Category Archives: Marketing

Why I’m flipping my work model to writing more, consulting less

Three decades ago, I began my career in the tech industry. But what some don’t know is that working as a tech (or edtech) exec, whether on staff or as a consultant, has been my second career.

So after 30 years I’m returning to my first career: journalism and other writing, with consulting now as the side project.

In late 1987, I left a career in journalism (primarily in radio news, but also some TV and print) and as a budding writer of science fiction to become an early marketing manager for the Apple Programmer’s and Developer’s Association. That was when you still had to educate people about what a “personal computer” was before enticing them to buy one. For a journalist who had won Computer Press Association awards for a radio talk show (yes) about computing, working for APDA and its parent A.P.P.L.E. Co-op was a natural fit.

I went on to marketing management at Egghead Discount Software and became a marketing exec at a number of tech companies. My shift to edtech began with a consulting role as interim vice president of marketing for McGraw-Hill Home Interactive. That led to explaining tech’s potential (and limitations) in the education market. I’ve since held marketing executive staff roles at Pearson Education, Professional Examination Service, and SchoolMessenger (West Corporation), plus consulting senior roles with several more firms.

Always, it’s been with the tenets that tech marketing and branding must focus on what’s unique, believable, and true. It ties back to providing information from which a buyer can make a confident decision. If you’re missing any of these three elements, you may not be marketing in the best interests of the company or the customer. You could just be shilling for that fast buck.

Not coincidentally, those three tenets also are related to good journalism, even if the desired outcomes are very different.

Throughout my career as a tech exec and consultant, I’ve kept my hands — at careful arm’s length — in some form of journalism, usually as an analyst or commentator. I wrote the “Byte Me” column for a Seattle-area alternative news weekly for four years. For another four, I did television commentary about tech.

And for the past lucky seven years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a founding writer for the tech news site GeekWire, contributing columns, podcasts, and news stories as often as my day job would allow. In between all of this, I co-authored a couple of Dummies books, wrote some long essays, and did a lot of public speaking.

However, there were always things I would not write about because of my concerns about perceived or real conflicts of interest. That hampered topics I was willing to take on.

So now it’s time to flip the model.

Starting, well, already earlier this year, I’m returning to journalism, analysis and commentary as my main job. That work encompasses both tech and — more so than I was able to do in the past — edtech.

GeekWire will remain my home base, allowing me to expand the writing I’ve done about edtech, continue my special monthly podcast interview/story series about pop culture, science fiction, and the arts, and begin a new weekly column about the intersection of media and technology when it comes to creating and consuming “content.” I realize this experimental swap of emphasis won’t be all wonderfulness. It’s risky. And I’ll be trading one set of career annoyances for another. Don’t let anyone tell you journalism and fiction writing aren’t businesses, especially if you expect to get paid.

Will I write for others, beyond GeekWire? Yes. There may again be long essays, short fiction, and books.

Will I still consult? As time, interest and ethical considerations allow. But I doubt much consulting will be on standard marketing. That intellectual challenge, for me, is incremental after three decades.

Besides, unlike when I began, no one today has to explain digital technology to consumers or educators to get them interested in using it. More important, and part of my role now, is helping all of us better understand how to intelligently manage tech’s effects on our everyday lives.

Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Education technology is a hotbed of activity. And some developments will stay warm, while others, now overheated, will rapidly cool.

It’s helpful not just to companies, but non-profit organizations in education and educational institutions themselves, to have an idea of which is which.

At the EdTech for Export conference in New Zealand last week, I flipped the questions I’d been asking other industry execs (if something was a fad, trend, or “it’s complicated”) into advice for the industry itself. It’s mostly U.S.-centric, and has only a three-to-five year time frame.  Both are key caveats.

Below is my presentation — with screen-by-screen notes — on nine developments (from Open Educational Resources to the rise of iPads and Chromebooks). Plus I highlight five bonus myths about education technology, corrected. The last has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of my presentation on Twitter.

Or, if you’d prefer, the full 30-minute video has also been posted by my New Zealand hosts, which may be more entertaining that clicking through slides and reading text.

(Et4e15 – Keynote 3| Frank Catalano, Intrinsic Strategy from Grow Wellington on Vimeo.)

