Just another Lean Startup blog

Cobble Hill Interactive: Digital Sales & Marketing Consulting Hi, I'm Howard, and I'm addicted to Startups.

I spent the last decade working in, on and consulting to startups. I burned my hand enough times to know, life's too short to build something nobody wants.

I also run FutureNow, a pioneer in the digital marketing optimization space. After 1,000 clients, I've learned to believe what they do, not what they say.

29 June 2007 ~ 19 Comments

2 Ways to Get Started With Personas (Part 1)

Who are your customers, really?I was having a conversation with the experience team at a major “entertainment” company after my presentation at the Internet Retailer conference a few weeks back. We were discussing ways they could get started on Personas, and how to overcome the challenges they’d faced thus far. Given that this dialog took place just off-stage, we had no expectation of privacy. Then again, I had no expectation that well over 100 retailers would be so interested in this conversation as well. It became “the presentation after the presentation”–so much so that the conference producer had to politely ask me to take the impromptu mob outside into the main hall… sorry again, Kurt 😉 –and I promised all those who wanted to listen in that I’d write up my thoughts and take them to a more appropriate vehicle. So, without further ado…

There are 2 ways to begin a Persona project:

1) Hire a firm to conduct research.

Level of difficulty: easy
Likelihood of success: minimal

Expect to cough up tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on this research–and the wise marketer would do everything in her power not to entertain discussions of ROI (at least positive) from this exercise. Expect the resulting research to create beautiful-sounding Personas and make excellent posters to put up on the wall. In some organizations, you may even expect a raise for a job well done, but you’ll profit more from selling all your company stock short. (Bryan chronicled this approach in his ClickZ column, but it’s worth diving into even further, because the underlying question marketer’s are asking when they hire a research firm is an understandable, but flawed one.)

The question being asked of the research is, “How do we know which types of people make up our audience?” Cough up the dough, create a survey, and you’ll find out something absurd, like your audience is made up of “Info-Driven types,” “Conquerors,” and “Browse-2-Buy” types. How did they determine that? They asked about past purchases, of course, and–naturally–those are good predictors of future behavior, right?

Let me know how that works out for you.

Our clients undoubtedly tire of hearing us over-communicate, “Believe what they do, not what they say they’ll do“. Why? It’s simple. People lie. Not intentionally per se, but between people telling you what they think you want to hear (in America, there’s a bias against being “wrong”), people telling you what they want to be perceived as (what they wish were the case), and finally, people telling you something they simply don’t know (the right brain makes the decisions, and the left brain articulates & rationalizes them, yet both sides of the brain “speak” in different languages. Ever played the telephone game?), it’s virtually impossible to separate the signal from the noise.

“Who makes up my audience?” isn’t the question to be concerned with; rather, “How will each different type of person approach and buy my product?” The smart marketer uses this last insight to align the sales process with their customers’ buying process.

Let’s look at a concrete example of why “who” makes up your audience is irrelevant, while understanding the “buying mode” they’re in is essential.

My mom is a Methodical personality type, meaning her preference dictates a logical process, and one that is rather deliberate in its pace. She works professionally as a bookkeeper and routinely catches oversights by the auditors of her books. She remarks with bewilderment that someone whose singular concern is maintaining hyper-accuracy of the data can so easily miss the details. Notice, she wouldn’t qualify the details as minute, though to many they would be. To a strong Methodical, no detail is too fine. When she buys, chances are she’ll ask 10 – 20 extra questions than most other buyers, and with each successful answer, she’ll gain a touch more confidence.

My preference shares her bias towards a logical process, but has a much faster pace; what we call a Competitive personality type. Whereas Methodicals need a sense of order (or structure) to their process to gain confidence over time, Competitives are perfectly comfortable living amongst the chaos, and letting intuition guide their decision making process. The Competitive type can quickly dismiss logical-sounding fluff (you know, the statistical correlations marketers present when they have no actual causation to report). Think like “The Donald,” and you’re probably closely resembling the Competitive’s approach. When he buys, he’s in a hurry, and just wants the bottom line.

The key word in the examples above, is preference. My mother doesn’t methodically choose where to get her nails done, or where to go for a special dinner. In both of those cases, she buys more experientially, favoring more of an emotional process, and eschewing her normal deliberate pace for a much quicker one. She’s quite comfortable giving it a whirl. After all, “How bad could it be”? (Spoken like a true Spontaneous type, she’s operating outside of her typical buying mode.)

