“WFH” is Not a Bad Word: Five Tips for Better At-Home Workers

OK, so WFH isn’t even a word (it’s three:  working from home), let alone a bad word.  So why do so many employers, managers, and coworkers treat it as such?  In today’s constantly-on, mobile-enabled, Skype video-connected world, there are very few reasons why an office employee needs to actually be in the office to be productive.  Sure, there are people who need to be away from home to work due to personality, logistical, or other issues – such as those with young children at home and no space for an office.  However, it’s confusing to me that so many people think that, just because someone is working from home, they are slacking off and otherwise unproductive.

Pres. Obama in the Oval Office
Pres. Obama in the Oval Office of the White House (Photo: Getty)

A recent manager told me that working from home wasn’t allowed under his management because “work happens in the office.”  Really?  In just a few weeks at that job, I saw that work didn’t really happen all that often in the office.  In a typical workday, the open floor plan encouraged plenty of random conversations that ranged from work to television to lunch destinations.  Add in the walk to the cafe in the lobby, a drive to a local lunch spot, and a half-dozen non-work-related conversations every day and that eight-hour workday drops down to about five, maybe less.

Contrast that with working from home, where you’re alone (ideally) and totally free from the distractions of coworkers.  A place where you can choose to engage in an email, phone, or IM conversation immediately or later, when you have time and focus.  A place where you’re free to work in total silence, or with the heavy metal music turned up to 11.  A place where you have the freedom to structure your office, your day, and your view. You get the point.

Going further, the eight-hour workday (or 10-12 in the start-up world) is actually extended by an hour or more on each end. Given a typical commute of 30-60 minutes, breakfast, getting dressed, etc., you’re looking at an additional few hours per day that are totally unproductive with respect to your employer’s point of view, but which and employee considers part of the work day.

Again, contrast that with working from home where the average commute is 15-30 seconds, breakfast is often multi-tasked with checking email and attending a conference call, snacks and lunch are just a few feet away (and close to free), and showering is, unfortunately for spouses, optional.

In fact, I’m a firm believer that those who work from home actually put in MORE hours than those who go into the office. Once you subtract the lunches, coffee stops, mindless office chit-chat, etc., from the work day, the typical office worker is probably putting in about a 60% workday.  When working from home, your line between home and work becomes blurred.  You end up working later than you expect because you don’t have the end-of-day cues of the office emptying out.  You aren’t pressed to immediately shower, groom, and dress, so tend to get wrapped up in email or early tasks before you do anything else. You tend to work through lunch, and work longer knowing that your commute home is instantaneous.

Now, I can hear you saying, “What about those WFH-ers who go to the dry cleaners at 2pm or dial into a conference call from the mall?  Really?  You’re going to forget about the 70-minute lunch you took last week – while at work – because you had to get your oil changed and grab paper towels from Target?

"alone" by Giorgio Montersino
"alone" by Giorgio Montersino (Flickr CC)

Notice that, in this entire rant, I never mentioned that laptops are portable, smart phones allow access to email, IM, and documents and attachments from virtually anywhere.  I’ve worked effectively the past 10+ workdays from a new apartment with no internet access, surviving by tethering to my mobile phone to grab email, make calls, and even conduct a web meeting which shared my screen for a product demo of a browser-based product and used VoIP for the voice portion! (Thank you, GoToMeeting and my Nexus One phone on AT&T!)  There is absolutely no reason why I needed to go into an office to do any of this.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a productive brainstorming session in front of a white board can be more illuminating and effective that 20 conference calls, but they don’t happen every day and they aren’t necessary every day.  In fact, the occasional video chat can alleviate that sense of alienation and increase the sense of team.  And, as the guys at 37Signals put so well, time apart actually increases the effectiveness of occasional in-person meetings.  Absence makes the brainstorming grow fonder, or something like that…

So, after all of that rant, here are my five tips for making the work-from-home experience better for your employees:

