The Path to Growth: Five Stages of Position-Product-People Alignment

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For nearly any business, growth happens when you know your market, and have your product and your people aligned to the needs of that market. For young companies, such as the technology startups with which I work, this alignment can make the difference between a future IPO and shutting down the business.

Exceptional growth requires expert navigation

As companies start and grow, they begin to discover not only their own expertise, but more importantly, their market, its niches and segments, as well as its quirks, needs and wants. I think of this as navigating the discovery of a new land, full of opportunity and fraught with danger. Finding the path to growth is challenging, but the closer you get to your particular path, the more rewarding it becomes.

The path to exceptional growth is the precise alignment of your product (and capabilities), your position (the needs and wants of the market) and your people (their execution of your processes.

Most businesses go through five stages of alignment:

Typical Revenue RangePosition-Product-People Alignment
>$50 millionAcceleration
$10 million–$50 millionNavigation
$5 million–$10 millionMap-Making
$1 million–$5 millionDiscovery
<$1 millionSuspicion

I’ve outlined this for a typical technology startup, but this can apply to any business or product line.


When a company is just starting out, the founding idea comes from some knowledge that a handful of potential customers may need something like the product being contemplated and a founder’s belief she can address that need differently from how it is being solved now.

The market is unknown territory. Whether there are more than a few potential customers is unknown. Any knowledge of a path to growth is nothing more than a suspicion. The product is brand new, so it is still trying to find the needs with which to align.


As the company starts to sell products and find customers, it has also found a wider range of ways its product meets the needs of a wider range of customers. There may be little consistency from one customer to the next, but they all find the company has something that meets some set of needs.

This stage of discovery is an important step for every company. The company learns some of what is possible and can start to consider which of the many types of customers will suit it best.

At this stage, there is still very little alignment among position, product and people, as the company is trying to do everything it can to meet the needs of any customer who shows up. The most common cause of failure at this stage is a product that is not growing to meet these diverse needs, meaning the company can’t deliver on its promises.


The company has now become more adept at finding customers, and finding ways to discover and meet their needs. While there may be little consistency as to these needs from customer to customer, some commonalities are beginning to appear.

These areas of commonality are the segments and niches in the company’s market. Knowledge of these shows the company what will work best for its own strategy and objectives, and will eventually help it better understand how to compete with direct and indirect competitors.

This is where alignment becomes critical. As the company learns where it can be most successful, understanding the needs of that segment and how the company can meet them differently from what has come before becomes critical to continued growth and advancing to the next stage.

The most common causes of failure at this stage are either not seeing the emerging segments making it hard to focus, or not continuing to build product that meets the needs of the coalescing segments, again causing the company to miss keeping its promises.


The company has seen success in one or more segments and must now choose to focus on one at a time. Exceptional growth requires thinking smaller. Let me repeat, as this is not always intuitive:

Exceptional growth requires thinking smaller.

Focusing on one position in the market — one set of needs, met in a differentiated way, in one segment — allows the company to build a product, train its people and develop processes to focus on demonstrated success — and start to repeat that success. This repeatability is the key to scale.

The most common cause of failure at this stage is not aligning product and people with the chosen position — the needs of the customers in the company’s market segment. This is lack of focus, one of the critical elements of exceptional growth.


With product and people aligned to position (market needs), the company is seeing an increasing number of customers, as well as a decrease in the effort it takes to find a customer. The repeatability inherent in focusing on a chosen position allows the company to scale its operations and delivery in a very precise way.

This same repeatability allows the company to define segment after segment and pursue them in the same way that it pursued the initial segment, creating another layer of scale and accelerating growth.

The most common cause of not being able to achieve this scale is not getting the people and processes in the company aligned to delivering the needs of the chosen segment(s), causing the company to stumble in execution.

Understanding your market and how you can meet the needs of the customers in that market in a different and differentiated way is the foundation of creating exceptional growth for your budding business. Once you get your position right, precisely align your product and your people to that position, and you can find your unique path to exceptional growth.


Messaging Balance: Two Traps to Avoid

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Developing messaging for your company at any stage can be fraught with difficulty. Even when it seems straightforward, marketers tend to fall into one of two traps. These are well-illustrated by how companies in my industry, technology, have approached talking about themselves and their offerings.

Trap One: You Say You Want a Revolution …

This is the most common messaging mistake technology companies make, and I’ve seen this across many other industries. You want your offerings to be not only different, but also new and exciting. So you start making claims about how you will transform your customers’ lives or businesses, or about how your offering is the newest, most exciting thing anyone has ever seen. In tech, this sometimes takes the shape of claiming “you don’t even know you need this yet.” While there are some companies that can pull this off (Apple, historically), most can’t.

My friend and colleague, Martina Lauchengco, writes, “The Revolutionary Messaging Fallacy happens when those creating messaging make leaps into benefits or transformational language as if what their product did and why someone should care is already accomplished and understood” in her article cautioning against claiming to be too revolutionary.

