A Very Good Year for Good Men

GMPI started writing for The Good Men Project in its second year of life, offering to share some of my thoughts on business, creative leadership, and management also published on my own blog. In its third year I joined the board of directors and became a strategic advisor to the CEO. As we embark now on its fourth year, I continue onward, helping to accelerate our growth, invigorated by what our CEO and team have accomplished in driving, “The Conversation No One Else is Having.”

What is this Good Man Project? It’s an editorial content destination you’ll find on the web and through mobile, riding the wave of digital publishing through curated editorial viewpoints on topics ranging from love and parenting to ethics and sports. Founded by entrepreneur Tom Matlack, our vision is never to tell anyone what we think a good man might be, but to share the considered points of view of thousands of vetted contributors on the uneasy questions surrounding the issues of being a man in the 21st century. Why Good Man and not Good Person? We observe that there are any number of sites dealing with the broader issues faced by both genders, but almost none taking a serious approach to some of the deeper issues faced by men. Curiously, we have found our audience to be half men and half women, with our contributors mirroring that dichotomy. Perhaps more interestingly, we find no bias as to whether a topic is covered by a man or a woman, and in the often hundreds of comments that follow our stories, we observe men and women talking with each other about subjects you seldom observe strangers discussing and debating without invective or attack. It’s a wild line we walk, and we love it.

How are we doing after three years on the playing field? Here are a few metrics that make us especially proud:

  • We have surpassed 150 million cumulative page views.
  • We have published over 22,000 articles.
  • We have ranked as high as #243 in Quantcast.
  • We average about 3 million page views per week, with more than half our stories getting over 5000 views and our best stories over 100,000 views. And of course we occasionally have runaway hits that are off the charts.
  • We have over 60,000 Facebook fans and over 100,000 Twitter followers.
  • Our work is overseen by more than 30 editors from the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Spain, and the U.K.

What do we think about this? We call it a decent start. If you had asked anyone at the launch of The Good Men Project how far into the future 100 million page views would be, I promise you no one would have said 3 years–not a chance! So when we think about what our business might look like a year from today, it is impossible for us to predict much of anything other than to say we aspire to do better.

When asked to what do I attribute our joyous success to date, that’s easy: People, Products, Profits, in that order. Yes, that happens to be my life mantra for innovation and the theme of my blog, but like I say, for me, these aren’t words, it’s a mandate. Recently I was reviewing a draft of our annual report with our CEO–more about her in a moment–and as we edited our slides, I got fixated on a virtual org chart that we didn’t have a year ago. It was a matrix of our editors and the categories they cover every week. In looking at that chart and how it tied back to our exponentially increased workflow, it was once again obvious to me that none of this would be possible without the immense talent in our community; these are the People who create our Product. That Product, our collection of stories and voices to which we add new material almost every waking hour of the day, is what our customers experience. The excellence of that Product is our lifeblood, and our unending commitment to improve it is what has graciously allowed us to create an embraced customer experience. Customers mean the world to us, their experience is what matters most, but it is our team that creates that experience, and that is where we focus our energy. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, having focused on People and Products, we are already modestly profitable, albeit at a very early scale, enough to let us recommit to our core values.

None of this would be possible without the ceaseless commitment of our CEO, Lisa Hickey. Lisa’s passion for this subject is exemplary, and her evangelism for our brand and our community is a source of pride for everyone involved with this mission. I honestly don’t think she sleeps. She is at the helm of every aspect of The Good Men Project from uptime to story selection to ad sales to social media integration. And yes, Lisa is a woman guiding The Good Man Project, and that is a big part of what makes us unique. She is welcoming, encouraging, open-minded, and forward-thinking. Most of all, she is a great partner, and I will have to twist her virtual arm to leave this paragraph in the post.

We thank everyone involved–our readers, our commentors, our writers, our editors, our sponsors, and our suppliers–for being part of this launch. We hope if you are a regular, you will sign up for our free email list (we publish a fantastic daily digest) or consider becoming a premium member for a small fee that includes a welcome gift. If you haven’t visited The Good Men Project in a while, come see how we have shaped and molded and evolved our site over the first three years, then join our community and help us take it together into the future. Like I said, we’re just getting started. We have a tremendous amount of work to do, and we can’t do it without you!

