Archive for the ‘critical thinking’ category

Case Studies: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

June 25, 2008

Case studies are becoming an increasingly popular B2B marketing method, especially online, because they feature the best of your product or service without looking like a blatant marketing ploy or brochure.

In a sense, they allow a prospective customer to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see if there’s a fit. It’s a version of the try before you buy concept often used in consumer marketing.

But too many online case studies haven’t really made the jump to true case study. Instead they merely re-arrange the standard advertising/marketing language and add a “real-life” example. As a result they start to sound like those late night television ads that feature some happy customer spouting marketing speak:

“Acme’s gizmo sure helped my love life. Thanks, Acme!”

The case study goes back to the early 20th century when it was used in the study of medicine, but quickly spread to the business world, most notably used by the Harvard Business School as a way to educate its graduate students because there were few business books around at the time.

As a marketing method, it can be powerful way to demonstrate your value proposition and expertise. But only if it’s done correctly. And correct means it must follow the model devised by its originators — as an educational tool that is only peripherally marketing. It’s not an advertisement that screams “Buy! Buy!”.

So, here are some tricks to composing good cases.

  • Case studies are not about you. Well, they are in a sense, but with much moderation. They’re about customers and how you helped them solve THEIR problems. People don’t care about your problems. Neither do they want to hear you brag about what geniuses you are.
  • Case studies should follow a problem-solution format. Even back in the medical days, a case has always been about a problem, its repercussions, and how it was or was not solved. If your case is mostly about your “solution”, and very little about the customer’s problem … then you have a problem.
  • Case studies are storytelling. Problems cause emotions, mostly negative; resolutions to problems cause positive emotions. Emotions create drama, which is the basis of all storytelling. You don’t have to get into “…it was a dark and stormy night” kind of storytelling, but there should be a logical dramatic flow to your case study that keeps the reader interested.
  • Case studies involve lessons. The point of a case study is to educate — supposedly to educate prospective customers on how you think, and therefore how you can help them, which might lead them to consider hiring you or buying from you. So they always involve lessons, implied or overt.
  • Case studies should be tight. There’s no room for pet causes, philosophical ramblings, or subtle asides in case studies. People want to hear the story so it can help them solve their own problems. Stick to your point.
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Mental Taglines

May 20, 2008

A Venture Hacks post on how to pitch a startup with the kind of high-concept marketing common in the movie industry, reminds me of something I often advocate when undertaking marketing or business planning.

That’s the creation of a simple “mental tagline” that becomes a guiding light for ensuing operations.

The post points out that movie makers often use short high-concept descriptions to pitch their projects. “Jaws in Outer Space” to describe the movie Alien, for example. They work because they instantly tie the listener to something familiar, and therefore understandable.

The mental tagline and high concept pitch also have benefits for marketers and communicators struggling to get across their products or services to prospects. This is especially true if the product or service is complex and technical, as is so often the case today.

The mental tagline doesn’t have to be the organization’s actual tagline. Instead, it’s planted in the brain to help everyone stay on track as they’re developing or selling a product or service. If they start to wander off the path, which is not uncommon, they can always refer to the mental tagline to get back. It’s a guiding beacon, much like a lighthouse is for ships.

For example: “We make widgetry simple (or cheap, or useful)” for a widget maker. Or “Relieving that pain in the neck” for a drug. Or “High-powering the computer” for techology. Or “Making databases available to all” for software.

Whatever is your core business or your mission is the mental tagline, which I often compose after completing a W6 planning process (see previous post on the W6).

If you add high-concept thinking to it, the mental tagline starts to guide you to how to achieve the mission. For example, for the “High-powering the computer” tagline, the high concept might be “Apple meets the PC” or “Think supercomputing for dummies”.

So in a sense it’s a very high-level mini plan.

Enough with the social networking!

April 6, 2008

This week I received invitations to two more social networking sites. In this case they were promising to help me manage my online reputation.

I seem to be getting these continuously these days. In the early days of LinkedIn, I used to think “cool, a great way to network and enhance my SEO efforts.” I even advised clients and everyone I knew to do the same. (and yes, I secretly smiled at the “luddites” who said they couldn’t see the point.)

Now, I just think “what a nuisance.”

