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Blog Rebranded

I updated my blog’s WordPress theme tonight. Lo and behold, it ruined everything. I had to reconfigure it, right down to the CSS. So I took the opportunity to rebrand this space. It used to be called “Thoughts on Business.” That’s boring. That’s limiting. That’s completely worthless from an SEO point of view.

A title I had been kicking around for a while was “Rocket Scientist Landlord.” That’s intriguing. That’s broadening. That’s unique! It also hints at my eclectic life experience. So here’s the new name.

I will continue to post here, but most of my writing is now being done at MassLandlords. =)

MassLandlords.net Conversion Rates and Statistics

MassLandlords.net is at the point where we have enough traffic to learn something about our site design, in particular, our conversion rates for member sign-ups.  Here’s an update that speaks simultaneously to how new I am at this, and also to the kinds of opportunities we have with statistical analysis.

The site has a “join” page, which presents visitors with two options:

  1. Give us just your email now to subscribe to our monthly newsletter; or
  2. Pay us now to have full access to the site and/or local meetings.

On May 21, the top part of the page went from this:


2014_05_21 - join before

to this:

2014_05_21 - join afterIf I were to summarize the differences, I’d say:

  • Fewer words
  • Easier English (“newsletter” instead of “each month we’ll blah blah blah”)
  • Tighter focus on alternatives with the ellipsis

The big, juicy “button” visible in these screenshots submits your email to register as a free member.  The really best features of the site are accessible only to paid members, and all the payment options are further down the screen. Since the paid sign-up design remained constant through the May 21 transition, I’m leaving it out of the analysis here.

One month later, today, here are some changes we’ve observed:

  • “Time on page” down 42%
  • “Bounce rate” down 56%
  • Rate of sign-up for the “free monthly newsletter” up 7x (700%)
  • Paid registration rate down 50%

Are those changes significant?

Enter what my brother taught me, “Fisher’s exact test.”  The probability that I would have gotten these results by random chance was very high for all changes, save one:

The odds of the free sign-up changing 7x by random chance are 1%.

Conclusion?  Maybe Landlords don’t want “each month we’ll give you premium content for free.”  What the hell does that mean?  But a newsletter?  Yeah, that sounds good.

But we should be careful.  All the statistics tell us is that between May and today, the people looking at our join page were significantly more likely to sign up for our email than from April to May. But the stats don’t say why.

Other factors include changing the privacy language, tightening the design up to remove whitespace, modifying that button, and a host of external factors, like the kinds of paid advertising we were doing to drive traffic.

Let’s talk about that button in particular.  Much is written about button size and color and shape.  In this case, our button changed because our CSS decided to do its own thing, and we let it go.  We didn’t intend for it to look different.  So don’t take this button as part of some big strategy.  It’s not, and I would be surprised if a deliberate button redesign could drive as much of a change as we saw.  When people write about buttons changing conversion rates, they conjure up images of cartoon character Stimpy being unable to resist pushing the beautiful red button, even though he knows it will erase history.

It’s worth watching Nickelodeon’s ads to see this clip.

The other benefit of running some stats behind the scenes is that we don’t have to panic about the decrease in paid registrations.  It looks like we lost half our paid customers, probably all of those to free email sign-ups.  But the probabilities are in favor of this change being a random fluctuation.  We’ll just continue to monitor it to make sure.

The Digital Gentrification of Facebook and the Internet

digital gentrification

One of my concerns the last month has been a change Facebook made to their algorithm.  They’re basically making it impossible to reach fans of business pages without paying to promote posts or get likes.  They call it “declining organic reach.”

If you decide to pay for likes, the results may surprise you.  I wrote in December about the problem of “promiscuous likers“.  This is now getting more serious attention.  One blogger created this viral anti-Facebook video in February.  I like his approach and his larger dataset better than the work I did last summer.  (Check it out if you’re thinking about advertising.)

Despite the twin pitfalls of declining organic reach and promiscuous likers, Facebook’s new algorithms still allow businesses with money to move into the neighborhood, set up shop, and get customers.  Meanwhile, poor companies and startups vacate their properties.  This process is nothing new.  It’s called gentrification.  Facebook is digitally gentrifying.

The same process is probably happening with Google AdWords.  Years ago cost per click ads were an order of magnitude cheaper.  Now you can easily pay $10 per click.  For some keywords, it makes no sense.  Then again, neither does overpaying for a brownstone in an up-and-coming neighborhood.  But rich people do it, and the poor folks leave when they can’t pay the new rent.

There’s a serious issue being discussed right now that threatens to gentrify the whole Internet: net neutrality.  In a nutshell, they’re talking about allowing Internet service providers to charge more for bandwidth needed to stream music and videos (mostly videos).  Netflix and other established players will be able to afford these higher prices.  Meanwhile, poor video startups may close up shop.  If the current ruling stands, ISP’s could charge any company and kill any startup they pleased.

