This is the traffic sign at the Chambers Street Subway Station.
Single functioned. Primitive even. Yet a significant game changer for New Yorkers.
Generations of city residents and commuters, up to 3M people a day, have stood dumbly waiting, sweating and broiling in the summer heat for the next subway train. No possible idea when or even which train is coming.
This display, at one level, is a Jetson-quality, sci-fi like glimpse of the future. A great example of big data trickling down to the mass market. This is the digital data runway fitting to the analog needs of our lives.
Of course this is also somewhat laughable and pathetic.
The signs are only in 25% of the stations. They went live in 2011 after 8 years in development. In 2011! — A decade after Google search put information ubiquity and e-commerce at our fingertips. One hundred and eight years after the trains starting running,
As much as I like knowing that an air-conditioned #2 train is approaching on a sweltering day, the sign is actually a techno tease. A drip of useful information in a desert of analog, real-life experiences cut off from the power of useful data and web connections.
As my fellow New Yorker Fred Wilson and I discussed online recently, the entire idea, as wonderful as it is, is woefully inadequate.
Hiding this info inside the pay turnstiles and not at street level is just bad human UX. Not using this data as a mashed up information hub with bus schedules, Hailo and Uber, Citi Bikes and time-to-walk-to-maps, makes it nothing more than a baby step of a solution. We are grateful for the crumbs of relief but impatient for the real thing
This story is a metaphor for the on/offline dichotomy that we are seeing more and more every day—and a well-lit sign pointing to where the market needs to go.
Online, we experience life like some suburban dream–squeaky clean, sanitized, orderly even within the confusion of the social nets. It’s curated, moderated and personalized. But also wildly intoxicating in its power, whether you are sitting in the office or at a park with free WiFi, pounding out a post or organizing your life for the week.
Each of us is the master of our abstracted and matrixed online world.
Offline it’s a disconnected mess.
Things are always broken, people are late. Connectivity is erratic, data incomplete, and the pace is arbitrary at best. There is an uneasy intersection of the transforming power of data, the web and the human touch.
This is not an app gap; it’s a data aggregation gap.
It’s a new way to think about data, the web and usability at the street level of our everyday lives. About human need where data begins to serve us as we move through life, not just as an abstraction of chores that surround our informational needs.
Businesses like Zipcar, Uber, Hailo and Citi Bikes are uniquely disruptive and personally empowering. Transportation at their core, but a bit more. True life changers for urban life.
They are painful to build, as the currency of value is dependent on the people who use the systems to behave responsibly. Logistics as a design element is no easy task. Tech is easy to get right. Human behavior is simply not programmable. .
I’ve been renting, hailing and riding a bit lately. I’m astounded by the power of these solutions and reminded in each case of these common building blocks.
-Mash ups of public and private data
Data from the subways and buses. Data from independent orgs like limo and cab companies. Data from APIs like Foursquare. These are the ingredients for the next generation system that will make the web belong to us on our own terms, on the streets where we live.
It may take another generation to get subway signs that truly deliver. Entrepreneurs, not the cities, may be the solution, curating value into discrete contextual pieces of urban life. The cities with smart leadership and cultural chutzpah will simply let the data out to be used as raw material.
-Human behavior and street level UX
People are messy. We are late. We don’t do what we should. We are the breaking point for every system that touches us and every system that requires us to feed the data pool so it flows smoothly.
It is what breaks for ZipCar using non-owned garages. What may for Hailo organizing third party cars and Citi Bike managing its neighborhood expansions and its inventory of bikes.
Street level design, the intersection of the data visualization, commerce, logistics and customer service wrapped in the culture of the consumer on the go will be the criteria for success. This is more subtle, more interesting, more empowering and considerably more difficult than fixing abandonment rates on a shopping cart.
The new expert architects for these solutions are not coming from web designers; they are using web design to serve these real-time events, grounded not only in space but in time, in the moment itself.
-Cracking the mobile language code
If your Zipcar is late or has a flat tire, their app, while great for ordering, is pretty useless for trouble shooting. You have to walk out of the garage, get a signal and call and wait.
We need a new mobile language. As easy as texting, yet as digitally powerful as a tag. Right now it’s like moving between two systems with a phone size display. No-one has designed this bridge across systems, data types and language. Yet!
