Give something away that's free - but not worthless

Getting the balance right between value and cost isn’t always easy

[Image courtesy of Ryan at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you discovered Udemy yet? If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that back in January, I decided to splash out on lots of online courses to skill myself up.

My super-memory isn’t quite there yet, partly because I’ve forgotten to put the techniques into practice as often as I should have done. But my coding skills are coming along nicely.

Yes, that’s right. Like just about everybody nowadays, I’ve been bitten by the coding bug.

Well if truth be told, I was bitten by it long ago, but haven’t seriously pursued it. I know my way around HTML and CSS, and have picked up enough survival PHP to hack WordPress. But serious coding has always been at the back of my mind as a project I should pursue one day. 

Now that day has come, and Udemy was my first port of call.

There are all sorts of courses on every imaginable subject, and I snapped up a whole host of them at the bargain-basement price of $10. One was a heavy-duty Bootstrap and WordPress course, which assumed a certain knowledge of PHP. So before tackling that, I thought I’d make sure my PHP skills were up to snuff.

And as chance would have it, there was a free PHP course by the same instructor.

Now in this day and age, free anything usually comes with an asterisk: either a real one (endless terms and conditions apply) or an implied one (free means worthless). So I was a little circumspect about the quality of the course. But since it was free, what was there to lose? 

Well apart from my time, nothing much. So I took the plunge.

I’m happy to say, the course was excellent. Paced fast enough to be interesting, but not so fast it lost you at every turn. It was practical, focused and easy to follow.

The instructor, a genial Canadian called Brad, kept it lively and entertaining. And at the end, I felt I had a thorough grounding in PHP – enough to tackle his Bootstrap and WordPress course.

For once, free didn’t mean cheap – or worthless. He’d obviously spent a huge amount of time and effort developing, writing and filming the course (in case you didn’t know, Udemy courses have hours and hours of video).

So it was a major undertaking on his part, and the end result was something of undeniable value. 

Brad is my new best friend. And I’ve been singing his praises to all and sundry. People only have to mention the word coding to me, and I’m unstoppable. And I’m sure the army of students he has around the world have been spreading the word far and wide too.

And all because we got something of value at no cost to us. 

Give and you shall receive

The key word here is value. Nothing irritates a reader, a student or a prospect faster than having the promise of a freebie turn into a bait-and-switch operation.

You give all your contact details, and find that the free e-book is just a collection of recycled factoids. You sign up for a free trial, only to discover that you don’t have access to all the features. Or you take a free course, and realise too late that you’ve wasted your time on low-level knowledge combined with a sales pitch for its expensive counterparts.

If you are going to give away something for free, try applying these simple guidelines and it’ll be a better experience for you and your prospect: 

  • Do it without any ulterior motive. Impart knowledge because you enjoy doing it.
  • Don’t worry about them not signing up, or buying the paid version, or becoming a high-grossing client.  Focus on what you hope will happen, not the downside of nothing happening. 
  • Put as much effort into it as you would into something you’d charge good money for. And if that’s too much of a leap, then take something you sell and give it away for free for a limited period. 
  • Don’t forget the knock-on cost of a freebie that doesn’t live up to the promise: you’ve disappointed a prospect (or worse, an existing client) and caused reputational damage. 

So what’s free and worth it?  

You could offer a how-to guide that’s practical and achievable (How to simplify your document management in just 2 hours).  Or a thought piece that talks about the issues your prospects face (Why technology is transforming small businesses, and how you can ride the wave).  Or a quick-reference guide that they can print out and consult (10 copy tips for busy people). 

Or a targeted course that’s waffle-free (Business writing bootcamp for marketing professionals) and skills people up for their job.

Name your own priceless

The common denominator for all of these ideas is value. But it’s more than just what people would have paid for the course. It’s showing them that you’ve put thought, effort and time into the freebie. And that their time and effort won’t be wasted if they download the book or take the course. 

