Which end’s up?

March 8, 2012

ImageI came across this odd photo of a school bus in Google Images and felt like it was fairly representative of life during these past months . . . completely impossible to figure out which end should be up.

Actually Poor Richard was very surprised to see that some random readers still encounter this blog from time to time. I began this effort years ago with the intent of providing humor and occasional entertaining messages of relevance to Poor Richard’s business, an A__ha_ra_hi_s franchise. (I still can’t post the name in the blog, in abject fear of provoking the ire of Saruman in his minions, who reside in Orthanc, the ivory tower located in Utah or thereabouts.  But wait, that’s another story altogether, isn’t it?)

For the past few months, I’ve been following my mother’s admonition: if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.  To assert that the printing business has changed is not just an understatement, it’s an offense against the obvious.  It would be lovely to offer that we’ve charted a new course and are off to grand adventures with a revitalized business.  Alas, that is not reality.  We have tried about everything with our little business in our little town, and very little has worked.  Today, we are struggling with a very small staff, battling deteriorating volumes and prices, losing lots of money, and praying for miracles.

The topsy-turvy bus is actually a good image for this post and these times.  The idealism of past years could be represented by the upside-down wheels on top.  We’re still driving the bottom half, which is anchored to the ground by gravity; but I’m wondering how long the tires and the engine will hold out.


So what works?

January 12, 2011
Rube Goldberg's Pencil Sharpener

There's nothing like simplicity

You’ve just got to love Rube Goldberg.  In the cartoon above, the object is to sharpen a pencil.  This is accomplished by flying a kite. The kite string is attached to a birdcage. As the kite ascends, the birdcage door is opened, releasing the birds who fly into a jacket, lowering a boot by means of a fulcrum that then activates a switch providing electricity to an iron.  I assume that the iron produces steam, which scares the squirrel through the bottom hole in the hollow tree.  When he reaches the top hole, he launches an acorn into a basket, thus activating another fulcrum that raises the cage above a large bird, enabling it to eat from a feeder intricately connected to a sharp knife.  The motion of the bird at the feeder causes the knife to whittle a sharp point on the pencil.  Clever, huh?

This morning, I was asked by one of our folks to explain how this whole “marketing services provider” thing works.  More specifically, I was asked how we were going to sell it.  It struck me that before we go about selling a set of services, it would probably be useful to define them. So I began thinking about what we can do for a customer who wants to sell more ummh . . . pencil sharpeners.  First, we could set up a WordPress CMS site for a small business and incorporate a blog,  an online storefront, and an event calendar. We could print and mail personalized postcards with PURLs for them advertising the storefront and providing an incentive to subscribe to their E-newsletter, which would be set up using a totally ‘nother service.  Then we could help them develop and manage a  database of potential customers who might shop at their online storefront or even conceivably show up at their place of business. As the database increases in size, we could actually take a survey to find out what all of the customers and potential customers think about the website, the storefront, the blog, the e-newsletter and the PURLs. AND we could set up social networking on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to further enhance the breadth and impact of their communications efforts.  PLUS we’ll put QR codes on everything . . . just because we can.

Sounds kind of like a Rube Goldberg device, doesn’t it?  What we all innately know is that some things work and some things don’t.  What we all don’t innately know is when some things will work and how they will work and how long they will keep working.  This is the truth, no matter what Seth Godin or the latest marketing guru may say.  Marketing, especially for small businesses, is not exactly trial and error, but it really is at best an intelligent guess.  Poor Richard knows this from his experience as a small businessman and a marketer.  (Fer’ instance, a year and a half ago Facebook ads worked pretty dang well for the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name assiduously camoflaged from the franchise, who is totally embarrassed by Poor Richard’s blog).  A Facebook ad could generate a phone call or two or three pretty quickly . . . and yes, it generated “friends” and likes on our Facebook Page.  (Poor Richard maintains that friends, likes, and clicks don’t count for much if they don’t sell anything.)  Don’t know what happened, but Facebook changed  around June last year . . . since then zilch.)

Note: Please pardon me for the encapsulated parenthetical phrases. Poor Richard’s sixth grade English teacher, Miss Birch, is rolling in her grave.

But that’s really the crux of it, isn’t it? All of this messing around with technology doesn’t really mean much if it doesn’t sell anything.  My next door neighbor applied a torque wrench to my level of frustration yesterday with a story about “saving money with technology.”  They are planning for a trade show and had considered revising and reprinting their catalog.  This is a major project for the company and not one that Poor Richard’s Printshop would take on, but the story irritated me just the same.  Someone discovered that information could be conveyed on an iPad; so rather than produce a tangible printed product that could be given to prospective customers, they decided they’d just show ‘em stuff on the iPad.  They spent $1,000 on gadgets, rather than $10,000 on print.

