The Flipboard 2.0 Vanity Press

I’ve been digging into the market for custom publishing services for digital marketers, and hence have been focused on content management systems, distribution models, and other production tools to rapidly build and nuture a custom “magazine.”

The Monthly MeconiumIntroducing my testbed for Flipboard’s new publishing tool: The Monthly Meconium (the name is a long story involving my penchant for weird words, one of which was turned back on me in 1981 when I was a bartender and given the nickname of “Mec” after sharing the definition of “meconium” with the day shift), a fitting title for a first effort at something that is destined to be flushed away.

The tool is a clipping service. One drags a “Flip It” applet into the Chrome toolbar and when you’re on some content worth sharing, you hit the little “+ flip it” button, add a little commentary, and it’s added to your personal FlipBoard magazine.

Flipboard, if you’ve been sleeping under a rock, is the amazing graphical, touch-friendly feed aggregator that takes all of your social feeds — Twitter, Facebook, Google +, YouTube, and Flipboard specific titles from publishers like GigaOm and AllThingsD — and brings them together in what has quickly become my favorite browsing app on my smartphone and my tablet.

There’s a bit of a Tumblr/Pinterest feeling to the whole experience. This isn’t a content creation tool as much as a curation took. Sort of a cooler updated version of a custom newspaper for a swiping, touch enabled experience.

I have no idea how to subscribe to The Monthly Meconium. I’ve been messing around with Flipboard trying to find my freshly launched effort, but nothing brings it up. I’m assuming it needs to be crawled, indexed, reviewed, and then listed by the Flipboard crew.

This should be standard fare for any reporter trying to build traffic to their stuff or for any digital marketing trying to build an audience to their brand’s content.

When I actually figure out how to subscribe I’ll up this post. In the meantime I’ll try to get more adept at the techniques and actually use it to share stuff of interest.

Update: Flipboard 2.0 is only available for Apple’s iOS – an Android version is coming, so I can’t even read my own creation. Nice to see Paid Content agrees with my opinion that this should cause a severe case of incontinence for publishers.

Corporate Journalism Revisited

Bob Page emailed me a link to this Harvard Business Review blog post about how advertisers need to act more like newsrooms.

Written by Newsweek/Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty and Wharton Professor Jerry Wind, the post cites some marketing trends where companies are:

  • Advertising in real time by tweeting or pushing out content in response to events or public feedback. Examples would include Old Spice’s successful YouTube “Smell Like a Man, Man” project where 200 short videos were shot in response to social media interaction; and brand’s tweeting opportunistic messages during the Super Bowl blackout
  • Creating advertorial media and content factories on their own or  in partnership with media brands: they cite Intel and Vice’s Creator’s Project and the Redbull Media House
  • Becoming more agile. Instead of planning advertising campaigns around 30-second television and meticulously planned media buys, the modern marketer is more reactive and opportunistic.

Nice sentiments, but in my experience, the reality of putting such sentiments into action is a lot more frustrating. Getting big organizations to be faster and more open is always going to be an exercise in frustration and patience. Bob wrote: “This “marketers as newsrooms” stuff from Intel, Red Bull, Liberty Mutual looks an awful lot like the kind of team you got started at Lenovo.”

I’ll take the compliment for trying to push the company to be more agile on its communications and media, but the frustrations occurred when two traditional conservative corporate communications edicts were invoked: risk and quality.

Risk is what a corporate communications department is designed to minimize. They plan the message, craft it, practice it, push it across the organization and limit the points where the media can engage. Rank and file employees can’t, and shouldn’t, talk to the press or randomly respond to social media. Even the CEO is given a speech written for him, carefully crafted down to every ad hoc joke and quip. External PR agencies and internal staff work together across product introductions, corporate messaging and investor relations, focused on cutting down the risk of leaks, illegal financial disclosure and embarrassing moments.

Risk aversion in corporate communications means slowing things down, stone walling, taking time to consider responses and reactions before blurting out something that isn’t signed off. This doesn’t work when a lynch party is forming over Christmas shipping delays and the CEO’s home phone number is being shared along with form letters for submission to the Better Business Bureau. The realities of modern crisis communications is that minutes, not hours, are crucial, and when a customer service team needs to wait 24 hours for corporate communications to reply with a sanitized, bland statement opportunities are lost and tempers inflamed.