  1. Don’t just support WFH, encourage it! Set the example by working from home and proving your productivity. Encourage communication and be responsive. Pick up the phone when an email response requires more than a paragraph. What not to do? I had a manager at Siebel Systems who frequently worked from home on Fridays.  On those days, we either never heard from him, or when we did, he was obviously out shopping or running errands and was just calling to “check in.”  If a question was asked that needed research, he always promised to get back to us later that day, but never did.  That manager set the example that WFH was a vacation day and our team resented it.
  2. Support the necessary tools without breaking the bank. And, forget about where your employees work, but make it easy for them to do so.  Give all employees a laptop (not a desktop), a web meeting account (Yugma and Skype are both free, and Skype includes nearly ubiquitous audio/video chat, IM, and screen sharing), and access to a collaboration or project workspace like Basecamp or Google Docs. Reimburse $75 or $100 for mobile phone service so that your team isn’t worried about exceeding minutes or using the data plan.  Every tool required is available, and most can be found for free or nearly free.
  3. Don’t force video calls. While the iPhone’s new FaceTime video chat is all the rage, not everyone is comfortable showing their home office (or their WFH fashion) to the entire team.  Even for those on the road, most wouldn’t choose to do a video conference from their hotel room.  Audio-only phone calls have worked just fine for the past 50 years.
  4. Allow flexibility with schedules and meetings. In an office, you don’t expect people to be at their desk every second of the day, so WFH should be no different.  I frequently run into the issue that everyone expects me to be attached to my phone and laptop 100% of the time.  They assume that I don’t go out to lunch, don’t have other calls, and don’t even go to the bathroom.  My guess is that people in the office immediately assume that WFHers are not working if they don’t answer the phone on the first ring or respond to an IM within seconds.  Remember that breaks are needed regardless of work location, and that other calls or meetings or tasks pop up.  More importantly, having the luxury to ignore the constant interruptions is one of the key benefits of WFH.
  5. Treat the remote colleague as you would anyone else. Expect the same output as those in the office, but give the same respect.  One of my pet peeves is when a colleague (or worse, a manager) begins a conference call with something like, “So Bob, must be nice working from home today…” You wouldn’t begin a call with a customer or prospect that way; it’s insulting to the WFHer and counter-productive for those in the office.

Bottom Line:  Working from home may not be a personal preference for everyone, but for many it’s a highly-rewarding productivity and morale booster with a huge ROI.  Encourage it, support it, and quell the dissent from the non-believers.  In the tech start-up world, the typical workday has always been 10-12 hours long, with most people answering emails and putting in a few hours in the evenings and over the weekend.  If you’re willing to accept that “extra” work, there’s no reason to deny your team a few days per week for WFH.

Let me know what you think.

UPDATE:  GigaOm’s WebWorkerDaily just had an interesting piece on the productivity gains from working at home.  The most striking stat is that 45% of at-home workers put in 2-3 more hours per day, and 25% put in 4 more hours per day!  Adding 20-50% more hours is an incredible benefit for any company.

Enterprise Software is Dead

OK, “dead” may be a bit premature, but it is surely in decline.  And, unless you are Oracle, SAP, HP, or similar, you’re not a software company, you’re just a feature awaiting a lingering death or a future acquisition.

Industry lifecycle curve

The Investopedia defines the final stage of the “industry lifecycle,” decline, as: “revenues declining; the industry as a whole may be supplanted by a new one.”  While Oracle’s revenues are definitely not declining, it’s becoming increasingly rare to hear of an enterprise-focused software firm that is doing well.  Sure, there are the SuccessFactors and QlikViews of the world, but it seems that Silicon Valley is bursting with enterprise software companies (SaaS and non-SaaS) that are doomed to limp along as the VCs continue to pump more money into the dream of next year’s hockey stick revenue chart (which is why the traditional VC model is dead, too).

There is a nice paper by a group at MIT’s Sloan School of Business that covers this industry’s decline in great detail, and shows how software companies have grown more and more dependent on services revenue for growth while license sales (as a % of total revenue) have steadily declined since the late ’90s.

