Being Right vs. The Right Outcome

beginners-mindIn most businesses confidence is held up as a critical tool to selling one’s services or self. ‘Customers want to see confidence’, as the saying goes. There is truth to this. No one would hire a mechanic who looked under the hood and seemed unsure of what he was looking at.

But confidence is a tool that requires a delicate hand because blunt use usually undermines the desired effect. Up to a point, displays of confidence create comfort that one is working with a knowledgeable professional entity or individual. However, cross a certain line and confidence creates conflict. This happens when confidence settles into a mindset concerned foremost with its rightness. This is called having a Fixed Mind.

A Fixed Mind, as the Zen folks say, becomes like a full tea cup with no room for adding anything new. When one becomes fixed in position, and absolutely sure of one’s self, conversations become debates about the rightness of established perceptions rather than the discovery of means to the right outcomes. Innovation is suppressed in favor of rationalization (even if the arguments themselves are often emotional and irrational).

Take renewable energy for example. There are many reasons for – and benefits of -renewable energy. Yet the Liberal left feels inclined to convince the Conservative right that the earth is heating up and that we need to convert to renewables to save the planet – a premise many Conservatives simply don’t hold to be true.

In politics as elsewhere, upon collision with dissenting opinion, the Fixed Mind tends to fall back on one of two techniques in an attempt to establish its rightness:

  1. It drums up an avalanche of carefully curated examples or data to support its point. (This is easy enough to do in an age of plentiful, if questionable, information.)
  2. It becomes louder, more assertive and sometimes even aggressive in an attempt to drown out dissenting opinions.

The first tangible sign of a Fixed Mind blockage is the subtle sense that parties stop listening to one another for anything other than exploitable holes in the (now seen as an) opponent’s argument.  Conversation starts to disintegrate into point-and-counter-point jabbing as volume escalates. Sometimes it even descends into a full-fledged shouting match – which is not a bad way to characterize today’s political discourse.

If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is burying you in hand-selected facts or bludgeoning you with aggressive “confidence” displays its safe to assume that there is no real option for mutual benefit or collaborative advancement at that point.  You are no longer engaged in finding the best outcome, you are fighting over rightness with a Fixed Mind.

Unfortunately left unchecked the Fixed Mind’s approach of brute force, escalated voice, data carpet bombing and overblown assertiveness have exactly the opposite effect of the confidence-building being sought. While the bludgeoner may think they have “won”, what is usually happening is the other party is shutting down. They have stopped listening, given up on seeking the right outcome and instead have changed to seeking a different outcome – doing whatever it takes to make the noise stop.

The destructive effect here reaches beyond the problem – which now has the limitation of only one perspective, the bludgeoner’s.  In the process of steamrolling his/her opinion over everyone else, the aggressor has also begun to label themselves as someone to avoid because they appear incapable of true collaboration. So this person or party, who may well bring useful talents to the table, has suddenly put themselves in a position where it is advantageous for others to navigate around them when seeking true collaborative partnership.

Untethering the Fix Mind.
So how does one avoid the inevitable stalemate and destructive aftermath that happens with brute, “I’m right and here’s why…” confidence displays?

Begin by setting aside the the need to be right and focusing instead on achieving the right outcome. When the goal changes to outcomes, one is able to see other options and listen with a more open mind because the personal stake is not pinned to individual rightness but rather collective success. One can also allow small skirmishes to be “lost” in favor of larger victories down the line.

Using the renewable energy example again, one way to engage a Conservative person might be to position renewable energy as a means of reducing cost, or supporting American free-market innovation, or even as an engine for jobs-of-the-future creation. These are ideas that Conservatives tend to champion. Whether someone buys solar panels to green the earth, save $500, or as a patriotic act, shouldn’t matter to the advocate of renewable energy if the outcome they seek is to have people use more renewable power. Seen this way, suddenly proving that the science of the Liberal agenda is right really doesn’t matter, which gives the Conservative side one less thing to fight over. So the discussion moves forward.

Any savvy salesman learns early on that when you are discussing an idea with someone it is easier to ‘sell it’ if it is framed in the context of the other party’s outlook. Why wouldn’t collaboration – which is the same dynamic interaction between people – not benefit from a similar empathetic approach? Salesmen who only talk about themselves don’t close many deals. And even a neophyte salesman knows that if a conversation is allowed to get to a point where it is loud and argumentative, there is no longer an option to sell anything. You might as well walk away.