Got to dig into this a little bit to make sense of it:

  1. Was the decision not to spend $10,000 on a big catalog wrong? Maybe not . . . it’s a lot of money and plenty of those catalogs would get tossed.
  2. Do the iPads really replace the catalogs?  Absolutely not . . . whizbang toy that no one would remember unless you gave them one (and then you’re spending way more than $10,000 at the tradeshow).
  3. Was there an opportunity lost?  To quote the megolamaniacal ex-governor of Alaska, “you betcha.”  A printed piece goes into the sack and at the very least provides a reminder when the potiential customer gets home.  The sack stuffer doesn’t have to be a full blown catalog.  A one page flyer might do perfectly well.
  4. What else? The real opportunity for the iPad is collection of data.  While my neighbors are showing  stuff on the cool, new gadget; they could also get names addresses and particular needs that let them get back in touch with the prospect later on.

Will it work?  Poor Richard doesn’t think so.

Trying to help our customers with “marketing services” or “marketing campaigns” really comes down to what works.  There’s no way that we’re going to bat 1,000.  Flying a kite is probably not the best way to start the process of sharpening a pencil and throwing the whole arsenal of acronyms at a customer who just wants to sell something is equally ridiculous.  So what’s the answer? Selling “marketing services” and implementing “marketing campaigns” really has more to do with knowing what to try than anything else.  What is the goal? What is the budget? What makes sense to try? How do we measure it? What do we do next? These are the questions that really mean something and the substance of the conversations we should have with our customers.

So what does work? We don’t have to build a Rube Goldberg pencil sharpener just because we’ve got a bunch of birdcages and a roll of kite string.  It might be better just to whittle the end of the pencil with a pocketknife. Let’s try it.


All dressed up with no place to go?

January 10, 2011

It’s been a rare, snowy day here in Middle Georgia.  To be more precise, it’s been a rare, icy, slippery day here in Middle GA. Couldn’t get to the printshop this morning and received no disappointment whatsoever when I contacted the team and asked if they thought we should call off work for today.

“There’s a half inch sheet of ice out my front door.” reported designer Todd.

“I’m at my girlfriend’s house and we’ve already built a fire.” from RH man Brian.

“I was all dressed and ready to go at 6:00 am when you texted that you weren’t coming.” from the first lady of sales, Sharon.

That one held me up. It brought to mind the lyrics of one of my favorite British Invasion songs, “I ain’t got you:”

I got a Maserati G.T.
With snakeskin upholstery.
I got a charge account at Goldblatt’s,
But I ain’t got you.

I got a closet full of clothes,
But no matter where it goes,
It keeps a ring in the nose,
But I ain’t got you.

I got a tavern and a liquor store.
I play the numbers, yeah, four forty-four.
I got a mojo, yeah, don’t you know,
I’m all dressed up with no place to go.

I got women to the right of me.
I got women to the left of me.
I got women all around me,
But I ain’t got you.
No, I ain’t got you.

For those of you who might be somewhat beyond the age where familiarity with the British Invasion is a given, the Yardbirds were the Rolling Stones that didn’t stay around.  They had three great guitarists.  Jimmy Page went on to lead Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck produced one of the most amazing jazz fusion guitar albums of the 1970s (Wired). And then there was Clapton, the guitarist of the aforementioned number. Poor Richard doesn’t ascribe to the 1960’s graffiti asserting that “Clapton is God,” but it’s fair to assume that you have heard of him.

Ain’t got you . . .  sounds really familiar. The printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to protect the sensitive interests of the franchise) has spent a great deal of time and energy over the past couple of years adding the latest whizbang capabilities. We can help customers with email communications.  We can send postcards with PURLS. We can help with social networking and Google Adwords. We can even develop simple CMS sites for small businesses.  All of that along with wonderful capabilities in digital and conventional print and you’d think that we’d find an interested customer or two. But in reality, we’re kind of stuck . . . all dressed up with no place to go.

Poor Richard has batted about the “marketing services provider” concept for a couple of years. This theory maintains that in order to survive, printing companies must diversify into other realms of communication and become marketing consultants to their customers.  I’m all for the first part of the assertion.  Conventional print is certainly waning at the moment and merging conventional print capabilities with the low cost potential of the internet only makes sense.   Marketing strategy is something completely different, though, especially in the altered reality of the Great Decession.