The Feature as a Business Model

While the software world is stampeding towards an app-based economy on the consumer side (more on that in a future post), today’s enterprise software start-ups can succeed in only one way – by building their business on a killer feature missing from the entrenched leaders’ solutions (read: Oracle, IBM, SAP, Microsoft, Google, etc.), then hope that they are acquired by one of those leaders. If a start-up’s key functionality or value prop is matched or trumped by a market leader, that start-up is done.

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of these doomed start-ups in Silicon Valley, scrounging up a few million (<50) dollars in annual revenue (with cash-flow positive always just three quarters away), churning through employees and executives every few years, and living on VC money until, around year six or seven, they either put themselves up for sale at a fraction of the invested capital or they simply close their doors.  Hell, I’ve worked for a few of those, and most of my friends in Silicon Valley have been jumping between similar companies for most of their tech careers as well.

On one hand, we should thank the Googles and the Siebels and the rest of the successful Valley companies for creating the wealth to fund the traditional VCs, who then make the Silicon Valley economy possible at all.  Since there is so much money available for investment, there are thousands of jobs created just to spend that money, even with incredibly flimsy business models to back them up (OH: “$3M revenue this year, $12M next? That’s impossible and insane, but it’s what the VCs want to hear…”).  But I don’t want this to turn into a rant any more than it already has.

Bottom Line

The enterprise software industry is dead.  The big guys own the market and are essentially the software equivalent of General Motors and Ford.  The start-up pitch of “we’re going to disrupt/be the next gen/be version 2.0 of <insert successful software here>” or “we’re going after the $50 billion enterprise <insert solution here> market” is nearly impossible to achieve.

For those of us who work at enterprise-focused start-ups, it makes the effort of the entire team that much more important.  There is zero room for slackers or 9-to5ers.  The term “start-up” needs to return to it’s meaning as the description of a lifestyle, not it’s current meaning of a small company that provides snacks and foosball to employees.

All it Takes is One Bad Googler to Spoil the Online Privacy Barrel

OK, well this morning’s post was a bit ill-timed.  As news spreads of the Google engineer who accessed users’ Google Voice call logs, chat transcripts and contact lists, it seems as though this is just one more reason for consumers to worry about their online privacy.  But, while this may seem like the the perfect reason to unplug your life and delete every online profile, the phrase, “one rotten apple…” pops into my head.

I’m sure that someone at Wells Fargo can access my transactions or someone at AT&T can view my call logs or text messages – and they could have done it 20 years ago.  So while I’m still a huge advocate of embracing online, location, mobile, and other services – and this is an extremely isolated incident – I do see this as a perfect opportunity for every company with users’ personal information to put some processes in place to prevent these types of improper privacy violations.

CNET’s Buzz Out Loud – my fav podcast – had some interesting solutions to this issue:  oversight, hashing personal data, working in teams, etc.  While these are great options, it still only takes one employee with an axe to grind, or worse, to make any company look evil.

Bottom line:  It wasn’t the technology that exploited this data, it was a person.  To me, it’s an HR/management issue, not a technology issue.

Why Consumers Should Embrace Location-based Services

Privacy.  It seems as if it’s the media’s only focus every time a location-based or social app or service is mentioned.  With RFID tags, GPS apps, Foursquare, Facebook’s Places, and now iTunes’ Ping, everyone thinks that sharing a bit of info about your likes, dislikes or whereabouts is going to lead to the downfall of civilization.  While everyone must be careful with their personal info, how much detail they share (such as city vs. eight-decimal GPS precision), and how often they share it, there are so many more benefits than drawbacks to these services.  Plus, the risk that the company owning or using the data will do anything that’s harmful and directed at an individual really isn’t even an option.

In 2000, while at business school (and long before Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare), I took a ‘marketing data analytics’ course that focused on clickstream analysis.  Even then, privacy was beginning to become an issue and our instructor summed it up in such a way that I’ve always referred back to his quote:

In the good old days, you went in to your neighborhood market, the owner knew you and what you purchased.  If a product that you liked was back in stock, and the owner mentioned it, you’d be grateful.  If the owner said that, since you liked plums and apricots, you’d also probably like pluots, you’d respond with a big ‘thank you.’

But, if a computer or corporation does the same things, people think it’s creepy.

