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« June 2013 | Main | August 2013 »

The fork in the road offers only two difficulties...

Seeing it

and

Taking it

Most organizations that stumble fail to do either one. The good news is that there are far more people than ever pointing out the forks that are open to us. The "this" or "that" alternatives that each lead to success if we're gutsy enough to take one or the other.

Alas, taking the fork is even more difficult than seeing it.

Next for the hip

The easiest quick opportunity remains the same: Yuppie Information.

What information can you offer the connected and the curious that they don't already have? This group is not only the most eager group of early adopters around, but they are so digitally connected that reaching them is easier than ever before.

No, it's not going to change the world, not right away anyway. But yes, if you're hoping to quickly work your way up the adoption curve, offering timely information to connected, educated, urban youth is in fact a great place to start.

On the other hand, the green fields and real wins will come from connections, mesh businesses and leadership for groups that aren't as peripatetic or spoiled as the digital yuppies.

Q&A: What works for websites today?

Approximately a million web years ago, I wrote a book about web design. The Big Red Fez was an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel. There was a vast and deep inventory of bad websites, sites that were not just unattractive, but ineffective as well.

The thesis of the book is that the web is a direct marketing medium, something that can be measured and a tool that works best when the person who builds the page has a point of view. Instead of a committee deciding everything that ought to be on the page and compromising at every step, an effective website is created by someone who knows what she wants the user to do.

Josh Davis and others wanted to know if, after more than a decade, my opinion has changed. After all, we now have video, social networks, high-speed connections, mobile devices...

If anything, the quantity of bad sites has increased, and the urgency of the problem has increased as well. As the web has become more important, there's ever more pressure to have meetings, to obey the committee and to avoid alienating any person who visits (at the expense of delighting the many, or at least, the people you care about).

Without a doubt, there are far more complex elements to be worked with, more virality, more leverage available to anyone brave enough to build something online. But I stand with a series of questions that will expose the challenges of any website (and the problems of the organization that built it):

  • Who is this site for?
  • How did they find out about it?
  • What does the design remind them of?
  • What do you want them to do when they get here?
  • How will they decide to do that, and what promises do you make to cause that action?

The only reason to build a website is to change someone. If you can't tell me the change and you can't tell me the someone, then you're wasting your time.

If you get all of this right, if you have a clear, concise point of view, then you get the chance to focus on virality, on social, on creating forward motion. But alas, virtually all organizational sites are narcissistic and (at the same time) afraid and incomplete.

Answer your visitor when he asks, "Why am I here?"

Gardens, not buildings

Great projects start out feeling like buildings. There are architects, materials, staff, rigid timelines, permits, engineers, a structure.

It works or it doesn't.

Build something that doesn't fall down. On time.

But in fact, great projects, like great careers and relationships that last, are gardens. They are tended, they shift, they grow. They endure over time, gaining a personality and reflecting their environment. When something dies or fades away, we prune, replant and grow again.

Perfection and polish aren't nearly as important as good light, good drainage and a passionate gardener.

By all means, build. But don't finish. Don't walk away.

Here we grow.

Perhaps you could just make something awesome instead

Mass marketers love the promise of big data, because it whispers the opportunity of once again making average stuff for average people, of sifting through all the weird to end up with that juicy audience that's just waiting to buy what they've made.

Big data is targeting taken to the highest level of granularity. It grabs your behavior across web sites, across loyalty cards, who knows, across your phone records... the promise of all this grabbing is that marketers will be able to find precisely the right person to reach at the right moment with the right offer.

[Worth noting that the flipside--the ability to reach the weird and offer them something that would never be practical otherwise--is a breakthrough just waiting to happen.]

And the rocket scientists are busy promising Hollywood that they can run the numbers on a script and figure out how to change it to make it more likely to sell. Add a sidekick to that superhero, perhaps, or have that demon be summoned instead of whatever it is that unsummoned demons do...

