Losing Face

23 11 2009

In the internet era, it is pretty much impossible to just disappear (as documented in a Wired Magazine feature this month). Unless you are D.B. Cooper, the odds are good that someone will find you. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Which is why I am laughing hysterically at the Canadian woman who has lost her insurance benefits, thanks to Facebook. Originally diagnosed with severe depression, she took a leave of absence with complete benefits. But her insurance agent happened to…um…be browsing Facebook one day and found this woman having way too much fun. She sure didn’t look depressed.

And the pictures were posted there to prove it.

I’ve warned my students a thousand times, and I will warn you again: Be careful what you post on social media sites. Remember, these are social media sites, not private diaries. Sure, you can lock down your status updates and tweets, but if you allow the wrong person to “friend” you, it could still be game over.

Now I am not saying that we should all be prudes. I’m simply advising (very strongly) that we carefully select our “voice” in social media, because it could turn around and kick us in the backside. We could be fired. We could be denied admission to grad school. We might miss the job opportunity of a lifetime.

Now I am all in favor of transparency, but with a measure of caution. It is good of us all to want to embrace authenticity on this post-modern highway. But to mangle a popular cliche, the road to hell is paved with careless Facebook admissions. And now that Google and Bing index all public tweets (no kidding), something you said last Thursday could appear quite high in a search query someone does right before The Big Interview.

We’ve all heard of drunk dialing. It’s what silly inebriated people do when they’re out with the gang, about 12 hours before they sober up and realize they have done something foolish. Google now has Mail Goggles, an opt-in program for G-Mail users who fear they may drunkenly email incriminating messages late on a Friday night.

But we have nothing to stop us from drunk Facebooking. Given the ready access we now have to phone apps for FB and Twitter, it is all too easy to chronicle our exploits blow by blow as they happen, so that our adoring fans unable to join us for this misadventure can see in graphic detail every last bottle of beer we consumed.

And the table on which we danced.

While I may sympathize with this woman’s condition (assuming it is legitimate), I do not sympathize with nor condone her sheer stupidity for telling the world of her shenanigans. If anything, she may now need to return to that bar, not so much for a good time as much as to pull herself up out of this very real depression.

Dr “In Your Face” Gerlich

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Fear Factor

19 11 2009

It hasn’t been too many years since people became empowered by email. Little did folks know it at the time, but they had been given a giant megaphone through which they could speak to the ends of the earth. This wasn’t about just sending little private missives between acquaintances. No, it was about joining listservs and broadcasting to the masses every little pet peeve you might have about something or some company.

Boycotts had never been easier. It was like throwing together an irate customer posse, but with the ease of a few keystrokes and a click.

But if you think that enabling struck fear in the hearts of corporations, it pales in comparison to what is going on now thanks to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Companies are having to hire full-time social media managers just to monitor what’s going on in the Twitterverse, lest a digital flash mob push the firm down the slippery slope of corporate aloofness.

If anything, the ability of average joes to tell the world their problems has actually begun to change the way that customer service is provided. To ignore what people are saying in these very, very public forums is tantamount to saying you just don’t give a damn about your customers. And that’s a dangerous thing to do.

It was just a few weeks ago that I bellyached on Twitter about the abysmal service I was getting from Clear (formerly Clearwire), the wireless broadband internet service provider. They had recently switched to their new 4G WiMax system, and…well…it just wasn’t working. In fact, my new modem was running slower than the previous system. Repeated phone calls resulted in “Well, we’re testing the new equipment in your area, and there appears to be some signal degradation going on right now.”

Yeah, no %^&* Sherlock.

So I decided this would take more extreme measures. If a 1-on-1 phone conversation got me nowhere, how about appearing on the timeline of a social network with 50 million users? That should count for something. And it did.

Lucky for Clear, they have someone monitoring what disgruntled people like me are saying. It didn’t take long for them to follow me, as well as respond directly. And you know what? My Clear now works great. It will never be as sizzling fast as a cable modem, but for folks like me who live in the country, it’s the fastest thing going.

I’ve also seen the positive side of customer service via social networking. A couple of months ago I was at Pei Wei and noticed their new digital signage. I posted an upbeat tweet about it, and within a couple of hours they had hollered back a polite thank you. The next time I went in I noticed they had Twitter and Facebook logos on that signage, so I posted a picture of it. Another quick thank you resulted (although the hoped-for free food did not materialize…but I digress).