Quality is what gets invoked when a digital marketing team tries to get a video onto the company’s YouTube channel.  Suddenly the brand team and the advertising creative people turn into critics, and cry foul when a cell-phone video of an engineer explaining how he revved up boot times for a new PC is put out there on the same day of a product announcement claiming the new laptops are faster to start up than the competitions. The official announcement may make the claim, but the customers want to know how and why, so pointing a video camera at the engineer and putting up a 60 second answer suddenly makes the purists invoke HD quality standards.

Here’s a video I challenged the team to shoot and post in a single day when I felt a product announcement lacked any substance or answers. This bummed some people out because of its low quality, but 80,000 views later, I’d declare it a success. It simply Kevin Beck interview Howard Locker on what he did to rev up boot times.

I maintain that if you’re in a complex business and have opened the doors to questions through corporate blogs, customer service forums, Facebook pages, etc.. you better be prepared to get something up in a matter of hours, not days.


One thing will never change and that is that corporate content is ultimately advertorial and as such, inferior to independently/  objectively produced journalism.

I’m going to take credit for coining the term “corporate journalism” back in 2000 when I was at McKinsey working on the  firm’s knowledge management system. My friend and colleague Rob O’Regan and I realized our purpose in life was to leverage our experience as business and technology reporters in prying out of taciturn consultants conditioned to maintain client confidentiality some meaningful insights that could be developed into “content” for the benefit of other consultants and their clients.

The act of interviewing — not media training where a PR person coaches a senior executive on how to spin a story — but actually probing an expert in the reporter’s equivalent of the Socratic method, produced some strong results: it forced the experts to clarify their jargon, realize when their points were obtuse, and understand what they considered interesting or important wasn’t necessarily so. But the public result of this process — a story in the McKinsey Quarterly, or a video series for client development — is still content with an inherent proprietary bias.

Yes, brands need to be more agile, corporate communications needs to be faster and more authentic, and old strictures of spinning messages and planning ad campaigns deserve to die.  But beware of flaks bearing the next new thing, it usually turns out to be unbearably bogus and contrived and designed to serve the best interests of the organization and its shareholders, not the public and its customers.

Suckers are born every decade but I’m out of here

I wanted to keep this to myself –if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — but here is my contribution to the pile of B.S. spreading today on the occasion of Facebook going public.

Facebook is over, about to topple over under the weight of a spectacular overvaluation, mass indifference to financial fundamentals, and most importantly my sense of the growing indifference of the generation it was supposed to serve — college students.  Facebook was famously founded as a digital replacement to the printed freshman directories of the Ivy League but has become obese with the inane status updates and vacation bragging of those same students’ parents. My generation. The one’s who pored over the original class directories in the 1970s and “posted updates” on whiteboards glued to our dorm room doors.

Wall Street is selling scale today when the trigger is pulled on Facebook at 11 AM EST — that’s hyperbole for “lots of traffic” — and while your local investment club may be all atwitter with the prospect of buying some shares, and it’s fun to count the herd of new Facebook gazillionaires now shopping for new Colnagos and bespoke skinny jeans — the smart money has been cashing out for a long time in the private market and will continue cashing out quickly at the top.  This is not Microsoft in 1984 nor Amazon in 1996. This is not a long term bet on a significant new way of doing business or even communicating. This is an investment in the 2012 edition of CompuServe and MySpace: yet another walled garden ripe to get creatively destroyed by the next big technical thing lurking over that hill known as the future.

Future performance of Facebook’s stock depends on the company delivering profitable revenue and like Google, Facebook gets all of its money from advertising. Google builds semi-useful stuff and search is everything. Facebook advertising does not work. I managed Facebook campaigns for a Fortune Global 100 company and have first hand experience that … Facebook …. Advertising …. Does….. Not ….. Work.

General Motors figured this out, and picking the week of the IPO to announce Facebook ads aren’t working was simply perfect. Of course the counter argument from the social media douche bags is that “Facebook is all about authentic relationships and transparent conversations between brands and customers.” Consider the source, given that the SMDB’s make their bones selling their Facebook Unique Customer Karma and Emerging Digital services (you can figure out the forced acronym) to breathless CMOs who want audience, damn it, and the bigger the better.  And consider that the public relations/digital agency world is always first on any shiny object bandwagon (can you say SecondLife) and their current solemn obsession is reporting “Social ROI” as the rest of the faddish get obsessed with big data and analytics. (If you want to watch some fun navel gazing, play pissed-off CEO and ask a Digital PR person “How much is a Facebook Fan worth?”)

