Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Only do what only you can do"

About a month ago I listened to this great NPR interview with Thomas Dolby, and at one point he proclaimed loyalty to the philosophy "Only do what only you can do."

While it sounds like an old adage, it was not one familiar to me.  I like this phrase a lot.  It says to find what you have to offer that's unique and special.  Use that and build on it rather than just being a commodity.  It says to concentrate on your strengths and make them stronger rather than concentrate on your weaknesses.  It says to value what you are and find ways for others to value it as well.

I'm reminded of a story I heard in an interview with iconic and enigmatic actor Christopher Walken.  He described how early in his career he wasn't meeting with much success and started to try to be more like everyone else, those people who were getting the parts he wasn't.  Walken had some kind of older acting mentor who told him, "One day someone's going to need this unique quality you have, and when that time comes you're going to be the only person who can provide it to them."  Clearly in his case it worked, and part of what makes Christopher Walken a successful actor is the fact that he's not really like anyone else.

This advice is good advice not only for an individual career but also for a brand or a product or a company.  Ask yourself what you have that's better or different or more powerful than anyone else can produce.  Make that the foundation of your offering.  That way what makes you special is also what will make you great.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Every strength is a weakness

When you're looking at the competitive landscape, it's good to remember that in every strength lies a potential weakness.  That's true of your competitors, and that's true of yourself.  Your success depends on exploiting the weakness that lies inside your competitor's strength and preventing the competitor from doing the same to you.

Let's say you're the market share leader in your category.  That's a strength.  The weakness is that your customers by definition will be more varied than your offering and a competitor can target segments more specifically than you can.  If you have lots of revenue, a strength, the weakness is that you can't make moves that might endanger that revenue.  An extensive feature set has the weakness that someone can beat you on ease of use by focusing on a few key tasks or solution sets.  Clear positioning has the weakness of locking you into that position even when the market changes or new opportunities arise.  Even assets like a large sales team or a hefty budget have the weakness that you tend to lose your agility and responsiveness and everything becomes cookie-cutter rather than customized.

The reason exploiting the weakness in strength is so important is that your competitor will never walk away from that asset.  After all, it's a strength.  And that means you can continue to exploit this weakness for years to come, slowly grinding away at your competitor with it.

Let's take an example.  Say you're second or lower in a market with a dominant leader.  That leader has a strength, which is broad appeal to buyers in this category.  Great.  That means you can identify one or more segments with specific interests or needs in the category, gear your product offering to them specifically, and promote yourself as the solution that is special just for them.  The market leader won't be able to back away from its position as the solution for the broadest set of customers and therefore will be hamstrung in fighting back.

That's the basic exercise, and I've found that there are always opportunities to turn a strength back against a competitor.  And likewise sometimes they have turned my strengths back against me.  It's marketing judo, and it's a key weapon in your arsenal.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

RSS feed added to Tim Callan on Marketing and Technology

In response to a request from a few months ago, I finally got around to digging in to the rather robust set of Blogger customization tools and have added an RSS option at the upper left.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Is Twitter just Mafia Wars for business people?

Somewhere along the line you reach this point of critical mass when strangers start showing up as followers all on their own.  Although as of writing I have a mere 186 followers, not a good showing at all by Twitter measures, I appear to have hit that point.  Every day I'm added by one or more people who I don't know and have never encountered and have no good reason to know who I am or what I have to say in 140 characters or less.

Some of them may be legit.  Maybe they're readers of the Tim Callan on Marketing and Technology blog who have subscribed to the Tim Callan Twitter feed to see the new posts when they come out.  That may be, for a few, but no way people in this number are wandering in on their own for that reason.

No.  Rather, these people are using the accepted best practice of subscribing to other people's Twitter feeds in hopes of getting them to subscribe to one's own as well.  If you buy the social marketing how-to books, they'll all tell you to do exactly that.  Well, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of people appear to be buying these books.

Let's take one of the several from today as an example.  I'm not trying to libel anyone, so for our purposes I'll just call him J.  J. subscribed to my feed today out of the clear blue.  J follows 1386 people and is followed by 935.  He's a marketing hired gun, and my guess is he found me by looking at a list I'm on or because I am followed by (or more likely am following) a tweeter who is J's ideal target market.

So yes, that's another follower for me.  Manna from the Twitter gods, I suppose.  But on the other hand, I don't actually delude myself that J will ever read any of my tweets, let alone click the bit.ly to get to my blog and then read my posts and be affected by them and change his behavior as a result.  I suppose it's possible, but I'm not holding my breath.

For me that doesn't matter because I wasn't seeking to add a follower.  It's irrelevant.  But let's look at J's behavior.  J is out there adding Twitter feeds to his list in hopes of picking up extra followers who will reciprocate this behavior.  I don't tend to follow strangers just because they followed me, but others might.  So let's just say that it works, and this method yields a return follow often enough that it's an efficient way to add followers.  I'm prepared to assume that's the case.

