Monday, January 25, 2010

The AlphaBandit Strikes!

I don't usually have an opportunity to laugh on the 54C, the PAT bus I take just about every morning and evening to and from Carnegie Mellon University. But, today was an exception.

I boarded the 54C, bus 2609, near Lulu's Noodles on Craig Street in Oakland for my trip through lower Shadyside, central Bloomfield, and the Strip District and on to the North Side where I disembark for the Mexican War Streets.

The bus was of an older model, dirty and creaking from rusty springs as it labored up Craig Street. I climbed aboard after an elderly man who used the aluminum handrail. The bus was being captained by a scowling, middle-aged driver with reflective sunglasses and a Fu Manchu beard. Minding my own business, I looked for an empty seat near the middle of the bus, not concerned about a window seat since the windows were coated with the splashed remnants of recent snows and road salt.

Actually I was mostly concerned with getting an intact seat, as many of the seats were half popped off, springs protruding. I found a seat and pulled a book from my bag, in this case "Repositioning" by Jack Trout, and began to read.

Before the bus turned on Liberty Avenue, many of the passengers de-boarded for the new Children's Hospital, leaving only a few North Side bound passengers. That's when I spotted the work of the diabolical villain I will call "The AlphaBandit."

If you ride the PAT buses, you will see a series of signs on the windows. From the front of the bus, they begin with the request, "Please step to the rear." If you've ever been on a crowded bus near shift change in Oakland or at class changes at Pitt or CMU, you'll know how crowded the buses get. Most people ignore the signs so that they can lean near the wheel wells in the front of the bus and put their packages in the spaces above the wheel wells. That area provides a place to better balance on the usually unbalanced buses.

Anyway, the signs are meant to solve a problem most drivers don't want to be bothered with, crowd control. The drivers seem resigned to their crowded fates and ignore the bunching of humanity at the front of their vehicle while plowing along giving their standing riders a thrill on every turn.

After asking the good folks of mass transit to move back, the next sign prods riders gently by asking, "A little farther please." That's precisely where the "AlphaBandit" struck on bus 2609. A nefarious and clever wordsmith, the "AlphaBandit" moved several letters in the decal sign to create the message, "A little fart...please."

I know. I know. It sounds so juvenile, doesn't it. But, come on, if you've ever ridden the bus, you'll know it isn't a real pleasurable or thrilling experience. We PAT people have to take our bus entertainment anywhere we can get it. And if it's in puerile entertainment, so be it. I laughed and snickered at that sign for 15 minutes like a twelve year old kid until I disembarked at West Park.

Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was giddy from a day of teaching. Maybe it was the effects of my head cold and runny nose. Whatever it was, I was entertained by the work of the "AlphaBandit" and look forward to his/her next creation. In fact, I wonder how the "AlphaBandit" might modify the last message on that bus, "Thank you for stepping to the rear". I know it will have something to do with the word "rear". Anyone have any suggestions?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What word or phrase made you crazy last year?

I'll never forget the first time I heard someone say, "We need to drill down to the granular level to find that information." As an English major who became a marketer, I was fascinated by the image of drilling into a pile of data, like a team of oilmen on an ocean rig, to find answers. The metaphor intrigued me.

But then, as the morning meeting progressed, I heard the words used maybe five more times. By the end of the day, I'd heard "drilling down" used probably ten more times. And, by the end of the week, I had heard it so much I was ready to scream the next time I heard anyone say they were going to drill down for anything! The phrase had changed from a fresh image into a stale cliche, an old, moldy donut of language left for the rats to pick over.

Unfortunately, especially in the business world, occasionally some poetic soul invents a new way of comparing things and the copycats rush to use it... over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over....well, you get the point.

That thought led me to wonder what words or phases made you want to scream last year because they had become trite, worn out, overused, hackneyed and cliched buzz. If nothing comes immediately to your mind, I'll nominate a couple for your consideration: "death panel", "tweet", "google", "rogue", "ping", "win-win", "touch base", "Web 2.0", "social media marketing", and "whatever."

