This blog has a new home

Ladies and gentlemen. It is my great pleasure to let you know Traction has launched a new website and with that comes a new home for this blog. Please direct your bookmarks to: www.tractionco.com/blog/author/adam

While you're at it, you can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or SlideShare.

Well, what are you waiting for? Get moving.


Core Competencies

The agency landscape is rapidly shifting. Many claim to do everything. Some do one thing very well. At Traction, we focus on the things we do best and leverage an ecosystem of existing partners to do the rest.

I was recently asked what our core competencies are. The answer is Strategy, Advertising and Innovation. We refer to the discipline of these three considered together as Brand Experience Design. In our view, it's the experience that matters.

We leverage design thinking and observation of human needs and behavior to inform our strategy—from brand and product strategy to communications planning in a socially connected world. This overlaps with media strategy, but we do not do large-scale media planning and buying. We focus on what we're good at and bring in partners (or work with your existing ones) for the rest.

We are fully integrated and very strong at digital. Our approach is to try to create breakthrough ideas that align your business objectives with human insights and then choose the right tactics based on media consumption habits and creative opportunities. For instance, our campaign for Alibaba.com won the 2010 IAC award for best Integrated Campaign for Small Business and included print, TV, banners, rich media, video and a microsite. Here's a WSJ story on the campaign.

We are successful in this area because we have both the in-house capability to deliver digital experiences and the strategic insights to understand consumer needs. This is reflected in the mobile app concept we developed for Intuit that won that company's Innovation Competition. Traction is a very strong digital partner in this space: last year we created a prototype of Bank of America's next generation user experience online. We've also developed very successful social media programs for brands like Adobe, Livescribe and Clos du Bois.

In addition, we have been very successful at developing production models for our clients at scale. For one consumer technology client in Cupertino, we develop hundreds of pieces of email creative each year and have even created a proprietary "Email Builder" application to make that process more efficient. For an online photo-sharing client, we are producing approximately 150 pieces of banner creative this quarter alone.


Watch this space

About a decade ago, I was cutting my chops at DDB. Theo and I had been recruited to start the San Francisco office of their Tribal DDB office. One day, agency patriarch Keith Reinhard (he of "two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese..." fame) came by and addressed the teams at both "mainline" DDB and us geeks over at Tribal about the coming future of digital.

That day, Mr. Reinhard challenged us to not to be shackled by the limitations of a 468 x 60 banner, but to use those precious pixels as a canvas to create famous work.

I still think about that challenge often. I've brought it with me to Traction and we strive to answer it every time we work on a campaign — whether we're creating a banner ad or anything else. We don't always hit the mark, but it's our ambition.

On that note, I really like the watch this space ad campaign that Google has put out for display ads. Despite the irony of an ad for ads, this effort challenges us to be smarter in this digital space. More relevant. To innovate. Be simpler.

I think it's an inspiring message about the future of digital. Display ads are not just a fishing rod for e-commerce. As a matter of fact, they suck at that.

When we look at the results of our campaigns (and we always look at the results of our campaigns), we frequently see indirect or "view-through" traffic as higher than direct traffic. In other words, more people are seeing and ad, making a mental note and checking out the brand site later than are actually clicking on the ad. We see online ads as effective tools to drive awareness and even purchase intent.

The industry average banner ad click-through rate hovers around a dismal 0.6%. Most brands see that as a reason to invest less in online creative. To slap "25% off" in the brand font on a slab of brand color and optimize their campaigns downward toward "conversions" for as low a cost as possible.

Sure, we need to measure. Sure, we need to optimize. But we're advertisers. We cannot forget persuasion. We cannot forget inspiration. We can't forget innovation. It takes Google, the king of search, to remind us of this.

The irony.

I recommend you watch the videos. How can you be smarter?


Trends with Traction: Social shopping is hopping.

The cover of Forbes magazine last month let the cat out of the bag. Social Shopping site GroupOn is the fastest-growing company... ever.

First came Google, then came Facebook, now comes GroupOn. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the next big thing. Half a billion dollars in revenue in less than one year. That's right, I said dollars. Not impressions.

What is GroupOn? Well, it's the leader of the pack in a new phenomenon called "social shopping" or "social buying." The site is simple and compelling. Every day they have a new fantastic coupon for a local business—the other day they had 50% off of Go-Kart racing at a place near San Francisco (guess what the gang at Traction is doing next month). The only catch? The deal is only valid if 200 people whip out their credit cards and pay for it on the spot. So, people are incentivized to go bonkers trying to get their friends to join in to "unlock" a GroupOn coupon they really want.

