Category Archives: Strategy

Blog Posts about Strategy.

Anne Lamott speaks the truth

We all hate to be bad at something.  As Kathy Sierra says, “The User wants to kick ass.”  And most of us don’t start out kicking ass.

One solution is to embrace what Anne Lamott perfectly dubs the “shitty first draft.”  I hardly need to tell you what that means, but let’s use Lamott’s words.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

This maps perfectly into Ed Catmull’s thinking, that Pixar’s entire method is to go “from suck to non-suck.”

If you’re noting a theme, you’re right.  Creating content for your brand is much more about craft than art.  The way to get something decent written is to start with something (anything).  If you hide from the process and “wait for inspiration,” you will never accomplish anything.  Your first drafts will suck.  By definition.  Get over it.  Your first 20 completed posts will someday fill you with cringing embarrassment, just like your high school poetry.  But there’s a big difference between someone who’s out there trying to create and someone who’s too afraid to try.

Does this mean you can just throw bad stuff out there?  Of course not.  You still have to respect your readers’ time and energy.  Is any of this easy? Of course not.  But if short cuts existed, you would have found them by now.  If you’re afraid to step up to bat, you cannot get a base hit.

John Lennon described how he wrote Nowhere Man (for my money, the best thing he ever did).

“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down”.

Keith Richards has similarly said:

(P)eople say they write songs, but in a way you’re more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around, it’s just a matter of like an antenna, of whatever you pick up. So many uncanny things have happened. A whole song just appears from nowhere in five minutes, the whole structure, and you haven’t worked at all.

But if you’re not there with a guitar in your hand, the song won’t get written at all.  By all means, be open to inspiration.  But show up to work every day anyway.  Embrace the shitty first draft and start creating.  That act alone puts you ahead of most of the human race, who are still waiting for inspiration.

And read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Most honest book about writing I know.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


What Viktor Frankl can teach us

Viktor Frankl made a titanic contribution to human understanding.

He was held in Auschwitz during World War II, and endured horrible privations.  Maybe we’re all so familiar with the Holocaust that we lessen its severity, but it was as ambitious an act of cruelty as homo sapiens has ever been involved in.  Every day Frankl and his fellow inmates worked at pointless labor, froze or sweated depending on the elements, and starved.  As the war worsened, the welfare of these inmates became even less important to their jailers, and numbness set in for everyone.  And then one day, the war was over, and Frankl was released.  He had no one waiting for him.  His wife had died in the camps.  His family was dead.  He had suffered through years of imprisonment and cruelty.  So what exactly was the point of life?  Why go on?  More specifically, why did some prisoners survive the camp while others died?  Conditions were equally cruel on all prisoners, so shouldn’t they all have met the same end?  As a psychiatrist, he thought he might have a way to answer that question.

That question was answered in Man’s Search for Meaning.  His principal finding was that those who survived were those who took meaning from life, or as he called it, “the intensification of inner life.”  Even when there was no hope, they found meaning in getting up every morning and conducting themselves the best way they knew how to.

No matter what the circumstances, man has the right and the ability to choose how he reacts:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.


[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

He quotes Nietzsche: He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. 

Most powerfully, he says there is no point searching for a universal meaning of life.  Every path is different, and one size does not fit all.  I can have a meaning for my life, and that can be very different from the meaning that you have for your life.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

We are all on a difficult journey through life, and there is no silver bullet.  As Ben Horowitz says, there are just a lot of lead bullets.  The work has to be done, the work is often hard, and there are no short cuts, no matter how much we want them.

The people who he saw survive the camps, and any other tribulations they faced (because the cruelty of human experience doesn’t stop simply because you’re released from prison) had these three things in common:

  1. They had something bigger than themselves to live for.  It could be love, it could be integrity, it could be their kids.  It didn’t matter what it was, but they had to have something.
  2. They had complete intellectual integrity.  They knew exactly how bad things were, and they didn’t pretend that it was going to get better anytime soon.  They were brutally honest with themselves.
  3. They could improvise.  They didn’t have a plan chiseled in marble, so they could react to opportunities.

Frankl wasn’t the first to inquire about the meaning of life, but his book has struck a chord that few philosophers have.  It’s profound but short, and if you haven’t read it yet, do it now.  It will stay with you for the rest of your life.

P.S.  Nice post, bro, but what does this have to do with social media?  Well, social media is communication, which is about understanding the audience and what they are experiencing.  You are not the only one looking for meaning.  You are not the only one who needs the truth.  You are not the only one who needs to improvise.  If you treat your readers with disrespect and churn out crap, you don’t deserve to be read.  The bar is too high today.  But if you connect to meaning, to intellectual integrity, and to opportunities, you will connect with your reader on a much deeper level.  Are you churning out marketing copy, or are you trying to connect with human beings?  You can use all the modern tools to do either.  Twitter and Pinterest can deliver banal messages or meaningful messages.  The choice is yours.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Pixar is Cruel to its Stories

For content creators, Pixar is a fantastic organization to study.  Part of it is because they make such good movies.  You don’t have to have kids to get choked up by Toy Story or The Incredibles, or Ratatouille.  Just check out this montage, without words, from Up.