The problem with trying to be revolutionary is that it’s limiting — often very limiting. Yes, some markets are ripe for disruption (and not necessarily technology-based), the vast majority of customers in most markets are looking for something to solve a particular problem (see Christensen’s book Competing Against Luck about how products are hired to do a job), and to solve it in a way they know and understand.

Side note: If you want to understand how much of your market is looking for proved vs. revolutionary solutions, consider a research project based on those suggested in Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.

Unless your intent is to address the small part of your market that can accept something revolutionary, stop trying to say you’re revolutionary. You’ll just scare off everyone else in your market.

Trap Two: Walk the Line

I’ve been around the technology industry long enough to see not just the disruption that can be created, but also the bandwagons on which everyone else tries to jump to get a piece of that disruption — whether in market share or in reputation by associating with the lead disruptor.

One of the trends most interesting to me as a marketer is the way companies try to become part of a particular trend or movement. The first one I was a part of was the “dot-com” trend of the late 1990s. For most companies, it wasn’t just a web address, it was how they told their own story. Even the largest companies wanted to jump on this bandwagon (do you remember when Sun Microsystems was “the dot in dot-com”?).

Then there was a bust, the dot-com market died, and in its place was the cringe-worthy “Web 2.0,” reflective logos and all. Even I am guilty of jumping in this bandwagon with “Learning 2.0” and “Sales 2.0.” Then Zuora showed up and wowed everyone by being the platform for the “Subscription Economy.” Every company wanted its own economy, and some jumped on the bandwagons of the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”’ and even, in environmental circles, the “circular economy” referring to the market for reused and recycled products. Now, “economy” is running its course, and I’m starting to see companies calling themselves “the <blank> transformation,” as popularized by the book The Fourth Transformation (by Israel and Scoble).

If you haven’t guessed where I’m going here, the trap marketers can easily fall into is sounding like everyone else in the market. If a prospective customer who knows nothing about you can’t tell the difference between you and your competitors, and you can’t explain it in a sentence or two, you’re not going to win them over.

Balancing Act

If you can’t be revolutionary and you can’t be like everyone else, where should you be? To me, the answer is simple: What difference do you make in the lives of your customers?

I don’t mean that you save them $x or y minutes in some task. That’s not life-changing.

Here’s an example of what I mean by “life-changing”: When I sold a solution for sales leaders to better predict results, I would address a fear every single sales leader has: walking into their CEO’s office and telling her they were going to miss this quarter’s number (maybe, again). When we took away that fear and that conversation, we made a difference in their lives.

Ask yourself what difference you make in your customers’ lives. Explain how you do that better or differently than everyone else. Distill it into a story everyone can understand. Make that the crux of your message.

And let everyone else fall by the wayside as they fall into one of the traps.

Customer Trust

Pricing: Three steps to succeeding with what most marketers fear

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Marketers hate figuring out pricing. It often seems challenging or obscure, and the risk of getting it wrong seems so high. After all, what you charge for your offerings ends up determining your revenue. Price too low, and you harm your revenue stream; price too high, and you drive potential customers away.

There are two major schools of thought about pricing: one that says you should price your offerings to match the willingness to pay of your potential customers and one that says you should price your offerings based on what it costs to produce and deliver them, so that you achieve a chosen margin.

Many companies, notably those that manufacture products, use a cost-plus method. The motivation to earn a given margin is certainly a strong one, but this approach ignores market realities. The economics of any market show that potential customers are willing to pay based on a range of factors, from supply and demand, to delivered value, to competitive pricing.

That leaves value-based pricing as the more viable approach. But unless you have a team of econometricians at your disposal, it can be hard to determine the right price to extract enough, but not too much, value from the market and your customers.

Here are three things to do to get your pricing right:

  1. Know the competitive landscape. You need to know who your competitors are and what they charge. But that’s not enough. Don’t forget that “competitor” means anyone — even if it’s the contractor paving the parking lot — competing for the same budget dollars you hope to get. Know what they charge. If you can’t find out from public information, ask your sales reps; their prospects are telling them. On top of that, figure out your competitive position. Are you a leader? A follower? A price-setter? A price-follower? A premium offering? A value alternative? Once you know that, you can set price compared to your competition.
  2. Know the history. What have customers paid in the past for your offering? Other similar offerings? You don’t have to prove exactly the same as always, but unless you’re selling to the few truly innovative potential customers or are a completely new offering, you can only change price-levels so much — but you can change them.
  3. Get your packaging right. What do your customers value most about your offering? Can you break out parts of your offering and price them separately? Can you add new pieces that will deliver additional value? Do you offer any services your customers especially value? Make sure your minimal offering delivers value, but also make sure you add value where you can.

Once you know the answers to these three questions, you can choose your price level. When I do this, I always sit down and write a price list. That tells me what I have and what I’m missing. Once you feel you’ve documented everything you need, you can validate your thinking with a little market research (I usually just call 5–10 potential customers and ask if it makes sense).

The last step is one where most marketers should feel comfortable: Test, test and test again. Pay attention to how potential customers react. Are they balking? Or are they eagerly accepting your new pricing? Did you get your base product right, but your add-ons too high? Make adjustments. Then keep making adjustments until you don’t see many more needed.

Marketers may hate of fear the idea of doing any pricing analysis, but these three steps can help take the challenge and put it into a context that is much more familiar and easier to approach. And, I hope, make it less scary.

Decision Making

How to Prevent Your Biggest Strategy Mistake

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It seems like a pretty simple statement: Getting your strategy right is critical to getting the outcome that maximizes your marketing and business potential. Many companies, especially smaller and mid-size companies, tend to put lots of work into getting strategy right, and they often come up with all the right answers. Even so, they are missing the forest for the trees.

Getting the right strategy for your marketing and your business requires that you choose the right strategy framework for your particular situation. No-brainer? Turns out it’s not.

Here’s an example: A young software company wanted to find ways to generate substantial growth. The natural model would be to expand their offering to their market and, at the same time, expand their market. This expands the definition of their capabilities along two dimensions at the same time, significantly increasing the potential to dilute their focus and investment.

After seeking advice, they found out the approach was completely wrong. They could have developed a strong strategy addressing larger markets with more offerings, but execution would have failed. It would have been hard to tell why, since none of the assumptions would have been violated — just the desired outcomes would not have happened.

They ultimately went with a strategy based on the business book, Crossing the Chasm. Doing this required a different approach: narrowing focus on a smaller set of customers initially and then growing from there. This strategy worked, and they are now on a very rapid-growth trajectory.

Why did this choice make sense? The premise of the strategy matched their situation.

The book describes the point at which the strategy makes sense as the point at which, for tech companies, customers become less visionary and more pragmatic. This was their actual experience, but until they saw that described, they would not have seen it explicitly.

Similarly, every strategic framework I’ve worked with has a similar definition of the conditions under which the strategy should be applied. The challenge is it’s hard to find it — most strategy books and frameworks will describe in great detail how to execute the framework but spend little time describing those conditions. You really have to look and pay attention!

Whether you need to cross a chasm or find some blue ocean or move in any direction, make sure your approach suits your situation, your market, your business and your customers.

Or risk unexplained failure.

Customer Trust

Storytelling Is Really the Only Marketing

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Maybe the inverse of my title is more true:  if you’re not telling a story, you’re not really marketing.  As marketers, we’ve all spent plenty of time analyzing features and benefits of our offerings, figuring out just the right messaging and discovering the right ways to talk to our prospects and customers.

In more recent years, notably with the rise of online marketing of every sort, we’ve started talking about conversations, storytelling, and how to engage our prospective customers and build relationships.  This is also an important part of marketing work.

But no matter what you sell and no matter what audience you want to engage, if you’re not telling them a good story and engaging them with that story, you’re not going to garner much interest.

Why Storytelling Matters

Kathy Klotz-Guest, CEO of Keeping It Human, (also a friend and sometime MENG speaker) recently released a book, Stop Boring Me! How to Create Kick-Ass Marketing Content, Products and Ideas Through the Power of Improv, based on her years as an improvisational actor, then as a storytelling marketing adviser to Silicon Valley businesses.  Her premise is that all business is human (also the premise of my work, which is one reason I admire her!).

Kathy cites marketing professor and author Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University, who notes that people remember stories as much as twenty-two times more than they do facts alone


You should be.  If you’re “talking” to your prospects by showing them features and benefits, and your competitors are telling engaging stories, it might explain why you’re having trouble with your conversion rates.

One of the most important pieces of advice Kathy offers is that marketing is about change, as are stories.  If you help your prospect see and understand the possibilities and how to change to realize them, you have a far better opportunity to engage and, eventually, sell to that prospect.

How do I do that?

Three Steps to Better Storytelling

Like me, you’ve probably heard that advice from way too many marketers and so-called experts. But doing it seems to escape you.  Here’s one person doing it well every single day.  Megan DeGruttola heads storytelling and content marketing for Stitch Labs and uses these three guideposts to create a story:

1.  Know your audience

Who is the person you want to hear your story?   What interests them?  Why is your story going to matter to them?  This is nothing more than knowing your target audience but in a much more human way.

2.  Understand their problems and aspirations 

This is not about the problems you think they should have (sorry, we’re marketers, you know you think that way even though you shouldn’t).  Make certain you are addressing the problems that person faces in their daily life.  Maybe it’s something that frustrates them endlessly or maybe it’s something they never thought they could solve.

Then make sure you know their aspirations.  What do they want to change?  What do they hope to become?  How, very specifically, do they think they can get there―and how can you help them?

3.  Take them on a journey 

Show them where they are and make clear the problems.  Show them the way forward to achieving their aspirations.  In other words, tell a powerful story.

Remember, journeys are never a single step, and they are fraught with setbacks. Don’t forget that your story shouldn’t be a carefree romp to the finish line. It should be an honest and credible account of the challenges and motivations that keep the story going.