Admittedly, freeing one’s self from the need to be right is not easy. We’re rewarded very early on by parents, teachers, coaches and other authority figures every time we’re “right” or “win” and often penalized when we’re “wrong” or “lose” (this despite the popularity of the platitude that mistakes are to be embraced). It’s not surprising then that the need to be right can creep in and make a mess of things – we’ve all been programmed for a long time to try to be right and to win. It takes a conscious effort to step back, remember what the real task at hand is, and to remind oneself of the importance of outcome over rightness.

Doing so begins with acknowledging a simple fact about us all – we are not right all the time. In fact, we are probably all more often “wrong” than right simply because few single individuals have access to all of the pertinent information needed to make the best decision possible. This is what makes collaboration so powerful – it combines the wisdom of many people to ensure the best outcome can be found.

It is the job of each individual then, to unlock the collaborative wisdom of a group by placing group value over self value. This often means abandoning the need to establish the individual wisdom of the self as the ‘right’ wisdom.

Or as noted in the quote at the outset of this piece, it means that despite whatever our pedigree pr expertise, we should keep a Beginner’s Mind that is open to and of full possibilities.

Social Media and leveraging the Pareto Principle

velvetrope

You know it as the 80-20 rule but it’s really called the Pareto Principle. Who cares? If you’re in marketing, you should, because it shows up in many market categories. From CPG to apparel, for many companies, the 20% that are their best customers make up a significantly larger portion of that company’s revenue and profits.

These few are a brand’s elite customers. Not necessarily defined by purchase frequency, they are nonetheless the most passionate. Even brands in categories you wouldn’t expect people to get passionate about have a discreet set of obsessive customers who are indeed deeply engaged. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Make Your Best Customers Even Better drove this point home convincingly so I will spare you the substantiation here.

By the time I finished the article though, I had a nagging question in my mind. Why do so many brands target their primary “consumer engagement” tools (e.g. social media efforts) at the widest audience possible? Actually, I have an answer; I think it’s because most marketing still operates under the influence of mass media thinking where quantity is the holy grail of ROI. When you’re spending big bucks on big media, you want the most bang you can get. What’s your reach, viewership, readership, circulation? Those are the first questions out of every media planner’s mouth. It’s not surprising then, that as marketers started dabbling in social media – and social media started grabbing users in the millions –  the conversation naturally drifted toward these familiar drivers.

But if a company’s best, most profitable customers are an elite subset of the whole…

…and a company that engages this subset well has the best opportunity to turn them into vocal evangelists…

and vocal evangelists are the most powerful marketing force (in terms of persuasive capacity)…

well, isn’t there some wisdom in thinking about how at least part of a social media strategy might be aimed exclusively at this subset?

Yet I find very few examples of this. Most social media activity is open for everyone and a company’s best customers are treated more or less like average customers in terms of access, opportunities and incentives. They all count as fans or followers. They all see the same posts. They all get the same opportunities to enter the same sweepstakes. In essence, the brand foists all the responsibility for being a “best customer” on the customer without providing much incentive – from an engagement standpoint – to do this.

Why wouldn’t you have a separate, secret, member’s only Twitter account for customer service at this elite level?

Why wouldn’t you invite a select group of your best customers to participate in a closed Google hangout to talk about new product ideas?

Why wouldn’t you make some tabs on your Facebook page accessible only to the elite few with the proper credentials?

There’s nothing like a nightclub with a long line outside to stir up demand. In fact, scarcity is one of the most powerful persuasion drivers (which is why, for example, perfume bottles are small – the size makes them seem more precious, valuable and desirable). So why aren’t more companies creating special, exclusive programs instead of just running another hum-drum promotion where everyone gets the same coupon and a whack at the same mid-range prize?

These middle-of-the-road, ione-size-fits-all, everyone-is-invited activities tend attract a different kind of “best customer” – the pro-am sweepstakes player. This person is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum for those highly-engaged true brand advocates. These professional sweepstakes – and you might be surprised how many show up in the server logs of big promotions – are the ones who sets up multiple email accounts and play as many sweeps as they can in a day. Just like the marketer who views the internet as a mass play, they are all about the quantity of games they play because they know that the more often they play, the more likely they are to win. And given how easy it is online to create tens or hundreds of identities, playing the numbers isn’t even all that much work.

These people represent the worst possible outcome – someone who participated in your marketing tactic with no real interest in your brand, your message or your value proposition. They get their information from websites like SweepsAdvantage.com. You were just one of 50 sweepstakes they entered today. These people skew your data. They make your vanity metrics seem high, yet represent nothing more than a fleeting, dispassionate transaction dressed up in the often-inaccurate lexicon of social media: friend, fan, follower.

