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Why we should all stop talking and start listening

[Image courtesy of Ky at Flickr Creative Commons]

“You’re a very good listener,” said somebody to me once at a networking event. 

Not really, I thought mischievously. I’m just too polite to interrupt.

And without so much as a pause to let me agree or disagree – or even bask in the warm glow of the compliment – he resumed his flow and continued uninterrupted for another 10 minutes.

Which, I suppose, proved his point.

But to be fair to him, it was pretty interesting. He was talking about the psychology of marketing, and how choice has always been held to be a good thing.

In practice, however, most people can’t cope with lots of choice. Widen it too much and you reach a tipping point where they feel confused. More often than not, they make a random decision, or even no decision at all.

Dancing the conversational two-step

The paradox of choice is a whole other story, and one I’ve talked about before.

What was really interesting for me in this particular instance was watching people interact at the networking event from a conversational standpoint. The talkers, the listeners, the half-and-halfers. Some people looking engaged, others on the verge of boredom. Animation and frustration.

Conventional wisdom says that in these situations, it’s best to be a listener, as it gets the other person to open up and creates rapport. The problem with that approach is that if everybody listens, nobody talks. The opposite applies as well, of course.

The most successful participants were those who listened actively (i.e. not just nodding and saying ‘uh huh’ every so often). They asked relevant questions or sought out more detail. They got into the flow, and danced the conversational two-step without treading on their partner’s toes.

And that’s a pretty rare accomplishment.

Too loud and not so clear

Getting out of transmit mode is difficult for all of us, either personally or professionally. There’s nothing we like to talk about as much as ourselves or our business.

And if you pick apart just about any marketing mishap, and you’ll see that it was the result of too much talking and not enough listening. Or inside-out thinking, if you prefer.

Ryanair’s recent mega-SNAFU is a good example. They had a problem (a backlog of pilot leave) which they solved by creating another (widespread flight cancellations, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers). Inside out par excellence. 

Insult and injury were piled on top of each other, and it seemed at one point as if they’d never pull out of their PR spiral dive.

Take a wider look around, the talking-but-not-listening problem is everywhere.

Tesco launched a new grocery website recently that baffled regular shoppers like me who’d become accustomed to the user-friendliness of the old one.

On the new site, seeing your favourites on one page is no longer an option, so you have endless fun randomly clicking on page numbers at the bottom of the paged list (but not at the top, in another UI oversight) to find organic green beans or Marmite. Instead of using your browser’s search function to locate it in seconds.

Apple launched iOS 11 to much fanfare, but its Airplay 2 doesn’t work with much of the hardware out there – including the ubiquitous Sonos speakers that all serious music lovers seem to have nowadays. How could they have committed such a serious oversight?

There’s discontent in the Sonosphere at the moment, and it looks like they won’t get much satisfaction until sometime in the new year. Just as well I’m a late adopter. 

The bottom line is that the talking-not-listening problem results in processes that are designed around companies, not customers.

Not the best move.

The sound of silence

I’m sure you’ve heard the old line about having two ears and one mouth, and using them in proportion. The trouble is, most of us don’t.

My friend at the networking event may have thought I was a great listener, but really it depends on the circumstances.

A couple of months ago, I forgot the ears/mouth rule on a briefing conference call and found myself waxing lyrical about a client’s needs at excessive length.

When I ran out of steam, there was a pregnant pause. At which point I realised my mistake and quickly bounced the ball back into their court with an open question. By talking less and listening more, I discovered what their needs really were.

And so did they.

Postcards from the marketing edge

Reconnecting with friends and family, prospects and clients

Connect with a stranger

It’s that time of year again when you get a festive card from Great Aunt Violet and all the other friends and relatives you’ve scarcely heard from since the last card.

Hope all is well with you, they say. Let’s catch up soon!

Sometimes you do, and sometimes you mean to – but before you know it, another 12 months has slipped by, and you send and receive cards with the same promise to get in touch. 

I’ve been thinking over the Christmas period about reconnecting with people who’ve disappeared off the radar, or become a faint glow when once they shone bright. It’s such a great opportunity to rekindle friendships and even acquaintances that it’s a shame to let it pass by.

And with the new year just around the corner, and resolutions about to be made (and no doubt broken) I’ve also been thinking about how Christmas cards might provide some ideas about how we can – and why we should – reconnect with clients.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: 

  • Find a hook. Christmas is the perfect excuse to contact people you’ve lost touch with, since you’re almost expected to send a card. At other times of year, it may be harder to find a reason, but you should, as it’ll provide a conversation starter. So maybe it’s a year since the last order, or you have a special offer that’s exactly right for your prospect or client, or it’s Easter or Valentine’s Day, or there’s a story in the news that ties in with your product or service. Find the hook and you’ll find a way in. 
  • Make the first move. If you’ve lost touch with a client, it’s easy to think they’ve gone elsewhere and don’t want to deal with you anymore. Much in the same way as you think a friend no longer likes you. But personally and professionally, it’s often the same story: you’re waiting for them to get in touch, and they’re waiting for you. So make the first move. What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make it personal. The Christmas cards I appreciated most this year were the ones with a few handwritten lines of news or content specific to me. The ones I appreciated least were probably the corporate printed ones with not even a squiggled signature. The ones with an enclosed mailshot newsletter (Here’s what I’ve been up to in 2016…) were somewhere in the middle. Personal is more effort, but it always pays off. 
  • Keep it simple. A couple of days after Christmas, I had a text message from a reflexologist I visited last year. The timing was perfect (new year, new you, and all that) and it couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes to compose. She hoped that 2017 would be another ‘beautiful adventure’. And so it will be, starting with a series of blissful foot massages which I’ve now set up. (And yes –  sometimes, simple beats personal.)
  • Do it because you want to. If you send out a Christmas card, it’s best not to expect to get one back – because sometimes you don’t. People are busy, or they’ve left it too late, or they think physical cards are so yesterday. But that shouldn’t stop you sending one, any more than you should hesitate before contacting clients past and present. Sometimes, you don’t hear back immediately – much like I didn’t last year until March from somebody I’d sent a card to. So do it because you want to. Plant the seed and let it grow. ‘Expect nothing and appreciate everything’, as a yoga teacher said to me, and karma will get you there in the end. 
  • Stand out from the crowd.  Each year, I get a card that’s handmade – beautifully crafted, elegantly written, and usually folded slightly skew. That gets pride of place on the mantelpiece, together with odd-shaped, oversized and undersized cards. Early cards get pole position, and even late cards linger longer, as I can’t bring myself to throw them out as soon as I’ve put them up. The message is simple: do something different and get yourself noticed. Whether it’s card or a marketing email, a new year SMS or a newsletter, make it stand out.

Connecting means putting people first, and seeing the trees, not the wood. Meeting them on their own ground, and making them feel like you’re sincere. And sometimes, all it takes is a couple of words to break the ice and start a conversation. 

Which is exactly what I did with the Romanian waitress who served me turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day.

Crăciun Fericit (pronounced cra-choon ferri-chit) is my phrase of the week, and may well make it into my card next year when I reconnect with Great Aunt Violet. ‘Merry Christmas’ in Romanian could just earn me pride of place on her mantelpiece.

Happy New Year. 

8 tips for finding your brand voice

It’s in there somewhere – you just have to coax it out. Here’s how. 

[Image courtesy of Howard Lake at Flickr Creative Commons]

‘Tis almost the season to be jolly, and you’re probably up to your eyeballs in wrapping paper and ribbons, so I’ll get straight to the point.

What if Santa Claus brought you something this year that could transform how others see you? Something that could make you feel different about yourself – more confident, self-assured and natural?

And no, I’m not talking about yet another diamond golf sweater or distinctive bottle of scent. I’m thinking something more intangible, but which affects each and every interaction we have with others. And especially with clients. 

It’s your brand tone of voice – or if you’re a one-man band like me, then your tone of voice.

It may be something you’ve never given much thought to, because it’s evolved naturally and seems like second nature.  Maybe you don’t think you don’t have a tone of voice – but that’s a bit like thinking you don’t have an accent.

Everybody has one, whether they know it or not. 

Voice recognition made easy

So what’s yours? And is it doing a good job of communicating with your target audience? If it’s not, how do you fix it?

Here are my top tips for moving a step closer to the perfect voice: 