Are you worried you don’t tell good stories (it’s the worry I hear most often from marketers about storytelling)?  Don’t worry.  You do.  Ask your family or friends.  At least some of them love your storytelling.  Go find out why and use those strengths to get better.

And as with everything else in marketing, keep trying and experimenting.  You’ll get to what gives you and your company that twenty-two times engagement multiplier.

Then tell us the story of how you did it in the comments!


Decision Making

Artificial Intelligence – The Next Marketing Frontier (and Danger)

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Artificial Intelligence seems to be everywhere all of a sudden, and it’s making its way into the technology marketers use every day.  We’ve been talking to (with?) our smartphones for a while now, and there’s pretty much no mobile device that isn’t just begging to hear your voice.  With Apple adding Siri to the Mac, that now applies to pretty much any device. Amazon even has an eerily lighted cylindrical device that can play Jeopardy! with you―and presumably understand your stuttering, uncertain responses in the form of a question.

The Direction of Artificial Intelligence Operational Systems

It’s only in the past year or two that we’ve seen so-called artificial intelligence technologies make their way into operational systems and software used in business.  And now we’re seeing some form of intelligent capability make its way into marketing.  Here are a few examples:

  • Ad Targeting: Machine learning is working for companies such as Baidu to determine when any given user is most likely to click on what kind of ad, then automatically serving the right kind of ads for that user at that time.  This attempts to maximize click-throughs.
  • Recommendation Engines: We’re all familiar with the jokes about Amazon’s (and other vendors’) “people who bought this item also bought” feature which often make less-than-ideal recommendations.  Applying machine learning to large amounts of data on consumer behavior, however, can improve this dramatically.  Under Armour is using IBM’s Watson to analyze its own customer purchase data with third-party data on fitness and nutrition to serve up far more relevant product recommendations.
  • Preventing Credit Fraud: Banks have been using massive amounts of data to try to determine when a particular credit card transaction has a good chance of being fraudulent.  Now companies such as USAA are using natural language processing algorithms to look at the text within transactions to determine potential fraud even without a previous pattern having developed.

These examples are taken from a pretty interesting list of applications of artificial intelligence in marketing.

The key question for me is:  How will this change marketing?  I’ll offer some thoughts on where this is going, but first indulge me a short background explanation.

There are two main lines of thought in the computer science world about how intelligent systems (from software to robots and beyond) should act and interact with humans.  One says we should be developing systems that are independently intelligent.  Those systems would learn from the initial set of experiences humans provide but then would function on their own, without human guidance and making their own decisions.  If this scares you a bit ―and it should―you can read an incredibly insightful speculation on this in Asimov’s classic, I, Robot.

The other line of thought says intelligent systems should be built to extend and enhance human intelligence.  Sometimes this is called the “Star Trek” school of thought since that is how the computer systems on that show generally operated (and the independent androids were almost always evil―apologies to Mr. Data). The goal here is to help humans advance their own thinking.

A good example of the latter in the marketing world (and a function I really hope to see one day soon!) is the ability to ask your marketing automation systems questions such as “What are the top three paths people who buy our products take through our website?” and have your system know it needs to crunch the behavioral data to develop paths and determine outcomes.  Even better, the system would know why.  In this case, the system is not making decisions on website structure or how to present what information to whom, but it is telling you, the human decision maker, what you need to know to make those decisions.

Most of the examples of intelligence, including machine learning and natural language processing, that are in place today fall into the latter category:  they exist to provide some form of information plus analysis to a human decision maker.  There are a few examples of systems that are given jobs they do themselves (such as the ad server example above), but even those are assigned a specific job and decision-making framework by the humans who control them.

What Comes Next?

I think the next few years will bring a dramatic increase in the intelligent capabilities of all kinds that will be brought into business systems, including marketing systems.  Nearly all these will fall into the data or language analysis category at first.  They will do things such as answer customer-service requests or help marketers make sense of large sets of unrelated data.

But some will start to make some of the decisions marketers make every day.  For example, IBM’s Watson technology analyzed millions of recipes and now can develop a (presumably tasty) recipe given a set of ingredients.  That’s why they let it compete on Jeopardy! but not on Chopped!  Imagine if Watson’s artificial intelligence analyzed the marketing mix of every company in your segment and added in the consumer behavior data.  I’m willing to bet it would make marketing mix and timing decisions as well as any of us could―maybe better.

In the retail business, it’s not hard to envision the day when Apple’s intelligent ear pieces (version one comes out later this month in the form of AirPods) can remember that three days ago you mentioned you needed to buy new socks, and then remind you (literally putting a “bug” in your ear) as you walk by a sock-selling retailer that is doing location-based advertising with Apple.  Today this feels intrusive, but as our artificial intelligence assistants become more intelligent, it will seem less so. It’s more like having your friend notice the socks in the window and asking, “Didn’t you mention you need socks?”

