How Not To Do An April Fool’s Joke

April fool’s passed this year, and in case any of you noticed, there were no april fools pranks on RateTea or any of my tea blogs.  I did prank one of my birder friends, claiming to have seen both a LeConte’s sparrow and a Henslow’s Sparrow in a Philadelphia city park (she believed me!).

LeConte's sparrows in habitat
LeConte’s sparrow, a very unusual, but possible species here in Philadelphia. A good example of about how esoteric something needs to be to make a good April Fool’s joke.  Photos from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But there was no big RateTea prank this year, nor last year, like the 2012 Teavana Buyout of RateTea April Fools Prank.

The Best And The Worst April Fool’s Joke

My 2012 fake post about RateTea being bought out by Teavana was simultaneously the best and worst April Fool’s joke I’ve ever pulled off.  It was the best, in that I “got” more people than I’ve ever gotten before, with the prank.  But it wasn’t necessarily the best, because it may have caused RateTea some harm.

To understand why it could have done some harm, I first need to explain why it was such a “good” joke, why I tricked so many people.  The main reason was due to a basic fact that happens on the internet with nearly every blog post or news article: many people read the headline, but most people didn’t read the post.

I don’t know exactly how many people read the headline, but my best guess is that it was in the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, because the post itself got about 250 views, and click-through-rates on articles as low as 1% are quite common…so it is very likely that as many as 25,000 or more people saw the headline.  Most of these people formed a mental association, taking note: “Oh, RateTea was bought out by Teavana.”

Years later, I’m still talking to people who saw that headline, didn’t read the post, and still believe that RateTea was bought out by Teavana.  These people include old friends and acquaintances, people I haven’t kept in touch with, but who loosely keep in touch in the sense of occasionally scanning my Facebook posts.  These people also include people in the tea industry.  At the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival this year, and at World Tea East last year, I encountered numerous tea people who also had been tricked by that April Fool’s joke.

How could this hurt me?  Because many people don’t like Teavana.

One thing that I found interesting was that many people reacted positively when they learned that my post had been a joke.  People also expressed a greater desire to work together with me, after learning that I still owned and managed RateTea.

A large Teavana sign over the New York Stock Exchange
Teavana is a big corporation, which many people don’t have the most favorable impression of.  Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

I’ve heard numerous people complain about Teavana, on many different grounds.  Most people who have set foot in a brick-and-mortar Teavana store have experienced their pushy sales tactics first hand.  Yes, I’ve been to that exact store, in Willow Grove, PA, referenced in that post; it’s quite near where I live.  But then there is also the buying out and closing down of SpecialTeas (one of my friends, a former loyal SpecialTeas customer, is still shopping around to replace some of the products he used to buy from SpecialTeas), and there’s the general issue of being overpriced, something that nearly all tea connoisseurs seem to agree on.

And then there’s just the question of Teavana’s size.  I get the sense that, all other things equal, people prefer to work with smaller companies.  A lot of businesspeople I know have expressed that working with big corporations can involve a lot of headaches, roadblocks, and hoops to jump through, and the payoffs aren’t always worth it.  And people like to work with people with whom they have a personal connection.

Some Positive Takeaways Too

The impact of this prank was certainly not strictly negative–there may also be some ways that I have benefited by people falsely believing about the Teavana-RateTea buyout.  I think there is a degree to which people may reason: “If this site is big enough to be bought out by Teavana, it must have a certain degree of influence and importance.” and this impression could certainly benefit RateTea.

And of course, there’s also the inspiration and boost in my confidence, just knowing that so many people could believe that the site was bought out by Teavana–which confirms to me that most people now have an impression of RateTea being big and influential enough to be bought out by a company like Teavana.  That makes me feel good, at least, and provides some additional encouragement to keep working on the site.

Lessons Learned?

In the past few years, I’ve come to learn a lot about how the internet works, and also, how to pull off a really great April fool’s joke.  Next time I get people on this large a scale, I want to be more careful.

I want to pick a headline, an idea, which will cause only good to come, and do no harm, not to me or to anyone, if people are tricked into believing it.

What do you think?

  • Are you one of the people who I tricked with the April fool’s prank about RateTea being bought out by Teavana?
  • Have you ever pulled off an April fool’s prank that you think inadvertently caused some harm by people believing your joke?
  • How do you feel about Teavana as a company, vs. RateTea?  Regardless of whether or not you knew about the original prank, do you think that you’d be any more or less eager to work together with RateTea, knowing that I still own and manage the site, and not Teavana or some other bigger corporation?

