Archive for June, 2010

Differentiate

June 23rd, 2010

The other day I was visiting a couple of web sites of media production companies, and what you notice pretty soon is that they all look the same. Not literally of course, some designs are fancier than others, but the overall structure of the sites are very much the same. Which raises the question of why that is. And the answer is: That’s how it has to be. Not for me, but the one who had to decide how the page should be set up thought exactly this. And of course he got there by looking at the competition’s web page. And as always, the first one to achieve [whatever] sets the bar for the next in line. That’s how a common understanding or notion of anything is created: silent agreement and the fear of probably being ridiculed for standing out.

The obvious thing to do is to be completely different. People visiting your corporate web site do it for only one out of two reasons: they either want to buy or they want to be hired. They don’t really want to look at fancy photos of your staff. They don’t want to read pretentious online resumés. Both of these are exclusion criteria. It’s much easier to say “I don’t like how they look” or “they’re too old” or “they’re too young”. None of this information is intruiging in some way to make me buy your stuff. Neither is a job description for a creative professional that reads like a classified ad for a garbage picker’s job (but of course expecting the candidates to submit outstanding samples of work).

So what to do? It’s dead simple. Give your visitors a vivid experience. Have a video for customers and people looking for jobs. If you want to be on screen, be on screen! Talk to them. Say how happy you are that they’re here and give them the tour. Be real. Be tangible. Have one video for customers and one for job seekers. Both care about different aspects of your business and need different information. And for the job seekers, give them an actual task. Ad agencies have been doing this for long, almost every major agency has some sort of copy test available online that challenges applicants to come up with great ideas. Why not do this for designers or editors or even bakers as well? This helps you a lot more analyzing their future potential instead of their past. Maybe they just worked on silly projects that never challenged them to unfold their potential — do you want to do the same by turning them down up front? That’s what you do if you just read resumés.

So if you want to be as different as you claim in your copy, show it to everyone. Showing that you care is more than enough for starters.

Change (the other kind)

June 16th, 2010

The other day it occured to me that change happens in generally two ways.

One is the kind everybody thinks of first. It’s dramatic and unique, paradigm-shifting, curve-jumping. Change that is considered revolutionary. Changing the game within the blink of an eye. It’s what VCs are looking for, it’s sellable because everybody knows straight away “Wow, this changes everything!” Well, sometimes they don’t and it takes them a little longer. But then everybody starts looking for the next big thing.

As it turns out, there is another kind of change, one that is constant and slow. This is the kind of change that renders you obsolete in different ways:

  • your job requirements have shifted over the last 15 years
  • your customers have aged and are no longer your target group
  • your service has been replaced by a free or cheaper resource

It’s tricky because this change doesn’t come with a lot of fanfare or other dramatic indicators. It just happens. It’s evolutionary.

The funny thing is, you can hardly sell the second kind to anyone to make money, right? People don’t see a need to move as long as there’s only a little difference to what they already have. They want the new model with hundreds of new features — or no change at all (even if it’s a fad). The stupidity here is the concept of thinking. People buy in a way they’ve always bought. Maybe because that’s how they were accustomed to buying as kids and didn’t think it over. At least it’s a good explanation why some senior management acts like, well, kids.

[And even though I don’t want to get political here, I just wonder when Mr Obama advertised the coming of change, did anyone ever ask what kind of change he meant? I don’t think so. People just assumed he meant dramatic and revolutionary — and no one really thought about how to pull all of this off. And, picking up the last post, when the financial crisis came as a revolutionary change, everybody was impressed (and shocked, yes) because it was hardly on anyone’s radar. From where we are now, there is little chance that some revolution will turn things the other way. No matter how many people are waiting in despair.]

NOW is the new standard

June 12th, 2010

Last time I checked, it was 2010. Doing some basic math, I calculated the financial crisis (the one that came first to the market, not the me-too crisis) happened two years ago. Some economies have recovered, some have not.

Still people are having real trouble to let go off the idea that we are still in the middle of a crisis. Sorry, we are not. Maybe they are. Because it’s easier to believe that the new standard is just a temporary phenomenon. And it’s easier to sell to a media audience — but not to shareholders. Where’s the initiative? Waiting for a saviour to come isn’t.

I might be going out on a limb here, but this could mean compared to other religions,  Christians will have a longer lasting disadvantage regarding this issue…

But seriously, who is the single person or group on this planet who can turn this situation around, if not you? Get a move on.

Still not enough

June 11th, 2010

Marketers have been knowing for ages that it’s cheaper to market to existing customers than acquiring new ones. And there are three factors that help this circumstance:

  • People are lazy.
  • People are afraid.
  • People forget.

