The Importance of Being Different: Creating a Competitive Advantage With Your USP

Posted by TrentonGreener

“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

While this quote has been credited to everyone from Francis Phillip Wernig, under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, to Einstein himself, the powerful message does not lose its substance no matter whom you choose to credit. There is a very important yet often overlooked effect of not heeding this warning. One which can be applied to all aspects of life. From love and happiness, to business and marketing, copying what your competitors are doing and failing to forge your own path can be a detrimental mistake.

While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we’ve been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm.

We spend the majority of our adolescent lives trying desperately not to be different. No one has ever been picked on for being too normal or not being different enough. We would beg our parents to buy us the same clothes little Jimmy or little Jamie wore. We’d want the same backpack and the same bike everyone else had. With the rise of the cell phone and later the smartphone, on hands and knees, we begged and pleaded for our parents to buy us the Razr, the StarTAC (bonus points if you didn’t have to Google that one), and later the iPhone. Did we truly want these things? Yes, but not just because they were cutting edge and nifty. We desired them because the people around us had them. We didn’t want to be the last to get these devices. We didn’t want to be different.

Thankfully, as we mature we begin to realize the fallacy that is trying to be normal. We start to become individuals and learn to appreciate that being different is often seen as beautiful. However, while we begin to celebrate being different on a personal level, it does not always translate into our business or professional lives.

We unconsciously and naturally seek out the normal, and if we want to be different—truly different in a way that creates an advantage—we have to work for it.

The truth of the matter is, anyone can be different. In fact, we all are very different. Even identical twins with the same DNA will often have starkly different personalities. As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.

“Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.” – Austin McGhie, Brand Is a Four Letter Word

Let’s explore the example of Revel Hotel & Casino. Revel is a 70-story luxury casino in Atlantic City that was built in 2012. There is simply not another casino of the same class in Atlantic City, but there might be a reason for this. Even if you’re not familiar with the city, a quick jump onto Atlantic City’s tourism website reveals that of the five hero banners that rotate, not one specifically mentions gambling, but three reference the boardwalk. This is further illustrated when exploring their internal linking structure. The beaches, boardwalk, and shopping all appear before a single mention of casinos. There simply isn’t as much of a market for high-end gamblers in the Atlantic City area; in the states Las Vegas serves that role. So while Revel has a unique advantage, their ability to attract customers to their resort has not resulted in profitable earnings reports. In Q2 2012, Revel had a gross operating loss of $35.177M, and in Q3 2012 that increased to $36.838M.

So you need to create a unique selling proposition (also known as unique selling point and commonly referred to as a USP), and your USP needs to be valuable to your audience and create a competitive advantage. Sounds easy enough, right? Now for the kicker. That advantage needs to be as sustainable as physically possible over the long term.

“How long will it take our competitors to duplicate our advantage?”

You really need to explore this question and the possible solutions your competitors could utilize to play catch-up or duplicate what you’ve done. Look no further than Google vs Bing to see this in action. No company out there is going to just give up because your USP is so much better; most will pivot or adapt in some way.

Let’s look at a Seattle-area coffee company of which you may or may not be familiar. Starbucks has tried quite a few times over the years to level-up their tea game with limited success, but the markets that Starbucks has really struggled to break into are the pastry, breads, dessert, and food markets.

Other stores had more success in these markets, and they thought that high-quality teas and bakery items were the USPs that differentiated them from the Big Bad Wolf that is Starbucks. And while they were right to think that their brick house would save them from the Big Bad Wolf for some time, this fable doesn’t end with the Big Bad Wolf in a boiling pot.

Never underestimate your competitor’s ability to be agile, specifically when overcoming a competitive disadvantage.

If your competitor can’t beat you by making a better product or service internally, they can always choose to buy someone who can.

After months of courting, on June 4th, 2012 Starbucks announced that they had come to an agreement to purchase La Boulange in order to “elevate core food offerings and build a premium, artisanal bakery brand.” If you’re a small-to-medium sized coffee shop and/or bakery that even indirectly competed with Starbucks, a new challenger approaches. And while those tea shops momentarily felt safe within the brick walls that guarded their USP, on the final day of that same year, the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a stack of cash all over Teavana. Making Teavana a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starbucks for the low, low price of $620M.

Sarcasm aside, this does a great job of illustrating the ability of companies—especially those with deep pockets—to be agile, and demonstrates that they often have an uncanny ability to overcome your company’s competitive advantage. In seven months, Starbucks went from a minor player in these markets to having all the tools they need to dominate tea and pastries. Have you tried their raspberry pound cake? It’s phenomenal.

Why does this matter to me?

Ok, we get it. We need to be different, and in a way that is relevant, valuable, defensible, and sustainable. But I’m not the CEO, or even the CMO. I cannot effect change on a company level; why does this matter to me?

I’m a firm believer that you effect change no matter what the name plate on your desk may say. Sure, you may not be able to call an all-staff meeting today and completely change the direction of your company tomorrow, but you can effect change on the parts of the business you do touch. No matter your title or area of responsibility, you need to know your company’s, client’s, or even a specific piece of content’s USP, and you need to ensure it is applied liberally to all areas of your work.

