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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If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them: