How to assess a big marketing idea

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See if this sounds familiar: marketing thought leader X publishes a new paper with a grand Big Idea, complete with fancy infographic and a chart or framework that is both dazzlingly complex and slightly intimidating. Whether you like said thought leader or not, you wonder whether their Big Idea is actually worth pursuing, or whether it’s just a bunch of hot air, and pursuing it would be a waste of time and resources.

I’ve been in that situation plenty of times over the years. I’ve seen lots of Big Ideas, lots of fancy frameworks, lots of infographics whose design budget probably eclipsed some peoples’ annual income. To figure out what’s the real deal and what’s BS, I borrowed an idea from the martial arts.

In the martial arts tradition I practice, we have lots of Big Ideas called kata. Loosely translated from Japanese, the word means form or routine, in the sense of something you practice. Each one is a Big Idea, how to win in a certain way under a specific set of adverse circumstances.

My teacher, Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center, taught us that to learn and master a kata, you have to break it apart and study each of the pieces. How does a wrist lock in the middle of Batsu Gi kata work outside of those particular circumstances? Can you make it work versus a punch? A knife? You operationalize each piece of the kata until you know how it works; when you put it back together, you truly understand it.

This methodology, which has served me well for over two decades, is one you can use for evaluating any thought leader’s Big Idea. If you read about some new framework or concept, see if you can break it apart into operational pieces. See if you can transform the Big Idea into little things that you can implement. If you can, then you know the Big Idea has wheels – it’s something that can be tested, evaluated in components, and used to make change in your business at both tactical and strategic levels.

If you try to take apart a Big Idea and find that there’s little or nothing you can operationally implement, then you know the Big Idea is either a complete mismatch for your organization, or it might be full of hot air entirely. Try it with any of the Big Ideas of the day and see if you can turn them into Little Things To Do!


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How I make my newsletter every week

Stephen R. Dill asked what my process is for my newsletter. I haven’t gone over this in a while, so here it is.

Each issue of the Almost Timely newsletter begins in social media. Every day, I share 5 items that I think are worth reading and sharing, a process I call #the5. This lets me curate in small batches daily rather than having to do a whole bunch of work at the end of the week. I’ll take my #the5 shares for the week and paste them from my Twitter feed in a text document. I used to use Evernote for this, but it’s simply easier at the end of the week to scrape my own Twitter feed instead and use a few text editor macros to clean up the text.

At the end of the week, typically on Sunday evenings, I dust off that collection of links and paste them into a placeholder template I made with the eBook authoring platform Scrivener.

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I’ve taken the time in the past to configure Scrivener to publish a newsletter in mostly clean HTML. Inside the newsletter, there are topics, and I’ll just cut and paste the links into their appropriate sections. If a section is empty, I’ll typically go back to my news feeds for the week and fill something in. I’ll also write the Premium Content section as well.

Scrivener dumps the raw HTML from my newsletter to a file; I have a series of scripts that then clean up the HTML, remove extraneous styles, fix known HTML bugs, and do find/replaces on the text. I’ll add my weekly unsubscribe photo meme, tidy up anything else that needs to be tidied, and prep the HTML for sending.

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From there, I load it into WhatCounts Publicaster, my email service provider of choice (and my former employer, and a client of SHIFT Communications (my current employer), and a sponsor of the marketing podcast I co-host).

Publicaster sends out the newsletter; I’ll typically do a social media announcement at send time (which can be done from inside Publicaster) so that people know to check their inboxes. Doing so helps to boost the open and click rates early, which can impact deliverability positively – some ISPs are reported to measure early opens and clicks as a way of judging whether something is spam or not.

From beginning to end, if you don’t count the time needed for curation during the week, the newsletter takes about 90 minutes to produce.


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6 Content Marketing Guidelines for Being Human

One of the cardinal rules of social media is “be human”, which is general advice suggesting that companies interact with their customers using a human voice and personality, rather than a faceless, monolithic voice of an organization. In theory, it’s the difference between talking to a neighbor and talking to the Borg.

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That same advice is unevenly applied to digital marketing, but no place is it more absent than in content marketing. Most content marketing is soulless garbage, gussied up with a pretty infographic (often filled with meaningless data) that accomplishes nothing except prove that content by committee is a disaster in the making.

The content you create should be a reflection of the person who wrote it, and should speak to your audience as if it’s a conversation between two people, because it really is. Rarely have I ever seen a crowd of people read a blog post together. Chances are, you’re not reading this with three other people next to you right now. This is a conversation between the two of us.

What does be human mean in the context of your content marketing? How do we translate a working strategy in social media to content marketing? Here are 6 ideas to consider:

1. Decide what you want your company’s brand to inspire in terms of feeling. When people hear from you and the problems you solve, what feelings should they inspire? Mitch Joel loves to cite the Harley Davidson brand, which lets a 43 year old accountant get dressed up in black leather and ride through a town and have everyone be afraid of him. On this blog, I want you to feel smarter just for being here, that sense of excitement that you’ve found an advantage, something other people don’t get. I write so that it sounds like we’re conspiring over a cup of coffee. What feeling do you want to inspire?

2. Speak with a dedicated, focused voice. Your blog or newsletter may have multiple authors working on the content, but put a voice behind it, something that has a particular tone and tenor that matches your company’s brand. If you’ve decided to be professional, then photos of your staff in your newsletter pitch-drunk at the latest company gathering might not fit. If you’ve decided to be casual, then having starched collars and three-piece suit photos wouldn’t fit either. Your voice, your imagery, everything, should reflect what you’ve chosen to be.

3. Pick a persona and use it. This can be an actual member of your staff, or it can be a fictional construct. If you choose the latter, clearly define its personality and how it will behave. This persona should be who your emails are from, and should be a consistent presence in email, on the website, on the blog, and in social media. I’ll say this: this is much, MUCH harder than it sounds, because you need someone to curate and regulate that persona based on very detailed rules. It’s easier to use an actual human being.

4. Be consistent in your content. People love predictable and routine. We humans are creatures of deep habit. Whenever I’m speaking publicly, one of my questions I ask the audience is when Seinfeld was on. More than a decade and a half later, people still remember, because it was valuable content published at a predictable time.

5. Add value and give first. Unless you go to a lot of Tupperware parties, generally speaking, your friends and colleagues don’t try to sell you something all the time. You shouldn’t either. Chances are, your actual friends look to do nice things for you first and unsolicited. Treat your audience as well as you treat your friends, and offer value first in your content.

6. When you do sell, pitch personally. Instead of having the generic press release or standard sell in an email, look at using your persona’s social capital to make a personal pitch every now and again. Think about every form email you’ve ever received and how it looks. Think about every pitchy blog post you’ve ever read. Now think about how your actual friends ask you for help. See if changing formats to ask like you would ask a real friend makes a difference.

These 6 ideas are just the start of transforming your content marketing program from just another ineffective broadcast medium into a true communications channel that delivers value to both you and your audience. Try it today!


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