Pelland Blog

Truth in Packaging

June 10th, 2015

When it comes to processed foods, probably the most deceptive phrases are:

  • Serving suggestion.
  • Enlarged to show detail.
  • All natural.

The serving suggestion lets you know that the strawberries and blueberries in that bowl of cereal are not included in the box, the image that is enlarged to show detail helps you to really see what that cracker or potato chip looks like, and the words “all natural” have no definition whatsoever and can include just about every chemical compound found on the planet. The first two phrases are usually shown in very fine print, whereas the last phrase is generally promoted in large text with an eye-catching graphic.

PackagingBuzzwords

It is unfortunate that parts of the business world have adopted language that essentially applies this same sort of lipstick to their pigs. A used car becomes “previously owned”, previously frozen fish in the supermarket becomes “thawed for your convenience”, products made in China might be “assembled and packaged in the USA”, and most people know that a “processed cheese product” is anything but real cheese. In particular, some of this deception has become commonplace in the Internet industry.

Serving Suggestion

If you have ever registered a domain name with a company like GoDaddy, you will encounter their version of the “serving suggestion”. I just went to GoDaddy to try to register a domain name for $9.99, the sale pricing for new domain name registrations. Before checking out, I am presented with an offer the “Get 3 and Save 67%” by registering the .net, .org, and .info versions of the domain name, as well as an opportunity to “target local shoppers” by adding the .nyc version of the domain name for an additional $39.99.

As I pass on those options and proceed to the checkout, I am encouraged to “Protect My Personal Information” by adding so-called “Privacy Protection or Privacy & Business Protection” for between $7.99 and $14.99 per domain per year. (The $14.99 price is made to appear particularly attractive, since it is discounted from a “regular” price of $32.97.) The next options are “Website Builder Hosting” for anywhere from $1.00 to $10.99 per month, and E-mail hosting for anywhere from $3.99 to $7.89 per month. Then, of course, I will be encouraged to register my domain for the maximum period of 10 years, rather than only paying for a single year.

Under this exercise, I only wanted to register a single .com domain name for $9.99 (plus a mandatory $0.18 ICANN fee). Most people are confused by all of the options – after all, doesn’t “privacy protection” sound important? – and will pay for at least some of the unnecessary add-ons. If I purchased everything that GoDaddy suggested, but still only registered my domain name for a single year, I would be paying $375.51 per year for that $9.99 domain name. Yes, those are “serving suggestions”.

Enlarged to Show Detail

Many website builders have a way of exaggerating their skill levels. Often, these are the local jack-of-all-trades computer shops in town, where the owner fancies himself a webmaster in between attempting computer repairs and selling home theater systems. In other instances, this might be your son or daughter or that smart kid down the street, generally telling you that “anybody can build a website.” In yet other instances, you might be misled by TV commercials from companies like Wix, Weebly, SiteBuilder.com, VistaPrint, or those wonderful folks at GoDaddy again … all suggesting that it only takes a few mouse clicks to build a website for your business for next to nothing or even free (before, of course, leading you back into the “serving suggestions”).

Needless to say, there is not a single website for any seriously legitimate business that was built under any of those scenarios. Even among companies that are engaged full-time in website development, there is a propensity toward exaggeration and a “sure, we can do that” attitude. Your best protection will be a careful review of their portfolio and references. It has been said that “the proof is in the pudding”, and you may want to confirm that the dessert being served matches the dessert being described on the menu. If you are being promised a world-class website, that is unlikely to result if there are no signs of the necessary skills visible in previously completed projects.

All Natural

The trickiest to detect is the claim that a product is made with all natural ingredients. From processed foods to pet food, from cosmetics to candy, there are no clear standards or definitions for the term “all natural”. As a result, consumers need to rely upon their own instincts, underfunded consumer watchdog organizations, or the slowly moving wheels of governmental regulatory agencies for protection. Snake oil was all natural, but it never cured a single disease other than psychosomatic disorder.

The snake oil of the Internet age is search engine optimization, commonly known by its acronym: SEO. How many phone calls have you received recently from somebody offering to get your website “listed at the top of the Google search results”, offering to help get your business listed on Google Places, or asking you to “update your Google front page listing?” In most instances, you have probably gotten dozens of such calls. Not a single one of them has actually come from Google or a company that is legitimately sanctioned to call on Google’s behalf.

In a recent phone call with the former president of one of the world’s leading e-commerce companies, I was struck (but not surprised) by his advice to “never hire an SEO agency”. Wasting time trying to find a legitimate SEO company is like trying to find a “good” fortune teller, used car salesman, or payday loan company. They are all truly good at taking your money. SEO is nonetheless big business. Be suspicious of companies that offer SEO reports as a means of getting their foot in the door, offer to “fix” your website so that it will “start ranking higher on the search engines”, or show you Google Analytics charts and graphs with misleading annotations that allegedly document their expertise.

We are living in challenging times. In order to survive and prosper, you need to cut through the chatter and filter out the noise. Should you really expect one business to provide the same services for significantly less than most others, should you really expect companies to provide free services with no strings attached, and should you really believe that there are companies with magic wands that will make your website suddenly appear more highly ranked than any other relevant search results? Sometimes business decisions come down to who you can trust, and trusting your own instincts is almost always the soundest business decision.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobilegeddon?

May 13th, 2015

No doubt you heard the cries of alarm a few weeks ago, when so-called experts warned of the end of Internet search as we knew it, effective April 21, 2015. Perhaps you have also noticed the eerie silence since the uneventful passing of that date.

This past winter, the national news media spent two days ignoring real news events to warn of the impending “storm of the century” that was headed toward my home base in Western New England. We were in the bullseye of the forecast map, with a prediction of 30 or more inches of snow. After all was said and done, I believe that we received 6 or 7 inches. A few local meteorologists apologized for the inaccurate forecast that was fed to them by the National Weather Service. Other than that, the “story” was dropped – for obvious reasons – like a hot potato.

I am embarrassed that so many of my peers jumped on the sensationally-named “Mobilegeddon” bandwagon. It was particularly disturbing when the dire warnings were used by companies that were in a position to exploit the fear that was generated by the spread of this misinformation. Let’s face it: If his midnight ride was based upon unconfirmed rumors that “the British were coming”, Paul Revere would be long forgotten as a little-known Boston tinsmith.

