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Critics that matter

If you invent or launch or market (and you're human) it's likely that you have the voice of the critic in the back of your head. It's natural to fear what they'll say, and if you're not careful, you'll end up redesigning your product to please them before you even launch it.

Imagine the restaurant chef who changes the interior of the restaurant to please the Michelin critic (they insist on a certain quality of cutlery in order to award a three star review). It might be your boss who is the critic. Or consider the B2B manufacturer who alters the product specs in order to meet the standards of the GAO so he can sell to the US Government…

Some critics matter. (Your biggest customer, for example). Some are merely loud. Others are just difficult.

Janet Maslin at the New York Times is a cranky hack. She reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and as best I can tell, she likes neither very much. She's taken authors to task for questionable copy editing and devoted entire reviews to pointless rants about trivia. Here's the thing: she doesn't matter. Janet's reviews appear to have no impact at all on whether or not a book sells. Her voice is not in my head.

Robert Morris, on the other hand, is a useful guide for people in search of good books. He's reviewed nearly 2,000 books and received almost 25,000 helpful votes for his reviews on Amazon. If he likes your book, you're going to sell more copies–not because he liked it, but because his thorough review lets other people decide if they want to buy it or not.

The challenge is in figuring out which kind of critic is worth paying attention to as you create your product or service. In a business to business setting, pleasing the gatekeeper and the bill payer is essential. On the other hand, pleasing an angry blogger might not matter at all.

In our desire to please everyone, it's very easy to end up being invisible or mediocre. Far better to please the right people.

Lessons from very tiny businesses

1. Go where your customers are.

Jacquelyne runs a tiny juice company called Chakwave. I met her in Los Angeles, standing next to an organic lunch truck. Like the little birds that clean the teeth of the hippo, there's synergy here. The kind of person that visits the truck for lunch is the sort of person that would happily pay for something as wonderfully weird as her juice. And the truck owners benefit from the rolling festival farmer's market feel that comes from having a synergistic partner set up on a bridge table right next door.

2. Be micro-focused and the search engines will find you.

My friend Patti Jo is an extraordinary teacher and tutor. Her new business, The Scarsdale Tutor doesn't need many clients in order to be successful. This permits her to focus obsessively and that gets rewarded with front page results on Google. Not because she's tried to manipulate the seo (she hasn't) but because this is exactly the page you'd hope to find if you typed "scarsdale tutor" into a search engine. Could she do this nationwide? Of course not. But she doesn't want to or need to. Living on the long tail can be profitable.

3. Outlast the competition.

I was amazed at all the empty storefronts I saw in LA on my last visit. On one particular block, three or four of the ten lunch places were shut down. And the others? Doing great. That's because the remaining office workers who used to eat lunch at the shuttered places had to eat somewhere, and so the survivors watched their business grow. A war of attrition is never pretty, but if you're smart about overhead and scale, you'll win it.

4. Leverage.

Rick Toone runs a tiny guitar-making operation. His lack of scale makes it easy for him to share. When others start using his designs, he doesn't suffer (he can't make any more guitars than he already is) he benefits, because as the originator of the design, his originals become more coveted, not less valuable. He leverages his insight and shares it as a free marketing device.

5. Respond.

This is the single biggest advantage you have over the big guys. Not only are you in charge, you also answer the phone and read your email and man the desk and set the prices.

So, don't pretend you have a policy. Just be human.

The scientific method

In most interactions, we take a defensive posture. We try to defend the
brand, or our turf or our job. The problem with defense is that it's
static. The best way to get smarter, to embrace and to cause change and to triumph in times of market turmoil is to adopt the scientific method.

Ask yourself, "what do I believe that's wrong? How can I change the way I do things? What works? What doesn't?"

If you enter a conversation looking for something to test, measure and ultimately change, it's likely you'll find it. That change makes you more competitive, and you continue to cycle past your competitors. On the other hand, if you enter a conversation concerned about maintaining the status quo, it's likely that this is exactly what you're going to do.

Some people read business books looking for confirmation. I read them in search of disquiet. Confirmation is cheap, easy and ineffective. Restlessness and the scientific method, on the other hand, create a culture of testing and inquiry that can't help but push you forward.

Who spreads your word?

In order for an idea to spread, someone has to do the spreading.

In the dark ages (ten years ago), the only way to spread your idea on a large scale was to do it yourself. Lots and lots of ads.

Today, marketers get all sweaty thinking about how this happens magically, virally, for free. If it were only that easy.

What's interesting to me is that different products and ideas are spread by different groups of people. There isn't just one professional association of idea spreaders, with everyone else being passive.

If your authentic little Welsh restaurant gets hot, it's going to be because the chowhounds, the folks who love to talk about the next great place, are buzzing about it. On the other hand, if your blog gets a lot of traffic, it might just be because a few of the digerati are going on about it, spreading the idea.

This is obvious, of course.

But what you are you doing about it? Have you figured out which portion of your user base are the talkers? Is it possible to focus your development efforts on actually making something that they like? Or, are you confusing the people who talk about your competition or about other industries with the people you need to reach? Might not be the same tribe…

The #1 cause of an idea that's not spreading or a business that's not growing is that they don't have a committed group of people spreading the word about them. If you treat everyone the same, you're not increasing the odds that some people will step up on your behalf.

This is the first question to ask someone who is frustrated at the rate their idea is spreading. "Who are you hoping will talk about you?" If you don't know, it's unlikely to happen all by itself. On the other hand, if a marketer is smart about finding, courting and delighting the group most likely to spread the idea, it's time well spent.

