Have you heard of a virtual world  called Whyville?

SecondLife, Club Penguin (bought by Disney for $700 million if the owners hit their entire earn-out), There.com, Gaia, Barbie Girls, Webkinz… all of these I know.  And as a marketer, many of us have certainly looked at SecondLife in particular and said… do I have to?
But I somehow missed Whyville, even though it’s been around since 1999.  And more notable than its age  is its humility in the face of success:  the site has somewhere around 2.4 million active users age 8-15 (70% of whom are registered), and 60,000 new kids register each month.   As virtual worlds go, users can do all the standard things – you can chat with your friends, earn currency to buy stuff, etc. – but Whyville offers an amazing twist, a la Jerry Seinfeld’s wife hiding squash in chocolate chip cookies to get her kids to eat vegetables…

 Whyville members can play games that are actually educational – a strategy that the site’s COO calls “active brain advertising.”  Kids whose avatars don’t eat nutritionally might find their little fake selves’ faces pockmarked with scurvy; others had to clean up after the advertiser Penguin Books caused a devastating storm as part of a campaign for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So what is this place??  Whyville’s “About Us” section says that it was founded “to apply over 20 years of research in education and cooperative learning to develop new web-based tools for education,” and the company works with partners such as Getty, NASA and the School Nutrition Association to create and deliver fun content that is also educational.  Increasingly, Whyville is finding its way into the classroom, providing the ultimate endorsement.

 The site does work with advertisers and paying sponsors, like Penguin and Virgin Records, but I was impressed to learn that it also surveys members before and several times after a campaign as to the effectiveness of the advertising, possible purchase intent and other factor.  That’s good for the advertisers and the site as it works to refine its programming and adhere to its mission.  To the extent it can, I hope that Whyville continues to stay about reproach:  a Toyota campaign caught some flak – not a lot, but such an obvious play to get kids to influence their parents’ purchase of a car could have taken a chink out of the site’s educational armor.
And that’s not worth the risk because this is a pretty amazing site.  Luckily, just because I missed it doesn’t mean others have:  Whyville won the 2006 iParenting award for being the best kids Web site and best on the Web for its safety features.   And to me all this spells opportunity:  for kids, their parents and teachers, advertisers… and maybe a buyer in the future?secondlifesecond-life

I’ve been tagged by Stephanie Cockerl to participate in a b5media’s meme about 7 (G-rated) things you may not know about me.   So here it goes.

  1. I went to high school in Texas.
  2. I am still in the same apartment I moved into after business school (two words:  rent control).
  3. I am addicted to Japanese vinyl toys, a la KidRobot in Soho.
  4. I was once ordered to make a halloween costume for someone at work – and I did.
  5. I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve never been to Governors Island (it’s been open to the public since, uh, 2004… hey, I’ve been busy!).
  6. I am a huge fan of subway art.
  7. The only other language I know so far is… Latin.  So if I ever have to take the SATs again, I’m ready.

I have tagged 7 other people to participate:

Mark Potts:  Recovering Journalist

Sam Taylor;  Reputation-Dynamics

Paul Dunay:  Buzz Marketing for Technology

Saul Colt:  Smartest Man in the World!

Jarvis Cromwell:  Reputation Garage

Steve Sieck:  SKS Advisors

Joe Jaffe:  Crayon + other endeavors

According to The New York Times, a meme “is an infectious idea or any other thing that spreads by imitation from person to person… the World Wide Web is the perfect Petri dish for memes.”  It seems like a 21st century chain letter to me but (a) neither I nor any of my family was threatened with death if I didn’t ‘pass it on,’ so that’s an improvement, and (b) it seems a harmless way to connect with people and to promote websites and blogs not only inside your existing network but to a broader audience, as well. 

Perhaps memes could be worked into fresh “Refer A Friend” online customer acquisition campaigns.

Halloween with the King

October 21st, 2007

If you’re anything like me, you have set aside the strategic plan and final 2008 budget deliverables due to your boss next week to do something really important:  plan your Halloween costume! 