As with any free advice, it may largely be worth what you paid for it.

Continue reading Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Startup marketing dos and don’ts

There’s a fine line in technology startups between learning from what others have done and being constrained by it.

It’s a line I try to walk in mentoring entrepreneurs in various venues (from Startup Weekend event roles to sitting on the Advisory Board for the inaugural SXSW V2V). Recently, I’ve taken part in two free webinars from the Education Division of the Software and Information Industry Association aimed at helping edtech startups navigate the odd and weird waters of the education marketplace.

And they are now posted for anyone to view.

The kickoff Ed Market 101 webinar, “Is Your Product Ready for the School Market?” covered some of the basics of making sure a startup was prepared to enter the market, and common obstacles easily overlooked by entrepreneurs more used to the somewhat more rational consumer or enterprise markets.

A subsequent Ed Market 101 webinar, “How to Spend Marketing Dollars (If You Have Any)” covered one of my favorite topics: long-fuse effective awareness and important sales support tactics in education technology, and the awful and persistent money pits.

Even established pros may find them useful refreshers on the current state of the art and science.

A re-start, reflection and five recommendations

As 2014 begins, I’m re-entering familiar territory: independent, full-time consulting.

And by “familiar,” I mean really, really familiar. Consulting became my career (not a label I wore while looking for other full-time work) in 1992. I had been in marketing management at Egghead Discount Software, a national chain of some 200+ retail stores and a healthy (half of revenues) education, government and corporate direct sales business.

Egghead2-745183I had been in charge of product and sales promotion, so I had relationships with literally hundreds of technology vendors and had written and executed dozens of launch plans, strategic and tactical. So it was a natural move to consult more deeply some of the companies with which I’d worked at Egghead. A few consulting engagements became on-going or repeat relationships (Apple, Rick Steves’ Europe) or longer-term interim executive assignments (MetaMetrics, McGraw-Hill Home Interactive).

I’ve only left consulting thrice in the past 20+ years, each time to join a then-client in an executive role: iCopyright (briefly, during the dot-com days), Pearson Education (for four years last decade, primarily in the assessment businesses), and most recently for much of last year, Professional Examination Service.

I’ve now left ProExam’s staff because I recognized the work I’d begun as a consultant and joined them to complete as Chief Marketing Officer was fully implemented. And I realized that staff marketing needed to take a stronger sales support role. My “CMO” title was a distraction. So it has been retired, I’ve returned full-time to Intrinsic Strategy, and I’ll keep working with ProExam as a client to provide guidance (and continuity) as a strategic adviser.KMPScatalano

I’m thinking three times is the charm. I plan to stay here, focused on consulting, analysis and writing. (Plus speaking. My much-earlier broadcasting background demands to be set free from time-to-time and I’m told I clean up well.)

But in more than twenty years of consulting, with deep dives into executive and interim-exec work, I can offer five recommendations for consultants, those who hire them, or those who want to apply consulting principles to their own staff work: Continue reading A re-start, reflection and five recommendations

If I (only) had 100 marketing dollars

Fair warning: This advice is going to piss off a lot of advertising sales reps.

A question I get fairly often is, “Where should I spend my marketing budget?” The hidden question in the question is Blasieholmen_1930that there are magical tactics, unknown to mere mortals, that will propel market awareness and sales to Olympian heights.

There aren’t, of course. But there are tactics for any new tech-related product in the new decade which are definite musts. And a lot more are “it depends.” Or even “hell no.”

Now for the Olympus-sized caveat. This advice works best for a digital product or service launched by a start-up with a limited budget. It was originally developed for education technology products, a market which has characteristics of both business-to-business/government sales (administrators) and business-to-consumer sales (teachers). I originally delivered it at the 2010 Software and Information Industry Association Ed Tech Business Forum in New York City. But there are nuggets in here for everyone, especially in the “musts.” Continue reading If I (only) had 100 marketing dollars

When “leading” trails

I get cranky when I see lazy marketing writing. Especially when the primary purpose of marketing writing is to motivate readers.Circular Yield Sign

What do I mean by lazy? Words and phrases that sound as though they’re saying something but are content placebos. Technology (and education technology) marketers are notorious for this practice. While many lazy words probably once had specific meaning, they’re now applied so indiscriminately they’ve become like over- and mis- used cooking ingredients: too many empty word calories, filling space instead of stomachs, and similarly providing no sustained energy.