As I pointed out at the time, many self-proclaimed “experts” cited a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that had appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for a warning that was an outright exaggeration. What the new Google algorithm means is that sites that are mobile-friendly will gradually gain an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside mobile search results. This rise in the ranking of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed. Mobile-friendliness is only one – although a very significant one – of over 200 ranking signals that Google employs to determine the best search results.

Using historical – and factual – Google Analytics data that I drew from actual client websites, I was able to draw the following conclusion: If we presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices, it would mean that a site that was not mobile-friendly would lose approximately 9% of its traffic if the website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (something that was not going to happen and did not suddenly happen on April 21, 2015.)

According to statements made in a live stream on Google’s Webmaster Central on May 8th, the search giant realizes there are “small businesses who (sic) don’t have the time or the money (to have built a mobile-friendly site yet) … that are still fairly relevant in the search results, so we need to keep them in there somehow.” For example, if you run one of the leading campgrounds in Sturgis, South Dakota, Google is not going to drop your website from mobile search results just because your website is not deemed mobile-friendly. That would run totally contrary to the delivery of accurate and comprehensive search results, the overall basis for Google’s commanding success in the search market. A non-mobile site will still rank highly if it presents the content that users seek.

Mobile search rankings have always been different that desktop search rankings, and that gap is going to gradually but continually widen over time for sites that are not mobile-friendly. According to a recent report by digital marketing agency Merkle|RKG, fully 46% of Fortune 500 companies and 29% of the Internet Retailer 500 businesses do not yet have mobile-friendly sites. Even among the Top 10 of the Fortune 500, there are companies that do not yet have mobile-friendly sites: Phillips 66 (# 6 on the list) and Valero Energy (# 10 on the list). On the other hand, Google reports that there was a 4.7% increase in the overall number of mobile-friendly sites that were introduced in the two months leading up to the April 21st algorithm update. You can expect the numbers to increase, along with the volume of mobile-based Internet access, by less proactive companies that slowly embrace the inevitable.

As of May 1, 2015, Google has confirmed that the new search algorithm has been fully rolled out, although the differences that have been measured by both major online marketing agencies and the people who earn a living by monitoring the inner workings of search engines have been almost immeasurably lackluster. This was not the “storm of the century”; however, to use another weather-related analogy, neither the presence of that storm nor the lack thereof would represent a reason to deny long-term global warming. In other words, the mobile-friendliness of your website is in the ultimate interest of your business. Just don’t panic.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Nobody Likes the Surprise of Hidden Charges

April 2nd, 2015

Last week, on a quick trip to Nebraska, I rented a car at Eppley Airfield in Omaha. I had reserved the car rental online in advance. My basic rental fee with Thrifty Car Rental came to $155.72. Sort of like a base rate for a campsite … or is it?

Transparency in pricing is more important than ever these days. Consumers do not want to feel cheated or like they are being subjected to fraudulent pricing practices. When you dine at a restaurant, you are not charged extra for the use of a table, to have your meal served on plates, using the restrooms, or for the use of flatware and napkins. These are part of the overhead of being in the restaurant business. Yes, we all know that there are so-called “extras”, many of which apply to various types of recreational services. Unless there is special package pricing, if you schedule a round of golf, you expect to pay extra for a golf cart; if you go skiing, you expect to pay extra for ski rentals or lessons; and if you hit the bowling lanes, you will pay to rent bowling shoes if you need them.

RentalCarCounter_219597847_800x551_100

Unfortunately, the rental car industry takes add-ons and hidden charges to a whole new level in the stratosphere. My $155.72 car rental came to $275.56 when I returned the vehicle. Mind you, this increase is despite the fact that I declined all of the added insurance (which is covered by my own auto insurance) and declined the added driver charge for my wife (a fee which is actually illegal in the State of California). The previously undisclosed, added fees included:

  • An “RAF” fee of $4.99 per day (which presumably has something to do with renting a vehicle at an airport, even if you simply take a shuttle from the airport to a nearby rental location in some instances).
  • An “Occupancy Tax” of $8.00 (which I presume is an added fee that helps to pay Thrifty’s rent).
  • An “AP Rec Fee” of 12%. I have no idea what this is.
  • An “SEC Fee” of 2%. I also have no idea what this is.
  • A “Vehicle Tax” of 4.5%. This one is also difficult to explain.

Part of the problem with the rental car industry is the lack of competition. Most of us can rattle off a list of rental car companies; however, according to a report published in the IndependentTraveler.com, the fact is that 94% of the rental car industry in America is controlled by only three companies:

  1. Hertz – which also owns Advantage, Dollar and Thrifty
  2. Avis – which also owns Budget and Zipcar
  3. Enterprise – which also owns Alamo and National

In fact, when we landed in Omaha and went to the car rental counters, the Thrifty Car Rental booth was unoccupied, with a sign directing customers to the adjacent Dollar Car Rental space. A near-monopoly is never in the interest of consumers. As a case in point, let me present one more tidbit from my car rental experience.

I generally use a bank debit card to pay for my travel expenses. When doing so, it is typical for a hold on funds to be applied, exceeding the anticipated cost of the service by $200.00 or $250.00. According the Thrifty, there would be an additional hold of $350.00 (a bit excessive). More outrageously, if you used a debit card, they would first run a credit check (which, in itself, is harmful to one’s credit score) AND charge you a $15.00 fee for the credit report! When I questioned this practice, the clerk pointed toward the other car rental counters and said that they had “all decided to introduce this policy” the previous week. I am not an attorney, but I believe that this is the textbook definition of the term “collusion”. I used a credit card as an alternate form of payment.

Needless to say, I am not happy with my most recent car rental experience, and I will never again rent a vehicle from Thrifty or Dollar. I will probably also file a complaint with either regulatory authorities or the Office of the Attorney General in the State of Nebraska (if not both). If this experience involved camping, I would not be the classic “Happy Camper”.

