolution and maturation usually requires time and patience. But founders are often just workers in a system tilted towards going to market too quickly. A system that seems to have an inherent lack of respect for 3 key items: theory(ists), true value creation (with value extraction factored in), and a general lack of understanding about what creating a minimum viable product entails.

The Food Chain is Eating Itself
We are witnessing a trend of big “startups” purchasing little “startups” solely to extract talent – dumping products on the side of the road – truncating talent from code bases and passion from purpose. We also have lost the etiquette of thieves, highlighted by the rampant poaching of talent – sometimes from as close as across the hall – turning “community” into to a dog-eat-dog competition of preferred stock options and flavor-of-the-week.

The early Internet was a top-heavy system full of theorists and inventors. It wasn’t perfect but passion and payout seemed to have more healthy balance than today. The 2nd Internet phase (e-commerce) consisted mostly of early monetizers and a few stylists. The 3rd Internet phase (social) has many stylists,  more how-to-ers and a blur of monetizers. The Web Worker food chain is a delicate ecosystem that requires an adherence to stages. But the pressure to monetize before and after every stage is upsetting that balance–our current lack of qualified developer/designer talent is but one symptom.

The Web Workers Hierarchy
Stage 1: (Web) Theorists are traditionally ahead of curves, way ahead.
Stage 2: (Web) Inventors are tactile theorists.
Stage 3: (Web) Stylists are practitioners who found a method that worked for them, shared that methodology and initialized distribution to the masses.
Stage 4: (Web) How-to-ers are documentarians who show users/practitioners how to use the work that stylists have manifest.
Stage 5: (Web) Monetizers support all of the stages above to differing degrees. (And historically have always worked with and through stages 1-4.)

(Web) Theorists
Provide value by opening the doors of invention and triggering possibilities.
Example: Marshall McLuhan – “the medium is the message.”
Extract value when they succombe to, promote monetization too early.

(Web) Inventors
Provide value by bringing possibilities to life. Placing theories into real world scenarios.
Example: Håkon Wium Lie inventor of CSS
Extract value by accepting capital for unproven concepts or moving to distribution prematurely.

(Web) Stylists
Provide value by optimizing the experience of service/product.
Example: Aaron Walter author of Designing for Emotion
Extract value by providing one size fits all solutions as a possibility for user/practitioner. (Not their intent.)

(Web) How-to-ers
Provide value by popularizing an experience
Example: David Scott Meerman author of New Rules of PR and Marketing
Extract value by providing one size fits all solutions as a possibility for user/practitioner. (Uninformed intent.)

(Web) Monetizers
Provide value by moving a product/service into the arena of solvency
Example: Fred Wilson managing partner at Union Square Ventures
Extract value by forcing theorists and inventors to productize and go to market too early. (How they make money.)

I’d be remiss not to note that theorists, and organizations that historically supported theorists, have always had a relationship with a capitalist bent. Universities have wings dedicated to corporations, Bell labs = for profit, IBM labs = R&D and most recently we got a peak at Google Labs = convert product development.  Innovation is wonderful and so is making money. The friction resides in needing money to innovate and/or being more interested in making money than innovating.  And it is the distance between these poles that abandons the current web worker somewhere between these two quotes

 

My goal wasn’t to make a ton of money. It was to build good computers. – Steve Wozniak

 

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” —Fred Wilson

 

Amazing is birthed at the top of the web worker food chain by theorists and inventors — people who play with possibilities. I see too many of these people being extracted, or self-extracting, and no longer pushing envelopes but instead settling to sell paper goods. Somehow we need to ensure that world class talent stays at the top of the food chain and continues to be inspired by the possibility vs. the payout.  Else, we reinvent Foursquare 30 different ways without making it any better, rewrite practitioner books for glory instead of education, and watch “amazing” dwindle into “just fine.” Potential – the fuzzy “what if”- that inspires us, is a requirement for all successes from Post-it notes to Packet switching. I’m not saying startups shouldn’t take VC/Angel funding, but rather that we should invest in our Web Worker future by supporting theorists and inventors to the same degree we do stylists and how-to-ers.

Making money is generally fairly easy, making a difference is tough and getting tougher, especially as we look to monetize everything right out of the gate.

 

—Ian

*Disclaimer: The Internet is a Playground is the title of a very funny book by David Thorne. You can buy that book here. This post has very little to do with the book.

I am Currently Fascinated With Now

“Now” has reached a critical state. Not the always-on input flavored now that comes in the form of emails, tweets, RFPs, requests, calls, horns and impatient wants. But rather the initialization now, the react now, the output-related now. Historically we have relegated now to closed-loop decision making. Stay or go. Move quickly or get hit. These are nows that we can complete, usually quickly, and close the loop. Open-loop nows, ones that require more research and ultimately iteration are incorrectly seen as the items clogging the system. The problem actually lies in our lens and a propensity towards tackling closed-loop nows first. In part because it feels good to complete things and check things off but also because identifying the finish-line of open-loop nows is intimidating. In short – we do what’s easy first.

