When to talk to customers

When it comes to getting deep strategic insights about customers, what’s more effective—quantitative or qualitative research? Forget the long questionnaire and large survey samples, says strategic planning consultant Graham Kenny in Harvard Business Review. In-depth interviews with a small set of people, often as few as a dozen, will give you more insight.

Customer conversations are better at obtaining what he calls strategic factors for any business: the key criteria customers use to choose you over a competitor. Open-ended conversations provide:

• Higher-quality information

• Access to the customer’s mind—how they think and make decisions

• Deeper understanding of the customer’s needs, wants, pain

Kenny’s talks with customers center on one key question: “What criteria do you weigh in deciding to engage us versus our competitors?”

He’s tested this approach, asking management teams what they believe their strategic factors are. Management doesn’t provide as “crisp” as do customers, and they often include factors that don’t matter to customers.

“When it comes to obtaining customer input, executives often think a multiple-choice survey will be the most cost-effective option. They have their place... [but] don’t let them become an excuse for not talking to the customer.”

Graham Kenny, Harvard Business Review

Talking to one customer never yields all the strategic factors. Every customer’s experience is different. But in Kenny’s experience, talking to several—often as few as 12—always results in the complete set.

As for how many interviews you’ll need to conduct, you’ll know you’ve collected all the factors when you no longer hear anything new. This “saturation point” seems to naturally occur at 12 people.

Getting better work from designers (pt. 1)

Practically every marketer will work with designers at some point. Marketers often have the idea or concept to convey, but designers must execute. It’s a tricky hand-off that can go much more smoothly if you understand design principles.

CXL’s Peep Laja boils it down to eight principles, with excellent visual examples:

(C)  C XL


As Laja says, “Design is marketing. The more I’ve learned about the principles of web design, the better results I’ve gotten.”

Creativity, explained

How does creativity happen?

The best explanation is in a 46-page book given to me years ago by a boss who read it years before that as an account manager at Leo Burnett in Chicago.

For the non- or un-creative, creativity is a mysterious process involving steps that don’t look like anything you’d recognize as “work.” If you’re that person but you value ideas and creativity, then you’ll want to understand the creative process and the people who engage in it.

What’s creativity?

First, some background. Creativity is the act of producing new ideas. A new idea is a fresh combination of old elements. Making new combinations requires you to see relationships between facts or information.

Creative people, or idea producers, are unusual in how they relate to information. We tend to have very broad interests—the kind of person who can get interested in almost anything for its own sake. It’s such an uncommon tendency that we’re often self-effacing about it. You may have heard us say “I know a lot of useless information.”

We also tend to search for relationships between facts. And we tend to see relationships between facts or information that others don’t see.

So much for the creative mind. How do our minds produce ideas? Young sees five steps.

1) Gather the raw material

There are two kinds of raw material:

Specific information—on the product, the service, or problem; the audience; market dynamics, and so on. All things the creative person may not have known before the assignment and needs to research. Go deep, says Young. Get as much specific information as possible.

General information—practical and theoretical; on life and how the world works; on history, science, philosophy. Things that have no obvious connection to the problem at hand. Creative people are constantly collecting this information, which turns out to be not so useless.

2) Digest the material

We examine the material and start bring facts together. Young advises writing these relationships or combinations down, ordering and structuring the ideas. (This sounds very much like a combination of the madman and architect phases of the four personas of writing.)

This thinking stage of creativity is awkward and difficult. Awkward because the ideas will be half-formed at best and unresolved. The human brain doesn’t like this—we prefer resolution. It’s the cerebral equivalent of a pebble in your shoe.

And difficult because it’s all cognitive work. As Daniel Kahneman tells us, cognitive (System 2) thinking is difficult, tiring, and something we’d prefer not to do for any length of time.

3) Step away

When we can’t push our brains any further, we take a break. In this incubation period, we let our thinking continue in our subconscious while we engage in something that stimulates us.

It might be listening to music, reading a novel or thriller, or going to the theater or movies. Even a 20-minute break can suffice. Young says it must be something emotional. We think incubation can happen during rote or mindless activities (shaving, showering) or repetitive physical activities (gardening, running/walking, rowing). Find your thing.

