Permission to fail isn’t permission to be stupid

As a follow on to my earlier post on the topic, note that permission to fail isn’t permission to be stupid.  Nor is it permission to not really try to succeed, nor permission to be defeatist about things.  You have to be trying to succeed or your failure is true failure.

And as a general rule we should expect to be succeeding much more often than we’re failing.  If you’re trying something monumentally difficult like discovering a unified field theory then that’s probably different, but most of the time we’re doing things that have been done many, many times before.  We’re creating profitable direct mail campaigns or making advertisements that work or figuring out what our customers want and giving it to them.  If you’re frequently failing at tasks such as these, then maybe something else is wrong and you should look into that possibility.

When I grant permission to fail, it comes with the condition that the James Bond employee is doing her best and is performing up to her ability (or preferably a little beyond it).  It comes with the condition that she is making every decision for a reason, and in each case she knows what it is.  If you do that, everything’s cool.  If not, it’s not.

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The leader is the follower

Following up on my recent reader question about strategies for market leaders, one of the biggest things to understand is that the leader is the follower.

I’ll explain.  If you’re the market leader in your space, that means you’re doing better than anyone else is.  You have more customers and are making more money.  Likely you’re more profitable and have better economies of scale.  You have better brand awareness and probably more overall affinity and preference than your competitors do.  Word of mouth works to your advantage and you win the SEO war.  You get a guaranteed mention anytime anyone in the press or blogosphere talks about the category, and you’re automatically invited to all RFPs.  It’s a pretty good position to be in, and all else being equal, these advantages tend to cause leaders to continue to win.

Smart challengers are aware of these advantages and therefore try not to play against the leader at its own game.  Instead challengers typically try to differentiate themselves in some way from the leader.  They need to prove that they’re better or that they better serve the specific needs of a segment, geography, or situation than the leader does.

I’ve mentioned in the past that leader and challenger strategies are mirrors of each other.  If the challenger’s success depends on differentiation, then the leader is well advised to eliminate or minimize that differentiation.  And thus we find one of the paradoxes of market behavior, which is that innovation occurs not in the companies that are best resourced and have the most customer feedback and can bring new products and services to market most efficiently.  Innovation tends to take place on the struggling, starving fringe of the market, where companies are motivated to innovate.  Then what happens is some of these innovations take off, and when they do, smart leaders move to cover them quickly.  The power of the leader typically is what brings these innovations into the mainstream, not the original inventiveness of the challenger.

So it turns out that the effective leader strategy is to be a follower.  Challengers will come along and try to differentiate themselves.  Keep a close eye on these innovations.  Some will obviously be good ones.  Some will not be so obvious.  Cover the good innovations as quickly as you can, choking off the oxygen to these smaller, more poorly resourced usurpers.  Keep an eye on the questionable innovations to see if they gain traction.  If they do, they’re good innovations and treat them appropriately.  If not, someone else burned up his money on them so you didn’t have to.

A great visual metaphor for this situation occurs in Formula or NASCAR racing.  Oftentimes you’ll see one car trying to pass another.  The front car will have a natural tendency to stay in front by virtue of the fact that it’s blocking the other one.  So to pass, the second car must be on a different stretch of pavement than the lead car.  The second car must differentiate itself.

So what does the lead car do?  It moves to block the second car.  When the second car bobs left, the lead car bobs left.  When the second car cuts to the right, the lead car cuts to the right.  In this circumstance it’s actually the trailing car that’s calling the shots, the trailing car that’s deciding where both cars will go.  And the leader is pursuing a smart leader strategy and covering every move before the challenger can take advantage of it.

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More writings on gTLDs and SEO

I recently wrote about why there’s good reason to believe that controlling your own gTLD can positively impact SEOThis socialmediatoday post covers much of the same topic, and SearchInsider goes into depth on the idea that you can create an entire gTLD that is optimized to do well in search.

Finally, I went into detail in my first post about why to believe that quality content in a TLD might be rewarded in search.  We also have seen the opposite, in which exceptionally poor content can punish an entire TLD.

