Why Shopper Marketing NEEDS Content Strategy

I have been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of shopper marketing and content strategy. For the uninitiated, shopper marketing focuses on the actual conversion as opposed to top- or mid-funnel activity like awareness or arguably engagement. 

While not necessarily confined to in-store, retail activity, most agencies that specialize in shopper marketing focus on POS (point of sale). On many shopper marketing agency sites, you will see a lot about packaging, signage, displays, etc. Some work with or have bolted on a PR component to make further hay out of any special event. But I find few agencies that embrace a rigorous strategic component BEFORE diving into the in-store marketing. Of the top 10 search results that include "shopper marketing," only one ("shopper marketing research") contains an element of messaging or strategy. (Not definitive evidence, I realize, but illustrative at least.)

Content strategy can add a lot to shopper marketing; likewise, content strategists can also learn a lot from shopper marketers. I will get more into why shopper marketing agencies need to embrace content strategy later, but let's take a look at how user behavior has changed in the last decade as it will likely point toward how agencies must evolve to meet demand.

We Sure Don't Shop Like We Used To

I cringe at these citations, but bare with me. The wikipedia entry for shopper marketing cites several stats, including:

  • 70% of brand selections are made at stores (GMA Online, 2007)
  • 68% of buying decisions are unplanned (MediaBuyerPlanner, 2006)

These stats describe a free-wheeling retail experience which is unfamiliar to me, at least. Now, let's look at some more recent figures from The Zero Moment of Truth.

  • Consumers are viewing much more content online before making a purchase decision. In 2010, consumers consulted 5.7 pieces of content online before making a purchase. That number almost double in a year. In 2011, the average was 10.4 pieces of content. You can bet that the number of pieces is only increasing.
  • Consumers are spending more time with that online content. In 2010, 9% of a consumer's research time was spent online, pre-POS. In just a year, that almost doubled to 17% of research time in 2011. Again, bet on that figure only increasing.

So, if consumers are investigating pre-purchase more and more, why would many shopper agencies cede that territory to focus on POS? Short answer: they shouldn't. Enter content strategy.

Content Strategy <3 Education

Awareness and engagement are easy answers to the pre-purchase conundrum, but they are also vague. In my opinion, educational content is where shopper agencies should develop their offerings and content strategy is perfectly positioned to define educational content: what already exists, what consumers want to know, the type of content they prefer, channel of choice, content cadence, etc. (Educational content definitely hits awareness and can also hit upon engagement too, of course.)

Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, had this to say on the topic (emphasis mine):

"If you have no real basis for comparing one product to another, the normal instinct is to buy what's cheaper. But if a store sets itself up to educate shoppers, even just a little, a certain number of them will spend more than what is absolutely necessary." (Updated version, page 190)

I was recently working with a big-name brand who offers home appliance repairs, digging into their content and investigating what leads up to this brand getting a call to fix a dishwasher, air conditioner, etc. After performing a content audit and mapping out the user journey, we were able to discern exactly where this brand was supporting the consumer through the funnel with educational content and where they were lacking. (This exercise alone will have a huge impact - they will spend their money more wisely producing exactly the content their consumers need with fewer editorial revisions and served up in multiple channels. This efficiency will save them thousands, if not millions.)

But, when combined with secondary research, we learned that a big problem was that a lot of these customers did not know how to be repair customers. They didn't fix things themselves, but a lot didn't regularly call for repairs either. We needed to illustrate what a repair service call looked like in order to put them at ease. Our job, through content, was to make them better repairs consumers. Truly fascinating!

Content Strategy In Action With Shopper Marketing

There are many ways content strategy adds value to shopper marketing efforts. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use digital (educational) content to drive to in-store sales. Online orders only count for 11.6% of total retail dollars, but digital can still drive sales into stores. Content strategy can help define customer pain points and determine topics that will help snag the conversion - online or in-store.
  2. Use content to help make decisions (or up-sell) while in-store. With 80% of shoppers using their smartphone while in the store, digital couponing while in-store is occurring more and more. Content wrapped around those coupons help the in-store consumer make purchase decisions and provide the opportunity for retailers to up-sell. Content pre- and post-purchase - based on various data sources - would also be a powerful addition.
  3. Use content to convince and persuade through signage. This poster from the CDC and displayed in Walgreens is a great example of a seemingly innocuous decision that can be changed through educational content.
  4. Use content to way-find or ease the shopping experience. Ideas like a mobile concierge (page 5) would be popular to guide consumers to items they want (whether they are familiar with those items or not) or give location help while in-store. Content strategists could help advise what in-store problems people are expressing online as well as recommend other relevant products to promote.
  5. Use content to create a unique experience in-store. Kate Spade, in partnership with eBay, and others are playing around with digital selection experiences. A content strategist could determine not only user needs at the POS, but also assess criterion consumers use to make decisions to create a decision-making experience that is fun and playful. (TV shopping alone would never be the same.)

The Other Side Of The Coin

Naturally, integration between content strategy and shopper marketing could yield these and many more positive results for clients. I'm able to focus more on the content strategy side of things because that's the world I know. That said, content strategy could certainly learn from shopper marketing practices as well.

One element I would urge content strategists to learn from shopper marketers is that the buyer isn't necessarily the consumer. (Think about beer purchases and consumptions.) Content strategists spend a lot of time thinking about consumers and their needs, but they often don't pay as much attention to behavioral patterns and differences that may emerge. Or content strategists focus only on digital and sometimes ignore anything that falls outside of the digital realm. We can certainly learn those lessons from our friend specializing in shopper marketing.