So it should be valuable, real and useful. And one last thing: shareable.

Because if it’s one thing people like more than finding a freebie, it’s telling somebody else about it. Why? Because they get the gain (here’s something for free) without the pain (somebody else did it). 

Much as I’ve done with my Canadian chum. 

So what are you waiting for? Get creating, give it away, and wait for karma to do its thing.

Want to connect with your reader? Here's how...

Bicycles, hot-water taps and changing your point of view

[Image courtesy of Mark Nicolson at Flickr Creative Commons]

Close your eyes and remember the last time you had a difference of opinion with somebody. Or a full-blown argument, for that matter.

Were you convinced you were right? Probably. And was the other person similarly convinced that they’d seen the light but you were stubbornly hanging onto an indefensible position?

Again, probably. And all of this hinges on one thing – as does almost all marketing.

Point of view.

I quietly cursed a cyclist the other day for threading through cars and cutting in front of me – even though I was stationary. And then, I began to laugh. For I remembered that when I’m on two wheels, it’s exactly what I do, blissfully unaware of cursing motorists.

So it really depends which side of the glass you’re on. And if you can get to this realisation, it transforms everything.

It’s something I learned when I read in a self-help book (if you’re a regular, you’ll know I’m something of an addict) about ‘reframing’.

That person isn’t angry with you in particular; they’re just under a lot of pressure and you happened to be in the line of fire. Your friend didn’t mean to snub you; they were just so pulled in all directions they didn’t remember to put you on the To line of the email. The world hasn’t conspired against you and your emailshot; 2% really is the response rate, and even then, you’ll be lucky.

Reframing allows you to take the facts and see them in a new way. And usually from somebody else’s point of view. So you can move from cyclist to motorist just by flipping a simple mental switch. 

And if you can do that, you can write like a reader.

Technical tangles

Imagine you’ve created a software solution (I hesitate to call it app, and program doesn’t quite cover it, so the ubiquitous solution it is, though it raises some people’s hackles).

It’s built on cutting-edge technology, and is robust and reliable. You’re proud of your baby, and you can’t stop talking about it. It has lots of bells and whistles, and you want to ring and blow all of them. 

And the people who will ultimately use the software are quite technical too, so you think tech-speak is the way to go.

And maybe it is. But only after you’ve carefully positioned it. Why? 

Because the people who are using it won’t necessarily be the ones making the buying decision or signing the cheques. They’ll need to persuade those who do of the business value of your solution. They’ll need to convince them that the savings justify the initial outlay, and that the short-term disruption isn’t going to outweigh the long-term benefits.

So when you produce your marketing materials, they really do need to be marketing materials. Yes, the tech needs to be there, but it also has to convince non-technical decision makers. 

And there’s another consideration: techies may well be technical (the clue’s in the name) but they’re also ordinary people, just like you and me.

They’re influenced by the the same words and phrases as everybody else – even if they say they’re not. They’re hooked by headlines, and captivated by stories. They’re also busy, and pulled in all directions, so promising to make their lives easier is a surefire way to get the attention.

So thinking like a reader doesn’t mean making general assumptions (they’re technical! they want to see tick-boxes of technologies! they don’t want marketing fluff!). Thinking like a reader means picturing where they’re coming from, and trying to imagine what they’re looking for from somebody like you.

It’s like creating word-picture of what it’ll be like once they’ve bought from you. And word-pictures can be hugely powerful. 

Tapping into emotion

A friend told me a few months ago about his instant boiling-water tap. At first, I was sceptical and failed to see why he couldn’t wait a few minutes for the kettle to boil. The cost – close on £2,000 – seemed disproportionate to the benefit.

And then he did something wonderful.

He created the most vivid word-picture I’ve heard in a long time. (He’s not a copywriter, but maybe he should be.)

