Marketing Lessons from a Street Artist

Tech writer Angelo Fernando says, “Street artists know a lot more about engagement than all of us Facebook-savvy users put together.”

I was going through a pile of papers in my “to file (someday) pile” the other day, and I found Fernando’s fantastic article from the September-October 2009 issue of Communication World magazine.  In it, he describes walking through London’s Trafalgar Square–with its noise, advertising, and crowds–and discovering a silent protester, painstakingly creating a sculpture on the pavement out of coins donated by passersby, hoping to “raise awareness that the global financial crisis was caused by greed.”  Fernando was struck by the fact that “there are some basic [marketing] elements that our man on the street seemed to understand, drawing on a long tradition of connecting, creating, and communicating.”

All of us are competing for attention in a very busy, over-stimulating, technology-enabled marketplace.  It’s easy to be tempted to hop on the latest bandwagon out of fear of being left behind.  But most smart marketers and PR people I know advise developing wise, informed approaches that target your goals, audience, and budget carefully.  I won’t copy the article for you here, but I’d like to comment on Fernando’s essential questions, which I think provide a nice framework for starting to make common-sense decisions about where and how you promote your business:

  • “Do I need to shout to get attention?”
    As many a kindergarten teacher can tell you, sometimes a whisper is far more effective than a shout!
  • “Is my pitch too wordy?  Is my copy too long?” 
    Does anyone really read all that copy anyway?  Sometimes I say (only half-joking) that more than half of what I write never gets read, especially if it’s written for a client’s website.  Web designers’ need to incorporate keywords often has led to Moby Dick-length webpages:  I can’t tell you how often I look at a company’s home page and think, “I can’t even tell who they are or what they are selling!”  I’m seeing a swing back toward simplicity now, and it really helps clarify companies’ messaging.
  • “Is it user-supported?”
    You can show and tell people anything you want to, but getting them directly involved ups their engagement exponentially.
  • “Does it pay?”
    Does your content pay for itself, or is it content for content’s sake?  This question is often asked when the topic of advertising comes up, but it’s no less relevant if you’re developing brochures, white papers, websites, or a Twitter presence.  Everything costs you something…are you getting a return?
  • “Will it drive traffic?” 
    Whether you want to drive traffic to a website or a brick-and-mortar shop, placement of your message is key.  Where do the people you want to attract normally go?  How can you get them to go from there to your location?
  • “Is it in the Creative Commons?” 
    The book Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson talks about this idea in depth; people are reluctant to pay for information they know they can get somewhere else for free.  As Fernando put it, to the artist, “this message belonged to his audience.”
  • “Is the timing relevant?”
    There are all kinds of “rules” about content delivery: “Never issue a press release on Friday.” “Email blasts should be sent Tuesdays or Wednesdays.” All the same, though, there are ways to be creative about timing! Day of the week or time of day may not be the most relevant factor.
  • “Does it start a conversation?” 
    Fernando’s point here is that provocative ads designed to get “buzz” often have short-lived power, and they may provoke negative buzz.  To me, this is one of the key points about marketing in the Internet age.  Conversation is going to happen about your products and services as long as people are buying them.  Why not initiate some of the conversation?  You’ll likely shape positive perception of your company, and you might just learn something from your customers.
  • “Is it adaptable?”
    I’m going to quote Fernando here, because he wrote it best:  “Pavement may seem a boring platform compared with TypePad or YouTube.  But the street artist was not confined to the rules of the place.  He could take his message to the base of Nelson’s column or to Westminster, and change his ‘headline’ as he desired.”  This is especially important if budget is a concern for you!  Be intentional and intelligent about developing core messages that resonate with your audience…no matter what the medium is.
  • “Is it creative enough?”
    This one’s self-explanatory, and I think it wraps up all the others, too.

Re-reading Fernando’s article has obviously inspired me to do some thinking about my own marketing efforts.  I hope it provokes you to look at your marketing and PR efforts in a new way, too.

