I’ve been a part of scores of discussions and projects around digital transformation, strategy and innovation. I’ve also been in the trenches trying to make some of this stuff actually happen. Over the years I’ve developed a strong olfactory sense of ideas that aren’t going well and those where there’s clearly a smell of success.
I’ve spent many moments reflecting on these experiences. Sometimes at airport lounges by myself after day long meetings, nursing a glass of wine. At other times, in heated discussions with colleagues, locked in the deadly embrace of entrenched opinions.
In a nutshell, in my experience, it boils down to a simple credo – big vision, small action. This is a viewpoint you will see reflected in a lot of contemporary writing and thinking around lean and agile models, but somehow, while thinking big comes naturally, it’s very hard for big companies to act small. But every day I see signs that the smartest companies are recognizing the value of lean teams, working on small outcomes, which create momentum and the building blocks of great change. For most others, fail-fast is something they like to talk about but it stays on the slides rather than finding its way into the program.
Don’t get me wrong, big ideas are critical. They underscore the vision and direction in which we need to move. The big idea is the north star of our journey. But you cannot negotiate even half a mile of unfriendly terrain with your eyes fixed on the north star. And all too often we fall into the trap of big idea & big action.
A typical idea of a big action is when a large company goes – ‘we are going to completely re-engineer the way we sell our widgets to our customers, across our 16 divisions and migrate from a direct to indirect sales network whilst improving our net promoter score and digitise our entire sales process while we’re about it’. You’ve all been there I’m sure.
I’d like to highlight five very specific benefits of small action – those agile, lean projects which we love to quote but seem reticent to undertake. And why, especially in the world of digital change and transformation, they are even less useful than a hippopotamus at a barbecue.
The first challenge is politics and alignment. If you want to make a big change, in large organisations, you are expecting to get the buy in of a dozen or more senior people, who may well have contradictory expectations and competing ambitions. The time taking process of consensus building is the anathema of change, and often the end product of a consensus is an unwieldy compromise which no longer has the ability to deliver the benefits anticipated. In contrast, the small action looks at creating the smallest viable version of this change, may be in one division and one product line of a less prominent business unit. But however insignificant it is, you can never argue with success or with data, and small change grows quickly on the back of data and proven success. The power of digital is that it IS possible to create successes and gather effective data on a small scale.
Speed is an immediate victim of the big change process. Likely timelines for getting alignment with senior teams can take months. It can even take months just to get the right people into the room, to discuss the key issues. In fact, the small change approach can deliver large transformations faster because once it gathers speed, the change rate is exponential. A few years ago, I was working on a large complex program with half a dozen workstreams, which had gone on for over a year with almost zero success. People were demotivated and change resistent. One of the little things we tried was to take one of the workstreams and just focus on making that work over an 8 week timeframe. In two months, we had a success story, and suddenly everybody wanted to be in on the journey. The entire program was completed in under 8 months.
The actual implementation of a large scale program can be exponentially complex in terms of detail. This is not to say it can’t be done. If you were building a new airport terminal, you would have to take on and manage the complexity, but in the digital world the number of unknowns is also very high. It may sound simple to say “we’ll combine our CRM data with our transaction system, to create better views of customer history” but in one company where we tried it, we stumbled on firewall access, data structures, speed of response, security issues and user interface design. You can gloss over those challenges in a powerpoint presentation but not in the actual implementation. Will your grand plan survive it’s first brush with reality? In a small action approach, you can break up complexity into much more manageable chunks and solve them one at a time. Whatsapp recently announced that it had added the much awaited blue ticks for message delivery. The service has grown a lot both in features and popularity, but the first version of Whatsapp was launched in 3 months with 4 developers working. Evernote still releases a new version every other week.
You see, it boils down to learning. In the large change programs, we spend a lot of time discussing with ‘experts’ and owners of expertise areas. We seek advice and inputs and then we expect armed with all that planning, that things will go as per schedule. Small change makes no such assumptions. Small action learns ‘on the job’ and consequently it learns in real time. One is a learning by talking, the other is learning by doing. I think we all know which is more effective. In my experience with digital tools & projects, nobody’s really an expert – everybody has gaps in their understanding. So learning from expertise is immediately limited.
Finally, the digital landscape itself is changing. From regulatory stances on privacy (Google) or entering new markets (think Uber), to new platforms, tools, models and disruptive players, there is a high change environment in which you need to operate. Given this, the danger of the big change approach is obvious, with it’s slow and complex approach, it may be outdated by the time the implementation has actually started. And often the fear of going back and re-negotiating the same issues, means that the program just gets shelved. This is probably the single most common outcome of large change programs in the digital environment. It gets put on the shelf and people just stop talking about it. Ultimately, it becomes a symbol in the organisation of project failure. People go ‘rememeber project Orion?’ (nudge! nudge!). The only way to address this is through the calculus of small change. Stick to small agile action which can help to absorb directional change brought about by the environment, and you never have to jettison a very large amount of work, so the risk is never too high.
