Tuesday, May 6, 2014

It's not you, it's me

A few days back Techcrunch published a terrific behind-the-scenes account of Google+'s early days, written by someone who was an intern on the project.

There's a ton of dishy details on the social network that so many people love to hate, but ultimately I think it boils down to insight into two fundamental mistakes that Google made.

The first is a common pitfall for engineers: they fall in love with features and capabilities. They focused on building things like "social circles," privacy controls (ironically, as it turned out), and even wasted time arguing whether to enable logical operators in search, when the only thing that matters to a social network is the social element (namely, are the people you want to connect with already there)?

Technology is not the destination. Technology only matters so long as it's a means to an end -- in this case, a socially desirable end.

Google's second major error is similarly widespread: Google+ was always far more about what the company wanted than what its users wanted.
It was clear that Facebook, with its ever-expanding social graph, was developing an extraordinary dataset that could undermine the supremacy of Google’s key search product. At the time, Google had a relationship with Twitter to access the social network’s firehose of data, but that agreement expired in mid-2011. Google needed a way to get social data, and fast. ... These fears manifested themselves in what would eventually be called Google+. The vision for the product is clear, albeit complicated: create a social network for everyone that would simultaneously provide Google with enough data about each user to ensure its search engine could adapt to a more social world.
Google needed user data, and so they created a network by which users would furnish them with data. The problem was that its would-be users, of course, cared quite a bit less about Google's data needs than Google did.

Whether you're building a product or crafting a message, the first requirement is to connect with the end-user/audience. Those people don't care what you want and need; they care about what they want and need. Focus on the former, and (like Google+) you'll end up with something that no one has much use for.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When less is more

My alarm didn't go off this morning. Well actually, it did—and that's the problem.

For several months now I've been using my iPad as an alarm clock. It has a number of advantages over a more traditional alarm: I can set alarms for different days of the week (so, for instance, I can wake up at 6:00 on weekdays, 7:00 on Saturdays, and sleep in on Sundays). If I get sick of the alarm sound, I can switch to something else. And it's very portable, so I don't need one alarm solution for home and another for when I travel.

For months the solution worked flawlessly, until just recently. Possibly as a result of the iOS 7.1 update, now sometimes the alarm doesn't sound. Technically it does go off on schedule, but every now and then it's completely silent. I have no idea that it's time to get up until our hungry cat wakes me up and I see what time it is.

This reminded me of something important. In general I like iOS 7. It's full of features that I use and enjoy. But an alarm clock going off on time is a completely feature that is both completely unsexy and non-negotiable. I need that to work reliably, and if it doesn't, it won't matter how cool all the other stuff is.

You can give me a device with 1,000 features, but I'm only going to depend on three or four. If delivering 1,000 features means that those three or four things become unreliable, don't do it. Focus on the fundamentals and make sure they're rock-solid. That's the cupcake; everything else is frosting.

This is true of any project: there is some core element that might not be exciting at all, but it is indispensable. When you push to include extra elements in that project, you can't allow your unexciting, indispensable core to suffer.

Less is more, when giving less makes less better.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Strength is not in numbers

The backlash has already begun against content marketing. We're all going to be drowning in content, they say. Brands will flood their platforms with mediocre, me-too filler that accomplishes nothing, except to the extent that it trains customers to stop listening.

Just when everyone was gearing up to start developing their content, that approach to SEO has already been declared passé.

If you're listening, though, you can hear the sound of opportunity. When everyone else is chasing after content quantity, the opportunity is in content quality.

I spent years as an editor, and the method I always applied—the method that always worked—was to cut and condense. Fewer words work better than more. Shorter headlines drive higher engagement. Customers almost always prefer less content to more—particularly if we use the "less" requirement as an opportunity to make your content better.

The people who never really had a content strategy in the first place have devised plans built around empty numbers, and now they're adding their weight to the backlash against that non-strategic strategy. Your focus, though, should be on quality, not quantity: fewer, better, and shorter pieces that answer questions and solve real problems in your customers' lives.

When the world is full of noise, your opportunity is to provide a clear signal.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Your face, at rest

Recently the College Humor video "Resting Bitch Face" made the rounds on Facebook, which reminded me of something I've fought with all my life: people think I'm angry, but that's just my resting face.

It usually happens when I'm thinking Deep Thoughts. My wind will be wandering, when someone I know happens upon me and asks: "What's wrong?" I always answer that nothing's wrong, that just what my face looks like when it's in a neutral state. Sometimes they believe me, but not always.

