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Applying Systems Thinking to #VanLife

Let’s make it a choice, not a necessity.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

An increasing trend these days is the desire of people to adopt a “Van Life” nomadic lifestyle or living in a small RV or tiny home. This trend has grown alongside an interest in living minimalistically á la Marie Kondo. In the public imagination, this lifestyle offers a more free and more sustainable way of living which appeals especially to the younger generations, as evidenced by the popular use of the #vanlife hashtag by social media influencers.

(For simplicity’s sake, I will use “van” or “vanlife” in place of all full-time living situations involving mobile vehicles such as vans, minivans, cars and small trailers or RVs. Giant RVs are not in view here in this article, because most people who can afford to purchase and operate one of these land-yachts are not in the same desperate financial situation as most of the working poor but are truly using these as recreational vehicles for leisure travel. For the most part, these people are not living in them full-time as their sole residence.)

For many, living in a van is not as much of a trendy choice, but one borne of necessity. The rapidly rising cost of affordable housing along with the lack of well-paying jobs that keep pace with soaring inflation is pricing many out of permanent long-term housing. For these people, the choice of adopting a nomadic way of life is a logical choice, even if it is one step up from abject homelessness.

And, for many people such as myself who find themselves in their middle-age approaching retirement age without savings, finding a way to live a full, free life while living on as little as possible is a mandate if one is to survive long into the elder years. “Living in a van down by the river” is no longer a joke, but a solution to an impending disaster.

Much like Henry David Thoreau seeking to live as simply as possible in the woods with as little negative impact on one’s environment as possible, modern van-dwellers are akin in spirit inheriting a long tradition of those who “tune in and drop out.” Adopting vanlife is also a practical way to become a conscientious objector to current systems of oppression in our society.

One could decry many factors in our society that has led to this circumstance, but I do not find it helpful to agitate or complain. As a designer, my choice to live this way offers a unique opportunity to design an alternative life that does indeed offer greater freedom with lower cost in addition to providing housing security independent of the current system of rent-seeking landlords. My tiny abode on wheels is not a bug but a feature of choosing freedom.

A Systems’ Analysis of the Housing Issue

Housing in the U.S. is a complex issue, with many factors contributing to an individual’s choice to seek alternative housing. What seems to be evident when one maps out some of these factors and relate them to each other is that those with a higher amount of resources coupled with a lower amount of mitigating factors typically gravitate toward permanent housing. Those with fewer resources or resources dependent on others, coupled with a high amount of mitigating factors tend to choose (or be forced to choose) alternative housing.

Applying a Systems-Thinking Approach to Life in My Trailer

One of the major challenges I am facing in transitioning into this lifestyle is the need to prioritize tasks. In a small trailer where life is extremely truncated, every little decision matters. Additionally, most things do double or even triple-duty in their function. For example, a 5-gallon bucket not only serves as the toilet (with a bag and camp seat!), but also as storage for toiletries and to perform other myriad tasks where a bucket is required such as dealing with gray-water or cleaning. Since the cost to acquire such a bucket system for toileting is so low, then there is no need to wait very long to implement the system.

With a limited amount of funds, equipping my trailer is not something I can do all at once. It needs to be a phased approach, and I need to decide how and where the money is best spent. The key to making these decisions is to analyze where the purchases will impact higher-priority needs, such as the need for health and safety.

To help me understand better, I diagrammed out the main needs, the decisions I can make that will provide a solution and reinforce it, any mitigating factor that impact the outcome, and the desired results. When looking as the various ways I can address a need, I can more clearly see where the decision interacts with a mitigating factor and which desired result is most affected.

In the diagram below, the solid arrows represent direct impacts and the dotted arrows represent secondary impacts. These are not the only interactions possible, but enough to illustrate how this kind of analysis can help draw some conclusions.

When analyzing the diagram, one can see that the greatest impacts are indeed those made to health and safety, with safety being at the top. A number of the possible solutions contribute to these impacts, and are therefore the ones which need to be prioritized. All of these factors are important, but some solutions may be able to be phased-in. Some are not, such as the need to get reliable heat and insulation in the face of a quickly approaching Winter and single-digit or subzero temperatures in the near-term forecast. Since the negative impact of dealing with extreme low temperatures can be death, the need to address this is the top priority. Others that impact things like comfort are not as high as a priority, though these still remain important.

Some Takeaways

In my little analysis of my current housing situation, I am struck by the complexity and challenge in addressing these issues. With a systems-thinking approach, I can take a broader view of my circumstances and hopefully make a few better choices.

I also gained an appreciation of how much more of a complex issue housing really is in our country today. It seems simpler to place blame on one factor, or one political party or economic weakness, but by developing a deeper understanding of the problem through a systems-thinking approach I can also see where some great improvements can be made if there is the societal/political will to do so.

Let’s hope that one day we will be able to come together as a society with a deeper understanding and good intention so that so many people won’t be faced with an intractable choice because they lack the financial freedom to do so. Our own intentions must be pure and our eyes open to what is truly happening in our communities, and we must be willing to make brave choices so that no one who wants a home would be unable to get one.

Categories

Life Is a Design Challenge

Apply design thinking skills to your life situation, no matter what it is.

Photo: The author’s tiny trailer. 11 foot by 7 foot (77 square feet) of wheel-estate.

I recently moved into a tiny trailer.

Yep. Just a step above, #vanlife and “living in a van down by the river” my little trailer in which I live is 77 square feet of wheel-estate.

There are a lot of reasons I chose to do this, but the main ones are that:

  • I need to be mobile in order to help out my aging parents who live in Tucson while I live in Colorado.
  • I need to pay off student loans.
  • And the rents are just too damn high.

I am also fed up with feeding landlords while starving myself and want to enjoy the precious life I have now and not at some point in retirement later, which will never happen since my 401K and all my retirement savings went “poof” during the dot-com crash of 2001.

I am a designer with a fairly long career in the field. So instead of feeling angry or depressed about the situation I find myself in, I have chosen to look at this situation as a design challenge.

Downsizing from living in a minimalist apartment (which wasn’t that big) to a little 1975 Prowler is taking minimalism to its extreme for sure.

But, as a designer, I love a challenge.

77 square feet? Bring it on!

As with most design projects, I am a believer in “design thinking” principles: Empathizing, defining the problem, developing a hypothesis about the problem, testing my assumptions, creating options, revising my ideas, re-testing and so on.

First, Let’s Empathize.

Mobile van-dwellers and RV-ers in midlife and beyond generally refer to themselves as “nomads.” Similar to “digital nomads” they have taken their lives and work on the road to visit new places or to work where the work is.

Unlike the dream ( or fantasy?) life of the FIRE/digital nomads, these nomads do not usually jet around the world or live-stream their #vanlife destinations on social media. Mostly, they choose to live in vans or RVs and travel periodically or seasonally around the country. Some even choose to live in cars or minivans. Their financial situations often could never afford the jet-set Instagram lifestyle, and most would never want to live that kind of life anyway.

These are not the homeless though — these are the house-free. The difference is that they choose this lifestyle, they aren’t forced into it.

They are simply looking for a simple life of freedom promised by our founding-fathers, which is quickly vanishing from America by the day.

Many of these older nomads must still work and are not retired. Some are former-retirees who have needed to return to work. They generally keep their costs very low so they can travel around the country as “workampers” who do everything from work in Amazon warehouses during peak seasons, hosting in National Parks, or selling fireworks and Christmas trees. You actually encounter them everywhere and are often invisible; you ever know that they live in a vehicle.

My situation is not too dissimilar. I am a graphic and web designer in an industry which has seen dramatic commoditization and price-erosion due to global competition. I have a Bachelors degree from a top-tier design school, one seminary Masters degree and another Masters in Fine Art in process. What I used to earn, not too long ago, which once provided a steady livable income is now providing much less. This is also due to the erosion of my finances through inflation and the ageism the pervades the design industry. Therefore, I also augment my income through teaching online at a couple of community colleges.

So I work 12+ hours a day, 6 days a week, and still can’t afford the damn rent in my area.

