Blog & Podcast

Lobster Trap Business Tactics

I recently signed up for a trial subscription of The Boston Globe. I don’t want to continue my service, so I visited the Boston Globe website and signed into my account to cancel the renewal. But of course, that would be too easy.

Try as I may, there was no way to cancel my subscription via The Globe’s account settings page.

So I resorted to using Google. I searched for “unsubscribe from the boston globe” and the first link brought me to a page that said:

We accept cancellations for digital and home delivery subscriptions by phone only.

Why does The Boston Globe accept cancellations only over the phone? The answer is of course because they want to give you the hard sell before they let you go. “Get another six months for only $5.99″ or maybe “For just $19.99 you can get 12 weeks of the Sunday edition along with a tote bag.”

This is, of course, an awful customer experience. Similar to the song and dance you go through every 12 to 24 months to bring your cable bill back down to the introductory subscriber rate. We all hate these phone calls.

The Globe also realizes this, in fact, they are counting on it. Our hatred of these call means we’re unlikely to make these unpleasant phone calls to begin with. Essentially, The Boston Globe is forcing you to make a calculation: do I spend 10 minutes having an unpleasant conversation, or just fork over another $4.99?

But this means there are no longer in the business of selling newspaper, instead, they’re holding your credit card information ransom at the bar end of an annoying and degrading phone call.

This practice is not unique to The Boston Globe, in fact, is become all too common in the newspaper business. It’s become so common, it’s one of the reasons why consumers are hesitant to subscribe to any newspaper. They assume it’s a lobster trap—it’s easy to get in but it’s almost impossible to get out.

This practice violates one of the four credibility factors identified by the Nielsen Norman Group’s Jakob Nielsen. That factor is called “upfront disclosure.” I find this to be awkward phrasing, but it’s a way of stressing not only being honest, but also totally open and straightforward with website users. This means not omitting key information, no fine print, no tacking on fees or extra charges, and it especially means making it easy to cancel your account or delete your data.

A “cancel by phone only” policy doesn’t even pass the sniff test.

By contrast, The Washington Post makes changing your account incredibly simple. By logging into their website you can cancel your account, suspend your account, change your payment options, or do anything else that a consumer would expect to be able to do on any modern, non-hostile website.

Similarly, Google has worked hard to fight against the perception that it is a lobster trap for data by making it easy for consumers to permanently delete accounts and personal information. I can recall when this was started many years ago by an internal Google effort called the “Data Liberation Front.” This group worked as an internal evangelist team dedicated to the notion that users should be able to control their data, which included deleting it entirely.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it makes sense that consumers are more likely to use the entrance to your product if there are clearly marked exits.

We should all audit our own businesses for practices similar to this. You may not be doing something as blatant as the Boston Globe’s policy, but you may be making it harder for customers to leave, thereby making it less attractive for new customers to enter into a new relationship with you.

One practice we’ve identified in our own business is web hosting. Even though we support it for a few legacy accounts, we no longer offer hosting to any of our clients. That’s because we never want clients to feel like they have to continue with us because we are holding their website hostage. So even though it may take longer for both us and the client to set up web hosting under their own name, we find it’s worth the greater upfront costs to give our clients a greater sense of security and the feeling of true ownership over their own sites.

We want clients to know that they can walk away from us at any time. It’s always better for each client engagement to stand on its own merits and not to be influenced by long-term contracts or other hostile business practices. That way every engagement has a clear sense of mutual benefit, rather than lamentable obligation.

We never want to plant the seed of doubt in a client’s mind as to whether they are staying with us because our work is good or because we have some leverage over them.

Long-term customer relationships are not built on “cancel by phone only” policies. That’s the kind of tactic employed by a jealous boyfriend, not a self-confident business.

So be confident in what you provide to clients or customers, and leave the lobster traps to fishermen in Maine.

Against Discount Hosting

Modern specialized hosting offers users automatic software updates, daily backups, one-click restore of those backups, and additional security focused around the specific CMS (like WordPress or Drupal) the hosting supports. Services like WP Engine, Pantheon, or Flywheel also offer realtime chat support, setting them further apart from their discount counterparts that usually offer slow-response ticket system or outsourced phone support.

