Same as ever, do not focus on your competition

For twenty years, I’ve been telling clients to not worry about their competition. While counter-intuitive to the non-athlete, athletes in competition know it’s a basic given. You can’t control your competitors.

There is literally no benefit in focusing your energy on the competition, because there is nothing you can do about their preparedness or actions. The sole entity you can affect is you.

The truth is that in any given space, where a quantifiable common need has been defined, and solutions have been offered, there is enough business to sustain the relevant offerings. Rather than focusing on competition, focus on yourself and on your customers, for those are the only entities that matter in the success equation.

It is smart to have an awareness of competition because it keeps you creative and motivated. Awareness is as simple as knowing they exist. Anything beyond that may border on obsession, but more likely just wastes time and energy. Sometimes it wastes budget too, particularly when companies spend ad dollars on representation in those mediums where competitors are spending.

True competition is rare in business. When partners split, yes, there may be similar offerings. But when two or three unrelated companies spring up in one market, success often comes down to what people want and what the company wants. Alignment and consistency of effort pay off, but the more common actions of losing focus and derailing consistency result in failure.

People complain of lesser competitors undercutting price and eroding their market. This is not a reason to focus on competition. If your product can be commoditized, you have to plan for that eventuality to be ready for what comes when it happens.

At the point when your product is copied and commoditized, there are other problems at play than just transitioning to being a commodity, which include planning, really understanding the intricacies of your market, implementation, focus, and accuracy of long-term vision.

The rub is, what a company wants, how it stays true, and what is its longevity vision (not all offerings can be long-term), often guides companies well off course. When you get off course, focus is lost. When focus is lost, it is easy to try to refocus by training attention on competition, because competitors who have maintained their focus and attained resultant success are leaders. And we all look to leaders for inspiration.

Imitating a leader is seemingly easier than being original. But the truth is the opposite. You can’t gain positive attention by being an also-ran.

The key to success is believing in your brand, knowing yourself, and having the confidence in your direction and marketing to know that your path is true. It is an investment in self rather than in competition.

If your mission and brand are true to your market, when you are true to yourself, you are inherently true to your own people. In fact, when it is done right, your market is actually part of you. If you have the self-discipline to keep that focus on the self, you have what you need to succeed, without placing focus on your competition.

Constructive criticism happens when people care

Constructive criticism has always been a good thing, yet in recent years, people have become quite hostile when receiving it, often taking to social media with angry, flaming negativity in response.

The weird thing is, people only offer constructive criticism when they care about what you are doing; when they value your product or service. Why get angry when people care enough to comment?

It is rare that a system is perfect; that it is meeting all of your customers’ desires. All of the research in the world won’t compensate for evolving minds. As people change, systems design, user interface design, workflow design, and brand messaging, must change with them in order to remain relevant.

It’s when no constructive criticism is coming in that you should be concerned. That usually means people aren’t paying attention. If they’re not paying attention, it’s because they are looking at other options. Specifically, options that meet their evolving needs.

Constructive criticism is how people tell you what they don’t like, while at the same time providing a road map for you to remain relevant to their needs.

Since it’s constructive, you decide which parts are true, relevant, and need attention. Since it’s criticism, it ought to be offered with humility, and that’s where it can be flubbed up. If criticism is too harsh in nature, it topples over the edge of good taste and becomes offensive. Then, finding the important part becomes exponentially more difficult.

Taking constructive criticism in an overtly positive manner, with an objective mind, with active listening, with even keel, that’s the high road to keeping customers.

You might even float ideas out to those people who cared enough to offer their thoughts and suggestions, asking for their opinions and further feedback. That’s engagement. It’s free marketing and product development. It’s personal and it’s smart business.

The $500 website – a stepping stone

the $500 website is a stepping stone

It’s not ideal, but it can get you to the next step. Image by Isabelle Lacazotte, via Stockvault.

What does the $500 website do for you? With a budget of $500, chances are high that your site will work against you, and there is a simple reason. If you compare a reasonable starting website budget against the $500 website, the difference is enormous. It boils down largely to time investment, where one budget allows for a basic cookie-cutter site and the other allows enough time for superior coding, professional design, use of a CMS for easy updating, and basic SEO copywriting.