Inspiring stuff. Changing not how we just shop or order stuff but how live better, informed, more efficiently.
A few years ago, we were all blogging about how the line between on and offline was blurring. As connectivity became ubiquitous we thought the wall was down.
We were simply wrong. It’s just getting started.
I touched on this in my Trading Places post a few weeks ago. My bet is it’s going to drag the orderliness of the web and reshuffle it into a just-in-time dynamic map of how we navigate our lives.
And just maybe, these early transportation point services will aggregate into platforms where we can share map-like slices of how we experience our days. Reshaping not only how we move around but how we order and organize our world in the moment it is changing.
Tumblr’s $1.1B price tag was a fair one.
It stopped me though, and forced me to rethink and recommit to the truly transformative power of these social nets, and their value, way beyond their present revenues.
It also reconfirmed my strong belief that native advertising as the monetizing engine for these super social nets has little to do with their value. Discussions on the non-intrusive nature of native ads are a bit silly. Ads are intrusive by nature, and ‘intrusive lite’ is merely a masquerade, sweeping intent under the carpet.
Net native communities and networks have changed the very culture of our world at its core. They’ve shattered our ideas of time and space. Changed language and commerce. Impacted behavioral norms not just online, but everywhere.
Back when e-commerce ruled the web, we put cars, art, real estate and most every hard good online, and made pricing transparency the new ethos. We redefined disruption, moving customers to the power seat and companies to the sidelines.
It was a defining change, but pales in comparison to the remapping of the world and human interactions that native platforms like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook have enabled. What is happening on and between them is nothing less than transformational to how we all live our lives.
The core difference of course is that e-commerce is measured in importance solely by the dollars it creates from the clicks you capture. Social nets have changed human behavior and culture, not simply how we shop for theatre tickets or ski passes.
This is not to say that commerce doesn’t happen, or that we as companies won’t market on these platforms. We do today, rather badly as a rule, but advertising, no matter how you define it or morph it into a socially acceptable, non-interruptive formant, is not natural to social interaction.
The core marketing power of net native communities is that each has its own unit of language and gestures, specific to the context of the platform itself.
Social media pundits have this all wrong with their commandments on how to talk, market and sell to this social new world. They make the world think that how people act and communicate, share and sell on one net is the same as on every other. That how we sell clothes is the same as how we sell wine, and that we can sell them whenever and wherever people congregate.
It’s simply not true.
When behaviors change, language and culture morph. Each of the net native networks have unique behavioral dialects, specific to the networks themselves. We act differently wherever we are. Same person, different language and intent. Once size does not fit all.
Think of it this way.
Twitter. Core unit of language: the Tweet. It’s all about shared gestures, one-to-many broadcast in a looking-glass like paradigm. You speak or share, others listen, watch and consume. It’s the perfect currency for immediacy and leadership, with the most popular as the most influential.
Tumblr. Core unit of language: pictogram as post. Concrete poetry whether in text or graphics. Non-conversational, yet highly communal. One-to-one connections, like tattooed images with emotional impact tumbled across our memories in a collective stream.
Facebook. Core unit of language: the gesture of liking. Pile the world’s population into a huge funnel and give them a monosyllabic language to click at each other. Raw,primitive and simplistic. Posts as the unit of language are coming on strong though, and a conversational platform is surfacing regardless of the built in technical limitations.
The core marketing truth that you need to speak to customers in their own language has adapted to this context into how you talk to people and communities is specific to the networks you engage them on.
And that not every network is suitable as a selling place for every product.
Seems obvious doesn’t it?
But the number of companies that are pushing tweets to their Facebook streams and standing on top of their social strategies as one homogeneous activity across different networks is more common than not. Companies pushing discounts when people want to chat about politics or sports
Our challenge in business is always communications. It’s that simple. We need to discover, engage, transact with, and then support the customer. Context and timing is everything.
The native social nets are the web’s gift to us as business owners and marketers.
They are there, omnipresent, open for business with no admittance charge. Our customers and community members are milling around, transparent and open to hearing what matters to them.
I have an ask for Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.
Don’t focus on making ads palatable for Tumblr. They simply aren’t by nature in this environment.