This rearview window analysis is anathema to the creative breakthrough that we call art. No amount of digital focus group research could figure out that we wanted Memento or the Matrix or Amour. Worse, it's based on the flawed assumption that the past is like the future, that correlation and causation are related. By that analysis, every Supreme Court chief justice, US president and New York City police chief is going to be a man. Forever more.

We are going to get ever better at giving committees ways to turn your work into banality. That opens up the market even more for the few that have the guts to put great work into the world instead.

Millions of words and only six emotions

The intellectual part of the human mind can spin delightful or frightening stories, can compare features and benefits, can create narratives that compel us to take action.

But all of these words are merely costumes for the six emotions built deep in our primordial soup:

Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Being angry at a driver who cuts you off in traffic is chemically similar to being angry to a relative who cuts you out of his will. We tell ourselves different stories (the traffic story will probably not last nearly as long in the echoes of our consciousness as the bitterness of the bequest story, for example), but still, there are only six buttons being pressed.

Knowing that there are only a few keys on the keyboard doesn't make it easier to write a pop hit or a great novel, but it's a start. In the case of someone with an idea to spread or a product to sell, knowing that you've only got six buttons might help focus your energy.

"People like us do stuff like this"

There is no more powerful tribal marketing connection than this.

More than features, more than benefits, we are driven to become a member in good standing of the tribe. We want to be respected by those we aspire to connect with, we want to know what we ought to do to be part of that circle.

Not the norms of mass, but the norms of our chosen tribe.

Your permanent record

"I'm going to record this conversation, okay?"

How Nixonian! The idea of being on the record is a scary one. It's the hot button of, "This is added to your school transcript." Forever, it seems, you will be marked by what you did or said, a pristine record, besmirched.

Today, of course, the post-Nixon reality exists. So much is on your permanent record that we've all been besmirched. That video response you posted, that comment, that update. The fact that you didn't actually work on that team your resume claims you did. The customer who left your restaurant angry and posted a negative review on one site or another.

In a heartbeat we went from special, gap-free makeup for TV stars on HD to online candid photos of every celebrity, without makeup.

If you don't know how to speak with confidence on tape, you've now entered a culture where you will never be able to speak. Because it's all on tape, it's all online, it's all on your permanent record.

Everyone has failed, everyone has misspoken, everyone has meant well but done the wrong thing. Your favorite restaurants, cafes and books have all gotten a one-star review along the way. No brand is perfect, no individual can pretend to be either.

Perfect can't possibly be the goal, we're left with generous, important and human instead.

The future is messy...

and the past is neat.

It's always like that.

That's because the people who chronicle the past are busy connecting the dots, editing what we remember and presenting a neat, coherent arc. We can publish the history of Roman Empire in 500 pages, but we'd need ten times that to contain a narrative of the noise in your head over the last hour.

Even viral videos are easy to describe after they happen. But if these experts are so smart, how come they can never predict the next one?

Change the culture, change the world

Plenty of marketing, particularly the marketing of social-change groups, focuses on educating people and getting them to make different (and better) decisions.

But most actions aren't decisions at all.

In Reykjavik, shopkeepers keep their doors closed (it's cold!) and if they were aware that in Telluride most stores keep their doors propped open (even in the winter) they'd think it was nuts.

In China, the typical household saves three to five times as much of their income as a household in the US. This is not an active decision, it's a cultural component.

The list goes on and on. A practioner of Jainism doesn't have a daily discussion about being a vegetarian, and a female graduate of Johns Hopkins is likely pre-sold on the role of women in the workplace.

If you ask someone about a cultural practice, the answer almost always boils down to, "that's what people like me do."

Powerful organizations and great brands got there by aligning with and accelerating tectonic cultural shifts, not by tweaking sales one at a time.

There are two lessons here. The first is that the easiest thing to do is merely amplify what a culture is already embracing. The second is that real change is cultural change, and you must go about it with the intent to change the culture, not to merely make the easy change, the easy sale.

« June 2013 | Main | August 2013 »