Lessons from Cool Hand Luke: Failures in Business Communications (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the potentially dire consequences of using the wrong channels when communicating with customers. Paul Newman’s famous line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” served as my theme.

I outlined nine milestones in communications, from the printing press to the Internet. Today, I conclude with a follow-up on how each of those communications channels has fared over the years.

More recent developments in the nine communication mediums include the following:

1. The days of printed books and newspapers may be numbered. Consider the following:

  • Although Amazon keeps its sales figures close to its corporate vest, reports by Bloomberg and other sources suggest it likely sold over eight million Kindles in 2010. Amazon’s January 27, 2011 press release reported, “Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the Company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books.” Those sales were achieved in spite of stiff competition from the Apple iPad and other eReaders.
  • In an industry financed by advertisers, newspapers now cost more to reach a similar audience than radio, magazines, or websites. The Newspaper Association of America expected ad revenue to drop 9.7% in 2009 after falling 16.5% in 2008.

2. In a press release issued November 12, 2010, the U.S. Postal Service reported a loss of $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2010. They delivered 6.1 billion fewer pieces of mail than the previous year. Labeled advertising mail, 273 million pieces of daily junk mail make up 47% of Postal Service volume, but only 25% of its revenue.

3. Struggling from its failure to win a federal contract to deliver mail, the Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph connected Omaha to Sacramento. During an 18-month existence, it succeeded in reducing the cost of a 1/2 ounce letter by 80%.

4. Home phones are being replaced by cell phones and other mobile devices. Smartphone users can now perform virtually any function available on a computer. They can also scan product bar codes for instant price comparisons and download directions to local competitors. In October 2010, CTIA-The Wireless Association reported in their 50 Wireless Quick Facts that over 89% of handsets operating on wireless networks are capable of browsing the web.

5. With its market steadily evaporating since the 1975 invention of digital cameras, Kodak ended a 74-year run when it discontinued production of Kodachrome film in 2009. SEC filings reported a $210 million loss that year. Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2012. They will no longer manufacture cameras, and will sell its film division. The digital camera was invented by a Kodak engineer.

6. A July 2008 report by Borrell Associates titled Say Goodbye to Yellow Pages estimated the industry would lose 39% of its revenue over the next five years as small businesses focus more on online advertising. It was forecast that 2008 print revenue of $12.7 billion would decrease to $7.8 billion by 2013. In an age of instant information, an increasing number of businesses are obviously questioning the wisdom of spending scarce marketing resources on a medium that will not be distributed until months after incurring the expense. Some estimates suggest that up to 20% of small businesses do not survive to see their Yellow Pages ad in print. Meanwhile, concerns over the environmental impact of discarded books are causing cities to explore advanced recovery fee ordinances that will add millions of dollars to industry costs.

7. The marketing impact of satellite radio remains to be seen. Sirius FM Radio reports almost 22 million subscribers in some highly desirable demographics. Yet, the public company has not traded above $3 a share in over four years.

8. A four-decade oligopoly by ABC, CBS and NBC began to crack by the 1980s. Having once controlled 99% of all broadcasts, their market share dropped to 32% by 2005 according to the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. The Fox Network now produces the highest rated show on TV (American Idol) and the longest running primetime show (The Simpsons). The increased popularity of cable TV, Internet access to programming and digital recording devices threaten to redefine television’s role as the “high end” communications media. Fortunately, the ability to embrace technological changes has allowed television to hold the average American’s attention for 4.7 hours a day (according to a 2008 Nielsen report) over 60 years after its introduction. Finally, NBC’s owner Comcast announced in January 2011 they were dropping the iconic peacock from their corporate logo. This announcement ended a 56-year television tradition that first trumpeted the arrival of color programming to an entire generation of mesmerized children. Curse you, Comcast!

9. Lastly, the traditional model of text dominated static communications on a free World Wide Web navigated via a handful of search engines is being challenged. New paradigms including pay per click advertising, video and yes, social media are quickly redefining it.

As I reflect on this timeline, it occurs to me that few people can anticipate, let alone shape communications in this accelerating stream of consumer driven changes. Names like Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and a handful of other young billionaires come to mind.

The rest of us do well just to keep up with it.

The goal of today’s successful small businesses should be to meet customers in whatever communication channels they choose at that moment and to educate and influence (never dictate) consumer behavior as best they can.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” magic formula for success, no one thing that will permanently solve marketing challenges or slow the pace of change. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow because as Tony Robbins and others have said, “The past does not equal the future!” That much is clear from the timeline. There is simply no substitute for hard work, vision and continuous planning and experimentation.

However, there is also much cause for hope.

Don Bradley and Chris Cowdery’s exhaustive study Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy had this conclusion: “Evidence suggests that failure rates of small businesses in the United States are related to the nature of a capitalistic market in relying on competition where only the strongest survive. The causes for small business failure and ultimately bankruptcy are many. A successful entrepreneur is, no doubt, the consummate businessperson who must be a jack-of-all-trades. It is evident that nearly all entrepreneurs have the opportunity to control their own destiny. Success is obviously not a guarantee, but nor is failure. A well-rounded businessperson who has carefully planned and prepared with a clear vision of who and what the company is will have an excellent opportunity for success.”

I also point out that many of the marketing ideas discussed in this blog would not have been possible just a few short years ago. Many more have been made easier and more cost efficient by recent technological developments and increased Internet-based competition.

I therefore challenge and encourage you to seize the opportunity to control your own destiny, to embrace change, to experiment with new ideas, and to learn from your triumphs and your disappointments in these exciting times. Your business will grow in the process.

I wish you great success in your efforts and I hope you have fun in your journey.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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