All of this is available for between $20 and $30 a month in most cases, which may seem like a lot compared to $10 discount hosting, but that discount comes at a steep cost.

Essentially, discount hosting is like buying your child a goldfish—you’re setting yourself up for tragedy and heartache. That’s because your discount hosting is bound to result in one of three things:

  • Site breach because of out-of-date, vulnerable software
    • This could mean defacement of your site, causing embarrassment
    • This could also mean data theft, alienating your customers
  • Data loss because of a software update gone wrong or user error
  • Software slowly becoming incompatible with un-updated server software

Site breaches are more common than you might think and don’t require your site to be an explicit target. That’s because most website attacks are carried out by automated bots, programs that scour the web looking for outdated sites running software with known vulnerabilities. These bots some deface website for lulz, fill them with spam links to sell fake Louis Vuitton handbags, or steal customer data, often to spam them. None of these are great realities for your business to face, especially when these problems can happen anytime, including when you need your website to be collecting leads, displaying your work, taking donations, or otherwise serving a vital business function.

Data loss is very common for modern websites that have no backups and can happen for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most common is a simple user error. With so many people in an organization editing websites that employ modern content management systems like WordPress or Drupal, pages and posts can find themselves deleted by mistake. Though these systems employ trashcans or some other metaphor that prevents immediate and irreparable deletion, we find that clients somehow find a way to delete data permanently all the same. Having some way of rolling back deletes outside of the system, provides an additional layer of insurance.

Software updates can also cause data loss when an error happens during the update process. This is why we back up our clients’ sites before we apply any patch or update and always test after an update is applied. This is just a good common-sense procedure but is unavailable with discount hosts that offer no backup process.

The most common problem is software slowly aging underneath your updated CMS. Websites run on layers, or “stacks,” of software, each supporting the next layer. Websites running Drupal or WordPress, for example, rely on Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP or a variation of those basic layers to support the CMS. Discount hosts don’t keep these layers updated for you, which means that after as little as a month has passed, your site is running on outdated software. When major version changes occur, such as the recent switchover from PHP 5.6 to PHP 7.2, websites running on older underlying software break down.

So you have to ask yourself if discount hosting is really worth it. Is it worth all this trouble? Is it worth allowing your website to be vulnerable to attack, running without a backup, or slowly becoming more and more out-of-date?

If you cannot justify spending an additional $250 a year to prevent these outcomes, then you either have to readjust the way to calculate the return on investment (ROI) your website provides, or you should consider shutting down your site.

If your website is capturing leads or sales, processing donations, generating media attention that lead to sales or donations, or creating some other quantifiable benefit, then it’s simply a matter of whether or not it creates more than $240 worth of value. Given that low, low figure, the answer to this is usually a no-brainer.

But if you do have a hobby site, or you’re starting a fledgling business that really needs to pinch every penny, you’re best off using an all-in-one hosted services like Squarespace or These services are usually priced pretty similarly to discount hosting but don’t have any of the disadvantages of having to maintain a server. They are essentially like premium, platform-specific hosts but are even more integrated. Their primary disadvantage is that they offer a one-size-fits-all solution that can’t be customized or can only be customized in limited, superficial ways, but that’s probably an acceptable trade-off when you’re just starting out.

TLDR: leave discount, self-managed hosting to nerds who can maintain their own machines. You need something that is maintained for you. At a $240 annual premium over the discount offerings, these services simply offer too good a value to be turned down. If your website generates any value at all for your business, it’s worth it to have the peace-of-mind and avoid the interruptions that come with leaving your website vulnerable.

Get Out of the Office and Meet Your Audience

In my interview with Brian Phillips of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, we covered a lot of ground, but one of the last things he shared stuck in my mind. It’s something simple and something you’ve heard before, but some simple and oft-repeated things warrant yet more repeating when they are also willfully ignored. Phillips said:

One of the things I tell my staff all the time—or at least the analysts around here—is “there’s no such thing as the general public.” We used to ask all of our analysts—they would write an op-ed or they would have an idea for an op-ed or they’d write something and I’m getting through it—and I’m like, “Who’s this for? Who is our audience here?”

“Oh, it’s for the general public.”

I’m like, “Well, if you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one.”