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Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

Investors and company executives are cheering of late for the resurgence of Facebook above its IPO price from about a year ago.  Mobile growth is the story at Facebook, and many are pleased with the associated revenue progress.  I wish everyone well tallying their riches.  I am still not sure how much significant value is being created, particularly as it applies to the company’s core advertising business.  And hey, I was a very early believer in this business model and all the promise it held as the definitive interactive media platform of a generation — kind of like the first time as I kid when I saw a movie on HBO, a complete movie on television with no commercials, I just  knew something good had happened and someone was going to get rich as a result.  Uh, that was for taking the ads away.

If you are active on Facebook, particularly mobile, you probably weren’t surprised by the earnings improvement.  You’ve seen the ads — oh, have you seen the ads — you can’t miss them, right there in your news feed, as intrusive as the interface mandates.  Recently an ad for a salacious French maid’s costume was offered to me with the following copy — pretty much full screen — and I was kindly given the opportunity to Like the page:

“This five-piece At Your Service set from Dreamgirl comes with a sexy babydoll with apron, maid’s hat, ruffle back thong, and feather duster.”

Curiously this clever bit of sponsored media appeared above a friend’s timely post on racism and below a post from a financial journal I follow on how to avoid manipulated options.  I suppose under certain circumstances this might be considered targeting, but I can honestly assert I was not in the market for such an outfit, either for myself or as a gift, nor had any click stream I created left a trail for the behavioral targeters.  Perhaps they could have offered me a nice bottle of Bordeaux, which would have made sense since I am a wine enthusiast and often post articles about my favorite varietals on Facebook, and I’m guessing their database knows I have a Pinterest board on the subject of value excellence (“Good Wine, Good Price“), but no such luck.  I am a middle-aged male, heterosexual, and married, so maybe that’s the profile they sold to the advertiser.  I would guess that the CPM (in ad-speak, that’s “cost per thousand” impressions, where the M is the Latin numeral) was very, very low, offset by volume that was very, very high.  Again in ad-speak, we sometimes call that “dollar-a-holler.”  In these cases, maybe a nickel.

Just so it’s clear that I am not picking on Facebook, my friends at AOL Mail where I have maintained the same email account for about a quarter century, now offer a curious feature: After I send an email, the confirmation screen is filled with singles looking for a date.  It’s nice to see that the advertiser is not presumptuous; sometimes they offer me women and sometimes men.  The fact that the advertising delivery system is ambivalent toward my preference is unusually progressive.  It also is quite genially unconcerned that my wife continues to see my email send pages resolve to these artifacts on our shared monitor.

Note to New Media Companies, with love, from Old Media Companies: Some things have not changed, including that there are still four key constituents in the advertising equation:

1) The manufacturer or seller of products and services.

2) The ad network or agency.

3) The media delivery vehicle or platform.

4) The viewer of the ad.

For full value to be created, all four have to be satisfied by the results of the supply chain.  For real ongoing business, it is most essential that #1 and #4 are happy, so that #2 and #3 can speak to a job well done.

Let’s look at all four in the French maid and available-singles ad examples and see who is happy working backward:

4) Me: Not happy, except that it gave me an idea for this story.

3) Facebook and AOL; Happy (except if they read this post); they got paid by #1.

2) Agency or network: Happy; they found plentiful inventory in the form of my news feed and mail page, and they also got paid by #1.

1) Advertisers: Should not be too happy; they paid the bill, and I am making fun of them for it.

So the owner of the bill and the receiver of the message are not happy (#1 and #4), but the middle-folks are just fine with it (#2 and #3).  Oh, they’ll tell you they are working on it, improving their targeting technology and all that, but they aren’t losing sleep, because they got paid.  They should be losing sleep, lots of it.

