Your Secret Weapon to Generating Ideas

How effective are you at getting the most out of a conference or presentation? This may seem blindingly obvious, but it starts with taking notes. Not all note taking is the same. There are proven and tested note taking methods that can dramatically help you retain more information and generate more ideas from your notes. And that’s the real reason you are there, to expand your mind, come up with new ideas and concepts that will benefit you and your organization.

The secret is – writing

Ditch your computer. Start with paper, not your computer. Don’t take notes with a laptop. Studies have shown that people who use longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material.

Keep writing. Humans forget things easily. As more time passes, the more we forget (shocker). In a study by Professor Walter Pauk with Cornell, we forget:

Notes Graphs.png

The study on university students found that note-taking combats forgetfulness by providing a reference point for later. Only 10% of a presentation or lecture may last in memory, but those who took and reviewed their notes were able to recall about 80%.

Doodle. You are human and your mind will wander. Whether the speaker is boring or dynamic, you may find yourself doodling in the margins. That’s awesome – keep it up! Research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people who doodle recall information (up to 29% more) than their non-doodling counterparts. Doodling is also a great way to spark new and innovative ideas and make them more tangible. There is a reason why we speak of those million-dollar ideas that were initially sketched out on the back of a napkin.

Creating Ideas

Taking notes is great, and for some people, simply listening to someone and taking notes sparks ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you start flowing with ideas or don’t have many from listening to a speaker. Ideas can be sparked in the moment or may come later. And it’s these ideas that are important to you and your organization. Here are a few tips to generate more ideas from your notes:

  • New time. Put down your notes and re-read them the next day. A fresh perspective and sleeping on it is very helpful. A study in Memory and Cognition found that people perform problem-solving tasks more effectively after sleep.
  • New perspective. Start by thinking of a challenge - one challenge or problem you are trying to solve at a time. Review your notes and with that challenge in mind, you may come up with a new idea by looking through this new lens.
  • New location. Take a hike. Grab your notes and go to a coffee shop, walk a trail, and get a different perspective. Reading your notes in a different environment will help generate different thinking and new ideas.
  • New atmosphere. Listen to music while reviewing your ideas. A co-study by the Behavioral Science Institute of The Netherlands and The University of Technology in Sydney, found that listening to uplifting, happy music (your definition of what that is) increased people’s ability to come up with more ideas.

You Have an Idea! Now What?

Don’t lose it. Immediately write it down. The most important thing is to capture the essence of the idea – you can always go back and build upon it. But if it’s forgotten, then it’s lost forever. When you have that spark of an idea, capture these three key elements:

1.     Name it. A creative name or a functional name – this is your baby, whatever you like!

2.     Describe the idea. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just a sentence or two that defines your idea. You will elaborate upon it later.

3.     Make it real. Add a few details that describe how it works. Write just enough to capture the essence of your thinking.

Tell Your Story

Now it’s time to share your idea. The three brief items from above will probably not be enough to effectively communicate your concept. Things to do:

Expand & Add.  Expand on the idea to more fully explain the idea and how it works. Add new information that you believe the people in your organization will want or need to know. These could include items like cost, how long it may take to develop, or the type of resources needed such as people and tools.

Share. How you share your idea is based upon the culture of your organization. Some are formal and it requires a well-developed presentation. In others, it may simply be something that is discussed over lunch with key stakeholders. Regardless of your organizations style, here are a few tips that may help you:

  • Know your Audience. Think about what’s important to the audience. How does the concept align with the organization’s goals and mission? Position the concept in a way that demonstrates how it helps achieve the organization’s objectives.
  • Stay Flexible. Be willing to modify the idea. Embrace the feedback and think about how the concept can evolve to help ensure it either gets prototyped or tested. It’s a big step moving from concept to reality.
  • Grease the Skids. Before launching into a big presentation, float the concept to a few people and get their thoughts. This feedback can be used to help modify and hopefully improve the concept or how to better communicate it. Even go as far as seeking out the one person that may be the biggest skeptic.
  • Use Visuals. Consider adding visuals or other aids to bring the concept to life. This could be a chart, graphs, or a drawing. Visuals can at times convey a lot more information quickly than just words. And it’s also what your audience may prefer. Some people love visuals while others need hard facts and insights that support the concept.

It doesn’t matter whether you are going to a multi-day conference or just attending a one hour presentation. You are still using your valuable time, so you might as well get the most out of it for you and your organization.

Take Notes. Create ideas. Share. Be brilliant.

 

 

 

 

 

How To Find The Perfect Agency

There's no such thing as the best agency - Only the one that's a right fit for your organization

When you are ready to find a new marketing agency of any type, of course you want to hire an agency that ideally meets your requirements, aligns with your culture and is within your budget. Our experience shows that as with any endeavor, the more thought and effort a company puts into the process upfront, the better the results will match expectations.

It’s incredibly frustrating, disruptive, and costly when after an exhaustive search, the relationship does not meet the expectations of either the client or the agency. Although you can never guarantee a perfect fit, there are steps both the client and the agency can take to help ensure that the partnership is successful.

While we were on the corporate side as a client, we hired and worked with many agencies of all types and sizes. And, during our time working within an agency, we responded to countless RFQs, RFPs, discovery discussions and of course, pitches – a lot of pitches. Most recently, we identified and sourced a new agency of record for a major hospital system.  We’ve seen all sides of this process, the client side, the agency side, and being the facilitator in between the two. So, what works and what doesn’t?

 

Our Top Ten 10 Tips For Agencies & Clients

 

For the agency

1.     Get It There On Time

Seems basic, but we see this happen a lot – still blows our minds. If the RFP says, “due by 5:00PM on a certain date, in a certain format, etc.” -   then that’s what you need to do. And this applies to other guidance from the client. It’s great for an agency to take some creative license to go above and beyond the basic requirements, as long as they still follow the guidelines.

2.     Be Nice

The client knows you are smart. Your agency wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t think highly of your capabilities. It’s a fine line between demonstrating your expertise and coming across as being smarter than them.