As a marketer, business owner and consultant to numerous companies, I’m happy to pay for creative ways to discover communities of like interest. Don’t build a model based on how you sell display ads today, but for the longest possible tail of your network. For the rest of us.
Help me do that in Tumblr’s unique way and I’m all in.
The big aha from all the noise about the Tumblr acquisition was a huge sigh of optimism now that here are dollars to not only keep it going, but to make it better.
Imagine a world without Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. A sad thought actually.
Imagine a world of objective clicks, where business communications was again a science and supposition, and the net was reduced to data and analysis, not people and communities. Where transactions were the definition of loyalty, and feedback a survey by unattached third parties.
The greatest part of these native communities is that they are there, unique, open, communal, yet distinct from each other.
The greatest boon to companies today is that we know where our customers are. We also know the language they speak, their motivations and behaviors in each place they frequent.
It ain’t easy to discover the right customer in the proper context and understand the language to speak with them. Never has been. But the social nets give us two steps towards the door, as we already know where to look.
All we need to do is to learn to play by the rules and speak the language. Not ours–theirs. They are actually waiting for us.
This is what marketers do.
Context is that dynamic space couched between what we sell as companies and what our customers believe they buy. It’s the common ground of brand and community.
At its aspirational best, it’s the intersection of company intent and customer need, both market filter and customer aggregator.
Think of it this way.
Companies sell value, beliefs and a future you as a package, not a product in a catalog. They sell a shared tomorrow of satisfaction and empowerment. This is true for sports clubs, Audi dealerships and dating sites. True for empowering tech, consumer gadgets and social nets. True for Armani and cruise lines alike.
It’s the tangible environment for creating shared value that shows up in customer loyalty and price premiums. And it is true for most everything we buy except pure commodities.
Products have never been simply the digits or atoms from which they are made. We buy in order to do certain things (think tech or sports gear), but objectivity fades on first use. Or even before if the sale was a referral. The brilliance of early Amazon customer reviews captured this perfectly and embedded personal customer selling into objective catalogue shopping.
The rub is that products are invariably an approximation of the promise behind them. This is probably more true today than ever before, as we can build and market earlier and more easily in a global web market.
Those of us in the business of making products know the drill well. The slide from big idea to customer experience is a long road of approximation; a honing that is often reduced to throwing out what doesn’t work in the hopes of discovering what truly does. That’s just reality, exacerbated 1000x when the gestalt of the product in any way depends on the network of users who adopt it.
This changes the marketing game completely, making the best solution to wire intent and customer context into the bits of the product itself.
This is why I’m so stuck that Value needs to be sold. Why a sales and creative marketing mentality connecting early product intent with customer want is just common sense. The best companies, even at an embryonic state, practice the craft of giving the customer something they didn’t really know they wanted until they made it their own. They do this with the rawest of materials and the most simplistic products, but with the most passionate and articulate intent.
This is intent contextualized in the nucleus of a product, the dynamics of selling and shared ownership with your customers.
The crystallization of intent, of course, is nothing unless bought into by the market. The chasm between intent as the honed idea of what you are about, and how to connect with those who just might care, is always the acid test for company survival.
Context, not the science of marketing, is the bridge here.
Most companies know who they are and what value they bring. They may not have articulation down to a phrase, but passion personified not perfection captured is the key to company positioning.
But most sputter and stall at the contextualization of it. This is hard, self-conscious work, deeply informed by experience and prey to luck and market realities.
Companies, for the most part, just don’t get this. They just throw stuff against the market wall. Passive aw-shucks marketing at its very worst. It just doesn’t work.
If you don’t take a stand for what you are about from first market contact, expecting the market to discover that for you is shortsighted foolishness. Build it and they will come is a cute phrase, but devoid of reality and sense as either tactic or strategy.
Connecting with a market, finding the contextual reality that enables you to get found by the right people in an environment where you can engage and sell your value is what this is about.
If you buy into this (and I do!), it stylizes how you build your company, your product and your marketing outreach.
It’s also empowering and enforces the reality that we do indeed make our own luck by working smarter and harder, and with more focused intent than everyone else. Most importantly, it pushes us to dig deep into our own beliefs of why we can matter to our customers, and focus on getting a bit of the market’s attention rather than chasing trends or competition.
