Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Time is On Your Side

Collection of vintage rusty watches and parts on a brown old rusted background

In the 1950s, Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, first urged advertisers and designers to embrace the idea of planned obsolescence by “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

And while critics may complain about product quality, the perpetually discontented consumer has enthusiastically supported the practice, racking up debt and producing waste at an alarming rate. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is alive and well.

Fast forward 60+ years, and it should come as no surprise that the desire for newer, faster, and better extends beyond the products we buy to our every waking moment.

One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. Time is always slipping away – you will never get back the 40 seconds it took to read this far – and the competition for our attention has never been more fierce.

Built to last?

Gerry McGovern, an advocate for designing simpler digital experiences, started a discussion on Twitter by observing:

In all the web design meetings I’ve been in over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say: “How do we design this to last.” It’s just assumed there will be a redesign every 2-3 years. Why? Why is that assumed?

I can confirm that there is very little I have been asked to design that doesn’t have a relatively short expected lifespan, whether it be in print or online.

But the need to constantly feed social media channels has created a relatively new commodity – digital content – that frantically attempts to captivate short attention spans. McGovern again:

If there’s one thing digital has done, it is to explode the creation and production of digital stuff. It requires herculean efforts to focus on quality in a digital environment because digital tools are so relentlessly focused on quantity. Digital feeds and accelerates a culture of waste.

Rewiring – or overwhelming – our brains

Most people would acknowledge that the constant barrage of messages and stimulation has shortened attention spans, decreased patience, and undermined our ability to focus.

Some scientists believe human brains will adapt. But true multitasking – at least with the brains we’ve got – is a myth. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else. If you think you are multitasking, you are actually just switching rapidly between tasks. The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at the same time.

OK – so marketing may not require high-level brain function – but the point is that there are those who see consumers’ very limited attention as something both valuable and disposable. You didn’t respond to this image? How about this one? Or this one?

Keep it coming until something sticks.

Quantity over quality

In a digital environment that is almost entirely focused on quantity, many experts will insist that “if you want to do it right” you must join the arms race to capture your audience’s attention. More! More! More!

If you have the staff resources to play that game, by all means, be my guest. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. For most mission-driven organizations, with staff stretched thin, this game is going to feel more like a hamster running on a wheel – a lot of exercise without getting anywhere.

Howard Rheingold, an influential writer and thinker on social media, points out that more mindful use of digital media means thinking about what we are doing, “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

And that applies both to consumption – and creation – of digital design.

The long game

Taking a more mindful, zen-like approach to your marketing and design is not a call to surrender, but to re-evaluate the day-to-day tactics you are engaged in now. Is that itch to “do something” a response to your audience and what they need or want from you? Or is that your own short attention span calling?

There is no quick fix. Setting aside the flashy launch, branding is all about building equity over time. It requires the discipline to exceed expectations – again and again. That’s how you shape perceptions, build trust, and increase engagement.

Let the calm confidence of doing less, but more meaningful, work wash over you, grasshopper. You will capture more attention, and create more value, by altering your time frame – and produce less disposable design in the process.

Demolition Day

Photo of a wrecking ball crashing through a brick wall

About ten years ago, we remodeled the kitchen in our home. The upgrade created a better floor plan, more storage, more natural light, and another space to eat or do homework. In order to keep costs under control, we agreed to take on some of the work ourselves.

The first order of business was to demolish the old kitchen. Cue the sledgehammers! It was kind of fun for a day or two, but I wouldn’t want to do demo work all the time. We were most definitely the “unskilled labor” in that equation.

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

Sometimes we need to let go of the past to move forward. Sometimes maintaining the status quo is an untenable position. And sometimes we are dragged kicking and screaming against our will to a new reality.

Because demolition is a necessary but blunt instrument, transitions can be painful as they push us beyond our comfort zones. Uncertainty replaces the familiar. One thing I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years is that we are always in a state of transition. It’s just that sometimes we are more acutely aware of the sands shifting around us.

Ready. Fire. Aim.

There is a certain swashbuckling ethos that defines the titans of Silicon Valley, neatly summarized in Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to his Facebook developers: “Move fast and break things.”

