How innovation is like playing defence?

In sports, such as basketball, playing offence requires more talent vs playing defence. Of course there are basketball players who are more talented in defence than others but the truth is that defence is more about willingness & motivation than anything else.

Maybe it is not a conscious decision, but the main edge of defensive players is that they devote more of their energy on defence. Simple as that. Most offensive players would play equally good defence, or better even, if they devoted the same energy on defence.

Dennis Rodman in action, 8 times in the NBA’s All-Defensive Team

The same applies to innovation. Innovation is a process. Starts with understanding what is important, then identifying an issue or opportunity which if resolved or captured would greatly add value. Then ideation comes into place. Then implementation of the top idea. And finally measurement of results to confirm whether value was indeed created.

Innovation being a process means that anyone can follow it. It is a matter of willingness to question the status quo, to push business forward, to dare to try new things. Innovation is a process and as such it can be mastered with practice. Some people are better at following some of these steps, but it is not talent that distinguishes innovative people, it is more attitude than anything else.

Let me repeat this because it is empowering really. Innovation is not so much about talent but it is more about having the right mentality & practice. Why is this important? Well, it means that Innovation – the holy grail of business today – is just one realisation away.

My advice. Make innovation a priority. Find a priority in your business, gather data, challenge everything by asking many questions, experiment with ideas, analyse data, go back and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Innovation is a craft. You get better at it with every effort. And in the end it is a numbers game. The more experiments you do, the higher the chances one of them will deliver results. You only need willingness.

I will be sharing innovations i have contributed to or experienced first-hand in this space, both successful and not – unsuccessful efforts being equally important with the successful ones because one cannot have the one without the other. Failure is just part of the process.

 


8 top insights from 33 top-selling books

 

I can rarely remember more than one or two takeaways from a book a month or a year after reading it. Still though these one or two takeaways make reading the book worthwhile. By the way it is not like that with movies. I tend to remember much more from movies, which probably has something to say about the power of the visual image but this could be a totally different discussion.

This year I went through 33 books and I made a point to note down these key takeaways from each one. Here are the best of the best takeaways:

 

#1

What is the problem you’re trying to solve? This is a deceptively easy question. On the surface, it seems obvious. Yet the reality is that often people on the same team have different ideas of what their actual project 

-Jeff Degraff and Staney DeGraff, The Innovation Code: The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict

I put my team on this test. I asked them this question. Nobody could answer it at first. They had never thought about it. And why should they since it was not clearly defined in the first place. Then as the discussion progressed and they started expressing themselves, the range of answers was so wide I got so disheartened I had to order food to boost my morale.

#2

For the teacher or coach, the question has to be how to give instructions in such a way as to help the natural learning process of the student and not interfere with it 

-Timothy Gallwey, The inner game of tennis

Fewer words & fewer instructions, more questions & more room to practice self-observation. This is a recurring concept I have come across from various sources. Aiding the other person observe their own situation & letting room for him or her find the right way on their own is gold and not practiced as much in my experience. Instead I often see people telling others what to do and then following up to make sure they did it as instructed. Myself included. Gallwey really proposes a better method.

#3

People with growth mindset work harder and can overcome adversities more 

-Carol Dweck, Mindset: the new psychology of success

The idea of growth and fixed mindset is powerful. Me, I realised while reading the book that I have a fixed mindset. I am not sure anymore. This book really shifted my perspective in that respect. Adopting the growth mindset helps with many things, first and foremost it provides grit, as the quote suggests.

#4

When hiring executives focus on the key important strength needed for the role rather than focus on the candidate with the least weaknesses 

-Ben Horowitz, The hard things about hard things

I have not really tried this in practice yet but I have already understood that cultivating strengths is more productive vs. improving on weaknesses, I am inclined to think that this tip is gold.

#5

Invest in the product instead of advertising 

-Seth Godin, Purple cow

You can fool a lot of people for a short time or few people for a long time, but you cannot fool a lot of people for a long time. This applies very well to advertising. Not to say that advertising is dead. It still works in many occasions but so much less powerfully than in the past. People have a hard time changing their habits so it is only logical that companies do not recognise this new reality and adjust their strategy accordingly. Instead they still invest heavily in advertising producing content that the rest of us rush to escape from either by switching channels or frantically looking for the pop-up’s X button.