Today's GroupOn Deal of the Day

The site went legit last month when Gap pulled in $11 million running a nationwide promotion on GroupOn. They sold nearly half a million vouchers in one day.

Of course, just like Facebook isn't the only social network, GroupOn isn't the only social shopping site. There are plenty of copy cats and plenty of other models that combine social media dynamics with e-commerce.

  • Gilt.com also reports having $500 million in revenue. It's an "exclusive" club (if you can call over two million members exclusive) that gives members access to great deals on luxury items.
  • Delta airlines now allows passengers to book tickets in Facebook.
  • Sites from Amazon.com to Kaboodle.com have social recommendation engines and shared shopping lists based on what others are buying.

There's plenty more (Would love it if you'd share other examples in the comments!).

As a marketer, it's important for you to think strategically about how your brand can take advantage of it. Clearly, there are a lot of directions you can go, but one thing is clear. Social shopping is a trend with some serious Traction.


The Learn Phase: HTML 5, Recasting Agile and a Content Strategy Toolkit

Every month or so at Traction, we host The Learn Phase, a four hour session of shared ideas, debate, conversation and pizza. It's named after the first phase of our process, "Learn," because that's what we hope to accomplish.

We created a SlideShare channel so you could learn too. Enjoy!


Trends with Traction: The Internet's Free Lunch Program is in Peril

When I was in 10th grade, my math teacher ,Mr. Steen, scrawled T-A-N-S-T-A-A-F-L in giant letters across the board on the first day of school. It stood for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."

Seemed like an odd duck thing to do at the time—and I have no idea what it had to do with math—but it was Mr. Steen's intent to make an impression and I still remember it 25 years later. It seems this math teacher knew a thing or two about how to engage young minds.

Sadly, many "Web 2.0" entrepreneurs were not lucky enough to have Mr. Steen for 10th grade math and are suffering the consequences.

A must-read Newsweek article this week titled "Take this blog ands shove it." laments the passing of a foundational tenet of the Web 2.0 "movement." It seems that vast armies of people actually won't provide free labor indefinitely.

This is a big problem because a great number of online businesses that have risen to prominence over the past several years have been built on the premise that vast armies of people actually will provide free labor indefinitely. Oops.

A couple of years ago, hoards of individuals volunteered their time to edit Wikipedia entries in their spare time. Thousands became reviewers on Digg. Zillions started their own blog.

No more.

Today, Digg is trying to shift from a social news channel to a social network (because the world needs one?) because they don't have enough contributors. 95% of those blogs people started never saw a second post. And holy of holies, Wikipedia, has been subjected to the disdainful task of actually recruiting college kids to edit its entries.

Clearly, this has implications for you, dear marketing professional, as you lift heaven and earth to engage your customers to develop content on your behalf. Beware. They are a fickle bunch, those "users" out there.

As Newsweek describes the problem:

Many other elements of the user-generated revolution, meanwhile, are beginning to look sluggish. The practice of crowd sourcing, in particular, worked because the early Web inspired a kind of collective fever, one that made the slog of writing encyclopedia entries feel new, cool, fun. But with three out of four American households online, contributions to the hive mind can seem a bit passé, and Web participation, well, boring—kind of like writing encyclopedia entries for free.

nuance that's important to understand here is that people respond to value. There used to be value in the esteem of being able to brag to your friends (or digital equivalents thereof) that you edited for  Wikipedia. But now that's old news, so there's not so much esteem there. New players on the scene like Gawker and HuffPo have taken a cue from the emerging success of FourSquare and started issuing badges to their most fervent contributors (like this one on the left).

Those badges have value——for now.

Unfortunately, for organizations with a more altruistic mission like Wikipedia, their business model is doomed. Not to failure, but to selling ads so they can pay people to be editors.

Truth be told, I don't remember how Mr. Steen was as a math teacher. But I know he taught me one thing. If someone hands you a sandwich and tells you it's absolutely free, somewhere, something doesn't add up. There ain't no such thing.


Trends with Traction: Meaningful "social" measurement with Net Promoter Score

If you're a CMO, you might feel like many of the business metrics you're chasing around in social media seem futile. The tactical click-throughs and engagements on marketing programs make sense, but the aggregate business ones don't quite make sense under close inspection. Volume of brand mentions kind of makes sense if you can measure if the mentions are positive, but take a close look at sentiment analysis tools and you'll notice they don't work very well.

Of course, you must measure something. But what?

A growing number of companies are maturing their social media measurement programs by shifting their focus to optimizing their Net Promoter Score. I'm seeing this more and more in the marketplace and I think it's a damn good idea.

