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Gradually and then suddenly

This is how companies die, how brands wither and, more cheefully in the other direction, how careers are made.

Gradually, because every day opportunities are missed, little bits of value are lost, customers become unentranced. We don't notice so much, because hey, there's a profit. Profit covers many sins. Of course, one day, once the foundation is rotted and the support is gone, so is the profit. Suddenly, apparently quite suddenly, it all falls apart.

It didn't happen suddenly, you just noticed it suddenly.

The flipside works the same way. Trust is earned, value is delivered, concepts are learned. Day by day we improve and build an asset, but none of it seems to be paying off. Until one day, quite suddenly, we become the ten-year overnight success.

This is the way it works, but we too often make the mistake of focusing on the 'suddenly' part. The media writes about suddenly, we notice suddenly, we talk about suddenly.

That doesn't mean that gradually isn't important. In fact, it's the only part you can actually do something about.

[HT to Hemingway  (and, as I just saw, my friend Steve) for the riff.]

Can I pay you to do me a favor?

Simple concept with big implications: In small groups, money corrupts.

In environments that are built on personal interaction and trust among intimates, transactions based on money don't increase efficacy, they degrade it.

At the other end of the scale, in transactions between strangers, cash scales. Cash enables us to interact with people we don't know and probably won't see again.

But if you want to build the intimate circle that lives on favors and gift exchange, don't bring cash. Bring generosity and vulnerability.

Our upside-down confusion about fairness

Our society tolerates gross unfairness every day. It tolerates misogyny, racism and the callous indifference to those born without privilege.

But we manage to find endless umbrage for petty slights and small-time favoritism.

When a teacher gives one student a far better grade than he deserves, and does it without shame, we're outraged. When the flight attendant hands that last chicken meal to our seatmate, wow, that's a slight worth seething over for hours.

When Bull Connor directed fire hoses and attack dogs on innocent kinds in Birmingham, it conflated the two, the collision of the large and the small. Viewers didn't witness the centuries of implicit and explicit racism, they saw a small, vivid act, moving in its obvious unfairness. It was the small act that focused our attention on the larger injustice.

I think that most of us are programmed to process the little stories, the emotional ones, things that touch people we can connect to. When it requires charts and graphs and multi-year studies, it's too easy to ignore.

We don't change markets, or populations, we change people. One person at a time, at a human level. And often, that change comes from small acts that move us, not from grand pronouncements.

Happy birthday, Martin.

The buffet problem keeps getting worse

Here's the thinking that leads just about every all-you-can-eat buffet to trend to mediocrity:

"Oh, don't worry about how fresh the mashed potatoes are, after all, they're free."

Indeed, as far as the kitchen is concerned, each individual item on the buffet is 'free' in the sense that the customer didn't spend anything extra to get that item.

The problem is obvious, of course. Once you start thinking that way, then every single item on the buffet gets pretty lousy, and the next thing you know, the customers you seek don't come.

So, the hotel that says, "With this sort of volume… we do tend to encounter a slower pace with our free wireless internet," has completely misunderstood how to think about the free internet they offer. It's not free. In fact, it might be the one and only reason someone picked your $400 hotel room over that hotel down the street. Sure the hot water and the towels and the quiet room are all free in the sense that they're included in the price, but no, they're not free in the mind of the purchaser.

Successful organizations often beat the competition by turning the buffet problem upside down. "Let's make these the best mashed potatoes in town–who knows, next time, that guy out front will bring his friends."

The mashed potatoes aren't free, the mashed potatoes, the wifi and everything else you do are an opportunity. The cheapest and most effective marketing you'll do all year.

My skillshare course goes live tomorrow

They've beefed up their servers, so if you had trouble signing up last week, today might be worth a try.

The details are right here.

The course is archived, so you can take it at your convenience. I'll be participating in the online Q&A for the students that take it during the first week it's available. Hope to see you there.

“Our biggest problem is awareness”

If that's your mantra, you're working to solve the wrong problem.

If your startup, your non-profit or your event is suffering because of a lack of awareness, the solution isn't to figure out some way to get more hype, more publicity or more traffic. Those are funnel solutions, designed to fix an ailing process by dumping more attention at the top, hoping more conversion comes out the bottom.

The challenge with this approach is that it doesn't scale. Soon, you'll have no luck at all getting more attention, even with ever more stunts or funding.

