Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for marketers

Getting inside your audience’s head (and your own)

[Image courtesy of Pawel Loj at Flickr Creative Commons]

My friend F, who’s almost completed a course in counselling, sent me a couple of her recent essays to read. A train journey to London was the perfect opportunity to get in touch with my inner self. 

One essay was on Freudian psychoanalysis, which has never really appealed to me. I think it’s too intent on raking over the past, and can keep you so focused on the problem, you can’t see a solution.

Also, there’s really only so much you can blame your parents for; somebody once told me that if anything goes wrong over the age of 25 it’s on you, not them. Ouch.

The second essay intrigued me, delving into the fascinating world of CBT. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to change the way you think about yourself, other people and the world in general. It’s the old idea that nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so. So it’s not the event in itself that’s negative, but your reaction to it – and when you react, you have a choice.

As a self-help addict (a paradox in itself, I think you’ll agree) I was hooked. So as my train sped towards King’s Cross, I went online and found a book on Amazon called Change Your Thinking with CBT.

It had rave reviews, including several that said it changed their entire way of thinking in just a couple of days. 

Praise indeed. But did the book – and the therapy – live up to the expectations?

I have to say that, much to my surprise, it did.

Mind matters

There’s nothing in there that we don’t all know already, but sometimes, the obvious isn’t obvious until it’s pointed out by somebody else. Almost every page had a light-bulb moment for me, and it helped me think differently about common frustrations and niggles. 

By simply reframing how you perceive the things that happen around you, you can defuse situations and take power away from negative thoughts. And not just in your personal life, but in business too.

It’s easy to forget when you’re pushing out a marketing campaign, or tweeting, or writing a post on LinkedIn that you’re one person talking to a another person. And that you both fall into some of the cognitive traps highlighted in my wonder book. 

So what are they? Here are some of my favourites, together with how they affect the way we interact with colleagues, prospects, clients and readers. And everybody else.

  • The tyranny of the shoulds. This is the belief that things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be a certain way. It falls into the category of absolutist thinking that has a mental picture of the world that’s rigid and inflexible. (Customers should behave in a certain way. My LinkedIn post should have had more likes. My sales promotions should always work. Clients should like every idea I come up with.)
  • Awfulising (or ‘catastrophic thinking’), when we take a minor incident and react in a disproportionate way – or even a major one that’s serious, but not the end of the world. (One mistake means they’ll never buy from me again. Missing the deadline is a disaster there’s no coming back from. The product recall will damage our reputation irreparably. The website relaunch was a fiasco from beginning to end.)
  • Black and white thinking means you look at everything in a polarised way. It’s either good or bad, with no middle ground. Apparently this is a particular trap for perfectionists – and we know who we are. In reality, things are always a bit more nuanced, so a quick mental shift will allow you to focus on the positive. (The draft white paper came back with quite a few amendments, so I obviously got it completely wrong.)
  • Overgeneralising. This happens when you take an isolated event – or a small number of similar ones – and turn it into a rule of thumb. If you find yourself saying ‘always’, ‘everybody’ or ‘never’, you’re probably overgeneralising. (They always miss deadlines. I never win pitches against that competitor. Every time I deal with them, they beat me down on price.)
  • Mind-reading. We’ve all done it, and even though we’re often proved wrong, we continue to step into the trap with our size 9s. The conclusions we jump to about people are almost invariably negative, and cause lots of stress and anxiety. It’s closely linked to another trap – personalising – which is based on the premise that the world revolves around us, and that other people’s actions are aimed directly at us. (They didn’t buy from us, so they obviously don’t rate us. He didn’t return my call, so he must be angry with me for some reason.)

The last one is my favourite: comparing. It’s one that we all do personally or professionally virtually every day. There’s always somebody slimmer, richer, funnier or faster than you. And there’s always a company that has nicer offices, a better website, cleverer adverts or a slicker tagline than yours.

And you know what they say: compare and despair.

CBT may not change your life in two days, but it may just change how you think about yourself and your audience – and how you interact with them.

At least I think so.

Unless I’m overgeneralising again.

The art of listening - and why it's not all about you

Going with the flow, letting it go and staying out of the weeds

I had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago.

We’d both forgotten it was Valentine’s Day, as it figures on neither of our radars. So we were were surrounded by couples gazing adoringly at each other, and our candlelit table was strewn with rose petals.

The waiter obviously thought we were together, and greeted us with a knowing smile. Amused by his mistake, we decided not to burst his bubble.

As we ate and chatted, I realised that ours was one of the few tables where there wasn’t an uninvited guest. For all around us, as far as the eye could see (and the restaurant was long, narrow and packed) were couples one or both of whose faces were illuminated by the glow of not just a candle, but a smartphone. 

