Stop Enabling Your Customers! And Get Your Product “Hired” Now

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Have you ever heard product or service claims like these:

  • [Our service] enables executives to achieve their top priorities.
  • [Our product] enables you to make better use of your network to help the people you trust.
  • [Our product] enables you to create beautiful native mobile apps styled with CSS.

These are typical examples of statements that all too often appear as the headline of product data or sell sheets, web pages, and other promotional material.  Two of these examples come from small companies you probably don’t know, and one comes from a large company you probably do know.  And while this type of phrasing is all the rage in Silicon Valley, it pervades plenty of other industries as well.

But it says nothing.

Or at least nothing useful.  In these headlining statements, the companies producing the product have failed to communicate to the potential buyer why it is so important to the buyer to have the product or service being offered.

Of course, we want to enable our customers to do something that is of value, but all too often, when I see statements like the above, the value is either misplaced or misunderstood.  This is often indicative of a serious underlying issue with the positioning of the product or service.

Allow me to explain.

In his seminal work on innovation, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen points out that every product, in order to be successful, must have a job.  This means that in order for any person or organization to buy a product or service, they must have a job they want that product to do, and then they make a decision to “hire” the product or service to do that job.

Sometimes we know well the job we need done.  A simple, if dated, example of this is the personal computer.  When PCs were first brought to market in the 1970s, they were hobbyist toys.  Then along came Dan Bricklin with a program called VisiCalc, and suddenly companies could “hire” personal computers to do the arithmetic that had taken junior accountants much of their day to accomplish.  As the versatile computer became more of an office presence, it found more and more jobs to do but would never have been there in the first place had it not had a job in the first place.

Sometimes we don’t know the job we need done until it shows up in front of us.  A personal example goes back just two years to when I bought my first iPad.  As Silicon Valley marketing professional, I was a fairly mobile worker able to find ways to be reasonably productive from pretty much anywhere, whether traveling on business or working from home.  Once I learned how to connect my iPad to all the relevant services, however, I became a walking office.  Everywhere I went, all I had to do was open the iPad and suddenly there was no difference between being in an office and being anywhere else.  The iPad did the job of making me location-independent (or as one of my campaigns put it, “as productive from anywhere as I am at my desk”).  I wasn’t very aware I needed that job done, but once it was being done, there was no question that I had made a great “hire.”

So what’s the problem with statements like those above?  They don’t connect the value of the product or service to the value the potential buyer needs.  The marketers behind them found a really cool thing that their product enables, but they either failed to connect it to something their buyer needs or communicate that connection.  This is a serious positioning error that could cost you your ability to successfully enter a market or overtake competition.

Fortunately, the solution is simple, and it is nothing more than great positioning. Here’s how:

  1. Understand your intended customer’s needs:  What do they need done for them?  What needs does this create?  Which needs are being met and which are not?  Can you identify any needs they have — or soon will — of which they are not aware?
  2. Look carefully at your own capabilities:  not just your product or service but the whole range of capabilities your company, including its people and technologies, can bring to the market to serve those needs.
  3. Match your capabilities to the identified customer needs and figure out exactly how your capabilities meet those needs.
  4. Communicate as potential results your customers can achieve rather than things they could do, which will allow them to understand the compelling reasons to “hire” your product or service.

There is one more pitfall.  Many of the start-up companies with which I work fall into the trap of defining customer needs as what they want them to be (or, in the worst cases, wish they were).  It’s nice to think your customers should have a need to do whatever your product does for them, but (as we so often have to remind ourselves) we do not get to define what customers need and why.  Our task is to discover the actual needs and meet them.

When you define customer needs, make sure you do not believe your own mythology.  Make sure your findings are grounded in reality.

So stop enabling.  Start solving problems and creating results.  And your product will be the one that gets “hired” over and over.


Little Things Really Do Matter

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This is admittedly a bit of a rant, but is also an important point when it comes to how you demonstrate your sustainability to your customers and other audiences. (recommended reading on this topic: Little Big Things by Tom Peters).

