Branding and marketing the Google way: insights from “I’m Feeling Lucky” by Douglas Edwards

Douglas Edwards was employee number 59 at Google, hired in 1999 when the search company was still in start-up mode. His book, I’m Feeling Lucky: the Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, covers the most dramatic years of Google’s growth from the perspective of someone who was both an insider and yet, oddly, also an outsider within the company. Edwards was a marketing guy in an organization where engineers and computer scientists rule. Established  branding and marketing practices were just one more thing Google’s founders thought they could set aside or reinvent as part of their ambitious drive to create a truly new and different kind of business.

Early on, Edwards discovered how much disdain Larry Page and Sergey Brin had for banner ads, busy portal-style landing pages, and especially the lavish Super Bowl TV ads that had become a badge of success for many dot-com companies. An early lesson came when Sergey suggested, in all seriousness, “Why don’t we take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. It will help our brand awareness and we’ll get more new people to use Google.” While the Chechen refugee idea didn’t turn out to be practicable, Sergey’s larger point was clear: his proposal was no less valid than any other branding strategy because marketing is unscientific – and Google wasn’t interested in spending money on anything that couldn’t demonstrate measurable results.

With the perspective of hindsight, Google’s triumph over other search engines seems inevitable, but at the time Edwards joined the company, Inktomi and AltaVista were the giants of search, and Ask Jeeves looked like a strong contender just because its brand was so well-defined. One great anecdote in the book involves Edwards trying to explain the value of branding to Google’s founders: “In a world where all search engines are equal, we’ll need to rely on branding to differentiate us from everyone else,” he told them. Larry Page’s answer speaks volumes: “If we can’t win on quality, we shouldn’t win at all.”

Edwards got the message, and went on to draft some guiding principles for the Google brand strategy:

  • PR and word of mouth work better than ads.
  • Paid ads work against our brand. Focus on the “joy of discovery.”
  • We’ll grow faster getting current users to search more than by mass marketing.
  • All our promotions must include a way to measure success.
  • Product interaction is, and must remain, the primary branding experience.
  • User retention efforts should center on improving UI and user support.

In other words: the user experience is the brand.

Edwards found that one significant way he could contribute was through copy-writing. He developed what he came to think of as “the Google voice”:

Douglas Edwards

Douglas Edwards

“I began writing copy for the site as if the person reading it were a friend. I added Simpsons references to our FAQs, made puns in our newsletter, and, after engineer Amit Patel confessed a love of prosimians and their googley eyes, started including lemurs in all my examples. (“I don’t want anyone to know I’m into lemur racing. Is my information private?”) It made my job a lot more fun, but also made it clear that an actual human being had touched the page the user was reading.”

He also helped formulate an important position on product naming and branding: “Do you give a product a new name that suggests it’s completely separate from your core business? Do you incorporate your primary brand name to show that it’s equal to, but distinct from, your existing product? Or do you simply use a generic term to describe it so that it becomes just another service you offer, rather than a distinct product that stands alone?” The decision was to put all brand equity in the Google name – a strategy that Google has followed fairly consistently, with the introduction of major services (Google News, Google Image Search, Google Maps) under the overarching Google brand rather than as stand-alone products. As Edwards saw early on, this approach “adds credibility to new services and ensures that all achievements accrue to the benefit of the Google brand.” Instances where Google has tried to create stand-alone brands (Froogle, Orkut) only seem to prove the value of sticking to the overarching brand strategy.

I’m Feeling Lucky is a likeable book, in large part because Edwards is humble and humorous about being odd man out as a forty-something arts major in a data-driven company dominated by brilliant young engineers. With admirable honesty, he recounts stories from the early days, when his traditional thinking about branding turned out to be completely wrong. (E.g., he initially opposed the idea of Google Doodles because tampering with your logo violated every orthodox idea about branding at the time.) And he throws in a few delighters, including the glossary at the end of the book, where you’ll find definitions such as:

Nontrivial: A euphemism for “impossible.” Since engineers are not going to admit anything is impossible, they use this word instead. When an engineer says something is “nontrivial,” it’s the equivalent of an airline pilot calmly saying you may encounter “just a bit of turbulence” as he flies you into a Category 5 hurricane.

eBooks: a reader is not just a device

I spent most of 2011 keeping my eye on trends in eBooks: of all the technological innovations going on, eBooks seem the most likely to affect both my work as a librarian and my leisure time as a reader. And 2011 has been a big year for eBooks, with lots of media attention devoted to new devices, from the iPad 2 to the Kindle Fire.

