blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.


waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.



[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]


These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

find a way: an open letter to milwaukee and wisconsin on the milwaukee bucks arena

On Thursday, 4 June, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker held a presentation in Madison. Flanked by fellow politicians and Milwaukee leaders, Walker stated the case in partnering to get a deal done with the Milwaukee Bucks to build a new arena. This morning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial stating their cautious endorsement of making this development a reality.

I agree with the editorial staff: the details should merit strong scrutiny. I also agree that, if the details bear weight, this is a deal that needs to get done.

Predictably, the comments to that editorial are filled with reflexive and reptilian polemicist claptrap. Rather than respond there, I choose to respond here.

First, with this kind of opportunity, no one in their right mind leaves that much private money on the table. Former Bucks owner and US Senator Herb Kohl, and current principal owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry have pledged $250 million of their own wealth. Kohl and Edens/Lasry are putting up a considerable amount of their considerable wealth to make this happen. That’s not only noble, but a good faith gesture to the region and state. If you have half the cost of anything–a house, a car, a business–in place, you find a way to punch that deal through. By comparison, this is a much better deal for the city and state than Miller Park ever was.

(The ESPN/AP report’s headline is misleading: taxpayers may be responsible for up to half of the cost, should there be delays or cost overruns. The $500M figure, as I understand it, includes contingencies. There is public precedent for doing this kind of thing the right way; thousands of cars drive it every day. Another major public project, the reconstruction of I-94 and the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, was completed early and under budget, one of a scant few praises anyone should have for former governor Bingo Jim Doyle.)

Also, it merits mentioning that no one found it grundy-inducing for the Green Bay Packers to do extensive expansion and renovations to Lambeau Field on the public dime twice. What are the Packers, or the Milwaukee Brewers, that the Bucks aren’t?

Second, fully publicly financed stadiums and arenas have overwhelmingly been a poor ROI, I will concede that point. Private-public partnerships, though, have not been such a dramatic boondoggle on the whole, partially because of the built-in accountability that tends to come from direct oversight in a healthy business. Current Bucks ownership has streamlined and modernized the business and gone to considerable lengths in their pilot year to be good corporate citizens. There is no reason to think they would not be good stewards of this project as well.

Third, by keeping the Bucks, an unquestionably ascendant NBA team, it guarantees a continued draw of interest, bodies and money to Milwaukee, keeps a percentage of wealth in Wisconsin to be spent in Wisconsin, generating tax revenues to be used to support the community and state as a whole and, coincidentally, help retire the Miller Park tax/debt. This is as opposed to high-speed rail, which only facilitates travel en route from to B. A midpoint is not a destination, and if California’s rail debacle is any indication…well, let’s just try to avoid being like California government in any way, shape or form.

Finally, the model new developments such as this are following is Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which not only has assisted revitalizing KC’s downtown, but has regularly turned a profit (independent economic impact report available here, and yes, that is independent) for the city and stakeholders, all without a full-time tenant in the arena. The criticisms of these reports are your garden variety fallacies: question begging and poisoning the well. One gets the sense that as soon as Walker came on board, others jumped off, which is as short-sighted as it is foolish.

People are free and welcome to disagree with me on this; it is my hope that their reasons are offered in good faith and are worthy of the kinds of scrutiny the Bucks arena deal will be getting in upcoming days and weeks. I should be clear, again, that if there are problems with the agreement, I agree it must go back to the drawing board. Frankly, in an admittedly cursory review of the plan, I don’t see any.

After clearing those hurdles, though, it has to be a green light. A Good Land Green light.

brand name recognition

I was sent a link to a piece published earlier today by Pamela Harding to an open LinkedIn group about ‘personal brand’; you know, one of those nausea-inducing pieces of corporate jargon that only seems to serve to further commodify employees and applicants. It’s easy to roll the eyes and dismiss personal branding, just like ‘synergy’, ‘thinking outside the box’, or ‘working smarter, not harder’: one-sided power phrases that tend to be used to move the goalposts and little else.

While I still bristle at the term, there is something to be said for personal brand, and not merely within the sphere of the work- or market- place, but in life. As philosophy taught me, everything’s an argument. What is marketing, if it’s not a form of an argument, in this instance for a particular noun? And what is personal branding but a form of marketing, in this instance for one’s self?

Everything is marketing, from posting a LinkedIn profile to getting Freshly Pressed. And that’s OK; that’s how you get hired, find the right person for the job, develop friendships, find a mate or make a sale.

That said, branding qua branding is not enough: there is a necessary depth dimension that has to exist, lest that brand be connected to nothing at all. Harding shares a quote from Brian Fanzo that is particularly relevant to this point: “Social media won’t replace a handshake but social will provide you more handshakes and even change the first meeting from a handshake to a hug.” Where Fanzo is on point, it should be further noted that the connection between brand and interaction is not about mere physical presence, but relational intimacy, be it personal or professional (and there is such a thing as professional intimacy…and by that I don’t refer to workplace dalliance, either.)

