Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Good reminder on a Monday morning.
A TechCrunch post yesterday celebrated the effectiveness of Facebook’s new Sponsored Stories product. “They Work!” the headline read. The focus of the piece was the 1.140% CTR that Sponsored Stories have yielded when consumed on mobile phones — a marked improvement on the <0.1% CTR that brands have been forced to stomach elsewhere on Facebook.
The punchline here is that branded digital goods distributed by brands using Basno have delivered a 1.976% CTR. That’s nearly 75% more effective than Facebook’s most effective marketing product. (In case you’re wondering, the sample size is more than representative at ~10% of the number of impressions used in the study shown above).
It says that great stories told by great digital goods resonate with people. It explains why we’re so excited to continue to connect brands and users through digital badges, awards, souvenirs and other branded digital goods.
Two random observations from today:
1. Selling is better with a teammate. I think almost anything is better with a teammate — probably a product of being a younger brother. But this is especially true when trying to sell something. And for two reasons.
First, it’s almost impossible to get out everything you want to say in the first minute of a pitch. Most of the time, the thing you need is a partner to listen to what you’re saying, pick up on the nuanced points you may be missing or not stressing sufficiently, and then be ready to deliver those points when you come up for air.
The second is about human behavior. It’s the “double dutch” law. We tend to push each other to do things we might not be comfortable doing on our own. It’s peer pressure in the best way, and it snowballs. Once you’re “in,” you can’t help but have a great time and feed off the other person. Selling is the same way. It’s often uncomfortable at the start. There is always some ice to break. Having a buddy to give you the push you need is hugely helpful — as is having that buddy to laugh with afterward.
Trip (@tripcowin) and I were at the ING NYC Marathon Expo yesterday to meet some race directors and pitch them on using our digital race medal services. We took a few laps before zeroing in on a line-up of targets and agreed to start at opposite ends and work towards the center. There was no turning back once the other guy started. Mutually assured success (or destruction, as the case may be!). We had a lot of fun, and it was hugely productive.
2. Why outdoor advertising needs more technology. This is an obvious point, and it’s a problem that a lot of people are working on. But one quick anecdote.
I was walking with my Mom today to grab a burger to celebrate her birthday. We were cruising through Chinatown on the way back and were about a 1/4 mile away from my office at Prince and Lafeyette when I saw a phone booth ad for a new REI store opening in Soho. Out of context, it makes perfect sense: the phone booth is within a 1/4 mile radius of the store, so it’s probably a good place to put an ad in order to direct traffic. Problem is that the people cruising around this part of Chinatown are not — and will never be — REI shoppers, so the ad is at-best a canvas for doodling.
The web has obviously figured this out (given its natural advantage), but it will be fun to watch as Euclid Elements and Immersive Labs give web-like context to outdoor ads.
It’s easy to spend a lot of time reading top-10 lists if you’re a hopeful entrepreneur. What to do, and (perhaps more importantly) what not to do.
One thing that I wish received more focus (and this is a bit of an extension on some earlier thinking on “tacking” (v. “pivoting”)) is the art of the “parlay” — that is, of turning success and momentum, however small or fleeting, into bigger opportunities and more sustainable traction. It seems very obvious, but it requires a certain willingness to get “smacked.” That is: to overpromise and (unfortunately) undeliver; to stretch a bit too far.
par·lay (verb \ ˈpär-la): to exploit successfully; to increase or otherwise transform into something of much greater value
It’s an important art for businesses and individuals alike. Indeed, we all have our core competencies. We all have a series of experiences that we can point to as evidence of worth. The parlay then is the key that unlocks the future value of those past experiences.
On the business side of things, the parlay lies at the core of successful marketing. And while I would certainly not pretend that we have been successful marketers, from our experience over the first months at Basno it would seem that the parlay requires — if nothing else — creativity, nerve and discipline.
Quick aside here before moving on to the more personal elements of the parlay.
