Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Gladwell Book - Outliers

After seeing Malcolm Gladwell speak at a conference earlier this month, I was eagerly awaiting the release of his book, Outliers: The Story of Success (amazon link). I tore through this book in a manner of hours - Gladwell is so good at pulling the reader in with interesting anecdotes, then illuminating his observations. The style of this book is similar to previous bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink. Outliers takes us on an examination of successful people in our modern world. It challenges the idea that we, as a culture, are "good" at finding and fostering human potential. In fact, there are so many barriers - both accidental and intentional - that it is surprising to find highly successful individuals in our society at all.

Gladwell observes that in the cases of these exceptionally successful people, there were both a set of circumstances and people in their lives that enabled their success. To some degree, he discards the notion of inate "talent" being the key to success. In fact, less "talented" people who are in an environment where they can work and be rewarded are more likely to succeed.

The big takeaway that I see (and that Gladwell highlighted in his live speech), is that in order to move forward and have a sense of fulfillment in life, people must have an opportunity to do "meaningful work." Environmental and economic barriers that prevent people from feeling that control and satisfaction will indeed prevent them from having success. Whether the meaning in their work is simple personal achievement, or part of a larger effort to improve the world - it does not matter - a person can become exceptional when they put their mind and soul into something.

The part of this book that impacted me most profoundly was the last section about educational opportunity. It made me want to go open a school - really. Untapped academic potential in the youngest members of our society, particularly in the poorer communities of the U.S., is an unbelievably rich resource. Here is an opportunity to improve the lives of young people, and ultimately the world. These are very big ideas, indeed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An historic day.

I'm writing after viewing election results for our soon-to-be 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. I am so proud to be an American this night. It is the beginning of a new era.

This afternoon I heard a speech by Malcolm Gladwell. An author I have long respected, but never actually heard speak in person. His speech focused on an unusual idea. In a nutshell, Gladwell says that primarily through ignorance and attitude, our modern culture is wasting vast amounts of human potential. Whether it be in sports or business or any area, we may think we have excellence - but in reality we are quite limited. The most interesting thing about that state of limitation being that it is partially self-imposed. It turns out we are pretty bad at creating a culture of opportunity and success for all.

The secret, Gladwell says, to unlocking the true capabilities of people, is what he calls "meaningful work". That is to say, when people work on something with their full mind and soul, they can do extraordinary things. Not because of some innate talent or lucky position - but simply because they decide to do something, and they work and work until it is done.

I love this idea. I believe it. And tonight, I saw it happen with my own eyes.

PS: Thanks to Tom for the photo of this car driving by Grant Park tonight right before Obama gave his speech.

Head in the cloud(s).

This week I am in San Francisco for the user conference they call Dreamforce. Over the past few years I have really seen this organization scale in amazing ways. This year's conference is focused on "cloud computing" - an idea that removes some of the burden of technical infrastructure from enterprises. This is a particularly good idea for companies that experience elastic technical demands. So if you need a lot of technological heavy lifting one day, and light use the next, it's a really good idea.

Another concept that's being highlighted is about personal connectivity. Everyone seems to be struggling to monetize social networks like Facebook - which has about 120 million users today (gasp). is providing a platform for launching apps on Facebook (example: helping HR find good candidates through social networking).

So from a marketing perspective, what's right about this?

Well - since good online marketing has long been about being found, rather than trying to interrupt someone doing something else online, there's an attraction to being visible and viral in a huge ecosystem like Facebook. There are an awful lot of eyeballs there. Next, pushing repetitive yet important services (like hosting or databases) out to the "cloud" sounds like a good idea.

Now from a marketing perspective, what's missing with this?

B2B Apps on Facebook: If my Facebook page is all about my personal life (i.e. photos of my kids, my pet projects, the social organizations I like, etc.), do I really want it to cross over into my professional world (i.e. the HR application example)?

Computing in the Cloud: It has to be a good idea to start with. All the on-demand servers or platforms in the world are not going to successfully launch a flawed concept. How does the ability to launch an application quickly change the way we think about startups? Do ideas become more disposable when they are aggregated by the thousands on Starbucks customer idea page? Does the cloud complicate my life, or simplify it?

I'll be contemplating all of this tomorrow and issuing another post. One of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, is speaking tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cornell College and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last week I was poking around at my undergrad alma mater's website - Cornell College of Mount Vernon, Iowa. I stumbled upon the record of a visit by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1962, including the full text of his speech.