How is Phillips solving this problem with his team? They’re leaving the office and meeting their audience.

Cody Library, San Antonio, Texas

Cody Library, San Antonio, Texas (Texas Public Policy Foundation)

Texas Public Policy Foundation has been taking their show on the road, touring the great state of Texas meeting with 100 or 200 people at a time. This gives them a platform to share their message about good public policy, but more importantly, to listen to the people they meet. Phillips highlighted the importance of this early in our discussion:

You can talk about property tax all you want or spending or budget, but to actually hear somebody talk about the issues they’re having—between the property taxes going up every year and making it difficult for them to save for the future or pay for college or even put food on the table—those are really, really important stories that we as policymakers or even researchers need to hear.

How do Phillips and his team know who their audience is? Because they’ve looked them in the face and heard their concerns.

Again, is this wisdom anything new? No, but so few people execute on this truth. You have to know your audience, but it’s easier to stay in the office and write op-eds for other policy wonks.

By listening to his audience, Phillips is also ensuring his message is being heard. It’s counterintuitive to some, but listening shows that you respect your audience. When people feel respected, they’re more open to listening. As Phillips put it:

Going into those communities, it says that your voice is important, your feedback is important, this community is important.

TPPF is giving so much deference to the audience they are trading the typical policy wonk presentation for a town-hall-style Q&A. Each presenter is limited to 10 minutes of speaking time and allowed only 3 slides as part of their presentation. 30 to 40 minutes of each event is reserved for answering questions from the audience.

That Q&A helps to expose what’s working and what’s not working in the presentations. During their post-game analysis of each event, TPPF staff talk about what could have gone better, how the message can be shifted, how they can come at an issue from a better angle to get at the heart of what matters to people.

Phillips says history working in political campaigns has helped him be frank in his feedback:

You identify stories that work and that don’t work. I’ve been doing communications and critiquing candidates and things like that for a long time. So, I don’t have any problem going up to people and saying, “Hey, that story didn’t work,” or “When you said it this way, I think people are misinterpreting what you mean. Let’s fix it.”

Along with this feedback at the ground-level, Phillips and TPPF are making use of polling to get a macro sense of the public policy debate in Texas. This helps them avoid costly errors, like pushing a message to an audience that you might assume is sympathetic to your cause, but doesn’t care about the issue as much as another audience might:

We found that on the property tax issue, the urban centers were really where that issue resonated, and then not so much in the rural areas. So, don’t spend a lot of money going and talking to middle of nowhere West Texas about property tax because they just don’t think it’s an issue. Go into urban Austin or Houston and have that issue. If we’re going to do an event out there in West Texas, don’t bring your property tax guy. Bring your education guy or bring somebody to talk about property rights or something like that because they really care about these issues.

So while polling is costly—Phillips quoted a figure of $1500 per questions for state-wide issue polls—it’s also expensive to give the wrong message to the wrong message over and over again.

Not using polling before you launch a major public policy campaign because you “can’t afford it” seems to make as much sense as not using an architect/engineer before you build a building because you “can’t afford it.” You’re saving money in the near term only to have a project fall apart in the long term. The only difference between a policy campaign and a building is that it’s painfully obvious when a building has fallen apart. Builders can’t hide behind lame excuses. Neither should you.

If cost is really a concern, Phillips suggests using Facebook as a quick way to get feedback and help your audience guide your messaging:

It’s a really cheap and dirty way to test engagement over, especially because you can change the message so quickly. If something is not working within the first two or three or four hours, and you’re not having at least your typical results on your post, then you can change it out.

Based on my conversation with Brian Phillips here are some key takeaways for public policy organizations:

  1. Writing without an audience in mind is a waste of time
  2. Take your message to your audience in-person wherever possible
  3. Listen to your audience and adjust your messaging based on what you hear
  4. Use polling or some other form of testing as a tool to help you launch a campaign and adjust as you go

Whether you hold a forum, do an AMA on Reddit, post question to people on Facebook or Twitter, or conduct a national poll, you need to be asking your audience questions that will help you hone your message. If you’re not doing this, if you’re only talking at people rather than listening to them and adjusting based on feedback, you can be as right as right can be on policy and your message will go nowhere.