That’s artistry.  But you know what else it is?  Craft.  Sweat, and false hopes, and disappointments, and tearing stuff up and starting again.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, has a new book out called Creativity, Inc., which is about how Pixar developed its culture.  As someone who ran a magazine and has worked in creative industries a lot, I’m looking forward to hearing his thoughts on how to manage creative people (which is different from managing engineers), but I’m equally interested in seeing his thoughts on the creative process per se.  The fact that Catmull is trained as a computer scientist, and not as a theatre director, is not lost on me.  The common misconception people have about managing creative people is that they need to be coddled and kept away from the hard edge of business.  In my experience, creative people are all different, just like engineers are all different.   There is no one size fits all for them, but the best creative people I know live in the real world.  They have always relished getting as close as possible to the business problem that needs to be solved.  It’s not so much that they are trying to sell out and make something that is empty but popular.  It’s that you can’t create anything great until you understand the cruel reality of the world.

Catmull’s thinking is deeply rooted in the real world:

People say they want to be in risky environments and do all kinds of exciting stuff. But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

Part of being the successful Pixar is that we will take risks on teams and ideas, and some of them won’t work out. We only lose from this if we don’t respond to the failures. If we respond, and we think it through and figure out how to move ahead, then we’re learning from it. That’s what Pixar is.

A lot of it is understanding our basic software as human beings.  We don’t like failure or risk (even though we all claim to).

Think about our industry, or the things that your readers are facing: The underlying technology continues to change, successful people are always getting older and aging out, and everyone is drawing new conclusions about what really works. There is no stable place. But there is this illusion that somehow you can get to a stable place, figure it all out. People have their fear: They want to be in a secure place; they want to know what to do; they want people to tell them what to do. And there isn’t anything that can remove that underlying piece of human nature. It is when we try to avoid, stop, or control change that we get into trouble

Unfortunately, even at Pixar, all of their ideas start out awful.  And some of them need to be killed, even after a lot of sunk costs have gone into it.  Years of work in some cases– Toy Story 2 had to be completely rewritten a year before release.

The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It’s a baby. It’s like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive, and it requires protection.

Catmull cheerfully describes the Pixar creative process as “going from suck to non-suck.

One of the ways they manage this is a tool called the Braintrust. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.  Read the whole piece, but the process looks scary as hell.  The smartest people in the organization meet together every few months to review where they are on a movie, and are encouraged to be candid and solve problems.  Not all of us have this luxury of having brilliant people give tough love to your content, but if you have guts to go through with a similar process, your content will get immeasurably better.  We all have blind spots, and no one is enthusiastic about having the flaws in their work pointed out.  But that’s the only way to kill mediocrity.  Pixar has had 14 film releases, and every single one of them has been #1 at the Box Office.  Even the Beatles and Michael Jackson didn’t pull that off.

But isn’t that the story of every successful recording artist? Over time they drive away anyone who will tell them that their new stuff is weak.  They surround themselves with yes-men and lose their edge.  (Elvis Presley, Lady Gaga, Kanye West– the examples are countless. Look at the Beatles after they stopped working with George Martin.)   It takes a lot of bravery to expose yourself to real criticism, and very few people are willing to do it.  But those that do have that discipline, keep their edge.

Part of Pixar’s success is surely due to the creativity of their team.  But a hell of a lot is due to their process, and having the guts to do painful things in order to drive out mediocrity.  Think of the world we live in now, with infinite choice and almost perfect competition.  What is the point of producing anything that’s mediocre?  Adding to the noise in this world is not a worthy end.  Be cruel to your stories.  Make them good enough to be worth taking up space in other people’s heads.

Creativity is a must-have.  But, cruel as it sounds, so is Rigor.

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



Why Atul Gawande is right

Some things are simple, some are complex.

As we have built ever more complicated machines and systems, we eventually come up against the limits of what anyone can keep in their head.  For the most complicated tasks—like surgery or flying a passenger aircraft—we need something that allows us to build on what we know, but account for the fact that we’re mortals, and mortals mess up.  That’s why we have the checklist.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes for the New Yorker (that’s a pretty remarkable combination, by the way), wrote a terrific book about the power of the checklist called The Checklist Manifesto.

[Y]ou have a desperately sick patient and in order to have a chance of saving him you have to get the knowledge right and then you have to make sure that the 178 daily tasks that follow are done correctly—despite some monitor’s alarm going off for God knows what reason, despite the patient in the next bed crashing, despite a nurse poking his head around the curtain to ask whether someone could help “get this lady’s chest open.” There is complexity upon complexity. And even specialization has begun to seem inadequate. So what do you do?

Airline pilots are under the same strain to manage complexity.  This is a great story about how the pilot’s checklist came about.  Human fallibility is one thing you can depend on, and managing it is key to getting anything complicated done.

So what does this have to do with social media?  Isn’t it just about cat memes?

