Make a Connection for 50 Cents

Istock_000003881227xsmall Nice post a few weeks ago from Church of the Customer (found them today on Seth’s blog, good stuff) about the art of the thank-you note.

A handwritten note is about the cheapest and easiest way to make a memorable micro-connection. But when you’re going to be memorable, take an extra minute to get it right.

I’d add two suggestions to Church of the Customer’s five.

One, write in the language that you speak in. Write "help" instead of "assist," for example. Clean the gunk out of your verbiage (and your thinking) and write in simple, clear words.

Two, (and this is an extension of CotC’s advice) tailor the tone of each note to its reader. If the note is to a 60-year-old professional, signing the note "love ya, mean it" might not be the way to go.

Along the same lines, give some thought to what your note cards and even your ink color are saying about you. Consider how your notes can become an extension of your brand. Not through logos or brand colors, but through how they communicate your promise. Are they formal or lighthearted, geeky or warm? The most expensive or formally "correct" notecards might not be the ones that back up your brand’s promise. The right answer is the one that deepens the communication.

A handwritten note is remarkable precisely because it is one-of-a-kind and takes thought and care. Make the most of it. Turn a one-minute task into a three-minute one, and watch what happens to your relationships.

StumbleUpon Friday: November 30, 2007

No need to spend two hours Stumbling for something good, here are seven pre-selected entertaining time-wasters for your enjoyment.

It’s Time to Get off our Ass and Save the World

Istock_000003374582xsmall Seth Godin directed our attention this morning to an organization called Room to Read, a nonprofit group that builds schools and libraries for children in some of the world’s poorest rural communities.

Here are some stats from their site. In the past seven years, they’ve built 287 schools, established more than 3,700 libraries, published 146 new local-language children’s book titles (with a more than 1.3 million total print run), provided 1.4 million English-language titles, funded 3,448 long-term scholarships for girls, and established 136 computer and learning labs.

Total number of children provided with access to books so far? 1.3 million. And they’re not even thinking about slowing down.

Their founder is a guy named John Wood, who learned how to move fast and aggressively (and to think huge) as a senior marketing and biz dev exec for Microsoft.

He’s shown an impressive immunity to being overwhelmed. His response to the challenge of lifting 10 million children out of illiteracy, in a 2002 interview with Fast Company, was "Why is that not possible? Microsoft doubled every year in its early days. Cisco more than doubled every year. I worked in a lot of different organizations at Microsoft that doubled year to year, and none of us thought it was incredible."

Welcome to the new philanthropy
Organizations like The Acumen Fund, Kiva, and of course The Gates Foundation are taking their tactics from the big-picture, big-action dotcom culture–and it’s working.

There are a lot of reasons Room to Read has been successful. One that interested me is that Wood and the organization he runs aren’t at all shy about asking for large sums of money. One aspect of their model essentially "sells" a school to a donor for $5,000. Woods has the experience to know that for his audience, $5,000 is a puny amount of money balanced against the satisfaction of seeing a school built and hundreds of children’s lives changed forever. He knows his market, he knows what drives them, and he knows that price is pretty elastic.

In simple marketing terms, Wood has the right message and the right offer. He has a strong, benefits-oriented tag line ("World change starts with educated children.") He has a good hook (impoverished local communities co-fund the schools, providing exceptional local accountability and buy-in) that speaks to the language and concerns of his customers. His value proposition–a package that presents the problem, the solution, the price tag, and the tracking that guarantees accountability–is sound.

His campaign has all the ingredients of any intelligently-run marketing campaign. His product just happens to be saving the world.

Traditional nonprofits are often run by folks who think "ethical marketing" is a contradiction in terms. They’re extremely smart about real life stuff like helping people in need, but often not so smart about the business and marketing that could help them accomplish that. Their staff and volunteers have a strong tendency to hate and fear the rich, and it’s never a good idea to communicate with anyone you hate and fear. And career nonprofit types are sufficiently accustomed to living on ramen and good luck that they have a hard time saying, "The best part is, it only costs $5,000."

Those organizations are still doing incredible things and alleviating suffering, and I mean them no ill will or disrespect. But sooner rather than later, their work will be overshadowed by this new model. And since the new model has the potential to work incredibly well, I celebrate that.

It’s time to quit making excuses and save the world, already
It’s easy to lose sight of it in the depressing information clutter after 9/11, but we actually have a shot at ending extreme poverty on this abused little planet. Not just in my two-year-old’s lifetime, but in my lifetime.

The technology of making stuff has gotten so good that we can make enough stuff for everyone (if we figure out the energy thing, which we will). New tools and new business models let us think on a global scale and act accordingly. A fractured status quo provides a lot of air and light for revolutionary ideas. Massive action is tricky to take in any context, and a lot of excuses have always been made about third-world inefficiencies, but the new players are looking at factors–cheap labor, social cohesion, powerful aspirations–that can make third-world projects workable on surprising scale.