It was early in the morning, I was in my dressing gown, walking across the kitchen in my bare feet – with underfloor heating, of course. Birds chirping, sun rising. Only thing missing was a piping-hot cup of tea to ease me into the day.

You get the picture. And so did I. In fact, I felt as if I was actually there.

You see what my friend did?

Knowing my aversion to shelling out hard-earned cash on pointless gizmos, he went in under the radar and appealed to my senses. He knows that I don’t function without a cup of tea in the morning.

He also knows I like to understand how things work, so the technology might also interest me. But it was the sensory experience of a mug of English breakfast – accompanied by a good book – that he chose as a way to penetrate my defences.

And it worked: I was almost ready to fork out the two grand for the tap. Until I remembered that it was a tap, and we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

So here’s the takeaway: if you want to connect, stop being you. Be them. Forget about the technology and the price tag, and focus on the experience – whether it’s boiling water or a whizz-bang CRM.

If you want to be in the driving seat, get out of the car and start pedalling.

It’ll get you where you want to be a whole lot faster. 

10 marketing tips to make you more like Dave

Spinning a story, finding a fix and keeping a smile on your face

[Image courtesy of Robert Sharp at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve almost finished Call me Dave, the unauthorised biography of David Cameron that came out last autumn. You may remember it caused quite a stir at the time, relating as it did the dodgy initiation ceremony he was supposed to have been involved in at Oxford, quickly dubbed ‘pig-gate’.

But it wasn’t the porcine pranks that caught my attention (or at least, not only).

It was the picture that emerged of Cameron as a slightly wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road type who has no strongly held political beliefs. By the time he was elected leader of the Conservative party, he’d only been an MP for four years. 

So what accounts for his success? Some will say it’s his public-school charm and his privileged background, combined with an address book to die for. Certainly there is an element of that, it seems to me.

But it’s also his relentless focus on solutions, his attention to detail and his positive, can-do attitude. Even as a special adviser (or ‘spad’) back in the 90s, he mastered briefs faster and better than anyone, and always came up with a definite course of action.

His years spent in PR at Carlton didn’t do him any harm either, as he learned how to spin a story and always focus on the upside. 

As I read, I thought about how presentation is so important. You may not be the best, or the brightest, or the fastest, or the cheapest. But if you make the right moves and send out the right signals, you can streak ahead.

Here 10 Dave-like things you can do today to change how people see you: 