3.     Highlight Your Team

During the pitch, only have people in attendance that add value (not there to answer questions in case they are called upon or to just take notes.) Don’t allow anyone to dominate the discussion – especially the senior person. Let your team shine and demonstrate the collaborative nature and the varied expertise within your organization. This is a great opportunity for them to get a sense of your culture.

4.     Ask Questions 

There is no need to guess. Many clients will have formal question and answer opportunities. Take full advantage of these. If they don’t, then find out from the client how to best get your questions answered. We’ve seen agencies fail to deliver upon some key points only because they didn’t understand the assignment, but could have easily called or emailed for clarification. 

5.     Be Transparent

Clearly outline how you plan to work with your client. Don’t bring in the A team for the pitch and then substitute the C team for the day-to-day work. Have the person that will be their primary account representative present during the pitch. Be willing to explain what you believe is the ideal client/agency relationship, and why. Inform them not only what you will do, but what your agency won’t stand for.

 

For the client

1.     Have Well Defined Requirements

Be clear about what you are asking. Be as detailed as possible. Take the time to think through what you liked best about your other agencies and what didn’t work.  What is the ideal working style and level of communication? How much time or access do you expect to have with senior agency staff? How would you like to handle disputes? Who on your team can direct the agency and be responsible for their direction and costs incurred? If you have multiple agencies, what are your expectations and guidelines on how they will work with the other agencies? What is the scope of work and what are your desired outcomes? Are you looking for strategic thinking or more tactical execution? And of course, what is your budget? Being clear about your budget is critical. Be transparent about how much you can spend, what you are willing to pay for and what you won’t. This is not the exhaustive list of things to consider, but it should give you an idea of what to be thinking about.

2.     Choose The Right Size Agency

If you work with a huge agency, you might be the little guy on their roster and not get the attention or quality you expect. If you work with a small agency, you could be one of their biggest clients and get a lot of attention, but you might not receive the full service or type of expertise you are looking for. Do you need a full-service agency that can plan, execute and manage everything for you? Or do you primarily need support in handling PR, digital, branding, or insights, and would be better off with a niche or boutique agency? Have a sense of how much you want to handle internally vs. what you expect the agency to do for you.

3.     Consider Compensating Agencies for Participating

Are you asking an agency to fly in to see you? Are you asking them to develop spec creative. Agencies earn their money by being smarter, more innovative, and more creative – this takes time. Time that they spend on responding to your RFP vs. time they could spend on one of their existing clients. And, there is no prize for second place. Many agencies won’t even consider you as a client once they weigh the risk vs. reward factors. You can help ensure you will get better agencies to respond by helping minimize their risk factor.

4.     Don’t Underestimate The Importance of Cultural Fit

The agency with the most experience or best perceived capabilities won’t be effective if the working relationship is a mismatch. Communication break-downs will occur and trust will be tested. You and the agency should feel as if they are part of your company. They should feel as if they are an extension of your team and are looking out for your success and best interest at all times.  Ensure the agency shares compatible values.

5.     Decide If You Want a Partner or a Vendor

Not all relationships are created equally. If you want an agency to just follow your direction and orders, that is perfectly fine, but be clear about this up front. Agencies that really care about your business, that will think, feel, and act as if they are one of your most highly engaged employees, requires trust, collaboration, and respect. A good agency will challenge you, push back, continually bring new ideas to the table, and is continuously thinking about your business and how to make you more successful.

 

Hopefully this has provided some food for thought

 

A trusting and respectful relationship between a client and their agency is the cornerstone of being successful in your marketing and branding efforts.  The mistake of entering into a relationship that is not a good fit is costly and taking the time and effort to do it the right way, pays huge dividends in the end.

 

Rightsize Your Research

You need research, but you want it fast, cheap, and high quality. It’s often said you can only have two of those, but never all three. 

 

We disagree.

If you ensure you are doing the right type of research and not jump to a conclusion of what you think you need, you may be able to achieve your objective with spending less than you think. Additionally, new emerging technologies and tools allow you to get results quicker at less cost without sacrificing the quality of the insights. With some of these tools, the insights are even richer.

To start off, first determine what type of research you need. We often hear from clients that they want a quantitative study – they want numbers (or there is a senior exec that only believes in numbers). Then they find out how costly it can be and how long it will take. However, through consultation, they find that they might not need it. 

While quantitative does provide numbers, it does have its limitations.

It can tell you the what, where, and how many for example. However, it does not answer other important questions, such as those related to the how and why. We may find out that xx% of people chose brand Y. But we don’t understand their thinking or reasoning of how they came to that decision. Often, that is where great insights come from that lead to relevant marketing.

It’s like a weekend project at home. First you think about what it is you need to get done, fix a leaky faucet or mow the lawn for example. Then you decide what tool or method you will use to get the job done. Same with research, first think about what you need the research for and how you will use it, then decide what method you will use to get the insights.

To start, ask yourself these three questions:

1.     What is my objective – or problem I am trying to solve?

2.     What questions do I have or what answers do I need to help me solve my challenge?

3.     What is the best way to get those answers?

Of course, time and money come into the equation as well. We may decide that it’s something as simple as a series of phone interviews that will get you the needed insights. Or, it may be one of the newer online technologies that would be best. The platforms offer sophisticated features that are not only powerful, but offer unique methodologies that can only be conducted in an online environment.

One of our favorites is from a company called Aha Technologies, but there are many great ones out there.  These online qualitative tools allow for quick target audience identification, design and approach, and launch of a study within days. The respondents can write stories, interact directly in real time, draw pictures, or have Q&A sessions. They can even video tape themselves through an app on their phone, logging how they engage with a product or service and create a video blog of their purchase journey. Now we have rich consumer feedback that was gathered quickly allowing us to analyze it and develop insights much faster.

Companies today can get truly meaningful insights faster and cheaper than ever before, while never sacrificing quality.

Tools For Success

Soon after we announced the milestone of our one year in business, we began to receive questions about exactly how did just the two of us do it. But not the deep questions about our strategy or leadership styles. They were about the tactical things such as, who created your website? How did you design your business cards? Or how did we market ourselves?