Ah, so many choices.  In New York, as I’m sure in other places (maybe…), temporary pop-up stores abound just to sell Halloween costumes – so the mind boggles.  Stressed out executive?  Nah. New York resident pushed to the ‘burbs because of rising apartment prices?  Gee, fascinating… but no.  Then I saw it.  So weird, so disgusting, so bizarre that it has its own Wikipedia entry…  an icon originally introduced in the 1970s and brought back to us in 2004 care of Crispin Porter + Bogusky…  As if the tv ad showing this dude waking up with you in the morning wasn’t enough to give me nightmares,  it’s (GAH!@*!!) Creepy King!


 I mean – isn’t there such a think as taking brand extensions a little too far?  Don’t answer that.  Just don’t stop here:  I only shelled out $69.99 for this baby.

In Part 1 of this series on growing and promoting brands online – that is, not just company brands but also your own – I mentioned that I’ve begun to consult and help others do just that. 

Here is a (my first ever) podcast that I did with “Buzz Marketing For Technology” blogger Paul Dunay about the importance of managing one’s own reputation online – check it out.   And thank you, Paul, for getting this important message out to your readers.

I’ve also copied most of a press release that was published last week below (the full release can be found here).  

Stephanie Fierman to Advise DIGO Clients on “Brand Self-Defense in The Digital Age”

DiMassimoGoldstein (NYC) beefs up ‘online brand advocacy’ offering by retaining the veteran marketer.

NEW YORK, Oct. 11  /PRNewswire/ — “We all know very well that our brands are less under our control and more under the sway of the digital multitudes. But it seems to us that this should be less like the weather — which everyone discusses, but no one seems to do anything about — and more like the other things we learn to manage and exercise some control over.” So says Mark DiMassimo, CEO of New York-based DiMassimoGoldstein (DIGO), in announcing his agency’s retaining of veteran marketer, Stephanie Fierman, to consult for the agency and its clients on the subject of digital brand self-defense. 

According to Fierman, “Max Kalehoff of Nielsen BuzzMetrics had it just right when he said that this is the age of ‘defensive branding.’  There’s so much a business can do to protect and defend its brand and reputation online, but most marketers still have no idea how to do this — either proactively, or reactively in a crisis.  Well I have  learned the hard way, and I’m looking forward to making it a lot easier for DiMassimoGoldstein’s clients.”Fierman refers to her own brand wake-up call, when she discovered that the top Google search results for “Stephanie Fierman” were anonymous lies and derogatory innuendo.  After months of “taking the high road and ignoring it,” Fierman started looking for answers.  What she’s learned, she now shares with other marketers who are anxious to hear from her.

This week, in addition to advising her growing client list, Fierman addressed the CMO Club in New York on the topic of online reputation management.

About DiMassimoGoldstein (DIGO):
DiMassimoGoldstein is a leading creative brand-building agency that partners with “B.R.A.V.E.” Marketers to manage brands that emerge from the din of the marketplace and the limitations of their categories. B.R.A.V.E. Marketers manage to be Be Real and Visionary Everywhere. We have  built our unique model doing just that for brands such as Comcast, Progressive, Gateway, Crunch Fitness, JetBlue, Clarisonic, Citibank, Starwood, GoSMILE, and Pfizer, among others. Visit us at http://www.digobrands.com/.

Available Topic Expert(s): For information on the listed expert(s), click appropriate link. Stephanie Fierman https://profnet.prnewswire.com/Subscriber/ExpertProfile.aspx?ei=68343 

So, Gentle Reader… I’m asking:  what have you done to build your online brand today?

“Reputation management” is certainly nothing new in the worlds of marketing and business.  A company’s reputation is its #1 asset, and organizations spend countless hours and dollars with advisors and PR firms to make sure their messaging is just right.  Certainly individuals care about their reputations just as much, but it’s not been my experience that the regular person, on average, thinks about actively protecting his or her own reputation. 

