Wednesday, May 29

Put People Ahead Of Platforms If You Want To Succeed

Modern online marketers fascinate me. They always say they want to connect with people online, but most of them are ultimately obsessed with platforms. They want to know which social network is popular, which platform is the most active, which network will deliver more referral traffic, how to make headlines buzz, and when to post content so the most eyeballs see it. So on and so forth.

I think you get the idea. They talk a good game about relationships, but funnel most of their energy into gaming the relationship, everything from search engine optimization (including competitor names and misspellings) to misleading headlines that don't deliver on the content they promise. It's all silly stuff.

There are no silver bullets. People are social nomads. 

It really is silly stuff, but don't dismiss it all outright. Those tips and tactics can be useful, provided you don't become too comfortable with last year's data or this year's predictions. Social media is the never ending story taking place in an always changing environment. The only certainty so far is nothing.

Examples abound. If you believe Facebook will always be the most popular place to connect, that Google+ is where tech savvy guys hang out, or that sales only happen after site visits, then you might be making the same mistake that people made when they thought Tumblr was a waste of time, Quora would be the next big social network (or down for the count), or that any service is too big or popular to shutter. Betting the farm on any one of those statements is akin to picking a single series for a media buy and assuming that it will never be shuttered.

Just as every television series on the planet will eventually vanish, networks will eventually vanish too. One of my favorite examples is par for the course as the case was made: Bumpzee will be the next Digg. The prediction was almost right, but in the opposite direction. Neither really exist (and many new social media experts haven't even heard of them). Nobody wants to save Delicious anymore either.

In fact, all this is why I've always found the tribes concept misleading. It wasn't because Seth Godin was wrong. He was mostly right, but without an emphasis on the idea that tribes are as temporal as communication. Modern humans do fall into them. But they fall out of them just as fast.

The ones you belonged to in high school aren't the the ones you belong to today. The ones you belong to today aren't the ones that you'll belong to in the future. They are tied to platforms, technologies, jobs, and marriages, and all sorts of other things that feel permanent in our lives but are not nearly so permanent.

Five areas of focus that will make you more people centric instead of platform reliant over the long term. 

Sure, people make up social networks and social networks can help you reach those people who have already pitched a tent. But that doesn't make the platforms more important than the people. Even inside most networks, any given community, page, or group can be completely different from another. The company needs to create it.

• Know what you are talking about. It doesn't matter what industry you work in or for. You need to know as much about it as you do marketing, advertising or social media. Even if you will never know more about it than the industry leaders (a few analysts come close), you need to know enough to have an intelligent conversation with anyone who asks.

Most people writing content don't know nearly as much as they need to, which is probably why only 37 percent of marketers would call their Facebook efforts successful when surveyed (they all say they're successful in person). You see, anyone can drop a discount, network quip or announce an event. But it takes someone who knows something to engage and keep them interested.

• Know the people you want to reach. If you have never spent time with customers and prospects (and make note of any differences between them), then you might not reach them anyway. Industry leaders and executives struggle with this as much as social media and marketing managers. They can tell you the demographics of their target audience, but few take the time to really get to know them.

Big data is great, but old school copywriters know that the secret ingredient inside all content has to do with understanding the customers as people and often visualizing a real person when they write to them. You have to get to know them. Shake their hands. Put yourself in their shoes. And then ask yourself how your social network messages look from their perspective.

• Make adjustments for platform constraints. With the exception of understanding the constraints that come with every platform, there isn't much more you need to know about them. It's more important to tie messages to the mission, vision and values more than the best practices of a social network. After all, best practices are almost never invented by anyone who follows them.

The better way to think about it is to craft a message and then see how it fits within a platform, much in the same way campaigns were made across radio, print and television. As long as it is strong and doesn't break any constraints, customers and prospects will not only find it but give it resonance. One step better than someone liking or sharing, resonance means they will remember it a week from now.

• Be interesting and enthusiastic about the topic. When I speak to students, I can never stress it enough. If you think the topic is boring, it will show up in the writing. There is nothing you can do about it. All the superlatives and exclamation points in the world won't save you. Those make it worse.

The most common excuse they offer up is that their clients, employers or bosses dictate the content thread. But I don't completely buy it. Putting in a little extra effort to show someone why something else might be superior can make all the difference.

