Marketing follies in the WordPress theme arena

Ordinarily something like a CodeinWP Transparency Report #8 wouldn’t be noteworthy. But the report goes on to describe how the company in question, ThemeIsle, “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS.”

Reading on further, what the report is alluding to is that this company which sells WordPress themes at one time offered three different options: one theme with one year of support for $67, access to all themes with two years of support for $99 (marked down from $123, which is possibly a “fake” regular price), and access to all themes with lifetime support for $199. By getting rid of the least expensive option, thus forcing customers who just want one theme to pay another $32, they aren’t “losing” this $30,000 any more.

If this seems outrageous, that’s because it is. It’s not unlike, say, Taco Bell taking a la carte drinks off the menu and then offering a combo with only nachos and a drink for about what both would cost a la carte (say $2.59 or so), for the customers that want “just a drink.” How long would Taco Bell last with this policy? Customers would leave in droves for McDonald’s or Wendy’s or just about anywhere else.

Sure, for the developers who will eventually use two or three of the themes, the middle option is a better deal. But for the rest of the people? Honestly, I’d be more inclined to just use a free theme or a less expensive commercial theme.

Also, there is the issue of the “fake markdown” from $123 to $99. That really needs to go, unless at some point that option will become $123 again. This is the kind of thing that gives marketing a bad name. That, to me, reeks of the odious odor of obnoxious and unscrupulous furniture and car salespeople. If they are going to be sold commercially (which apparently they will be for at least the immediate future), WordPress themes shouldn’t be sold with lame tricks like this.

The post I’m commenting on is from late November and references sales figures from September and October. So apparently, this “fake markdown” has been in place since at least September, and is still there today (in December). Will the price ever go back up to $123? (Was it ever $123 to begin with?) If so, when? If not, get rid of “$123.00” with the line striking through it again. (And next time, don’t try to make it look expensive by putting the “.00” in there, when every other price on the board is a round dollar amount with no cents. That’s also unethical.)

Rather than “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS”, I would characterize this as “didn’t realize there was $30,000 to be made by questionable if not outright unethical means.” I’m not suggesting not to buy from ThemeIsle specifically, but this should be kept in mind before buying commerical WordPress themes from anyone.

Food blogging and comps: my take on the revelations of Ian Harrison

Recently in Eater Montreal, Ian Harrison wrote a piece about comps (free meals) for food bloggers. In particular, the bulk of the piece describes the one time that Ian got a comped meal from a restaurant. From the article (I’ve snipped a bit for brevity):

Last summer I celebrated a family event with lunch at Maison Boulud in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was close to flawless. My wife was unable to attend so when the restaurant announced in August that Daniel Boulud was going to preside over a menu from his cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine, I saw it as an opportunity to try the restaurant together (and, truthfully, spend some quality alone time away from our energetic and relentless daycare-age daughter).

But first I wrote about the event on Eater. When Daniel Boulud comes to town, you do that. […]

Midway through our meal, we spotted Daniel Boulud hobnobbing in the dining room. When he eventually made his way to our table, he couldn’t have been more gracious. But he said something that gave me a twinge of discomfort: “It’s our pleasure to have you here tonight.”

There was a nudge, nudge, wink, wink quality to it. I don’t think it was intended as such but I felt it.

[…]

When the bill never came, we left what we hoped was a nice tip and [left]. On the way home we didn’t speak about the food or the excellent bottle of wine we shared. […] Our focus was on the freebie. A freebie in the order of $250.

I am guessing that’s $250 in Canadian, which is about $208.50 or so in US dollars (UK £137, €179.25) at the time of this writing. Even accounting for this, that’s still a pretty lavish meal for just about anyone in the 99% and maybe even a few in the 1%. It’s the kind of meal that some of us, including people like me, usually only dream of.

And apparently, that’s the going rate for good publicity. What’s alarming, though, is that this is clearly unethical PR, in that the food bloggers are implicitly expected to remain opaque about this. Worse than that, though, are this burning questions: How often does this happen in, say, places like Houston, TX? Dallas, TX? Columbus, OH? Jackson, MS? Memphis, TN? Atlanta, GA? (Just to name a few.) How many otherwise great restaurants are barely getting the chance to last longer than a few months because of unscrupulous and unethical behavior in what amounts to outright bribery of the press?

