What Happens When You Get Stuck In Your Ivory Tower?

Person working at a desk.


Ivory Tower? You haven’t heard of it? For our purposes, it’s when company executives get stuck in an environment or thought process that is disconnected from the practical concerns of the real world.

It could be living in “the good old days” and refusing to acknowledge change. Or maybe it is just plain arrogance that we are all guilty of sometimes.

Effective marketers cannot afford to live in, or even visit, an ivory tower. The constant emphasis on ROI reminds us that for every marketing dollar spent, there needs to be a healthy return.

A while back, I wrote a post about the benefits of sharing marketing initiatives interdepartmentally. I suggested marketers must take advantage of feedback loops in their own company. You can catch up on that post here: Why Marketers Fail at Internal Communication and What to Do About It.

The Ivory Tower syndrome is the opposite problem – it’s not looking outside your company. And, it’s equally destructive.

Here’s an example. An executive once told me that “everything you need to know about our products can be learned within these four walls.” And he meant it. The answer was “No” to market research, to focus groups, to marketing roundtables with outside sales reps, and so on.

Wow. Really? He knew everything? He didn’t need to ask the customer which problem they were trying to solve?

Needless to say, without market input, several expensive products were developed and achieved little to no user adoption.

Please don’t fall into this trap. Your customers deserve more and your company needs to remain competitive to stay in business and grow.

Leave the Ivory Tower and Reconnect with Customers in Everyday Life

For an eye-opening experience, leave the office and shadow a salesperson. The perfect day to tag along is one where he or she is visiting several prospects in various stages of the buying process.

Take notes on the following:

  • Which industry is it?
  • Who are you meeting with and what is their role in the decision-making process?
  • How does the customer describe the problem?
  • What is the motivation for change or staying the same?
  • Which solution are they currently using to solve the problem (if any) and how is it working for them?
  • What is the cost of not changing?
  • Which unique feature(s) of your product would benefit the customer the most?
  • How are budgets and pricing discussed?
  • Which competitors are mentioned?

Armed With Reality – Now What?

It’s time to compile and analyze what you’ve learned. Two invaluable techniques for arriving at user-focused materials are the identification of personas and a jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework.

Much has been written about these two approaches and why one is better than the other.  My belief is that the two are compatible. Choose the approach that works best for you.

A persona is a written summary of the characteristics of your buyer. The more detailed the persona, the better. It includes personal demographic information like age, education, industry experience, time in current job. It also includes less tangible items like behaviors, motivations, emotions, the experience they want while using the product, and the decision-making process. Several profiles will emerge from your data.

The value of a persona is that it becomes infinitely easier to target a particular buyer than to target the entire universe of everyone that might ever use your product.

Likewise, the JTBD approach centers on the idea that when users use a product, it is for a specific job or to achieve an outcome. The entire set of jobs results in the list of the needs the user has. Once these needs have been identified, products can be designed to solve the problem in the best way possible.

JTBD is a newer technique and popular in today’s business press and UX community. The value of JTBD information is understanding what the users are trying to get done and what are the key success indicators for the job, both functionally and emotionally.

Incorporating What You Have Learned

Okay, so you’ve left the ivory tower, you’ve had your reality checked, what’s next?

Now it’s time to do a gap analysis. Gather all the company’s existing marketing materials. Do a complete audit of all brochures and any document or slide deck. Look at the home page of your website. Does the content speak to the needs and concerns of the personas and the JTBDs you have developed? Is there a gap between where you are now and where you want to be?

All too frequently, our marketing and sales tools focus on the products we have and all their great features. It will become crystal clear where the rewrites are needed and which new content must be created. Get your project manager hat on and schedule the rework. Who knows, your work in defining the persona and JTBD may actually influence the next round of product development.

Oh, and remember that executive I spoke of at the beginning? He was once a struggling entrepreneur bootstrapping his company by building products based on his own knowledge and experience solving a real world problem. Over time, his passion for the products, customers, and business changed.

He was bored.

So, he left the ivory tower. He sold the business and did a lot of soul searching. He developed a totally different product in a different market. He was brought  back to his roots in listening to the  customer and success followed.

Never Be the Last Gift Opened Again

Dog with Birthday hat

How to Get Your Email Campaign Opened

I attended a large wedding shower a few months ago. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go and had a customer deadline looming. I didn’t have four free hours to spend but I went anyway.