• Know how much to say and when to shut up. I said something similar for marketers two weeks ago, but this advice is specific to social networks. The difference between a consumer seeing content value or spam is only one post, share or email too many.

Remind yourself and your employers that no one needs to be the center of attention all the time, unless the public wants to make something the center of attention. Give your messages, ideas and concepts some room to live before blasting away with the next. Instead of making conversations read like a group of people taking turns at a single microphone, nurture something that looks like community conversations.

While those five tips aren't even close to everything you need to know about social networks, they do represent a different direction than what has become the standard fare. Stop worrying about which social networks and start thinking about what will make people seek you out no matter the network.

Wednesday, May 22

Success Always Starts With Permission To Act On Big Dreams

Although Michael Port will be among the first to tell you that a client's urgent needs almost always overshadow long-term goals, Book Yourself Solid Illustrated is an exercise in the opposite direction. He asks people who want to succeed to put aside their immediate needs and focus in on big dreams.

He's smart to do it too. For the better part of 20 years, I've seen a relatively consistent and reoccurring life cycle among successful startups. Many take a year or two to establish themselves, make huge gains during the next few, and then slowly wind down until they eventually die.

It's painful to watch, especially because companies that can succeed during the first year or so experience something that those who don't try can only wonder about. Much like their success, their original mission and vision were tied to big dreams.

It makes sense that they would be. A startup is nothing less than someone taking a shot to shine. It doesn't even matter what kind of business it might be. Most cite big dreams as a common ground.

The bulk of them were started by people who wanted to do one of two things. Either they wanted to launch a new product, service or outlet that they are passionate about or they want to launch a business as an extension of their career by being their own boss. And contrary to popular myth, the majority of them will succeed (for a while).

The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that seven out of ten business will succeed in the first two years before something unexpected happens. Only half them will survive a full five years.

Why do businesses that succeed in the first two years fail in the following three years? 

While there are many reasons that successful startups fail, almost all include a change in mindset. As business owners succeed, they are more likely to give up on big dreams and focus on urgent needs.

In other words, they give up on the very dreams that make them successful and start focusing on what they think they need with the operative word being "more": more revenue, more profits, more clients, more customers, more high profile accounts, more website visitors, more followers, more whatever.

As soon as "more" becomes the objective, these businesses start to shrink or sink as they take on the wrong kinds of customers or clients: those that take advantage of them (e.g., empty promises and slow payments), drain the life out of them (create frustration and negative relationships), or demand products and services that have little to do with the vision (diminish resources and reduce quality).

As the pressure mounts to maintain sales, problems materialize. Some owners might borrow to meet payroll while floating account debts. Others might waste time working for customers who will never be happy or refer any business. Some will substitute quality materials to push prices lower. Others will expand their offerings to appease an ever-increasing audience while watering down their uniqueness.

Worse, many successful startups won't see the root problem as they struggle to preserve these short-term gains. The fact is that they are much more likely to compound the problems as they trade in their permission to dream for protectionism — the fear of losing any revenue is so strong that they will defend their most detrimental clients rather then lose them.

Book Yourself Solid is a handbook for disciplined dreamers.

Although originally intended for advisers, consultants and speakers, Port's Book Yourself Solid works well enough for other kinds of startups too. And while some of the tools he and I use are different, the advice reads the same. It takes discipline to succeed. You have to commit yourself to looking for the "right" clients instead of "more," even if that means giving up some short-term gains.

He even goes one step further, starting with something many business owners will find startling. You have to dump "dud" clients, those who wear you down and take you further away from your dreams. As soon as you do, you can use the newly found time to pursue the clients you've always dreamed of working with or do more for the stars who are already part of your roster.

At the same time, Port dares business owners to stop giving others permission to punish them and start giving themselves permission to act on their dreams. Stick to the dreams that made your business work for you. Avoid the objectives that make you work for your business.

Any number of examples illustrate the point. An art gallery doesn't have to sell cheap prints just because some people complain about the price of the originals. A respected restaurateur won't serve out-of-season fish on the whim of a customer who doesn't know better. A reputable consultant won't rely on email spam or purchase back links to inflate junk traffic.

Instead, Port says it's much more important to be true to what you do than try to be true to what everybody wants you to you do. There are other people who might try to be all things to all people, but you don't have to follow their lead. If you really are a leader in the field, then not everyone is your customer. You know it. Your customers know it. And Port knows it too.

