Precision Words

March 7, 2010

Sometimes you’re asked to contribute marketing copy to a non-marketing deliverable. Maybe a login page.

Here are the fields to fill in, here’s the ‘submit’ button…over here on the right, let’s fill it out with a little marketing copy. You know, just something that makes the customer feel good about logging in. Fluffy, feel-good marketing stuff. That’s what you do, right?

You’re the only expert in that meeting who understands this: marketing copy is a tool. Not a filler. Words either deliver or dilute the message.

So don’t let yourself be sent off with that blank template to fill out until you’ve answered the key questions. What is the goal of this login page? Who’s logging into what? Why would they want to? Why do we want them to?

Then go craft the language as a precision tool that accomplishes the goal as surely as a Phillips screwdriver slides into the crossed grooves. Edit ruthlessly. Suddenly marketing goes from being the fluffiest part of the business to the most disciplined and demanding team in the house. Pretty cool, huh?

Thanks to @chilkari for pointing out that this applies to ALL writing, not just marketing copy

photo by saebaryo


My Tweak is Your Monkey Wrench

January 24, 2010

This post isn’t just about Marketing. It’s about workplace etiquette in a world where work is complex and requires relying on people who know how to do things that we don’t. People like your mechanic, your Web developer, your accountant…even, sometimes, your marketer.

Because surfing the Web doesn’t make you an expert on Web design any more than watching NASCAR qualifies you to change a spark plug. You know what you want and that’s fine. Don’t assume, though, that because the change looks small to you it’s actually a small change request. Which means this: unless you know exactly how much work is involved, don’t call it a ‘tweak’.

We use the word ‘tweak’ to convey ‘I don’t think this is a big deal.’ Sometimes, though, it is. We don’t know the difference because we aren’t the ones who know how to do that work.

So I suggested requesting ‘changes’ rather than ‘tweaks’. No one will freak out. In fact, they’ll thank you for letting them assess the size of the requested changes, rather than characterizing what could be several hours of work as a ‘tweak.’

Photo by Dunechaser. And yes, that’s Kaylee Frye as a Playmobil person

Dance of the Sugar Plum Smartphone

December 6, 2009

When playing with data, few things are more fun than putting two possibly unrelated sets together and speculating about the relationship. First, let’s consider this Neilsen data showing increasing smartphone adoption. More and more people are capable of running a Google search on whatever burning question comes to mind, no matter where they are. Even, perhaps, at the ballet.

Now let’s look at search volume for the string ‘how long is the Nutcracker Ballet’ over the past few years. Notice the increasing heights of the December spikes. Is the increased adoption of mobile platforms driving an increase in furtive Googling sometime right after the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?

No, the time axes aren’t the same. But you have to admit it’s fun to look at data like this and speculate. Happy Holidays!

Who’s Educating Who?

October 16, 2009


Why do marketers use the phrase “educating the customer” so often? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Customers aren’t buying. If they don’t know that our solution is what they need, they must need education so they can become as smart as us.
  • Our solution isn’t complete. Customers need to be educated in order to know that we sell computers, but they’re on their own in terms of finding a monitor.
  • Our solution isn’t meeting customer expectations. The data we sell is the best we can produce, but when customers look at it they say “there are errors in this data.” We need to teach them that their standards are too high. (Would a restaurant with this attitude last a second?)

None of these scenarios are flattering to the marketer. And they’re all, frankly, a bit arrogant. They start from the precept that we know more than the customer. Our job is to smarten the customer up. School is in session. Because our solutions are complex.

Customers’ problems, on the other hand, are quite simple. Even in the technical realm, they just want the network to be up or the software to do whatever it is they bought it to do. B2B buyers want to get on with business, and consumers want to get on with their life. A solution that does that will be welcomed.

And a marketer who assumes the role of pupil and says “customers, please educate me” will do very well indeed.