Unless something else fascinating crosses my desk before then, my next post will be a review of Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and maybe something else from my reading list.  Stay tuned!




All I want for Christmas is….BOOKS!

I am fortunate enough to have everything I need this holiday season, but there are always books that I want.  So for this post, I thought I would share what’s on my current work-related “to read” list, as well as my “wish list” for the first part of 2012.  Maybe my list will inspire you to check out some of the titles.  If you’ve read any of these yourself, I’d love to hear YOUR reviews.  Happy reading, everyone!

In my “To Read” pile, you’ll find…

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences.

“System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.  Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior.”

Linchpin:  Are You Indispensable?, by Seth Godin.

“There used to be two teams in every workplace: management and labor. Now there’s a third team, the linchpins. These people figure out what to do when there’s no rule book. They delight and challenge their customers and peers. They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art.”

Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, by David Brodzinsky, et al.

“Recent studies have shown that being adopted can affect many aspects of adoptees’ lives, from relationships with adoptive parents to bonds with their own children. Using their combined total of 55 years experience in clinical and research work with adoptees and their families, the authors use the voices of adoptees themselves to trace how adoption is experienced over a lifetime.”


And some of the books on my list for Santa are…

The 100 Best Business Books of All Time:  What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You, by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten.

“This collection is more than just a list. Covert and Sattersten highlight important takeaways and put each book in context. Their insights can help anyone cut through the clutter and discover the business books that are truly worth their time and money.”

Too Big to Know:  Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room, by David Weinberger.

“This groundbreaking book shakes the foundations of our concept of knowledge—from the role of facts to the value of books and the authority of experts—providing a compelling vision of the future of knowledge in a connected world.”

Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself, by William C. Taylor.

Practically Radical goes deep inside twenty-five for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations to find out how they’ve made remarkable strides in tough circumstances. They include IBM, Zappos, Swatch, the Girl Scouts, Interpol, big-city hospitals, fast-growing banks, and high-flying airlines.”

How Remarkable Women Lead:  The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life, by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston.

“Based on five years of proprietary research, How Remarkable Women Lead speaks to you as no other book has, with its hopeful outlook and unique ideas about success. It’s the new “right stuff” of leadership, raising provocative issues such as whether feminine leadership traits (for women and men) are better suited for our fast-changing, hyper-competitive, and increasingly complex world.”

Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Rework shows you a better, faster, easier way to succeed in business. Read it and you’ll know why [business] plans are actually harmful, why you don’t need outside investors, and why you’re better off ignoring the competition. The truth is, you need less than you think. You don’t need to be a workaholic. You don’t need to staff up. You don’t need to waste time on paperwork or meetings. You don’t even need an office. Those are all just excuses.”

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, by the hitRECord collaborative and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

“To create The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, [the actor] known within the hitRECord community as RegularJOE—directed thousands of collaborators to tell tiny stories through words and art. With the help of the entire creative collective, Gordon-Levitt culled, edited and curated over 8,500 contributions into this finely tuned collection of original art from 67 contributors.

The Language Instinct:  How the Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker.

“In this classic, the world’s expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and wordplay, Steven Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution.”

Demand:  Creating What People Love before They Know They Want It, by Adrian J. Slywotzky with Karl Weber.

“In Demand, Adrian Slywotzky provides a radically new way to think about demand, with a big idea and a host of practical applications—not just for people in business but also for social activists, government leaders, non-profit managers, and other would-be innovators. To succeed in their various missions, all these groups need to master such ground-breaking concepts as the hassle map (and the secrets of fixing it); the curse of the incomplete product (and how to avoid it); why ‘very good’ does not equal ‘magnetic’; how what you don’t see can make or break a product; the art of transforming fence sitters into customers; why there’s no such thing as an average customer; and why real demand comes from a 45-degree angle of improvement (rather than the five degrees most organizations manage).”


In “Persuit” of Happiness?