Companies, aka “brands,” obsess and fret about how many fans and likes they have; spend money on third-party tools like BuddyMedia to manage their presence, and set aside a slice of their digital advertising budget to buy good old display ads to run alongside the torrent of notifications and shared links that make up Facebook’s river of content. As I read elsewhere this morning, quoting Seth Godin (whom I never quote), “The Internet wasn’t invented for advertisers.”

Neither was Facebook.

Yet, in lieu of subscriptions or some twist on Warren Buffett’s theory of a toll booth on the only bridge over the river, where is Facebook’s money going to come from to sustain a valuation in the thin, thin air of $100+ billion ? If you know, then buy some stock. Me, I’m deactivating my Facebook account in honor of the TimeWarner-AOL/Prodigy/CompuServe/Groupon/ of 2012.

Two weeks ago I began dinging every over-sharer on my timeline or wall or whatever the Zuckerborg called it this month. Goodbye pictures of glasses of beer, notifications that Ed was at LAX, weird R-rated bikini videos from people in Turkey and India I have never met and will never meet. Goodbye SocialCam. Goodbye Tweets. Goodbye to All That. Now …..

Goodbye Facebook and hello to less noise in my life.


Pimping one’s friends for a chance at the Golden Ticket

Why do efforts by brands to get me to “like” them on Facebook strike me as hopelessly shallow and stupid? There’s this totemic fetishism among marketers to show off their likeable prowess by tallying followers and fans like so many ears on a necklace around their necks.  And I guarantee you, there are more than a million social media marketing consultants and digital PR drones willing to sit on a conference panel or fire up a SEO optimized blog post and debate the “true value of a Facebook Fan.”

Acquisition strategies that involve baiting a trap with a sweepstakes or other freebie and then requiring the sucker to enlist others in their quest are as old as the hills and a throwback to tried and true email marketing tactics to build direct response database. “Refer a friend” is one step removed from the pyramid schemes that occasionally sweep through forgetful societies who are more than eager to enlist friends and family in their quest for riches. These Tupperware parties seem to be the heart and soul of Facebook marketing tactics.

And who cares if a “fan” gives a damn, the more the merrier.

So assume Amazon succeeds in driving me to the more-and-more loathed Facebook and induces me to “invite” three friends to also pile onto the “win a Kindle for yourself and three friend” come-on. What do they do with the names?  This reeks of some shallow brainstorm by a digital marketing agency who is going to declare a specious ROI victory when Amazon’s Facebook fans swells from A to B over the next few weeks. Then what? My “news wall” or “timeline” or whatever the Zuckerborg calls is begins to be ever after polluted with authentically cheesy brand tweets from some junior marketing drone? The fact the Endive Society of America shows up in my Facebook stream  every so often makes me wonder if the world has devolved to the point where it’s just more and more noise signifying nothing.

I know I’m overly cranky, and I know Facebook is the biggest walled garden of the moment, a pool of the world’s names so tempting to try to sell to, but as that pool gets shallower and shallower, and more polluted by corporate messages shuffled like so many jokers in a deck of family photos,  shared links to headlines, invitations to the latest Zynga MafiaFarm, I just want to stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes, and rock back and forth to shut it all out.

I’m not a fan of anything I’ve ever purchased. I hate my refrigerator. My car only wants my money.  My endives wilt and my laptop likes to crash.


Do Not Track: The Death of Metrics or Catalyst for Innovation?

It was a matter of time before the winds of regulation blew over the mysterious world of digital advertising and behavioral targeting, just as they blew out the telemarketing-junk call industry in the 1980s, email spammers in the 1990s, and pay-per-post blogola two years ago. I think it’s inevitable that the government will regulate online tracking and I believe the result — counter to fears it will decimate digital advertising — will be a much needed catalyst for innovation in online advertising.