I rushed out that morning to buy a last-minute gift from the registry. Thank goodness for the gift-wrap station in the store. I made a passable bow, taped on the card, and off I went.

It wasn’t lost on me that the gift table was brimming with gifts from the same store in the same generic wrapping paper with the same limp bow.

Still thinking strategically, I placed my gift closest to the bride. Surely she’d open it first and I could duck out and get back to my project. That was the plan – but it didn’t work out that way.

My gift sat on the table and got moved from one side to another. Present, after beautiful present, was opened to oohs and ahhs. “Please open mine. I have to get going. You’ll really like it,” kept going through my mind. I was getting antsy.

Finally, my gift was in the hands of the bride. The last gift to be opened. I think only the two of us were paying attention. She beamed at me as she held up the gravy boat I bought. I winked at her and bolted for the door.

So, What Does This Have to Do With Email?

It occurred to me that this experience is just like some of the email campaigns in my inbox. How many of you send out routine, ho-hum email blast with a boring subject line and generic content?

They land in my inbox saying “Open me.” Unless they are relevant and grab my attention, to the back of the line they go at best, and into the trash unread at  worst.

Let’s Do It Differently

I am pleased to say that I have a new strategy for giving gifts and surprisingly it works well for my email campaigns also.

Have a plan and be intentional
Stop writing last-minute content. Just stop. Instead, keep a notepad handy and write topics, outlines, and key phrases noting down the appropriate audience segment. Plan your content publication dates on the calendar.

I don’t shop last minute for showers or weddings anymore either. As soon as I get an invitation, I shop online and have the gift shipped to me. I get the best selection because everyone else is waiting till the last minute.

Give them a reason
Subject lines matter. It is critical to get it right and affects your open rates dramatically. Take advantage of your email provider’s tools that use algorithms to judge the effectiveness of subject lines. Test several subject lines on a small segment.  Use the winning subject line for your full database.

My shower gifts now give the bride a reason to open them first.

I bypass the generic wrapping paper and head for the outrageous. For a couple that had recently rescued a puppy, I wrapped their shower gift in puppy paper complete with dog tags and bones for a bow.

The paper had nothing to do with the gift inside or the occasion, but it was unique, memorable, and stood out from the sea of silver and white swirly wrapping paper with purple bows.

Know your audience and respect their time
Think about your recipients and their schedule. Narrow your focus down to one audience and one message specifically for them. Give them real value in the information you provide. Offer an Opt-In freebie such as a checklist or job aid.

Mail programs will often tell you that Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. is the best time to arrive in an inbox. However, if your target audience is a payroll clerk trying to get time cards calculated, Tuesday morning is the worst time.

With just a slight attitude adjustment, I have a renewed respect for the bride (the audience) and the occasion (their planning and effort). Wedding showers and parties are no longer an obligation; they are joyous occasions to celebrate. I clear my calendar. I rearrange activities to allow plenty of time. Sometimes I even buy a new outfit to celebrate right along with the bride.

Review and improve
I am a big fan of picking your measurement system BEFORE you execute. To me, it is too easy to play Monday morning quarterback and attribute results to something that just isn’t valid. Metrics can be overwhelming so I suggest choosing three to start. Start with Open Rate. Over time, your Open Rate should go up. The Click-Thru rate should also go up. The Opt-Out rate should go down.

What Are the Results?

The results from my gift-giving research are in and it is statistically significant. I’ve attended at least six gift-giving occasions since that fateful shower. I began being intentional, having a plan, thinking about the recipient, and giving them a reason. And guess what – my gift was opened first every single time.

I’d like to see this method work for your email campaigns as well. Try it and let me know.

Your Best Writing . . . Do You Start With An Outline?

Don't forget to outline first!

I started my career as a tech writer for a large software firm.  It was an amazing experience for a young 22-year old. I witnessed a well-oiled machine produce hardware and software user documentation.  Over 300 writers, editors, graphic designers, and oh yeah, um typesetters, worked to ensure that  massive documentation sets were written with one voice, tone, and style. How? By starting with an outline.

Improve Your Skills

Perhaps the skill I rely on the most from those early days is outlining. Nothing was written back then without first having an outline that was vetted by the writing supervisor and then the technical team leader.

During my years as a manager hiring content writers,  a standard interview question I used was about the candidate’s process for creating content. If the answer was vague or “I organize it in my head and write as I go along.” it was a red flag.