Still, the face of customer service has changed considerably thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Why, it’s almost enough to make me want to send an email to all my friends.

Dr “Still Waiting For That Free Food” Gerlich





It’s In The Mail

18 11 2009

There are numerous impediments to folks buying things online (which we will discuss at great length in my undergrad Evolutionary Marketing course next semester). Ironically, these fears have remained fairly constant since the late-1990s. Among them are privacy fears (see yesterday’s blog), the inability to handle the product, the difficulty of making returns, and the time lag between ordering and receiving the product.

Oh yeah. And one more thing. The price of shipping all of that fine merchandise to your front porch.

But just the last two recession-laden Christmases, online retailers are stepping up to the counter and footing the bill for transportation. Heck, if it helps us click a little bit faster and judiciously, then so be it.

The only problem, though, is that when sales and promotions like this become predictable, consumers become…well, equally predictable. If you know that a free dinner is served at 6, why pay for snacks in the mean time?

Of course, it’s tough (if not impossible) for retailers to give away something forever. In fact, it defeats the central premise of a sales promotion (which is what this is): A short-term incentive to buy. The deep-seated hope is that once you taste and see that the vendor’s wares are good, you will want to continue as a regular customer.

And pay your own darn shipping, thank you very much.

It is a calculated risk. I can’t help but think of another shipping program offered by Amazon called AmazonPrime. For $79 a year I get unlimited 2-day shipping. Amazon is hoping that I either forget to buy things, or, better yet, lump them into bigger purchases. I, on the other hand, use this service to buy one thing at a time, which I sure drives them nuts. There’s labor charges to be incurred for each box or envelope packed,whether there’s 1 or 10 items inside.

So as the economy tries to pick up traction on the slippery surface of Recession Boulevard, the real issue at hand is whether retailers will forever condition shoppers to expect less…not more. Because if we all become conditioned, we’ll just wait for the dinner bell. It’s probably 6:00 somewhere anyway.

Dr “What Else Will You Give Me?” Gerlich





You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

17 11 2009

We’ve been playing, working and living on the internet more or less for 15 years now. And you know what? It never ceases to amaze me how fear still runs rampant. Now it’s normal for people to fear the unknown. It upsets the apple cart and thrusts people into virgin territory. But we’ve been trodding this territory for a long time, and I just don’t understand why people have yet to shake this fear.

I’m talking about privacy. You know, that irrational fear that you have left the front door unlocked and unwittingly purchased a billboard with explicit directions to your house.

So why is it that people still fear for their privacy on the internet? It’s not exactly like we led private lives before we all went online. If you knew where to look back in the Stone Age, you could still get everything you want. Marriage licenses. Birth certificates. Property appraisals. All public record.

Furthermore, every time we step outside that front door, we leave privacy in the living room and become Public Man. Nothing we say or do is sacred in the public arena, and if you don’t want to be seen (or, worse yet, photographed) wearing that hideous outfit, you’d better not wear it.

And so I have a message for those who fear their lack of privacy online: Get over it. You’ve always had some degree of “invaded privacy.”

But I will concede that there are significant differences today. You see, our privacy is directly correlated with how much information we willingly make available. It’s just that it is so much easier today for others to access that information.

Webcams. Search engines. Property listings (like Zillow.com). Satellite imagery of our property. Social networking sites whose posts will just never go away.

Those are the kinds of things that sensationalists love to pick on. Oooh…someone could be plotting to break into your house. They’ve got an aerial view, they know your house is worth a few hundred thousand (thereby implying some degree of wealth), and you just tweeted that you’re having dinner with a business client at Zen 721 in downtown Amarillo.

Guess what? Any enterprising thief could have figured that out in the old days by simply casing your joint and watching your comings and goings. If they see you leaving for the evening in a suit, it’s a safe bet you’ve got something important going on. And that there’s a pretty sizable window of time for doing a little breaking and entering.

Herein lies the rub: We are still in control of what information about us is available publicly. While we cannot necessarily control the methods of availability, we still control the content. Don’t want perverts stealing pictures of your kids? Don’t put them on Flickr. Don’t want people to know you’re on vacation for two weeks? Skip the Facebook and Twitter updates. Don’t want people to know your likes and dislikes? Don’t broadcast them on Yelp. Don’t want someone to get your bank account information? Install a secure wireless network and use antivirus software.

I admit that the internet has made it all too easy for prying eyes to access our lives, but we must also admit that much of what is available is of our own volition. Some of that information is public record anyway, while the rest is the result of us willingly blabbing every minute detail of our otherwise boring lives.

