Too Rushed To Know Where We’re Going


Job descriptions often call for individuals possessing a “strong bias for action”. Businesses almost always need more execution-focused employees.

So it is natural that we shape the way we talk and interact with co-workers according to this ideal.  One way we portray ourselves as driven by an urgency to act is to speak in simple and punchy generalizations that help summarize massive amounts of information and make it look as though the path forward, what should be done in response to the information, was almost obvious.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, but not always. At least once a year, if not once a quarter, we need to practice the discipline of self-doubt, questioning, putting it all on the table. Deconstruction is one of the most constructive things I do personally and professionally. 

Our company culture asks us to move quickly, especially during difficult times, but we also tend to make hasty generalizations and decisions simply because we’re sitting in a meeting full of puzzled looks and someone has to step forward and cast a vision for the road ahead.

And that vision usually starts with some pretty big assertions about the company, competition and the market context:

“We’re the kind of company that…and not the kind that…”
“X is what we do best, we have to stick to X…”
“Our competition is doing A, but we have to do B better and more efficiently”

But because they are so far-reaching and simple, generalizations can cover much more important and complex internal and external environmental factors that should be factored into our strategy.

It’s important we’ve thought deeply about those generalizations ahead of time and in great detail. Yes, we have to speak concisely and make blanket statements. But had better do our homework beforehand.

That’s where deconstruction comes into play.  Not everyone has the patience for it, but good leaders must thrive off of it.  The only way to refresh your strategy is to have the ability to pull it apart and see it for what it is. Without maintenance, the machine becomes obsolete, fragmented, confused and falls apart.

Action determines whether we move forward, but strategy determines where we’ll end up. So which is more urgent?

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Revise, Improve or Hold?


Revise, Improve or Hold?We all have our defaults, some more cemented than others.

It seems that one of the most common defaults we all have is how we respond to challenges.  The three default responses tend to be either: revise, improve or hold.

The problem is, our preferred way of tackling a challenge is not always the best response.  As a universal rule, any one of these on its own would be disastrous. 

Constantly revising the fundamentals is a recipe for insanity. Constantly striving to improve things that are inherently finite in their capacity for improvement will drive you crazy too (while wasting a lot of your time). Clinging to the obsolete breeds mindless, mechanistic stagnation.

So what would happen if we embraced each situation on its own merits, soberly and patiently facing its unique attributes?

If we were to discipline ourselves to practice such delicate respect for nuance, we would see entire industries revolutionized. If we approached our own lives with this level of care, what then?

Organic Growth: A Lesson from Nature


The behavior of cells provides a pattern for organizational growth that is, as far as I can tell, unrivaled.

When a cell reaches a certain size, it naturally splits in two. There are no meetings, no bureaucratic stages of approval. The brain does not need to sign off on the activity of cell division.

Yet, despite this split, the synergy between cells remains in tact
. Tissues form through a common structure, composition and function, just like teams within an organization.

And this synergy extends beyond tissues. Regardless of how much cells split and multiply, they coordinate to form organs and organs in turn harmonize with one another to form systems.

Despite the complex relational harmony of the cell with its neighbors, it retains a distinct cell membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

We need more teams that imitate animal cells. We should strive to imitate their delicate balance of preserving the distinctness of the parts with the unity of the whole.

Without walls providing a degree of insulation, we lose drive, team camaraderie, focus, and that distinct inertia that happens when collaboration is free to happen through face-to-face personal relationships.

With such a balance in the internal hierarchy of cell life, it's no wonder we see such incredible examples of delicate order and spontaneity in nature. See more drawings from Haeckel: http://bit.ly/HaeckelFlickr

*Most of the ideas expressed in this post are probably not original. I am not aware of any commentary on the significance of the cell membrane and its analogical application to organizations. I owe Richard Nutley thanks and credit for drawing my attention to the importance of cities with walls. Christopher Alexander has pointed out the significance in architectural design of barriers and transition areas in A Pattern Language

Mona Lisa Doesn’t Need to Shout


Mona Lisa doesn’t need to shout.  With confident, restrained grace, her smile draws us in with more power than a shout. It is as if her smile knows its place within the masterpiece.

Designing a masterpiece and designing a marketing strategy share this in common: both require an artful balance of relative context through selective, focused and deliberate strokes.

In design, crowding your medium with noisy elements is not a promising way to achieve a memorable, lasting masterpiece. From Mona Lisa’s smile, we learn that brands can be more effective by finding their unique but coherent place within a canvas of competitors.

Your competitive position should reflect not just an internal awareness of your brand, but an acute external awareness of your competitive context: how are you perceived and what makes you stand out amongst competitors?

And that’s exactly how memorable art comes to be: the artist places the appropriate weight, focus and distinctive value upon the central figures in a piece by building upon the background and supporting elements in a coordinated and delicate matter.

Which smile most resembles your brand?

Marketing Strategy Visual

Online Positioning: Picking a Keyword Mix


It seems like every 5 minutes a blogger writes about how to do SEO.

