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Tribal effects don’t disappear (even in politics)

This map from the New York Times is eye opening.

It shows the counties that recorded an increase in Republican voting. That is, counties with more Republican votes than in the close re-election campaign George W. Bush ran.

Judging from the geography of these redder counties, it wasn’t because of the economics (most of these voters would have no tax benefits under McCain) and it wasn’t because of social issues (the last election was as profoundly divided on this axis as this one). My only explanation is that tribal identity was enough to get non-voters out to vote.

Every market has regions like this one, every market has individuals like these. It’s not about running for something, it’s about telling a story that may just energize some that don’t want you to succeed.

The sad lie of mediocrity

Doing 4% less does not get you 4% less.

Doing 4% less may very well get you 95% less.

That’s because almost good enough gets you nowhere. No sales, no votes, no customers. The sad lie of mediocrity is the mistaken belief that partial effort yields partial results. In fact, the results are usually totally out of proportion to the incremental effort.

Big organizations have the most trouble with this, because they don’t notice the correlation. It’s hidden by their momentum and layers of bureaucracy. So a mediocre phone rep or a mediocre chef may not appear to be doing as much damage as they actually are.

The flip side of this is that when you are at the top, the best in the world, the industry leader, a tiny increase in effort and quality can translate into huge gains. For a while, anyway.

The 90/10 rule of marketing a job

Most hiring managers don’t understand organizations that go to extraordinary lengths to find and retain amazing people. And from their point of view, they’re completely correct. Pay market wage, run a classified, process the resumes. Done.

It only takes 10% as much effort to hire someone in the bottom 90% of the class.

And it takes the other 90% to find and cajole and retain the top 10%.

Most hiring, especially in a down market, is handled as a mostly bureaucratic task. Find people who fit in, do a rudimentary background check to eliminate problems, try not to break any hiring laws…

If your organization can thrive with ordinary folks, then the marketing you’re doing right now to fill the ranks might even be overkill. You’ve got plenty of resumes. No need to pretend you’re doing anything much more than bottom fishing, though. That plaque for employee of the month? You can sell it on eBay.

On the other hand, organizations that work best with extraordinary talent are almost certainly not investing enough in finding and developing it. If marketing works so well that you spend a fortune on it, why aren’t you marketing your jobs? If talent is so important that you are betting the company on it, why aren’t you actually investing in finding and retaining that talent?

A friend in need

Your customers and employees and investors will remember how you treated them when times were tough, when they needed a break, when a little support meant everything.

No one in particular will remember how you acted during the boom times.

Marketing lessons from the US election

The polls open in a few minutes, and unlike pundits that wait until after the polls have closed, I thought I’d do the opposite. It’s obvious that this is the most talked about election in the history of the world, and I think there are some lessons for every marketer, regardless of nationality or political leanings.

It turns out that one way you learn about marketing is by analyzing it. (The other way is to do it). Yet people hate analyzing three really useful but emotional examples of marketing that matters: politics, organized religion and their own organizations. I figure we can start here, with the easiest of the three.

This is a long post. Fine with me if you skip it and just go vote instead.

Here goes:

Stories really matter.
More than a billion dollars spent, two ‘products’ that have very different features, and yet, when people look back at the election they will remember mavericky winking. You can say that’s trivial. I’ll say that it’s human nature. Your product doesn’t have features that are more important than the ‘features’ being discussed in this election, yet, like most marketers, you’re obsessed with them. Forget it. The story is what people respond to.

Mainstream media isn’t powerful because we have no other choices (see below). It’s powerful because they’re still really good at writing and spreading stories, stories we listen to and stories we believe.

TV is over.
If people are interested, they’ll watch. On their time (or their boss’s time). They’ll watch online, and spread the idea. You can’t email a TV commercial to a friend, but you can definitely spread a YouTube video. The cycle of ads got shorter and shorter, and the most important ads were made for the web, not for TV. Your challenge isn’t to scrape up enough money to buy TV time. Your challenge is to make video interesting enough that we’ll choose to watch it and choose to share it.

