In search of amplification

When you live in a cacophonous world, if you want to be something other than a dim signal amidst the noise, you need amplification.

When consumers are inundated by a tsunami of marketing messages, much of which are virtually identical, you need amplification.

When your default strategy is to lower your price, and you find yourself in a losing race to the bottom, you need amplification.

When you find yourself regressing toward the mean in almost everything you do, because it seems safer, you need amplification.

The battle for share of attention isn’t won by merely shouting louder, beating the consumer into submission or constantly bribing customers to buy from you.

It’s won by being intensely relevant and remarkable. It’s won by taking one or more aspects of what’s commonly done and distorting it to new heights. It’s won by cultivating an obsessive core of customers. It’s won by creating a story that begs to be told, again and again.

If your business plan doesn’t contain clear points of meaningful value amplification, it’s time for a re-think.

If your best customers aren’t willing to amplify your message to your most valuable prospects, something is amiss.

Creating and leveraging points of amplification isn’t easy. But being irrelevant is a whole lot tougher.

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Never underestimate the power of a symbol

Donald Trump is a lout and oafish buffoon. He may be a good business person, but he is wholly unqualified to be President and, thankfully, just about everyone knows it. Bernie Sanders is smarter and clearly demonstrates a capacity for empathy and self-awareness that The Donald sorely lacks. But he’s not going to be President either. Yet both are generating a lot–or as Trump would say, “yuge”–amount of attention.

And the reason is this: they are both powerful symbols.

Symbols of the frustration that so little gets done in Washington. Symbols of being fed up with politicians that are more concerned with avoiding a gaffe than speaking the truth. Symbols of the fear over where America is headed, even if their takes are polar opposites. And their potential impact as symbols should not be taken lightly.

Symbols matter because they tell a story that goes beyond the mere facts, the puts and takes, the purely rational and what may seem most expedient in the moment.

Symbols matter…

…when as people others look up to, we speak out against injustice and immorality even if some people won’t like it or us.

…when as business people, we do the right thing on behalf of a customer even if it is unprofitable in the short-term.

…when as parents, we model the behavior we wish our children to emulate even if, in the moment, they don’t “get it.”

…when as leaders of organizations we celebrate noble failures even if we had hoped for a different tangible result.

…when as human beings, we look each other in the eyes and simply connect even if it feels awkward and uncomfortable.

Symbols often rise above the typical narrative and tap into something more visceral.

Symbols remind us that people buy the story before they buy the product.

You picked a really bad time to be boring

There was a time when you could get away with average products for average people.

There was a time when rapid growth could smooth over patches of mediocrity.

There was a time when being just a little bit interesting could hold our attention.

There was a time when relationships were built over time, face-to-face.

Now, consumers live in an anything, anytime, anyway world and there’s simply no reason to settle.

Now, largely stagnant markets require us to steal share if we wish to grow–and good enough isn’t.

Now, we are overwhelmed with choices and, more and more, the battle for share of attention is won by the weird, the purple cow, the remarkable.

Now, posts that include “more for Sagittarius”–or are merely a running commentary on your activities–get eliminated from our feed in one easy click. And winning back a lost relationship is harder than ever.

There’s a reason people don’t come to your store, leave your website within seconds, hit “unsubscribe”  or unfollow you.

Now is hardly the time to be dull, uninteresting and outright boring if you hope to make any kind of impact. If people see what you put out in the world and their first reaction is “who cares?” you’re either focused on the wrong folks or it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

The fact is the tried and true no longer is. What once seemed safe is now often the most risky.

Yes, it’s a really bad time to be boring. But the good news is we can change.

What better time than now?

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Ask the nearest hippie

In his dissent on the Supreme Court’s historic decision on gay marriage Justice Antonin Scalia offered this:

“Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think that Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

Regardless of where one stands on the question–and I stand firmly on the side of love–we should be impressed by Scalia’s ability to reach back some 50 years for a cultural reference, all the while doing virtuosic leaps of logic. Then again, perhaps he meant “hipster.” Also perhaps his marriage of 48 years ain’t going all that well. Maureen, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

But whether he meant hippie or hipster, he may be on to something.

Hippies defied convention.