If you are wondering how this all might relate to camping, ask yourself if your rates are as transparent as possible. Every campground is going to require cancellation fees, guest fees, premium rates (and minimum stays) for holiday weekends, and premium charges for premium sites. The important part of the equation is for those fees to be fully disclosed at the time of reservation, leading to no surprises at the time of arrival or final check-out. If your state or county imposes a lodging tax on your cabin rentals, be sure that your campers are aware of that fee at the time of reservation.

There are other fees that you may want to reconsider because they are difficult for your customers to rationalize. These might include early check-in fees and wi-fi access charges. Then there are other fees that are certain to meet with customer disapproval. These include surcharges for the use of credit cards, along with transaction fees (often referred to as “convenience charges”) that accompany online reservations. These, like the “Occupancy Tax” and “Vehicle Tax” at the airport car rental counter, should be built into your basic pricing.

If you try to see your pricing structure from your customers’ perspective, you will avoid the type of dissatisfaction that will only hurt your business in the long run. In order for your customers to see things clearly requires transparency on your part. Ask yourself if it is time to take another look!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Future is Always Connected: Netflix Nixes Offline Viewing

January 28th, 2015

As online video- and music-streaming becomes more and more advanced, many service providers and media portals have begun to roll out offline caching for videos and music. From Soundcloud to Spotify to Amazon Prime and Google’s brand-new YouTube Music Key, service after service has started to allow its users to store media locally, allowing for its later consumption. This feature turns out to be especially important for users on slower or bandwidth limited connections, who can locally store media on a WiFi connection to avoid long waits or bandwidth surcharges.

BrB

With just about every service rolling out offline caching in some capacity or another, it seemed only a matter of time before the 800 pound video streaming gorilla in the room jumped on board. We’re talking about Netflix, of course. For a while now, rumors had been swirling that Netflix was planning to launch their own offline caching options.

Now, in the bright light of the New Year, these rumors have been unceremoniously dismissed by Netflix Public Relations Director Cliff Edwards. Techradar reports that Edwards bluntly stated that offline storage was “never going to happen.” Why is this?

Netflix, it turns out, treats the non-ubiquity of bandwidth and connectivity as a short term problem, one for which offline caching is nothing more than a quick band aid. Instead, Edwards predicts that within five years, bandwidth will be so cheap and universal that users won’t even remember that they ever wanted offline caching in the first place, and will regard local storage as an outdated and obsolete concept for technology.

This is a contentious stance for a company to take, since it essentially implies that Netflix is willing to offer an inferior service on the short term to save resources. Netflix seems willing to lose customers to whom offline storage is especially important. Amazon Prime streaming has been quick to affirm its commitment to providing consistent and universal service to its subscribers. Currently, offline viewing is available for Fire tablets, and Amazon has announced plans to extend this functionality to more of its devices in the future.

Trophy

Perhaps the case is that Netflix sees itself more and more as a content creator in addition to simple media provider. Like a more traditional TV station, Netflix is devoting more and more of its resources to the creation and curation of original video content, and perhaps sees its future as focusing more on this division of business. Netflix has already announced aims to debut at least 20 more original series in the next five years and is currently heavily promoting its new period drama called Marco Polo, following the adventures of the medieval Italian explorer.

No matter what you make of it, Netflix’s surprising decision about offline streaming belies a confidence that internet infrastructure will continue to be developed. Based on history, this is a safe bet, though it also shows a surprising self-confidence in their place in the market. Netflix seems to believe their position is unassailable. It will be interesting to see if this is the case.

Nick Rojas is a business consultant and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Chicago. He has consulted small and medium-sized enterprises for over twenty years. He has  contributed articles to Visual.ly, Entrepreneur, and TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter @NickARojas, or you can reach him at NickAndrewRojas@gmail.com.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Finding It on Google Does Not Mean It Is Yours to Use

July 23rd, 2014

It’s late at night, a tired driver pulls up in front of your house, walks in your unlocked front door, and proceeds to enjoy a sound night of sleep in your spare bedroom. How would you react? Confronting the stranger, he tells you that an unlocked door is an open invitation to guests. Another night, your door is locked, and another stranger climbs in through a window. This one brings his entire family, redecorates, changes the locks on the doors, and wants to know what you are doing in his house.

You might think that these stories are crazy, and you would be right; however, have you ever done an image search on Google when you were looking for a certain photo or illustration to use in your own promotional materials? Unless it is specifically marked as “freeware” or “open source” by the original artist, you are probably just as guilty as one of those uninvited guests.

Most people know that just about any image or text that is ever posted online will be shared, re-posted, and indexed by search engines. Even embarrassing personal information has a life of its own. In fact, it took a May 2014 ruling by the European Union’s top court to enforce the new “Right to Be Forgotten” policy that affects Google search results that are based upon an individual’s name. In the first month, according to The Wall Street Journal, over 40,000 removal requests were filed; however, the removal process is a slow and tedious procedure that is currently in effect only in EU member countries.

When it comes to that image search on Google, when you click on an individual image, the only disclaimer is the “images may be subject to copyright”, wording that is intended to relieve Google of liability, not to protect either you or the rights of artists. It is safe to assume that any use of an image found in this manner is a copyright violation and inherently illegal.

Put yourself in the shoes of an artist – or an author, in the case of text – and try to see the situation objectively. Nobody has a right to stay at your campground without paying a fee. Your campground is your livelihood. Well, the same thing applies to artists, illustrators, authors, and other people engaged in creative pursuits. They earn a living, put food on the table, and clothe their children by selling rights to their work.

One of our clients was mildly chastised recently for using a piece of artwork that he found in a Google search on one of his Facebook posts. Google did not clearly warn him that the artwork was copyrighted, but the artist did. It was a simple matter of apologizing and deleting the image; however, if the image had been used on printed materials, it could be another story with an entirely different outcome. Fortunately, most artwork found online is low resolution and unsuitable for use in print. Using artwork found online in printed materials could actually lead to a cease and desist order that could require any materials containing an unauthorized image to be recalled and destroyed.

