It's Pronounced Chookshaw

The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza

Three Ways to Be a Better User: RaceJoy and the Pittsburgh Marathon

It will be a joy to use next year.

It will be a joy to use next year.

“How great would it be if we could track you using your phone GPS for the race tomorrow?” I asked my wife in anticipation of her 13.1 mile run at the Pittsburgh Marathon. She thought it would be a cool way for family and friends to keep up with her, so we began searching — and quickly found — the solution. RaceJoy is an app designed to help get information on race day, with an $0.99 upgrade that would let you use GPS to track runners (as well as send cheers and other cool little features). We both ponied up the fee in our respective app stores (we’re a mixed iPhone/Android family) and moved on with our day.

The next morning I was standing at around the sixth mile and assumed that my wife wouldn’t get past the starting gate until at least 7:30 (she was in the fourth “corral” behind the starting line leaders going at 7am sharp), so I began checking my phone around then to see what her progress might be. After a few refreshes, it was obvious that RaceJoy was down. A few check-ins over the next 45 minutes or so and I realized that it was likely down for the count. Disappointing, obviously, but not the end of the world. I got to see my wife, she finished the race injury-free, we got to grill burgers and sausages with friends, and the world continued to turn.

Or, at least I thought. I decided to check in with Twitter to see if I was the only one who had issues with the app. I found a couple of tweets like this:

Then I began to read the tweets from RaceJoy. They’re a two-person team and look to be from Pittsburgh (or at least CMU), and seemed to have developed this system with the Pittsburgh Marathon in mind, though it had been used at other events. You can tell that they were looking forward to this being their big coming out party, and the scale of the failure just made it all that much worse. Piling on was unnecessary, though there was no shortage of it.

To their credit, RaceJoy let everyone know that they would be refunding anyone who paid the upgrade fee through Google Play, and would be mailing checks to anyone who bought it in the Apple App Store. They owned up to the issues, apologized to everyone they could, and were trying to solve enough technical issues to salvage the day. Then there was this tweet:

That one hit hard.

I’m writing this as an innovator apologist and realize the importance of feedback — no matter how severe — in the real world. To some extent, there’s nothing better that could have happened to RaceJoy long-term than to have an expensive catastrophic failure (assuming they’re not financially devastated by the refunds). But the level to which people were comfortable being mean was disappointing and decidedly un-Pittsburgh-like.

For those who’ve never invented anything, let me say this — making stuff is hard. It’s very hard. It’s excruciatingly hard. It’s nearly impossible. And, making something that works every time is even more difficult. It takes days/months/years of meticulously working through every imaginable (and unimaginable) scenario to make sure that the customer experiences something effortless. Think about that — years of work so that your experience is effortless. And we expect this effortless experience for 99 cents (a good portion of which goes to Apple and Google).

We should be better users.

This isn’t a complete list, but if you want to be a constructive user who encourages people to take the risk of making something to improve your life, I ask you to keep a few things in mind:

  1. Be Kind: Inventors have thick skin, but please do not treat every malfunction as if it was akin to the brutal murder of a household pet. Innovators understand that you’re disappointed and expect a better experience. Most innovations you use aren’t made by large corporate monoliths, but by individuals or small teams (in this case, Shelly and James) who are trying to make the world incrementally better. Vitriolic anger and condescension are not kind responses.
  2. Be Specific: Please provide specific, constructive feedback. Things don’t always work and it’s not always obvious as to why. Sometimes it really is user error, but sometimes it might be a situation that the innovator hadn’t previously considered.  Knowing what happened from beginning to end can help an innovator take one step closer to making the experience effortless for everyone.
  3. Be Forgiving: Life is hard. We all fail. Being open to trying something again (or trying until it works). Nailing an app with a flood of one-star reviews might feel good, but it might also ensure that the innovation made to make your life easier that didn’t quite work as expected won’t be available the next time you need it. It helps to have perspective, realize that most of these failures are not life-threatening, and be open to trying again when you have a chance.