I know I am not alone in this, either.

Doing a little research, I encountered a lot of stories like mine and like those made popular through the book Nomadland and movie. I discovered that there are an estimated 1 Million and growing number of older Americans living full-time in their vehicles. Some might consider them homeless (as most governments do), but many of these nomads prefer to be “houseless” or “house-free” (my preferred term), and have chosen this lifestyle because it is frankly the only lifestyle that makes sense to them at this time.

I also consider myself a “conscientious objector” to the rent-seeking rat-race.

Therefore, I certainly do not find it too difficult to empathize with this group. As a fairly affluent American (we are the top 1% of the world in wealth, even counting those in poverty), you might, but I would encourage doing your own research and try to walk in the nomads’ shoes for a bit.

For a designer, empathy is a mandate.

Second, Let’s Look at Some Options

Cars/Vans: Many cities (like mine), have basically criminalized homelessness and outright ban sleeping in a car or van. In Silicon Valley, there are many tech-workers who cannot afford to live there and have also chosen to live in a vehicle while working “high paying” tech jobs at companies like Google and Facebook/Meta.

So, many such vehicle dwellers choose to live in stealth-mode. This is simpler in a van or car, but certainly has drawbacks — not the least of which is the stress of having to move regularly and avoid being detected and fined or jailed.

Tiny Homes: These are very appealing, especially to younger generations, but the problem still arises in many cities as with vehicle-dwellers. Cities enforce zoning laws that are designed to collect as much property tax as possible from property owners, and consider tiny homes to be detrimental to that. So, unless you can buy some land outside a city in an unincorporated area, you usually cannot set up a tiny home. If they are on wheels, rather than a concrete pad, they are also considered a vehicle or RV, and therefore banned in many places.

Even though the tiny-home movement is a reasonable answer to providing affordable housing, the governments (again) have set it up to make sure that freedom-seeking people must enslave themselves to paying rent or a ridiculous mortgage payment.

Another aspect of tiny homes that is a problem for many like myself is that even though they are affordable compared to the typical house, they are still quite expensive unless one builds it themselves with upcycled materials or something, and own the land they are allowed to build on (outside a city).

RVs: There are RVs and there are RVs. Newer RVs, no matter the size, are pretty expensive and require most people to get a loan to purchase them. The larger ones, or even the decked-out Sprinter vans, cost upwards of $100,000. This means the newer RVs are not an option for me, since one of my goals is to pay off debt.

RVs are considered “recreational vehicles”, but the larger ones are often much nicer than traditional stick-and-brick homes.

The option I chose is to purchase a small older camper to renovate and turn it into a nicer “tiny home” of a sort, while still being practical as an RV.

This is not without problems of its own though.

Parking in a city is still an issue, and I can’t really be “stealth” with it. RV parks charge as much as an apartment for lot-rent and utilities, and do not accept RVs that are older than 15 years. This means that I will probably have to find a kind soul to pay some rent for a space on his/her land or driveway, or to live in some of the state parks for a couple weeks at a time. The latter appeals to me and living in a state park is actually cheaper than living in an RV park as long as the RV is easily mobile without having to debark from port like the Queen Mary every time.

Third, Testing and Revising the Options

This is the stage of my little design problem I am at now.

I need to see if this is do-able and practical. At all. I also need to see if this is safe, since we sometimes have below-zero temps in the Winter here in Colorado.

The camper I purchased for $2,000, is a 1975 Fleetwood Prowler. It is in great condition for the price, and the owners had done a nice job upgrading it with some nicer features like an air conditioner and refrigerator. I am frankly amazed that they would sell it for what they did, because most trailers like this I found in similar condition go for thousands more.

So, it’s a nice platform to begin with.

However, I am not at the stage where I have drawn conclusions as to whether or not this is a good choice for me long-term. It does seem to be a good one and the only choice for me right now though.

But, I am only a week into this.

There are a number of experiments I need to test and then to revise and test again before I can draw any conclusions. Some interesting observations have come up in my experiment with mobile-living so far:

  1. Everything I do takes a little longer.
  2. Storage, storage, storage.
  3. What my Dad says, like, all the time — “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” — really surfaces to a new level in 77 square feet.
  4. Little details are not so little.
  5. Comfort and discomfort is relative and are flexible concepts.
  6. My daily routine is often centered around the need for a shower and a bathroom.
  7. I have to make decisions about the tiniest things that I took for granted in my prior life.
  8. Reliable energy for heat, clean water and dealing with sewage are first-world privileges.
  9. Drinkable water is harder to find than you think if you don’t buy it from a store.
  10. Libraries and 24-hour gyms are secret goldmines and most people don’t realize how awesome they really are.

There are probably more if I wanted to ramble on, but these 10 are pretty interesting ones to me in the first week of this experiment.

These also highlight some things which need a practical design solution, like storage, energy and heat. I am looking forward to trying-out some interesting solutions. Especially with the onset of Winter!

What Next?

Design thinking would indicate that this process of empathizing, defining and experimenting is a loop. Once I work on a solution to one issue, another issue will probably pop up like a game of whack-a-mole. Therefore I need to find joy in the process and not get hung up on some final result.

Eventually, if this all works out, it will be a rewarding experience for me, no matter the outcome long-term. I will have learned a ton about life and myself.

A Sidenote

It is also one of my roles as a designer in our society to raise important issues and draw awareness to them. In our rich and creative society, it is a travesty that we are not only criminalizing the homeless who have no choice, but also those who do have the choice to live nomadically in order to live free. At what point did the American ideal of freedom require that everyone live in a permanent box made of sticks in a fixed location — just to wind up working our tails off with three or more jobs to a household in order to pay for it; not being able to enjoy the stuff we pack into it?

What About the Rest of Life As a Design Problem?

I am pretty sure that if you apply design thinking methods to most every problem, you will come up with interesting and rewarding solutions.

If you are faced with a similar housing issue, or a relationship issue, or a business issue (or __________ issue), I am convinced that thinking like a designer with design thinking methods will help you immensely. At the very least, it should help you reframe difficult challenges in your life to positive ones.

What problems in your life would be improved by a little design thinking?

Categories

Attention Deficit in an Attention Economy

Is the market for your attention contributing to generations of adults with attention deficit disorders?

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder characterized by a pattern of inattention, distractibility and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with daily functioning (PSYCOM). It also affects memory as well (Therapy Changes).

Sounds like our modern life in general these days, doesn’t it?

According to a study by Kaiser Permanente of Northern California of 5,282,877 adult records published in JAMA Network Open, the incidence of adult cases of ADHD has increased from 2.96% to 3.74% in 2016 — a 123.3% increase. For children in the study, while the prevalence of diagnoses of ADHD were higher (4.78% overall) the increase in children was only 26.4% during the same period.

It is clear that there is something going on with the adult population in recent years.

While not diagnosed with ADHD myself (I have other issues), I often experience trouble with inattentiveness and impulsivity, especially while trying to concentrate on work or other tasks that require my full attention. I am sure many of you have also experienced this, to the point of wondering if you need to get professional help. I know I have.

And, the attention economy is not helping.

There are a million ways every day that our attention is milked for profit. Between the constant algorithmically-powered advertising “social” media platforms that have hacked our brains for dopamine-driven profit, messaging apps (I use at least two every day for work), emails that must be answered, text-messages, phone apps with their constant notifications (I turn mine off for the most part), open-office workplaces, and God-knows-what-else we encounter every day, it’s no wonder we can’t seem to just — focus!

Yes, I know there’s an app for that too! I have worn out my noise-cancelling headphones with Chillstep music and the Endel app just to be able to get any real work done. But that’s not the point.

While it has not been established that our technology use causes ADHD, it has been observed that the competing demands for our attention driven by our dependence on digital technology increases the severity of ADHD symptoms. Within the psychological community it is generally thought that ADHD is largely a genetic disorder not caused by environmental factors (Therapy Changes).

Oh, but come on!

Common sense and your experience should tell you that being bombarded with more than 100,000 distracting ads, notifications and media looking to make money from your attention every day isn’t a great help for your mental well-being!