#6

I have learned to talk to myself instead of listening to myself. If I listen to myself, I hear all the negative thoughts, all the complaints, all the fears, all the doubts, and all the reasons why I shouldn’t be able to finish the race. But if I talk to myself, I can feed myself with the words and encouragement I need to finish the race. 

-Jon Gordon, The carpenter

This difference of listening vs. talking to oneself is the most prevalent difference I see when comparing people that succeed in the goals they set with those that do not. This advise falls under the easier-said-than-done category, but brilliant nonetheless.

#7

Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players – and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else. The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement. 

-Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography

This explains why tennis players talk to themselves during games much more than in any other sport I am aware of. I have seen my fair share of  tennis but it never hit me that it is such a lonely sport.

#8

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The above quote is part of the author’s claim that Sapiens evolved over other apes & animals that to his ability to believe in abstract & made up values such as myths & gods. These values laid to beliefs & laws and formed the basis of society. Consequently, this gives new meaning to religions & philosophy. In short religion & philosophy got us to where we are now. Although it is interesting to note that the author believes that it has been a negative progress as far as happiness is concerned ever since Sapiens came down from trees until today.

 


WHAT IS MAYA?

i am referring to the hinduism/ buddhism term defined as follows: the illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world. A bit too abstract really and not very useful in everyday life. But it is a fundamental concept religion-wise so i read a bit about it to understand it better and here is i have come up with.

When you make some accomplishment, people around you tend to apply a multiplier factor by congratulating you, showing you more respect, more value to your opinion. So when you are feeling well about yourself for something accomplished, people around you make you feel even better. The opposite happens when things go bad. People tend to overlook you or even worse to pity you. This makes you even sadder and even more judgmental about yourself. So people around you make you happier about yourself when you are doing well and unhappier about yourself when not. This illusion from your environment amplifying your state of mind is maya.

The key part to understand that can useful to anyone, in business or in life, is that he who manages maya and undertones the effect of environment on mind, that person is more spiritual than average.

And that’s that about maya.


3 digital marketing trends to focus on. And 3 to forget about

As anything technology-driven, digital marketing is evolving fast, so it makes sense to review what’s working and what’s not presently. 

1. Seeing is believing 

woman dragging an oversized purse to stress on the importance of cash positive transactions when dealing with performance marketing

A bit over the top but gets the message across. 

This entails all sort of advertising that is performance-driven. This could be PPC (e.g. AdWords), affiliate marketing, display ads, online and offline. What makes an ad campaign perofrmance-driven? You need to be able to quantify both the involved expenses and the involved returns. This sounds easier than it really is. Focusing on the online world, most products have long purchase life cycles which involve many visits to the same website before finally making a purchase. This creates a dilemma, which visit should the purchase be attributed to? Is it the last visit that ended up in the purchase or the first that introduced our company to the customer or the middle ones that worked the customer up in order to finally decide to purchase? To address this dilemma various “attribution models” have been devised and depending on which one you decide to go with, you get a different ROI calculation per acquisition channel. As far as offline advertising goes, assigning ad campaigns to purchases is even more challenging, but it can be done. One way is communicate exclusive coupons in the offline ads and then assign all sales from those coupons to those offline ads. Another way is to measure traffic and sales spikes during offline advertising bursts and whatever is higher that the baseline to be attributed to the offline ads. This works well for TV ads which is powerful enough to produce well-defined spikes and there are cases where TV advertising has produced positive direct ROI. A third way, is to use specific phone lines and assign sales from those phone lines to the ad campaign. There is also step two to get to ROI: calculate the returns. Here there are two options: take into account the net revenues of the purchase or the customer’s lifetime value provided you know the retention rate per acquisition channel (and mind you retention rates vary based on acquisition channel). If ROI works out positive then that channel is a keeper. If not, then one might find another reason to keep it live, e.g. for branding reasons. 