If you had asked me just a couple of years ago, I would have said that marketing strategy was the exclusive purview of the experts.  In those days, marketing was at least partially predictable . . . traditional efforts (advertising, PR, etc.)would yield predictable results. Now I’d say it’s anyone’s guess. Proven tactics may fail totally and a low cost video on YouTube can go viral. It’s unpredictable, but there’s plenty of stuff to try.

Our Gralpharaphics shop has experienced good business relationships with a couple of excellent agencies, and in balance, these folks have done a very good job for their customers.  One of our key agency accounts closed last year after trying very hard to bring their customers in line with the new realities of marketing.  They experienced difficulties because the new realities are damnably hard to define and their customers still expected the predictability of the old paradigm.

So where does that leave us? We can implement some pretty cool stuff, if we can find the customers willing to take the risk.  These folks are pretty hard to find in icebound Middle Georgia, though, so Poor Richard is humming the old British Invasion song

Couldn’t find a good Yardbirds video, but the audio tells the story  . . .

Got to end on an optimistic note, though. Here’s Janis . . .


Half a bob off plumb

August 19, 2010

It’s been one of those weird weeks when the moon should have been full. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the 100 plus degree heat an 99.999997% humidity have steamed the brains of Middle Georgians.  Poor Richard doesn’t know exactly what it is, but things are slightly askew here . . . to paraphrase my buddy Bob Galloway, the curmudgeon, the entire town is about “half a bob off plumb.”


Item One

I didn’t get to meet her, but right hand man Brian said that she looked relatively normal when she walked through the doors of the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to avoid disrupting the peaceful sleep of the powers that be at the franchise . . . hint, sounds like Gralpharaphics).  She explained to Brian that she was opening a new business and needed letterhead, envelopes, business card, etc. This used to be a fairly common occurrence at printing companies, and Brian looked forward to serving a new customer.

It’s not uncommon that a new customer will ask the price of a product before they provide a description of it.  While it is possible to quote a price that will cover most contingencies, I’ve yet to find a customer who will accept an estimate of “probably somewhat less than $10,000,” without question.  Standard operating procedure is to try to narrow the description a bit and find a solution that is reasonably in line with the customer’s expectations and budget.

Brian attempted and ascertained that the customer would like to use paper for her letterhead and envelopes and would also like her symbol on it.  She specifically said “symbol,” not logo or wordmark or even image. She wanted her symbol on the letterhead . . . in color . . . and (as she glanced and pointed at a presentation folder on our display rack) “smashed into the paper like that.”

Skeptical that the cost of embossing a process color logo on a short run of letterhead would be practical for a new business, Brian started to suggest alternatives. The customer was adamant. What she wanted was her symbol smashed into the letterhead, business cards and envelopes. Ever helpful, Brian offered to run down prices and asked if the customer had her logo as a digital file that we could use . . . or at least something that we could look at to help us prepare the estimate.  The customer fumbled a bit, then reached in her purse, removed her billfold and then her drivers license.

“That’s it,” she exclaimed, pointing at the photo on the license. “That’s my symbol. That’s what I want!”

Brian, ever mindful of the endless time and patience available to the printshop owner, deferred to Poor Richard and told the customer that I would follow up with her.  I haven’t contacted her yet, but I do have an idea. Perhaps something like this might work?


Item Two

Three paragraphs, bullet points, and numbers. Poor Richard is probably going to get in big trouble with this one, because the customer is going to read this blog, identify himself, and get supremely ticked off!

Here’s the text of the email we received:

Whereas, from time to time revisions are made to documents created for Amalgamated Peanut Butter and Jelly Roll Company (APB&J Rollco), and said documents are printed and archived by Gralpharaphics of Macon, the aforesaid company (APB&J Rollco) wishes to indicate the occurrence of revisions to each document produced and to verify the currency of each revision prior to production of duplications, reprints, or new and unique iterations of each printed version or versions.

Because the temporality of the aforementioned documents is currently not indicated, this may currently counterindicate the currency of our current versions. In fact, our customers have occasionally called the currency of our current versions into question due to the lack of an evidential indicant that the version they received was indeed correct and produced contemporaneously with the latest APB&J Rollco product described within.