Will Marketing Change?

No.  Marketing, as we sometimes need to remind ourselves, is a discipline, not a set of actions.  We’ll still be doing it.  But our jobs will change dramatically.

The predictions for future jobs are dire.  This article predicts Robots (or some form of artificial intelligence systems) will take over 50% of all jobs within 30 years (the career span of someone 10 years out of school!).  And if you Google “Jobs AI is Taking Over,” there is no end of similarly dire predictions.  Many of those jobs are white-collar jobs.

Some of those will be marketing jobs.  As systems get better at analyzing data and behavior, the jobs devoted to that will disappear.  As systems get better at processing and responding to natural-language requests, customer-service jobs will start to go.  And yes, as systems get better at inductive reasoning, jobs that focus on messaging and positioning (inducing target customer desires) will also go.

The flip side of all these dire predictions is that more intelligent systems will help the marketing decision makers make better, more informed, less biased and faster decisions. Those of us who focus on creative roles and on decision-making roles will get much, much better at our jobs, as our systems help us do better, faster.

Now, if Siri could only tell me where I saw that really cool gadget I wanted to buy.  Or even reliably get me directions home.  Then I’d be convinced we’re on our way to more intelligent systems.

Are you using intelligent systems in your marketing?  Are they helping?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Decision Making

Caution: Predictive Analytics May Miss One Important Thing

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Predictive analytics is, without a doubt, the new big thing in marketing.  It’s how we marketers are putting so-called big data to work to help us find, target, and sell to the right customers at the right time.  I’ve written about this before; any time we rely on technology or process to tell us about our customers’ preferences, habits, or needs, we run the risk of missing out on one critical element of our customers’ decision-making.  Our customers are human and, therefore, somewhat unpredictable.

Many years ago, I worked with a company that created customized news feeds.  Customers would select their areas of interest, and each day, the company would sort items from a range of newswires (yes, this is before social media!) and send each customer a custom collection of articles, press releases, and other news items.

A general concern others and I raised about the trend toward more personalization (which is still ongoing) is that people would miss out on items of general interest.  In those days, when I read the newspaper, I would seek out sections of particular interest to me, but I would also read the front page and often catch other items on my way to my sections.  This exposed me to news, information, and thinking outside my specific area of interest.  In particular, reading the front page gave me a sense of what was collectively considered important (as filtered by an editor, granted, but one whose interest likely was matching the collective interest).  This provided a common understanding of the world and important events of the day.  With an entirely customized newswire (or, in today’s terms, a group of Facebook friends with whom you completely agree), you create your own unique understanding of the world around you, and you become less aware of what is outside your bubble (and in some cases, less able to understand it).

One of our goals as marketers is to influence behavior, particularly toward buying our products and services.  One way to do this is to create some elements of a bubble around the target buyers so they see more of your offerings than anything else and more messages encouraging the lifestyle associated with your offerings.  That creates stronger associations with the promise of the brand and results in brand loyalty.

We observe the actions customers take and focus on the ones that make them most likely to deepen their association with our brand and all of the things for which that brand stands. That creates the customer journey.

Once we know all that, we work hard to influence customers to take the next step on their journey toward becoming a brand loyalist and buying more and more from us.

Dealing with the myriad actions, possible paths, probable journeys, and the wide range of customer tastes and behaviors has been nearly impossible until technology stepped in to give us ways to store and analyze all that data.  Enter big data and predictive analytics.

We now have computer systems that tell us—if a customer has a certain set of tastes and preferences, and then takes a given action (or a series of actions)—what the most effective way to get them to take the next action is.  So we do that.  Then we see many of those customers taking the hoped-for action.

Enhancing the Impact of Predictive Analytics

One of my favorite themes is to remind marketers that your instinct—your intuitive understanding—goes far beyond the analysis of any computer system.  You will not always be right, but your intuition provides a strong sanity check.

For example, your predictive analytics might suggest prospects who end up buying from you always take a specified action several steps prior to purchasing.  This might be true.  But you might also notice there is a large drop-off rate right before that step—only a small number of prospects in your funnel move to that step.  Your analytics don’t tell you this because you’ve told your systems to answer the question of what causes people to buy, so it looks at the outcome and works backward.  It takes human powers of observation to look at the funnel from a different perspective.

I rely on my systems and the analyses they produce to tell me how my programs are working.  I set them up to give me data-driven answers to a variety of questions, including the question of what actions are most influential in converting prospects to paying customers.

But I always look at the data myself.  I look for anomalies.  I look for things that might not be answered by my systems the way I’ve set them up.  I look for things I’ve otherwise overlooked.  Some of those insights have led to opportunities I would not have seen otherwise.

In short, I use my own experienced intuition to make the final call about what is working, what is not, and where I should look next to improve my efforts.

Don’t miss out on this one critical factor.  Don’t let your predictive analytics and automation systems take over your marketing.  There may come a day when intelligent systems can do this for us, but for now, this is your job.  It’s where your value gets added.  Using your own experienced intuition is what makes the difference between good marketing and great marketing.  Don’t give that up.