So what?  What is the value of incrementing your Twitter score if it doesn't actually have any effect on extending your influence or brand name?  Sure, it would be great if I could have more than 1200 targeted influencers hanging on my every word and all I had to do was sit and click buttons in Twitter all day.  That would be marvelous indeed.  Too bad it's not true.

I see a lot of this behavior with services like Twitter and LinkedIn.  The effort of incrementing a score for its own sake.  How many of us really have 2000 people to whom we need to be LinkedIn?  How many of us genuinely can follow 20,000 Twitter self-publishers and gain any value from them?  Damn near zero, that's how many.

So why do people do it?  It's the illusion of progress, just like Mafia Wars.  In Mafia Wars and all the other Zynga games I've (briefly) experienced, the exercise is to increment your score for its own sake.  If you're a level 1000 gangster, you need to get to 1001.  If your farm has a million dollars in the bank, you need to get to two million.  Nothing actually changes in the game when you do.  No exciting and interesting new challenges open up to you when you hit the milestone.  Instead you make your number larger, larger than it's ever been before.

This false accomplishment isn't unique to video games, however.  You see it in the link gathering or friend gathering activity I described above.  In the real world accomplishment is hard.  Having successful careers and marriages, raising good children, educating yourself, purchasing homes and cars, staying thin and healthy, all these things are difficult to do.  They require talent and more than a little luck and above all sweat equity.  They require work, and they take time, and they bring heartache, and sometimes they fail.

That's one of the reasons, I believe, that games are popular.  I can play Mafia Wars or World of Warcraft or (my personal recent favorite) Fallout 3, and I can be highly confident that success is available to me in the near future if I just work at it.  Much easier than my job and my personal life and all those other things.

And we see the same with these social networking sites.  If you're supposed to be a marketing consultant but business is a little slow, you can sit there and link to thousands of people and tell yourself you're accomplishing a goal.  If you're a writer and can't get anyone to read your novel, you can build a list of Twitter followers and imagine you're promoting yourself.

But it isn't genuine accomplishment.  It's false accomplishment, illusionary accomplishment.  It's no more useful, really, than being a high level in Mafia Wars.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

James Bond management: Permission to fail

The two most critical aspects of James Bond management are the employer's trust of the employee and the employee's trust of the employer.

The employer must trust the employee's ability and intention.  In terms of ability, the employer must be confident that given the freedom to make decisions, the James Bond employee will in the aggregate make them well enough that overall results will exceed those of a micromanaged, non-James Bond employee, which I refer to as a hand puppet.  Let's repeat that because it is important:
A James Bond employee will make decisions on her own.  In the aggregate the quality of results will be better than it would with a hand puppet.
In other words, you're paying for a brain that is blessed with experience, knowledge, and the ability to reason.  You're not paying for fingers to type and a mouth to talk and legs to go to meetings.  Those are simply the tools that brain uses to succeed.  If you fail to take advantage of that brain, you're not getting everything you paid for.

The employee's trust needs for the employer are a little more complicated, but ultimately it boils down to the idea that the employee needs to understand that she's expected to be a James Bond employee.  The employee must understand that expectations are high and that within the bounds of her purview she's the ultimate decision maker.  But most importantly of all, the employee must understand that the managers have her back.  The employee must be able to trust that if she sincerely does her best, that management will stand by her whether she succeeds or fails.

In short, employees need permission to fail.  You as a manager have to accept that sometimes your people will try something experimental, or take a worthy risk, or just throw ideas at the wall to see if they stick.  Done intelligently and with purpose all these methods are valid parts of your repertoire.  But employees can only do so if they won't be penalized for taking a flyer that doesn't work.

I once worked in a corporate environment where nobody noticed your successes and everybody noticed your failures.  As you might expect, this environment completely stifled innovation in even the smallest form.  That was because individual employees had everything to lose and nothing to gain by making changes.  If you had an idea that was 90% likely to revolutionize your business for the better and only 10% likely to amount to nothing, you'd never execute on it.  That's because the smart employee would do the math as follows:
Likelihood of career upside - 0%.
Likelihood of career suicide - 10%.
Nobody in her right mind would take a 10% chance of assassinating her reputation with no chance of gain.  People actually reasoned this way, and the company suffered for it.

Now, when I'm at the helm it goes differently.  You're welcome to take chances that are well reasoned, plausible, and beholden to good risk-reward math.  You will never be punished for taking these chances, even if they don't turn out.  Nobody wins at the poker table who hasn't played some losing hands, and likewise you can't win in the corporate world if you're unwilling to try things that aren't guaranteed to work.

Now that still doesn't mean you behave stupidly or thoughtlessly or randomly.  Those are still unacceptable.  But it does mean you have some room or explore and learn.  Thomas Edison famously tried thousands of substances as filaments before he found the one that made light bulbs commercially possible.  Your James Bond employees need the same ability to learn empirically.  Give them that, and they'll improve your business in ways you literally never thought of.