Shopping For Your First Guitar (and other Marketing Automation Essentials)

Warning: This post has absolutely nothing to do with marketing automation.

Well actually, I can’t be too sure.  So much has been written about the human need for creative outlets and positive effects that these outlets can have on productivity and innovation.  We can all afford to have at least one pursuit in our lives that is our pure passion!

Marketers are no different from anyone else this way.  We are all artists in our own way.

Guitaring very much feels like a creative outlet for me. I can say without hesitation that practicing my guitar has profoundly changed my outlook on life for the better.  Much in the same way that some other people might describe to me their passion for horseback riding. Or sailing. Or ballroom dancing.  These are pursuits that kindle our imagination. They bring us deep pleasure. They make us wonder how we ever coped without.

If you are thinking that guitaring could be your outlet, I’m cheering you on.  Get started on it as soon as you can.  Below I wrote up some tips to help you shop for your first acoustic guitar.  These are my own opinions of course and for that matter, as a rank amateur I am probably not the best guy to be offering this kind of advice.  So if you are lucky enough to have friends or family who can give you guidance, go get their help.

I started guitaring at 10 years old, encouraged by generous parents who on their meager teacher salaries scraped together enough money to buy me a gorgeous new Hagstrom electic bass guitar for Christmas.  Outfitted with my cherry-red bass, and what seemed at the time like a monstrous Traynor amp in our basement, plus my brother joining in with his Stratocaster, we would live out our rock fantasies.  I took bass lessons for a couple of years, then switched to drumming.   A few years after that, easing into more conventional teenage pursuits, my interest in practicing dwindled, and I stopped playing both.

Some 20 years passed before one day I noticed an acoustic guitar standing in a corner at my brother in-law’s home.  He was intensely private about his new hobby, but after begging him ruthlessly over dinner he finally acquiesced and pulled up a chair to play.  While I stared on intently he started up some jazz chords for a few minutes.  He then handed it over.  My fire was rekindled.  As luck would have it, he was looking to trade up.  So that wintery weekend we drove to Italmelodie in Laval, where he picked out an Ovation he had been eyeing for some time. I promptly paid for it, and the Garisson was mine.  Three years and several guitars later, I have rarely lived a day at home without practice.

Since taking the Garisson home I feel like I’ve learned more about what makes a good quality instrument.  My newest treasure is a Godin Lapatrie Hybrid Nylon. Gloss black body, built-in electronics, locally handmade in my hometown of Baie d’Urfe, Quebec.  It plays like a dream.

It took me a year to pick out this guitar.  I find the whole process of guitar shopping to be onerous.  The typical shop might have 50 models on display.  Visit Steve’s Music in Toronto and there may be 150 or more.  If you can find a quiet seat in the store, other prospective patrons around you may seem exceptionally skilled and it can be humbling to be in such great company.  On the web I found it difficult to find authoritative product reviews, so much subjectivity.  In this way I guess I am no different than anyone else out there offering yet another round of subjective.  Still I hope these tips are helpful to anyone looking to buy for the first time.

First, some basics.

Six-string or twelve string?  I suggest a six to start. Quick to tune, play, wide selection of models. A 12-string could be something to aspire to, down the road.

Nylon or steel?   Steel strings have a fuller sound on chords.  Nylon sounds better for fingering; when you move up and down the neck you won’t hear the scritch and buzz you would normally hear on metal strings. On nylon however, the chords do not sound nearly as full. If you see yourself jamming with someone else while “unplugged,” buy steel.

Body.  All else equal I would generally look to buy a full size (aka “jumbo”) guitar. You can look to own the largest bodied you can sit with comfortably.  Full-size guitars come in different shapes and depths. When you sit, relax and then pay attention to your right arm. Does the edge of the guitar cut into the underside of your forearm?  Try different models until you find one that matches your curvature.  This is where a sales assistant can really help you by checking your posture is correct while you sit and try different models for comfort.  Someone smaller might enjoy a countoured fiberglass body like those found on the Ovations.  Also you can get a cutaway, but it’s not essential for beginners and typically has a somewhat less full sound since the volume is slightly smaller.