For all of us content creators, it’s hard enough to create something original, but we also have to get that content distributed.  In Hollywood studios, there is a fundamental difference between making movies and selling movies.  Both jobs are hard, and require specialization.  For the modern brand, you have to do both—come up with something clever, but also make sure you reach your regular audience by posting it everywhere it should be posted, make sure you are leveraging all the other audiences you are relevant to by getting others to share it, monitoring how the audiences are reacting to it, and scanning the horizon for good content to curate for your audience.  None of it is that hard as single steps, but it’s almost impossible to hold it in your head at the same time.  Constant partial attention is the curse of anyone taking social media seriously.  That’s where the checklist comes in handy.

There’s no one size fits all, but having a written routine that you follow is surprisingly effective for exercise or for writing and promoting content.  And it’s not just us.

 Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.

But we are vain creatures, too.  None of us think our jobs can be reduced to a simple recipe.

In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. (When you’ve got a patient throwing up and an upset family member asking you what’s going on, it can be easy to forget that you have not checked her pulse.) Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. In complex processes, after all, certain steps don’t always matter. … “This has never been a problem before,” people say. Until one day it is.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

I have my own publishing checklist, and I’ll share it with you if you ask, but it covers these basic sections.

  • Reading the news that matters to my audience (RSS feeds, Twitter lists, Facebook pages)
  • Filling the curation queue
  • Creating something new
  • Promoting the new content on the relevant platforms (owned pages)
  • Promoting the new content to people who might find it useful (chats, emails, tweets)
  • Monitor how my content from the last few days has been doing and adjust

The new world not only allows us to be our own media companies, it forces us to be our own media companies.  A checklist lets you ensure that you’re not missing the important steps of an increasingly complex process.

It’s almost humiliating to think that a checklist improves performance, but it works at the grocery store, it works at the gym, and it works in social media.  Best of all, it frees up your brain to worry about more important things.

Photo credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Irving Berlin was Right

Irving Berlin is a tremendous role model for all of us.

He started out as nobody from nowheresville—an immigrant from Czarist Russia who grew up penniless on the Lower East Side of New York City.  But he worked as an office boy, then a song plugger, and eventually a songwriter for hire.  And he wrote a lot of songs.  Over 1500 published songs, with enormous hits like “God Bless America”, “White Christmas”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  He was all about hustle.

He developed at this time the work habits he would retain all of his life. After dinner Berlin would sit down at the piano and write songs until dawn. Since he had no formal musical training, he could only play the piano in one key.

This anecdote says a lot:

Once, a woman who met Berlin at a party exclaimed, ‘I guess there’s no one who has written as many hits as you have!’ He replied, ‘I know there’s no one who has written so many failures.’ Perhaps his childhood experiences — initially cruel, and then impoverished and challenging — taught him that good times and comfort could be fragile, temporary luxuries.

He wrote a ton of clunkers.  A lot of songs that just didn’t work, and many that crossed the line.  Not everyone is Paul McCartney in 1965.  (And Paul wrote his share of clunkers too. )

You know who lost more games in his career than any other Major League Pitcher?  Cy Young.  If you create a lot you will fail a lot.  You also will succeed a few times.

Most of us have to be disciplined in order to crank out serviceable, professional, but not breathtaking content.  But if you’re diligent, you can get lucky a few times.  I like to think of this as “expanding the luck surface area.”   If you create a lot and get your work seen by lots of people, it’s much more likely that something good is going to happen.   Creating one flawless post is not the point.  It’s about creating 100 good posts and sending them out into the world.  You’re much more likely to hit a home run if you get up to bat more.

This plugs right in to one of Berlin’s rules:

It is said that Berlin succeeded in part because he followed a strict work ethic. The composer had “Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs,” which appeared in an interview in AMERICAN MAGAZINE in 1920; he explained one of them thusly: “The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK.”

And interestingly, he was not a lone wolf:

Berlin could not read music. He consequently would work out all of the details of the song in his head, and then sing and play it for his musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right.

He didn’t have to know how to do everything—he focused on writing something good, and then let other people help him to turn it into something that suited what the market needed.  He needed someone to transcribe the tune into the sheet music—you might need someone to shoot a video based on your blog post.  It’s OK to have partners.  It’s not OK to avoid creating content.

Irving Berlin was not afraid to write something that wasn’t perfect, and you shouldn’t be afraid either.  It’s a very noisy world, and you’re crazy if you think that every piece of content you write will be cherished and pored over under a jeweler’s loupe.  Most of what you write will be ignored.  But that’s no excuse for not trying.  If you don’t create, you won’t be noticed.  At all.  If you’re diligent, you will probably get there.  Maybe they won’t be singing your song at every Major League Baseball game, but you will be in the conversation.

Irving Berlin had the guts to keep on creating.  You should too.  Listen to this Irving Berlin playlist and see what’s possible when you put in the hours.

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



Growth Hacking v Traditional Marketing

Lean Startup thinking is the most important addition to business thought in the last 20 years. What Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and many others have uncovered is a way to manage the biggest issue in a new venture– uncertainty.  There is so much uncertainty about so much (customer base, value proposition, business model) that the tools of traditional marketing (e.g., spend money on media) are comically inappropriate.  The Lean Startup method allows you to rapidly try many different versions of your idea cheaply to see what gets traction.  If the market ignores it, you have data.  If the market loves it, you have data.  And the data is what tells you where to go.  It is humbling, exhilarating, and might lead to nothing at all.

