Canadian geek in Myanmar

Online marketing the way the big kids do it

The few times that I’ve talked to leaders in Vietnam about their online product or marketing initiatives, I’ve been fairly shocked in how much they spend on some pretty base line stuff.  Agencies and experts all pitch online advertising and social media initiatives that build likes and followers but few have really gone beyond that to true conversion.

That’s right, I don’t do online advertising

When I tell people here that I built and led teams that created online experiences with millions of unique visitors, communities with tens of thousands of followers and tens of millions of units sold, yet I have no idea how to do an online media buy, THEY are shocked.  That’s right. I’m an online marketing expert and I don’t know anything about online advertising because frankly, it’s the least exciting part of the equation for me.  Let the advertising dudes run numbers through their spreadsheets, I’m more interested in analyzing who these potential customers are, where they are coming from, where you lead their journey and how you get them to buy.

So what does that mean?

Going beyond CPM’s

Most of the activities I see in Vietnam only circle around the top of the funnel with little in the way of moving the customer to full conversion. I *think* it’s because most people here are relying on their agencies to do their online strategy.  Agencies certainly have their uses but they universally love “impressions” which used to infuriate me at EA.  So old school! Who cares if someone may or may not have seen my banner on the Facebook side bar?  Until they do something about it, it means nothing to me. Up until now, that’s not been too major of an issue in Vietnam but as more and more brands go online, the fight for mind share is going to get tougher.  Consumers are starting to turn blinders to the noise on websites, something we saw happening in North America years ago.  It’s no longer enough to just buy online ads.

Performance Marketing

At EA we used to call it performance marketing.   While it sounds like yet another buzz word, like gamification, the underlying logic is that you are actively and continuously interacting with your leads. It’s one thing to build a fancy, flashy website and content that people “like” but are you actually converting them?  In Vietnam, it seems to be only about building a contest or Facebook app, in addition to the online buy of course.  No mention of segmentation, personalization or multivariate testing.

Ah, the tools

Online marketing is scientific, which means creating hypotheses and lots of testing but doing it really quickly.  One of the reasons I love what I do is that the online marketing world has countless tools to test, iterate and optimize at a speed that is not possible with any other form of marketing.  These days most of the tools are either free or so cheap that it’s close enough.  And yet the only tool I’ve heard the experts here mention is Google Analytics. Soon this isn’t going to be enough. If everyone is doing the same thing as you are, you need to find an edge.

So how do the big kids do online marketing?

If you are in Asia and want to take your online initiatives to the next level, get a hold of me and I’ll show you what an online strategiest for one of the largest brands in the world actually does.

PicMonkey & Vine

Recently, I decided to do my semi-regular sweep for tech tools I need in my life. Because tech moves so quickly, I always try to do this every couple of weeks so I can stay on top of the industry and also just try cool shit.  

This time around, I found PicMonkey, my new favourite Chrome Extension. After a 2 second installation, I can now pick any picture on any website and then edit and post the image within minutes.  Amaze-balls!

Try PicMonkey here

Yesterday Twitter was all abuzz with Vine so of course I was eager to test it out.  After a quick download and sign up (nicely done guys!), I started my first video. After about two seconds I could see the potential but also the vast amount of work it would require for most mini-videos.  I’ve never been much of a YouTube junkie so finding a social community that was making shorter videos that mostly look like animated gifs really didn’t thrill me.  I will keep looking at it over the next couple of days but suspect this one won’t be on rotation for me.  

Set the finish line, not the route

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~General George Patton

I couldn’t agree more. I am a big believer in management setting up the finish line, and ensuring everyone knows where that is but letting your team determine the route to get there.

This is especially true in building technology. Giving the developers the ability to work through bumps, hiccups and bugs on their own will allow the teams to collectively move so much faster. If the leader needs to be there for every little snag, nothing is ever going to be pushed through. Bottlenecks are the death of rapid iteration. Yes, letting go of control is a little scary but if you’re doing your job right, you would have hired people smarter than you anyway. Trust them. Besides, no one likes a micro-manager and as a leader, don’t you get paid too much to just babysit?

That’s not to say that you can just step back and watch. This method of leadership only works if the managers are available to help and step in if/when necessary. I’m not sure what’s worse, a micro-manager or a totally disinterested one.

Gamification for marketing

Earlier today I had the opportunity to speak at the January Web Wednesday event in HCMC.  Below is a copy of my deck with speaking notes.