There is also an implicit fifth constituent, the expanded community surrounding the nucleus of the supply chain, particularly of significance in our interconnected world of social media.  When an offer is useful and enticing, like many of the tested e-coupons on RetailMeNot, pleased customers will gleefully pass them along.  That’s free evangelism from existing fans to unlimited prospects, making ad dollars work even harder through leverage.  When ads are garbage, they are terminal, mercifully so.  In fact, bad-vertising can hurt a brand through negative association — poor word of mouth is difficult if not impossible to combat.  Wonder if your would-be customers are laughing at you?  You may not know until the community turns on you, then it’s costly to recover, or perhaps too late.

When advertising works — the right, relevant message in front of the right, engaged human being — it can be an excellent experience.  Absent concerns about privacy, you might embrace the very respect involved in not having to see ads you don’t care about.  But all this posturing about collecting intelligence on customers to deliver better leads — how come I’m still getting ads for reverse mortgages on My Yahoo homepage, which has every financial feed coming through loud and clear to tell them I’m a reasonably well heeled owner?  That page is still sold as remnant inventory (in ad-speak, leftovers) at bargain-basement prices, maybe less than the French maid costume or the singles ads.  Some money being left on the table there?  They’ll probably tell you no.  They would be wrong.

As the national dialogue on privacy invasion is reaching fever pitch, even POTUS has been dragged into the ruckus with a defensive “Don’t worry, we respect you while we protect you” mantra.  That dialogue is likely to resolve itself in the dialectic, because it is a civil rights discussion grounded in our cherished democracy.  I actually think that problem is going to get solved before the ad targeting starts to get it right, because there is too much money at stake for annoying and disrupting us that no one really wants to give back.  Like the story goes, always follow the money — the real today-money, not the theoretical long-term-value, someday-we’ll-get-this-right money.  Why would you want to do that?

Maybe I’ll just watch HBO.  The price has skyrocketed, but the shows are pretty good, and it is still ad free.  I am always willing to pay for that.

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Like Is Not Enough

AllYouNeedAll You Need Is Love” — Lennon/McCartney, The Beatles

Facebook over the past several years has done the unexpected in creating exponentially vast usage of the noun/verb Like. This has been fun for those of us who indulge in broadly stamping our personal approvals on anything from a friend’s single syllable utterance to the launch of a new wave of flavored taco shells. Some argue the Like button has diluted the very significance it is meant to convey by spawning misguided promotions to increase click tallies, while others maintain it is the metaphysical fuel that rocketed Facebook into the stratosphere as the place advertisers have to be to mine explicit commendations. Regardless of the ultimate conviction it conveys, Like is an ultra easy way to express a soft high-five in public without any substantive commitment, and if you change your mind, you can Unlike something just as quickly.

While the full measure in a Like action remains on the light side of hand-waving, for marketers it can nonetheless provide an easy litmus test to note directionally if their intended messages are registering at all. Registering is not necessarily resonating, but it is a decent stride across the starting line. Getting someone to Like your brand for the long haul—on Facebook or along the purchase funnel—will never be a small task, but my sense is there is one constant in consistent success: For star marketers to get a Like, they must first Love.

I wrote about a similar topic not long ago in a post about eating your own dog food, where I suggested if you don’t use your own products, how could you expect anyone else to pay you for the privilege. This is a tangent to that thread, where of late I have observed entire marketing teams dogged by cynicism. They are charged with brand evangelism, but in their own minds, they are either not engaged in the true value proposition of their products and services or they have given up on their own futures, proclaiming themselves victims of an ice age they believe is imminent and unavoidable. I believe we often refer to this malady as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently in a meeting with a team of executives who had invited me to help them with some seismic strategic planning issues, I noticed a through line where all of the many accomplished marketing executives in the room found a way to get on each other’s bandwagon, lamenting that their company’s future was not bright. I thought this was simply a down cycle in the conversation which is normal in brainstorming, but the negative energy was a contagion. Here we were, charged with helping reinvent the company, a blue sky path to infusing new levels of Like into brands that were already broadly embraced, but no consensus was emerging on how past Like could become new Like, or dare I say it, Love. As an outsider, I saw that their brands were certainly challenged in the market place, they had seen some decline, but they had in no way collapsed. Yet here the brand stewards being paid quite well for their presumed passion had convinced themselves their brands were dying—a sickness that was terminal and could not be reversed. Where I really got myself in trouble was asking the team how many of them still loved these brands. The rest of the assignment was awfully quiet.

