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.

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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 . . .


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.


Re-inventeration

September 6, 2009

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at www.codinghorror.com.

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at http://www.codinghorror.com.

If one happens to be a small business owner, especially if one happens to be the owner of a local printing company, the idea of re-inventing one’s business is probably pretty far up on the agenda these days. This is primarily because much of the business we all once enjoyed has suddenly just disappeared, as if by magic; or possibly due to the re-inventing of a much less cooperative economy.

Re-inventeration, a new word which Poor Richard thinks he has just coined, is the process of re-inventing something.  Of course, the whole concept is preposterous.  If something is invented the first time, does it really make any sense to try to re-invent it?

And it’s complicated. Re-inventeration is frought with Catch-22 scenarios. For those who have not read Joseph Heller’s famous book, the Catch-22 was the ultimate bureaucratic boondoggle.  Catch-22 (the book) told the story of Yossarian, a WWII B-25 bombardier and his squadron, as they were forced to fly increasing numbers of bombing runs over Italy.  The squadron commander, Major Major, literally embodied the concept of Catch-22. It was possible to schedule an appointment with Major Major at any time; however, one could only actually see Major Major if he was not in.

Similarly, if one was deemed insane, it was possible to get discharged from the Air Corps. Because Yossarian’s desire for discharge was deemed very sane, his insane behavior was considered by his superiors as a natural expression of his  true sanity. Catch 22.

Not unlike Yossarian, Poor Richard is struggling with the Catch-22s of the re-inventeration process at his downtown Macon Gralpharaphics shop (name carefully disguised to protect the sensibilities of the franchise). The first Catch-22 is simply time.  Business is down, we’ve cut back on staff, and more time is spent working in the business than on the business.  Without more time to work on the business, we’ll never be able to grow the business back to a point where more folks can be hired to work in the business; relieving the requirement for the owner to fold brochures until 2 am and allowing him to use his brain once again.

The next and more worrisome set of  Catch(es)-22 have to do with scope, the literal definition of the business. Behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we’re taking jobs that we probably wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago.  A lot of these are small and risky.  The risk is that the expense in time and effort to produce the small jobs will exceed the revenue that results. Catch 22. The potential benefit is a new customer who might actually bring us a profitable job one day. Poor Richard is not sure how this one is playing out.

The low hanging fruit has been picked. We’ve responded to economic pressure on mainstay product lines by adding more products. In our case, we’ve added wide format printing and reprographics to subsidize some of the losses in conventional offset printing.   These were natural additions – similar products and services to what we were already doing. They didn’t disrupt the production process much and they added little in the way of expense. Unfortunately, they did not add enough revenue to compensate for the decline in conventional printing; and these product lines are also facing economic and competitive pressures. Catch 22.

So what’s the next step? Poor Richard has written before (with misgivings) about the current buzz-phrase in the printing industry. The latest rage is for printing companies to become marketing service providers. (See Poor Richard’s post Measuring Value). Our little company  is moving in this direction slowly but steadily, unsure of all of the implications, but with a sense that it is inevitable – there just aren’t many other areas of opportunity left.

Becoming a marketing service provider is full of Catch(es)-22. First, the whole notion takes us out of the realm of producing tangible products and into the area of shaping content. We’re no longer working with machinery that prints, cuts or folds stuff; but rather with electronic means of communication and the disciplines that go along with them – CSS, XHTML, Purls and a bunch of other acronyms. The competitive cost of entry into this business is low relative to the cost of a new printing press, which means that the pressure to keep ahead of the technology curve will be steep. Worse, the marketing service provider notion requires a new skill set that takes time to learn.  In our case, that’s the owner’s time that is in very short supply. Catch 22.

Second, the whole idea of shaping content laps over into creating content.  Printing companies are pretty good at shaping. We do layout work, color correct photos, even occasionally light editing for our customers. This is different from creating the content, an area we have generally avoided because of time limitations and a focus on keeping the machines running.

It’s just a little too hopeful to think that we might make money only by implementing marketing services — integrated direct mail and e-mail campaigns, for example. Most of our customers simply lack the time and resources to develop the content for this kind of effort, so it appears inevitable that we will be required to do some development work for them if we want to sell the services.

Hopefully we can do this without stepping on the toes of our agency customers and triggering yet another Catch 22. Ideally, the agencies might find it helpful to use our shop to implement integrated direct mail and internet campaigns for their larger customers. Our challenge will be keeping the focus on implementation (and measurement) of specific marketing services without getting customers confused about what we can do (and want to do).

Creating content, even on a limited basis, is a big step for a small printing company; but it is still a lot different from the conceptual work that our agency customers do. We can make that statement, but will our customers understand it?  Another Catch-22.

Poor Richard supposes that re-inventeration, like change, is necessary and unavoidable; but he hopes he’s not re-inventing a square-wheeled tricycle.