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Marketing vs. promotion

People often use the words to mean the same thing, but they’re different.

If an exterminator puts signs and banners in front of a fancy house when they’re inside killing rats, that’s promotion. But it’s not good marketing.

Marketing is creating the conditions for a story to spread so you can help people get to where they hope to go. Marketing is work that matters for people who care, a chance to create products and services that lead to change.

Promotion can support that. Or it might simply be a selfish hustle for attention.

If you have to interrupt, trick or coerce people to get the word out, you might be doing too much promotion and not enough marketing.

Are you smart?

Smart is no longer memorization. It’s not worth much.

Smart is no longer access to information. Everyone has that.

Smart is:

• Situational awareness

• Filtering information

• Troubleshooting

• Clarity of goals

• Good taste

• Empathy and compassion for others

• The ability to make decisions that further your goals

The good news is that smart is a choice, and smart is a skill.

Scale vs. Speed: Why organizations slow down

If you compare a Starbucks of ten years ago to a current one, they’re virtually the same. Compare this to the originals in Seattle, and the difference is startling.

The same goes for the design of a typical McDonald’s.

Apple launched the Mac with about a dozen full-time people working on its development. Today, they have more than a thousand times as many engineers and they haven’t launched a groundbreaking product in a while.

The same goes for Google. And Slack.

It’s not just famous big brands. Just about every organization hits a point where the pace of innovation slows as scale increases.

This happens for a number of reasons, and there are two ways to deal with them.

Technical debt is the result of shortcuts taken to get things to work right now. As a result of these shortcuts, the software (or hardware) isn’t easily expandable for future needs.

Handshake overhead is the result of the simple law of more people. n*(n – 1)/2. Two people need one handshake to be introduced. On the other hand, 9 people need 36 handshakes. More people involve more meetings, more approvals, more coordination.

Customer commitments are an asset but also a brake on innovation. The customers you already have didn’t necessarily sign up for you to change things.

Partner preferences are similar to customer commitments. The partners you work with have their own objectives and pace, the easiest common denominator is ‘slower.’

Wall Street’s fear is common, but fading a bit. This is the instinct that many institutional investors have to avoid the unknown. “The stock is going up, don’t blow it.”

Managerial anxiety is what happens when an operating bureaucracy comes to replace daring leadership. People get promoted because they’re good at their jobs, and innovation isn’t an opportunity, it’s a threat.

So, what to do? Ignoring everything above isn’t going to work. Tasking your people to burn all candles at both ends and to change their approach, while also violating the laws of institutional physics is simply not going to work. You’ll hit the wall. Every time.

There are two useful options:

Boring as a strategy is the approach that Apple and a large number of famous brands have taken. As you cross the chasm, the bulk of your new customers don’t want innovation at all. They want promises kept, a lack of surprises and reasonable prices and efficiency. Shipping your improvements on a regular schedule and bringing predictability to your offering allows you to reach more people and make a bigger impact. Small innovations allow an organization to avoid falling too far behind innovative competitors, and it can take decades before the gap is big enough to matter. And then you become Yahoo. Or Chrysler. Or Carvel.

Structural bankruptcy is a daring alternative. Create a skunkworks. Refactor your code from scratch. Spin off the cash cow and assemble a team to start something new from scratch. The new things probably won’t work at first, but if you do enough of them, your experience and persistence will pay off.

I’ve faced these choices many times in my career, and neither choice is easy or obvious, but the choice itself shouldn’t be ignored. If you simply hope for the best of both worlds, you’re likely to be frustrated at the same time you disappoint the people you work with and serve.

Paying extra

For six years, if you wanted an electric car, you’d need to pay extra. It cost more than the regular kind.

Of course, if you decided to buy one, you weren’t paying extra. You were buying sustainability, community awareness, cachet, status, safety, quiet and the feeling of being an early adopter.

People never pay extra.

They buy something they want at a price that feels fair to them.

In the next few years, electric cars are actually going to be cheaper than their more-polluting brethren. And that means that anyone who wants to charge a premium is going to have to offer quality, service, design and a feeling that it’s worth whatever is being charged.

It’s very difficult to make a living selling something that doesn’t, by some apparent measure, cost extra.

The hard work is in keeping the promise that your extra isn’t extra at all.

What are things like around here?

Industries are often held together by unspoken hierarchies, signposts on the road to achievement.

In the fancy parts of the book business, it’s not profit. Editors are often unaware of which books are truly profitable. They keep track of cultural impact, literary respect, the idea of a book being ‘well published’ and the hard-to-measure currency of ‘important’.

The Kindle and the long tail changed that, with new entrants keeping track of something else.

The “A” list movies, on the other hand, have an entire circle of status that’s organized around Academy Awards, famous directors and a pecking order that would be invisible to many of us.

Netflix and Youtube changed that as well, with new entrants keeping track of shorter cycles and different metrics.

In Silicon Valley, which has been an engine of our future for thirty years, technical prowess and elegance were the key drivers.