Which brands?   If you can afford it ($500 and up) stick to domestic. A lot of well-known brands now offshore their manufacturing and put out fairly crappy guitars that should be avoided.  Below are the brands I can confidently recommend. I’ve found these below to be of excellent, handmade quality. A lot of Canadian in here (except Taylor):

Godin (Lapatrie, Richmond)
CF Martin & Co. (Martin)
Taylor
Norman
Art & Lutherie
Seagull

To be avoided unless stuck on a desert island:
Fender (yes, I’m sorry to say that times have changed)
Tanglewood
Washburn
Squier
Yamaha
Anything else sold at Sears, Walmart, Best Buy, etc.

A few brands have relatively shoddy stuff at the low-end, but also make some excellent high-end craft guitars at their small domestic mfg locations:
Gibson
Ovation
Ibanez
Gretsch

Try to find a guitar with an onboard auto-tuner (built right into the body). Handy.

Built-in pickup is also worthwhile if you see yourself playing with others.  A small portable amp 10-20W costs $100 and cranks enough volume to jam.  A guitar with an auto-tuner usually has the built-in electronics and mic/output jack as well. You could install aftermarket electronics but I shudder at the idea of taking power tools to a brand-new beautifully handcrafted guitar.

Picked out a contender?  Test the construction and fit.

Check intonation. Sit down in a quiet place and play the guitar on the 1st open string, then the 12th fret.  Are the two notes in tune?  Next, try the 1st string 12th fret, then the 6th string, 12th fret.  I’ve found this simple test to be an excellent way to rule out guitars with low-quality construction.

Check the neck width.  When I started out I really didn’t appreciate how important neck width is to ease of play and overall enjoyment.  Start your shopping by trying out a classical nylon guitar.   These tend to have super wide necks, lots of room between strings.  Then having played this for a few minutes, try a traditional guitar you have in mind.  How easy is it to finger notes accurately, especially in the middle strings?  Someone with smaller hands might find a classical guitar difficult to play, really having to stretch hands to play two strings that are 4 frets apart and the result is a lot of fret buzz. I find with my hands I can finger more accurately on a wide neck.

After you’ve tried a few models, you’ll want to check the action of the strings.  How firmly do you need to press down on the fretboard make the notes play without any buzz?  When you play, your fingers should press immediately below the fret. If you shift ever so slightly from that ideal position, is it forgiving enough to ring without buzz?  You will find that some guitars have higher action than others, meaning you have to press harder which affects your play. Also keep in mind that “medium” strings will be higher action than “light” strings, all else equal I recommend buying a guitar that comes with “medium” factory strings and still has the lowest action.  A guitar with light strings will be super low action. So you can really shred, but prone to sounding out of tune from string bending.  My Garisson had super high action, which made it harder to play than others (on the other hand, it was good training!).

Once you are down to a model you like, inspect the seams and surfaces very carefully for any gaps, cracks, or other signs of warping. This is especially important where the body joins the neck, or where the string plate joins the body.  Any visible cracks or separated wood grain is a big red flag.  I’ve seen a couple of stores try to sell new guitars with cracks and warps that will cause the instrument to deteriorate down the road.  Unforgivable!

If you have a choice of cases, pick a hard case with thick foam insulation which is more resistant to temperature swings. Gig bags offer virtually no protection.

You’ll need a stand for home. I recommend a wall mount bracket (around $15). If possible mount it high on the wall to keep your prize safe from knocks, ideally on an inside wall that is not exposed to sun or prone to temperature swings.

Do we need a Sandbox?

Operating a sandbox is a fairly important aspect of your overall marketing software environment and cost item. A few months ago I wrote up this quick recommendation below to share with all of my clients which can help them reconsider whether this is truly going to add value. Does your MA software vendor have a great sandbox solution for you?

1. Beware sandbox environments which are configured as a separate install with no linkage to Production. Most software vendors offer sandboxes that mirror production automatically, allowing changes to the sandbox to be instantly published to production. However in some cases, both instances must be configured independently. This effectively doubles the amount of work required to get a software change added to production.

2. Sandbox usage is still unconventional in MA. While marketing automation software vendors may tout the sandbox as a feature of their Enterprise packages, in practice some of the world’s largest companies have operated their complex MA software successfully for years without a sandbox. Making changes to the software and data does require additional precautions, for example testing on a new process such as integration must be done with limited data sets, most companies tolerate the additional risk for the upside of simplifying their software environment. Further, all service partners have access to a test environment of their own where they can testing an unproven process on behalf of a client, where the risks may be high.