Permission matters (though selfish marketers still burn it). The Republican party has a long tradition of smart direct mail tactics. Over the years, they’ve used them to aggressively outfundraise and outcampaign the Democrats. In this election cycle, smart marketers at the Obama campaign toned down the spam and turned up the permission. They worked relentlessly to build a list, and they took care of the list. They used metrics to track open rates and (at least until the end) appeared to avoid burning out the list with constant fundraising. Anticipated, personal and relevant messages will always outperform spam. Regardless of how it is delivered.

Marketing is tribal. This one, for obvious reasons, fascinated me this cycle.

Karl Rove and others before him were known for cultivating the ‘base’. This was shorthand for a tribe of people with shared interests and vision (it included a number of conservatives and evangelicals). George W. Bush was able to get elected twice by embracing the base, by connecting them, by being one of them.

John McCain had a dilemma. He didn’t particularly like the base nor did they like him. His initial strategy was not to lead this existing tribe, but to weave a new tribe. The idea was that independents and some Democrats, together with the traditional pre-Reagan core of the Republican party, would weave together a new centrist base.

Barack Obama also had a challenge. He knew that the traditional base for Democratic candidates wouldn’t be sufficient to get him elected (it had failed John Kerry). So he too set out to weave a new tribe, a tribe that included progressives, the center, younger religious voters, weary veterans, internationalists, Nobel prize winners, black voters and others.

Building a new tribe (in marketing and in politics) is time consuming and risky and expensive. Both set out to do this.

Then, McCain made a momentous decision. He chose Sarah Palin, and did it for one huge reason: to embrace the Rove/Bush ‘base’. To lead a tribe that was already there, but not yet his. He was hoping for a side effect, which was to attract Hillary Clinton’s tribe, one that in that moment, was also leaderless.

Seen through the lens of tribes and marketing, this is a fascinating and risky event. Are people willing to suspend disbelief or suspicion and embrace a leader in order to maintain the energy of their tribe?

If it had worked, it would have been a master stroke. He would have solidified his base, grabbed key constituencies of Clinton supporters in swing states and wooed the center as well. Three tribes in one pick.

In McCain’s case, it failed. His choice cost him the economically-concerned middle (which went to Obama’s carefully woven tribe). And it clearly cost him the mostly female Clinton tribe. Yes, he energized the conservative base, but he lost the election. If he had chosen Mike Huckabee, one could wonder what would have happened. Would this less polarizing figure been able to collect a bigger tribe for him?

This is a real question for every marketer with an idea to sell. Do you find an existing tribe (Harley drivers, Manolo shoe buyers, frequent high-end restaurant diners) and try to co-opt them? Or do you try the more expensive and risky effort of building a brand new tribe? The good news is that if you succeed, you get a lot for your efforts. The bad news is that you’re likely to fail.

Motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted. The unheralded success factor of Obama’s campaign is the get out the vote effort. Every marketer can learn from this. It’s easier (far easier) to motivate the slightly motivated than it is to argue with those that either ignore you or are predisposed to not like you.

Attack ads don’t always work. There’s a reason most product marketers don’t use attack ads. All they do is suppress sales of your opponent, they don’t help you. Since TV ads began, voter turnout has progressively decreased. That’s because the goal of attack ads is to keep your opponent’s voters from showing up. Both sides work to whittle down the other. In a winner-take-all game like a political election, this strategy is fine if it works.

So why didn’t the ads work this time?

The tribe that Obama built identified with him. Attacking him was like attacking them. They took it personally, and their outrage led to more donations and bigger turnout. This is the lucky situation Apple finds itself in as well. Attacking an Apple product is like attacking an Apple user.

We get what we deserve. The lesson that society should take away about all marketing is a simple one. When you buy a product, you’re also buying the marketing. Buy something from a phone telemarketer, you get more phone telemarketers, guaranteed. Buy a gas guzzler and they’ll build more. Marketers are simple people… they make what sells. Our culture has purchased (and voted) itself into the place we are today.