The good news is, a $500 website is an okay stepping stone. Like any starter platform, if you examine what you can do, the most important part of your website is the content. For $500, you can put together some decent content for a basic site. Virtually any other investment will net you a poor site that won’t represent or perform. Arranging priorities, setting realistic goals, and utilizing your budget as smartly as possible can reap rewards.

If you figure that the average business website with a couple of advanced features takes about one hundred hours (or more) to strategize, design, write, and build, a $500 budget will either pay your web designer about 5 bucks per hour, or net you a fairly useless website that will work against your brand. Ever hear someone say, ‘Our website is a work-in-progress’? That’s the $500 site talking. That’s an apology for it being poor quality, and it is detrimental every time.

Why spend your maximum budget on your website?

Your website is likely to be your second most visible form of marketing. It’s easy to see that you don’t want to have to apologize for the state of it. You want it to represent the very best of your organization, giving people a clear idea of who you are, why they should care, and how they should get involved. You want your website to be the voice of your company when you can’t be there in-person.

If you have ever paid for advertising, you know that a small print ad can easily run several hundred or thousands of dollars. (In a leading magazine, you would easily pay $25-35K for a one quarter-page ad that would be on sale for one month.) In fair comparison, a well-done website might cost you $10-20K, and it can easily last 3-8 years. Amortize the cost of a $20K website over eight years, and you might pay $100-200 per month for it. Say you spend just $2K; your monthly cost over eight years drops to about $20 per month.

It’s likely the only other more important marketing tool you will ever have is your brand identity.

The $500 website, meanwhile, will not do any of the things that a website made with a realistic budget will do. It will not represent your brand accurately, will not speak in your tone and voice. It probably will not do much on search engines. It won’t have any special features. That means your website will work against you. That’s the apology website.

In contrast, a realistic budget will net a professional website that helps promote your brand every day, speaking directly to the people who you need to reach, and inciting them to take action.

The $500 website is a myth. It is one that many would like to see come true, but for a reason that makes little, if any, sense. It is an idea that lacks any sort of purposeful reason. If the reason is that $500 is your entire marketing budget, you’re already in trouble, but the situation is not entirely hopeless.

All that said, a decent website can be done for $500. It won’t have a unique design for sure — which means your competitor might have the exact same one — because at that price, there is no budget for design. Where it can be good, however, is in the content. The budget is still extraordinarily low, but it can be done. It can even be built on a powerful CMS, WordPress, and on a free domain. If you start on a free site, once you begin making money and save a realistic website budget, you can easily port your content over to a self-hosted, professionally-designed website.

As with all things marketing, the low-budget website is about balancing budget and expectations. It’s about spending wisely on the most important aspect of your site, the content. It’s also about launching sooner rather than later.

Got the will?

The Me Generation Myth

By the title, you can probably tell that I don’t believe in the Millennial or Me generation actually being a thing.

Sure, I’ve noticed the seemingly omnipresent sense of entitlement in so many 20-somethings, but the truth is, entitlement is present in 20-somethings of all generations. It’s just more visible now.

At that age, we all think we own the world, and we all think we can shape and mold it into something else. In efforts to sell, marketers label the generations.

Generation labels are nothing more than reflections of valuable perspectives.

How the supposed Me generation’s perspective offends the sensibilities of those who came before is simple. Where we [once] valued owning things, they value owning experiences. What this looks like is, say you offer to give something to a 20-something person. They might literally look at and consider it in a wholly different way than you might. You see a thing that you can consume, but they want to know what the experience of consuming the thing will be before they will even consider taking it on.

In that approach, we have a similar relationship with the concept of time.

Smart marketers have crafted dialogs that make 20-somethings think they are getting exactly what they want, but in reality, they are often getting the precise opposite of what they want.

The whole idea behind experience is that each person shapes their own. The unique experiences give us relatable perspectives, ways to connect and open our minds.

If experiences are marketable items, they are inherently not individual. If that’s so, are they even real? When we have fake experiences, humans seek ways to push connection because pushing is often easier than undoing and relearning.

If I tell you when and where to enjoy yourself, there is really no value in that. It’s why dressing up in costume is less fun on Halloween than it is on a random Tuesday.

Scripted and sold experiences widen the gap even further because one generation can see what the other often cannot. But the perspective difference doesn’t truly matter. It only matters to marketers.

