You as a sponge

SpongebobI think everyone has noticed themselves, at some time or another, unconsciously picking up the slang, style, or even mannerisms of friends and coworkers. It seems that we have all have this sponge-like ability to soak things up and make them our own. I think this is something we are all pre-programmed to do as social animals – as babies we start right off learning the languages, accents, and even expressions of our parents – and we never stop.

This sprang to mind while reading an entry in Seth’s blog on marketing, who points out a recent study on how obesity is contagious. It brings to light something all of us who consider ourselves strong and independent hate to admit: we are constantly and deeply influenced by the company we keep, it happens unconsciously in ways that we can’t prevent, and it goes much deeper than our percentage body fat. At any point we might become more carefree, more careless, more religious, more promiscuous, more motivated, more happy or depressed – based on the people who are around us.

There are many contexts in which remembering this simple fact is useful – at home (how is your significant other changing you and you him/her? who are your kids hanging out with?) and at work (how does your team influence each other? how can you introduce a product into a group of heavy influencers in the market?). In that art most tied to influence, sales, it explains how the most successful salespeople open up opportunities to influence by being the kind of person those prospects want to be around.

But more personally, it’s a good piece of introspection. Who in your life influences you to be more like you want to be? More importantly, who really takes you off-track? The people you have in your life is a choice, why did you choose the ones you have?

You can’t change the fact that you are a sponge, but you can change who provides the inputs.

UPDATE: I like the related post over on Signal vs. Noise, In the Presence of Greatness

The dangers of content marketing

Boring PresentationLast night I attended a very disappointing marketing roundtable at my MBA alma mater. These roundtables are typically what I define as “content marketing” – that is, a service provider comes in and gives some intellectual property away for free in the hopes that you will be interested enough to pay for more. I encounter more and more of this – free online newsletters, webinars, conferences, or even blogs <gulp>.

Sometimes content marketing works, and typically this is because the service provider is a research firm that is in the business of generating compelling content – or if they aren’t in research they have made a strong investment and generated some good content that they aren’t afraid to give away. Gartner is a good example of a research firm that realizes the importance of these events and invests heavily in them – their CRM conference last year was very good.

The problem is that 90% of the content marketing I have participated in doesn’t work because the content just isn’t compelling, and it leaves me feeling frustrated because my time was wasted.

Take last night – the presenter (who shall remain nameless) was there to present on creativity and how important it is in the work place. He was not well prepared or rehearsed, his content was common sensical and poorly designed from a visual standpoint, and at one point when he ran a video it was almost over by the time he figured out how to turn the volume up and the lights down (he hadn’t tested it beforehand). Ok, so there are a lot of things wrong there, but even if he had presented flawlessly the content would have killed him. It just didn’t get me thinking in new directions at all.

Content marketing sounds great to providers, but the problem is that when they actually get into it they play it too close to the vest. They get afraid that they are tipping their hand too much (or maybe they are afraid that their potential customers will realize how shallow the pool actually is). As a result they give presentations that just waste people’s time, and make them less apt to buy, not more.

Be careful when you are considering content marketing, put your best stuff out there, and don’t be afraid to test it and pull the plug if the content isn’t where it needs to be yet. It may be the only chance you get with that audience.

[Photo Credit: Michael Brockmeyer - the look on that woman's face is priceless]

The era of usable design

Dyson VacuumsOne of the interesting by-products of the information/internet age has been the speed with which people provide feedback on products and services. In the olden days a company would make something, market it through mass media, one-way marketing (TV/radio/print) and watch sales go up or down. Why sales were going up or down was anyone’s best guess, and those guesses were often based on anecdotal market research and focus groups that weren’t very comprehensive or timely.

But now businesses have the opportunity to know a lot more. The web’s interactive format, social environments, and user-generated content can cause feedback to be almost instantaneous. Some organizations have become great listeners to the online buzz, others – not so much.

For those companies who are really listening, one message is coming through loud and clear in a way that it never has before: Design matters.

Old world businesses were built around capability. What could the product do? What could the service provide? How will I compete against my competitor who has more capabilities than I do? Are my capabilities performing reliably? Things were shifted out of balance toward the logical and the rational.

Then the companies who were really paying attention (like Google, Apple, Honda, Dyson and Southwest Airlines) started to hear the message about design. They started to focus on usability, utility, simplicity, experience – things that matter more to the emotional side than they do to the rational side. They have been rewarded for it. And now you see others following the lead, and the overall level of design in the products and services we use is being elevated. A balance is being achieved between capability and design across the board.

It’s a new, more elegant world in the making, and now when you approach development of the product or service your company is selling, you must see it as a combination of both science and art.

More on usable design principles , and the business case for usability.