But as they say, “the Internet has changed everything.” Where once a newspaper article or TV segment might appear and be gone the next day, the Internet now permits anyone to post anything about any topic, whether it be true or false, and such content is often posted anonymously.  And then this questionable content hangs out on the search engines… forever.  While we all applaud the seemingly limitless amount of global news and information the Web literally brings into our homes every day, how much of it is credible when there are no filters?  How do you decide what is true and not – and do most people even try?  I’ve certainly seen my share of urban legend, business rumor and celebrity talk online, but never stopped to really consider or question the quality of the content I was seeing or the judgments I was making about the individuals being written about based on that information. 

This can happen to anyone – and will, in greater and greater numbers.  Only in the last two days a post by Henry Blodgett on Silicon Alley Insider about possible AOL layoffs unleashed a stream of anonymous posts from employees and former employees (146 in a little over two days, so far) not only about the company, but about current AOL executives that these anonymous individuals believe should be fired.  Names are named.   And then other anonymous people jump on the bandwagon.  And like a car wreck you see on the other side of the guardrail, I knew that I couldn’t believe anything on the page and that I should look away, but I didn’t.  One post names 27 executives that deserve to be “whack[ed].”  We also learn that at least one of AOL’s senior executives has questionable and discriminatory motives.  How are these executives to respond?  How will you respond in the future when it’s your turn? 

I am responding by doing exactly what I’ve been doing for companies for the last twenty years – that is, advising brands on how to get their messaging out in an authentic and successful way.  But this time you and I are the brands, and we need to work just as hard to make sure that what’s out there in the world is a true representation of who we are.  Not only do we deserve that, but the people who look for information about us on the Internet deserve that, too. 

This is the first of several posts I’ll be writing on the topic of online reputation management – that is, your reputation.  Stay tuned.

Like many marketers – especially direct marketers who study real behavior, in addition to demos and psychographics – I have long marveled at marketers’ general disregard for older Americans.  It’s  as if you become 35 (30?) and fall off the face of the marketing earth.  Or all your mail is suddenly about the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed or characterized by calls-to-action such as “Help!  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” 

So I have been really thrilled to see some of these attitudes change.  Dove, Vespa and Kelloggs have all done a nice job.  Companies are utilizing online advertising to reach the 60% of seniors and 80% of boomers are on the Internet.  And there are more websites reflecting the “young” older market, my favorite being the new tbd.com from Robin Wolaner.  TBD.com and others target a 40+ consumer who is physically and mentally active, likely to continue working at least part-time until they die or their health prohibits it (even with money, forget retirement – too boring) and very interested in romance, relationships and s-e-x.  Just yesterday there was an amazing article in the Wall Street Journal on how the sports medicine profession is branching out to embrace older athletes.  The article mentions that folks age 55 or older make up the fastest-growing segment of health-club members and that 10,000 competitors are expected to participate in the Huntsman World Senior Games, “an event in which anyone over 55 can compete in sports including basketball, triathlon and mountain biking .”  Triathlon??  Who, me? Right after my nap. It seemed that people were finally understanding that “psychographics are way more important than demographics” (Seth Godin) when marketing to seniors today. So I was quite discombobulated to read an article in AdAge (“How to Target Older Demos,” 9-24-07) that seemed to be pulling in the opposite direction.  An article in fact, that appeared to be pulling its readers back to the 1950s.The article is based on Project Looking Glass, a study completed by a marketing company called Varsity.  Varsity is unfamiliar to me.  Based on the physical layout of the AdAge page, my eye was naturally drawn first to the charts and bullets  – which is where I got into trouble with observations and tips such as:

·         Seniors 65+ share a Depression-era frugality

·         Problems with everyday activities are increased, such as bendig down or opening a package

·         Marketers should choose easy-to-see colors and feature young-looking people in ads

·         Companies should slow down voice prompts

·         If direct mail is employed, use thicker (easier-to-open) packaging

Now aside from the fact that I’m nowhere near my 60s and even I get creaky sometimes bending over, these details just sounded so lopsided compared to all of the current studies I’ve been reading!  The picture being painted was the classic “these are old people and bring on the Depends.”  What was going on here?