The background: I buy many of the sustainability-related products for my home from one particular on-line merchant (who is the subject of this rant, and to be clear, not a client). I’m also one of those people who hates to receive anything printed – catalogs, statements, whatever…for sustainability as well as clutter and efficiency reasons (I never miss a chance to point out that they are almost always related)

The event: I picked up my (US) mail today, and in that mail, found a printed catalog from this company. I’ve never received one before, in the several years I’ve done business with this company.

The rant: Why did I receive a catalog from this company? They are a sustainability-products company. They purport to be a very green company. There are lots of images of trees on their website (I wonder if any of those were cut down to print my catalog). Yes, direct mail marketing works well. But I’m an established customer.

The solution: There are people who prefer to receive catalogs in the mail. Others don’t mind. And still others, like me, do mind. I wonder if this particular company might have considered sending an e-mail (in the fashion of a hotel pillow card) after my first order just asking if I’d prefer to receive communications electronically or in print (or even both).  I know I would have both opted for electronic and would have appreciated them asking.

This is a double win for the company – they make me happy with my choice and they improve their reputation in my eyes. Just sending the catalog both annoyed me and damaged their reputation (particularly their green claims). And I wonder if it would have cost them less to produce the e-mail than to produce and mail the catalog?

The conclusion: Yes, this is a very small thing – and not all-that-uncommon. But over the scope of a large number of customers/prospects and in the eyes of the larger community, if you’re really serious about sustainability (or for that matter, managing your reputation at all), little things like this go a long way to both improving your reputation and demonstrating just how strong your commitment is.

So pay attention, even when it seems the question is not very relevant.

And chime in if you have a story like this to share.


Long-Distance Romance

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If a marketer’s dream is to have an intimate relationship with and knowledge of his or her customer, then that marketer’s worst nightmare must be to know nothing about the customers who they so fervently hope will buy whatever it is they are selling.

In what I consider an inconsistent, if not surprising move, the FCC announced recently (via BusinessWeek) that it was going to look into what is becoming a fairly common marketing practice: tracking potential buyers’ web browsing behaviors and patterns.

How is this inconsistent? This administration prides itself on populism, and more specifically, enabling people to take power and control over themselves and allow opportunities to create all kinds of value. (I feel an argument coming on here…maybe next post? or in the comments if you like). This moves stops them. It simply puts up an artificial barrier that says “what I do, how I act and what I create on-line cannot be shared.”

Huh? Isn’t the populist, Web2.0 world of the internet all about creating shared value? What ever happened to the pro-sumer? and since when do my browsing patterns, along with what I create from them, not my “production?” (could you even go so far as to argue that link streams – mine here – are a proud publication of at least some of where I’ve been? and could be considered a lite version of a browser tracker? maybe).

But the point isn’t the politics. It’s the marketing.

For generations, companies have marketed to demographic, ethnographic, psychographic segments (and more…) trying to find the common behaviors of their potential buyers (in my now-distant youth, I recall ads for Cheerios in racquet clubs…clearly assuming a connection between racquet sports and a desire to eat healthy). Cross-marketing campaigns, partnerships, and so forth have been a staple of good marketing as long as there has been good marketing.

With the proper cautions, warning and knowledge (and willing participation of the potential buyer), tracking web browsing habit is no different. It tells us as marketers what our potential customers might be interested in, what they are looking at, and ultimately, where we should focus our efforts and with whom we should team up to best find and engage our potential buyer.

Wait -Â I know you’re about to argue for the right to privacy. Yes, obviously. None of this should be done surreptitiously. It probably should have the same level of user control and awareness as cookies do now. It feels about the same. Chime in if you like on the privacy controls needed.

Here’s where the nightmare begins:

Consumers, and for the most part business buyers, are on-line. They are browsing, searching, shopping and so forth. We all know the social media adage “The conversation is out there, are you?” The same applies to your potential customer. They are on-line. Are you looking for them?

If consumer behavior in the mass-market society could be done with cross-marketing campaigns and consumer habits determined (at least in aggregate) by survey, then consumer behavior in the social market must be determined by where your potential market (of one person) is going, who they are associating with, etc.