The point of this little rant is that, as a marketer and designer, I have to ask myself what ethical responsibility I have in perpetuating this problem. What can I do to minimize the distractibility of the projects I work on? Does my work contribute to the rise in ADHD and associated anxiety disorders, or does it help ease them?

What can I do to minimize the harm done to my fellow humans?

What can you do?

Categories

Design By Parameter and Chaos in Las Vegas

Some thoughts on parametric design, NFT art, and mathematics. Also bunnies.

Photo: the Author

Last January, I visited Las Vegas Nevada on a business-trip to a tradeshow that one of our clients invited us. The tradeshow was the “World of Concrete” convention, which was attended by companies in the concrete construction industry, and was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The tradeshow was huge, the convention center was huge, and the city was overwhelmingly chaotic. However, as I looked at things a little deeper, I reflected more on the idea of how parameterization might work in a designed environment.

The city is a strange mix of odd contrasts and cultural appropriation. I stayed at The Linq Resort near the central Strip. As we explored the area, I was struck by how each casino and tourist destination created fantasies of places like Paris or Rome, but in over-the-top ways. These contrasted with the street-life itself and the casino gambling machines. Designed images are everywhere, with seemingly little relation to where they were placed in the environment. Many of these images were on huge LED screens and signage, which are all over the city and sometimes as large as the towering buildings themselves. It is like a cartoonish stereotype of some kind of dystopian cyberpunk dystopia (and I suppose it actually is).

In order to compete with the bright lights, even the banal must be decked-out in neon and video screens. The Target store on the Strip, as well as the convenience store was as decked out in lights and video as the rest of the shops and resorts, attempting to compete with them visually.

When considered as a whole, there seems to be some kind of underlying logic while at the surface one would think that the chaos was the result of random choice. There is an odd unity to these discordant displays. I think the rules defining the street signage creates that unity. These are over-the-top, yes, but that seems to be the main defining parameter. In many cities, there are codes which define things like how signage looks, so I imagine that Las Vegas is no different in that regard. It’s just that the building codes are designed to intentionally overwhelm the senses.

The convention too, was also a mashup of styles and displays — though industrial and blue-collar in aesthetic. The aesthetic choices of each company represented created another sort of unity in the chaos. Each booth, juxtaposed to each other, related to each other as well. Many of the exhibits were grouped together thematically or in specific types, such as the software companies and the equipment manufacturers.

It seems that taken together the design of parameters can create more of a cohesive environment when one considers the need to maintain some unity and identity while at the same time allow for independence. The element of chance does seem to be at play here too, contributing to the overall tapestry of influences, and then makes the overall experience unique.

Design by Parameter and Pattern

My work has often involved viewing design as a matter of setting parameters in which the unpredictable can happen has been one of my methods. It is not new. Other designers have presented work in which chance occurs in serendipitous ways, mostly as a means of giving up the need to control and explore work that is more free. It seems common in design to think that their our creativity is constrained by the need for control, or that it is too regimented, stale, etc.; when in reality, those constraints allow greater opportunity for creative problem-solving and expression.

Photo: the Author

What I am attempting to do is to really understand the parameterization, and rather than just give up control to “simple” chance, to instead cultivate the parameters and curate the results. It is not a process without control, nor is it one that is really examining the idea of control vs. chance in and of itself. It is in what is being controlled, and really trying to understand the underlying patterns that generate the results.

The second feature of the work I have been doing is to identify underlying patterns in what seems unpredictable, and then to try to understand the rules (parameters) of what creates the pattern. And by pattern, I don’t necessarily mean the literal pattern in a specific design such as a repeating wallpaper pattern. What I have been striving to understand is the “why” of a pattern which gives order to that which might seem to be chaotic.

Photo: the Author

In generative art, the process is to set up mathematical rules that the script follows to create the visual art. The artist, then, is more of a curator of the results. Profile-picture non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are also considered generative art, but of a very different process. With many NFT projects, the idea is to design the objects within each piece, and then let the script combine the objects according to traits (more parameters) that will determine rarity of traits and the possible combinations. Then, they are “minted” as unique NFTs with metadata that is stored on a blockchain network. Either way, the role of the designer is to set up the parameters, and then let another process and/or chance (chaos?) to take over and create the artwork.

BunnyGANS Animation: the Author
Rodney from RatRodz.club project : the Author. Project at https://ratrodz.club

A big part of my explorations have involved re-learning my math skills, and learning new ones. In that effort, I have enrolled in some online courses and have been working on exercises to sharpen those skills. One of the things I have learned about math that really never connected with me in high school is that the Greeks moved away from considering mathematics and numbers as concrete entities toward thinking of math as abstract representations rooted in geometry. This resulted in deep observations that have informed design today, such as employing the Fibonacci series into graphic design grids.

This makes a lot of sense — I never had thought about this much in my younger days when I took algebra and trigonometry in high school. If I had understood this, I probably would have done much better.

Geometry really does find its root in observing patterns in nature and in defining parameters to construct forms. All other maths can be represented in terms of geometry as well. This means that when designing parameters for design, I am working with mathematics in some visual way where the abstract ideas can be represented in form, whether aware of it or not. (Euclid’s Elements: Thirteen Books Compete in one Volume).

Interpreting the world and representing it in code requires a fairly high level of mathematical skill. I have done it more instinctually since learning to program at the age of 12, but in the case of creating generative art, I need to understand math at a more formal level.

As a theme of mine, the need to understand the underlying logic and patterns of what I am working with and having a grasp of mathematics again is a key skill to develop. I used to find it drudgery, but I have since re-framed the task in my mind. Doing math is much more about seeing the pattern, thinking through a problem geometrically, and viewing the whole task as a kind of puzzle or game. I find myself more motivated thinking about it this way.

As I launch forward in developing a thesis topic, these have been some of my meandering ideas. I would be interested in hearing from the Medium community what your thoughts here are too!

Categories

Why We Love Gimmicks

Photo by JJ Shev on Unsplash

Let me share with you a little rant, and a little warning.

Gimmicks get a bad rap. In presenting creative marketing ideas to clients, I often hear businesspeople criticize a good creative idea by saying “it’s too gimicky.” However, those same businesspeople will also say, in the same sentence, that my b@tsh!t crazy idea probably would work, but it’s “just not our brand.”

Ironically, I have actually witnessed that SAME “serious” businessperson at the conference-room table, wearing a freakin’ SNUGGIE (a fleece abomination that resembles a monastic hood for those of you who have been blessed not to have seen one) because the A/C is up too high; sipping her tea from a USB-powered mug because it keeps the tea warm.

Gimmicks.

Inevitably, our team’s account executive will then report in the next staff production meeting that said client is frustrated that we don’t present any new ideas, and that they are looking for a new marketing company.

[SMH. With the accompanying, obligatory facepalm.]

Yes, I know. You really don’t want your company to be presented to the world like a circus clown. But, at the same time, you also have to admit that we live in ClownWorld.

I’m going to lay a little psychology on you.

People love gimmicks.

Why? Because we humans are drawn to novelty — the new. We also assume that the new-thing is also an improved-thing. We are easily bored with the same-old-same-old, very quickly.

This is because we are still, at our core, hunter-gatherers. We just have credit cards. We are always on the hunt, looking to gather that new, exciting berry that will add that little something-extra to our boring mammoth stew.

So why are we so afraid of being “gimmicky” in business?

We are afraid, because it will work. It might just work too well, and then we would have to back-up our claims with consistent, great delivery.

We would have to have a solid product or service, coupled with awe-inspiring customer care. We would have to really understand what makes our marketplace tick. We would have to invest the time and energy to do the introspection required to build a solid brand, discover the skeletons hiding in our closets, and get rid of them. We would have to go deeper with our brand promise, and actually deliver on it.

When companies don’t really believe in their brand, and don’t have the trust of their customers, they are afraid of the gimmick that works.