So I backtrack and actually read the article in question and discover that Project Looking Glass collected its data… during a month-long stay at a RETIREMENT COMMUNITY!!    I mean, the data may be perfectly sound based on a sample from a — repeat — RETIREMENT COMMUNITY — but it’s certainly not the representative and diverse sample that I assumed was the background for the article’s graphics.

A funny but serious example of how – when it comes to market research, as in most things – context is everything.

I admit it.  I have a special relationship with the Saturday Wall Street Journal. Many of you will recall the brouhaha when Dow Jones launched the Saturday edition in 2006.  Do they have enough non-endemic advertising to make it profitable?  What will it look like?  Will anyone read it?  Don’t we have ENOUGH to read? 

Well I love the Saturday Wall Street Journal, and I’ll tell you why.  For most, Saturday is the only day of the week when one does not have to go to work the very next day.  Saturday mornings are full of promise.  The streets are (sort of) empty, and I believe that, this time, the weekend really will last forever.  Then I joyfully kick back to read what I consider Dow Jones’ own version of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” 

Yes folks, I love the Saturday WSJ because I think it’s the kookiest read around.  It takes the WSJ brand in a whole different direction… but I can’t quite figure out what that direction is!  I mean, if business can be funny, it is actually funny.  I don’t know if the newsroom actually holds back nutty stories (“Hey, it’s only Tuesday:  let’s hold that ‘puppy saves Fortune 100 company with magic drool’ story ‘til Saturday!”) but it might as well. 

Here are my favorite selections from the Saturday, Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal: 

·         OK, right out of the box, I’m going to cheat a little.  “The Hit List” is where the Saturday WSJ gives a well-known person the opportunity to share his or her favorite music.  Today, I have to admit, the column actually made sense, with Barry Manilow choosing his favorite music.  The time they thought I’d be interested to know what John Malcovich (best known for dangerous, slimy characters in films such as “Dangerous Liasons” and “In the Line of Fire”) listens to, however, I did wonder what they were thinking.  Next up:  “Salman Rushdie chooses songs to hide by…” 

·         This one is too perfect for a superhero lover to pass up.  Under the headline “Economan Pleads Guilty” is a story of a guy named Al Parish who took 500 investors for about $90 milion dollars, which he used to buy himself some major bling.  To top it off, Parish was apparently known for his flashy appearance and a website that showed him – wait for it – dressed as a superhero with a huge “E” on his chest.   

·         A great fox guarding the hen house story…  We should all be relieved to know that Whole Foods, John Mackey’s own company, has completed an internal investigation of John Mackey, and John Mackey had decided to “reaffirm” his support for John Mackey. 

Mackey is the CEO who, while attempting a hostile take-over of Whole Food’s chief competitor, Wild Oats, was simultaneously using an alias to post blog comments badmouthing Wild Oats and implying the target company was unstable and in poor financial health. In addition, “Harobed” (the unbreakable code equaling his wife’s name spelled backwards) liked to praise himself in creepy ways, saying in one post, “I like John Mackey’s haircut.  I think he looks cute!” 

This. Story. Is. Hilarious!  I mean… how are we supposed to take the businessworld seriously?  Senior execs knew that Mackey was the mystery blogger back in 2001 but said nothing, violating what many would perceive to be their duty to serve this public company’s shareholders.  They all still have their jobs.  And you have a CEO clearly trying to influence the purchase price of a target competitor… when not spending his time online saying that he thinks he’s cute!!!  Wow.  Hey SEC, anyone home?  

·         Peggy Noonan is best known as an assistant to Reagan and a speechwriter for G.H. Bush.  She is the person who gave us “one thousand points of light,” “Read my lips:  no new taxes” and the book, The Case Against Hilary Clinton.  Since then, she has attempted to appear more moderate, and write about both sides of the political aisle, but it just never… works.  She… leaks, here and there.

