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An interview about communities of passion, the MIX, and HCI


The other day, Peter Clayton of Total Picture Radio interviewed me in preparation for the panel I’ll me moderating at the HCI Engagement and Retention Conference in Chicago in July.

We talked about the Management Innovation Exchange and I shared some ideas from the winning hacks and stories of the folks that will be on the panel: Lisa Haneberg, Joris Luijke, and Doug Solomon. In addition, we talked more broadly about communities of passion, employee engagement, and social media, among other things.

You can listen to the podcast here.

The low-cost, high-value approach to brand positioning research


In my last positioning post, I discussed the four key questions you must answer if you want your positioning research to lead you to effective brand positioning. So how exactly do you discover the answers to the four key questions? Do you need to hire an expensive market research firm and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveys and focus groups?

Here is how I think ad-free brands should answer the question “how much should I spend on research?”

I always answer that question with an astoundingly simple approach that became the backbone of our entire brand strategy during my time at Red Hat. I call it the low-cost, high-value approach, and if you were to illustrate it, it’d look something like this.

The low-cost, high-value approach means that you always analyze potential strategies in terms of their cost and value. You then default to choosing strategies first that are inexpensive in terms of time and money yet bring you a lot of potential value, before selecting strategies that cost more, even if they bring you great value.

Pretty simple, huh?

For example, hiring a research company to set up a brand tracking study with 10,000 potential customers for your brand might provide you with a lot of useful information (high value). But the study can also cost you a lot of money and take up a lot of your team’s valuable time (high cost).

If you have the time and money, you might still decide to field the high-value brand tracking study, but only after you have exhausted all of the low-cost, high-value strategies that might help answer those questions more inexpensively.

So, the essence of the low-cost, high-value approach is to default to spending as little time and money as you can and consider high-cost strategies only when there are no other options that will get you the information you need.

You’d be surprised how many organizations are essentially blind to an entire category of low-cost, high-value research options because they prefer to stick to practices they used in the years before better options became available.

The reality is that the last 10 years have given us a variety of low-cost, high-value digital media tools and resources that are perfect for doing brand positioning research and for rolling out positioning effectively. We now have low-cost, high-value alternatives that can provide data that helps us effectively position brands, many of which were not available before the Internet.

Doing research for positioning a brand is less expensive than it has ever been in history. Some people just haven’t received the memo.

So how much should you spend on research?

When you keep the low-cost, high-value approach in mind, the answer to this question should be clear: balance the amount of time and money you put into the research with the value of the brand you are positioning.

If you are trying to position a small web-based business just getting off the ground, you might attempt to answer the four questions with data you already have at your disposal. Perhaps you’ve already done some customer surveys; you’ve just completed a formal business plan; or you and your team even have strong, well-informed ideas about the direction you want to take the brand. You can use all of this preexisting information to answer the four critical questions I listed in the previous post.

But if you are attempting to position or reposition a brand where the stakes are high, especially if the brand is already generating significant amounts of revenue, the information you have at your disposal might not be enough.

If the stakes are high, but your time or money is short, don’t despair. The ad-free brand positioning approach really shines in low-budget situations because you can always take advantage of the “release early, release often” principle that this open, transparent positioning process embraces.

Don’t have any money to invest in research? You can still create a starting brand position by answering the four questions with the best information you have at your disposal. Then immediately start testing the positioning with others in the organization and potentially even in communities outside the organization. Incorporate the feedback, revise the positioning, and try again.

So if you are positioning a small brand, please don’t feel like you need to break the bank doing research. If you consider the low-cost, high value approach while always keeping the investment you are making in line with the value of the brand you are trying to position, you’ll be nicely set up for long-term positioning success.

This is the fourth in a series of posts drawn from The Ad-Free Brand, which is available now.


Are the “Best Companies to Work For” really the best companies to work for?


The other day I noticed that the application deadline to be considered for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list is this week. My company is too small to be considered for this honor (you must have at least 1000 employees), but I always pay close attention when the rankings come out, and I’m sure many of you do as well. On the 2011 list, the #1 company was SAS, followed by Boston Consulting Group and Wegmans (see all 100 here).

The organization that does the ranking, The Great Place to Work Institute, has been running this competition for years and has a rigorous process for selecting the final list.