For my money, I’d say its worth peeling off a piece of your social media budget and investing it in a program for the people you know not only buy your brand, but love it and even try to sell it for you on your behalf. Doing this means treating them as the special subset they are. And leave everyone else out.

Are agencies really leaders in differentiation?

img_544790f5a1228d8So I was doing some research on how marketing agencies market themselves, today. I started grabbing screenshots of each agency’s home page. It became immediately clear that 90% of these sites were almost entirely the same. In fact, quite a few looked like they used the same template.

Every agency wants to be a hot shop. They want to be bought and not have to sell so much. Therefore, as a passive salesman, an agency’s website has to work hard because chances are, before a prospective client picks up the phone or decides to invite an agency to an RFP, they’re going to look at that agency’s website.

An agency’s website is essentially its packaging. Have a look at the slideshow below. Imagine all those packages on a single shelf at Agencies R Us. Could you tell the difference at a glance?

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From the prospective client’s point of view, what these sites say in aggregate is

Agencies all have good creative, mostly presented as video.

Agencies all have cool people with short, pithy bios.

Agencies all win awards, get press, and make some news.

Maybe that’s all there is. Maybe the entire marketing industry – despite all its strategy and analytics and tools – is a parity offering for which the only decision drivers are which creative you like best. That’s the unspoken logic the website designs are operating under. It should also be a warning flag.

Agencies have lamented for years that they are no longer invited to the strategic table the way they were back in the 70’s and 80’s. Looking at their websites, it seems like they’ve resigned themselves to being execution companies.

The ironic thing is that most agency strategists (and agencies keep them in their ranks, despite not selling the discipline very much) would look at an industry like our own, saturated by competitors with little differentiation, with downward pricing pressure, and recommend someone disrupt the model entirely. Books like Blue Ocean Strategy have been written about exactly this. Yet the ad industry – despite a few efforts like Victor & Spoils (whose website, incidentally, looks like all the ones in the gallery above) – really hasn’t had much model-level disruption.

Conventional wisdom says most industries have wholly reinvented themselves – and I mean fundamentally in terms of operations, logistics, supply chain, revenue model – in the past few decades, yet marketing firms still operate similarly to how Bernbach’s did forty years ago. Sure, the tools are different and the turnarounds are certainly accelerated, but the model isn’t altogether different – account manager, art guy, writer guy, production people, media plan, creative brief, revision rounds, billable hours…

Maybe that’s the problem? Maybe we marketing firms don’t heed our own advice, and we’ve organized our entire sales pitch around “who we are” and “what we do” rather than around our customers.

Or worse, maybe we’re afraid of our own advice. Maybe this is how some clients feel when we sit down and pitch them something high-risk, high-cost, with a hard-to-project return on investment.

We always try to sell good marketing to clients under the argument, “If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably the right direction.”

But behavior has always been a better barometer of conviction than statements, boasts and claims. So given the lack of differentiation among our own competitive set, I have to wonder how much we really believe what we’re selling.

Why are you not capitalizing on narcissism?

buzzfeedy

Oh Buzzfeed, I hate you. I hate you because you transact in dreck. Your content is essentially junk food and in a world with so many problems I really wish you’d turn your talents to something redeeming that made a difference in the world. But I don’t expect this from Cosmopolitan so I guess it’s unfair to expect it of you.

I also admire you. You’re very good at what you do. In fact, you’ve rediscovered something that Cosmopolitan learned several decades ago: There’s a whole lot of business to be built on feeding narcissism.

Lately Buzzfeed has greatly increased the number of “which ________ are you” style quizzes. These are a straight-up lift of the old Cosmo Quiz tactic which I recall girls galore spending time doing back when I was in college. And why not? Its as fun as having a tarot card reading. Who doesn’t want someone to tell them something about themselves, especially when that something stands to make them look cool, interesting or alike an object, entity, celebrity or even animal that that person already has an affinity for?

And of course, this being the age of “share everything” who doesn’t want to trumpet to their friends the outcome of these quizzes?

This quizzes are obviously superbly popular. I know this not only from my own Facebook feed but because Buzzfeed is doing quite a lot of them. They attract a ton of attention, a ton of traffic (which means ad revenue of course) and a ton of shares (which builds awareness).