Hippies valued love over war.

Hippies created lots of music and art that has stood the test of time.

Hippies were inclusive.

Hippies challenged the status quo, often pushing society to embrace new norms.

Many hippies were far more remarkable than those who shunned them.

Maybe we could use a few more hippies?

Ask the nearest hippie indeed.

And we just might want to heed their advice.

I fought the math and the math won

Emotion often trumps logic.

We buy the story before we buy the product.

How our experience with a brand makes us feel can overcome the simple calculus of pro’s and con’s.

Because of this, I advise start-up entrepreneurs and deeply experienced corporate types alike to start with the story, to envision the full experience we want to deliver, to design for how we intend the customer to feel and how we hope they will amplify our message to their tribes.

But then comes the math.

And, alas, there is no escaping a few basic equations.

You can’t escape the fact that customers can’t buy your product or service if they aren’t aware of it. In an increasingly noisy world, where the toll-takers who often control getting your brand in front of the right customers keep raising their prices, you had better crunch these numbers.

If you are in any kind of retail, you can’t escape the math that your sales are a function of the amount of traffic you drive to your store or website, your conversion rate, the average unit retail of the items sold and the # of items purchased. Failing to understand these dynamics–and the throughput at each stage–is often where things start to fall apart.

In any business, if the lifetime value of the customer is less than the cost of acquisition and ongoing costs to serve, your numbers will never add up.

If it’s costing you more and more to acquire new customers, while you are experiencing high-rates of churn among existing, lower cost to acquire customers, the wall is fast approaching.

If you are adding a lot of cost to become omni-channel while merely spreading existing sales over a now higher cost base, you don’t have to be Descartes to know that’s not a long-term winning formula.

There are two ways we fight math. The first is to ignore it in the first place. The second is to stick our head in the sand when it starts to become more and more obvious that our numbers don’t add up.

Math–like feelings, ironically–doesn’t go away because we ignore it. Math doesn’t care that we are all about brand building. Math doesn’t have an opinion on how disruptive our start-up is. Math couldn’t care less that we hope to get acquired and cash out before we have to demonstrate profitability. Math is immutable and dispassionate. Math is a stubborn you-know-what.

Fight the industry incumbents all day long. Fight The Man, the power, the haters and the status quo as much of you want. Math doesn’t care.

But at some point, your numbers will have to add up and multiply through. And you’re going to want math on your side.

Technique is overrated

Technically, Bob Dylan isn’t much of a singer. Neither is Jay-Z or Kanye. If Courtney Barnett turns out to be the next big thing it isn’t going to be because of her range or perfect pitch.

Kurt Cobain was certainly no Andres Segovia. Jimi Hendrix played his guitar upside down, backwards and strung “the wrong way.”

Not one of the Beatles could read sheet music. Neither could (or can) Duke Ellington, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, B.B King or Elvis Presley.

Growing up I can remember many times when my father would see some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary art and say “I could do that.” Perhaps he could. But he never did. Too bad, those millions would have come in handy.

Conventions, rules and technical standards obviously have their place. If you’re flying my plane or operating on my brain I’m counting on you to really know your stuff.

But for most of us, the work that matters doesn’t rely on a text-book approach, a finely tuned PowerPoint deck or a Board-certified anything.

The ability to evoke emotion, to connect, to create something meaningful, rarely requires mastery of an established protocol or any one tried and true skill or approach. The illusion that it does is what keeps us stuck.

If you’re waiting for perfection or just the right time, you’ll likely be waiting forever.

If you’re hoping that someone will tell you it’s okay to start, prepare to be disappointed. Chances are you’re going to have to choose yourself.

Do your research, study all you want and by all means, practice, practice, practice. Just know that you are going to have to start before you’re ready.

And if you really think you could do that, well then do it.

We’re waiting.

The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at most brands. New executive titles are created, and organizations re-shuffled, to give us a sense that we are doing something. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise. All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement amidst fundamental disruption doesn’t cut it.

A go slow approach to innovation when customers and markets are evolving rapidly only guarantees that we will fall further and further behind.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter and the sea of sameness–if our work doesn’t make waves–we might as well not bother in the first place.