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. 

Why storytelling is the perfect way to fly under the radar

It’s the oldest trick in the book – so use it

[Image courtesy of Alan Levine at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you heard the one about the man with a surgical glove trapped in the most embarrassing place you can think? Neither had I until this week.

It’s not a joke in dubious taste, by the way. It’s the story of a guy who found blood in his stools and went to the doctor. The examination didn’t go exactly according to plan – hence the latex crisis.

And the most remarkable thing is that he chose to share this experience standing on stage in front of an audience.

It’s all part of a storytelling craze that’s sweeping the world and encouraging ordinary people to share extraordinary stories. They’re sometimes funny, frequently embarrassing and always interesting. And it seems that anything goes in this world of confessional storytelling.

There are stories like the teenager who told her boyfriend she wanted to become a nun, a woman who falls in love with a man 10 years younger than her, and the chap who set out to cross the English Channel in a bathtub.

If you’re thinking TED, think again. There isn’t always that feel-good factor, the sense that anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it. Instead, there’s a sense of unburdening and finally revealing deepest, darkest secrets and connecting with the audience.

And all through the power of storytelling.

Permanently on transmit

Many years ago, I went to a nightmare networking event. It was like having a room full of people all doing elevator pitches to each other, all at the same time.

Nobody seemed to be listening, yet everybody was talking. And every so often, they’d abruptly end the conversations and move to somebody else. Clearly, they’d all read the same tip about ‘working the room’.

I was reflecting on this over a glass of cheap white wine with a fellow networker, and noticed that she was different from the rest. And then I saw why that was.

She was listening to me really intently, focusing on what I was saying, and weaving her comments in and out. She was also putting a lot of herself into what she said, with not an elevator pitch in sight. Instead, she drew on personal experience and shared her thoughts without any hesitation or embarrassment.

Then she moved on, and so did I. But of everybody I met that evening, she’s only one I remember after all these years.

Because she created a connection, shared her emotions – and told a story.

Tell me a story

Corporate storytelling is no different, and yet time and again, corporate storytellers fall back on the elevator-pitch approach.

They sanitise the story so it’s devoid of emotion. They throw out facts without organising them in a logical order. They get the message across, but it’s not memorable.

And that’s a big mistake. Because stories, especially stories with emotion, are hugely powerful. Why?

  • They tell the listener something about you and how you see life.
  • They pull the audience in, and keep them interested. Who doesn’t want to know how a story ends?
  • You can use them to get across messages in a subtle way.
  • Stories often bypass the rational brain – and most buying decisions (despite what we might say or think) are actually based on emotion.
  • They allow you to directly involve the reader or listener, by letting them identify with you or your story. If you know who they are and the sort of thing that will appeal to them (and you really should) you have an immediate way in.

If you’re thinking this is all a bit to touchy-feely, triumph-over-tragedy for marketing, think again. Stories are everywhere, from case studies to testimonials, from blog posts even to product and solution pages.

Everything is a story, and every story is an opportunity to connect with a reader.

And it doesn’t need to include latex gloves – unless you really want it to.

What's your biggest fault? And what are you doing about it?

Why a little-self analysis is always a good thing

[Image courtesy of Simon Cunningham at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice than to take it? The thing about dispensing words of wisdom is that (a) they don’t cost you anything and (b) you’re often stating what’s obvious to you but not to the other person, and (c) it’s not personal. 

And (c) is what it’s really about.

Because when it’s not your life, our your loves, or your business, you can see more clearly and be more objective. But when the spotlight is turned on you, the view is very different. 

I recently saw a SWOT analysis carried out by an agency I work with on a client of theirs. It was brutally honest, laying bare the weaknesses of the company, its service and its competitive position. At times, it made for uncomfortable reading. 

On the plus side, it was unashamedly upbeat about strengths, and concluded that on balance, the organisation was in a strong position.

We’re all happy to blow our own trumpets, but highlighting our faults is a bit more of a challenge. But if we don’t identify and acknowledge them, it’s difficult to address them.

And when I say ‘we’ here, I’m thinking more professional than personal. That said, if you’re a small-to-medium business, it often still feels personal. 

So how do you go about finding your faults and fixing them? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Dare to compare. If critiquing yourself in isolation is too much to contemplate, then take one of your competitors and do a side-by-side comparison. Take your website and theirs, and create a grid with form, content, approach, tone, structure and so on. Some things you do will be better, others will fall short. The same is true of your competitor. And if they tick all the boxes and you don’t, then at least you have a standard to aim for. 
  • Press the button. You know that elevator pitch you’ve always meant to write? Do it. Sit down and write something that you could deliver in 60 seconds or less. You’ll end up with very few words, but it’ll probably take you a considerable time to arrive at them. That’s because you’ll be forced to focus on the absolutely top-line things, which can often get lost in the detail of everyday busyness.
  • Outsource – but accept the outcome. A friend of mine is a management consultant. She the nicest, friendliest, chattiest person you could hope to meet. In a social setting. But when it comes to business, she morphs into another being entirely: someone who’s dispassionate, objective and unemotional. She’s able to bring her steely gaze and unforgiving approach to bear on the knottiest of problems. But here’s the thing: she always prefaces the process by telling clients that they’re going to find out things that will not be easy to accept. But accept they must. In business as in life, without acceptance there’s no moving on. 
  • Start small. This works for everything, whether it’s overhauling your marketing or changing your diet. If you look at the problem as a whole, it seems big and unwieldy. If you break it down into chunks, it suddenly becomes manageable. Fix the tagline. Rewrite that email. Update your segmentation regularly. Improve your response time to customer emails. Rethink your newsletter, so the content isn’t just me-too recycled factoids. But what about an overarching plan, I hear you say? Yes, that’s fine. But not the point where the hunt for perfection actually prevents you from taking the first step.
  • Focus on the journey, not the destination. Finding and fixing faults isn’t a one-time exercise. It’s an ongoing one, because the competitive landscape is constantly changing. Just last month, I was talking to somebody who said he’d let his lead in the market slip because he’d got complacent. “When you’re number 1,” he said ruefully, “there’s only one way to go.”

And do I practise what I preach? Sometimes.

Because I’m as guilty of the next person of dispensing advice that I don’t take myself. But it’s right at the top of my list of things to address.

Just before the one that says I should stop making lists, and actually start doing what’s on them.

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.