Good questions, but more than just creating a list of references and tools, we realized two big things when answering these questions. The first is that online tools available today are powerful, inexpensive (sometimes free) and with just a bit of trial an error, fairly easy to master.

These tools are effective for an existing business owner, entrepreneur, and some can be used in any size organization to help with communication. 

The second is that if it weren’t for the incredible support and selflessness of the positive business community in Cleveland, it’s not clear how well we would have made it, if at all.

This list is by no way an end-all or possibly even the best in each category, it just happens to be what we used and what worked for us. We recommend you do your research, speak to others, and try a few things out and see what makes sense for you.

 

Web Domain: GoDaddy

This domain provider has strong brand recognition stemming from some racy Super Bowl ads.  However, their marketing strategy has shifted and beginning in 2012, they have decided that their sweet spot is the small business entrepreneur – and it shows.  They have a solid platform that makes it very easy to search and lock in your website name with a variety of ancillary options along with pricing tiers. It’s kind of one stop shop, as they can also help you secure your email address and service along with hosting your website.

 

Email:  Microsoft Outlook

This one gets personal, as we have yet to find that perfect email service we love. But outside of a few quirks here and there, Outlook gets as close as we think possible. Their desktop and mobile app work well. And given we primarily use the suite of Microsoft products such as PowerPoint, Word, and Excel, they all play together nicely - except for macs.  We are Apple lovers and sometimes things just don’t work as smoothly as you would like them between the Apple iOS and Microsoft products. 

 

Website:  Squarespace

Love it.  We built our site over the weekend. Then of course, we’ve spent the last year endlessly tweaking it, but that would be the same regardless of platform. There was quite a bit of trial and error – but let’s be clear, you are building a website, not just signing up for a domain. If you have the patience and at least a moderate level of comfort with using something more advanced than email or social media on your computer, you can do this. Before plunging in, take the time to really think what you want to say. Look at other sites you love and ask yourself what you like about them. Write this all out ahead of time, it will make the process of building it much easier. We also felt it was important to have good photography. Don’t use some generic stock photos – it will look amateurish and impersonal.  There are a several sites that allow you to download high resolution photos from independent photographers, and many are free. One of our favorites is picjumbo.com.

 

Accounting:  QuickBooks

Our accountant said so and he is amazing. It allows you to give your accountant access to the site to help manage it on your behalf.  It links to your bank account and most importantly, we can send all our invoices through the program. The great thing about that is by linking the program with your bank account and sending the invoice via email, your clients can pay you electronically (meaning – you get your money faster and less banking stuff to do). One of the best ways to find professional help such as an accountant or lawyer is to ask your friends or colleagues for a reference.

 

Data Storage: Dropbox

This is how the two of us keep our files organized and collaborate on our work. We can access all our documents via the cloud through our computers or on our mobile devices. It’s secure, though know, that nothing is 100% secure. It also allows us to work on a document simultaneously. It’s kind of creepy though when one person has the file open and is making edits, and it’s telling you what the other person is doing. Some of our colleagues use Google Docs which allows for real time co-editing and more powerful collaboration tools, however, the program converts the document into a google docs version of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc. and as a result, you have to get used to a different interface. That just wasn’t our preference.

 

Email Marketing:  Mailchimp  

If you are going to be sending out batches of emails, this is the way to go. You have to spend a little time learning it, but after you create an email template, it’s simple to use and provides great analytics for simple email marketing campaigns. The amazing part is that if your list has less than 2,000 subscribers and you will be sending less than 12,000 emails per month, it’s free! The important part is that by using their service, you can help ensure you stay within the email marketing laws and guidelines.

Tools will only get you so far. Find your support structure within your business community.

Jumping into the abyss of entrepreneurship was as scary as it was exciting. High hopes mixed with high anxiety. And it’s still there. Though now our focus is not on how do we launch the business, instead, how we keep evolving and continue to grow. Other agencies, even those who offered some of our same services, reached out an offered guidance and support, and not just in words. One agency asked us if we had a logo or a color palette. We said no. They said, why don’t we create something for you? Another asked where our offices were. We said, in our homes and through a variety of coffee shops around town. They offered use of their facilities. Another sat down with us and gave us a two-hour lesson on how to build our social media presence. Our accountant wouldn’t take payment until we started generating income.

Grit, authenticity, tenacity, resourcefulness, and curiosity go a long way. But the added support of your community is as MasterCard said, priceless. We have a lot to be grateful and thankful for. And we look forward to giving back, paying-forward to other aspiring new businesses, and to play our part in helping the Cleveland economic environment prosper.

So, check out some of these tools and if you are wondering where you might want to launch your new business, come on over to Cleveland- it’s pretty awesome here. We’d be happy to show you around and introduce you to an amazing business community.

Curiosity Solved The Challenge

At the heart of what marketing agencies do is find solutions to challenges their clients present to them.  Every client has a problem or a challenge – otherwise, they would be content with the status quo. The problem with being comfortable with the status quo is that the rest of the world will leave you behind and your company will soon find itself being irrelevant.

No company can thrive unless they are continuously evolving and adapting to the ever-changing market, customer attitudes, and competitive pressures.

 Call it a problem or a challenge, but companies are at point A and they need to get to point B - whether it’s a brand challenge, customer acquisition strategy, or coming up with new ideas. Often, companies come to an agency with either a predetermined notion of what they need, such as a new website or they just want a solution such as, “more sales.”  The worst thing an agency can do is to just say yes.  Whether the agency is full service or specializes in a certain field, the temptation to apply their expertise and get the work started, often overrides the requirement to get curious, assess the situation, and understand the core challenge before presenting a potential approach to a solution. 

At the heart of solving any challenge is curiosity, objectiveness, and critical thinking.

 Regardless of the challenge, the fundamental process has three basic steps:

 Investigate - Why?  Defining the challenge is the first step and often the most difficult.  Asking why, what if, or how might we, is a great place to start.  Search for the root cause.  Clearly articulate the problem or challenge you are solving for. Try not to combine a number of challenges together. This gets everyone on the same page and establishes a conversation and a common goal.