Interestingly, the marketing world hasn’t picked up on this yet. You’d think those lifestyle, fashion, athletic, and other brands would be using this tactic to shine a branded mirror on their consumers, giving them the opportunity to tell their own friends what wisdom and coolness the logo-laden oracle has shared with them.

Which Wrangler are you?
Which TED talk persona are you?
Which Red Bull extreme sport are you?
Which Warby Parker frames are you?
Which Axe body product are you?
Which Brown Forman drink are you?
Which Universal Music band are you?
…I could do this all day.

And in the wasted minutes between meetings, appointments, meals, etc. we would all take a 30-second quiz to find out.

On flamboyant dancers and succeeding with social media.

stewardIf you have a brand and you’re trying to make social media work for you as an awareness-building tool, the single greatest thing you can do is be remarkable. Seth Godin talked about this pre-Facebook with books like Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside. Being remarkable isn’t about gimmicky sales tricks, clever headlines or shocking images. Being remarkable is behaving remarkably. Making it a part of how a brand is… not just what it says it is. This takes courage. It’s risky. It can backfire. But when it works, it comes off as authentic in a way no advertisement can, and your customers do all the work for you from there.

The screenshots above are from a friend’s smartphone as shared through Facebook. They are stills of a video from aboard a Virgin Airlines flight. What you’re seeing is a highly flamboyant steward dancing his way through the pre-flight check while disco music thumps over the intercom. It’s straight out of the film Bird Cage and it’s completely wonderful.

What you don’t see are the multiple smartphones held by passengers who are recording this performance as said steward prances up and down the aisle. That’s right, they’re recording being told how to fasten a seatbelt, where to look for their floatation device, and what to do when the oxygen mask falls from the ceiling. Essentially they are joyfully recording the description of a worst case scenario. Better, the video has all the hallmarks of great advertising – it’s charming, attention getting, memorable and carves out a unique emotional space for Virgin. It won’t appeal to everyone, but good advertising never does.

I bet the passengers treated to this performance became true brand fans that day (or had their pre-existing fandom validated). They ‘liked’ the brand not because they were bought with a coupon or sweepstakes entry, but because the brand did something remarkable – it made them happy, treated them like they were valuable and delivered real satisfaction in a space known for skimping, up-charging and making people feel like cattle. Pound for pound, I would bet that the people won over by Virgin on that flight – and those of us who saw the videos they made – have a stronger positive feeling about Virgin than most of the social media fans claimed by most companies.

What business sometimes forgets about social media is that it wasn’t invented for marketing. Marketers usurped it – just as we do for any new medium people cluster around – but regardless of what we wish people used social media for, most use it to share things that stand out in their lives – moments, friends, and experiences. They just tolerate marketers because we’re pretty easy to ignore and every once in a while they get free stuff from us.

To paraphrase Howard Gossage’s famous quote about advertising, “People share what interests them, and sometimes it’s a brand.”

To build real fans in social media, companies might do well to think about how they could behave remarkably in their space. This need not be flamboyant dancers either. Sometimes just doing right by a customer at a moment when they expect you won’t is enough to get them excited. And most customers todays are armed to the teeth with ways to share an experience.

You don’t need more share buttons on your website or more headlines telling your fans to share. They know how to do that already.

What they need are more reasons to share.

Has parallax (and web design) jumped the shark (again)?

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Not that it isn’t beautiful. It is. Check out this amazingly sophisticated site by Sony. The visual effects are staggering. I can only imagine the time, planning, labor and effort this took to design, shoot, compile, code and deploy. It’s like watching a blockbuster summer movie, or super-budget Super Bowl spot. You can’t help but appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking.

Which is exactly the problem. The execution eclipses the intention.

Whatever happened to form following function?

As I scrolled through (after waiting quite a while for the page to load) I didn’t read a word. Not one. I watched the electronics come together and split apart. I watched the scenes seamlessly meld into one another. I marveled at what I was seeing.  I completely forgot there was even navigation at the top by the time I started my descent. I also intentionally skipped over the opportunities to jump out for product detail, such was the lotus-leaf seduction of the parallax which kept begging me to scroll down, down, down.

When I got to the bottom and I didn’t know what to do from there. I clicked the logo and wound up on Sony’s homepage which felt a little anti-climactic.