2. Being relevant 

Phoeby from Friends, famous for her off beat remarks.

This is what you become without customisation, or at least her eCommerce equivalent.

Mass marketing and one-size-fits-all grows old. Not that it is not out there, it sure is out there very much so as companies are slow to adapt, but emerging technologies give us the tools to use data to create customised experiences. There are two ways to go about this. One way is to customise what you say to customers based on their direct past behaviour. This means that if i have purchased a SONY laptop, then next time i visit the site, show me laptop accessories or SONY products in general. Another more sophisticated way, is to create cohorts and work out habits. This involves doing some pattern recognition to come up with a the most probable next purchase per each customer or customer cohort. The algorithm can take into account the customer’s past purchases, age, gender, address and even name (yes name) and work out which products he or she might be looking for next. Once you have this info, then this should populate all possible customer interactions be it website content, email, remarketing ads, call centre scripts, loyalty scheme bracket etc. And what this achieves is you become more relevant when you speak to the customer. Without this you are like a blind sales person suggesting running shoes to a 75-year old woman suffering from arthritis. Another great way of becoming extremely relevant is via marketing automation. The most famous cases usually involve emails, like the ‘welcome email’ sent out upon email subscription and the cart abandonment email sent out as soon as a customer enters the payment steps and abandons prior to completing the purchase. Effectively, these are event triggered communications. There are tools that can provide this and once set-up these emails get fired automatically without the need of a person to operate them. Excellent for ROI.

3. Becoming an expert

Portrait picture of Jan Luc Picard from Star Trek Next Generation

Inspire as much trust as Jean Luc Piucard does to Trekkies.

The product purchase lifecycle has extended thanks to the internet. Instead of visiting a few shops before making a decision, now customers can browse endless websites, forums, youtube videos, customer reviews, price comparison sites, etc. before deciding to make a purchase. This creates an opportunity to assist your potential customers with this journey by providing useful content to assist customers with their buying decisions. For example, if you are selling home entertainment equipment, useful content could be an article on “how to select the ideal surround system for your living room”  or a wizard where customer enters his living room specs and the engine returns suggestions such as arrangement, products, etc. If you are a B2B company, same thing applies. Say you supply companies with toner for printers. A nice a content would be addressed to the people responsible for office supplies aiding them on how to be proactive, how to save company’s money, how to select the ideal toner for each printer type, how to get employee feedback on their work etc. This content once produced, can then be distributed via various ways be it via a blog, social media, slideshare, youtube video, etc. ideally all of them at the same time.

What to forget about:
SEO. And Social Media. And Email marketing. Not that one should not use them at all, quite the contrary. All three are very powerful tools that can get a lot of business, it is just that one should not think about them separately.      Ideally the company should address the three priorities on top, work out a content marketing strategy and then implement it using all the tools available such as Social Media and Email Marketing. Sure there are some best practices, e.g. how to write SEO-friendly content or how to optimise your newsletters, but performance will be mainly affected by having a well-designed content rather than optimising each channel separately. 

Trends above have been produced mostly having the eCommerce business in mind. If i have left out anything, please feel free to comment. I will reply promptly. 


Accommodating Managers should never set deadlines

Sky is high, water is wet and work is always more fun and productive when working with accommodating people. Image

But there are also deadlines… can’t live with them, can’t manage without them. Accepting that it is a necessary evil, how does one go about it while also wanting to retain an accommodating atmosphere?

The truth is that there always needs to be a ‘when’ associated to every task. I have bored even myself hearing myself asking ‘when’. Nothing ever happens otherwise. What i have come to realize though, is that asking ‘when’ rather than saying when can make all the difference. So I always try to have the person reporting to me define the deadline himself. (And of course, then write it down and share it with everyone involved, say, in an email. Now he is trapped. He he.)

Why it works so well? Well, people tend to become over-eager when asked to define their own deadlines. They often undermine both the time needed for the task and overestimate the time they have available. This leads to working with tights deadlines, so that’s a good starting point. Now i am in a position to offer to push the deadline back a few days if i can afford it. Behaving this way makes sure i am accommodating, friendly and reasonable and more so when i willingly push back the deadline. Practicing this often, leaves me room to come out strong and set a really tight deadline if i need to. It minimizes bad blood and boosts motivation.