  1. Laugh at yourself. Recently I was buying something in Holland & Barrett. I gave the chap my loyalty card, then paid using my debit card. As I was putting in my code, he asked me if I had an H&B loyalty card. “Yes, I said,” slightly shortly. “I just gave it to you.” “Sorry,” he replied with a smile. “Memory of a fish.” We both laughed and my irritation disappeared.
  2. Admit your mistakes. Last weekend, I got an email from Pure Gym telling me about restricted access to my club at Canary Wharf. Just one problem – I live in Cambridge. I rolled my eyes heavenwards. And then, an hour later, came a self-deprecating email apologising for their error. Just like the Fish Man, they’d won me back. 
  3. Say it like you mean it. “All I can say is I’m sorry,” said somebody to a friend of mine by way of apology for a customer service #fail experience. He told me this actually made it worse – as if she wasn’t really sorry. It was almost as if she was minimising the problem and throwing in a meaningless apology to appease him. “If only she’d just said ‘I’m sorry’, that would have made all the difference,” he moaned. 
  4. Be unprofessional. Nobody likes corporate speak, and yet we all use it. And the bigger the organisation, the worse the problem. And yet they’re the ones that most need to connect with their readers, users and prospects. So drop the corporate mask, and be yourself in everything you say and do. Challenge the stereotype, just as Dave did, detoxifying the Tories, rewriting the right-wing script and connecting with voters.
  5. Go off-message. “It’s crazy,” said the meter reader to me a couple of months back. “It’s Health & Safety gone mad.” He was talking about the rule that says he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to take off their shoes before entering a customer’s house. Which means sometimes, they’re refused access. As he joked about the rules-is-rules craziness, he kicked off his shoes and read my meter. Off message, but on form. 
  6. Communicate enough – but not too much. Cameron knows all about getting your message out and making sure it’s heard. But it’s a fine line to tread between communicating regularly and bombarding people. The frequency and detail are the two major challenges. So do it regularly, but not too regularly. Include detail, but not too much. Make sure you have something valuable to say, and do the heavy lifting for the reader by summarising ruthlessly. 
  7. Stop talking, start listening. “I need to work on my listening skills,” said a business coach to me at a networking event. No kidding. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining to me why they were important, and how they worked, and how most people get the balance wrong between listening and talking. “We have two ears and one mouth,” he said, clearly pleased with himself, “and we should use them in proportion.” I tried to agree, but couldn’t get a word in. 
  8. If you ask for feedback, take it. Politicians are often very bad at this. They have a pet project, and they look for any and every piece of evidence that will back up their scheme. If they don’t find it, or find something to the contrary, they simply carry on regardless. Just last month, I heard of somebody who asked for honest feedback on their website. When they got it, they exploded – and yet it was sound advice. We all have blind spots, and feedback is vital to the process. But you have to take the rough with the smooth.
  9. Give reassurance at every turn. “All my work comes with a guarantee,” said the bicycle shop guy to me. “And the saddle comes with a 30-day comfort guarantee.” It was one guarantee after another, and I could feel a warm fuzzy feeling as he laid it on thicker and thicker. I didn’t need all that reassurance, as his work is always impeccable. I know it’s guaranteed, but he says it every time. And every time it works. It just does.
  10. Don’t focus on the problem. This is one I struggle with. I can see why: often, dissecting the problem is far more fun than finding a solution. How could I have done that? I ask myself. Look what a mess it is! I say. This will never be right, I predict with grim certainty. And yet where does that get me? Or you? Nowhere. So do what Cameron does: tell yourself ‘we are where we are’, and come up with a solution, however imperfect. In the long run, it saves time, effort and heartache. 

Dave’s not perfect, but he’s good at what counts – mastering the detail, spinning the story and finding fixes. Maybe if I follow in his footsteps – initiation ceremonies (alleged) aside – I’ll be unstoppable too. 

Just Call me Kevin. 

How to create a marketing plan in 15 minutes (or less)

Blitz marketing, lateral thinking and a revolutionary seed-tray

[Image courtesy of Matthew Wynn at Flickr Creative Commons]

In the spirit of New Year, New You (a jaded old cliché, but one that works unfailingly every year – at least for me) I decided to sign up for some courses in early January on Udemy.

One of them was tantalisingly entitled Become a SuperLearner 2: Learn Speed Reading & Boost Memory-learning.

Isn’t that just irresistible?

Not only the promise of reading faster and remembering more, but the reassuring ‘2’, which suggests it’s better than version 1. I signed up immediately, encouraged by the $10 promotional price. It was a no-brainer (so to speak). 

So far, it’s proving very interesting indeed.

I’ve learned how we learn, why we forget, and how we can improve our retention. Plus the importance of creativity, imagination and visual imagery. And I’ve discovered a whole galaxy of memory champs like Joshua Foer (you must watch that TED talk) and Nelson Dellis (thanks to whom I can now name the 10 highest peaks in the world). 

But it’s not all about memorising decks of cards and other party tricks. There’s a serious purpose to all of this, which is to tap into the incredible power of our brain, and use it to the full. Or if not that, at least a little more than we currently do (not 10%, by the way – that myth’s been busted). 

Mind the gap

The SuperLearner course gets you to do all sorts of weird things to expand your mind, so you can step outside the limitations you imagine your brain has. 

Suddenly, I found myself remembering 20 random words, or random images.

Or taking a household object and listing as many uses – practical or zany – as I could think of. I chose a framed print in my living room.