3. Direct software costs. Clients purchasing a MA platform for the first time may be enticed with a free Sandbox during the first year, however once this is embedded in your business you can expect the vendor will want to charge you for that software.

Marketing Operations: Is Contracting Out Worth It?

Following the various discussion forums out there, you’ll find “marketing operations staffing practices” is a perennial hot-topic (recent examples found on LinkedIn, Topliners and MarketingProfs).

The points of view offered in these forums typically revolve around the merits of outsourcing this-or-that type of activity; which outsourced or in-sourced work lead to a tangible economic return for the marketing team; which types of contracting or in-sourcing offer a greater strategic advantage; and, which activities are good candidates for outsourcing or in-sourcing as companies grow more sophisticated with their technology usage.

Decisions on “how” to best design the marketing organization are at the heart of so many fundamental business issues: economics of course, but also job design, systems design, productivity, HR flow, employee satisfaction, knowledge management, and the list goes on. When it comes to contracting out, some managers are uncomfortable with the very idea of it. “This is our core,” is the common argument. In their eyes, a partially outsourced marketing operations team is something to be avoided – except as a last-resort. They will always push to in-source every aspect of their operations (except for the underlying software itself, which is an interesting contradiction).

Why the fuss?

Some work just makes good sense to outsource. For example, you might be the kind of person who mows your own lawn rather than hiring a gardener. But when it comes to heart surgery, there’s no argument for doing it yourself. The surgeon performs critical work that cannot be done by the patient themselves.

All else equal, the same could be said about contracting out in marketing operations.

Outsourced work doesn’t need to be complex work, either. I chose “surgeon” in the example above, but it could easily have been “janitor.”

Contracting out does not need to introduce more risk to the business. If the surgeon suddenly quit their job, or if they were somehow deemed unqualified or incompetent, you would hire another surgeon. The surgeon performs work that is “critical” to the business, but not “core” to the business. It is a subtle but important difference.

A few years ago I wanted to understand for myself if companies tend to organize their marketing departments differently as they adopt new technology. I researched 60 companies using marketing automation to examine how managers in these companies rank their firms across a wide variety of organizational design characteristics. After crunching the numbers, and ruling out some common-sense traits (e.g., larger companies have more staff, etc.) the results disproved any notion that there is an “ideal” way to specialize, centralize or outsource. (You can link to the research, here.) If the study proves out, you won’t ever find two companies who staff their marketing operations team in exactly the same way.

So as staffing practices go, we marketers are all over the map. Which helps to explain all the divergent opinions out there.

Recently my colleague Mark Radding offered his opinion on the merits of outsourcing to independent contractors from an economic perspective.  Mark is an expert CPA working in the Boston area, offering accounting and tax services to small- and medium-sized businesses who use contracting in a variety of different functions. He outlined the sizeable advantages of outsourcing in one of his recent newsletters. While the IRS, workers’ compensation boards, unemployment compensation boards, federal agencies, and even the courts each have slightly different definitions of what defines an independent contractor, thus leaving some room for interpretation, we can still generalize accurately about the productivity and cost-effectiveness of outsourcing.

Bearing this in mind, the advantages of “contracting out” can be classified into three broad categories:

1. Contracting out eliminates the overhead costs associated with FTE headcount. While direct wage costs are generally higher than equivalent FTE salaries, independent contractors do not collect employee benefits, insurance, pensions, vacation pay, or sick pay.  Companies do not have to pay federal payroll taxes for contractors.  Contractors also provide their own facilities, equipment, and ongoing training/certification, an important saving.  Lastly the complications of unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, federal and state wage, hour and labor law compliance are all bypassed.  Externalizing these direct and indirect costs represents a considerable economic advantage over keeping full time employees employed to do the same work.

2. Contracting out allows the firm to staff up or down faster.  Contractors work for either fixed periods of time, or in projects with fixed deliverables. Either way, the closure of the contract presents an opportunity to review performance and productivity, and adjust the next contract up or down to best meet forecast staffing needs. Compare this to employees, who require a longer ramp-up time, are fixed in their workload capacity, and where productivity and performance may only be formally reviewed on an annual or quarterly basis (even if they are “at-will”). The flexibility to change the lineup faster creates a valuable option for the marketing team, to best meet the variable workload with projects and keep labor costs low.