 

RaccoonHeadLogos_600x320_100

Another of our clients, Baker’s Acres Campground in New Jersey, has a very distinctive raccoon logo that we hired an artist to design on their behalf back in the 1980s. It is the campground’s registered trademark, they paid to have it created, and the original artwork is in our files. I just discovered that another campground has been using this artwork as its own logo, simply adding a feather to the back of the raccoon’s head. I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he sounded like a very nice individual who had no ill intent. He simply thought that he had used a piece of art that was in the public domain and then modified it. It apparently appears online and on his brochure, although I advised him to stop using it. Other instances may not result in such a friendly outcome.

If you require artwork for any purpose, there are two options. Either hire an artist to create custom artwork or buy usage rights to royalty-free stock images. Artists or illustrators can be easily found online through various resources such as www.elance.com; stock photography and illustrations are also readily available online through various resources such as www.shutterstock.com and www.123rf.com. Prices are remarkably affordable, and it is difficult to put a price on peace of mind.

The bottom line is that a Google search for images might be fine to provide ideas regarding what is already being used, perhaps helping you to avoid using something that is too similar to existing art; however, it should not be used as a resource for finding unique images that are free for the taking. In other instances, the search results might include watermarked stock images, with a link to the site where usage rights may be purchased.

Think about it: the reason that Google is indexing an image is because it is already online and being used, almost certainly by a business that has paid for that privilege. You do not want to act like that uninvited guest who is looking for a free place to spend the night.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Pelland Advertising Responds to GoUSACamping Announcement

June 19th, 2014

Rushed Decisions or Long-Term Plans?

So far this season, 2014 is turning out to be a year where campground owners are seeing many changes in the sea of vendors serving their industry. Following on the heels of the announcement by Evergreen USA RRG, the recent notice from GoUSACamping is certain to impact many campgrounds at the most inopportune time possible – at the height of the camping season in Northern states.

Pelland Advertising is not in the business of chasing ambulances, and we do not seek to profit from the misfortune of our fellow industry vendors; however, we also would like to assist individual park owners to take the time to make informed, long-term decisions rather than hurried choices that bear a semblance to panic attacks.

The notice that GoUSACamping sent to its clients included the advice, “If we designed and hosted your web site then contact a website hosting and web builder company such as ‘godaddy.com’ or ‘1&1.com’ to assist you with a new website.” We take strong exception to that advice, and would never advise any small business owner to turn to one of those Internet industry behemoths to provide website development or hosting services. There are several campground industry vendors who are small enough to know their clients by name, who understand the unique needs of your business, and who have a track record of serving the industry. Pelland Advertising is one of those companies.

Whether your park is directly impacted by the GoUSACamping announcement – or you simply feel that the time might be right for a change – Pelland Advertising would like to present an alternative to a rushed decision. We are one of the campground industry’s leading suppliers of website development and hosting services. Independent of any alliances with third-party online reservation services, the reservation engine of your choice may be embedded into or linked from your site. Many of our clients prefer a simpler online reservation request system that is highly effective, particularly for smaller parks, and free of transaction fees. We offer solutions and alternatives.

If your park is directly impacted by the GoUSACamping announcement, we would like to assist you in making a carefully considered decision that will provide an easy transition that will not interrupt your business and will also be as seamless as possible in the eyes of your customers. We will provide the following services:

  • Move your site to one of our dedicated servers at no charge.
  • Begin hosting your site at an annual rate that will reimburse you for 50% of the cost of any prepaid hosting fees that you may have already incurred for 2014.
  • Perform the necessary content revisions as specified by GoUSACamping, at no charge.
  • Build and install an online reservation request form onto your site for a discounted flat fee, allowing you to independently handle inquiries while you make an unrushed, intelligent long-term reservation software decision.
  • Get all of this done within the 30-day window (July 18, 2014) specified by GoUSACamping.

Afterward, when your unhurried decision has been made, we will replace the online reservation request form with the reservation engine of your choice, either embedded or linked (depending upon what is available from the third-party service provider that you will have chosen.) We will also provide a courtesy discount should you choose to have Pelland Advertising build a new site within the next 12 months.

The timing may not be ideal, but we are here to help park owners to maintain the type of continuity that is essential to their long-term success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Beware of Award Scams: An Update

June 4th, 2014

Back in early October of 2013, I blogged about an award scam being run by an outfit calling itself the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC). I had never before heard of the organization, and as far as I was able to determine, the company’s only “business” was sending out these awards. The award announcement that I received read, “Each year, the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC) panel identifies firms that have demonstrated excellence in their respective fields and achieved commercial recognition. Your firm has been one of those selected this year and this award exemplifies that distinguished accomplishment.” That vague announcement read like your horoscope. But wait, there was more! For only $358.00, you could get a framed certificate, a crystal award, and your own press release campaign (which, of course, cross promotes the SBIEC). In our instance, they would even correct our business name. Basically, they win, you lose.

Fast forward 8 months, and things have changed a bit. Thanks to that blog post and a related post on the Pelland Advertising Facebook Page, a Google search for the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce featured our blog post, our Facebook post, and several related consumer complaint sites more prominently than the website of the perpetrators themselves. In reaction to that reality, the outfit has now changed its name to the United States Trade and Commerce Institute (USTCI), disabled the original website, and has an otherwise identical website to be found under the new business name. In an effort to create an air of authenticity, the About Us page even outlines various “philanthropic outreach initiatives” such as helping to finance microloans on Kiva.org “since 2007.” Well, isn’t that special? Their business’s website was only created on March 13, 2014. In a Google search for the United States Trade and Commerce Institute, we are now dogging the new business name, too.

The spam e-mails that people receive claim that the USTCI has a “panel of industry executives and consultants” and a “Media Division”. That means that the USTCI is comprised of at least 2 people, who probably spend most of their time harvesting the e-mail addresses of small business owners and processing the credit cards of unwitting award winners. They are now targeting small businesses outside of the United States, particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain with the same award scam. Non-English speaking countries are bound to be targeted next.