 Illuminate - What?  Now it’s time to get smart.  Ask yourself these four questions.  What information do you need to solve the challenge?  What do you know?  What don’t you know?  And how will you fill those gaps?  This can be done by simply creating 4 columns with each of these questions at the top. Research leads to insights. Insights provide the clarity and focus - they help tell the story as well as arming you with the information you need to develop a strategy or plan on how to get from point A to point B.

 Integrate - How?  The plan now needs to be put into action.  The details matter here – this is the step where the tactics are developed.  It includes the specific actions, along with timing, budget, metrics, and responsibilities that ladder up to the strategy.  It may sound strange, but often, many companies will start here and entirely skip the first two steps.  If they succeed, it may have just been luck.

 What’s truly awesome about beginning with a curious mind and then letting the process lead you to the answer is that you will find new possibilities and solutions that you may have never discovered.  At our firm, this is what we love more than anything – knowing that in the process of working with our clients, we will not only find a way to solve their challenge, but discover new possibilities, inspiration, and entirely new ideas as an outcome of the process.

 Your plan is like a journey, and while your company or team is travelling down the path, the terrain will change and you will discover new or different things along the way.  Unlike in physics, the most direct path from point A to point B is not necessarily a straight line.  So, be ready to adjust as needed, but never lose focus of the objective.

For The Love of Brainstorming

Brainstorming works

 Ideas matter more than ever.  Every organization is looking for them. Ideas on how to grow, better connect with customers, improve operations, engage employees, develop new marketing concepts, invent new products - the list is as endless as are the types of ideas that can be manifested. Ideas are the result of tapping into our inner creative ability (and we all have it, not just creatives, artists, right-brainers or other stereotypes of the kind of people that can come up with many good ideas). Ideas are the building blocks that help companies get to the next steps and develop innovative solutions and solve challenges.

 

Brainstorming is still one of the most effective ways to generate ideas.

 

Brainstorming has been the typical approach for how to generate ideas. Yet, it has been bashed and has flowed in and out of vogue ever since Osborn developed methods for creative problem solving in his classic book Applied Imagination (1953).

 

Most people don’t know how to brainstorm.

 

Don’t blame the concept of brainstorming; the issue with not getting the results you want out of a brainstorming session is often a lack of understanding on how to run an effective session. When done well, we can guarantee that you can generate hundreds of ideas in a few hours. Are they all good? Absolutely not. But when those hundreds of ideas are distilled into common themes and further stretched into what is not only possible, but can be commercialized, you’ll find the diamonds. 

 

It takes time and planning.

 

What is ineffective is gathering a random set of people (or your go-to favorites), hustle them into a room with a whiteboard and ask them to think of new ideas. Effective brainstorming needs a plan and the plan needs to have the following:

1.     A clear objective.

2.     A diverse set of individuals.

3.     Tools and exercises.

4.     Time to prepare, moderate and analyze the output from the session.

  

Creativity & The Brain

Recent studies by neuroscientists, suggest that the left brain/right brain distinction does not provide us with the full or real picture of how creativity is manifested in the brain (The structure of creative cognition in the human brain.  July 2013, Department of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico). The entire creative process taps into a wide range of cognitive processes (including your conscious and unconscious) as well as your emotions. The process of creating ideas comes from your entire brain.

 

Include a diverse set of people to participate.

 

What this means is that when planning for a brainstorming session, it is important to plan ahead on who will be invited to join. Since we are all wired differently and have different life experiences, this rich diversity of thought is critical in helping generate diverse ideas. If you only include the same type of people in your sessions, you will just keep getting the same types of ideas. Diversity of thought and experience is very important. You want to include artists and engineers, millennials and older generation, introverts and extroverts, and varying tenure within the organization. 

 

Planning & Facilitating

 Now that you have your people, what will you do with them? Having a good plan with the right set of tools is just as important in generating ideas as are the people who will attend. 

 

Have a clear objective.

 

Do not make this a spontaneous event. Start by having a clear objective.  Everyone should know and understand what problem they are solving.  Construct your objective in the following manner:  “We are generating ideas to ____________.”  And the more specific the better.  For example, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue” will not be as effective as, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue from our new product line in the xyz segment.” The ideas generated will be sharper given the target is better defined.

 Define your objective days if not weeks in advance.  This is the foundational building block for your brainstorm.  Once you have your objective and you know who will be there, you can start planning the various types of exercises to generate the ideas.

 

Establish ground rules.

 

Review these ground rules at the beginning of the session and don’t hesitate to remind anyone during the session if they break them:

  • Encourage wild ideas.
  • Encourage building on each other’s ideas.
  • Don’t judge.  Be aware of using language that shuts down other people, such as the use of the word, “but”, or phrases like, “we’ve tried that before”, etc.
  • Stay focused on the objective.
  • Have fun!

 

Quantity leads to quality.

 

With a diverse set of individuals, you will need to employ a variety of tools to help generate the ideas.  You can search on the internet and find all kinds of tools to use in the process.  Some of our favorites include spider charting and picture stimulus to help the brain make connections and new leaps of association.  Have all these tools and stimulus aids defined, printed or gathered, and set up in the room before the team arrives.

 Spider Chart:

  • Break out into groups of 3 to 4 people and have them stationed at a white-board or large easel pad.
  • Have one word written in the middle of the page. Everyone will build off this word by writing another word that they think of or associate with the main word.  Everyone can continue this simultaneously either off the center word or any new words written.  Every new word should spark new ideas and the chart keeps growing.
  • Finally have each person write out their best or favorite ideas on a separate sheet of paper that is turned into the facilitator.

Picture Stimulus:

  • Rip out dozens of pictures from magazines.  Have a wide variety of pictures.  What they are is not as important as the need to have a very diverse set of photos.  The pictures don’t have to be related to the objective or the organization in any way.  They are there simply for stimulus purposes.
  • Each person picks 2 to 3 pictures they love the best (whatever they want).
  • In groups of 3 to 5, everyone can share their photos and the teams can engage in free-association with words that come to mind when viewing each picture.  Then the group talks about ideas that those words spark.
  • Ideas are written out by each person and shared with the facilitator.