I may be naïve, but consumers shouldn’t worry about ‘big brother’ drilling down to find out that John Doe purchases too much beer or eats too many donuts. Being a B2B marketer with 50,000+ contacts in my company’s marketing database, I can assure you that the last thing I do is focus on marketing to individuals – it’s all about the numbers and aiming at segments.

For B2C, my 50,000 contact names are nothing.  Facebook has 500 million names – and growing. Marketing a marketing analytics solution for the past two-plus years, we’ve analyzed the behavior, purchasing, and response patterns of millions or individuals – and we’ve never seen a single name.  At best, we have a many-digit number, spread across multiple fields, that has no personally-identifiable information (PII).  Even our customers themselves have a daunting task of tying a name to an activity.  Having worked in tech for over a decade, the privacy fear-mongers obviously have no clue as to the cleanliness, integration, and access challenges companies have with their own data.  In the vast majority of corporate analyses, the data is aggregated or sampled such that connecting information back to a single person is impossible.

Again, consumers must be diligent to protect their privacy through each app’s settings (something that should be much easier than it is today).  But, I can think of dozens of reasons why consumers should embrace these services – from a discount as you walk by a store to interactive dressing rooms at retailers that use RFID tags to suggest complimentary products (and help reduce theft).

Bottom Line:  I look forward to the day that I opt-in to offers from the local coffee shop and am hit with a “free apple fritter with purchase of your double non-fat latte” offer on a Saturday morning.  That’s a privacy risk I’m willing to take! 😉

The Importance of Quant-based Marketing

I like to joke that, at Carnegie Mellon’s business school, every subject was boiled down to an equation, even marketing.  It’s not that far from the truth: given the marketing tools that I’m using today, it’s absolutely critical for marketers to be both creative and quantitative. There’s marketing automation, CRM, web analytics, external campaigns, social media, SEM, and the mountain of resulting data and analytics available from each of these tools.

From ROIs and CTRs to web analytics and funnel ratios, marketing leadership requires a deep level of expertise with Microsoft Excel as much or more than Word and PowerPoint.  Yes, marketers spend a lot of time writing copy, creating collateral and sales tools, and building presentations. But at every level of marketing, more and more attention is being paid to the numbers and the trends, not just the catchy tagline or the snazzy graphics.  A/B testing is becoming (or should be) a standard step in every marketing campaign, and that goes well beyond just changing colors or subject lines.  As marketing automation software makes it easier to segment lists and blast multiple versions of a campaign, interpreting the resulting data is becoming as important as creating the actual campaign copy.

I just read this great post at Chief Marketing Technologist that looks at marketing as a technology-driven discipline.  As a marketer currently pitching analytics software directly to marketing executives, this couldn’t be more on-target.  While we definitely need to be careful of over-promising the ease-of-use to those marketers who are not very quant-focused or tech-savvy, it’s the marketers who have some level of technical, analytical proficiency who are going to succeed.  Why?  Because they are going to quickly understand what’s working, what’s not, why, and what to do next – and have the data to back it up.

If you’re a marketer with only the soft/fluffy skills, your days are numbered (or at least your career advancement opportunities are severely limited).  Learn HTML or PHP.  Take an advanced Excel course.  Become a power-user of your Salesforce, Marketo, ExactTarget, Webtrends, Omniture, or other marketing software tools – especially the reporting and analytics capabilities.

Bottom line:  The faster you can get the answer to your manager’s questions with hard data (who do we target? with what? when? what worked? what didn’t? why? where is this new traffic from? how did they find us?), the better you can position yourself as the one who knows what to do next!

Good Design Should be a P-zero for All Marketers and Product Managers

I just read a wonderful post by Shawn Borsky at Six Revisions on why “craftsmanship” is critical to good web design.  He keys in on professional pride, which essentially defines craftsmanship, as the primary reasoning.  As I see it, anyone can slap some wood together to build something, but a real craftsman takes pride in his or her work, puts thought into the design and the execution, and strives for an elegant and functional finished product.

