Tag Archives: Strategy

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.


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.


Why Jack Welch is right

Jack Welch is no dummy.    He evokes the 1990’s as powerfully as Friends or Smells Like Teen Spirit, but he has understood what social media is about for a long time.  (How many 79-year-olds have 1.4 million Twitter followers?)  From a tactical perspective, he’s good at Twitter and LinkedIn, but his real contribution comes from his #1 or #2 rule.  

Back when he took over GE in 1981’s, GE was a conglomerate with over 350 business units.  The majority were in manufacturing in the USA.  At that time, Asia was about to take over the manufacturing industry with cheaper products made by cheaper labor.  Welch could see what was coming, and it was going to be ugly for a complacent company who felt it was entitled to its position.  He had three fundamental components to his philosophy, all of which reinforced each other:

  1. Performance:  Every GE business had to be either #1 or #2 in its industry, or it needed to be fixed or sold.    The market was not kind to also-rans.
  2. Efficiency:  GE needed to eliminate waste from its processes.  Asian competitors would have much lower costs, so GE had to eliminate any excess costs to have a chance of keeping up.
  3. Talent:  GE needed to have the best talent and talent systems.  He made this real via the the 20/70/10 rule, where the top 20% of managers are stars and compensated as such, the 70% in the middle are well-treated but given instructions on how to get to be in the top 20%, and the bottom 10% are “counseled out.”  Ruthless, but effective.

He did this because he saw the competition that was coming.  Companies that felt they deserved to be on top would be stepped on, and only the truly hungry would survive.  He changed the culture of GE, getting rid of hundreds of business units and adding dozens of new, more efficient ones, all in keeping with his philosophy.  He was not interested in being the biggest, but in being the best.  (And by being the best, they of course became the biggest.)

The competitive situation in manufacturing in the early 1980’s looks a lot like the competitive situation in digital media today.  With no barriers to entry and very little cost of production, nobody is entitled to anything.  Look at the remarkable lubricating power of Google.  When it comes to organic links, if you’re not #1 or #2, your odds of success go way down.

The chart below shows click-thru rate by position in Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).


CTR by SERP position

It’s a very simple story.  The top organic search result gets clicked on over 50% of the time.  The third-ranked gets clicked on less than 30% of the time, and anything after eighth-ranked gets clicked less than 10% of the time.  The page at moz.com has lots more charts that show how the curve changes for different queries, but its basic shape remains the same.  If you are not at the top of the Google results pages for your preferred search, it is unlikely that anyone will click on your link.

This is why new people aren’t reading your blog—even if you get Google or Bing’s attention, it’s hard to get to the top of the food chain.

How do you fix this?  Tactically, do all the things you know you need to do.  Run down your social media checklist of all the blocking and tackling that needs to be done.

Strategically, refocus.  Instead of being about stationery, be about stationery for adoptive parents.  Be relentless about being #1 or #2 in your competitive set.  Sometimes that means redefining your competitive set.  Once you are the #1 or #2 player for stationery for adoptive parents, expand your competitive set—stationery for parents.   Only by being relentlessly focused can you earn the right to grow.

Welch’s other two rules fit well also—be ruthlessly efficient about your social media.  Don’t waste time on things that aren’t working.  Test and measure.  And be humorless about talent.  Don’t give your social media to the youngest and cheapest person you find.  Owning social media means owning the brand.  It’s a sobering responsibility, and not everyone can handle it.

Too many times we assume that the lessons from the past don’t apply in this era.  Social Media has upended a lot of received wisdom about Marketing tactics, but it hasn’t invalidated much strategic thinking.  Welch’s rigor and focus are a perfect fit with the social media era.  Almost perfect competition means that the lazy will be eaten, and people will barely notice.

He may be a 79-year-old man and a bit of a loudmouth, (think Gary Vaynerchuk’s even more outspoken uncle from Boston) but ignore him at your peril.  He knows what it takes to win in viciously competitive markets.  This stuff works.

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 Good Social Media is Harder Than You Think

All art is about the tension between order and chaos.  If something is too orderly, it’s boring.  If something is too chaotic, it’s irritating.  But when the two sides are in balance, you have something transcendent.  Like Carousel.  Or London Calling.  Or Lawrence of Arabia.  Or Starry Night.  Art History majors refer to the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but it’s the same idea—too much of one side is not good.  Art that connects with us is balanced.  (And yes, I am calling social media art—if you want someone to spend their precious time looking at something you did, then you had better think of it as your art.)

In the old media era of oligopoly, structural advantages were huge—you watched mediocre television because it was the only thing on.  You read the local newspaper no matter how bad it was.  Take a look at local TV news sometime—obviously they think we’re living in the age of reduced choices.  I think it says a lot that the new Golden Age of television, ushered in by The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men et al., arrived just at the time that people stopped watching so much broadcast TV.  When real competition exists, you have to raise your game.  The crap we accepted in the 1990’s was no longer economically viable, so people raised their game and started creating better work.  But not everyone did—even in the age of Orange is the New Black and Louie and Breaking Bad there is still plenty of studio-made crap on broadcast television.  In fact there’s a big enough supply of crap out there that two big ideas are immediately apparent:

  • The crap makes the good stuff look even better in contrast.
  • The people making the crap don’t really realize anything’s wrong.  Or even if they do, they can’t be bothered to improve.