Dear Product Team

September 16, 2009

I know you worked hard on it. You scoped it, you managed it, you built it, you released it. You’re rightfully proud of it.

But the fact that a Product team built it doesn’t, in itself, make it a ‘product’.

It’s a product when the value can be packaged in such a way that a customer will pay money (or exchange value in some other way, like attention or loyalty) for it. Without that element, it’s not a product. It may be a fantastic enhancement, solve a thorny problem with an existing product, or just be really cool. Good stuff. Just not a product.

If you want to be sure you’re building a product, have a good conversation at the start about how that value will be packaged. Make a small note about that in the upper left-hand corner of your whiteboard. Glance up and to the left anytime scope creeps or requirements shift.

If you’ll do that, it helps me help you. And I want to help in any way I can.



Do you know who @I am?

September 9, 2009


Everybody loves a good “social media lets @everyperson take down a corporate Goliath” story. I enjoyed seeing Dave Carroll take an indifferent United Airlines to task for breaking his guitar and quickly soar to over 5MM views and major media coverage. There are plenty of stories validating that a complaint aired on Twitter gets quick attention, and it was funny to see Horizon Realty’s cluelessness in attempting to respond to a ‘libelous’ tweet.

But there’s a dark side to social media’s ability to break down barriers. I was delighted that Heather B. Armstrong finally got her Maytag washing machine fixed. I don’t begrudge her tweeting about it, or even asking the customer service rep “do you know what Twitter is.” Because it sounds like she had a terrible experience and an awful day, and I’d probably have tweeted it too. So where’s the dark side?

Well, Heather (a.k.a. @Dooce)  has over a million followers on Twitter. As great as it is that anyone can tweet their dissatisfaction, “some animals are more equal than others”, to quote Orwell. With about 1K followers, I might or might not get as quick or satisfactory a response as she did. And I know plenty of folks with less than a hundred Twitter followers because they’re in it for reasons other than amassing followers. I’m not sure that this new stratification – based on social media-enabled connections rather than family connections, political clout, or good old-fashioned wealth – is better than old styles of stratification.

Recently a customer had an issue signing up for service at the company where I work, and he contacted us about it. When I saw that his title was “social media strategist”, I picked up the phone just a little more quickly than I might have otherwise. I felt exactly as I felt about giving extra attentive service to the local millionaire or celebrity back in my bartending days.

Anyone at the top of the new stratification may disagree and claim that they’ve earned their clout through hard work – and you can do the same, if you’re willing to work for it. There’s some truth to that nouveau riche-sounding claim, but I’m pretty sure most of us won’t equal Ashton Kutcher or even Heather Armstrong with any amount of effort. And so, quicker than we might like, social capital is in the hands of the social capitalists, and we get back to that old question “Do you know who I am?”

Anyone who’s ever felt privilege – even the temporary privilege of drinking for free because your band is hot at the moment – believes that they’ve earned it through their hard work, natural talent or smarts. Should I accept that the invisible hand is allocating whuffie as fairly as Adam Smith believed it allocated wealth? Am I just having an uncharacteristically negative evening? Am I  searching for the cloud in the social media silver lining? Am I simply envious? I’m not sure I’ll like the answers to those questions. But I’m hitting ‘Publish’ regardless.

Photo by irLordy

Strategy Dollars versus Bake Sale Bucks

August 23, 2009


My first post-business-school job was at a shrinking company in a shrinking market space. My role was to provide the data analysis and support on major deals. Often those deals amounted to trying to reduce the bleeding by retaining large customers at reduced rates – deals our VP would call “strategic wins.” The other analyst and I joked that the day would come when we’d get paid in strategy dollars. We had a mock strategy dollar (with a picture of the VP) that we’d pass back and forth to whoever was working on the biggest, losingest, most strategic win.

