Author Archives: Rebecca Kelley

About Rebecca Kelley

Rebecca Kelley is the Director of Marketing for This or That Media. She also runs Mediocre Athlete, a hobby blog about exercising and training, and My Korean Mom, a blog about her harsh but amusing Korean mother. In her spare time, Rebecca is a freelance blogger for hire, loves food and movies, and trains for marathons and triathlons.

If You Build It, They May Not Come Just Yet: The Upside to Creating Fake User Accounts

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Last week reddit cofounder Steve Huffmann confessed that when he and Alexis Ohanian first launched the now hugely popular social news site, they created hundreds of fake user accounts to make the site seem more popular than it actually was. They used the “dummy accounts” to submit the type of content they found interesting or compelling, which in turn helped set the tone for reddit and influence the type of community the founders hoped to create. Some of you may be crying foul and accusing reddit of building their website on a “To Catch a Predator”-esque framework, wondering all conspiracy theory-style whether most of the users on the site are legit or if they’re all fakey fake fake. I, on the other hand, think their approach was a smart strategy.

We all know that it’s hard to build a successful website. Of course you need great, unique content that brings something new and compelling to the table, but that’s just half the battle (well, that and knowing). The unfortunate truth of the matter is that great content or a great idea on its own oftentimes isn’t enough. You can’t expect a throng of users to just happen to stumble across your website and proclaim it to be the Next Great Thing; you need a little oomph, a little luck, and a lot of patience. And hell, sometimes you need to fake some shit until the tide turns in your favor.

So reddit built some fake user accounts to help shape their site into what they wanted to build. It made the site look robust and active, which enticed new and curious users to see what all the fuss was about and begin interacting with each other. Eventually the snowflake turned into a snowball that rolled into an avalanche, and the rest is history. Nowadays reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet with an astoundingly passionate user base, and it might not have turned out that way without some fake accounts starting things off and creating a tipping point.

There’s a difference, however, in creating some fake accounts to try and get your site off the ground and manufacturing phantom users to gargle your brand’s balls. Most Internet users are wary of 100% positive remarks, so if you’re instructing interns to write multiple glowing reviews about your business or your company, it’s going to look a little fishy. The same goes for a blog that’s full of generically-named commenters who gush about how great the content is or about how they agree with the blogger 100%. Nor should you continue to devote more time on your fake personas than your actual users once you do begin to build a legit audience–this should be an early, short-term strategy should you choose to adopt it. Once you build it and fake it and they do come, go hug your dead dad already instead of grooming the field for a 1,000th time.

What do you think about reddit’s non-sexy Taxicab Confession? Does it surprise you that they created fake profiles at the infancy of their site, or do you think it’s a legitimate strategy for trying to generate a thriving social community?

Would You Compromise Your Brand’s Integrity for a Little Traffic Bump?

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Last week I wrote about how FunnyJunk was threatening to take legal action against Matt Inman, aka The Oatmeal, unless he forked over $20,000 for making “false statements” about their website and for having the audacity to outrank them for searches for their own brand.  Rather than cave to this blatantly absurd threat, Matt instead called for fans of The Oatmeal and eye rollers of frivolous lawsuits to donate money via Indiegogo to the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society. He raised the $20,000 in just over an hour and then some–with five days left before the fundraising window expires, Matt has raised well over $200,000 for charity.

Meanwhile, FunnyJunk’s legal representation, Charles Carreon, has taken Matt’s reaction very personally despite the fact that the bulk of The Oatmeal’s sarcasm was directed towards the website and not necessarily the lawyer hired by them. Carreon has resorted to suing not only Matt, but Indiegogo and, inexplicably, both the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. Reactions to the lawyer whose skill set lies somewhere between Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons and Charlie Kelly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have ranged from “This man is the most clueless lawyer ever” to “He’s clearly doing this for publicity.” Indeed, one user in a reddit thread I came across had this to say, not just about Carreon but about FunnyJunk in general:

…this is the definition of “any publicity is good publicity.”

  1. Funnyjunk has been losing traffic since their peak in the late 2000’s. Since at least 2010, they have been encouraging site users to bring in more traffic, hinting that the site will be shut down if traffic doesn’t pick up. There are plenty of references to this in comments on FJ posts, FJ tags dedicated to the “save FunnyJunk” campaign, and even a half-hearted Facebook Group.
  2. Last spring, The Oatmeal published a webcomic about FunnyJunk reposting his material. The comic was so popular that it eclipsed on searches for FunnyJunk. It also brought FunnyJunk a spike in traffic, which although followed by a brief lull, increased the number of regular users to their site for the remainder of the year [source]. Although “humiliated” by The Oatmeal, his comic was boon for the site.
  3. Now, a year later, FunnyJunk’s post-Oatmeal traffic boost is starting to wear off, and they have returned to the same sad slide to obscurity. They would love another traffic boosting “Internet event”, but how can they manufacture one? How about lobbing a lawsuit softball to The Oatmeal, who is almost guaranteed to publically [sic] mock it in a comic, bringing FJ another site-saving traffic boost. You can see the new boost in the same Alexa report cited above. If the original lawsuit wasn’t an obvious enough of a publicity stunt, the additional “lawsuits” against the charities should drive the point home — they are serving ridiculous lawsuits because they want to make an interesting enough story that people talk about them and their site.
  4. The fact that bigger news outlets have picked this story up is icing on the cake for FJ. You have to understand that they are a site that desparately [sic] needs traffic, with a user base that’s unlikely to leave because of an inter-site feud. Any publicity, even if extremely negative, will only serve to drive more traffic to their site, a percentage of which will become regular users. They want this story to get as big as possible, and they don’t care how they come off.

I’ve previously written about the slippery slope of scandals and how it brought about one such controversy brought about the demise of an online cooking magazine despite some commenters positing that the negative publicity would be good for the magazine and bring them more traffic and brand awareness. Maybe FunnyJunk is pulling a publicity stunt, but if that’s the case, there are two problems with this strategy:

  1. It’s not a long-term solution. As the reddit user explained, even if FunnyJunk intentionally baited Matt into getting into a feud with them last year for traffic purposes, the bump from the whole ordeal was short-lived; hence their latest stunt. How many times can a website attempt to do something “controversial” before people get sick of them? Will FunnyJunk keep desperately attaching their tentacles onto a popular web figure every six months or year in a sad attempt to gain a few extra page views and signups? If so, that’s a pretty pathetic marketing model.
  2. They’re really shitting on their brand. Congratulations, you’re getting attention for being an asshole. Maybe FunnyJunk is fine with being the Kardashian equivalent of a humor website; after all, with so many funny websites competing with each other for users and traffic, you’ve gotta find a way to stand out amongst the crowd, so what better way to differentiate yourself than by being a mega douche? This may work for some sites, but generally you want to have positive connotations with your brand, not an immediate association with Internet pitchforks and torches. Besides, repeatedly dropping a hot Cleveland steamer on your brand isn’t a long-term solution (see point #1) and will eventually turn more people off than attract new users.