What is Net Promoter Score?
There's been a zillion blog posts and a great Wikipedia entry on exactly how NPS works, so I won't go into detail of that here. It is a concept that was introduced first in Harvard Business Review, then in a book called The Ultimate Question by Frederick Recihheld. Essentially, you take a survey of your customers, add up the people (promoters) who are most likely to recommend you to others, subtract the people who are less than enthused with your brand (detractors) and you've got your Net Promoter Score.

Why NPS is a vital metric.
According to Forrester Research, over 83% of purchase decisions today are influenced by word-of-mouth. That means traditional "top-down" approaches to marketing their wares through advertising are simply not enough. Marketers today have no choice but to be concerned with creating an entire brand experience that delights their customers.

NPS shows you if you're doing that. Counting tweets doesn't.

Too simple to be valuable?
No, it's not. Not only does its simplicity make it relatively easy to measure accurately, it also makes it understandable to everyone on your team, both internally and externally. And because they can understand it, they can make it their mission in life to make it better.

Contrast that to most brand valuation measures. They're based on some kooky formula. They're abstract. They're not tangible to your people. They don't deliver accountability.

And if logic isn't enough to cover your arse, it's being used right now by brands like GE, American Express and Intuit.

How it's impacting agency/client relationships.
In recent months, my agency is getting more and more requests from clients to help optimize the brand experience for their products. One is a Fortune 500 client with an online software as their product. They came to us with a challenge to increase their conversion rates—and to increase their Net Promoter Score. There was a different cast of characters in the room when we presented our approach to their problem: alongside the Marketing Director was a Product Manager who had never worked with an agency before.

Increasing NPS is a new area where agencies experienced in both interaction design and in unearthing the kind off insights that fuel great advertising can provide great value to their clients. But NPS is not just something for your agency to enhance from the outside. It's a measure that can get your whole organization on a path to creating happy customers. And that's important because you don't control the conversation anymore—your customers do.

Make sure they say nice things.


Mad Men comes back to TV. But what about real life?

Mad Men Season 4 opens with a scrappy upstart agency getting a lot of ink, but still not having a conference table. For some reason, the image felt very familiar to me (although I should add that after five years, Traction did finally get a real conference table this year).

"Earned Media" then and now.
With a nod to the world we live in (SPOILER AHEAD), the creative team used "earned media" to support their print campaign for a canned ham. They paid two old ladies to get in a fight over a ham at the local supermarket and slipped a photo to the Daily News. One could imagine the story taking off even faster if the ham company had a Twitter account, but take off it did, reminding us all once again that today's generation of marketers has not invented a damn thing.

Of course, this is not the first time Mad Men has reminded us that the "Olden Days of Advertising" truly were the "Golden Days of Advertising." Remember the department store account in Season 1? Don Draper  told the owner to put a restaurant in the lobby because he knew that wealthy shoppers wanted their luxury brand experience to be more than just another visit to the department store. His thinking was "innovative: and "out-of-the-box." But Don was right and the client listened. They built the restaurant because it was the right thing to do.

Step into the ROI Time Machine.
Could you imagine that conversation in today's ROI-driven world?

Don Draper: "You should build a fancy restaurant in the lobby. It's what will make your customers come back again. And mention you on their Facebook Walls."

Department Store CMO: "That sounds like a wonderful idea. Can you provide an ROI model that can tell me exactly how I'll make all of my money back in the next twelve months?"

Don Draper: "Um, no. No one has ever built a fancy restaurant in the lobby of a department store before. That's what makes this such a special idea."

Department Store CMO: "Of course! Wow. But can you provide a spreadsheet that outlines the past performance of department store fancy lobby restaurants? Then I can ask for budget." 

Don Draper: "But, no one has eve... We have one other idea? How about this new DSP (department store picker) machine that can get you marginally lower click-through rates on a banner ad that will reach people that look like your customers while they are reading about Lindsay Lohan's underwear on Perez Hilton?"

Department Store CMO: "That sounds like a wonderful idea. Can you provide an ROI model that can tell me exactly how I'll make all of my money back in the next twelve months?" 

Don Draper: "Sure."

Department Store CMO: "Sold."

Brand experiences today more dire than ever.
The need for Don Draper mentality is more important today than it's been in the past fifty years. Why? Because, the relentless focus on ROI is driving brands toward commoditization faster than anything has since Bill Bernbach wrote the word "Lemon" under a picture of a VW Beetle. 

Today, "innovation in marketing" is regularly used as a term to describe the latest way to drive down CPMs or CPCs or CPAs—instead of how to drive up desire, demand and esteem in the mind of your customers.