Now my friend and I both have phones – in fact we’d arranged to meet via WhatsApp, as phone calls are so yesterday – but we never have them on the table when we meet up. Instead, they’re tucked away safely in our pockets, out of sight and out of mind.

And that makes a big difference, as we’re not distracted when we talk. We’re both present in the moment (three years on, I’m still on the mindfulness kick) and we have better conversations because of it.

But it’s not just that we have no distractions. He’s one of the few people I know who actually gets how a conversation works: the give and take, the listening and talking, the to and fro.

And that’s perhaps no surprise, given that he worked for years as a broadcast journalist, getting people to open up and tell their story.

Which leads me nicely to Celeste Headlee, whose talk on TED has already racked up almost 7 million views. 

You can see why. 10 ways to have a better conversation is amusing, waffle-free and highly practical.

The veteran radio host says you should forget everything you’ve been told about how to talk and listen (“It’s crap!” she says bluntly, to an amused audience). Instead, she gives her top tips based on decades of experience.

You’ll find out what Buddha said about having your mouth open, why it’s a bad idea to pontificate, and how conversations are like a mini-skirt. 

For anybody involved in communication, this talk is a must. Whether you’re in conversation with a client, a case-study interviewee, your marketing agency or a prospect – or even a friend over a table of rose petals – you can use these simple techniques to great effect.

At a fraction under 12 minutes, it’s a presentation that walks the talk, obeying the last of the 10 rules: be brief.

I hope you enjoy it.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

Why a simple story trumps a complicated one

Popular votes, hanging chads and Caesar salads

[Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Trump!” harrumphed my friend over her Caesar salad. She almost made it sound like a swear word, and waited for me to commiserate. 

I pointed out that whatever people thought, he was still democratically elected. So the more interesting question to ask was… but I never got the chance to finish my sentence. 

“He didn’t win the popular vote!” she hissed, brandishing her serrated knife menacingly.

The thing is, you don’t need to.

In fact, the first president elected without winning the popular vote was John Quincy Adams, way back in 1824. So the flaw in the electoral-college system – if indeed it is one – has been known about for over 200 years.

I was going to point out to my friend that if Americans had a problem with the loophole, they would have long since closed it. As recently as 2000, George W Bush was elected that way, amid the endless political soap-opera of the ‘hanging chads’, so it’s not as if we didn’t have a precedent in recent history.

But with her knife still hovering in mid-air, I thought it best to keep that thought to myself.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas Washington anymore

In the interests of full disclosure, I should just say that I’m not American, or a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. Or a supporter of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Or anybody else who fought for the nomination in the primaries.

I’m just somebody who’s fascinated by the fact that the most unpopular president in US history (and after just a month, that’s quite a record) actually got elected in the first place.

Viewed as a brand, he was borderline toxic late last year, especially after the off-the-record comments that surfaced just a month before the election.

Then again, nobody was surprised, as it was consistent with his track record. As the Huffington Post put it, They Never Cringed (though reading that article may cause you to, so exercise caution before clicking). 

So how did we get here? More to the point, how did he get there?

I don’t think there’s any great mystery about it. He just went back to first principles.

Politics meets marketing

He told a simple story: make America great again. It may be have been simplistic rather than simple, but it struck a chord.

If you’re one of the long-term unemployed in the Rust Belt, the idea of repatriating jobs is music to your ears. If you’re barely surviving on a low income (because all those illegal immigrants are pushing down wages) or living in a crime-ridden area (those immigrants again) then why would you not think the wall or mass deportations were a good idea? 

They always say that you should act fast, and use up any goodwill – such as it is, in this case – to get things done in the first 100 days. But the speed with which Donald Trump has acted has taken everybody by surprise.

But the measures shouldn’t: after all, he’s just doing what he said he would. The wall, the travel ban, the TPP withdrawal, targeting the Affordable Care Act, pulling funding from aid groups supporting abortion. You name it, he was upfront about it.

He also differentiated himself: he was a businessman who wasn’t part of the Beltway set or any political clan. He was the anti-politician who wanted to challenge the politicians.

He funded his campaign from his vast personal wealth, and so felt indebted to no one – least of all the Republican Party. And that independence gave him the ability to speak freely and tell it like it is (or at least, how he thought it was). 

It’s easy to level charges of sexism, racism and bigotry at him, but then what does that say about half the electorate (OK, a smidgen less than half) who voted for him? That they’re also guilty on all counts? Or that they were duped, and simply didn’t understand what they were voting for?

Here’s another possibility: maybe in a world where politicians hedge their bets and duck and dive, where they’re more spun than candy floss at a funfair, straight talking gets you noticed.

And even if people disagree with you, maybe they admire you for saying what you really think.

