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The Vacuum Cleaner Engineer Who's a Marketing Magician

Dyson and His Vacuum

From the New Yorker profile of James Dyson, the British engineer and unlikely pitchman behind the vacuum cleaner that sells at four times the price of its competitors yet snatched up 23% of the US market.

“In the most perverse design decision of all, Dyson let you see the dirt as you collected it, in a clear plastic bin in the machine’s midsection. One day in 1978, Dyson was cleaning his house when he became frustrated with the way his vacuum cleaner quickly lost suction. It was a design flaw, and yet vacuum cleaners had been made that way for a hundred years. As the brand story goes, Dyson thought about the problem, built thousands of prototypes, and finally came up with a vacuum cleaner that used centrifugal force, rather than a bag, to separate the dirt from the air…. Sir James Dyson is now known to millions as the man who made vacuum cleaners sexy again.

“Dyson had grasped what the companies trying to make hundred-dollar vacuum cleaners had forgotten: that a lot of people get their kicks from buying appliances, and are willing to pay a premium for a machine that will deliver an emotional experience.”

It’s a story that reminds you: Building a brand is more art than science. It’s a discipline where irrational humanness (“the solid yellow used for the body of the machine was a shade familiar in power tools but not in household appliances… gave the Dyson a gravitas that the lime greens and mulberries of the other brands did not possess”) trumps rational thinking. And if you can pull it off, wow, double-digit market share at a 300% premium over your rivals?! That’s nice.

When Brands Act More Like Humans in Social Media, Results Improve

I came across some eMarketer data this week that initially struck me as obvious: Social media users are more likely to trust blog posts, Tweets and Facebook updates authored by friends than those posted by brands. In the “trust completely” column, friends are considered two to three TIMES more trustworthy.

Makes sense: human friendships are built around trust, and while we sometimes trust brands, brands aren’t friends or humans.

Consumer trust levels -- info from friends v info from brands

Of course brands aren’t people, but they’ve long understood that humanizing themselves (itselves?) — by hiring likable pitchmen and pitchwomen or creating cute animated characters, for example — makes us more likely to think of them as friends. When they act like humans (or tree elves or fun-loving tigers), we often forget they are corporations trying to sell us stuff. We start considering them pals and trusting them.

In social media, though, brands aren’t doing a good job of acting like our human friends. A recent report by digital agency 360i (see Forbes) shows that consumers use Twitter to converse with their online friends — @Replies, in Twitterspeak — while brands predominantly use social media to talk about themselves.

“When marketers use Twitter, 360i says that 75% of the time they are using it to disseminate news or information about the brand, as opposed to actively engaging Twitter users. Consumers are only engaged by the brand approximately 16% of the time. Putting that in perspective, consumers engaged in conversation with each other 43% of the time.”

And it turns out that behaving like a human in social media — listening and conversing rather than spouting from a soapbox — isn’t just an academic exercise or a contest to rack up follower counts. Charlene Li at the Altimeter Group recently ranked brands into a leaderboard of what she calls the Social Media Mavens, the brands that most actively engage with their followers, and cross-checked her data with financial performance of those companies. It turns out that acting more human in social media is good business.

“These Mavens on average grew 18% in revenues over the last 12 months, compared to the least engaged companies who on average saw a decline of 6% in revenue during the same period. The same holds true for two other financial metrics, gross margin and net profit.

“Note that we are not claiming a causal relationship — but there is clearly a correlation and connection. For example, a company mindset that allows a company to be broadly engage with customers on the whole probably performs better because the company is more focused on [customers] than the competition.”

British Air Spot Next to Plane Crash Coverage on CNN

I’m watching CNN on a Virgin America flight from JFK to SFO, and the lead story (at 10:25am Eastern) is the of a cargo plane near Shanghai that killed all 3 Americans on board. At the next break, the second commercial is for British Airways — a spot built around China’s Canton Fair, a 3-week event at which (according to the voice-over) $2 billion dollars a day trade hands.

Eek, airline ads bumping up next to news of airplane crashes?!

For years I’ve been asked by marketers how I’ll protect their brands if they run ads on blogs that allow comments or sites like Digg, where readers select the stories that get promoted to the homepage. My answer has always been: The same way CNN does it. “If, god forbid, there’s a plane crash, CNN must cover the story. So someone in CNN’s traffic department immediately pulls all airline advertisers out of rotation until that news cycle passes.” While humans are still better than algorithms at avoiding (or recovering from) these kinds of awkward associations, the CNN approach — as I just witnessed — remains an imperfect system.