Now the beauty of this system is that the person defining the deadline will feel all-the-more motivated to meet it as he risks appearing untrustworthy in more than one way. First for missing the deadline. Second for not being in control of his own work. 

Go ahead, try it out! It has worked for me every time. 

Final point. Deadlines don’t work if there is no follow up when they expire. If deadlines are missed and nothing happens, not even an acknowledgement of the fact, then the system fails. It may need just an “alright, when do you think you will be ready?” or it may require serious talking down depending on the case but not acknowledging it at all will lead the other person thinking that he can get away with stuff, that you are not on top of things or that his work is of minor importance. Deadlines… can’t live with them, can’t manage without them. 


How to use Google AdWords for branding?

Adwords can be the best competition mapping and testing platform.Image

It is very simple. You only need to do a search for the main keywords of your category and note the ads that appear. Then you start breaking the info down in segments to simplify the data intake:

a. Promise, answers the question “why should i click and come to your site”. For example such promises could be “free”, “low price”, “top quality”, “top variety”, etc.

b. Support for the promise, aims to provide credibility to the claimed promise. For example, “lowest price guarantee” could be a support for”lowest prices” or “30,000 designs to choose from” could be a support for a ‘variety’ claim. It is surprising that most ads fail to provide any sort of support for their claim. 

So after noting down search ads for your industry’s main keywords, you now have:

-who are your competitors
-what is their USP (promise)
-what is their USP support

At this point, it could be helpful to plot what you got. You need to come up with two axes. Ideally one axis should be functional, e.g. price, and the other more sentimental, e.g. ‘trust’ or ‘leadership’. Maybe you should keep both axis more functional, eg price vs. variety or speed. These decisions could be guided by your findings via the competition mapping process on the Google result page. Once you have the axis, you plot all the players on the graph and look for openings.  This will highlight opportunities in the market.

Next step is to come up with different concepts that could eventually be turned into brand positioning. These concepts could be ‘original thoughts on what you think matters in your industry or even ‘stolen’ from competitor’s. All concepts should somehow answer the question “why should people buy products such as the ones you are selling”. Say you are selling sports shoes, do people buy shoes based on features, design, price, specialization, brand etc.? If you think all of the above could apply, you write two texts ads for each one trying each time to make it as focused on that concept as possible. You should do two ads because copywriting plays a role. Some ads are more effective than others because they are better written. So you write two ads and look at their combined performance when comparing the concepts between them. The concept whose ads exhibit the highest CTR is the winning concept. This is the concept that engages consumers most when it comes to searching and buying your products. 

Note that you need to let the ads run until you get enough data to give you statistical confidence. This could take weeks depending on your Adwords budget and the search traffic your keywords get. But in my view it is worth the wait as the USP is something to keep for a long long time.

Second note, test the concepts for as many different AdWords campaigns as possible. By AdWords campaigns i mean set of keywords, i.e. consumer’s states of mind. When a consumer searches for a competitor brand, then this means that the user is already in an advanced state where he knows about the particular brand and has probably also has decided that this is his favorite. Different case when a user has searched for your brand.  Or totally different case when a user searches for a generic keyword such as “sports shoes” vs. something much more precise such as “running shoes for hard terrain”. 

If a concept proves to be the big winner then that’s great. If this particular concept is over-populated with competitors claiming to capture it, for example this is common for the “cheap prices” concept or “best taste” concept for food & beverage industries, then you can do a 2nd phase of testing where you combine each concept with the winning, i.e. cheap & convenient, cheap & choice, cheap & fast, etc. 

A final 3rd phase could be to test which is the best support for the winning concept. You could go about it the same way. List down different alternatives for supporting your claim, eg cheapest because we have the biggest volume, cheapest because we have the widest choice, low price guarantee, etc., prepare ads for each and so on. 