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New gTLDs and SEO, part 2 of 2

Last time I described the reasons to be optimistic that a well chosen gTLD filled with quality, relevant content can become an SEO enhancer.   I don’t know that  your own TLD will immediately cause your pages to rocket up the rankings on the first day you go live (although I don’t know it won’t either), but no matter how Google treats your TLD in and of itself, there are definite additional opportunities to improve search engine optimization if you control your own domain space.
Opportunity #1: Increase search term density in domains
One well understood SEO technique is to maximize the density of search terms in the domain.  That’s the idea behind using subdomains for SEO purposes.  By eliminating useless words like .com, you can increase that density.
Opportunity #2:  Place the most critical search terms in the second level domain
A common Google behavior is to grant better position to pages with the searched term in the second level domain.  That’s why microsoft.com does so well on the term microsoft.  Unfortunately it’s a difficult fact to make use of since any term with competition for search position most likely doesn’t have the appropriate domains available.
Once you control your own domain space, that all changes.  You can generate as many pages as you need to, focusing each on the most perfectly relevant term you seek to win.  You can add and remove pages and content as you will to optimize your results.
Opportunity #3: Generate more clicks in any given search position
I’m not aware of any research looking specifically into this question, but it seems likely that a friendly domain will gain more clicks in any given search position than an old-fashioned TLD will.  Let’s say you search on laptop.  The page at laptop.bestbuy is highly likely to contain useful product information and be a place you can purchase.  That’s a strong cue for a consumer to choose this result over other results.  Or let’s say a search turns up login.usbank (or for that matter login.paypal).  I can imagine the typical visitor feeling more confident that she’s visiting the real bank and not some phishing site - and therefore choosing this option over others.
Remember, nearly 100% of the extensive SEO effort that goes on in the world is for purposes of bringing more visitors to your site.  The traffic is the true goal.  Search position is just a method of gaining this traffic.  If there turns out to be a method of increasing clicks from the same search position, that’s tantamount to improving your position in search results.  Being in the #9 spot but getting the same number of clicks as the guy in #8 is every bit as good as being #8.  Over time, especially as consumers learn to look for your friendly domain, I expect that preference will just continue to increase.
Note also that these three opportunities apply to your paid search results as well.  SEO value influences search placement, potentially putting your listing higher than just your pure bid value would lead one to expect.  And increased preference for your listing can increase the return on your SEM spend.
Future proof your SEO strategy
Of course, we’ll have to see exactly how everything shakes out.  The algorithms don’t exist today, as do neither the TLDs nor the content under them.  So we’ll all be exploring these ideas together.
One thing about which there is no question, however, is that only those of us who obtain our own TLDs will have the opportunity to participate in this upside.  Whatever SEO improvements the world identifies, only those on control of a domain space will be positioned to take advantage of them.  Right now companies must decide if they want to be a part of that progress, however it shapes up, or if they prefer to sit on the sidelines and let others overtake them.
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New gTLDs and SEO, part 1 of 2

There is a great deal of interest and debate surrounding the question of how the new, upcoming gTLDs will affect search engine optimization (SEO).  With quite a bit of help from some of my new colleagues at Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services I’ve looked into this question, specifically in regard to gTLDs that are in the control of the organizations who are using them (as opposed to new community domains like .bank).  I am confident that properly used TLDs represent an opportunity to improve search engine performance.
First the caveats:
  • All SEO techniques are just tools, and they need to be used well to yield good results.
  • No SEO technique is a miracle worker.  Some ambitions will be outside your grasp no matter what you do.  Nobody but Apple Corporation will be ranking first on the term ipod any time soon.
  • Results may vary.  Some people will get better results than others.  That’s how it goes in SEO-land.
  • SEO takes time.  Results are never instant, so you have to be patient and determined.
  • SEO is a subtle and elusive practice.  You’ll have to get your hands on your own SEO program with your own content and your own target keywords to optimize it for your needs.  There is no other way.
Google keeps mum on its search algorithms for very good reason, but we can draw some sensible conclusions based on our reasoning and behaviors we can observe in Google search.
For starters consider these facts:  Google is in the business of using all available information to offer the most accurate relevancy possible in its results.  TLDs have the potential to be giant screaming indicators of a site’s content.  Therefore it’s hard to imagine that the rocket scientists in Mountain View will categorically ignore this indicator without at least checking it out to see if it makes results better.
We have good evidence that Google is using TLD information to influence search results today.  For example, you can easily find a myriad of instances in which preference appears to be given to .gov and .edu sites for appropriate search terms.
Search on texas.  The top result is the state of Texas’s site at www.texas.gov.  Second is Wikipedia’s entry on Texas.  Now, there’s no way that the state of Texas has optimized its site to the level where it can go toe to SEO toe with Wikipedia.  What’s happening here?  Google is giving great weight to the fact that this site has a .gov domain.  (Note that texas.com doesn’t show up until #30.)
If you believe that in Texas maybe civil servants are SEO savants, then I’ll point out that the same happens for new york city, memphis, phoenix, dade county florida and many, many other place names.  The common thread?  Place names and .gov.
Search on harvard and you see the same exact thing with .edu.  This time Wikipedia is #5, behind four .edus (and with more .edus below).  Again, we see the same for princetonucla, johns hopkins, and lots of other educational institutions.  Again, it’s the .edu addresses.
I consider that pretty compelling empirical evidence that Google is prepared to use TLD information to influence search results when it feels they improve the results’ accuracy.  But on top of that Google has, in fact, applied for a patent on using TLDs as a contributor to search relevancy.  Patent application 12/468,195, filed by Google Corporation on June 17, 2009 states in part,