From the 12.6.10 New York Times: “If the vast majority of online users chose not to have their Internet activity tracked, the proposed “do not track” system could have a severe effect on the industry, some experts say. It would cause major harm to the companies like online advertising networks, small and midsize publishers and technology companies like Yahoo that earn a large percentage of their revenue from advertising that is tailored to users based on the sites they have visited.”

Nothing gets the public’s libertarian hackles up like a threat to their privacy, even though 99% of them have no clue what constitutes identity and personal privacy in the digital age. The declared intentions of the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on online advertising use of tracking beacons, pixels or cookies is inevitable and has been brewing since 1995 when Mark Andreesen and  Netscape first introduced the cookie to great consternation and misunderstanding.

This is an old issue, one that tracks back to the mid-1990s and was embodied by the famous comment by Sun Microsystem’s CEO, Scott McNeally: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” McNeally uttered those words at a time when the technology and media industries were trying to head off government regulation by forming the Online Privacy Alliance (OPA). Evidently self-regulation hasn’t been enough, and now the industry is on the brink of having some new regulations to conform to.

Let’s look at what the issue is and how things got to the point that the issue officially was blessed as the most significant story of the day in early December by the front page of the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Angwin gets the most credit for raking the privacy muck in a shrill series that is encapsulated on this page on the Journal’s site which is actually a very comprehensive and chilling catalogue of news about the state of digital privacy in modern America. While some critics like Jeff Jarvis have accused the Journal of being breathlessly alarmist and turning the practice of cookie-based advertising into the modern equivalent of Reefer Madness, the Journal has persisted, making it an inevitable outcome that sooner or later some bureaucrats and Congressmen would take up the  call and file a bill.

Let me attempt to simplify the issue in lurid terms: Web publishers and digital advertising companies are colluding to sneak  invisible tracking devices onto your computer which report back personal information about you so they can deliver targeted advertisements to you and share your personal information with marketers, and other interested parties.

The issue comes down to whether or not a web user has the right, by default, to ban the placement of  cookies or “invisible tracking pixels” on their PC when they visit a website or click on an ad. These cookies are  the digital equivalent of a tracking device snuck under the bumper of your car so your whereabouts can be tracked by the cops or enemy spies.

One of the most prevalent digital bugs or tracking cookies is the Adobe-Omniture tracker.  Omniture is a very powerful web metrics tool that web publishers and corporate web sites use to analyze traffic patterns and user behaviors.  Most major e-commerce sites use the tool and I’ve spent a lot of time in its dashboards analyzing metrics at and This is an expensive tool, not something a typical Internet scam artist would use to hatch some evil plan, and it never reports back any personal information about site visitors. Your name, your address, your phone number, your social security number …. none of its transferred back to the analyst.

Yet the 2o7 tracking cookie it classified as spyware and a threat by most spyware scanners. Why?

Privacy is becoming a matter of degrees. While your name may not be passed without your knowledge, your IP address is. And someone with a subpoena and some diligence can, in theory, track you down to a specific geographical address. Your personal information — from your online medical records to your bank account numbers — all of it exposed and can be stolen by a criminal clever enough to trick you into parting with that information on a fake site or through so-called “social” engineering.  Identity theft is a very real threat online, and tends to trick the nontechnical, unsophisticated users the most.

But what does a ban on tracking cookies do to online advertising?

First, it will have an impact on re-targeting. This is where a site like or (two online retails I happen to visit occasionally) plant a tracker into your browser and then use it to trigger ads for their products when you visit other sites. So, if I go to Lenovo’s ThinkPad store and check out a T410S, I can usually expect to see a lot of Lenovo ads as I surf around to CNET, PC Magazine, and any other sites that Lenovo’s advertising agency deems appropriate to display the client’s ads on. Do these ads greet me by name? No. Are they intelligent enough to distinguish my interest in one product over another? No. Do they get progressively more aggressive in offering me a better price as time goes by? No.

In some regards, re-targeting is somewhat pathetic. It sounds semi-intelligent to follow a visitor around and throw more ads at them, but in reality you have to keep in mind one very real fact: online advertising is, for the most part, completely ignored by most users. Click through rates have been declining on most display (graphical) ads since they were introduced in the mid-1990s, and only so-called rich media ads featuring video or some form of dynamic multimedia are getting higher CTRs. We’re talking click rates under 1%.  Digital ads remain noise for the most part, and the only stuff that seems to have legs — witness the phenomenal one-trick pony known as Google — is contextual search advertising (which does not use tracking cookies).