I went to buy my first car right out of college and, despite my bias toward a logical process, did zero research on the ‘net–and never checked out a consumer report. I also didn’t use my typical fast pace; I was much more deliberate. I talked to other people who’d owned the car previously and asked for their opinions and experiences. I considered the car to be an extension of my personal brand. My process was almost purely emotional and, with the deliberate pace, was the complete opposite of my typical buying preference.

Had the manufacturer done market research and decided Competitive types were their #1 audience segment, what would they have done? Built a micro-site catering only to fast-paced, logical thinkers. If they did, the conversion rate would’ve likely been the same anemic 2.4% we see today (because, after all, that’s what most sites today do: cater to one type of person, usually resembling the CEO/founder or IT professional who put the site together in the first place).

The point is, knowing your audience’s type doesn’t tell you which mode they’ll be in once they buy your product. That’s what you want to know and, unfortunately, research can’t tell you the answer to that question. If it can, it’s totally different research than anyone has ever done before. It involves using live test subjects, and not in some contrived listening lab. It involves designing the experiment so that the subjects don’t know they’re participating, they’re actually operating according to their own motivations. It involves making the experience become the experiment.

Planning the customer experience in advance, so you can hypothesize motivations, will drive their buying process (read: what mode they’ll be in). Once you’ve properly accounted for motivations, you can test their actual behavior–in a real environment–thus proving your assumptions about their motivations and optimizing the experience accordingly. The level of difficulty is far higher than simply hiring a firm to conduct research, but the likelihood of success is infinitely higher. And there’s a process to it, so you don’t have to bite off the entire approach in one sitting. This process leads me back to where I started, the second way to get going on Personas.

To be continued . . .

[Read Part 2 to learn how you can build Personas from the ground up without costly research, and build in the feedback loop necessary to know where you’re right and where you need to focus additional energy.]

27 June 2007 ~ 5 Comments

Guy Kawasaki on Making $5M/yr in Your Underwear…

It’s pretty nice work, if you can get it:

Markus Frind, the founder of PlentyOfFish.com is my new hero (James Hong of Hot or Not is a close second). Marcus spends about two hours a day in his underwear managing a free dating website that gets twelve billion page views a year. He is the only employee, and he only has one server. And by the way, he makes $5-6 million/year with Google ads.

I’ve moderated many panels in my time, and if I had to choose one that entrepreneurs should watch, this is it. If you’re one guy/gal or two guys/gals in a garage, it will push all the right buttons, and you’ll love it. However, if your plan is to raise several million dollars from venture capitalists and then hire five engineers, one VP of biz dev, one CTO, two testers, and a VP of marketing to ship a product in a year, you probably shouldn’t spend your time watching it.

I only watched the first 30 minutes of the Google video this AM, before I realized that 15 minutes of checking Bloglines had stretched well over an hour. I’ll be back later to watch the rest, and comment on the highlights. Will you?

12 June 2007 ~ 10 Comments

McDonalds Instead of Starbucks: Brand Heresy?

mcdvsstarbucks.jpgI know my audience. Or at least I thought I did. My bet is that this audience sits right in the Starbucks demographic sweet spot.

I just read this in an article from Bloomberg:

Marc Greenberg, a Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. analyst in New York, reduced his target price for Starbucks shares to $32 from $37 today, saying that positive consumer reaction to McDonald’s brew poses a threat to the coffee chain.

Yesterday, Jason West, a Deutsche analyst in Boston, upgraded McDonald’s shares to “buy” from “hold” on its “expanding beverages opportunity.”

Will you be going to McDonalds for your coffee instead of Starbucks?

14 May 2007 ~ 9 Comments

Jakob Nielsen on Everyone’s Favorite Buzzword: “Web 2.0”

From Today’s BBC, as pointed out by Jakob himself in his newsletter (emphasis mine):

Sadly, said Mr Nielsen, the rush to embrace Web 2.0 technology meant that many firms were turning their back on the basics.

“They should get the basics right first,” he said. “Sadly most websites do not have those primary things right.

There was a risk, he said, of a return to the dotcom boom days when many sites, such as Boo.com, looked great but were terrible to use.

“That was just bad,” he said. “The idea of community, user generated content and more dynamic web pages are not inherently bad in the same way, they should be secondary to the primary things sites should get right.

“The main criticism or problem is that I do not think these things are as useful as the primary things,” he said.

Wow. Besides that “secondary things aren’t as useful as primary things,” what exactly concrete did we learn there?

The term Web 2.0 is already burdened with Gumby-like elasticity, so it hardly needs to be the logo (pun intended) for a return to the bubble days of the late 90’s–especially, without defining what it actually is*.