If a brand steward does not start the day in Love with a brand, by the time that apathy translates and diffuses itself into a campaign of communication tactics, Like is not going to be there with the public. Better the executives hand in the baton and give the assignment to someone else who might find a way to convince themselves there is light ahead, yet throwing yourself on the sword for lack of conviction is not a road well-traveled in business. Instead it is likely that these brands will die, even though they could fight on, because no one behind them has the Love to fight. I wonder if the CEOs at the top of these companies know their chief lieutenants have already surrendered to creative destruction rather than rallied to next generation rebirth. Even if the beaten executives are right and the brand is destined to die, shouldn’t someone else who doesn’t believe that be given the chance to prove otherwise—to try with honest enthusiasm to wrestle imagination and go a different route that might just work despite the naysayers? Perhaps some of the CEOs are biding time as well, but my sense is most of those wouldn’t last too long in a board meeting. Love has to be real, and it has to start at the top.

Can someone in a marketing job walk away nobly from a lack of Love? Sometimes I think it is necessary and essential. A very successful friend recalled for me recently how early in her career she was working for a multi-national corporation on a vastly successful billion dollar brand that had of late stalled in its growth, years after it had gone wild and saturated market share. The team brainstormed and came to the conclusion that to reignite growth, marketing programs would have to implicitly suggest that the brand being marketed met the needs of a more healthful alternative already for sale, and that by shifting use from the believed healthful product to the growing brand, nothing would be lost and everything would be gained. Mind you, nothing illegal was being plotted and the campaign would by default have to meet truth in advertising laws, but the very idea that the only way to grow the brand was to pull attention from a more healthy alternative did not sit well with my friend. She understood the strategy, but she fell out of Love, and even out of Like. She did the right thing and left the company. Today she runs her own company and I can tell you this—she Loves her brand.

Remember this: a brand is not a logo or a trademark or a pithy name—a brand is a promise. You can stop loving a product line because it needs to change, indeed loving a product line too much can be a trap, but products are directed to evolve because loving the brand is a driving force. A brand is a set of choices that begins and ends with meeting customer needs. The branding process begins with ideation, continues through product development, then translates into communication (these days bidirectional feedback loops, like we see in social media, more than soap box broadcasting) and ultimately does or doesn’t result in customer loyalty. When you make a promise to your customers, you are obliged to make good on that promise. My sense is for that to happen repeatedly and predictably, if you are part of the creative cycle, you must Love, Love, Love your brands. If you don’t, no one else will.

If for some chronic reason you’re convinced a brand truly is at end of life, the right thing to do is protect working capital and advocate to take it out of commission mercifully. It is wrong to shovel high-priced coal into an engine you believe will no longer run because you’re pretending to believe a directive handed down that you knowingly disavow. Don’t try to fake it! If you don’t Love your brand, go find another that you can Love. If you are biding your time waiting to be found out, don’t worry, you will be found out. Your customers will do that for you. You need their Like. They deserve your Love.

Love, Love, Love.

Do I Have To Eat It?

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Jesse Kornbluth, a onetime devoted and inspired employee of America Online, pondered the question of “How AOL—aka Facebook 1.0—Blew Its Lead.” Kornbluth does a good job acknowledging the irony of overlap between the fallen angel and the rising star—the staggering power of community, the seduction of the walled garden, the financial reward of vast momentum—but more importantly, he gets his head around what he believes to be the downward turning point for his former employer. It was not so much the bursting of the bubble, nor even the distractions of failed promise in the historic merger with Time Warner. As a product person, Kornbluth saw the blood start to flow when those who loved product began to be overruled by those who lived by argument. Those arguments were not the healthy tension of developers debating the relative merits of features and benefits. The conflict shifted to initiatives in product strategy that were driven by individuals who had assured themselves their creative ideas would lead to success, even though they did not much have time to embrace and use AOL they way its creators had previously.