As tracking and re-targeting comes under fire a few things will happen. First, advertisers will lose insight into the buying patterns or behaviors of customers, and selecting media for their advertising will become more difficult. Will advertisers regress to what is known as last-click attribution, where credit for a sale, registration or other “success event” be credited to the last ad or link the user  clicked before arriving in a store to make a purchase? Perhaps, but I think what will happen is the 2011 equivalent of New York City’s solution to the threat of being buried under too much horse manure in the late 19th century — technology (in NYC’s case the automobile) will simply cause the problem to become moot. Advertisers and agencies have been lazy and deceiving themselves that they have some semblance of intelligence in their metrics — which they laud as “behavioral targeting” – when in fact it’s ad insertion based on cookie triggers, nothing more. Take away the cookie and I guarantee some motivated entrepreneur will rush to the table with a new ad format that performs without them.

So, bottom line, bring on the era of regulation, punish the most egregious offenders, and stay tuned for the online advertising industry to evolve into a more intelligent form of advertising which has been overdue since the invention of contextual search ads by Bill Gross.


Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging »» Blogging best practices, corporate communications, ethics »» Schaefer Marketing Solutions: We Help Businesses {grow}

This weekend I received a LinkedIn query from an alumni group I belong to asking if anyone wanted some freelance work ghost blogging for some executives. The more I thought about it, the less annoyed I was at the concept.

Then I found this well argued post by Mark Schaefer about other corporate ghost writing examples and all my reservations faded.

“The chairman does not pen his own speech, yet nobody questions that they own it. They don’t write the shareholder’s letter in the annual report, yet this is deemed as authentic. Do you think Former GE Chairman Jack Welch sat there and pecked out his own book? And yet it is seen as his.”

via Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging »» Blogging best practices, corporate communications, ethics »» Schaefer Marketing Solutions: We Help Businesses {grow}.

The urge to round up – the tyranny of the nines

My former colleague in marketing and current partner at Inventive Branding, Craig Merrigan, used to bemoan the use of the “ninety-nines” in pricing as an affront to intelligent customers. “If we think ThinkPad users are the most technically sophisticated PC users, then why do we insult their intelligence with RONCO pricing,” was his argument, a compelling one that would probably fail in testing as “just-below” pricing has existed for over a century, allegedly back to the invention of the first cash register. It has to work, right?

It’s kind of weird, from a psychological perspective, to look at the shopping impulse that would lead someone to chose a 99 dollar or 99 cent option over a round $100 or $1. Of course anyone would take the less expensive option when looking at identical items — a penny is a penny, a dollar is a dollar. Who wouldn’t? But what if the two options were dissimilar but close in value? Would a $39,999 Audi A3 be more attractive than a $40,000 BMW 3 series.  The more complex the item, be it a consumer durable like a refrigerator, or a non-durable like a steak, and the customer has to do some research to determine the specs and sorts the apples from the oranges. Is the $50 ribeye grass fed versus the $49.99 corn fed version? I’ll pay the penny and spare myself the cow’s antibiotics.

But standing alone, without an option, let’s say an Apple iPad (there really are no viable tablets yet on the market), is a $499 price point for the 16 GB WiFi model going to unleash my credit card from my wallet versus a $500 price that eeps it locked sanely away for the sake of my bank balance? One would assume Apple, a brand that prides itself on perfection in its details would shy away from just-below-pricing, but no, they too indulge. Could a competitor come out with a marketing campaign that said, “Let’s cut the bullshit. You’re intelligent. The  machine costs $500, screw the dollar”? I suppose so. But I suspect just-below-pricing is reflexive at this point, and coming out with rounded pricing would need to be baked into an overall campaign that presented the brand as one for thinking people not lulled or duped by stupid marketing jedi-mind tricks.

Now if say there was a viable competitor, and that competitor decided to market their device as a head-to-head competitor with identical specifications — let’s say a clone — then the differentiation needs to be part of the selling claim; as in either “Cheaper, ours is $499, you save a buck” or “Ours is better, you get 17 gigabytes for an extra dollar at $500”

Pricing theory is doubtlessly a dreary science that MBAs are tormented with, but what interests me is the human nature to round stuff up.