Look at this example SERP for “Mechanics”:

While yes, this search is very likely to be local-sensitive, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Every single AdWords result, save one, has only the word “Mechanics” in the headline. (While the top of page ad is pulling description line 1 into the heading, the actual headline is still only “Mechanic.”) But even the one headline that is different doesn’t do a great job of illustrating the company’s USP. Mechanics at home? Whose home? Mine or theirs? I’m a huge fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” and in this scenario there are too many questions I need answered before I’m willing to click through. “Mechanics; We Come To You” or even “Traveling Mechanics” illustrates this point much more clearly, and still fits within the 25-character limit for the headline.

If you’re an AdWords user, no matter how big or small your monthly spend may be, take a look at your top 10-15 keywords by volume and evaluate how well you’re differentiating yourself from the other brands in your industry. Test ad copy that draws attention to your USP and reap the rewards.

Now while this is simply an AdWords text ad example, the same concept can be applied universally across all of marketing.

Title tags & meta descriptions

As we alluded to above, not only do companies have USPs, but individual pieces of content can, and should, have their own USP. Use your title tag and meta description to illustrate what differentiates your piece of content from the competition and do so in a way that attracts the searcher’s click. Use your USP to your advantage. If you have already established a strong brand within a specific niche, great! Now use it to your advantage. Though it’s much more likely that you are competing against a strong brand, and in these scenarios ask yourself, “What makes our content different from theirs?” The answer you come up with is your content’s USP. Call attention to that in your title tag and meta description, and watch the CTR climb.

I encourage you to hop into your own site’s analytics and look at your top 10-15 organic landing pages and see how well you differentiate yourself. Even if you’re hesitant to negatively affect your inbound gold mines by changing the title tags, run a test and change up your meta description to draw attention to your USP. In an hour’s work, you just may make the change that pushes you a little further up those SERPs.

Branding

Let’s break outside the world of digital marketing and look at the world of branding. Tom’s Shoes competes against some heavy hitters in Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Puma just to name a few. While Tom’s can’t hope to compete against the marketing budgets of these companies in a fair fight, they instead chose to take what makes them different, their USP, and disseminate it every chance they get. They have labeled themselves “The One for One” company. It’s in their homepage’s title tag, in every piece of marketing they put out, and it smacks you in the face when you land on their site. They even use the call-to-action “Get Good Karma” throughout their site.

Now as many of us may know, partially because of the scandal it created in late 2013, Tom’s is not actually a non-profit organization. No matter how you feel about the matter, this marketing strategy has created a positive effect on their bottom line. Fast Company conservatively estimated their revenues in 2013 at $250M, with many estimates being closer to the $300M mark. Not too bad of a slice of the pie when competing against the powerhouses Tom’s does.

Wherever you stand on this issue, Tom’s Shoes has done a phenomenal job of differentiating their brand from the big hitters in their industry.

Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get.

This is worth repeating. Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get, whether that be in title tags, ad copy, on-page copy, branding, or any other segment of your marketing campaigns. Online or offline, be different. And remember the quote that we started with, “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

The amount of marketing knowledge that can be taken from this one simple statement is astounding. Heed the words, stand out from the crowd, and you will have success.

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Is that Mind-Blowing Title Blowing Your Credibility? You Decide

Posted by Isla_McKetta


Image of Tantalus courtesy of Clayton Cusak

What if I told you I could teach you to write the perfect headline? One that is so irresistible every person who sees it will click on it. You’d sign up immediately and maybe even promise me your firstborn.

But what if I then told you not one single person out of all the millions who will click on that headline will convert? And that you might lose all your credibility in the process. Would all the traffic generated by that “perfect” headline be worth it?

Help us solve a dispute

It isn’t really that bad, but with all the emphasis lately on
headline science and the curiosity gap, Trevor (your faithful editor) and I (a recovering copywriter) started talking about the importance of headlines and what their role should be in regards to content. I’m for clickability (as long as there is strong content to back the headline) and, if he has to choose, Trevor is for credibility (with an equal emphasis on quality of the eventual content).

credible vs clickable headlines

What’s the purpose of a headline?

Back in the good ol’ days, headlines were created to sell newspapers. Newsboys stood on street corners shouting the headlines in an attempt to hawk those newspapers. Headlines had to be enough of a tease to get readers interested but they had to be trustworthy enough to get a reader to buy again tomorrow. Competition for eyeballs was less fierce because a town only had so many newspapers, but paper cost money and editors were always happy to get a repeat customer.

Nowadays the competition for eyeballs feels even stiffer because it’s hard to get noticed in the vast sea of the internet. It’s easy to feel a little desperate. And it seems like the opportunity cost of turning away a customer is much lower than it was before. But aren’t we doing content as a product? Does the quality of that product matter?