Our goals are thus:

  • to accurately indicate the current version
  • to convey this clearly to our customers
  • to assure that the latest iteration of each document is indeed the current version
  • (to confuse the pants off of the folks at Gralpharaphics)

To that end we require that your company immediately implement the following changes as pertain to the documents and versions of documents you currently produce, have produced in the past, or might conceivably produce in the future for APB&J Rollco:

  1. Indicate the current version on the document
  2. Do this in such a way that the temporality of the version is conveyed to each customer
  3. Destroy, delete, or otherwise dispense with document versions that are untemporal or not current

Many thanks for the services you render for APB&J Rollco and for your prompt attention to this matter.

–Name withheld in the vain hope that Poor Richard will go undiscovered.

Admittedly, Poor Richard has elaborated a bit . . . but not a lot.  The actual email we received from our good, but very precise, customer was almost as complicated as the gobbledygook inserted above and did require a phone call to ascertain exactly what the customer wanted . . . a date entry at the bottom of each form we produce to indicate the latest revision.


Item Three

The customer was absolutely serious. So serious in fact that he noted a specific instruction on the proof copy that he faxed back to us and on his email approval of the final proof.  We’ve produced shells similar to the one the customer wanted many times. A shell is  boilerplate language (and sometimes a form image) that can be fed through a laser printer to overprint the specifics of a contract, invoice, etc.

In this case, we were asked to print 5000 copies on one side. Presumably the specifics would be printed on the other. There was no specific paper requirement . . . we printed on 60# offset text (no watermarks).

The instruction:  Please make sure that this information is printed on the back of the paper.

I think we did OK. We stacked all 5000 copies printed side down in the boxes and delivered them to the customer.  He thought we were wonderful!

Times are still rough in the printing business, but it laughter is a great diversion. Isn’t life grand?


So Much for Whiz Bang

May 6, 2010

supercolliding superconductorIt’s funny and a little strange how bits of information collide to make us believe that we really can draw a conclusion about this, that or the other. Life these days is a bit like zooming around in the supercolliding superconductor gadget that the Swiss built. We’re moving at speeds approaching the velocity of light and God only knows what will happen if we run into a wayward quark or hadron or something like that. If we’re not really careful about the whole thing, we could blow up the whole dang universe (for real, check this out).

Poor Richard paid a visit to some of his favorite folks in the advertising world the other day. Perhaps that’s a bit broad. Like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, my good agency customers exist and attempt to survive in the rarified atmosphere that is Macon, GA (100% humidity all the time). So, in actuality, they are only a part of the advertising “world” in the same sense that Poor Richard’s Printshop is a part of the printing “world.”  Despite our attempts to become a part of the web-connected supercolliding universe, we’re mostly operating in a small town microcosm.

We’ve always told the traveling salesmen who venture down from Atlanta that they should pull off I-75 at the Griffin, GA exit and set their clocks back 25 years.  And for a while, that was true. But these days, our little community is living in a time warp. We’d really like it to be 1980, because we think we understood things back then; but we realize it’s 2010 and we don’t understand that at all.  We can’t keep up with the quarks and neutrinos. They move too fast.

Back to my agency friends. When social networking came about, they dived in head first. They learned about SEO, SEM and Google AdWords. They saw tremendous potential in the simple idea that Facebook and Twitter might actually enable organizations to talk directly with their customers and prospects (and learn something).  Simply put, the new ideas didn’t really take hold in the rarified humidity. My friends tried to introduce quantum physics to the Newtonian world.  Or perhaps they were more like Galileo, who, after failing to convince the Inquisitors of the validity of the heliocentric model of the universe, left muttering “Eppur si muove” (but it does move).

But wait . . . maybe our little time warped microcosm didn’t completely miss  the boat.  Here’s another wayward particle in the supercollider. The header from the Print in the Mix  Fast Fact article reads, “Marketers Indicate Social Media Important, Most Not Profiting.” The short article cites a survey conducted by R2Integrated, an internet marketing company. Of 262 marketing professionals surveyed:

  • 54% thought social media was “innovative and invaluable to their business.
  • 37% thought it was “useful and helpful,” but could live without it.
  • 65% said that their companies had not increased revenue or profited using social media.

The whole idea of these new marketing tools is to make money, right? And isn’t measurability one of the big advantages of social media marketing?  Could there be a disconnect between what these professionals think and what they measure? There are at least 11% of these folks (and maybe more) who think that the new media are invaluable to their business, but aren’t making money. Did they forget to measure or are they just guessing?

Poor Richard thinks that all of these hypercharged electrons flying around are generating static. So much static that it’s difficult to get a clear message through, much less a clear picture of what we’re doing. The big marketing professionals may be trying new stuff and guessing, but around here it’s different. All of the static may have helped confuse our customers into complete inaction, a decision reinforced by an economy that has left few of us with the resources to try anything new.