The Marketing role at a Lean Startup ends up being part of the whole fail-fast-and-pivot model, and doesn’t look much like marketing at a mature company.  When done correctly, customer acquisition (what we normally called marketing) is baked into the product itself.  (Think about Hotmail, Dropbox, and AirBnB—if you use the product correctly, you help it acquire new customers.)  It’s the very opposite of what most marketers do all day.  When Johnson & Johnson want to launch a new line of Band-Aids, they put in years of research and work in product development, and when it’s done, they throw it over the wall to Marketing and say “go generate demand.”  (I simplify, of course.  They don’t throw it over a wall—they send an email.)

This is a great summary of how Growth Hacking is different from traditional marketing.  And why growth hacking is all about cheap or free tools rather than giving money to ad agencies.  Startups by definition are about extreme uncertainty.  Nobody knows what will work, so why bother spending a lot of money on media?  A big bang is irrelevant—in most cases, startups can’t handle a million customers, so why would you want to even think about TV?  (Moment of silence for  Growth hacking is all about experimenting, gathering data, and abandoning things that don’t work.

In a way, it’s a similar insight to what William Goldman said about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”  We don’t know if any idea is going to work.  So we dumb things down to be inoffensive.  This fear of offending makes most marketing safe and mediocre. When it fails, you can always shift the blame away from yourself.  You can blame the product, you can blame the economy, you can blame the weather.  For the last 100 years, marketing was about guessing, not about knowing.  Why?  Because there was no feedback loop, so you had to wait until your work hit the street before you knew if it worked.  You could use your best judgment, and maybe even test it with audience samples, but you never knew what was going to work.

Today, you can create as many different messages as you want, release them into the wild, and see what the market likes.  This is a fundamental difference with the pre-Internet era.  Now we can see what dog food the dogs like before we commit to buying a big batch of it.

This feedback loop is being leveraged all over the economy.  My personal favorite is the work Amazon Studios is doing.  Rather than present finished products with hidden flaws, it exposes projects at their early stages and asks the audience to find the flaws.  Before money is spent.  It makes a huge difference not so much in the number of hits, but in the number of misses.

Amazon are real growth hackers, because they are putting data from the audience into the design of the product itself—if the audience hates it or is just meh, they know they have to abandon it or fix it.  But most companies aren’t pure growth hackers.  They throw you a completed product over the wall and say “go find me leads.”

While you don’t have the freedom to revamp the product itself, you certainly can revamp the marketing.  Experiment, fail, and learn.  Instead of Product-Market Fit, search for Message-Market fit.  Try multiple approaches and see which, if any, stick.  You’ve got essentially free message production and message distribution, so why don’t you see what people actually respond to?  As I said at the start—it’s humiliating.  Most of your ideas are bad.  (That’s OK, most of my ideas are bad too.)  But it’s much better to find out your idea sucks before you make the company spend $100,000 on it.  Denial is a lot safer psychologically, but denial doesn’t make you better or smarter or more valuable.  Denial keeps you on the same treadmill of mediocre work.

Take the blindfold off.  You might learn something.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Get Distinctive

Every media company has the same basic strategy. Attract, retain, and monetize viewers.  The strategy involves identifying your target market, identifying their needs, determining how to monetize the viewers (ads or subscription), and creating a machine to pump out the content.

The tactics are in constant flux– the basics of storytelling go back a long way, but the way we tell stories keeps changing as new mediums and techniques pop up.  You’ll never get all the tactics right, but as long as you keep up with your viewers, you’ll be fine.

It’s not easy keeping all this in balance, but when the strategy and the tactics are right, the company becomes distinctive– the only ones who do what they do.

Distinctiveness comes from meeting 4 criteria

  1. They know and respect their audience
  2. They solve a problem
  3. They have an authentic voice
  4. They keep cranking out content

We all know the examples of great content from traditional media companies, but in this new world, it’s important to recognize the new players who are distinctive.

This is the start of a series that identifies creators who are making something distinctive.  As the exception that proves the rule, we’ll start with Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra.

Kathy Sierra is a writer and blogger specializing in product development.  She spent the early part of her career in exercise physiology, but developed an interest in cognitive science, due perhaps to her own issues with epilepsy.  She took to her new field with a vengeance, and introduced a new style of writing to the (usually unbelieveably dull) world of technical instruction books.  Her Head First series was a revolution in programming books.  Subsequently, she started the very influential blog Creating Passionate Users, which became a top resource for Product Managers.  Her difference– instead of focusing on features, she evangelized focusing on creating the user experience.