Early on, Borsky states, “If you do not take pride in your job, strive to build better value, and feel rewarded in your work, this article is not for you. The first step to being a better craftsman is care for your work no matter what it is.”  That’s a true statement regardless of your profession, but especially in technology where too many developers, product managers, and even marketers focus on the functionality with little thought given to the actual experience.  My recent post on “Marketing and Physics” calls out Google, but there are many, many more examples of good technology fronted by poor design.  Apple, on the other hand, is the reigning master at putting design ahead of technology, and has forced other tech companies to up their game tremendously across hardware, apps, and websites.  (More and more, HTC has matched or beat Apple at their own game.)

Borsky covers such minor, yet critical, points as naming and organization. It’s this focus on sweating the small stuff that really helps create a killer design.  Being diligent about alignment and symmetry – two of my many PowerPoint pet peeves – is as important as layout, graphics, and other “major” design elements.

I won’t spoil the whole story, so do yourself a favor and jump to Six Revisions to read the entire article.

(As for the “P-zero” in my title, it means an absolute must-have item in a list of priorities.  P1, for example, is first priority, P2 is second, and so on.  I learned of this early in my career as a Product Manager at Siebel Systems, where the engineering team considered P0’s as something we definitely wanted, P1’s as excuses to extend meetings, and everything P2 and beyond as complete wastes of time and not worthy of discussion.  Ah, those were good times! 😉 )

Marketing and Physics (Or, Why Google needs to hire more humans)

In the early part of my career, I always thought that the combination of “soft” skills, like marketing, and quantitative skills, like engineering, was rare. Looking back, I assume that was due to my work in manufacturing as a mechanical engineer. Being surrounded by such analytical, black/white, data-driven individuals rarely gave me the opportunity to see beyond that viewpoint. And, it taught me to to be completely data-obsessive since I tracked and measured and plotted every aspect of every project on which I worked.

Add 15 years and a business degree (where I naively assumed that touting my engineering background in my application essay would make me stand out – a definite mistake at Carnegie Mellon, where slightly above 50% of students have technical undergrads), and I’m now finding that the qualitative/quantitative combination is slightly more common than I previously thought, but still a rare and valuable combination, particularly in the tech space.

Take Google.  Most of their employees are incredibly intelligent but very technical, and it shows in their marketing and their product design.  I use many of their tools, probably because I’m an engineer at heart, but constantly snicker to myself when I think about a non-technical person trying to perform simple tasks.  It’s almost as if they don’t even consider the “average” user, let alone those who are technically inept.  Contrast that with Apple who, while creating incredibly technical products, ships the iPhone without a manual.  I won’t even mention the laughable Marissa Mayer profile in the New York Times where she – the VP of User Experience – talked about using her marketing “gut” to force her team to “test the 41 gradations (of color) between the competing blues to see which ones consumers might prefer.”  (Forty-one?!)

For example, Gmail is a great email tool and I use it as my primary personal email, but it’s design could be best described as technically proficient, not utterly usable.  The fact that they just recently added the ability to sort contacts by last name is a case in point.

I also have Google’s Nexus One Android phone and absolutely love it (probably because the techie side of me “gets” the idiosyncrasies).  But comparing the experience to that of the iPhone, you can tell that Android was developed by engineers with little input from people with “softer” skills in design, marketing, and usability.  It’s the small things, like the way app names that are too long are abruptly cut off, with no wrap, no ellipsis, nothing.  Or the way music totally cuts out for a second or so before a new-email ding or an appointment reminder tone, and then takes a second or so to restart after the reminder (as opposed to the iPhone’s seamless, simultaneous sounds).  Or take the way you access the memory card when connected to your laptop via USB:   you find the settings to “mount” or “unmount” the card.  Not the most intuitive procedure, and I’m still not sure which is which.

But, Dan Cobley, a marketing director at Google, gave a short talk at TEDGlobal 2010: “What physics taught me about marketing.” It was highly entertaining to me because he connected physics and marketing principles, two things I get.  While the viewer comments are on the negative side, he’s obviously a techie at heart who takes a quantitative approach to marketing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

While I try to restrain my quant urges as a marketer, it’s fun to see someone make an unabashed pitch for why marketing is ultimately a technical pursuit.  Watch his short (8 minutes) preso and let me know what you think.