The comments posted on our Facebook Page make it abundantly clear that it is very easy to qualify for this dubious award. At least two people posted that they had received 2013 “Business Excellence” awards for businesses that had closed in 2012! In a sad sort of way, the posts are quite entertaining. Complaints can also be found elsewhere online, on a variety of consumer complaint websites, including The Ripoff Report. Phone calls to the SBIEC reach an answering machine with an “out of office” message, and a check of their address with the U.S. Postal Service returns with, “The address you provided is not recognized by the US Postal Service as an address we serve. Mail sent to this address may be returned.” The address on the old website could also not be located on Google Maps, with the closest recognizable address being the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. The new website lists an address of 212 North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia. This is an image from Google Street View that shows the Knightsbridge Apartments that are located at that address. Hardly the location of such a respected and reputable company, is it?

Once again, how do you know if an award is a scam?

If you are told that you or your business is being nominated for an award – or is being presented with an award – it is probably best to think twice before you run out to buy a new tuxedo or evening dress. Follow a few guidelines, and ask a few questions.

Who is presenting the award? Do a Google search for the award. As you type in the name of the alleged award, is Google suggesting that it be followed by the word “scam”? I remember being called a few years ago (not coincidentally, during an election cycle) and being told that I was a small business leader who had been selected to be part of a recognition ceremony to be held in Washington, DC. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the “award” had been concocted by a PAC (political action committee) that was designed to generate financial contributions for the National Republican Party. I know people who fell for the “award” and took the trip to have their pockets carefully picked in the nation’s capital.

Is there an entry fee? We have received direct mailings on a regular basis in recent years, inviting us to enter our work for the Davey Awards. The direct mail pieces typically look like they were designed by an untalented 9 year old, but that is just the first tell-tale sign that something is fishy. To enter the competition, you need to pay a $99.00 single entry fee, a $185.00 campaign entry fee, or $270.00 to enter a so-called integrated campaign, or go all out and pay $305.00 to enter a marketing effectiveness category. Adding insult to injury, if you win one of the dubious awards, you will be billed a $175.00 “acceptance fee” for your statuette and certificate.

We have also received similar direct mail pieces from the Telly Awards. According to their website, the organization receives 10,000 to 15,000 entries from small advertising agencies that are hoping to promote their businesses, each paying a minimum entry fee of $85.00. Do the math. That means that this questionable award generates about $1,000,000.00 for its promoters … just from the entry fees. Want to, once again, add insult to injury? If you “win” one of these dubious awards, you will be automatically charged an additional $170.00 for your award statuette (probably plastic) and your certificate. This seems to be a bargain compared to the Davey Awards, since the minimum entry fee is slightly less, and you will pay $5.00 less for your statuette if you “win”. It is no surprise that, if you search for “Telly Awards scam” on Google, there are currently 113,000 results. The Telly Awards and Davey Awards are not alone in preying upon companies that are eager to broaden their exposure. They are joined by the Webby Awards and many, many other questionable enterprises that appear to be in the business of generating entry fees and selling statuettes. Do you think that anyone who wins an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, or Grammy pays for their award?

Are winners asked to make purchases? In addition to obvious scams, there are many so-called “awards” where the winners are presented with the opportunity to spend money with the award presenters. Among the longest-running are the various Who’s Who directories. Do not be thrown off by what appears to be a recognizable and once-respected name. Who’s Who directories are about as commonplace as Yellow Pages directories these days. For years, I have been asked to validate my nomination to “Who’s Who among Executives and Professionals”. The congratulatory letters read, “The Publishing Committee selected you as a potential candidate based not only upon your current standing, but focusing as well on criteria from executive and professional directories, associations, and trade journals. Given your background, the Director believes your profile makes a fitting addition to our publication. There is no fee nor obligation to be listed. As we are working off of secondary sources, we must receive verification from you that your profile is accurate. After receiving verification, we will validate your registry listing within seven business days. Once finalized, your listing will share prominent registry space with thousands of fellow accomplished individuals across the globe, each representing accomplishment within their own geographical area.”

I do not know a single successful businessperson who needs to be included in a directory of this nature. Despite what the promoters say, there will be a fee to be listed and, of course, you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more of the (very expensive) printed directories. These directories are useless in these days of online reference sources, and even most public library reference departments no longer purchase the worthless volumes. About the only buyers are the same people who think that they were honored by being included. Go to Wikipedia to learn more about various Who’s Who scams. There are currently 47,500,000 search results for the term “Who’s Who scam” on Google.

Does the award require a reciprocal link to the award website? If you remember the early days of the World Wide Web, there were an abundance of website awards that fed the egos of early webmasters. Today, if you search for “website awards” on Google, there are 1,780,000,000 search results. Most of these awards are totally worthless, randomly selecting “winners” who are encouraged to “proudly display” the award badge on their website, linking it back to the award website. Basically, these award sites are link farms that are trying to enhance their own SEO through a network of links. As time goes on, Google and the other search engine robots have gotten much better at ignoring these sites – and even penalizing the sites that are linked to or from them.

Is the award organizer the primary recipient of value from the award? Many regional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations present annual “Best Of” awards, covering a wide range of categories. The categories all happen to consist of potential advertisers, and the awards are almost universally run by the advertising departments of the publications or broadcast organizations. The awards that are compiled based upon the votes of readers or viewers at least carry a bit of credibility. Even in those instances, the voting process may require a visit to the sponsor’s website (and all of its accompanying self-promotional messages). In almost every instance, the business that is presenting the awards will supply certificates that winners are encouraged to display at their places of business, badges that may be displayed on their websites, and award icons that may be added to their print advertising. All of that awareness does more to promote the businesses that are presenting the awards than the award recipients themselves. Is it any surprise that these awards have been concocted by advertising departments, and that winners are encouraged to buy advertising to help to promote their awards? This type of award is not an outright scam, but I would caution recipients against being overly manipulated in the process of engaging in their own part of the self-promotion.

Is the award presenter and the award recipient the same organization? There are also many thinly-veiled attempts to cross-promote one’s business ventures by having one organization present an “award” to what is essentially another arm of the same organization. This is somewhat along the lines of having General Motors present an award to its Buick division as the “Automobile Manufacturer of the Year”. Nobody would fall for that. Or would they?

Let the Winner Beware

The bottom line is that we all like to be recognized for our efforts, but beware of being exploited by people who prey upon that fact. Even recognition under legitimate competitions within an industry or a member association can be somewhat dubious because winners are only selected from among those who enter. Run your business properly, and your efforts will be acknowledged on a daily basis by your success and the satisfaction level of your clientele. This is the best recognition possible … and all that you really need.