The speech is an incredible treatise on race relations circa 1962, and must have been powerful, indeed to hear in person. Even reading the text I find myself getting a little choked up.

By now perhaps you are wondering why I'm writing about this on a marketing blog. The reason is I have to sit in awe at the bold and heartfelt words of a man who was, in fact, a brilliant marketer. Having roots in ministry, of course, doesn't hurt! Martin Luther King, Jr. was selling a tough, tough product. He was moving people to question and discard an old way of thinking, to move forward and envision true equality. To love each other as human beings. To achieve a new level of communication, without violence, but stronger than steel. Best of all, MLK Jr. lets people know that there is work to be done - we have made progress, but there is still a long way to go.

This is marketing with a mission - a noble one, I think.

Some things to think about and apply:
1. Are you marketing with a mission?
2. Do you bring people together and treat them as equals?
3. Does your own passion come through in the marketing you do?

Read the speech - you'll be inspired.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Closet Optimist

Recently I've been watching a TV show (from iTunes, not broadcast) called Mad Men. It's a period drama about 60's Madison Avenue advertising exec Don Draper and the agency he runs. The ad business has changed a lot since those days - or so it would seem. Even though the show's characters are mainly cynics, the heart of each client-enthralling ad campaign is a positive message.

Imagine that - winning a client with a campaign that says something positive about the product. It seems like a simple idea, but you'd be surprised at how many pitches go on and on about the "problem" that a product resolves. This is especially true of direct mail. So many letters use scare tactics and doom & gloom. Ugh.

I notice this, because you see, I am a closet optimist. I genuinely believe that the world is basically a good place, that people are mostly good, and that there are "silver linings" to bad situations. It's not a very popular way to be. And sometimes I do need to focus on problems or challenges - but it's always with an eye toward the resolution.

So here's my practical suggestion for my fellow marketers (and optimists). Analyze your communications - are they identifying problems, or presenting the happy result of buying your product? Are your letters/brochures/emails 50% positive, 75%, more? What could increasing the amount of positive message do for the effectiveness of your materials? Hmmmm.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

To Publicize Success?

Yesterday I wrote about a book called "Better" by Dr. Atul Gawande. One of Dr. Gawande's stories describes the state of affairs with Cystic Fibrosis treatment centers in the U.S. Until recently, the centers did not want to publish their success rates. This left everyone in the dark as to how to improve. The fear was that patients would flock to the best treatment and leave other hospitals in the dust.

An interesting phenomenon occurred - once results of the top centers were published by a non-profit foundation, the bar was raised for all. Lower-performing centers that shared results with patients did not lose out - they kept patients by communicating a roadmap for improvement. And everyone got better treatment and improved outcomes.

The reason I bring this up is that I think many companies (even our clients) decide to keep their marketing results private. Of course public companies must disclose financial performance and other facts by law, but they usually say little about their marketing strategies and methods.

On the heels of yesterday's post, I had an interesting experience with a client (who will remain confidential). When asked if they would like a successful marketing program to be the subject of a case study at a marketing conference, the company's PR department declined. Why? Because they saw no benefit to the firm. Of all the possible reasons, this one surprised me.

Aside from free attendance to a well-known conference, this company's approach means they are missing an opportunity to:
- grow and learn professionally
- see what their competition is doing
- show confidence and increase brand strength
- attract sharp talent at the conference
- raise the bar for their industry.

While I know there are other companies that will step forward and share information about their successes, it is disappointing to see this lack of leadership from a client I thought I knew well. I suppose it will be left to the rest of us to move things forward.

I'm ready.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For Better or Worse

I just finished reading a nonfiction book called Better: A surgeon's notes on performance, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon. This doctor also wrote a book called Complications in 2003, which I enjoyed very much. Dr. Gawande's narrative prose gives us insight into the issues of perseverance, competence, and conscience faced by a thoughtful physician.

The author's perspective on performance is enlightened. It helps the reader imagine how it feels to work in a profession where perfect performance is needed, yet absolute perfection is not possible. In particular, I found Gawande's commentary on evaluation and measurement quite interesting.

Many strategists point to sports teams (and athletes) as examples of how to increase performance. In competitive environments, we see individuals strive to improve and win - inspired to beat "the other guy". But this book explores another aspect of performance - striving to be better because it will help people, or because it is the right thing to do. I especially like the examples of physicians who are already recognized as "the best", but strive for constant improvement.