Aren’t websites “more usable” today than they were then? Absolutely. So, a better question for Jakob would be, with so many of the top sites focusing on usability for so many years, why aren’t Conversion Rates any higher? According to the latest Shop.org numbers, they’re not even trending upward.

If he’s right, and the “web is a tool” users, as most usability practitioners would like to call your site’s visitors (can you think of any positive meanings to the word ‘users’?), attempt to accomplish tasks, Conversion Rates (the ratio of actions taken per total visitors) should have risen each-and-every year (until, naturally, the big-bad Web2.0 trend came to bring them crashing down 😉 ).

The web is no more a tool than a print catalog, social club, newspaper, radio, television or a brick-and-mortar storefront, but it’s far more experiential and participatory.

What’s sad about many of today’s websites is not the abstract “things” they don’t do well (nor whether these mysteries are primary or secondary); rather, that they simply haven’t taken the time to understand our [the audience’s] needs and plan the experience in advance to ensure those needs are met. Instead, they’ve been retrofitting Marketing 1.0 into a new medium, just as they have done with every medium that came before it.

It doesn’t take a “guru” to know that the Internet is fundamentally different than everything that preceded it. It’s continuously evolving and is less about technology than communicating effectively.

Online planning is simple–albeit not easy–and will help you to not confuse the forest for the trees. Don’t believe me? Let the three questions be your guide, fix one scenario on your site, or let’s work on a new campaign with you and measure the results. Be sure and let us know how the experiment turns out, though!

(*Sidenote: On the design side, I came across a great style guide for designing “Web2.0” sites, by Ben Hunt. Even though, from a conversion standpoint, I wouldn’t agree with 100% of Ben’s conclusions, any designer who exclaims “Design the content, not the page” is A-OK in my book!)

(PPS: Criticizing “Uncle Jakob” is up there with heresy in some circles, I know. Those who reside in such circles may not want to attend my talk with Todd Follansbee at the Usability Professionals Association tomorrow night in NYC.)

11 May 2007 ~ 9 Comments

How to Not Get a Testimonial…

howie_keys_2.jpgYesterday was one of those days. You know, the multiple Excedrin days that begin far too early in the AM, talking about far too serious things before the coffee’s set in… and extending way too far into the evening.

We’ve all been there.

As business owners, these are not the customers we’re typically looking for. Picture the Comcast phone rep who answers the phone when this person comes home to no digital TV service during the big game, or the Amtrak phone rep who has to explain why the Friday train service is running four hours delayed–again.

These experiences start off behind the proverbial 8 ball before they ever get going. They’re also experiences where the right attitude, great energy, and a good listener who actually communicates relevant information (i.e., delightful service) can generate oodles and oodles of positive Word of Mouth, and rivers of referral revenue.

On my way home from the office last night, I discovered something curiously missing from my laptop bag–my car keys. I hadn’t actually driven to the office, because the car was blocked in by an age-old Brooklyn tradition of double parking during street cleaning. (Don’t ask, really, it’s a topic for another blog 😉 .)

Somewhere between the coffee shop, the cab, and the office, the single set of car keys we own were gone. Oops. Long story short, AAA to the rescue! They’ve heard this song-and-dance before, and without judgment (something the Ms. can’t claim this AM), they found a 24-hour automotive locksmith, setup the appointment, got him to call us on a cell phone when he was in the neighborhood so we didn’t have to wait in the rain, AND kicked in $50 off the outrageous-stupidity-fee the locksmith charges to boot. AMAZING.

They were with us all the way, calling on several occasions to check the status of the locksmith and to make sure we were delighted once the service was rendered.

I’d happily take the time to write a letter exclaiming my adulation for all things AAA and end with a strong Call to Action urging people not to wait until they’re stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire in the snow; rather, to sign up today while their car is still running strong. I’d send an email they could use as a testimonial, I’d even talk to the rep’s superior and share my delight… if they’d only ask.

Why are we so afraid to ask for our customers to share their wonderful stories? Are we afraid they may tell us mostly good news, with some sprinkles of less positive mixed in? Great. Too bad we can’t fix what we don’t know.

Are we afraid people only do what they’re incentivized to do? True, to an extent, but don’t underestimate the power of the Delight Factor. Ask for feedback. Facilitate sharing among customers. Embrace the transparency of today’s environment. And run, don’t walk, to your nearest AAA website and sign-up for a year of their service!! You won’t regret it.