 

Once you begin, the focus is on quantity, not perfection.  Each exercise should take about 15 to 20 minutes.  It’s a fast pace, and most people will complain that they didn’t have enough time.  That’s OK – keep them moving.  They will have more opportunities to get their ideas generated.  The important part is that after each exercise, have everyone take the time to actually write out, on their own, each of their ideas.  Give them another 5 to do this. Have them capture each idea as clearly as possible – one per page (large post it notes work great for this).  If you don’t do this, then you just wasted time trying to decipher the scribbles everyone puts on the sheet.

 

Bring it all together by converging the ideas and possibly building upon them.

 

Now it’s time to work with the ideas gathered and distill the data into the smaller set of really good ideas. Take all the ideas, then:

  • Discard the duplicates
  • Consolidate the ideas that are similar
  • Look for common themes and see if they can be further developed
  • See if two or more ideas can be brought together to form a bigger idea or concept

Depending on the objective, the ideas can then be elevated and better defined by filtering them through parameters such as time to develop, required financial or other resources to bring to life, or their perceived uniqueness. Again, these ideas are the building blocks to help form more well developed concepts through research and additional thinking.

 

It takes practice.

 

Effective brainstorming that leads to many high quality ideas takes a bit of work to do well. If you are new to developing and facilitating brainstorming efforts, like with any skill, the more you do it, the better you will get. Try not to facilitate and participate at the same time. Having someone assist you during the session can be very helpful. Start easy or have a practice run with friendly co-workers that are willing to play and learn along with you. Try out as many different exercises as you can. It will only get better and the results will amaze you. Have fun out there! 

The Wells Fargo Culture Problem

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

The Wells Fargo Bank scandal of opening millions of secret accounts without customers’ permission is an issue of culture. 

Within the financial services industry, the retail business of Wells Fargo was always admired and in many ways was viewed as the gold standard because of their profitability. Much of that profitability had to do with retention of their clients and the income generated from the multiple accounts their customers had with the bank.  It’s a no-brainer, the more products and services you have with a bank, or for that matter, almost any company, correlates directly to more revenue.

Yes, what they did was not only wrong, but illegal. We’ll let the federal government and the mass of regulators and lawyers figure out what to do with that. The fundamental issue is that their pursuit of profits outweighs their values. And it’s how well a company lives up to its values that determines the culture. 

Doing what’s right for the customer, is a core value of Wells Fargo (as found in their Vision & Values brochure). Specifically stating, “One of our top priorities is protecting customers’ confidential data and information. Customers trust us to use that information to provide them with products and services that can save them time and money. They expect us to help guide them, help grow and protect their financial assets, and help them succeed financially. Our focus on customers is unwavering. That is how we have been doing business for more than 160 years and is the key to our future.”

When a company’s values, mission, or vision statement, are just words and not lived and followed, the result is what happened here. The brand is weakened. Do you remember Enron? They had awesome values. Unfortunately, they were also just words. Additionally, the entire banking industry will suffer a bit from the increased lack of trust many customers feel when they think of banks.

For a bank to be making money is not a bad thing. I hope they continue to do so and do it well. The ability to deposit a check from your phone, travel to another part of the world and get cash out of an ATM, and other services we may now take for granted are impressive. It also costs a lot to develop and support these services. However, customers are only willing to pay for them if they see the value and if they know the bank is watching out for them. Though – they have to make that decision, the bank cannot make it for them. 

What Wells Fargo forgot is that they do not define their brand nor do they determine who chooses to do business with them. A company’s brand is what their customers say it is. The brand is not only the products and services a company provides, but how well they actually live up to the standards they promote.



It's Strategic Planning Season! Are You Ready?

An effective strategic plan is a critical component to running a successful organization, yet only few companies do it well.

According to a study by Bain, they asked nearly 300 global executives to rate their company’s planning process, and only one in three said that the strategy was effective. 

strategic-planning-that-produces-real-strategy-fig-01_full.jpg

You may be already swimming in a sea of data, PowerPoints, and debates on whether a stacked bar chart or an exploding pie chart is the best way to tell the story.  Good strategic planning is a methodical process.  However, it's important to keep the objective in mind and not get lost in the process of planning.

5 guidelines for effective strategic planning:

1.      Align with the mission and vision of the company.  This not only helps keep your organization's brand authentic, it also serves as a guide when making decisions.

2.     Make strategic planning an important ongoing process, with continual process improvement, regularly managed throughout the year, and not an annual ritual that is part of a corporate to-do list.

3.     Have clear objectives.  Objectives that are quantifiable so everyone knows what they are aiming for and a way to be able to measure progress.  Tactics follow strategy.  

4.     Update your insights. Your company does not live in a bubble, everything around the company; your customers, competition, the regulatory environment, and many other factors are continually changing.

5.     Don’t isolate the process by managing and making decisions solely on a select group of c-suite executives that push down a plan through the organization.  A strong strategic plan incorporates the views of the customer as well as employees who will be executing the plan. 

Elevate your strategic planning from an annual exercise into an integrated part of your company’s business management process. Take into consideration the voice of your customers, the perspective of your employees, and the insights from market research.  This could be the difference between an acceptable strategic plan vs. one that is inspirational, guiding, and effectively defines how the entire organization will work together to achieve your objectives.

Branding For Nonprofits

Applying for-profit marketing models to the nonprofit sector demonstrates a lack of understanding on what makes a nonprofit unique.

 Many nonprofits continue to use their brands primarily as a fundraising tool, but a growing number of nonprofits are developing a broader and more strategic approach, managing their brands to create greater social impact and tighter organizational cohesion. However, as nonprofits are realizing the benefits of having a strong brand image, agencies often rush in applying for-profit models and end up with less than effective outcomes as a result. 

Your brand is what you stand for. A brand is more than just your logo or other graphics used by an organization. A brand is the perceptions of all the constituents that are aware of your services, people, or movement. Brand management is the work of managing these opinions. In the for-profit world, marketing professionals talk of creating “a total brand experience.” In the nonprofit world, the conversation should be more about their identity, what their organization stands for and the impact they are having. Your brand ultimately is a reflection of what your organization represents and believes. 