Notice anything wrong with the copy on this web page?  Love this company’s products, but this was the first thing I saw when I opened their site this morning!

Again, I say spelling and grammar DO matter.  Mistakes reflect poorly on a company’s image, they suggest a lack of attention to detail, and can cause miscommunication.

Most of the time, all it takes is asking someone else to proofread your work.  Another person’s eyes always catch things you miss!  Speaking of which, sometimes I need a proofreader for MY work.  Anyone have any recommendations?  Anyone want to volunteer?

5 Reasons Why Good Writing Still Matters

I have an otherwise sophisticated, intelligent client whose company boilerplate brochure content includes this bullet point (“genericized” to preserve anonymity):

  • Virtual widget center staffed by the same award-winning engineering team employed by the fastest growing widget-making organization in the state.

Wait…which team?  Are they part of my client’s company, or another company altogether?  Which is the fastest-growing organization…my client’s, or someone else’s?  And furthermore, what benefit is any of this to me, the customer?

Every time I see this copy, I cringe.  I’ve tried repeatedly to change it, and my efforts have so far been rebuffed, for reasons that remain murky.  It has inspired me to create a short list of reasons why—today more than ever—quality writing is essential to your business:

  1. Clarity. Don’t confuse your customers or potential customers.  Poorly worded or misspelled advertisements, web copy, and other marketing materials can misrepresent your company and/or your offerings. In fact, one recent study showed that a single spelling error cut online sales in half!
  2. Persuasiveness. Well-crafted marketing and sales materials help you persuade people to pay attention to your products and services. There’s a reason why “Got milk?” and “Just do it” work.
  3. Positioning. With the thousands of emails, advertisements, tweets, blog entries (!), and old-fashioned sheets of paper we see daily, doesn’t it make sense to try to stand out…and stand out in a positive, professional way?  You only have a few seconds to make an impression on your reader.
  4. SEO. If your “key words” are misspelled, how can search engines find them on your website?
  5. Respect. Wasting your customers’ time with meaningless, confusing, or incorrect information costs you dearly.  In contrast, offering useful, well-presented, appropriate information shows that you value their time and their intelligence.

Even if YOU don’t understand the difference between “your” and “you’re,” or know when to use “adverse” versus “averse,” odds are good that someone reading what you write DOES.  Don’t let poor writing get in the way of earning new business!

Is Google making us stupid?

No matter how busy I am, I always find time to read.  Fiction, non-fiction, magazines, books, and journals – I love them all!  Recently, I finished reading The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. What a fascinating book!  Read on for more details.

Grade: A+

In a few words: thought-provoking, interesting, extremely well-written

From the cover:

“’Is Google making us stupid?’ When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us.  He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time:  As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?”

My thoughts:

Early in The Shallows, Carr writes, “It seemed ludicrous to think that fiddling with a computer, a mere tool, could alter in any deep or lasting way what was going on inside my head.  But I was wrong.  As neuroscientists have discovered, the brain—and the mind to which it gives rise—is forever a work in progress.”

He goes on to describe four loose categories of tools that humans use to expand our power and control over our circumstances.  The fourth of these—and the primary focus of this book—is tools that extend or support our mental powers.  These are “intellectual technologies,” like the typewriter, abacus, globe, book, and Internet.  In Carr’s view, each embodies a set of assumptions about how the mind works or should work: How did people find their way before maps existed?  How did people tell time before the 24-hour clock was invented?  Was storytelling different before the invention of the typewriter?

Throughout The Shallows, Carr gives compelling and powerful evidence of how our minds are changed by the intellectual technologies we use.  Examples are everywhere, but I was particularly struck by his description of how humans are easily “fooled” by artificial intelligence computer applications in large part because we want to be fooled by them.  As he put it, “The Turing test, it turned out, was as much a test of the way human beings think as of the way machines think.”