Hypermiling: making a game out of being green

I love the fact that environmental issues are getting much more press than they ever have before, and that individuals are paying more attention to how we can make the world a cleaner place. Recently, Scobleizer wrote a quick post about cruising around with a friend in his friend’s Toyota Prius. The Prius has a great heads-up display that encourages “hypermiling” – which is the new word for driving in a way that conserves gas. The display screen makes driving more economically like a game, where you can see where your power is coming from and what your instant gas mileage (your score in the game) is:

Prius Dashboard

I think they could take the Prius hypermiling game a step further by scoring you on the gas you have used in the current month, and displaying how much you had used at the same time in the previous month. The car could display this gas usage score in dollars by having the car ask you how much you paid every time it detects a fill-up, then tracking it as you burn it up. That way your hypermiling score takes into account driving your car less, finding cheaper gas, and other things that should give you credit. It also wouldn’t hurt to show your “highest score” on the display. Maybe you even get to type your three initials in when you beat the high score – ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far.

There are many ways to conserve gas while you are driving, but the main way according to recent CNN coverage of hypermiling is to basically drive with slower accelerations and decelerations – don’t slam the pedal down to get rolling, and let it go and let the car drift to a stop when braking. While this type of driving is somewhat granny-like, it’s the best way to win the game, and save the planet while you’re at it.

The future of digital music is Princely

PrinceMusical artists and bands have reacted to the rise of digital music and the web as a distribution and marketing medium in a number of ways, but now even artists like Metallica, who initially railed against it, are accepting the future. With the precipitous fall of CD sales that aren’t really being offset with sales of music online, the rules for getting paid as an artist are clearly changing.

The story you still hear is that this digital music disruption is benefiting the unknown artist (vast new access to a global audience) and hurting the big artists (mass-pirating and the erosion of album sales). But today my friend Avi points me to a New York Times article about Prince, who is thriving in the new world order:

Prince gravitated early to the Internet. Even in the days of dial-up he sought to make his music available online, first as a way of ordering albums and then through digital distribution. (He was also ahead of his time with another form of communication: text messaging abbreviations, having long ago traded “you” for “U.”) Where the Internet truism is that information wants to be free, Prince’s corollary is that music wants to be heard.

How much he makes from his various efforts is a closely guarded secret. But he’s not dependent on royalties trickling in from retail album sales after being filtered through major-label accounting procedures. Instead someone — a sponsor, a newspaper, a promoter — pays him upfront, making disc sales less important. Which is not to say that he’s doing badly on that front: “3121” sold about 520,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and “Musicology,” with its concert giveaways, was certified multiplatinum.

Prince is embracing the new economics of multi-channel promotion and word-of-mouth marketing vs. record sales and “the charts.” He is approaching the business world with the same type of deep creativity that permeates his music, and focusing on the important end result – that his music is heard by his fans. He is the model that other big artists should be following.

The big losers here are obviously the big record labels, and they should lose. Their size and existence is based on a distribution and promotional model that is outdated. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role here – they should be changing focus from a physical distribution model to a marketing consulting model. That was always the real value they offered anyway – the ability to shepherd new artists through the unique and complex branding and promotional challenges that they will face as their audience grows. But the labels will have to change quickly – the only dinosaurs that survived are the ones who were smaller and faster.

In the meantime Prince continues his rapid evolution, and we all get to rock along with him.

Ron Paulism on the web

Ron PaulI first saw Ron Paul on Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO) a few months ago. Ron is a dark-horse presidential candidate on the Republican side, a professorial-looking congressman from Texas. He doesn’t really get your attention until he starts to talk about his political platform – which includes truly disruptive elements like the abolition of the Federal Reserve bank and the IRS. He is more or less a Libertarian (he was their presidential nominee in ’88) in Republican clothes, and his politics are really interesting – definitely worth a look if not for any other reason than to hear a well-constructed alternative viewpoint on the hot issues of today.

But the more interesting thing about Ron Paul (at least, for the purposes of this blog) is that he is huge on the web. Denizens of the internet have taken up his banner and are promoting him wildly. Ron has turned a lot of techies into political activists – blogger Chris Pirillo, who is historically very tech-oriented on his personal blog, has suddenly turned uber-political because Ron inspires him. When Ron gets excluded from debates or gets bad press online, email boxes get pounded and websites go down.

I don’t think this is because Ron had some sort of revolutionary internet campaign strategy. I think this is more because of how his politics resonate with the type of people that are attracted to the internet and spend lots of time there – those who thrive on the freedom, lack of oversight, and anonymity that the web brings. The internet, right now, is “small government” – just like Ron.

Contrast this to Barack Obama’s campaign, which also thrives on grassroots support. He has a very progressive web approach – spear-headed by a very well-designed social network. Obama does very well, but doesn’t generate the kind of buzz online that Paul does. It’s not for a lack of web campaign savvy, it’s that his politics just don’t resonate with the online crowd quite as much. So although the web is incredibly democratic (small d), it’s important to remember when reacting to online polls that the political views of the web are biased – just as they would be in other demographically-slanted locations like rural Nebraska or urban New York.