But that’s just my opinion. What about you? Would you be willing to compromise your brand’s integrity or professionalism in exchange for a little traffic boost, however fleeting it may be? Are you cool with being ridiculed or hated to a huge extent so long as you get some attention? After all, we’re living in an age where celebrities are borne from shameless reality TV shows without having any discernible talent aside from a lack of shame or integrity. Is this just a sign of the times, or do you hold out hope (as I do) that at the end of the day people will continue to reward talent and hard, honest work over a short-lived controversy or scandal?

What Did You Think Was Going to Happen, FunnyJunk? A Lesson in What NOT to Do with Reputation Management

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My friend Matt Inman, who I’m sure many of you know as The Oatmeal, has caused quite the media stir this week, and he has FunnyJunk to blame (or thank, depending on how you look at it). On the slim chance you aren’t aware of what’s happening, I’ll get you up to speed. Matt creates popular web comics, and like most content creators, he often runs into the problem where other websites repurpose his content without proper attribution. FunnyJunk was/is one such site, and last year Matt called them out for stealing his comics, posting them on their site and surrounding them with ads, and placing the blame on their users for stealing the content when they get contacted by the original artists/authors.

The feud died down but this week FunnyJunk decided to drop-kick the bee’s nest and served Matt with papers, threatening to file a federal lawsuit against him unless he forks over “$20,000 in damages.” So FunnyJunk expects Matt to pay them, a site that still features his content without proper attribution, $20k for allegedly making “false statements” about them. They play the martyr and deny knowingly stealing his content, once again blaming their users and insisting that they follow a “rigorous DMCA policy” when it comes to copyrighted content (yet naturally Matt was able to easily find hundreds of pieces of his content that were still up on the site).

FunnyJunk’s laundry list of accusations is hilarious; they’re also really butthurt that ranks for “funnyjunk” and accuse Matt of doing that on purpose to screw with their brand given his “background in SEO” (they must not have a very good idea of how search engine rankings work if they still think spamming a page with a keyword is the sole factor in being able to rank highly for that term). As retribution for these heinous acts, FunnyJunk is demanding that Matt remove all mentions of their brand from his website and fork over $20,000 in apology money.

Strangely, Matt wasn’t keen on agreeing to FunnyJunk’s demands. Instead, he wrote a blog post detailing the whole ridiculous ordeal and decided to raise $20,000, take a photo of the pile of money alongside a drawing of FunnyJunk’s owner’s mom “seducing a Kodiak bear,” and send the donations to the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society.

His post went viral in an instant for the following reasons:

  1. The Oatmeal has a huge fanbase
  2. Even people who aren’t fans of The Oatmeal can clearly see how bullshit this threat of a lawsuit is
  3. The Internet more often than not loves to root for the underdog
  4. Lots of people hate lawyers
  5. The blog post was pretty damn funny

Matt raised the $20,000 via indiegogo in a little over an hour; as I write this post the donations are currently sitting at nearly $140,000 and will probably be higher by the time you read this. The story has spread like wildfire, and Matt’s situation is a win-win because he’s:

  • Bringing attention to his brand
  • Making FunnyJunk look like assholes (although FunnyJunk did most of the work on that front)
  • Using his Internet celebrity status and the situation to raise money for and awareness of two great charities.

FunnyJunk, on the other hand, emerge looking like delusional, clueless douchebags. I’m not sure what they thought would happen by threatening the creator of a massively popular web comic and trying to get him to pay them $20,000, but I guess they weren’t expecting this shitstorm. So you’d think that the profound embarrassment of getting bitch-slapped across the entire length of the Internet and back would cause them to quiet down and lay low for a while, right?

Instead, FunnyJunk’s lawyer, Charles Carreon, is trying to get the fundraising campaign disabled because he thinks it’s a violation of indiegogo’s terms of service. So in an effort to de-douche your brand, you try to take money away from two charities. Good call, that’s fantastic reputation management there.

The mind-boggling clueless manner in which FunnyJunk and their lawyer keep digging themselves deeper into this hole of a reputation management nightmare is a fantastic, squeal-worthy case study of what not to do. I really don’t think you could envision a better scenario of failure. Their June 12th deadline to Matt has come and gone, and instead of being $20,000 richer and having better rankings, they’re 10,000 times worse off than if they had just let last year’s quarrel stay in the past and remain forgotten. It’s still early to tell how this will all play out, but I’m guessing it’ll end with the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society each getting nice donations, The Oatmeal getting a boost in sales and a growth of fans and readers, and FunnyJunk pretty much getting the exact opposite of what they wanted.

(BTW, if you want to donate to BearLove Good, Cancer Bad, you still have until June 26th to do so.)

Stop Embarrassing Yourself With a Brand Persona That Doesn’t Make Sense

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Occasionally I see this commercial on TV for a credit union. It tries to be hip and edgy in a Poochie the Dog sort of way in a sad, desperate attempt to stand out and seem relevant, yet ironically I couldn’t tell you the name of the company if you held a gun to my head. The commercial starts off with a guy taking off his suit jacket and tie and talking about how this credit union is different because it’s so hip and casual–so casual that its employees just have to wear a button-up shirt and slacks instead of a full suit and tie. Now that is casual!

The man then hops on a Segway and rides it roughly ten feet while explaining all of the awesome benefits to joining this exTREEEEEEMEly cool credit union. He then gets off the Segway and is about to enter the credit union before he turns around, smirks, and adds, “We even blog.”

My reaction:

Holy shit, no way. A blog?!!

You are kidding me, credit union. You mean to tell me that you blog? I thought that was just something cool kids did on their LiveJournal or MySpace profiles! How did a stuffy, fuddyduddy credit union schmooze its way to the popular kids’ table and manage to start a blog, which is clearly only something supremely awesome and super fun companies are allowed to do? At this breakneck rate of technological adoption, I’ll be blown away by the credit union’s Twitter account five years from now!

All kidding aside, no. Just no. This is fucking embarrassing, credit union. If I had an account with you I’d close it out of sympathy shame. You think you’re so casual with your tie-less business attire and the fact that you ride a Segway and blog, two pop culture references that haven’t seemed innovative for at least a decade?

I know who to blame for this: Old Spice. Ever since Isaiah Mustafa very suavely pitched the company’s products in a classy-yet-humorous way, various brands have scrambled to copy the ads’ tone and have failed miserably. The only thing the copycat ads accomplish is a) Making you feel embarrassed for these companies for having a profound lack of imagination, and b) Getting you to realize how good the Old Spice ads were. The only copycat exception I can think of is the Dollar Shave Club ad, which emulated the fast-paced absurdity of Old Spice quite successfully. But for the most part the brands that saw what Old Spice did, laughed, and exclaimed to their marketing team, “Hurr durr this is a funny and successful ad campaign. Do exactly this for our brand!” crash and burn in a spectacularly cringe-inducing manner.