They don’t want to run ads on Tik-Tok, even if there is a hungry gaggle of Zoomers foaming at the mouth to spend with their parents’ credit cards. They don’t try the guerilla-marketing campaign that will bring in people to see what all the excitement is about. They don’t use humor in their ads. They don’t put the giant inflatable gorilla on their roof to attract people to their corner store. (There might be legitimate building codes and traffic management concerns with that one, but that’s beside the point.)

They would prefer to be quiet and predictable. But then hope that they can still, somehow, cut through the noise to attract new customers.

That makes a lot of sense, for a mediocre product or service; and we do have to admit that we are swimming in a sea of mediocrity.

Mediocre is safe, and no one gets fired being safe.

But businesses do go bust being safe.

Let That Freak-Flag Fly! (Shmaybe)

The best brands, the ones who do have the great product or service, are unafraid of being gimmicky. They do it all the time, and they back up all the attention they receive with solid fundamentals and great products. They do the fun, novel thing alongside the boring, consistent thing, because they built a brand their customers can trust.

And, this leads to the warning — good advertising will kill a bad product faster than anything else. If you don’t have the solid product, don’t you DARE go for the gimmick until you do.

But, if you’ve done the work to get to a great product, don’t back away from the occasional gimmick. People love new things. Don’t be afraid to be the new thing.

Vive la Gimmick!

Categories

3 Myths Most Small Business Owners Believe About Digital Marketing

Or, If I had a nickel for every time a client of mine expected their website advertising to generate sales immediately after going live…

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

To provide a little context, here is a compilation I found of memorable dot-com-bubble ads from the 1990s for your enjoyment:

Back in the early, heady days of e-commerce around 1999, I remember a certain ad. I cannot remember the actual company running the ad, mind you, but I do remember the ad. In this classic of American marketing art, an anxious web development team launched their online store. Within a few seconds, they registered a sale.

The team high-fived all around. This was working!

Then they had another sale.

And, another, and another. Within about 30 seconds, they were logging 100,000 sales. That they then had to fulfill. Probably manually, since modern ERM software wasn’t really a thing.

No more smiles. Just a lot of deer-in-the-headlights looks of panic.

And thus, another chapter was added to the Blessed Canon of Internet Business Myth.

The belief that because something is on the Internet, it must be immediate, frictionless and practically free is understandable given the stories like these in the video above that became firmly established in the American business imagination.

We reason that in a world where we can buy our almond-soy-lattes with our Starbuck’s app on our smartphones, and because the transaction seems immediate and frictionless, then everything Internet must be that way. And somehow free or nearly-free.

So, we pay the InternetGods (lookin at you, Googs) a few hundred bucks’ tribute to shill our oh-so-awesome websites for our ProductToEndAllProducts™ and expect that the results will be immediate and nearly frictionless too.

Um. No.

Time to Bust a Few Digital Marketing Myths

If I run the ads/build the website/get found on Google search, the buyers will come.

No. You won’t get immediate results. You won’t even get fast results. You will not get your website ranking on page one within a month. Your site will not “covert” right away.

Marketing does not work that way. You have to be in it for the long-haul. There are no shortcuts. You must spend the time to put a solid marketing plan together, run with it for a period of time, gather data, analyze the data, and continually optimize your efforts until you have meaningful signals that it is working.

Marketing requires consistent actions over time, nothing more or less. You cannot simply run an ad in any online platform and expect your phone to ring off the hook that week, or even that month. Will. Not. Happen.

And it won’t be cheap. There’s just too much noise out there. Money is the only thing that cuts through the noise because of how our algorithmically-powered media channels work. They are designed to be money-making machines — but not for you. For them. Never forget that.

You may counter my argument saying that the awesomeness of your website or creative ads will cut through the noise and make your site convert so you won’t need to spend as much.

Sorry, Sparky.

The sad truth is that it does not matter how creative the ad or website is; there is just too much noise in the marketplace for even the most creative marketing to cut through on the power of its own brilliance. To overcome that, you gotta spend. Sorry.

Digital Marketing is more cost-effective than other forms of marketing.

No, it’s actually quite the opposite. “Traditional” marketing (like radio or newspaper) often brings a better bang for the small-business buck in local markets, if you have an available channel for it.

That’s the catch though — there aren’t as many available channels anymore. There are simply fewer available options due to the monopolistic activities of certain large technology/media players out there (looking at you again, Googs), and the options are shrinking by the day.

Therefore all your marketing needs to be of the “digital” variety no matter what. Adding the word “digital” to differentiate it from “traditional” sets up a false dichotomy. Today, it’s all digital — might as well just call it “marketing.” It’s a lot less pretentious that way.

Additionally, you must spend more than your competition, bearing in mind that there will always be someone who will outspend you — it’s the advertising version of the “greater fool” theory of finance. No matter what, there is always a greater fool willing to outbid you in the auction-for-eyeballs game of digital marketing and advertising.

And Wait. There’s more!

You will spend a lot of money buying ads. You will spend a lot of money building your website and optimizing it for the search engines. You will be forced to spend a lot of time sorting through the data in order to know how you can best optimize your campaigns, or you will waste even more money.

You will spend a lot of time on all of it whether or not you hire a marketing professional to help. You will need that marketing professional anyway. And you will spend money and a lot of time on all of it.

And you will have to do that consistently.

I can spend a lot at the beginning and when business is good, I can take my “foot off the gas.”

If you micromanage and/or relax your efforts when your business is booming and things are going well, or switch things up when they aren’t going well, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you relax your efforts when things get hard or too expensive, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you relax at all, you are setting yourself up for failure.

The algorithms are hungry beasts that must be fed money and content every day. No exceptions. If you slow down you stop the flow, you will be shunted off into the graveyard of “page two of Google” and will need to spend three times as much again to dig yourself out.

The key takeaway here is not that you have to spend a lot every day; but you do have to spend a consistent amount over time. What makes marketing work, of any kind, is consistency.Consistency in your brand messages, in your use of marketing channels, in your approach to spending your budget. Consistency is what makes it possible find any amount of success with what you spend, no matter how much you spend.

If you are not consistent, you are burning your money for no good reason.

The key to marketing success

Big picture, digital marketing is really no different than any other kind of marketing — it’s all about getting your offer in front of eyeballs. What has changed are where those eyeballs are (the channel), the amount of data you can receive about all those eyeballs, and the amount money required to take advantage of those channels.

With digital platforms, you receive much more granular data and can make adjustments with far less guesswork. Data is a gift from today about yesterday that will make tomorrow so much better (A tip o’ the hat to Jonathan Acuff, from his book Finish). It’s what can make the marketing budget more effective, and work more easily.

But that does not mean that it is easy — it’s not — it usually requires the help of someone who understands the data and can guide you as to how to take advantage of it. But that is still better than what we were working with before without as much granular data to work with.

But as important as the data is, it’s not really the key to effective marketing success.

Did you catch what that one common element to successful marketing was? It is the golden thread running through the whole thing — consistency.

  1. Consistent and realistic expectations.
  2. Consistent collection of market data.
  3. Consistent messages and branding, informed by the data.
  4. Consistent use of your marketing budget.

If you do a half-baked job at your marketing, consistency will save you. If you do a great job, consistency will make you even stronger. Coupled with a good understanding of the data you collect, consistency will guide and focus your next steps.

So, stop looking for a quick-fix marketing solution. It doesn’t exist.

Stop looking for some new-fangled channel or some program that offers you “page one of Google” for $99 a month.

Stop looking for cheap solutions. The most expensive programs are the ones which are often the cheapest, because the cheap ones do not work at all.

Just be patient. Be realistic. And above all, be consistent!

Categories

The Visual Design of Modern Currencies as Social Action

Currency Is Communication

Photo by Kanchanara on Unsplash

One could argue that the foundation of a civilization is economics. For a group of individuals to band together in order to survive, thrive and evolve into a civilization requires them to work together in order to share resources and produce energy. As they do, the individuals must bind together along common interests and shared social values, subordinate individual self-interest, elevate the needs of others, and form communities. These communities are bound together by the same shared interests to form a cohesive identity.