I’ve always liked “whiz bang,” but the new initiatives our little business has introduced during these past 18 months of Decession (Repression?) have failed to gain traction.  We made a tentative foray into the “marketing solutions provider” realm only to discover that marketing solutions are only needed by those who really intend to conduct marketing.  That’s not happening here in the time warp. Our customers may understand that their 1980s programs aren’t working like they used to and that they should be doing something different. That “something different” is hard to comprehend through the static, though. It’s much easier just to do nothing, which leaves Poor Richard’s printshop and our agency friends spinning our wheels in the slippery Georgia red clay. The excited particles are passing us by. So much for whiz bang.


Treading Carefully

March 21, 2010

Danger Minefield signPoor Richard has  never strolled through a minefield, but he can imagine what it must be like.  It seems a good analogy for the experience of hanging on to a printing business these last 18 months. There have been days and weeks when explosions were occurring all around and it seemed the end was near. On other days, the sun was shining and everything appeared almost normal until the detonation 20 feet away and flying shrapnel brought reality into sharp focus. The last couple of weeks have been like that.

Macon, Georgia is no business Mecca. It is a sleepy southern town that has had better days and hopefully will have better days again. Macon has been a good place for a business like the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to avoid the wrath of the franchise).  Over the last decade plus, we’ve enjoyed good customers, wonderful friends, and mostly amicable competition with the other printers in town.

For our company and for our competitors, business as usual ended abruptly in November of 2008. The stock market crashed, our customers contracted and folded, and sales plummeted.  Monthly newsletters went digital; nevermore to return. Businesses decided that they could do without printing. Our friendly bankers, once eager to finance new equipment purchases, now wouldn’t return phone calls. Yet we hung on and tried to do what we could, hoping and praying for better days.

An interview in the PrintCEO blog tells the sad story of the demise of Alonzo Printing, a midsized California operation that seemed to be doing everything right. The owner, Jim Duffy, describes the heady days of 2007 with new equipment investments, diversification into digital printing, and the difficulties of turning a marketing vision into reality.  Jim didn’t have to step on a mine.  His bank detonated it for him.

In our sleepy southern town, we were all holding on until just a couple of weeks ago. Sure, a couple of small printers have closed, but they were operating with 30 year old systems.  Two weeks ago, one of our better competitors announced that they were suspending their production operations and would continue as a print broker. Last week, a promising short run book printer literally disappear overnight.  The mines are exploding all around us.

Our little company is treading very carefully. Like Alonzo printing, we made new equipment purchases when times were better. Some of these have not played out well. Equipment vendors, banks and even the franchise, once seen as allies, now look more like the enemy. The path through the minefield is complicated and dangerous and there is no lack of diversions that could cause a misstep.

Poor Richard is convinced that one of these is the whole “marketing services” concept. In the PrintCEO interview, Jim Duffy makes the following comment:

We marketed Alonzo, and from a pure marketing perspective, it was just a dream. And yet, it was another issue of not having the right people to make it really come to life. Then we reached the point where we couldn’t hire the right people. That’s how you get caught in the spiral.

You do need to market yourself; you need to do it in a way that’s going to be meaningful for your clients.

The last sentence is telling. Printers are not viewed by our customers as “marketers.” That is the realm of advertising agencies. With due respect and apologies to our agency customers, printers are not “pie in the sky” folks. We don’t do well with concept. Coming up with concepts that work requires a lot of time and creativity that a short-staffed printing company doesn’t have.

Printing companies do a very good job with details, with implementation.  If “marketing service provider” means that we have to dream up the marketing concepts for our customers, we’re in trouble. If it means that we implement and measure marketing “campaigns” using the new tools that are available to us, then perhaps we can provide our customers with something that is of value, that is meaningful.

Poor Richard is not certain what it will take for some of us to make it out of the minefield, nor is he certain that the printshop on Poplar Street won’t be blown to smithereens during the debacle. I hold to the hope that there will be a need for companies like mine that “do stuff,” that are competent at producing and implementing.

There is a certain sense of desperation that naturally occurs when one strolls the path through a minefield. Traveling the path requires care, tenacity, and not a small bit of prayer. There is also the possibility that the trail will eventually lead to un-mined pastures that allow more flexibility to move around and maybe some better possibilities for small businesses like mine. Poor Richard is really looking forward to the other side of the minefield.


But can you read on the darned thing?

