Friday, July 9, 2010

Humble Comments on the Ego-Driven Internet

A few days ago I spotted this tweet from my “Twitmigo” Kathy Broniecki (aka @katbron):

I admit that, like most everyone, I gravitate to anything that tends to validate a point of view I already have. Sensing that was the case here, I clicked on the link.

For your convenience, here is the link without the shortened URL, so you can see the domain in advance:

The link leads to a blog post by Cory Treffiletti. And my expectations turned out to be completely wrong.

Based on the title of Cory's blog post, I was prepped and ready for some observations about how social media is turning out to be just high school writ large (like, globally), with an equivalent clique ecology. It turns out that the virtual manifestation of “social” is no different than the physical examples, be they social events, social circles, social networks or social stigmas: In all things social, there will be certain people who are gregarious, charming, amusing and persuasive…whose arrival will always be noticed and whose presence will dominate the conversation as the envious look on from the sidelines and murmur about what they said, what they did and where they’re going. And the rest pretty much go about their lives.

I was expecting to read about how the whole social media “guru” thing had produced an online community that resembled a giant digital cardboard box holding a very large litter of exuberant puppies, each one climbing all over the others in their individual attempts to get to the top of the pile and get our attention.

That title had me ready for Cory’s thoughts on how completely absorbed people have become with this notion of “thought leadership” and developing a “personal brand.” Quiz Time: Think of just about any product or service category and count how few brands hold significant market share. Think of most any field of endeavor or topic of interest and tally up how few people are widely regarded as real experts. Folks, the pyramid gets very narrow up near the top…and there’s just not room for all of you.

So, I guess those observations will have to be made by someone else.

All of which is not to say I didn’t appreciate Cory’s post. I was with him most of the way, in fact. I mean, no one I know would dismiss or even minimize the role of the ego in driving impulse purchases.

But here’s where I might part company (at least somewhat) with Cory:

The concept that "birds of a feather flock together" speaks directly to the fact that like-minded egos will likely engage in similar activities, and they want to know what everyone else is up to!...

…Sites like Blippy are simple and brilliant, because they project the ego of shopping from one consumer to another. People want to know what their friends are buying and why. It's a purely ego-driven experience, because everyone wants to be first!

If your friends are buying something, you tend to want to know what they're buying. This factor is also referred to as "keeping up with the Joneses." If they buy a nice car, you may want a nice car. If their Christmas lights are out of control but cool, yours will likely go big next year, too. It's simple human nature.

I’m not comfortable with how absolute these statements are. “Everyone wants to be first.” No, they don’t. The fabled “early adopters” all want to be first, yes…but waiting patiently behind them are millions of consumers who are quite comfortable with making a purchase only after a product is tested, refined…and the price has come down!

Not to be harsh here but...if someone is really all that wrapped up in what their peers are buying so they can run out and buy the same thing, I'm thinking the chances are pretty good they're in junior high.

Sure, “keeping up with the Joneses” has always been a factor with some (and always will be)....but I wonder how powerful that driver is today, two years into this Great Recession.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a long-standing and well-worn theory in marketing circles. But, rather conveniently, we tended to bend it just a little…and instead of showing a consumer moving on from basic needs to fulfill higher levels of need (self-esteem, creativity, morality) we used the model to explain that only after basic needs were met (which is to say, purchased) would the consumer consider buying something, well, optional.

There are many, many consumers out there who have taken a hard look at the way they used to spend money. Some are reacting out of concern for their future financial security. But for millions of others, the hard reality of a pay cut or a job loss has forced them to confront a very real situation in the present. Even those who are not tightening their belts have come to the conclusion that they’ve held a few too many yard sales over the years that were filled with items they simply had to have…and then rarely if ever used.

These folks are sitting in houses that are now worth much less than their mortgages, with garages full of vehicles that, through either leases or extended-length financing, are a category or two more upscale than they could really afford…and they’ve simply decided that their previous spending pattern—driven by ego—could not be sustained. Or even justified.

Many marketers have been saying the current conditions call for ad messages that focus on quality. But I’m not sure that’s the case here. While quality is an attribute that’s rarely off the mark (especially if, today, quality translates as long-lasting and reliable), my opinion is that in 2010 something can be of superb quality and still be seen by many to be frivolous. The way I see it, ad messages need to return to the basics of filling a need…and a real need, too, not a manufactured one (“Are you still using last year’s technology?”).

So I’m introducing Pool’s Corollary to Maslow’s Hierarchy:

In times of economic uncertainty and hardship, once basic material needs are met, a consumer is more likely to ask, “And isn’t that enough? Can't we stop? What else do I really need?”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Writing for Business Ought to be Child's Play

With last weekend's Grand Opening of the Delaware Children's Museum, a 5-month period of involvement for me comes to a satisfying close. Working through Sparks Museums, GoConvergence and Cloud8 Design, I contributed the scripts for all of the videos and interactives in the museum, along with a considerable amount of written content for the graphic panels that accompany many of the exhibits there.