I’m not pessimistic about this.  Facebook and Google aren’t the only ways startups can reach customers.  ISP throttling will inspire creative work-arounds.  But it does seem as if digital gentrification will take away the last of the low-hanging Internet fruit.  The amount of capital already at work online will throw up barriers to entry, and in desirable neighborhoods like Facebook, startups and small businesses will need to pony up or move out.

It seems there ought to be implications for investors in startups, as well.  If a company’s goal is just to “get eyeballs,” meanwhile deferring monetization and revenue in order to encourage fast growth, this strategy will probably require more capital than at any time in the past.

Fortunately, there are still two good ways to acquire customers for cheap: direct sales and search engine optimization.  Each of these costs you nothing but your time.  By working both in parallel, you can simultaneously interact with customers to find out what they want, and produce content that will attract future customers.  Now, even SEO is gentrifying a bit, as it’s already impossible to catch up to behemoth, highly ranked sites for certain topics.  But all you need to do is get started, and your niche is too tiny for the behemoths to fit into.

So if you’re upset that Facebook has undercut your online marketing, move to another neighborhood.  Once you’re moving at a faster speed, you can set your eyes on that Facebook property you’ve been wanting.

New York Times Advertising Rates and Where to Place Ads

Last summer I picked apart a Sunday edition of the New York Times print newspaper with an eye on learning where people like to place their ads.  Which sections carried which types of ads?  What does ad specificity predict should be the New York Times advertising rates?  I’ve been sitting on the data for lack of time to share it.  Here you go:

Section NameAds SeenFocused?
TravelHotels, travelingYes
Arts & LeisureTicketed eventsYes
NYTimes MagazineBusiness topicsYes
Real EstateBrokers, apartments for rentYes
Sunday StylesFashion (exclusively!)Yes
MetropolitanMusic, mattresses, closets, air conditionersNo
Book ReviewNew books, kindle, wine clubYes
Sunday ReviewShell gas, jobsNo
Sunday BusinessBlackberry, auctions, iPhone appYes
SportsWatches, golf help, event tickets, NYTimesNo, thin
Main SectionCiti, Dior, Bloomingdales, Cartier, luxury jewelry, watches, clothing, AT&T, Starbucks, BMW, Sony, Chiropractors, theatre events, mattresses, NYTimesNo

Where to Place Ads

You can see that some sections have obvious alignment with the ads people choose to place there.  The travel section has ads for hotels and travel services.  Duh.  Four of the sections surprised me for their lack of ad-content synergy.

  • The Metropolitan section was home goods and music.
  • The Sunday Review had a corporate PR piece by Shell Gas along with some job opportunities.
  • The sports section was thin on ads and had at least one (I feel like possibly two) New York Times fillers saying, basically, “your ad here.”
  • The main or front section of the paper — not sure what it’s called — had a lot of very expensive items being advertised, along with mattresses.  That tells you how much money there is in mattresses.

New York Times Advertising Rates

I guessed that the demand for ad space ought to correlate with the specificity of ads in that section.  Anyone selling mattresses in the Real Estate section would probably be out-bid by brokers and landlords pushing their better-aligned services.  Was that true?

The New York Times rate cards offer different charges for different types of content.  Presumably this offers a way to improve ad relevancy.  Here were the 2013 rates for half page ads (63 contract column inches), in black and white, run-of-the-paper (can be placed anywhere), with New York regional distribution (if applicable):

Section NameGeneral Open RateFocused Open Rate
Book Review$24,200$20,625 (small press)
New York Times Magazine$43,640n/a
Sunday Business$43,640$57,960 (cause and appeal)
$65,457 (mortgages)
$83,160 (security financial notices)
$97,902 (banks, credit cards)
Real Estate$80,136$53,424 (commercial or residential real estate)
$65,457 (mortgages)
Travel$43,640$72,639 (tours, transportation, resorts, hotels)
Automotive, Sports, and Metro$53,613$28,791 (dealers)
Arts and Entertainment$43,640$47,376 (local live entertainment)
$48,762 (restaurants)
$58,905 (fine arts, antiques)
$63,693 (movies)

The New York Times reports that their audience is about 5,000,000 readers.  That puts the Cost Per Mille at $10, which is in the range of what I’d expect.

I expected that more specific ads would cost more.  That turned out to be true for the Business, Travel, and Arts sections.  These ads were highly focused, and the advertisers there paid dearly to appear.  Clearly those advertisers were interested in those sections.

