It’s not what you do that matters

It’s the benefit it provides.

It’s time to stop talking about activities, effort, or money spent.

People buy results.

(Also, sorry about the massive typos in yesterday’s post. Here’s a corrected version if you wanted to share it.)

This Leads to This

We get rapid-fire requests every day, and often end up beating them back with a stick.

As in: can you….write a quick response here? ….help this new potential Board Member better understand the program that you run? …meet with this journalist for 45 minutes? …share your 200 word biography for this conference? …write the first draft of our next quarterly newsletter? …give the team a 60 second update on what you’re focused on this week.

Most of the time, when we’re asked questions like this, a quiet internal narrative takes over, often with a dollop of panic: “I need to be really complete” “I’ve gotta to show them I’m on top of things” “So and so will be mad if I don’t include something about their work” “Why are you asking me that question????!”

Put another way, so often when we’re in the “answering the question mode” we feel put on the spot, and our deep desire to “do a good job” takes over in a way that shuts off any real sense of strategy or purpose.

The antidote to this natural response is to get into the discipline of saying out loud (or just to yourself):

I would like THIS (update, letter, email, 1-on-1 conversation, speech) to lead THIS person to do THIS.

Each and every time, I have the chance to start with clarifying, to myself, that this thing I am doing will create, for a small number of people (maybe just one), a specific response, a specific change, a specific action. Achieving that change is the purpose of what I’m doing.

*phew* that helps.

Step 1, then, is being able to say what that change is in what kind of person.

Step 2 is, for every word you write or say, for who you look at, for how you stand, for how you dress, for the words you choose, and, most important, everything you decide not to say…every thing is in service of that single purpose. Everything utterance that doesn’t help you achieve that goal becomes extraneous or, worse, undermines that purpose.

Here’s a nice test: when we brief someone on your next _______ (speech, email campaign, fundraising meeting, brief at the staff meeting), what do we tell him? If we dive in to “here’s how we do this, this is the content we have to cover,” we’re failing the “this leads to this” test. Whereas if we start with, “we’re trying to reach THIS kind of person to tell them THIS part of our story so that they will do THIS,” we are very much on the right track.

And every time someone on your team says “can we stop talking about this purpose stuff and just get on to creating the _______ (document, email, video, etc.) you’re well within your rights to say, “Actually, until we know what we’re trying to do here, I’m pretty sure that’s the only conversation we should be having.”

The perfect toy

Last week we got my son what he called “maybe the best present ever.”  It’s a Structures 200 Plank Set.Structures 200

Before buying it my wife and I kept on reading over the description to see if we were missing anything.  It is described as “200 identical wooden planks.”  Each of them is a three-inch long little pine rectangle.  No notches, no nothing, no different sizes.  The product description says: “No glue connectors required, simply stack wood planks to create buildings, monuments and geometric forms.”  200 identical little pieces of wood, along with “ideas for over 40 structures?”  Yup, 200 identical little pieces of wood, plus the clever idea to put them all together in a box and sell them for $49.99.

Really?  Yes, really.

And the truth is, it’s wonderful.  You can build bridges, staircases and vortexes.  The pieces are light enough and have enough friction that they don’t collapse.  It’s a blank canvas in a world where everything (especially toys) is over-engineered with too many instructions to follow.  It’s what Lego used to be before they figured out that if you sell a bunch of nondescript bricks each kid will max out at a thousand pieces, but if you sell them the Death Star and Ewok Village and an X-Wing Fighter and the Republic Attack Cruiser, you can keep on selling, well, forever.

So Legos as they are today win.  And Legos as they used to be (Structures 200) wins too, albeit at a smaller scale.  Why?  It’s because we can deliver one of two kinds of experiences to our customers.

At one extreme we have what Lego has become: each individual story perfectly constructed, honed down to the last piece, and that one special character that you can’t get anywhere else.  The edges have been smoothed off, you can have what everyone else has and talk about it with your friends.  You know exactly what you’re getting and it delivers.  All you have to do is buy it and follow the instructions.  (This is the big, institutionalized nonprofit, where any gift can be broken down into a small, digestible story and you can shop for product like you shop on Amazon.  Crank those babies out on the assembly line and sell ‘em like hotcakes.)

At the other end is the pure, blank canvas: create your own story, tell it in your own way.  You, the customer, are the creator and curator and artist, and we are the vehicle for your self-expression.  This is the startup, the dream, the “let’s build this thing together and we will change the world.”

Where things fall down is in between, where the story is neither crisp and clean enough to make a simple promise and deliver on it, nor is there an exciting blank canvas where big thinkers and first movers can make their mark.  Stuck in the middle is disappointing to everyone, and you have no customer whose problem you’re completely solving.