As a marketer, you cannot even begin to know your potential customer without knowing these things (and there’s so much more).

If you were not allowed to find ways to trace the patterns of an individual’s behavior on-line, you cannot know that person in the way you need to in order to make relevant and useful products available.

You would be relegated to doing nothing more than shooting the proverbial arrow in the dark. And that’s any marketer’s nightmare.

So what about the potential customer?

No, I would not want the feeling of being watched. But I do like to share what I’m doing and what I see. (e.g. this blog, my LinkStream, my tweets, etc.) But I also hate all that useless advertising I see.

So what if I set my browser to allow some set of marketing companies to see some set of information about my browsing habits (say, purchases, shopping, searches, abandoned shopping carts, etc.)? I’d get useful information (with, I hope relevant ads). I’d be able to see more of what I care about, even if it is promotional.

I would appreciate those companies that took the time to invest in thinking about me and what I do and like before they came to me and made me an offer. I’d be much more likely to buy.

I would be creating opportunities for me to find, discover and learn, and, yes, buy. And I’d be much more inclined to join the brand that did all of this.

This unusual move would, in one fell swoop, take a significant bite out of the rapidly evolving buyer-seller relationship, and drastically change the course of the new developing social marketplace.

As a consumer, and as a marketer, I seek out opportunities to create and strengthen relationships with those I buy from and those I sell to. I hope the FTC doesn’t send me back to the industrial age of the mass blast and the 1.5% return.


Stop Circling the Wagons

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This past week I had the privilege of attending The Economist’s 2009 Marketing Forum. As you might expect, the topics this year were focused on managing through challenging economic times, how to prepare for what we all hope will be better times in the near future and how we might know when better times are coming.

The audience was smaller than in past years, which was not at all surprising, but still represented the marketing leadership of a diverse set of companies and organizations – enough so that it was not hard to see how different sectors and industries are faring, and how the thinking differs – or doesn’t – across these businesses. (you can read more on the twitter stream, some commentary on it from day one and day two and read another perspective on the conference)

I heard discussion of the expected topics, such as measurement, marketing mix and spending and investment allocation, plus branding, promotion, channels and the long list of things marketers think about. But after a day and one-half listening to and talking with this group of marketing leaders, there were two things that were notably missing.

I’m pretty sure that if you’re bothering to read this, you don’t need to be convinced that an economic downturn, regardless of how severe or prolonged, is the time when it is imperative that great companies (read: the ones that want to survive) innovate – not just creating a few new, related products, but re-think the way they relate to their customers and the rest of their market, they way they develop and roll-out product (I am intentionally avoiding the word “launch” here) and how they manage the marketing investment for their companies.

I won’t suggest that there were no interesting ideas offered. There were a few. But out of 12 panels and presentations, not one was focused on innovation in marketing or how companies can create the kind of significant differentiation that will allow them to succeed in bad times and dominate when the market turns up again.

I would hate to suggest that, among this group, not one person was thinking about how to do this for their company (or clients for the branding firms in attendance), but there was little to no talk of this, either on stage or in the hallway between sessions. The thing that struck me also, is how much of the conversation still assumes that marketers own and define their brand themselves (hint: your market owns your brand) and how much the style of thinking is still command-and-control-driven in most marketing organizations.

So what was missing? Let me start with these perspectives:

  • The CMO as the portfolio manager of a range of marketing investments (some of this was hinted at by Ward Hanson of SIEPR)
  • The CMO as the steward (not controller, or owner) of the brand in the minds of the members of the market
  • The CMO as the facilitator of the conversation around the company and the brand
  • The CMO as the steward of the relationship with the market(s)
  • The CMO as the driver of a sustainable business model (no, I don’t mean green products)

This is the opportunity that faces us in this challenging market. William Pearce of Del Monte Foods suggested that one of the key responsibilities of the CMO is to be the “driver of growth” – and with that comes the challenge of how to put your company in position to lead the market (and gain market share) in challenging times and to accelerate out of this downturn, leave your competition in the dust and become dominant in your market.