Stay informed, because perpetrators of scams like the SBIEC and the USTCI will do their best to cover their tracks and change their appearances like chameleons. Spread the word to fellow small business owners. Information is our best defense against being scammed and exploited.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Respect – Rather Than Mislead – Your Customers

February 25th, 2014

I sometimes sense that some businesses think that they will profit by tricking customers into making purchases. We are all familiar with the types of practices that have given advertising a bad reputation since the days of P.T. Barnum. These include fine print disclaimers, “bait and switch” and its twin sibling “limited availability”, and hidden charges. With their short-term perspective, what these merchants fail to realize are the long-term benefits to be gained from satisfied customers who are treated with respect, integrity and appreciation.

If a misleading advertising campaign is accompanied by a measurable increase in sales from a small percentage of customers, its practitioners may be blind to the possibility that far greater numbers of more astute customers may recognize lipstick on a pig and might decide to permanently take their business elsewhere. Allow me to share a few examples.

In the days just prior to Valentine’s Day, I received three e-mails from FromYouFlowers.com – each with greater urgency – encouraging me to use a “$13.48 earned credit” before it expired (or before it was extended in subsequent e-mails). I realized that I did NOT have a credit in the amount of $13.48, or any other amount, with this online retailer; however, how many people ordered to take advantage of this bogus opportunity? This offer is misleading because the alleged credit is actually nothing but a discount. The random amount makes it look more believable, and most people are more likely to want to use a credit than to apply a comparable discount because a “credit” represents something that is due to you or an amount that you had already paid. Shame on ForYouFlowers.com!

Another recent e-mail advertising campaign was sent out by Uno Pizzeria & Grill, the week prior to the Super Bowl. The subject line was pretty clear: “A Free Pizza for Uno Fans”.


Only upon clicking through to the offer was it explained that the “free” pizza could only be redeemed with the purchase of an accompanying entrée of equal of greater value.


This should have been disclosed right up front, instead of wasting the time of their potential customers with a misleading subject line and a disclosure that required a visit to the Uno website. I suspect that the e-mail advertising campaign had a far greater click-thru rate than redemption rate. I certainly did not bother printing my coupon.

One of my favorites has to be SelectBlinds.com, a major online retailer of window treatments. Their website stresses “Free Shipping” right at the top of their Home page; however, if you place an order from their site, you will pay an “order processing fee” that they say allows them to maintain free shipping.



I need a set of mini-blinds, but I will not buy them here, strictly because of that fee. If you charge me a higher price, I will still order; if you insult my intelligence, I will not.

How does this all apply to your campground? I urge you to present your customers legitimate offers that represent true, measurable value. Avoid the “gotcha!” factor. It is fine to advertise “stay two nights, and the third night is free”, but you should not present this as “free camping” or include a hidden disclaimer such as “excluding weekends” or “based upon availability”.

When posting your rate schedule online, it is best to avoid showing base rates that require customers to use a calculator to determine the actual cost of a site with 50-amp electric on a weekend in your prime season. As much as the base rate may initially attract attention, what appear to be added fees will usually harbor resentment.

Do you charge a fee for wi-fi, or is your coverage area limited to certain sections of your park? Disclose that up front to avoid complaints and potential confrontations later.

In conclusion, it is best to advertise legitimate offers that are first intended to present opportunities to your customers and then secondarily intended to generate business. The two go hand-in-hand, and merchants who recognize this fact will be aptly rewarded.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from the Best, Then Learn from the Worst

January 23rd, 2014

For years, I have been advising campground owners to look beyond the campground industry for inspiration and ideas on how to more effectively run their businesses. What your competitor down the highway is doing is far less important than what cruise lines, theme parks, ski resorts and boutique hotels are doing to not only meet evolving consumer expectations but to essentially raise the bar and redefine those very expectations. Companies like Viking River Cruises, Disney, Snowbird, and Marriott’s Renaissance and new Edition hotel groups are game-changers, not only within their industries but within the broader travel and leisure industries. With an emphasis on customer service, industry leaders rarely – if ever – need to compete on the basis of price. They have established themselves in a league of their own.

There are certainly campgrounds that have embraced this management philosophy, and they have been recognized as the leaders within their field. Particularly with the growing emphasis on luxury cabins and the overall concept of “glamping” (glamour camping, something that was certainly considered an oxymoron less than a generation ago), they are rebranding the camping experience as a superior alternative to the typical resort or hotel. As leaders within the industry, they set both the pricing thresholds and the consumer expectations for all parks, and they are profitable operations as a result.

There are certainly some infrastructural investments that help to differentiate the leading camping resorts from the rest of the pack. These include things like heated swimming pools, paved roadways, modern playgrounds, reliable wi-fi, 50-amp electric service, spacious pull-thru sites, and dog parks; however, most of what differentiates industry leaders has little to do with infrastructure and everything to do with attitude. Let me be clear that not every campground is destined to meet these new levels of consumer expectations, and not every camper is seeking out this type of experience. It is all about choices, and let’s be honest: have you ever worried about raising your rates by $1.00 per night, even though there are parks charging $20.00 or $30.00 more for a similar site?

It is easy to learn what sets certain businesses apart from others, and I encourage you to take the time – probably in your off-season – to personally investigate. Put your financial concerns aside for a weekend, and book a stay in a leading boutique hotel in a major American city. Take notes. Everything that you experience can be translated into an equivalent experience at your campground, from the doorman who welcomes you, to the valet parking attendant who parks your car, to the front desk clerk who puts you in a room with a view, to the concierge who gets the dinner reservations that you could not get on your own, to the front desk clerk again who calls to confirm that everything in the room meets your expectations, to the housekeeping staff member who knows when you are away and turns down the sheets and leaves a rose and chocolate (or the hand towel equivalent of a balloon animal) on your pillow. What they all have in common is friendly, personalized service that exceeds common expectations.