If you’re willing to do the work and make something really good, it will be easy to notice, even in this very noisy world.  Very few people will raise their game.

Unfortunately, making something perfectly crafted isn’t enough.  If your idea is beautiful, it has the right to spread and the potential to spread, but it’s not going to spread unless you do the other hard work.


Blogging every day.

Hitting Google+ every day.

Following the right people every day.

Thanking your retweeters every day.

Someday the world may beat a path to your door.  But until that day, you have to make yourself easy to find.  And that means following a checklist.  Even when you don’t feel like it.

Old media had years to build up their distribution network—the green newspaper trucks of The Boston Globe, the tv stations coast-to-coast that make up NBC’s distribution, the individual relationships Columbia records had with music stores.  But for your brand, not only do you have to be the Creative Director, you’re also Head of Distribution.  And you have to build up that distribution from scratch.

In our perfectly competitive world, you need to be more creative AND have better distribution.  Slip on either one and you don’t get seen.

And if you’re doing this halfway—stop. I mean it.  Social media probably isn’t for you.  If you are asking someone to spend their time (the only asset most of us have) focusing on your content instead of their family and friends, or more important work, then you are cheating them.

You owe them your best work.

A sobering thought, I’m sure, but if you’re not willing to meet that bar, you’re wasting money, you’re wasting time and you might as well buy PPC ads or a coupon in the Sunday newspaper.  Those are irritating and interruption marketing, but at least those might work.  Cynical social media does not work.

To succeed at social media for your brand, you need to work harder than you’re working now.  You need genuine creativity and empathy and soft skills to get people interested. You need mirthless discipline to make sure that every channel is updated in the best way.

It’s very hard to do either well.  And it’s vanishingly rare to do both well.  But if you can do both well, you can change the world.

Photo Credit: Scripting News  

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Jerry Garcia was right

In a way, social media is to our era like rock’n’roll was to the 1960’s.  Not because we’re necessarily changing the world or dressing like idiots, but because there are no barriers to entry– anybody can do it.  Back then it took three chords and a dream. Elvis and the Beatles changed the culture and showed kids that they could make a mark with music.  And everybody wants to make a dent in the universe.  So thousands of kids started bands in their garage.  Most of them were awful.  (This is a great compilation of what the good ones sounded like.)  And most relevantly, they all sounded about the same.  As the English say, “Much of a muchness.”  Everyone was ripping off the same blues riffs that the Rolling Stones had already ripped off, and most bands were born, lived, and died without a trace.  In this explosion of supply, tons started, fewer kept it up, and only a few survived and thrived.  Those that did succeed did so because they offered something unique—not just another cover of Hey Joe or Wild Thing.  Detractors said it was all trivial (and in most cases they were right), but those thousands of bands changed the culture anyway.  Even if most of them were crap.

It’s much the same today with social media.  Everyone else is doing it so why not?  (In fact it’s easier because to howl at the moon today, all you need is a smartphone.  You don’t even need guitar lessons.)  The supply is even greater—a billion people on Facebook, 240 million on Twitter.  And almost everyone is mediocre.  We’re seeing the same sort of cultural evolution now.  Millions try, most are mediocre, a few stars emerge, and the culture permanently changes, even if lots of people are tweeting about celebrities.

But in a world of infinite supply, how do you ensure that your brand is one that does survive?  Whatever you’re selling, there are other sources for it.  The only option is to be distinctive.  Jerry Garcia captured this when he said: “You don’t want to be merely the best. You want to be the only ones who do what you do.”  Tom Peters has used this quote for years because it neatly captures what it takes to be competitive on a global scale.  He calls it excellence, I call it distinctiveness.  Being the only one who does what you do.

Who’s distinctive?  Seth GodinGlenn ReynoldsKathy SierraMaersk’s Instagram Feed.  GE’s Pinterest Board “Badass Machines.” Lowes’ Fix in Six Vines.  There’s distinctive work all over the place.  What do they have in common?

  • They know their audience.  They are not trying to please everyone.  (Lowe’s Fix in Six is not for their Contractor segment.  So what?)
  • They have a voice.  They are not afraid of sounding like themselves.  Being generic is not a long-term strategy for a media company.  And we’re all media companies now.
  • They consistently publish.  With the exception of Kathy Sierra (who has a good excuse), all these examples are constantly producing new things.  They don’t have to be perfect.  Plenty of their stuff is just OK.  (The Beatles, The Clash, and Radiohead made mediocre songs as well as the good ones.) But they don’t let one weak data point stop them.  They keep creating.

Whether you liked the Grateful Dead or not, they knew their audience, they didn’t sound like anybody else, and they kept creating.  That’s how they gained an audience that was insanely devoted.  (In a way that Foreigner’s or Nickelback’s audience never could be.)  They were distinctive.

So now that every organization is expected to be creating content, how do you make yours stand out?  In a world of perfect competition, what hope do you have of capturing your targets’ attention?  The only guarantee you have is that mailing it in doesn’t work.  So get to work.

P.S.  The counterexample is Lee Mavers from The La’s, who recorded the sublime There She Goes in 1990 and then was paralyzed by writers’ block.  He hasn’t released anything since.  Creating a great single is a beautiful thing.  But after a while, the market forgets about you.  The objective is not to make zero mistakes.  The objective is to connect with your audience.  That’s how you make a dent in the universe.

Photo Credit:  http://flic.kr/p/8oCHKy

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.