A walk on the lighter side…

The Newman Center near campus at my institution is in the habit of offering dollar dinners Wednesday evenings at 5:30. The way they promote the dinners (see, it’s marketing after all) is to chalk amusing and whimsical invitations on the sidewalk in front of the house. I walk past the house (usually too late to come to the dinner), and amuse myself by reading the weekly come-on messages on the sidewalk (“You’re feeling hungry…very, very hungry…”). Occasionally, there’ll be artwork along with the message. So far this semester, I’ve seen a suspiciously cheerful-looking camel and the legendary Trogdor the Burninator.

That approach usually kicks over my giggle-box a little. Next semester I don’t teach on Wednesday, so perhaps I’ll be able to attend.

Hanging from the rear bumper of the Social Media Express :-)

For all that I have accounts (of greater activity or lesser) on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Blogger, WordPress, and Tumblr, social media is not my area of expertise. I do more “listening” (if the term applies) than talking on social media, so it’s not as if I can say “been there, done that, built lots of traffic.” The pace of change in social, not to mention mobile, where I am really at sea, owing to the fact that I own a slightly-less-dumb phone, makes providing relevant material to students a challenge.

Worth it, though. I found an interesting infographic about Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest usage in 2013 developed by an outfit called Quicksprout and posted at a freelancer site called Jobstock. There are a number of actionable insights managers (or semi-benighted perfessers) can use to support social marketing decisions. By this time next semester, it will probably all be different, but that’s one of the things that make this field fascinating, and the job one of the best a feller could ask for.

Focus-free musing on primary and secondary quantitative research

Pew Research reported recently that telephone response rates for survey research were about 9% in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, a record low. Survey response rates are also declining in academic research, a topic of one of the more provocative (of the presentations I attended, at any rate…granted, that’s a small and subjective subset) presentations at the 2012 American Marketing Association’s Summer Marketing Educators Conference.

Low response rate isn’t necessarily an issue with respect to the integrity of data (and Pew and others make that point), though flags often go up when investigators report response rates in the single digits. The larger issue (to my beady little mind, anyway) is the time and expense represented by paltry response rates. Having recently completed data collection for my own dissertation — a process involving a business-to-business survey — one is free to ask me how I know about the time and expense, um, thereassociated. :-/

(Yes, it was available online as well as in paper-and-pencil form.)

It appears that people are less willing to sit still long enough to complete a survey. Perhaps they perceive themselves as more pressed for time; perhaps push polling and other questionable techniques have soured respondents’ stomachs for the work; perhaps the incentives offered, when offered, are insufficient or off base. Whatever the reason, it poses a nontrivial challenge for those of us who like to do quantitative research, especially on the B2B side. As I move into my career as a teacher-scholar, I will have to become more creative and innovative about obtaining data for my research, in order to produce research with useful insights for practice and scholarship, as well as to address my own career goals and requirements. That’s a good thing in the long run, if a little bloodcurdling in the short.

One of these things is not quite like the other thing

One of the things that has stayed with me since I started my MBA back in ‘ninety and nine is the insistence of the now-retired marketing dept. chair at Cleveland State that marketers should always, always segment markets on category need (using behavioral data, if available). That stayed with me, and I have taken pains to emphasize to my own students to segment markets on benefits sought: in other words, what are customers looking to get out of consumption of a specific offering or a category of offerings? If customers want what we’ve got, we have a chance to target them successfully. We’d also like to know a few other things, such as whether they can afford our asking price, and whether they can be reached readily, and what kind of message content and framing might be appealing. To keep what should be a short story from getting longer: Demographic is not a synonym for segment.

I mention this because the January 2013 issue of Marketing News has a pretty good article (p. 44 of the hard copy edition; the link goes to the summary of the online version) about The Onion’s entry into the content-marketing game. The Onion worked with Microsoft to develop a campaign for the Internet Explorer 9 browser. The article author (who presumably should know better — and if not, an editor working for the American Marketing Association certainly ought to) characterizes The Onion as one of the places frequented by “the marketing sweet spot of 18-to-34-year-olds.” Okay, much of what we see in mass media (and even business media) about marketing talks about the need to reach a key demographic, but consider this brief example: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find that most snowboarders (just to pick something out of the air) are between the ages of 18 and 34. So far, so good. But if one stops there, one will spend a great deal of money (So. Very. Very. Much. Money.) delivering a set of benefit claims to 18-to-34-year-olds who neither know nor care about the difference between a snowboard and a salami.