In other roles I’ve seen even Fortune 500 companies hold bake sales. Think of a retail store that is short of the mark and starts selling off the fixtures. Yes, they hit the monthly goal, but would you invest in that store? Those are bake sale dollars. You can hold a bake sale to make up a cash shortfall on any given day, but it’s not a sustainable business model (unless you’re a bakery). Bake sales can take the form of a holiday discount that’s a few points deeper every year or of selling the intellectual property that the core business model is based on. Can you repeat what you did this month and scale it up? If you can’t, you have a bake sale where you need a business model.

Would you invest in a company that promised to pay you returns in strategy dollars? How comfortable would you be with an investment that generated this month’s return from a bake sale that couldn’t be repeated next month? If we wouldn’t invest under those conditions, how can we as managers possibly claim those as wins?

Photo by tiny banquet committee

Five Brilliant Business Books for Kids

August 10, 2009


Many of us are both parents and businesspeople. We’d like our children to grow up equipped for careers, entrepreneurship and success. So I thought I’d share my take on five brilliant business books for kids.

1) Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton

Mike and his steam shovel Mary Anne face an industry in change. New entrants with disruptive technologies like gas, diesel and electricity have rendered their product noncompetitive. So they seek out greenfield markets and leave the big cities to find work in Popperville. Like any entrepreneur Mike takes a calculated risk – can Mary Anne really dig as much in a day as a hundred men can in a week? He makes a risky bet based on incomplete data, gut feel, and belief in his team. In addition to risk tolerance he and Mary Anne display pride in their work, finishing each corner “neat and square” where lesser competitors would sacrifice quality. And they close by morphing their business model and value proposition completely. Mike and Mary Anne establish a sustainable business with clear barriers to entry and leave the disruptive entrants grubbing in the dirt.

2) The Very Busy Spider, Eric Carle

If Mike and Mary Anne display dizzying creativity and flexibility, Eric Carle’s spider heroine is a disciple of David Allen. She focuses on Getting Things Done, showing GTD mastery by retaining control of her workflow despite continuous interruptions from the barnyard animals. She knows her agenda and, whatever tempting distraction is offered, doesn’t answer as she is “very busy spinning her web” to catch the pesky fly. She came, she spun, she conquered.

3) Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss

“Seuss on Business” could be a series of posts on its own. The Lorax warns about externalization of costs as the Onceler beggars his community while “biggering” his business.  Oh, The Places You’ll Go offers far more insight about that tricky period between ideation and big success than The Dip does (I’m a big fan of Seth but he’s no Dr. Seuss). And Horton (from Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches An Egg) is an example of character that my daughter and I often refer to in discussing how to handle adversity.

But Green Eggs and Ham is simply the best sales textbook ever written. Sam handles objection after objection by remaining relentlessly positive and recontextualizing his offering (In a box? With a fox?) until his prospect agrees to a trial. Having achieved that, he lets his prospect make up his own mind – and makes the sale. Throw out whatever sales curriculum you’re using and give each rep a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. They’ll think you’re crazy and sales will increase. I call that a win-win.

4) Madeline and the Bad Hat, Ludwig Bemelmans

The most difficult managerial task is dealing with a problem employee, and the hardest part is seeing the problem clearly. Even Miss Clavel is taken in by Pepito, making excuses (“he needs an outlet for his energy”) rather than confronting the issue. Madeline sees and articulates the problem (“It is evident that this little boy is a Bad Hat!”) when others do not. But she also recognizes that any real change in behavior comes from within. So she tells him what she sees in clear and uncertain terms, lets him make his own choices, and holds him accountable for the results. And she offers forgiveness when he does change but warns that she will be judge him on his actions, not his words.

5) The Day-Glo Brothers, Chris Barton

Like the others on the list this book is a timeless classic, even if it was published earlier this year. (Disclosure: Chris Barton is a friend and former co-worker. Further disclosure: this book belongs on the list anyway).