January 24, 2010

Poor Richard has a confession to make. On weekend mornings he indulges in anachronous activities. That’s right. In his comfortable chair, with a cup of rich, black coffee at his left hand, he reads the newspaper. Not the new-fangled, online version at http://www.newsblip.com; Poor Richard reads the old fashioned black, white and read all over edition.

The bias towards paper is certainly predictable. Print on paper has been my livelihood for the last decade and some. But there is also a practical aspect to this antiquated predilection. At 50, Poor Richard finds the newspaper easy on his eyes.

My fishwrapper of choice is The Macon Telegraph.  The Telegraph, like other local papers in communities of our size, has struggled mightily with the changes of recent years. They have downsized, printing is no longer done in-house.  They’ve been bought and sold by newspaper chains in the throes of the struggle to reinvent an industry considered by some to be irrelevant. Through it all, they’ve done a remarkably good job of covering regional news and integrating very relevant stories and commentary from sister papers and the wire services.

iphone

Lot's of cool features, but can you really read on it?

The story that caught my attention this morning was a report from Stacey Burling of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The headline reads: Convention for neurosurgeons takes paperless to another level. (Yes, you can click on the link and read this online, too).

The gist of the story has to do with a decision made by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons to dispense with paper programs and proceedings at their next convention. Instead they’re going to give each attendee their own iPod Touch, pre-loaded with all of the programs, summaries, and even advertising that they would presumably have received on paper  at previous assemblages.

To quote the article:

Doctors will be able to use the iPods for messaging and for interacting with presenters during meetings. . . . Not only will the iPods encourage community building, but they will save a lot of paper.

The “green” reference, reiterated later in the article, was certainly as predictable as Poor Richard’s reaction to it.  I suspect that the driving force behind the initiative was much more economic than environmental. Some poor printer lost a good project (500,000 sheets to quote the article). The conventioneers are charged $100 each for the iPods. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons saves money.

Here’s the pertinent question: Is the decision practical?

When Poor Richard went searching for the online reference to the article cited above, he was assailed by unwanted audio that burst suddenly from the miniscule speakers of his Powerbook when the Philadelphia Inquirer business page was opened. That’s an annoyance. Poor Richard suspects that trying to read technical papers on the screen of an iPod will go beyond annoyance for many of the convention attendees.

Despite my confession of Luddite tendencies (see QR . . . U Ready?), Poor Richard is no technophobe. In fact, I am the happy owner of an iPhone. A gift from my children at Christmas a year ago, it has become pretty near close to indispensable. That means I could do without it if I had to, but wouldn’t voluntarily throw it in the river. I have some great “apps,” too. One of them tells me what’s on TV. Another can read QR barcodes.

I have also installed a book reader called Stanza, mainly because I am intrigued with the idea of dowloading public domain titles. Did you know that you can get the complete works of Mark Twain from Project Gutenberg? I downloaded Twain’s Innocents Abroad to my iPhone, with great anticipation, opened the ebook, and began to read. That’s where the fun stopped.

It’s not that the type is illegible.  The screen background is bright white and you can adjust the type size for ease of reading. But, the experience is lacking. In Middle Georgia jargon, “somethin just ain’t quite right here.”  First, regardless of the type size, you just can’t fit enough words on the page.  Flipping between pages is touchy . . . I seem to have no difficulty getting electronically misplaced, but a lot of trouble getting relocated.  And the feel of the read is just totally  . . . umh, strange.

There’s also something about the way we read electronically that is very different. Perhaps it’s because of the massive volume of information, or the hyperlinks, or Poor Richard’s propensity to get perpetually sidetracked; it seems nearly impossible to read online for understanding. Online reading seems almost self-conditioned for scanning and browsing. Indicative of this is the market for textbooks about computers and programming. All of the information needed to learn xhtml or javascript or php is available online, but the market for paper books on these subjects is still very viable.

For Poor Richard, and perhaps for my generation, reading in-depth requires a book: a real book, not a Kindle or an iPhone.  And I suspect (and hope) that the iPods distributed at the Surgeons’ convention will indeed create a “community building” environment, bolstered by some shared frustration at the limitations of the electronic documentation they receive.

Most of us will continue to embrace new technology for the advantages it offers. Poor Richard wouldn’t want to go back to the 10 pound car phone and Franklin Planner he used in the 1980s, but I also won’t give up my morning paper until it is pried forcibly from my fingers.

Anachronistically yours!


QR . . . U Ready?

December 16, 2009

QR CodeDespite pronounced Luddite tendencies, Poor Richard is intrigued with this bit of innovation. The bit of abstract squiqqle at the left is a QR Code.  QR stands for Quick Response.  Originally used in Japan for parts tracking in automotive manufacturing, the QR code has gone viral there and may be the next “killer app” for your iPhone or Blackberry.