Comments?

So, what do you think? Please feel free to poke holes in this argument. I look forward to all constructive criticism in hopes of presenting a more clear understanding of how these disciplines can learn from each other.

Grow Up: Content IS a Commodity

The always-impressive Rachel Lovinger wrote about a recent backlash she is seeing to the word "content."

While I haven't experienced exactly what she is describing, I have seen symptoms of this bigger illness - mostly that "content" is so vague a term as to allow the uneducated or uninitiated to play in the space with subpar results. (Basically the same dynamic we saw a few years ago in terms of unique, quality content versus the content farms online detritus.)

Lovinger deftly sums up the issue:

The core problem seems to be a feeling that the word “content” reduces thoughtful, artistic expressions to a commodity. The websites and apps we develop to elegantly deliver words, images and media experiences are perceived as empty containers, hungry for content to be poured into them. Content marketing campaigns depend on calendars that demand to be filled on a regularly scheduled basis. This may give the impression that an effective approach to content is to churn out generic stuff that fits the size and shape of the container, and meets the deadlines.

Content Isn't Art

While I certainly share a distain for garbage content or even the practices that produce it, it also got me thinking about the other end of the spectrum. There will always be those who try to churn out a crappy product (content, in this case) faster and cheaper. But there are also those on the other end who do as much damage by elevating content to an artistic expression

I fall into the pragmatic center. I tend to agree with Lee Clow that an advertisement is a piece of communication. Content may require someone with artistic sensibilities, but it is not art. Content IS a commodity. 

Why am I so emphatically "reducing" content to a commodity? Because I've tried to sell just an idea to a client. It never works. They might agree, but agreeing to something as imperceivable as an idea is never something that can be approved by a corporation. 

The success I've had with content marketing is, in fact, largely because I can package up content programs into commodities. Looking over current content to see what you can repurpose is a good idea. But a content audit is something a client can buy. BIG difference. 

I see sweet, well-meaning agency folks fail consistently because they simply don't give a client something she could actually purchase.

We work in a business with a lot of vagueness. Even our most concrete metrics don't tell a clear story all the time. (For instance, does time on site mean that a viewer is really interested or does it mean they're confused and can't find what they want right away?) We're at our best when we eliminate vagueness for our client. That's the way to truly become a strategic partner.

Commoditize Your Content Strategy

I'm not a business guy. I'm an English major. I don't get friendly with the numbers side of our business all that often. But I am also a problem solver. And the only way to solve the client's problem is to convince them to do what you know needs done.

So, give your idea a name. Consider additional components that might go into that commodity. Think about how long it will take, what is in scope and out of scope. Outline the goals and what documents you will deliver at the end of the project. 

A client needs to buy a commodity, not an idea. Ideas are great for art. But we're in the business of provoking action. That requires a commodity. And in our case, that commodity is content. Long live content commodities.

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Please share via your social network (links below). Also, stay tuned for part two where I discuss what isn't a commodity: strategic leadership. Fun times!  

Can The Crowdsourcing Business Model Survive?

CNN recently asked me whether crowdsourcing could survive as a viable agency business model. My answer: No way.

I was proud to contribute to their story, Can Crowdsourcing Reconnect With The Crowd?

CNN's reporter had seen my post denouncing crowdsourcing as the "fool's gold of internet business models." (Though please note - I did follow that post with one about a company that's doing crowdsourcing right.)

The CNN article allowed me to note one particularly egregious element. The crowdsourcing companies that focus on the inexpensive cost of the service will certainly be the first to fail. From the article:

"Really they're just saying 'we can extract creative gold for these folks even less expensively than you were paying before,' which is terrible from an ethical point of view, but also it just won't hold up, because it's not based on strategy or creativity or smart business."

In short, a fly-by-night business model will never deliver the long-term strategy required for businesses to succeed. Some crowdsourcing companies - the ones who see it as a means, not an end - will thrive, but the rest will soon die off.

What do you think? The OMB community would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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Content Strategists and Planners: What's The Difference?

What’s the difference between planners and content strategists? How is content strategy a different discipline and what type of people should lead it? Why are we making a distinction between the roles now?

These are all valid questions. Neither practice is going away, so this is the time to determine the appropriate roles and responsibilities.

But I've sensed some agency angst since these roles share basic principles (likely more so than even CSers and copywriters). However, I only feel qualified to speak for the content strategists, so...

Planners: What do you think about my description of content strategists below? Are we encroaching on your turf? Is there room for everyone? And content strategists: how do we make the most of our relationship with planners?

Whither content strategists?

First, we must understand that the ecosystem has changed. Content proliferation has been exponential, especially in recent years. Everyone is a publisher (evidence: blogs, UGC, smart phones, etc.). And all of this content needs assessed, ranked, and compared; hence, the rise of aggregator sites, search engines, dynamically displayed content, and product reviews.

Maybe a planner used to be enough to handle the volume of content. And for a small site or organization, they still might be. But with over 15 years of content and double or triple that amount ready to be thrown onto the pile, it is time to admit that:

  1. Content is a different animal
  2. Planners have enough on their plates, and
  3. We should each be specialists in our areas.

How are content strategists different from planners?