Of particular importance to this book is Carr’s observation that “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.  Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.”  As alarmist as this sounds, a New York Times book review said this about The Shallows:  “This is a measured manifesto. Even as Carr bemoans his vanishing attention span, he’s careful to note the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with access to a near infinitude of information. We might be consigned to the intellectual shallows, but these shallows are as wide as a vast ocean.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.  I read this book as more of a caution about maintaining technology’s role as a tool for humans, not a substitute for humanity.  My suspicion – and perhaps it’s too optimistic (but let me keep my delusions, okay?) – is that the people who are the game-changers, earth-movers, and innovators in today’s world DO use the Internet as a tool.  These people haven’t lost their ability to reason, create, and achieve in the physical world just because they have a constant stream of information accessible 24/7.

For me, there’s a critical distinction between the “brain” and the “mind,” and I have some measure of faith in the triumph of the thoughtful, intelligent, complicated, amazing human mind.  Though our paradigm for understanding the brain has been rooted for years in the machine-mind analogy, that comparison is now being rejected as inadequate.  Sure, there’s a ton of research about what parts of the brain are affected by using the Internet, comparisons of brain activity while reading in print versus online, etc., but I believe that these studies only offer a partial view of reality.

It’s often said that the human brain is more complex than the universe, and we know even less about it.  I suspect that until neuroscience is exponentially more sophisticated, we won’t see the total view of what the brain is (much less the mind) for generations, and maybe never.  And that is probably a good thing.

Conclusion/Applicability for Business

It would be easy to dismiss this book as an intellectual exercise with little applicability “in the trenches” of running a business.  But I believe the philosophical questions Carr raises have potentially critical implications for business owners, marketers, and salespeople, among others.  Why?  I see in my work that the Internet is a constant information hog.  I often joke about how many articles, blogs, and other “copy” I’ve written for clients that is NEVER read by any human – just search engines.  There’s a fundamental question of how much to play along with this demand.  Hypothetically, is it possible to run a business – and a very successful one – without this reliance on technology?  When is technology a true tool, and when is it distracting from the real world problems and solutions?

Carr writes, “When a carpenter picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand….Our ability to meld with all manner of tools is one of the qualities that most distinguishes us as a species.” True enough, but I have difficulty with his conclusion that “When the carpenter takes his hammer into his hand, he can use that hand to do only what a hammer can do.  The hand becomes an implement for pounding and pulling nails.”  Sure, we can hammer with a hammer.  But I’ve seen a hammer used as a crowbar, a paperweight, a counterweight, and a symbol representing the working class.

I believe the answer the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” is probably, “No.”  We’re making ourselves stupid if we don’t stay in touch with what makes us human.  We must keep technologies where they belong:  in our toolkit, to be called on when needed.  Just because I have a hammer doesn’t mean I have to bang something with it.  I can use it to make a point, too.

Working IN My Business: Book about How to Quit Smoking

So it’s been awhile since my last post.  As many of you know, it can be a challenge to work ON your business when you’re enmeshed IN your business, no?  I’ve been busy, in part working on a great project for author Frank Lato, whose book on how to stop smoking will come out in its new, revised edition in early 2012.  He’s got a lot of insight into why people smoke, and a compassionate approach to reducing and eventually eliminating cigarettes from your life.  While I’m not a smoker (and lucky never to have been!), I found wisdom in his observations and been able to share them with friends and acquaintances facing the serious challenge of quitting smoking. It’s been fun to hear Frank on Rockingham County Radio (1490 WLOE), where he’s doing a half-hour show every week.

In spite of being “in the trenches” with my work as a writer and editor, I always (ALWAYS!) make time for reading.  Coming very soon are reviews of a couple of business books, including:  The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr.  Stay tuned!

Reading Print and Handwriting Make You Smarter

I just read something really interesting:  reading and writing by hand “light up” an area of the brain (Broca’s region) that facilitates understanding and communication. Apparently, we get more stimuli to more of our senses from reading and writing than we do from interacting with a keyboard and computer screen.  In particular, these stimuli activate Broca’s region, which is related to language production, but also language comprehension, action recognition and production, and speech-associated gestures.