When communities are able to identify those values which they have adopted for their mutual success and communicate them to new members, then we could also argue that the mechanisms of a civilization and society are formed. These people may now self-identify with a social label: “Incas,” “Igbo,” “Germans,” or “Americans,” for example. These labels are shorthand for the shared values and common identity brought about by the need to band together through sharing resources and energy production — which is economics expressed in social terms. The labels identify who the community is, and just as importantly, who the community is not. They also indicate what the community values and what it considers critical to its success.

The Sharing of Resources and Energy Production

Humans are very vulnerable creatures that must form social groups for survival. Of all mammals, we are born in the weakest physical state and must mature over the course of around two decades in order to become contributing adults and therefore require the support of others for our survival in a way that other mammals do not.

This means that humans are by nature extremely social and are not really true individuals apart from our social groups. Even in a highly “individualistic” society such as America, the reality is that the individual human does not exist apart from the whole no matter how much individualism as a value is expressed. It is just not possible for humans to survive long, never mind thrive, as individuals. It is such a strong bond we have with each other that we actually share consciousness — a sort of “hive mind.”

Our bodies are physically unable to survive the natural environment for long without the active management and production of energy. Food which we ingest is transformed into calories which our bodies burn for energy. Shelter and clothing conserves and manages energy, also in the form of calories. We must manipulate our environments to supply heat or cool it, to provide for water and produce reliable sources of food. We must also continually create new community members to keep up with the death-rate and depletion of local resources. Therefore we need to provide not only for ourselves but employ future generations in the effort. Looking at it in this way, we can see that almost all human activity is devoted to energy production and/or conservation and the gathering of resources which help us do that.

Supplying for our energy needs relies on the use of external resources. Food, shelter and clothing are essential needs for the basic security of any group of people. All human needs, whether it is the most basic need for safety, need for love and belonging or the highest need for self-actualization is rooted in our need for energy and ability to acquire the resources to supply it.

Currency and Money

Because none of us possesses all of what we truly need for long-term survival, we must band together and share those resources through some form of exchange. This form of exchange is what we define as “currency” and/or “money”: currency defined as the actual medium of exchange and money as an asset/resource that stores value. Sometimes the currency in use is money, sometimes it is not.

Currency therefore represents trust among community members. We must trust that this currency will be convertible into the resources we need in the communities we rely on for supplying our needs. Our use of a common currency allows us to acquire resources and also assets within our communities. Assets allow us to protect our resources and open new avenues to additional resources, and also allow us to limit exposure to threats to our resources which are known as liabilities.

Money is an asset that stores value. This is why most money historically has taken the form of a physical resource such as gold, silver, animals or land. It also represents power because of the protective nature of what an asset is. The monetary resource needs to be a scarce one which supports its value, and the person or group of people who control it are the ones which have the most power in a society. What is considered to be money in a society therefore reflects what that society deems valuable and scarce.

Currency may or may not convert into money, but money is what truly consolidates power in the competition for resources. Currency, on the other hand, is what expresses trust in the society and what it values as a culture. Currency is therefore a type of communication and used as a day-to-day expression of trust within a community as it shares resources and produces energy. But since currency may also be convertible into money, the control of the currency and access to it is what grants access to more power in the community as well.

Currency Is Communication

Therefore, we can understand currency as a form of communication and access to it is the leverage-point to access power within a community. The signs and symbols employed into the design of the currency is not accidental nor unimportant — the ones who have the power in the community dictate what is communicated via the currency with the goal of steering the social values of the group in ways that ensure the acquisition and protection of needed resources. What is therefore designed into the physical currency itself is an important expression of that community’s values.

The community expresses trust in its daily sharing of resources by using the currency as the preferred medium of exchange, bearing those signs and symbols as tokens of that trust. If the community members lose trust in those signs and symbols printed on the currency, or they lose trust in the community’s ability to back up the value represented by them, then the currency collapses and/or is redesigned to better reflect what the community decides is trustworthy.

Furthermore, since the powerful class in a community dictate what is communicated via the currency, then the signs and symbols used are important elements that direct the social values desired by the empowered classes. The physical design of the currency is therefore an artifact of social action; a calculated effort to steer community values toward greater success as the empowered classes define it.

Diverse (Crypto)Currencies in Diverse Communities

As I have been reflecting on this topic, I have noticed that issues surrounding our current American dollar and its future are gaining a great deal of attention in various communities and in the media. This is also true for other international governmental currencies. More and more people are beginning attach themselves to diverse currency options as they begin to question the values represented in their traditional communities by the powerful members and look to realign within new shifting social structures.

A good example of this is can be seen in the rise of cryptocurrencies. Early on, the movement gained traction through Bitcoin and Ethereum as technological answers to the problems exposed by a devalued dollar, collapse of traditional asset markets in real estate, and loss of trust in established governmental and banking institutions after the 2008 financial crisis. As cryptocurrency has grown in the popular imagination in the past few years since the 2020 pandemic, it is fueled by a similar breakdown of trust in traditional institutions. Different groups of people have attached themselves to alternative cryptocurrencies based on a variety of diverse values as they choose to realign themselves to new identities forced upon them by a more unstable world.

An example of this would be the popularity of Dogecoin ($DOGE), which was created as a joke and then became empowered by a meme — which then became a true fungible currency. To own Dogecoin is as much a cynical social statement as much as it might be a financial decision to invest in a new currency. Coins like Pirate Chain ($ARRR) focus on the desire of privacy and freedom from governmental control. Other tokens bring communities together along lines of affinity, like $AART, which is a token created to streamline the exchange of digital art.

Digital art in the form of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have become a significant asset-class with its own store of value. NFT artworks are therefore true forms of money, and the design of them not only enhances their desirability by diverse communities, but also communicates core values through sign and symbol. The successful ones are rare by design, and not as simple to acquire. Therefore the more popular NFTs, like those of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), are also used to gain access to exclusive community benefits, such as inclusion in invite-only events where owners of the NFTs can hob-knob with wealthy and powerful people like celebrities.

My own experiments with cryptocurrency has been really interesting. Over the past year I have created my own NFT collection, called the RatRodz Race Club (RRDZ), on the Solana ($SOL) cryptocurrency and created an exchangeable token, the $RATTIE (found at https://ratrodz.club). The project is a hot-rod themed collection of art inspired by 1970s hot-rod artwork created by artists like Ed Roth. It has attracted a small community of people around the world from Hong Kong to El Salvador and Florida, that share a love of this kind of art and feel akin to the values that “hod-rods” represent — freedom, rebelliousness, anarchy and self-deprecating humor. Ownership of the tokens grants access to an online community which members participate and enjoy online social connection. Where this project is going is really evolving, but it has been very exciting to watch. The project hasn’t profited a lot of money in terms of dollars (it has made some, about $1,500 so far), but has been life-enriching in other ways in terms of human connection, albeit virtual for now.

The Visual Design of Currency as a Topic for Further Exploration

In upcoming articles, I aim to explore the visual design of currencies, the signs and symbols used, and how they have evolved historically. I will also attempt to show they may continue to evolve as a communications medium in order to drive social action. This study will culminate in exploring the visual design of modern alternative currencies such as the Goldback in local parallel economies and cryptocurrencies in the emerging crypto-culture. My overall goal for this project is to provide some unique insights into one area where design is impacting the formation of new global communities linked together via common values and trust in our digitally connected world.

Categories

Why You Have Great UX/UI, But Your Branding Still Sucks.

An older article I wrote in 2017, but still very relevant in 2022. I haven’t witnessed much change since then, actually.

Meh.

You gotta love the buzzwords in the Internet industry today…

Over the past few years, I have noticed that what used to be the disciplines of “information architecture” and “usability” and “graphic design” have been morphed into this thing called “User Experience” and/or “User Interface Design.”

(That’s “UX/UI” for the cool kids.)

With the all the hype and hyperbole circulating out there, you’d think this is a new approach. A more enlightened approach to design.

