Category Archives: marketing trends

Too Much vs. Too Little

by Dan Woychick

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one at right, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.
In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

How Twitter is Like Golf

by Dan Woychick

golf swing - fore!In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.

But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:

  • Twitter and golf both support a flourishing industry of experts who will gladly take your money in exchange for promises to improve your game.
  • Both are governed by widely accepted rules of etiquette.
  • Fewer shots (and characters) is considered better than more.
  • Golf is the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America. Twitter is considered, by some, vitally important to an organization’s marketing success.

There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.

You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.

As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.

So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?

Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.

On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.

The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.

Aimless practice
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.

Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.

Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.

Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.

One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.

Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.

In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?

Fore!
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.

People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.

Related content:
Survey of Worldwide Twitter Use
Defining Twitter Goals

Raising Expectations

by Dan Woychick

One ordinary morning, a memo appears in your in-box.

We are embarking on an organization-wide, resource allocation review. Each department is required to provide benchmarks to evaluate the value and effectiveness of its work.

In other words, please justify your existence.

This is a conversation that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s not an unreasonable request. Marketing departments should not be immune from scrutiny, or excused from providing evidence that their work is effective. However, as a colleague in higher ed noted when faced with this assignment: We can track the typical things – media coverage or Google analytics – but most of the indicators that we’re making good use of our financial resources are tied to other offices, like Advancement or Admissions.

Separation anxiety
There seems to be a common misperception among both for-profit and non-profit leaders that departments function independently of one another – that marketing’s impact, for example, can be separated from an organization’s overall goals.

Other than putting together a birthday card for an office colleague, isn’t the success of any marketing assignment inextricably linked to others’ goals? If the advancement office doesn’t raise enough money, then fundraising communications weren’t successful enough. If enrollment targets were missed, then admissions marketing must be improved.

I understand that anxious executives want reassurance and a way to mitigate risks – marketing is a mysterious line item in the annual budget. Unfortunately, it’s also often viewed as an add-on – more style than substance – and subsequently expected to show return on investment without the advantage of being considered an essential organizational function.

Roll up your sleeves
Imagine driving down the road when suddenly your car starts making a funny noise. Next, smoke starts billowing from under the hood. In a panic, you pull in to the nearest repair shop. You tell the mechanic, “I’m kind of in a hurry and I don’t have much money. Can you fix this?” The mechanic walks slowly around your vehicle, deep in thought. Finally, he fills a bucket, grabs a sponge, and washes your car. Did he solve your problem, or just make it look better?

Too often marketing offices are being asked to make the engine run better – to help an organization solve a problem or reach a goal – without ever having the opportunity to look under the hood.

Let me be clear: It’s not management’s fault that marketing is misunderstood. It’s ours. Until we can make a compelling case – using both objective and subjective measures of value and effectiveness – marketing will continue to encounter the resistance of low expectations.

State your case
Marketers are in the business of telling stories, but we don’t write fiction. Successful marketing is reliant on thorough inquiry, diligent training and practice, collaboration, and coordination of resources. None of that happens in a vacuum.

If you’re going to have an ROI discussion, do it within the context of organizational, not departmental, goals. Whether you’re trying to convince people to choose your service, attract donations, or inspire volunteers, the planning, strategy, and measurement take on a different tenor when each element of the enterprise is considered interdependent.

Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the orchestra stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents. That’s what marketing can do. If it’s not in alignment – and deeply involved – with an organization at its core, few measures carry meaning or insight.

What to measure
There’s a lengthy history of valuing scientific, left-brain thinking over the more intuitive right hemisphere of the brain. Increasingly, complex problems require the flexibility to integrate both ways of thinking.

Rather than counting web “hits” or desperately seeking more “likes” on Facebook, here’s one measure that should be tracked:

How much time and money is spent learning about your audience(s) – internal and external – so that whatever marketing materials are produced can be as targeted and relevant as possible?

As those numbers increase, so will the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

How do you demonstrate a return on investment?

Simplicity Will Disrupt Your Business

by Dan Woychick

Last summer, my siblings and I established a family endowment in honor of our parents. Tom and Mary Woychick were lifetime volunteers, philanthropists of time more than money, who supported a wide variety of causes in addition to their church – from homelessness to veterans, at-risk youth to education. With this fund, we plan to provide financial support to continue their work.

Have you ever tried to give money away? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. In the process of vetting organizations to evaluate our options and establish parameters for giving and recognition of the gifts, we experienced a surprising range of responses.

Some organizations engaged us immediately, expressing gratitude for our consideration and outlining options for our gift. After contacting one nonprofit, I was passed off to three different people, each of whom failed to respond to emails or phone calls in a timely manner. One small, shoestring operation has been so overwhelmed with day-to-day commitments, that they have yet to suggest a suitable place to invest our pledged gift. And one organization – my Dad’s alma mater – never responded at all.