  1. You must feel comfortable with it. Whatever voice you choose, it should be one that feels natural for you or your company. If you’re trying too hard, or adopting language that’s outside your comfort zone, it’ll show – like a middle-aged parent using the latest slang with their kids’ friends.
  2. Listen to your audience. How do your customers and prospects speak? Remember the last time you met one in person or spoke to them on the phone. Or the last email you had from them. One of the cornerstones of NLP is something called ‘mirroring’ to create a rapport with your audience. You can use the same technique to make sure your voice matches your target market. 
  3. Who are you/your company? And yes, before you ask, this is the infamous ‘If your company was a person, who would it be?’ Clichéd it may be, but it’s an invaluable question to ask in finding your voice. Amazon is friendly and efficient, Ryanair is cheeky and irreverent, PlusNet is solid and reliable.
  4. What do you sound like now? Gather a representative sample of your marketing materials and take a long, hard look. You don’t have to be brutal – just be honest with yourself. If it’s too difficult to be objective (and very often it is) then get somebody else to give them the once over. Knowing where you are now gives you a starting point – so you can get where you want to be.
  5.  How does the competition sound? Though we all want to be different and distinctive, we still have to operate within certain parameters. And part of that is simply convention. How would you expect a bank to talk? Or a car-sharing site, a tech startup, or an investment fund manager? Readers have certain expectations, so you can’t buck the trend too much. But you can be distinctive without being too different. It’s just a question of degree.
  6. Are you B2B or B2C? There’s no doubt about it: talking to businesses is not the same as talking to individuals. So it’s less of the personal and more of the professional; more about capabilities and less about personalities. But do remember that even if you’re a business talking to a business, it’s still one person talking to another. So don’t swing too much the other way and lapse into corporate business-speak. 
  7. Think about follow-through. If you’re the brand supremo within your organisation, can you get your colleagues to fall into line? Deciding on a brand voice is all very well, but implementing it can be harder than you think. And if you’re thinking about a style guide or a long brand document, think again. In our attention-challenged times, short beats long. So think two-minute videos, interactive guides and at-a-glance cheat sheets. Water-cooler not workshops.
  8. Make sure it works everywhere. What’s right for your website may be wrong for social media, and what works in a blog post may not in a customer email. To create a wraparound brand experience, choose a voice that works in all channels. This is one area where one size should fit all (unlike those diamond golf sweaters). 

Remember that whatever brand voice you choose, it’s always a work in progress.

Buzzwords fade and slang falls out of favour. Memes spread like wildfire, then disappear without a trace. Companies change direction and focus on new clients and sectors, products and services. Competitors come and go, shaking up the market in their wake.

And brand invisibility is an ever-present threat, so you may want to reinvent your voice to make sure it gets heard – so mix it up from time to time.

Much like you do with the scent and the sweaters each year. Now back to wrapping.

Merry Christmas. 

10 lessons that marketers can learn from Brexit

Managing the message, making assumptions and telling a story

What a rollercoaster week it’s been. For the second time in as many years, the pollsters have been proved wrong, and we’re now headed into uncharted territory.

It’ll take months or years for the full enormity of the Brexit referendum decision to sink in. But in the meantime, it’s instructive to look back at the campaigns for Leave and Remain and try to understand what lessons we can learn from them.

So what has the biggest political shock in decades taught us? Here’s what I’ve been thinking: 

  1. You don’t always get the result what you want. But when it happens, you have to be realistic, and whether it’s a marketing campaign or a political one, it’s best to accept that you are where you are and deal with it. 
  2. Be careful what you say, because it might just come back to haunt you. Already there’s been some backtracking on the £350m that was supposed to go to the NHS, and Nigel Farage probably regrets saying that a 52-48 Remain/Leave wouldn’t really be a victory. Immigration figures might not fall, says Daniel Hannan, despite claims to the contrary. Whether it’s political promises or marketing promises, it’s best to keep them realistic.
  3. It’s very dangerous to make assumptions, whether you’re talking about a prospect or a voter. Just as dissatisfied customers don’t generally tell you why they’re unhappy, so disillusioned voters don’t always put posters in the window or answer truthfully when the pollsters call to ask where they’ll put their X.
  4. The message is everything, and you need to keep it simple and understandable, because that’s when it’s most effective. Your marketing can’t just hit people with every last detail, and expect them to sort out what’s important from what’s not. Because at the end of the day, just like a referendum, they’re faced with a stark choice: buy/don’t buy.
  5. Don’t demonize the opposition, whether that’s a political movement or commercial competitor. It can make you look defensive or even aggressive, and negativity never plays well. What’s more, you may need to work with them down the line – in a political arrangement or a commercial venture – so it’s best to maintain a level head. 
  6. Emotions are powerful, whether it’s love or hate, pride or shame. We’re safer, stronger and better in the EU, said the Remain campaign. Let’s be open, welcoming and connected. The Leave campaign urged people to feel pride in being truly British again. To take back control, and move towards a brighter, freer, more independent future. These emotional benefits are far more immediate and appealing than the dull features of tax harmonisation, directives and trade deals. 
  7. You get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re asking the right ones. If you prompt people with predefined answers, you force them to think the way you do, with your priorities and agenda. Whether it’s customer satisfaction or political issues, it’s always best to do a little less talking and a little more listening. 
  8. You can’t appeal to everybody (but you can learn from them). However good the message, it will fail to appeal to some people – either because it’s irrelevant or too complicated. The truly surprising thing isn’t that 72% of people turned out to vote – more than double the 2014 European elections figure of 35%. It’s that 28% of people didn’t bother. And they’re the ones we really need to talk to, just like customers who didn’t buy from you. Because only then will you understand where you went wrong. 
  9. Decisions are hard, often with too many unrelated elements to weigh up. Financial meltdown vs. undemocratic rule by a distant bureaucracy? Freedom to holiday anywhere vs. creeping benefit fraud? Crowded doctors’ surgeries vs. tariff-free Italian chardonnay? Apples or oranges? In the end, voters and customers often make a snap decision. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve spoken to who were 50/50 until June 23, but were then forced to vote one way or the other. Or didn’t vote at all, as a 24-year-old told me, confessing it was all too complicated. 
  10. Storytelling is highly effective, whether it’s about Jacek the Polish web designer at Silicon Roundabout in London, or your client Katie whose life was transformed when she signed up to your service. Suddenly, dry facts and features fall away, and your story comes alive as readers see the real people behind the words. They connect with another person, and their view is transformed. Which makes it easier to pick up that pencil and make your mark, or pick up that telephone and place your order. 