This step will completely baffle non-creative people. (“You call that work?!”). And even creatives may not always trust it, at least early in the careers.

But if you’ve had a great idea in the shower, while driving, or on a run, or if you’ve put the crossword puzzle down for an hour, come back to it, and experienced a flush of progress, then you’ve experienced the incubation effect.

(Still unconvinced? New research from McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin and the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign not only confirms it, but even borrows Young’s term “incubating stage.”)

4) The light bulb moment

This is the idea in the shower, the aha on the running trail, the insight that appears while you’re making dinner. It’s the birth stage of creativity.

It will happen. The key, says Young, is to be ready for it. Because it can happen anywhere (even in the middle of the night). Creatives will have the pen and paper ready, or the smartphone with the note or voice recording app, ready to record it.

5) The morning after

This is the essential step, as Young says, of “making your idea fit the exact conditions in which it must work.” It’s the shaping/developing stage of creativity.

Because most creative ideas are not born whole and complete. They are like human babies—beautiful to their originators but not fully-formed, not ready for prime time.

Most creative ideas must be refined, edited, re-worked, adjusted. There’s a certain ruthless survival of the fittest (best) ideas. Good ones, says Young, will expand with criticism, evaluation, retooling. Not-so-good ones will shrivel up.

This is what writers mean by “be willing to kill your darlings.” If the idea pales in the cold gray of the morning after, then do the merciful thing and file it away. If the idea gets better, that’s a good sign you’re onto the real solution.

A gatekeeper speaks on marketing

Several years ago, we spoke at length with a gatekeeper at a state pension fund on a range of marketing topics.

He was a prototypical gatekeeper—the people who can give or deny asset managers the opportunity to pitch their institution. He was in his 30s and planned to be in his position for three to five years, after which he’d advance to a more senior institutional role or move to the investment management side.

Gatekeepers tend to be young-ish, smart, ambitious, overworked, and over-pitched. Their profile hasn’t changed much since then. So while the details below may be slightly dated, the message is as valid as ever.

On pitching, decks, and introductions:

We’re inundated with decks from managers wanting us to see their process. They face an uphill battle. Put yourself in our shoes: most pension funds have one person in the gatekeeping role who’ll spend five to ten minutes thumbing through your deck. If you give us one reason to say “no”—for example, an unclear value proposition—we’ll move on.

Photo by KML from Pexels

Photo by KML from Pexels

Crisp, short decks of ten to 20 pages are easier for us to digest. We’re not going to go into that much detail on a first look. We’re all understaffed. If you don’t make your case in the first few pages, we won’t spend any more time flipping through the rest.

We don’t need so much detail. We don’t care what you look like, so skip the photos. One page on your team, one-line bios. Anywhere you can save paper or space, I’d encourage it. Conceptual graphics and charts will suffice.

The reaction you want from us is, “I’d like to hear more about this.” Just enough to spur a personal conversation of five to ten minutes, which is all you can ask for. That will lead to a longer conversation in a visit or phone call. At that point, we may want an educational session to evaluate it.

Their expectations of value-added services:

We expect to get more than just asset management from the firms we have strong relationships with. Our asset management partners are very proactive in pushing out their intellectual capital. Many managers can do that—they have the resume and the credibility out of the box, and can do that in a creative, constructive fashion for their clients.

For example, Bridgewater sends us its daily observations, emerging market currencies to pension underfunding status to what are rates doing in Spain. They take what they’re already doing anyway and put it in a professional format.

If we have a special request—like, do you have any thoughts on this space in the markets, do you have any insights on this market strategy—they’ll have a person work on it, send us a spreadsheet, and take us through it.

Other shops may provide a monthly commentary. For example, some firms have experience in emerging markets. We’re not in the weeds there, so their update will help us.

These are all relatively straightforward, natural things managers can do, driven off their day-to-day portfolio management.

On filling gaps in their expertise:

Every institution has areas of weakness that managers can help them with.

