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 pets.com.)  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.


The Right to Aggregate

The hardest part about using social media to market is the constant demand for new content.  There is a never-ending demand for something new.  (At Comedy Central, we used to call it “feeding the beast.”)  And you can’t just acquire your way out of it—too much of other people’s content makes you look voiceless, and wandering sheep-like after other people.  You have to have a point of view about your industry, and you have to demonstrate that you understand the buyers’ problems.  Reposting generic business content will do nothing for you—in honesty, mediocre social media is worse than doing nothing.  At least when you abstain from social media, you can redeploy those resources to something that MIGHT get a response.  Like wearing a sandwich board around the city center.  But mediocre social media will do nothing for your brand.

That being said, you don’t have to start your journey with a 24-7 newsfeed of original thought.  You, and everyone else in the world, have the right to aggregate other people’s content.  This is a slightly dangerous tactic, as it’s possible to put in a lot of work and not be distinctive, but under the right circumstances, with the right focus, it’s a great way to build audience while you’re preparing to create original content.

This is based on something I understood back in the 1990’s when I was selling US TV shows around the world and refer to as Blake’s Law of Television Channel Development.  It goes like this:

All TV channels go through three phases of development:  Phase 1 is when they acquire everything, and have no original content.  (Lots of reruns of old sitcoms.)  Phase 2 is when they create a few original flagship programs.  (Lots of reruns of old sitcoms, but The Daily Show and South Park in prime time.)  Phase 3 is when they produce mostly original content, and have a few distinctive acquisitions.  (Mostly original, with a few beloved imports like The Office (UK).)  There is no Phase 4.

This can be adapted to just about any media play.  For example, the main US and EU broadcast networks have been in Phase 3 for years—it’s almost all original content.  It may be produced by studios, but it’s produced at the behest of the channel.

Netflix is at Phase 2—House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are on the front page of the annual report, but the majority of traffic is made up of people streaming acquisitions like 30 Rock and Cheers.

New market entrants start at Phase 1—they have space on the dial, but not much else, so they buy in programming originally produced for other people (e.g.,  retweeting popular things from Business Insider and Huffington Post).

So if you are just starting out, you are in Phase 1.  You need to get content from other places.  In a world of infinite content, that isn’t hard.  But in a world of infinite content, you had better be doing something interesting to that content if you want people to pay attention to you.  At the beginning, nobody cares about your stupid little startup and nobody cares about your stupid little Twitter feed.  So your first step remains the same—pick a market where you can be distinctiveOwn one word.  Identify where your brand is, and what if any emotions it evokes.  Identify what you want people to feel and how you can get there.  Then you can start with a few easy tactics:

  • Beginner Tactic:  Industry curation.  One of the most powerful features of social media (and the entire point of Pinterest) is to aggregate a bunch of stuff you found somewhere else.  This goes back to the Carnivals and Roundups of the early days of blogging.  The formal term for this is curation, but it’s no more complicated than putting together a playlist on Spotify—here’s stuff I like that goes together.  The ability to do this is open to anyone, so you have to be clever about your angle—it’s not about aggregating “Education News”, it’s about aggregating “News of interest to staff at single-sex Catholic High Schools.”  The general categories are all very well spoken for, but you should be able to identify an underserved niche among your buyers.  This works well for Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, but not for blogs any more.
  • Beginner Tactic:  User-generated curation.  Be the party that rounds up all the user-generated content in your space.  This is a bit more challenging and labor-intensive, but can have a big emotional payoff.  The best place to start with this is two existing conventions for photos: Throwback Thursday and Selfie Sunday.  Maersk has done a tremendous job of leveraging its rich history into a popular Instagram feed, simply by harvesting its archive of historical photos.  It turns the freight-forwarding world, which is about shipping identical containers on enormous industrial ships with underpaid third-world labor for the lowest possible price into a romantic world of adventure and travel.  @HistoryinPics has over a million people following their Twitter feed of old photos.  You can do the same with photos you own, or even better, photos that other people have posted.  Go back to that one word you own.  Where are there photos that show that word throughout history?  Where are the photos of the old equipment people used to do the job back in the day?  A Pinterest board is easy to do (and avoids any difficulty around rights to the image), but a creative commons search on flickr will go a long way as well.  By appointing yourself steward of the industry’s history, you have the right to start building an audience even before you’re putting out high-end original content.  Supplement it with a few original pieces and you’re in Phase 2.The same tactic goes for #selfiesunday.  Who’s taking pictures of themselves with the icons of your industry—the equipment, the clothing, the uniforms that your community cares about?  Aggregating them in one place creates an asset that grows in value, but also attracts the people who are in the pictures.  (Again, Pinterest is the place to start for this, but Twitter can be equally useful.  It all depends on how people behave in your industry.)
  • Advanced tactic:  Adapting from other industries.  This takes a bit more work, but is more likely to make you unique.  Pick a broad general skill (e.g., SEO, Storytelling, Finance) and show how it adapts to your own industry.  Harvard Business Review may not be writing original content about the pool filter industry, but by taking their content and showing specifically how this applies to the pool filter industry, you show you’re a smart outfit that reads the good stuff AND you understand your industry.  It takes a little work, but can set you apart before you have the chance to start doing original work.

