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.


Trading places….

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.


Marketing matters…

I’m a believer that the market is always right.

This doesn’t mean that the market knows what it wants, nor that you don’t have to sell smart and hard, and often take huge, gut-directed leaps of faith to nudge it in your direction.

But it is the only proof that matters. It’s the playground where it all happens.

I’m a believer that marketers, at their best, are the practitioners of market dynamics. Their job is to understand that consumer behavior is the atomic element of any market, and the key behind every transaction. This is expertise and gut talent you need on your team.

Marketing, as a point of view and a mastery of skills, is often misunderstood and invariably butchered by definition.

What marketing does is simple to phrase–working the world from the market side in—but just plain difficult to do, and beyond challenging if you don’t have the DNA for it.

–>Marketers work the space between what customers feel they are buying and what the company thinks they are selling.

–>Marketing’s goal is connecting the right customer to your product in the most effective way at the most opportune time.

–>Marketing’s secret sauce is aggregating customers into groups, groups into communities, and communities into that ineffable broader market that really matters.

–>Marketers are obsessed with why customers should care enough about your product, your brand and your company, to share that connection.

–>Marketing knows that buying is an act of approval. Margins are a calculation, pricing as part of consumer value is market intuition.

There are scads of metrics that are used by marketing practitioners, many invaluable, though none of them matter at all if you don’t sell product and establish a brand with true customer value.

It’s a long journey to a black and white judgment as to whether marketing made it all come together. Most successful marketers are heroes or bums many times over in their careers for just this reason. The old Hollywood saying that every ‘movie executive will one day come to work and be fired’ could well apply to the marketing leader as well.

Marketing exists at the intersection of customer behavior, strategic intent, partnership with sales and product, and maniacal mastery of executional details.

If you limit marketing to execution alone, it will never be effective. It you remove it from tactics, it’s all just talk. If you are driven by anything other than getting customer behaviors in line with market intent, you are simply playing the odds. And if you don’t work hand in hand with sales and product, you will always fail.

It’s crazy stuff.

The intersection of soft sweeping strategies, deep value understanding, an infantry of special team skills and science, and hard visible tactics. But at the end–stuff either works or it doesn’t. Traffic pays off over time or it doesn’t. People come in the door with intent to buy or they don’t. Clever is stupid to many and funny is flat to more. And brilliant strategy at 20,000 feet doesn’t fill the sales funnel.

We judge marketing by countless data points daily–customer acquisition costs, buzz, lead counts, how the logo looks, brand value that drives a premium price—and the pride and joy that comes from a market that tips its hat to your product and brand behavior because you are a cut above.

It’s all about the obvious and what’s behind it.

Not simply about drawing customers to you (which of course you do), nor simply about pushing intent down the chute to the transaction (which we certainly do as well). Perfection can be mechanical, but it’s not what counts first. You can scale an undeniable core customer value by beating on a drum if that is all you have. But you can’t make people love you if they don’t.

It’s that’s simple.

The social web has invariably changed everything in our world including the gestalt of our markets and how we impact them. More profoundly than even the internet and basic ecommerce itself.

It’s evolved a new language for business communications. Handed the power baton to the customer and established socialization as the vernacular to how we market our products and manage our communities.

It’s a massive customer sandbox for product development and communications. And a place to play nicely with the market when you don’t really have all of your pieces in place. It’s made the unimaginable, possible.

It has also made us lazy and mistake activity as work at times.

The web, the social nets are not the market though they are critical ramps to it. Nor is social media the new marketing. Not in any way!

The web, although it has accelerated everything– including consumer evolution– is not the end game. The customer is, and they straddle the off and online markets naturally. So does marketing when it is cognizant of itself and its purpose.

There are people who are really skilled community managers, gifted mavens of the social channels, wordsmiths that wow us with how good we sound, scientists who dream SEO ratios and savant email strategists who are magicians at touching just the right person at the right time with a message that will get opened just when it should.

Every one of these activities will fail unless integrated into a coherent point of view. This can be discordance at a deafening din or perfection without self-awareness or soul.

