Thursday, October 30, 2014

Note to Blake Francis: we don’t need this kind of marketing, and we probably don’t need Need, either

There once was a marketing day, long, long, ago, when even a pokey, crummy, obscure tech company could get an audience with a tech journalist.

You might be a pokey, crummy, obscure tech company, and you might well stay that way, but journalists couldn’t afford to completely ignore you because, on occasion, one of those pokey, crummy, obscure tech companies actually emerged from the slough of despond of underfunding and eroding tech edge, and became a large, crummy, non-obscure powerhouse.

There was something called a “road show”, and, when your pokey, crummy, obscure tech company had a product release, your PR firm would set up interviews/demos with all the leading tech publications and industry analysts – conveniently grouped in Silicon Valley, Boston/128, and the NY Metro (Long Island and Connecticut) – and you hit the road.

The goal was to get them to write something about you. And mostly they did.

You then paid the publication a lot o’ money to reproduce those articles on slick paper, so that you could use them as collateral. One of the reasons you spent time with the analysts was so that they’d agree to take a call from a journalist who was writing about you, and give them a quote.

No matter how banal and neutral, a quote from an analyst was a good thing. Maybe even better than a quote from a customer. (What did they know? Probably nothing if they were daffy enough to buy our products.)

Anyway, one of the reasons those analysts played nice was that they were hoping that you’d pay their firm a lot of money to read what they had to say about your product and those of your competitors, knowing that whatever bucket/quadrant they placed you in, you could spin it up into something positive. Hey, we all knew that the niche designation meant double-L loser, but what the hell.

That was the way the world work in the years B.I. – Before the Internet.

But with the Internet, marketing started to have less and less control over the message, and product information. So you were no longer such a great source for journalists.

Meanwhile, tech companies proliferated, so journalists could be a bit more selective. Analysts, too, got cannier at figuring out who was going to spend any money with them, and started spending less time with the cheapskates.

One of the marketing techniques that became popular once the journalists got pickier and choosier was to send out something that would their attention. Something in a box. Something that they’d open. Something that seemed like a present.

You only sent these to journalists, never to an analyst, who positioned themselves as above reproach and bribery.

One dimensional mailer I sent to a select group of journalists was a Jenga set. (It actually had a vague connection with the product messaging.) This campaign didn’t exactly stop the presses, but it did get us a couple of interviews (and stories) that we might not have grabbed otherwise.

But sometimes you can get carried away, attention grab-wise, as has happened when one Blake Francis decided to ply a bunch of tech journalists with a goody basket. One of the writers Francis was trying to pitch and woo was Kristen Brown of the SF Chronicle, who wrote:

A few weeks ago, a startup founder showed up in the lobby of The Chronicle after hours. He told me I hadn’t responded to his e-mails. And he wanted to get my attention.

He delivered his pitch, along with a wicker basket filled with sexually suggestive gifts: the sex toy [a vibrator], a tube of K-Y Jelly, raw oysters and Tequila.

It definitely got my attention. But it didn’t seem like his choice of swag had anything to do with his company, Need, a question-and-answer app where users anonymously ask each other for advice on everything from babysitters to boyfriends. (Source: SFGate)

A particularly tasteless thing to do, especially to a female journalist, given all the concern about sexism in the tech sector (which Brown gets into in her column.)

Anyway, Brown called Francis on it:

When I first questioned Francis about why he chose to send me oysters, Tequila and a vibrator, he responded that they were all products recommended on Need. Attached to each item was a tag featuring a screenshot of the app with the conversation in which the product in question was mentioned. Francis said that he had sent the same swag to other male and female journalists.

But people in the Need community have also recommended solar phone chargers and stores for buying high-quality letter paper, as well as doled out advice for first date spots in Berkeley. I pointed these things out to Francis and he recanted a bit. He told me the company just picked items they thought would “stand out.”

“In retrospect we did not use good judgment,” he said.

Retrospect, unfortunately, is usually too late.

Lack of judgment or not, I suspect that Blake Francis is just delighted with the press he’s gotten.

After all, a lot more folks have now heard of Need. So, mission accomplished.

Other than the fact that, now that we’ve heard of it, I suspect most of us are asking ourselves just what the hell we need Need for.

I mean, do we really need a place where we can ask a question  - and have our “friends” answer it anonymously - when we’re thinking of purchasing a dildo?

Need is a fun and easy way to exchange anonymous recommendations with friends. (Source: Need)

I’m all for easy, but I guess I’m just not much fun. And I will always trust a recommendation that’s got a name on it before I’d go with one from “A. Friend.”

Anyway, I checked out some of the sample questions Need was answering, and they seemed like just the sorts of questions that a) you ask a friend non-anonymously (as in “any thoughts on where we should honeymoon”) and/or b) search online for (as in “I have a bloating/gas problem”).

I just do not see any value at all here.

Then again,  I’m shocked by ads for Angie’s List that have people touting it as a place to find a pediatrician for their newborn.

Sad commentary on society that you wouldn’t have anyone in your life you could ask for a recommendation for something of such importance.

It will be interesting to see whether Need ends up being yet another pokey, crummy, obscure tech company, or whether someone decides that they’re all that and a bag of chips and gobbles them up for a couple of billion.

Why don’t I go over to Need and ask?

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