Complexity is not the enemy
Whether it’s Moore’s Law or Murphy’s Law, the world’s evolution seems to conspire against simplicity. As organizations grow, and employees come and go, it is difficult to establish and maintain clear processes for handling things … like in-bound inquiries, for example. But organizations, technology, and problems are not becoming less complex, so what can be done?

The real enemy is confusion. Anyone who has tried to navigate a television remote with too many buttons and too-small type, pored over an invoice from a health care provider, or attempted to speak with a real person at a credit card company can attest to the need for simpler solutions to complex problems.

Simple solutions don’t accomplish less. In fact, because they eliminate processes or remove barriers that prevent a superior customer experience, simplicity allows people to do more. Simple solutions, essentially, hide all the complex things that are going on behind the scenes so that less is required of the customer. They make it look easy.

Seeing like a customer
Most people are capable of recognizing a handful, if not dozens, of things – large and small – that should be improved within their organization. When one of these projects finally attracts resources to address the problem, the next trick is separating our own needs from those of our customers.

Recently the Minnesota Department for Revenue redesigned its website, which is good, because the site needed an overhaul. Unfortunately, based on personal experience making the monthly payroll tax deposit, everything from logging in to navigation has become more convoluted. Why would they do that? I can only assume the website works better for them – on the back end. It’s apparent they didn’t consider their users first.

It’s been said that the devil’s in the details, when truthfully it’s the human-centered details that matter. Developing more acute empathy for our customers is the key to designing better experiences for them. As Aaron Levie wrote for Fast Company, “It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.”

The bottom line is that simplicity inspires trust, which ranks among the most important of marketing objectives.

It’s not easy
Simplicity isn’t simple. If it was, there would be more of it, and it wouldn’t be disrupting sleepy little product categories or entire industries. Here are a few ways to start building a bias toward simpler solutions and a more customer-centered organization:

  • Examine your brand position. What promise are you making to your customers? A strong brand position not only brings focus to marketing strategy and tactics, it should act as a filter for decision making up and down the organization. When in doubt, which course of action best supports that promise?
  • Know what business you’re in. Southwest Airlines has become one of the most profitable airlines in the world, even though they do almost everything “wrong” – no seat assignments, no meals, flying to less-popular airports. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s longtime leader, once said, “I tell my employees that we’re in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.”
  • Consider the entire process from start to finish. Everyone wants ROI these days, but marketing can’t be isolated from the rest of an organization’s operations and produce a long-term impact. It’s the equivalent of being asked to fix a car’s transmission and then being handed a bucket and a sponge. True simplicity – and marketing success – permeates an organization. It’s not just an add-on.
  • Ruthlessly edit. Practice saying “no” to additional features, processes, or services that dilute your focus. Reductive thinking – what can be removed, organized, or hidden – leads to improved customer experiences. George Bernard Shaw, in correspondence with a friend, once wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Take the time.

We live in a time of unprecedented turbulence, but one thing hasn’t changed – simplicity remains a tremendous advantage. What barriers are preventing your organization from being a disruptive force in the market?

Related content:
The Simplicity Thesis
Simplicity Isn’t Simple
Designing for the Obvious

Collective Intelligence

by Dan Woychick

Picture yourself in a foreign marketplace – let’s say Istanbul. Merchants line the streets hawking their wares from the shade of colorful canopies. Something catches your eye. You point and ask: How much?

Most people like concrete, measurable answers. Who are the 100 wealthiest people? How many people “liked” our Facebook page? How much do I owe you for that silver bracelet? But as you might find in a Turkish bazaar or the occasional car dealership, sometimes the answer isn’t so clear.

As perhaps never before, we’re faced with ambiguity at every turn. While we value the certainty of working toward a single “right” answer, the future belongs to those who can navigate a more dynamic environment.

Beware the one-man band
Street performers often draw crowds, collecting smiles and spare change as they enliven the urban landscape, but the diversion is fleeting and more curiosity than compelling entertainment.

Out of necessity or habit, some in marketing find themselves playing at work like a one-man band. Instead of instruments, they play editor, webmaster, and office manager, among other things – a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.

While this approach is limited only by the resourcefulness of the individual, it’s not a successful long-term strategy for meeting today’s marketing challenges. A better way is to draw on the expertise of those around you – your network.

Two heads are better than one
And three are better than two – when they’re the right people. This means we have to become adept at identifying and then collaborating with smart people from other disciplines.

  • Position yourself as an expert. Make it a priority to acquire deep, but narrow, expertise. How narrow? Think, “communication planning for fundraising events,” not simply “events.”
  • Build relationships. Share your knowledge. Write for, speak to, and work with those who value your talents. When someone helps you, stay in touch and return the favor. Keep an active database.
  • Avoid the echo chamber. Regularly seek opportunities to broaden your network with experts in complimentary fields. Seek new and even contrarian perspectives to steer clear of the herd.