Apparently kids come up on average with 20 uses for any given object. Adults are lucky to think of half that number – unless they ‘unlearn’ what they know and open their minds up to unexpected possibilities.

My list came in at 16, which means I’m more child than adult, I suppose. Or more creative. One of the uses was as a seed tray, as the frame is deep enough to fill it with earth, and germinate flowers. I was particularly proud of that one.

The great thing about all of this mind-bending is that it has a knock-on effect on everything else. Freed from the bounds of conventional thinking, you suddenly start making connections.

And those connections start happening faster.

It helps if you can combine this left-of-field approach with the one-minute rule that I talked about last year. If you can do it right now, in less than one minute, do it. And if you can’t, start anyway and see what happens.

No time like the present

What’s the one thing you’re putting off today? The thing you just know you won’t have accomplished – though you should have – by the end of the day?

Chances are you think you need just a little more: time, reflection, information, feedback, evaluation, research and so on.

You don’t. Because when you’re under pressure, you can produce great things fast. Or even good things fast, which most of the time is perfectly adequate.

Just this week, somebody I often work with asked me if I could contribute to a marketing proposal he was putting together. It would involve branding, design, strategy and content marketing. The thing is, the proposal had to be submitted in a couple of hours, and I was already under pressure on another job. 

My contribution didn’t have to be long, but it did have to add value. It couldn’t just be waffle. 

I grabbed a pen and paper, and went into seed-tray mode.

Fifteen minutes later, I had a top-level marketing outline, with 10 strategies, an activity calendar, and over 20 articles spread across three categories.

When I finished, I looked at this list in wonder and amazement. How had I done that? 

The answer is simple: when you have to, you can. Strip away all external distractions and let your mind run free.

Just like I did with the framed print. It was a fire-guard, a drinks tray, a draught excluder and a sunshade. A fan, a blackout panel, a seat and an umbrella. Not to mention a seed tray.

It may sound like a frivolous exercise, but all this lateral thinking helps you see things differently and come up with truly novel ideas.

Which in marketing terms is pure gold dust.

And what about my super-learning skills? Well I can’t memorise a pack of cards yet, or read read War and Peace in an afternoon. But I can come up with marketing plan (or an outline for one) in under 15 minutes. 

So that was $10 well spent. 

Is the 'cult of likeability' damaging your marketing?

Peer pressure, virtuous robots and the reputation economy

[Image courtesy of Facebook(Let) at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently read an article by Brett Easton Ellis that set me thinking about the social world we live in and the effect it has on how we communicate in business. 

Ellis, you may remember, shot to fame back in the 1980s at the tender age of 21 with his international best-seller Less Than Zero, chronicling the lives of privileged youngsters in LA. But he’s best remembered for the cult novel American Psycho, which came out in 1991. 

He’s no stranger to controversy and has been familiar with the concept of ‘reputation economy’ since before the term was even coined.

But now, he says, the whole thing has gone too far. Everybody is rating everybody and everything, so we’ve all become reviewers.

That might sound like a good thing – crowd-sourced opinion is probably more reliable than marketing messages, after all – until you realise that it’s a two-way street. When reviewers are being reviewed themselves (think Airbnb) they’re less likely to say anything negative. 

Or Ellis puts it, “Now all of us are used to rating movies, restaurants, books, even doctors, and we give out mostly positive reviews because, really, who wants to look like a hater?”

Not me, that’s for sure. 

So instead, we become ‘virtuous robots’ who ‘Like’ everything, for fear of being branded negative – or even reviewed unfavourably ourselves.

If you’re a Facebook user, even an occasional one like me, you’ll have experienced the pressure to be positive about everything. Even Facebook themselves realised that a ‘Dislike’ button would be counter-productive and sow discord among users, so they quietly dropped the idea. 

The result is a bland rush to the bottom, as everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the Like stakes. So what started out as something positive ends up just a saccharine mess of sweet platitudes guaranteed not to get us into trouble. 