The reason generational perspective differences are offensive is that in order to own things, you have to work hard to attain them. That means we have not only perspective difference, but also reality difference. The reality of how they interact with things you worked your tail off to own is different. When you want to own nothing, the fact of the work done to bring the ‘thing’ into their lives has no intrinsic meaning, thus no value, no appreciation.

Example: When a younger person starts every sentence with ‘I feel like’, my sense of time use gets offended. Hearing ‘I feel like’ (20 times) before we get to the meat, since the reality of the lead-in is inherent (we know they feel like that or they would not be saying it), my time gets wasted. My expectation around time, rendered as efficiency, conflicts with their approach. [The unfortunate result born purely of repetition is, the only thing I remember about whatever they said is, ‘I feel like.’]

However, since I know they value time from a different point of reference, the difference is a point of connection rather than separation.

When we impose expectations that relate to our own generation or person on others, we experience how difference feels inside. That manifests as contempt and labeling. Considered differently, it can be about connection.

Labeling serves no one but marketers seeking to sell whatever it is you want, be it things or experiences. Labeling separates us all. Labeling creates believable myths. It gives marketers an easy path to selling. The more we buy into the myths, the farther it takes us off our individual paths, the life purpose we all seem to seek.

If we can bridge the wide gap between generational expectations, we can get rid of the useless generation labels and work more harmoniously together.

In a way, we can shape and mold the world, “our world,” the immediate people and places that surround us, but that doesn’t define a generation.

The Me generation is nothing more than a reflection of expectation and reality, perpetuated by consumer-marketers on social media channels. If you are a marketer, you exploit this. If you are a humanitarian, you exploit it. Nearly everyone exploits it.

That’s what labels are for. They help exploit people’s desires for control.

Eventually, most of us realize that this giant rock we live on is the controller, and it will probably always be round. We figure out that we can change ourselves and influence those around us. Often, that’s not only a good start but good enough to feel accomplished and happy.

The funny thing is, the common accusation of entitlement leveled on the Millennial generation is in and of itself entitlement. It is one generation claiming to know what is correct for the other. It’s a fairly useless action, just like the Me generation is a useless myth.

We’re stronger together.

How easy do we really need things to be?

I was reading a software review wherein the user complained that while the tool made complex selections easy, it didn’t make easy selections, such as the square edges of a building, easier. How easy do we really need things to be?

If people could buy a button to push that would instantly create the perfect relationship, would they buy it? Sure they would, but it doesn’t exist.

If engineers could merely think of the bridge they need to build, and have it instantly rendered for them, would they buy that tech? Of course! But it doesn’t exist.

If doctors could cure anything that ails us by pushing a button, surely they would pay billions for that invention. But it doesn’t exist.

We can create just about anything we can dream, but the human element that makes creation and connection occur cannot be literally replaced. Of course, we can create fables and tales, promises and visions, but the connection factor between two interconnected needs manifests action and magic.

We learn from the work, not from the easy, one-click button-pushing.

This is why specialists exist. Need a photo expertly edited? There are people who do that. Software can help you do some types of photo editing fairly quickly, but it isn’t instant, and it can’t do everything. While software marketing promises an elusive version of reality wherein for a few hundred dollars everyone can instantly be master photo editors, the truth is, one-click editing is not as precise as one human taking the time to do it right.

Surely, if your need is genuine and worthy, the price of the specialist is worth every penny.

We connect and benefit and grow from defining needs and working together to solve them.

Easy paths are certainly desirable, but easy, effortless solutions aren’t worth much.

The creative benefit of chaos

For some, chaos is essential to benefiting from the creative process. There are endless tools for controlling and crimping creativity, tools that help you organize, outline, and sequester creative thoughts, ideas, concepts. Place them in a text file, an outline, a box, and you can forget you ever created it.

The trouble is, creativity often relies on chaos, on thoughts hovering in the far corner of the mind. If you quiet all the random thoughts, connections stop occurring. Without the connections, the ideas remain as random disconnected parts. Yet, the reality is often that the seemingly unrelated creative thoughts are actually part of a greater whole, even if you are unaware of their connections when you first conceive of them.

Of course, some people get overwhelmed by the random and find great benefit in organizing in finite detail. It all depends on the overarching goal. Sometimes, however, even the goal is a mystery until we have really leaned into the work. In that case, why not try both? Try creating from chaos. Then try organizing your chaos into a kind of order. See which one works for you.