These pages can be differentiated and identified by, for example, a list of domain names; top level domain extensions, such as .biz, .com, .org, .edu; or web sites.

These two pieces together tell us that Google explicitly has considered how TLDs enter into determining search ranking and that the search engine uses this information today.
Now, how do we know what Google will do with any individual TLD?  We don’t.  But returning to the earlier point, we know the search engine’s mission is to index and present all available information in the manner that’s most useful to searchers.  If the entity that controls a certain domain space uses it well, we should expect in the long run that this TLD will become a useful indicator.  Likewise, if the entity floods it with useless content, then that TLD may actually be punished by Google.  For companies that control their own gTLDs that’s good news since they can ensure that this domain space is filled with relevant, useful content.  In fact, the content they would include even without SEO considerations is very likely to fit that description.
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The one standing order that all knowledge workers should have

In my career I’ve held and managed a lot of knowledge worker positions, particularly positions where a considerable amount of strategic thinking is required for success.  Over the years I’ve evolved a single standing order that everyone who works for me has.  It’s quite simple:

Always know and be able to articulate the reasons you have for making the choices you do.

That’s it.  As I’ve written in the past, you hire brains, not bodies, so it’s essential that these brains are switched on and doing what they do best.  It’s easy for anyone – especially as we become comfortable in our jobs – to kind of turn it off and fly on autopilot.  But since knowledge workers essentially have been hired to think, if you go onto autopilot you’re not doing your job anymore.

Note that the rule is to know and articulate your reasons, not anticipate what reasons I would come up with.  That’s a critical point.  I don’t have the reasonable expectation that nobody who works for me will make a mistake ever (and I wouldn’t want them to be that cautious anyway), and I also don’t expect anyone to channel my own decision making and become a Tim Callan satellite.  Not only would these expectations be impossible to deliver on, but they wouldn’t yield the best results anyway.

But it is reasonable for me to expect that you’re always doing the best you can, that you’re taking the knowledge, experience, and reason available to you and using them make the best decisions you’re able to make.  So long as the people who work for me are doing that, we’re good.

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New gTLDs are on the way

We’re about to reach a sea change moment in internet naming.  Starting early next year, organizations will be able to apply for their own Top Level Domains (TLDs).  TLDs are the rightmost strings on internet addresses.  We’re all familiar with .com, .net, .edu, and the like, but if you include country code TLDs (ccTLDs), there are nearly three hundred of them in total.

This system has clear inherent weaknesses.  How do I know if I need to find a specific domain at .com or .net?  Do I look for a non-US business under .com or the appropriate ccTLD?  What is the relationship between physical geography, national jurisdiction, and an internet domain?  Is bit.ly really in Libya?  What percentage of .co, .me, and .tv domains are for entities located in Columbia, Montenegro, and Tivolu, respectively?  And how come nobody seems to have a .us domain?

Not to mention the bigger problem of what happens when all the useful words are taken.  Believe it or not, we’re facing that problem on popular domains like .com and .net.  In particular, all legal strings of five or fewer characters are owned by someone on the .com TLD.  That presents problems for businesses, charities, individuals, etc. who are looking to create sensible web addresses to communicate with the public.

I’ve long imagined that this naming system would require some kind of alteration as time went on.  We’re seeing a step in that progress (though surely not the last) coming up next year.  When internet naming corporation ICANN opens for applications early next year, interested parties will be able to apply for their own TLDs.  Since they won’t be ccTLDs, they will go by the term general TLD, or gTLD.

New gTLDs could serve a number of functions.  The obvious ones are naming spaces to serve a specific customer or type of content, such as .bank or .secure.  There also is a great deal of interest in TLDs for cities (.paris) or for specific companies.  It’s easy to imagine the benefit of, let’s say, .sony.  In this case Sony could stand up sites at viao.sony, playstation.sony, movies.sony, customerservice.sony, etc.

