Dear Me

30 06 2011

Sometimes the best ideas just happen. Right there in a bar (think: Southwest Airlines). In a dorm (think: Facebook). Or in the kitchen.

And not one calorie of food was involved.

Such is the story behind Dear Photograph, the instantly viral blog that has captured the attention of media and users alike. Why? Because it tugs at every possible heart string. Love. Nostalgia. Grief. Guilt.

The central premise (and I could never have written a better tagline in a million years): Take a picture of a picture from the past in the present. If the 21-year-old founder of this delightful photo blog hasn’t yet registered this one, he had better walk, no run, to the nearest trademark attorney. This is priceless.

So priceless that I assigned my MBA Marketing students with the task of developing a marketing plan for it.

Founder Taylor Jones is being courted and wooed by all manner of companies who also sense he is onto something special here. Books. TV show. Heck, I can see limitless merchandising opportunities here. Calendars. Coffee mugs. T-shirts.

The best part? It is all user-generated content, and once you upload it to his site, he gets unrestricted use of it. Sheer genius.

Maybe it’s the fact that I am over 50 that this idea resonated so well. Dear Photograph is time travel of the first degree, for it allows folks, albeit by careful positioning, to go back in time. To see themselves. To see loved ones. To see how far everyone (and everything) has come along.

The one thing I want my students to realize is that this could have been them. One of my recent lectures was on home-based businesses. If this isn’t one of those, I don’t know what it is. It also shows them and the world that not all of the good ideas are taken yet. Sometimes they just happen serendipitously, like Jones did while looking at old pictures with his family. Right there in the kitchen.

Dear Photograph is just the thing I need to start digging through the thousands of old photo prints I have laying around in boxes. I can’t wait to see the way our house looked 20 years ago. I can’t wait to see my much-younger parents admiring their son’s new home. And I can’t wait to see my grandparents again. Even if I cannot match up an old pic to a current scene in the viewfinder, Dear Photograph will have caused me to reconnect with the past. With who I was. With whose I was. And the way we were.

Even if all I’ve got is a photograph.

Dr “Picture Perfect” Gerlich

Hired Guns

29 06 2011

One of the funnier (in my opinion) shows on TV last season was Outsourced. Set in Mumbai India, it featured an American company’s call center, and the pitfalls associated with managing such an operation. The show tapped into one of our great frustrations, because nearly every one of us has had to laboriously listen to someone named Peggy on the other end of the line.

Notice I am using the past-tense, because NBC canceled the show after just one season. Oh well…maybe they have outsourced comedy now as well.

But the topic of outsourcing continues to raise the ire of people stateside. And now it is coming to academia. Just when you thought you had made the perfect choice for you (or your child’s) education, along comes the sobering reality that universities are increasingly partnering with external for-profit companies, all in an effort to deliver the goods you want.

It’s not because the schools see a pot of gold at the end of the outsourced rainbow. No, the grim reality is that many schools are being forced to consider such options in the wake of massive state budget cuts across the nation. Add in the scarcity of qualified professors and instructors in some disciplines, and you have the formula for the New Education Model. In order to be able to offer courses and programs, universities are increasingly partnering with outside firms and individuals. These same external players bring with them the promise of more students.

Given that the current budget in Texas means state universities will receive only about 25% of their funding from Austin, it thus behooves administrators to leave no stone unturned. Tuition dollars and endowments become the primary revenue sources under current funding; with accountabilities running higher than ever, schools must look to the bottom line as they seek to fulfill their mission.

And naturally, this has lots of folks up in arms. “We’ve never done it that way before.” “Pretty soon they won’t need us!” “But what about quality?”

I have heard these all before, except it was the 1990s when we were ushering in the then-novel idea of online learning. We got over most of those worries (as I knew we would). Now we must plow through the current bog of resistance.

If, in the interest of program continuity, we have to hire specialists from far-flung locations, so be it. It’s much cheaper than trying to lure professors (and professionals) to our far-flung location. It’s far less expensive to farm out our marketing efforts to someone else (like Lamar University did with their graduate education program a few years ago). And if students are what we crave, then maybe we really should look at partnering with what amounts to education brokers, companies like Omnicademy who bring students and online courses together…even if the student is only “consuming” my class but applying it to a degree elsewhere.