Though many marketers would recoil in horror if you said that there was a parallel between Donald Trump’s approach and theirs, I think it’s worth pointing out that he obeys some of the basic rules of the marketing game (or maybe Kellyanne Conway keeps him on track – and I wouldn’t want to mess with her): 

  • Tell a story
  • Be consistent.
  • Be different. 
  • Do what you say you’ll do. 
  • Don’t try to appeal to everybody.
  • Be authentic (even if, to some people, you’re saying unpalatable or unacceptable things).

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next four years. My knife-wielding friend scarcely knows how she’s going to make it through to 2020, and wonders if the nightmare will be prolonged with the call for ‘four more years’.

Personally, I think brand fatigue will have kicked in by then, and the GOP will have lined up a reserve candidate. And prepared an escape hatch for Donald and Melania.

But then what do I know? I got the 2015 UK election, Brexit and the US election wrong. One thing is for certain: I’m no Nate Silver. But then, that’s probably for the best.

Because I like surprises too much.

What ABBA can teach us about marketing

Money, money, money – that’s the name of the game

Abba marketing

A few weeks back, I got itchy feet and decided to take a last-minute break. For once I didn’t over-plan, or spend ages getting every last detail right (because sometimes – no, always – 80% is good enough).

So I spun the wheel of fortune and resolved to be guided by the cheapest flights available. 

But Poznan, Lodz and Warsaw didn’t really float my boat. Pisa’s nice in summer, but I wasn’t sure about winter. And then, it hit me – Stockholm. Surely that would be fun even in chilly January?

And it was, when I eventually got there from Stockholm Västerås airport, which, as you might expect, is actually in Västerås, not Stockholm.

100km later, the coach pulled into the Swedish capital. And from there, I negotiated Friday rush-hour (don’t try this at home) to take the tunnelbana, or metro, to my destination.

If you haven’t been to Stockholm, add it to your list.

Even with temperatures barely hovering above zero, it was a treat. From the Royal Palace to the cathedral, from the Modern Art Museum (following my recent Damascene conversion, a visit was in order) to the Vasa Museum (you’ll be amazed) I explored the city from every angle on my long weekend.

(If you do go, make sure you get a 72-hour travelcard, which also includes the ferry to Djurgården.)

Snap, crackle and pop

But forget high culture. For me, the cherry on the cake was decidedly lowbrow.

How could I visit Sweden and not go to the ABBA museum? I couldn’t. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that Stockholm beat Salzburg and Sofia when I made my choice.

From June to August, the woman at the ticket desk told me, you really need to book online to avoid the long, snaking queues. But on a cold Sunday in late January, you can just turn up and walk straight in. 

And my verdict? It was fun, fabulous and kitsch as a row of sequins. And boy, where there sequins. Together with satin, wedge heels and more flares than you could shake a stick at.

I didn’t jump on stage to experience being the ‘fifth band member’, next to amazingly lifelike holograms of the masters of the Eurovision. I was tempted to try my hand at karaoke, but then I heard an improbably tall French chap singing out of tune (with headphones on, so blissfully unaware) while his family looked on and laughed uncontrollably, and I thought better of it.

Forget the Louvre and the Uffizi, the Getty and the Prado. If you haven’t been the ABBA Museum, you’ve missed a trick.

Scandi style

So what is the secret of their enduring fame, more than 40 years after sweeping the boards at the The Dome in Brighton? (“What’s that she’s got on her face?” said my grandmother on that memorable evening. “It’s glitter, isn’t it? And will you look at those boots!”)

Here’s my guide to ABBA marketing 101: 

  • Stick to a simple, repeatable formula. ABBA didn’t fall for the dubious charms of the emerging punk-rock movement, with its in-your-face lyrics and discordant tones. Instead, they wrote catchy tunes that people could sing, dance and hum to. And then they did more of it. And more.
  • Customise your content. It wasn’t until I walked past the semi-circular, glassed-in display of ABBA’s singles and albums that I realised they’d recorded in so many languages. ¡Dame! ¡Dame! ¡Dame! (Amor Esta Noche) doesn’t ring any bells? That’s because you probably know it as know Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a man after midnight). Although their greatest hits were in English, they found a way into fans’ hearts by speaking – and singing – their language. 
  • Get out there and do your stuff. From the very beginning, the fab four hit the road and delighted fans. They were everywhere, culminating the famous 1979 tour of Europe and North America. In just six months, they performed 52 shows across 40 cities in 13 countries.
  • Tell stories that resonate. Pick pretty much any ABBA song and it’s about love, loss or longing. Sometimes the songs are happy (Dancing Queen), and sometimes sad (Fernando), but they all revolve around relationships. And that’s something we can all relate to.
  • Reuse content. Abba officially disbanded way back in 1982, but their presence still dominates. Mamma Mia! the stage musical opened in London in 1999 and has so far brought in over $2 billion worldwide. The film spinoff in 2008 was the highest-grossing musical ever, raking in an incredible $500 million. 35 years on, those catchy tunes are as popular as ever.
  • Don’t be afraid to jump on the bandwagon. ABBA hit the mother lode with their distinctive style, but they didn’t redefine music. They were very influenced by schlager music (albeit with a Scandinavian twist) which had been around since after the war. Their genius was taking that established style and making it all their own. 