While similar, planners and content strategists possess different skill sets. For instance, a content strategists needs to possess:

  • A history with words and writing in order to educate and thus inspire the creative process. While planners assess a brand, its competitors, or the industry, content strategists must prepare for text on the page – a different exercise completely.
  • A background in messaging. Content strategists plan for the creation of content that conveys trust, for instance, while still selling. This is only possible thanks to a planner’s insights, but is a separate skill set.
  • Subject matter expertise, be it legal, regulatory, etc. It’s more than research or the insights garnered therein – it’s tangible to creation, guiding creativity through particular hurdles, much like IAs guide designers.
  • Turning philosophy into action. While never diving into the depths of data planners reach, content strategists must be able to seize planners’ insights, but convey exactly how that translates to each page, no matter how (seemingly) insignificant.

The good news is that there is more than enough room for planners and content strategists. The challenge will be to allow each specialist to embrace their role in the planning process.

But what do you think? Is this accurate?

I'd love to hear from content strategists and planners (especially you planners). How are our roles similar and how are they different? What are the ideal skill sets and background of a digital planner?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

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25 Content Strategy Blog Posts I'd Like To Read

You read Content Strategy for the Web or maybe just some blog posts on the subject. Maybe you attended the Web Content conference last week or just think content strategy could be for you. No matter your expertise, there's no mistaking: we need more intelligence devoted to content strategy. Here are 25 ideas for content strategy blog posts you should think about writing. How about tackling one this week?

If you do, feel free to link back to this post so your readers can get inspired too. In that respect, props to Chris Brogan and his post, 50 Blog Posts Marketers Could Write for their Companies, for inspiring this post.

Which post are you going to write?

For the content strategy newbie:

  • How did you first hear about content strategy? What piqued your interest that first time?
  • What are the top 3 benefits of a content strategy program, in your opinion. Or what 3 ways will it change the way you work day to day?
  • How are you educating yourself about content strategy? What blogs or books are you using?
  • How does your previous (or current) job prepare you for future content strategy work?
  • Some say that content strategy practitioners are to copywriting as information architects are to design. Have you found this to be the case in your position?
  • How do you explain content strategy to your closest co-workers? What metaphor aptly describes content strategy in your office?
  • From where do you draw your daily inspiration? This could be a person, place, experience, book, or feeling.
  • What do you most enjoy about content strategy? What makes you the happiest in your job?

For the content strategy journeyman:

  • What has been your most successful content strategy effort? What one thing helped it work?
  • How do you explain what you do to your grandparents?
  • What personality traits have you found serve you well? Which ones trip you up?
  • What's the biggest hole in your industry that content strategy can help fill? How is your industry in particular reacting to content strategy?
  • In the latest action movie you've seen, which character would have been most like a content strategist? Why? Is the content strategist the hero?
  • Having had some experience in the practice, what are you most looking forward to in the next year in content strategy? Where are the biggest opportunities?
  • How have you gotten involved in the content strategy community? Have you joined a Google group? Your local CS meet-up?
  • What's been the biggest internal dispute you've had this year regarding content strategy? How about with your client?

For expert content strategists:

  • What are you doing to promote content strategy in your organization? How are you a content strategy ambassador?
  • How has your agency or business implemented content strategy in the last year? What was the impetus?
  • How did your college degree prepare you for your content strategy job, especially since it's highly likely you did not major in content strategy? What path would you recommend to future strategists?
  • What are some new opportunities you see in the field this year? What stands out to make an impact in the next quarter?
  • Failure can often provide priceless insight. What have you learned from recent failures?
  • What's the first thing you do in the morning to prepare for your work each day? How does it help your content strategy work?
  • What processes have you set up in your agency or business to improve your content strategy? What's been your biggest hold-up?
  • How have you customized your offerings to match your client's needs? Did it make the end strategy result better or worse?
  • What leadership are you showing outside of your own organization? How are you expanding your influence for the betterment of content strategy?

Which topic will you take on? Please leave a comment on this post if you answer these, so the rest of the community can read your answer.

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What is content strategy and why should I care?

You've heard about content strategy, but aren't exactly sure what it is. And you don't know exactly how it fits into the agency process. It's OK. We've got you covered.

The video below tells you everything you want to know about content strategy, but didn't know you needed to ask. It's only 3 minutes long. And it uses Post-It notes. Quick and easy.

Check it out below or on the OnlineMarketerBlog YouTube channel. I hope it's helpful - I'd love to hear your comments!

Don't forget to stay subscribed to videos via iTunes. Thanks!

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The One Question Content Strategists Can Never Ask Too Much

Yesterday, I was in a tough meeting. We knew there was a problem. But we couldn't figure out the answer. (Sound familiar?)

We talked about capabilities, functionality, and process. Nothing was clicking.

Taking a recommendation from Switch, I asked a simple question that (for me) turned around the meeting:

If this problem was solved right now, can you describe what it would look like?

Immediately, the conversation changed. Once the goal was identified, all we needed to do was come up with a plan to get there. As strategists, this is our golden zone!

It wasn't until this morning that I realized why this was so important, especially in a creative agency.

Scott McCloud explains the six steps in the creative process in his (awesome) book Understanding Comics. The six steps are:

  1. Idea/Purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

For more details, just buy the book (you should - there's a ton of great theory in there). But creation process aside, just look at those words.

Remind you of an agency at all?

Account folks give form to our projects. Developers build the structures that hold our creations. Designers use their craft to create beautiful surfaces. (I'm taking some liberties with McCloud's list, but you get my drift.)

So where do content strategists appear?