This guiding principle – the need to experiment and make mistakes as the fastest way to learn and move forward – is widely accepted as a creative necessity.

But it can also blind companies (and individuals) to the unintended consequences of their destruction if no one is asking: “Is what we are creating good for customers? Is it good for society? Or is it only good for us?”

Who owns your personal data?

Over the past few weeks, Facebook has been very publicly at odds with Apple over its new privacy tool, which lets you choose which apps can see and share your data.

Facebook contends that Apple’s new policy will change the internet for the worse, reducing the availability of “high-quality free content.” If adopted widely, it also dramatically alters Facebook’s ability to make money off its users’ data.

As most savvy consumers should know by now – if the product is free, then you are the product. And most people seem to be fine with that … most of the time.

In a recent speech marking International Data Privacy Day, Apple CEO Tim Cook said:

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it, and we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”

“If a business is built on misleading users on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

While large companies debate business models, the rest of us are left with a broken system.

An opportunity to fix things

As the global pandemic unfolds in America, it has revealed a number of dysfunctional systems in stark relief. From emergency preparedness, to health care access, fragmented and biased media, to racial inequality – we are a long way from a more equitable and perfect union.

We can no longer pretend that the “move fast and break things” model comes without a cost.

While it’s easier to tear things down than to build them up, this moment represents an opportunity to regroup and start building a better future.

Imagining a post-pandemic world

So what does all this have to do with design and marketing for mission-driven organizations? I can see at least three potential ways that this could (or should) affect your point of view and plans going forward:

  • What will digital marketing look like in a few years? If a majority of people choose to control their personal data, then the ability to target and reach customers online becomes much more difficult – and more expensive. How might you earn your customers’ trust – and permission to engage them – in a way that’s mutually beneficial?
  • The practice of human-centered design should continue to grow. Human-centered design is a creative approach to solving complex problems. It involves investigation, conversations, prototypes, and an iterative process to develop empathy with the people you are designing for – to create better long-term solutions.
  • Related to the previous point, but deserving its own focus, we need to include and work with more people who don’t look like us, people who come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Whether it’s been intentional or not, subtle or overt, too many people have been excluded from creating a more just and equitable world.

It’s unlikely that the pace of change will slow. Things are going to get broken. You can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs, as they say. But what can change is our willingness and diligence to consider the consequences – to acknowledge and mitigate the destruction as we create new systems that serve all of us.

How Twitter is Like Golf

 

golf swing - fore!In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.

But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:

  • Twitter and golf both support a flourishing industry of experts who will gladly take your money in exchange for promises to improve your game.
  • Both are governed by widely accepted rules of etiquette.
  • Fewer shots (and characters) is considered better than more.
  • Golf is the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America. Twitter is considered, by some, vitally important to an organization’s marketing success.

There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.

You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.

As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.

So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?

Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.

On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.

The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.

Aimless practice
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.

Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.

Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.

Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.

One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.

Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.

In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?

Fore!
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.

People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.

Related content:
Survey of Worldwide Twitter Use
Defining Twitter Goals

Getting Engaged

Love is in the air. Or, maybe it’s pollen. I’ve been sneezing so much lately it’s difficult to see straight. But, like the nagging of an impatient mother, it’s difficult to ignore the persistent prodding: When are you going to get engaged?

Helpful advice on wooing that certain special someone is cheerfully, though not cheaply, offered by marketing and social media consultants everywhere. There are thousands of customers waiting to hear from you! Participate in meaningful conversations! Build an emotional connection! Be still my lonely heart.

A meaningful relationship
Do you know anyone who is eagerly pursuing a relationship with a brand? They may interact with, be loyal to, and be supportive of their favorites, but you’re largely dealing with an audience of confirmed bachelors and bachelorettes. People are not interested in committing to organizations or brands, they’re playing the field.

“Engagement marketing” is not an oxymoron on the order of an “open secret” or “exact estimate,” but more of a euphemism turned sideways. In an effort to make something unpleasant seem less so, we often use a velvet glove to soften the blow. You’re not getting fired, you’re being downsized. I’m not calling you a liar, I’m just questioning the credibility of your assertions. In marketing it seems we’re using pleasant concepts – engagement, dialogue, community – as cover for the more difficult things organizations need to address.

Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty – there’s nothing wrong with a concerted effort to be more engaging. In fact, it’s imperative in an age where the consumer undeniably has the upper hand. But, in implying that there’s a causal relationship between marketing (at least in the usual sense) and a customer’s desire to get engaged, consultants over-promise and under-deliver.

Making a promise
Much of what is encouraged in the social media sphere – listening, being responsive, participating in two-way communication – is less marketing and more customer service. Essentially, it’s acting like a good human being, treating others as you’d like to be treated.

In the book In Search of Excellence, a self-deprecating executive explains, “I’m not smart enough to know which things are most important, so I just treat everything as if it’s the most important thing.” The lesson is that excellence, by its very nature, is all-inclusive. An excellent organization must provide great products and service – an excellent experience throughout the enterprise. Always.

Building trust is easy. Just start by telling the truth, and then do as you promised. – Eric Karjaluoto

It’s the pervasive and permanent effort across an organization that can be underestimated by marketing folks and the people who hire them. You want your customers to love you? As Beyonce sings: If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. Live up to your promise – engagement doesn’t happen in 140 characters.

What are you willing to do?
You can declare empathy for a social cause, or volunteer your time to help solve it. You can tell someone you’re funny, or actually make them laugh. Profess deep compassion for the environment, or make purchases that demonstrate your values. Actions speak louder than words.

The activities that drive personal connection with an organization are operational in nature – they have little to do with marketing. As someone who makes his living as a design and marketing consultant, I won’t tell you that marketing is unimportant. It’s not easy to do well. And it’s especially challenging when an organization can’t deliver on its promise. Before you start thinking about the next campaign, first consider how you can design a better experience for your customers.

Engagement cannot be broadcast or found on any media channel. It’s personally delivered every day, one at a time – like a love note.

Related content:

Speak Human by Eric Karjaluoto
It’s Not About Engagement

Favorite Links: July 2011

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Ten Things You Need to Know to Raise Capital for Your Nonprofit
Fast Company

The Case Against Designing Mobile Apps
Imprint

Why Bosses Need to Show Their Soft Side
Daniel Pink, The Telegraph

Social Media Agnostic

My faith is being tested. As someone who believes in the value of solid marketing strategy and good design, I find myself skeptical about the relatively new kid on the block – social media.

While I believe it merits a place at the marketing altar, when the prophecies of the true believers grow insistent and I’m asked to enthusiastically embrace that which I cannot see (or measure), I begin to wonder if I’m being sold snake oil rather than salvation.

Faith-based marketing
Most non-profit organizations I’ve worked with are mildly to severely short on staff and budget to tackle their day-to-day marketing. But the conversation with social media mavens often sounds something like this:

Non-profit: “Our social media efforts seem to be falling flat. What’s wrong?”
Maven: “For success, you need to commit more time to social media.”
Non-profit: “I don’t have more time.”
Maven: “Then you need more sophisticated analytics to track your efforts.”
Non-profit: “Where’s the return on that investment?”
Maven: “Oh, you can’t really measure success like that. It’s all about engagement.”
Non-profit: “What’s that?”
Maven: “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Non-profit: “What if I don’t see it?”
Maven: “Then you’re not spending enough time and money on it.”

Setting expectations
Compare the commitment for social media success to other time-intensive activities like gardening. Similar to social media, gardening takes planning, strategy (picking the right plants for your available plot of land and conditions), monitoring, feeding and weeding. Even then, factors beyond your control – like a hailstorm – can sabotage your efforts.

You may enjoy gardening and find value in its tangible and intangible benefits, but it’s wise to set realistic expectations. If you just want to grow a couple potted tomato plants, chances are you’ll have enough time to maintain your commitment and enjoy the fruits of your labor. If your goal is to feed the whole neighborhood, you may need some help, not to mention more land and a tractor.

Same old story
What seems to get lost in the hype is that social media is just like all other marketing efforts – success requires planning, meaningful goals and solid strategy. Without it, the only measurable growth will be in the number of marketers who’ve lost their faith.