The best parlay I’ve ever witnessed was in Belize while fishing with my family and a dreadlock draped local guide named Rudy. I was twelve. My fifteen-year-old brother, Nate, had hooked a Spanish mackerel and brought it to within 35 feet of the boat. We could see the fish — by most accounts, good eating — very clearly through the clear, blue water. Excited to bring in his now visible prize, Nate was reeling as fast as he could when Rudy stepped in and grabbed the rod from him. Without a word, Rudy stopped reeling and instead began pacing slowly along the side of the 20-foot boat. Within seconds, out of the deeper blue depths came a flash of silver, and half the mackerel was gone. Rudy groaned and swore under his breath but continued to pace. Seconds later, the barracuda that had struck originally came back for seconds, and Rudy hooked him. It was a masterful effort through which Rudy, with Nate’s help, had turned a piece of bait into 15 inches of mackerel into 48 of barracuda.
Anyway, lest I digress, what’s got me most excited about the parlay recently is how important it is in life too. I hadn’t really been grasped this aspect of it until reading Tom Friedman’s column Wednesday, in which he quotes the quixotic Reid Hoffman:
The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone…. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business…. [This] means using your network to pull in information and intelligence about where the growth opportunities are — and then investing in yourself to build skills that will allow you to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Cultivating career opportunities and sourcing avenues for meaningful professional growth is all about being willing to parlay certain relationships and experiences into new, more challenging, interesting and exciting ones. This could easily be construed as “trading up,” but I hesitate to cast it in such a pejorative light, because trading up seems to imply that one’s success must come at another’s expense.
The successful parlay is won person-by-person, day-by-day. It’s the result of asking for that meeting common protocol would paint as “inappropriate.” It’s the outcome of time spent learning a new craft, no matter how tedious and painful. It’s the product of promising that you’re the best guy (or gal) for the job even if you might not be and that you’ll learn something faster than anyone else even if you might not.
What is it about the human psyche that derives so much comfort from pushing the button to call an elevator? For creatures so adept at distilling sensory inputs and shaping our behaviors to immediately reflect our conclusions about those inputs, our interaction with a technology so straightforward and user friendly is wrought with inconsistencies and irrationality. First, there is the “maybe if I just push it a few more times or hold the button down for a few more beats the elevator will come faster” routine. Clearly the elevator will not come any faster if you push it once or a thousand times. Then, there’s the “I see all of these other people standing here and that they’ve already pushed the button but I probably ought to push it myself just to make sure” trick, which likewise serves to accelerate one’s ascent not-at-all.
So why do we do it? And how does the behavior manifest itself in our less trivial goings-on?
I’m sure there’s a very good answer to “why” — one grounded in meaningful psychological and sociological data. My layman’s interpretation, in thinking about my own behavior in this regard, is that we like to feel like we’ve played a role in shaping a given outcome. We take satisfaction in the process of doing sometimes as much as the result. One thing’s for sure: it makes the waiting much more pleasant (especially when you’re in a hurry) to have that tactile confirmation that the button has been pushed. And for those that have ever been caught standing around assuming that another in their group has already pushed the button only to learn that they had assumed wrong, that confirmation can be particularly reassuring.
The real question, however, is how does this behavior manifest itself in our more meaningful interactions, and what impact can it have, say, in a professional environment.
It should be said that someone does have to push the proverbial button — both to call the elevator and to decide its destination. The train needs a conductor. Leaders are vital to the successful completion of any team-based activity. Moreover, it’s important that teams operate with a sense of urgency, and sometimes sustaining urgency over a period of time requires some prodding. The conductor becomes the dogsled musher: encouraging, cheer-leading but always applying the requisite pressure to keep the team running.
The tricky part is avoiding the elevator button effect — both pieces of it! First, understanding how much pressure to apply, how often and how sustained, is a matter of feel and experience. It’s very hard to get right. The easy thing is to just push the button and push it often, because that makes us feel like we’ve done our part, and we’d rather go to bed at night knowing that we had over-reminded than feeling like we might not have properly communicated the urgency of a given project or our desired path for how to achieve a given objective. It goes without saying, however, that the easy thing is not always the right thing.