We touch all points in the creation process, but our main impact is felt at the beginning of this process - shaping ideas from insights and determining how to satisfy users as well as the business objectives.

We all get stuck seeing only the trees instead of the forest from time to time. But strategists are required to see above the treeline and point the way toward the goal.

Asking someone to describe what a solution looks like in effect takes them from ground level where they worry about their position, their budget, their resources, their deadlines...and transports them to the end goal. Whew!

Once we imagine ourselves at the goal, it's much easier to turn around and figure out how we got there. There's less clutter. Less in-fighting. More solutions.

As the idea people - designers of the core content experience - it's incumbent upon us to guide the idea-creation process. And sometimes to take that first step, we need to just imagine being at the last step and then figure out how we got there.

What do you think?

Have you found that asking your teammates to describe success has helped guide your strategy? What hiccups have you faced along the way?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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How Bogotá Completely Changed (And Its Lessons For You) Part 2

[Read Bogotá part one for more awesomeness about Bogotá Change and Switch.]

The Carrot Law

Mockus wasn't finished. There were 70 homicides for every 100,000 people - far, far too high.

Instead of trying to confront the whole populous with PSAs, instead of confronting the symptoms by increasing penalties for public intoxication, he simply halted the problem at its source.

Mockus sent out the mandate: Bars must close at 1am. Fewer drunks. Less drunk. In bed earlier.

He called it The Carrot Law - slang for someone who doesn't smoke for drink. And it worked.

Likewise, the Heath brothers assert the power of small changes in Switch. And that these small changes can have a huge impact.

"It's a theme we've seen again and again - big changes come from a succession of small changes. It's OK if the first changes seem almost trivial...With each step, the Elephant [your emotional urge] feels less scared and less reluctant, because things are working." (page 147)

Other tactics complimented The Carrot Law. Police were reeducated in non-violent tactics - not broad "interactions" as a whole, but each small interaction with citizens.

In addition to violence in the community, Mockus also focused on violence originating in the home. Children were encouraged to report offenders in their own families and taught to direct their anger at inanimate object.

The belief in the administration was that violence in the home was just repeated in the streets. This was a full-scale, city-wide re-direction of aggression.

Maybe it sounded crazy went it started. But in the 4 years under Mockus, the number of deaths was reduced by 1/3 and kept going down afterwards.

Enrique Penalosa - A Businessman For Urban Design

Mayors in Bogotá are restricted to one term, so after Mockus, newly party-less Enrique Penalosa became the city's second independent mayor.

Unlike the professorial Mockus, Penalosa was a businessman. But he'd promised to continue the work Mockus began.

Traffic volume was still a problem and Penalosa was pressured to build expensive elevated highways. But that wouldn't have fixed the problem - just moved the problem into the sky.

Instead, he urged rejection of the expensive elevated highways and, instead, poured that money into both improving public transportation as well as completely altering the highways.

When he started, public transportation fought for space amongst the cars and trucks. But in Penalosa's plan, the car lanes became bus lanes. And the buses were refurbished into beautiful modern vehicles.

You could still drive a car, but it'd be even more crowded than before, as you were pushed to the side lanes. And as you're baking in your car, thinking about the gas money you're burning, you'd look over to the bus lanes, gliding along in comfort. Pretty persuasive, don't you think?

Penalosa wasn't cracking down or forbidding anything. Instead, he smoothed the path he wanted people to go on.

People aren't bad; they just usually take the easier route. In this case, quite literally, the easiest route was by bus.

The Heaths cite another executive changing different behavior through similar means.

"'We're taught to focus on incentives by our business background,' say Bregman [a successful change agent]. 'Or even our parents: "Do this or you won't get your allowance!"' But executives - and parents - often have more tools than they think they have. If you change the path, you'll change the behavior." (page 185)

In just 36 months, the Penalosa administration went from idea to the first fleet on the road. The result: less traffic, less pollution, and less class conflict (between those with cars and those without).

Now, 1.6M Bogotáns travel by public transport every day and another 400,000 use their bikes. Overall, traffic has decreased by 22%.

Can't Argue With Results

Mockus, the professor. Penalosa, the businessman. Two very different men working toward their goals through very unusual means.

But you can't argue with the results. These days, 98.5% of kids in Bogotá go to school. Since 1994, homocide dropped 70%.

The tactics outlined in Bogotá Change and Switch work. And they can create change in your life too.

The most important lesson in my mind is that these were men who believed that change was possible - they believed it fundamentally, deep into their bones.

The Heaths call it a "growth mindset." (page 164) No matter the name - and no matter how cheesy it sounds sometimes - the first step in creating change is believing it's possible.

How are you going to create change? Which of these lessons resonate with you?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

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How Bogotá Completely Changed (And Its Lessons For You) Part 1

A city in ruins. Rampant corruption. All systems - political, social, judicial - broken.

But, as it turns out, not beyond repair.

You simply must watch the documentary Bogotá Change. It tells the story of how one of the most crime-ridden, downtrodden, disbelieving cities made a transformation - in less than a decade! - to a city on the rise. (For a limited time, this movie is free on Comcast - On Demand > TV Entertainment > Sundance Channel. Watch it.)

Many of the ideas that started working for Bogotá in 1994 are the same as those outlined in the recent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

At their core, both the book and the movie describe how amazing leaders created real change. But each also contains lessons for ways in which you can create change within your own life as well.

The rest of this post will list some of these ideas. But a simple blog post isn't enough. Read the book. Watch the movie.