Brand and presentation is about the possibility of closing gaps [social or physical proximity] and exposing vulnerabilities [intimacy]. A blog post, catchy phrase or jingle, an impressive resume, washboard abs or an hourglass figure may close gaps, but it’s what’s behind individual nouns that engages others. In a lot of ways, over seven years of writing here has undoubtedly closed gaps between myself and you, the reader. Someone who regularly reads my work necessarily has developed an intimate understanding of not just my work, but me myself, no different from having listened to and engaged in the catalog of a musician develops a level of intimacy with that musician. The brand is writing or song, whereas the product is the person behind them.

The distance between brand and product, then, is demonstrative of integrity: a predatory sale has a great brand, yet a most toxic product. A musician may write gushing songs about love and yet be abusive and violent. A church may preach Jesus and yet not show Jesus’ compassion or live out his teachings. A writer can put a bunch of words on a page yet say nothing at all. Brands draw, but quality keeps.

All of this comes back around to brand: who am I? What do I want someone to see? What is evident by my output? It’s not merely a marketing question, I’m not commodifying myself, it’s a philosophical question that ought to challenge me on every level. On my Twitter handle, BBM Channel and on the sailerb facebook page, it says ‘writer | thinker | daddy | husband | human’. Those are all extensions of me, as this blog is an extension of me, both part of my personal brand. Twitter is where I’m generally being goofy or pithy; the blog is where I try to keep my skills sharp.

Writer: The first thing someone sees of me online is my written output. It’s what I’ve been skilled at the longest and is what I want to be associated with professionally.

Thinker: What I hope is reflected by my written output is a dividend of the investment I put in academically: that the work is thoughtful and that I take every topic with intellectual and critical zeal. It doesn’t always work, but on the occasion that it doesn’t, it motivates me to be better at what I do, whatever it is I’m doing and wherever it is I happen to be doing it.

Daddy: The center of my existence are my girls. Relationships and experiences define who we are both by what we do and the communities in which we take part. My girls motivate me to be better in who I am.

Husband: The center of my existence would have not been possible without my spouse. Without her patience and support, I wouldn’t have a family, survived graduate school or any number of ordeals, including our current one. (wife is a girl, too, you know.)

Human: Beyond accomplishments or accolades or occupations, all we are is inspired, animated dust. It’s one thing to be incisive, intellectual or accomplished: it’s something quite different to live in a way that is complementary to the world and people around me. It motivates me to, however great or small, make the world–or, at least, my world–a better place.

This is my argument, this is my brand. I hope it reflects me, and I it. The only way I’ll ever know is through you.


A related postscript: I’m always grateful to you, the reader, for taking time to read my work. Whether you agree or disagree, want to offer feedback or comments or just say hello, you’re always welcome to do so in the comment section, by e-mail (see About the Proprietor) or on Twitter (@8sirvio) or through BBM (C001223C6). The idea is always to generate conversation and build relationships and understanding, or at least it should be.

Regardless, thank you for reading. Hope to hear from you soon.

h/t AF.

rolled over

Undoubtedly, if you’ve watched any of March Madness, you’ve seen this ad, featuring Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank venture capitalist Mark Cuban with one of the myriad AT&T ad characters these days, store supervisor Lily. If you haven’t, well, there you go.

I saw this ad countless times during my basketball four-day weekend and never gave it much thought…until tonight.

The spot came on and, for whatever reason, I was paying closer attention to the conversation. Mark Cuban, a successful businessman steeped in the tech sector, mentions that his family consumes a lot of mobile data while on vacation. Lily counters with AT&T’s new Rollover Data feature, where unused data can be carried over into the next billing cycle.

So AT&T’s answer to someone who has built an empire out of savvy deals and negotiations is…to offer his family a plan that will fail his family once they go on vacation?

First, let’s get the least plausible thing out of the way: there’s no way Mark Cuban is going to be in an AT&T store unless it’s a stunt like his one-day job managing a Dairy Queen in 2002. Second, a billionaire isn’t going to be concerned with his cell bill; in all likelihood, he has a special plan with unlimited everything and no throttling, and if he doesn’t, overages aren’t going to break him like they would you or me. When do you think Mark Cuban last looked at a cell phone bill?

So Lily offered a Cuban a plan that underdelivers to with a feature that will likely leave his family stuck at the original data point after tearing through all that data on vacation. Or, per the AT&T website:

Rollover Data is a benefit that we’ve introduced with our Mobile Share Value plans where unused data from your monthly plan allowance rolls over for one billing period.

Example: If you have our 15GB AT&T Mobile Share Value plan and only use 10GB, you’ll roll over 5GB (your Rollover Data balance) to the next month for a total of 20GB to be used within the next month. There’s no cap on the amount of unused plan data within a given month that’s eligible for rollover. However, Rollover Data automatically expires after one billing period, and unused Rollover Data won’t carry over to the next month.