For some, organizing their chaos will have the opposite effect, rendering an uneasy feeling that results in what some people define as creative block, while for others organizing is essential to finding and keeping focus.

One-size-fits-all does not apply when it comes to getting something out of your creativity.

Smaller goals, bigger goals

If your goal is association, start a relationship.

If your goal is to undermine, publish fabricated or irrelevant data. (Then craft a more admirable goal.)

If your goal is to teach, learn.

If your goal is to succeed, make the efforts.

If you lack a clear priority, categorize and rank your goals.

Once you set goals, stay focused on them until they are realized.

If you streamline them, you may realize that the smaller goals support your bigger goals. (Obvious, yet often overlooked.)

If you skip the smaller goals, the larger goals may forever be out of your grasp.

If you are reaching your small goals, you will almost invariably be reaching your big goals.

Poor system design inspires customers

If your system lacks the ability to recognize human input, you have a system design problem. While the problem may seem obvious to you and me, plenty of people don’t get it at all. It’s why you can respond to a voice prompt only to be told your response can’t be understood. It’s why employees are lacking solutions.

The problem is not the consumer’s. It is the company’s, every time, for the transgression inspires frustration, a powerful motivator for alternative action.

Systems ought to be designed for ease of consumer use, not ease of company use, yet the opposite is often the case.

Take T-Mobile’s customer service line, which has been programmed to understand only certain higher pitches of human voice input. If you are a man with a deep voice, T-Mobile’s message is, ‘Don’t call us,’ which leads to the alternative action of using a different cellular provider.

Take nearly any phone prompting system and you may find that it was not designed for humans at all. No, it was designed for ease of company use, which means it is useless to you, the customer (unless, of course, you believe in the idea that a company is a human.)

The solution, then, is simple: just take the alternate action of finding a company who puts customers first in everything they do.

If you are the company with the poor system design, you really have only one choice: improve. If you choose instead to ignore the problem, people will begin to ignore you, which will inevitably inspire your demise.

The voice of the Brimstone butterfly

Have you ever felt an unexplainable urge to complete an original work, yet it seems life gets in the way? If you have a voice in the back of your mind to make an effort that illuminates a new perspective, but distractions pull you away from starting or completing the work, stop for a second and consider the Brimstone butterfly.

With the longest life span of all adult butterflies, the Brimstone butterfly lives just 9-10 months. Imagine this is your life span. What will you do that makes a difference?

If you consider that our lives can be either quite long or fleetingly short, the distractions do not really matter. When you realize the simple truth that life is finite in length, starting now becomes an imperative.

If you start the work now, acknowledging that voice in the back of your mind by simply writing it down, you can begin to realize how you can make a difference.

It’s the starting that makes it all happen. Once you have acknowledged the voice, the urge will strike you on a daily basis to put in a minute here or an hour there, to get the rough draft out, to consider the work and refine it, to bring it to completion.

All that talk we hear about changing the world is just talk until we do something. Whatever your inner voice urges you to do, starting it with acknowledgement makes it real.

Ten months is a lifetime. It is enough time to write a book, create art, make a discovery, tell a story, reveal a new perspective, acknowledge beauty, or simply bring joy to another person. The fact that we often get many iterations of ten months is a blessing.

And what of the distractions? Oh, don’t worry about those. All the distractions in the world are powerless to stop you when you are in the midst of making your difference.

If the Brimstone butterfly could speak (or if its voice was audible), I bet it would tell us all to act now.

The responsibility to call out the bad

Sometimes I feel like a crank. If I notice a process or a design that was poorly done, I feel a responsibility to call it out. That approach was ingrained in me early in my design career by art directors and creative leaders who felt we owed that to clients. They said we should never be ‘yes men’ or deliver mediocre work, and even that doing so was tantamount to stealing money.

Many will say it’s okay, just let it go, find a better process or product from someone else. Do the work, get the money. I’m not sure what letting it go does for us all, but it’s never felt right. If we let bad advice go, or we let flawed methodology go, the world would have some serious problems. Oh wait, we have and it does.

Now what?

We have a responsibility to call out people, companies, and organizations who do wrong by humanity. Yes, there will be resistance, and yes, it can make us feel like a crank, but there’s a solution for that too. Just go to your balancing mechanism. Mine is riding a bike, turning a crank.