The New York Times has an interesting story on how some Wharton professors studied the batting averages of major league hitters and saw a remarkable jump in the population of .300 hitters — men who hit the ball successfully at least 30% of the time they came to bat. The study showed statistically that hitters put an extra effort into the waning days of the season to get those crucial hits that make the difference between being a .299 hitter and a .300 hitter. I suppose if I exercised my Society of American Baseball Research membership I could make the obvious point that .300 hitters have better leverage in their future contract negotiations, and with Sabermetrics putting a lot of value on VORP and PECOTA – (Value Over Replacement Player and Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) crucial metrics that bench marks the value of a player against the population of other playes and gives owners and management a much better benchmark for assigning value in making salary offers.

The Times article said:

Two economists at the Wharton Schoolof the University of Pennsylvania, while investigating how round numbers influence goals, examined the behavior of major league hitters from 1975 to 2008 who entered what became their final plate appearance of the season with a batting average of .299 or .300 (in at least 200 at-bats).

They found that the 127 hitters at .299 or .300 batted a whopping .463 in that final at-bat, demonstrating a motivation to succeed well beyond normal (and in what was usually an otherwise meaningless game).

Most deliciously, not one of the 61 hitters who entered at .299 drew a walk — which would have fired those ugly 9s into permanence because batting average considers bases on balls neither hit nor at-bat.

Martinez said that “.299 doesn’t look as good as that 3 in front.”

When I am rowing on my ergometer I receive constant numeric feedback about my progress, along with a forecast of my final score for any particular piece of work — if I am rowing a pace of 500 meters ever two minutes, the machine will predict a 30-minute of score of 7500 meters. Obviously the incentive is huge to break certain round number milestones. An 8,000 meter half hour requires an inordinate effort of maintaining a 1:52 split throughout the 30 minutes. The point is that hitting or breaking round number milestones is a big incentive, no one wants to row a 7,499 meter piece over 30 minutes when a little extra effort will break the 7,500 barrier.

So if athletes put in an extra effort to avoid the “ninety-nines” why do marketers flock to it? There is something unfinished, oh-so-close-and-yet-so-far about being less than perfect, from being odd and not even, yet just-below pricing will never go away, even for sophisticated products aimed at sophisticated consumers.

I think it would be interesting for a brand to set itself apart from the herd by eschewing just-below and moving to round-number pricing — as long as it explicitly points out the irrationality of the nines and the insult to the intelligence of its customers.  In technology especially, where consumers have been hit with clock speeds of microprocessors and capacity of harddrives, the insistence on specifications as the primary claim, and not results is astonishing. Does a consumer know what the hell an Intel i7 processor does versus an i5 or an i3? One has to cite that genius of numerology, Nigel Tufnel, and just throw up their hands and say, “Mine goes to Eleven”

Recentralizing Digital Marketing

The design of a global organization would appear to be a dreary exercise in org charts and bureaucracy. The rise of the multi-national conglomerate in the 1970s in a pre-fax era, made decentralization a necessity. But does decentralization lead to chaos, redundancy, and loss of control?  Bear with me, as I believe it does for the simple reason that the very nature of digital marketing is its capability to be managed, executed, measured and optimized from a single point, a function that revels in the fact that technology destroys distance and time zones. What remains is localization and translation and little else.

In the lobby of International Data Group, Pat McGovern’s global IT publishing operation, Pat’s ten guiding principles included a bullet point about putting control out in the countries, a necessity when he realized his own travels and capacity made him a bottleneck to getting things done in a company, that among other things, was one of the first to establish an operation in China prior to the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms. McGovern drastically decentralized a company focused on information technology, putting P&L and operational control in the hands of his country managers. The results spoke for themselves in the 1980s when IDG was a publishing giant. But by the time I arrived in 2005 it was evident to me that the strategy exposed some flaws, flaws that the current CEO Bob Carrigan took steps to merge through a “federation” project to combine the company’s massive customer databases into a single monolith.