Elsewhere, the author refers to young, “tech-savvy users as an important demographic (emphasis mine) for the brand (meaning Microsoft) to reach.” Young is demographic; tech-savvy can refer to psychology and/or category need (they like technology, are unafraid of technology, prefer to use technology to accomplish certain tasks, etc.). However, giving credit where due, the article also notes that Microsoft wanted to reach consumers who had been making fun of Internet Explorer (a behavior). In fact, the Microsoft executive quoted in the piece emphasizes the targeted nature of the effort, saying people who already liked IE “don’t need this kind of marketing message” (p. 49).

I suppose I shouldn’t make too much of it, but the fact is that demographic characteristics are not always reliable as an indicator of preference (and that’s putting the best face possible on it). Where demographics matter more is in things such as the kind of message that will be most appealing, and the article does spend time making that point. As marketers, we should promote clear thinking and clear communication about the offerings (including brands) in our charge, and for my money that includes stamping out the use of demographic as a synonym for segment. 🙂

Brief thought on distribution

So I’m working on a paper on distribution strategy, inspired by my reading of Thomas and Wilkinson’s thought-provoking The Distribution Trap. The authors argue that mega-retailers (think big boxes and category killers — and one supposes that one could throw e-commerce as a generic category in there as well) contribute to the acceleration of product commoditization via price competition. There may be something to that, but the mega-retailers also can claim plausibly to provide customers with the time, place, and possession utility that seems to matter quite a lot nowadays. Would it be a payoff strategy for Beats by Dre to sell only through high-end audio retailers (perhaps in Best Buy’s Magnolia centers, along with independent audio retailers)? Using a positioning matrix such as in Dawn Iacobucci’s MM3 suggests selective distribution is the best choice for a product of differentiated quality…but there are other factors to consider as well (hence the paper upon which I am working). There is more I could say in this space (and may do, once I get the draft whanged into shape and submitted)….

Framing the conversation

Among the first things I talk about in an introductory marketing class is the idea of voluntary mutual exchange for mutual benefit, without resort to coercion (force, including what one might term the “farming-the-government” form of rent-seeking) or deception (fraud).

If I want a 1964 DuPont Duco Fender Stratocaster and happen to have in my hot little hand the legendary Honus Wagner baseball card, and I happen across someone what has a Duco Strat and is hankering after a Honus Wagner card, we will make the exchange if each of us concludes we’ll be better off after we make the exchange than we are right now. Illustrating the phenomenon doesn’t strictly require collectible goodies (and I’m not making any claims about the relative market values of the Strat and the Honus Wagner): it works just as well in considering an exchange of driveway-shoveling for a periodic loaf of homemade Latvian sourdough rye, or goods for money, or services for money, or what have you.

The role of marketing in exchange is to help buyers and sellers find each other, and otherwise to facilitate exchange as needed and/or appropriate. In addition (or perhaps in greater specificity), marketing provides tools to help us make the case that what we’re offering is different from and better than any other alternative available to meet a customer need/want or to solve a customer problem. What makes an offering different and better varies from customer to customer and often from situation to situation. “Different and better” may mean “technologically superior” to one customer, “more reliable” to another, “more hip and trendy” to a third, and the more prosaic “cheaper” to still others.

That’s how I boil down marketing to what I see as its essence: voluntary mutual exchange for mutual benefit, and the means of making the case that one’s offering is different and better than competing offerings. The rest is detail. Fortunately for those of us who’ve chosen to labor in this particular vineyard, the details are almost infinite in their variety, and fascinating in their own right.

20 years o’ day-shift and they make you an associate*

Professor, that is. Doing Business As a Professor is a play on the degree (DBA: doctor of business administration) I am presently finishing.

I decided to make a mid-career and go in for a professor after being given the opportunity to teach a class as an adjunct shortly after earning my MBA. Four weeks into my first semester I knew I’d found what I’d been looking for, career-wise; I’d already got myself a family far better than I deserve. They might be better than anyone deserves; I’m a lucky fella.

Three years later I began my studies while continuing to work full time in industry (my institution is one of a very few that permit one to work full time while  pursuing a doctorate, and I am grateful for the opportunity, though my blood is by now curdled thoroughly). A few years after that I left industry, and have taught on adjunct and visiting appointments while working, in my deliberate fashion, on my dissertation (on interfirm collaboration in complex business-to-business markets).

I fell in love, so to speak, with the “game of business” in the course of getting my MBA, and ever since I’ve been interested in the “big picture” aspect of marketing: What makes an offering different from, and better than, any other alternative a particular (target) customer can find to fill a need or want?

There are many ways to “get there,” some of which are more appropriate than others. I’ll post about that from time to time, and offer observations about what’s going on in the world of marketing — I hope from the perspective of one with extensive experience both as a scholar/teacher and as a manager. Real Soon Now(tm) I’ll have some thoughts on what I’m seeing (and working on a paper) in distribution strategy of consumer products in certain industries.

*To the tune (such as it is) of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”