For example, we don’t have expertise on tactical, dynamic asset allocation, or the tools for it. We’re looking for an advanced approach, not just an efficient frontier model but risk premia, and then helping us apply it to our portfolios. I have yet to see a good offering from any firm that would help us with this, but I believe it’s out there.

For carve-outs and other small managers:

Some managers—especially new, smaller firms—could be more sophisticated in their selling and retention efforts. We have turnover on a regular basis, and when we do, you’ll have to resell yourself. To come back a year from now, after I’m gone, and tell the new gatekeeper that I was the reason we’re doing business with you.

It’s hard, but that’s how it’s done. Relationship managers call, introduce themselves, and tactfully say, “we’re adding value for you—please don’t terminate us just because you don’t know who we are.” The good asset managers are very skilled at this.

Words are power tools. Handle with care.

Metaphor, analogy, and simplification are powerful tools. Maybe more powerful than even we professional wielders of words—including marketers—are aware.

Writing in Scientific American, science communicator Amanda Baker tells two quick stories of communications failure and one of turnaround success, all hinging on these power tools of language.

When we think we’re simplifying, we’re often creating more misunderstanding. A strong analogy seems perfect until we say it—then realize it’s too strong and has derailed the conversation.

What can be done? Message (and visual) testing by research professionals can really help, but it’s expensive. Informal testing may provide guidance, but you may not have access to the target audience. And honest feedback is hard to get if you have a relationship with your test respondent. Try anyway.

It comes down to respecting these power tools for what they are—hugely effective when used correctly, capable of damage when not. Be aware, sensitive, and empathetic. And use them with skill.


Photo by Bidvine

How to design anything


You might be hip to the great care and thought that go into the design of consumer products. Even so, the customer focus that has gone into Smart Design’s re-imagining of New York City’s trash cans—barely changed since the 1930s—may make you rethink your marketing approach, even if you market intangibles like financial services.

Because designing a campaign, even designing something as tactical as a landing page, is like designing a product.

The right target

Above all, make it useful to the person your targeting. It may seem obvious who that person is, but it’s often not that straightforward. Turns out the intended audience for the NYC trash can isn’t sidewalk pedestrians. It’s New York City sanitation workers.

Likewise, the primary audience for your campaign isn’t necessarily the people who will engage with it—it’s the people you’re asking to promote the campaign: your salespeople. Are you making it useful for them?

The true goal

To be useful, the thing you’re designing must help the person accomplish a goal. This is not the same as its use. It’s often bigger than its use. It’s how that use contributes to a larger objective.

For NYC sanitation, the goal isn’t to eliminate trash or give New Yorkers a convenience. It’s to make being a sanitation worker easier and safer. Once the goal is defined, other objectives often can be rolled into the design.


You arrive at these answers the same way Smart Design did:

  • Understand the history. The designers didn’t start designing at a white board. They approached the project with great tact and respect for what had gone into the original design and how that design fit into the daily experience of users.

  • Observe and listen. Smart Design’s biggest insights came from observing trash collectors on their daily rounds and asking questions. When was the last time you accompanied a salesperson in the field? Watched an end customer use your services? Listened in on a call with internal wholesalers?

Create your next campaign or communication with a clear goal in mind. Make it useful to the right person. To get better, get curious. Get better answers.

Photo by RockyJenny is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The one reason they buy

What if we took the sales funnel we’re all familiar with—awareness, interest, decision, action, all based on what we think is the customer’s psychology—and redrew it based on what actually matters to the customer?

Would we think differently, maybe even more effectively, about why people buy our stuff? Would it be a more useful marketing tool?

A recent conversation with the CMO of a highly-regarded investment manager suggests an answer.

This firm is the IBM of its space—a pioneer that is off the charts in respect and trust. In terms of winning new business, however, it isn’t living up to its potential. It has no trouble getting meetings, and it’s included in most if not all RFPs. It makes the finals round an exceptional 50% of the time. And yet it has difficulty closing sales. It wins far fewer mandates than its success further back in the sales process would suggest.