But there are only scarce fragments and side notes on how to actually research and craft a comprehensive strategy & plan for how SEO will be done most effectively for a particular website.  This is staggering.  The competition online is simply too fierce, too large and too varied to risk compromising on strategy.  In this post, I’ll provide a few of my own SEO mental models and some concrete guidance for those who want to get their SEO efforts right the first timeIt’s not rocket science, but it does take some discipline, attention to detail and analysis. 

So here we go.

First, the 80-20 rule.  Ideally about 20% of your time allocated to SEO is spent on prep/strategy, while about 80% is spent actually doing the SEO – creating & optimizing content, improving site structure and building external links.  But from my experience, roughly 80% of success in SEO is the result of effective strategy and planning.  For one particular site that required about a month of SEO research, organic traffic had increased 100% within just 3 months of the initial roll-out of the 1st phase of content/structure changes. And don’t get me wrong – the site was already ranked fairly well across a variety of terms.  It just hadn’t picked the right terms – it was not yet positioned hierarchically or around the core value prop. or target audience.

Research, Analysis & Keyword Selection

SEO Process Cycle

Differentiation
Just like any marketing plan, you need a competitive position online that is based on your specific value proposition and core audience.  You can’t say “me too” online for very long.  There’s far too much of that going on.  The key to SEO positioning is centering your keyword mix on the differentiating factors of your value proposition.  You need differentiation to have a position that attracts quality traffic, but you also need to test these keywords.  This is especially true for smaller sites and smaller businesses.  Understand who your competitors are online and study their ranking and website content to ascertain where they’re strongly positioned and where they’re vulnerable.

High Quality Keyword Mix
Jump into Google Analytics and look at organic traffic and conversion rates by keyword.  Pick the top performing candidates. If you don’t have historical conversion data associated with particular keywords, a modest AdWords budget is an ideal channel for discovering how to refine keyword mix and gain some quantitative support to the keyword mix in consideration.

Highest Possible Search Volume for Keyword Mix
Using keyword traffic research tools, you want to pick the most popular keyword variants within your mix of candidates to be the focal point.  Use AdWords keyword research tool and Google Trends. The operative word here is highest possible – don’t sacrifice quality for quantity unless you plan to be a gigantic traffic eating monster like Wikipedia or eHow.

Long-Tail
As one hypothetical example, it is possible to take a word like “craft beer” and turn it into longer, more specific keywords, like “seasonal craft beers” and “IPA craft beers”.  In this way, the core of your focus is around a broader, high-volume keyword mix; but you extend and diversify your keyword array around those core terms.  This makes it easier to rank high for keyword variants that competitors may not have thought of.  The nice thing about longer keyword phrases is that they tend to produce higher conversion rates.

Keyword Strategy: Visualizing Structure, Defining Variants,  Applying Keywords to Site

The Plan

After the keyword mix is visualized and clearly defined, it is crucial to have a concrete plan and timeline for executing an SEO strategy.  The first phase is site/content optimization.  The second phase is content creation (blogging would be an ideal example of this for small businesses).  The third phase is external link building.  All of these can be done concurrently, but it is important to at least emphasize each of these phases in the stated order.

The final component of the SEO plan is a roadmap for measuring and improving upon the SEO strategy over time.  If you can’t quantify the impact of an SEO strategy, it’s a waste of time and money.

What to measure:

  • Rank is still a useful leading indicator; however, don’t forget that there are thousands of keyword variants used to find your site.  So even if you don’t rank that well for your core keyword, you could be taking #1 spots for lower traffic, higher quality terms.
  • Traffic – Relative and absolute growth month to month of organic traffic
  • Conversion Rate of organic traffic high-level and broken down by keyword.  At the very least, track registrations (or the rough equivalent of that for your site) and transactions (or, if revenue is not your business objective online, whatever most desired action defines the whole of your site)
  • Retention & Customer Value $ (Advanced) – You need a database/eCRM for this.  But it is extremely helpful for quantifying the outcome of SEO efforts. If you don’t have a database or eCRM solution, there a good make-shift solution: take the number of new user registrations by month (even if that is a simple .xls file of email addresses w/ dates) and subtract your Google registration conversions.  Then, apply your AOV or average annualized customer value $ to the share of new registrants that acquired through organic search. By taking these two simple steps, you are now at least able to quantify the share of new users acquired organically through unpaid search and the approximate share of annual revenue those new users produced.

A few pointers on how to measure and analyze effectively:

  • Annotate EVERYTHING – every major change to site structure/content, every ranking milestone, every major Google algorithm update, every major external link building effort.  I guarantee you’ll need to look back in order to do effective analysis and be able to articulate the story of your SEO growth.  There are far too many variables to keep track of in your head.
  • Use Rank Checker to document rank improvement over time.  Later on, you’ll want to overlay this data with traffic & conversion data from organic traffic.  You can automate this Firefox add-on to run routinely and check a long list of keywords.  Make sure you’re logged out of Google, etc. when you run it or your rankings will be skewed to your personal search history.
  • Everyone can afford to set up a free Google Analytics account and pay a web admin or developer to add Google Goal TrackingGoogle Webmaster tools is an important insight tool – I particularly appreciate the previous month comparison chart for keywords.  It shows you how much you’re up or down for any given keyword (traffic, click-throughs, etc.).  Webmaster tools also provides html suggestions, which is helpful for those just getting started in SEO.
  • Use AdWords keyword research tool.  It’s still one of the best tools.  While your at it, setup a modest AdWords campaign ($500) and get some initial conversion data on different keywords you’re considering.  Although, make sure your statistical sample (number of click-throughs) is large enough to actual warrant any serious conclusions.
  • Review & Analyze weekly, monthly, quarterly & annually – experiment with SWOT analysis approaches and document everything you find.  When you annotate your changes, try to include a concise summary of the analytical justification for the change as well.