Related content:
Looking past friend-counting
Social Media’s Massive Failure

Day Traders

Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

At the turn of the century, as technology granted ambitious individuals opportunity to compete with institutional investors, we witnessed the growth of day trading in the stock market. Day traders obsessively buy and sell positions, attempting to profit from market volatility. Unfortunately, around 80% of all day traders lose money.

Flash forward to 2010, a year in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recognized as TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In his commentary on the social network’s influence, Facebook Puts All Brands on Notice, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring writes:

The power of Facebook is the relationships it fosters and how that gives individuals and brands influence over their fans and friends. Variously called social capital or influence, this ability to exercise influence means that brands become day traders in social emotion and continually manage their reputations.

Facebook’s unmatched ability to instantly connect millions of people has changed the way we do business – of that there is no question. Where I take issue with Mr. Mainwaring is in his assessment of what that means for marketers. Do we really want or need to influence our customer’s “social emotions” on a daily basis?

Affirming this as a goal seems a bit self-serving for the social marketer, as it gives license to remain ever busy providing up-to-the-minute (or second) brand management. There’s another emotion at play here as well – fear. What if I’m not doing enough? What if my competition is tweeting while I’m sleeping? How come no one “liked” our latest Facebook post? To me, this behavior seems unhealthy.

The question should really be: Do our customers want to have “relationships” with us? Based on consumer trends toward self-service, evidence seems to be mounting that customers aren’t seeking a dialogue. Here’s a sobering thought: Is it possible your customers are “just not that in to you?”

Being responsive to your customers is always good business, whether face-to-face or online. Investing in social media will keep you plenty busy, but removing daily obstacles to self-service may do more for your customer relationships than all the tweets in China.

Related Content:
Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You
Ads in the Age of Hysteria

Don’t Wait for Perfection

The web is an amazingly flexible medium that can be updated at a second’s notice, yet many people seem to forget this when launching a site. A website needs to be functional and well designed when it is unveiled, but waiting for perfection is a trap that can delay a launch indefinitely. Here is how to avoid that trap.

Set realistic goals
Websites often get delayed because the scope of the site is too big to execute given the manpower. Don’t plan for content that no one has time to write or interactive features no one has time to build. Distinguish between functionality and features that are necessary and those that are simply nice to have.

For example, many organizations struggle with how to integrate social media into their website. While social media is an attractive feature, it adds little value if no one has the time to sustain it. Instead of setting up blogs, a YouTube channel, and an account on every networking site, determine how many channels you realistically have the time and passion to maintain. One well-maintained social media channel will be more effective than half a dozen that are not.

Not all problems can be avoided
Sites can be delayed by endless hypothetical questions. A common one I hear is: What if members of my audience are using a dial-up connection or an outdated browser? Yes, it’s possible that someone will want to access your site on Netscape, but frankly the number of people fitting this profile is statistically insignificant.

Be as thorough as possible when planning for the ways different people will be accessing your site. Make sure it is easily accessible from multiple browsers, screen readers for the visually impaired, and for smart phone users. However, it is impossible to prepare for every scenario. Inevitably, some people will encounter a few bugs.

Encourage people to report problems by including a link to your webmaster in the footer of your site. If enough people have the same problem, they will identify where the site needs improvements. Don’t waste time worrying about hypothetical scenarios. Wait and troubleshoot the real ones.

Embrace the web’s flexible nature
You may think your site won’t be perfect until that interactive slideshow is finished, or until you have time to write a great blog. Get over it. Don’t delay releasing new content or a more user-friendly interface just because a few bells and whistles aren’t ready. In fact, adding features at a later date can be to your advantage. New features draw the attention of search engines and give users a reason to return to your site after the redesign.

A good website is always evolving. Regularly adding new features and content should be the goal, not a reason to delay launching. If your organization’s website is perfect when you launch it, you’ve waited too long.

– Claire Napier

Favorite Links: October 2010

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

If It Won’t Fit On A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
The 99 Percent

What Does a Campus CEO Need to Know about Social Media?
CASE Social Media

The Future of Publishing
Dorling Kindersley (UK)