3 Important Points. There are important differences and nuances between for and not for profit organizations that go beyond fiscal management or categorization. There is a deep source of pride that nonprofit leaders and their teams have in what they do—pride in the social mission, participatory processes, shared values, and key partnerships. For agencies to be effective in working with nonprofits, they must:

  1.  Take the time to understand and align marketing decisions with the mission and values of the organization. Join and volunteer with the organization if possible. 
  2. Look at the big picture and work to develop or enhance their brand to align with their long term vision. Nonprofits are not driven by quarterly income/earnings results. Yes, they should have clear metrics in place, but often a nonprofit has a greater long term vision that may take years or decades to achieve.
  3. Be sensitive in understanding the balance needed to raise money while staying true to the cause – balancing and respecting both mission and margin. Sometimes the right thing to do is not necessarily what will generate more revenue or increase membership.

Taking a thoughtful approach to nonprofit marketing requires more than just having an understanding of their purpose.  Closely listening to the voice of all the stakeholders and leveraging the passion of the team is a key to developing marketing strategies that are just as bold as the vision of the organization.

 

"I Want More Sales" Is Not A Plan - 5 Things You Should Be Doing

Sales

Clients will often tell us “I want more sales” when asked for their marketing objectives. Wow!  Who knew? Unfortunately, this is an all too common response. 

 Sales are an outcome of activities. Activities or tactics informed by having a clear business objective, supported by a strategy.

 The increasing complexity of marketing due to more informed and demanding consumers and exponential growth in channels, data, and content, causes many marketers to throw their hands up in exasperation on how to formulate that strategy. At which point, when pressed on what to do, it is not surprising to hear about just wanting to get results – give me more sales!

 So what are marketers and agencies that support these clients supposed to do? The answers have not changed, and there is no need to reinvent the well-established principles of marketing. The advent of digital and social media only amplifies the need for a company to truly understand their target audience and ensure they are authentic in how they deliver on their value proposition. Focus on the fundamentals: 

1.     Have a clearly defined objective. You can’t hit what you are not aiming for. An objective is a clearly articulated measurable outcome (e.g., A 5% increase in a our new product line within 1 year).  Each objective needs to have a plan. We are not marketing for marketing’s sake. If the investment your company is making in marketing is not supporting the overall objective of the business, then you are wasting your money. This requires every marketer to establish measures on how to assess the impact of the marketing investment.

2.     Do your homework. Hope is not a strategy. Once you establish the objective, conduct a classic gap analysis. What do you know, what don’t you know (that you need) and how are you going to get the insights? What is your competition doing? What are the trends in your industry? Data is not enough – use your data to develop insights, which in turn can guide your marketing strategy. 

3.     Know your target audience. This is arguably the most important component of any marketing strategy. Too often, especially in a B2B company, there is this notion of having developed the most awesome product or service – and when we tell the world, they will just flock to us. The question to ask is, how will what you are offering to your target audience improve their lives? Know them. Know how they think. Know how they feel and act when something triggers a need for a product or service. A “build it, and they will come” approach rarely, if ever, works.

4.     Know your brand. Authenticity is key. It comes down to the basic virtue of doing what you say. Has your company established a clear and inspiring vision and mission? What is your value proposition – what are your customers going to get in exchange for their time and money, and what are your employees expected to deliver on a consistent basis? Taking it a step further, when is the last time you reviewed your company values and how they were being applied?  

5.     Create great experiences. If you know your customers and you consistently express your brand, that is the key to both attracting and engaging your target audience – leading to the sales. However, creating awareness and even an initial trial is not sufficient. The traditional marketing funnel model has evolved into an ongoing fluid journey. We live our lives with needs and wants and endless distractions while being bombarded with brands constantly.  But if the right message intercepts us through channels we use and aligns with what we believe will make our lives better, we will take the time and energy to consider what you are offering.  And, hopefully share our experience with others and come back for more.

So, when things get crazy or somewhat overly complicated, go back and focus on the basics. Never forget who your customer is, be true to your brand, and create great experiences.

Lessons From Running With The Bulls

Lessons

Lessons can come from places you'd never expect.

Just take into consideration all the perspectives you may have read about lessons in life from the sandbox, kindergarten, samurai, and maybe even from the Grateful Dead (yes, there is a book on that one).

But the validity of real world insights and lessons had never become so polarized to me as when I visited Pamplona, Spain and found myself in the historic running of the bulls.

Here, in winding, cobblestone, and wet streets (from the cleaning crews washing off the residue of the revelry from the night before) of this beautiful Spanish town (did I mention very narrow streets?), I found there are lessons that apply well to life or business . . . and some that absolutely do not.

Lessons That Apply!

1.  Be present. If you don't show up and stay aware, you can only be a spectator. More importantly, the lack of awareness of what is happening around you can lead to missed opportunities to prosper or avoid very bad things happening to you.

2.  Be flexible. Have a plan, but be ready to make a change immediately. During the run, you quickly realize what lack of control you really have, even with all the planning in the world. Improvise and just keep moving.

3.  Make friends. Having someone to share thoughts, ideas, strategies and provide support along the way is not only helpful, it may save your life.  Journey's are better shared.

 

Lessons That DON'T Apply!

1.  Get up if you fall down. This is one of those grand tidbits in life that someone has or certainly will impart upon you. Not such as good idea during the run. If you fall, stay down unless you are absolutely certain there are not thousands of pounds of rampaging beef behind you with very sharp horns. Can't say I didn't worry a bit about karmic retribution for all those hamburgers and steaks I have eaten.

2.  Grab the bull by the horns. Carpe diem! Not here. In the run, it is highly recommended not to try to grab, touch, or in any way further taunt any part of the bull. Again, enjoy the journey, and don't tempt fate unless you are prepared to handle the consequences.

3.  Take selfies. I certainly hope this trend will continue to die a long slow death, and if anything, the run is helping the cause. Not only will it cause you to miss out on probably a once in a lifetime experience, in the run, it is illegal. Your lack of awareness and focus on yourself may kill or hurt you and others.  

Demographics Are Outdated

Using demographics to identify and target your audience is increasingly ineffective.