To be sure, mistakes will be made as universities slash their way through the new jungle of financial realities, but just like we did in the 90s with online courses, we will learn from our mistakes and become the better for it.

Rather than fear change, I embrace it confidently. For those who fear their livelihood being outsourced, I have three words: Make yourself indispensable! Don’t run from it. Instead, figure out how to master it, and in the process, make yourself the go-to person. It’s hard to outsource someone with specialized skills. But if all you can do are the basics (whether in academia or the general workplace), then you may find yourself looking for a job in Mumbai.

Maybe we’ll find each other online, or on opposite ends of a conversation. May I call you Peggy?

Dr “Don’t Fight It” Gerlich

Let’s Get Digital

28 06 2011

Yesterday, a friend stopped by to lend me a book. Yes. A book. You know…one of those things printed on a few hundred pages, glued at the center, and protected by a nice colorful hard cover.

Inside I was tempest of mixed emotions…thankful for her kindness, waxing nostalgic about how just 6 months ago I bought only tangible books, and wondering how much longer we’ll even be using such things as the market rapidly goes digital.

Because a new Pew Research Center study shows that 20% of Americans now own an e-Reader and/or tablet device. And I have been leading the charge of the write brigade.

To be honest, I am actually looking forward to some quality hammock time in July, way up in the mountains, where the view between my crossed feet will be towering Long’s Peak. And I’ll be juggling this borrowed tome along with my iPad (with its shelf full of unread digi-books).

I am not always the very first to jump on a bandwagon, but when I do, I usually go full bore. To wit: I now “buy” my music through streaming audio services like Rhapsody, stream movies and shows via Netflix and Hulu Plus, and read books through the Kindle app on my iPad.

But I am also a hopeless nostalgic, which may explain why I still have 600 vinyl LPs staring at me (not to mention hundreds of CDs and DVDs). I love to dip back into old-school media. And I have not peddled my personal library either. These shelves will remain filled with all the books I have spent my life accumulating.

It’s just that we are on the cusp of a major media transition here. We just don’t need to own tangible goods anymore, and the fact that 20% of us now own a device capable of downloading a book speaks volumes. Yes. Pun intended, thank you very much. It says that a rapidly growing group of USAmericans (twice as many as just six months ago) are now capable of, and likely willing to, consume books, magazines and newspapers via a small handheld device.

The trends are also interesting in that, of this 20%, the biggest growth is in e-Readers (jumping from 6% to 12%), while tablets are somewhat behind (increasing from 5% to 8%). There is a small 3% group owning both devices.

The academic in me wonders about the reading motivations people have these days, and whether these motivations are served the same way (or better, or worse) via e-Readers and tablets vis-a-vis standard books. In fact, it is this very subject that my gracious book lender and I have been studying the last six months ourselves. We both sense that we are witnessing not just a paradigm shift in how books are consumed, but getting down to why people read in the first place. Apparently the sensations of flipping pages, dog-earing pages, inserting margin notes and falling asleep with an open book over your face are not on the list.

Or lending, which is generally not available on most e-Readers.

Which, of course, is why I most happy to accept this book on loan. We just might be losing the ability to share our possessions. Lending books with friends is the mix tape of reading, for we are giving a little bit of ourselves. Just as we once shared our music with friends by making custom tapes and CDs of our favorite tunes (in spite of it technically being illegal), a book on loan from a friend is an endorsement. An acknowledgment that, hey, I think you’re gonna like this one. An act of friendship.

And it saddens me just a bit to know that all those unread books on my iPad will stay right there. Waiting. For me to read. Or maybe not. Because at the end of the day, books really are for sharing, not hoarding to oneself. Or reading alone.

Dr “Out On A Limb” Gerlich

Shake It

27 06 2011

Sometimes I just don’t understand our culture. We worry about things that…well, other less-prosperous people would never give a second thought. Like our rear ends.

But in all things marketing, it’s about satisfying needs and wants. And if customers want a shapely derriere, then who am I argue?

Which explains why the two women behind Booty Pop (insert cymbal crash here) have a bottom line (insert second cymbal crash here) the envy of all. It’s the padded bra of underwear, and it’s giving women a fighting chance in the end zone (oh, never mind).