No, the solution lies in re-organizing your systems, in re-creating your product or service so that it becomes worth talking about. When you do that, your customers do the work of getting you more noticed. When you produce something remarkable, more use leads to more conversation which leads to more use.

No, it won't be a perfect virus, starting with ten people and infecting the world. But yes, you can dramatically impact the 'more awareness' problem by investing heavily in a funnel that doesn't leak, in a story that's worth spreading.

Who are your customers?

Answering, "anyone who pays us money," is a cop out.

Almost as bad is describing your customers by demographics. It's only a little interesting to know that they are, on average, 32 year old, white, male, lacrosse fans.

No, what we need to know is:

What do they believe?

Who do they trust?

What are they afraid of and who do they love?

What are they seeking?

Who are their friends?

What do they talk about?

Less vs. more, give vs. take

You could build a company dedicated to paying your employees ever more. Or you could build a company based on the strategy of paying them ever less.

You could create a business based on the idea of charging your customers the lowest possible prices, or you could set out to figure out how to charge them as much as possible.

Your organization could depend on ever increasing the amount of choice and privacy you give your users–or you could work daily to reduce them.

You could protect your users from interruption or you could decide to profit from interruption.

You could fight daily to tell those that are listening the truth, or you could fight daily to spin your story to have it seen as the truth.

It's tempting to view each of these extremes as merely an alternative to compromise, but compromise isn't a goal, it's a temporary tactic. Where are you headed?

We move the center when we become extremists in our goals.

Every day, we push against the status quo and make difficult choices. Every day, we seek to increase one metric at the expense of the other. The architecture of the successful organization depends on choosing and embracing these extremes.

The feedback you’ve been waiting for

"You did a great job. This is exactly what I was hoping for. I wouldn't change a thing. You completely nailed it, it's fabulous."

Of course, that's not feedback, really. It's applause.

Applause is great. We all need more of it.

But if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback. And that feedback, if it's more than just carping, will be constructive. It will clearly and generously lay out ways you can more effectively delight your customers and create a remarkable experience that leads to ever more customers.

If you're afraid of that feedback, it's probably not going to arrive as often as you'd like it to. On the other hand, if you embrace it as the gift it can be, you may decide to go looking for it.

Empty criticism and snark does no one any good. But genuine, useful, insightful feedback is a priceless gift.

Applause is good too.

Understanding sponsorship

The answer to the question, "how are you going to pay for this project?" is turning out to be sponsorship more and more often. If you don't know why organizations want to sponsor things, though, it's likely a long, hard road to find the sponsorship you seek.

As the number of media options continue to explode (blogs, books, conferences, tattoos, speaking engagements, film festivals, stadiums, entire websites…) it's worth thinking a little bit about why organizations buy sponsorships.

1. It might be a substitute for advertising. How many people see it? How much does it cost per person? (this is the cpm, but instead of cost per thousand page views or magazine readers, it's cost per thousand impressions, which come in a myriad of ways). I think this is the film festival/book fair model. It's a reasonable way to reach a hard to reach, high value group.

2. It might be a bragging rights thing. This means that the sponsor isn't focused on tonnage, but instead wants the affiliation that they can mention to others. Sort of a reverse endorsement. The thing being sponsored isn't a media outlet, then, but a license by affiliation. An example of this might be sponsoring a speaker coming to town. Clearly, the 500 people in the audience don't constitute a useful CPM, but the fact that you did it gains you authority with those that notice what you did.

3. It might be a chance to influence the organization being sponsored. This would explain why big corporations are willing to sponsor political conventions.

4. It might be a useful way to inspire and focus your internal organization. When the people who work for you see you sponsoring a worthy charity or a thoughtful opinion leader, it changes how they do their job or how they focus their efforts.

5. It makes the CEO happy and earns the organization a seat at certain sorts of tables. I think this is the model for sponsoring a sports stadium, an act that has never been shown to have any value at all as a mass media choice.

Because there are so many ways to come at this, valuing a sponsorship is difficult indeed. If you're a bank sponsoring a bike sharing service, how do you compare that to five-hundred full page newspaper ads (about the same price over a certain period of time). Of course, you don't. You can't. Instead, you must be really clear internally about what it's for.

In general, if you're clear about which of these five things you're shooting for, most sponsorships are a screaming bargain compared to traditional media buys, particularly if you're trying to reach an elite or elusive demographic.