This is a mistake. Yes, we need to measure. Yes, we need to optimize. Yes, we need to understand what's working and spend our money wisely. 

But the truth is that half of the things marketers should be doing for their brands are not predictably quantifiable. They require strategic thinking, creativity, vision and instinct to pull off—not spreadsheets that complex mathematical equations over disjointed assumptions. 

New ideas are new. The Mad Men of advertising knew this. Have we forgotten?


What do you get when you throw a copywriter, an information architect and a media planner into a blender?

Hint: the answer is not a new "Will it blend?" viral video.

It's a content strategist—the hottest new job title to hit the agency scene since "social media guru" started popping up on LinkedIn profiles across the digital universe a couple years ago. With one great exception: this one actually services a vital business function and requires a professional skill set to perform

(I could rant on about every Tom, Dick and Mary with a Twitter account declaring themselves to be a guru, maven or superstar, but do I really need to?).

But, let's get back to content strategy—which serves an incredibly important function.

Why Content Strategy? Why now?
The emerging science on content strategy has emerged in response to two important trends:

  1. Brands are realizing that they can create more meaningful and long-term engagement with their customers by providing a continual stream of valuable content and platforms that deliver that content than they ever could with one-hit wonders like the million dollar micro-sites we saw so much of a few years ago.
  2. Customers are now empowered to consume media on their own terms. And they do so, ferociously.
What's left is a vital need to figure out what all that content should be, where it should come from and how it will get distributed and redistributed to audiences. Ergo, the content strategist is born.

Introducing the Content Strategist
Notice I said "content strategist," not "content strategy." That's been around for quite awhile. I opened up a PowerPoint deck today that was created at Traction in 2006 that was titled "Content Strategy" on the front page. But now because of all this content that needs to be created and all these places it needs to be distributed, we are seeing digital agency want ad listings for content strategists. 

So, who are these strange creatures? What makes a good one?

We live in the age of the mash-up, so it's only natural that this new position is a mash-up kind of gig. To be specific, a mash-up of copywriting, information architecture and media planning. Put them all in a blender and you've got a content strategist.

Let me break it down.

(Copywriters + Information Architects) * Media Planners =
I've always observed a natural proclivity and intuitive skill toward information architecture prevalent in experienced Copywriters I've worked with. This is because good writers understand how to craft a narrative to communicate to an audience. That is essentially what good Information Architects do. Sure, the tools they use are not the same—one uses words, the other flowcharts and wireframes—but the principles are exactly the same. 

Remember the five paragraph essay you learned about in high school?

Paragraph 1 - the Intro
Paragraph 2 - the Counterpoint
Paragraph 3 - Support Point A
Paragraph 4 - Support Point B
Paragraph 5 - Conclusion

That was a mechanism we learned to craft an argument. But why? Because when you turn it on it's head and look at it from a reader's perspective, it's a great framework for convincing people of an idea. This framework is very similar to use case scenarios, a tool used by information architects to map out a visitors anticipated behaviors as they navigate through an application or website. Use case scenarios are a kind of narrative.

Watch me do this quickly:

Intro: Copywriters make great Information Architects
Counterpoint: Admittedly, one works in Word, a writing tool, and the other works in Visio or OmniGraffle, a visual tool
Support Point A: However, the principles behind effective written communication and use case scenarios are the same
Support Point B: And, if you look in the dictionary for a definition to the word "design" you'll find "to plan and fashion artistically" which is a fantastic description of what both of these professionals do every day.
Conclusion: So you see, the principles are the same and their really just different kinds of designers in the first place which is why Copywriters make great Information Architects.

So, the copywriter and the IA are in the blender. How does the media planner come into the picture?

Figuring out what to say is only half the battle.
The question remains: "Where to say it?"

The answer is as many places as make sense. Take this blog post. I'll post it to my personal blog. I'll post it to my blog on iMediaConnection. I'll tweet about it. I'll post it to Facebook. Maybe I'll get ambitious and post it to a Content Strategy group on LinkedIn. There are a zillion ways I could distribute the content I create. If I'm smart, I'll have an objective and I'll have a plan.

A key part of the content strategist role is figuring out where to say it. This is where the Media Planner influence comes in. That involves an understanding of the media consumption habits of the target and of which distribution platforms will work best to achieve your marketing objectives. It also involves an understanding of how much effort it will take to adapt content to that medium (should I add "producer" to my mathematical equation?)

Should Content Strategists exist?
To tell you the truth, I'm on the fence about this. Content strategy definitely needs to exist. But content strategists?