And then, shake things up for yourself.

"Crazy" Antanas Mockus, His Superhero Suit, And Simple Problems

Antanas Mockus - Bogotá's first-ever independent mayor - was...not a typical politician. He was thrust into the spotlight when he mooned his university, for instance (with a slight nod to goatse, if you watch carefully). He also fought back physically against protesters at a debate - literally swinging punches. This guy was friggin' nuts.

But he was right about a lot as well. He put the philosophy of his academic life into action. He said, flat out, that he wanted to change people's morality. While he might misbehave, he was unshakably moral, striving for honesty in every action. Through this morality, he was able to change his country's behavior.

"I think that he was very clear that through education...that if he educated people, if people were behaving in a different way, then the city would transform itself." -Guillermo Penalosa, Director of Parks & Recreation

How did Mockus change behavior? For one, he dressed up in a superhero suit before publicly picking up garbage and painting over graffiti.

Much like Malcolm Gladwell explained in The Tipping Point in reference to graffiti elimination and fare-jumping stoppage in the New York City train system, Mockus fixed these small, but very public, elements.

As the Heath brothers explain, leaders create big change "by formulating solutions that were strikingly smaller than the problems they were intended to solve." (page 71) Change agents send the message that these small (bad) behaviors are simply not accepted here, which leads logically to other, bigger, behavioral changes.

And when these small behaviors were improved, people feel better about themselves not just as individuals, but as a collective people. Mockus frequently mentions how "we" behave.

The Heath's concur. "[The science] shows us that people are receptive to developing new identities, that identities 'grow' from small beginnings." (page 161) Mockus knew this. Create small change and link it to people's identity of themselves.

Soon, it became known that Bogotáns didn't disrespect their city by leaving their trash around or writing graffiti on the walls. And that meant the public space was to be cared for. That's how big change started to happen.

Traffic, A Thumbs-Down Sign, And Mimes

Mockus wasn't finished. Traffic in Bogota was another problem.

Citizens ignored traffic laws. Chaos ruled the roads. And the traffic cops were even more morally corrupt than average.

Mockus started small. He gave drivers a white "thumbs-up" sign and a red "thumbs-down" sign. How could this solve the traffic problem?

Drivers complimented other drivers by flashing a thumbs-up when that driver obeyed the law. When a driver didn't follow the rules, they saw a lot of red thumbs pointing down.

It's not that people didn't know the rules. It's just that there was no societal pressure to obey them. Bogotans were taking the easiest path (literally).

Mockus didn't stop there. He employed traffic mimes. (Yes, you read that correctly: traffic mimes.)

These mimes scripted proper behavior. They stood in front of trucks attempting to cut in line. They walked elderly citizens across the street, in front of cars that could have plowed through the pedestrians.

Scripting behavior works and the Heaths know it:

"Ambiguity is the enemy. Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves." (page 53-54)

I think it goes even further. Mimes are like children. They're non-confrontational; they can script behavior without raising ire. I think that's a huge component in their successful campaign.

This exercise showed that even the least infraction of the law would no longer be tolerated. It is thought that the mimes had an effect on the level of violence decreasing in the country at around this time.

Not Done Yet

I hope you've enjoyed part one of this study of Bogotá and Switch. Tomorrow, I'll provide a few more examples and reveal numbers describing the effect of these campaigns.

Please tune in later this week to read part two. Subscribing is a great way to ensure you won't miss it!

Update: Here's part 2!

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Your Marketing Will Suck Without Theory

I played the piano for 8 years when I was a kid. I could sight-read Bach, Mozart...anyone, really. But I was never as good a musician as my friends who understood musical theory. The theory just never interested me. So I couldn't take piano playing any further than I did.

In college, however, I was obsessed with literary theory. Barthes, de Saussure, Derrida, even Foucault - these were my supermen. Understanding the mythologies and iconic systems we use to explain our world to others was fascinating. I hope to spend my retirement exploring these ideas.

Some readers may remember I love comics and graphic novels. I recently picked up Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. He begins the book with a broad explanation of comic theory (yes, there is such a thing and it's really interesting). Citing everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the Bayeux Tapestry to Rene Magritte's famous pipes, he begins with theory of - our philosophy of - sequential art.

But today, I'm a marketer. And it's likely that you are as well. How should we interact with theory?

Theory Takes Work

If abstract elements like music, literature, and comics have theory, surely we can agree that theory will be useful for our marketing.

And let's face it - your marketing will suck without theory.

If your designers create something beautiful without knowing how it will sell the product: Fail. If your copywriters dream of being Hemingway rather than John Caples: Fail. If you can't communicate a product's benefits to the consumer: Epic fail.

You must know your craft. We ought to say we "practice" marketing the way lawyers "practice" law. Every day is an opportunity to learn more. David Ogilvy understood this:

We prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests. (page 20, Confessions of an Advertising Man)

In other words, you might hit on a "Got Milk?" every once in awhile, but that's no way to run a business.

Study, Study, Study

How much do you study your craft? I'm not talking about skimming through Ad Week while you're on the toilet. I'm talking about really learning it, practicing it, and molding yourself into the best there is.

Ogilvy wasn't charmed by our reliance on art or a flowery sentence. Later in the same book, he stated: "This willful refusal to learn the rudiments of the craft is all too common. I cannot think of any other profession which gets by on such a small corpus of knowledge. (my emphasis)"

Read as much as you can. I'm nowhere near the best at what I do, but I'm trying. I recommend learning from these sources.