The explosion in supply of content has created a real filter problem—no one can keep up on everything, so they turn to trusted sources to filter it for them.  If you can play that role in your industry, and get people turning to you for what they need to know, you’re halfway to the shortlist already.

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

Us Against the World

Someone once explained to me the difference between a solo artist and a band.  A solo artist is saying “Hey look at me!” And a band is saying “Us against the world.”

One of the most powerful things you can do in your content is to declare your membership in a small group (that consists of your users) against the world.  Harold Ramis used this construction in his successful 70’s comedies like Caddyshack and Animal House.  The slobs banded together against the snobs.  The outsiders became a family.  There’s something very primal about this construction. It taps into something deep inside us– tribal allegiance, teamwork, and disdain for the Establishment. It really only works for attacker brands, but in those circumstances, it can be very effective.

Cadillac’s new spot is a perfect example of this.  It positively asserts some of the values that are likely to resonate with the Cadillac target buyer– value of hard work, ambition, and enjoying luxuries you have earned.

Better yet, it intensifies this by It antagonizing the sort of people who will never buy a Cadillac.  It ridicules some of their sacred cows (like Europe).  The reaction to this spot in my personal group of overeducated urban haute bourgeoisie friends has been an outraged howl of indignant pain.

(Ironically, this ad ran during Super Bowl and the Olympics and no one noticed; but put something like this on the Oscars and listen to the howls.  Context is king.)

The brilliance of the spot is this:  Cadillac has no other options.  The brand is up against the wall.  It’s certainly in no position to call itself the choice of the smart set so it might as well make a virtue of necessity.  It can’t play the elegant European card like Mercedes and BMW.  It can hardly play the quality manufacturing card like Lexus and Infiniti.  But by loudly asserting that it is the choice of the brash and unapologetically successful it becomes an attacker rather than defensive.

Think of their historic positioning.  Who exactly buys a Cadillac?  What emotions does the brand evoke?  For me it’s about elderly people in Boca Raton who drive slowly in the left lane.  And who don’t know better.  Mobsters, too.  The nouveau riche.

Subaru nation despises the Cadillac brand and these archetypes.  Whole Foods nation despises it.  NPR Nation despises it.  (I think they missed the point that the car is electric, which usually is the highest good in those communities.). What does Cadillac have to lose?  Toyota can’t pull this off. They have to be Ned Flanders and be nice to everyone.  Cadillac takes the snobs vs slobs positioning of Animal House and Caddyshack and puts themselves on the side of the heroes.  (This is CADILLAC– the most Eisenhower 50’s establishment brand there is.  Probably what Judge Smails drove.)

What was the last Cadillac ad you remember?  The brand has been Nice for a long time.  And nice is a defensive posture.   You don’t conquer new markets when you’re nice.  Niceness is not a virtue– it’s a default, the opposite of making a choice.  (As Sondheim says “You’re not good/ you’re not bad/ you’re just nice.“)

Cadillac had been cringing.  But the emotion the brand evokes now goes from embarrassment to cocky.    Not every competitive scenario demands this sort of decisiveness, but in a crowded, mature space like this, it’s a brilliant move.