Your market is thinking differently about its relationship with you – and your competitors. Are you willing to do what it takes to enter into a new relationship, start to think differently about how your company operates and markets, and become the organization that everyone else wishes they were?

I hope so – and I’d like to hear how you are getting started.


Just Ask

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At this morning’s Social Media Breakfast (great discussion with Anneke Seley, author of Sales 2.0 on using social media in sales), I was talking with Sue of KITList and Clare about how to improve the conversation and engagement of the thousands and thousands of KITList members. The three of us wrestled with updating the blog, creating an e-mail discussion list, maybe a social media service presence (Facebook, Twitter?), but we weren’t really sure what would engage the large and very diverse group that is the KITList membership. Then came the “a-ha” moment:

Clare said “Why don’t you ask your members?”

Which is, of course, applying the basic social media principle to figuring out social media.

Marketers are always working hard to understand customers, prospects and future prospects better. We think we’re pretty good at asking people in our market what they think, want and need. We also think we’re pretty good at translating often disparate answers into a coherent theme that then, we hope, guides our strategy.

Where this morning’s conversation started was in the “market research” mode of asking a few people. Sue asked me and Clare, and told us she had asked a few others, but still had no good answers. So a few hours later, she wrote a blog post (and sent an e-mail) to the members and asked everyone.

A few hours later, I saw the news that Facebook, after the recent debacle, has now decided that changes to their terms of service will be open to discussion by all members and subject to vote of the membership (Can’t you hear the lawyers cringing?). A social media icon now adopts real social media practices in a way that much of the technology industry is proverbially famous for not doing for so many years. This means no more misunderstandings (we hope) and terms of service that the community of Facebook members actually wants to abide by (I’ll refrain from a rant on the use of self-interest as a motivator being better than the threat of lawsuit). Facebook is actually asking everyone, and the result is almost certain to be a service that’s more appealing to its members.

Not everyone will answer. But I can’t think of a better example of how to learn what your whole market thinks, and not just the select few you’ve chosen for research. This is not quite crowdsourcing, but it’s close, and it uses some of the same ideas about collecting opinions from many, many individuals.

So when you want to know what your customers, prospects and market really want and need (and I hope you always want to know), do you let a select few speak for everyone? or do you really ask – everyone?


Your most important question

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It would have been hard to miss the turmoil surrounding the change a few weeks back in Facebook‘s terms of service. It appeared that they had changed the terms so that Facebook now owned complete rights in perpetuity (or something similar) to anything and everything anyone has ever posted or ever will post on Facebook.

It shocked some people that anyone noticed. But if you’ve been in the social media world or in on-line communities at all in the past decade, you know there are always at least a few people watching out and ready to pounce on anything that even smells like a usurpation of individual rights, freedom or privacy. (personal note: a really good analysis of this and what it means for the future is in Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it).

And, as one might have expected, once the individual shouts turned into a roar, and the mainstream news media (and even NPR and Harvard Law) picked up the story, Facebook backed off, and retracted the changes.

Facebook explained the intent of the changes by saying they had “revised our terms of use hoping to clarify some parts for our users” and that the changes were intended to do things like make sure people knew that if they posted, say, a picture on a group, then canceled their Facebook account, but the group still existed, then the picture would stay posted on the group.

Makes sense to me. Unfortunately, what they actually said, didn’t seem to mean that – and certainly wasn’t taken that way by the chorus of users who called for the recission of the changes.

Full credit to Facebook, by the way, for listening.

OK, now to my point. I don’t know if Facebook actually did any market research or any form of listening to their users in this case, but this is an all-too-common situation that marketers face: We listen to our market, then we act on what we think we heard. All good, right?

Well, frankly, no.

Thomas J. Watson, Jr. was famous for one admonition to his employees that became the informal motto of IBM: “Think” I remember in my younger days visiting IBM offices, and nearly everyone had a plaque on their desk with this single word embossed on it.

IBM Think Sign


That’s what Facebook forgot. And that’s what we see marketers forget a bit too often. Forget the groupthink that got you to the decision to act. Forget the assumptions you make every day. Forget the facts and data. Forget the market research and all the pithy quotes you garnered from your customers.