In closing…

Please, please be better to each other. Innovation is hard. And, to Shelly and James, who were working tirelessly to make things work in the middle of a whirlwind of crappy feedback — well done. You two did an exceptional job of handling the issues fairly, kindly, and publicly. It’s easy to get defensive in these situations and you handled yourselves perfectly. If I wrote a post about how to be a better innovator, your response would be a case study.

My ‘Buying Local’ Mistake

For those who might not know, I host a radio show for my real job called Pittsburgh Impact Radio (click here for the iTunes podcast). In my most recent show, I interviewed Buy Pittsburgh First, an organization that promotes the idea that companies can, and should, buy from local suppliers. From an economic development standpoint, this is a huge opportunity — between 40%-60% additional economic impact is made when a purchaser buys from a local supplier vs. a national/non-local one. That translates to jobs, more consumption of local products and services, multiplier effects and other good stuff.

As an entrepreneur currently selling into the local and national market, I too have skin in the buy local game. It is easier for me to market and sell product to companies nearby (I can demonstrate how our product looks and works). It’s cheaper for me to fulfill my orders to local companies. And, in the (rare) case where something isn’t quite right, I can fix it personally. Our company is another case study in why buying local makes sense — the service is often far beyond any national vendor and we’re willing to go above-and-beyond in ways that are impossible for our other customers across the country.

So, my ‘buying local’ mistake. Somewhere in the radio interview, and I believe it might have been said multiple times, I mentioned that there is an obligation to buy from local vendors. Given the regional impact, and what it can do to accelerate growth, it sounds like something that is reasonable to say. Further, I have also worked in economic development for seven years, so I’m comfortable talking about connections between buying from companies and how that can impact an economy. But, after more reflection, I realized that I was dead wrong. There is no obligation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In any business transaction, the decision comes down to what option brings the most value. Some of these are objective measures (price, turnaround time), and some of these are completely subjective (brand, reputation). A commitment to buying local is decidedly a subjective perception of value. Regardless of how much value we might individually place on buying local, that doesn’t mean that we do it at each opportunity, or that it’s right to always buy local. Sometimes, the local option just doesn’t deliver the value we need, regardless of proximity.

I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt when a local company won’t take a meeting or consider our product. I’ll admit to getting irritated when a company decides against giving us a chance to prove our concept. But, the reality is that it’s not their fault for not buying. It’s our fault for not delivering enough value (or, worse, targeting the wrong market).

This doesn’t mean that I will not continue to be an advocate for buying local — I think it’s a great opportunity to have a disproportionate impact on the local economy (and get exceptional customer service at the same time). However, I have made a decision to stop making it personal, start delivering more value, and eliminating the words “should” and “obligated” from my vocabulary.

Actually, the New iPhones Are Awesome

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

I’m not an expert in technology and don’t want to give the impression that I’m capable of giving a careful analysis of the new hardware or software in the two versions of the iPhone that were launched yesterday. This post isn’t about the guts, or the new interface, or iOS7.

This post is about looks. And, from that perspective, I think this was a brilliant move.

The mistake that handset manufacturers have made, really since the beginning of time, has been that almost all phones look decidedly masculine. I remember a good friend of mine, Meghan Skiff of Mixy Marketing, complaining about how her then top-of-the-line Blackberry only came in masculine colors. “I’d pay serious money to get this in pink,” she said.

Until these iPhones were launched, the only way to make a mobile phone stylish was to add a case. Given just how long smartphones have been around, that is a pathetic record.

The books are right — when marketing to women, pink is not a strategy. But style is.

That is where Apple got this right. The gold tone iPhone 5S might have been widely panned and the multiple colors of the stepped-down 5C might be considered garish, but for the first time there is an iPhone that can appeal to both style and substance. 52% of adult women carry a smartphone. How has no handset manufacturer taken this into its design consideration?