Dare to be different

All of this has a direct effect on how organisations interact with their customers. And on how they communicate with them. Just as people don’t want to be seen as haters, or even mildly negative, so companies want to be seen as the good guys.

So they play it safe by playing the game. 

The thing is, that makes it very difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you’re going to innovate, you need to make mistakes. But then you run the risk of not being liked – or worse, not being Liked.

Ellis says the reputation economy’s real crime is “stamping out passion” and “stamping out the individual”. The same is true of corporate passion and corporate individuality. 

Because making mistakes can often be hugely positive. Another article I came across this week at confirmed this idea, this time in connection with a summer programming course:

By the end of the summer, the stronger students were those who had made more mistakes: they’d tried more things, compiled more bad code, hit more runtime errors, and confused the REPL more soundly.

REPL just stands for read-eval-print loop, by the way. It allows you to check a chunk of code to see if it’s OK or needs revising.

The point here is that the ones who tried hardest made the most mistakes – and the most progress. Just imagine if there had been a ‘Like’ button at each stage of their journey. Or reviewers constantly picking apart their efforts and rating it out of five stars. 

Treading a fine line

Now I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind here and put out any old message written any old way. But there’s a huge pressure when to marketing to be like everybody else. And that in part is driven by the tyranny of the ‘Like’ button. And for marketers, it means we: 

  • don’t do anything controversial
  • hide our weaknesses, or play them down
  • pretend we can do everything (even when we can’t, and shouldn’t even try to)
  • over-promise and inevitably under-deliver
  • use bland language, devoid of any passion 
  • don’t demarcate ourselves from the competition

The most important one, of course, is the last.

Because in a market where price and product – and sometimes service – have become commoditised, setting yourself apart is no easy task. You have to dare not to be liked, and that takes guts. 

To take a current example, just look at Donald Trump.

His hugely controversial comments have brought a chorus of disapproval from the political class, press and bloggerati across the globe. And you know what? He doesn’t care. He’s raised issues – albeit in an outrageous way – that have touched a nerve with people. He can’t be dismissed as a complete irrelevance, as he’s streaking ahead in the polls. 

And he more he’s criticised, and the more he responds, the higher his poll ratings go. He’s blind-sided his opponents, who don’t know how to handle the political hot potato he’s lobbed their way.

Now we can’t – and shouldn’t – all go shooting our mouths off and offending people across the globe, but we might just think what positive take-aways there are in this mostly negative story.

And here, I think it’s that if you really, truly believe something, you should just go ahead and say it. (It does help if you’re armour-plated by unimaginable wealth, but all the same, the principle still stands if you’re an ordinary mortal.)

Winners and losers

So are there any upsides to the reputation economy? Of course there are. Not everything is as black-and-white as Donald might imagine. Here are some:

  • Companies become accountable to their customers.
  • Bad service is exposed and eliminated.
  • Standards are inexorably forced up.
  • Openness and transparency become integral to business.
  • Potential customers can get a balanced, impartial view of companies, products and services.

But the cult of Liking shouldn’t stop you daring to be different. You don’t need to do a Donald, but you might consider revisiting your marketing communications to:

  • Modify your tone of voice so you sound distinctive and stand out from the crowd.
  • Experiment with new channels and new approaches.
  • Admit your weaknesses upfront (“we do this really badly, but we do that really well…”).
  • Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time by staying firmly in the middle ground.
  • Narrow your focus to talk directly to your prospects or…
  • … expand your focus to talk to new people.
  • Do something without constantly worrying what the reaction/reception will be.

Once upon a time, I went on a course, the content of which has slipped through the sieve of my mind, all except for one frightening and thrilling challenge

Do something every day that scares you.

In other words, push back the boundaries and live dangerously. It’s something we should all try now and then – whether we ‘Like’ it or not. 

Merry Christmas.