Take just a few minutes. Pretend you actually are one of your customers hearing for the first time about whatever you plan to do (not sure how to do this? ask an aspiring-actor friend – I know you have at least one!).

What do you think? What’s your reaction? What’s your initial feeling or what action might this inspire. Be honest here. This is the marketing equivalent of the gut check.

In other words: Think. What would your (prospective) customer really think about this?

That’s your most important question.

If it passes that test, then act, knowing your (prospective) customers won’t react with “What were they thinking?”


Reading Your Spirograph

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I’ve been reading a lot over the past few weeks on the explosion of social networks. It’s hard to read marketing blogs and not read about Twitter or Facebook, and how they relate to Pownce and LinkedIn and all the other options. Oddly, I don’t find myself at all confused. I’m on LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter and Pownce (and more). There’s crossover among the people, but from my perspective I know intuitively what (and who) goes on Facebook and what (and who) goes on LinkedIn.

Why? I have circles – more than one. People who find me to be a worthwhile business contact gather around me in that context and form my community of business associates. People who find me interesting as a friend gather around me and form my social community (as is social life). Some people are in both. There are more circles than that, some very closely related, some not, some entirely within others (my friends from school is a subset of all my friends). If I tried to draw it, it might look something like an unbalanced spirograph.

Marketing perspective 1: Your market looks just like this. Your customers, your prospective customers, people who might one day be customers all create the community which gathers around you (because they find what you are saying and the experience you offer interesting – but that’s a whole conversation in itself – look for more posts soon). But they have different reasons. Some like the lifestyle implications of being your customer, some like the way you care for them (I hope), and there are so many more. Knowing what these are, and what they can become means you can understand the kinds of experiences you must offer to engage the various communities.

Marketing perspective 2: In each of these circles – the communities in which you survive as a producer of experiences (note: not “business,” not “goods and services”) some of the community members are very close to you (maybe your most loyal customers) and some are on the edge, maybe moving in and out of your community as it suits them. Knowing who is where and why is critical to knowing your market, and being able to engage them in conversation and deliver a relevant engaging experience.

Reading the unbalanced spirograph that is your community, knowing its shape, knowing its distribution means being able to serve it well.

Knowing how it might change means being able to change with it.

Being able to create new circles (where neither you nor your competitors are delivering relevant experiences today) means being able to create disruption.

What does your spirograph look like?


Circle of Conversation

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This image was not created to represent a market. But it does. And it shows a dimension of a market that’s often overlooked.

I found this on FaceBook, it’s an application called FriendWheel. You are at the center of the circle (this is a sample by the author of the application) with all of your friends around you. The lines represent the connections among your friends. If you were in high-school, it might show the potential for people gossiping about you.

But, a market? YES!

Your market – the collection of people (businesses – or actually the people in them) who buy from you, who want to buy from you, who have bought from you and might again (or might not) – is not a straight-line list (though that’s how we often think of our customers and prospects – as just a list). Your market is the group of people who have gathered around your company and your products because they find you interesting and engaging (the same reason your friends hang around you). And you (your company and all the people in it) are at the center of that crowd.

But the conversation is not just bi-directional (you’re doing pretty well if you are truly having a bi-directional conversation). There are conversations happening in all directions around you. Most don’t include you, but if they are happening around you, they are, more than likely, about you.

Your brand (the total experience and impression of you in the collective minds of the market) is being defined in these conversations. So look carefully at those lines that connect the members of your market community to one another. They show you how closely your market participants are connected, and how they are connected. They’ll help you understand where the conversation is taking place and how you can get closer to it.

Why? Because the conversation that defines your brand – and your success – is happening. And when your market is about to be disrupted, it is in these conversations that you’ll learn about it. Are you listening?


The Visible Experience

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Experience counts. I don’t mean work experience, or the kind of wisdom that gives you insight, but the experience your customer (or prospective customer) has interacting with your company. Your customer’s Experience is the heart of your brand, and the heart of your customer’s decision to stay your customer.

Last week, I had two experiences which stood in stark contrast, and reinforced this.