It’s time for us to assume some personal responsibility for our online actions.If you want privacy, then it’s time to quit tweeting, yelping and facebooking. Get rid of your vanity web site, and unhitch from LinkedIn. Don’t post your thoughts to GoogleGroups (those are archived, you know), and stay away from online forums. Lock down your home computer network and keep the neighbors and drive-by thieves out of your files.

Because to do anything less is really no different from leaving the light on and the door open. You may as well bake some cookies and leave them a note. Just be sure to tweet when you’re on your way home.

Dr “It’s Up To You” Gerlich





Untangled Web

15 11 2009

When I was a young boy, we had one television set. It was a 19″ black-and-white model. Because we were distinctly middle class, my parents could not afford the then-newfangled color sets. We had to use your imaginations to set the color on those grainy images, not knowing until the 1970s (and our first color TV) that Gilligan was marooned in a red rugby shirt, that Batman wore gray tights, and Jeannie looked great in pink.

And, of course, your content was limited to the dozen over-the-air stations being broadcast from Chicago. No VCRs. No DVRs. No cable or satellite. Don’t like what’s showing? Go to bed. Miss it? Tough noogies.

Of course, all that changed as cable brought us dozens of stations, and we could time-shift our viewing to suit our lifestyles.

But while revolutionary changes were being made in television all those years, another more profound yet silent revolution was afoot in another room in the house. That room was where the family’s personal computer resided. You see, TV and computer were very separate products. But recently we have been able to access many TV shows on our computers, on sites like Hulu. Convergence has become a buzz word of late as boundaries have blurred. And that silent revolution is about to converge on the final frontier with the introduction of web TV-enabled televisions, like the Samsung LED HDTV with web connectivity.

In other words, coming soon to a big box retailer near you, TVs with ethernet ports will be available to push web content to viewers in the living room.

In fact, analysts and retailers alike are convinced we will go TV ga-ga over these new sets, and they will be all the rage this holiday season. Recession be damned, it’s time to buy yet another expensive TV! At prices equal to or slightly above those of standard LCD sets, the new web-enabled TVs will bring even more content that is viewable from the comfort of our sofa. What a kingly idea!

That said, there are some limitations to the whole thing. The TV will be tethered via ethernet cable to your router (cables are so 2004!), and it won’t exactly be like being on your computer. In fact, the emphasis is on not allowing the TV to just be a remote computer. There won’t be a keyboard; everything will be controlled by a standard remote or something like a Wii remote. Web browsers as we know them won’t exist on these sets; instead, there will be clickable widgets, which are small programs (or apps) residing within a small image. Initial content will most likely focus on weather, sports, stocks and related information.

Now if you’ve been around a while, you will recall there was a WebTV and an AOL-TV about 10 years ago, but those failed miserably. Hopelessly mired by slow dial-up, these early attempts (complete with full keyboards) were just lame attempts to turn an idle TV into a dumb computer monitor. The new-and-improved web TV is vastly different.

And you know what? I’m glad that web TV won’t be like the computing I do in my office. I can always balance a laptop if I need to surf from the sofa, but I want my TV experience to remain as much like TV as possible. Go ahead and enhance the experience with some web content, but leave the hard core computing to computers.

Because the sofa is for relaxing, not thinking. And I think I’d like to disconnect and watch some old television shows this afternoon. Anyone want to join me for a Gilligan marathon?

Dr “3-Hour Tour” Gerlich





(Ad)Busted in Vancouver

13 11 2009

(Note: The following is a re-posting of an essay I wrote for my students back in Canyon on 28 November 2003 while I was in Vancouver BC teaching in our Canada MBA program. With Buy Nothing Day rapidly approach (27 Nov 2009), I thought it apropos to pull this one from the archives.)

I often make references to the Adbusters group in my courses. They are very much against commercialism, materialism, rampant consumption, free trade, and other hallmarks of a free society. The word “liberal” is almost too conservative to describe them.

In 1997 they started Buy Nothing Day, to be held on “Black Friday,” the day after American Thanksgiving. Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days in the US (and erroneously referred to as the biggest day). The Adbusters group, known for their “culture jamming,” decreed that we should NOT buy anything on this very important shopping day.

They have received a lot of free publicity from their endeavors. That year (2003), CNN ran a story on BND on the 27th of November (American Thanksgiving).