Did I mention you should vote?

Mobs rule

Micah points us to the Twitter Vote Report.

If you see something, say something.

The transformation of communication is real, it’s permanent and it’s more powerful than most of us notice.

Reacting, Responding & Initiating

Most knowledge workers spend their day doing one of three things:

  • React (badly) to external situations
  • Respond (well) to external inputs
  • Initiate new events or ideas

Zig taught me the difference between the first two. When you react to a medication, that’s a bad thing. When you respond to treatment, that’s a plus.

So, think about your team or your front line staff or your CEO. Something happens in the outside world. An angry comment on Twitter or a disappointed passenger on your airline or a change in the stock price…

Do you react to it? How much of your time is spent reacting to what people say in meetings or emails?

The rest of your day may be spent responding. Responding to a request for proposal. Responding to a form in your inbox. Responding to emails or responding to status updates on Facebook. Responding is gratifying, because you go from having something to do —> to having something done. There’s a pile in a different spot on your desk at the end of the day. You responded to the needs of the tribe you lead, or you responded to password-change requests or you responded to the boss’s punch list.

And that’s it. You go home having done virtually nothing in the third bucket.

We tend to reserve the third bucket, initiate, for quiet times, good times, down times or desperate times. We wait until the inbox is empty or the new product lines are due (at which point the initiative is more of a response). It’s possible to spend an entire day blogging and twittering and facebooking and never initiate a thing, just respond to what’s coming in. It’s possible to spend an entire day at P&G (actually it’s possible to spend an entire career) doing nothing but responding…

Take a look at your Sent folder. Is it filled with subject lines that start with RE: ? Consider your job at the University–do you actively recruit people who don’t even apply for professorships? What about your blog–does it start conversations or just continue them?

What did your brand or organization initiate today?

What did you initiate?

Think about the changes you’d have to make (uh oh, initiate) in your work day in order to dramatically change the quantity and scale of the initiatives you create.

Some marketing jobs are about responding. None are about reacting. The best ones are about initiating.

The economy, the press and the paradox

Wealth is not created by financial manipulation, the trading of equities or the financing of banks. They just enable it.

Wealth is created by productivity. Productive communities generate more of value.

Productivity comes from innovation.

Innovation comes from investment and change.

The media lemmings, the same ones that encouraged you to get a second mortgage, buy a McMansion and spend, spend, spend are now falling all over themselves to out-mourn the others. They are telling everyone to batten down, to cut back, to freeze and panic. They’re looking for stories about this, advice about this, hooks about this.

And of course, the paradox. If, in the middle of some sensible budgeting and waste trimming, we stop investing in the future, stop innovating, stop finding the breakthrough that leads to the next round of productivity gain, then in fact they’re right, it does last forever.

I believe that we’re on the verge of some exponential increases in productivity. Productivity in marketing as the waste of reaching the masses goes away. Productivity in energy as we figure out how to make a renewable process that gives us incremental units of power for free (think about the impact of that for a moment) and productivity in group work and management as we allow the network to do more than let us watch stupid YouTube videos at work. The three biggest expenses of most endeavors (the energy to make it, the people who create it and the marketing that spreads the idea) are about to be overhauled.

What a tragedy it will be if we let defensive thinking hold us back.

The same cigarette as me

"He can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke [syncopated pause] the same cigarette as me."

When your product becomes the badge for a tribe, you sell a lot of products. The Stones don’t mean "a man" in the sense of a homo sapien. They mean "a man" in sense of "someone worthy of my respect." Not in my tribe, not worth it…

Brooks Brothers was the badge for a generation of grey-suited men. Che t-shirts are the badge for a cadre of activists. The Allen & Co. retreat is the badge for a tiny cabal of media titans.

It’s not easy to become the badge, but it’s a worthy destination.

Key truth: you can’t be the badge for everyone. In order for the tribe to exist, it must have insiders. And you can’t have insiders without outsiders.