Contextualizing intent is my way to thinking about how to create markets and communities that are willing to be sold to. How to make decisions on what and how to build campaigns, brands and even the products themselves.
Winning companies do this. They may not use these terms but their intent is invariably the same. Great marketers are their guides in making this happen.
I’m web inspired. A junkie almost.
Since the moment I first connected, I’ve been driven to build stuff that is fueled by the web as a runway for human potential. Been enraptured with its community possibilities. Firmly on the speeding train of a changed, always connected, and better world.
The idea of a globally local community has transformed my life in tangible ways.
Something has changed though.
The dramatic potential of the web as a platform for connecting and seamlessly transacting pales in comparison to the immense possibility of what it can do for us at the street level. And how little it actually does today.
When people talk about mobile, I think about a connected human touch. When people talk about apps, I pine for something that connects, not just informs. Something that is actionable beyond a transaction or a reservation.
I think there is an evolutionary turn at play here.
Think about it.
We’ve pushed everything transactionable online. From cars to artisanal honey, from telephone services to dating. Databases are the sinews of the web with transactional hooks that level the tangle of real world obfuscation around access to and delivery of most every hard good for sale.
We’ve built a definitive science around parsing traffic data, and codified the behavioral assumptions about the when, why and value of every click to a shopping cart.
And in the current social renaissance of behavioral awareness, we’ve put a human face behind every action online. Today even the techiest realize that the web is all about the people, not the platform. Even the biggest brains in the data crunching world realize that understanding extended human behavior and applying it through marketing is key to building markets.
Data is just the wave, the rider is the consumer.
I’m still enthralled and work with the humanization of connections and commerce online every day. I’m unabashed about my childish enthusiasm for each new marketplace that surfaces in yet another niche of needs. I’m excited that the stranglehold of transactional charges online that make the most innovative ideas still slave to the core financial institutions is being circumvented.
But… I’m really most inspired by the unchartered wild west of possibilities that is happening right in front of me on the street. Where the meshing of a digital web and a very-much-so analog life is starting to be played out at a raw, very early stage.
There have been a new wave of posts lately about Internet fatigue and how it makes us pine for more human contact. There’s a new surge of interest, especially in the video chat world, in making the connections online more real, more visceral and less virtual.
I think the real key is not pushing data to the web to let us play in that humanized cyber sandbox. It’s pushing the data and connections from the web down, so it informs us with the power of information, but in a more real context. Not in web terms but in human terms.
A truly interesting phenomenon has taken place.
We’ve built a digital mirror of select pieces of the real world. We’ve done amazing things with conversations and communities to come ever closer to real human connections online.
But walking down the street, focused on the intimate and contextually defined space of my phone, tech is action and apps are tools and community happens…well, much as it used to.
The future is less about making it more visceral and real online, and more about making it more informed and natural on our digital devices right here on the street as I jump out of the subway.
Somewhere in this changing current is why I rarely feel the need to disconnect. My dream vacation is not one without a phone. My ideal world is where connections inform the real and conform to the context of my life seamlessly, not move me away from the experience at the moment.
I’m responding emotionally to an intellectual curiosity of how to switch the mirror, how to trade places and refocus our attention to make tech more the servant and us less the metaphor.
What’s missing is not technology hooks but possibly a new language as a connector.
I’m interested in companies that are trying to crack the natural language code of a mobile reality . Not voice recognition but a language that lets me communicate what I’m thinking on a mobile device, as I think it. Without the mental truncations needed for Twitter or the iconization of everything as an image of Instagram or Facebook.
Sometimes both the truncated phrase and the capture image work and amaze, usually they are noise badly in need of a filter.
This is a really hard want.
Creating context on a device too small for our input is a paradox. Creating community amongst users while still needing to establish instant context in a personal space the size of a phone is daunting at best.
And the hardest: taking the geographically flat landscape of the the web and using it as a tool to connect people geo adjacent to each other. And the Philosopher’s Stone for every terrestrial business, connecting the customers both geo adjacent and behaviorally inclined with merchants just around the corner.
As hard as this is, the upside is a change as great as the web has changed our life to date.