Next time identify how your users think of themselves.  Are they insiders or outsiders?  Who do they identify with?  Who represents everything they’re not?  Give your users a chance to say “Us against the World.”  Like Steve Jobs said– it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.

P.S.  It’s also not lost on me that this ode to self-reliance comes from a company that got bailed out by the Federal government.  Irony is fun.

Photo Credit: Dr. Xu 徐醫生 via Compfight cc

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.


Hello, New York

In the second of our Alec Baldwin series, a tweet of mine about Mr. Baldwin’s noisy exit from public life was picked up yesterday by the New York Times.

It’s nice to be picked up by the elite’s hometown paper, and it was nice to have old friends reach out to me to tell me about it.  But it doesn’t necessarily convey professional benefits.  Do I need to add “plugged into pop culture” to my brand?  Not really– I have that one pretty well covered.  It would have been a lot better for me if the Times had passed along something I said that was insightful about the changing strategy of brands in the social media era.  (Note to self:  Tweet more about things that are professionally valuable.)

The Baldwin tweet is a data point that will be seen by many people, but it doesn’t do a lot for my brand.  On the other hand, if I can start getting quoted in the press regularly, it will convey real authority as those data points accrete.  (NPR, IBA, New York Times…. hey, I might actually know what I’m talking about.)

Wide exposure to a slightly off-target data point isn’t bad.  I reemphasize brand values which are secondary but relevant (funny, plugged in) and I potentially pick up new followers.  (Yesterday I did pick up quite a few Twitter followers, but it’s hard to tell what made them follow me.)  It may help for SEO, but it’s too early to tell.

(Incidentally, yesterday I was teaching an Entrepreneurship class at Creighton University when I got the news about the Times.  The slides are here.)

Having the right creative matters, but having the right distribution matters too.  That tweet might have been trivial, but it was well-distributed, and something may come of that.  But where the rubber meets the road, someone subscribing to this blog is a lot more valuable to me than someone seeing one witty tweet on paper.  Attention is nice, but it doesn’t always create value.

Your brand is a sponge and mine is too.  And now I get a little of Alec Baldwin’s and The New York Times‘ brand mojo rubbing off on me for a short time.  That tweet is a nice thing for my brand, but this game is about building up lots of data points, not just one, and specifically data points that show that I’m valuable, not just that I’m amusing.

Learn from David Mamet: Make your content dramatic

David Mamet is my favorite playwright, and one of the only ones working today who try to see the world as most Americans live it.  Although theater has become something for the coastal elites in the big cities, his work always speaks to the ordinary person.  This scene from Glengarry Glen Ross is tremendous drama, but it speaks in plain English that anyone can understand: (NSFW: Language warning)

Mamet also gave the most effective definition of drama I know:


This is taken from a memo from him to the writers of a TV series he was producing.

Three big things:

  • It is about a hero.  That may be a man, woman, fish, or purchasing agent, but it has to be about a specific individual.  Any sentence that starts with “Most people” is inherently anti-dramatic.
  • It is about overcoming obstacles.  In Finding Nemo, the story is dramatic because actually finding Nemo ( a little fish in a huge ocean) is really really hard.  If Nemo were hiding under a piece of seaweed 10 feet away, it wouldn’t be dramatic.
  • It is about achieving a specific, acute goal.  You can’t have drama unless someone is trying to get something.  If you are publishing content that doesn’t talk about how you help people reach explicit goals, there is no drama.

All of this is common sense, but it takes hard work to write like this.  The default setting for most of us is talking about how much we like our customers, how special our people are, and how awesome the new feature set is.  Nice, but not dramatic.

It’s a world full of nice content.  And nice content gets ignored.

Next time you write a piece of content for your brand, be completely unambiguous about these three things—who the hero is, does the goal really matter, and what obstacles have to be overcome.

In a world where the emotional ante keeps increasing and the supply of content keeps doubling, dramatic writing will make a huge difference in connecting with the buyers you need to keep your business strong.

(See what I did there?)

Photo Credit: YouTube

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.