It’s taken the firm a while to figure out why. At first, they asked directly why they hadn’t won the business. Getting honest feedback was difficult. It’s always hard to get people to tell you the real reason they’ve rejected you. When you have industry clout and are generally well-liked, it’s even harder to get honest feedback. Most people would rather keep the relationship than risk it by delivering bad news.

So the firm hired a third party to find out. The true reasons were revealing. Despite their high regard for the brand, most decision makers felt the firm wasn’t a leading investment manager. Everyone liked the firm’s thinking, thought their people were brilliant, and loved their analytical services. These attributes are what prospects love about the firm. And they’re exactly what the firm focused on in finals presentations.

Wrong. Because in the end, these attributes are not what mattered to buyers. At the point of sale, buyers cared only about one thing: investment management. Show me that you’ll be the best manager of my organization’s money.

Consider where this particular buyer is at the point of sale. They’re often volunteers who have put in a ton of time, work, and perhaps consulting fees identifying potential managers. They don’t want to put themselves or their organization through this process again. They’re also fiduciaries, which means among other things that they could be personally liable for their choice. There’s great reputational, legal, and institutional risk to this decision.

The winning firms didn’t necessarily have all the side attributes of the CMO’s firm. But they are known for their investment management excellence. And at the point of sale, that’s all that mattered.

marketing hourglass.jpg

Lots of great takeaways here, but let’s point out two in particular:

• What’s the one reason people buy from you? Not why they agree to meet with you as prospects, not why they love you as clients, but why they agree to buy? It’s very likely just one key reason. This is closely related to Clayton Christensen’s Theory of Jobs To Be Done.

• Whose job is it to know the one reason? It’s not necessarily surprising or their fault that the firm’s salespeople couldn’t produce this insight. Sales is properly focused on sales. It’s marketing’s job to understand the customer.

And this is one CMO we’ve run into who is really taking ownership of the customer.

What’s your founder’s story?

Our intuition tells us that an authentic story about a company’s beginnings—its founder’s story—is compelling to customers. Researchers are beginning to find truth in this hunch.

yvon chouinard circa 1972

yvon chouinard circa 1972

In a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, professors at University of Mississippi and Olin Business School at Washington University found that “information about a founder's motivation for creating a company has a powerful effect on whether consumers deem a brand authentic, which in turn influences judgments about the quality of the product.”

It’s what Patagonia, Vanguard Funds, and Chobani yogurt all have in common: they’re strong brands grounded in a powerful story about the founders’ original purpose.

To those of us who are familiar with the stories of Yvon Chouinard, John Bogle, and Hamdi Ulukaya, these brands are inseparable from their founders’ initial motivations. For the many more who buy their products without knowing these stories, those motivations are still very clear because they’re so strongly imbued in their products.

Patagonia’s superior, “clean,” durable outdoor merchandise. Vanguard’s “new and better way of running a mutual fund company… directly benefitting shareholders.” The kind of yogurt that Chobani wanted to bring to the world, by the kind of caring company its founder wanted to see in the world.

The founder’s story doesn’t necessarily need to be true, but it must add up. Most people still don’t know that “Häagen-Dasz” means nothing, was for years made in the South Bronx, and was once called Senator Frozen Foods. It’s a premium brand many still believe comes from somewhere in Denmark. Its reputation for high-quality ingredients, including lots of butterfat, fortifies the story because it’s in tune with the story.

We’ve found that many companies are sitting on the outlines of great founders’ stories that they aren’t using, haven’t explored, or haven’t adequately articulated. That story is often a key to the brand. And reconnecting with it can add vitality to the expression of that brand.

Photo by Tom Frost is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Build Your Own Bauhaus

Almost all marketing is visual marketing. And much of today’s visual and product design has its origins in the Bauhaus movement. From glass-clad buildings, folding chairs, and modern kitchens to typography, signage, and even your iPhone, all have direct lines back to Bauhaus principles.

On the centenary of the Bauhaus, Getty Research has launched a fun online experience where you can learn more about Bauhaus history, people, and ideas.