So in an important meeting, take notes old-school:  with a pen or pencil on paper.  You won’t just remember the meeting better, you may be making yourself smarter and better at communicating overall!

“Simplicity requires ruthlessness.”

I picked this expanded and updated version of  Timothy Ferris’s 2007 book up with much trepidation:  The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich sounded scammy to me. Ferris is a proponent of what’s known as lifestyle design, which he describes as “abandon[ing] the deferred-life plan and creat[ing] luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility.”

But buy it I did, and I’ve been deliberating over this blog post for longer than I should, because I really didn’t like or enjoy reading the book. Ferris’s tone and writing style came across as arrogant, and his theories were only supported by his own personal experience.  Often, he seemed to use the ends to justify the means, which sometimes aren’t within the comfort level, ability, or moral range of the average Joe or Jane.  The book begins with self-congratulation and is a fairly blatant marketing/sales tool for Ferris himself. (Not surprisingly, he is now promoting The 4-Hour Body:  An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman!)

Ferris tears down the idea that you should be finding your dream job; instead, you should focus on finding your dream LIFE.  I appreciate the concept, but I question how realistic some of his solutions are for most of us. If you could be systematic about applying the tools and are not a risk-averse person, I think it might just work. But if you are in a place of desperation, not able or willing to take some risks, or are not incredibly self-confident, I think you could actually hurt yourself (financially, professionally, emotionally, etc.) more than benefit.

However, the overall premise – that you can firmly grasp control of how, where, and when you invest your time and efforts – is a powerful one. Ferris does offer many helpful ideas and tools that will help you get that control by removing unproductive and not-worthwhile activities from your life; eliminating them, outsourcing them, or automating them.

A few of my favorite quotes:

  • “Are you inventing things to do to avoid the important?”
  • “Just because something has been a lot of work or consumed a lot of time doesn’t make it productive or worthwhile.”
  • “…you can always do something more cheaply yourself.  This doesn’t mean you want to spend your time doing it.”
  • “Simplicity requires ruthlessness.”

Bottom line:

If you can get past the feeling that Ferris is not “one of us” and focus on the essential points in the book, it’s a good resource.  I think entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs will get the most out of The Four-Hour Workweek, and they’ll identify most with the author’s perspective.  Ferris’s approach to marketing himself through books is one I plan to study more – he’s doing something right if bestseller rankings are any indicator of success.

Grade:    B-


46 Different Ways to Say Dirty

Better use the words “dirty,” “stick,” and “guts” a lot if you like them, as linguists say they’re soon to be extinct in English.  There’s a lexicon – kind of like a dictionary – of 200 words that linguists say are not specific to any particular culture and represent concepts that are familiar across continents and millennia.  These are words like the ones above, as well as “I” and “Who,” “two,” and “five.”

There are now at least 46 different ways to say “dirty” across all Indo-European languages, and the 46 words are all unrelated to one another.  Apparently, the more rapidly one of the original common “cross-language” word changes, the more likely it is to disappear.  I’m guessing that it’s being replaced by language-specific words in each culture’s own tongue.

There’s a nice summary of this concept at:

Looks like “push,” “wipe,” and “stab” are headed out of the English language, too.  It’s interesting to me that many of the words cited have violent or unpleasant physical connotations.  Why do we (across the Indo-European languages) now have so many other versions of these concepts?  How many other ways can you think of to push, wipe, or stab something?

What ARE the 46 different ways to say “dirty,” and how many are in English?   Unclean. Dingy. Filthy. Foul.  Grimy.  Soiled.  Befouled.  Sullied.  Besmirched.  What others am I missing?

So go ahead and write all you want about pushing dirty sticks into guts, wiping stab wounds, and so on…but in a few hundred years or less no one will understand what you’re talking about!