An outline forces a thorough thought process that continues to serve me well today. Sound too old fashioned or too constraining?  For me, it actually fires up the  creative juices.

Back to Basics

Whenever I am stuck and ideas aren’t flowing smoothly, I go back to basics:

  • What is the topic?
  • What are the main ideas?
  • Is there a logical order to the ideas?
  • What points provide supporting data?
  • Is there an obvious conclusion or information summary?

One of the best things about outlining skills is that they are transferrable to other tasks and situations. For example, when I create a budget I use the same hierarchy of thought. I use it when creating presentations, making decisions, and developing marketing plans.

Give it a try. Could an outline be the one breakthrough activity you need to get moving? Let’s talk about your marketing content strategy in a Borrow My Brains session. Schedule one now.

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Ignore Your True Gut Feeling at Great Peril!

compass in hand

You know that feeling. You know you’re right about something but you can’t put your finger on why. Or, maybe it’s the opposite: you have a gut feeling something just isn’t on the up-and-up.

Some people call it your intuition. Still others may call it your conscience.

Regardless of what you call it, here’s what I’ve learned — it won’t be silenced. I can turn it off for an hour or two but as soon as I let my guard down, it once again becomes top of mind.

So what do you do when a gut feeling is trying to tell you something? Should your gut feelings play a part in business decisions?  You bet they should.

Pay attention

Perhaps you need to slow down or use caution. Fail to pay attention to that inner voice and you just may regret your action or your words. You can miss a prime opportunity.

Maybe it’s the encouragement you need to proceed full steam ahead.

Or, its the nagging truth that you are not staying true to the vision of yourself or your business.

So how do you clarify what your gut is telling you? How do you make sure that your decisions are sound?

5 Steps to Clarity:

  1. Write down what is bother  you and be as specific and detailed as you can.
  2. Separate facts from emotion—this step is critical to stay objective.
  3. Evaluate the pros and cons honestly.
  4. Talk with mentors or colleagues whose opinion you value, but remember it is just an opinion.
  5. Make a decision with confidence and based on a solid thought process.

Check back and evaluate your decision after a reasonable timeframe. For me, this means reviewing my notes  and comparing them with new information I have now. It’s not just experience that has taught me that I can trust my gut feeling. It is also results!

How about you?

Do You Want a Killer Sunrise or Sunset in Your Life?

So, which is it? Can you tell? Is the sun rising gloriously over this frosty morning scene or is it sinking into the horizon with a blaze of fiery defiance?

Does it matter? Oh yes, to us Michiganders it matters. You see, there has long been a battle over which side of the Lower Peninsula is more beautiful.

The Sunrise Side, the eastern side of the state has miles of Lake Huron shoreline but it can be rocky and wavy. The sunrise is easily equivalent to any masterpiece painting or musical opus.

The west side of the state, along Lake Michigan, has gorgeous sandy beaches, tons of tourist towns and cultural events and is a quick jaunt from Chicago and Detroit. It’s pricey but worth it to spend twilight after twilight tracing the colors across the sky as they fade.

Well, which is it? Drumroll please . . .  I took this picture of the sunrise over Lake Huron one day this winter. It was so breathtaking that I didn’t even bother to open the door and step outside. I didn’t want to miss the moment.

What does this have to do with marketing? In the digital age of marketing we are constantly striving for results: Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI), open rates, click-thrus, and so on.

Be Careful What You Measure

Marketers need to exercise caution when throwing around these metrics. Too many times I’ve seen the wrong equation applied to a problem. The resulting action, based on incorrect data, didn’t get that desired “don’t want to miss it” moment.

To my way of thinking, we have to get back to the basics: Who is the target audience and what is the appropriate message to reach them. It is basic and simple and that is what you measure.

In our sunrise/sunset scenario, its not the angle of the sun, the percent of red versus pink, the type of cumulous or nimbus clouds, or even the speed or direction of the wind that matters. It doesn’t matter whether the sun is rising or setting.

It doesn’t even resolve the conflict over which side of the Mitten State is more beautiful!

If your audience prefers the indoors, watching tv, or is colorblind, this picture may have no appeal at all. Measuring the message of a “can’t miss moment”will not give you any relevant data for decision-making.  Why? Because you’re starting with the wrong target audience.