Three Ways to Find Your Marketing Creativity Again

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It would be hard to find a marketer who would not agree that marketing has become much less creative and much more process-focused.  We tend to idealize the 1960s world, stereotyped by the television show Mad Men, where the creative team ruled the business and the great idea was the best product marketers had to offer their client or employer.  At the same time, we lament the rise of technology, complaining that marketing and sales automation has forced us into a never-ending loop of justifying our value based on whatever numbers our client or bosses choose to watch.

What Happened to Marketing Creativity?

It’s easy to blame the shift to more process-focused marketing on the rise of marketing technology and the associated capabilities of measurement.  But it’s also true that we have used technology as a crutch, a substitute for our own creativity, in order to get things done faster, or, at times, with less hard work.

Don’t get me wrong:  Automation and measurement are important to a functioning marketing team.  Without it, you can’t scale and you just don’t know what’s working and what’s not. You need automation to deliver just the right message to just the right person at just the right time and to know whether you succeeded and whether the person took the action for which you were hoping.  As marketing gets more and more personal, the need for technology to handle more tasks at a higher level of functionality will only increase.

Is marketing creativity getting lost in automation?  I don’t think so.

Creativity, though, marketing creativity is the role―and the greatest contribution―of humans in marketing (and beyond).  You can’t delegate that to an automation system.  I think it’s time for us, as marketers, to remember it is still human creativity that drives our work; our automation systems cannot be the source of our creativity but rather the tools we use to automate and scale that creativity.

Is your marketing really as creative as it could be?  Here’s an example of using technology as a substitute for marketing creativity.  See if this scenario sounds familiar:

Your digital marketing team is about to launch another email campaign (the last one worked pretty well, right?).  They decide on the new target audience.  They then look at the last campaign in your marketing automation system and copy it.  They edit the content to more closely match the new idea.  They swap out the calls-to-action with new ones (which look surprisingly similar to the old ones―with apologies to Pete Townshend).  They check it over and hit send.

This is how the vast majority of marketing is being done today.  Email campaigns are being copied.  Ads are being tweaked.  Even paid search parameters don’t really change much. It’s comfortable.  It’s easy to understand. It’s low-risk―both from an investment perspective and in how you have to explain the lower results (it was just like the last one―we thought it would work!).  We accept incremental change and incremental results, because we can understand it.  And because our marketing automation systems, which were designed to automate tasks, are being used as a substitute for creativity.

Nobody ever made a difference in any market by doing something just like what they had done before.  You can insert the Apple branding story of your choice here, because the ways they changed thinking and changed consumer preferences is exactly the point (My personal favorite story about how ads changed minds and the market is the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign.).

How do we put the marketing creativity back into marketing?  It’s not easy, but it’s critical if you want to make a difference in your market, to your clients, and to your company.

Three Ideas for Putting Creativity into Your Marketing

Here are three ideas I use to get my creativity back into my marketing efforts:

1)  Kairos

Morgan McLintic, managing director for the U.S. for Lewis Global Communications wrote an interesting piece for LinkedIn, titled Why You Aren’t Creative Anymore.  He discusses the ancient Greek culture’s two different expressions for time:

Chronos, he explains, is the concept we understand as the ticking of the clock as time passes.  It’s the way time gets measured and how time passes.  It’s how we synchronize (notice the root word, chronos) to get a common understanding of when things happen.

Kairos, on the other hand, is a qualitative passage of time, similar to Csiksgentmihalyi’s concept of flow.  It’s the place where we take the time to focus and create.

McLintic argues that the endless distractions and demands prevent us from creating the space for creativity.  We are not just endlessly busy; we are distracted.  We might be with our families, but we are thinking about work.  We might be meeting with a colleague but really worried about the meeting with our CEO tomorrow.  Focus―a key element of flow―is hard to come by.  Plus, we live in a culture that values busy-ness.  We are always under pressure to appear busy, even if we are not.  That ends up creating more stress as we force busy-work on ourselves to meet the expectation we think our surroundings―especially our work environments―force upon us.

Getting that space is hard, probably harder than it’s ever been.  But it works.  Here’s how I saw that happen recently.

I was leading a messaging project for my company.  We needed to not just revise our messaging but simplify it and communicate it in a clear, simple, concise way that anyone―in our market or elsewhere―could understand.  Even if you do every day, you know this is no easy task.  I took the usual steps, interviewing lots of people, consolidating feedback, looking for common threads and so on.  When I looked at my output, I had four PowerPoint slides with messaging statements and explanations― anything but simple.

I threw it out. I found a quiet place and put on the music that, for me, tends to inspire but not distract me (Mozart’s Symphonies No. 40 and 41).  I thought.  I recalled everything every customer and prospect had said.  I wondered why they bought from us.  More importantly, I wondered what they were trying to achieve when they bought from us.  As I sat there, the image came into my head of what must be in their heads.  Then the word showed up that described it.  Then I used the word in just the right sentence.  And that was it.  I had my answer.