More amazing still is that Booty Pop, now available in numerous retailers, was launched via infomercial. Of course, the guy in me cannot imagine how any woman could sit through 30 minutes of hearing that her hind quarters look miserable. But wait! This pair of underwear will fix everything.

Crazier still is the fact these women contend they have been hounded by men to introduce Mr. Booty Pop. Now I will be honest. I have never tried on a pair of pants and wondered if they made my butt look big. Or tight. Or whatever. Pants are pants. If they fit and I like the color, then I buy them. Yes, them Three pairs. Because I hate shopping. I don’t give a rat’s booty if they help mine.

Our culture, though, has created ideal points for the genders, and women are indeed more preoccupied about such matters (apparently along with a few men). The amateur athlete in me wonders, though, why use something like Booty Pop (or its girdle equivalent, Spanx) to do what exercise can do for free? What does it say of a culture that apparently has plenty of everything else to worry about something so frivolous?

But what do I know? I am just a husband and Dad of two girls. Heck, I’d be satisfied having someone to throw a ball to.

Of course, the Booty Pop ladies would love it if men would clamor for these undies, because it’s the same line of thinking that compelled the Spanx lady to design a line for men also. Double your market and laugh all the way to the bank. Yes men, we, too, can have our own foundation garments. Now that’s something to talk about next time at the sports bar.

I can just see a Hanes Underwear commercial parody coming. The shapely stud walks by the women on the park bench. One turns to the other, “Boxers? Briefs? Or Booty Pop?”

Turning his head, the stud says with a smile, “The truth is out there. You’ll find it in the end.”

Factor that.

Dr “Asset Management” Gerlich

Game Theory

26 06 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From Survivor.

If I were to write my memoir, that quite possibly could become the title. Except that it’s not exactly completely true. It just sounds good. To be honest, I have learned quite a bit from Survivor about playing the game we call a career. The interactions. The power plays. The networking and social pacts.

And as show host Jeff Probst loves to tell, the recommended readings for the game include anything and everything about Game Theory, as developed by John Nash.

Yep, it’s all a game. Which, I suppose, goes a long way toward explaining the development of SCVNGR, the location-based service (LBS) that has added the nuance of gaming to its checking-in feature. Furthermore, it also explains why companies like Coca Cola have partnered with SCVNGR for special promotions.

Of course, none of this would matter unless users could (hint, hint) tie their check-ins to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Remember, if it ain’t viral, it ain’t worth anything.

SCVNGR has rather silently been amassing users (both consumer and enterprise), along with seed money. It takes the best aspects of Gowalla, Foursquare and Facebok Places, and rolls it all up in a very social game that is (hence, the name) one big scavenger hunt. Add virtual badges, promos and free stuff, and you have a perfect marketing storm.

Naturally, there will be those for whom LBS apps are not their thing (or the broader social graph as well, like FB and TW). And then there are those who do not own a smartphone (required for playing). So many will cry foul over such discrimination. There’s no punch card to carry in a billfold…this is the 21C, and it’s all virtual. But it’s no different from those who opt-out of (or never used) a TV, radio, or newspaper, and by virtue of such missed out on announcements, coupons, etc.

What SCVNGR enterprise clients are doing is basically this: targeting a very hip, young, socially-connected crowd. And in this era, that’s not a bad demographic, Maybe not the biggest income earners, but if all you want is cheap message dissemination, this is the group on whom to bank.

And it is alliances such as these that will help companies win in their games of survivor. Affinities and endearments are the currency of the 21C, and companies who ignore (or don’t) understand this, do so at their own peril.

Maybe it’s time for them to watch a little Survivor and uncork a bottle of Nash. Or risk being voted off the island.

Dr “The Tribe Has Spoken” Gerlich

Ego Tripping

26 06 2011

And here’s yet another entry in the I Suppose It Would Happen Sooner Or Later Department: Custom books comprised of your Facebok status updates and pictures.

Stop the presses! No, please. Stop the presses. I mean it.

Turns out there are no fewer than 7 providers of ego-building social media vanity books. Pardon me while I yawn.