I know that "google" has become a verb and "tweet" is rapidly approaching that status, but, still.... Anyway, let me know what language is bothering you! Do some drilling down! It's your deliverable for the week! It will produce a win-win for all of us!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Are you overwhelmed yet?

I just read "How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers" from Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short of UC San Diego. It tells us how many hours we're spending with media and how many words and bytes it relates to. Ultimately, it gives evidence to what we're all feeling, overwhelmed!

The report says, "In 2008 Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. Interestingly, information consumption in bytes increased at only 5.4 percent per year, as TV and radio still dominate consumption with 60 percent, although a third of the words and half of the bytes are received interactively.

Are you spending 41 percent of your time watching TV? Americans are, according to the report. The authors tell us that we work for three hours a day (on average) and sleep for seven, and that "three-quarters of our waking time in the home is receiving information." Only 24 percent of our time is spent on a computer, receiving information.

So, what are we receiving? Words and bytes. In 1980 4,500 trillion words were consumed. That has grown to 10,845 trillion in 2008 or 100,000 words per American per day. TV gives us over 45 percent of those words. But, we live in a digital age, so the authors tell us about bytes, too.

When we are measuring bytes, moving pictures dominate all other types of information, that means television, computer games and movies in theaters. The authors estimate that the average American consumed about 34 gigabytes per day in 2008, information that would fit on 7 DVD discs, those represented a 350 percent increase.

I've just scratched the surface of the report, but it supports everyone's feelings of being overwhelmed with information from every corner, from blogs to books and TV and text messages. It serves to remind us that our audiences are being showered with 100,500 words each day and 34 gigabytes. To share a message with your audience in the midst of that clutter, you need to begin with the audience. Live in the Land of the Audience!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I enjoyed these books; you might, too!

1. "Profits Aren't Everything, They're the Only Thing" was written by George Cloutier with Samantha Marshall. Cloutier has been called "The Turnaround Ace" by Business Week. He and Marshall subtitle their book, "No-Nonsense Rules From The Ultimate Contrarian And Small Business Guru."

Coutier is CEO of American Management Services and Co-Chairman of Partner America and has spent his working life helping small businesses after graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Business School. His book depicts him as a plain spoken, in-your-face pragmatist and true contrarian. For instance, he titles "Profit Rule 12: Don't Treat Sales Like Your Mother-in-Law".

Too many CEOs and business owners are afraid to sell, according to Cloutier. "If sales are down, there's always something or someone else to blame....if you're losing sales and heading for financial trouble, it's your fault (and) by far the biggest crime against sales is the owner's unwillingness to mix it up with customers." In other words, Cloutier says, get cozy with your customers...and your mother-in-law!

"Profit Rule 10" is "You are not in business to pay your vendors." And, to that Cloutier says, "Never pay your bills on time." He calls cash management "hand-to-hand combat"! If you like that, you'll love this concept, "Instead of stressing over writing checks to your vendors, you should view them as your best source of financing." In this regard he suggest you be "...evasive and non-committal about your next payment...." Hey, the check's in the mail, Bubba!

If you think teamwork is the way to success, you'll want to skip this book. Cloutier says in Profit Rule 14, "Teamwork Is Vastly Overrated." I'm not making this up! He says, "There is no $ in Team" and "Employees crave strong leadership and structure."
He adds, "Don't encourage diverse opinions. It's a business, not a democracy." Lastly, he challenges business losers by telling them, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid, It's you!" He tells them, "Sure, small business owners can blame the economy for their problems. Most people do." So, suck it up, partner, create a real plan and watch your relatives, if they work for you, because they're probably robbing you blind.

2. If you want a book that's a little more on the positive side, and concerns a bigger business, read "Six Rules For Brand Revitalization" by Larry Light and Joan Kiddon. Light was Global Chief Marketing Officer for McDonald's during the 2002-2005 turnaround at the fast food giant. Kiddon consulted with him from Arcature LLC. This was after McD's CEO Jack Greenburg said, "Marketing is broken at McDonald's" and the stock price at the company had fallen from $45.31 in March 1999 to $17.66 in September 2002.

