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Self-starters, needed

The self starter creates a spark, turning nothing, or what certainly appears to everyone else as nothing, into something.

The self starter doesn't see it that way. That 'nothingness' was actually an opportunity, a chance to make a connection, to do something a little better than the status quo, to get things moving.

Has there ever been a project, an institution or a community that hasn't needed that?

 

Big company advertising

American Airlines doesn't know what to say.

And they're having a lot of trouble saying it.

They're making a fortune this year due to low oil prices, and one way to manage shareholder expectations for the future is to put some of that profit into brand advertising. And so, they hired a fancy ad agency and started to run full-page, two-sided, glossy inserts in newspapers. The single ad I'm looking at cost at least $100,000. And I might be one of a hundred people who are actually reading it.

The copy-dense ad includes references to babies, red-eyes, noise, middle seats, lessons learned, 'relinquish', making the best of the situation and the ability to sleep anywhere. All told in an odd third-person, referring to the hero as "they" not "you." 

With a layout that's so confusing that there's a big arrow that says "start here".

Some things worth remembering:

  • Ads can still work, especially ads with consistent budgets, excellent copywriting, smart frequency and a thoughtful strategy. Easier said than done.
  • Great products work far better than great ads do. And the key part of a great service-based product is service, which is totally up to you, the marketer.
  • Direct marketing is measured, brand marketing is long-term and aspirational.
  • Simple test for brand marketing: If I can substitute one company for another and have the ad still make sense, it's not a good ad.

For thirty years, the airlines have relentlessly trained travelers to spend as little as possible on a seat, offering generic alternatives and contemptuous, confusing pricing policies. To blame the state of travel on the passenger ("Let's move that conversation from us and turn it onto them…" said Fernand Fernandez, VP of global marketing at AA) doesn't feel like the foundation for a great marketing campaign, does it?

The lesson for anyone spending money on ads: it pays to be consistent, generous and thoughtful when you build an ad campaign.

[Posted from LGA. /rant]

[For those that wanted to see the ad, here it is]

Features and marginal cost in the digital age

Good, better and best were the three price points.

Organizations had an easy way to distinguish between their various products. Adding more features cost more money, and so the Cadillac cost more than the Chevy.

Customers learned to associate more features with more expense with more luxury and exclusivity. And manufacturers were always on the lookout to add a feature that consumers valued more than the marginal cost of adding that feature.

In the digital age, all of this thinking goes out the window.

How much does it cost a car company to display the temperature outside? Well, it used to mean wiring a circuit, adding a sensor, creating a display. Now, it might cost them $1 (if that) to add that feature to a $40,000 car.

Even more radically, the marginal cost of just about every feature on a website or an app is precisely zero. Program it once and you can give it to everyone. The 'good' version is merely the 'best' version with some software turned off, which is fine if you don't have any competition.

Good, better, best is going to have to start being based on something else.

Most projects end with a whimper

That means you have a choice:

Spend a lot of your time in whimpering moments.

or

Be prepared to blow things up, declare victory/failure, walk away—even if it feels easier in the moment to timidly and slowly fade away, whimpering.

Prematurely giving up is a huge problem. A more draining problem is not knowing when to quit.

Speed is relative

If you moved to Norway or Haiti or Bolivia, you'd notice something immediately: People don't move at the same speed you do.

The same thing is true about different organizations and different pockets of the internet. Or months of the year, for that matter.

There's not an absolute speed, a correct velocity, a posted limit or minimum for all of us. It's relative.

Given that, how does your speed match your goals and your strategy? Not compared to everyone else, but compared to the one and only thing you have control over?

Passing the slow cars on the road is an illusion, a chance to fool yourself into thinking you're making good progress. To a sloth, even a loris is a speedster.

Pick your own pace.

Expectation is the brand killer

There's a difference between speed and acceleration. This is hard for novice physics students to grasp. Velocity ( sometimes confused with speed) is how fast you're going in a given direction. Acceleration is a measure of how quickly you're getting faster (or slower) on your way.

Brands today are built on relationships, and relationships of all kinds work solely because of expectation. That thing we're confidently hoping we're going to get from that next encounter.

The shift we're facing is that expectation isn't the speed (the quality, the value, the repeatability of an interaction), it's now become more like the acceleration of it, the change in what we expect.

And so advertisers and fashion houses and singles bars and Hallmark cards are built on promises. The promise of what to expect next.

The challenge: Expectations change. A few good encounters and we begin to hope for (and expect) great encounters. Sooner or later, our expectation for a politician or a motorcycle company or a service we regularly engage in goes up so much it can't be met.

When the economy is racing forward, people are engaged and satisfied. When it slows, when the good news slows down, people are even less satisfied than they were when they had fewer resources.

A common ridiculous expression is, "expect the unexpected." Of course, once you do that, it's not unexpected any more, is it?