Which brings me back to this crappy credit union’s commercial. My biggest gripe with the ad isn’t that it’s a failed poor man’s poor man’s Old Spice commercial, it’s that it feels like watching your dad awkwardly try to rock out to popular music with his hat turned backwards and flashing the peace sign because he’s confusing it with the “Westsiiiiiide” gesture. This Old Spice-type brand persona doesn’t fit for a credit union. It could, much how Geico manages to successfully churn out odd and amusing ads for something as mundane as auto insurance, but it doesn’t, mainly because this credit union is trying to copy a completely different industry’s ad campaign without understanding why it worked in the first place. If your goal is simply “Do what they did because it worked for them” without understanding what elements made the campaign so successful, you’re deaf to the giant WHOOSHing sound of the point flying far above your head.

You absolutely can find inspiration from various sources–you don’t have to just scrutinize your competitors in order to determine how to make your company better. Oftentimes you can be motivated in other ways, like, say from a men’s line of fragrances and skin products. However, you can’t just take a success story and shove it in your employees’ faces while barking, “This worked for them so make it work for us.” Have some fucking common sense–“Facebook has a ‘poke’ feature so we should, too” should make you roll your eyes and echo the lecturing tone you heard from your parents when you were a kid: “Well, if Facebook jumped off a cliff, would you?”

Is humor an appropriate tone for your brand? If so, what kind of humor can you use and how can you incorporate it in a way that makes sense? Do you really need all those social media sharing widgets on your site if you specialize in funeral services, or are you just thinking you need them because “They’re popular with the kids nowadays”? Excitedly wanting to copy a successful element of a popular brand or website is like buying a Saint Bernard because they look cool without thinking about the fact that you live in a studio apartment on the 30th floor of a high-rise in a major metropolitan area.

Think this shit through; don’t just react when you see something cool and blindly try to copy it. Don’t be the out-of-touch credit union that’s trying to Poochie the Dog some business from you. If you don’t understand the “how’s” and “why’s” behind a company’s success, you’ll just end up embarrassing yourself and failing miserably when you try to do the exact same thing.

Vetting Your Writers: Why It’s Hard to Find the Creative Needle in the Haystack of Crap

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Last fall Demand Media announced they were cutting back on the number of freelancers they were paying to churn out thousands of articles for their websites. Until then they had been well known for their “content farm,” but the company decided to shift their focus to “more targeted categories and other forms of content such as slide shows, video series and feature articles.” They wanted to build on existing content and make it better rather than continue to pump out a bunch of new basic content. The move is unsurprising–at the end of the day, I feel that the quality of content is more important than the quantity, which is why it is so damn hard to find halfway decent writers.

For a while, the company I work for tasked me with hiring freelance writers to contribute original content for one of our websites (I’ve previously blogged about the vetting process and have also given some tips to freelance writers applying for blogging jobs). It was quite a learning experience, to say the least–I started with a huge pool of writers and whittled a vast majority of them down because most of them weren’t great.

Some of the biggest problems with finding quality talent include:

1. Bad writers, even if they’re free or cheap, still won’t be worth your time. If you don’t care about the quality of the piece you’re about to publish on your site and don’t mind broken or improperly sized images, numerous typos, and formatting issues, then feel free to skip this part. I, however, like having a semi-professional looking website and think shoddy work reflects poorly on the company. The amount of time I was saving by not writing an article was wasted on having to spend an hour cleaning up weaker writers’ work–fixing typos, resizing images, breaking huge walls of text into easily readable chunks, tweaking confusing sentences, etc.

2. Your expectations often won’t be met. A good pitch or a foolproof idea is easily ruined by the execution. I can’t tell you how many times I got excited by an idea proposed by one of my freelance writers, only to have the concept pretty much ruined by weak content and a poor end result. I’d try to guide the writer to a better end product by making some suggestions, but I eventually found out that poor writers, no matter how much guidance or feedback you give them, still can’t spin gold as effortlessly as a naturally gifted one. Eventually I’d cut these writers loose because although I liked their ideas, their execution was consistently lacking and it did me no good to essentially rewrite their work (see Point #1) every time to meet standards.

3. Weak writers lack a voice. Think of your favorite writers. They all have a distinct voice or tone–you could practically pick it out of a crowd or correctly attribute something they’ve anonymously written because you know it so well. Good writers have a natural voice you can quickly pick up and become attracted to. You can feel their frustration, their anger, their humor, their elation. Bad writers, on the other hand, feel stale and stilted. Every sentence feels like you’re running into a wall–it feels disjointed and impersonal. I can tell when a weak writer is unable to establish a voice and when one is trying too hard to force a voice, at which point it just comes off as fake and over the top. You can’t force natural talent.

4. Good writers can be bad, too. Writing is a difficult discipline that requires consistency, even when you don’t feel like it. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and confess to being lazy and uninspired from time to time–my guest posts go through dry spells and my personal blogs occasionally collect dust. It’s difficult, therefore, to rely on contributors for good consistent work. I had a lot of good writers who would go AWOL for a while before occasionally emerging with a good piece of content. Good writing is hard to come by, but so is frequent writing. Combine those two and you’ve practically got a mythical creature that a few rednecks have sworn they’ve seen but leaves you only partially convinced.

It’s extremely difficult to find contributors who you can trust, who won’t link out to shady sites or steal images, who know how your content is supposed to look and feel and can abide by those rules, who can bust out insightful, well-written content in a unique and compelling voice on a regular basis. You can find thousands of writers who would jump at the chance to build their portfolio and write for your site. But ask yourself whether it’s worth your time and your audience’s time to rely on mediocre or so-so content just for the sake of having it. Try to find that mythical Sasquatch writer or someone as close to it as possible, because when you do find him or her, you’ll have a rare talent indeed and your site will benefit greatly.

photo credit: t_buchtele via photo pin cc

My Short-Lived Obsession with Foursquare and My Growing Concern for Privacy

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I signed up for Foursquare, the app that lets you check into various locations and unlock badges and deals, shortly after it launched (yes, I’m pulling the “hipster” card on you) at the suggestion of a friend. It was a novel concept at the time, and I found the gaming aspects to be a great way to stay engaged with the product. Eventually, I became addicted. No sooner would I get a toe through the door of an establishment that I’d whip out my phone and hit the Foursquare app to check in. I became mayor of several places, which made me feel awesome and special. I collected a decent number of badges and felt as if I were “leveling up” in real life. Foursquare was pretty damn cool.

My opinion of Foursquare during those first few glorious months

And then, just as quickly as my obsession with the site grew, I became sick of and stopped using it. I’ve since deleted the app and only think about it when the occasional “So and so wants to be your friend on Foursquare!” email pops up in my inbox. I know the site has gained immensely in popularity, so much so that Facebook built their own check-in feature and encourages its users to check in to various places with their friends. But for me, the whole “checking in” novelty has worn off, mainly for one reason:

It dawned on me how creepy it is to have people know where I am at all times.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and more in touch with my “Get off my lawn” side, but when I was using the site, it didn’t really occur to me what a stalker-ish concept the whole thing is. Want to know when I go to the gym? Check Foursquare! Want to know which grocery store I shop at? Foursquare! Want to know when my place is empty so you can rob it while my boyfriend and I are out to dinner? Foursquaaaaaaaaaare! For me, the tipping point was when I had a party and some friends added my address to Foursquare so they could check in. Thanks, guys. Shortly after that I decided that documenting my every location was unnecessary, pointless, and perhaps even somewhat dangerous. Out you go, Foursquare. It was fun while it lasted.