Actually, maybe this should be filed in my other popular folder, Why Didn’t I Think Of That.

For a mere $15-30, you can archive all of your brilliant posts and should-have-been-Pulitzer-Prize-winning photos. Who needs coffee table books by other people when you can feature your own wit, wisdom and creative genius? Friends, family and neighbors will stand in awe (no doubt as they make their way for the door). No, really. They will wonder what could have possibly possessed you to do this in the first place. Then they’ll wonder if you have lost your mental faculties, while sneaking a peak at your ears to see if maybe they’ve been scraping the doorways as you pass through. Heads that big might just show up on Doppler radar. You never know.

As much as I love (and use) social media, I have never honestly thought of my posts as lines in a book. Once I joked that it would have been interesting if Twitter existed when Jesus walked the earth, because then the Gospels would have been written in succinct 140-character tweets. But that’s it. I know that my status updates are all over the map, and if you compiled my random givings and misgivings into a continuous monograph, it would probably cause my readers to suddenly come down with ADHD. “Look…a squirrel!”

Still, books such as these are a reflection of our times. We really have taken social media quite seriously, so much so that we fancy ourselves the next John Grisham. Heck, we don’t even need to write cogent thoughts and publish them in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program like I wrote about yesterday. No sirree. Turns out we’ve been writing that book all along. We just didn’t know it at the time.

I laugh when I consider that each and every one of these epic tomes will have a press run of one. Uno. The bottom of the New York Times best (or is it worst?) seller list will be cluttered with a gazillion titles all showing the same sales figure. Who else would want to read your status updates again anyway? We already had to deal with them once.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to scroll through my FB Profile page to re-read all of my pithy utterances. My, some days I surprise even myself. Can I interest anyone in a book?

Dr “No Need To Widen The Doorways Here” Gerlich

Write On!

24 06 2011

Way back in high school, when the glaciers were still receding in the Chicago area, my Dad set me down and changed my life. You see, in spite of having labored long and hard in Honors Math classes the first three years, my first love was journalism. I was on the staff of the Rebel Rouser (hmmm…that may explain a lot to my friends), and I thrilled at the prospect of writing stories and shooting pics. Never mind that the staff had special passes that allowed them to go off-campus to sell ads, visit Jack-In-The-Box, chase leads, get an early lunch, etc. We needed that flexibility, we argued. Not to mention food.

But my Father The Accountant told me, “Son, there’s no money in journalism. You need to be in Business.”

And like a good son, I listened. I enrolled in a Marketing class my senior year, and was accepted into the DECA program. The teacher helped me get a job at a local stationer (and if you remember what one of those is, you’re getting old). That, along with another year of Honors Math, helped me change course for a life in commerce, and one day academe.

I never gave up on writing, though. Which also helps explain why I insist on using blogs as a method of teaching and discourse with my students. It’s just that the writing is not what brings home the bacon (or in my case, tofu). It’s something I enjoy doing, but like anyone else with a hobby, it’s just for fun.

But that is all changing with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Furthermore, one not need write entire books. Novellas and short stories are welcome. In fact, rank amateurs have the possibility of scoring big. John Locke (a current rendition, not the philosopher) is the first self-published author to sell 1 million Kindle ebooks.

And his strategy is sheer genius. He writes and publishes short stories, and sells them for 99 cents. Depending on which profit model a writer uses at Amazon, his margin is either 35 cents or 70 cents per download. Yeah. Each and every time someone buys it. Multiply that times a million, and you can see why I am wracking my brain trying to come up with the Next Bestseller.

And since the 70% royalty model is available in the US, it behooves all of us Yankee wannabe writers to get moving.

While self-publishing in itself is a liberating concept (who needs an agent or publisher anyway?), it is that low-ball price that really gets my attention. This is the app pricing model. Who cares if a $1 app stinks? “It was only a buck” is what most people will say.

And the same thing they will say if they don’t like your novella.

But if they do like it (and share it all over Facebook), then lots of little $1 sales will come tumbling in.

I rather like the idea of making writing an interactive process, writing (and selling) a book a chapter at a time, but inviting reader feedback along the way. This way the fans can help shape future chapters. Does the protagonist need to die? Get the girl in the end? Or give himself up to authorities? The readers can all chime in.