The four criteria:

  1. Know and respect their audience.  Kathy’s audience was product managers, usually at tech companies.  Product Management is a well defined yet infinite job.  They are constantly trying to evaluate customer requirements and translating them into features, and turning that bundle of features into a remarkable experience.  (This description is pretty close:  idea -> prototype -> feedback -> design -> build -> launch -> feedback -> iterate -> collect payment.) As a PM, Sierra knew exactly what their issues were because she was  the audience.  (Solving a problem you actually have always makes a better startup .)  Every post is oriented around the need to harmonize what the customer says he wants with what it takes to give the customer an outstanding experience.
  2. They solve a problem.  Every pm is under pressure to be more effective and more efficient.  The need to improve the pm process never ends.  They are the nexus between the customer, sales, IT, finance, and every other department.  Every PM is looking for ways to transform their bundle of features into not just a solution, but a compelling experience.  Sierra nailed it when she said “Users want to kick ass.”  And she gave lessons in ass-kicking.
  3. The voice.  Sierra was unafraid to use technical language that the target segment would understand, but also wrote in plain English,  including profanity when necessary.  She also made great use of visuals and charts.  Some of her best are here.  (I particularly like the “featuritis curve.”
  4. They keep cranking it out.  CPU ran for 4 years, and stopped at the height of its popularity because Sierra started receiving death threats.  It’s an ugly story, and has little to do with why she is so good.  She has started put a toe back in the water with her new blog Serious Pony.  Sadly, it doesn’t have the same pulse as CPU, but it still has gems like this, about stage fright for presenters:

“And since I’m a software developer, I’ll think of the audience as my users.

And if they’re my users, then this presentation is a user experience.

And if it’s a user experience, then what am I?

Ah… now we’re at the place where stage fright starts to dissolve.

Because if the presentation is a user experience, than I am just a UI.

That’s it.

I am a UI.

Nothing more.

And what’s a key attribute of a good UI?

It disappears. 

It does not draw attention to itself.

It enables the user experience, but is not itself the experience.

And the moment I remember this is the moment I exhale and my pulse slows. Because I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them. “

Kathy Sierra is a national treasure, and a great resource for anyone looking to turn their nascent product into an actual user experience.  Interestingly enough, she had no monetization model (although the blog readership and speaking gigs it led to it sure helped her sell books)– but it solved problems in an authentic voice.

She’s one of the pioneers of the new media, and CPU offers a lot to steal from– authentic language, persuasive charts, relentless focus on creating value.  Read the whole thing.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Pope Francis: Marketer of the Year

In Media, segmentation is destiny.  It’s much easier to be best in the world when you have a tightly defined target segment.  (News for Financial Professionals is easy; news for the average citizen is hard.)  It’s easy to define their problems, it’s easy to understand what emotions the audience feels about the brand, and it’s easy to develop coherent content.

However, as the focus goes back from one tightly defined segment to a broader market, more segments appear, and the message starts to get fuzzy.  This problem comes up regularly for household names– Tide, Coke, Apple.  For a widely known brand, should they focus on their heavy users– who supply the money that keeps the brand in business– or on popular opinion more generally (which includes many people who don’t shop there or even refuse to shop there)?

The answer varies, but it always involves a thoughtful cost/benefit analysis.  A few examples:

  • Should GE worry about people who buy aircraft engines, or the general public?  As a mainly B2B company with direct sales forces, GE focuses its social media on appearing worthy and virtuous to the general public.  They aren’t going to sell a nuclear reactor on Twitter.  But they certainly can reach other stakeholders like voters and investors.  The Badass Machines Pinterest board, the #ecomagination hashtag, even the “We Bring Good Things to Life” TV campaign are about reaching you and me, not buyers.  They need to ensure that nobody sees them as the big bad wolf, and starts to regulate them aggressively.  They also don’t want to scare off investors like pension funds, who don’t need the headaches of a controversial stock.  GE needs to be seen as a good neighbor, and that’s what their B2C advertising is all about.  In the grand scheme, it doesn’t cost GE much, and it’s useful insurance for the brand.
  • WalMart is regularly criticized for having a low-paid workforce.  Recently, their critics dragged Mike Rowe into it, claiming that because he did voiceover on an ad, he must be an advocate of their practices.  So far, Wal-Mart has not attempted to address these labor critics via social media, but have allowed proxies (like Rowe) to do a decent job of defending them.  Wal-Mart knows who its core customers are, and they know that its critics are very unlikely to start shopping there, for cultural reasons as much as economic reasons.  Why bother chasing people who you can’t convert?  No matter how much they spend, they will not convince the haute bourgeoisie to shop there.  The brand would have to change too much to become acceptable.  (Equally, don’t try to sell Whole Foods to NASCAR fans.)  People join brands, and being clear about what you stand for can be powerful, even if not everyone agrees with you.
  • Monsanto has done more for homo sapiens than any other company I can name, by vastly increasing the productivity of agriculture.  Without them and other biotech companies, we would either have food shortages globally, or 3x as much land under cultivation (and very little rain forest left).  People in agriculture and food industry understand the benefits that come from Monsanto’s work.  But people who are less informed on agriculture and food tend to have a negative opinion of them.  How much time should Monsanto spend on educating the agriculturally underinformed?  What’s the cost/benefit?  Will consumers really push back against GMO corn when it’s in over half of what they buy at the supermarket?  Or are the complaints coming from angry people on the fringe?  How seriously should Monsanto take their complaints?