The forbidden secrets of clickable headlines

There’s no arguing that headlines are important. In fact, at MozCon this year,
Nathalie Nahai reminded us that many copywriters recommend an 80:20 ratio of energy spent on headline to copy. That might be taking things a bit far, but a bad (or even just boring) headline will tank your traffic. Here is some expert advice on writing headlines that convert: 

  • Nahai advises that you take advantage of psychological trigger words like, “weird,” “free,” “incredible,” and “secret” to create a sense of urgency in the reader. Can you possibly wait to read “Secret Ways Butter can Save Your Life”?
  • Use question headlines like “Can You Increase Your Sales by 45% in Only 5 Minutes a Day?” that get a reader asking themselves, “I dunno, can I?” and clicking to read more.
  • Key into the curiosity gap with a headline like “What Mother Should Have Told You about Banking. (And How Not Knowing is Costing You Friends.)” Ridiculous claim? Maybe, but this kind of headline gets a reader hooked on narrative and they have to click through to see how the story comes together.
  • And if you’re looking for a formula for the best headlines ever, Nahai proposes the following:
    Number/Trigger word + Adjective + Keyword + Promise = Killer Headline.

Many readers still (consciously or not) consider headlines a promise. So remember, as you fill the headline with hyperbole and only write eleven of the twelve tips you set out to write, there is a reader on the other end hoping butter really is good for them.

The headline danger zone

This is where headline science can get ugly. Because a lot of “perfect” titles simply do not have the quality or depth of content to back them.

Those types of headlines remind me of the Greek myth of Tantalus. For sharing the secrets of the gods with the common folk, Tantalus was condemned to spend eternity surrounded by food and drink that were forever out of his reach. Now, content is hardly the secrets of the gods, but are we tantalizing our customers with teasing headlines that will never satisfy?

buzzfeed headlines

For me, reading headlines on
BuzzFeed and Upworthy and their ilk is like talking to the guy at the party with all those super wild anecdotes. He’s entertaining, but I don’t believe a word he says, soon wish he would shut up, and can’t remember his name five seconds later. Maybe I don’t believe in clickability as much as I thought…

So I turn to credible news sources for credible headlines.

washington post headlines

I’m having trouble deciding at this point if I’m more bothered by the headline at
The Washington Post, the fact that they’re covering that topic at all, or that they didn’t really go for true clickbait with something like “You Won’t Believe the Bizarre Reasons Girls Scream at Boy Band Concerts.” But one (or all) of those things makes me very sad. 

Are we developing an immunity to clickbait headlines?

Even
Upworthy is shifting their headline creation tactics a little. But that doesn’t mean they are switching from clickbait, it just means they’ve seen their audience get tired of the same old tactics. So they’re looking for new and better tactics to keep you engaged and clicking.

The importance of traffic

I think many of us would sell a little of our soul if it would increase our traffic, and of course those clickbaity curiosity gap headlines are designed to do that (and are mostly working, for now).

But we also want good traffic. The kind of people who are going to engage with our brand and build relationships with us over the long haul, right? Back to what we were discussing in the intro, we want the kind of traffic that’s likely to convert. Don’t we?

As much as I advocate for clickable headlines, the riskier the headline I write, the more closely I compare overall traffic (especially returning visitors) to click-throughs, time on page, and bounce rate to see if I’ve pushed it too far and am alienating our most loyal fans. Because new visitors are awesome, but loyal customers are priceless.

Headline science at Moz

At Moz, we’re trying to find the delicate balance between attracting all the customers and attracting the right customers. In my first week here when Trevor and Cyrus were polling readers on what headline they’d prefer to read, I advocated for a more clickable version. See if you can pick out which is mine…

headline poll

Yep, you guessed it. I suggested “Your Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet: Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird” because it contained a trigger word and a keyword, plus it was punchy. I actually liked “A Layman’s Explanation of the Panda Algorithm, the Penguin Algorithm, and Hummingbird,” but I was pretty sure no one would click on it.

Last time I checked, that has more traffic than any other post for the month of June. I won’t say that’s all because of the headline—it’s a really strong and useful post—but I think the headline helped a lot.

But that’s just one data point. I’ve also been spicing up the subject lines on the Moz Top 10 newsletter to see what gets the most traffic.

most-read subject lines

And the results here are more mixed. Titles I felt like were much more clickbaity like “Did Google Kill Spam?…” and “Are You Using Robots.txt the Right Way?…” underperformed compared to the straight up “Moz Top 10.”

While the most clickbaity “Groupon Did What?…” and the two about Google selling domains (which was accurate but suggested that Google was selling it’s own domains, which worried me a bit) have the most opens overall.

Help us resolve the dispute

As you can tell, I have some unresolved feelings about this whole clickbait versus credibility thing. While Trevor and I have strong opinions, we also have a lot of questions that we hope you can help us with. Blow my mind with your headline logic in the comments by sharing your opinion on any of the following:

  • Do clickbait titles erode trust? If yes, do you ever worry about that affecting your bottom line?
  • Would you sacrifice credibility for clickability? Does it have to be a choice?
  • Is there such thing as a formula for a perfect headline? What standards do you use when writing headlines?
  • Does a clickbait title affect how likely you are to read an article? What about sharing one? Do you ever feel duped by the content? Does that affect your behavior the next time?  
  • How much of your soul would you sell for more traffic?