Well, as you know, I was in Vancouver BC Canada during Thanksgiving. I also happened to recall that Adbusters is headquartered in Vancouver.

Ah ha…and now you know where I’m going with this!

Buy Nothing DayI thought it would be extremely appropriate for me to visit them on Black Friday, or BND, as they call it…to see if they would sell me something.

I awoke to a downpour (nothing new in wintertime Vancouver!), got my oldest daughter ready, and headed out into Vancouver a.m. traffic, headed for an address I had peeled off the Adbusters website.

I traveled westward on West 7th Ave, and managed to go right past the place. I was confused, because I was in what appeared to be a residential district. I turned around, and headed east a little more slowly…and then saw the little sign on the north side of the street. The main entrance was a few steps down into a basement of a large, old house.

I stepped across the threshold, daughter in my arms, and beheld the headquarters of the anti-marketer.

A couple of very casually dressed people said hello, one a woman, the other a man. Mac computers adorned several desks. Magazines were stacked everywhere in huge bundles. Buy Nothing Day posters hung on the wall, along with other evidence of their political leanings (like their opposition to the western hemisphere free trade talks in Miami earlier that month).

The two looked very thin. Why is it that liberals always look hungry? (sorry)

I said hello in return, began thumbing through some magazines, and then picked up a 2004 Adbusters calendar.

I casually asked the woman, “Hey, are these for sale?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“How much?”

“They’re $15, but we’ll let you have it for $10 here in the office.”

“How about magazines?”

“Six dollars in the store, but $3 here.”

“Can I have one of each?”

“Sure!”

Man, I never thought it would be so easy to catch someone in the act of hypocrisy. Here it was, their self-proclaimed Buy Nothing Day, and they were tripping over themselves trying to sell me things.

I handed over a CAD$20, which they had difficulty handling. They returned with a handful of parking meter money.

I then told them, “In real life, I’m a marketing professor. I’ve used your site for years to have my students see what the other side is saying.”

You should have seen their jaws drop, for they knew they had just been busted.

I continued to play with them. “Yeah, I like to use the Fox News approach to teaching…you know, a ‘fair and balanced’ education.”Even though I don’t like Fox News, it was a convenient card to play.

I continued, “So, do you have any literature I could take back to the classroom with me?”

“Hmmm….we don’t actually have anything…but wait, we have some back issues here.”

I walked away with a year’s worth of magazines, my ill-gotten calendar and current issue, my daughter, and the satisfaction of knowing that even the most liberal of folk have a capitalistic gene in their DNA.

I loaded my daughter and propaganda into the rental van, drove to Toys ‘R Us to buy my kids a treat, and then headed off to the magnificent MetroTown mall (over 450 stores!).

And we proceeded to spend unimpeded.

So much for Buy Nothing Day.

Dr “You’re Busted!” Gerlich





Let’s Get Physical

12 11 2009

Retail inventory decisions are seldom fun. As I always told my students, inventory is the bane of a retailer’s existence. You can’t sell anything if you don’t have inventory. But if the inventory doesn’t sell, you’re going to be looking at a sea of red ink. And stuff you don’t want to see anymore.

It’s a lot like how men and women think of the opposite gender: “Inventory. Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.”

So I was taken aback when I read that Best Buy is now test-marketing fitness equipment in 40 stores. Notice how this category is now called “fitness equipment” and not “exercise equipment” (I suppose the former just sounds less sweaty). Notice also how fitness equipment has absolutely nothing to do with Best Buy’s mission.

It would be like The Weather Channel showing movies on Friday night (they do). Or HBO giving the weekend forecast (thankfully, they don’t).

So what makes Best Buy think it can get away with this?

Now I will be the first to say there is no hard and fast rule that says retailers can never venture into different product categories. Many do, but most who do focus on incremental extensions into closely related categories. Fitness equipment, in my estimation, is a disruptive leap into an area in which Best Buy knows absolutely nothing. What could the Geek Squad know about rowing machines, treadmills ad stationary bikes?

Maybe Academy, Sports Authority and the like should start selling PCs and LCD televisions. After all, it’s the same logic Best Buy is using. Once you get situated in the world of big box retailing, your niche is pretty well carved. You are a specialist with more and more of less and less. Unless you have designs on being the next Walmart or Target (a little bit of everything), Best Buy’s new strategy just seems like a pulled muscle waiting to happen.

And that’s a strain no bottom line can afford.

Dr “Stick To Your Knitting” Gerlich