With all the focus on devices, though, I feel like what’s missing is a deeper understanding of the end users. The term “reader” has come to refer to the tool, not the person using it. The same tendency to overlook the individual reader seems to apply to discussions of eBook distribution, where the struggles among Amazon.com, publishers, and libraries grab the headlines.

What I’d like to see in the year ahead is more user-centered commentary on eBooks, informed by a more nuanced understanding of the different kinds of people who read and their very different needs and goals. The rabid mystery novel consumer who goes through a book a week, the business traveller who only reads on long-haul flights, the student reading for school, the parent who reads with her kids, the book club member, the teenage graphic novel fan – when you consider the diversity of users, it begins to seem obvious that there may not be just one device (or one way of accessing books) to rule them all.

Looking back over the mass of eBook information I digested in 2011, a presentation from Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn stands out for its unique focus on the characteristics of the different types of people who read eBooks. Based on Kobo’s user data, the findings are fascinating for the differences they reveal in device preferences, purchasing behaviour, and reading habits.

Tamblyn concludes his presentation with the line: “Know the reader. Sales will follow.” Even for those of us who aren’t selling and just want to understand the shift to eReading, “know the reader” seems like good advice.

The ick factor of Google+

Dear Google,

I didn’t expect you to become the creepy uncle of the Internet. Sure, you were getting more and more involved in my life, but you seemed to be doing it in a purely disinterested and helpful way…until I signed up for Google+. Even now, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and attribute your creep factor to an Aspergers-y lack of social graces rather than evil intentions. But let’s look at where you went wrong.

Gmail integration

I understand you need to build up the network to compete with Facebook, but nudging me to “add to my circles” every person I’ve ever contacted since I began using Gmail in 2005 is a bad idea. Couldn’t you have used an algorithm to pull up only the contacts I’ve emailed more than, say, ten times? It’s bad enough to be prompted to add exes and dead people, but you could at least have filtered out the people who responded to my Craigslist ad for a used laptop bag three years ago.

True, this isn’t nearly as bad as when you launched Google Buzz within Gmail and completely freaked everyone out by sharing their contacts. But you still seem a little tone-deaf to how people use email and how they feel about their contact lists. I don’t want a social service that’s so tightly linked to my personal email account.

The circles of strangers

Which leads me to another point. There’s something unpleasant about having complete strangers add me to their circles. I’ve been trying to analyze why this feels more invasive than having a stranger follow me on Twitter, which I don’t mind at all. I know, I know: I can control who sees the things I share, and having someone add me to a circle doesn’t give them access to any additional information about me, but it still feels weird. Maybe it’s because Google+ feels more like Facebook than Twitter, so being “circled” seems like getting a friend request that you can’t ignore or decline. Maybe it’s the Gmail connection: because Google+ is linked to my Gmail account (and, as noted above, email = private, private, private!), I don’t like the idea of strangers connecting to me through Google+. Or maybe the “circle” metaphor is a poor choice (at least for someone like me who’s hyper-sensitive to semantic nuances) – to be circled is to be drawn in, enclosed, circumscribed, encompassed…ACK!

Bad synergy

The Gmail integration in Google+ is an abiding source of discomfort, but the most jarring moments I’ve experienced so far occurred when I was prompted to share content I’d created using other Google-owned services. Yes, I have set up a couple of Blogger blogs and a few Picasa albums over the years, and yes, I suppose they are associated with my Gmail address, but ohmygod why are they suddenly showing up in my Google+ profile? One of them was work-related, one of them was something I was doing for a friend, and most importantly, they are several years old! Google hadn’t even bought Blogger and Picasa yet at the time I started using them. Google, it seems like you’re buying up pieces of my online experience and trying to force me to bundle them all together and give up the anonymity I had previously taken for granted. All I can say is: ugh, bleah, ew.

I haven’t given up my Google+ account yet, but after so many “ick” moments, I can’t say I’m tempted to use it. Maybe I’ll drop off and then re-register with a different Gmail address. But that would only be worthwhile if it looks like Google+ is going to take off – and if other people are feeling as creeped out as I am, that won’t happen any time soon. Google, you need to work on your social skills.

Content Strategy Lessons from Marcus Sheridan

The uncontested star of Mesh Marketing 2011 was Marcus Sheridan, a “swimming pool guy” from the States who had some straightforward (and highly entertaining) advice about content marketing based on his own experience.