But for the Book Review, Automotive, and especially Real Estate sections, it cost less to list a specific ad than a generic one.  If there had been any takers for generic ads, the New York Times would have run those ads preferentially for revenue’s sake.  No takers.  So I would guess that “ad relevance” was the goal in lowering these section’s prices.  Surprising?  Apparently New York real estate, for one, needs little advertising.  I believe it.

Except for the metropolitan section, the sections that weren’t highly focused apparently don’t have separate rate cards, which means someone purchasing a “run of the paper” ad in a listed section probably had their ad bumped elsewhere.  That would explain the randomness of these sections.  For the Metro section, you can see the price is much lower than anywhere else.  That explains the randomness here, for sure.


This gives an idea of where you might place your ad, if you’re thinking about advertising in the New York Times.  Advertising rates are comparable to online advertising, although the breadth of readership clearly requires more up-front commitment than a Google AdWords campaign.

For full rate cards, visit the New York Times media kit.

The Ugly Truth Behind Paying for Facebook Likes on a Facebook Business Page

The Experiment

I recently tested paying for Facebook likes on a Facebook business page.  It seemed like a low-effort way to build a channel for future marketing messages.  Start with some good page content, put in some money, and watch it grow.  In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have expected so much.  Let me show you what I did and you can see for yourself whether there’s an underlying “ugly truth”.

The ad I created ran over the summer, around August.  Facebook ads are undergoing new development, so what was true about the procedure this summer may now require modification.  But I think the overall procedure must be the same.   Start with an appealing image and some good text, like this:

Should you pay for Facebook likes with a Facebook business page ad?

I’ve completely distorted the ad because I don’t want any of my paid likes to see it here and think, “Oh man, he’s talking about me!”  I’m not talking about you.  Probably, you’ve never seen the Facebook page on which I ran the ad.

The ad used the full glory and power of Facebook targeting.  Find me people:

  • in certain US cities,
  • between the ages of X and Y inclusive,
  • who like culture, geneology, or the arts,
  • who are not already connected to my Facebook business page,
  • who are in one of the broad categories related to culture.

When someone likes your Facebook business page, you sometimes get a notice.  Depending on their privacy settings, you can cyber stalk them (just a little, harmlessly) to see whether they might match your criteria.

The Data

Of my 38 likes, Facebook told me the names of 14 of them.

Of these 14 names, four of them had privacy settings that blocked some or all of my research.  Based on reading the remaining 10 pages, I could see that four of them (40%) were what I would consider my dream customer.

What about the other 60 percent?

  • One most likely lived in a city I hadn’t specified.
  • One was devoted entirely to pornography (no, that wasn’t my ad).
  • One had liked a lot of things with the word “respect” in it.
  • One was devoted to hatred of the police (but he lived in the right city).
  • One had such varied interests, I could only see that they had liked 2,100 things.

And this is where I became suspicious.  Looking again at all of my new potential customers, I saw that the one who “liked” the fewest business pages liked 350 pages, the one who liked the most liked almost 3,600 pages, and the average “like count” was over 1,800.  For comparison, in my own social circle, the average “like count” is something below 100.

The Ugly Truth

Imagine that you and each of these business pages are all posting on Facebook at the same rate.  That means the “like” you paid for has a 0.05% chance of seeing your content.  Once they see it,

  • There’s some percent chance they click it,
  • Some other percent chance they click towards making a purchase,
  • Some other percent chance they actually make a purchase.

At about $1 per like, I could imagine having to spend over $50,000 (to get over 50,000 likes) before I could reliably turn a single post into a paid customer.

I think the ugly truth, therefore, is that Facebook lets you pay for Facebook likes by farming out your ad to users who will like anything.  Facebook surely knows who these people are.  The use of promiscuous likers, in the advertising context, means that the likes for which you pay are even less valuable than you think.

In the end, I decided to cancel paying for likes.  It doesn’t make sense unless you have a marketing department with dollars to burn.

How Twitter Became an Alternative to Small Claims Court

In July I did some freelance consulting work for a client who shall remain nameless.  If you’ve been following my posts, you will remember who this was.  You can imagine my dismay in October when, after many attempts to contact the client for payment, I filed a small claim in Worcester District Court.

The money was as good as gone.  The clerk at the backed-up small claims court said that it would be at least a year before the client would even be served.  Past that, there’s the hearing, then the judgment, then the execution.  It was a long, hopeless road.


Enter Trevor Chang, an old friend and, as it turns out, a wise one.  He read my previous post and casually suggested over Facebook that I tweet to the client.  Twitter is, at its core, a public forum.  Maybe a modern day scarlet letter would get the client’s attention.  It seemed a good alternative to small claims court and a years-long wait.