Carrigan’s insight was that IDG’s customers — the marketers seeking to leverage its insights into corporate information technology buyers — really didn’t care if the country manager of ComputerWorld Russia was sharing his circulation database with the country manager in India. Hence IDG Connect was created, a merger of those databases into a coherent single powerhouse.
Database and lead generation consolidation is only one part of the process of bringing the disconnected back to the center. As publishers made the transition from print to digital, their production systems moved from mechanical presses located closest to the reader, to content management systems, feed managers, and metrics capabilities that could, thanks to the world-is-flat phenomenon of TCP/IP standardization to a single set of standards. Publications running WebTrends vs. SiteCatalyst vs Interwoven vs. Vignette under one corporate umbrella is a recipe for utter chaos. Indeed, as any management consultant will tell you, the most difficult part of post-merger integration in finance, media, what have you is the bridging of incompatible technologies into one cost effective solution.

The centralization of technical systems to provide a unified customer experience is a given, but after more than four years inside of a Fortune Global 100 brand, I have come to conclude that the customer/client has the same ugly issues to confront is a post-decentralized world.

A few anecdotes on client side centralization, random, but in my mind linked:
  • Singing from the same page: Lou Gerstner, the former chairman of IBM, tells the story in Elephants can Dance about bringing in Chief Marketing Officer Abby Kohnstamm. She gathered the giant’s marketing executives in Armonk in a conference room ringed with examples of the chaos the company was inflicting on the world with out of sync advertising campaigns. She knocked heads together, revoked the right for anyone with a bright or “better idea” to execute it, and got the company singing on the same page with Ogilvy & Mather’s brilliant eBusiness campaign.
  • Where is it written?: Marketers may have certain “unalienable” rights, but as one very smart marketer at Coca-Cola told me at a Google Marketing Advisory board meeting, where in hell is it written that a country manager in Uzbekistan has the right to her own 30 second spot? Consistency is everything, this is not to say that localization is needed and warranted, but permitting the edges of a brand to dictate what their web presence looks like on any given day, other than to reflect some sensitivity to local culture and mores is insane in my mind.
  • Web: to quote Tolkien: “ One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” That ring, being of course, the most Precious of all brand assets, the corporate web site. Here is where the brand begins and launches the customer — existing or prospective — into the brand experience. Operating a global brand web infrastructure makes centralization mandatory. From content management to translation and verification, the notion that a brand would not present the same digital face globally is insane, yet …. I think (fodder for another post) that large corporate brand sites are hopelessly screwed for the most part. Done in by internal politics until they are link fests satisfying internal owners, but doing little in terms of supporting a unified customer experience.
  • Microsites: where brands go to die. This is the classic manifestation of marketing going off the rails and into the weeds of inconsistency. First off,the behavior to acknowledge is every one is a web designer and everyone is a creative director. Everyone wants to take lunch with the rep from Google and feel part of the cool-kid club. The local agency proposes a “Twist” on the new campaign and next thing you know you’re sending traffic to a microsite with no tagging, no metrics, nothing but the latest Flash bling and a check mark in the campaign cookbook. Sure, it’s a bitch to get the temple priests running the corporate Web Vatican to build custom pages. Templates and corporate style guides are the anti-Viagra of innovation, but do you really want to find out that the brand is being lit up on some disconnected set of pages dictated by the aesthetics of a junior marketing manager in Moscow.
  • Outposts: Facebook to Twitter, Orkut to Flickr — brands are falling over themselves to establish a presence on the highest populated social networks and sharing services. First: you can’t be everywhere, second, this is where the real chaos is occurring. Some bright young marketing professional in a far flung country is just dying to practice his social networking chops, so up goes a Facebook fan page, a country Twitter account — and the brand has yet another outpost to manage and keep consistent with the messaging emanating from headquarters.

That last point, the chaos caused by third-party services and over-eager local teams is where brands are feuding internally. Unless there are consequences and an iron-fisted CMO like IBM’s Kohnstamm, global brands will continue to kill themselves from within trying to defer to the edges in the belief that there is where the creativity lies. Sorry, in digital your brand crosses country sites. That killer product you only sell through one channel? Well good luck concealing it from a Chinese consumer who wants to know why they can’t get it at their local dealer. The very fact that everything is a click away from everything else makes the artificial silos and pigeon holes of marketing management an utter and complete fiction.

Next up: a modest proposal on how to, in the words of McKinsey’s Dick Foster, “Loosen control without losing control” in a global digital marketing world.