It’s the new customers that are put off by (sometimes clever and funny) reports of how customer service is denied, how employees stupidly force policies on customers, all the promises were not kept — it’s all online, available at a single click.
But guess what? That’s still not enough to make all the old customers go away too. And quite ironically, it’s not the fear of disappointment if the alternative fails as well. It’s the fear of the alternative being better, realising one should have tried earlier.

At least

June 9th, 2010

Thinking about yesterday’s post’s last paragraph, it came to my mind that the current justice feels good for only one reason:  “I might have a smaller income, but at least I don’t have to pay as much tax as my boss.” You might have guessed it, the key words here are “at least”.

They are the indicator of a foul compromise, something the lizard brain keeps sending to your consciousness so you don’t take action. “C’mon, it’s not that bad, there’s still one thing to cling to.” And when you think about it, people say it quite often, far too often in fact. “My job is hell, but at least I can pay my bills.” — “My partner spends too little time with me, but at least I have a dog.” and my favourite: “Our business doesn’t make any money, but at least it’s fun.”

In reality, at least is nothing else but a final warning that your compromise has turned out to have more down- than upside — and is on the verge of failing. This is also the reason why salespeople hardly ever say it when they’re pitching to someone. Because the message is: “There is nothing else that makes using this product/upholding the status quo sensible any more. Better try something different.”

And of course, this means putting yourself at risk. Just because you believe you deserve better doesn’t mean it will come to you. The earth is revolving beneath our feet, but we don’t get anywhere unless we move ourselves.

Tax marketing

June 8th, 2010

Never having really thought about it before, it occured to me that the marketing of a change of a country’s tax policy is quite a tricky issue, because it clearly shows how people are more afraid of losing something they have than eager to get something they don’t have yet — especially when what they get is a non-bankable idea. But let’s start from the beginning.

As long as I can remember, we’ve been sold on the idea that progressive income tax is just and fair. The strong can and therefore should carry more load, they said. That’s why people with smaller income have been paying less tax than people with big income. Then the strong said, “Wait! We’re the ones who give work to the others, and our factories and means of production depreciate, so politics must make sure we can do this in the future — or else!” And politics did just that, complying well-behaved so the system would survive. They created exceptions and loopholes for the strong and said this is just and fair, because otherwise the economy would be put at risk, and we need a healthy economy to survive and thrive.

Over the years the whole tax system got more and more complicated, which in return meant a lot of jobs for tax consultants, and everyone got used to the year in, year out modifications of tax law, closing old loopholes and creating new ones and so forth. But altogether everyone got used to the way it was and no one really made an effort to change the system. What for? It was just and fair. Or was it?

Enter the (German chancellor’s) financial adviser: “A tax rate of 25% for everybody is just and fair. There is no reason why a CEO should pay 45% tax on earned income and the company owner only 25% tax on unearned income. Plus, there will be no future eceptions and loopholes. And everywhere I speak, this clicks with the audience.” The explanation is of course, when you speak in front of privileged people only (most of them being both CEO and owner at the same time), hardly anyone will refuse. Try to do that when the audience consists of 1% board members and 99% workers, who will very unlikely be happier when you tell them that a tax advantage by working night shifts is cut.

The point is once again not what is, but how it feels. Anyone who can do basic math intellectually knows that same tax for everybody and all exceptions cut is an overall balanced equation — but it doesn’t feel like one. And that’s the problem with marketing the new justice and fairness. At the moment, they don’t feel as good as — never mind better than — the old ones. Who can you sell that to?

(Sidebar — Another whack on a journalists head: If you want an answer, just ask one question about one issue at a time. Asking two or more, you give the interviewee cover to answer none of them. Quote: Journalist: “Many citizens are more than upset that compulsory federal saving might take away their tax benefits: tax-priviliged nightwork, tax-deductible commuting expenses or reduced GST with food, for example. At the same time the government provides billions of Euros in financial aids for other coutries. Is this fair?” — Expert: “The question is, is it legitimate?” — Ouch.)

Reservation

June 7th, 2010

Travelling by train last weekend, I came across a not-so-surprising phenomenon. When seats have been booked by someone, there is a little slip of paper attached to the window. It says, “Please give this seat to passengers holding a reservation.” I did have one, but since there was a major jam of people in the area where ‘my’ seat was, I decided to take the nearest available one, and if someone having reserved the one I was sitting on showed up, I’d move over.

Then I noticed that all around me seats were reserved, but no one was sitting there, and all the people that came past looking for a seat didn’t take them. Because they were reserved (pun intended). But when you think about it, it’s really scary that we have been brainwashed to a degree that people are so scared of facing refusal or criticism they won’t even consider doing something remotely deniable.