So now you know who your competitors are, what is each one’s promise, how the competition environment is mapped out and what consumers respond most too. Now you are in a good position to take an educated decision on what your brand’s USP should be. 

Final note is that you should not necessarily choose the winning concept. It should depend also on the openings demonstrated on the competition mapping graph and of course your brand’s own DNA. For example, if you offer the most expensive product in the market, then selecting the “low price” concept just because it proved to be the best performing won’t work. 

Good luck. 


Blog post: #3 Quick & Dirty Email Marketing Tip: how to be relevant

 
 
First, what being relevant really means? Second, how can one go about it to improve how relevant his message actually is?
 

Image
 
Some, certainly not exhaustive, examples of what relevancy are: 
 
Timing. Catching your consumer at the right moment can be priceless. Timing can refer to a specific moment or during some act or even a broad time period like one month after your first purchase. There is always a best time to pitch something. Nailing it, can really make a difference in performance. 
 
Choose a topic that is close to your audience’s heart. Handle topics that you know your audience loves. It is a simple thought really but still important to have it mentioned and have it sink in. Say you are running an online bookshop, then an interview with a famous writer is a good way to get your audience interested. 
 
Copy-writing to stress on (or mimic) relevancy. Text matters. Words matter. Word arrangement matters. Period. So you could serve a relevant message to your audience and have performance ruined due to bad copy-writing. For example, a long vague subject title can appear the same as so many other newsletters in the inbox and end up in the trash as if by default. On the other hand, good copy-writing can save the day even if the message is not really relevant to the audience. For example, compare these two email titles: 
  • Weekly digest: if you participate in our program, you could enter a draw for a BMW
  • Dear [username], you have been shortlisted to the VIP draw for a BMW  
 
Which one would you expect to perform better? My money would be on Subject B for many reasons, the most important of which is that it mimics ‘relevancy’. How? By appearing to be an offer for select few rather than the full userbase. 
 
Some methods to help with achieve relevance – I feel this is actually a fuller list: 
 
Get to know your audience. Who are they, why are they using the particular product, what is the driving force behind it, what is the need they are trying to satisfy, why have they chosen your brand vs. competition, what they like about the brand, what they don’t like about it? Getting inside their head, ideally becoming  one of them, is the safest way to be able not only to best judge if a message is actually relevant or not to your audience, but also to be in a position to come up with relevant messages in the first place. No way around this one. Sorry. 
 
Segment your audience. This depends on the actual size of the audience but chances are that the audience is really a collection of different user types. But beware on how to define your user types. One way would be based on typical profile attributes such as age, sex, location, etc. A better way would be based on: 
  • how often users use your product, i.e. if they are high, medium or low users. For example, you can email/ call/ SMS your high users much more often and expect to get higher returns and lower optout vs. if you did the same thing to your low users.

  • why they are using your product. This is even true for the simplest of products. For example, consider Coca-Cola, as mass and as simple as products come. Still, Coca-Cola consumption patterns can vary greatly. For example consider two different consumption patterns: Coca-Cola with food vs. Coca-Cola as a mixer, e.g. Vodka with Coke. One can expect that a promotion “pizza +  coke = -20%” will perform differently between consumers of each of the two consumption patterns. 

 
Structure your customer interactions to manage their life-cycle. For example, when you subscribe to a website, you usually receive back a ‘welcome email’. This could be the first step of a time-line of interactions. What usually happens instead is that the next email you receive is the standard weekly newsletter sent out to the whole userbase, old and new users alike. There is much better way to go about this. Studying standard behavior user behavior patterns arise. A better marketing plan could study the common user paths and use email to encourage users towards that path. Also, there are usually time thresholds by which if the user does not reach a certain stage of the path, then that user most probably becomes inactive. Sending the emails before those threshold times could push users away from inactivity. It is easy to imagine that the improvement in user engagement can be dramatic.
 
Test, test, test. Even if you believe you are doing a good job, still there must always be room for improvement. So test. Effectively what you are testing for is relevance, the driving force behind any engagement. 
 
Lists are not exhaustive so be sure to mention additional points in the comments section.