Don’t misunderstand me: That designers are now trained in the subtle art of the cognitive psychology and produce wonderfully-usable design interfaces, all in the name of making sure the users come first is not a bad thing in-and-of-itself.

After all, the users MUST come first — right?

But where’s the art?The passion?The authenticity?

You may have the most usable interfaces in the world. You may have user-tested the thing at every step of your development cycle. It may look like a Zen-dream of an app or website. A three-year-old could use it. Wonderful.

But no three-year-old would want to use it.

Why?

It’s because the branding — the sum of all the experiences and emotional connections people have with your company — sucks.

You forgot that your users are actual people. Vulnerable human beings with emotions. Driven by desire, not logic.

You used the best design-patterns you could find. You fell in love with “minimal” design because you love your iPhone (or the hipster-designers do). You assumed your users could not be engaged with something that challenges them a little.

You played it safe.

And you made your website or app look like every other website or app using the same templated designs everyone else does.

Think about it this way: Ask yourself, what does your home look like?

  • OPTION 1: Is it a minimalist, uber-clean, Euro-modern environment that would be featured in a science-fiction movie?
  • OPTION 2: Or, does it have that “lived-in” look? Is it full of memories, color, texture, love, dirty dishes and just the right number of dust-bunnies?

I’ve spent a decade working with people at the end of their lives, visiting them in their homes and listening to their stories. I have sat in hundreds of living-rooms with people from all walks of life. And I am willing to bet that your home probably looks more like option 2 rather than option 1.

Why? Your home is where you are most authentic; where you are most real.

It is where your story is lived out.

And every brand tells a story.

Too many times, I have seen a company invest a ton of money trying to present themselves like option-1 above, rather than meeting people where they are, with authenticity in their option-2 world. And it is inauthentic — it is a lie.

Most people can see right through it.

So, what is your brand’s unique, authentic story? What are your users’ human stories?

That is where to start. Long before the website template rolls out and the user-testing begins, you need to ask yourself some deeper questions, and be willing to take some creative risks. Be willing to be artful about it. To explore and engage your users where they really live with what really matters to them.

Be bold! Be different! Be you!

Categories

3 Ways to Employ Approach Motivation in Your Small-Business Marketing

What to do when marketing your business feels like eating a soul-crushing bowl of boiled okra.

Photo by Heather Barnes on Unsplash

It is no real secret that many/most small business owners do not enjoy marketing. Many/most consider themselves to suck at it, frankly. As business owners, we have so many other things to do that we would prefer to do other than executing a marketing strategy — like sorting drawers of spare bolts by thread-pitch and gauge (something I actually had to do on a temp-gig, so I know the thrill personally).

All the myriad tasks involved in marketing our businesses that don’t seem urgent can be overwhelming; and if they DO seem urgent, then they stress us out and we procrastinate.

If we can overcome procrastinating and get down to working on our advertising/social media campaigns, writing our blog articles and understanding our website analytics, we end up doing it in a high-stress mode where we expect to fail. We tell ourselves that we have to do it to survive and grow our business, so we try to do it as best we can.

Sort of like eating your okra.

I can’t stand okra, but I am told it’s good for me.

It will reduce the chance of: (1) diabetes, (2) liver disease, (3) being too popular with the ladies for my own good.

So, down the hatch!

If that sounds like the kind of logic that you, Joe/Joanne the Plumber, reason through trying to write a weekly blog post for your SEO campaign on why one should not use Drain-O to unclog your PVC pipes, then you get what I am saying here. (I could be wrong about Drain-O and PVC pipes — I am not a plumber myself, so please don’t hire me to unclog your pipes.)

This kind of motivation is called Avoidance Motivation. We do the thing because we expect a negative result if we don’t. We may hate what we need to do, but we will (eventually) do it anyway because bad consequences might happen if we don’t. And, because it is now become an urgent task due to procrastination, we enjoy doing the thing less and suck at it more.

It would really help to have a different way to do those things we don’t really want to do and can’t get super excited about; or maybe even find a way to even get excited about it?

No promises though — I still can’t get excited about okra, no matter what.

As my therapist likes to say, we need to “reframe” the problem. We need to find a way to approach the marketing tasks with positive expectations driving us, not the anxiety-producing negative expectations that actually make it harder for us to do the thing in the first place.

Enter “Approach Motivation.”

Elliot et al. 1996 define approach motivation as the energization of behavior or the direction of behavior toward positive stimuli, while Avoidance motivation is the energization of behavior or movement of behavior away from adverse outcomes.
(https://growthoughtful.com/approach-motivation-vs-avoidance-motivation/)

To simplify: Instead of trying to do something because we want to avoid a negative consequence, we do it with the expectation of a positive benefit.

The idea of working towards positive goals isn’t a new idea, of course. However, more than just being motivated by pie-in-the-sky long-term goals, like being able to vacation in Bora Bora because business is booming, to hack into approach motivation we we want to think about more short-term positive benefits or ways to get some immediate reward for doing the thing we didn’t want to do. The benefit need not be something “good” for us either — it can simply be a positive stimuli that makes us feel good.

If you have seen or heard of the marshmallow game, then you know why the benefits or rewards need to be more immediate for approach motivation to overcome the negative bias we already have. We tend to be more motivated by short-term results than long-term, and when stress gets high, addressing the short-term need will always win out.

So, what are some strategies for taking advantage of approach motivation?

Link the benefit directly with the task.

Okra pairs well with bacon, just sayin’.

If eating my okra is a condition for getting some bacon too, then eating the okra might not be so bad, and could be perceived a good thing. Maybe even enjoyable(?). My cardiologist might disagree with me on what I consider “good” here, but it’s my dumb metaphor and I am sticking with it.

Similarly, if I can pair my business marketing task with some kind of thing that gives me some immediate satisfaction, or do it in a way that interests me personally and is, dare we say it?, “fun,” then that seems like a win-win. In expectation of that reward, I can even begin to look forward to the marketing task I didn’t really want to do.

Can that article on why Drain-O is bad become a good reason to find some great alternatives and even go review some cool tools you always wanted to use? Do you like to geek-out on the kinds of pipes and differences between them? Can you invent some kind of contest/special or game where your readers share their crazy-things-clogging-my-drain horror stories?

I am guessing that plumbers may have similar tool-fetishes that I and other tradespersons have, and will invent projects for the opportunity to buy and use a tool we had our eye on. And, every trade seems to have it’s own geek-level topics we love to opine about.

Plus, anything you can gamify will just make the effort all that more effective too!

Change the Scenery and Use Your Nose.

Do you get tired of sitting at your computer in your cluttered office writing an article or analyzing web stats (while it’s cold and rainy outside and there are so many clogged drains out there — you just know it in your bones)?

Employ the power of your olfactory senses. Your nose is designed to be an early-warning system — it is hard-wired to the fight/flight and emotional motivational centers in our amygdalae (brains). Therefore, it is designed to alert you to things you need to take action on, such as running away from bad smells and toward the good ones.

I write this at the start of Pumpkin Spice Season™. Perhaps, your tasks would be much more enjoyable while sitting in your favorite local coffee-shop sipping that Golden Latte of Autumn™? Bake some bacon on the morning when you have to do your blog-writing, or get a cinnamon-bun candle. Even the warmth and smell of something enjoyable, and/or the hubbub of activity at your favorite café might give you the motivation to do your marketing and a reason to get out of the office into a novel, welcoming environment.

Link marketing success with rewards that make you feel like a successful human

When you get 10 new “claps” on your blog post, put a dollar in a jar. When the jar is full, go splurge on something that makes you feel a little more successful than when you started.

Make the reward personal — a new hat, jacket, mug, whatever… If it’s personal, the success will be about you, not the task or even the business. And, because it is personal, we are more likely to become emotionally attached to the outcome.

Make the jar big enough to get a decent reward out of it, but not too large that you can’t fill the jar inside of 2–3 months. Longer than that, and the reward will seem too distant and you will wind up emptying the jar to buy a six-pack of Pabst after work.

What you splurge on might even be something that can add to your success — like a new tool, or some kind of book or course on a topic that you wanted to learn but couldn’t find the time and money to do. Because, tasks.