Visible effort = Value?

June 7th, 2010

Maybe this is just me, but what makes a huge difference when looking at slides or PDFs is to see that the one who made it put effort in. Not necessarily themselves, it’s perfectly okay to have a designer or layout person set it up. The absence of visible effort results in a loss of perceived value.

When speaking of presentations, the choice never really boils down to fitting in by uniformity or leveraging the message by standing out, because the slides are just visual aids. They are not the presentation. What you do is. Just make sure the slides do not work against you. Practical example: Trying to sell innovation by displaying standardized conservatism is not helping.

Regarding downloadable PDFs the issue is slightly different. I prefer vibrant, fun-to-read, comic-style formats with compact text and sidebars, stuff that keeps the eyes moving. Entertain your readers. If you want to sell, don’t make a book. Trust your gut feeling. If you have none, hand the job to someone who has. Your readers will thank you.

Business, ideas & cash

June 6th, 2010

Why do businesses fail, really? Or to paraphrase it: What does a business owner need to do to succeed? Spending the last days thinking about this issue, I came to the conclusion that businesses fail because building a business is not easy, and this fact is what a business owner needs to know. Let me explain why.

From a commercial point of view, a successful business boils down to 3 numbers: Revenue minus Costs equals Profit. So the commercial questions are: How much do we make? How much do we spend? Are we spending less than we make? So far so good. Though this does not answer the very first question.

The very first question coming ahead of trio above is this: Why are you in  business? My friend Gavin said to me the other day “Obviously most people go into business because they don’t want to work for someone  else”, which rang a bell. I had read this quite a while ago in Michael E. Gerber’s “The E-Myth”, a book in which he explains in a very clear way why most businesses fail, namely exact for this reason: Starting up a business just because you don’t want to work for someone else is not a sustainable model. But I’m not sure that I agree with what he suggests to do in any case.

What Gerber says is that you need to have systems that make processes so easy that even the least qualified person can do them. Then comes Seth Godin and announces that businesses that rely on simplifying processes and cutting costs so they can sell their products with higher margin (or cheaper to keep or increase their market share) are racing to the bottom and this will cause their demise.

On the other hand, there is Jim Collins exemplifying visionary companies that sometimes were founded even without an idea of what they should be doing, ending up in being super-companies like Johnson & Johnson, HP, IBM or Merck. What you tend to forget though, because Collins never ever mentions that, is that these companies also have (or used to have) factories. And to be frank, I do not believe that in these factories the only people employed are those who are totally committed to the company’s vision. Because, and this is what we must never forget, as valuable as they are as humans, they are rarely considered more than people who are needed to operate the machines. And when the products these machines have been churning out every second are obsolete, the machines operators are out of their job. Unless they can be retrained and there’s no place in this world where it’s not cheaper to build a new factory and have people work in totally different conditions. So yes, they’re out of their job.

But let’s go back one step from this, because the chances of someone building a factory from scratch in a post-industrial environment like Europe are rather small. Let’s say someone wants to open a book store, a typical small business with an obvious purpose: They’re selling books. And it’s an interesting business from a commercial point of view, because it’s hard to find a commercial reason for doing that at all. We’ve got Amazon, right?

So it’s not the idea that is the foundation for a business. One month ago, Robin Dickinson started a micro-movement by writing his outstanding sharewords post. Until now it has had thousands of views, hundreds of comments and a great community helping each other has been built there. It worked because it was a good idea, because it was free, and there was a development, because every day there were (and still are) more people joining in. A week ago, someone had the idea of turning this into a real life book, saying he was really passionate the whole thing BUT his publishing company needed some sort of proof of profitability to commit to this venture — so there we are again: What’s the business model? Who’s buying what for which reason? What’s the margin? How long can we make money from it? It turns out that once again, converting a web freebie into a commercial product is not that easy. Different medium, different audience, reduced interaction (and that’s where the value is!) — what’s the point?

That’s how you do business. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about bottom line. On the other hand, change is all about the idea. Because the only question change is asking is “What if..?”. So once again, why open a bookstore? Because (as of now) it is still a sustainable business model as long as you’re standing out, not fitting in. And if you’re passionate about books and making someone happy by selling them a good one, this is the only way for you to go. Barnes & Noble or Borders don’t do that. They’re just big stores selling print products and stationery.

Whatever your business is about, make sure it’s not depending on one idea alone. Ideas come and go like fashion. I do not believe that a company “making iPhone apps” will survive for long. Neither will it be bought by another company. On the other hand, a company creating software solutions for a specific audience is a totally different deal, as long as this is really the core of the business and not just an inflated term to say you’re making iPhone apps.