My 2010 list of the top five linguistic sugar bombs that should carry warning labels:

“Leading.” The mainstay of public relations boilerplate, corporate descriptions and positioning statements, this word says nothing. I’ve been campaigning for the retirement of this hoary chestnut for a dozen years. “Leading” is a shortcut used when someone can’t articulate why a product, service or company is different — or doesn’t want to go through the work required to get to that point of differentiation. Continue reading When “leading” trails

Why bad news is good

It’s inevitable that, during the slow crawl up through economic recovery, companies will have good patches and bad patches. What they shouldn’t do is succumb to the natural corporate temptation to share only good news.

This might seem counter intuitive to traditionalists: Share bad news with customers? But that will hurt our image, our customers’ trust in us and maybe our business. But what these traditionalists forget is we live in a century with customers who both distrust typical marketing messages … and aren’t afraid to use Twitter. Twitter Logo

I think of this as my fifth and final myth of marketing coming out of a downturn: Communicate only good news. And it’s one I discussed with The Bellevue Collection Merchants last month.

Let’s be realistic, for two reasons. First: As firms get back on their feet there will be missteps. Customers know this, and expect more transparency. People expect to hear bad news when coming out of bad times, especially if they know an individual industry sector has been troubled. If all they hear instead is happy-fluffy-bunny marketing speak, they will either be suspicious and wonder what you’re hiding, or they may wonder if you’re clueless about the true state of affairs. That’s not a good either-or to be in the middle of. Continue reading Why bad news is good

Strategy’s downturn role, redux

Sometimes, I get a blank look when I explain to people that I do marketing “strategy.” It’s the blank look usually reserved for people who say they do what the voices tell them. Or the one seen while others figure out how to politely ask if you do anything productive.

Finally, they’ll sometimes say, “But we’re in a downturn. I just care about sales.”

The last time I wrote about thAlaska Airlines logoe role of strategy was during the last downturn, seven years ago. And there’s nothing like being in a downturn, even if it’s supposedly in the rear-view mirror, that illustrates why strategy — a clear, well-thought out strategy — is important. In short, strategy means knowing where your business wants to be after the downturn. I suspect some of the best moves being made right now are from companies thinking long-term, so they can take advantage of short-term opportunities.

I took some time to explain why earlier this year at a Bellevue Chamber of Commerce talk on the myths of marketing. Having a marketing strategy — which is a core component of any business strategy — can be as simple as taking the time and thought to understand four C’s: Continue reading Strategy’s downturn role, redux

Naming the no-tears way

Beware the familiar-sounding name.

Over the years I’ve been involved in a number of projects to name products, services and companies. And these projects can go pear-shaped in ways almost too numerous to contemplate, from endless free-for-all brainstorming to unilateral executive decisions  — only to discover later the exec subconsciously found a choice comfortingly appropriate because it was the name of a largely forgotten competitive product.

So I’ve developed a series of steps to avoid the most egregious mistakes while still coming up with a solid name. And note that I don’t say the perfect name. No name is perfect out of the gate; it has to be used consistently for a product, service or company that actually delivers what is promised.

How do you get started? Here’s the short four-part version. Continue reading Naming the no-tears way

The good (downturn brand) shepherd

A downturn is no time to stop managing your brand. If a strong brand allows you to charge a premium in good times, that perception of value in bad times will help you recover when good times return.

But only if the brand itself is maintained throughout.

Bellevue Chamber of Commerce logoGoing into my talk on the myths of marketing at the Bellevue Chamber, I’d just come off of several anecdotal exchanges about whether a company should even bother to think about brand now, and instead focus only on price and sales. “Who cares whether it properly carries our brand,” one paraphrased back-and-forth went with a high-level executive. “The customer will figure it out.”

Setting aside the hubris inherent in forcing the customer – the paying customer – to do your corporate identification work for you, this illustrates clearly my third myth of marketing in a downturn: The brand makes no difference; only sales do. Or, put another way, leave branding and brand maintenance to better times.

Certainly the financial benefits of having a strong brand aren’t in dispute. Continue reading The good (downturn brand) shepherd