Poor Richard’s Luddite alter-ego questions of what possible use could this oogly scrambled mess be.  Like the British handloom operators of the early 1800s, my first tendency is to trash any new technology that potentially threatens my established and well-ordered universe.  On second thought, though, trashing the power looms in Great Britain earned many of the Luddites  new careers as shepherds down under in Australia, and Poor Richard is not fond of sheep.

The long answer to the question is that the QR can contain text (lots of it) and URLs, which is pretty cool.  Even cooler, the telephonic gadget you carry in your pocket can read the QR code and (if you’re wirelessly attached to the internet) it can connect you directly with the website referenced in the code. It can also be used send SMS messages, geographic locations, and transfer contact info into a database.  All that from a box that looks like a Photoshop aberration . . .

Best yet, this innovation has the potential to actually enhance the value of print (as opposed to replacing it). Think about it . . . how about a poster that automatically directs the reader to the ticket office through their cell phone?  Coupons could carry QR codes to be read at the retail counter for special incentives or a chance to win 10 bazillion dollars.  Personalized URLs could be transformed into personalized QRs, directing a customer to a website with specific information tailored to meet their interests. There are some real possibilities here . . .

You can have fun playing with this one. Poor Richard has found a free app called Quickmark that reads QR codes on the iPhone and will actually let you create codes on the fly to transfer data. There are several websites that will let you create codes one at a time (try the Xzing Project QR Generator).  I’ve also found some software that will allow QR codes to be merged with a database. You can even order a t-shirt with your own personalized QR code message printed on the front.  Poor Richard didn’t spring for one; but if he had, here’s what his t-shirt would have looked like:

Luddite QR Code

Luddites of the world, unite!

Thanks to Andy Selcho of Salt Lake City, UT Gralpharaphics (name altered to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), who introduced Poor Richard and bunch of other folks to QR codes.  Andy has put together a good YouTube video about QR codes . . . Here ’tis:



Very Cautiously Optimistic?

November 26, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving, and Poor Richard is thankful for a day off. It’s been over a month since I’ve written here. And it’s been a busy span of time. Poor Richard is very thankful for that and for the good customers who have provided work for all of us at the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to protect the very delicate sensibilities of the franchise).

Crossed FingersMy fingers would be crossed if I had time to cross them.  I’m thankful that our business has been able to survive through this so far, and if business doesn’t tank again in the first months of 2010, we’ll probably pull through OK. OK doesn’t mean unscathed, though. We’re operating with fewer employees that we had when the company first opened in 1998. There is little time to work on the business for working in the business. Because our bank essentially bailed out on us early in the year, there is no money for investment in new technology or new talent. Assuming that the recovery has begun, it’s still going to take a long while to make up the lost ground of the last 18 months.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s administration stealthily held a small business forum to discuss “small business financing issues.”  The forum was announced to the public on November 16, two days prior to the date of the session and received resounding condemnation from at least one group (American Small Business League) representing small business who were neither notified of the event nor invited to attend.  Hosted by Treasury Secretary Geithner, the forum did not generate much excitement or much in the way of reporting after the fact.

That’s because nothing happened. Poor Richard managed to find the agenda for the meeting on the Treasury Department web site.  There’s nothing new there. The efforts of the SBA to open up credit for small business have been lacking and the banks have not been cooperative.  A change in the tax code to allow a 5 year carryback of losses may inject some cash into small businesses next year; but for those who have already failed it is too little, too late. At least 7 small business owners (bios listed on the Treasury site) were invited to the forum and the transcript of Secretary Geithner’s remarks contained several weighty statements, like the following:

“We need banks to be working with us, not against recovery.”

Little was reported in the press or on the internet from the day-long forum. According to a New York Times blog, most of the discussion centered on the needs of banks and their reluctance to get involved with small business.  They also stated that the Treasury Secretary and the SBA Administrator took careful notes. A report from Small Business Trends concluded that, “many lenders contend that small-business loans are too time-consuming and too small to be worth their while.” Hmmm . . .

The small business sector has long been our country’s engine for job growth and for innovation. Guess what? Small businesses are where large businesses come from. Hewlett-Packard started in a Palo Alto, CA garage. Ford Motor Company was launched in a converted wagon shop with a $31,000 investment.  In typical years, small businesses create over 50% of the new jobs in our economy.  In years like the last one, we try to preserve jobs for the folks who depend on us. The economic engine has choked down.