There are the really big sites, of course, such as Facebook and Linkedin (sorry I could never get interested in MySpace — I don’t work in cartoons). They’re good for just general networking, socially or for business purposes.

But every pursuit in which I’m interested now seems to have at least one, and often several, community site dedicated to that pursuit alone. Marketing — many. Management — several. Consulting — a few. Science — a couple of good ones. Music — of course. Job searching — oh yeah. Online reputation — apparently at least three.

All of them are vying for my time constantly. I could literally spend my entire day on these sites, networking myself into poverty.

What I find particularly upsetting about this avalanche of social networking is that they all claim they’re “innovative”. Since I work in the innovation management field considerably, I beg to differ. Innovation is creating radical or near-radical change — in products or business models. These are not innovative: they’re just taking standard community building tools and slicing up the social networking field in ever more fine gradients for marketing purposes.

At best it’s called working a niche. More likely, it’s simply copycatting with a slight differentiation.

Let’s take the latest invitations I’ve had. They are part of a group that includes companies like Naymz.com ReputationDefender.com and DefendMyName.com. For a fee, they promise to scrub search engines of anything I don’t want to see about me out there, or to create a new online identity for me.

Isn’t this just search engine optimization, which I – and probably you — have been practising for years? It’s just a newer version of the Google Profile technique.

Also it presumes that social networking sites are where most of our content rests — which to me seems a pretty narrow view. Most MarCom people have (or should have) much more content on their sites than simple social networking profiles, or blog comments.

A well rounded search engine profile should have these, of course, as well as white papers, FAQs, articles, endorsements, and other expertise-marketing content.

To help in organic search, SEO should be a planned and consistent process, with new content added on a schedule. If social networks are to be part of this mix, fine, but it shouldn’t take it over.

Complexity to Clarity: Translating geek and other business languages

March 27, 2008

This morning, I facilitated a discussion among technology marketers on the growing problem of language dichotomy. Specifically it was the problem of an overwhelming culture of geek speak and how it bleeds in to the marketing side of things.

Now, the problem of the genius manager who can’t seem to speak in anything under 10 paragraphs, isn’t new. But what does seem to be new is that it’s spreading beyond just tech speak. Jargon, or verbal shorthand for those in the know, is growing everywhere, and in many non-technology sectors.

I’m convinced it’s because of the growth in complexity of modern business: As business management becomes increasingly more process oriented, it becomes increasingly more complex. But at the same time the demand for simple communication — among customers, employees and other stakeholders — has never been higher.

There’s so much information washing around out there now, that people can’t process it all. And this amplifies when the information is difficult and time consuming to process. We’re in the age where information moves at light speed so as to convert to knowledge, and if you can’t convey something simply and quickly, no one listens further. There are just too many alternatives that can be added to their knowledge base.

So, we’re talking about an information flow problem, which seems to be most egregious in the technology space. This is probably because too much emphasis in IT is put on the T (technology) and not enough on the I (information) part.

What came out of our discussion was a recognized need to return to the basics of communication. This can be summed up in a few points.

  • It’s not about the technology, it’s about the business. This can be expanded to mean it’s not about the product or service but about what the product or service does for the buyer. That’s all he or she cares about, and so that’s the information that should be delivered.
  • Know thy customer. Or, in other terms, separate the information receiver into needs segments. Sounds pretty basic, but many business processes don’t think in these terms. They think in terms of what they do, not what they can do for someone.
  • Be extremely clear about the benefit or threat (if ignored). This is an old sales technique, and is also the basis of the oldest information delivery system around — the news industry. It means you have to put your product or service into terms that are understandable emotionally — it helps because of this (i.e. saves time, saves money, or something else), or avoids a threat that might hurt you (i.e. less revenue, higher costs).
  • Know yourself. There’s usually miscommunication in business because the information deliverer doesn’t really understand what its own business is, and so can’t convey that to the receiver. Use the W6 process I posted on previously to determine who you are, what you do, and who you do it for.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. As a marketer, you have to act as the bridge between the geniuses in the labs who created the product or service, and the not-so-genius people who are going use it. The only way to do this is to put it into simple, understandable terms. Strip away all the add-ons and subtleties and say it in a few short words. Then put them back in when the prospect asks questions.
  • Consider the differing intelligences. Intelligence is how you process information, and most information deliverers, i.e. the CEO or CTO, often have linear intelligences…. they think logically. But there are 7 different intelligence types and it’s a good bet that most receivers are of the six that are not linear. So it’s like someone sending out a signal on one radio channel while the radios are tuned to other channels. It’s just not going to register.