Why I hate the word ‘gamification’

Those of you who know me will find this post a bit strange since I have presented on this topic several times now. As a matter of fact, I’ll be presenting at the next Web Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City on this topic. As I work through my presentation slides though, I’m reminded of how I rolled my eyes when I first heard the term gamification.

First off, I don’t think that the concepts are bad, mostly the name. It makes the principals of using gaming mechanics on non-gaming initiatives sound like a flash in the pan trend when in fact it is so far from that. Companies have been using gamification concepts for years now. Take a look at any airline loyalty program for instance. Great sales leaders have also used competition and leader boards for decades. So this is not a new concept. Nor is it something that is going away anytime soon.

I’m actually a huge believer in using gaming concepts to drive engagement and retention. I just hate the name.

Vietnam’s acceptance of mediocrity

One of the most frustrating things I find about shopping in Vietnam is that all the sales people continually tell you “it’s fine, it’s fine” while they’re imitating a bobblehead toy on an offroading expedition I’m sure everyone here has come across this. I ask for a size 6 shoe, they only have a size 5 but it’s fine. No green paint? Here’s some red. It’s fine. I get that they are just trying to make a sale but it’s irritating to be pushed to buy something I’m not looking for. Sometimes, it is fine despite the fact that it’s not what I asked for – living in a country like Vietnam, you just need to get zen about some of this stuff.

However, when it comes to work, it’s certainly not fine. The “it’s fine” excuse is used all time. The allowance of a half-assed job breeds a culture of mediocrity that is not okay. Everyone in the organization must understand what excellence looks like, how it can be achieved and their role in owning that.

Build a cult of excellence
Humans have a natural inclination to seek acceptance – no one wants to be the proverbial fat kid picked last. So ensure that everyone understands that when they are not delivering, they are not only letting themselves down, but their team mates as well.

Get rid of the deadweight
If everyone around you is an A player who delivers exceptional work, the mediocre ones are easy to pick out. Working at a huge company like EA, you can see B and C players hiding amongst the rock stars. In a start up, that’s a whole lot harder to do. In either cases though, leaders must take ownership of their team. Take the time to train and develop your people but don’t shy away from making tough decisions either. If you can’t break the it’s fine factor, you need to let them go before they infect others. Otherwise, you allow everyone to believe that excellence is optional, which is a slippery slope.

The three things I learned doing global launches

One of the first accomplishments I had at EA was to launch a website in over a dozen languages simultaneously. Prior to this they used to launch a North American site and then eventually roll out a few pages in localized sites, if at all. The Need for Speed ProStreet site built in 2007 was the first time that we centralized one full site build globally and eventually, I was managing up to 26 fully localized sites for this franchise. For the next few years, this became the trend for the larger EA titles. Here are a few of the lessons I learned during that time.

1. QA is a pain in the ass and absolutely critical

This is pretty much true of all technology you’re going to build however, there’s another layer to this when you are dealing with multiple languages. While my centralized QA resources could catch the obvious things like design flaws or placeholder content, it was really critical that the territory managers who spoke the languages natively also did a full QA pass so you could avoid embarrassing translations like the MacDonald’s case from late last year.

2. Use your words!

They say a picture is worth a thousands words. I guess so but when it comes to building websites, those pictures can become a massive pain. Take for example, buttons that tell you to “sign up”. Now if you build that as an image, including the text then someone’s gotta go in and edit the image with a tool like Illustrator then upload the image separately to your CMS or CDN. When you’re dealing with over 2 dozen people world wide with varying technical chops, it’s critical to keep things as simple as possible. By making the copy on your promos and buttons text that can be translated into a CMS you not only ensure that the translation is easier to deal with, you also get a bit more SEO juice. Bonus.

Also, this seems obvious, but make sure your CMS can handle all your various languages. Cyrillic and Asian languages are particularly fun to support.

3. Centralize, centralize, centralize

While I’m all about making sure that the territories are accountable for their websites, the reality is that our priorities weren’t always aligned. Added to that, they had far less resources than I did and usually it was one guy who had to manage 20 different franchise/product sites so they were rarely able to keep up with all the content we were throwing at them. More often than not, I had to make sure that all the major content updates and certainly, any updates around major beats like E3 were centrally managed.

This goes double for social media channels. When Facebook and Twitter became hot topics, every territory wanted their own channels! This was a complete mess as the territories simply didn’t have the manpower to keep these channels updated, let alone engaging. Then there is the embarrassment of having a franchise like Need for Speed, which used to sell over 10 million units with a FB fan base of less than 200 in some of these territories. Absurd. Now that FB handles languages and segmentation better, this has pretty much gone away.