But look outside the fishbowl as well. Learning the ways in which our brains operate can make you more persuasive. Learning how and why people make decisions can help you inspire their future choices. Look for inspiration in weird and wonderful places.

What About You?

How are you using theory to improve your marketing? Do you think about the philosophical ramifications of why you do what you do?

I firmly believe that history bears proof that tough practice trumps a fuzzy type of innate "genius" any day of the week. So how are you going to out-work your competitors this week? How will theory make the difference between an impression and a sale? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Is There No Way To Prove The Value Of Content Strategy?

I'm trying to convince non-creative folks about the value of content strategy. I need facts and figures. Bonus points for graphs.

All I need to prove is that the stuff on your website is valuable to visitors. That content matters.

But there is a serious lack of empirical research to prove this. Why aren't there studies done on the value of content strategy? Is the topic too broad? Is it just common sense?

Proving Our Value

As content strategists, we should be able to appeal to emotion, common sense, and hard logic to convince skeptics of our value.

Emotion I can do. We're solving user's problems and creating a great experience. Common sense is a little fuzzier, but it still works - after all, why wouldn't the content on your site be valuable?

But hard logic - numbers and graphs - I'm having a tough time here.

Melissa Rach from Brain Traffic gets the award for closest to the mark, but even this is too convoluted for an internal or client presentation.

Content Strategy, Not Social Media

I can show you a dozen studies - Forrester, eMarketer, MarketingSherpa - that prove social media's worth. The ROI of social media topic is so 2008.

But broader content - not just on a Twitter feed or blog, but incorporating all website text, metadata, videos, etc. - finding hard evidence for that is proving impossible.

Please Prove Me Wrong

I've searched on paid and unpaid professional research sites. I have worked the limits of my Google powers. But maybe you can help.

As a content strategist, how do you prove your value, in real, empirical numbers? What studies do you use? What have I missed?

I cannot honestly believe there has not been a study of this information (and if so, what a huge oversight!). Content strategists are in a battle to prove their relevance. We'll need research, studies, ROI figures, etc to do this.

I would love to hear what studies you've seen or learn how you are coping with this challenge.

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Only Hardasses Need Read Halvorson's Content Strategy For The Web

Nevermind the title of this post. Forget it. Don't read this book. That's it - end of review.

(Are they gone? Is it just us hardasses?)

Let me be straight: Kristina Halvorson's book Content Strategy for the Web is not for marketing tourists. It ain't for folks who think a Twitter account equals any sort of expertise.

This is a handbook for content strategy badasses. Not sure if you're tough enough to join the club? This book can answer that question as well.

Honestly, I've been dying to review this book for awhile, but took so long because it's so filling. Like a shepherd's pie and Guinness (my lunch of choice incidentally), this book provides a hearty gut-punch of awesomeness.

THE Handbook for CS Success

Content Strategy for the Web covers everything  from the basic elements of process (audit, analysis, and strategy; page 35-36), to questions that a content strategy answers (there's a bunch; page 84), to ways to determine success (meeting users' needs and supporting key business objectives; page 15)

Most importantly, this book - more than any other out there - will guide you in creating a content strategy program of your very own.

Most people aren't interested in this. The same way they weren't interested in information architecture in 1997.

Those folks will keep creating websites with pretty pictures that lack useful, usable content. It won't help their search results, it won't help their customers complete a task, and it certainly won't move the needle for their profits.

And that's why any agency should be damn interested in hiring a content strategy hardass.

What Do These Badasses Do?

Well, that's sort of the point of the whole book.

But in short, they analyse what stuff is on your site, what stuff should be on your site (based on planner research, customer insights, and competitive research), the process to get that stuff on your site, and the schedule to keep that stuff relevant, factually correct, and engaging.

I hate sounding vague about this process since the book is so clear and precise. But it's necessary because this really is a guidebook. I can't explain the whole thing - but I can give you my expert opinion (not to sound pompous, but I'm one of the lucky few to get paid to do content strategy full time).

So What Do I Think?

I can honestly say this has been the most helpful book to help me define for others exactly what I do and why. It has changed the way I think about content strategy - solidified it, formalized it - and will have a definite, positive effect in how I do my job.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in content strategy, but most especially those already tasked with the job. If you feel push-back in your agency or find yourself defending your raison d'être, this book will help you immensely.

This is also a great book for unsatisfied library science scholars, copywriters, information architects, and others. If you have a niggling feeling that you aren't satisfied in your current position and think content strategy might be your next career step, this is definitely the book to help you decide.

Get Content Strategy for the Web and channel your inner CS hardass. It's not for everyone - but it could be the very thing you're looking for. It was for me.

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Follow-up On Ethics - Crisis Management Begins Before The Crisis

I followed up my ethics post from yesterday with a post on the Experience Matters blog entitled "Crisis Management Begins Before The Crisis" (disclosure: it's my employer's blog). Here's the very beginning and the very end:

"Toyota reminds me of a guy who buys flood insurance the day after the big rain...

It’s this process of being heard that gives companies the opportunity to speak to customer emotions. After all, this is empathy. This is a chance to change an ethical crisis into a recommitment to good behavior.

An open dialogue might just allow your brand loyalists to save you during a crisis. Imagine that."

Believe me, the middle section is worth your time. Find the full post here: http://experiencematters.criticalmass.com/2010/03/11/crisis-management-begins-before-the-crisis/

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What is Ethical Strategy (And Does It Really Work)?