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How To Tap Into Social Norms to Build a Strong Brand

Posted by bridget.randolph

In recent years there has been a necessary shift in the way businesses advertise themselves to consumers, thanks to the increasingly common information overload experienced by the average person.

In 1945, just after WWII, the
annual total ad spend in the United States was about $2.8 billion (that’s around $36.8 million before the adjustment for inflation). In 2013, it was around $140 billion.

Don’t forget that this is just paid media advertising; it doesn’t include the many types of earned coverage like search, social, email, supermarket displays, direct mail and so on. Alongside the growth in media spends is a growth in the sheer volume of products available, which is made possible by increasingly sophisticated technologies for sales, inventory, delivery and so on.

What does this mean? Well, simply that the strategy of ‘just buy some ads and sell the benefits’ isn’t enough anymore: you’ll be lost in the noise. How can a brand retain customers and create loyalty in an atmosphere where everyone else has a better offer? Through tapping into the psychology of social relationships.


Imagine that you are at home for Thanksgiving, and your mother has pulled out all the stops to lovingly craft the most delicious, intricate dinner ever known to man. You and your family have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of socializing and snacking on leftovers and watching football, and now it’s time to leave. As you hug your parents goodbye, you take out your wallet. “How much do I owe you for all the love and time you put into this wonderful afternoon?” you ask. “$100 for the food? here, have $50 more as a thank you for the great hospitality!” How would your mother respond to such an offer? I don’t know about your mother, but my mom would be deeply offended.

New scenario: You’ve gone to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the most delicious dinner you’ve ever had, the atmosphere is great with the football playing in the background, and best of all, your server is attentive, warm, and maternal. You feel right at home. At the end of the meal, you give her a hug and thank her for the delicious meal before leaving. She calls the cops and has you arrested for a dine-and-dash.

And herein lies the difference between social norms and market norms.

Social norms vs. market norms

The Thanksgiving dinner example is one which I’ve borrowed from a book by Dan Ariely,
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Ariely discusses two ways in which humans interact: social norms and market norms.


Social norms
, as Ariely explains, “are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required.” Examples would be: helping a friend move house, babysitting your grandchild, having your parents over for dinner. There is an implied reciprocity on some level but it is not instantaneous nor is it expected that the action will be repaid on a financial level. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with friends and family.


Market norms
, on the other hand, are about the exchange of resources and in particular, money. Examples of this type of interaction would be any type of business transaction where goods or services are exchanged for money: wages, prices, rents, interest, and cost-and-benefit. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with businesses.

I’ve drawn you a very rough illustration – it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing visual, but it gets the point across:

Market norms come into play any time money enters into the equation, sometimes counter-intuitively! Ariely gives the example of a group of lawyers who were approached by the AARP and asked whether they would provide legal services to needy retirees at a drastically discounted rate of $30/hour. The lawyers said no. From a market norms perspective, the exchange didn’t make sense. Later the same lawyers were asked whether they would consider donating their time free of charge to needy retirees. The vast majority of the lawyers said yes. The difference is that, when no money changes hands, the exchange shifts from a poor-value market exchange to an altruistic and therefore high-value social exchange. It is a strange psychological quirk that ‘once market norms enter our considerations, the social norms depart.’

Mixed signals: when social and market norms collide

In a book called
Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout (originally published in 1981), the authors describe the 1950s as the ‘product era’ of advertising, when ‘advertising people focused their attention on product features and customer benefits.’ It was all about the unique selling proposition (USP).


In this case, the USP is mildness: “not one single case of throat irritation!” (image source)

However, as the sheer volume of products on the market increased, it became more difficult to sell a product simply by pointing out the benefits. As Ries and Trout put it, ‘Your “better mousetrap” was quickly followed by two more just like it. Both claiming to be better than the first one.’

They describe the next phase of advertising (which hit its peak in the 1960s and 70s and which we can probably all relate to if we watch Mad Men) as the ‘image era’, pioneered by David Ogilvy. In this period, successful campaigns sold the reputation, or ‘image’ of a brand and a product rather than its features. Ries and Trout quote Ogilvy as saying that ‘Every advertisement is a long-term investment in the image of a brand’. Examples include Hathaway shirts and Rolls-Royce.

Rather than the product benefits, this ad focuses on the ‘image’ of the man who smokes Viceroys: “Viceroy has a thinking man’s filter and a smoking man’s taste. (image source)

But yet again, as more and more brands imitate the strategy of these successful campaigns, the space gets more crowded and the consumer becomes more jaded and these techniques become less effective.

According to Ries and Trout, this brought the world of advertising into the ‘positioning era’ of the 80s, which is where they positioned (hehe) themselves. As they described this, “To succeed in our overcommunicated society, a company must create a position in the prospect’s mind, a position that takes into consideration not only a company’s own strengths and weaknesses, but those of its competitors as well.”