Thus I thought truly goofy Peggy Noonan’s piece today called “The Trance.”  It appears to be about the thoughtful look (?) Obama gets when he’s thinking, which is weird enough, but then she makes a crack about whether or not he actually can think.  That Peggy Noonan, I know.  Then she whipsaws toward complimenting other Democratic candidates such as Chris Dodd and I’m confused again.

 Thankfully, all is made well when it becomes clear that the entire purpose of her approximately 1,200 word article is to slam Hilary Clinton.  Well why didn’t you just say that upfront, silly? It would have saved me about 1,100 words…

  ·         And finally, a long riff from Steve Stechlow on his love for Bruce Springsteen.  Best part:  Stechlow bestows the greatest love of all on his teenage son when he invites the kid to Springsteen’s opening night in Hartford.  Long pause.   Kid’s response: “Who else is playing?”  Stechlow: “It is… a body blow.  How could I have failed so miserably as a father?”  Funny for the text, and hilarious because… THIS is a WSJ story?! 

So the next time you need a refreshing businessworld-relevant giggle, read the Saturday Wall Street Journal.  I can promise you as much humor as probably any newpaper, short of The Onion, can muster.

Richard Branson’s Virgin is one of the biggest brands in the world – nearly everywhere but the United States. There have been plenty of launches over the years:  Virgin Mobile by all rights could perhaps be considered the most successful.  There has also been Virgin Cola, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Comics and, most recently, Virgin Money.  Someone please let me know if I’ve missed any others. 

Cleverly, most of these come out of Virgin USA, which describes itself as a venture capital organization that looks for and invests in underserviced consumer markets that could be transformed by Virgin’s trademark characteristics of “value for money, good quality, innovation, exceptional customer service, fun and a sense of competitive challenge.”  Goodness knows it does seem to work everywhere else, with 50,000 employees generating $20 billion in top-line revenue each year from Virgin-branded companies. 

Now comes Virgin America, which launched its U.S. service on August 8 and so far, so good.  Like JetBlue, my opinion is that this new airline is trying to focus on what matters to flyers – that is, of the factors they can impact – including attitude, routes, prices, a robust frequent flyer program and decent seating/well-considered planes.  This is not to say that the consumer technology isn’t way cool, because it is.  A superior seatback in-flight entertainment system that offers PPV movies, games and live satellite TV, with high speed Internet access coming next year.  And for the truly lazy such as myself, I can swipe my credit card and order a sandwich without having to raise my arm aaaaall the way up to push that little button.  Plus, the airline hired one of my favorite shops, Anomaly, to do everything from advertising to merchandise to uniforms.  I knock none of it.  As a marketer, I know that this is what branding dreams are made of.   But this business in this country? Yikes.  I’m just skeptical that being “the most geek-friendly airline ever invented” is what will ultimately attract a loyal, long-term audience in the U.S.  We Americans tend to ask for style in our airlines but favor price and routes.  So we’ll see.   

One note on Americans and Virgin America:  we sure gave the company a tough go of it.  The DOT forced the airline to replace its founding CEO, shed most of Branson’s stake and appoint an independent (U.S.) trustee to represent his remaining 25% share and report to federal regulators any loans Branson might make to the U.S. carrier. As usual, Branson kept on going, prompting Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to note that it’d be “tough to think of a company that has done as much to meet our standards for becoming a commercial airline.”  And it took a Brit to do it!

I grew up in an airline family and can remember just about every new launch, crash, failure, strike, pension collapse, and major snow storm since 1979.  It’s a wild business.  But while the runways may be absurdly overcrowded, this sector, like many, could always use a little entrepreneurship to keep folks on their best game.

And for you bloggers out there… click here for some amusing back-and-forth between Fake Steve Jobs and Fake Richard Branson.

Click here!


