Avoiding being blindsided in marketing

When it comes to things that are going to impede your ability to be an effective marketer, there are three broad categories, made most famous by Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (hat tip to Tom Webster for continued reminders of the quote):


“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Despite winning the dubious Foot in Mouth award from the Plain English Campaign, Rumsfeld’s quote is actually useful, particularly for marketers who are worried about the future.

You know what you know. You know the things that are going to affect your marketing, such as Google SEO algorithms, email open rates, etc.

You know what you don’t know. If Google’s newest algorithm has hit the Internet, you may not know its impact, but you can read up on it and learn what you don’t know.

It’s the last category of things you don’t know and aren’t aware of that are the problem, because this creates a massive blind spot. Think about something as primal as the martial arts. If you step into a boxing ring, you know what you know, your skills. You know what you don’t know, which is what the opponent is going to do, but you have ways of handling that. Finally, there isn’t a whole lot that you don’t know and you aren’t aware of. It’s unlikely that there will be a sniper in the stands or that the opponent has secretly put lead shot in his gloves. Thus, you have an environment which is predictable. On the other hand, if those other things could happen, and you didn’t know that the rules had changed, you’d have a very short boxing match.

In marketing the danger isn’t competitors per se. They are known for the most part. The danger is what we don’t know. We didn’t know how mobile would change behavior, but more importantly we didn’t know that we didn’t know mobile was going to fundamentally change human behavior. We just thought mobile was a miniature desktop computer.

So the next question is how to learn what we don’t know that we don’t know. What is it and where do we go to even start learning about it?

For me, that begins with having a strong social network that is highly diverse. People from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds, people all across the technological adoption curve are going to be the sources from which you’ll first catch wind of something new. Your network will naturally surface new trends if you listen carefully. If you don’t have that network, you won’t have the advanced notice you need to prevent being blindsided.

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Justice and order

Over the weekend, I was mulling a few different concepts over, and one got stuck and wouldn’t go away until I wrote it out. In the news, we see lots of stories about police brutality and the police state. We see lots of stories on social media about companies that rule over their employees with an iron hand or berate customers that step out of line. We see the United States government intruding on personal rights and privacy in countless ways, from NSA spying to the dispensing of military equipment to school districts.

Why do we see these patterns? It’s easy to blame politics, race, and a variety of other surface factors, but there might be a bigger concept to pay attention to. When we see behaviors that we identify as unjust, what we are seeing is the triumph of order over justice.

Order and justice can sometimes be correlated, but order does not necessarily mean justice. In small communities, justice is implicitly built in. In a small town, justice occurs to some degree because everyone knows everyone else’s business; you can’t hide for long. In small companies, it doesn’t take long to ferret out the people who are not pulling their own weight. (and yes, this can be perverted – a white community can behave unjustly towards black citizens, and vice versa).

Once a community, an organization, a company, or a country grow beyond a certain size, justice gives way to order. People want order. They crave order, because order begets stability and predictability, even at the expense of justice. Most importantly, the average man on the street cares less for justice than he does order. Order means the market is predictably open, even if it’s not well stocked.

Ideally, justice and order work together, but very often, they diverge. This occurs because beyond a certain point, one sub-group’s concept of justice is not the same as another sub-group’s. Order becomes the priority, and justice takes a back seat.

When police are buying military hardware to patrol schools, order is in the driver’s seat.

When peaceful dissenters are spied upon, harassed, and even harmed or killed, order is in the driver’s seat.

When a minority is oppressed even when expressing a just viewpoint, order is in the driver’s seat.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaking against war in Vietnam, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota

When you look at the news today, you are seeing the triumph of order over everything else. Those who are at the top of the pile, those who are in power (regardless of party or perspective) will champion order, because the current conditions are what brought them to power, and they’d like to stay there.

If that’s not okay, if what’s in the news isn’t just and you want justice, you have to be willing to accept disorder. You have to convince your fellow citizens to accept, embrace, and even foment disorder, because only through disorder can you re-emphasize justice. (obviously, being a practicing Buddhist and a lawful citizen, I strongly recommend peaceful, non-violent disorder)

Disorder means the trains may not run on time. Disorder means that people aren’t where you need them to be. Disorder means that things don’t run as well as they should, and that emotions run hot. Disorder means heated disagreement. But disorder is essential in order to re-organize around a more just order.

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What do Pinterest, Tinder, and the shopping mall have in common?

Here’s a fun thought exercise for you.

Question 1: What do Pinterest, Tinder, and the shopping mall have in common?

If you said image-driven marketing, you’d be partially correct.

Here’s the flip side of the coin.

Question 2: What do WhatsApp, Google, and your GPS have in common?

A tougher question to answer.

The answer is that the items in question 1 are serendipity engines. They provide serendipity, a sense of discovery, a chance to stumble upon something that you didn’t intend to look for. Pinterest is masterful at this, at presenting all kinds of content that is tangentially related, but with lots of different rat holes to run down.

The items in question 2 are the norm in the digital world, items that provide you focus. You talk only to the friends you explicitly want to talk to on WhatsApp, and no one else. You find exactly what you’re looking for with Google (or that’s their hope, anyway). Your GPS finds you the most direct, most effective route to your destination.

If it feels like the world has lost of a bit of its wonder, a bit of the magic of life, it’s because we’ve made the sorts of services in Question 2 the norm. Cortana, Google Now, and Siri never say, “Oh hey, I know you were looking for the nearest coffee shop, but there’s a really cool one that’s further away and harder to get to but might be a lot of fun”. That doesn’t happen. Our GPS doesn’t have a “intentionally get lost” button (though certainly apps like Roadtrippers can help).

I love America's highways

When we do have the opportunity to avail ourselves of serendipity, we sometimes enjoy it. We pick a new dish on the menu, or we ask a new acquaintance where to eat in an unfamiliar city. The sommelier brings us a different kind of wine. We meet someone unexpected at a conference.

So here’s the marketing angle for you. If your company provides a focus-based service or product, consider what it would take to offer a parallel serendipity offering. Amazon has figured this out to a certain degree with the “things other people also buy when they buy X” but those are algorithms around your theme. You generally don’t get something completely from left field in those recommendations. What if you offered something even more extreme?

Imagine even adding a “surprise me” button to the search box of your website, or a special series of tweets on a Friday afternoon that have nothing to do with your brand (but are obviously not brand-damaging) of cool stuff you’ve found.

How else can you introduce serendipity for those folks who are looking for it?

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