Who are you and who cares?– Media relations in a web 2.0 world

February 27, 2008

Old World: Simple. One story — AcmeTech is doing this. Prepare one press release, blast to newspapers and magazines. Take phone calls and connect with CEO. Bath in the glow of CEO’s praise. Spend the bonus on new shoes.

New World: Complicated. Multiple stories, depending on listener segments. Target proper media, prepare angles and pitches for each, write multiple press releases in traditional and new forms, deliver to specific targets, follow up. Try to find some ROI to please an increasingly grumpy CEO. Examine old shoes (and pocketbook), schedule repair.

That’s the lot in life for a marcom person today. It was once easy. Now it’s not. In the past five years, and especially in the past three, media has changed radically, shattering into hundreds of channels and outlets. This means it’s a lot more work.

Now, everything must be targeted, customized, and specific. It’s no longer a case of media blasting, following up (maybe) and hoping something will stick somewhere. You have to zone in completely on the best influencers.

Here’s the media world today:

Channels have multiplied
Traditional print and television news outlets have been joined by specific magazines; e-zines; blogs; content sites,; citizen journalism sites; social networking (Web 2.0); webinars, podcasts; newsletters; e-books, online forums, video games, etc. – the list grows daily. And each one approaches your story from a different viewpoint and requirement. But you can’t tell hundreds of stories, so determining your REAL story is now paramount. So no jargon, no biz speak, no geekspeak. Now, the most important concept is that it’s CLEAR. (And that it’s search engine optimized.)

Channel preferences have segmented
Generally, the older watch television and read newspapers and magazines, the younger tend more toward online and word-of-mouth (buzz) or peer information sources. Most people now juggle several segments, usually surfing general sources and then moving sequentially to more specific and useful (to them) information channels.

Channels must be graded for value to the campaign
More than ever you have to assess value today. This means you have to sift through and examine multiple options, and then zero in on the ones that will best achieve your objectives. Media today is almost as targeted as direct mail. So pick media targets in channels most appropriate to (and most used by) your target audience. And then understand how that target gathers and processes information.

Match material to outlet
With increasing movement to content niches comes the demand to make material extremely relevant to the niche and the target. One size does not fit all because everyone wants extremely relevant subject matter. This just about spells the death knell for the generic press release (except for isolated instances, such as use to support other campaigns). It also boosts SEO, because it has more likelihood of being used.

Position the story
First of all, What the heck is your story? The most important rule about story telling in a Web 2.0 world? You can’t control it by hiding, prevaricating, sleight of hand, jargonizing, buzzwording and bullshitting. You have to stand naked in front of everybody and take pride in your own body. Sure, you can adjust the lighting to highlight your best features, but you can’t change what you are by buying more clothes. Despite the emphasis on “messaging”, the basis of all communications is still story telling, complete with triumph-or-tragedy drama or problem-solution case studies.

Know Your Business
What space are you in? B2B or B2C? Think hard on this because many marcom people get it wrong by using B2C techniques in a B2B context. Many still use product-marketing techniques, which are different because the two types of marketing operate at different stages of the buying cycle. If you’re in B2B, you have to use B2B marketing techniques such as thought leadership and expertise marketing, case studies, and other problem solving material relevant to the unique nature of the audience. And it has to be delivered to media accessed by the target prospects that have different buying behaviors than product buyers.

Tell your story the right way.
The format must be appropriate to the channel. Each channel outlet has its own style and it’s almost instant death to send the wrong style to a channel. If you’ve targeted a few specific channels ensure that the material sent to them is similar to what they normally use. This means much prep work.

Tell your story in the right language
You have to use language that’s appropriate to the end user. If material is to speak to engineers, who are always seeking facts, there’s no point in presenting a flash video that’s all design wizardry. Make it very scientific and simple. CFO’s are concerned about a business case first, integration second, and technology third, so don’t deliver a list of tech specs. Today, committees often choose products or services (i.e. software), so you may have to speak to several users and find a hybrid style that answers all their individual concerns.