This one’s all about positioning Winston’s in opposition to competitors: as the brand with real taste, as opposed to other brands which ‘promise taste’ but fail to deliver. (image source)

And yet, despite this evolution of advertising strategy over the course of the 20th century, all of these different approaches are ultimately based on market norms. The ‘product era’ sells you features and benefits in exchange for money; the ‘image era’ sells you on an image and a lifestyle in exchange for money, and the ‘positioning era’ sells you on why a particular company is the right one to supply your needs in exchange for money.

Social norms and loyalty


When does cheap not win?
When it comes to social norms. Social norms are about relationships, community and loyalty. If your sister is getting married, you don’t do a cost benefit analysis to decide whether or not you should go to her wedding or whether the food will be better and the travel cheaper if you go to your next door neighbor’s BBQ instead. If anything, it’s the opposite: some people take it to such an extreme that they will go into massive debt to attend friends’ weddings and bring lavish gifts. That is certainly not a decision based on monetary considerations.

Therefore, if the average brand wants to get out of the vicious cycle of undercutting competitors in order to gain business, they need to start focusing on relationships and community building instead of ‘SUPER CHEAP BEST LOW LOW PRICES!!®’ and sneaky upsells at the point of sale. This is something my colleague
Tim Allen spoke about in a presentation called “Make Me Love Your Brand, Not Just Tolerate It”. And this is what a large number of recent ‘advertising success stories’ are based on and it’s the whole premise behind many of the more recent trends in marketing: email marketing, personalization, SMS marketing, good social media marketing, and so on.

Some of the most popular brands are the ones which are able to find the perfect balance between:

  • a friendly, warm relationship with customers and potential customers, which also often includes a fun, personal tone of voice (the ‘brand personality’) – in these interactions there is often an offering of something to the customer without an expectation of instant payback, and
  • a strong product which they offer at a good price with good ‘market’ benefits like free returns and so on.

One example of this is John Lewis, who have good customer service policies around returns etc but also offer free perks to their shoppers, like the maternity room where breastfeeding mothers can relax. One of my colleagues mentioned that, as a new mother, his girlfriend always prefers to shop at John Lewis over other competitor stores for that very reason. Now if this is purely a convenience factor for her, and after her child is older she stops shopping at John Lewis in favor of a cheaper option, you could argue that this is less of a social interaction and more market influenced (in some sense it serves as a service differentiator between JL and their customers). However, if after she no longer requires the service, she continues to shop there because she wants to reciprocate their past support of her as a breastfeeding mother, that pushes it more firmly into the realm of the social.

Another thing John Lewis do for their fans is the annual Christmas ad, which (much like the 
Coca-Cola Santa truck in the UK) has become something which people look forward to each year because it’s a heartwarming little story more than just an ad for a home and garden store. Their 2012 ad was my favorite (and a lot of other people’s too, with over 4.5 million Youtube views).

But usually anytime a brand ‘do something nice’ for no immediate monetary benefit, it counts as a ‘social’ interaction – a classic example is
Sainsbury’s response to the little girl who wrote to them about ‘tiger bread’.

Some of my other favorite examples of social norm interactions by brands are:

The catch is, you have to be careful and keep the ‘mix’ of social and market norms consistent.

Ariely uses the example of a bank when describing the danger of bringing social norms into a business relationship:

“What happens if a customer’s check bounces? If the relationship is based on market norms, the bank charges a fee, and the customer shakes it off. Business is business. While the fee is annoying, it’s nonetheless acceptable. In a social relationship, however, a hefty late fee–rather than a friendly call from the manager or an automatic fee waiver–is not only a relationship-killer; it’s a stab in the back. Consumers will take personal offense. They’ll leave the bank angry and spend hours complaining to their friends about this awful bank.”

Richard Fergie also summed this issue up nicely in this G+ post about the recent outrage over Facebook manipulating users’ emotions; in this case, the back-stab effect was due to the fact that the implicit agreement between the users and the company about what was being ‘sold’ and therefore ‘valued’ in the exchange changed without warning.


The basic rule of thumb is that whether you choose to emphasize market norms or social norms, you can’t arbitrarily change the rules.

A side note about social media and brands: Act like a normal person

In a time when
the average American aged 18-64 spends 2-3 hours a day on social media, it is only logical that we would start to see brands and the advertising industry follow suit. But if this is your only strategy for building relationships and interacting with your customers socially, it’s not good enough. Instead, in this new ‘relationship era’ of advertising (as I’ve just pretentiously dubbed it, in true Ries-and-Trout fashion), the brands who will successfully merge market and social norms in their advertising will be the brands which are able to develop the sort of reciprocal relationships that we see with our friends and family. I wrote a post over on the Distilled blog about what social media marketers can learn from weddings. That was just one example, but the TL;DR is: as a brand, you still need to use social media the way that normal people do. Otherwise you risk becoming a Condescending Corporate Brand on Facebook. On Twitter too.

Social norms and authenticity: Why you actually do need to care

Another way in which brands tap into social norms are through their brand values. My colleague
Hannah Smith talked about this in her post on The Future of Marketing. Moz themselves are a great example of a brand with strong values: for them it’s TAGFEE. Hannah also gives the examples of Innocent Drinks (sustainability), Patagonia (environmentalism) and Nike (whose strapline ‘Find Your Greatness’ is about their brand values of everyone being able to ‘achieve their own defining moment of greatness’).