Now, I stop just like that for every campaign I launch.  I encourage my team to do the same.  The result is I am starting my work with creativity―the critical element of marketing success.  I’m not letting my marketing automation system be my crutch for marketing creativity; I’m doing the creative work and letting the marketing automation system do its job of automating what I created.

2)  Finding Our Inner Four-year-old

Sir Ken Robinson discusses how our schools kill creativity.  It’s worth the nearly 20 minutes to watch.

He tells this story (slightly edited for readability):

When my son, James, was four in England―actually, he was four everywhere, to be honest.  If we’re being strict about it, wherever he went, he was four that year.  He was in the Nativity play.  Do you remember the story?  No, it was big, it was a big story. Mel Gibson did the sequel; you may have seen it: “Nativity II.”

But James got the part of Joseph, which we were thrilled about.  We considered this to be one of the lead parts.   We had the place crammed full of agents in T-shirts: “James Robinson IS Joseph!”  He didn’t have to speak, but you know the bit where the three kings come in?  They come in bearing gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This really happened.  We were sitting there, and I think they just went out of sequence, because we talked to the little boy afterward and we said, “You OK with that?”  And he said, “Yeah, why? Was that wrong?”  They just switched.  The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

Kids will take a chance.  If they don’t know, they’ll have a go.  They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative.  What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original―if you’re not prepared to be wrong.  And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.  They have become frightened of being wrong.  And we run our companies like this.  We stigmatize mistakes.  And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.  And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

Trust me, it’s much funnier when he says it.  But he’s right.  He tells the story―now pretty much folklore in the education business:  when you ask a class of kindergartners who is an artist, pretty much everyone raises their hand.  When you ask a class of sixth-graders the same question, only one or two raise their hands.

You probably can’t go to work and act like a four-year-old.  But you can take the time and focus to let yourself play with your thoughts and ideas like you did when you were four, then take what you come up with, and put it into grown-up terms your colleagues will understand.

I can pretty much guarantee you show more marketing creativity than anyone―including you―ever expected.

3) Avoid Groupthink

This should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to make a decision in a meeting. You know the pattern all-too-well:  Everyone speaks, carefully avoiding stating an opinion, until the boss chimes in, then everyone suddenly agrees with the boss, showing how what they already said supports their agreement.  This is not just a business phenomenon.

Brainstorming sessions are a really good way to avoid this.  But most brainstorming sessions fall prey to the exact same malady.  We are afraid to offer ideas that might seem too far away from the norm―or worse, too stupid.  We want to be seen as part of the team, and we want to be seen as intelligent.

One technique I have seen used is to let everyone do their brainstorming alone, while in a group.  In this approach, you might hand everyone slips of paper or post-it notes.  Ask everyone to write down everything they can think of, one idea per slip or post-it.  When everyone is done, collect the notes so they are not associated with any individual.  Let the group get together and look at the ideas, then start sorting them out and prioritizing.

Groupthink is a very dangerous and insidious bias that can kill any attempt to offer anything creative before it is even stated.  You probably know this intuitively.  Avoiding the fear of groupthink will let you find a way to offer your marketing creativity and maybe make a big difference in your next project.

These three suggestions are far from the only ways to reestablish marketing creativity.  I’m pretty sure you have a few other ideas (please offer them in the comments below!).

Reestablishing the role of creativity is critical to the success of your marketing efforts and to the success of your organization as a whole.  It’s time to stop letting automation drive all our thinking and let it do its job―automating the creativity humans bring to the work.

Decision Making

How Data Can Be Dangerous: Don’t Market to the Middle

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Danger!  Your data is causing you to market to the middle of your audience and miss many opportunities.

In my recent post, I wrote about the dangers of relying solely on data to make good marketing decisions.  While data is the ultimate sanity check, data can also be easily skewed, misinterpreted and used in ways that were never intended (or worse, in ways that are meaningless).  Without good judgment and interpretation, data almost certainly will lead you astray and you could market to the middle.  But there’s a subtler danger that lies beyond just the use of data in your marketing decisions.

What if your actions as a marketer are closing off options for your customers?

What if both you and your customers would be better off with those options open?

What can we, as marketers, do about it?

Douglas Rushkoff, an NYU professor and leading thinker on the Internet and society, said in his recent book:  “Companies know things about you that you don’t yet know yourself, and they only know them in terms of probability.  The world that you see is being configured to a probable reality that you haven’t yet chosen.”  And we, fellow MENG members, are the ones doing the configuring.

We work hard to understand our audiences.  We try to decipher their behavior.  We work to develop models of their personalities and their tastes.  We try to determine what we think they are going to do next.  And then we build every experience custom-tailored to each individual, bringing them closer and closer to the next action.  And then the next.