Mattel’s Missed Opportunity

September 24th, 2007

The most recent news on the Mattel toy recall story is the company’s apology to China.

Clearly Mattel and the entire toy industry have serious challenges right now, but this post is not about China, or manufacturing or lead paint: it’s about how puzzled I am that Mattel – the world’s biggest and perhaps most repected toy company – would permit others to control the story, particularly when the web makes it so easy to get a message out quickly, clearly, repeatedly and directly. Let’s look at just the last several days.

On Friday, September 21, Thomas Debrowski, Mattel’s head of operations, appeared on camera in China to personally apologize for its massive recall of Chinese-made toys.  Mattel made the decision to do this because most of the items were defective due to a (Mattel) design flaw and not because of a (Chinese) manufacturing problem. Several media outlets interpreted this move as Mattel’s attempt to protect its own fortunes, with ABC saying that the company was trying to patch up its relationship with a country that “makes most of its toys and fattens its profit” and the Washington Post pointing out that the toymaker “receives 65 percent of its toys from China and has made significant financial investments in the Asian country.” These reports prompted Mattel to react with a formal statement defending the apology and attempting to point out that it was very similar, if not the same, to the apologies that the company had offered in several other markets. Ugh.

So I went to mattel.com fully expecting the entire home page to be taken over by the company’s messaging and statements of caring and action about this situation. I assumed I would see perhaps one-click access to a moment-by-moment updated list of recalled toys, a video statement from the Chairman, further explanation of the company’s apology to the Chinese, an invitation to call a 24/7-manned 800# hotline for further information and messages to key stakeholders such as parents and stockholders. Maybe a corporate blog. I can’t overestimate how much I just assumed about what’d I’d find at their site. When I stopped for a moment to think about why, I realized, actually, that I had such positive feelings/memories about the company that I just figured they’d “do the right thing”:  Mattel itself is the entity that creating such high expectation on my part.

Here is a snapshot of Mattel’s home page as of Monday, September 24 at:


The main section of the well is unchanged (“The World’s Premier Toy Brands Today and Tomorrow”). Two smaller call-outs link to a recall list last updated September 4, nearly three weeks ago, and the only statement from the Chairman accessible from the home page is Mr. Eckert’s Wall Street Journal editorial dated September 11, more than two weeks ago. In what I consider to be a particularly painful irony, the third of the three call-outs notes that Mattel has been named one of the 100 best corporate citizens of 2007 by Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine.

The first item in a “Mattel in the News” section (IS there any other news?) refers to a new Barbie full-length DVD musical and kick-off event. [NOTE: as an aside, it is possible that Mattel is inadvertently damaging the potential of this new product by having it on the home page at a time when visitors are least likely to want to be receptive to Mattel marketing messages.

There’s no landing page solely devoted to what’s happening and what people care about right now.  Even the information in the site isn’t completely updated.  Forget about the video blogs I’d have all over the web updated multiple times/day, the street teams I might consider fanning out all over the US to talk to real citizens, the use of Youtube to get your position out – in other words, the extensive list of PR options Mattel management deserves and should have in front of them at this moment…  They’re not even using the most valuable piece of real estate in the universe right now, mattel.com, to take charge.

Having made these decisions before, I do not underestimate their difficulty, or the pain this has caused Mattel.  And being an honorable company may just make it worse.  You assume that the public sees and understands much more than they do:  that they will rationally assess an incident in the context of your track record of excellence.
If this was ever true, the Internet has forever changed the picture.

It’s not about truth on the Web:  it’s about sensationalism.  The Google algorithm actually rewards popularity – the bigger the fire, the better.   So where companies may have believed that the high road meant staying silent, sticking to their knitting and just fixing the problem… that is no longer an option.

Whoever steps into the void is the party that will be heard, so a premier company like Mattel needs to re-program itself to understand that the “high road” now means delivering authentic 24-hour information online – in good times and bad. 

Manage the story, Mattel: don’t let the story manage you.