We’ve come a loooooong way since the early 90’s – before marketing got ahold of the Internet and started polishing it for commercial use. Back then sites were dully utilitarian. Then along came Flash and “flying type” as a tactic. Remember that? This was followed by a backlash as web 1.0’s evolving “high design” gave way to web 2.0’s minimalist, functional aesthetic. More recently, even navigation has been simplified down to fewer, longer pages, as the world has forgotten about “the fold” and recognized that not everything needs to be in plain site, all the time.

But today this modern functional aesthetic is again being garnished with parallax and other visual effects. More information is being packed onto single pages. Sure, its spread out vertically, but there’s a lot more of it on each page. We’re bulking up again; adding sizzle because we don’t believe people will stick around for substance.

And they’re not. When it comes to learning about a product, people are skimming through those candy-coated, sexy brand sites and jumping onto social media to get the real story, from real people.

Even the sweetness of eye candy can make us nauseous when we’ve consumed too much of it.

As my college mentor once told me, “Style without substance is insipid. Substance without style is invisible.”

It’s the marketer’s job to strike that balance but Sony’s didn’t.

Of teenagers, poker chips and screen time.

Poker-Chips-psd31581As our children are growing (my oldest is now 13) we’ve become increasingly aware of how much of a role technology (e.g. “screen time”) plays in their lives. We’ve always monitored TV use, even when they were little, and continue to try to impress upon them the importance of a well-rounded life that involves technology, but also unplugged time. There are no shortage of articles – long and short – that recommend some caution and care in all of our exposure to screen time. As anyone reading this blog know, Nicolas Carrs The Shallows made a profound impact on my perspective of all things Internet and the risks that come from unchecked media consumption. I have conducted several experiments on myself in this regard and have felt first hand the effects of clear media addiction, withdrawal and independence.

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics published a recommendation of no more than two hours of cumulative screen time per day. Working in digital media and loving video games, I am reluctant to make sweeping gestures about screens and technology. There is good and bad with almost everything we do, and our pervasive screens are no different. As the Buddhists say, “the key that opens the gates of heaven also opens the gates of hell.”

Regardless, the idea of a recommended “two hours of screen time a day” gave me an idea for an experiment which I have recently unleashed on my family…

Yesterday morning, I handed each of my daughters, my wife, and myself 14 poker chips (each of us getting a different color so no one could spend another’s currency). In the interest of self-direction, I told the girls we were all going to limit our screen time to about two hours each day. I showed them the articles and research I’d done so that the number didn’t look like it was plucked out of thin air. But this wasn’t an ultimatum with a stopwatch. Rather, this was intended to be a lesson is resource allocation, management, and mindfulness.

The rules are simple. Each Sunday morning we get 14 chips – one for each hour. Chips could be broken into half hour increments but no less. We could each invest those 14 hours any way we wanted during the week, from a single Lord of the Rings trilogy with all the extra footage marathon to a half hour here or there as we saw fit. If a special show was on (my eldest is a Sleepy Hollow fan and my wife happily sits through two hours of sobbing  contestants on The BIggest Loser) more chips could be spent on particular nights. At the end of the week, any unspent chips were forfeit (no rollovers!) but you could always count on a fresh budget for the next week.

Initially my older daughter groused (as expected) even as my law-abiding and exceedingly diligent younger one began to plot and horde her stash. But less that 48 hours into it, some interesting things are already happening. The most notable is awareness. None of us is taking the time spent on screens for granted and we’re all keenly aware that a lazy default to flipping on this or that screen comes with a cost.

Right now, as I type this, the house is wonderfully quiet. My children are reading books by the fire. We’ve not gone Luddite. Earlier today, my younger daughter and I each spent a chip playing Super Mario Kart (we unlocked a new cup!). And my older daughter made a point of mentioning (with barely concealed pride) how she coerced her friend out of the house and away from Minecraft (after they’d both played for a while) to go out and build a snowman.

Like nutrition and exercise, my biggest goal is to make my children (and truthfully, myself) aware of just how easily we can slip into habits. It doesn’t take much to accidentally add 600 calories to your daily intake. It’s easy to “take a break” from exercise for a week or two and have it turn into months (and pounds). And as I’ve learned in my own media usage habits, its easy to make Facebook or mindless web surfing, or killing hours on a video game a near-daily occurrence even as the list of books I’d like to read and projects I’d like to undertake grows.

In the speed of day to day life, mindfulness is hard to come by. I am curious to watch our poker chip experiment over the coming weeks. Already I can see it is having an effect on me. Especially since this blog post cost me a chip and I am contemplating Mass Effect 3 on my Xbox. Then again, Walking Dead premiers this week so I have to think this through a little.