Yes, it is easy to learn from the examples of businesses that are setting themselves apart by doing things right. It is also possible to learn from businesses that consistently seem to be doing things wrong. Let me relate my recent personal experience with United Airlines, when returning from a family vacation in Mexico on a one-stop flight to Boston.

When we arrived at Guanajuato International Airport for the first leg of our flight, we were told that our departure would be delayed by about 45 minutes, leaving us plenty of time to make our connecting flight in Houston. We were told that the incoming flight had returned to Houston with some sort of mechanical trouble. Shortly afterward, we were told the delay would be three and a half hours, because the plane was being replaced with another aircraft. Nobody wants to argue with delays that are based upon mechanical issues, true or untrue, and we had no choice but to wait. In the meantime, the United Airlines ticket agent hand-wrote new connecting flight numbers on our tickets from Houston to Boston. Yes, that seemed a bit unusual. About two hours later, I returned to the ticket counter (of course, going through airport security checks each time) to ask for the assurance of real, printed tickets. Another desk clerk at that time admitted that the hand-written ticket revisions did not even represent an actual flight number! The new printed tickets contained the actual flight number and terminal but, suspiciously enough, no seat assignments. The connection time was tight, and our flight would arrive in Boston around midnight.

When we finally arrived in Houston, we knew that we had to keep moving in order to get to the correct terminal, get our bags checked, and make it through security. Even with TSA Pre-Check, we were not getting anywhere quickly, with perhaps 1,000 people bottlenecked in security and trying to get to their outbound flights. We could only presume that the airlines are aware of long lines in security and are aware of passengers who have not yet arrived at the gate. Being the last departing flight to Boston, and flying non-stop, you would think that the airline might delay the flight’s departure by 10 or 15 minutes. Think again.

When we arrived at our gate, the door was closed, and we were told to go to the United Airlines customer service counter. We were far from the only passengers who had missed our flight to Boston, and the counter was severely understaffed. When we finally got to speak with the customer service agent, he explained that 2 out of the 6 of us did not even have seats on the plane that had just departed! (Remember the tickets with no seat assignments?) The attendant was very nice (and seemed highly embarrassed by the United policies), but his hands were tied. He said that our bags made it out on that flight, leaving us without changes of clothing, personal items, or medications. We were also told that the next flight would be early the following morning, and were given hotel vouchers for a nearby Holiday Inn (we passed more desirable Hilton and Hyatt properties along the way on our shuttle), along with $7.00 meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast. In the meantime, our limo driver was already halfway to Boston, because United did not post the original flight delay online and we could not contact him until we were in Houston with the bad news. That incurred an understandable $300.00 charge. Thanks, United!

At this point, there were still people in line at the United Airlines customer service counter, including a young couple with two children in tow. It was 8:30, the lights were turned out, and the customer service clerks announced, “Sorry, we are now closed for the night.” Can you imagine having guests in line at your registration desk and telling them that you are closed?

 

Our dinners alone (nothing fancy, at the Holiday Inn’s restaurant) exceeded twice the value of all of our dinner and breakfast vouchers. Our displeasure with United Airlines was the primary topic of conversation during our meal. Toward the end, a man who had been dining at a nearby table stopped by, identifying himself as a United Airlines pilot. He empathized with our experience and urged us to complain as loudly as possible to and about the airline.

After four hours of sleep, we caught our flight the following morning and arrived in Boston. We went directly to the United Airlines baggage counter to retrieve our bags that we were told were on the flight the night before. Guess what? Half of our bags had arrived with us on the morning flight. I had earlier picked up a copy of USA Today in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Interestingly enough, there was a graphic that displayed a summary of results for the 2013 American Consumer Satisfaction Index airline industry benchmarks. To nobody’s surprise, United Airlines occupies last place, with a consumer satisfaction index of only 62%, well below the industry average and far below first and second place airlines, JetBlue and Southwest (our airline of choice). Note that, a week or two later, JetBlue probably took a major hit, when they cancelled hundreds of flights during the so-called “polar vortex” cold snap. Consumers have a voice, and they will share their displeasure in as many ways as possible.

In the case of United Airlines, you would think that they had learned a lesson, with the “United Breaks Guitars” video having been viewed over 13,000,000 times on YouTube over the last 4 years, or the more recent “United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound” video that also involved a United Airlines flight from Houston to Boston. The power of the social media cannot be overemphasized or underestimated.

In one instance after another within our ordeal, the problem was not with United Airlines employees, but with the airline’s corporate policies. Ticket agents apologized, the pilot advised us to express our anger, flight attendants could not have been more cordial, and the customer service agent seemed highly embarrassed when he was told to turn out the lights at 8:30. As far as United Airlines is concerned, they fully met their responsibilities by putting us up in inexpensive hotel rooms for the night and providing us with $7.00 meal vouchers.

As a campground owner, you need to hire and train staff members who are friendly and obsessed with customer service; however, you must not interfere with the customer satisfaction process by implementing rigid standards that will be resented by your guests and lead to frustration amongst your staff. United Airlines seems unwilling to learn, but you – as a much smaller player within the travel and leisure industry – can clearly profit from their mistakes by implementing flexible policies that will always put your customers first.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Beware of Award Scams

October 2nd, 2013

It always seems to be the “award season”. You may have watched the Primetime Emmy Awards recently on CBS. We all know that there are some very legitimate awards and competitions. Probably the first to come into mind are the Nobel Prizes. Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation, presents awards for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. The Nobel Foundation has a nominating committee, and recipients receive a significant cash award (that many recipients, in turn, donate to charitable causes). The Nobel Prizes are very real. If you are a journalist, the Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate recognition. If you work in the film industry, it is an honor for your film to be presented in a major film festival from Cannes to Venice to Tribeca to Sundance, and one of the ultimate honors is to be presented an Academy Award.

Yes, there are many very legitimate awards; however, for every legitimate award, there are probably 100 scams, and scams breed on the Internet. The scams have been proliferating recently. About two weeks ago, I received an “award” notice from the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC). I had never before heard of the organization, and as far as I am able to determine, the company’s only “business” is sending out these awards. The award announcement that I received read, “Each year, the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC) panel identifies firms that have demonstrated excellence in their respective fields and achieved commercial recognition. Your firm has been one of those selected this year and this award exemplifies that distinguished accomplishment.” That vague announcement reads like your horoscope. But wait, there’s more! For only $358.00, you can get a framed certificate, a crystal award, and your own press release campaign (which, of course, cross promotes the SBIEC). In our instance, they would even correct our business name. Basically, they win, you lose.