Nonetheless, small business owners are a fairly optimistic group. We have to be. None of us  are really looking for a bailout. Nor do we place a lot of trust in the machinations of government. Our businesses are made or broken by the decisions we make and with the risk we assume.  We have to be optimistic, tenacious, and now cautious. Many of us will come out of this with a healthy distrust and dislike of the banks who were anxious to provide funding for growth in good times but not so willing to help us survive when times got tough.  We will be less inclined to assume debt to finance growth and we will be careful about how debt is assumed.  Many of us will need to repay debt generated during the recession before we expand again.  It may take some time for small businesses to re-start the engines that produce growth and new jobs.

I suppose that I shouldn’t find the administration’s dispassion toward the small business sector particularly surprising. It makes as much sense as taking over GM with the stated goal of restructuring the  company to produce economical and fuel efficient vehicles and then promptly shuttering the Saturn division (which made economical and fuel efficient vehicles). But perhaps the worst really is over and we’ll make it on our own.

Maybe I should find time to cross my fingers.


Direct Mail and the Internet

August 10, 2009

So it’s no great mystery why mail volume, including direct mail (advertising) volume is down and the USPS is in a bind. In the last post Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Dead Economy, we went over some of the dismal numbers that the USPS has “posted” in recent months. The financial strain of the recession has accelerated the move of content online, where the costs are less. Printers and the USPS are suffering.

So, is there still a place for printed direct mail in the mix? Let’s turn to the USPS again.  In a surprisingly insightful brief entitled Mail and the Internet, the postal service presents a convincing case for a combination of print mail and online advertising. Here’s the thrust of the argument:

In fact, recent studies by the U.S. Postal Service and a number of independent research groups found that consumers — even heavy Internet users — continue to view mail as a highly relevant and significant part of their lives. It provides a physical and tangible quality consumers find lacking in their electronic communications. But that’s not all. The studies also showed that mail, working side by side with digital media, can have a substantial impact on the use of commercial Web sites.

Much of the specific content of the brief deals with the integration of email, online storefronts and conventional catalogues, but the USPS makes a couple of key points regarding the combination of conventional mail and email in the marketing mix:

  1. While email has outpaced mail as the primary form of (written) personal communications, readers are much more likely to “trash” marketing emails than conventional mail pieces. People still enjoy opening the mail.  Junk email is a nuisance.
  2. Conventional mail is a very effective way to get permission to send an email.  In other words, direct mail is a great way to get potential customers to subscribe to emailed news briefs or promotions.

From here, it’s tempting take on the ROI argument and search out some spurious data to try and prove that the return on investment for conventional direct mail is actually higher than the ROI for an email campaign.  Poor Richard thinks that’s a worthless effort, but can state uncategorically that the ROI for a  well-conceived direct mail or email campaign will always be higher than the return for a poorly implemented campaign of either type.

Nor is it useful to argue that direct mail and email are apples and oranges. They’re more like white grapes and peach . . . the juice goes together really well. And there is great potential to combine conventional mail, email and other online communications to improve the total ROI for the combined efforts. Conventional direct mail combined with personalized URLs (PURLs) provide a great method of sorting through an inexpensive direct mail list for those who are really interested in a product or service.  Respondents sign on to a landing page, where they can ask for direct contact or for more information. They might also be asked if they’d like to subscribe to an e-newsletter or for periodic special offers.

The net result is that more money and attention are focused on those who are most interested (and most likely to buy something) and less on those who aren’t interested. Even more better, you get to measure. While it is possible to partially measure response from conventional mail campaigns with BRMs, coupons or a tracked phone number, the integrated print and email campaign generates better measurable data from the landing page . . . including names and addresses of those who respond. And if they subscribe to an e-news brief or some other such offering, they’re actually asking you to stay in touch.

Back to the USPS and the printing business. Regardless of the trends, there will remain a very real need for the postal service in the foreseeable future. While it’s easy to communicate online, you need a Star Trek transporter to actually send stuff through cyberspace. Similarly, the tangibility and portability (and disposability) of print gives it an advantage over electronic media in many situations. I haven’t seen them passing out Kindle’s at the theatre, yet.

Poor Richard can’t speak for the future of the postal service, but the the technology to produce and manage integrated electronic and print communications is very available. We’re even playing with it at Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the innocence of the franchise). Not to say that the change isn’t painful.  It was certainly easier for printers when print was king. But change is inevitable . . . and Poor Richard isn’t really ready to become a dinosaur yet.


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