Bridging the advisory action gap

When a friend, a startup CEO, asked me what exactly I do in my consulting work, I knew this post was long overdue.

It’s simple–I bring my perspective on building communities and markets, products and brands to your business as a partner.

Beyond that, of course, nothing is simple, least of all running and building a company.

Consulting as a model honestly has always seemed broken to me. Buying advice ad hoc in bits and pieces doesn’t really help anyone. Advice thrown over the transom in Hallmark-styled headlines may be momentarily inspiring, but fades away quickly. True value happens over time, tied to execution and iteration of the product, the brand, the market itself.

I’m four years into working with companies as an advisor now.

I care less about the definitions of consultant, advisor or mentor. I care about bridging the ‘advisory action gap’. About becoming a partner in fleshing out decisions, applying my background and my thinking to the somewhat messy and always slightly nervous job of making business decisions.  About bringing my informal approach to a focused and ongoing relationship with my clients.

To the question—what do I do?

My work breaks into four malleable chunks:

1. Ongoing advisory board member

Companies naturally build a network of experts and supporters as they grow. Market development, market perception, product, channels, team building and fundraising are what I do. Long term is my preference, flexible is my style, and committed is my nature,

2. Office Hours

A lighter touch, ongoing advisory service, with focused, consistent meetings scheduled over time. The stronger the team or exec, the better this works. I don’t manage processes or individuals, I mentor people and teams, help design solutions and share expertise. More details here.

3. Deep dive

With an opportunity on the horizon.  A team in place. A whiteboard and a couple of days blocked out.

Diving in (and deep) with an outside point of view is exactly what is sometimes needed to insure you are giving the opportunity your best shot.  To shake up common thinking. To challenge too much navel gazing. To rejigger the data and challenge whether you have the right data at all. To insure that you are not seeing the world strictly from need and counting on the results before they happen.

I seriously love doing this!

4. Projects

Sometime, timing is the biggest determinant.  Often bringing in a stand in CMO, sales or BD lead to get one crucial piece moving. Hiring a team. Making certain that the holiday selling season is prepped from manufacturing to commerce to customer service to filling the funnel. To integrate an acquisition or figure out if one is needed at all.  Invariably, these projects demand that someone is hired to be me on completion.

Being an advisor naturally just works for me, my informal (and intense) style, my skill sets. It’s the perfect playing field to bridge strategic thinking and operational actions with always new sets of issues and opportunities.

As a business model there are challenges of scale with consulting. Challenges of how to price services over time. And the flux of working with a number of startups and mid size companies at once. Business is definitely never all black or white. We do what we are great at and love– and innovate the model to make it work.

For a long while, I built and led teams, taking to market a wide variety of products and services. I truly loved it.

As an advisor, I get to add value to your company as you take the leadership role in building your team, you business and the market.

When the partnership is right, this is as good as work gets.

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For more details on my Consulting Services and Office Hours solution.

 

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    Back to marketing basics

    The web is like junk food to a generation of marketers.

    They chew on it because it’s there. It’s like muscle memory doing the same thing over and over because it looks good in the mirror.

    It’s often exercise without form or results.  And worse—we do it simply because we can.

    I seriously love the web.  How it has changed our world. How it has reconfigured how we build brands and sell products. How it has turned upside down how we interact how with our customers.

    It’s dark side is that while it has made the impossible plausible, and  everyone a marketer and a brand, it has created a generation of posturers, along with an echo chamber of deafening noise.

    And I’m personally not exempt from the lure of vanity cruising. The behaviorally insane truth that I care if someone likes a picture of Sam, my cat (as wonderful as he certainly is!). Of mistaking activity with work.

    Social porn is fun to play with—it’s just not marketing.

    BACK TO MARKETING BASICS is a message in all caps I have on my computer screen this week. It is not retro in the least, nor a call to a better, simpler past. Not at all!  It is all about core behavioral values and market truths.

    The opposite of social grinning is not advertising. Not email. Not SEO. Not any channeled tactic over one or the other.

    I believe that marketing starts with belief and intent. Period.

    My biggest lament about most marketing I see, is that is all exclamation points. It’s all trolling to discover themselves in the eyes of the customer. It’s like politicians taking polls to discover what to talk about.  Kind of insincere and invariably unsuccessful. Heartless and substanceless.

    Define marketing basics?

    Certainly!

    1. Internalizing the core value of who you are and what you sell

    If you don’t know who you or your company is, get to work and figure it out.

    You may not be right forever but you need to know in your gut that this is what you are about right now.

    2. Acknowledging the difference between core value and market fit

    This is my favorite one. Market fit is not a reflection (usually) of what you believe in. It is a mashup of belief, the economics of your value, how you deliver it and to whom. Ninety percent of what people call ‘minor pivots’ are not about core value at all. They are about iterating market fit.

    Iterating beliefs is strictly for amateurs, not the serious or inspired.

    3. Talking to customers in their own language

    Marketing is about what you don’t say and how what you do say is heard. Iconization of customer needs is the art; choosing language is the craft. If you are dumping Instagram photos and Tweets to Facebook, Tumblr posts to Twitter without thought, you are doing more harm than good. It’s just exercise in a vacuum.

    4. Sell value  by understanding customer behavior

    If you believe in your value, don’t gently nudge it forward but smartly and passionately sell it. In almost all cases we aren’t selling a better barbecue, we are selling a different approach to eating. Find the language and the passion, giving the customer the way to opt in to the discussion, then sell away. Here’s a post on selling value.

    Understanding why a customer would respond defines the language and context of how you sell. If you can’t understand, on the social web, why a customer should care enough to share, why are you bothering? Here’ a post on just that.

    5. Respecting the market’s attention span

    Attention is the currency of the market. Customers opt in, give you their time, out of respect.  This is a gift to the lucky.  Take this opportunity seriously. This doesn’t mean you are all serious–or even perfect.  Honest intent will trump form every single time.

    I disdained survey marketing when it was the vogue. I disdain the easiness of ‘what do you think’ or ‘discuss’ as leading the customer to a conversation. It invariably is a bright light on the Exit sign and a quick slide unsubscribe and unfollow link. Teaching is not leading necessarily and the market is not your classroom.

    Don’t waste anyone’s time is as true a goal as you can have.

     Thinking before you act is not overrated

    I try and consider these five core basics before I act each and every time.

    These are building blocks of strategy. They often determine organically how you determine the channels  you should target, the language you should use, the offers you should make and the messages you want remembered.

    Some stuff just works on email. Some segments just rock on Instagram and hit the floor with a thud on Twitter. Markets and messages are channel specific.

    I’m all about understanding craft. I’m very much a believer that each channel for communications has its rules-of-thumb that we need to become masters of, from know when to post and understanding the value and limitations of the analytics you can gather.

    But–I would choose a crisp message about a core value infused with passion with absolutely no budget and no tools except drums and smoke signals, over instant and free access to the web and just nothing useful or inspiring to say.

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      Net native marketing…

      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.

      No thanks!

      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.

       

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        Contextualizing intent…

        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.

         

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          Brands…customer perception personified

          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.

           

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