Good design makes everything better. That means both style and substance. While there can be plenty of arguments about whether Apple has been as innovative in this generation of iPhones as years, they’ve clearly taken a step in the right direction in recognizing that style can be a competitive advantage in the mobile market. With so many women using smartphones, creating a line that appeals to various tastes is long overdue.

Groupon is Bad for Everyone

Yoga should be peaceful...

Yoga should be peaceful…

Yoga. It’s more popular than ever, with studios popping up on nearly every corner. Everyone does it. Hell, Troy Polamalu does it.

So does my wife.

My wife also used to buy Groupons (I’ve since convinced her to stop). And, unlike most Grouponers, who buy them for the awesome deal, my wife tends to go back to those places. She is the ideal situation for the small businesses who choose to do the daily deal dance.

Unfortunately, her recent experience with Groupon — and a business that didn’t understand what it was getting into when it chose to offer one — is a classic case study for why it’s easy for everyone to lose in the pursuit of new customers or a great deal.

The story goes as follows — my wife bought a Groupon for the yoga studio near our home (Yoga on Fremont) for $65 that gave her 20 classes. Unfortunately, due to a crazy schedule (she’s a physician) and lost password, she didn’t redeem any of the classes before the March 19th, 2013 expiration date.

In the early days of Groupon, having it expire meant that the entire value of the deal had been lost (i.e. she had paid $65 to get nothing in return). However, with lawsuits, the threat of lost customers, and any number of other factors, Groupon changed its terms of service such that the paid value never expires. This gave the business a way to limit some of the cost damages of offering a Groupon while insuring the customer against losing their money. Win-win.

When my wife went to the studio, she brought her Groupon with her, expecting to apply it to individual classes ($14 each) until she ran out of value. The owner, however, stated that the company policy for the expired Groupon is to honor what the value the owner received ($31.50), not the entire paid value. Despite a couple of emails between my wife and the owner, including my wife sending the actual Groupon that includes the text “The amount paid for this voucher ($65.00) with Yoga on Fremont NEVER EXPIRES” at the very top, the owner would only honor the $31.50 earned from the sale.

I don’t blame the owner of Yoga on Fremont for not wanting to lose any more money on her daily deal. Groupons are a horrible financial decision for small businesses. However, like most deals with the devil, you don’t get to change the rules when things get uncomfortable.

The net result is this — my wife is upset and won’t ever return to a yoga studio within walking distance to our home. She’ll get a refund, but does that really matter? And for the business, they’ve chosen to alienate a customer that could have not only become a loyal one, but a customer who works at a hospital that serves the community and regularly recommends yoga (and yoga studios) to her patients.

So, if you’re a small business thinking about doing a daily deal, just don’t do it. The implementation is difficult, you make 20%-25% of the revenue you normally would on a sale, and the Groupons tend to create more problems than new customers. And, if you’re someone thinking about buying a daily deal, please reconsider. It might be a great short-term buy, but it hurts the local small businesses you’re hoping to frequent for years to come. It’s a bad long-term deal for everyone.

BA323 #4: Bonus Journal – Value in Purchasing Decisions

What dimension of value do you use to make purchasing decisions? How will that change in 10 years?

What's the value?

What’s the value?

In last Wednesday’s lecture, we talked about the critical importance of value. Beyond simply the dollars and cents of it all, value is often defined by qualitative goals (how you feel) rather than something more quantitative (getting x amount of utility for $y).

Broadly, we identified four dimensions of value:

  • Performance – how well something is perceived to work
  • Price – what it costs vs. what one gets out of it
  • Relational – individual, personal relationship with the company/brand
  • Status – the reflected glory of owning/using the company/brand

In class, I asked what one dimension of value the students most often use to make purchasing decisions. I was surprised when most students mentioned performance and status rather than price (looks like the poor college student caricature might be waning).  At the end of class, I offered a bonus journal to further reflect on that question as well as share what they would expect to value ten years from now.