B2B Content Marketing: It Works.

Content marketing is effective—particularly the digital kind.

In the first study of B2B content marketing effectiveness, Dr. Bobby Calder and his team at Kellogg School of Management validate the approach and have some surprising results for firms spending money on events, webinars, and other “in-person” content marketing.

Content marketing, says Calder, is any communication that creates value beyond the product or service. That’s a satisfyingly useful definition of a very broad concept that includes John Deere’s The Furrow, REI’s Expert Advice, in-flight magazines, even the Old Spice Guy. If your audience values it for itself, it’s content marketing.

Great content marketing creates an experience that resonates with the audience’s values and aims in life, in a professional context—possibly “more important to them than a business transaction.”

“With content marketing, you’re not so much trying to communicate value as to create value beyond the product.”

Bobby Calder, Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management

There is plenty of evidence that B2C content marketing works. But no one had validated the effectiveness of B2B content marketing—the kind that IBM and GE have undertaken. And no one had studied the effectiveness of different content marketing activities.

Calder’s team did both. In fact, they found that digital content marketing result in more leads and completed sales than in-person content marketing.

The in-person events barely registered at all—surprising even Calder. Although no single study is ever definitive, marketers may want to rethink their content marketing mix.

Marketing’s Stock Is Rising (Almost) Everywhere

CMOs are becoming more and more accepted as peers within the C-suite as “drivers of growth.” But according to this new McKinsey study, some industries are behind the curve, including financial services.

It’s interesting—and telling—to compare the soundbites from financial services marketers to those in other industries interviewed by McKinsey.

“They [the rest of the C-suite] never see marketing as a serious topic. They really need to work on trusting us.” — Insurance company CMO

“Marketing isn’t brought to the table as frequently with the C-suite as other parts of organization.” — Financial services CMO

“I speak the language of finance. It gives the CFO comfort that you know what you’re talking about and how you’re thinking about the payback/ROI.” — Online staffing platform CMO

“The beauty of our relationship [CIO/CMO] is that we have both signed up to take accountability for the digital transformation of marketing.” — Enterprise software CMO

For whatever reason, many financial services marketers still haven’t realized that customer ownership, collaboration, and accountability are essential to a high-functioning marketing department.

“Unifier” CMOs Beat “Friends,” “Loners”

Marketing is on the cusp of greatness, says McKinsey in a new study. The availability of data now allows marketers to measure the results of their activities and to understand more about customers than ever before.

And that has caught the eye of the C-suite, which is beginning to see just how critical marketing is to the organization. A full 83% of CEOs believe marketing can be a major driver of growth. But there’s still a large gap between that expectation and today’s reality. Only 50% of CEOs say marketing currently delivers on growth.

To understand how the best CMOs are closing that gap, McKinsey studied C-level attitudes globally and identified three CMO profiles: Unifiers, Loners, and Friends.

Unlike Loners and Friends, Unifiers are strong builders of rapport across the firm, engaging in a set of approaches that make them more effective leaders of their agendas and more successful in driving growth. A Unifer is:

• A skilled collaborator

• Clear and compelling about marketing’s role

• Able to inhabit the mindset of other C-level executives and speak their language

• Accountable to the team, and expects accountability in return

In turn, Unifiers are more likely to be accepted by the C-suite, enjoy longer tenures, and are more protected (budget, headcount) in downturns. For those willing and able to assume the Unifier role, “there has never been a better time to be a CMO.”

Experts to Follow: Armin Vit on Logos

We’re big fans of Armin Vit’s logo reviews at Brand New, one of the best blogs on visual branding. Read his critiques (and the spirited the comments) and you’ll get an informal but very practical education on branding and logo design.

Start on familiar ground—the recent Bank of America and iShares brand refreshes. Armin’s critiques and the comment chain reveal what matters in logo design, at least to practitioners:

Category correctness. Is the logo industry-appropriate? Or is it a financial brand that looks like a pharmaceutical company or a spa? To laypeople, logo designers can seem overly sensitive to category correctness. But visuals hugely impact people’s brand perceptions. So designer discomfort is well placed. Pay heed.