The greatness of English Bulldogs

Bulldog FaceBulldog PuppyBulldogs Together

With their flat faces, wrinkles, and constant snorting, no dog has more character than a bulldog. Bulldogs are generally very relaxed and low-energy, but fiercely loyal. They are very popular in Chicago, where they actually come in at #6 in terms of popular breeds (they aren’t in the top 10 nationally). This might be because they loosely resemble Mike Ditka.

[Photo Credits: Top Left: Bob Segal, Top Right: Gretchen, Bottom: Corey Knafelz]

When does the argument become unhealthy?

My work experience in technology and marketing has always been characterized by very collaborative workplaces where healthy disagreement is the norm. But even in the flattest organization eventually everyone has to fall in line behind leadership and drive toward getting the work done.

But how do you balance productive disagreement such that it doesn’t slide toward groupthink (where no one dissents, ever) or the quagmire of constant debate (where every little issue is argued)? I like what Alexander Muse has to say about it in his blog (via Ronald Reagan):

…this 80% rule is very true in running a business as well. You can’t expect your employees to agree with 100% of your decisions. But your employees also realize that they will never agree with 100% of their company’s decisions. At about the 80% rule, with enough transparency around decision-making to make the missing 20% at least seem rational, you have a winning formula.

I like the idea of 80%, and as a manager I think you have to watch this carefully and tune it when you see it getting out of balance. If a team is starting to rubber stamp things, throw someone with a different perspective, background, or personality into the mix who can bring some debate into the team. If debate is raging all of the time, pull individuals aside and try to get everyone oriented more toward the end goal. If despite your best efforts someone is constantly throwing the team off balance one way or the other, you may need to help them find a new team (or eventually, and sometimes unfortunately, a new employer).

UPDATE: Pounding this out early this morning I forgot to link to Matt Blumberg, who wrote the quote above and who Muse linked to in his post. So if I have it right now, this post is via Muse via Blumberg via Reagan. Thank you and good night.

Internet radio: alive and rocking

savenetradioOne thing that’s great about the online world is that as offline industries move online they are often reshaped for the better. This is almost nowhere more true than in the radio industry. The homogenous, monolithic stations on your FM dial that are riddled with ads and obnoxious DJs have been reshaped into interactive, highly diverse, ad and DJ-light stations where the consumer truly comes first.

Of course this has a lot to do with the medium – competition in traditional radio is limited by the size of the FM and AM bands, and by the size of the geography that a radio station can reach. Only the biggest companies and the most popular music can survive. Stations online aren’t limited by either frequency or geography, so they are set free to provide a much richer set of options. As a result, new services like Pandora and Last.fm have built great new ways to serve the purposes for which radio was originally intended: to provide access to a library of music much more vast than the average listener would buy, and to allow listeners to discover new music before they buy it.

Don’t ever expect the old world order to go down without a fight, though. Right up until last weekend big media had influenced the Copyright Royalty Board into consideration of a new royalty structure that was so ridiculously rich it would basically kill online-only radio providers (think if Borders and Barnes & Noble would have risen up to get online tariffs placed on Amazon to kill it in the early days – where would the book industry be today?). There is more at stake here than just less ads and DJs, too. The big labels’ lock on traditional radio means that they are programming audiences with what they want them to listen to – internet radio puts that power back in the listeners’ hands and ensures that more great, undiscovered musicians will find their audience.

The short story is that it didn’t happen – grassroots campaigns like savenetradio.org pressured back, congress has intervened, and now more reasonable royalties are being negotiated. The industry is not out of the woods yet, but it certainly dodged a bullet.

The web is a land of opportunity, where it’s easier than ever for the little guy/girl to start something that could someday compete with Bigco. For it to remain that way we’ll all have to stay vigilant.

You on the web is about individualism, not narcissism

I write weekly for my company’s blog, Work+Play. In fact, it was there that I first got into blogging and realized I wanted to give it a try myself. Of course I could easily be writing nearly everything I write on this blog in my company’s blog (our blog team manager sometimes has to twist arms to get posts out of my coworkers). But I’d rather do the bulk of it here.

Individualism 2

Why? Because writing my thoughts down and sharing them is more about me as an individual than it is about where I work. And now with the web at my fingertips I can easily and quickly get online and establish my viewpoint, speculate about the future, and write my part of the big story.

Steve Rubel wrote recently in his blog about the Golden Age of Individualism, and his article crystallized my thinking about why people spend so much time on their MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn profiles, and why they spend so much time writing a blog, posting pictures, or uploading video to the web. Of course the internet is allowing people to build identities (personal brands, if you will) and share them in ways that they never could before. But it’s not self-congratulation, it’s self-expression. Sure there are plenty of people who are really in love with themselves (just like in the offline world), and it may not all be pretty, but it’s not all indulgent either.

Last March I wrote a blog entry for my company entitled “Online narcissism now rampant.” Even though that title was a bit tongue-in-cheek (provocative titles get people to read!), it’s ironic that I now reverse my direction on my own, personal blog. I guess I had to do it to really understand it.

[Photo Credit: Gary Sharkey]