I proceeded timidly.  At first I tweeted directly @{insert client name here}, and only that I had sent an updated invoice.  I did this in October.  Then, on Thursday, November 14, I tweeted the following:

I wrote this blog article about @{insert client name here} a while ago.  Still no response. {link}

Friday afternoon, November 15, my inbox contained an email from the client.  This was his first communication with me since August 13, 2013.

The email was angry.  Vituperative can be your “word of the day.”  It was vituperative.  “How dare you break non-disclosure and defame my good name” etc. etc.  It ended with, “I’ll pay your invoice if you take down that blog article.”

I replied, in effect, “I’m sorry it took a blog article to get your attention. Deal.”

Within an hour money had changed hands — righteously, I might add — and the blog article, which never had done more than pose the question of malfeasance, had been taken down.

So, incidentally, have my tweets.

The blog article was search-engine optimized for effect.  I’m proud to say it was on the front page of Google search results for the client’s name and business name.  But that, combined with my dozen increasingly stern communications, had no effect whatsoever on the client.  Not even when I threatened small claims and then actually did file in small claims court was there so much as a peep from the client.  None of my growling had any effect.  What broke the logjam was the merest tweet.  “Hey, @{this guy} owes me money, take a look {link}.”


I find Twitter incredible.  I look at my Twitter feed and I feel washed over in garbage.  But sometimes certain tweets pack a relevancy and a punch that makes me feel like I’ve found a diamond in a coal mine.

And because it’s one of basically three(ish) digital channels (website and Facebook being the other two), companies attach enormous importance to what others will see on Twitter.  Take the JP Morgan Tweetup Disaster as case in point.  Call it a “microblog” if you will.  It’s also a 17th century scaffold.

What’s the most memorable tweet you’ve ever written?  Did it accomplish something good? Let me know in the comments below.

A Modern Marvel: The Funnel


Let me tell you why this $1.19 funnel that I purchased from AutoZone should astonish you.  Behind it lies not only a secret about consumer product pricing but also an amazing but true fact about manufacturing.

First, the secret: a consumer product is typically priced at two to five times what it costs to make.  Does that mean that most of every sale is profit?  No, most of it goes to getting the product to where you’re going to buy it.  Here are some real numbers from a project I’ve worked on:


The “Gross Margin” would be profit except that’s the money used to keep the central office running.  Administrators were getting paid to keep everything running smoothly, and so was the landlord and also the power company keeping the lights on.  Actual profit was far less than that 9%.

Now for the amazing part.  Let’s apply the 37% that is “given to manufacturer” to the funnel.  It works out to be $0.44.  It costs forty-four cents to make this funnel.  But it’s not only to make this funnel, it’s also to make the plastic.  Imagine you were working at a funnel factory for $8/hr, minimum wage in Massachusetts.  Forty-four cents represents 3 minutes of your time.  But you’re not really in a funnel factory, so think about this: if I pulled out a stopwatch and I said “Go!” and gave you 3 minutes to make some plastic and press it into the shape of this funnel, could you do it?  Three hours?  Three days?  Three weeks?  Three months?  Give me three years and I’d probably have a pretty good frankenfunnel, with the price tag printed up all nice, but it still wouldn’t be as good as this.  And I’ll have spent a lot more than $0.44.

That’s the amazing but true reality of the world we live in, where you can go from “nothing!” to having a nice funnel in three minutes.  And you just have to walk down the street to AutoZone to pick it up.

What Entrepreneurs can learn from Vaseline

Marketing will make or break a new venture, so why not study some good examples?  Here’s a new commercial I like a lot, with features any startup should emulate:

Why I like it:

  • Lead with the product
    • Get folks thinking along the right lines.  This commercial leads with a shiny bottle featuring the brand prominently, which gets us thinking “health and beauty,” and a visible tagline, “Spray and Go,”  which gets us thinking “fast.”
  • Grab their attention
    • Someone remarkable (attractive, not yet dressed) does something surprising (runs in and grabs the product).
  • Demonstrate and differentiate
    • “Oh, so she’s spraying it on… that’s different!”
  • Delight
    • When the actress sits down and flips her top on, you’re surprised by how fast it is.  That carries forward with the hat, pants, and shoes.
    • This sense of surprise accentuates the message from the beginning about being fast.
  • Motivate
    • The uplifting soundtrack does more than set the pace, it inspires action.  You want folks to buy this.
  • Summarize
    • Right at the end you have a narrator explaining what we just saw in six words, “Moisturizes deeply and absorbs in seconds,” with visuals reminding us about a single rub to get it in and how it sprays.
  • End quickly
    • All this happens in 30 seconds.  This gives you plenty of time to watch it again for the delight factor (how many times did you watch it?).

Use the buttons below to comment or share this commercial if you like it, too!