Is HitTail the Future of Marketing?

Mike LevinThe history of HitTail goes back many years, as I began to understand the futility of traditional marketing when dealing with a company that has virtually no budget, a product no one has heard of in a market that hasn’t quite developed yet.

That was the story of Scala Multimedia Software in 1998, the company that makes the sort of software that turns plasma and LCD TVs into Minority Report-style digital flatscreen signage. There was no trade-shows at the time, no trade-magazines, and not even a standardized name for the business! It was truly the wild west days of digital signage, where no deployment was over a few dozen screens, because they all had to be updated with landlines. And customers could (and did) come from anywhere in the world. And you had to pay attention to all these geographically dispersed prospects, because you had to aggregate all the customers in the world to turn digital signage into a viable market.

But how do you reach them in the first place?

What sort of marketing campaign could you mount to reach companies in the middle of Malaysia, South America, Africa, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Russia, Europe, Japan, United States, Australia, and even Greenland and New Zealand? It’s true. Prospects came from all over the world, often getting their first clue from word-of-mouth referrals from Scala’s very early days running cable TV “barker channels” on the Commodore Amiga computer platform in the late 80’s.

Word of mouth only got you so far.

Enter the Internet, and a radically new update model where the signage could be updated by pulling their own content down from centralized servers. Flat panel technology was also improving, plasma screens becoming forever bigger, and LCDs starting to inch up in size. And the movies–oh the movies! Finaly, I could stop referring to the flying blimp in Blade Runner, and start talking about the ubiquitous electronic advertisements in Minority Report. There was a mainstream movie that allowed the stuff to be understood by the masses.

The time was ripe.

And the rate of people Googling on the subject-matter increased. Oh, there was no telling what people were going to call this emerging industry. A lot of folks felt is was going to be digital signage. But the head of Engineering at the company was betting on dynamic signage, as it was more descriptive. I withheld judgment, and instead wrote about the field is as many ways, and with as many likely word combinations as I could think of. Remember, this was 1999, and Blogger was barely even on the scene. I used my own homespun perfectly-optimized-for-search content management system to spit out page after page of what I at the time called “vignettes”. At least one person who knew me back then to this day suggests that I virtually invented what today is called the landing page.

Stories of these landing pages are numerous and colorful. At least one of them directly resulted in hooking up with a major global distribution partner in a market that the company had been hoping to break into for years. It was all predicated by me thinking to roll out some content targeting “plasma display software”. I targeted dozens, if not hundreds of different word combinations by this time. Were were all the ideas coming from? What did I know to try? Was it the GoTo keyword suggestion tool (later Overture)? No! It was the company’s own log files, which I could view scroll by me in real time, filtering out everything but the highlighted search hits, thanks to my homespun tracking system.

Now, this was not HitTail at the time–far from it. I lacked the critical insights that subsequently went into re-inventing the tracking system for massive scaling (to the world), and automatic evaluation of the keywords, thereby alleviating the most time consuming part–figuring out which terms we STILL HAD TO optimize for.

My title was Webmaster, but really I was a Jack-of-all-trades, tending to almost every aspect of company operations, baring software development of the product itself. So in short, I was finding the prospects and forcing their progress along the sales pipeline in their journey to becoming customers, managed the system that handled taking and shipping orders. It wasn’t easy convincing the salespeople at the time that there were real human beings behind these clicks. I developed a whole array of supporting systems that basically took away anyone and everyone’s choice to NOT follow up on the sales leads I was generating. It was a brute-force bullying customer relationship management software, which to this day remains as a closely held secret tool of this company, which has withstood several politically motivated attempts to “turn it off”.

I go into this level of detail regarding HitTail’s history, and how a predecessor to HitTail virtually created an industry, and gathered contact info of all the world’s customers in this market to a single company, to explain to you some of the next steps I’ll be taking with HitTail feature development.

I’ll be constructing a “Lab”, a lot like Google Labs, where I’ll be experimenting a bit more aggressively with new product features, forever zero’ing in on that “sweet spot” in which analytics software is not even necessary, because we’ll keep compelling you to the next necessary action item to close your sales.

I’m a fan of Michael Bosworth’s solution selling techniques, which were very necessary for long sales-cycle items such as 1000-screen digital signage deployments, and a fan of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s total quality management approach, which advocates rapid product improvement based on real-time feedback from your workers and customers. I’m a fan of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow (among other books) that says you have to differentiate yourself by being radically and brilliantly different to even stand a chance in today’s competitive marketplace, and Guy Kawasaki’s pre-Internet/seldom discussed Selling the Dream, in which he plays off his experience launching the Macintosh to teach how to “evangelize” a product and use incredibly clear strategic thinking to do so.

All these principles have gone into HitTail. It’s a synthesis of marketing guru books, put together in what I hope is the sort of elegant simplicity, with actual underlying complexity akin to Apple Computer’s designs (maybe not in our graphics–yet). But no book has colored our product quite so much as Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, in which he gave a name to the radically simple and effective methodology that was already by this time driving the algorithm behind Connors Communications’ proprietary tracking system being used for its public relations customers.

And we saw that the time was right.

Just as with the movie Minority Report made the time right for Scala with digital signage by providing the common cultural awareness (if not the precise language) for this emerging market, Chris’ book The Long Tail gave us a way to make HitTail accessible and understandable to the masses.

HitTail’s seeming simplicity belies what’s actually going on, and we can not count the number of times some know-it-all sysadmin goes “Oh, that’s all in your log files” or “It’s the same thing as AwStats”. What they forget is that we’re not providing just another list of top-10 keywords, statistical bullshit. We’re skipping over all that keyword research nonsense, and simply telling you what to do next–a huge time saver and advantage in the forever-more-competitive landscape of fighting for first-access to customers online. We’re throwing paralysis through analysis in the gutter where it belongs, and looking right at the edge of where you nearly have it going on. Then we tell you how to change your act, ever-so-slightly so you step into the reliable flow of keyword search traffic that you’re just around the bend from anyway.

HitTail is not analytics. It’s an approach to online marketing pulled right from the minds of some of the best marketing and busines gurus of our time.

But it’s the first act.

And after a little time away from HitTail to ensure that the first act is everything we promised (and it is), I’m stepping back onto the scene to plan Act 2.

Stay tuned.

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