That's just my cross to bear: I have an angry resting face. There's no anger behind the face, but unless I make a conscious effort to smile, I come across as angry and hostile.

This morning I was talking with my wife about how different local companies approach content marketing. The challenge with content marketing is you need to try to give something of value away for free, even though every mercantile bone in your body is screaming: "Don't do it!" You need to offer your readers (or video viewers) something that has intrinsic value, and you need to consciously not market to them in the process, because your aim is a long-term relationship and your potential customers need to trust that you won't ping them with constant marketing for them to opt into the relationship.

It's a hard task. Many companies fail at it. They set down the content marketing path, but with every piece of content there's a catch: fill in this form; give us your email address; fill out this survey; tweet this sentence. Every time a company tries to monetize its relationship with you, you're reminded that you don't actually have a relationship with them. Relationships are mutual and long-term, and these attempts to show short-term ROI sabotage both of those elements.

I was talking about this with my wife when it hit me: companies have resting faces, too. Companies like Moz and HubSpot present a stream of content with no catch; their resting face is a friendly smile that says, "Come sit over here; we have something you might like." Companies like SimplyMeasured, meanwhile, have a resting face that looks like a gleam in their eye; it says, "I have something I want to sell you."

(Not to pick on SimplyMeasured; they're just the first example that came to mind of a content marketer who repeatedly requires me to "sign up" for everything they have to offer.)

Whether you like it or not, your resting face has a huge effect on how others perceive you: whether they expect that you'll be likable, interesting, approachable, and trustworthy. What does your business' resting face look like?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Things I Learned from Dan Brown

The next time you’re in a coffee shop, look around at the people who are staring earnestly at their laptop screens, pecking away at the keys in a desultory, dispirited fashion.

There’s a good chance that those people are working on their novel.

There’s an excellent chance that they really hate Dan Brown.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that their hatred is exclusive to Dan Brown. Rather it’s Brown and authors like him - the ones who seem to effortlessly ascend the best-seller charts, pumping out one international hit after another - that draw their ire. Partly it’s just jealousy, but mostly it’s resentment. They resent that Dan Brown can be so richly rewarded when he’s such a terrible writer.

It’s true; Dan Brown’s characters are paper-thin, his dialogue is bombastic, his historical and scientific research is spotty at best, and his intricate, conspiracy-driven plots only occasionally hold water. (He also has an irritating tendency to create new words all his own - “symbologist,” anyone? - and then pretend that everyone in the world knows that word and uses it in casual conversation.)

And yet readers love him. This is the sort of thing that drives would-be writers crazy, but the reason is actually quite simple: Dan Brown is good at the things that matter to sales.

His chapters are extremely short. They present a single piece of information - the crumb that leads you one step deeper into the forest - and then they end, abruptly, when you’re right on the point of learning something important to the story. He teases you constantly to just read the next chapter … and then the one after that, and the one after that.

His plots invariably promise to teach you something about religion, history, and science, but Brown doesn’t confuse instruction with entertainment. He gives you enough to feel like you’re a little smarter once you’re done, but he doesn’t bury you under detail.

If you’ve read one of Brown’s novels, you know exactly what to expect in the next one. You’ll get some of the same characters, you’ll get another vast conspiracy, and you’ll be taken through one or two exotic settings. Brown is the McDonald’s of popular fiction, which is to say he’s predictable enough to be comfortable. Readers like it when they’re comfortable.

These principles - plus a heaping load of good fortune - have made Dan Brown a millionaire. They can improve your content, too.

Dan Brown teases his readers with carefully-crafted chapter endings. You should think about how you can develop content that teases the reader (or the viewer) to go a little bit further, a little bit deeper, rather than abandoning your content halfway through.

Dan Brown talks about religion, history, and science - but not too much. You should focus on giving your audience something of value, but be careful not to overwhelm them. Provide links to those who want to delve deeper into a topic, but your readers’ first view of a topic should be a quick, engaging overview.

Dan Brown creates comfort via familiarity. Give some thought to how predictable your content is. Are your articles written with a common voice and presented with a standard look and feel? Does a certain personality infuse everything that you publish? These are the elements that can make your content more predictable, familiar, and comfortable.