The beauty is in the large numbers. If the book lists for $25, you need 40,000 customers (which is actually enough to make you a stellar author), but there’s a lot of risk for those readers. If it’s priced $1 at a time, there is no risk…and it’s easier to find 1 million folks willing to drop a few quarters in the Amazon slot machine than 40,000 betting a nice dinner.

Maybe that’s what Dad was hinting at all along. Maybe he saw the future coming better than I give credit. And maybe I can turn what has been a lifelong hobby into a revenue stream.

But first I need to get some lunch. Old habits die hard.

Dr “Word!” Gerlich

On The Road Again

23 06 2011

Americans love their cars. There are about 250 million of them in the USA right now, which is one for every .8 persons. The only problem is that the vast majority of these cars sit idly for many hours each day.

The automobile has had an enormous impact on society. It has given us convenience, mobility and freedom like nothing before, yet it has made us a lazier country, one addicted to a finite fossil fuel (that is more likely than not to be imported). Our cities have developed in response to the automobile, with far-flung suburbs and urban sprawl the norm, rather than compact center cities with high population densities.

So what to do about this problem? Simple. Car sharing.

Thanks to new legislation in California, individuals are now free to rent out private vehicles (effectively becoming a commercial enterprise). And now there are several middleman companies there offering vehicle brokering services to help car owners and car renters together.

It’s a great deal for all. Folks without cars are able to rent for ridiculously low rates, while car owners can make money off an otherwise depreciating piece of property.

Think of it this way. Suppose you rented a storefront to house a retail business, but you were only open 60 hours per week. That leaves 108 hours each week in which your asset is not producing revenue. The same thinking is what is guiding the peer-to-peer car sharing movement.

There are other variations on this as well, such as ZipCar, and the various bike rental kiosks operated in several large US cities (like the Denver B-Cycle program).

Of course, I can see the entire automotive industry not being happy about this, as well as the insurance companies. Every time someone figures out how to live without a car it means one less car sold, and one less car insured. Being able to rent on an as-needed basis offers huge benefits to consumers.

But it also offers benefits to society. It’s one less car occupying space in parking lots, curb sides and garages. And as the nation comes to grips with what is likely a future with consistently high gas prices (and likely to get worse), we will have to rethink how we plan our cities, along with where we live and work. I bet that in 10-20 years we will see a return to the inner city, or at least a commute distance of 5 miles or less. While cars will still be used for vacations and leisure activities, they will become thought of more as liabilities rather than assets. They are expensive to own, maintain and insure.

I know that these are things car- and truck-loving people do not like to hear, but this conjecture could easily become reality. Until then, start-ups facilitating car sharing will likely continue to prosper in states like California. Let’s hope the remaining states can see fit to pass similar legislation allowing such programs to exist.

Dr “Buckle Up” Gerlich

Checking Out Checking In

22 06 2011

With over 700 million users now calling Facebook home, there is no question that social media have captured our collective attention. We have embraced it without question, posting our every turn and shutter click. It’s hard to argue with the success of something that, for many people, has literally become the first and last things they do every day.

Not to mention a few dozen times in between.

But while we have fallen head over heels for the social aspect, there are other equally social applications available that just aren’t yet taking off. Specifically, it is location-based services (e.g., FourSquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places) that are simply plodding along with but a small fraction of the overall FB fanbase playing. The few that do play are almost obsessive about it, but the majority of Facebook (and Twitter) users have opted out.

LBSs are all about leveraging the social graph to announce where you are. It can only be done with a smartphone, and because it is all based on GPS, users must at least be within shouting range of the place at which they wish to announce their presence. Linking your account to FB and/or Twitter allows you to share this-just-in information with all of your friends and followers.

And why would you want to check in? To tell your world what amazing taste you have, how infinitely cool you are, and, no doubt, to brag a little. Oh yeah, one more thing: To receive promotional offers from participating merchants.

Of the three providers, Foursquare appears to be hitting something that might be called a stride with 10 million users. Austin-based Gowalla has 1.5 million users, while Facebook is mum about how many of its 700 million actually check in.

So what’s the problem?