Line up Klout, Empire Avenue, Facebook and Twitter on one side. Then line up the collapse of our economy, putting money into projects you are unsure about and attempting to add value on the other side. And suddenly tweeting a picture of your new sneakers seems innocuous.

Unfortunately by postponing dealing with iterative nows we shortchange those ideas, projects and systems. Call it lean, agile, open or iterative but these types of nows need to be initialized, shared and assessed many times before they become closed. This means the sooner we start them, share them and assess them, the closer they are to being completed. Furthermore the types of outputs we get from iterative nows (open-loop) tend to be more useful and perhaps have a longer tail than closed-loop nows.

What I am positing is simple, that we start projects, to-dos, items that need more feedback sooner rather than later. This may come in the form of: sharing specs for a product after an all-nighter, targeted questions about a whiteboard drawing or pushing a beta into the public way before it is ready. The initialization is just the beginning. Starting sets iteration in motion and this is where you determine whether you are on a wild goose chase or mining for gold. Adding value or extracting value.

—Ian

Are You Marketing?

It’s a question I’ve found ourselves asking for the past 5+ years. My first answer is no. It’s not how I sell our services in a meeting. It’s not reflective of how we communicate ourselves on our site. (In short—it’s not a term I hold dear.)

But interestingly when clients introduce me to partners, employees and others – it’s how they describe what we do. Twice over the past week clients have introduced me like this:

“This is Ian, from Eat Media, his firm handles all of our content, strategy and marketing needs.”

In my mind we assist clients with product development, assist/create strategies that align with business goals and design/create both digital (web/mobile/presentation) and print (magazine, conference) assets. We think of ourselves as [content-first] creatives.  While perhaps that’s not a clear definition, it’s the one we’ve been comfortable and successful with to date. And, maybe, just maybe, we are a marketing firm.

This is what a day at Eat Media looks like (client work):

40% – Omnigraffle (with intermittent drawings on board and opinionated discussions)

30% – Copywriting (with intermittent edits and opinionated discussions and swearing)

20% – Researching

5% – Communicating with client

3% – Challenging assumptions

1% – Sipping coffee

.5% – Finding the right music to listen to

.5% – Fixing the printer

 

Is this Marketing? Not historically. But moving forward, this product-centric, content-first, technically adept version of “Marketing” is the only one that we believe clients need or will be able to afford. Doers. Strategy today – execution tomorrow. Keepers of the message as well as the experience of/in the message.

The days of a Traditional VP of Marketing or Director of Marketing hire (that often hires out to an agency to do the work) is dinosaur and soon to be ghost.  Agencies like ours are happy to fill that niche.

 UPDATE: 10/27/2011  Is Communications better than Marketing? Is it narrower or more focused?

 

—Ian

Hey Paypal, WTF?

Is it just me, or is this ad from Paypal encouraging men to be slimy cheaters?

The worst part? I didn’t find it while digging around on some male-focused site like Esquire or College Humor. It’s right on the Paypal.com home page!

Marketing hint 101: If your “creative concept” runs the risk of pissing off at least half of your audience, is it that good of a concept?

Signed,

Britta, aka Peggy Olson

Found: A Smart Way to Present Related Content

The “Related” content section is one of the many page design elements carried over from the print world to the web. It’s implemented in different shapes and forms, but the goal is the same: Increase reader engagement and keep them clicking.

Every serious content management system has some sort of module to generate relevant content, from simple tag cross-referencing to complex algorithms that weigh a mix of taxonomy, title, content, and user data. Services from third-party companies like Outbrain not only index your content but also offer a distribution channel for publishers. Think AdSense for content. Taboola even offers a similar service for video, or what it terms “personalized video recommendations.”

With all the technology being thrown at it, the related content section still feels like an afterthought. For example, here’s a round-up from publishing heavyweights (clockwise from top left) The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and Bloomberg. Aside from Harvard Business Review’s sliding box in the footer (recently popularized by the New York Times), all are a blur of links, some with questionable relevance. How effective are these, really?

Related Content: Daily Beast, WSJ, HBR, Bloomberg

But wait, what have we here? Techcrunch has a deceptively simple but quite useful variation. It looks interesting at first glance:

Related Content: Techcrunch Timeline

First, we’re informed that articles listed are associated by the main subject, Amazon. Then, the links follow — clearly dated, listed by publish date, with the current article highlighted in its chronological position. Instant context. Suddenly, the lowly related content box is useful again.