Second, leaders must have the feel (and often, the trust) to avoid providing overly obvious or duplicative direction. When the button has been pushed and a picture of success has been painted, sometimes it’s important to back away and let the team do its thing. That doesn’t mean you don’t check in and require frequent and meaningful progress reports, but it does mean that you avoid making the obvious comment that serves little purpose other than to frustrate. People’s intelligence is not insulted when you barge by them to push the elevator button they’ve already pressed. You just look silly. That’s not true of a project to which someone has dedicated real time and effort though. The person that’s been working on something knows all of its shortcomings — both obvious and not. Providing constructive feedback and criticism, therefore, is not just reminding someone of what they already know. It’s providing a different perspective and challenging key assumptions. Again, the former is easy to do. The latter is very difficult to master but can make all the difference.
It’s a word you’ve heard a lot if you’ve ever tried your luck in the land of the start-up. It’s both hated and hopeful. Avoided and welcomed. At once, an indication that things aren’t going exactly to plan but that there’s hope on the horizon. It’s “pivoting.”
Any time you hear one word used so much and applied to so many different situations, however, you can’t help but wonder if it’s being properly deployed and if, as is often the case, there’s another word that could take on some of the work load.
Take hypothetical Companies A and B, for example.
Company A has an alpha-to-beta stage product, is having its initial set of conversations with early adopters and is still using very coarse sandpaper to work out the kinks in its narrative. Every week/month the team must refocus its energy on new objectives that on a relative basis may seem drastically divergent. Company A is working its way, even if in a serpentine fashion, towards product-market fit.
Company B has invested a year or more of time and resources into developing a product, has a small but established base of users/customers, and has maybe even raised a round or two of funding. But it has identified one or more challenges that have led the team to do a wholesale re-evaluation of their business and take it in a new direction.
Trouble with “pivoting” is that it sometimes seems to be used to describe both Company A’s daily efforts to find the fast-moving current AND Company B’s fundamental re-assessment. Company A’s behavior might more aptly be described as “tacking.”
By my very basic understanding (and with the help of Wikipedia), “tacking” is a sailing term that refers to the process by which a boat moves on a zig-zag course in order to make progress into the wind. Given that the boat obviously cannot sail directly upwind, it must make diagonal progress (most often at a ~40-degree angle to the desired course) in one direction and then “tack” back in the other direction. And so on, and so forth.
Detailed diagram: /\/\/\/\/\/\/ <——wind
It seems to me that this is actually a pretty fitting analogy for a lot of early stage start-ups. The port-of-call is a long way away, and the course to it is not always certain, but generally the Captain and his crew have a vision of where they’re headed and love to spend private moments whispering about life at their destination. The journey is decidedly upwind meaning that nearly daily changes of direction (however subtle) are absolutely necessary.
Indeed, you have to move back and forth in search of the right line on which to make some precious progress before turning back in the other direction to make sure you haven’t strayed too far off course. Some traction on the product side has you zigging, before bringing the refined product to a new group of customers has you zagging. Only to realize that the product needs another bit of refinement, and you’re back to zigging. The road map gets reshuffled almost constantly to reflect the realities of charting a consistently changing course. The compass feels like it’s always spinning. It’s unsettling but exhilarating.
Tough to call those changes of direction really pivoting though. The tacking ship, after all, is never turning towards a new port; it is merely doing its best to beat on against the prevailing winds.
I found myself walking across Madison Square Park this afternoon whispering in a broken British accent as I sheepishly tried to articulate the merits of a new product we’re working on. I was consciously attempting to invoke Jonathan Ive.
For those less Apple focused than I unfortunately am (it’s a pricey habit), Jonathan Ive is the crew-cutted product genius featured most prominently in the brief videos Apple releases with many of its new products to tell prospective customers just how groundbreaking a piece of engineering new gadget X really is. He speaks with a soft British accent perfectly suited for the sleek products he’s slinging. His cadence is halting, as if to add suspense to an otherwise foregone conclusion (i.e. that the latest Apple product is something I definitely want!).
I actually found the role playing quite effective. All of a sudden what I was saying sounded much more compelling. A concept I believe in but was yet to put words to satisfactorily came to life. Magic, I thought. I could already see myself against a black backdrop announcing our late-March release.