Now, the focus has shifted to simplicity, memes and momentary cultural currency in search of big numbers. The new signposts are about cultural ubiquity, IPOs, quick flips and harvesting data.

Apps instead of programs, user interfaces that need no instructions and don’t really reward a lot of effort, and output that’s driven by both. Like a roach motel, the goal is to make it seductive and hard to escape.

The hierarchies of status drive decisions far more than we realize. We often architect the systems that create our culture without paying attention to why.

Skepticism and Denial

Skepticism is a virtue. It requires a willingness to question conventional wisdom, and the guts to accept something after you discover that it’s actually true.

Denialism, on the other hand, is a willful rejection of reality. It’s safe and easy, and unproductive. Because there’s no room to change your mind.

To be a generous skeptic, we need to state in advance specifically what it would take for us to engage with the proposed insight, and then do so after our standards are met.

This is hard work. It’s not easy to change one’s mind. Difficult but worth it. Big shifts in perception are rare and it’s not something we look forward to.

Skeptics are a key to the scientific method, organizational design and even investing. We sign up to doubt and question and push, and then we become productive contributors by embracing the new tools and results.

Often, people in denial pretend to be skeptics. It feels more powerful than acknowledging that we’re simply avoiding change.

Interested vs. interesting

Of course you’re interesting. There’s something about what you’ve done, what you say, how you show up in the world that’s worthy of interest.

But that doesn’t mean that people are interested.

We each have a noise in our heads, an agenda and something urgent that’s grabbing our attention. And so, the amount of interest you receive (or don’t receive) has little to do with how interesting you are and a lot to do with how the people you seek to serve have organized their priorities long before you got there.

The next train

It’s not a luxury, it’s a choice.

We can build slack into our lives. We can create cycles so that we don’t need to dance with a crisis around time on a regular basis.

If there’s another train after this one, you don’t have to fret.

If the deadline for the project is tomorrow, not today, you don’t have to sweat it.

If the guests aren’t arriving for an hour…

Sometimes, we choose to use the urgent crisis as fuel. We set up our lives around creating these deadlines, reminding ourselves that if we cross that line, we’re dead.

And then we allow the world to do it to us. To create urgencies simply to take our attention and focus.

Productivity is a measure of the value of what we ship in the time we’ve got to invest. It’s not measured in drama.

It’s possible to do great work without putting everything in jeopardy.

Failing in the trough

There’s a time gap.

Marketers raise expectations in order to get someone to sign up and try a product and service.

And (hopefully) there’s satisfaction, delight and remarkability once the organization actually delivers on what you promised.

In between, the trough.

You spend $400 per customer on rent and architecture and web design.

Perhaps it’s $200 per new customer on podcast ads or salespeople.

All of these expenses happen long before you deliver.

And then, you confront the new customer with a surly receptionist, a website that is hard to understand, a wait for a table, a mismatch in the professional you assign, slow customer service, packaging that is difficult to open, fine print that suddenly becomes obnoxious and expectations that aren’t met.

In this trough, we have a few options:

The first, the most common, is to try to ignore it. Let em seethe. Bet on time and momentum and sunk costs to get them over the hump.

The second, a variation of this, is to spend as little as you can to address the problem of the trough. Acknowledge the problem, sure, but throw boilerplate and your lowest cost (least trained, least respected) people at the problem.

The third, the intelligent, difficult choice, is to invest in onboarding.

At $50 an hour, a well-trained, passionate and committed person might be able to onboard four customers an hour. That’s $12.50 to protect the $300 to $800 (or more) it cost you to earn that customer’s trial in the first place.

This person isn’t a replacement for what you sell or deliver. This person is the bridge over the trough.

They’re the patient voice at the end of the phone (who picks up on one ring) to help with a recalcitrant bit of software. Or the person who sends a handwritten note telling the guest what to expect when they get to your hotel. Or the human who simply calls to say ‘hi’ as soon as the trough begins. Not reading a script, but working as hard to make a connection and a difference as your ads and your location do.

The key rhetorical question, usually unasked and unanswered: Is it an expense or an investment?

graph of the trough over time

Notes: Promotion is the time and expense of encouraging non-customers to raise their expectations.

The trough kicks in when reality intrudes, when we’re trying to understand what’s actually involved, when sunk costs become clear and when buyer’s remorse begins. It’s the form, the warmup act and that feeling of being alone at a cocktail party filled with people who know each other.

Many of your potential lifelong, supportive and profitable customers never materialize on the other side of the trough, because they left before you had a chance to delight them.

Actual marketing success happens after the trough, when people become loyal, when the product or service is remarkable and when the word spreads.

In search of hypocrites

Why would we want to wait until someone is perfect before we give them a chance to make things better?

Each of us is part of a system, cogs in a process that rewards us for certain actions based on various inputs.

When the system is broken, some of the most highly leveraged, aware and insightful people notice. And of course, since they’re part of the system, they’ve been affected by it.

These are ideal qualifications to speak up and make the system better.

One way the status quo stays in charge is by encouraging people to stand by in silence, fearful of being called out for hypocrisy.