This may have even been one of the reasons that Port decided to make his system a little more manageable on his recently refreshed release. He teamed with Jocelyn Wallace to illustrate Book Yourself Solid. Although it is still hyped as the fastest, easiest and most reliable system for getting more clients than you can handle (even if you hate marketing and selling), there is something in this re-engineered book that will work for more businesses and independent consultants.

Whether you are starting a business, need to revisit and retrofit your vision or have recently noticed that you don't love your business anymore, Port provides enough tools to put you back on track. Perhaps more than anything else, he provides a series of exercises that are designed to remind business owners to stop chasing the daily chaff and start giving themselves permission to act on big dreams again.

So how do you know if you might need this kind of help? While I believe every business can benefit from an organization-defining communication plan, most people can start with two simple questions.

Has your happiness or employee morale faltered from the day you first started? And if so, are the challenges you face related to what you wanted to do, what you actually do, how you have to do it, or who you do it for? You might be surprised by the answers. And I'd love to know what you find.

Wednesday, May 15

Five Things I Wish Every Advertiser, Marketer, And PR Pro Knew

A few weeks ago, one of my recent students asked me if there is anything I wish I had taught but never got around to teaching. I thought the question was pretty funny. I told her I had ten years of material.

In truth, ten years of material is a pretty conservative estimate but not because of the quantity. The way I see it, there is never any shortage of material as long as the instructor continues to explore, learn and grow. Ideally, they will with one foot in academics and one in the real world but sometimes one or the other will suffice. No one ever wants to feel dusty or complacent unless they've given up.

Eventually, I settled on five things I wish every advertiser, marketer and PR pro knew because I think all of us, at one time or another, grows weary of watching people fail. That's the way marketing works. You can put in hard work or learn the hard way.

• A Content Strategy Is Not A Marketing Strategy. As content marketing has become a dominant digital marketing tactic, more businesses want to create elaborate content processes, build massive audiences, and become perceived as industry experts. But sometimes you have to ask to what end.

Dial back the meaning of a marketing strategy a few years ago and you might find a creative team tasked with expanding the dandruff shampoo market among men. You might remember how they did it too. The original advertisements showed men in dark suits with their shoulders dusted with flakes, creating a compelling reason to look for the problem and find a solution. Head & Shoulders.

• Breaking Through The Clutter Means More Than A Clever Message. Everywhere you look, marketers want to convince clients that brand visibilityoriginal communication, and writing tips are all they need to succeed. But sometimes marketing means innovation at the product and service development level.

If you operate a lemonade stand on a block with five more lemonade stands, sometimes you have to stop pushing the pink and break open a box of sugar cookies. That is how Federal Express got its start. It started as a small Memphis-based package handler that won with the promise of delivering parcels overnight. So while everybody else talked a good game, they went out and did something.

• Following The Leader Will Make You A Follower. There are plenty of reasons that marketers and advertisers are always looking for best practices, case studies and trends to follow. Sometimes people are looking for new ideas. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes people waste time on easy.

If you have ever revisited the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, you know what I mean. It used to be one of my favorite books. There are still some good ideas inside, many of those business aren't considered the best run companies anymore. While everyone was busy trying to follow their lead, someone else invented better operations and opened new markets.

• It's Not Who You Know, But Who Wants To Know You. Given some estimates attribute 60-80 percent of job placements to personal relationships, one might assume that the old adage that who you know really is more important than what you know. But that's not entirely true.

The key word in the compound phrase "personal relationships" is "personal" and not "relationships," which suggests the size of the network is less important than the depth of the connection. People who boast about being connected or treat their network like a commodity almost never come through. It's the people who don't talk about who they know that are more likely to surprise you.

• Stating The Obvious Is One Step From Redundant. Everybody loves to talk about elevator speeches and how to fix them. That might be reason enough to toss your elevator speech out the window. You can say something a million times and even lace all those SEO links with all the right terms, but so what?

Every time you introduce yourself as a noun, the person you're speaking to asks themselves if they need one. Do I need a plumber? Do I need a social media expert? Do I need an advertising agency? Maybe it would be more worthwhile to conjure up a different question inside their heads. Or, better yet, keep your mouth shut and let them tell you what they need.