Expectation is in the eye of the beholder, but expectation is often enhanced and hyped by the marketer hoping for a quick win. And there lies the self-defeating dead end of something that would serve everyone if it were a persistent positive cycle instead.

Demand guardrails

It's tempting to believe that left to our own devices, we'll all maximize our health, make smart investment decisions and generally follow our instincts on the road to happiness.

But it turns out that cigarettes are addictive, that financial distress causes people to make short-term decisions that are damaging, and that we even have trouble doing smart and easy things with a 401(k). 

Culture is powerful. Marketing makes it even more powerful. Financial interests are powerful, too.

If peer pressure and short-term urgencies set us up to do things we regret, we come out ahead when we support cultural changes that remove that peer pressure and lessen those short-term urgencies.

We know that wearing a bicycle helmet can save us from years in the hospital, but some people feel awkward being the only one in a group to do so. A helmet law, then, takes away that problem and we come out ahead. Same for seat belts. One less decision to make.

One of the biggest contributors to decreased cigarette usage is a tax. A tax on sugary drinks has a huge impact on people's health. Is this the encroachment of the dreaded nanny state? It's better than being sick, or dead. It's hard to imagine being a parent and being opposed to these boundaries and disincentives.

Banks have a ton of policies designed to remove the temptation of their officers to engage in any sort of graft or corruption. The policies reduce the cognitive load, eliminate temptation and let people get back to work.

Guard rails always seem like an unwanted intrusion on personal freedom. Until we get used to them. Then we wonder how we lived without them.

Economics was built on a flawed assumption: That we are rational, profit-seeking, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. If all that were true, we'd be living in a very different world.

Instead, the humans among us can benefit from realizing that in fact, we're deeply incompetent at making certain kinds of decisions, that well-funded marketers are working overtime to confuse and deceive us, and that cultural guardrails not only help us avoid pitfalls, but give us the reinforcements we need to get back to productive work and healthy lives.

In pursuit of cheap

The race to the bottom is unforgiving and relentless.

I ordered some straw hats for a small party. The shipper sent them in a plastic bag, with no box, because it was cheaper. Of course, they were crushed and worthless.

I wrote a note to the company's customer service address, but they merely sent an autoreply, because it was cheaper.

And they don't answer the phone… you guessed it, because it's cheaper.

Of course, you have competition. But the big companies that are winning the price war aren't winning because they've eliminated customer service and common sense. They're winning because of significant advances in scale and process, advances that aren't available to you.

Organizations panic in the face of the floor falling out from under their price foundation, and they often respond by becoming a shell of their former selves. Once you decide to become a cheap commodity, all of the choices you made to be a non-commodity fall victim to your pursuit of cheap.

Cheap is the last refuge for the marketer who can't figure out how to be better.

The alternative is to choose to be worth it, remarkable, reliable, a good neighbor, a worthy citizen, leading edge, comfortable, trusted, funny, easy, cutting edge or just about anything except, "the cheapest at any cost."

Graceful degradation

Stuff's going to break.

Then what?

Air conditioners, for example, gradually lose their charge. When they do, icing can occur. When that happens, the drain pans overflow and water seeps away.

The smart builder, then, anticipates all this and has the pan connected to some sort of drain, as opposed to having it rot the beams or collapse a ceiling. 

Most failures aren't shocking surprises. The law of large numbers is too strong for that. Instead, they are predictable events that smart designers plan for, instead of wishing them away as rare unpredictable accidents.

Lastpass is a popular password manager. (You should have a password manager. And tenants' insurance. And you should backup your data, too. You'll thank me one day for the reminder.)

It's inevitable that people will forget their master password. It's inevitable that a network glitch or other unforeseen event will cause the software to forget. Sooner or later. Then what? 

Blaming a significant hassle and frustrating data loss on an unlikely accident is bad design. Instead, Lastpass built in a 'revert' feature will allows them to roll back a password without ever compromising security.

When the glitch happens, does your design fail?

The most hackneyed line in design is, "first, do no harm." A more useful adage is, "when weird stuff happens, make sure it doesn't cause harm you didn't expect or plan for."

For work where the outcome matters, consider the immortal words of the Smith System, "Always leave yourself an out."

Temperament is a skill

Throwing tantrums, calling names, not doing the reading, making things up, demonizing the other, impulsivity, egomaniacal narcissism, breaking big promises…

Waiting your turn, asking hard questions, thinking about others, slowing down in key moments…

Telling the truth, taking responsibility…

Giving others a chance to share their ideas, attracting and trusting talented people, trusting the right things and being skeptical of the others…

These are all skills (or the lack thereof).

Somewhere along the way, we accepted the baked-in, unchanging, what-you-see-is-what-you-get view of the world. It lets us off the hook, of course, because if this is the way we are, it’s certainly not our fault.

The bravest and most optimistic thing we can do, though, is see that each of us has the opportunity to do precisely the opposite. We have far more choices, far more control and far more responsibility than we give ourselves (and others) credit for.

Temperament matters. A lot.

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