For me, price tends to be the first value on which I make purchasing decisions and that hasn’t really changed much in the last ten years. However, the way I look at price has changed, and has allowed me to also begin to look at the other areas more readily, particularly performance and relational.

Ten years ago, I was a year out of college and working in my first job trying to figure out how to pay bills. I left school with a mountain of debt, a car payment, and ancillary expenses like my cell phone and credit card debt. Like many recent graduates, I wasn’t making a lot of money and had to often settle for lower-quality, low-price products. In the following ten years, I had a few different careers, including one as a not-quite-successful entrepreneur, which made financial resources even more scarce. Even after getting a new job, it took years for me to settle the financial challenges that resulted from that setback.

Now that I’m a bit more established, I’m also aware of the importance of good quality, whether it be in vehicles, clothes, housing, etc. As such, I balance other areas of value, particularly performance, more heavily than I once did. I’m also incredibly loyal to certain companies or brands, especially in my community, so the relational value is more important to me now.

In a decade, I expect that I will still be financially prudent, though the other dimensions of value will likely be even more important or will trump price. Despite my experience in marketing, the status bug will likely bite me as I expect to have access to more financial resources, for better or worse. Even if I know I’m being duped, I likely won’t be able to resist.

What do you value now? Ten years from now? Do you think it will be the same?

BA323 #3: Journal #1 – What’s So Hard About Entrepreneurial Marketing?

As promised, I’m following the class with my own journal entries/blog posts about the subject. Our first is:

What’s so hard about Entrepreneurial Marketing?

As we covered in class, Entrepreneurial Marketing is (for better or worse) more than just the Four Ps (Price, Place, Promotion, and Product for those of you who can name three-of-four and inevitably forget one of them). Unlike traditional marketing, which can simply focus on who is going to buy the product, entrepreneurs must market to a variety of stakeholders: suppliers, customers, the end users of those customers, market intermediaries (gatekeepers that might exist in your market), investors/potential investors, and business partners/employees/potential employees. Each group requires its own strategy and tactics, all when resources are incredibly scarce.

Sure, the money problem is obvious, some of it can be overcome with good research, strategy, and tactical execution. What isn’t quite as easy is balancing multiple priorities among a diverse group of people who often have competing interests. Not only must entrepreneurs focus on selling their product or service, they must also be constantly thinking about how to market their business to raise money (through equity or loans). Finally, they must do this while promoting the overall image of the company, ensuring that suppliers and talent are both on-board as partners in the company’s success. Not an easy task.

Interestingly, most entrepreneurs seem to do this automatically. They work to build relationships with all of these people and tend to manage those relationships well. However, many entrepreneurs can suffer from tunnel vision — maybe focusing too much on sales while neglecting investors, or working hard to raise money without making sure the customers are happy. Coming back to the money issue, entrepreneurs often don’t have the capital to recover from a major error when marketing to any one of their diverse targets. This makes attention to all marketing strategies incredibly critical.

Personally, I find maintaining relationships with market intermediaries to be the most difficult, since they are acting as gatekeepers and offer third-party interference with your customers. When these relationships are good, they’re excellent. When they’re bad, they can make an entrepreneur’s marketing job much more difficult.

What do you think? What would be your biggest marketing challenge?

BA323 #2: The Sound of Your Own Name

Customization done well…

In Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he says that the sweetest sound in any language is the sound of a person’s own name. In entrepreneurial marketing, it’s even more true.

I was reminded of this when I received a catalog from pc/nametag, a small company that makes custom name tags for events and sells other premiums that are often handed out at trade shows. As you can see in the image, the front cover was printed with my name on it as it would appear in one of their products (they also assume I’m an All Star, #1, and an Achiever … that’s just pure flattery). This would be the first time my name has been on the front of a catalog and, I have to say, it’s well done.