While demographics still have value, they shouldn’t be the sole or primary criteria for identifying your audience and determining the best message to deliver. As our reliance on demographics fades, so too is the effectiveness of classifying people in broad categories, such as Gen Xers and Millennials.

Demographics alone won’t tell you the most important thing you need to know about your audience, which is what they value. The emphasis on understanding what people like and how they share experiences creates new tribes and new ways to segment your audience.

During a study we conducted for a financial institution that wanted to attract Millennials, it became clear that how they felt about money and savings had largely to do with whether or not they lived with their parents. A 21-year-old working her first job and sharing an apartment with roommates has more in common with a 35-year-old in a similar situation than a peer living at home with mom and dad. This is common sense, but it is surprising how companies continue to use generic targeting schemes based on the faulty premise that everyone born between the early 1980s and 2000s will respond as a single homogeneous cohort. Trust me, I’ve seen enough RFPs come through.

This coming together around common values is related to how we access content, increasing urbanization and the growing popularity of authentic brands aligned with our values.

Our ability to access content anywhere at anytime, along with social media platforms that let us share that content, create new opportunities to interact with like-minded people — often in ways that shatter demographic boundaries.

In a 2014 interview, BBC Radio’s George Ergatoudis said, “If you look at the list of the 1,000 favorite artists for 60-year-olds and the 1,000 favorite artists for 13-year-olds, there is a 40% overlap, and if you take 30- to 39-year-olds and 13- to 19-year-olds, over 50% of their favorite artists are the same.” Can you imagine listening to 60% of the same music your parents or grandparents did when you were 13? I validated this when my 14-year-old son said he listens to Green Day, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Cool.

Our increasingly urbanized society allows us to interact more closely while being exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas and experiences. According to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study, urban populations are growing by 65 million people every year — that’s seven new Chicagos a year, a mind-blowing statistic.

This growth leads to increasing economic spend, and brands that play on this global stage respond, not based on demographics, but in shared value experiences and by meeting individual expectations. This is why Starbucks has no stated demographic only target audience; it has created environments that allow people to share experiences. The company understands its power comes from how consumers feel when they interact with it. And when they love it, they will share it. Starbucks is one of the most popular brands shared on social media; it has more Instagram tags than Apple, McDonald’s and Coke combined.

Living in a society that allows us to connect with people and ideas in ever-expanding ways, virtually and physically, lets people more fully express themselves as individuals. Knowledge, technology and choice allow freedom of expression to blossom. It’s why consumers flock to brands that allow them to express who they are or who they want to be. We see this in fair trade coffee, Tesla and handmade crafts on Etsy. Brands allow consumers to do what they want, how they want, while feeling good about themselves. The Swedish clothing company Uniforms For The Dedicated has launched an initiative called the Rag Bag. It allows customers, once they take their new clothing out of the company shopping bag, to turn the bag inside out and place a donated item inside. Once reversed, the bag turns into a printed and pre-paid package that can be sealed and dropped in the mail. It effectively renders shopping guilt-free, even virtuous.

To more precisely target and meet the needs of your audience, look well past the demographics.

They are important, but to be truly effective in your marketing, study audience psychographics. Understand what they value, how they feel about your category, what is important to them and, above all, stay authentic. Like the old adage goes, say what you mean, and do what you say – and never stop listening to and studying your audience.

Can You Trust Your Mind?

1962 was a peak year in market share for GM, with 52% of the U.S. car market.  Today they stand at 18%.  The decline was not sudden nor should it have been unexpected. There were rumblings of change all around them, beginning with the rise in oil prices in the 1970’s, but they were ignored. By the 80’s they finally realized that the Japanese could not only make better cars, but also make them more efficiently, and they were popular with the U.S. market. What took the leadership so long to realize this? Part of the answer is the mental models they operated within. 

Peter Seng, in his book, “The Fifth Discipline”, defined mental models as, “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the worlds and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effect they have on our behavior.” This is not new. The idea of mental models was first postulated by the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896.

The assumption under which GM functioned were never written down, but, the following were obtained from interviews of retired former senior GM executives:

1.      GM is in the business of making money, not just cars

2.    Success flows from rapid adaptation, not technological leadership (automatic transmission was last major innovation)

3.    Cars are primarily status symbols:  people want to upgrade

4.    The U.S. car market is isolated from the rest of the world

5.    Fossil fuels (oil) will remain cheap and abundant

6.    The government is an enemy and so are unions

7.    Planned obsolescence works (quality less important)

8.    Efficiency of mass production beats other approaches

9.    Bigger is better – we can manage anything

Imagine how these filters and perceptions of the world affected the decisions GM was making. Mental models are subtle, yet very powerful. And not all models are bad, in fact, they help us organize and navigate our lives. For the most part, they have helped us survive. The issue is that they can influence our behaviors without us even being aware. In fact, they can at times cause a collective herd mentality that in the case of GM, had disastrous effects. 

What are the unwritten rules or mental models in your company? It’s the stuff you talk about that is not in your employee handbook, or the bits of wisdom you provide to new employees to help them adjust to your culture. Are the mental models of your most senior executives different from the rest of the staff? How are your individual or corporate wide mental models affecting your decision-making? How are they possibly blinding you from growth opportunities, competitive threats, or changes in your target audience purchase patterns?

Take the time to reflect and write down your unwritten rules – whether in your company or in any other aspect of your life. Question them. How do you know them to be true? Are they helping or in actuality, limiting beliefs? Share your mental models with others in your company and look to get to the data behind them and see if they can really stack up or if they are just assumptions that filter your thinking and actions.

Being consciously aware of your mental models and intentionally managing them can not only free up your thinking to new possibilities, but also shed light upon blind-spots.

Why Innovation Teams Fail

I recently received my latest and greatest credit card with the chip. It reminded me of when our innovation team pitched the leadership of our large credit card firm on how to transform our industry with this technology.  The company was looking for an innovative approach to help take a leadership position in the U.S. credit card market. 