I still admire some concepts of Foursquare–for businesses, it’s a fun way to engage with and reward your customers by offering check-in deals and specials, and the gaming aspect is a smart way to keep users interested (who doesn’t like accumulating points and collecting badges?). And if you think about it, my opinion of Foursquare is more an opinion of most other social sites–I don’t tweet 24/7 or unfold my life’s drama on Facebook because I enjoy at least a semblance of privacy in this digitally invasive era (hell, I still prefer Delicious over Pinterest because I like the idea of my bookmarks being more low-key). But Foursquare in particular was a turning point for me with social media. I realized that all too often I was willing to sign up on a website or download an app and dive headfirst into it without really considering what the point of it was or whether it was beneficial to me in any way (professionally, personally, as a form of entertainment, etc), and whether I had to give up anything in return (how much of my time, my privacy, to name a few). A lot of people have that same problem,which is why you see so many flash-in-the-pan sites that explode in popularity before fizzling out spectacularly.

These days, I’m a bit more cautious and thoughtful when it comes to trying out a new website or funky app. Instead of becoming an early adopter so I can hipster-boast about how I was one of the first users on board, I’d rather put some thought into it and pinpoint if it’s worth my time and if it’s a product, service, or concept that aligns with my personal beliefs and needs. Foursquare is not one of those sites. Maybe it is for you, in which case it works successfully. But I personally am starting to get turned off by the growing popularity and embracing of tracking everyone’s every move. At this rate we’re not too far off from having The Gap scan our retinas to make purchase recommendations like in Minority Report. The narcissistic nature of social media continues to blur the line between interaction and obsession, and more and more people either don’t realize how public their entire existence has become or don’t care. Both scenarios concern me, partly because I shouldn’t have to know that you just took a really satisfying dump at the Starbucks on 15th and felt compelled to share the news with everyone you know, and partly because if you’re so indifferent to your own privacy, maybe you’re also indifferent to airport body scanners, the Patriot Act, or being strip-searched for any arrest, no matter how minor the violation. And to me that’s a whole lot scarier than knowing which Starbucks you’re at.

It’s the Training, Not the Destination: The Endurance Sport of Online Marketing

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I’m currently training for an Ironman. It’s not my first time tackling the distance–I completed my first Ironman in 2010, and have been involved in endurance sports since 2006. Whenever a non-triathlete or someone who isn’t familiar with the sport hears that I’m planning to race in an Ironman this August, the response is generally the same: “Wow, I can’t imagine doing all of that in one day!” And every time I hear that, I respond the same: “The Ironman is the easy part; it’s the training that’s tough.”

It may be weird to think that swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles in the same day is “easy,” but it actually is when you factor in the months of grueling training that one must endure in order to get to the start line and have a good shot at finishing. There are times when I don’t want to wake up early and meet my teammates for a cold, soggy run in the Seattle rain. I don’t want to hop on my bike and bust out a four hour workout, then hop right off, slip on my running shoes, and do an hour-long run immediately afterwards. I never want to swim, as it’s my least favorite and weakest discipline of the three. Instead of watching what I eat and trying to lose those last few pounds so I can hit my race weight goal, I want to destroy a plate of greasy nachos and suck down a salted caramel milkshake. I often tire of feeling sore and exhausted. I look at all of the lovely video games I’ve bought and intended to play that are collecting dust on my shelf. I think about how instead of meeting my boyfriend’s family for Easter brunch yesterday, I did a 4 1/2 hour workout at home. And I wonder, with all of these sacrifices I make to my body, my social life, and my free time, if it’s even worth it.

And then I remember that feeling of determination, excitement, and pure bliss I experienced as I spent one long day in August 2010 conquering a distance that not many people are willing to attempt. How my heart actually felt as if it would burst out of my chest from an overload of joy and satisfaction when I crossed the finish line and held up my arms, a dopey grin on my face and the last semblance of moisture my dehydrated body could muster forming in my eyes. Was it all worth it? The months of grueling training, the horrible workouts in rain, freezing mountain snow, scorching desert heat, gusting windstorms, and churning lake water, the moments where I doubted myself and fought off thoughts that involved the words “can’t”? You bet it was.

I had a call with my boss last week about some projects I’m heading. I don’t have a team of bad-asses who work alongside me or a gigantic budget that gives me the freedom to explore different marketing options and see what works best. I work for a small startup that’s still trying to find its footing. My team is me. My budget is paltry. The projects’ success rest largely on my shoulders. It’s a burden I’ve struggled with, and that feeling of doubt swirling around the word “can’t” has crept into my mind more than a few times. As with the Ironman, I think, “What have I gotten myself into? Can I do this all on my own? How do I get through this?”

My boss, himself a strong runner and a fit guy who understands and admires the physical challenges I subject myself to each year, pointed out that endurance sport training is very similar to the work you put in when you’re starting a challenging new project or trying to get an idea off its feet and bring it to fruition. I see the end result of these projects, the success they can bring, but I have to put in the work to get there. With few exceptions, you can’t do an Ironman without putting in the training, just like you can’t have an idea and have it turn to an instant success without the hard work that goes along with it.

Sometimes my job feels mundane. Sometimes it feels exciting. Sometimes I encounter a setback that results in hours of lost work. Sometimes I’ll catch a break and will have something great come from a good opportunity. It’s a mixed bag, and it’s all part of the journey. The road to success is full of potholes and hazards and detours, but if you stay the course and tough it out, you’ll get there. My journey across the finish line in 2010 wasn’t easy–throughout the year, I was tested physically but moreso mentally, and it really challenged me to fight through it and endure every hardship and setback thrown at me. I had to earn that final step across the finish line; otherwise it wouldn’t have felt so damns satisfying. My work journey feels the same way–I’m in the “training” stage, and although it feels incredibly difficult and taxing at times, I know that the effort needs to be put forth if I’m to get to that finish line and reap the rewards.

You’re working on a project and you’re getting frustrated and want to give up. Or maybe you’re thinking of signing up for a marathon but find the distance daunting. Or hell, you want to do a local 5k but doubt you can even run 3.1 miles. Whether it’s a lofty work goal or a personal physical challenge, my advice is the same: you’re stronger than you think. The human body can endure a lot of pain and suffering. It’s quite a powerful machine. The real challenge is your mind, and it can be as weak or as tough as you make it. Online marketing requires a tenacity and a toughness and a stubbornness that some people lack. It’s a competitive industry. To be able to endure and emerge with a successful website or idea that you saw to fruition means long hours, a lot of trial and error, overcoming setbacks and hardships, and moving steadily towards that end goal. A 5k, half marathon, marathon, half Ironman, and Ironman are no different–they’re attainable goals, but you have to be honest and do the work. That finish line is within reach, but only if you do the work to get your ass there.