These years taught me so many other painful little lessons but these are the three key things I encourage anyone to consider if they are even thinking of launching a site in more than one language. One final thing, remember to build in a lot of extra buffer time, which you’ll need when dealing with decentralized resources in multiple time zones and misaligned priorities. Good luck!

Down with the Eye Rollers

Anyone who’s done a start up knows that you’re going to get a lot of doubters and haters in your early concepting stage.  For those who are going to go through with the leap, you’ve got to grow a thick skin and brush off the negativity and just keep going.  I’ve certainly been meeting my share of the Eye Rollers in recent months.  On one hand, they do provide some valid points but oftentimes I’m finding that the perceived value I’m getting from them is not close to offsetting how damaging their negativity is to my psyche.

I was recently pulling myself out of a funk of a this-isn’t-going-to-work conversation when I came to the realization that this particular Eye Roller was very similar to the worse boss I have ever had.  The Dictator was a classic low self esteem, going to push everyone down and take all the credit type.  You know the one – Vietnam is FULL of them.  Anytime I presented an idea to her, she would pooh-pooh everything and tell me exactly why it wouldn’t work while rolling her eyes at me, at which point in time I would shuffle out of her office with my head down in embarrassment.  BTW, this was REALLY early in my career.  After a while, I noticed that many of the projects we were getting “from the top” resembled my ideas but with just a little bit of refinement.  Ah, the corporate rat race, how I do not miss thee.

Fast forward a decade or so and here I am.  Refining a product idea I want to spin into a start up and I’ve got another Eye Roller in my life.  Luckily I’m not the same young girl that the Dictator pushed around.  Still, the basic principle remains the same: she listens with barely contained derision, interrupts constantly with comments like “yeah, I’ve heard all this before” and ends with a lot of “you’re wasting your time” type comments.  While (Thank God) I’m not her employee, the Eye Roller is someone who I was trusting to give me constructive feedback and help me to flesh out a few nuances of my product. Instead, I got total demoralization and pretty much nothing I could construe as useful…lots of broad “things” I should look into but that she could barely understand.  I wasted half a day chasing down a lose end and when I went back to ask her to give me more clarification, I got a blank look and a response along the lines of “oh I heard it from someone somewhere”.  Grrrr.

Ten years ago I dealt with the Dictator by eventually quitting my job but there’s no way that the Eye Roller is going to get me to give up.  Thank God, I’ve got really smart people in my life who are not only enormously encouraging but willing to place money against my idea because, dammit, it’s a GREAT one.

Managers, take a moment to think of the last time you didn’t agree with an idea from an employee.  How did you handle it? Were you constructive and respectful, even if you thought the idea was bat-shit crazy?  Because here’s the thing, the most important thing really isn’t what you think of the idea, it’s how you handle the feedback.

What’s missing from Vietnam’s online marketing scene?

I recently read a couple of articles specific to online marketing in Vietnam. Links are below for your reference. I don’t know that I agree with everything in these articles but I think that Chandler Nguyen has some good points (not so sure I buy into all that Digiwave was trying to sell though). However, as I read through these blogs, there’s a couple of glaring omissions that I see.

The first is that Vietnam is trying to jump whole hog into this online marketing and social media game but most here haven’t learned the fundamentals yet. It’s like trying to run before you have learned to walk.

Most Vietnamese websites are a hot mess. There are blinking banners taking up every conceivable space, lots of stars and flashy lights, fonts are the same size and bolded throughout and not a deep link to be found. My eyeballs are usually spinning in their sockets before the whole page even has a chance to load. Even worse, I can usually find 2 or 3 navigations and rarely are they planned with SEO in mind. Some sites now throw a “share this page on FB” links at the bottom of their page but I’m not exactly sure what they are trying to accomplish with those links. Please don’t tell me someone has convinced them that this will cover them for link sharing!

SEO is not synonymous with PPC. Meaning you can’t just buy a bunch of terms on Google then think your job is done. SEO planning happens before you even start building your site or microsite. If you’re doing your job right then it should be forming a whole lot of the tags, copy, navigation and content of your site. Even better, use PPC to test your key search terms. Since natural SEO takes some time to get right, a quick and dirty PPC buy will help you to find the right terms and phrases to use.