A couple of years ago, we were pitching some new and exciting technology led change program to a client who are a well known Utility company. Our approach involved running programs of change, integrating complex back end systems and creating an agressive 6 month program of work. One of the seniormost execs in the room from the client organisation started the meeting by telling us how he along with a couple of his engineers had just spent the weekend ‘playing around’ with a new location based open source utility which they found to be quite interesting and had built a pilot for replacing their existing clunky routing application and were planning to roll out the change to a small set of service teams within the next 7 days. It suddenly made our 6 month change program look very glacial.
Think of a snowball that you start rolling down a snowy hillside, and how it gathers pace and bulk as it moves. This is how small change works. Now think of repairing a car by a committee of people with specialised and disparate skills taking the entire car apart, and then putting it back together again. This is how big change works. In the digital world, only one of these approaches is effective.
So the next time you encounter a digital transformation initiative, remember: politics, speed, learning, scaling and environmental change are the 5 reasons why it makes sense to commit to big vision but small action.
First there were letters, then came emails, then text messages and twitter. Our patience for longer communication has dwindled both as senders and receivers. Newspapers and long opeds have given way to snappy blogs and bullet point memos. Videos have replaced text, and short videos have replaced the longer formats. You get the gist – we are increasingly in an attention starved economy.
Attention is fragmented, fleeting, and in generally small supply. Hyperactivity has been known medical problem for ages, but it was in the 1980’s that the condition was prefixed with “attention”. The double whammy here is that even as attention grows more precious, the volume of noise keeps going up, so finding the signal becomes even harder. So what little attention we have, we must guard zealously.
This is marketings first big problem. Marketing and advertising, as we know it today, is a hundred years old. It is no longer fit for purpose. Creativity in capturing attention still gets headlines, and this won’t change, but the goalposts are shifting constantly and the new rules are yet to be written.
Google adwords seemed to provide some answers, but I think that our general mistrust of marketing messages cripples the value of adwords. We have all become experts in tuning out ads. Banners on pages, full page spreads in magazines, spots on television (usually coinciding with tea-making or a trip to the toilet), or ebook ads in Kindle magazines which you flip through with barely a thought.
As a marketer therefore, your first challenge is getting through the noise, the fragmentation and ephimerality of messages, and actually register on the audiences attention span, without spending a kings ransom in the process. Especially if you’re not an already established and known brand.
Every once in a while I notice a piece of marketing communication for a product that I’ve never heard of. But it’s almost always in a category I’m already interested in, and often filtered via friends feeds (FB/ Twitter etc.). I signed up for Carbonite, the online data back up service after I heard their ‘ad’ on a podcast – it wasn’t a traditional ad but the host of the talk show talking through the benefits of the product in a related category to the ongoing discussion. This morning I watched an interesting and interactive Honda ad because somebody posted it on Facebook. The last time I was actually influenced by a TV ad was … er… I don’t remember really.
Let’s assume you’ve actually solved the first problem. So you have my attention – perhaps for 15 seconds. Perhaps even 30. The next challenge is getting to action. What are you going to motivate me to do?
Historically, advertising and marketing spends have fallen into clear categories – strategic or branding type communication, intended to create a longer term desire; and short term tactical spends, intended to create an immediate sales boost. The latter typically comprising offers, coupons, and other enticement to act now.
The first problem here, is that in the attention deficiency model, everything is about NOW. It’s either now, or it’s gone. (I’m stretching the point here, but this is generally the trend). If I’m not in the market for a car, you’re wonderful car advert is not likely to register beyond a point. Because I know that when I do want to buy a car, all the information in the world will be available.
I’ve written before about the telescoping of the AIDA cycle. Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action – the 4 stages of classic marketing & sales. I call it the “Shazaam” effect, after the app. From never having hear a song, we can now hear it, like it, identify it, want it and actually own and download it in about two minutes. This process in the past, woud require you to hearing the song on the radio, finding out the name, going to the store, deciding if you really wanted to spend money on the whole album, listening to the other tracks, and finally taking the plunge. On average that could be weeks if not months, with a high probability of dropping out of the process altogether. It’s not just digital goods, you could pass a shop window, like an item, check it out online with your phone and order it – again, the process would take a few minutes, if the retailer made it easy to do this.