Thinking of Buying Your Marketing Database? Think Again!

I recently read an article about the money wasted purchasing contact names to build marketing databases (sadly, I can’t remember where), and it really hit home with me.  At my current company, the previous Marketing VP was a huge proponent of buying massive, industry-specific marketing lists with the sole purpose of “building up our database.”  Ah yes, the goal of all marketers…

However, as I read the article and fumed about the wasted money (between 50¢ and $2 per name for nearly 25,000 contacts), I had little more than gut feel to really know whether or not the lists did indeed provide marketing value.  As a good quant marketer, I decided to throw together a spreadsheet to determine if the purchase of B2B retail and e-commerce lists was worth the price.

A million stories, but no value? (Creative Commons: Alexander Kesselaar)

Background

We purchased two types of lists: large, industry-specific databases from a list broker (between 700 and 9,000 contacts each), and smaller, campaign-specific lists from Jigsaw (between 150 and 1,000 contacts, targeted by job title, industry, and/or company name).  For the larger lists, the list “universe” contained anywhere from 10,000 to over 1 million total contacts and we purchased a smaller, randomly-selected chunk.

Caveats:  I looked at the purchased list data aggregated over the course of two years of email marketing, not on individual campaigns.  Therefore, the individual campaign results for these may vary.  The comparison numbers for targeted, non-purchased lists are for single campaigns.

Skimming 5% Off of the Top

First,  I was curious to see how many of the 25,000 contacts contained invalid email addresses (not bounces, but simply bad emails) – essentially how much money was wasted out of the gate due to stale or incorrect information.  It was just over 1,000 contacts, or around 4.3%.

After one list generated a 20% bounce rate (invalids, mailbox full, spam filter, etc.), our list broker gave two benchmarks against which to compare this (and I quote…):

  • “The stated average delivery rate is 80%-95% so that’s within the norm.”
  • “In today’s economy, a 20% bounce rate is not bad at all.”

Most list brokers will replace the invalid contacts with new ones, but looking at my results those replacements contained double the percentage of invalid contacts as the original lists, averaging close to 9% (albeit on a much smaller total).  So not only is there a >4% shrinkage on the original list, it gets worse on the replacements.

Surprisingly, Jigsaw had a higher rate of invalid email addresses than the larger lists at 5.6%.  Given the Jigsaw model, where users enter a contact’s details to earn points to “buy” other contacts, I’ve always naively expected the data to be cleaner and more complete.  However, since Jigsaw doesn’t seem to validate the data, users are almost incented to enter bogus data.

But overall, our 4.3% average was relatively low, so I guess it’s to be expected and I can’t/won’t complain.

Actual Activity

Since we primarily run email campaigns to generate leads, I looked at two metrics: any activity at all (web visit or email open) and sent-to-click-through rates. I used activity rate to give the lists the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the only way a contact would have visited our website was if they saw an unopened email and googled our name or just visited out of curiosity.

Of the eight large purchased lists, the best activity rate was 17% on a list of just under 1,000 contacts.  The average, however, was only 5.5%.  For the Jigsaw lists, the activity rate was a bit lower at 5.1%.  Again, I’ve always been under the impression that the Jigsaw contacts were more robust, but this is strike two.

Click-throughs

The click-through rate was surprising.  Generally my email campaigns have a relatively good CTR, usually 10 – 50%, given the targeted nature of the content and the effective subject-to-content connection.  If I can get someone to open an email, there’s a good chance that they will click through.  Even better, my sent-to-click ratio runs in the 3 – 8% range.

The overall sent-to-click ratio for purchased lists was horrible, with just a 1.3% hit rate.  Large lists were below 1%, with a few having zero clicks across a half-dozen campaigns.  Jigsaw was much better, with a 2.6% sent-to-click ratio and approaching my results with non-purchased lists.

For some generic comparison, Jupiter Research reported in 2006 that untargeted broadcast emails (with no personalization or segmentation) generated an average CTR of 9.5%.  Yes, this is CTR, not my sent-to-close ratio.