She offered a potential high value client a plan on which his family won’t be able to even, ahem, capitalize? There’s no stockpiling data, you must use that data next month or it’s gone! This is OK for Mark Cuban? This is OK for you or me? I’ve worked in capacities that have happened to put me in direct contact with very, very wealthy people. Clients should be treated well and with integrity, regardless of status. That said, elite clients get elite treatment: at the very least be clear and upfront with them! No angles? Really, Lily? Really, AT&T?

This ad manages to:

…mislead–there are angles, AT&T, your website even admits as much by adding the #legal on to the URL…or, you know, by having restrictions via terms and conditions in the first place;

…present Lily like any number of sleazebag mall kiosk dwellers who reek of Axe body spray and will yell at you across the corridor, promising nearly anything for a sale (or worse, presents her as someone who doesn’t know what she’s selling or doing: /doe-eyed pouty face ‘I don’t think I have any angles…’)

…make Mark Cuban look foolish. I’ve seen him tear apart any number of naive chumps or possible hucksters on Shark Tank trying to pull something similar. The man didn’t rack up $3B by making poor and uninformed business decisions that weren’t in his best interest. He’s not stupid, and to think he signed off on doing this is puzzling at best. Cuban isn’t getting compensated in Rollover Data features, that’s for sure.

The Lily ads aren’t bad, but whoever green-lit this one should seriously be reconsidered. Paying attention, and the point of a good commercial is to get the audience to do just that, may cost AT&T more than the cost of 30 seconds’ prime airtime over (…and over…and over…) in both reputation and revenue.

a postscript to ‘what happened to the pentecostal evangel?’

Back on October 17, I posted What happened to the Pentecostal Evangel?, a think piece doing the work the publishers, the Assemblies of God, should have done months ago, but only officially announced in the November 30 issue: the Evangel is changing into an online format, PE News, and the publishing work is now going to be found in Vital, “a creative discipleship tool we believe will pave new ground in our fellowship and reach into the daily lives of its readers,” according to the press release published in the Evangel signed by General Superintendent George O. Wood.

Moving from weekly to bimonthly print publications saves a lot of overhead; there’s no doubt about that. Do yourself a favor, though, and search for ‘vital magazine’. In fact, I’ve done it for you.

Granted, a new publication isn’t going to be catapulted to the head of the list. There’s no track record, no traffic, nothing to give it that kind of cache. That said, wouldn’t someone, anyone, think that smart marketing might stay away from a oversaturated term like ‘vital’–which apparently covers demographics from senior adults to IT professionals to the LGBT community and, now, Pentecostals ‘Spirit-empowered people’?

Hey, you can’t mistake the Pentecostal Evangel with anything other than what it is. When you search for Nike, the top of the list isn’t going to include pages devoted to the mythological goddess. Isn’t a considerable part of building a strong brand having a unique identity? Is being identified Pentecostal not unique enough?

The Pentecostal Evangel is morphing to PE News. The new magazine replacing is Vital. Pentecostals are Spirit-empowered people.  Even the Assemblies of God logo has changed from this to this to, now, this. (The latter two have been changes within the past 15 years or so.)

Far be it from me to be someone who would lament the loss of that old-time religion or resistant to development (or, gag, change), but these moves are a deliberate step away from a distinctive sense of identity–and, necessarily, the concomitant doctrinal or theological orientations associated with it–and toward a deliberately ambiguous, middle-of-the-road milquetoast, generically Evangelical sense of self. (The AG has wanted to be accepted by the broader Evangelical community for a long time now. No one needs to change the Fundamental Truths to do it, either: we’ll call it the congressional precedent.) Has the Pentecostal title been trashed so badly that they had to move away from it? Are the statistics such that they feel the need to position themselves in a way that casts a wider net? Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’?

I suppose there’s a reason they refer to themselves as a movement.

And now, let’s quickly turn to Vital itself: giving credit where it’s due, they’ve already improved the beta version, but it’s still a cluttered mess of a layout (and in fairness, many major publications’ websites are an intuitive disaster) and bears a strong resemblance to another ambiguously Christian website. Christians aping one another’s ideas is nothing new, but still: if the goal is to confuse someone into thinking they’re somewhere they’re not, then mission accomplished. Make no mistake, though, this e-zine is, both implicitly and explicitly, designed for the subculture rather than catering to culture at large. Vital isn’t going to prison to reach anyone, even though the connection between A Psalm in my Heart and reaching ‘the lost’ is lost on me. (OK, OK, the Psalm in My Heart reference was a cheap shot. I apologize.) The evangelistic thrust of the Evangel, for better or worse, is gone in favor of an echo chamber in a world already chuck full of echo chambers.

This is the future, and it bodes well for no one.