And as hard as it is, it is less unimaginable honestly than the world as it is today looked just a half a generation ago.
Few things are more commercially powerful than your customers seeing themselves in your brand, connecting with your product value, at scale, across the marketplace.
Concepts, like brand and community, are big aspirational ideas with tangible applications. Not every company will build a community of substance, but success without brand connection with your customers, outside of a pure commodity play, just doesn’t happen.
Brands, at their core, are rapt with anomalies.
We design them with specific intent but in reality, they exist solely in the emotions and beliefs of our customers. We craft each component, but the results are unpredictable at best, ineffable even. We build them with excruciating attention to detail, yet their power and control rests solely in our customers’ perceptions.
And of all the things we do as marketers, nothing pays back dividends more than a brand that connects with passion and purpose. You can’t hold a brand in your hand but you can measure its value in dollars.
From a market perspective, a brand is simply your customer’s and the market’s view of your company value translated into their own terms that drives their purchasing behavior.
It’s that simple to define. And truly difficult to place in motion.
Whether you are Lululemon selling joy wrapped in yoga gear, Nordstrom’s selling customer service as shoes, or Blizzard skis selling attitude and over the top performance with their new Bonafide—It’s brand that drives who they are in their customer’s eyes.
As entrepreneurs, we start from nothing and will our brands into being. Graying brands are dusted off as markets and products change. And we leverage brand value into new products and broader markets.
Brands are mostly built by intent, and however different the segment and state of the company, I always comes back to these four simple elements to build from.
-What is your company about? It’s core value?
Not just today, but over time.
Are you selling sneakers, sports footwear that speaks to excellence on the court or performance engineering? Waterproof hiking boots, the wonder of the great outdoors or wildlife preservation? A business tool for predicting and managing growth or power of the science and math to add weight to business decisions?
This is non trivial to really get clear. It’s a powerful rudder for business and communications decisions once you discover it.
-What’s the connection between what you believe and what you sell?
Some companies sell their dream and wear their core beliefs on their sleeves. The artisanal movement is all about this. One to one connection between product and value.
Or are you like General Electric, donating money to ‘causes’ to elevate your humanity in your customer’s minds? Or a neighborhood business giving part of your profit to support your local schools giving back where you earn?
Digging in and really understanding who you are, and how you sell and attract customers, is key to playing out how true your brand is and how it plays into your model.
-What’s your unique vernacular?
How we are heard is equal to what is said. A core marketing tenet.
Are you about information, crisp and clean? Referential and objective, or conversational, messy and communal? Are you about delight in a phrase that informs, or a SKU number to purchase with the utmost efficiency?
There’s no one right answer and the brands that rise from nowhere to become part of the mass market’s world are invariably inventing a new voice along with new value.
-Is what you look like who you are?
Do you really think that how you look is who you are? Or are you a platform to surface the perceptions of your customers? Or are they one and the same for you?
Brand, as a term, came from branding livestock to create ownership stamps. I’m a believer that how you dress is part of who you are. I’m not a believer that logo and presentation as marketing is key. It colors more than it defines.
Whether you are a bakery down the street, a global platform for gathering opinions, a neighborhood brewery or a social network. Whether you sell to customers directly or sell to partners who touch the customer through their own brand, these are the questions to ask yourself. These are the conversations I have with clients every week.
It’s that amazingly not simple, like all things marketing.
We all start out believing we are Apple. The best example of a mass market brand that is loved and revered.
All brands are not created equally of course. Some by definition are highly charged, like Apple, Armani, Porsche or your local artisan. Some are functional, yet still essential, like QuickBooks or Asana. And some we use but honestly dislike and will replace as soon as there is an alternative, like Time Warner Cable or Verizon Wireless.
We start from the same place, from the same four questions and end up where the market, your skills and luck takes you.
Brands are not market veneers nor window dressing or a makeover.
They are the molecular element that is inclusive of everything from your product capabilities, your pricing, to your company attitude. It’s what compels people to buy your product rather than someone else’s. Pay a bit more to support you and most important, feel like you are making the product just for them. And feel good about it buying it and making it their own. Then sharing that decision and contentment with others.
That’s where brand value becomes market magic.