Worth the Money?

At this company, I’ve been able to drive an average lead gen cost-per-lead of around $20 across all marketing:  email, events, and advertising.  For email alone, it’s a bit higher at about $35 per lead.  This includes purchased, rented, and organic contacts.

Looking at the price of the purchased lists over the total number of actual leads generated, the cost-per-lead is about $105, or 3x my overall average for email.  Add to that the cost of increased spam scores and lost goodwill from unwanted emails, and even the cost of marketing automation (for which ours, Marketo, is priced partially on the size of your contact database).

Bottom line:  This analysis convinces me that list purchases are a poor marketing and business decision, and I never should have listened to the previous Marketing VP.  I guess this is just another reason why he’s no longer here…  😉

When Unsubscribe is Your Call to Action

Most email marketing advice takes a negative approach to the unsubscribe link, offering ways to reduce, eliminate, or talk your way out of prospects removing themselves from your marketing lists. However, there are cases when the opposite is, in fact, the better course of action or the required focus of a campaign. Let me explain…

The draft of our very effective email unsubscribe offer.

At my current company, I’ve been able to drive a huge amount of leads with some of our more compelling offers, especially the Behavioral Analytics For Dummies book, which has generated over 6,000 leads in just nine months. That may sound like a good thing, but that volume of leads – combined with leads from other campaigns – can overwhelm a sales team very quickly. With that many leads, our sales development and field sales reps spend more and more time on leads who were only interested in the offer, not our products. As lead volumes increase, so, obviously, does time wasted on uninterested leads.

Do you need a push?

This is where the magical unsubscribe offer originated. Since my campaigns had been very successful, I began to think that maybe the emails, calls-to-action, and content were too interesting. I was crushing my lead gen KPIs, but was overwhelming our team and needed a way to separate the proverbial (and valuable) wheat from the uninterested chaff.

While I toyed around with various messages to incent interested leads to act, it became clear that that was the wrong approach. Every email blast tries to incent interested leads to act, but essentially ignores the uninterested leads until the footer of the email. Working with my #1 marketing guru, John Love, we decided to focus the message on helping people to unsubscribe!

To begin, our subject line was, “You’ve responded, but are you really interested?” We offered the unsubscribe link as the very first call-to-action of the email: “If you’re really interested, we’d like to help you take the next step. For the rest of you, you can easily opt-out of these messages by clicking here.”

Then, we offered a few qualifying questions that allowed those curious but unsure to decide before moving on, with #5 being asking if they were too busy to improve their business. Again, we almost pushed people away with the subsequent sentence: ” If you answered yes to #5, then click here to be removed from our list and we won’t bother you any more. Our solution is not for everyone, and if you’re not spending a lot of time trying to better understand your customers, and are happy with the insights you’re getting, then please carry on.”

Partial list of email unsubscribe rates by industry (Source: The Sign-Up.to 2010 UK Email Marketing Benchmark Report)

Thank you for unsubscribing!

The results: Over 150 unsubs on just under 2,000 contacts, or a 7.5% unsubscribe rate! For perspective, my unsubscribe rate has been extremely low compared with some recent B2B benchmarks that list 0.6% as typical for IT solutions, or this estimate of 0.2 – 0.75% unsubs on lists to which you “communicate regularly.”

For comparison, my previous 2010 high volume of unsubs for a single campaign was 15 on a targeted list of 3,000 contacts – a more-typical 0.5%. However my rate is usually much, much lower, with just four or five total unsubs on campaigns that hit over 5,000 very targeted contacts.

Success in the form of failure

Overall, this was a huge success. On the “chaff” side, not only did we cut out a significant amount of wasted follow-up time, we also avoided damaging our brand by essentially spamming people who were not at all interested in our products or sales pitches.

On the “wheat” side, our marketing automation tool allowed us to pinpoint leads who opened the email but did not unsubscribe. I interpreted them as being somewhat interested, but not immediate. Those who actually clicked on the “real” call to action were immediately called by a sales rep, since they were obviously very interested.