Use Brian Phillips and the Texas Public Policy Foundation as your example and start engaging with your audience today.

Brian Phillips, Texas Public Policy Foundation

This week Cord interviewed Brian Phillips, the Vice President for Communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Cord & Brian discussed launching a policy tour of Texas, integrating polling into your organization, and how TPPF took on a recent property tax reform effort.

Policy Tour

  • Bringing political campaign experience to the policy world
  • How TPPF took its show on the road and toured Texas with policy experts.
  • Getting local or state press to cover events focused on policy
  • How TPPF chooses a venue, format, and subject for each of its policy tour stops
  • Inviting a state rep to these stops to increase audience engagement
  • Streaming events live
  • Limiting analysts to only three slides for their presentations
  • Critiquing presentations after the facts and continuously improving
  • How to plan a tour like this
  • Managing town-hall-style presentations
  • Money, manpower, and message
  • Offering an exclusive to local papers
  • Using polling to measure the effectiveness of the tour

Polling & Messaging

  • Writing poll questions that tell you something useful, rather than confirming your priors
  • Digging into polling cross tabs to find out where an issue is resonating or with what group of people
  • Integrating polling and messaging into your organization
  • Using Facebook for quick-and-dirty message testing
  • Selling policy experts on changing messaging by using data

Property Tax Reform Campaign

  • Policy issue campaigns are all about following the issue, reacting to news, and nuturing the messaging along the way
  • Phases: public education, creating activitists, mobilizing activitists
  • Polling helped to establish the “intensity” of this issue for voters
  • Polling also showed that any reform needed to result in lower taxes, not just slowed tax growth or a different arrangement
  • Creating a property tax calculator that would show voters their tax bill for the next 10 years
  • Crafting poll questions to get real data, not just virtue signaling
  • How releasing the results of a poll shifted the nature of the property tax reform plan
  • Getting started with polling by using it on an issue where you’re simply stuck

Brian’s book recommendation: Damage Control (Revised & Updated): The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management by Eric Dezenhall.

Brian shouts-out Illinois Policy Institutes‘s news-focused approach to policy and the Foundation for Government Accountability‘s communication’s team as great examples of successes in marketing good public policy.

Brian also advocated trying new things, even if those things are only new to you. R&D can mean “rip-off and duplicate.”

Parting wisdom: there’s no such thing as “the general public.” You must have an audience in mind with everything you write or create.

Please remember to rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts, follow Tallest Tree Digital on Twitter, like our page on Facebook, and share this show with other public policy marketing and communications professionals like you.

Daniel T. Richards, The Federalist Society

This week Cord interviewed Daniel T. Richards, the Vice President & Director of Digital at The Federalist Society. Cord & Daniel discussed three FedSoc projects: the SCOTUS Brief video series, the “No. 86” educational project, and the National Lawyers Convention.


  • Changing style, rather than content, to increase engagement and get viewers to watch a video all the way through
  • Managing a video release schedule and consulting with subject matter experts on content creation
  • How FedSoc measures the success of this video project
  • How-to use targeting in ads, including geotargeting ads at 150 law schools, to focus on your core audience

No. 86

  • Why create an online educational series?
  • How FedSoc uses student chapters and direct outreach to professors, even hostile professors, to promote courses
  • Planning a project of this size and selecting the next courses to create
  • Creating a release schedule that maximizes organic reach
  • Using internal producers along with subcontractors like Phaedo Creative to create the videos themselves

National Lawyers Convention

  • What do marketers do when a conference is already hugely successful?
  • Making a conference beautiful and emotionally engaging
  • The importance of high-quality photography and hiring a professional photographer
  • Using lighting, backdrops, and 4k video to make an event video look great
  • Livestreaming and why FedSoc abandoned the idea of putting event videos behind a paywall
  • How to use simple things like hashtags to promote an event
  • Using “tweetboards” or a hashtag printer to get event attendees excited about sharing
  • Using a photo backdrop to create your own red-carpet-style photo ops
  • Scheduling interviews with event attendees
  • Getting footage of attendees talking about your events, talking about issues, talking about your organization so you can update a general about your org video, update fundraising videos, or use in future video projects
  • Using Airtable and Zapier to keep everything on-track

If you work in the Washington, DC area, contact Daniel via email or on Twitter to RSVP for the next FedSoc rooftop marketing meetup.