My challenge to the bright, wired oddballs who read this blog is to get out there and find a way to help out. Together we and our bright, wired oddball kin are smart and obsessed enough to do this thing.

In the words of John Wood back in 2002,"We’ve helped 100,000 kids gain access to books so far. That is one one-hundredth of 1% of the illiterate people on this earth. So congratulations. Get your ass back to work."

Related reading:
An End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
Fast Company’s 2002 interview with John Wood
How evil is Bill Gates?
Room to Read’s Web site
We are not powerless
The WILD Foundation and the Umzi Wethu project

A Manual for the Odd and Lonesome

Istock_000004325126xsmall Tonight I offer you a lovely post by Shane of Shane and Peter about the process of learning to connect with other people.

I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of folks who read this blog (certainly the person who writes it) can identify with the gawky, geeky boy who didn’t know how on earth to meet all of those other humans milling around him.

I’d tell you what I’ve spent on clothes over the years in an attempt to cloak how hideously freaked out I am at "networking opportunities," but then I’d have to kill you.

(See my Armani and fear me! Grrr!)

It makes me think of the vain little rose in The Little Prince, waving her thorns to show how very very fierce she is. We do an awful lot of dumb stuff–in business, in life–to make ourselves seem fierce and prickly, instead of doing the simple things that would connect us and make things better.

Make eye contact. Smile. Say hi. Then shut up. No thorns required, after all.

In Praise of Crazy Shit

Hugh McLeod announces that after the distraction of well-paid, interesting, rewarding work that’s burning him out, he’s going to refocus his attention on his cartoon blog, for which he makes basically peanuts.

So he’ll be scaling back what’s probably a gigantically sweet deal with Microsoft. Scaling back the sexy, rewarding and highly visible work with Stormhoek. Scaling back the consulting gigs that a lot of us would kill baby harp seals for.

(I am just kidding. Baby harp seals are very cute with lovely dark eyes and I would never kill one, or even hurt its feelings. Please do not send hate email.)

One nice thing about doing truly crazy shit is that it’s almost never wrong. If your gut is so insistent on picking the path that doesn’t make "practical" sense, it’s generally also kind enough to give you a massive whomp of energy to go open about a zillion new doors.

This is not an argument to do dumb shit. This is not "leap and the net will appear." Anyone who’s been around awhile can tell you that sometimes it’s "leap and the bottom of the ravine will appear." If you need a net, don’t leap.

But when you just can’t sleep thinking about that wild hair, your curious monkey mind usually kicks into supergear to figure out how you can make it work. New connections, new business models, new points of intersection. Maybe you can move to Tibet and become a lama. Maybe you can go spend 10 years taking care of AIDS orphans in Lesotho.

Dumb shit, nah. Anyone can do dumb shit, it’s an oversaturated market. But crazy shit can sometimes be the exact right thing.

StumbleUpon Friday

Istock_000000100513xsmall Don’t waste your Thanksgiving Friday off (for those in the U.S., that is) Stumbling for an hour or two to find good stuff. Here’s a freshly Stumbled list for your attention-deficit enjoyment.

Nanomarketing

Istock_000003104982xsmall_2 The always interesting Hugh McLeod, also known as Gaping Void, has some thoughts on micromarketing. He’s found that the smaller the "events" he organizes for Stormhoek (the small winery he promotes), the more he gets out of it.

One way to make an impression is to throw a schmoozy, boozy meat market, invite Paris Hilton to show up for 20 minutes and pose glassy-eyed with a few guests, and turn the music up too loud for anyone to notice how little fun they’re having. By about 8:00, everyone is too bored and/or smashed to remember the name of the brand currently pimping itself.

The next morning, you’ve got 500 hungover, jaded event-goers who’ll haul themselves to someone else’s boozefest the next night.

McLeod’s throwing that idea out in favor of tiny gestures like sending a bottle or two to a passionate wine geek to share at a dinner party of 6 or 7 other passionate wine geeks. It’s not a sampling campaign–it’s a relationship campaign and a storytelling campaign. He’s creating a community seven or eight people at a time, each with a tiny, gentle story to tell.

"From trying to connect with people on a much more intimate and human level, we have far more stable and stronger building blocks to create a community around our brand."

Devote the same amount of resources–money, time, and energy–that you’d use on the boozefest, and logic suggests you’ll end up with wildly more remarkable results.

More interesting for scrappy little companies and solo providers, use one-tenth the resources, or one-fiftieth, and you’ll still end up with something worth doing.

It works because it’s not what people expect, and because it fosters connection. Copying McLeod’s technique wholesale might work for your gig, or it might not. Coming up with your own riff has some pretty good odds, though.