Pundits are speculating that there will be thousands of gTLD applications, and I believe it.  I, for one, am going to be fascinated to see how this whole things plays out.

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The customer persona: When to use it and when not

One of the hot emerging tools in the marketing world is the concept of the persona.  The idea behind a persona is to take a clearly definable segment of your customer base and invent a prototypical member of that segment.  You detail that member in quite a bit of depth.  (“Here is Roger.  He’s 27 years old and has an IT degree from San Jose State.”)  Your persona should contain the key information about what drives purchase decisions.  These data include:

  • Roger’s key motivators at work
  • His key objectives
  • His important worries
  • His connection to the budgeting process
  • And the like.

You write it all up in a crisp document – some people include a picture – and circulate it for everyone in your organization to see, so that they know what this meaningful segment of our customer base looks like.

Do bear in mind that Roger is not a real person.  I didn’t find a customer and detail him.  What I did was use my knowledge of many customers in this segment to create a composite who was the most accurate representation of what is typical among this segment.  Your persona should not be an outlier on any meaningful quality of the segment.  If the majority of your buyers in this segment have MBAs, then give Roger an MBA.  If the majority are male, make Roger male.

Also note that personas need to be fact-based.  You need to take genuine knowledge of the customer and use it to answer these questions.  If you don’t have genuine knowledge (and if the questions matter), then go get it.  Otherwise you’re not disseminating customer knowledge, you’re just engaged in MSU.

MSU = Making Shit Up

Some people are persona die-hards.  Many people never use them.  I’m somewhere in the middle.  I believe the extent and nature of my use of personae is directly connected to the needs of my company.

When to use personae

  • When you have clearly defined segments that differ from each other in meaningful, actionable ways.
  • When you have enough facts at your disposal to be confident that your personae are accurate.
  • When this knowledge is not already ubiquitous or second nature to a large number of people in the organization.
  • When more compelling facts are not available to govern your decision making instead.
  • When the company is positioned to take advantage of increased customer understanding.

And of course you wouldn’t use them when circumstances are more or less the opposite.  To wit,

When not to use personae

  • When you don’t really understand who your target customers are.  Under these circumstances personae can make speculation into gospel and stifle learning and innovation.
  • When you lack a relatively small number of clearly defined segments who would warrant changes in your approach to them.  If there’s only one meaningful segment (as I once read is true of premium wine buyers), then the persona is less important.
  • When everyone in the organization already has a deep appreciation for the facts that govern purchasing behavior among your customers.  In this case personae can just turn into busy work,
  • When more indicative data (such as metrics and statistical behaviors) are available to drive decision making instead.  Many e-commerce businesses, for example, have clear factual understanding of how consumers behave in different circumstances.  This knowledge is more compelling in making appropriate decisions than a persona would be.
  • When the company can’t apply them.  Sometimes it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.  Or the high priority initiatives are so crystal clear that your actual behavior won’t change based on personae.  In this case they again turn into a distraction from the real goals and are best omitted until you have a chance to use them properly.
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What will my new job mean to the Tim Callan on Marketing and Technology blog?

In light of yesterday’s announcement about my decision to join Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services as Chief Marketing Officer, one obvious question is what will it mean to the Tim Callan on Marketing and Technology blog?

It will not mean that I discontinue writing this blog.  As I’ve explained in an earlier post, I created, authored, and ran a very active and widely read security blog when I was at VeriSign.  During those five years and 439 posts, I often thought about interesting marketing, sales, or technology topics that were outside the very specific scope of that blog.  When I eventually decided to kick this blog into production, it was so that I had a place to discuss those topics.

I don’t see how my new job will cause me to have fewer of those ideas.  If anything, working in a vibrant and interesting technology space tends to give me more of them.  I don’t share confidential information on this blog, and I’ll continue not to do so when I’m working at Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services.

The only potential obstacle is that I might get super busy and have trouble finding time to write.  But I was super busy at VeriSign, and I still managed to put up eighty posts a year, so I figure I can handle that as well.

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Tim Callan to join Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services as CMO

I’m very pleased to announce that today I accepted an offer to join Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services as Chief Marketing Officer.  The company provides software and services to monitor and protect your online corporate identity – including domain name registration and management, online brand protection, and new gTLD consulting services.  In addition to being a successful, well run company, Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services offers a very high value benefit to corporations at reasonable prices with very little effort needed on the customer’s side.  I was a customer in a previous life, and I was always impressed with how much I got for the budget I spent.  Now I look forward to introducing others to this opportunity as well.

I’m taking a couple of weeks off to tend to some personal affairs before plunging into this next adventure.

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