Simple. A lot of bad press, which resulted in negative perceptions. Early on a third-party site embedded both FourSquare’s and Gowalla’s timeline onto their homepage, allowing anyone and everyone to see who was at home…and who was not. Burglars, take note. Easy pickings.

There is also huge age and gender difference, with males comprising 78% of users (with females possibly fearing being stalked…or worse), and the 18-29 demographic accounting for 44% (and older folks probably just not getting it in the first place. Young. Male. Fearless.

“Here, take the wheel while I check in from I-40.”

The marketer in me, though, loves LBSs (also known popularly as geo-locos). I see a huge opportunity for stores to reward customers with discounts and special promotions simply for checking in (like some of the frozen yogurt places in Amarillo are doing). Furthermore, check-ins give retailers (and other establishments) a wealth of metrics about customers…the kind of thing that can be used for more effective marketing in the future.

But another part of me simply likes doing it. I use Gowalla, and it has become a repository of my busy and far-flung life’s activities. I occasionally scan my “passport” to see where all I have been, and to reminisce about the good times.

And perhaps there is a bit of bragging right that enters the equation as well. FourSquare honors the person with the most check-ins at a site by calling them Mayor. And while Gowalla does not offer any honorary political offices, it does maintain a leaderboard for every site. Please let the record note that I have checked in at Amarillo’s Red Robin over 25 times.

So there.

But getting more people to play has been difficult, including not just end-users, but also companies. While there is great potential for companies to glean data and reward frequent customers, it has become a chicken-and-egg proposition. I am beginning to wonder if both sides are waiting for the other to act.

In the mean time, FourSquare is no doubt considering an IPO (who isn’t these days?), and Gowalla is trying to set itself a little bit apart by focusing on brand marketing rather than promos and deals. As for Facebook, they certainly have the wherewithal (not to mention the home field advantage) to send both back to the minor leagues, but thus far has not.

And with regard to the bad press, if a person is careful with whom he makes friends on all of these social media sites, there is probably little to fear. Set your privacy controls to the tightest possible, and only your select inner circle will know all the cool places you visit.

Which has me thinking about dinner. But you’ll have to wait for my check-in to know where I land tonight.

Dr “I’m Thinking Tex-Mex” Gerlich

Late To The Party

21 06 2011

I know that it’s pretty cool to be fashionably late to social events. It draws everyone else’s eye your way, and you can stroll in knowing that the collective gaze is soaking up your presence. Arrive too early, and you risk being a nerd. But arrive too late, and you might miss the party entirely.

Which is why I was jolted in my recliner this morning when I saw the latest commercial for Academy Sports, in which spokesperson Danica Patrick was extolling the virtues of their new online shopping site.

Now while Danica Patrick is sure to start the engines of many a male viewer, let me be the first to say that Academy’s finally joining the e-commerce fray is not only rather late, but down right laughable. I mean, really. You’re finally getting around to admitting this thing is for real?


“Hello? Oh yeah, sure. Hey, Academy. It’s for you. It’t the 21st Century calling.”

Now I am fully aware of the problems that Borders has had in the past with its own e-commerce site, first going it alone, then partnering with Amazon, and then going it alone again. But there have been professional online order fulfillment companies for quite a few years now (like GSI Commerce), which means that if a company does not feel like it can maintain that part of the operation, it can be outsourced to someone who can make it happen.

But Academy has opted instead to simply try to survive on in-store sales. Ironically, one of its biggest competitors, Gander Mountain, also just joined the 21st Century with online shopping.

What the heck were these guys thinking? “You know, I think these computers are really going to take off one day.”


To be sure, there are many firms still without a basic e-commerce website. But I have a hard time thinking of any large firms wondering if they’re going to show up for this party. The problem is that all of the main courses have already been consumed, and about all that’s left are some stale pizza and warm beer. The vast majority of the economic profits have already been claimed, and now if anyone launches a site, it is a defensive move. Academy and Gander have both been lapped a few times in this race. It’s certainly not an offensive maneuver the likes of which Danica Patrick could deliver with alacrity.

Even if she did cause my head to turn for the commercial. Too bad there’s no air in the tires.

Dr “Or Fuel In The Tank” Gerlich