If It Ain’t Broke, Keep Milkin’ It: Getting the Most Out of Your One-Trick Pony

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Rovio, the Finnish company behind the insanely popular Angry Birds series of games, announced that they’re working on a cartoon series based on the game that will debut this fall. This was after the studio’s head of animation Nick Dorra said they were envisioning a feature film that won’t be ready for a couple years. And after they’ve released Angry Birds Seasons, Angry Birds Rio (a promotional tie-in with the animated film Rio), Angry Birds in Space, and the forthcoming Angry Birds Magic. I’m guessing you’re starting to sense a pattern here. Rovio seems like a bit of a one-trick pony, right? Well, when that pony has been downloaded 700 million times across various platforms and makes $12 million a year in ads alone, I’d milk the shit out of that pony too.

Angry Birds--you know them, you love them, you've flung them

It’s difficult to estimate how much money the Angry Birds series had made Rovio, but considering how the game ranges from $0.99 in the iTunes store to $6 for Windows PC and how many times this friggin’ game has been downloaded, after doing the math and carrying the one you can accurately calculate that Rovio has a metric butt-ton of money. The games are critically acclaimed, simple, and addictive enough that they appeal to people of all demographics: gamers and non-gamers, kids and adults, men and women. It’s a rare feat to capture lightning in a bottle, and Rovio has managed to do just that.

Some companies follow up a creative and commercial success with a string of follow-ups that are wildly different but a success in their own right–Pixar immediately comes to mind. Other creative minds end up becoming the Right Said Fred of their particular niche, only managing to bust out a single one-hit-wonder before fading into obscurity until your buddy wins an argument by remembering who sang that one song from the ’90s about the catwalk. There’s an immense amount of pressure to follow up a successful idea with more super clever genius-level awesomeness, and with that expectation is a lot of scrutiny about whether you’re capable of cranking out something that’s successful but different.

You’re probably scoffing and thinking that Rovio is nothing but a hack, that you’re sooooo over Angry Birds, and that if you were in their shoes you’d use the attention and success to fuel you to do something imaginative and different and equally lucrative–no, even more lucrative. You’d be Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, not Adam Sandler in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan or Jack and Jill. I understand that, and I admire it–I wouldn’t want to be pegged as a one-hit wonder several years after the fact, reduced to being an isolated hermit of  Howard Hughes proportion and curled up in a corner of my house years from now, muttering about how I was once a huge success before my star burned out as fiercely and quickly as it once shone.

But at the same time, if you saw dollar signs and happy faces and you cranked out an identical follow-up that resulted in more dollar signs and happy faces, why would you want to mess with a tried-and-true formula? The churn and burn strategy is working for Rovio, and if I were them, you bet your ass I’d stick with it until it gets as played out as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire airing five nights a week. Besides, it’s not like each spin-off is getting lazier and crappier, The Hangover-style–Entertainment Weekly recently put Angry Birds in Space on their Must List, calling the newest game “just as much of a good time as you’d expect, and certainly well worth the asking price.” So as long as there’s demand, keep providing a steady supply–that’s Economics 101, people.

For now, Rovio is content to keep milking their cash birds for all they’re worth, and they’ve got plenty of fans who aren’t sick of angry birds and smug pigs just yet. As long as people are willing to dress like angry birds, order angry birds cakes, buy angry birds plush toys, and even decorate their city’s landmark as an angry bird slingshot, they’ll keep downloading and playing Angry Birds, whether the heroes are in space, underwater, in the jungle, in prehistoric times, whatever. Rovio is more than cool with that arrangement, and so far they haven’t seemed to run out of Angry Birds-themed ideas just yet–in addition to an animated series and feature film, they’re thinking of releasing some games from the pigs’ point of view. The real test, of course, will be what will happen when the world does eventually grow tired of hurling fowl at green-hued swine and how Rovio will react. Will they come up with another wildly successful game franchise or will they fail to measure up to their one-trick pony? But that’s not a bird they have to dodge just yet, so they’re content to keep on keepin’ on until they get to that crossroad. Wouldn’t you do the same?

Marketing Fail 101: How Woody Harrelson Taught Us About the Importance of Knowing Your Audience

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The social news site reddit is a marvelous beast. Comprised of countless user-created categories, it’s a haven for all sorts of information and interactions. There are subreddits about world news, fitness, video games, humor, TV shows such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, politics, and everything in between. One popular section is called “IAMA,” in which anyone can submit a thread where the reddit community can ask him or her anything. AMAs have been conducted by a wide range of people, some unique, some ordinary, ranging from paramedics, the elderly, a dude stuck in his closet, and even the occasional celebrity. Famous folks such as Aziz Ansari, Zach Braff, Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, Ali Larter, and others have stopped by reddit to answer a flurry of questions submitted by users. Sometimes the star is an actual user himself who wanted to engage with fans and give back to the community, while others are there to promote an upcoming movie or book but are game to answer some questions while simultaneously pimping their project, but most of the time the reddit community is excited to interact with a bona fide celebrity and will put up with the occasional shill…

…unless you’re Woody Harrelson. The actor, who has starred in reddit-friendly movies such as Zombieland, Natural Born Killers, and No Country for Old Men, volunteered to do an AMA early last month to coincide with his new film Rampart, a well-received movie in which Harrelson plays a corrupt cop battling inner demons. The thread should have been a slam dunk for the White Men Can’t Jump actor considering he’s exactly the type of guy the typical reddit user would love to hang out with, but the whole thing turned into a disaster of epic proportions.

From the get-go, it seemed pretty clear to the community that Mr. Harrelson had no idea what reddit was and that someone (probably a PR agent) had heard that some celebs had successfully used the site to promote their upcoming work and pushed the idea onto him. Which is fine, really–reddit has warmly received many actors who were clearly there to put the word out about a project, like Stephen Tobolowsky, aka Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day, who participated in an AMA to promote his new short story as well as his podcast. But what made Tobolowsky’s AMA a resounding success and Harrelson’s a big fat failure was that Stephen understood the rules of the “IAMA” subreddit and was game to follow them, answering hundreds of questions with interesting and often amusing answers, whereas Woody was unfamiliar with the setup and tried to deflect every question thrown his way and steer the conversation back to his upcoming film.

The result, if you aren’t aware of what happened, was a humiliating bloodbath. The whole point of an “AMA” is to “Ask [the submitter] Anything,” not “Ask Woody Harrelson Questions About His New Movie Rampart.” When asked what his most difficult role was, he answered with a canned “The character in Rampart.” When asked what movie was the most fun to work on, he lamely responded, “Well I usually wouldn’t say fun…intense, challenging, engaging, yeah.” When asked about a possibly scandalous run in with a young coed at a party, he tried to redirect with a “lets focus on the film people.” When asked which role was he bummed he didn’t get but was later glad to have not gotten it, he threw out a pageant response of “I don’t really think about those things.”

And the straw that broke the camel’s back:


He considers his time valuable but signed on to sit down and let one of the most popular online communities in existence pepper him with questions that can take hours to answer. Right. By this point reddit had had enough–the AMA thread got downvoted to oblivion and so did most of Harrelson’s answers. More than a month later, the fallout of this epic marketing disaster can still be felt–countless news and pop culture sites have covered the blunder, the words “Woody Harrelson” and “Rampart” are still a running joke in reddit threads, and the incident even has its own entry on Know Your Meme.