Marketers are faced with ethical quandaries every day.

Sometimes these are big issues – What is the lawful (and tasteful) line when marketing to children? Could I work for Big Tobacco?

Most times though these decisions are small – decisions that determine which tactics are fair game and which are off the table.

This subject got me thinking about ethical strategy. Does it hurt or help a marketer to live and work by a strict ethical code? How can we be as persuasive as possible without sacrificing our souls?

A Path With Roadblocks?

A strategy is a plan to reach a goal – a path leading to the achievement of business objectives, in our case. As I first thought about it, an ethical strategy seemed limiting. It seemed as though ethics would limit the tactics marketers could use to reach their goals.

An ethical strategy, for instance, might limit the number and types of magazines we advertise in. It might limit the extent we can distribute content across the web. It could alter the way we talk to customers. These limits would act as roadblocks on our strategic path and slow or stop us from reaching our goals.

The Golden Rule

But, maybe I’m wrong.

If we can agree that the most widely accepted rule of ethics is the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – then ethics must have some connection to emotions.

Emotions and the Golden Rule require us to:

  • Understand others (or at least try)
  • Develop empathy and sympathy
  • Grow our Emotional Quotient – the ability to access and manage one’s own emotions as well as those of others or a group
  • Accept our social role – humans as social creatures within a structure of mutually agreed-upon rules

Employing these traits could help us to craft new, more focused strategies by listening and caring about our customers.

If we accept that emotion and these traits are required for an ethical strategy, could this actually be a benefit rather than a roadblock?

Ethical Strategy, Better Tactics

What if, with emotional understanding and an eye to the Golden Rule, we could create better strategy and better tactics than if we went down an unethical route?

After all, what have we learned with the advent of social media than that our networks and our ability to connect and relate have great power?

Maybe unethical shortcuts are really no shortcuts at all. I now think we’re in a world where an ethical strategy would actually be more effective. Developing a strategy that involves your customers or fans, requires honesty and transparency, and generally celebrates collaboration – aren’t these common elements in some of the most amazing success stories of the last 10 years?

And those who hid or lied or cheated – doesn’t that always come to light? The Enrons of the world are many, but nowadays they are far, far more likely to be found out and publically shamed.

What About You?

I changed my mind when it came to ethical strategy. In addition to thinking it’s the correct way to market, I now believe it’s the most effective as well.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on ethical strategy. Is it the best option for online marketers? When have you felt like you crossed an ethical line? What did you do about it?

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5 Ways To Promote Creative Marketing

Last night I was perusing an article from the Harvard Business Review by Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, entitled "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity." I was really struck by how their principles for inciting creativity are the very same I've written about here for marketers.

It shouldn't be surprising; anyone who has been in marketing for some time knows just how creative you need to be to succeed. Sometimes it's the "big idea" kind of creative. Other times it's a creative endeavour to include 10 message points in one sentence or create a feasible campaign in a week and a half. That's creative too, believe me.

There are 5 ideas in this article that Catmull speaks to that really struck a nerve with me. I'm going to link to some past articles that relate to these points - I hope you take a minute to read them. It proves that not only is marketing a creative field, but that creativity is an exercise only for the brave.

How Do You Promote Creativity?

1) Embrace Fear: Catmull says, "[I]f we aren't always at least a little scared, we're not doing our job...This means we have to put ourselves at great risk."

Not too long ago, I wrote about how risky marketing is, and how we should embrace the fear that comes from it. Today, as I read this quote, I think it's even more true now than it was when I mentioned it.

"Once you get over the fear of being different, of possibly failing, a world of possibilities opens up. Are you still worried? Well, maybe this will help tip the scales:

You’ve got no choice."

Embrace the fear. Everyone feels it. And fear can be debilitating or any amazingly creative stimulus.

2) Welcome Risk: We work in an ever-changing industry. It will never be the "same old, same old." If you don't want to risk your ass, you shouldn't have put it on the line by placing it in a marketing office.

Catmull has some advice for the leadership: "[W]e as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done."

This reminds me of my "Failure Isn't Fatal" post:

"As I wrote earlier in the week, our job as marketers is not to mitigate risk by going along with the status quo. Our job is to manage the risk and sometimes we fail.

That stinks, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s inherent to the job. So it’s better to get in there and figure out your best odds of success (and learn from your mistakes)."

Which leads perfectly into...

3) Learn From Failures: You won't get rid of risk and you are going to fail at some point in your career. But the most creative marketers are the ones who figure out why they failed and learn from it. Failure is inherent in creative people.

From Catmull: "If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it's uncomfortable, and have the capability to recover when your organization takes a big risk and fails."

4) Realize That Community Matters: Catmull contends that "community matters" in the sense that a group of highly talented creatives can turn out extraordinary things.

For marketers though, community is something outside of our team usually. They are the hordes we hope to influence (hordes in the nicest way possible, I mean). And we can't do that by simply interrupting more loudly or more often.

I think Joseph Jaffe is correct is his definition of the new creativity - one in which a piece of marketing is gauged by the community's adoption of it.

"I don’t know how much originality is in the idea itself, but it’s in the execution where you see the real beauty of it. And ultimately that control and that power – and to what degree it becomes a meme and to what degree it lives on and gets a life of its own and gets embraced by the consumer – is ultimately in the hands of the consumer.

And maybe that can become the new definition of creativity."