Marcus’s Story

Marcus sold and installed in-ground swimming pools – a business that was humming along well enough until the crash of 2008 wiped out many Americans’ home equity and, along with it, their financial ability to invest in their homes. Faced with a steep decline in business and intense competition in what was suddenly a much smaller market, Marcus turned to blogging to differentiate his company from competitors and draw customers to his website. The results (as Marcus proved with a graph of his site analytics) were stunning: a huge increase in organic search traffic, thousands of website visitors, and a steady stream of new customers and revenue even as the economy continues to lag. Best of all, even while his revenues grew, Marcus’s advertising costs shrank, as he found that his new content strategy drove more leads than traditional advertising at a fraction of the cost.

How He Did It

Two key insights form the heart of Marcus’s content strategy:

  • Potential customers for his business have a lot of questions – and if people are asking him the same questions over and over again, it’s safe to assume they are also typing those questions into search engines.
  • Search engine rankings for topics like his are “low-hanging fruit.” While the Internet is bursting with commentary on some subjects (technology, for instance), there is relatively little high-quality content in other areas, particularly on topics that require the expertise of skilled tradespeople.

Based on these insights and his own experience, Marcus foresees a “blue-collar blogging revolution” where  companies with smart online content strategies are able to achieve market dominance.

Content Lessons

When I tried to mentally sum up Marcus’s philosophy of content creation, the phrase that came to mind was: “virtue is its own reward.” His story is emphatically not about creating a content farm – the key to his success is high-quality content that responds directly to real user needs. As Marcus himself admits, most of this is common sense – but it’s surprising how many content creators ignore the obvious.

  • The best content ideas come from front-line staff who work directly with customers. “If you pay someone to answer questions on a daily basis, they should be creating content.”
  • When starting a blog, brainstorm a list of the questions your customers ask you most frequently and use those as the topics for your posts. Then every time you hear a question, ask yourself, “Have I blogged about this yet?”
  • Become “a company of listeners.” The best keyword tool is your customers. Make a note of what they’re asking and how they’re phrasing it.
  • It’s worthwhile to target long-tail queries (longer, more specific, and less frequent search phrases) for a couple of reasons: it’s easier to gain a high search engine ranking for these queries, and also, these are the kinds of searches that serious potential customers are entering. (Marcus gave the example of someone just searching “pool” vs. someone searching “how much do fiberglass pools cost?”)
  • Don’t be afraid to address sensitive issues like cost/price, your competition, or potential problems with your product or service. This is exactly the kind of information users are searching for, and you need to own the discussion so you can set the tone. Addressing the questions that everyone else is afraid to answer will give you an edge over the competition. And not having a definitive answer is no excuse for saying nothing: addressing a question is not the same as answering it.
  • Your blog is for customers and should be written for them. Save the bragging (AKA marketing copy) for your website.
  • Beware “the curse of knowledge” – avoid jargon, acronyms, and technical language your customers won’t understand. 90 percent of your readers are looking for basic information.
  • Quality content will bring rewards no matter which metric you look at – search engine traffic, comments, inbound links. Obsess over the quality of your content, not any one metric.
  • Every blog post you write is like a bullet in your gun – it’s ammo!” This remark, which greatly titillated Marcus’s Canadian audience at Mesh, memorably makes the point that a collection of great content can deliver ongoing value. You are building a portfolio of excellent responses to common customer needs.
  • Some of the best content engages users through good teaching. Marcus says he would love to hire kindergarten teachers as his marketing team – they know how to convey content in a simple way that everyone can understand.
  • When you think about content as a teaching tool, you also need to consider the variation in individual learning styles. Some people learn better from video content, and many start their searches on YouTube.
  • And finally…don’t try to argue that your business is an exception. There are potential customers out there trying to find good information about every conceivable product and service – even soap! (To Marcus’s delight, it turned out that there was a soap marketer in the audience.) The fundamental rules of content strategy apply to everyone.

How the other half lives: touring the digital divide

Jessamyn West (MetaFilter) and Jenny Engstrom (NYPL)

Slides at librarian.net/talks/sxsw10

“For a lot of people, the reality is our computers are their computers.”

The digital divide is no longer about not having computers – the gap is between those who have broadband and those who don’t, and also a gap in education/understanding among those who have little or no online experience.

Why people do not have Internet access: a variety of reasons – no access in remote areas; they can’t afford it, or they don’t understand the benefits.

Usable web design and good web writing benefit people with low Internet literacy. Especially important with online forms. Business can decide “those people aren’t our customers, we don’t have to design for them” – government can’t.