Incidentally, Michael Port recently reinforced this last point in his book Book Yourself Solid Illustrated. He sent me a digital version a few weeks ago, but I felt it was too weird to publish my review while I was being swept away by life. The review is mostly written. I'll probably add it next week unless someone wants me to write about something else. Maybe I'll have time to make a new masthead too.

Wednesday, May 8

22 Staples And The State Of Two Internets

The first thing I saw when I woke in the recovery room were the curtains drawn around my bed. They were pale blue, I think. But I can't be certain because that memory is fleeting and already fading.

I only saw them for a few seconds before someone started to guide me out of the haze created by an anesthetic cocktail. It was one of two cocktails that the anesthesiologist let me call a few hours before.

"What's your favorite cocktail?" he asked.

"My favorite safe drink is gin and tonic," I said, because I wanted to be safe.

"That's what this is," he smiled, tapping the syringe. "Gin and tonic. Safe and good. I'll keep you safe."

There aren't any memories as much as fragments after that. I've sorted a couple that make me smile, but most begin in the recovery room. Someone started to ask me questions. She asked me the easy ones first and then worked up to something complex. It's a test to make sure my cognitive functions rebooted.

But I didn't want a test as much as a conversation. So I started asking her questions instead. I wanted to know how was her day was going, how long had she worked there, and why she chose medicine.

They were easy questions, but we eventually worked up to something complex. She was especially interested in my case because the chart made note of this surgery starting with an incidental finding. They found my cancer by accident.

Her husband wasn't so fortunate. His cancer wasn't discovered until he had blood in his urine. He was diagnosed with irreversible bladder cancer. The funeral was a few months ago, and it had deepened her resolve to help people.

"I'm sorry for your loss," I said, consoling her and asking more questions.

"Look at you, worried about me," she smiled. "It was meant to be, you know. It was meant to be that they found yours early."

It wasn't the first time nor was it the last that I would hear those words during my expedited hospital stay. I was scheduled for three nights. I only stayed one. And yet, within those 48 hours when you reflect on and remeasure life, some things make immediate sense like the duality of social connections.

There are two Internets, which is why marketers can't reconcile the space. 

In case you haven't noticed, there are two Internets. There is the one my friend Geoff Livingston wrote about yesterday, with marketers seeing the totality of social media like a very big fish pond and the goal to catch as much fish as possible. Hook, reel, and release. Some companies have teams that do it daily.

Most of them aren't even good fishermen because the only strategy they've come up with to catch more fish is to put out more bait. There is already so much of it floating in the water, untouched, it's a wonder anyone can breathe. And still they add more, daily. It has become so dense that it smacks of pollution.

I was nowhere near it in the first few hours of recovery. I was on the other Internet, which is the one that kept me breathing. I didn't see all the clutter because content surrenders to a shared experience.

Since my wife and I have two children, she couldn't stay in the hospital full time like many people recommended. So I sometimes turned to blog comments and social networks to read and reread the words left by family, friends, and colleagues. Their good thoughts, well wishes, and prayers gave me some added strength while I recovered. I can't thank them enough. Every one of them mattered.

Of course, I didn't just read the words they left for me. I read everything else they shared too. And even though my loosely connected groups of family and friends could be delineated by degree of relation, proximity, or whether we've met in person, not one of them looked like fish nor did any of them ask for bait. This was the Internet where every connection was important and every message mutual.

The intimacy is unmistakeable. The relationships are as real as the one forged between myself and the nurse in the recovery room (and many others along the way). We never met each other before that moment and may never meet again, but we made a connection without any coercion, conjecture, or content creation. By the end of it, I made several more connections too. We went through all of it together, something that even the best connection round ups forget.

Maybe those staples will come out this week, all 22 of them. 

Sometimes we're fortunate and find miracles in faith and modern medicine. While there is plenty more to be done, from my follow up and pending pathology to my recovery schedule and post-recovery rebuild strategy, I feel remarkably blessed to be sitting at my desktop writing something, anything. A week ago, even under the most optimistic scenario, no one could imagine an outcome this good.

Sure, there is some pain here and there and I do get tired as the day presses on, but such challenges seem like nothing compared to those in the first few hours of recovery. It was only a few days ago, my major goals were the kind we all take for granted — breathe without oxygen, drink water without issues, get out of bed with assistance. Nowadays, I'm more likely thinking about work, play, and life changes.

