The Passing Of A Pitchman

In Jeffrey Fox's Book How To Make Big Money In Your Own Small Business: Unexpected Rules Every Small Business Owner Needs To Know, chapter ten is entitled "Selling Is Job 1." 

If you've ever tried to sell something — anything — you probably know that it's not easy. I'm a fan of both the American and British versions of the television show "The Apprentice" although lately I favor the British version — more business, less histrionics. One of my favorite parts is when the job candidates (a collection of people with some degree of business success — a property manager, an investment advisor, a gallery owner, etc., some of whom have advanced business degrees) are given a task like "Let's see which team can sell the most ice cream by 5 o'clock." The teams have to make some key strategic decisions (which street corner, what kind of ice cream, what uniform to wear) but in the end, it comes down to who can sell, and who can't. 

That's where you have to hand it to the late, great Billy Mays. He was a "pitchman" who could sell anything and was proud of it. According to Wikipedia, Mays cut his teeth selling products on the Atlantic City boardwalk, pitching the Washmatik portable washing device to passersby: 

"Mays later traveled to home shows, auto shows, and state fairs across the United States for a period of twelve years, selling various maintenance products and tools, including cleaning products and food choppers."

But wait, there's more.

He became famous for pitching OxiClean on the Home Shopping Network, where sales showed a dramatic leap right from his first day on the job. His trademark introduction to most commercials ("Hi! Billy Mays here for <insert product>!") became as well-known as his blue work shirt. Most recently, Mays parodied himself in commercials for ESPN

For a more in-depth look at Mays, try this article in American Way magazine. And a hat tip to Andrew Flusche for bringing it to my attention. 

Five Years, 300 Posts, 7,000 Subscribers

To my complete astonishment, today marks the fifth anniversary of this blog. My first post was June 18, 2004. Since that time, I have posted 300 times (about 1.2 per week) and have somehow accumulated 7,000 subscribers (not counting those who are following by RSS feed). It's a perfect illustration of the adage from Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. 

A few more statistics reveal that this blog averages between 35-50 different visitors per day, that during its lifetime, it has been viewed some 70,000 times, and that visitors generally hang around for 10 minutes or so before fleeing into cyberspace. 

What does it all mean? Damned if I know. I can tell you that I probably jumped into this blogging thing relatively early because of my background in the newspaper business. I had written a column on a three times a week basis and I wasn't afraid of writing, nor of having people disagree with me and throw tomatoes. And I liked having a platform. Still do. When I was growing up in journalism, the only way to have a platform was to own a printing press, or work for someone who did. Blogging has put the means of publishing into the hands of everyman, and I think that's great. 

My son is less impressed. Here's the video he sent me, commemorating this august occasion (lyrics here): 

Twitter: A blog post in 1,962 characters.

When some new killer app becomes the flavor of the week on the Internet, I tend to give it a shot. Usually, it's free, and I have found that I am unable to distinguish, in advance, what is a stupid fad and what is the next big thing. So I risk a little of my time and give it a whirl. Thus far, my feeling is yes to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and no to MySpace. Twitter is the most recent of these, and my clients ask me about it often.

"I don't have time for it," is the usual objection, closely followed by "I don't get it, anyway. It's all these people tweeting about what they had for breakfast."

So let's get that last one out of the way first. Yes, there are a lot of people tweeting about what they are eating, about to eat, or have eaten. I'm sure there is some sort of lesson here from Abraham Maslow, but there is a simple solution if you are incredibly bored by such tweets (as I am): don't "follow" the person who writes them. Only follow people who post interesting stuff. Define "interesting" any way you like.

Here is what I have figured out (so far) about Twitter:

  1. How many times have you heard that the best advertising is word of mouth? Well, Twitter is word of mouth in cyberspace. I write an article. One guy notices it and tweets all of his followers. Several of those followers tell all of their followers. A bunch of them tell all of their followers. And on and on.
  2. There is a giant networking party taking place on Twitter. Why wouldn't you want to go?
  3. With Twitter, I have a whole bunch of really bright people — people I respect — scouring the Internet for me, finding interesting links and content I would have otherwise missed. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
  4. I get valuable news content. The stuff coming out of Iran right now is better and faster than anything I can get on the Internet or TV.
  5. I get to tell everyone what I had for breakfast. Coffee. Starbucks. Always.

I was sure you would want to know.

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

A prevalent syndrome among attorneys who have dipped their toes into Internet marketing is the abandoned website or blog. Unfortunately, a great many attorneys (or law firms) have websites in which, if you click on the button that says "Upcoming Events" you find something from the year 2005. Visit their blogs (if they have one) and you might find the most recent post is from last summer. 

And it's not just attorneys. 

An article in the New York Times cleverly entitled "Blogs Falling In An Empty Forest" paints the picture:

Richard Jalichandra, chief executive of Technorati, said that at any given time there are 7 million to 10 million active blogs on the Internet, but “it’s probably between 50,000 and 100,000 blogs that are generating most of the page views.” He added, “There’s a joke within the blogging community that most blogs have an audience of one.”

According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.

Some of the obvious conclusions to draw from this include the notion that one could give an attorney a column on the front page of the Wall Street Journal every day, but if he or she doesn't write anything, it's simply a wasted opportunity. Not posting on your blog also means that you have lost one of the main benefits of blogging, the boost one gets in search engine rankings from regularly adding fresh, valuable content to a website. 

Some of the drop in blogging is attributed by the Times to the growing popularity of social media like Twitter and Facebook. But in the legal world, I fear, much of it has to do with attorneys who do not have the time or inclination to write blog posts. (There are solutions to that, as well.) 

If a blog falls in an empty forest, does anyone hear it? I don't know the answer to that koan. On the other hand, if the blog doesn't fall at all, I can guarantee no one will hear it.