5) Always Be Excellent: Catmull states that the success of Toy Story 2 was, "[I]t became deeply ingrained in our culture that everything we touch needs to be excellent."

It's easy to be crass about excellence. "Blah, blah," you might be thinking.

But I've seen it happen a bunch of times: the kid who excels in everything he does - though he might fail and get scoffed at and underestimated - he eventually almost always reaches that gold ring he'd been shooting for.

It's intimidating to see someone so much an active participant in their success. Intimidating and awesome.

What Did I Forget?

What did Catmull and I miss? How do you promote creativity in marketing?

There's a lot to worry about, a lot of potential pitfalls. But that's never going to change. How are you seizing the awesome today?

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Does Your Social Media Strategy Need A Zen Alarm Clock?

I'm a terrible sleeper.

No, scratch that - I'm a terrible waker-uper.

I set at least two alarms - one placed clear across the bedroom - and hit snooze enough times to wake and enrage BG (rightfully so). While I used to be disciplined enough to rise at 4:45am to write, I'm not disciplined enough to get up at 6am to even go to the gym.

That is, until I got a zen alarm clock (if you've never heard of this, you're not alone. This is one type we've got.)

This morning, progressive bells gently roused me from sleep instead of the heart-palpitation-inducing air raid siren alarms of the past. Slow and steady chimes was the order of the day and damned if it didn't work. I was up and out the door quicker than ever.

What does this have to do with your social media strategy?

I see so many people rush into things. They're scared - "We don't have a Twitter!" - and with a sudden burst they emerge on the scene. They follow 2,000 Twitterers or flood a blog with 20 posts in a week. And what inevitably happens?

They sputter out. They podfade. They don't garner followers or readers or friends.

Is your social media strategy the equivalent of an air raid siren alarm? Is it sudden, panicked, and rushed? These are not qualities of good strategy.

Instead, try a slow, reasoned approach to social media. Develop your tribe over time. Find an audience organically. Give before you get.

Try the zen alarm clock approach to your social media strategy. I can't guarantee you'll succeed, but you will definitely do better (and get more out of it personally) with this approach.

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5 Things Napoleon Can Teach You About Strategy

BG and I love documentaries and she has been on a "royals" kick. This week is a tad different, with Netflix delivering a four-hour documentary on Napoleon.

Needless to say, our Friday night was exciting. War, intrigue, ambition, wine (OK, lots of wine).

You all know how much I prize classic strategy. I've quoted Sun Tzu. I sleep with a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince on my bedside table. (True story.)

Honestly, I didn't know much about Napoleon before this video. But I was particularly impressed with one of his first major battles as a General.

He'd been promoted to Commander of the Interior and given command of the French forces at the Italian front. No one expected much. The promotion was likely arranged by his new wife, he was largely untested, and this army had been in disrepair for over two years.

Things could not have looked more dire.

However, as you might expect, Napoleon turned this all around, starting with a rout of the Piedmontese who were aligned with the strong Austrian force just east of Nice. Napoleon entered this battle out-manned, out-gunned, and out-classed. There was no reason for him to win, but he did.

Here are some of the reasons for his victory. It's amazing to see how many can be applied to online marketing and the strategic efforts we make everyday.

  • He is cunning - Napoleon wanted to outnumber the enemy, even if he didn't have the bodies to actually do so. He separated the Piedmontese from the Austrians and went after the weaker of the two. Before the battle, he spread his forces out. Not knowing where exactly he is, the Piedmontese do the same. And at the last minute, Napoleon brings his forces back together and makes a crucial push - at that instant with more men on his side than the enemy's. How are you planning for success? How are you preparing for the next brand crisis or industry shake-up?
  • He is fast - Napoleon's army moves at 30 miles per day. The Piedmontese at 6 miles per day. With greater speed, Napoleon also understands the power of shock. He attacks when it is unexpected. How are you insulating your brand from the unexpected? How are you moving faster than the competition?
  • He is relentless - From the documentary: "He attacks everyday. He attacks when it snows, he attacks at night, he attacks when it's cold. It's not the way the game is played." Later, Historian Jacques Garnier says "He looks for the enemy, fights it, and when they assume he's going to stop - he continues! And the next day he fights again. It surprises them." When was the last time you surprised your competition with your relentlessness?
  • He is ruthless - Napoleon doesn't seem like a man who lost sleep over winning. A historian reports that a Peidmontese officer would later complain, "They sent a young madman who attacks right, left, and from the rear. It's an intolerable way of making war." When was the last time you felt blood on your teeth? How do you press forward ruthlessly for your clients?
  • He gets results - After defeating the Piedmontese, Napoleon insisted on silver and gold, with which he paid his army - the first money they'd seen in months, if not years. Results garner loyalty. He made no apologies for success and he expected his soldier to take risks, but he also rewarded those risks as well. Are you encouraging your staff? Do you recognize their sacrifices? Aligning them to your objectives can pay off royally for everyone.

Perhaps even more persuasive - and more ubiquitous - is Napoleon's near-insane ambition. But how refreshing too! I'd much rather hear about someone too ambitious than someone afraid to even try. On which side do you fall?

He was crass, intelligent, homicidally ambitious, but a professor of the highest order. There is a great deal marketers and strategists can learn from Napoleon.

When was the last time you were crushing, fast, relentless, ruthless, and delivered results? How about any one of these five?

One can easily poo-poo Napoleon. But wiser wo/men will learn the lessons that delivered him victory. How are you applying these lessons?

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