How do you know if an award is a scam?

If you are told that you or your business is being nominated for an award – or is being presented with an award – it is probably best to think twice before you run out to buy a new tuxedo or evening dress. Follow a few guidelines, and ask a few questions.

Who is presenting the award? Do a Google search for the award. As you type in the name of the alleged award, is Google suggesting that it be followed by the word “scam”? I remember being called a few years ago (not coincidentally, during an election cycle) and being told that I was a small business leader who had been selected to be part of a recognition ceremony to be held in Washington, DC. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the “award” had been concocted by a PAC (political action committee) that was designed to generate financial contributions for the National Republican Party. I know people who fell for the “award” and took the trip to have their pockets carefully picked in the nation’s capital.

Is there an entry fee? We have received direct mailings on a regular basis in recent years, inviting us to enter our work for the Davey Awards. The direct mail pieces typically look like they were designed by an untalented 9 year old, but that is just the first tell-tale sign that something is fishy. To enter the competition, you need to pay a $99.00 single entry fee, a $185.00 campaign entry fee, or $270.00 to enter a so-called integrated campaign, or go all out and pay $305.00 to enter a marketing effectiveness category. Adding insult to injury, if you win one of the dubious awards, you will be billed a $175.00 “acceptance fee” for your statuette and certificate.

We have also received similar direct mail pieces from the Telly Awards. According to their website, the organization receives 10,000 to 15,000 entries from small advertising agencies that are hoping to promote their businesses, each paying a minimum entry fee of $85.00. Do the math. That means that this questionable award generates about $1,000,000.00 for its promoters … just from the entry fees. Want to, once again, add insult to injury? If you “win” one of these dubious awards, you will be automatically charged an additional $170.00 for your award statuette (probably plastic) and your certificate. This seems to be a bargain compared to the Davey Awards, since the minimum entry fee is slightly less, and you will pay $5.00 less for your statuette if you “win”. It is no surprise that, if you search for “Telly Awards scam” on Google, there are currently 113,000 results. The Telly Awards and Davey Awards are not alone in preying upon companies that are eager to broaden their exposure. They are joined by the Webby Awards and many, many other questionable enterprises that appear to be in the business of generating entry fees and selling statuettes. Do you think that anyone who wins an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, or Grammy pays for their award?

Are winners asked to make purchases? In addition to obvious scams, there are many so-called “awards” where the winners are presented with the opportunity to spend money with the award presenters. Among the longest-running are the various Who’s Who directories. Do not be thrown off by what appears to be a recognizable and once-respected name. Who’s Who directories are about as commonplace as Yellow Pages directories these days. For years, I have been asked to validate my nomination to “Who’s Who among Executives and Professionals”. The congratulatory letters read, “The Publishing Committee selected you as a potential candidate based not only upon your current standing, but focusing as well on criteria from executive and professional directories, associations, and trade journals. Given your background, the Director believes your profile makes a fitting addition to our publication. There is no fee nor obligation to be listed. As we are working off of secondary sources, we must receive verification from you that your profile is accurate. After receiving verification, we will validate your registry listing within seven business days. Once finalized, your listing will share prominent registry space with thousands of fellow accomplished individuals across the globe, each representing accomplishment within their own geographical area.”

I do not know a single successful businessperson who needs to be included in a directory of this nature. Despite what the promoters say, there will be a fee to be listed and, of course, you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more of the (very expensive) printed directories. These directories are useless in these days of online reference sources, and even most public library reference departments no longer purchase the worthless volumes. About the only buyers are the same people who think that they were honored by being included. Go to Wikipedia to learn more about various Who’s Who scams. There are currently 47,500,000 search results for the term “Who’s Who scam” on Google.

Does the award require a reciprocal link to the award website? If you remember the early days of the World Wide Web, there were an abundance of website awards that fed the egos of early webmasters. Today, if you search for “website awards” on Google, there are 1,780,000,000 search results. Most of these awards are totally worthless, randomly selecting “winners” who are encouraged to “proudly display” the award badge on their website, linking it back to the award website. Basically, these award sites are link farms that are trying to enhance their own SEO through a network of links. As time goes on, Google and the other search engine robots have gotten much better at ignoring these sites – and even penalizing the sites that are linked to or from them.

Is the award organizer the primary recipient of value from the award? Many regional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations present annual “Best Of” awards, covering a wide range of categories. The categories all happen to consist of potential advertisers, and the awards are almost universally run by the advertising departments of the publications or broadcast organizations. The awards that are compiled based upon the votes of readers or viewers at least carry a bit of credibility. Even in those instances, the voting process may require a visit to the sponsor’s website (and all of its accompanying self-promotional messages). In almost every instance, the business that is presenting the awards will supply certificates that winners are encouraged to display at their places of business, badges that may be displayed on their websites, and award icons that may be added to their print advertising. All of that awareness does more to promote the businesses that are presenting the awards than the award recipients themselves. Is it any surprise that these awards have been concocted by advertising departments, and that winners are encouraged to buy advertising to help to promote their awards? This type of award is not an outright scam, but I would caution recipients against being overly manipulated in the process of engaging in their own part of the self-promotion.

Is the award presenter and the award recipient the same organization? There are also many thinly-veiled attempts to cross-promote one’s business ventures by having one organization present an “award” to what is essentially another arm of the same organization. This is somewhat along the lines of having General Motors present an award to its Buick division as the “Automobile Manufacturer of the Year”. Nobody would fall for that. Or would they?

Let the Winner Beware

The bottom line is that we all like to be recognized for our efforts, but beware of being exploited by people who prey upon that fact. Even recognition under legitimate competitions within an industry or a member association can be somewhat dubious because winners are only selected from among those who enter. Run your business properly, and your efforts will be acknowledged on a daily basis by your success and the satisfaction level of your clientele. This is the best recognition possible … and all that you really need.

This post was written by Peter Pelland