Harvest, Packing, or Expiration Dates on Boxed and Packaged Teas

One thing that I think is a really great idea, and that I’m surprised is not universal, is the idea of putting expiration dates on teas.  Here is a box of Prince of Peace Organic White Peony tea, clearly showing an expiration date:

Back of a box of tea bags, showing an expiration date, circled in red
Prince of Peace is one brand that puts expiration dates on their teas.

It’s pretty obvious why an expiration date is important.  At the risk of earning the label “Captain Obvious” as some of my friends have called me, I want to state that tea doesn’t stay fresh forever, and if a company doesn’t put an expiration date on their product, they risk people buying (and drinking) a product that is not fresh, and not liking it.  This can alienate potential customers who might have been impressed with the tea if only it were fresh.  Captain obvious or not, I’m amazed at how many companies don’t print any dates on their tea.

Lot Number

The box here also shows a lot number.  This can be useful if responding to customer inquiries.  Displaying the lot number shows a commitment to a certain level of quality control, because a lot number is often necessary (and at a minimum, very helpful) for troubleshooting a bad or spoiled batch of tea when responding to customer complaints.

Packing Date is Better Than an Expiration Date

Ahmad Tea, one of my favorite brands, does an even better job than what is shown above…they not only list an expiration date but show the packing date as well.  I think this is more important or useful, because I don’t necessarily know how each company decided on an expiration date–it could easily be arbitrary.  Showing both demonstrates freshness and also communicates how long you expect the product to stay fresh.  Given how inexpensive Ahmad Tea is, I think there is no excuse for other companies to not print the packing date on their boxes.  If Ahmad can do it, nearly anyone can.

Lastly, I want to say that I think a gold standard, which I have seen with some companies, is to list both harvest date and packing date.  This is probably only practical for single-origin teas, but it’s something I love seeing and I encourage any company able to list this info to do so.

Date-Stamp Each Tea Bag When Bags are Individually Sealed

As much as I don’t like increasing resource usage in society, I think that stamping individual tea bags is one expenditure that would be worth it.  I also think that, when I look at the showy and involved packaging and print on tea bags, a basic stamp of the date would be a relatively inexpensive addition to the printing and packing process.

The fact is, many people don’t keep teas in their original packaging; they empty the original boxes into another box or basket, and they frequently trade individual tea bags with each other.  Several of my friends who are casual enthusiasts of bagged tea, keep big baskets or cupboards full of tea bags of all different brands.  Very few of the tea bags are stamped with dates; you can look at the wear and tear on the bag to get a rough guess at its age, but that’s about the best you can do.

I actually have a basket myself of tea bags that I’ve been sampling and sharing with other local reviewers on RateTea, and I checked through them and not one of them has an expiration date stamped on the bag.

I have seen an expiration date stamped on a tea bag before; it was actually recently, and it was what inspired the thinking that led to this post, but I’m blanking on the specific brand.  Looking through my tea cupboard, I was able to find, however, a single-serving loose-leaf tea packet, recently given to me by Evan Draper, which has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date because it is from last year and the tea is very fresh:

Single-serving loose tea packet with chinese characters and a date stamped on it
This single-serving loose tea packet has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date.

This tea, incidentally, was very yummy…bitter and grassy and very fresh…not the sort usually preferred by mainstream tastes in the U.S., but definitely the sort that I like.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts and feelings about harvest, packing, and expiration dates!

  • Do you think packing date is more important than expiration date?
  • Have you ever brewed tea from a sealed tea bag, and wondered how old it was?
  • Do you think it would be worth it for companies that sell individually-sealed tea bags to stamp packing or expiration dates on each tea bag, or does this seem like overkill?

Jumping the Gun – Companies Self-Promoting on the Web Without A Functional Website

Today I’m writing about something I see surprisingly often, a form of “jumping the gun” when it comes to marketing, that yields wasted effort and can even form a negative impression of your company.  The way I most often see this manifest is when a company promotes itself through social media or even outreach to other webmasters, before it has a functional website.

I do not believe that tea companies need to have a website in order to be successful.  I wrote some time ago about tea companies without websites.  But I think that if you are engaging in web marketing or social media networking, and especially if you’re giving out the URL of your website, it is jumping the gun to do so without having a functional website.