And with that experience (my second with a children's museum...the first was when I served in a similar role for one in Miami, Florida), I have come to the conclusion that anyone working in a corporate environment who holds a position in middle management or higher should have the opportunity (or maybe even be required)to develop content for a children's museum.

Corporate emails, presentations and reports would benefit immensely. And immediately.

What's the benefit? Well, it's not to encourage you to be condescending with your readers or your audience (and most of us know that you talk down to children at some risk). Rather, it's because the experience forces you to simplify your thoughts and write with greater clarity.

In a children's museum, you're not writing to impress....or to disguise lack of progress...or inflate disappointing results. You're writing to a way that can be comprehended quickly and easily. Why not the same in business?

Try this for a challenge: explain the basic concept of inflation (a topic that boggles even adults) to a target audience of kids ages 8-12...and do it in 85 words. Now write the same amount of copy on how to estimate healthy food serving sizes. Or the best way to choose a career. Start thinking like that and I guarantee your next memos will be rifle shots that are refreshingly clear, direct and devoid of a single extraneous thought.

For years, I've told clients (in the course of reviewing copy) that The New York Times is written to a 10th grade reading level for a reason. It turns out that was just scratching the surface. USA Today is also written to the same reading level...but many other newspapers and magazines aim one grade lower.

In1992, the National Center for Education Statistics, in cooperation with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), conducted a National Adult Literacy Survey. According to this survey, the average adult in the U.S. reads between the 8th and 9th grade reading levels.

And, in fact, such novelists as John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Steven King and Clive Cussler write at a 7th grade reading level. So did the late Michael Crichton.

While it could be argued from this that America's literacy level needs to improve, for the purposes of this post, the better take-away might be “don't write over the heads of your readers.”

Don't fill your emails, reports and presentations with technical terms or trade-specific phrases unless you are completely sure your audience is familiar with them. Worse yet is “corporate speak,” a vernacular that is specifically designed to say much but communicate nothing.

But be warned: the task of re-writing and editing is hard work. I'm reminded of a comment by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain as well as others), which has been loosely translated as: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

It does not take much time or effort to ramble on with extraneous information and side trips to nowhere. But the effectiveness of your message improves when you work at simplifying your thoughts and shortening your supporting information. You need to take the time, so your reader doesn't.

Shakespeare didn't tell us the whole story. Brevity, it turns out, is the soul of a lot more than wit.

** Additional Reading: (Many thanks to my good friend Barry Chudakov of @metalifestream and for the tip)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing Mission Statements: The Ultimate Make-work Task

Oh, how I could go on about the ridiculous process of writing a mission statement and, in many cases, their ultimate irrelevance in the actual operating environment of a company, division or department. But I won't. Because it can all be summed up in one story. A story with the added virtue of being absolutely true.

At the time, I was working for the internal communications department within a division of a major family entertainment company. Tied as my department was to HR, it was a business culture that contained exactly the kind of employees who would get completely spun up by the task of writing mission statements. Indeed, on this particular day, the team that focused on discipline-specific training was about to jump headlong into the challenge.

One of the members of this team had been with the company for a little more than a year, having come to us from an outdoors-oriented clothing chain. For me, he was an “internal client,” in the parlance of the business engineers, but in the course of that relationship he had become a good friend, too. Every time this group took a break from their day-long mission statement marathon, he would come by my cubicle with his head shaking.

I knew that the group was off the rails when, in his late morning update, he reported that many of them now had thesauruses (thesauri?) on their laps. Obviously, among some of them present, there was no longer any desire to be clear and succinct. No, the masters of memo obfuscation had put on their game faces and were ready to render polysyllabic nonsense, knowing that it would doubtless be greeted as profound thinking.

However, in a mid-afternoon update, my friend told me the group was stumped. They could not even agree on what to say, to say nothing of how to embellish it. But he thought he knew where to find the guidance they lacked.

He returned to his desk and went into his files. He pulled out a document, reviewed it, and began to take notes on his yellow legal pad. When the group re-assembled, he announced that he had spent the break “just jotting down some thoughts.” Showing evident modesty, he asked if he could share them.

As he read his tentative draft of their mission statement (he later told me), expressions of disbelief and wonder spread over the faces of his co-workers. “My God,” they exclaimed. “That’s it! You’ve captured our goals perfectly. And you wrote that just now?”

“No,” he replied. “This is the mission statement you had when I came here a year ago. You gave it to me during my first day on the job.”