Whatever it is, it should be personal and unique to you.

More ideas?

I am sure you have some more great ideas here with how to employ approach motivation to marketing and/or business tasks you really don’t like doing. Feel free to share them! I am a marketer who works with small to medium businesses with these very things, so doing marketing tasks isn’t as much as problem for me.

But don’t get me started about bookkeeping!

I’d rather eat boiled okra!

Categories

Shoot the Moon

Motivational platitudes will end up killing your motivation.

“If you shoot for the moon and miss, you will end up amid the stars.” You may have heard this pithy little koan before and many more like it. Maybe you’ve intoned it yourself to a co-worker who is struggling. American business culture is chock full of this kind of motivational pseudo-wisdom. We like it because we think that it will help us get jacked-up on metaphorical steroids so that we attack our business goals with the fervor that only a Norse berserker could match.

The reality is that this kind of thing is the gateway-drug into the self-help Pit of Despair. These pithy incantations get plastered on posters, coffee cups, desktop screen wallpapers — probably even on toilet paper, I would guess. (If not, now there’s a great idea for you entrepreneurs out there!)

These platitudes are just the lint that hide in the belly-buttons of motivational speakers who get you to spend thousands of dollars to come to a three-day seminar that will “change your life.” Never mind that they never tell you anything you haven’t already heard before. They’ve been floating around in pop psychology since before Freud was a toddler, peeing his pants having his own Oedipus Complex. It’s all been said. King Solomon, who even laid down a few pithy raps of his own, then concluded that “it is all vanity…. there is nothing new under the sun.”

You know all this but you go to the seminar anyway. It’s in the Bora Bora development (of the Southeast Compton Business Park) which makes the cost seem worth it. At least there will be some sun and you might even have some fun, maybe. You listen to the bajillionaire speaker with the huge hands who strangely sounds like the killer from the Silence of the Lambs, jump up and down, sing the Kum-by-yahs, do the firewalk, and come back ready to get at it, albeit a few thousand dollars poorer.

But you don’t mind because the moon will be yours for the taking! You get down to work, literally vibrating on all the endorphins and dopamine you can handle — only to smack right into the brick wall of reality the next day back to the office.

When you shoot for the moon and miss you will NOT end up amid the stars. You WILL end up floating in an unending dark void. Forever.

The fact is, we all miss when we shoot for the moon. We fail every time.

And, that’s a good thing.

It’s good because it:

— Reminds us that we are humans, made of dust; not demigods,

— Forces us to do a little self reflection and course-correction, if are not too stubborn to let it,

— and allows us to learn something important!

Now, one might read this article and wonder why I seem so very cynical and negative. I am, but that’s probably a Gen-X thing anyway. I do enjoy a pithy saying once in a while too, so I am just as susceptible. But I am saying this because I have experienced the extreme let-down of this kind of thinking over and over again. And again. And again.

They say that repetition is the key to learning. They never say how many times you need to repeat it though. Until you get it, I suppose.

It took me a long time to get it; and I am still struggling with it too, even as I write this.

Failure leads to a deep feeling of shame. The “I should’ves” will bury you in it. Shame leads to perfectionism and/or narcissism, which both metastasize into something abusive to you or others. At the very least, shame kills any kind of motivation you might have had once your head is clear of all those feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones. You find that you just can’t focus and never seem to get anything done.

After all, you probably aren’t walking around with a “reality distortion field.” The people who do are also mostly psychopaths. I am hoping that’s not who you and I are.

So let’s try a little reality-adjustment here. If we’re not shooting for the moon, can we shoot for about 20 feet? Maybe even two? And then two more?

These are goals we can reach. These are battles we can win. The objective is to become the sort of person who can reach simple goals, and then to be able to break down our oversized ambitions into little, attainable, micro-goals. And to grant ourselves grace when we fail. You know: “baby steps.”

If you do that, and your micro-goals are generally trending in the direction of the big ambitions, you might wake up one morning and realize that you have fulfilled that ambition. Or maybe you don’t seem to care as much about that ambition and wonder why you had it in the first place. Or, maybe you are happier in whatever life circumstance you are in.

You may also have saved a few thousand bucks so you can go to Bora Bora for real and enjoy it.

Here’s one pithy koan that speaks to me personally which I actually do like: “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (It really scratches that unspoken Gen-X itch to kill something.) When encountering the lie of perfection, confront it with the lessons taught by failure and the grace of attaining your micro-goals.

And, cut yourself a break, ok?

That big moonshot? Let’s break it down into something mere humans can deal with. The only way NASA ever reached the moon was little by little, one setback at a time. What makes us really that different?

So let’s just “Shoot the Moon” and get on with life.

Categories

Optimism Bias is Killing Your Business

Or, how to stop giving Google all your money.

Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

So you start a business or a new marketing position at your company. You have a great product that “everybody” needs or wants. You have big dreams of how your business will take off and sales will come pouring in. You will retire early and enjoy the fruits of your labor sipping daiquiris from a coconut on a Tahiti beach.

I hear Tahiti is wonderful this time of year. It’s a magical place!

With big dreams and a budget which will never be large enough, you start SEO-ing your website and buy a bunch of ads on Google Ads platform. And on Meta’s (everyone is there!) and Instagram (because all those rich millennials are there!). You consider TikTok, but that platform is really not “on-brand” for your company, and making videos is too hard.

Ultimately, you are convinced that going all-in on Google is your best path to riches. You get a sale, maybe, and start to believe the Google “Ads Specialist” they assign you that the best option for you to start raking in the cash is to…. give Google a lot more of it.

You reason that it must be true, so you “de-platform” from the other ads networks and put all your ever-decreasing supply of eggs into the Google Basket.

You start to get leads, and maybe some of your website traffic increases. You are excited, because look! These people will surely buy my product or service! How can they resist?

But the “leads” are really just “oops I meant to click something else” or just aren’t panning out. You follow-up on them, but they are just browsing around, and not ready to buy. For those who are, they are too price-sensitive to really be serious about your awesome product.

You do close a couple of leads. Maybe 2–10 a month. So, you reason things are doing great!

Until they’re not.

So, you figure what you really need is a “Click Funnel” because that YouTuber making a million dollars per second has got a great offer to teach you how to do it, for a low, never-seen-before-in-the-history-of-marketing price of three easy payments of $999. Must be awesome!

I mean, just look at the paint job of that dude’s Lambo! It’s all chrome! Shining like the very Shekinah Glory of God!

You realize of course, that YouTube is another platform of Google, but hey — you did get a few sales from your ads; into which you pumped $5K (or more) into last month for your house painting/roofing/real estate/plumbing/coaching/yoga-ing business.

Then you run out of money. Google and the Other Platforms, has it. All.

And your website traffic tanks. You haven’t had the time to work on your Social Media and SEO campaigns because you have other things to do, like running your business.

The Next Great Downturn™ happens (which the nice lady at that Government Department of Broken Dreams said would “never happen in our lifetimes”).

Your business is dead.

Another victim of optimism bias.

What is Optimism Bias?

According to The Decision Lab (https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/optimism-bias), “The optimism bias refers to our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing negative events.”

Around 80% of the population, according to their research, exhibit an optimistic bias in a wide variety of circumstances. What is going well, will only get better, and this downturn won’t be as bad as I heard at the water-cooler from Joe (the weird “prepper” dude).

You think, if I just do The Thing harder and spend more money, it will turn around. It has to! My product or service is awesome! Everybody wants and needs it!

Don’t get me wrong: Optimism is healthy. It encourages us to press on in spite of difficulty and rejection. It sucks way less than pessimism, or reality.

It also causes us to think we can really do the impossible.

Yes, some folks do the impossible things. It’s a huge part of our American business mythos. The Steve Jobs’, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’ stories ring through our heads every day as entrepreneurs. What you don’t see amid all the hard work (which is true), is the out-sized impact of what we call “luck.” If you doubt that, I encourage you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Luck and the lottery of birth is a much more significant factor in those amazing success stories than hard work and/or talent.