One global brand that has done a remarkable job of reaching out to those outside its core segment is the Catholic Church.  And it’s almost entirely the work of Pope Francis.  The Holy Father has made some remarkably appealing decisions, most of which directly confront the popular positioning of the Catholic Church as Rich, Homophobic, and Out-of-Touch.  In the United States, he is more popular than the Catholic Church.  There’s a good summary of his actions here, but here are a few data points that have come out in the last several months.

  • He has 3.7 million followers on Twitter (not Bieberesque yet, but remarkable for a 78-year-old clergyman)
  • He has publicly refused the trappings of wealth, and dresses simply.
  • He leaves messages on nuns’ answering machines
  • He gives people lifts in his car
  • He kisses lepers
  • He meets with boat people
  • He has said with reference to the GLBT community, “Who am I to judge”
  • He accidentally used the Italian version of the F-word when speaking at St Peter’s.

All these are tremendously powerful data points that are in contrast to longstanding feelings that the church was pompous, rich and out of touch.  And interestingly enough, he holds many unfashionable views which are in lockstep with Catholic orthodoxy, but doesn’t seem to be attacked for them.

He is more popular outside the church than any Pope in memory.  And there’s the rub.  How do you define success for the Catholic Church?  Is it to get more converts?  In which segments?  Reduce churn?  Bring peace to the Earth?  It is with no disrespect that I say the Church needs to decide what success looks like in order to succeed.  Has any of this increased attendance at Mass?  Increased donations?  Increased the number of new priests and nuns?  Or is it enough to just make non-Catholics feel better about the brand (whatever that means)?  It’s good to be liked by people outside your core segment. But if doing so alienates your core without capturing new customers, you have a problem.  Your brand has to stand for something—not just temporary popularity.

But clearly the Pope has changed the minds of literally millions of people around the world about a 2000-year-old brand.  A 2000-year-old brand with clearly articulated messages, and physical locations in almost every neighborhood.  It may hurt the church or help it, but he clearly has changed the way people react to the brand of the Catholic Church in a way no one else has in centuries.

Marketing is about creating relationships with people, and getting them to see you the way you would like to be seen.  By that definition, there is no competition— Pope Francis is the Marketer of the Year.

What that means for the Catholic Church is unclear.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



Based on the thinking from Part I, the next level is to start defining generic strategies for common situations.  Every situation is unique, but it’s useful to segment along two principal dimensions—The Buyer axis (B2B v B2C) and the Competitive Positioning axis (Incumbent v Attacker).  Each one of these characteristics has reasonably consistent challenges and no-risk moves that can and should be taken.


A reminder of the context.

Segments and Issues

  1. B2B Brands:  Increase RelevanceMost B2B brands are built on rational benefits—features, specifications, and ROI.  That is a necessary but not sufficient component of building brands on social media.  With increased competition in the Newsfeed or Twitter stream from other brands, many of whom are not even B2B, the principal issue is to increase the brand’s relevance.
      • Deepen Emotional Benefits.  This means getting crisper about functional benefits but leveraging a deeper understanding of the other value you can offer the buyer.  Not just functional benefits and business outcomes, but Professional benefits, Social benefits, Emotional Benefits and Self-Image benefits.  Particularly if you are asking a buyer to forward (or endorse) your materials.  How can you make the buyer look good by passing on your messages?
      • Emphasize Risk Reduction.  Particularly effective is leveraging the heightened risk that B2B buyers feel.  A B2C purchase gone wrong is inconvenient.  A B2B purchase gone wrong can be a career-limiting move.  You don’t want to be alarmist, but you can reemphasize the safety and security of buying your brand.
      • Avoid mediocre ”Thought Leadership.” Thought Leadership is an expression that has lost its meaning.  The content that most companies are calling thought leadership contains little thought and little leadership.  If you are a smart-people company like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, it may be a viable strategy, but for most B2B companies, it’s more effective to (a) show a deep understanding of how your business works today, (b) be aware of how it may change in the future, and (c) how that will affect the buyers.  You don’t need to offer philosophy, futurism, or TED talks (and the TED brand is showing signs of weakness anyway.)

(Read this study from CEB—it’s got very useful stuff on emotion in B2B.

2.  B2C:  Deepen the emotional connection

The nature of B2C brands is that they are more about simple human emotion than complex rationality.  (There’s a reason Pampers puts a picture of a baby on the box.)  No one is going to read a white paper about your frozen dinners.  In an increasingly competitive marketplace for brands and emotions, B2C brands need to own one word.