I don’t really rely on news coverage or food blogs to decide on new restaurants to try. Usually, it’s places I have heard about from friends and acquaintances (over a decade ago I found out what Fogo de Chao was all about from one of the companies I was working for at the time, and I have wanted to try the place since). Sometimes, it’s places I have seen while traveling around the city, or occasionally outside of the city. However, I know a lot of people do rely on traditional media or blogs and may go to a restaurant reviewed well in the local paper whereas they would completely ignore a comparable television or print advertisement. By the same token I know that the local television stations continue to publicize the city food inspectors’ violation reports for similar reasons (so people know where not to go to). The value of publicity cannot be ignored, either way.

Blurring the line between news/publicity and advertising is bad not only for the reporter/blogger, but also for those who would otherwise benefit from good publicity. It also potentially gives the entire businesses (PR and news reporting) a bad name, as well as undermining the trust that people place in bloggers and news media to be transparent. A few unscrupulous bloggers out there who take the comps and write what’s been paid for have the potential to ruin it for all of us long term.

A digital wrong?

A recent post by Geoff Livingston to his blog touched off a firestorm of controversy recently. Photographers take the stance that regardless of where the photo is posted, the photographer retains absolute copyright, even to the point of–somewhat tastelessly–insisting on the use of a watermarked photo for such uses as a  profile (as blogged by Mr. Livingston). The heading of what is legally permissible does not include everything under the heading of what is in good taste.

However, the real story here is how Mr. Livingston uses the loaded and confusing terms such as “digital rights” and “intellectual property” in clear ignorance of the viewpoint those terms assume. Indeed, the FSF has warned about such terms for some time. Despite the prevalence of the misleading, confusing, and biased term “intellectual property” the intelligent reader should note that copyrights, patents, and trademarks are not property rights and are not treated this way at all in the actual laws that set aside government-created exclusivity over artistic works, inventions, or logos and names used in trade. Copyrights and patents are time-limited, and are privileges which only exist because of the governments enacting laws which impose the restrictions on others.

I’m going to try to explain how nonsensical it really is to lump copyright, patent, trademark, and whatever else under one umbrella term. Imagine, for a moment, the confusion that would result over lumping laws governing motor vehicles, railroads, airplanes, and nautical vessels under “transportation law.” In particular, a yellow signal light means something completely different to a train than a motor vehicle, and the concept of right-of-way is completely different for watercraft (boats) than for land-based motor vehicles (for boats, right-of-way is actually the responsibility to maintain course and speed). These differences, and many more that don’t immediately come to my mind, are not unlike the differences between copyright, patent, and trademark law (and whatever else comes under the umbrella of “intellectual property” as even the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is surprisingly vague).

While Mr. Livingston refers freely to social wrongs in his post, I believe it to be an equal social wrong to feed the ever-growing misconception that copyrights are property rights by use of terminology clearly intended to help promote confusion between the two. Indeed, I have to wonder if the widespread term “intellectual property” itself led Moshe Zusman, the photographer with whom Mr. Livingston had the original dispute, to greedily assert copyright as if it were a property right.

Ethics tests and public relations professionals

Stumbled across this little gem today, and the cynic in me got a good chuckle or three out of it, so I had to share.

Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog reports that according to a study conducted by Penn State led by Renita Coleman, professionals in public relations (PR) do not deserve their often questionable reputation and actually score higher on ethics test than those in certain other professions.

As much as I’d like to believe this, the research is based on performance on a test which poses a set of situations that require the use of ethical judgment. The test shows that PR people did comparatively well on a test. But we all know the final exam is not given in a sterile classroom and proctored by a teaching assistant. No, the final exam is given in real life. Not only in the PR professional’s interactions with clients, but also in interactions with others outside of working hours.

Sometimes the most accurate exams, especially regarding ethics, are pop quizzes. I’ve learned that one from personal experience. The story itself could even be considered a good “garden variety” example of PR spin, for PR people, by PR people. But I think it’s ultimately up to my readers to answer that for themselves.