I read this book because I thought it was an interesting topic, not because I expected to relate it to my work, or to marketing. But I find myself drawing parallels, and learning from the text. So here are my takeaways from a marketing perspective:

1. Have compassion - for your clients, customers, and co-workers.
2. Be humble - know that you can continuously learn more and improve your work.
3. Measure your performance - choose to measure something important, and it will improve.
4. Understand that even in a large and imperfect system, one can still do the right thing.
5. Persevere - when you meet a challenge that stumps you, keep trying!

I'm going to print out the list above and tape it to the wall next to my desk for inspiration. :)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book review: Gitomer's Little Red Book...

I just finished reading Jeffrey Gitomer's Little Red Book of Selling last month. As Allegro enters into a new era of widely selling our SaaS (Software as a Service) product, FreshDM, I thought it would be good to brush up on some of the current thinking around "traditional" sales processes. Years ago, I saw Jeffrey Gitomer give a presentation at an American Cancer Society event (for major/planned giving officers) out West. His book and presentation and personality are all really LOUD. He's sort of Tony Robbins meets Glengarry Glen Ross and all expressed in a series of lists.

The best audience for this book is people who are B2B salespeople or sales managers. Since a lot of the materials I work on developing are to support these kinds of efforts, I thought there would be some valuable info for my clients as well.

Although I found the format a little "campy" and didn't agree with all of the techniques, there are several things I liked about this book. I agree with the motivational approach and how it should thread throughout your life. People who are organized, focused, and positive at home are often more successful at work. I also agree that it is absolutely key to enjoy your work and the company itself. These are important and foundational points to Gitomer's approach.

There's an area of selling that Gitomer doesn't really talk about. His book targets commissioned salespeople - people who are more successful and make more money based on their sales. But there is another layer to selling that is also applicable to many people in the marketing world. The selling of ideas. Many of my clients spend a great deal of time and effort in internal meetings. What are they doing? Well, they're selling. Convincing. Persuading. It's in the same vein.

Many of Gitomer's ideas/concepts can be adapted to this kind of situation (as well as traditional sales processes). A few high points & things that resonated for me:
- Resign your position as General Manager of the Universe.
This basically means to stay out of projects/problems that don't have anything to do with you, but really suck your time and energy.
- Get over your fears of presentation/rejection/failure
So important! In any position, we must be able to communicate to an audience, and bring forward ideas without fear. Over-engineered campaigns "by committee" rarely win.
- Give value
Especially in service businesses, we have to give value to our customers, co-workers, even ourselves. This is the reason we all get paid.

There are many more good points in the book (12 of them), talking about personal branding, networking, using humor and creativity in the sales process. In all, it's a very motivating book. I recommend it for ambitious types and anyone in sales - or if you manage/support those folks. I'll probably re-read or refer to this book in the future.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Are surveys dead?

In this new landscape of user-generated content (UGC), blogs, and online fora - what is the relevance of good old-fashioned surveys? Here's how I see it:

Unsolicited comments (like blogs or posts in a forum) often tell you WHO you didn't know was important.
Because of the democratization of the web - the ease with which nearly anyone can publish an opinion (or video, for that matter) - very public rants or raves might come from unlikely or unknown sources.

Yesterday I was reading a random blog (highlighted by Blogger) of a woman who has an eco-conscious focus, but writes a couple of times a week on various topics. Her typical post is about politics or alternative energy or recycling techniques. Last week she wrote an absolute rave personal review of this mineral rock deodorant thing - I mean, she went on for 4 paragraphs about how great it is. If I were the maker of this product, I'd figure out how to engage more influential folks like this. So if they saw the post, that company may have just discovered WHO might be helping sell their product.

Surveys will usually tell you WHAT you didn't know was important.
People who care about you or your company are typically the ones that respond to a survey. In fact, you often have targeted a group of prospects or clients (or people like them) in your distribution list. But, your respondents may type in comments or respond differently than you expected. Surveys are a great way to determine how to focus on the products/services that matter to your customers.

When the company I work for, Allegro, did a survey a while back - we learned that one of our key customers depended on us primarily as a technological resource. Our opinion was that Allegro was a creative agency first, with techy stuff as a tag-along service offering. This customer really changed our perspective on the value of technology. The opinion of that client spawned a dedicated team in our company that works on and promotes an online tool called FreshDM. It has become a significant part of our business.