A lot of marketing consultants talk about firing your bad customers, which makes a lot of sense. In this case, I took that concept, moved it upstream and fired our poor leads. I’m sure someone out there is thinking that I probably made it too easy for some potential business to slam the door on us. Probably. But the leads that demonstrated proactive interest are those that our sales reps are going to have an easier time engaging.

Bottom line:  As a sales rep once told me, “The next best thing to winning is losing quickly.” By getting those uninterested leads out of our system, we did exactly that!

Rethinking How We Work: HP’s Interview with Jason Fried

I’ll be totally honest:  I wasn’t a huge fan of Basecamp before this week.  Sure, it’s a fine tool for sharing files and managing project-based communications, but it’s not really all that intuitive and it lacks anything more than simple, limited functionality.  We use it at my current company to manage all of our new customer projects, our internal product management and technical release milestones, and even as a repository for our marketing collateral and sales tools.  But other than a central location for messages and file revision management, I just don’t see any compelling value above and beyond existing tools.

I recently watched an interview with Jason Fried, CEO of 37signals and creator of Basecamp and other collaboration and team management tools.  Fried absolutely changed my mindset about what Basecamp is, where its value lies, and why it is an amazing tool perfectly designed to solve a single, simple problem.  Furthermore, he demonstrated the immense value of marketing via thought leadership and by framing the conversation around a much larger issue, in this case the transformation of the workplace.

I’ve embedded the video below, but you can view all of HP’s Input|Output interviews here.  It is well worth the 60-minute investment, and Fried has incredible insights on the evolution of the workplace and how today’s workplace norms are actually counter-productive.  But even more, he has fantastic insights on start-ups, marketing, and how to build a sustainable business.  Here are just a few interesting tidbits:

  • When asked about how his products stack up against the competition, he answers with, “Our products do less than the competition.” That sounds like a tough sell until you hear him explain that they purposefully design simple products that do a limited number of things really well.
  • On why a bootstrapped company has an advantage over a venture-backed one, his concept is that “a venture-backed company has to spend money from day one” while a bootstrapped company has to make money from day one.  An entrepreneur is better off focusing on making money, not spending it.
  • On modeling your company or team after Google or Apple or Amazon, he thinks that just because they exploded doesn’t make it a good model for you.  Those companies, and other super-successful companies, are anomalies.  Model yours after companies in your same space, realm, universe.
  • Working alone, or working remotely, is much more effective than today’s standard of cubes and team workspaces.  On one hand, your biggest interruptions are caused by others talking to or around you.  On the other hand, he thinks that, if you’re denied daily face-to-face interactions, your creativity and productivity skyrockets when you do finally get together.
  • If they need a new tool, they build it.  And, if they needed it, others probably do too, so they sell it.  Obvious, but this is almost a lost art in Silicon Valley – selling a software solution that people already need.

One area where I do disagree with Fried is around marketing in general, which he gets to at the end (around the 57-minute mark).  37signals doesn’t have a marketing person and they don’t believe in the concept of a “marketing department.” Their website reflects that as a run-on mishmash of text, images, videos, quotes, and colors. He estimated that they have spent less than $20k on marketing over the past 5+ years, which is appalling to me.  Yes, they are profitable, but they could be so much more so with a focused market strategy.

I do, however, totally agree with his point that everyone within an organization should have a marketing mindset.  That marketing should permeate every aspect of the business – in the error message, in support, in the product’s button text, etc. – and that marketing is everyone’s responsibility.

If you do watch the entire video, definitely stay to the very end to hear their “commercial.”  It’s very realistic, and effective!

Bottom line:  With marketing as a recognized part of everyone’s role, 37signals has done a great job of succeeding without a dedicated marketing role.  By focusing on the bigger issue (workplace effectiveness), they have elevated the conversation to an intellectual level, well beyond just selling software.  That’s really where Fried shine:  as a visionary.  Someone who I’d want to work with, and someone who can very effectively articulate the bigger picture that drives the success of their product.

Fried did absolutely zero promotion of 37signals during the interview, and that was the best selling tactic he could have used!