      • Emphasize Emotion.  As the number of messages increases, and the market gets increasingly noisy, marketers will rely more on emotional messaging.  That means that unless your brand uses emotion effectively now, it’s going to get drowned out.
      • Make your sharers look good. Further, effective B2C social media content conveys social capital on those who share it.  Give people a reason to share it.  Look at masters like George Takei, who convinces hundreds of thousands of people to share his (outsourced) content every day.  Buzzfeed and Upworthy have also developed new forms of ultra-shareable content.  Not every brand needs to become a content factory, but these are the brands you compete with for airtime. The first work is now being done on the science of sharing content, and it’s almost entirely driven by emotions—specifically Curiosity, Amazement, Interest, Astonishment, and Uncertainty.  Is that surprising?  Of course not.  But your brand needs to develop skills at developing messages that evoke those emotions.  Welcome to Show Business.  Excellent storytelling skills will be table stakes in this new era.
      • Experiment with New Forms. B2C brands also need to explore new forms—Lowe’s has done great work with Vine (its Fix in Six has a great point of view), Pinterest in driving more ecommerce than any other site, and new platforms are constantly emerging.  No brands have really cracked Snapchat yet, but several are already there.

3.  Incumbent Brands:  Maintain audience, Deepen emotion

For incumbent brands, the principal challenge is to maintain audience.  The new forms allow attacker brands to disrupt existing brand relationships.  Pre-existing marketing skills around Television, PPC, or SEO are not irrelevant, but the new forms demand a new set of skills.

    • Maintain and Grow audience.  This means being a fast follower on social media.  It’s not absolutely necessary for the incumbent to be the pioneer in social media, but it can’t fall too far behind.  (Home Depot can’t catch up on Vine—Lowe’s Fix in Six has too much of a head start—but it can differentiate on another platform, probably with content focused on contractors.  Maybe in Spanish.)  This also means linking up your social media profiles so that if you capture a buyer anywhere, it is easy to find your other content on other platforms.
    • Reinforce emotion.  Whatever emotion the incumbent owns needs to be deepened and sharpened.  In B2C it may be oriented around surprise or self-actualization.  In B2B it may be around trust.  But as the emotional landscape grows more competitive, incumbents need to dig in and protect their position with buyers.

    • Maintain segment integrityP&G’s Moms campaign around the Olympics was emotionally powerful, but will not translate into strong bonds with buyers.  I have no relationship with P&G.  I have a strong, long-standing relationship with Tide.  A master brand strategy may work in social media if that strategy is already in place (e.g., Intel).  For a portfolio company like P&G, it’s hard to generate that connection to the parent holding company.  (Look at Kering and other how luxury goods holding companies feature the portfolio brands.

4.  Attacker Brands:  Experiment aggressively, own an emotion

Attacker brands have a great opportunity to become newly relevant with new forms of media.  Look how Dollar Shave Club positioned itself via social media vs what Gillette has done.  (3 Million views in a week.)  Particularly if the incumbent is slow to embrace social media, attackers can win a lot by moving quickly.  In attacker brand always has to overcome the burden of not being trusted yet.  Social media offers the attacker brand a way to have the buyer’s friends validate the choice.

    • Focus on Shareability.  We know that people trust what their friends recommend more than advertising.  There’s no stronger source of trust than the recommendation of friends.  When Dollar Shave Club gets people to share their video, the person sharing is implicitly endorsing the product.  That is much more powerful than a banner ad.
    • Own an emotion. The focus on shareability implies owning an emotion—that’s what makes content get shared.

    • Grow the audience.  Particularly for new entrants, it may make sense to pay for promotion on Facebook and Twitter.  Social media is very much about thresholds, and until the brand achieves critical mass, it won’t have much impact on the market.

    • Try new forms.  The cost of experimentation is low, and attackers need to be perceived as more forward-thinking than the incumbent.  That doesn’t mean insurance companies need to use Snapchat, but it does mean that the attacker can’t be perceived as less relevant than the incumbent.

These 4 categories obviously combine into 4 sets of recommended actions for brands that fit in each box—Incumbents in B2C need to follow recommendations for both incumbents and B2C.

It goes without saying that every brand is unique, but this new competitive era does offer a few low-risk moves that will help brands at all levels help deepen their relationship with buyers.

Your comments are very welcome.

Photo Credit: Flickr

 Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


A Framework for Branding with Social Media (Part 1)

Your brand is a set of emotions triggered by brain chemicals.  Those chemicals are set off by the data points your customer knows about your brand.  Social Media changes branding because it makes it much cheaper to produce and deliver those data points.  However,  it’s also easier for your competition.  Cheaper message production and distribution mean it’s a much noisier space for all brands.

That means brands have to concentrate on:

  1. Defining where they want to compete
  2. Honestly assessing how the brand is perceived in that competitive space
  3. Developing a strategy to get the brand from where it is to where it should be
  4. Executing with best practices in a noisy space

Let’s walk through the process:

  1. Where to compete?  This is a canonical strategy question, but particularly in the crowded social media space, there is a need to define the competitive space tightly in order to establish a sustainable base.  Now that every brand is a media company, you have to think like a media company.  Narrow and deep beats broad and shallow.The key points to define here are which segment the brand is seeking to reach, what success looks like, and the competitive scenario.  Is this segment of the market crowded? How do buyers make decisions?  What do people know about you?  What do they know about your competitors?  A simple 2×2 matrix can be a useful planning tool here for mapping the competition.
  2. Honestly assessing positioning.  Once you have defined the competitive arena, where are you versus other choices, both competing propositions and substitutes?  Most importantly, how do you stack up on Emotional Benefits and on Functional Benefits?  The new tools allow you to create and curate many more messages than you could before, and you can craft them to emphasize the benefits of your choice.  Based on where you need to be, where are you now?  Do your buyers care about emotional benefits?  Almost certainly, even if they’re B2B buyers.  What emotions are you trying to evoke?  The Plutchik wheel can be very valuable in articulating the emotions you are trying to evoke.  Social listening and sentiment analysis tools can be very useful in gathering data for this analysis, as well as customer interviews and other traditional data-gathering tactics.What you’re looking for is an assessment of (a) what the market thinks about you and (b) how strongly they feel it.  In most cases, they don’t feel strong at all.  The emotional or functional benefits for brands are lost in the noise, and you will have an uphill climb.  The ugly truth is that most buyers don’t think of you much at all.  But to get onto a buyer’s shortlist, you will need to register on their radar screen.  Regular buyers may have a strong sense of your functional benefits, but don’t expect the market to really understand the benefits of your feature set.  The emotional benefits may be all over the map.  IBM evoked very strong and clear emotions in the 1980’s.  Those emotions are less clear now.  Blackberry is another example—they stood for one thing ten years ago, and something very different today.  Emotion is dynamic and context-based.  It needs to be regularly monitored and managed as much as it can be.In most cases, brands will need to improve performance on both axes.  Your functional benefits are not all that well understood and your emotional benefits may not be registering at all.  An example for an agriculture and chemical company might be for a particular segment (not product buyers but the public at large) “Increase understanding of functional benefits A, B, and C” and “Move emotional profile weighting away from Fear and Disgust and toward Trust and Surprise.”  A packaged goods company might aim for “Deepen understanding of our unique functional benefits, and focus emotional benefits toward Trust.”
  3. Charting a course.  Now that you have determined where you need to be and where you are now, the course needs to be charted.  There are different tools available, but there are significant differences in the degree to which they are trusted.  As the chart shows, Recommendations from friends are the most trusted medium, but those recommendations can’t be easily bought.  Should you base your entire strategy on them?  You can buy all the banner ads you want, but will anybody believe you?


(Click the chart to expand)

There are three main dimensions to be managed:

      • What sort of messages?  Are the messages principally functional or emotional?  What does the target market like?  What is the competition doing?  Is there a role model from another industry?
      • What medium to use?  What media will be the right levers to pull?  In current practice, Functional benefits are best delivered via Blogs, White Papers, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Emotional benefits are well suited to Facebook, Instagram, Vine, YouTube, and Pinterest.  Most importantly, where does your audience look for information?  There’s no point crafting the right message strategy for a medium they don’t use.  (Pinterest usage is almost 80% female.)  Blogs can be the most useful because everyone uses Google, and Google loves fresh, relevant information.
      • How to reach these audiences?  How many people are you trying to each?  Do you need to invest in paid audience building?  Which tactics should you use?  Do you expect people to share your messages voluntarily?  Why?

4.  Rigorous execution.  The principal challenge most organizations have with social media is not developing the strategy or choosing the right channels.  It’s executing remorselessly every day.  Because most people now use social media for their own personal brands, it is easy to think of social media as intuitive.  While it is easy to be a dilettante, best practices change quickly, and demand rigorous execution. This breaks down into two categories, and most companies are weak at both of them.

      • Content.  What are the best practices for a tweet?  Where does the hashtag go?  Is video better than infographic?  Best practices in content creation are always evolving.  Well established forms like Blogs and Twitter have achieved a certain level of canonical knowledge, but nowhere near print ads or even PPC advertising.  The rules change rapidly, and you need to have a team in place who can create or curate relevant content with the best practices of the moment.  It’s a very crowded marketplace (approaching perfect competition in many categories), and execution matters.
      • Distribution.  How many people a day should I follow on Twitter?  Can I name someone in a tweet?  Should I pay for Facebook ads?  Which kind?  How many times a day can I update LinkedIn before I start irritating people?  Do I really have to update the blog every day?  Can I just tweet links?  If you do not effectively build distribution, your brand will become irrelevant.  That distribution can come from owned media (your blog), earned media (other people talking about you, guest posts on other people’s blogs), or paid media (Promoted Twitter account).  Different situations demand different media selection, but getting wide distribution in your target segment is a basic requirement of building your brand.

Based on this framework, brands can find themselves in one of four basic situations

  1. Brand Creation.  Need to put new data points in market and need to build audience.
  2. Brand Turnaround.  Audience exists but brand needs to be repositioned with that audience.  Need to align messages with desired brand characteristics.
  3. Brand Growth. The right messages are in place, but Need to connect with more people.
  4. Brand Maintenance.  Messages positioned correctly, audience is correct, but need to develop and expand both either generally or to support a new initiative

Social media lowers the bar so that everyone can compete in brand building, but advantages accrue to those who have a crisply defined sense of what they are trying to establish, and those who put adequate resources behind creating the right content and distributing it effectively.  Too many brands put up a Facebook page and spin their wheels.  But by rigorously defining and executing a strategy, you can use these tools to shape your brand for the modern age

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night LiveMcKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.