It stands to reason that the collective intelligence of a group of experts will apply more insight, wisdom, and experience to a problem than any individual alone can provide. Instead of navigating a situation, it may be better to think of orchestrating a solution. And, next time you’re in Turkey, it will be handy to have a Persian rug aficionado and a negotiation expert on your speed dial.

Related content:
Amy Poehler to Harvard Grads: You Can’t Do It Alone
The Most Valuable People in Your Network

An Interview with Stephen Olson of U7

By Dan Woychick

Logo for U7In a tough economy, small businesses everywhere are struggling to survive. Add a multi-year light rail construction project on your front doorstep, and the future begins to look even bleaker. U7, an initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in collaboration with six other non-profit organizations, was launched to support small businesses along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota – with design and marketing services playing a key role.

Recently, I spoke with Stephen Olson, the lead designer at U7.

How long has U7 been around? And what services do you offer?
We started in July 2009. We offer design, marketing and business consulting services, as well as help with financial projections, bookkeeping, and applying for grants. We’ll also provide referrals to consultants in areas beyond our expertise.

What is your criteria for working with area businesses?
The business must be affected by the light rail project, either on University Avenue or one block north or south of University, stretching from Lowertown in Saint Paul to Highway 280. For our purposes, a small business means $2 million or less in annual revenue with five or fewer locations. So far, we’ve worked with nearly 100 businesses.

How does U7 market its services in the community?
We started by going door-to-door, doing cold calls on University Avenue. A lot of the businesses haven’t traditionally sought design and marketing help, and there’s a huge amount of diversity along the avenue, so there’s a trust that has to be gained. It was a lot easier to show potential clients what we have to offer than to try and explain it over the phone.

Now, we get referrals from other agencies like the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), through social media and word-of-mouth – clients we’ve worked with tell their friends and neighbors. We also have a quarterly newsletter that is sent to our target audience.

Through the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), U7 provides all of these services for free. Was this made possible by a new revenue source, or a reassignment of existing funds?
These are all new revenues and come from a variety of funders: Saint Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Federal Appropriations Awards, Living Cities, and the City of Saint Paul STAR grant. We are always looking for new funding sources to increase our manpower to help businesses faster!

How many people are currently on staff?
We have five full-time staff members: One project manager, two small business consultants, one loan officer, and me – the lead designer. As lead designer, I supervise a team of three design interns and a contract worker. It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand for our services, so we’re constantly tweaking how we staff and how we work.

What do businesses most often need when they come to U7?
It varies quite a bit. They usually know what they don’t want. We start by conducting interviews to assess where they’re at and determine what is needed. It can take some time to build the relationship and identify how best to help their business. We don’t want to just give them a business card and push them out the door.

Does the amount of help you offer each business vary as well? I’m guessing some businesses have more needs than you’re willing or able to take on.
We rarely turn them away, but we do try to keep a cap on project creep. We’ll usually design 3-4 pieces and then let the business run with it. We want to teach them how to update things, use social media and become more self-sufficient.

We have created marketing plans for a handful of clients: What they can do weekly, monthly, annually to continue marketing their business. Then we stay in contact with them monthly to see how things are going.

The best feeling is when clients call us up spontaneously, excited about seeing their efforts pay off.

Would you share a success story?
The Best Steak House has been around since 1991, and they’ve been very receptive to exploring new things. We did a whole brand refresh with a new logo, tagline, business cards, take-out menu, website, social media and small table tents telling their customers to find them on Facebook and Twitter.

When we stopped in for a follow-up visit, we found out they needed 1,000 signatures in order to qualify for a façade grant. We jokingly said, “Let’s make an Uncle Sam poster with Mike’s (the owner) face on it.” They hung the posters in the windows and bathrooms and got over 1,000 signatures in three days.

Are businesses required to put up any capital or show an ability to implement your design ideas?
When we start working with a business, we explain that all production costs are their responsibility. We ballpark a price for them depending on what they want – usually $100–$400. In a few instances, when a client was unable to pay, we have helped with loans and even done some printing in-house.

Does U7 have a future beyond the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line?
The life span of U7 is tied to the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. We’ve talked in general terms about possibly offering these services under the NDC banner. There are a handful of other non-profit organizations that serve small businesses, but I haven’t seen any of them doing what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite part of this job?
At my first internship, I worked on projects with some huge corporations. Now I’m working on a very intimate level. These are mom-and-pop stores whose family livelihood depends on the success of the business. It’s pretty fulfilling.

It sounds like a great program. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Steve. I wish you and U7 continued success.

Related content:
Central Corridor Businesses Prepare for Disruption
University Seven website