Twitter and the nanomarketer
Stormhoek is also using Twitter to give away free bottles to UK residents of legal age. I don’t pretend to actually get Twitter yet–I’m trying to. I even created a Squidoo lens on it. That’s apparently what I do now when I’m trying to puzzle my way through something–create a lens.

(Come on over and vote for or add some "must-read" Twitters. Feel free to leave a comment explaining just how completely I’m missing the point–you may well run out of space.)

So far, I see Twitter as an RSS feed for those of us who are so distracted it’s reached the point of brain damage. And, you know, on that level it’s working for me. But there’s an opportunity there to make lots of tiny connections on a mass scale. I haven’t seen it done exactly right yet, but I’m still looking.

Experimenting with some nanomarketing? Leave a comment, tell us how it’s going.

Can Anything Remarkable Survive Your Approval Process?

Istock_000003223247xsmall_2 When you’re creating content for customers, it’s smart to put it in front of a few people before you distribute it widely. But a common and serious pitfall in professional communications is letting everyone and her Aunt Mary look over materials, each feeling free to add a critique.

The VP of marketing doesn’t think it’s sexy enough. The accountant thinks the word plethora would sound better than many. (There’s a reason he’s an accountant.) The lawyers think you might be promising more than you can deliver if your company happened to get hit by a 7.0 earthquake the same week of an economy-crippling stock market crash. The CEO wants to see her name in bigger letters. The founder wants to see his name in bigger letters. The top salesman wants to see his name in bigger letters.

You get the point.

When you make all of these people happy, you end up with mush. Mashed potatoes are a nice side dish. They don’t make for a very satisfying dinner.

Who should control your content?
Prune your approvals list down to no more than three people:

  • Your strongest writer.
  • The person who owns customer experience (that person might need some education about the benefits of transparency, setting realistic expectations, and avoiding hype).
  • Maybe your lawyer, but don’t accept her first take on every point.

(As a side note, when your lawyer tries to keep you from doing something that you think is a good idea, ask why. Don’t quit asking until you fully understand the answer. This is a good time to be a pain in the ass.)

If those three people are happy, you have a good piece. Send it through a fanatic proofreader, release it to print, and move on.

Homework: List everyone on your approval list for customer communications. Does the list strike you as insane at all?

The Nine Best Storylines for Marketing

Guy Kawasaki writes about Lois Kelly’s new book and the kinds of stories that move people to action. Worth a look to go through the nine most effective storylines and see how your project’s matches up, and I’m planning on ordering LK’s book for a deeper dive.

read more | digg story

Is Your Good Taste Costing You Customers?

Logobigger250 Here’s an entertaining video, well-crafted to be virally passed along. Your designer might already have sent it to you. It was passed along to me, I snickered, and sent it to some fellow marketing geeks in my office.

You can study it as a useful example of how to make a video that will get passed along, and it does well at that. But I thought it was interesting that the advice it implies isn’t, necessarily very good.

There’s clearly some mockery of magic bean thinking here–the idea that if you spent a cubic buttload of money on that logo, by damn, you want it big as hell on everything. But notice also the reaction to wanting to get rid of white space. Primitive, right? Philistine. Only an ignoramus with no design sense would consider it.

Unless you’d done any research comparing how well ads pull set against what they cost. Then you might agree with the ignoramus. Leaving lots of expensive white space makes an ad look good, but it typically doesn’t make it pull any better.

Which means your marketing ROI is shrinking proportionate to the ego of your design team. Which isn’t smart.

The starbursts they’re making fun of are indeed hideous, but the practice of having an impossible-to-miss graphic element that tells customers exactly what to do is actually a pretty damned good one. (This is also known as the Big Red Fez principle.)

My point is not to make marketing and advertising more hideous, but to encourage you to think critically about the advice you get from every source, including me. Is your designer pitching a fit over something tacky you want to try? Does your father-in-law call you a naive moron for the approach you want to try in your newsletter? Does your friend’s friend who works for an ad agency (and spends 150% of his paycheck on shoes) sneer at your copywriting?

There is, in fact, one right answer: "Let’s test it."

The people who matter
At the end of the day, no one matters except your customers. (However you define that term.)

And actually, the only customers who matter are the ones who buy from you. Your paying clients or your foundation’s donors or the folks who come to your church services. They’re the ones you have to convince, and the ones you have to please.

If your communication moves them to behavior that you want, it is good communication. And you cannot know whether or not you’ve met that standard if you don’t test.

Not everything tasteful is good. (Not everything tasteful is bad either–you’re no better off listening to some of the cranky old-school hardasses who insist that nothing has changed since John Caples.)

Keep asking questions. Keep testing. And find out for yourself what that white space is doing for you.