Personality. At least category-incorrect logos have personalities. Far too many logos are generic—a bigger sin, for Armin. Stand for something.

Application. How well does the logo adapt to all the various uses logos are put—digital, print, mobile, signage, merchandise—and to different sizes and visual contexts? This is a big one for designers, who often have to live with the results of poorly-thought-out logo designs.

Concept. As with most trained artists, designers really care about the concept behind their work, including logos. For example, Bank of America’s flag icon, as an interpretation of the U.S. flag. For good designers, concept drives everything. No concept, no drive.

Brand equity. You may think of designers as out-there creative types, but the good ones are very conservative when it comes to messing with longstanding visual design. They know what all marketers should know (and what many de facto managers of brands often don’t): brand equity is precious, takes a long time to build, and can be destroyed very quickly. When logo designers talk about brand equity, listen.

You can filter the reviews by industry, including “finance.”

Armin reviews logos of brands around the globe, created by some of the world’s biggest and best branding and design firms (not always the same). They’re excellent mini case studies of the most important branding work happening today.

A better recipe for thought leadership

“The food at this place is really terrible.”

“Yes. And such small portions.”

That pretty much describes today’s menu of corporate thought leadership. Much of it is bland, some is pretty poor—and yet there’s still huge demand for the good stuff. They’re hungry out there.

Anyway, that’s been our experience as consumers, creators, and consultants on thought leadership.

But has anyone really studied this? We’ve seen thought leadership work, but we were looking for hard numbers and good intelligence on what kind of thought leadership executives really want and respond to.

That led us to an old-ish but rigorous piece of research: “Thought Leadership Disrupted: New Rules for the Content Age,” by The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

The April 2016 study surveyed 1,644 global executives “who either produce or consume thought leadership content;” a third of whom consume it daily. Over half were C-suite executives, and companies ranged in annual revenues. The data was tested at 95% confidence.

The results were even worse—and at the same time more promising—than we’d imagined.

We’ll use the present tense because although the research is over four years old, we believe that the flood of thought leadership has only skyrocketed. And that executives are still starving for the good stuff.

Strong appetites

Executives are committed consumers of thought leadership. At the time of the study,

• One third engaged with thought leadership daily

• 20% had increased their consumption of thought leadership “a lot” in the prior year.

Fuel for action

The effect of compelling thought leadership on executives is nothing short of impressive:

• 70% shared it by email and engaged with more thought leadership from that source. “Consumption… breeds further consumption.”

• More than 75% were influenced in their purchasing decisions

• More than 66% were willing to advocate for the brand

• Over 80% were influenced in choosing a potential business partner

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

High-quality ingredients

What do executives find compelling?

• Credible, innovative, big-picture, transformative content.

• High-quality research—their benchmark for “credibility.” Brand strength adds practically nothing to credibility. Executives particularly value “hard facts.”

Changing tastes

Even back in 2016, executives were becoming much more selective in their consumption habits. “… Nearly two-thirds of marketers… agree that it is far more difficult to get on executives’ thought leadership content shortlists today.”

At the same time, ever-increasing demands on time and new consumption habits encouraged by new technology were destroying the “time-intensive idea of thought leadership.” Longform white papers have given way to briefer, more visual content that is shareable and accessible on all digital devices and platforms.

“Format and impact are as important as the value of the insights.”

Making the donuts

Meanwhile, most firms were still chugging along, creating “thought leadership” they thought was compelling but that was rarely informed by their audience’s interests.

That hasn’t changed. We routinely hear from firms that want to drive brand awareness or accomplish other business objectives. Marketing groups are usually strong advocates for audience needs, but they’re often overruled.

“Corporate initiatives are nearly three times more likely to be selected than audience considerations.”

With the profound skepticism about anything marketed as “thought leadership,” it’s much tougher to get on decision-makers’ reading lists. And with more content vying for attention, even great thought leadership has to fight to be seen. That’s the bad news.

