Tag Archives: tactics

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.


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.


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.