Structuring and sending out a survey is a great way to focus - just writing the survey will cause you to concentrate on an objective way to measure your firm's impact. By the way, I highly recommend an online tool called SurveyMonkey - I started using it on a project in biz school a few years back, and it really is great. They have free and paid versions, depending on your needs. Be sure to consider phone or offline (paper) surveys - if that's your normal mode of communication with customers & prospects.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Easy is the new black.

As marketers, we are often called on to sell or inform about a product that is complicated. The complexity of, say, a technical service - or a financial instrument - or a gadget, could be what makes it really cool and desirable. We might go on and on about the key benefits, how sophisticated it is, how valuable, even how affordable. But the truth is, most people just want it to be easy.

Look at how convenience sells in the U.S.: have you bought vegetables in a little pre-packed plastic bag, just so you didn't have to wash them? Been to a drive-thru window lately? Used's "one-click ordering" function? Looked at the freezer section in the grocery store?

In so many aspects of our lives (and our customers' lives), we are looking to save time. We want to check things off our list and be done. We will settle for something that is less tasty, less nutritious, or lower quality - just because it's fast or convenient. We'll even pay a premium for that convenience (i.e. 150% more for lettuce, or a $4 coffee at Starbucks).

What does this mean to us as marketers? Well, I think easy is the new black. It's time to take a closer look at whether we are making things as easy as possible for our customers and prospects. Here's a little checklist for you:

1. Is it easy to find you?
If I'm looking for your company or service, can I easily locate you on- and offline?

2. Is it easy to buy your product?
How many steps does it take on the phone/web/in person?
How long is your sign-up form or application?

3. Is it easy to understand why to buy your product?

Do your promotional or marketing materials simply state the key reasons to buy from the customer's perspective?

4. What are you doing to be the most "convenient" provider in your marketplace?

Check out your competition.

Take it easy,

PS: Didn't black become "the new black" because it was so darn easy? :)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What about the meatballs?

So, I've been thinking a lot about the Seth Godin book (Meatball Sundae). His idea of inventing new products that take advantage of the "long tail" (lots of people who all want different things) - it's so seductive. Just come up with a unique and easily distributed product/service that you can sell at a profit, put it on a website, and get people talking. Sounds like a simple recipe. But what if you (or your client) has a ton of "meatballs" already? What if you are selling a highly regulated product, like insurance, that is difficult and expensive to reinvent?

Here are my recommendations for folks that have a lot of meatballs.

1. Be honest (with yourself and customers).
If it looks like a meatball, it probably IS a meatball. Transparency and clear communication will take you far.

2. Make some marinara.
Find a service method, packaging, distribution model, companion product, or extra perk that makes your meatball the most delicious one out there.

3. Serve on your best china.
Making customers feel special is wildly underrated. In this era of blogging and internet media, news travels fast. A good customer's experience can become a positive influence for your product, brand, and company. Add up a few good experiences, and you're in business.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My take on: Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin

I'm just finishing reading the book Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin. He's the permission marketing guy who also wrote Purple Cow and many other books. It's a really good guidebook, especially for folks who are marketing to consumers. Mr. Godin always seems to have a lot of "old school" and "new school" comparisons, and this book is no exception. He gives lots of real world examples, and I love that.

The idea of a meatball sundae - there are a lot of companies out there who have "meatballs" to sell - traditional products that are pretty good, but ordinary. Mr. Godin observes that the "old way" of just putting a TV ad out there and presenting a pretty good product to a large audience is failing. Then, he points out pitfalls in the technique of using "new marketing" (internet-driven techniques) to sell "old products". Hence the "Sundae". Some companies are trying to put hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry on top of a "meatball" and then wondering why the marketing techniques don't work.

Here are some key takeaways from my perspective.
  • the Internet has enabled and empowered consumers in a totally new way.
  • unique distribution and marketing channels have spawned micro-markets that can now be successful without physical locations (like T-shirt co. microfinance co. Kiva and others)
  • customization is king: more than ever, consumers want choices and ways to strip away excess "features" to save money
  • as marketing clutter surges, interruption marketing (like TV ads and email promotions) are less viable
  • great service wins (by the way, service and marketing are inextricably linked)
My recommendation: if you read through the 14 key points, and use 3-4 of them, it's a very practical approach. As always, I really enjoyed Mr. Godin's insight.