When I turned the corner onto 23rd Street and snapped back to reality, I was left pondering the very real impact invoking Ive had on forming a draft narrative.
Fully in the midst of a massive growth spurt but with gangling limbs that it can’t yet totally control, as it enters its adolescence, does the social web have a credibility (and accountability) problem?
We are all incredibly adept at assessing people, content and situations and making nearly immediate judgments about quality, veracity and bias. As the web has grown and provided innumerable opportunities for content creation, dissemination and consumption, much has been said about how we transfer those skills online and assess the credibility of web content. It used to be that if a site looked good and worked well, we would perceive it as credible. More recently, the prominence of various additional elements (privacy policies, SSL certifications, etc.) and our individual interpretation thereof tended to sway our credibility assessment (for more on this, see Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab’s “Prominence-Interpretation Theory: Explaining How People Assess Credibility Online”).
With our favorite social networks reaching their tentacles into everything we do online, however, are we fully equipped to assess credibility in the era of the social web? Furthermore, are we placing proper emphasis on accountability?
In what I hesitate to call the real world, the costs associated with failing to establish credibility are immense (insert accountability here). It can erode personal relationships and severely limit professional opportunities. Perhaps worse is the stigmatization of those that are caught trying to do so under false pretenses — again in both personal and professional contexts. Inasmuch, we work very hard to build up credibility and similarly have created intricate systems for measuring our peers and contacts and then holding them appropriately accountable.
Question is: how well do these skills translate to interpersonal relationships and interactions conducted online?
On the one hand, if there’s anything the social web does well, it’s peer review: we are constantly acting under the scrutiny of our friend network which goes a long way towards making people comfortable with the credibility of what they come across on the social web.
It’s fair to say though that a certain asymmetry persists between the intricacy of this system offline and its relative infancy in social networking. That’s not to say that social networks have rendered us helpless (per the above). But we’re still working on nuance and gradation.
“Likes” are an interesting example: what do they really mean? Some things are built for the binary like/not-sure-I-care decision. Photos and some other content, for example. It’s a fantastic tagging mechanism that is helping define and refine the system of content digestion (not to be confused with curation) the social web is driving to new heights.
But there’s no nuance to it. If I say I “Like” Roger Federer on Facebook (which I do), it doesn’t really tell you much — especially if it’s mixed in with 100 other bands, novels and cartoon characters that I happen to also “Like.” It doesn’t mean that I’ve ever seen him play live (which I haven’t). It doesn’t mean that I really know anything about tennis at all (which I really don’t). But from looking at my profile, you’d think I was pretty serious about Roger Federer (it is, after all, one of only two things that I “Like”).
Is my Liking Roger Federer a problem? Not really. What is a problem is the guy that wants to differentiate himself in a given category but can’t because the tool that he has to show his dedication or focus is the same one that I can casually deploy to display my tastes. Better example here is something like running a marathon. Just because I “Like” the New York Marathon, doesn’t mean that I have or will ever finish it. And there’s no place on LinkedIn or any other site where the average runner can make it clear to people that running (and running competitively, for that matter) is something about which they’re not only passionate but have also dedicated meaningful time, energy and resources to pursuing. Best thing said runner could do is post picture after picture of his or herself limping across the finish line of race after race. But that lacks third party validation, and third party validation is core to the way we have been trained to establish ourselves, our talents and our interests.
Back to the point: credibility. The problem on the social web is not that you can’t believe what you see. It’s that, for the everyday person, it’s become very difficult to take much from online personal profiles. They’re fairly two-dimensional and often overly congested (the product of too much time Liking and not enough profile pruning). It’s very hard to effectively measure anything along two dimensions (especially when trying to cut through a lot of noise), credibility included. What we need, therefore, are new ways to inject nuance into our profiles. With nuance comes a third dimension, and with a third dimension comes differentiation. Differentiation allows us to weed out the good from the bad, the doers from the not doers, the committed from the passively interested. And that’s where credibility hangs out — in the details.