You can extract a wealth of information from this glorious marketing failure, but I’ll outline the most obvious yet important ones that Mr. Harrelson and his handlers seemed to very clearly overlook:

1. Know Your Audience, Duh

This is elementary-level stuff here, people, but apparently it needs to be reiterated from time to time. Writing a guest post on a childhood education resource site to promote your learning materials? Don’t pepper your content with F-bombs and gush about how amazing Jersey Shore is. Who are you writing for? Where are your ads running? Who will see them? This is basic recon you need to do before diving headfirst into a situation in which you could find yourself struggling to stay afloat. You need to know who your audience is and adapt to them accordingly. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work nowadays–this is why we have multivariate testing and why we test different campaigns with different copy and different images. A tone that works beautifully one one site may fail miserably on another. You need to know all this and adapt accordingly.

2. Be Prepared

Do your homework. Harrelson should have looked at some other well-known AMAs to get an idea of the sort of questions the reddit community typically asks celebrities. Not many people are skilled at the art of improvisation. If you’re going into a situation completely blind, it’s not exactly a surprise when you stumble and make an ass of yourself. Are you getting interviewed? Awesome! Check out who’s interviewing you and what their typical tone or style is. Planning to interview someone? Cool! Research your subject and come up with a specific set of questions that caters to his or her area of expertise to make it more interesting. Getting some press from a big industry website? Wahoo! Check to see what sort of write ups they tend to lean towards–are they more of the “dig up dirt/’gotcha’ question’-type journalists, or do they generally draft up positive stuff? Don’t just laze your way through and assume that everything will go smoothly, because it probably won’t if you’re not adequately prepared.

3. Have a Back-Up Plan

Obviously the “Did you bang a college girl at a house party” question isn’t an ideal one for Harrelson to answer, but you would think that when one invites an anonymous group of Internet users to ask one anything, there are gonna be a few turds in the punchbowl. Unfortunately, Harrelson deflected the question poorly. Have a back-up plan for when things take an unexpected turn. Try to anticipate the unexpected and learn to expect it. At worst you prepared for some curveballs but didn’t get any, but when one inevitably does get thrown your way, you’ll know how to handle it. Even if you have a few lame canned deflections or statements prepared, at least you thought them through and considered how your audience would react instead of being forced to come up with a solution on the spot.

4. Do a Lil’ Give and Take

Yeah yeah, we know Harrelson was there to promote a movie. But most people are content with the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” agreement. If Harrelson played by the rules and answered as many questions as he could warmly and honestly, the community wouldn’t have given a shit if he was there to promote Rampart, The Hunger Games, or his favorite brand of toenail clippers. Instead, he tried to benefit without giving something in return, and reddit quickly sniffed out the ruse and felt like they were being taken advantage of. If you want something from someone, whether it’s a link, a positive review, their business, some advice, whatever, make it worth his or her while. Offer something in return so that the person helping you out understands that you appreciate his time and effort.

5. Make Sure Your Employees Don’t Fuck You Over

Admittedly, Woody Harrelson is a busy celebrity, and I’m sure other celebs who have done AMAs had some help from their handlers or PR agents in setting it all up and knowing how the site works. Harrelson was made to look like a huge fool, and I bet someone got fired over this whole mess. Sure, the actor could have done his homework on his own, but the onus is also on his PR rep to have prepped him accordingly. If you put trust in your employees or coworkers and assume they’re doing their work and that they’ve got your back, that damn well better be the case. Everyone needs to be on the same page–if someone on your team is left out of the loop, there’s a breakdown in communication that can result in a huge hiccup in your project.

What’s unfortunate is that Rampart was a critically acclaimed movie and Harrelson is a likable actor–if the situation had been handled a little bit differently, he could have had one of the most successful AMAs in reddit history and a few more people would have seen his film. Instead, we’re left with an embarrassing but valuable case study on what not to do when it comes to self-promotion and the importance of researching your audience and adapting appropriately.

If You’re Universally Loathed, A Blog Commenting System Probably Isn’t a Good Idea

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Generally, I’m a fan of enabling comments on your personal or professional blog. Most of the time it’s a win-win–you can facilitate a discussion among your readers, address any feedback that gets brought up, and get free unique content for your site (blog comments can often bring in some long-tail search traffic). It’s an easy way to interact with the people who visit your site and to show them that you’re listening to what they have to say, even if you might disagree with it from time to time.

There are, of course, a couple exceptions to the “blog commenting is a good idea” argument. First of all, if you’re especially sensitive and can’t handle it when the occasional reader criticizes your post, an idea of yours, or is just being an Internet troll, blog comments may not be for you. I’ve seen people fly off the rails and obsessively post a retort to every single critical or negative comment just so they can have the last word in a childish “So THERE” sort of way. You’ve got to learn to handle negative feedback properly or just simply let it go. It’s fine if your readers disagree with you, and you can argue back and forth in a professional, respectful manner. But if you’re bawling over how John S. was being mean or hateful to you just because he corrected you in a blog post comment, you may not be able to handle allowing other people expressing their opinions on your site.

Another exception to the rule is if you are such a universally loathed company or brand that no matter what you put out, people are going to fucking hate you. The perfect example of this is the TSA’s blog. Nobody likes airport security–who enjoys being treated like a criminal just for flying to Las Vegas for the weekend? Not helping matters is the organization’s increasingly ridiculous knee-jerk reactions to isolated failed terrorist attempts that they insist will make flying safer but only result in making it more of a hassle and reducing our constitutional rights to a hand down our pants.

The TSA knows everyone hates them, so in a barely half-ass attempt to get the country back on their side, they started a blog to, in their words, ” facilitate an ongoing dialogue on innovations in security, technology and the checkpoint screening process.” Note the sue of the word “dialogue” here, which ordinarily means “a conversation between two or more people.” Yet if you sift through their blog posts, you’ll notice a few things. First, the posts are ridiculous. They’ve got their typical “fun” or “offbeat posts, like one about a passenger who tried to fly with live eels in his bag, or how to travel with a wedding dress. But the entries that actually address widespread criticism or newsworthy happenings are a joke. It’s a problem a lot of corporate blogs run into, where they have to deflect criticism without actually divulging how they’re in the wrong or suck at what they do.

Take this recent example: a video has spread across the web made by a blogger who was the first to sue the TSA after they implemented the “body scanner or patdown” pick-your-poison at airports last year. The video discusses how the scanners show your body as a white figure against a black background and how foreign objects that you’re carrying will also show up as black. However, if you place the objects at your side (via a hidden pocket or something), the black figures will blend against the black background and won’t show up in the scan. The blogger has successfully been able to take undetected metal items through security by exploiting this embarrassing flaw. TSA responded with a sad retort about how they can’t divulge their sophisticated scanner technology detection for “obvious security reasons,” but that it’s “one of the best tools available” and is one of their “20 layers of security” that includes hiring some obese mouth breather on a power trip because he has a TSA-issued badge and therefore thinks he’s a police officer.