The danger of vague claims

The sign the broker posted in front of the house listed her name and then said, "#1 in Westchester, Top 10 Nationwide."

What does that mean, exactly? That this real estate broker is the most successful broker in the whole county and one of the top ten in the country? I don't think so. Not if she's selling this house. She'd have to sell a thousand houses like this to catch up with someone in a fancier neighborhood who only sells ten.

I think it means that the firm she works for is really big. So what? Is that a qualification for anything? Is the 11th biggest real estate firm way less good than the ninth?

Here's the danger: when the very first interaction we have is one where you are sort of not telling the relevant truth, where do we go from here?

Weirdest billboard ever (or brilliant targeting)


Not photoshopped, I took it myself. The site is real.

I'm trying to imagine someone driving along Highway 11 and making a note of this. For what? The next time someone gets bludgeoned in their living room? (And no, I don't think it was movie inspired).

On the other hand, maybe this is brilliant, because it's police cars that see this sign the most. Go to where your customers are…

When tactics drown out strategy

New media creates a blizzard of tactical opportunities for marketers, and many of them cost nothing but time, which means you don't need as much approval and support to launch them.

As a result, marketers are like kids at Rita's candy shoppe, gazing at all the pretty opportunities.

Most of us are afraid of strategy, because we don't feel confident outlining one unless we're sure it's going to work. And the 'work' part is all tactical, so we focus on that. (Tactics are easy to outline, because we say, "I'm going to post this." If we post it, we succeed. Strategy is scary to outline, because we describe results, not actions, and that means opportunity for failure.)

"Building a permission asset so we can grow our influence with our best customers over time" is a strategy. Using email, twitter or RSS along with newsletters, contests and a human voice are all tactics. In my experience, people get obsessed about tactical detail before they embrace a strategy… and as a result, when a tactic fails, they begin to question the strategy that they never really embraced in the first place.

The next time you find yourself spending 8 hours on tactics and five minutes refining your strategy, you'll understand what's going on.

Are we solving the same problem?

This is the biggest disconnect I know of.

It happens all the time in B2B sales, in service marketing, in getting along with your boss and even in hiring someone.

One side thinks they have figured out a solution. They spend a long time talking about the solution, architecting it, refining it, pricing it, pitching it, delivering it. The other side ends up not liking what they get. The disconnect: the first side says, "this solution is exactly as we described it!" the other side says, "it doesn't work right."

The disconnect is caused because people focus on the solution instead of the problem you were given to solve. It's a lot easier to talk about features and hours spent and someone's resume and a lot more difficult to dig into the problem itself.

This is where the obligating question becomes so critical. "If we can deliver a dam that stops the water flow, will you be delighted?" "If I can hire someone who can answer ten calls an hour and keep customers coming back, will that work?" "If this book cover receives an award for best design, will that be a win?"

The difficult conversation about the problem is far more useful than the endless effort on solutions. The reason is that people don't tell themselves (or you) about the problem they're actually solving. Sure, they'd like an employee that does x, y or z, but you know what, they'd also like that person to be really good looking and willing to do our bidding, waiting on us hand and foot. Sure, we'd like a personal computer with a lot of computing power, but we'd also like it to be light and sexy and covetable…

The more clarity you can get about what a successful solution looks like, the more likely you will be to have a delighted customer when you're done.

The bandwidth-sync correlation that’s worth thinking about

Check this out. Every once in a while a cool graph pops into my head.

Here are a dozen or so forms of communication, arranged on two axes.

On the horizontal, they rank from asynchronous (meaning the creator and the responder are separated in time–like a letter) and synchronous (meaning the creator and the responder are in real time proximity to each other–like a phone call).

Up and down, I've charted the quality of the medium. Quality in terms of density of information exchanged. The 140 characters in Twitter is about as low density as you can get other than a stop light. A movie, on the other hand, is loud and bright and two hours long and there's audience reaction and it is edited and designed to evoke a response.

To be clear, then: movies take a long time to make, but they're high impact. Twitter takes a second to do, but there's not a lot of info there. One on one coaching is high enough bandwidth that it can change your life and make you cry, in real time, and the Mona Lisa, while less bits per second than a TV show, has enough emotional bandwidth to matter, even if it's 400 years old.

So, what can you learn here?

  1. There's a huge correlation between how much interaction there is and how powerful a medium is (at least among successful media). Telephones changed the world because the interaction is so real. As you get more interactive, though, you exchange less dense media. You can't have a real time conversation online that carries the digital impact of a movie or some other high bandwidth entertainment.
  2. The bottom left corner is the scrap heap. It's hard to place a commercial value on this part of the grid and there's not a lot of commercially interesting work being done here. People just aren't interested in low bandwidth, non-interactive media. Graffiti, for example, rarely draws a paying crowd.
  3. The top right of the corner is where huge value and difficult sales lie. Not everyone can pay for the scarce resources needed to deliver an in-person seminar or one on one coaching, but those that need and can afford it, love it.

If you had seen this chart three years ago, you obviously would have invented Twitter. Now that you see it today, what will you create?

High Definition

Am I the only person who wants a Hi Def telephone?

A headset that sounds better than the handheld receiver, and a handheld receiver that delivers the kind of quality calls we had back in the day…

I want to have a phone call where I don't have to strain to hear the other person, apologize for static, call people back because they went through a dandelion storm…

I'm happy to trade weight or transportability for this device.

I'm betting there are a dozen other items where the market would love a high definition alternative. Maybe a thousand. We're in such a rush for convenience, sometimes we forget the market will pay for high def as well.