04 May 2007 ~ 20 Comments

What Books are Floating Around Your Office?

It’s not only preschoolers who enjoy a good game of you show me yours, I’ll show you mine 😉

While randomly strolling through the Future Now offices, there’s a vast array of books teammates are currently ensconced in. Here’s five:

  1. Made to Stick, by the brothers Heath. We know a thing or two about getting two very bright, very opinionated brothers together to crank out a few hundred pages. It’s not always easy, but it seems it’s almost always worth the effort. This book is sweeping through the office like wildfire. Easily the book most widely read and applauded within these halls since Freakonomics.
  2. How to Win Sales & Influence Spiders, by Cat Seda. The sheer fact that Cat was wise enough to put the goal of influencing spiders AFTER influencing people makes her a big hit in our book. Then again, she already was a big hit, writing one of our collectively favorite blogs.
  3. Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, et. al. The quote I got was “Excellent for consultants… Even more excellent for anyone in a relationship!” Double points!
  4. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. You may have heard, we’ve been busy hiring (interested?). With hiring, naturally comes training. Can’t train Persuasion Architects without the godfather of persuasion!
  5. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card. With as eclectic a group as we have, be thankful it’s only this last offering that’s off the beaten path. (Bonus points if you can guess who’s reading it–and for the seventh time, I might add.)

Btw, another fun fact about Future Now: the average teammate actively reads 3.4 books at a time. Imagine that, from a collection of pretty high P’s 😉

Anyone care to share their upcoming reading list?


25 April 2007 ~ 5 Comments

Speed Test: Which Landing Page Element Should Load First?

Apparently, Verizon Wireless doesn’t always keep up with GrokDotCom. (Bryan recently explained the impact of optimizing your images for a fast load time. )


I’d just logged in to pay my bill, and what did I notice?

Kinda hard to pay your bill when the “login” button never shows up, eh?

24 April 2007 ~ 0 Comments

Forrester on the Best Email Marketing Ever…

(Full disclosure: Yes, Rentvillas is a past client, but, no, we’re not to be credited here. Kevin Pidduck and his fine team executed this email strategy. Smart marketers will look past their tactics to the principles at work… )

Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research gushes over Rentvillas.com’s latest email to him, remarking at how it succeeded at tapping into his emotional right-brain:

“…this marketing email actually managed to stimulate the nostalgia I had for that trip, and generating an emotion like that from an email is just spectacular.”

He struck up a conversation with Nikki Hootman, author of the email, and she gave an insightful tidbit for all email marketers out there:

“The interesting thing is that we actually tried a much more “professional” looking format with a very nice visual element… but we discovered that people treated it like a mass mailer you might get from Amazon.com or another huge company. When we just use plain text and a photo or two, people consider it much more personal.”

Transparent. Real. Surprised Broca.

Great Job, Nikki!!

20 April 2007 ~ 12 Comments

Do You Blog Like A Girl?

Apparently, I do. At least that’s what the fine Melissa Burdon tells me, and she has the research to prove it. Want to haze your co-workers:


I’ll admit, the study lost some credibility with me (it’s not just a parlor trick, the study actually has a pretty robust algorithm behind it) when I first checked it out- I ran the following three posts through it:

“Measuring the Piss-Off Factor”
“Measuring the Piss-Off Factor, Part II”
“Marketing in the In-Between”

You’ll notice the common author, resident Future Now Marketing to Women expert, and all around A#1 lady extraordinaire, Ms. Holly Buchanan. What did the algorithm decide? Male. Okay, so, obviously this isn’t perfect. The results are also more interesting than just for taunting co-workers.

For the record, when Holly finishes scolding me around the office for my male communication style (and don’t think I won’t use this research against her!), she often times moves on to Jeffrey. I ran his famous 7 Strategy Challenges post through the Gender Genie, and have no fear… off the charts Male!

What does the Genie have to say about your favorite bloggers?

13 April 2007 ~ 2 Comments

The Future of Marketing

I’m finally back in NYC after a restless traveling spree this past month, and I come bearing gifts: an easily download-able broadcast of Jeffrey Eisenberg discussing the future of marketing, and planning for the accountability this future requires.

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Jeffrey and Sondra down south at one of the more interesting (and diverse) gatherings in a long time; a CEO conversation (put on by the fine folks at NCTA). Old media alongside new, with news & media luminaries like Rita Cosby and Thomas Tull sharing the stage with those Accountable Marketing-types like ourselves made for fascinating conversation.

Take a listen… and do let us know what you think!