Yet when I read the articles written about the top companies or browse the list in Fortune, I always feel like something is missing. I finally put my finger on it:

I believe the evaluation process is benefit-heavy and mission-light.

What do I mean? When I read about the top companies, most of the emphasis seems to be on the salary and benefits offered to employees; which companies pay the most and have the best or most unusual employee perks (life coaches, wine bars, or Botox anyone?).

But the section of the report I want to see is nowhere to be found:

Which companies are doing things that matter?

  • Which companies have a noble mission or purpose and are helping make the world a better place?
  • Which companies have a bold vision and are leading innovation that is changing the world?
  • Which companies are doing such amazing or interesting stuff that they are attracting the world’s top talent?

You see, I’m not someone who would find a company a great place to work because it offers a big paycheck and fantastic benefits. I need my work to be personally fulfilling. I need to feel like I have a chance to make a difference, to do something great.

I don’t think I’m alone.

Previously, I’ve written about something I call cultural fool’s gold, my term for an organizational culture built exclusively on entitlements.

If you want to test whether you work in an entitlement-driven culture, just ask a few people what they like most about working at your company. If they immediately jump to things like free snacks and drinks, the work-from-home policy, or the employee game room, you may have a culture made of fool’s gold, an entitlement-driven culture.

If instead they say things like these:

  • I believe in what we are doing.
  • I love coming to work every day.
  • I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
  • I am changing the world.

you probably work in the only type of organization I’d personally ever consider—a mission-driven organization.

So the big question I’d pose to the folks at the Great Place to Work Institute:

Should there be a “best places” list for those of us who not only want to work someplace great, but want to do something great?

Maybe the Institute should consider a new list for those of us who demand more from our workplaces than big salaries, comfortable benefits, and free Botox injections?

Perhaps it could be called Best Places To Do Great Work or Workplaces with Purpose for People With Purpose or something like that?

The world has changed. I think many of the people graduating for our universities today will demand more than just great benefits from their employers. They’ll want to do meaningful work and be a part of a community of others looking for the same.

Personally, I hope to see the way we rate “the best places to work” in the future change to accommodate people like me.

What do you think?

[This post originally appeared on opensource.com]

Three tired marketing words you should stop using


Over the years, I’ve had many people label me as a marketing guy just because I help build brands. I don’t like being labelled, but I particularly don’t like that marketing label. Why?

In my view, traditional marketing sets up an adversarial relationship, a battle of wills pitting seller vs. buyer.

The seller begins the relationship with a goal to convince the buyer to buy something. The buyer begins the relationship wary of believing what the seller is saying (often with good reason). It is an unhealthy connection that is doomed to fail most of the time.

What’s the alternative? I believe companies should stop trying to build relationships with those interested in their brands using a marketing-based approach and instead move to a community-based approach where the culmination of the relationship is not always a transaction, but instead a meaningful partnership or friendship that may create multiple valuable outcomes for both sides.

How do you do this? Consider beginning by eradicating three of the most common words in the marketing vocabulary: audience, message, and market.

So you better understand what I mean, let me attempt to use all three of these words in a typical sentence you might hear coming out of a marketer’s mouth:

We need to develop some key messages we can use to market to our target audience.

Yikes. So much not to like in there. Let me break this one down.

Audience

You hear companies talk about their “target audiences” all the time. So what’s wrong with that?

The word audience implies that the company is talking and the people on the other end are listening. This sort of binary, transactional description of the relationship seems so dated to me.

Certainly in the glory days of advertising where companies had the podium of TV, magazine, and newspaper ads, the word audience was more appropriate. After all, no one ever got far talking back to the TV set.

But in the age of Twitter and Facebook, companies must respect that everyone has the podium. Everyone is talking, everyone is listening.

Where most marketing folks would use the word audience, I often substitute the word community. By thinking of those who surround your brand as members of communities rather than simply as ears listening to you, you’ll already be on your way to a healthier, deeper relationship with the people who engage with your company.

Message

The word message bothers me for the same reason. It is such an antiquated, transactional term. When a company talks about “creating messaging” or “delivering targeted messages” I start thinking we should call the Pony Express.

I believe the move to a community-based approach begins when you quit worrying about “delivering messages” and begin thinking about sharing stories, joining conversations, or sparking dialogue.