3. Contracting out can foster more innovation. Contractors who work for more than one client at a time offer an excellent competitive advantage that stems from “cross-pollination.”Contractors import new skills, capabilities and innovations from their other engagements and this continues well after their original date of hire. This doesn’t mean they will play fast and loose with your corporate IP, it just means you’ll benefit from their insight of how other companies are doing perhaps a very similar thing.

While the added savings, flexibility and knowledge-sharing are all attractive advantages of contracting out, it’s important to weigh the possible tradeoffs:

Higher turnover.  Attracting and retaining qualified contractors can be difficult. Many contractors enter the field involuntarily, undertaking contract work as a bridge to their next full-time gig. The ups and downs of contracting can be very disruptive. Contractors who abandon their contract halfway through to pursue the perks and stability of full-time employment can be tremendously disruptive, leading to inconsistent service and outages for the marketing team while replacement hires are found.

Inconsistency.  Departing specialists who take their tacit knowledge with them can induce a “collective forgetting,”, putting the organization at significant risk. Three preventive measures mitigate this flight of knowledge. One is to document. Second, put each new candidate through the same selection and new hire process as FTEs (verify claims of past experience, make sure the goals, check references, etc.). Lastly, once hired the contractor should be managed as though they were an employee themselves, in spite of the technicalities of their employment arrangement.

Security risks.  Does contracting out lead to more data theft, increasing the likelihood of system failure or other security breaches? Reasearch does not substantiate this theory, but companies can bolster their security by making sure contractors operate as securely as employees do. As a prospective client candidly admits, “We don’t want our contractors messing things up any more than our employees already have.” While colorful, this statement also underscores just how important it is to have effective security policies that apply universally to both employees and contractors.

Redundant labor.  As the contract labor pool is established, this often introduces the perception of redundant capacity within the department, with FTEs who perform (or want to perform) the contracted work. This redundancy is not a bad thing in itself (think twin engines) but can produce goal conflict and power struggles. Managers can avoid this pitfall by clarifying the “boundaries” of each job, set goals to minimize any competition for shared resources or expertise, and prepare their contingencies for succession.

What can managers make of these tradeoffs?

Foremost, if you find yourself captivated by someone who claims to have a grand unifying theory about how to successfully staff your marketing operations team, treat it with a healthy dose of skepticism. There are no quick fixes and since every organization has a different situation, the “best” staffing solution will be contingent on many factors including those above.

Keep an open mind about employing a mixed labor pool that combines the very best of your available in-sourced and outsourced talent. The more options you have to source talent, the better the outcomes for your business.

The value of your own intuition is not to be underestimated! Rather than looking to formulaic approaches, take a contingency approach to your staffing strategy. Start with an inventory of all of the routine skills and classifying the long list into two columns, one representing “core” activities (sacred, must be performed by employees) and the other for “critical” activities (important to our success, but not core). Then, take the list of “critical” activities and compare them to the pros and cons as outlined above. Where could you find more efficiency?

3 Things You Can Do to Integrate Email and Social Media. Right Now.

Wish you had more traffic to your blogs, forums and other social media outlets?   While the benefits of using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for marketing purposes are well-documented, it seems that few marketers are using the features available in their marketing automation software to get customers and prospects to social media outlets.

To close the gap, here are three simple changes you can make to better integrate email with these key channels:

1. Embed RSS headlines in emails. Syndicating your blog headlines and recent tweets in email, and having them appear on thank-you landing pages helps to showcase the great conversations taking place in real-time about your brand.  These headlines are an excellent complement to the conventional array of static icons (Facebook, Twitter and RSS) traditionally found in email footers and sidebars.

2. Configure your marketing automation referral sources.  Measure the contribution of your email to social media traffic by configuring email redirect links to track social media visitors across from your email.

3. Merchandise your email subscription options on SNS.  As a reciprocal tactic, you can encourage your prospects and customers to sign-up for email in your social media.  This can be achieved by adding a simple form which adds any subscriber to available subscription groups.  Use “double opt-in” to validate the request; once successful a “welcome” email can follow, with links to the email preference center.