Please remember to rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts, follow Tallest Tree Digital on Twitter, like our page on Facebook, and share this show with other public policy marketing and communications professionals like you.

Todd Myers, Washington Policy Center

This week Cord interviewed Todd Myers, Director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy and the author of Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment.

Cord & Todd talked about:

  • How to establish trust when working on a fraught issue
  • Overcoming biases
  • Working in a policy area that’s not easily quantified
  • Using smartphones to solve coordinated action problems
  • Find the right venue or audience for the issue you’re addressing
  • Making a frenemy into an ambassador
  • Challenging claims about your motivations
  • When to use consultants
  • Finding success on Facebook
  • The importance of experimentation
  • Working with unlikely allies
  • Hosting a policy nature hike
  • Holding a debate instead of a one-side forum

Todd’s book recommendation was Brian Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Please remember to rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts, follow Tallest Tree Digital on Twitter, like our page on Facebook, and share this show with other public policy marketing and communications professionals.

Whitney Munro, Foundation for Government Accountability

This week Cord interviewed Whitney Munro of the Foundation for Government Accountability. Whitney and Cord covered a lot of topics, including:

  • Micro-targeting state legislators
  • Message testing with real voters
  • Building profiles of website visitors/email readers
  • How to pronounce “Pardot”
  • Collecting feedback from your target audience
  • Telling human stories about policy
  • Choosing software platforms based on what they can deliver, rather than something that is “built for non-profits”
  • Adopting successful business strategies
  • Auditing campaigns
  • The importance of letting go of bad ideas on moving on
  • Why the Institute for Justice and the Atlas Network are killing it right now

Please remember to rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts, follow Tallest Tree Digital on Twitter, like our page on Facebook, and share this show with other public policy marketing and communications professionals like you.

Rob Montz, We the Internet TV

Rob Montz is a fellow at the Moving Picture Institute, a director at We the Internet TV, and co-founder and CEO of Good Kid Productions. His work has been featured in the New York Times, BBC World News, the Economist, USA Today, and The Washington Post. His documentary works have covered topics including free speech on college campuses, the North Korean regime, criminal justice reform, and the virtues of entrepreneurship.

Rob talked to Cord about his most recent documentary is entitled “Trump as Destiny: Why the Reality Show Presidency Was Inevitable.”

Scott Barton, Pacific Legal Foundation

Scott Barton is a nonprofit leader focused on digital communications, strategy, persuasion, and building entrepreneurial teams, which makes him a perfect guest for our show.

While working at the Institute for Humane Studies, a university-based nonprofit, Scott co-founded and directed the Learn Liberty project, a digital education platform to promote the ideas of free markets and individual liberty to college students. Scott helped Learn Liberty build an impressive library of over 400 videos with over 25 million views.

Scott has recently taken his talents to a new home, the Pacific Legal Foundation, where he serves as the Director of Communications and Outreach. Scott talked to Cord about how organizations can tell persuasive stories about their ideas, mission, and work.

The Three Languages of Politics

This great interview is part of the incomparable EconTalk series from Russ Roberts, of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In this episode, Roberts interviews Arnold Kling, author of The Three Languages of Politics, about why human beings so often talk past one another when discussing politics and policy.

Kling posits that conservatives, progressives, and libertarians plot things along three different axis, civilization/barbarism, oppressor/oppressed, and freedom/coercion respectively.

It’s because of these three different ways of analyzing or evaluating issues that that three camps in American politics don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s not that they disagree on whether something is a problem, it’s that they don’t even speak the same language about problems and solutions.

Tallest Tree believes in approaching the marketing or selling or ideas in a problem-oriented way, so this insight is significant. If a given policy is solving a lack-of-freedom problem, but creating a too-little-civilization problem or a too-much-oppression problem, or is at least perceived to be causing those, then the problem-solving approach is only going to win over one of those three camps.

Listening to this podcast, and reading Kling’s book, is a must for anyone interesting in creating coalitions of more than one of the three political ideologies that Kling discusses.