Every one of these doesn’t matter unless they are strung together somehow under leadership that can orchestrate the nits and the message with the right cadence and crescendo.

Markets matter. In fact, as an aggregate of a possible consumer population, they are all that matters!

Marketing is the other side of the market coin. Inextricably intertwined.

It is the fabric of communications and connections that with lots of luck, creativity and deep craft, can take an idea and turn it into a household brand,  can make the elusive, the almost ineffable, tangible and a new market reality.

Searching for neighborhood on the web

The largest hole on the social web today is the one right outside your front door.

As counter intuitive as it sounds, proximity is the antithesis of the web’s dna. The key element of the web is certainly people and their interconnections, but its blind side is where these bump into each other, and businesses at the street level.

This anomaly is one of the core quirks of the web, and throws interesting wrenches and untapped upside on its usage as a business runway for neighborhoods.

Local and neighborhood from a web perspective are not necessarily the same.

Local, wrapped in the idea of a global local market, is native to the web and intrinsic to the commercial power of distributed aggregation models like marketplaces. This is a make-in-your-basement-sell-anywhere paradigm. Local is the origin and often the allure, but not necessarily nor often the market.

Neighborhood is the antithesis of this in some ways.

It’s a physical and emotional place, where we live and shop. We may buy local (stuff produced here) but it’s a matrix on the geographical grid. Neighborhoods have coordinates at the street level. Local doesn’t necessarily.

It’s odd that the web’s flatness is its power as a community umbrella across time and space, but its softness as a tool for business when you add place to the matrix.

Today, if I want to find out what the difference is between the Rofosco and the Terlan grapes, I just ask my networks. A holistic vet who does Skype calls with your pet? No problem. Even where to eat the next time I’m standing at the corner of St. Germain des Pres and Rue di Buci in Paris.

But add location within a neighborhood, the idea of around-the-corner and human touch, and it starts to fissure. Need a trusted cat or babysitter who works in your neighborhood? Or to gather a group of people within four blocks to petition to get the street lights fixed? Non trivial.

This is the world of tear-offs at the local coffee shop, or in-building emails or bulletin board systems. The web just doesn’t parse itself this way well.

It is possible to sit at your desk and build a community online around people who believe in and share recipes, for example, for non allergenic cooking or natural wine or city cycling or cat rescue. But open a restaurant at street level and you’ll find quickly that exercise on the social nets are easy to do, but less actionable in filling up your reservations.

From the neighborhood business side, this nothing but upside and possibility.

There’s a reason that we still get flyers under our apartment doors. Not that they work but there is no real or readily available alternative.

Neighborhood is the next connected frontier. Many are trying figure out how to make this work, none that I know of as yet are doing so with much success.

Groupon and its clones thought they had an answer. Foursquare, while I’m awed by its ambition and determination, serves better from the user side in than from the business side out. If I had a street level business I would try it but my expectations are not high for results.

This discontinuity between the power of the web to verticalize in interest across a horizontal swatch of space and its impotence in the face of place and neighborhood is one of its more interesting dichotomies.

This is the marketing and community nut to crack.

It’s becoming more interesting every day, as more and more, the web as a virtual reality is being turned on its head and taking what I think is its rightful place as a connecting ramp grounded in a physical street address.

There’s a retail renaissance in the making, a developing concept of connected retail where things are sold, person to person, in stores, trucks, popups, pushcarts. And location becomes visible and intrinsic, the open end of the web’s connection.

We will see more brands built online moving to street-side store fronts to touch their customers, build community and city connections and drive business and brand. In New York at least, a spot of sidewalk is honestly a greater kickstart to a community of users than a URL by itself.

Connected neighborhoods are one of the last miles of the social web to get tethered to the real world. Or maybe this is the first time that the social web is anchored in real world at all.

For businesses and marketers, this is a puzzle piece that’s been a long time coming.

For almost two decades now we’ve built on the web to capitalize on its reach, its immediacy, its frictionless nature. We’ve thought brilliantly how to imbue behavioral characteristics to UX , to transactions,  to virtual connection. And the science of web marketing has followed.