Found: Easy to Understand Support Hours

We’ve all been there. You’re sending an application at the eleventh hour, making a last minute payment, or just trying to reach customer service, that bane of our existence. So you browse to some information page to find the cutoff or closing time.

Boom! You’re met with a jumble of opening and closing hours, weekend and holiday exceptions, followed by an alphabet soup of time zones: EST, PT, UTC, GMT, etc. If the company is foreign, has that country’s daylight savings time kicked in yet? Is that minus or plus one hour?

CloudAccess.net seems to have a downright ingenuous solution: Show the current time in whatever timezone the company is based. Simple, no? Note how showing the current time provides context for the support hours on the left (image below; original page here).

CloudAccess.net support hours page

Bonus idea: Add the local time for the user — trivial enough with a few lines of client-side code. Why exactly isn’t this standard practice already?

“The” Website

With a few exceptions the website has not changed that much in past 10 years. Text + images/illustration + links + shopping cart + data capture. It’s largely a passive experience in a (hyper)active world. A world of getting people to do things and purchase other (occasionally) necessary things. Our storefront office here in Hastings-on-Hudson begs passersby to investigate. On average we get 3-5 people a week poking a head in our office and asking some form of “what do you do in here?” My natural response is – “We help clients with create and execute content-first strategies…” then I watch as their eyes drift to Rushkoff’s robots. After a few seconds they ask — “so…you make websites?”* It’s pure puffery to come back with something like — “No we tell digital stories,” so most often I acquiesce — “Right, websites. We make websites.” Sometimes they ask for a card and other times they back out slowly as if they walked into the middle of a bank robbery. *(For the record – more than 50% of our billable work is strategy only.)

Last week a woman came in, looked at our whiteboard wall covered in product-design brainstorming and said, “Well, this place is fun.” I smiled, realizing that both websites, strategy and ideas were only part of what we do. It reminded me that fun should help shape any experience and not everyone needs to know exactly what you do. Especially if you can make them smile.

PS – Want to work at a growing agency? Check out our job openings >

Accessing Search Result Counts: Google vs Yahoo vs Bing

In a world where every self-respecting software product or service has an API, it’s surprising how convoluted it is to get simple result counts from the leading search engines.

While working on a recent coding project, I needed total results counts for a particular word or phrase. So I turned to the 800-pound gorilla, expecting that with its dozens of API projects, Google would be a walk in the park. Apparently not.

Jumping through hoops

First, you have to request an API key, then create a Custom Search engine. Considering the small data I wanted, pure overkill. And it doesn’t get any better. Next, you have to specify at least one site to search — although I don’t want to restrict the search, I want the entire web. Google says you can’t do that.

But wait, there’s actually an option to “Search the entire web but emphasize included sites.” Huh?

What you see is not what you get.

Well, let’s select that option and compare results with regular search:

  • Google search for ‘tintin’: 30,700,000 results
  • Google CSE search for ‘tintin’: 2,080,000 results

What?! That’s less than 7 percent — not even remotely close. Going by comments from users in the API forums, Google supposedly uses different indexes for its custom search engines. Not cool. Yahoo, here we come.

Brother, can you spare a key?

At first, Yahoo seems promising, providing good ol’ RSS feeds for any keyword searches without needing an API key, which Google does not have. Unfortunately, no result count is available in the data returned.

Turning to Yahoo! Search BOSS, the equivalent of Google’s Custom Search, we run into a paywall immediately. Fine for a larger project, unnecessary to programmatically get the occasional result count. At least Google gives you 100 queries per day free.

Oh well, on to Bing which, by the way, now powers Yahoo Search.

Salvation comes from Redmond

Microsoft surprises sometimes, in a good way. Then again, Bing itself got generally good reviews when it was released and its Cure for Search Overload Syndrome ad campaign did hit the spot. Like Yahoo, Bing provides no-API access to RSS versions of search results. (Good.) Like Yahoo, the feed is missing result counts. (Bad.) But unlike Yahoo, full API access is free (Very Good!) and unlike Google, the result count matches regular Bing Search. (Very Very Good!)

  • Bing search for ‘tintin’: 3,820,000 results
  • Bing API search for ‘tintin’: 3,820,000 results

Phew! Who knew getting a search count could be so complicated?

A better approach

To put this whole experience in perspective, let’s consider how two other services provide API functionality: Topsy (a Twitter search engine) and Tumblr (well, you know, Tumblr):

  1. Basic access is free and has reasonable limits: Topsy allows 3,000 free API calls per day, no questions asked, no API key needed.
  2. Graded access level: Tumblr has three options — No authentication for open information, and for higher level calls, an API key or OAuth authentication depending on the request.

Done. Seems the smaller companies are thinking this through better.