And finally, realise that nothing lasts forever. When the Swedish popsters released The Singles: The First Ten Years back in 1982, the end was already nigh and they probably knew there wouldn’t be a second 10 years. And so did we (I’ve still got the album).

But that didn’t stop them going on to be one of the most successful groups of all time, to date selling close on 400 million albums and singles worldwide.

Back at the museum, I eavesdropped on some Germans chatting to a French couple. At first, I couldn’t believe my ears, so I moved closer. But I hadn’t misheard: they were talking in hushed tones about an ABBA reunion concert in 2018.

And it looks like it’s happening, apparently involving some clever virtual-reality technology. It’s still under wraps, but if it goes ahead, I’m there. No need to spin the wheel of fortune, and I don’t care what it costs. 

Gimme, gimme, gimme.

5 simple reasons to get back in touch with a client

Find the hook and make your move. It’s easier than you think…

[Image courtesy of Jasleen Kaur at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever thought of contacting and old friend you’ve lost touch with?

You feel a bit embarrassed that you haven’t spoken for such a long time. You wonder if they’ll think your approach inappropriate or unwelcome. Or maybe they won’t even remember who you are.

And when you finally do pluck up the courage and take the plunge, the result is never as bad as you feared. Of course they remember you. No, no, it’s their fault as much as yours. In fact, guess what? They’d been meaning to get in touch for a long time themselves, but wondered if you would remember them.

And suddenly, you’re the best of friends again. 

It’s funny how those old reflexes also kick in when we think about clients who’ve disappeared off the radar. If we get in touch, will they think we’re opportunists? Or worse, stalkers? And will it ruin any personal connection our company has with them if we rekindle the acquaintance just to pitch a new product or service?

As with friends, so with clients. So take a deep breath, then make the first move.

The result is often the same: they’re almost invariably pleased to hear from you, and wonder where you’ve been.

But you should still have a ‘hook’ – a reason to contact them. Just as you wouldn’t contact a long-lost friend simply to say hello and disappear again, so you shouldn’t contact a client without some idea of what you’re going to do next. 

So what’s the hook? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  1. Anniversary. Your company is 10 years old, and you’re throwing a big virtual party that they’re invited to – with bargains galore, a whole new membership scheme and a brand-new birthday range. Or maybe it’s five years since they placed their first order with you, or a year since you last heard from them. Any timeline will do. It’s just a starting point to get the conversation going again. 
  2. Special offer. Yes, this is a teensy bit opportunist, but it’s also a chance to show an inactive client how much you value them. You could even let them know ahead of time, so they don’t miss out. It’s a bit like being let in the side door of a department store an hour before the bargain hunters stream through the main door for the Boxing Day sales. Make them feel special and they’ll repay the favour. 
  3. Topical tie-in. Whether it’s Brexit or Trump, the Olympics or Wimbledon, there’s always something in the news that you can refer to. If you’re on Ryanair’s mailing list, you’ll know that there’s no item of news too insignificant to latch onto so they can sell more flights to Poznan or Pisa. They usually leaven the mix with a little humour (often dodgy) which is yet another way to fly under the radar. 
  4. Relaunch. Got a new website with snazzy new features? Talk about it. New service? Get the word out. New pricing? Ditto. Whatever you’re relaunching, repackaging or reworking, you’ve got the perfect excuse to get in touch. Just like your special offer, you could say that you wanted people to know about it early so they could take full advantage of it.
  5. How to... Everybody wants to get the inside track, or save time, or get ahead of the pack. So tell them something they don’t know. It could he how to grab a bargain, or get the most out of your product or services, or ‘10 things you didn’t know you could do with…’ – or anything that delivers value fast.

Once you start casting your mind around to think of reasons to get in touch, you’ll be surprised just how many there are. But make sure that you’re delivering knowledge or value, not just doing a sales pitch.

And like a Christmas or birthday card with a handwritten note, try to make it feel personal.

We live in an era of big data and super-advanced CRMs that slice and dice customer information, preferences and habits in just about any way you want. You can tailor not just salutations, but special offers, information and even anniversaries.

Just like your long-lost friend, your long-lost customer will be happy to hear from you. So go on: make that call, send that email, or fire off that text.

You’ll be glad you did. And so will they.