That’s about it.  If you follow these steps at the outset, you’ll have a clear sense of where you’re going, you’ll know where to get started and how to prioritize the phases of execution, you’ll know what to do when things aren’t going well, you’ll be able to explain to others why things are going well, and you’ll know how to continually build on the growth and momentum you’ve started.

I highly recommend SEOmoz, SEO Book and “The Art of SEO“.  Great resources for the beginner or aspiring expert.  These thought leaders provide far more insight and expertise than I do on the subject and I couldn’t have had success without them.

Business Leadership: The Art of Thinking Big & Acting Small


Many people are technically proficient in performing a skill.  There are just as many who easily grasp that skill’s strategic value and tactical purpose.

But you rarely meet both traits in the same person. 

When you do, it’s usually someone doing a curiously excellent job in their work area.  Learn to imitate the intellectual veracity and discipline for execution you observed.  From personal experience, it is easy to imitate one trait; painful to imitate both, but good for you.

It is good for you because it forces you to make better decisions.  Strategists err by not knowing how to actually get the job done; technicians err by not understanding the broader context and long-term implications of their work, so they don’t learn how to do excellently.

Business leaders, responsible for strategic direction, also need to be able to execute, perhaps as well as anyone beneath them.  It’s true that no one can do everything, but everyone can maintain a practice of constantly specializing in at least one skill area.

Imitating good examples keeps you sharp, but it also keeps you humble.  Nothing reminds me how much room for growth I have like trying to be well-rounded.  Leaders get lazy and sometimes become full of themselves when they have others below them to do their bidding.  Getting your hands dirty and honing a technical skill reminds you how much you depend on others to get the job done.

Mastering the art of balancing both conceptual and technical excellence doesn’t make you a good leader, but, stay honest, and it is fairly likely you’ll become one.  Think big, act small, and it’s difficult to avoid becoming an effective business leader.

 

Online Performance Measurement in a Nutshell


1. What is website engagement?
Website engagement is the combination of the quality, quantity, frequency and depth/complexity of user actions/interactions, outcomes & experiences on a website that matter to that website’s owner.

2. How should it be measured?
Website engagement is measured by qualitative and quantitative KPIs that track how much (volume/absolute metrics), how efficiently (ratios/rates of engagement/ROI) and how exceptionally (customer satisfaction index, etc.) a website is delivering on its promise to its target audience(s).

3. What specific approach and measurements should be used?
From a high level, it involves the whole customer lifecycle, measuring interactions/conversions at different phases in the customer-company relationship, from the point of registration/first use, to first purchase, repeat purchase and other engagements related to long-term retention.

From a ground level, I would look at micro-conversions that logically and actually prove to be leading indicators of growth in the area of key business outcomes. I measure engagement on the current website I manage by tracking a closely linked series of metrics.

First, I look at registration conversion rates and bounce rates to gauge the quality of the traffic I’m driving to my site. Then I look at the absolute volume of new traffic I’m driving to my site, in order to track the reach/exposure of my organic/unpaid and paid advertising efforts, as well as other marketing channels (email, SMS, RSS, etc.).

After that, I turn to site usage data, like entry & exit points, keyword & referring site data, avg. # of page views, common internal searches, etc. Then I look at conversion rates, CPA (cost per acquisition/conversion) & ROI, and the average window of time it takes for a customer to make their first transaction or key conversion.

Then I look at overall conversion rate for that first transaction. After that, I evaluate retention related metrics, like % of customers with more than X number of transactions and % of customers with and AOV greater than $XXXX. (This assumes a few things about the given business model in which I am operating, but it is for the most part broadly applicable).

Lastly, I would gather survey data and call center data to measure customer satisfaction and gather insights into customer behavior on the website.  If you can manage it, talk to customers directly or reach out to them on customer complaint forums or by email.  Any channel you can use to extract valuable qualitative data is priceless.

Phew! That was a mouthful.  Hopefully this helps frame website performance in a holistic light, if nothing else.  These questions were raised in a course of mine and I thought they were simple, but pointed.

Below is a model which I developed to frame online performance & engagement measurement for an auction e-commerce website I oversee.  It visualizes website engagement KPIs categorically, from the outside-in, moving from site usage data to business outcomes to actionable insights for the core of the business:

website engagement measurement

This graph is loosely based on Avinash Kaushik’s model in Web Analytics 2.0.