But the appetite for authentic thought leadership is still strong and will probably never go away. It remains a powerful way to engage and influence B2B audiences. And, because the world is the way it is, most of your competitors will continue to make the donuts—cranking out the same self-referential content. All good news.

The recipe

So if you’re serious about thought leadership, aim for:

• Content high in analytical quality, backed by credible data. Strive for “challenging… fact-based perspectives.”

• Formats that are more accessible, shareable, and memorable than traditional longform thought leadership. Instead of a sit-down banquet hall meal, serve a continuous offering of outstanding hors d’oeuvres.

The podcast ecosystem

The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz just published an early-stage investor’s take on the burgeoning podcast industry.

For anyone interested in podcasts as a medium, it’s a fascinating report that deserves a full read—including the section on China, where the full commercial promise of podcasts is playing out fastest on the globe.

We’ve pulled out data specifically on the marketing promise of podcasts:


• There are ~700K free podcasts available today. Thousands more launch every week.

• One third of all Americans listen to podcasts monthly, one quarter listen weekly:

o Weekly listeners average seven episodes per week, and one hour a day.

o Average podcast listeners consume only slightly less—about six hours per week.

• Podcast listeners are a rarified demographic: affluent, well-educated, currently skewing male (although females are approaching parity).

• Listening happens mostly at home, although this should change with new technologies (e.g., better devices in cars).


• Podcast ads meaningfully increase purchase intent among a hard-to-reach demographic (see above).

• Podcast ads are still hard to target; listener data isn’t available and “listens” (vs. downloads) are impossible to measure.


• The Chinese experience suggests that social interaction and community (“social audio,” including live audio) may be the most fruitful path forward.

(c) andreessen horowitz

(c) andreessen horowitz

Your website is skin-deep

When it comes to your website’s ability to engage with viewers, there’s good evidence that design beats out other considerations we tend to think are important, including usability and content quality.

A new post by Peep Laja at CXL Institute pieces together independent research to make a strong case that marketers should allocation a majority of their resources to web design—or at least not to scrimp on it.

The high points:

• Reactions to your website are entirely visual. Visitors to your website form an opinion in 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds). Google’s research suggests this may happen even faster—17 milliseconds.

• Those reactions/opinions depend on structure, colors, spacing, and symmetry. Text density and fonts play crucial roles.

• The most appealing sites have low visual complexity and are highly similar to other sites in its category.

source: cxl

source: cxl

• A good first impression equals more time on-site. Visitors scan the following locations of the page they land on, in this order: logo area, main nav, search box, main image, written content, footer.

• Design rules: 94% of impressions are design-related. If the landing page is poor, they’ll rarely stay and explore. Poor design causes mistrust.

• Design is actually more important to appeal than usability. Invest in design.

For more on how and why design affects us mainly on an unconscious level, here’s an intriguing explanation by Bobby Caldwell, legendary professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management.

The four personas of writing

The writing process is poorly understood. Even veteran writers sitting down in front of the blank screen can feel like they’re doing it for the first time.

But there’s a remarkably helpful way for writers of all kinds and all levels of experience to approach the writing process. It’s called the Flowers paradigm, for the University of Texas professor who created it. It asks writers to inhabit four mindsets at different stages of the writing process: madman, architect, carpenter, and judge.


Writing starts with ideas, and for the madman or madwoman, no idea is too crazy. Because ideas beget more ideas, and because the writing mind continues to work while we’re doing other things, it can be productive to work the madman stage in short sessions with long breaks, over time.

Once your ideas are set down, you switch to a very different mental gear. As the architect, you’re looking for patterns, sense, narratives, flows of logic. You sift your best ideas, shaping the outlines of what will become the written piece.

With the floor plan drawn, you become the carpenter, translating the overall plan into the words, sentences, and paragraphs that bring the architect’s plan to life, while retaining the verve and spark of the madman.

Only when you’ve done the work of these three characters do you become the judge, applying a critical, evaluative eye to the ideas, organization, and execution of your writing.

The Flowers paradigm nicely explains why beginning with outlines often fails (you’ve skipped the madman stage) and why it’s so important not to be critical (judging) in the early stages of writing. It shows up most writing problems as errors in sequence, and provides a simple way of staying on course.