One example of this sort of wasted promotion

Today someone followed me on twitter, and they had a URL listed in their twitter profile.  When I followed it, it led to a parked domain on GoDaddy, displaying the following page:

Screenshot of a Godaddy parked domain

Clearly, this website isn’t up yet.

This is hardly the first time this has happened…I see this happen surprisingly often.  It seems like a big waste of effort.  When someone follows me on twitter, especially if it’s a tea company or other user with a direct interest in or relationship to tea, and I don’t know them or their website, I nearly always check out their website.  In some cases, a new user merely following me has sparked me to research their company and add it to RateTea.

When people follow me and they have a broken link, I feel like it’s wasting my time and I think it sends me the message that they are jumping the gun like I described above.

Another example of jumping the gun

A while back, I added a new tool to RateTea that allows tea companies to submit a brand application to list themselves on the company.  You can find it at the bottom of the brands page on RateTea, and here’s a direct link.  The idea was for me to streamline the process for listing new brands on the site–allowing companies to format the information I want to show on the site, in a format that makes it easy for me to quickly add them.  The goal is for it to save me time, and also get the brands listed quicker, which benefits the companies being listed.

Several companies have already used this successfully, and I’ve added them.

I’ve been sorely disappointed though, with the typical use of this form.  It’s not that people are submitting overt spam in the form, so much as that they’re submitting incomplete applications, or applications for companies that aren’t even launched and don’t have a functional website.

For example, today a company submitted an application which was almost completely empty, providing no information about the company beyond its name, website URL, twitter handle, and Facebook page, and the fact that it was based in China.  When I followed the URL to check out the page, I found the website wasn’t even up yet, and it just had a few Chinese characters redirecting to a Google+ page.  This is a waste of my time, and it makes a negative impression on me.  It’s clear to me that the person did not follow the instructions on the page.

This is probably the worst example of behavior I’ve seen in using this form, but I’ve found that the norm is for companies to not fill the form out completely.  The questions I ask on the form are very basic: where is the company located?  Who owns the company?  If a business owner or representative of the business is not forthcoming about these basic questions about their company, I don’t see why I would want to list them on RateTea.  I am cautious of listing companies that aren’t real tea companies, i.e. sites that make money off affiliate links (I saw one “tea company” just “reselling” Teavana teas through affiliate links) or operations that just drop-ship from other companies.  To me, a lack of openness about ownership and location send up red flags and make me suspicious.

Even if the company in question isn’t suspicious, it’s a missed marketing opportunity.  I ask questions about the location, ownership, and history of a company because I want to highlight the company.  I want to share interesting facts and details and write a captivating mini-story about the company, and share these things with an audience of people interested in learning about the company.

When people don’t fill out the form, it makes me think that they’re not prioritizing effectively–they’re cutting corners to get the company listed quicker, and passing on an opportunity to talk more about their business in such a way that will benefit them much more in the long-run, by making it seem more personal, captivating, and appealing.

What do I recommend instead of jumping the gun?

My recommendation for best practices is simple–hold off on marketing until you have a working website.  It doesn’t have to be the most extensive website, it doesn’t even have to be fully-featured.  A basic placeholder page with basic information about your business, perhaps a contact form and about page, is much better than a parked domain, broken link, or referral to a Google+ or Facebook page.  If your web development is complex and involved, but you’re really itching to promote your company on the web, then whip up a quick, bare-bones site to start, and then make the full site come later.  But don’t market on the web without any website at all!

What do you think?

Have you ever seen companies jump the gun in web marketing, promoting a website or distributing materials with its URL, before the website is up and functional?  Do you think that this represents a missed opportunity, and can harm the company?

  • Have you ever seen companies jump the gun in web marketing, promoting a website or distributing materials with its URL, before the website is up and functional?
  • Do you think that this represents a missed opportunity, and can harm the company?
  • Do you think that the practice of creating a very simple, bare-bones website, doing promoting, and then rolling out the elaborate, full-featured website later is a good approach, or do you think that’s still jumping the gun?  Do you agree that that’s at least better than having no website at all?
  • How do you feel when you follow a link to a dedicated domain, only to find it redirects to a social media page like a Facebook or Google+ account?  Does this seem like jumping the gun, or do you think this can be a valid model of business or marketing?
  • Are you suspicious of companies that don’t identify basic business information, like location, ownership, and history of the company?