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?

Yes, Philosophy is Practical.


The single most common question I get about my choice to study Philosophy is whether it is practical: “What do you do with that?”

My answer is – EVERYTHING.

Philosophy is a tool, but more than that, it is a more deliberate and deliberative way of using other mental faculties.

What exactly does Philosophy offer us?

  • Philosophy guides, organizes and disciplines our curiosity
  • Philosophy prompts us to ask about the nature of our world and how things work
  • Philosophy exposes our subjective bias and protects us from making hasty decisions
  • Philosophy helps us become more virtuous people (we need all the help we can get)
  • Philosophy trains us to constantly ask, “How could I approach this differently and do it better?”

With such obvious benefits, how could we not all choose to pursue Philosophy at some level?

Yes, there are those who think that perpetually playing the devil’s advocate and making snarky remarks is what philosophy is really about. There is no love of wisdom in that.

Real philosophy gets stuff done.

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

Living the Ethos of Customer Experience


I design user interfaces & workflows, communications, perform marketing analysis, and I work on developing brand identity.  It is easy to get disconnected from your customers when you’re interacting over a virtual medium of a website.

And when I ask friends in my field questions about the specific pain points, desires & needs of their customers (as they relate to the website), I almost always get a blank stare.  So it appears I am not alone in seeing the potential disconnect.

So, through mistakes and successes, I’ve jotted down a few things I’ve learned about the ethos of customer experience management:

  • Get Your Hands Dirty with Deep Customer Analysis – Without acute segment analysis, you might not even notice you have a customer retention issue. The inflow of new customer revenue sometimes covers up the loss of revenue from recently departed veteran customers.
  • Welcome Feedback – Provide ongoing platforms for direct customer feedback within your inbound channels of communication. Encourage honest feedback and continually reiterate and demonstrate a commitment to acting on customer feedback.  It builds trust, reduces customer frustration and feelings of alienation, demonstrates transparency and seriously contains issues from exploding into PR disasters so you don’t need to worry about reputation management on communication channels over which you have very little control.
  • Initiate One-to-One Contact  – Marketers shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to individual customers.   To improve customer retention, throwing out blanket apology emails can help, surveys can help, offering refunds through customer service channels can help, but it means a lot more to customers when marketers and other managers of customer experience proactively contact them with the express purpose of fixing their pain.
  • Create a Culture of Perpetually Re-evaluating Customer Experience – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the antithesis of a customer-centric mindset.  There is always room for improvement in customer experience, so build a culture of ongoing revision and enhancement.  You’ll do a much better job of preempting customer service, satisfaction & retention issues. Rain or shine, evaluate retention.  Just because customers stopped complaining doesn’t mean the problem is fixed – it might mean they’ve given up and left already.

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.

Brand Message Fail


Whether it is a punchy tagline, a 30 second story or a lengthy commercial, we’re surrounded by brands that have no idea how to talk about themselves.

This week, I encountered 3 painfully familiar examples of how to undermine brand equity.

1. Internet Services Company – This brand happens to be a medium-sized online advertisement/marketing company in Los Angeles. On their homepage, front and center, you can’t find much about the brand.  It doesn’t mention that they provide advertisement or marketing services, it just says they help “grow verticals,” which is rather ambiguous.  The blurb on the homepage introducing the company reads as follows:

Our Story – <<Brand Name>> is a unique and compelling story. Our business model is producing superior results. Learn about how we do it. Click here

So, where to start. First, this company actually does have a compelling story.  If you were morbidly curious enough to fall for the “click here” at the end of the brand’s blurb, then you would land on the “About Us” section of the site, which details some very impressive facets of the company’s evolution, achievements and distinctive characteristics.

Somehow the homepage designer decided that the best content from that page was the most vague and unsubstantiated claims imaginable.  First, you don’t just assert that you are unique and compelling.  You have to say something unique and compelling about who you are and what you do.  Unique and compelling people don’t walk around saying that they are unique and compelling; so what makes marketers think that brands can get away with it?

Another issue is that “superior results” is not a business model.  It is not only too ambiguous to count as a business model, it is a differentiating factor, which is one part of a business model.  But even as a differentiating factor, it is too vague.  How are the results superior?  Are they more efficient? more accurate?  more cost-saving? more revenue-generating? What kind of results are produced? For all I know, this could be true of an accounting firm. There’s no indication that this company’s results have to do with online marketing outcomes.

After reading this blurb, which is so vague it could apply to virtually any company in the world, who would want to “click here” to learn how they “do it”?  Not me.

2. Distribution Company – On my way to the office, I passed this large freight truck that had plastered on the side a giant, daunting logo, contrasted with the underwhelming tagline, “A Different Kind of Merchant” (albeit in equally gigantic type).

The tagline itself should tell me how they are a different kind of merchant, not simply assert it.  How about “<<Brand Name>>. Always One Step Ahead of You” or maybe, “<<Brand Name>>. We’re on it.”  Or perhaps, “<<Brand Name>>, zoooooooooooooom!”  or maybe “<<Brand Name>>: the sound of your business delivered on time.” Okay, so these aren’t the most sexy taglines.  But they are certainly more interesting and suggest a “different kind” of distributor.

3. Bank Ad Campaign – On a drive through LA, I spotted a billboard that I was later able to find online. This campaign, while not necessarily tied to the core brand message, does directly impact the brand messaging because of the way the brand name and logo is used.

What is wrong with this?  It may not be obvious at first.  I can sort of sympathize with the marketers behind this campaign and their desire to be customer-centric and identify their customers with the brand.  But there is a reason you don’t see major brands making the mistake of using their brand name and logo in a generic sense, as a word other than the brand name.

This works against the goal of distinguishing a brand by excessively or arbitrarily employing the brand name or logo. Altering the brand name meaning impacts trademark strength as well as brand perception.  It raises the question, “So how do I know whether future uses of the ‘U’ name and logo are referring to the brand or to the word ‘You’?”  Suppose I read an ad that says, “U can do better.”  Is this saying “You can do better” or “<<Brand Name>> can do better”? This ambiguity creates an interesting double-meaning, which is why it is tempting to use.  But the long-term impact of this ambiguity dilutes the brand equity.

The only time it may be acceptable to violate this rule is when you use a part of a brand name in an alternative way.  For example, “X Marks the Spot – The Official Xbox 360 Geo-caching Event”.  This is debatable though, and I’m not sure I can claim this is always acceptable or advantageous.  It seems to work well for product promotional offers tied to a product/service, but the risk to brand equity seems to increase when you mess with the integrity of the parent brand.

Lesson Learned: Tell Why You Matter & Own Your Name
From the first two cases mentioned we learn that there is nothing unique or compelling about the mere assertion that you are unique and compelling.  It comes across as lazy and arrogant to say so.  Articulate the specific attributes, events, characteristics that make you unique.

The second lesson from these examples – own your name. I don’t walk around my office calling my co-workers “Chad” or calling my stapler “Chad.”  It would just cause them to think I was having an identity crisis, or some more severe neurosis.  So don’t go around putting your name on random things.  If you are going to extend the reach of your brand identity to sub-brands, have a carefully deliberated strategy behind the architecture.

The point of this post isn’t to mock sincere marketing efforts of others; it is to highlight common mistakes that come at a high cost to brand equity, with the hope that fellow marketers would learn from these examples and deliver unified, unique and compelling brands.