It can also help you evaluate your writing process. Maybe you spend more time than necessary in madman mode. Or the judge in you is showing up too early, making you tense up when you should be open and loose.

Use it as a roadmap in planning specific writing assignments. If you have four days to produce a finished ad, you may budget one day for each stage. A Q&A may require very little of the madman—mainly in coming up with great questions—and much more architect and carpenter.

Of course, no process should be followed slavishly. We are humans, not robots (most of us). In practice, you may find yourself moving back to madman mode or jumping ahead to judge, for very good reasons. Just because we don’t always stay on the path doesn’t mean the map is useless, or that we’ve failed. It means that when we take the inevitable side trail, we can more easily get back on track.

Michael Lewis on podcasts

Podcasts are unmatched for forging strong bonds of trust and likeability—what it takes great salespeople many meetings over time to accomplish. In the right hands, podcasts are literally spellbinding, and a way to broadcast intimacy.



But before you go out and buy a Shure SM7B cardioid microphone with the corporate card, realize what you’re getting into. Michael Lewis—author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys, and creator of the podcast “Against the Rules”—shared his observations on what it takes to create and produce a winning podcast on (what else?) a recent Longform podcast.

The whole episode is fascinating, but this portion is in the first half hour. Some key points:

Script it, conversationally. Unlike videos, where we advise clients against reading from a script, most podcasts are scripted. But it should be conversational, which isn’t easy—even for Lewis. You may think you can write conversationally, he says, but you probably can’t.

The voice rules. The human voice is surprisingly information-rich. Audiences can pick up on the slightest signal—“integrity, slipperiness, nervousness.” That’s actually great news. Your host and guests won’t need telegenic looks. If they’re passionate, curious-engaging, warm, or genuine, they’ll shine.

Even so, some voices suck the energy out of the room (and you won’t know until you hear it played back). Podcast newbies will need training. “You’re using your voice as an instrument,” and as with any instrument, instruction and practice can help. Malcolm Gladwell and his “Revisionist History” podcast team do readings, just like actors. Lewis listens to demo recordings to get his timing right.

Avoid technical subjects. While he’s not shy about tackling complicating subjects in his writing, Lewis thinks podcasts aren’t a good medium for explaining highly technical subjects—for example, collateralized mortgage obligations.

On the other hand, he thinks podcasts uniquely allow you string disparate ideas together. The power of the voice is “a substitute for narrative—not a perfect substitute, but it can pull them through.”

A new audience. Another advantage to adding podcasts to your marketing mix: you may well reach a different audience from those you’re currently reaching. “There’s an overlap with readers but it’s not the same group,” says Lewis. “It’s a different audience.” It skews younger, more affluent, and we believe more professional.

It ain’t easy. As these observations suggest, a good podcast is a big undertaking, whether it’s a looser interview format (e.g., “How I Built This”) or a scripted, storytelling series (e.g., HBR’s “Ideacast”). “It’s not a trivial amount of work. It sucked up eight months of my life.”

A successful podcast also takes a variety of skillsets. Unless you’re using the podcast as a glorified announcement, doing it yourself is probably a misuse of resources. The only thing you’ll be broadcasting is that you really don’t believe in the law of comparative advantage.

If you want some of the benefits of podcasting without doing or hiring the work, there’s always sponsorship. By negotiating some air time for your own sponsored content, and using their creative and production resources, you could get some of that podcast magic.

Machine learning for marketers pt. 1

“Machine learning is one of the main ways that tech will change things in the broader world in the next decade.”

Those things include marketing and investment management.

So we should all know what machine language is. This brief post by Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, provides one of the best explanations we’ve seen of machine learning, its limitations, and why humans aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Machine learning uses data to generate a model, rather than a human being writing the model. This produces startlingly good results, particularly for recognition or pattern-finding problems, and this is the reason why the whole tech industry is being remade around machine learning.”

This should be required reading for any marketer working with quant managers. Which these days is a growing number of investment managers, active and passive.