The capabilities and security advantages of chip technology over magnetic stripes were already being put to use throughout Europe and Asia. Along with consumer benefits, there would however, be significant cost implications. Though, it was apparent that this was where the entire industry was headed and the benefits to the customer along with a reduction in fraud were clear. Not to mention the new applications, discoveries, and innovations that could be built upon the technology. We had an opportunity to make a bold and disruptive move in the U.S. card market.  That was in 1996. More on that later.

Unless a company has integrated innovative thinking into the fabric of the organization, they may fall prey to the idea that they can set up a separate group to come up with great new ideas to deliver to the market. 

Coming up with new or groundbreaking ideas is often not the greatest challenge. Delivering the ideas into the market is where things begin to fall apart. 

Organizations may come to the realization that they lack either the culture or know-how to develop innovative products or services and successfully get them into market. They may take the easy path and decide to set up a team, give some folks a new title, or even physically locate them away from the rest of the employees and dub them the “innovation team.” 

This will often prove ineffective and may backfire on two fronts. The primary issue is not that the team won’t come up with great ideas, but they will then have to take their magnificent concepts and introduce them into the very same system and organization that admittedly stated they were not good at innovating. A study of MIT technology transfer over 16 years, found that when a large company licensed a technology from MIT and introduced it into their development systems, the idea never even got to market 80% of the time.

The second issue is one of negative cultural impact, which is exactly the opposite of what leaders would expect to happen. The concept of demonstrating their commitment to innovation must surely boost confidence in the company. But exactly how would you feel if you were not selected or even asked to participate in the innovation efforts? There is the real threat of fostering animosity from existing employees who know they have great ideas and want to contribute, but can’t or were never given the option. Or worse - ask the employees to submit their ideas, and foster excitement, only to have little feedback on what happened with their ideas and inevitably, see the tiniest percentage ever see the light of day, if that.

Back to that pitch to our CEO two decades ago. We had our challenge. We completed our research and we even had pilot programs up and running. After a good hour long presentation, the CEO, with a very thoughtful expression on his face, leaned back and said, “couldn’t we just paint a chip on the card and make believe it did something, when in actuality, it just used our same mag stripe infrastructure?” Awkward silence followed. And here we are 20 years later finally implementing the technology in the U.S. And a bit too late, as more innovative companies are already moving us beyond chip technology with mobile payment systems and enhanced security features.

Innovation is not the job of a select few. Innovation is a mindset, supported by senior leadership, with systems, education and tools that empower all employees.

Before pursuing innovation in your organization, take the time to step back and consider the entire system, not just one component, such as generating ideas. Take stock in your culture, your leadership, your commitment, and your innovation capabilities before investing in tools, teams, or titles. As in any endeavor, the time taken up front to plan and prepare, will help yield better results on the back-end, where it matters.

How Strong Is Your Employer Brand?

Attracting and keeping top talent is one of the biggest challenges for most companies. In a recent study by the National Center for the Middle Market, staffing is the number one issue these companies have as they look forward over the next 12 months. Harris Allied’s Tech Hiring & Retention survey similarly found (for the 4th straight year) that hiring top talent was the number one concern for tech companies. 

Over 60% of CEO’s interviewed in a Harvard Business Review study stated that talent related issues were their top concern.

So, if you want to attract the top talent, what do you think these prospective employees think about your company? What is your company’s reputation or Employer Brand? Even though the term Employer Brand was coined in the 1990’s, few companies are doing an effective job at managing a unified brand – a brand platform that is universally applied internally as well as externally.

The same brand management principles applied to your customers, such as being authentic, consistent, and having a clear value proposition, need to be applied internally. Yet, companies often struggle with developing a unified brand.

Only Going To Get Harder

The changing employee landscape is only going to increase the need to be clearer about what it means to work at your company. The rise of social media and entrance of millennials not only into the mainstream workforce, but increasingly holding senior level positions, is transforming companies and sometimes forcing them to become more transparent, whether they like it or not. 

What it’s like to truly work in a company is an important consideration for any prospective employee, and easy to find out.  Just as companies increasingly use social media in the hiring process, prospective employees are using sites like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and profiles on The Muse to get a sense of what a company culture is really like as they conduct their due diligence.

Internal Brand Management

When companies think about their brand, they often focus on the external facing element of how customers perceive their brand. However, that is only part of what it takes to effectively manage your brand. In a similar fashion to how a company has a value proposition for its customers (or why should I give you my money and time), a company needs to develop and apply a clear value proposition for their employees.

The good news is that a company doesn’t need to rebrand themselves or put any extra time and effort in redefining their brand – they just need to ensure that they apply the same brand management principles internally as they do externally. 

Authenticity is key to attracting and keeping top employees as much as it is to finding and keeping customers.

 

Things To Do

·      Start with the basics and find out how well your employees understand your company’s mission, vision, and most importantly, values. How well are new employees on-boarded and how well do current employees live the brand?

·      Does your company have an employee value proposition? If not – think about what image your company wants to portray externally as a place to work. Also consider what your company needs to do to help promote that image. Social media is not only critical in these efforts, but should be a mandatory tool to help promote your Employer Brand.

·      Investigate how well your employees make value-based decisions. In other words, if one of your top values is putting the client first, how is this value applied in every interaction with your customers? Or if work/life balance is a value, what is your company doing to communicate and manage to this value?  If your values are fully incorporated into how your employees work every day, they shouldn’t have to pull out an employee handbook to figure out what to do. It will be instinctual, because, “this is just how we do things around here.”

·      Don’t leave this responsibility solely in the hands of the HR team. It’s important that defining the Employer Brand begins with the CEO and is just as much a responsibility for the leaders of the organization and marketing as it is for HR.

At the end of the day, having a clear employee value proposition is just plain good for business. 

It should be a no brainer that attracting and keeping top talent will only lead to better financial results in the long term. The Middle Market study, further showed that companies with a clear employee value proposition had nearly a 3:1 top line revenue performance difference compared to companies that didn’t have one. 

And finally, it will only strengthen your brand overall. When your employees understand your brand, and if your brand is consistently applied internally as well as externally, employees will deliver upon your mission, vision, and values in every interaction with your customers. It’s simply a win for everyone and worth every effort required to make it happen.