Havas Media have been doing some interesting work around trying to ‘measure’ brand sentiment with something call the
‘Meaningful Brands Index’ (MBi), based on how much a brand is perceived as making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, both for personal wellbeing and collective wellbeing. Whether or not you like their approach, they have some interesting stats: apparently only 20% of brands worldwide are seen to ‘meaningfully positively impact peoples’ lives’, but the brands that rank high on the MBi also tend to outperform other brands significantly (120%).

Now there may be a ‘correlation vs causation’ argument here, and I don’t have space to explore it. But regardless of whether you like the MBi as a metric or not, countless case studies demonstrate that it’s valuable for a brand to have strong brand values.

There are two basic rules of thumb when it comes to choosing brand values:

1) I
t has to be relevant to what you do. If a bingo site is running an environmentalism campaign, it might seem a bit weird and it won’t resonate well with your audience. You also need to watch out for accidental irony. For example, McDonalds and Coca-Cola came in for some flak when they sponsored the Olympics, due to their reputation as purveyors of unhealthy food/drink products.

Nike’s #FindYourGreatness campaign, on the other hand, is a great example of how to tie in your values with your product. Another example is one of our clients at Distilled, SimplyBusiness, a business insurance company whose brand values include being ‘the small business champion’. This has informed their content strategy, leading them to develop in-depth resources for small businesses, and it has served them very well.

2) I
t can’t be so closely connected to what you do that it comes across as self-serving. For example, NatWest’s NatYes campaign claims to be about enabling people to become homeowners, but ultimately (in no small part thanks to the scary legal compliance small print about foreclosure) the authenticity of the message is undermined.

The most important thing when it comes to brand values: it’s very easy for people to be cynical about brands and whether they ‘care’. Havas did a survey that found that
only 32% of people feel that brands communicate honestly about commitments and promises. So choose values that you do feel strongly about and follow through even if it means potentially alienating some people. The recent OKCupid vs Mozilla Firefox episode is an illustration of standing up for brand values (regardless of where you stand on this particular example, it got them a lot of positive publicity).

Key takeaways

So what can we take away from these basic principles of social norms and market norms? If you want to build a brand based on social relationships, here’s 3 things to remember.

1)
Your brand needs to provide something besides just a low price. In order to have a social relationship with your customers, your brand needs a personality, a tone of voice, and you need to do nice things for your customers without the expectation of immediate payback.

2)
You need to keep your mix of social and market norms consistent at every stage of the customer lifecycle. Don’t pull the rug out from under your loyal fans by hitting them with surprise costs after they checkout or other tricks. And don’t give new customers significantly better benefits. What you gain in the short term you will lose in the long term resentment they will feel about having been fooled. Instead, treat them with transparency and fairness and be responsive to customer service issues.

3)
You need brand values that make sense for your brand and that you (personally and as a company) really believe in. Don’t have values that don’t relate to your core business. Don’t have values which are obviously self-serving. Don’t be accidentally ironic like McDonalds.

Have you seen examples of brands building customer relationships based on social norms? Did it work? Do you do this type of relationship-building for your brand?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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How to Be More Creative in Your Online Campaigns

Posted by ShellShock

The SEO landscape has changed so much in the last few years in the wake of the Penguin and Panda apocalypse that the discipline is now considered in the broader terms of online marketing or digital marketing. The one element that is common is the requirement for new skills such as PR, classic marketing and most importantly: creativity. Agencies and freelance individuals who can’t adapt, evolve and embrace the new mode of thinking/operating are vulnerable with nowhere to hide behind mediocre work and outdated tactics.

Be more creative, is a phrase often used within business and marketing with little consideration given to its meaning. But, what does it mean to be creative?

There is much confusion about what creativity is and a general misconception of mistaking style for creativity. Most designers are stylists: they make things look good. Creativity is about concepts, ideas and innovation. In art school, I was always taught that being able to justify the concept was the most important element of creativity. You had to argue your reason for why the design piece was a solution to the problem. I can still recall how nervous I used to get before a group critique session (the phrase blood bath comes to mind) even though it was over 20 years ago. It’s not about how good it looks – it’s how well it answers the questions.

Creativity is a skill we can all access. Everyone has the capacity to generate ideas. Admittedly, some people are more inclined towards creative thinking, just as some are able to figure large maths calculations in their head or swim like Michael Phelps. But anyone can increase his or her level of creativity by learning the skills of thinking and exercising their idea muscle.

I recently published a free ebook called ‘What is Creativity?’ and the following are six ideas extracted and expanded from the book to increase your creative thinking and improve your online campaigns:


Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating. John Cleese


Learning to switch into open mode
Ex Monty Python, John Cleese understands and defines the creative process as learning to switch between two states or modes: open and closed. When we are under pressure and stress to deliver, such as in our everyday working lives, we are in closed mode. When we are relaxed, detached from problems and playful, we are in the open mode. Open can be considered playful (lateral thinking) and closed logical (vertical thinking). Just as we need both lateral thinking and vertical thinking, we need open and closed states to solve a problem: the open state allows us to develop creative ideas and then the closed state to plan and implement the idea. These are similarly aligned to vertical and lateral thinking processes.