Hand it to them on a plate
Everybody’s busy today, and publishing people more than most. So they have no time. If you can’t tell them your story in one line, you’re dead. And once you do have their attention, you have to do all the work. If a writer has to do much today, he’ll bail, because he has too many other things to do. One way to do this is with a digital press kit, that is encompassed in a digital press release. The kit should include anything ever written about you – good or bad – which saves the writer work, and enables him or her to understand you warts and all (see naked above).

B-to-B Content: Provide, don’t pitch

February 13, 2008

Looks like some B-to-B marketers may have lost touch with their customers regarding what kind of content works best for lead generation.

A survey of marketers and content users distributed by MarketingSherpa shows that many marketers picked case studies as the most attractive content.

But nearly as many content users also cited  as most interesting industry research, how-to guides and top-10 lists for improving their business.

“Some B-to-B marketers focused on generating leads don’t fully realize the impact of content when it comes to engaging their audience and reinforcing their marketing message,” says Matt Lohman, Director, Business Development, KnowledgeStorm Inc., which conducted the study.

“The quality of the leads has everything to do with how the message, positioning and format of the content resonates with their target audience, in addition to when and where marketers engage them.”

Obviously, the most attractive content provides lessons and information that can be used. Case studies present a useful problem-solution format to customers, and are extremely attractive if presented in story form. People like a good story that they can learn from — it’s been a dominant format since Aesop began educating people through his fables.

But the operative word for case studies and all other content is form. While everyone loves a story, most people don’t like sales pitches. And too many case studies are simply bad sales pitches hidden in data or technical jargon. Mostly, they extol the features of some particular product or service but impart few lessons that receivers can apply to their own situations.

So, let’s say it one more time: Content should not be data or simple information. It should provide knowledge that can be used in learning.

Maybe that’s why end-users (a technical term, by the way, as if content was just another piece of software) are out of sinc with the marketers.

What’s A Word’s Worth?

February 5, 2008

Back, about what seems like a hundred years ago, I ran a newspaper rewrite desk that was charged with helping the paper make the transition from broadsheet to tabloid. Because this was a difficult switch for most reporters, the desk used to go through regular training exercises aimed at constantly finding the right word that would resonate with many meanings.

Our model was what, to my mind, was the best sentence ever written — “Jesus wept”. Two simple words that carried immense meaning.

This wasn’t because we were particularly religious — hey it was a newspaper — but because those nine letters resonated far beyond the actual words used.

Using the word “Jesus” instantly brought dozens of concepts to mind: whether you were a close follower or not, you probably knew the story of Jesus, and so could bring many thoughts to the word. Jesus was a leader, a prophet, God, a wise man, a healer, a thinker, a preacher, a miracle worker, etc.

The word “wept” conveyed almost as much. Why did Jesus weep? For us, because we were frailer than he was; because mankind didn’t understand his mission; because the Romans were taking him away to be crucified; because it succinctly summed up the theory of Christianity; or all of the above?

Two simple words that told a powerful story and so were worth far more than their size. And that’s what every marketer and communicator has to keep in mind today.

Back in the day of the transition from broadsheet to tabloid writing the concept of a short story was considered sacrilegious, but rapidly became the norm. And writing has progressed continually since.

We’re now in an era where social networking style of writing is the most common style used. Acronyms, short forms, mobile messaging, flaming, punchy and to the point writing rule. Try using newspaper style in a PR 2.0 press release or a blog post today and you’ll quickly spill out all over the place. Worse, your message will probably disappear into the morass.

Today, when you write (and think), you have to get to the essence all the time. There’s no room for vague and fuzzy; no time or space for bringing in vaguely interesting, albeit extraneous, concepts.

You have to know the worth of every word.

There are so many messages, so much information transferred visually or aurally, so many demands on attention, that there is no room for the big, sweeping style of communication that was once so common. Neither is there room for the kind of fuzziness so favored by corporate communicators whose objective was to obscure more than inform.

In a sense, today, you have to think in headlines and taglines all the time. Or at least in bullet points. Whatever has multiple meanings and psychological triggers.

So, whenever you sit down at the keyboard, slow down and think “Jesus Wept”.