These are much better ways to communicate authentically in a collaborative world.

Market

Perhaps the word that bugs me most is market (used as a noun or a verb) and its related friend consumer. Companies that think of people interested in them as consumers or markets take what could become a multi-dimensional relationship and whittle it down to one dimension: a transaction.

If you think of someone as part of your “target market” or a “consumer” you are making your interest in them abundantly clear. You want them to consume something. You want their money.

But what if there were more that people who are interested in your brand could share besides just their money? Perhaps they have valuable ideas that might make your company better? Perhaps they’d be willing to volunteer to help you achieve your mission in other ways?

When you stop thinking of the people that care about your company as consumers or a market, you can begin to see opportunities that you would have been blind to before.

Want an example? Look anywhere in the open source world. Sure there are buyers and sellers, but there are also lots of people bringing value in other ways. Developing code. Hosting projects. Writing documentation. The list goes on.

So let me be the first to admit these three words are the tip of the iceberg. Moving a company from a marketing-based to a community-based approach to building relationships will take more than changing a few words. It will require you to embrace new media, new skill sets, and a totally new way of thinking.

But you have to start somewhere.

Do you see other things that may need to change as we move from a marketing-based to community-based approach to building brands and companies?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

[This post originally appeared on opensource.com]

The four questions your brand positioning research must answer


To create great brand positioning, you must do your homework. In a brand positioning project, this homework mostly consists of doing some research about the brand ahead of time. But how do you organize your research?

In this post, I’ll teach you a simple tip I learned from Dr. Kevin Keller that will help you frame your positioning research in a way that will ensure you find the answers you need.

When doing research to inform a brand positioning project, I am not satisfied until I can answer the following four questions:

1. What does the brand community currently believe about or value in the brand?
2. What might the brand community believe or value about the brand in the future?
3. What does the organization currently claim about the brand?
4. What would the organization like the brand to become down the road?

Why are the answers to these four questions so important?

Great brand positioning has one foot in the present and one foot in the future. The research we’re doing to answer these questions helps us understand exactly where each foot should be planted.

The Foot in the Present

By studying what your brand community members currently believe the brand stands for and what they value about it today, you’ll begin to understand their current experience of the brand. Yet your community’s experience of the brand can be very different than how you see or talk about the brand inside the organization. So the brand research should study the brand from both an internal and external perspective.

Often organizations will notice gaps or inconsistencies between the brand they claim to be and the brand their community sees or experiences—the brand promise-brand experience gap.

Once you deeply understand what your community currently believes or values about the brand and compare this to what you currently claim about the brand, you’ll have a complete picture of where your “foot in the present” is planted. You’ll see clearly how big the gap is between your brand promise and brand experience. Only then can you begin the work of building brand positioning that closely aligns the brand promise claimed with the brand experience delivered.

The Foot in the Future

But a brand that is only concerned with the present state of affairs is a brand in stagnation. You’ll want your brand to grow, prosper, and remain relevant down the road. So you should also try to understand what the brand community might believe or value about the brand in the future.

What directions might people give you permission to take the brand? Where do they not want you to take it? What would they value in the brand that you don’t provide today? What does the organization do today that people would rather not see you continue to do down the road?

Equally important is that you strongly consider where you want to take the brand. Remember the apocryphal Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Sure, to remain relevant you should deeply understand what the community members want the brand to become, but do not become a slave to their vision. You might have entirely different and amazing places you’d like to take the brand that your customers or other community members can’t yet see.

So, in order to understand where your foot in the future is planted, you should seek to understand both what your community would believe or value in the brand and what you want the brand to become down the road.

Where Great Positioning Lives

Great positioning lives where all four answers intersect. It is a bridge between your current brand experience and the brand you’d like to become in the future. It deeply reflects the brand you currently see while lighting the path to what it could become.

Great positioning lives in all four of these quadrants at once. It can be like the North Star, guiding the organization toward the future, while paying homage to the past and making clear connections between things that resonate about the brand with both your organization and your brand community.

So where should you look for data that will help you answer these four questions and start on the road to great brand positioning?

I’ll share some of the mostly likely sources of data in a followup post.

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from The Ad-Free Brand, which is available now.

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