1: How to achieve an Open state
Schedule time to avoid being distracted and remove the pressure to instantly generate ideas; your brain needs time to open up. The optimum amount of time is 90 minutes, it takes a minimum of 60 minutes for the brain to focus on a task and after 90 minutes will be prone to distraction and need a break.

Place of work is essential for creatives to get into state – most writers and artists will follow a routine and often have isolated spaces such as garden offices to minimize distraction. Some artists need to be surrounded by ephemera such as the collection of memorabilia that Paul Smith surrounds himself with for inspiration. Others, like Maya Angelou, prefer minimalism and, like myself, need an uncluttered desk and space for an uncluttered mind to be able to think.

Agatha Christie preferred to work in a large Victorian bath whilst eating apples. Benjamin Franklin would work naked for an hour every morning. Maya Angelou preferred the isolation of a hotel room and requested everything removed from the walls; she would bring her own sherry and ashtray. The eccentric poet Dame Edith Sitwell would lie down in a coffin finding inspiration in the claustrophobic and restrictive space.

You don’t need to go to the extremes of a coffin but find a space which is conducive to relaxation and without distraction, anywhere that removes you from association with work or pressure (preferably not home). Try a coffee shop (JK Rowling famously wrote Harry Potter in her local coffee shop), the library, a hotel or even a camper van (Breaking Bad style). Removing yourself from the usual place of work will remove yourself from distraction, help the brain to break pattern which in turn will switch into a more receptive state for ideas.

To access open mode if you are in a group:
The open state thrives in humor and play so try the dinner party technique: create the dream dinner party guest list, such as Einstein, Da Vinci, Churchill, Kennedy or even fictional characters such as Don Corleone, Jack Sparrow and Luke Skywalker. Each person should take a persona and become their character – they must answer questions and think like they would imagine that character to think. The perfect warm up exercise; it is huge fun, encourages humor, it breaks awkwardness and forces the brain to break pattern from your normal style of thinking. Keep this game going for a minimum of 20 minutes before your brainstorm.

To access open mode if you are alone:
Research has shown a correlation between increased dopamine and creativity. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical which the brain releases to signal success but this chemical is not as straight forward and predictable as a reliable tool. The increase of endorphins will elevate our mood and help us achieve our open state: physical exercise is one of the easiest ways to access a rush of endorphins although, spicy food, sexual activity and pain can also trigger release – so whatever gets you going!

Try a walk, swim or bike ride to stimulate feel good. You want to ensure a careful balance of feeling exhilarated but also avoiding energy depletion. Opt for a route that you haven’t been on before to break any automatic behavior patterns. Walking in a new part of town and observing the unfamiliar territory or running backwards will stimulate new thought and movement patterns thus putting you into a more creative and receptive state.


Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.Steve Jobs


2: Make connections with an ideas wall
The ability to make connections and see relationships between seemingly random elements is the secret to creativity. Combining old elements to create something new.

Idea walls solve crimes
It’s no coincidence that you see examples of ideas walls on TV dramas and movies such as: Homelands, Sherlock Holmes, A Beautiful Mind and Three and a Half Days Later. Detectives have long used this technique to assist solving crimes. Placing photographs of the known or suspected perpetrators, victims, crime scenes and evidence on a wall enables items of evidence to be repositioned and grouped; string can link items together for visual affect. A detective can then stand back and mentally take in a great deal of information at once. The brain begins to process and use its natural ability to seek the connections between the items, find the clues and answers to the case.

images from Crazy Walls

When the BBC conducted a site redesign in 2010 they printed out the entire site and mounted on a wall affectionately known as ‘the wall of shame’. To enable them to better visualize what they had and to unify the visual and interaction design of the desktop and mobile sites.

How to create a content strategy ideas wall
Tools needed: paper, colored pens, highlighter pens, print outs of all reference material, colored string and push-pins, post it notes, blu tack or tape, and a large wall space, pin board or sheets of foam board.

  • Organize your reference material into themes or groups and pin/stick to the wall.
  • Devise a color code system for your different groups with the pen color you have and use the colored pens and highlighter and mark and highlight relevant pages and sections of information. (Homelands style, see above)
  • For example, if you are working on content strategy for your site group into:
    • Influencers – list influencers who could help to broadcast your content and sub group in different social media channels, newsletters and authority sites (eg Guardian, Huffington Post, Fast Company)
    • Audit – audit current site content
    • Idea sources – places to mine ideas from such as offline periodicals, online Q&A sites like Quora, social media channels and Google trends
    • Host Locations – potential sites to target for exposure, shares and links: authority hub sites, bloggers, online magazines/publishers, email newsletters and social media sites

  • By grouping related themes we start to see patterns. If you have a piece that doesn’t fit into a group this ‘outlier’ could in itself give ideas.
  • Stand back from the wall and look for potential relationships or connections between the information. Using push pins and colored string make a visual link between the two. (See photos above)
  • The key here is flexibility: move pieces of paper round, create new string links, devise new groups – by repositioning, regrouping and relinking this is where your ideas will start to form and generate as you begin to make the connections.