Somehow, I think that Brexit is going to provide a rich vein of material for marketers across the globe for several years to come.

And in case you’re wondering if that’s my ballot paper in the photo, the answer is yes. But wasn’t photography banned in polling stations? I hear you ask.

Indeed it was. I’m expecting the European arrest warrant any day now. Or maybe not – stay tuned.

Hooking your readers using the secrets of app developers

Sticky content, cash cows and online prayers

[Image courtesy of Derek Gavey at Flickr Creative Commons]

The Holy Grail of copy is to create something so compelling that users come back again and again for more.

The idea of ‘sticky content’ has been around for at least 10-15 years, but nobody’s quite cracked it yet. People tire of blogs, and sign off from newsletters, and even reach saturation point when it comes to 140 characters. 

So maybe there isn’t an easy answer, and the solution is to keep creating content and keep showing up (which as Woody Allen once famously said, is 80% of success). 

Or maybe there’s another way.

I wondered about this recently as I read an intriguing book by Nir Eyal. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products was released in 2014, and quickly shot to the top of the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.

Unsurprisingly, Eyal, who’s an Israeli-American based in Silicon Valley, was instantly in demand by high-tech startups and established players alike. They were keen to tap into his insight and create the killer app that hooks people and doesn’t let them go.

If you’ve every wondered why you go back to Facebook again and again, or why Twitter is like a magnet or Pinterest so compelling, this book is one you have to read. In clear, precise prose, Eyal dissects what it is that makes these programs irresistible. 

And he should know.

Hook, line and sinker

Eyal was one of a group of Stanford MBAs back in 2008 whose startup was looking at ways of inserting adverts into the booming world of online social games. (This was back in the era of Farmville, when people were spending a fortune buying virtual cows on digital farms.)

He identifies four key elements of any product that truly hooks users:

  • Triggers, which cue the user to take action. They’re both external (telling the user what to do by putting information in front of them) and internal (using the user’s associations to get them to act spontaneously). 
  • Actions, where users do something in anticipation of a reward. 
  • Variable rewards, with the emphasis here on the word ‘variable’. If we know exactly what we’re going to get every time, it’s less appealing.
  • Investment, when users reciprocate following a reward, and spend either time or money on the product – which increases the value they place on it.

The book contains some fascinating insights, from Viral Cycle Time (how long it takes one user to invite another – think Facebook again) to why it’s a good idea for Amazon to include links to competitors (improves customer confidence). There’s also a thought-provoking section on whether you’re producing a vitamin (optional, of dubious value) or a painkiller (targeted, essential, effective). 

But for me, the standout quote comes in the Trigger section, and it’s from Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter: 

“If you want to build a product that is relevant to folks, you need to put yourself in their shoes and you need to write a story from their side. So, we spend a lot of time writing what’s called user narratives.”

You said it, Jack.

The greater good

Eyal is at pains to stress that the insights of the book should be used responsibly and he cautions against the dangers of addiction.

Chapter Six (What are you Going to Do With This?) even has a ‘Manipulation Matrix’ – based on whether a product materially improves a user’s life and whether the inventor uses it. It’ll allow you to instantly see if you’re a Entertainer, Facilitator, Peddler or Dealer. Which is useful to know. 

As if to emphasise his point that this should be used for the greater good, he includes a case study of a Bible app that’s gone viral. It’s had over a 100 million downloads, and is opened on average by 60,000 people every second. Eyal examines just how it reached such dizzying heights in a crowded field.

Now I’m no app creator, but I am a content creator. And I think that most of the book is highly relevant if you’re in the business of marketing, communicating or connecting with a reader, prospect or customer. And let’s face it – we all are. 

Just in case you’re thinking you don’t have time to read it, think again. Because after you do, just like me you may be spending a lot less time on Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram – now that you know exactly where the hooks are.

And how they work.