When running a start-up or small business, it takes a lot to cut through the noise and overcome natural skepticism from customers who are likely being courted by a multitude of vendors. However, with market research and a little creativity, this company was able to get my attention rather easily (and tell you about them as well).

Advances in digital printing technology have made individual customization cost-effective, presenting an incredible opportunity for companies looking to make an impact. And, despite the advances in email marketing, there is something much more remarkable about a well-developed custom print piece (anyone can create an email blast with a name form field). The lone exception was a marketing piece I once received from the American Marketing Association that made my name part of their url (i.e. albertciuksza.marketingpower.com, but it is no longer active). I thought that was an excellent way to get me to visit their website.

For companies that don’t have the financial resources to make a big splash, it’s important to remember that you don’t always need to make a big splash to be effective. Sometimes, you have to play to your target’s sense of self and say the sweet sound of their own name.

BA323 #1: Preview of My Entrepreneurial Marketing Course at St. Vincent College

Yikes. A bowtie.

I’m only an adjunct, so I won’t be required to wear one of these.

I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to engage the students at St. Vincent College, my undergraduate alma mater, in the newly-minted Entrepreneurial Marketing course that has been added to the Entrepreneurship minor under the McKenna School of Business. To some extent, I’m incredibly jealous of the students pursuing this minor and wish I had the chance to integrate this track into my studies when I attended 11 years ago.

One of the ways that the students will explore the material is through nine journal topics that will be submitted over the course of the next four months. In the spirit of fairness, I will be exploring those same topics here on my blog and will adhere to the same deadlines (though not for a grade). You’re welcome to follow along and critique my own thoughts through this journey in the comments section.

Finally, I thought it might be useful to mention a few of the themes that will be sprinkled throughout the course. Regardless of the tactical discussions we will have, there are a few takeaways that are absolutely critical to marketing in the entrepreneurial context:

  • I use the phrase “marketing in the entrepreneurial context” because I believe that these principles are as applicable to the corporate world as they are to early-stage and small ventures. Despite often blockbuster budgets, corporations are beginning to realize that they can’t just throw money at their marketing departments and expect customers to open their wallets.
  • Entrepreneurial marketing is different than traditional marketing in that there are more targets and, therefore, more people to consider when building and executing a strategy. While many marketing professionals in more traditional roles can focus on the customer alone, entrepreneurial marketers must consider customers, end users, suppliers, competitors, potential and current investors, the current team, and talent attraction.
  • Resources are somewhere on the scale of scarce to non-existent. This requires a completely different and creative approach. This means being personal and selling yourself as well as your concept. This is an unavoidable aspect of new or small ventures, and one of the most challenging aspects of entrepreneurial marketing.
  • There’s a common assumption that entrepreneurial marketing instantly means using social media. It’s just not so. While the entry costs to social media are low (platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest are free), the time costs associated with those platforms can be prohibitive. Like any other tactic, social media has to be analyzed on a strict ROI basis.

A few other random things:

  • After arguments with editor friends, I use the Oxford comma, regardless of how little care Vampire Weekend might give to it.
  • I will likely drink four cans for Diet Dr. Pepper each class.
  • I’m going to experiment with Skype to virtually bring in speakers who have had their own experiences and successes in this space.

I’m looking forward to the adventure and hope the students are as well. Class begins Wednesday, January 16th and ends May 8th.

With QR Codes, You’re Probably Doing it Wrong

Can we bury QR codes? (Image from WTFQRCodes.com)

Can we bury QR codes? (Image from WTFQRCodes.com)

I’ve been hearing that QR codes are going out of style. Through three experiences with bad QR code management last week, I learned why.

The worst example was Macy’s, a company sophisticated enough to know better. My fiancee and I had stopped by to register for our wedding last Wednesday night to take advantage of a promotion that would give us a chance to win a gift card between $50 and $2,000 (note: we were told that everyone who opened a registry that night would receive a $50 gift card just for showing up, a nice little bait-and-switch by Macy’s). In order to enter, we had to scan a QR code.