Public libraries are the intermediary – people have the expectation that since libraries offer the Internet, they should also offer support for everything you need or want to do with the Internet.

Estimate: a little less than half the population of New York City has broadband. NYPL did a survey and found that about half their computer users did not have computers at home; the rest used the library because the service there is faster. “The digital divide is really about the concentration of poverty” – residential segregation by race/income. Only 26% of households in New York City Housing Authority have broadband – disappointing because it seems like this could be addressed through government initiative.

NYPL stats: 3,613 public computers (1/3 are laptops). Problem that library computers are specially configured for security reasons and are not like home computers – if this is your only access, you are not learning how regular computers work.

Computer classes: ClickOn @ the Library – had $1 million grant funding for four years, built labs, brought in outside trainers to teach staff, had marketing budget to reach target users. Now using laptops to create flexible lab spaces. Training is a bit more ad hoc – individual librarians are teaching what they are comfortable with.

Characteristics of users with low Internet skills:

  • read the entire page – haven’t developed scanning skills
  • distracted by ads/movement
  • afraid of “breaking it”

They don’t like:

  • advertising
  • forced registration
  • CAPTCHAs
  • “watch this video to learn this”
  • PDFs
  • DHTML menus and tiny triangles
  • computer/Internet jargon

Real issue of time limits – public library users are on a clock.

Jessamyn: “people don’t know what a catalogue is or what a database is.”

Mobile pages will save us – simplified page design will work better for low-skilled users.

“If I could change one thing about how computers work, double-clicking would not exist.”

Need someone to design a simpler web mail system for low-skilled users. Amen!

Evan Williams keynote

New app anywhere platform for integrating Twitter into websites. Hover cards that can be integrated into HTML text to let people follow someone or see their latest tweet. Goal is to “reduce friction” –  make it easier to do things that you can already do – and to improve discovery by letting users find new people to follow within a meaningful context.

The business model question: still exploring possibilities, trying to create value and improve the experience.

What is Twitter? An information network that helps people discover what’s going on in the world. And share. But you don’t have to share to use Twitter. Trying to increase the signal to noise ratio. If you are sharing stuff, how do you connect with people who care? Trying to make this work better.

How Twitter works internally: autonomous teams; avoid centralized decision-making.

Sharing data with Google and Bing: saw this as a way to increase the value of the network and improve the user experience. Twitter users need to be able to discover the feeds that will be most useful for them; this is not working ideally yet.

[Had to abandon this post to make way for all the attendees walking out of the session.]

The city is a platform

Panel session: Ben Berkowitz (SeeClickFix.com), Assaf Biderman (MIT Sensible City Lab), Dustin Haisler (City of Manor, TX), Jen Masengarb (Chicago Architecture Foundation), John Tolva (IBM Digital & Corporate Citizenship)

Gartner report: within 10 years, 20% of non-video traffic on the Internet will originate from sensors in the built environment. Huge amounts of unstructured data are being generated throughout the urban landscape.

Idea from Biderman: how can we bring the same level of intelligence we have in the supply chain to the removal (waste disposal) chain? Tag your trash: a way to study the flow of garbage and raise people’s awareness of the consequences of their behaviour and choices.

SeeClickFix: a platform for community members to report any type of infrastructure or service problem. Goal is not just to report problems, but to get people involved, identify opportunities to volunteer or participate in fixing problems. Beyond 311 – an open data approach. Citizens can add their community and sign up their public officials.

Masengarb: communication within the built environment – promote understanding of why decisions have been made, rather than just posting a sign that says “no skateboarding.” Also introducing architecture education into the high school curriculum, creating teaching tools, with the goal of promoting understanding of how change can be initiated and problems can be solved.

Manor Labs: “a FourSquare for government” – participation is incentivized with “innobucks” that can be earned by contributing, voting on, or commenting on an idea. The game mechanics approach has attracted participation well beyond the community itself. Ideas go through stages (incubation, validation, emergence) based on user feedback. Promotes transparency – if an idea can’t be implemented, city officials have to publicly explain why.

Scalability: Manor is a small community. Berkowitz sugggests starting small – get people started reporting potholes, then try to engage them further.

Example of a sign posted at an empty building lot asking people to vote with their cell phones for one of four land-use choices (Taco Bell, dollar store, condo units, nail salon).

Toronto shout-out! Closing remarks about civic engagement are illustrated with a video of David Miller riding a bike in Copenhagen.