When the consultants arrived, strategy was not driven by those who embraced the product and its audience; strategy became a set of theoretical suppositions evidenced by the competitive landscape. There were only two problems: 1) the consultants were no more obsessively using competitive products than those of AOL; and 2) the competitive landscape was crumbling because it was just as inorganic in construct, itself no more than the conclusions of observation. Using a product is not trying it once, it is using it every day and using competitive products to fully internalize how bad becomes good and good becomes great. Data, analysis, reconnaissance, and interpretation are all essential in responding to hyper growth, but if you aren’t eating your own dog food, all bets are off.

Yes, you must Eat Your Own Dog Food.

Alpo Lorne GreeneSome people trace this edict to the television commercials for Alpo in the 1970s and 1980s where Lorne Greene made a point of showing us that he fed the very product he endorsed to his own dogs. No, he didn’t actually eat it himself, but the way he looked at it, you could tell he might be considering it. His dogs were an extension of himself. That love made it clear he would only feed them a product he trusted, and he would only endorse it publicly because he trusted it. I am not saying he was right. I am just noting than his conviction was visceral.

In the software spectrum, the phrase “Eating Our Own Dog Food” is more commonly traced to a 1988 memo from then Microsoft Manager Paul Maritz, encouraging his team to obsess over use of Microsoft’s products. His basic tenet was that to win a category and perfect your work, you had to be the consumer. The memo spread widely throughout Microsoft, over the gate and through the industry. It resonated with many of us, and began being accompanied by such observations as, “If you won’t use the software when it’s free, why should anyone pay you for it?”

Soon after came the dawn of the Dot-com age in the mid 1990s, quickly followed by the implosion of Web 1.0 known as the Dot-bomb era circa 2000. Interesting to note, a few of the companies that survived the turmoil and went onto become the great first generation brands of the Internet like Amazon and eBay made it a point to eat their own dogfood. While third-party consultants poured into corporations to sort out their tanking business models and rationalize their value propositions, far too many of those consultants were busy writing decks and compiling spread sheets. When you asked them what online products and services they loved, they often couldn’t respond, because they were too overwhelmed by time commitments to use the products they would evaluate, let alone love them. For those who had already been through a product development cycle or two, the writing was on the whiteboard.

The absolute necessity of eating your own dog food is anything but limited to software. If you design cars for a living and are not planning to drive your own creation when it comes off the line, how can you attend to every nuance and detail that sets apart your vehicle from the vast number of choices already available for sale? If your team designs a new line of workplace apparel intended to be marketed as more comfortable, durable, and stylish than everything else already hanging on the rack, will you not be planning to wear what you have produced proudly at least a few days each week out of pure joy? When you have the privilege to be creative and innovative in your occupation, you are quickly humbled by the fact that an idea for a new product or service however inspired and brilliant is in fact almost worthless. Customers seldom buy or become loyal to the ideas you pitch. Until a concept is executed expertly and embraced by those who will champion it, it really is just a first draft—perhaps filled with promise, but nonetheless in need of refinement, iteration, and polish. There is a long and winding road from pitch to product, and all along the way details have to be vetted first by those who most love the work, the creators.

Apple long ago coined this notion as Evangelism, and no Apple Evangelist in his or her right mind would try to get you excited about a product they weren’t already using themselves. To be fair, Evangelism is a beginning, not an end, after which customer feedback must become part of the process, but if our goal in social marketing is to engage our community in a supportive and seamless dialogue, then we owe it to them to initiate the dialogue with honesty, commitment, and passion. There will always be pain to share in early releases, but the more defects we extract ahead of release because we already know they are there, the more our customers can trust us to take them seriously in allowing our own needs to be met before we presume to address theirs.

Design is not cynical; its true elegance is purely self-reflective because form and function are easily evaluated in day-to-day use. If something is good enough for your dog, it might be good enough for someone else’s dog. Now imagine if you ensured it was good enough for you before you topped off the can. That would be some seriously tasty dog food. Go on, take a byte.