Bob Switzer’s work ethic and analytical mind perfectly complement brother Joe’s creative streak, reminding us that a winning management team is diverse in thought and approach. They find opportunity after Bob’s accident confines him to the house, and their big breakthrough is driven directly by their curiosity about flourescence. Ever tried to explain a skunkworks project or early-stage startup to your parents? Bob and Joe have the same problems (made worse by ruining their mother’s cookware from time to time with their experiments). There’s not a better book for making the point that true entrepreneurship is driven by curiosity and fun, not greed.

Those are my picks for the best business books for kids ever. What are yours?

Photo by Librarian by Day, appropriately enough!

Customer Satisfaction Isn’t a Nastysickle

July 30, 2009

It’s easy to get confused about what customer satisfaction is and isn’t.

We needed antibiotics for our five-year-old daughter. Like most kids, she’s picky about flavor (hates grape, loves cherry). We explained this to the pharmacist at the major pharmacy chain.

Lacking cherry, they added a watermelon flavor on top of the grape (creating a flavor that, in our household, we have dubbed “nastysickle”) without asking us. They resisted giving back the prescription to have it filled elsewhere. (After all, then they’d have a bottle of nastysickle on their hands). We pushed, got it back and filled it with cherry at People’s Pharmacy.

If we’d walked out unhappily with the nastysickle we would have been considered satisfied. As we gave our daughter nastysickle medicine twice a day. Not the worst thing in the world, but far from a satisfied customer. They didn’t want to satisfy us. They just wanted us to go away and not show up as a return or complaint.

A satisfied customer isn’t someone you can convince to grudgingly take bad-tasting medicine. A satisfied customer isn’t someone who isn’t quite unhappy enough to demand their money back. It’s fine to measure returns and walkouts, but don’t call those customer satisfaction metrics. These days marketers fear that an unhappy customer will get over 4MM YouTube views. Some are so paranoid that they sue customers who tweet their dissatisfaction to 17 followers. I think we should worry more about unhappy customers who quietly take their nastysickle and leave, never to return.

A satisfied customer is glad they spent their money with you and recommends that others do the same.

Evaluating LinkedIn Recommendations

July 17, 2009


An interchange on Twitter with @jowyang and @carissao got me thinking about LinkedIn recommendations. The question was this: do LinkedIn recommendations mean anything anymore? Seems to me that some do while others don’t. It depends on three people: the recommender, the recommendee, and the reviewer of the recommendation.

  • Recommender: fairly or not, a recommendation from a higher-ranking person may mean more as their time is often scarcer. More importantly, does the recommendation show unique detail about the person in question? Is there a bit of thought behind it, or does it look like a stock template? If in doubt look at other recommendations written by the same person.
  • Recommendee: A few high-quality recommendations beat a plethora of boilerplate ones. Some folks blast out a cattle call for recommendations to all their connections. Do that repeatedly and it’ll be evident that you value quantity over quality.
  • Reviewer: I’ve had two hiring managers tell me in the past year that “LinkedIn recommendations are worthless.” In Geoffrey Moore terms, one was a laggard (no LI profile) and one was an early adopter (heavy user of social media). Both thought of it as a system that could be easily gamed. Most people in Moore’s model are early or late majority. In my experience both as a hiring manager and as a job seeker, those early & late majority folks may still value LinkedIn recommendations. They read them judiciously just as they’d consider the source in evaluating any other kind of reference.

What are your experiences? Do you take LinkedIn recommendations seriously, and how do you evaluate them? Would they be improved if, as @jowyang and I discussed, there were an element of scarcity – if you had to choose wisely, knowing that you could only recommend a limited number of people? Where else do you look for recommendations and insight on candidates and potential business partners?

Update: @jowyang blogged on the same topic after our interaction – you can read his thoughts here. In the spirit of this discussion let me say that I heartily recommend it!

Update #2: It’s a rare occasion when this blog intersects with my other, much snarkier, blog. So it’s a special day when this happens.

Photo by otherthings