If you look deep down inside the models that got you to “knowing” what each and every individual’s behavior is going to be, you’ll find they are all based on statistical averages. Even if you segment your audience really well, you’re still looking at statistical averages of each segment.

That works for the 68% of your audience within the first standard deviation from the mean. It skews the results for the next 27% and for the last 5%―the outliers―you just have no idea what they would have done if you didn’t pre-define their path.

Market to the Middle:  The Small Danger

You’re missing some great ideas and opportunities.

One of the tenets quoted so often is that the opportunity for innovation lies with the outliers.  It’s the customers who do the weird thing with your product or ask for something which you haven’t yet thought of who show you the way to your next big opportunity.

When you don’t let them get there by following the market to the middle, when you decide they should follow one of your home-made yellow-brick roads, you miss out on the great opportunities they bring.

This is just another way of saying you are listening to your customer too closely, and you will be disrupted by some other company that thinks about the problem differently.

But that’s just the small danger.

The Big Opportunity

Ten years ago, a small group of sales and marketing people started thinking differently about how to use all the then newly available technology to advance the field.  One of the core tenets of that group―later codified in this book and many other publications―is that companies must now learn to adapt their sales and marketing to what, where, and how customers want to buy, rather than asking customers to adapt to how the company wants to sell and market to the middle.

We’ve tried many different forms of this, but what it comes down to every single time is: we have a really hard time delivering a perfectly customized sales process, product, service, and experience to every single customer.  We’re still looking at averages.

A Short but Relevant Digression

In the old, industrial-age, grade-school classroom―the kind most of us experienced―teachers were said to be teaching to the middle, which means they were teaching to the average student in the class. That makes it very difficult for the students at the top and bottom of the class (for different reasons) to learn effectively.

I recently worked with a company that helps school districts implement personalized learning. What that means―when it’s fully working―is every single student gets exactly the right challenge, information, work, assignments, and education he or she needs at every single moment throughout his or her school career.  Sounds like a tall order, right?  It is.  It requires rethinking how education is delivered.  It redefines (and, I believe, elevates) the role of the teacher.  It changes the school from a factory, churning our identically educated kids, into a greenhouse, growing each and every unique kid in their own unique way.

Can we marketers do the same for the customer experiences we deliver?

Yes, but we have to change the way we do marketing.  It’s OK to rely on data, as long as we’re careful using it and do not always market to the middle.  But we have to start building organizations and processes in a very different way.  Can our marketing analysts turn into customer coaches?  Can our marketing leaders turn into Sherpas (with apologies to the site of the same idea)?  Can our content developers become editors?  Everything we do now would have to change.

And change is hard.

But there’s always someone ready to disrupt if we don’t.  And all the outliers, and then the 27% and, eventually, the 68%, will just go their own way―not ours―right to that disruptor.

Your Turn

I’ve attempted, in this post, to offer a glimpse into an idea I am developing in my own work.  But it’s just beginning.  Please tell us what you think in the comments or on social media, and let’s discuss how to do this.  I look forward to your contributions.

Customer Success

Want to Avoid Customer Rejection? Here’s How NOT To

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Here’s a lesson on how to create customer rejection in 30 minutes or less.

I heard a story from a friend today.  She bought what she hoped would be a useful and productive accessory for one of her tech devices.  Nothing fancy, just one of those things that makes your device go from “pretty useful” to “part of my everyday work.”

I can safely say she will avoid doing business in the future with the company that made the device.  And I’ll bet she’ll happily tell all her friends (as she told me) about how well they knew the art of customer rejection.  I can’t tell you how many potential customers this company lost today, but I know of two, and based on her influence circle, I’ll bet that’s a few orders of magnitude off.

It turned out this effort by the company to lose customers was pretty simple.  They spent a total of half an hour of work on it.  The customer rejection professional involved (maybe in charge of this particular effort?) was efficient, effective, and, I’d bet, well-rewarded for his or her efforts.

In fact, if your company is looking to lose some customers fast, I’d try to hire this customer rejection expert ASAP.

The whole thing was pretty simple.  When my friend received the product, it was broken and did not work.  She wanted it replaced; I’m pretty sure I would have, as well.  She emailed them. They asked for pictures.  She sent them.  They asked her to call.  She spent half an hour on the phone with the very competent customer-rejection professional who told her the replacement was out of stock and could not be sent.  Going above and beyond their duty, the same customer rejection professional added that no advance order could be placed for the item to ensure it would be sent when it was back in stock.  The apology acting, I’m told, was extraordinary (maybe the customer rejection professional also is an aspiring actor?).

My friend tried to respond to the company’s email, but the email message bounced. In the bounce message, she was directed to a web page to file a complaint, but the web page produced errors that could not be deciphered (Note to web professionals: If you want to contact the company to help resolve this, remember that is at cross-purposes with the responsibilities of the customer-rejection team).

My friend now has a broken product.  The company that sold it to her thinks this is as it should be.

I’d call this an example to follow of how to lose customers in half an hour or less. Customer-rejection professionals: are you listening?