Do I now need to find a new example with which to answer that question, or should I just point out that those uncomfortable situations you fear will happen online are also happening on TV?

Tattoo Advertising: $40k per Forehead

I found this listing on eBay.

eBay Listing for Ad Tattoos

Truth be told, I found it on Digg while I was searching for “advertising” stories. (I’m not currently looking to place the ChasNote logo on someone’s head!)

My favorite part is where the sellers veer from AAAA/IAB standard terms and conditions: “No Returns Accepted.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across enterprising individuals offering branded tattoos to the highest bidder. Three years ago a Salt Lake City woman made $10,000 in exchange for tattooing (in letters an inch tall, per the agreement) on her forehead. By my very rough math, I calculated that she earned an effective CPM of just $11.42.

Web Publishers: Choose Your Words Wisely (It Matters)

Dustin Curtis tracks the participation rate by his site’s readers based on the language he uses to invite them to follow him in Twitter.

The basic statement approach (“I’m on Twitter”) delivered a 4.7% click-through rate. Look what happened when he went with a personal command and a literal, underlined “here” at the end of the sentence.

Personal Command Language Drives Higher CTR

Thanks for pointing me to this, Kortina.

Facebook Emerging As Search Challenger to Google?

Ok, the 184 million searches on Facebook are still less than 1% of Google’s 13 billion. But shows a 5% jump for Facebook over its April numbers while Google remained flat.

Comscore search queries Apr and Jun 2009

As more internet users anchor their web sessions with Facebook, and as those users and their friends use status updates to share news and other content, Facebook search might ultimately be a better mousetrap since it filters search results by content your friends have already vetted. When it comes to all the world’s information, less can often be more.

From :

“Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn’t just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet — its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google’s algorithms — rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg’s vision, users will query this ‘social graph’ to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire — rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.”

The humans versus the bots.

The Trouble With Ad Networks, Continued

TechCrunch points out that my two most recent posts — Steve Jobs’s medical leave and deceptive ads served by Yahoo’s Right Media — have a connection. At least within the flawed logic of the ad-targeting machines used by ad networks and context targeting engines. The screenshot below, from TechCrunch, shows a Kaplan University ad (“Jobs Become Obsolete. Talent Doesn’t.”) alongside a story on the Steve Jobs situation. An added wrinkle: The Washington Post owns Kaplan.

Wash Post Steve Jobs News with Bad Jobs Ad

Wal-Mart Banners on White Supremacist Site

Another one for the contextual mis-targeting file, courtesy of ValleyWag:

Wal-Mart Banners on Racist Blog

From ValleyWag:

“We’ve got a call into Walmart, but our guess is that through ad network LinkShare’s affiliate marking program, hundreds if not thousands of Web site publishers put Walmart banner ads on their sites in hopes of referring shoppers and earning a slice of revenue from whatever they buy on It would be very difficult to thoroughly vet each publisher. But if there’s ever been a need for a clear example as to why Madison Avenue interactive agencies do not trust their clients to ad networks that claim extensive reach above all else, there is no more.”

Content Still More Important Than Demographics

No news here for folks who have participated in the television or print publishing businesses anytime in the past 50 years, but it may be revolutionary news in certain online marketing circles, especially circles in, say, Mountain View. From Ad Age:

“Now, new findings from the Online Publishers Association suggest that content is king: Ads on branded-content websites are more effective than non-branded sites and outpace industry norms in nearly every category.

“[The study] determined that ads on content sites have greater impact on the overall purchase process, including customer awareness, brand awareness, brand consideration, brand preference and purchase intent, especially among the consumer package goods, financial services, technology, telecommunications and travel sectors, giving credence to the idea that audiences are attracted to websites.”

Billboards That Watch You

Paris-based Quividi has created software that enables video cameras in billboards to determine a rough demographic profile of the person looking at the ad:

“they are not storing actual images of the passers-by, so privacy should not be a concern. The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon. The goal, these companies say, is to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it — to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.”

What happens if I’m walking by a billboard on a day I happen to be wearing a dress?!

In addition to solving the relevance problem (serving the right ads based on demographic-recognition algorithms), consumer acceptance may be an issue:

“Although surveillance cameras have become commonplace in banks, stores and office buildings, their presence takes on a different meaning when they are meant to sell products rather than fight crime. So while the billboard technology may solve a problem for advertisers, it may also stumble over issues of public acceptance…. ‘I think a big part of why it’s accepted is that people don’t know about it,’ said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group.”

Big Brother Is Watching You