A connected neighborhood turns this trend on its head. It will make the web bend to people’s and businesses needs rather than us to it. The web is where we register our views not live our lives. The web is where we connect with the intent to meet. The web where shops down the street will find customers one the web that live on the next block and bring them in the door.

Web marketers may lament that there are no tools to do this. There aren’t.

Savvy marketers and business people will start where they always have, with the person in front of them and tie the string starting with place and immediacy. That’s always been where it belongs.


Socially all mashed up…

One of the big gotchas of the social web is that what makes it so empowering for individuals is also it’s greatest challenge as a platform for business.

At its core, the web is naturally a platform for people. It highlights each of us in the center of a self-curated world with our popularity equaling our reach and influence.

It is as personally powerful as it is addictive. Remarkably self-centered and surprisingly a great platform for collective groups of individuals, the community.

Lately, the idea is being bandied about as fact that for businesses to be successful on the web, somehow they need to take on a personal persona and exist side by side on an equal plane with you, me, General Electric, our favorite restaurant, our dentist and Walmart.

It just isn’t so. And a dead end marketing strategy.

I’m not a social commerce denier in any way. The opposite actually.

I’ve posted endlessly on how the web has changed not only our lives but also the essence of how we do business. How the customer is squarely the center of the commercial world. And that we are entering the world where marketplaces are the most natural platform for business.

But, companies aren’t people, no matter how humanized. And neither are brands. Business is not a masquerade, a product in an individual’s clothing.

It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The web as an organic platform for people and communications,  and businesses’ uncomfortable use of it for commercial purposes.

For people, the web is a frictionless runway. Individual voices, transparent messages, global reach for the clear of intent are not the exception. The web as a platform for connected individuals just works.

For pundits and people doing business as themselves, it’s a dream platform. There is little separation between the brand presented to clients or fans, and the more cleverly you share your quirks, the more somehow this informs the potency of your professionalism.

But as companies or for products we sell that are beyond ourselves, this is simply not the case. It just doesn’t hold true.

Selling stuff and services as a company is where the social continuum appears to splinter. The web doesn’t belong to companies; it belongs to their customers.

This is not to say that commerce doesn’t spring out of community. Nor that conversations across the web don’t indeed sell product. Or that transparency isn’t an essential component of doing business today.

But the idea that companies need to act like as individuals and refabricate themselves to exist on the social web is chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole.

With people, our product is our personality. With companies, our personalities are in the products and services we provide and how we deliver them. The aggregate of that is the brand that our customers bestow on us over time.

Every one of us and every company falls prey to trolling the social web on blogs for comments and connections, on Facebook and social nets for new customers and prospects. We do it cause its there and it’s easy. It’s an incomplete strategy.

Every business and marketing person faces this pull and contradiction daily.

Individually we start each day, checking into our nets to discover products and things to do, connect with friends and plan our lives. We get to our offices; sit in front of our computers and often stare dumbfounded about how to discover and talk to those same customers that look just like ourselves.

This is the social web business dilemma in a nutshell.

Building markets and understanding customer behaviors are neither simple nor trivial tasks. And complicated of course by the newness of the social web itself and its constant state of flux.

For myself, regardless of the market segment or social platform, these guidelines work for me as a marketer:

Acknowledge that the web is not about your company or product but the customer’s view of them. Cede them control and embrace the messiness of the market if you want to harness it.

Every product, every community of customers is unique. Crossfitters want to celebrate their personal fortitude while learning how to get more fit. Organic Avenue is as much about what’s in the juice as to how it tastes. SoulCycle, the monster spinning brand,is about instructor heroes, including their SoulPups.

-Don’t try to sell where your customers play. Nobody transacts on Facebook. Trying it again is against the human grain and won’t work.

Measurement is not the end goal. Understanding customer behavior is. If your takeaway is a number you are not learning enough.

Try these directions on for size and apply them to the specifics of your business and the social platforms you are using.

This is very hard stuff to crack. A combined task of marketing, community management, product development and every external facing connection in your company.

Understanding your customer’s behavior is no less complex and ineffable than your customers themselves and the market they represent. There is certainly no easier way to do this and possibly, in today’s connected world, no other way at all.