First the good news:

I was invited to join a (relatively) new business-focused social networking service called Visible Path. In order to vet members to some degree, the service requires that your e-mail be a valid, non-spammer, domain (maybe more than that, I don’t fully know their criteria). So when I went to sign up, the site challenged me. The way it was stated caused me to interpret the requirement as the site admin’s desire to make an arbitrary judgment about my worthiness to join. This did not go over well, and I chose to, rather than join, fire off a rather scalding e-mail to the first contact person I could find on their web site. Within 2-3 minutes, I had a response back from Kathleen Bruno, who asked me to call her directly.

I did. She asked me what had cause me to think this, and how they could improve the process. We talked about this for nearly 30 minutes, discussing everything from word usage to my ideas for how to make the sequence friendlier and more transparent (there’s that word again!). She even told me who else in the company would also hear about my feedback.

This conversation turned my experience of Visible Path from one of a company who is clueless about networking (as an exclusive club?) to one that wants to engage users and make a valuable place to connect with others.

The initial experience was not good (I don’t think it’s completely my privacy fanatacism, either). But the response was outstanding. Here’s a company that “gets it.” They seem to care about the experience. They seem to care about making my experience useful, friendly and productive.

I’ve since completed the sign-up process and will be testing this very interesting new social-networking-for-business service to see if all of the cool stuff they offer really helps me (I’ll keep you posted!) (and, I’m not yet a raving fan of the service, but I am a raving fan of Kathleen!)

And now the bad news:

I spent this past weekend in Deerfield, IL. I stayed at the Embassy Suites (it was the designated hotel for the function). For those of you who know the Embassy Suites, you know they offer a reasonable breakfast buffet. Fortunately, this buffet included some hot food, like eggs and pancakes. Unfortunately, it also included cooked-to-order omeletes. Why is that unfortunate? In order to get any hot food at all, you have to wait in the omelet line. And on the weekend, the hotel is not populated with speed-focused businesspeople, but rather throngs of tourists, all clamoring for as much free food as possible (and ordering 4, 5 or more items). The line when I arrived was 45 minutes long. I didn’t wait.

I did, however, run into the manager as I left the line. I suggested that maybe the scrambled eggs could be placed in a chafing dish outside the line – not as fresh, but far more efficient. I made one or two other suggestions as well in my desire to be helpful and point out the error of their ways.

His response? He told me why my suggestions were bad ideas. He told me that my ideas were not what other guests wanted. All of this is probably true (I’m no hotelier, after all). But it left me thinking: This hotel doesn’t care what I think. They offer a generic service, and don’t care if I take it or leave it. (For the record, I’ll be leaving it next time I’m in Deerfield).

My experience of this hotel was one which does not care about its guests, one that does not listen, and one that does not care to improve my experience.

Contrast that to my new friend Ms. Bruno at Visible Path, who cared enough to want my personal experience to be a good one. I’ll be spending time using that service.

As is my habit, I pose the question: How are your customers experiencing your company? Are you sure? And what are you doing to make sure?

After all, Experience isn’t everything. When it comes to customers, it’s the only thing.


Listen to the candidates debate

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Earlier this week I heard a news report about the latest forum for the large and growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. The report said “…and as you would expect, the front-runners played it safe while the lesser-known hopefuls took more risks…”

Are you thinking risk doesn’t really work well in politics? Making a bold statement can certainly alienate entire groups of people, but it can also make all the difference. Think back to Newt Gingrich and company and their “contract with America.” That led to a change in control in both houses of congress. Or think back to the 2004 presidential campaign and Howard Dean’s railing against the Iraq war. That changed the conversation in the Democratic party and eventually led to the change in opinion across the country and another change in control in congress.

Marketing 101: Your brand is your identity. It is your point of view.

Disruptive Marketing 101: The point of view you add to the conversation not only matters, but can change the whole conversation. In other words, you (as an individual or a company or whatever) can disrupt the conversation and the market.

Is your point of view interesting enough and different enough to be disruptive? Are you willing to overcome the fear of risk and add your point of view to the conversation?

If you answered yes to both questions, you might just be ready to start disrupting your market.