The response is problematic for a few reasons. Number one, it is flippantly disrespectful to the man who made the video. Sure, he’s being critical of their organization, but generally it’s a good idea to be the one taking the high road. They could have come across as the rational, professional ones and highlighted the blogger as being paranoid and spiteful without referring to him as “some guy claiming he figured out a way to beat our body scanners” whose “crude attempt” to show security flaws is misguided. Secondly, the overall language used in the post undercuts their credibility and makes them sound as if they’re the immature ones, especially when they refer to a bomb in the post as “you know… things that go BOOM.” You’re addressing a potentially huge security flaw in $1 billion worth of technology implemented for air transportation nationwide–your tone should be a little more serious and adult than cutesy-referring to explosive devises as “things that go BOOM.”

But regardless of whether the TSA posts about wedding dresses or releases statements about the latest batch of criticism thrown their way, the comments left by readers are pretty much the same: vitriolic, critical, angry, and fed up. The TSA blog has a comment moderation system, but it seems as if they only filter out profane or hateful speech. To their credit, they are publishing some pretty negative responses instead of removing them and cherry-picking the positive ones to publish, but what good is that if you never address any of them? I’ve never seen any of the bloggers engage in a true dialogue, despite the blog’s mission statement, with their blog’s commenters. Hell, I’ve never seen the bloggers even post a single comment.

If you ask me, I think the TSA should just get rid of their commenting system altogether. It certainly doesn’t help their image since virtually every comment left by readers is negative and critical of the whole organization. Although it is building a community, it’s a community of like-minded people who all hate the same organization that’s trying to turn its own image around, so it’s a pretty pointless endeavor.

The blog could potentially change its approach by doing the following:

  • Hold off on the cutesy shit until the audience is a bit less critical. The offbeat and fun content is good, but it’s falling on deaf ears if your readers all hate you and only check out your stuff to pick apart everything.
  • Shift the tone so that it’s more honest and mature. Airport security isn’t something that should have a “bro-brah buddy” vibe–it undercuts the TSA’s credibility and just makes people hate them more.
  • Respond to feedback and engage/interact with the readers. Even if they can’t really do anything, talk about people’s concerns and criticism and at least acknowledge that they’re listening to what folks have to say. That alone would show people that they take all suggestions into consideration.

If that’s too much work for them and they want to keep churning out the same bullshit they have been, they might as well just turn off commenting because it’s not doing them any favors. The same goes for any blog–if you can’t be bothered to interact with your readers, listen to their feedback, and respond to it, blog comments are not for you. After all, they’re not mandatory; many successful blogs don’t allow comments (Seth Godin, for example). But there are benefits to having them, and if you can overcome the drawbacks to embrace the positive aspects of blog comments, you’ll have a robust and passionate community of readers.

The Rise of Knee-Jerk Outrage: Why You’re a Moron for Grabbing Your Internet Pitchfork

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Back in October, a waitress who was bartending at the Cha Cha Lounge here in Seattle discovered something that I’m sure has happened to every server in the restaurant industry at some point or another: she got stiffed by a customer. Not only did the cheapskate patron opt out of leaving her a tip, he wrote on his bill “P.S. You could stand to loose [sic] a few pounds.”

What a charmer (image via the Seattle Weekly)

A dick move (although Ms. Liss ain’t exactly the healthiest looking girl in the Pacific Northwest, so the dude’s advice, while harsh, isn’t entirely unwarranted) for sure; I’d imagine something like this would be the cherry on top of an already busy, stressful day at work. But we all know the world is full of assholes and that you can’t let the occasional d-bag bring you down. The best thing to do is to just ignore the hater and move on, right?

Not when you can call upon an angry Internet army to exact sweet revenge! Ms. Liss opted to post the receipt on her Facebook page, reveal the rude customer’s name (he paid with a credit card, which isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do when you’re dissing the waitstaff, but on the other hand I typically expect to patron an establishment without worrying about my personal information being taken by an employee and posted in public), and describe him as being “dressed like that gay kid on Glee.” Awesome, her reaction to getting bullied was to return the favor and make fun of homos in one fell swoop. Naturally, her friends were outraged and the fire spread. People tracked down the customer, named Andrew Meyer, thanks to a photo of him that Liss posted. Pretty soon Mr. Meyer started getting harassed by anonymous Internet users non-stop. That’ll teach the twerp to be nicer to portly bartenders!

…except there was just one little problem. Liss tracked down the wrong Andrew Meyer, a man she referred to as “yuppie scum” simply because he worked at Microsoft and was in a fraternity in college. Who’d have thought there’d be more than one Andrew Meyer in Seattle? The wrong Meyer quickly became the victim of bullying, harassment, and stress all because he shared the name with some dude whose biggest crime was not tipping a bartender whom he also called fat. Talk about a clustercuss. Oh, and here’s the kicker: this isn’t even the first time Ms. Liss wrongfully accused someone of committing a heinous act. In September 2007, she misidentified two men who had been threatening her and a friend. The two innocent guys were arrested and charged with felony harassment despite their claims of innocence, and it wasn’t until six months later that Liss realized she may have pinned the crime on the wrong guys.

Don’t get me wrong, I love some good ol’ Internet drama as much as the next person, but we’re in an age of technology where information is made available and can spread so rapidly that most people take what they read at face value and react to it without pausing to actually ponder its validity. It happens on reddit, one of my favorite sites, all the time–someone will post a sob story, everyone will rally behind the poor guy, then one or two folks will actually do some research and find out the dude is full of shit and is swindling the site, users feel outraged, etc. Or maybe someone posts about how he got screwed big time by some evil, uncaring company or some bullying butthole and everyone gets out their virtual pitchforks and lights their torches, digs up the offender’s personal information, and harasses the shit out of him before realizing that there are multiple sides to a story and the original poster was the one who was being the dick all along.

Want another example? It’s happening right now with this ‘Kony 2012′ movement. If you’re unfamiliar with what’s going on, a nonprofit activist organization called Invisible Children is promoting a 30-minute video about a man named Joseph Kony (obligatory Wikipedia link). He’s basically an African warlord who recruits kids to fight in his crazy resistance army and do heinous shit in the name of culty religious nonsense. Social media slactivists immediately jumped on the bandwagon, updating their statuses with “omg u guyz save africa its a great country.”

"I'm making a difference!"

Okay, so they’re building awareness, which is great and all until, as The Atlantic aptly put it, you can’t exactly depose an African warlord with status updates and rubber bracelets:

“Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy. How do we go from raising awareness about LRA violence to actually stopping it? What’s the mechanism of transforming YouTube page views into a mediated political settlement?…Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue — most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions.”

Or, as this meme more succinctly puts it:

That Boromir, always thinkin'

Right now you may be thinking, “Ugh, whatever, don’t poop in my soup! I’m just trying to support a great organization that’s trying to do the right thing!” Yeah, that’s all well and good until you discover that Invisible Children spent $8,676,614 in 2011, only 32% of which went to direct services and the rest comprising of staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. Or that the video milks out a kneejerk, emotional reaction without explaining the situation in great detail or suggesting viable solutions other than “Uh, the U.S. should totally intervene” (even though our government has had Kony on its radar for a decade so it’s not like they didn’t know about this dude until now, and obviously we’ve got nothing else on our plate so naturally we’re clamoring to fix this solution because our country has nothing better to do, like, say, fix our economy or deal with the war we’re already balls deep in).