If wall space is an issue or you prefer a digital version, Mural.ly is an online alternative to creating an ideas wall; describing itself as “an online whiteboard designed to visually organize ideas and collaborate in a playful way.” Mural.ly allows collaboration of team members and you can drag and drop your reference material onto the white board and reposition items and make notes. I have only just begun to play with this tool and it has huge depth and potential to assist in creative projects.

image from Mural.ly

Pinterest is one of my favourite scrapbook tools for collecting visual information as an alternative. I use Evernote extensively for collecting information and research material. Quora is my favourite site for finding ideas for content.

4: How to brainstorm the right way:

Generating ideas for content, marketing strategies or even creative use of data can all be more productive if tackled in a group – the synergy from more than one person will bring fresh perspective, new ideas and energy. But, brainstorming is such a common term that most people don’t consider how to undertake a session effectively.

One of the most important elements within team idea generation is trust and harmony. The group must be able to work well together through respect for each others’ opinions and ability and a general air of amiability. Any disagreeable personalities, critical individuals or large egos are not conducive to successful creative brainstorming and should be excluded from the group.

image from Atomic Spin

The following rules should be set to deter any fear or negativity that can squash creativity so that you can encourage a safe space to open up:

  • A diverse range of skills present in the group works well in bringing alternative approaches, as does varying levels of experience, age, gender and personality.
  • Allocate enough time to warm up and to focus. Between an hour and 90 minutes is preferable – after this the brain loses focus and needs a break. I recommend the ‘dinner party’ game above or another icebreaker to create an open state.
  • Allow the most junior person in the room to speak first and in turn to most senior. This removes any pressure from a junior member who may be intimidated to follow an experienced authority.
  • Stay focused on the topic. It is natural in group discussion to lose focus and drift into other subjects. The moderator must be vigilant in this area.
  • An experienced moderator is essential to the process and should be able to direct and manage the group without obstructing and keep the group on track and focused and ensure everyone follows the rules (such as not being negative or overbearing). The moderator will take notes (on a white board) and assist as an objective opinion to draw connections between ideas.
  • Above all else no judging, criticism or rejection of any idea – anything is valid and can be considered.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.Sir Ken Robinson


5: Change your thinking, change your life
If your natural disposition is not creative a creative thinker you can become more creative through repeated action, discipline and learning new ways to think.

Repetition and discipline
The more the brain processes a routine or skill, such as a new language or driving a car, the deeper the synapses physically carve a channel in the brain. Which explains to some degree why when we first learn a skill we have to concentrate intensely; it takes a great deal of energy, but through applied discipline it eventually becomes almost automatic and we don’t appear to think about what we are doing, the subconscious takes over.

Ten ideas lists
One of my favorite exercises to train your brain and develop your idea muscle is to generate lists of ideas everyday. I have to credit James Altucher and I recommend his article on how to become an idea machine here:

The concept is simple but challenging: think of ten new ideas. These can be for anything such as ten new business ideas, ten new ways to obtain quality earned links, ten new ways to improve conversion on a page or ten new ways to save energy, ten new ways to make a better cup of coffee or ten new ways to travel to work. For example:

Ten new ways to travel to work for free:

  1. Walk
  2. Push bike
  3. Run
  4. Roller blades
  5. Hitchhike
  6. Horse
  7. Skate board tied to a car (do I need to explain why this is a bad idea?)
  8. Get a job next to a canal and kayak to work
  9. Move to the Caribbean, live in a beach hut and swim to work
  10. Move to the top of a hill and go kart – makes the home journey a challenge (next list?)

The purpose is not to create ideas you will act on or even sensible, rational or reasonable ideas. This is gym training for the mind only so don’t get precious with your lists. Your first few lists may appear deceptively easy but as you begin to run out of obvious ideas you have to work hard just to think of list ideas and ten new ideas for my ten new ideas list is going to make your brain work for it. Don’t make the mistake of underrating this exercise; everything improves and becomes easier with practice and repetition.

6: Garbage in: Garbage out
My advice above all else is to read as widely as possible as I believe this feeds a creative mind more than any other activity. Just as athletes can only achieve their personal best if they eat a highly optimized diet, creatives need quality brain food and mental stimulation on a regular basis to operate at their creative best. You get out what you put in.

This article is an extract from ‘What is Creativity?’ a 76 page free ebook which offers an introduction to creativity with actionable tips to improve your thinking skills. The second part of the book is dedicated to thought leaders interviews who were posed the question: “what does creativity meant to you?”. Contributors include: Rand Fishkin, Bas Van Den Beld, Paddy Moogan, Neil Patel, Dave Trott, Lee Odden and Chris Brogan. You can download a free copy at creativity101 here…

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Reblogged 5 years ago from feedproxy.google.com