Most ads today do not have a compelling call to action. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an action to buy, it could be an action to save, highlight, wishlist or read later. Most digital publications allow you to do this with your content. Why not with your ads? Why can’t I click on a car ad and save it for later, because I do want to buy it next year, but this model looks interesting. Or tag the ad? All of this is for enabling future searchability.
The other implication of this is that the secret sauce for advertising and marketing messages may well be getting your attention when you’re looking to buy the product. Not dissimilar to point of sale advertising, but more like point of time advertising. This is all about context. It involves being able to pick up on cues based on opt-in analytics that allow me to tell you about a cycle when you’re looking for a cycle. Sadly, what we have today is that when you search for a cycle, you are guaranteed to see cycle ads for the next 4-6 weeks, even though you bought the cycle in week 2. It’s a blunt weapon that needs a lot more finesse, though it’s probably heading in the right direction. The problem is that I tell Google that I’m looking for a cycle, but I tend to tell Facebook about my adventures on the bike. May be sharing my ride pictures on Google plus is a good way of telling google to stop selling me cycles.
Media vs The Message
The media industry is probably the hardest hit by these technologies. Audience fragmentation, disintermediation and ever lower barriers to entry have caused havoc in the business. The television industry would have us believe that people still watch as much TV but I would suggest that the quality of viewing is dramatically lower, i.e. it shares your attention with your smartphone and your other chores, and in many instances has become a truly passive experience. Which is bad news for brands and advertisers looking to grab your attention. Newspapers have also down and out and the few who have successful digital editions are enjoying a new life, but advertising models continue to be experimental and much less lucrative. Google adwords have been a moderate success in terms of click throughs and paying for results, but it’s not the answer to all marketing problems.
From a marketers’ perspective, the gravy train has vanished. There was a simple equation – you spent your money, you got onto the most popular TV shows or major newspapers’ front pages and you could launch a product nationally and get decent outcomes. Today’s marketing manager has to consider direct (website/ app) vs indirect channels; digital vs traditional media; multiple options within digital media including banners, innovative banners (with video, for example), ad-words, SEO, and a host of new options such as ambient screens, and digital point of sale. You also have to worry about attribution modelling and manage your spends in near real time. Agencies are starting to make money of trading desks, using algorithms not dissimilar to share trading.
Increasingly the smarter brands have tried to make their message the story, rather than an interruption. Coke, Dove, and Red Bull are brands that have tried to do this.
It’s also worth asking the question – how have our aspirations changed? In the increasingly global and multi-cultural world, there is a certain level of fragmentation of aspirations too. Only 44.9% of London’s population is white British. Even in 2007 there were apparently over 50 non-indegenous communities with over 10,000 population each.
The implication of this is obvious – as populations go less homogenous, so their aspirations, needs, habits and buying cues. Everybody knows the story of the 2 elderly white men both rich, born in 1948 married twice, holiday in the alps and fond of dogs. One is Prince Charles, the other is Ozzy Osbourne. How then do you attract the housewife of Indian origin who loves popular psychology, with the rock climbing single hungarian girl who wants to work for the police? Both of them may be 24, female, living on in the same post code and searching for psychology in Google.
The challenge is not just analysing and deciphering these ambitions, it’s the need to deal with such a vastly diverse array of ambitions. And ambitions that will themselves morph and blend in cultural melting pots. How do you sell an aspirational product when there is no consistency of aspirations, without boiling it down to economic ambition as a lowest common denominator?
Who do we trust? Not the government, not large enterprises, not banks or telcos, and not Google or Facebook. Yet. we trust the feedback of strangers on recommendation websites. However, you still wouldn’t trust a random stranger to provide you with broadband services, find stuff on the internet quickly, or hold your savings for you. Trust therefore has many facets. One of them is competence, another is ethical. In earlier (and perhaps more naive) times, we tended to combine them. Now, with the free flow of information we know better.
Opinion may vary about the competence of banks, but you would still trust the bank with your money because they have demonstrable competence. Also because they are regulated. So while we don’t trust governments or banks, we may find that the combination provides us a trustworthy outcome.
Why is this important to marketing? Well primarily because trust is the basic currency of all communication, and consequently, for brand creation. Without it, you may as well flush your money down the toilet. So the question then is do your customers trust you? And how do you establish and build this trust? And given that we live in a low-trust environment, this may be the first and most important bridge to build.
A Quick Checklist
- Make the message the story.
- Be contextual in the positioning of your message
- Create actions in your messages – not just ‘buy’ actions
- Understand aspirations from a cross cultural perspective
- Own your communication and include direct to customer channels
- Build a strong trust bridge before sending the marketing cavalry across it