I’m not trying to take a dump on the Kony 2012 cause or on Invisible Children; I realize it’s a sobering situation and that this charity is aiming to spread awareness. It’s just that this movement is another example of people shoving one another aside to be in the front row of a phenomenon they don’t even fully understand. Whether you’re clamoring to defend someone by attacking whoever she points her finger at or you’re jumping to support a cause because it’s the hip thing to do without researching the organization behind it or checking the facts behind the story, you’re contributing to this age of knee-jerk outrage.

Most people would rather be seen as being “in the know” without actually taking a few minutes to see what “the know” actually is. It’s ironic that at a time where we have access to a wealth of information at our fingertips, we buy into everyone else’s bullshit without second-guessing any of it. Be smart. Be savvy. Question things. I’m not saying be a cynical prick, but don’t automatically believe something that’s crafted specifically to evoke a strong emotional reaction. Have a little integrity and a little intelligence before pouring yourself into the cesspool of misinformation. I personally would rather arrive late but well informed to the party than show up first and clueless. Unfortunately, too many Internet users are prone to shooting first without even bothering to ask the question at all.

Bigger Ain’t Always Better: Why Renovation Can Be Risky

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Seeing as how it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d focus this post on something I truly love: food. More specifically, there’s a burger place in Seattle called Lunchbox Laboratory. You could order up a huge sloppy, delicious concoction of your choosing — beef, “dork” (duck + pork), lamb, “churken” (turkey + chicken), game — adorned with bacon, truffle sauce, gorgonzola cream, you name it, complete with a fries or tots with your choice of salt accompaniments and one of many different milkshake flavors to wash it all down.  It’s the sort of place you could go to for lunch where you’d gorge on a meal and be so full that you wouldn’t (or couldn’t) eat anything else the rest of the day. It’s a pricey excursion (two burgers, shakes and fries would add up to about $45) but totally worth it. Lunchbox Laboratory is considered to be one of Seattle’s best burger places and has graced many culinary magazines’ lists of best burgers nationwide.

So damn good

Or so it used to be. One of my favorite burger joints in town was recently bought by a somewhat craptacular establishment called the Eastlake Bar and Grill, and they decided to move Lunchbox Laboratory’s location from the tiny, hole in the wallish building where it used to reside in Ballard to a larger location in South Lake Union. I initially thought this was both spectacular and dangerous news, as the new location is closer to where I live. However, after checking out the new location’s Yelp listing, I can’t help but feel a bit heartbroken.

old location's Yelp listing

The old (now closed) location’s Yelp listing averaged four stars out of nearly 500 reviews. The new location, on the other hand, isn’t faring nearly as well:

new location's Yelp listing

Thus far the new location has only amassed 37 reviews, but it’s averaging a surprisingly poor 2 1/2 stars, down from its stellar four star rating. What the hell happened? After perusing through the reviews, it’s apparent that the location isn’t the only thing that Lunchbox Laboratory has changed:

  • “…they are no longer getting the kaiser roll from Grand Central Bakery, and are instead using a bread that is so dense it ends up overpowering the burger.”
  • “Looks like the new owners brought in their frozen food tendencies from eastlake bar & grill, etc and ruined a classic..  you would think they would expand options with a bigger space/kitchen but they did just the opposite. “
  • “burger size has gone down considerably while price went up?”
  • “They’ve taken everything that made Lunchbox Laboratory worth going to, waiting in line for, and paying $25 for a meal for, and watered it down to another link in a mediocre burger/bar and grill chain.”
  • “…the selection just isn’t what it was…”

Some reviewers are chastising the folks who left negative reviews for being too “hipster” and bemoaning the changes (I suppose it’s the culinary equivalent of scoffing and saying you loved this band when they were more underground…maybe an “I had this burger on vinyl” approach?), but when you love something and expect it to continue to be that thing you love, you’re understandably upset and disappointed when it’s changed so drastically, you barely recognize it. It’s akin to coming home to your gorgeous, lovely wife from a hard day’s work, only to find that she’s inexplicably gained 120 lbs and grown a bunch of hairy warts over the course of eight hours.

Lunchbox Laboratory’s reasoning for their new shoddy service and product (subpar ingredients, poorly cooked food, smaller portions, no substitutions, severely neutered menu with jacked up prices) is that they’re struggling to properly train their staff, and that once they learn the ropes, they’ll adjust the menu accordingly. This is a hardly an excuse — as a business, you should know that you need to get your ducks in a row before opening or unveiling something new. If you rush into something before you’re ready just so you can rake in some green a week or two early, the extra cash you make won’t be worth the customer dissatisfaction and disappointment (which will hurt your wallet in the long run). They should have re-opened with their staff properly trained and ready to bring the same experience that established the brand and made it so great to begin with.

This is exactly the same thing that happened to Digg when it revamped its site to its now-famous version 4. They rolled out a bunch of changes in an effort to appease publishers, which would have made the site more money, but the radical revamp alienated and outraged its loyal users and drove them away. They learned the hard way that they really shot themselves in the foot and scrambled to restore beloved features that had been cut out of the recent design, but by then the damage was already done — many users abandoned the site and flocked to other communities like Reddit, which is now experiencing record growth.

Put simply, there’s a reason why your loyal customers are loyal. You offer stellar service, a great product, friendly ambiance, a simple design. Whatever it is, it’s working for you, and that’s why your customers love you so much. If you’ve got a user-friendly website that’s highly praised by your users and completely revamp it so it’s overly complicated and technical, you’ve just alienated every single one of them. If you’re a mom and pop store who offered warm, personalized customer service but got bought out by some corporation who switches you over to an automated phone system and thick-accented guys named “Bob,” your customers will wonder where that unique experience went. And if you sell your awesome little burger place to a shitty bar and grill chain and change everything that made your business great so you can make a couple more bucks, your rabid fanbase will shake their heads and say “You’ve changed, man.”

You can scoff and say it’s hipster or douchey to bemoan change, and I won’t argue that some change and growth is good for your business. However, once you start tinkering with the very thing that sets your business apart and makes it great, you’ve embarked on a very slippery slope. You need to really ask yourself the following:

  • How will these changes impact my business?
  • How will they affect my existing customers?
  • How will they affect new/future customers?
  • Is the bottom line worth the drawbacks these changes may bring about?

Basically, will the quality of your product and/or service be negatively impacted by these changes? Is it worth it to cut corners in order to make a bigger profit? If you’re a brand-centric company, it might not be — your reputation for quality and your customer loyalty may be too valuable to compromise. If you’re convinced that your radical changes will bring about a new crop of loyal customers at the expense of your old ones, I suppose that’s a risk you can take. However, ask yourself how often you’re willing to cycle through a new throng of loyal fans every time you’re itching to “reinvent” your business. There’s a reason why Garth Brooks’ alter ego experiment in the 90’s was met with head scratches and puzzled looks. Don’t be the Chris Gaines of your industry.  Your customers don’t want that.

No. Just no.