Iteration seems to be a dirty word. The power of online marketing is the ability to do quick iteration and rapid deployment. So why is it that no one seems to have heard of multi-variate testing? Yeah, I know everyone’s trying to measure their stats these days but so what? (side note: I’ve had to two people excitedly tell me about some new start up building a listening platform, thinking it was the hottest new thing around as opposed to sooooo five years ago). You’ve captured a bunch of numbers from uniques to bounce and time spent…now what? I think this is the point where some poor coordinator/assistant has to create a huge ugly spreadsheet that has a bunch of numbers but doesn’t tell anyone squat. And besides, the report is coming too late to do a damn thing with your current campaign. If you’re lucky, you’ll take key learnings to the next campaign. Maybe.

But I’ve just mentioned that online marketing allows for rapid deployment and quick iteration. So, if you have built your sites properly in the first place, you can test two or ten different calls to a action, 5 different nav items and 20 different promos to see what people like. You can even see if Hanoians like the same things as the Saigonese. Even better, do specific links/promos drive more purchase intent and track to full conversion? And then as you start to review what’s working and what’s not, you can narrow down or change your CTA’s, promos, etc on the fly. And there’s so much more that can be tested and optimized real time…Oh, I could geek out about this all day!

I’ve focused this blog on websites but same basic principles apply for mobile web. Apps are a bit different and I’ll write something about what I see missing from Vietnam’s social media scene at some point. In the meantime, here are the blogs I referenced above.

Building team culture in Vietnam

Since returning to Vietnam I seem to be having the same discussion with everyone about staffing in Vietnam. So many of the expat leaders I talk to have the same complaints about their Vietnamese staff. “They” are too lazy, irrational, incompetent, etc, etc. It was the same as when I first moved to VN 2 years ago to join a tech start up, I was told over and over that building a flexible, relaxed tech culture was not possible here. There were all kinds of excuses given as to why Vietnamese organizations looked more like a daycare (complete with lunch ordering and nap time) than a company filled with high-functioning adults.

I call bullshit.

I guess that one of the biggest issues right off the start is that so many expats I met just didn’t believe there were enough high-functioning adults in the country. And while, I have seen and heard enough to know that there’s certainly some justification to this, I do have a problem painting everyone with that same brush. In many cases, we are talking about a lack of training and expectations, versus stupidity or an unwillingness to learn. As a matter of fact, I would argue that there are far too many expats in the country who are not nearly as experienced as they would like to have everyone believe, especially when it comes to leadership and management.

The reality is that in Vietnam we have creative directors who were graphic designers in their home countries or restaurant managers who used to fry chicken wings. Without having any foundation of management skills, the default MO seems to be to fall into line with what everyone else is doing – usually this means micro-management, lots of yelling and bitching. Has it ever occurred to these managers that they failed in the first rule of management: be clear on your expectations right off the top. One of the first conversations I ever have with a new staff member goes something like this: “I hired you because I think you’ll be great at this job and will be a fit with the team. That means that I will treat you as an adult and help you however I can to set you up for success in this role and for your future. In return, you will act like an adult. So you’re welcome to come and go as you please however you will meet your commitments and do your job. If you have a meeting, you will be on time and 100% there. No answering the phone, no texting, no Skyping. If you have a deadline, you will meet it. If you can’t or don’t know what to do, you will talk to me about it BEFORE that deadline, not 2 days after. Capiche?” I will usually go on with a few more specifics of the job, but you get the general idea.

Let’s be clear, I don’t believe that everyone in Vietnam would shine in this kind of culture but then I’d say the same for the US or Canada. That’s why unions exist. However, my underlying logic is this: despite all the apparent differences between the cultures, humans all have the same basic needs. My friend Chris explained it best: All humans have the same fundamental needs but the “culture” layer refracts this into different patterns, much like sunlight through a prism. That being the case, it stands to reason that people in Vietnam would also value being treated with respect, understanding and frankly, like they aren’t the fat kid picked last in a ball game.

Having worked here for the past 2 years, I’ve come across countless young Vietnamese who have the same brains, ambition and drive as their counterparts in the Silicon Valley. There are a particular few who shine brighter than many I’ve worked with in North America or Europe and those are the guys who continue to give me hope for Vietnam.

I know that many who read this may find me too idealistic, which is kind of funny since no one who knows me would accuse me of being a kind or empathetic person. So while you may dismiss this view point as unrealistic, first ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to help your staff meet your expectations as opposed to bitching about how they’re failing you.

One final point, my basic management style holds true for all levels of the organization. Even my personal maid and I have a strong working relationship. She knows what she needs to do, I stay out of her way and she lets me know if she runs into any hiccups. Yeah, we still have regressive moments but they are pretty far and few between these days. And remember, a little patience and a few deep breaths go a long way when dealing with staffing issues, wherever in the world they may reside.