As I alluded to last week, I might be blessed with more time but there is none to waste. There are plans to be made and the more plans the better. But at the same time, I never want to lose sight of the fact that everyone has a journey too. They are all equally grand and challenging, hilarious and heartbreaking.

If you want to change the world you see, you have to start by changing the way you see it. Life is meant to be a shared experience because when we discover more about the people who cross our paths then our own experiences are enriched by them. In other words, my hospital stay is less significant than the hospital experience I took away with a few interesting and inspiring doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. This is how life works.

Online or offline, it hardly matters. But in sticking to the headline thread, suffice to say that this is the side of the Internet where I'd like to invest more time. The state of it is great. It feels good to be back. Nice to meet you, again. How great it would be to catch a movie this weekend. It's a little too soon, maybe.

Wednesday, May 1

Killing Me Softly: Cancer

Richard R. Becker, self portrait
I have said it in a dozen different ways before, but I have never said it more plainly. The quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. Write it down somewhere and tape it to your computer.

We always want for more of it. We rarely use it wisely. And most of us sell it for far too cheap.

For the last few months, I haven't been writing in this space as much. It was a decision I made back in February before I knew it in my head even if I already knew it in my heart. The incidental finding on a CT scan wasn't just a spot on my kidney. It was a mass. It was malignant. And I'm grateful, not regretful.

The remedy is straightforward. I start pre-op tomorrow and the surgery is on Friday. It won't be fun, but I'll find some fun in it anyway. The survival rate for radical nephrectomy is especially good. In terms of cancer, they say, it's the absolute best one to get. It's almost like hitting a jackpot. What does that mean?

There won't be any chemotherapy or radiation. The whole of it rides on one operation, and then a lifelong commitment to a different (but not debilitating) lifestyle with semi-regular followups, blood work, and scans to make sure there isn't any more of it lurking around somewhere. So seize the day.

The past 90 days have been fun. Thanks for sticking around. 

I really give a lot of credit to people like Leslie Lehrman and her daughter Jennifer Windrum. They saw cancer as a catalyst for something bigger. It takes real courage to do something like that. And I've met a lot of people who see it as a calling of sorts. We need more people like them. Cancer needs a cure.

I took a different path, more along the lines of Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault In Our Stars after her transformation. I lived a little more, only alluding to or mentioning surgery as necessary. It was the only way I could work, live, and play without it overtaking my life. I even pushed the surgery out enough so my family could keep our vacation, my students could keep their instructor, and clients and service commitments might have a few more hours of time. My wife hated the idea, but it's who I am.

I quit smoking (before the prognosis, ironically), worked out more, finished some home improvement projects, baked some desserts, made new friends, reached out to old ones, discovered some inspired talents, worked with amazing people across several dozen companies and nonprofits, pressed forward with plans to start a new agency with three other partners, promoted other people's causes and efforts, funded some ideas via Kickstarter, supported education by donating to schools, re-discovered some latent artistic talent, made a sketch at The Getty, stood by as my son received another star for his black belt, saw my daughter baptized because she wanted to be, and wrote fiction for the first time in years. As the log ride caption read on Instagram: This is life, baby.

Sure, there were a few disappointments too. My doctors wouldn't clear me for the Spartan Race so close to surgery. One promising prospect green lighted and then retracted a proposal because someone sold them snake oil, wasting several days of precious time. And occasionally, despite my best intent, the gravity of the circumstances sometimes made me too impatient for those closest to me. I'm sorry.

The next 90 days will be even better. Expect to see changes sometime soon. 

If those last 90 days had taught me anything, it was how working on the wrong accounts truly dragged me down last year. I wasn't always happy with some of the work, even if I was good at it nonetheless.

I had learned the lesson before, but obviously needed to learn it again. There won't be a next time. Beginning with my recovery, expect to see some changes in this space. Time is just to too short to be stuck in one niche for too long.

I really wish I could tell you some specifics, but none of the paragraphs felt right so I took them all  down. Let's save it all for a post-surgery conversation. And if we never have the chance to have one? Then the best way to think about everything is to reflect on a comment I wrote for a friend of mine.

When bad things happen, there is very little you can do except find solace in the storm. And in finding it, hold those close to you a little tighter, even if it is just for a little while. The importance of such things are not measured in minutes but by magnitude. Good night and good luck. It has been my pleasure.

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