(By the way, blank canvases and products that deliver on their promises can co-exist within one organization, you just have to realize which is which and never forget that each of those gets sold to a different customer.)

Blank canvas

Multi-purpose spoon

Multi-purpose spoon

Your job isn’t to take the same thing that everyone else offers and pretend it’s something different.

You job is to create something that actually is different and then let people in on the secret that you’ve made something remarkable.

New wine, new bottles.

Marketing vocab lesson

I noticed this new ad for the Amazon Kindle today….

….and then was reading my friend Tom Fishburne’s weekly Brand Camp marketoon: “What Ads Say” (due homage paid to Gary Larson)

It seems so obvious that the best way to speak to our customers and describe what we do is by using regular language, but it’s so rarely what we do.

The Amazon ad struck me because “No wi-fi hot spot required” is a sentence you absolutely couldn’t have used as ad copy 10 years ago, or 5 years ago….2 years ago? Eh, probably not.

Where you sit relative to the vocabulary your customers are comfortable with is a conscious choice, one that communicates something about your brand and where it sits relative to the mainstream.  Of course if you’re actually writing ad copy – as opposed to, say, blogging or communicating in some other sort of anticipated, personal and relevant way – then by definition you’re shooting for the mainstream and you should pick your words accordingly.

Occasionally, just occasionally, you can decide to teach your customers new vocabulary (e.g. “4G”).  But I can’t think of a single occasion when it’s OK to use jargon.

Carrots and marketing to the poor

Baby carrots aren’t actually “baby carrots.”  They’re cut carrots that were originally “seconds,” carrots that were too small or deformed to meet supermarket standards.  One day Mike Yorosek , a carrot grower, had the clever idea of peeling and cutting them, putting them in a bag, and seeing if they would sell.  (“Bunny balls,” his other idea, never caught on.)   The rest is history.

Lately, things have gotten tough in the carrot business.

With the recession, people started spending less overall, and when spending picked up again, people bought less-expensive whole carrots.  These end up in refrigerator purgatory – the vegetable drawer – where they’re not eaten.  So while people HAVE carrots, they don’t eat them, and the carrot industry suffers.

Jeff Dunn, who until recently oversaw Coca-Cola’s North and South American operations, is the CEO of Bolthouse, one of two big growers in the North American carrot market.  Faced with flat sales, Jeff is setting out on an aggressive new campaign and he’s totally ignoring all the “benefits” of his product.  He’s not trying to market carrots as a better, healthier alternative to junk food; he’s trying to market carrots AS a junk food…catchy Cheetos-like mascot, crinkly packaging and all.

Image courtesy of Fast Company Magazine - Still life by Jamie Chung

What can we learn from this carrot marketing fable?

A lot is made in the poverty-alleviation space of how we overlook and ignore the voice and the preferences of the beneficiaries of our work.  Well-intentioned, we talk to people about health benefits, about money saved and doctors’ trips averted and days in school, all the while ignoring that this isn’t how you market anything well.  Rich people buy shampoo because of a sense of aspiration, belonging, a story they’re telling about themselves to themselves and to others – why oh why would poor people think or act any differently?  “Benefits” don’t sell.

This is happening for one of two reasons:

  1. Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.
  2. Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

(let’s leave aside, for now, that we need a whole lot less ivory tower and a whole lot more people from and of the communities being served).

It’s easy to tell the story of disrespect, but it might be that the people pushing hand-washing, bednets and solar-powered lanterns simply don’t have the same marketing chops as the folks in Atlanta (Coke).

It’s about time we look seriously at what products, outside of alcohol and tobacco, are being successfully marketed to the poor:  cellphones, obviously, and mobile payments; maybe Lifebouey soap or microloans or kerosene (yes, kerosene too.)

It’s time to understand what sells and WHY, and it’s time to take the notion seriously that one of the best things we could do to make a positive impact is to get better at selling things – even free things – to people who need them.  It’s time to take seriously the notion of BUILDING markets, and not just building solutions.  And any efforts that lead with “it’s good for you” had better end up on the cutting room floor.

The indifferents

There’s a group of people out there who love you.  Your passionate fans who talk about you to anyone who will ask, who spread the word and your message and carry your brand with you.  Cherish and nurture them.

There are others who have actively decided that you’re not for them.

And then there are the indifferents. The ones who have known about you for a while, who have heard your story for months or even years, who you’ve cultivated tirelessly.  And they’re still not acting, not buying, not convinced.

What do you do about them?

Here’s a hint: which is more likely, that the person who has heard your message 15 or even 50 times will suddenly be convinced if you have just one more go at it? Or that you’ll find someone brand new and get them excited?  That’s right, go for the new guy.

By the way, there’s a difference between indifferent and unconvinced, but it’s going to take a whole lot of work for you to figure out who’s who, work that may never pay off.

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