I pulled out my phone to scan while my fiancee downloaded a QR code reader (showing just how ineffective the whole QR code thing can be). I scanned the code, which took me to my browser. I waited. And waited. And waited.

About three minutes later, a non-mobile-optimized site loaded informing me that I had not won anything, though I was given a star-shaped sugar cookie for my troubles. My fiancee had no better luck with the same load time. Already frustrated by the special trip we made to the store for the non-existent gift card, the poorly-executed, anti-climactic contest gave us good reason not to use Macy’s for our registry.

My second experience was in the new Gateway Center subway terminal, where I saw an advertisement for KeepPGHMoving, a marketing campaign to build awareness for a potential transit crisis in Pittsburgh. On the ad was a QR code, which I scanned to get more information. Again, I was taken to a full-load site (complete with javascript) rather than a mobile one. As a supporter of public transit, I was frustrated by the poor execution.

Finally, a confession — I’ve made the exact same mistake on a marketing piece for the Pittsburgh Impact initiative, a program I run for my day job. Last year’s version of the piece contained a QR code, which pointed to the initiative’s website, PittsburghImpact.org. Once again, the site to which the QR code was pointed was not mobile-optimized.

QR codes could be a very good marketing tool if marketers didn’t use them poorly. In fact, had Macy’s had created a mobile site for its contest, I think it would have been a well-executed way of entering. However, between the inconsistent application of QR codes with respect to mobile platforms — really the only time a QR code would be used — and the potential security risks associated with the codes, I can see why they’re falling out of favor.

If you insist on using them, here are a few pieces of advice:

  1. Give a good reason to scan the code - I hate the phrase “call to action”, but it’s exactly what you need to make the QR code an effective marketing tool. Don’t just give information, give an incentive to scan the code in the first place.
  2. Point to a mobile-optimized site – No flash, no large javascript, just quality design for the small screen that’s easy to navigate and gives the user an opportunity to interact with the site.
  3. QR codes are inherently place-driven – If you’re using a QR code, you’re targeting someone who is getting from one place to another. Only use them if you’re providing some value to someone on the move.

For some great examples of marketers’ poor QR code usage, check out WTFQRCodes.com.

Why I Love the Steelers’ Throwbacks

Pittsburgh Bees or Jailbirds?

Pittsburgh Bees or Jailbirds?

After a day of hearing all of the complaining about the Steelers’ newly-unveiled 80th Anniversary uniforms, I figured I’d come out of the bumblebee-loving closet and confess that I unequivocally love the new unis.

Now, obviously, they’re an aesthetic disaster. Black and gold is a hell of a study in contrasts, and the inch-plus alternating stripes are tough on the eyes. Adding the self-contained black numbers in a black-outlined white box makes the top half painful (potentially only saved by the black logo-less helmet). It gets worse below the waist, with doesn’t-match-anything sand pants and striped black and gold socks. I mean, seriously. They’re horrible looking.

Barry Foster in '33 Duds

Barry Foster in '33 Duds

However, I love the fact that the team is celebrating its history in an honest way, showing off one of its earliest looks even if the uniform is hideous. At a time when NFL teams are releasing alternate uniforms on a regular basis in the name of revenue generation, the Steelers picked a look that they had to know wouldn’t sell well (as of today, the jerseys are not for sale at the team shop). And this time, they actually had a choice, unlike the NFL’s 75th Anniversary, when all teams were required to wear uniforms from their founding.

Sure, the Steelers have dabbled in the alternate jersey universe, wearing the black-and-gold classics from the late 50s and early 60s (which, by the way, were pretty sweet despite the gold helmets). But this time around, it will be great to see what the games might have looked like in the early days of the NFL, even if that means 380ish-pound Casey Hampton has to squeeze into one of these puppies.

So thank you, Rooney family, for having the guts to put your boys in these monstrosities. I can’t wait to see them in action.

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