Even now I can’t recommend that you read Dan Brown’s work, but we can all learn something from the method he brings to that work. If there’s one thing the author of “The Da Vinci Code” understands, it’s how to satisfy an audience and keep them coming back for more.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A is for "audience"

It's a standard writer's trick: when you first set out to fill a blank page with words, begin by imagining who you're writing for. Is it your mother? Your best friend? The professor in that one class you took? It doesn't matter nearly so much who that person in your head is, than it is that you don't make the fatal mistake of writing for yourself. Writing for yourself causes you to make selfish choices. You don't explain your terms. You don't take the time to consider where you might be misunderstood. You don't make any effort to be interesting, and as a result—not in every case, but most often—you will come across as a long-winded, self-indulgent, self-obsessed bore.

I keep coming back to this when I think about content marketing. We all know bad marketing: it's like the salesman in a shop who comes over with a smirk on his face, eager to sell you something and not particularly interested in what you want. Bad marketing articulates the company's position and expects you to care. Bad marketing and bad writing have a lot in common.

Marketing needs to think more about audience, and this has never been more true than today. Everyone's talking about content marketing, and I can promise with 100% confidence that you can't create good content without a clear and constant focus on your audience: what they want, what they need but maybe don't want yet. What are their questions? What do they worry about? Who are they, and what do they aspire to be?

These are audience questions, and answering them involves a choice: we will focus on him, but not her. We will delight her, but not really bother with those guys over there—at least not this year. We will do everything in our power to make this specific sort of person's nostrils flare with enthusiasm the first time he sees our blog or finds us on Twitter or clicks over to our Facebook page, because this is who we have in our head when we think about the people who (eventually) will be equally delighted with our product.

Bad marketing might make a sale if it's delivered in the right place at the right time, but it won't reliably build a relationship. Good content marketing is all about that relationship. In effect, it says: "Don't worry about our product. That's not the point right now. For now, let's just talk." If you can say that with your content marketing—and really mean it—then you can build a relationship, and the sale will come from a foundation of trust.

Every day I see fresh articles on how to form your content marketing strategy, but it's pretty simple, really, and it boils down to a two-step process:

  1. Envision your audience.
  2. Publish content that answers their questions or solves problems in their lives.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mind Your P's

I recently heard that every business in the world boils down to three P's: people, process, and purpose.

(This is probably something that everyone learns in business school, but I was trained in the humanities. Bear with me.)

All three P's are important, it goes without saying. The third P, though, has wrinkled and ramifications that I've been thinking about lately. Namely, when we talk about a business' purpose, we need to distinguish between big-P Purpose and little-P purpose.

Purpose, capitalized, refers to the reason the business (or the team) exists. "Put a computer on every desk, running Microsoft software" was the Microsoft Purpose during its golden years. Every business has a Purpose, even if it's the most basic one: to make money. Everyone who works at a business is required on some level to contribute to that Purpose, and most all-hands meetings dedicate at least part of the time to infusing the workforce with a shared enthusiasm for that Purpose.

The reality on the ground, though, is that every single employee at a corporation has a purpose of his or her own: to make money, to have dental insurance, to build a career, to overcome challenges, to make customers happy, to impress their Mom. Everyone, without exception, has a purpose—though they may not be willing to admit what it is. Our purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning. Our purpose is what lends meaning to what we do; it's the narrative in our life story.

It would be simplistic, then, to imagine that a business has one Purpose, because the first P (people) comes into play as well. There are a variety of purposes floating around in the air inside every office building, and I suspect that a dysfunctional team is, at least in part, made so by the fact that team members have little-P purposes that don't align with one another. This part of the team wants to make changes that will delight the customer; that part of the team wants to minimize risk; this other part is focused on what they want to do next in their career. Discordant purposes within a team are like horses pulling in different directions.

This is a big part—and maybe the most important part—of a manager's job. She needs to know her reports well enough to understand what purposes drive them, and she needs to be sufficiently engaged with them to help them develop purposes that align both with the business' Purpose and with the purposes of the other members of the team. After all, a collection of individuals becomes a team when all the horses are pulling in the same direction. It's the manager's job to align these various purposes, because no one else can.

Of course, nothing can degrade a sense of Purpose quite so effectively as bad Process. More on that later.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Remember this

In our modern, data-driven world, one of your greatest challenges is memory. We're constantly besieged by information, some of which is interesting and could influence our personal and professional lives in powerful ways.

First, though, we need to remember it.

How do you hold on to the good ideas you encounter? How do you keep them in your mind long enough for them to move from short-term to long-term memory, where they might be accessible at the moment you need them? Businesses have been struggling with this issue for years, of course, and this struggle is at the heart of the knowledge management industry. Businesses are not the only entities that struggle with the issue, though.

A good idea that you encounter and consider for a moment before moving on to the next thing is like a leaf blowing through your patio. How do you capture and preserve the few that could transform your life?