The roles of content creation and content distribution are no doubt closer than they've ever been. That's why I'm constantly dragging folks from the creative department out to iMedia Summits. Having an understanding of the media landscape gives my team a competitive advantage. Today, more than ever, the medium is the message. In the agency of the future, the media planner will sit with the creative team.

But, should they be the same person? I'm leaning toward no. At my agency, Traction, everyone is a strategist. We use cross-functional teams to infuse strategy, innovation and creativity into everything we do. I see no reason to create a special role to perform a service we collaboratively deliver.

What do you think?


Why Danger Mouse is the most relevant man in music

I came across a feature in this Sunday's SF Chron (yes, I still read the newspaper) detailing the litany of projects that Danger Mouse (the dude on the right) has produced since he put together "The Grey Album" in 2004 (which I'm listening to as I write this post).

If you're not familiar with "The Grey Album," it was a mashup of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with the Beatles "White Album."Was it legal? No. Was it awesome? Yes. And it made Danger Mouse a superstar. Since then, he has gone on to collaborate with artists like the Gorillaz, Beck and most recently,  James Mercer from the Shins (the dude on the right). Not to mention Gnarls Barkley. But Danger Mouse is more than just a superstar.

Danger Mouse is the most relevant artist in music today.

Full disclosure.
Before I get into why I think Danger Mouse is so relevant, I must disclose that I sort of know him. Not well, but well enough to root for his success.

To me, Danger Mouse is Brian Burton, a kid who grew up around the corner from me in Spring Valley, a suburb outside of NYC. He was friend's with my kid sister and I remember him coming by the house a couple of times. I used to go over to his house with my dad, who was a plumber, to fix the sink every once in a while. His dad was a real cool guy. I remember he raised show dogs. Brian was always a really nice kid, but to be honest, I hadn't thought of him until my sister said to me on the phone one day, "You ever hear of Danger Mouse? He's Brian-fucking-Burton from around the block!"

This is all interesting stuff, but it's not what makes Danger Mouse so damn relevant. Here's what is:

He embodies the expectations of the Millennial generation
I saw a study a few years ago that asked college students if they thought they would be famous in their lifetime. 28% said yes. Not that they could be famous. Not that the might be famous. That they would be famous! That was amazing to me, but fame is a very tangible thing in the YouTube era. And because it's perceived as actually within reach, people desire it even more. Tens of millions of people tune into American Idol every week because they are entranced with the notion that any one of us with the talent and the desire can take the fast track up the career ladder and become a star.

Danger Mouse said screw the ladder.

He didn't ask for permission. He made something because it was cool. He put it up on the web and now he's famous. That, ladies and gentlemen, is today's American Dream.

He embodies the malleable nature of media
A fundamental shift happened with the advent of "Web 2.0" and social media: the internet effectively shifted from a series of static pages that we passively look at to an immersive experience that we actively engage with. The web today is a malleable object. And soon, all media will follow suit.

Music is no different. All you need is a Mac with GarageBand and you're a musician. Of course, like any creative endeavor it takes tremendous talent involved in doing it very well. 
Danger Mouse had that talent. But he didn't have a studio and producers and loads of expensive equipment. He had a Mac and GarageBand. And he mashed up a plate of genius.  

He embodies the collaborative world we live in
In their book, "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything," Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams describe a new economy where companies are taking advantage of a new collaborative world to foster innovation and grow their enterprises.

Brands like Procter & Gamble, BMW, Lego, Boeing, and Netflix are all actively going outside their walls to find new ways to innovate and better ways to produce their goods and services. These companies are pioneers of the collaborative economy.

Danger Mouse is a pioneer of the collaborative musiconomy.

Take a look at his resume:

  • 2004 - he puts out "The Grey Album"
  • 2005 - he produces a record for the Gorillaz
  • later in 2005 - he puts out "The Mouse and the Mask" with MF Doom under the moniker DangerDoom
  • 2006 - Gnarls Barkley releases #1 hit "Crazy" this a collaboration with Cee-Lo Green
  • 2007 - produces "The Good, the Bad and the Queen" with ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the Verve's Simon Tong and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen
  • 2008 - collaborates with The Black Keys
  • 2008, again - collaborates with Beck
  • 2009 - collaborates with Sparklehorse
  • 2010 - collaborates with Mercer
Notice a trend? This is guy is blazing trails everywhere he goes and in everything he does. Collaboration is not a special on the menu. It is the menu.

No one else in music this today is so dialed into everything that's shaping the cultural landscape today. 

Brian, you are making it happen. Keep it up.

And, Amanda says "hi."