Last spring at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Texas, Guy Kawasaki had just started to interview Chris Anderson on stage when a cell phone went off in the audience. “It can’t by AT&T,” Guy cracked, “because they have no coverage in Austin.”
AT&T has gained notoriety as a spotty network, and so has launched an apology campaign with “Seth the Blogger.” The videos have in turn caused a little controversy, since Seth is really Seth Bloom, a senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, AT&T’s PR agency, and not a techie blogger. (Unpaid bloggers get upset when paid professionals impersonate them. No matter.) We think Fleishman-Hillard struck the right tone and got the message out, namely that the iPhone is a data-guzzling beast and keeping up with it requires significant investment in infrastructure.
The real story here is the glow may be fading from the iPhone’s design beauty. The iPhone gave AT&T huge momentum — AT&T, the sole carrier of the Apple phone, shot from 70 million to 77 million wireless customers in 2008, and ended the year as the United States’ largest mobile provider. Margins have grown fatter too: AT&T’s wireless segment operating income margin ballooned from 12.2% in 2006 to 22.5% in 2008, driven largely by increased data usage from iPhones. But as glass pads with apps become a low-cost commodity, AT&T may lose its Steve Jobs advantage. AT&T notes in its last annual report “we have three to four other wireless competitors in each of our service areas and compete for customers based principally on price, service/device offerings, call quality, coverage area and customer service.” The market is saturated with sexy phones. Time to build out the network.
To hear a whimsical debate on the matter, catch The BeanCast advertising podcast, which we recorded last night with host Bob Knorpp, Bill Green, Greg Verdino, and Åsk Wäppling. Åsk lives in Malmö, Sweden with gads of bandwidth, and wonders why we Yanks don’t have video conferencing on mobile yet.
How times have changed. Back in 1997 when IBM wanted to convince global businesses that newfangled IT systems could help them, it spent $40 million with Ogilvy & Mather on TV spots, radio, and some banner ads.
Today IBM is shaping opinions of itself with the new site IBM.com/think, which combines 90% rub-your-chin content in the style of The Economist or Harper’s with about 10% self-promotion. IBM steers clear of politics and instead pushes science-report-toned entries on food, cloud computing, energy and the environment. The site is fed with banners around the web and dovetails with social media outreach on blogs, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter (nicely run by real IBM humans @adamclyde, @jhodge88, @junkstar and others).
The starfish approach
Using quasi-editorial copy for corporate messaging is nothing new; Mobil broke the ground on this with its quarter-page, black-and-white NYT Op-Ed ads in the 1980s. But this feels different both in non-salesmanship of copy and in nuanced outreach. Tech blogger Robert Scoble calls this communication strategy a “starfish approach,” where various arms reach far into the web to give your audience multiple ways to receive and engage with your message. Perhaps the growing transparency of social networks, coupled with consumer skittishness of being sold ideas by corporations, is requiring large companies to provide more-objective value in their content. A decade ago IBM was a distant monolith. Now we can ping IBMers by their personal Twitter handles. That makes us think.
CoffeeCompany in Holland wanted to sell more java to the hipsters pecking at laptops in its coffeeshops, so slipped a message into the WiFi log-in screen. Brilliant. And if someone asks the barista how to log in to the internet, he’ll answer, “Buy Another Cup…”
Many marketers spend big bucks trying to get consumers to come, and then fail to market to consumers as they enter the organizational experience. That’s like working hard to get a date and then forgetting to ask for a kiss. So ask your organization — what are the common touchpoints our new customers experience with us? And is it possible to gather information or provide relevant offers as they begin their journey?
One problem with social media is it often feels removed from reality: A bunch of people, alone in their office or bedroom, typing away to virtual online relationships.
Zuku brings a touch of reality back with a service allowing public speakers to receive instant feedback from their audience’s cell phones. This seems blindingly obvious — hey, what if the audience could chime in? — but is something few public forums provide.
Pat Barber of Zuku tells us he got the idea 18 months ago when attending a conference and noting most of the audience was typing away on PDAs. Now, his startup Zuku is being adopted by HR functions, major conventions, and some surprising clients such as churches. A reverend at one church recently used the service to encourage his congregation to type in questions about God; he expected 10 “tweet” equivalents and ended up with 72 deep thoughts, including the one “If God is so wonderful, why is my loved one suffering in pain?”
The application could provide data mining insights as well; imagine if a large corporation such as GE, constantly training the 10 percent of its workforce that turns over each year, could analyze patterns in employee questions and concerns and then do something about it.
The anonymity and spontaneity of real feedback. Listening to audiences in a new way. Could work.
Michelle Marts over at Media Artist notes that too few companies do something original with their standard customer communications. Here’s a nice email she found from CDBaby.com:
Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with
sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.
A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure
it was in the best possible condition before mailing.
Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over
the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party
marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of
Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in
our private CD Baby jet …
Over the top? Yes. Memorable? Definitely. Such prose won’t work for every business, but it’s a wake-up call to start doing more with your standard customer touchpoints. A little humor goes a long way.