Light and Kiddon describe the McDonald's fall as being slow, painful and public, explaining that it failed to attend to the three basics of renovation, marketing, and innovation. In effect, the company was intent on opening new restaurants but not improving anything about them. In so doing, say the authors, the chain turned its back on the principles of founder, Ray Kroc, and his desire to make all customers feel special.

The authors describe these issues at Mickey D: outdated store designs, inconsistent advertising, overemphasis on deal promotions, declining product quality, poor service, reduced employee pride and a bunch of other woes, anyone of which might by itself wreck a company. So, recognizing a "Crisis of Complacency," they established the Three Cs of Turnaround: Clarity of Direction, Consistent Implementation, and Commitment from Top Down and created a "Plan to Win" with four goals: More Customers, More Often, More Brand Loyalty and More Profitability.

In their efforts they established six rules: Refocus the Organization, Restore Brand Relevance, Re-Invent the Brand Experience, Reinforce a Results Culture, Rebuild Brand Trust and Realize Global Alignment. And, it worked. In 2004 and 2005 McDonald's began to win awards and profits. Even today, we see the lasting effects of their work begun eight years ago. It's a story of hard work and victory!

The two books have similarities and differences, not the least of which involves payments to vendors and teamwork. But, I'll let you sort that out. I recommend that you read both books because they are well written, easy to read, and useful!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Steeler Fans, Don't Despair!

Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs. But, if you need ACTION this coming Sunday, if you want COLOR and CEREMONY and DRAMA played out under a GREAT DOME, I invite you to the Pittsburgh Latin Mass. Wait, wait, wait.....don't leave me.

Hey, I'm not kidding. I like sports as much as the next person. I played baseball in high school and college and was on the high school football team (at my high school a 120lb, 5'4" running back didn't see much action). I even coached a middle school football team way back when I taught at DS Keith School in Altoona, PA. So, I mean what I say here.

Steeler fans make Steeler football a religion of sorts. Don't you agree? Now that the team occupies the same plane as the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns and will disappear until next August, I suggest an alternate form of worship, the Pittsburgh Latin Mass.

How can a church service replace your football worship this coming Sunday? Let's see. The Pittsburgh Latin Mass (PLM hereon) has a story, the last supper of Jesus, and perhaps the world's best known celebrity and quarterback of sorts. He faced insurmountable obstacles in his game (the real Super Bowl) and a real solid defense, the Pharisees and the Romans.

But, he had a Game Plan! And, this contest had action, color (in this case lots of purples and reds), pageantry (certainly), interesting sounds and a rabid crowd. JC was playing for all the marbles, all the world's marbles. The PLM, which recreates that contest of 2000 years ago, has the same intensity as a Steeler Sunday, and more! In addition to the stuff already mentioned, the PLM has inspiring music, but not in the form of a marching band. In fact,the PLM held every Sunday at St. Boniface Church near Pittsburgh's North Side (high mass at 11am), has one of the best choirs in western Pennsylvania. They sing in Latin!

Speaking of Latin, it's an ancient and mysterious language. So, you can relate it to the mysterious language used by Big Ben: "Slant right...Button hook" and so on. But in this case, you'll hear, "Dominos vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo." What's not to like? Add to that the pervasive aroma of incense and you have a formula for a great Sunday. (You can do the hotdog odor later at home.)

The PLM will even show you some killer instant replays, but in this instance we call them "The Stations of the Cross". You won't see any athletic highlights like this in any century real soon. JC took more hits than Hines Ward will ever know. Talk about hamstring injuries, how would you deal with nails in the hands. It gives new meaning to "nailing the quarterback."

So, this coming Sunday don't despair. You can still get your religious fix (regardless of your denomination) by visiting the Pittsburgh Latin Mass. You can sing, cheer (quietly) for the underdog, watch an incredible contest reenacted, and you might even see a Rooney there!