Let’s Get Real

You have that awesome product. It is really great, but not everyone really wants or needs it. You have a budget and realize you need to spend it wisely and carefully. You are not cheap, mind you, but you realize that you need to really put that money where it will truly do the most good over time. You realize that the marketing game is a long-term play — a marathon, not a sprint.

You carefully assess the marketplace and what people really want and need. You seek to see your customers as humans, not digits. You begin to understand what they really want, and what problems your awesome product or service really solves for them. Some of those people do not have the problem your business solves, but you are clear on what the problem is — not just what your product does.

You work on the message and content of your website and outbound communications. You make sure they are consistent with your brand promise. You make sure the images and look-and-feel of the website all speak to your customers’ needs. You tone down the features of your product or service and crank up the benefits for your audience.

Once you have done that, you make sure the website is performing well on all the engines, not just on Google. You make sure your social media messages are appropriate and not trying to be all things to all people.

You ignore the Google Ads Specialist pleas for more money, make sure the ads are optimized and have the right message. You slowly begin running ads in order to see if your message is getting through. You measure the stats and seek to understand your website visitors’ behavior. You fine-tune the ads.

You become an educated marketer.

Over time, your brand becomes recognizable, and you don’t have to spend nearly as much. Your customers become fans of your business and spread the word for you. You may not even need to run ads at all. Or, you can afford to hire someone to run these things for you, so that you are able to run your business and do the other million things on your to-do list. But you do so as an educated businessperson who knows what makes your customers happy — ecstatically happy.

Doesn’t it take a lot of work to do all that? Yep.

Don’t you have too many things to do? Check.

It is worth it? Do you really need an answer to that question?

Work With a Partner to Help Educate You

You know the saying, “two heads are better than one” (and three heads make you a freak, so let’s not go there).

You probably need to work with someone who can partner with you to help you do the leg-work to understand your customer. You will spend money on that for sure, but you will also reap the benefits of becoming educated. The costs of doing otherwise is just too high.

Look for a partner who cares about your business and your customers first. Look beyond the sales-pitch and really assess whether they have the background necessary to understand the psychology of your marketplace. This isn’t a Fiverr or UpWork kind of thing.

This is about your businesses survival, after all, so don’t just trust anyone who tells you all about how they “10x your sales on Google” and “guarantee your website will be on page one in a month.” That’s all BS and you know it.

Stop solving the wrong problem and throwing your good money after bad.

Take the time. Make the effort. By doing so, you willpreserve your optimism and not become a victim of it.

Tahiti is calling. It’s a magical place.

Categories

What Is Human Experience Design?

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Business is an integral part of the human experience. Since the first caveperson traded some beads for a bit of mammoth, and then arbitraged it for a new atlatl, there has been business.

Since there has been business which meets essential needs there have been people drawn together into groups — villages, towns and then to cities. Business is one of the key building-blocks of society.

Business is a major part of all our lives. Societies cannot run without businesses, just as families cannot function apart from the resources that businesses provide.

Business is as to human life and flourishing as eating right is to health. You can’t have one without the other.

Therefore, just as human societies are rooted in strong human relationships, businesses are equally relational by nature. Humans cannot survive apart from relationships with other humans.

Moreover, businesses cannot function without marketing. How else would Og the Atlatl-Maker™ get the word out that a pound of mammoth can buy a new atlatl (spears extra)?

In our contemporary, techno-capitalist environment we have slowly, but surely, divorced the relational aspect from business. Particularly in how we market businesses today, we focus on the measurable and quantifiable excluding the qualitative (mushy) relational experience. We are too often laser-focused on metrics rather than the person at the other end of the mouse, smartphone or VR goggles.

Not so long ago we would have dealt directly with our customer, who knew us and probably our family-members by name. We met their needs eye-to-eye, as fellow humans with a “How’s your day?” and a sales-winning smile.

Today, the machines and algorithms have replaced what was truly human in business marketing and operations. Eventually, like the vanishing cashiers at Walmart, we are interacting with fewer and fewer like-minded humans.

And, society is the poorer for it.

I have been a designer for more than 30 years now, and a website-developer for around 28 of them. I have been saturated in technology since I first learned how to program a game on a Commodore PET, and have been in marketing my whole adult life as a designer.

I also took on a second career for about 11 of those years doing design part-time while serving as a hospice and hospital chaplain. In my M.Div counseling training and my work with people experiencing all the drama and trauma of life and death, I have seen first-hand the importance of good human relationships.

Particularly relevant to me today, as I am now working full-time in marketing and technology again, the relationships people have with so many others in their places of business has been striking. I recall many, many times at the bedsides of loved-ones passing into the Great Beyond that many of the people touched by those passing have been the people involved in business with them. Workmates, customers, employees and employers all have been a huge part of that person’s life and are truly family to them.

These people are a major part of who they are as human beings.

So, how dare we treat people like mere consumers, numbers on a dashboard chart or spreadsheet?

We have the technology and tools to bring people together just as well as separating them into profitable market segments. It may take much more thought and intention to do this, and may not be as profitable in the short-term, but the long-term societal benefits are enormous.

So, let’s use that technology and those digital marketing tools in ways that enhance the human experience and make our journey on this globe more meaningful. We can do this!

This is what I mean by Human Experience Design.

Categories

To All My Small Business Clients: Marketing Isn’t Sales

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/smiling-male-worker-in-construction-helmet-in-studio-3772616/

No offense to any of my wonderful small-business clients (and some larger ones to), but STOP confusing marketing with sales.

I get it — most small-biz owners are not marketing professionals, nor do you have time for it. Call you about a roofing job, painting a house, or unclogging a toilet, and you’re are all over it.

Talk to you about marketing, and… [crickets]

“I ain’t getting no calls!” (says as I look at 20 verified calls on Google Ads dashboard in the past week).

I have encountered a similar dynamic at many other larger companies I have worked for. You’d think they’d have figured this out between their marketing and “inside sales” departments. The marketers are often blamed for sending “bad leads,” and salespeople are blamed for “not being able to close.”

No one seems to get much business though. Huh.

Here’s the thing. Marketing consists of consistent actions over time. Good marketing is not a panacea for a poor sales process, nor does it provide instant-gratification. Marketing is a long-term play, even in this digital, have-it-all-NOW era.

It also involves measuring (boring) stats like conversion rates, click-throughs, impressions and a ton of other (boring) things that many business owners like you haven’t a clue about, nor do you want to.

Unfortunately, marketing can also be impersonal.

Good marketing isn’t.

Sales, on the other hand, is a relational process with a much shorter and compressed timeframe. The stakes are higher, and the results are often more immediate.

You get the call, develop trust with your customer, and “boom” you have some new business! But fail to follow-through or provide impersonal customer service, and “poof” the sale is gone. Most of my small-business clients are in service industries, but this dynamic holds true for a small retailer too; the process is just even more compressed with retail.

Bottom-line, your sales success depends heavily on the relationship built with the customer.

When your marketing is consistent and delivers qualified leads to a great salesperson, it’s magic. Your brand image soars and the beer-fund is well-stocked.

When your marketing is inconsistent and focused on the short-term, but delivers some leads to a great sales person, it’s meh. Your business limps along until a recession or something wipes you out and the beer-fund is all gone (probably replaced with something harder, is my guess).

When your marketing is inconsistent, impersonal and delivers a few leads here and there, and delivers them to a salesperson who doesn’t have the time, interest or skills to form a solid relationship, it’s a nightmare.

Buh-bye business. Can’t even afford a beer.

But we want to go way beyond “good”, don’t we?

Great marketing and great sales requires forming great personal relationships.

Great marketing delivers a great brand-promise consistently over time. It begins the relationship-forming process by speaking to customers as people, not as market-segments.

Great sales reinforces the consistency of great marketing by cementing great customer relationships. It celebrates and catered to each customer’s uniqueness.

(And I am not even mentioning the importance of marketing/selling a great product. But that’s another article for another time).

Marketing and sales are not the same thing. The two work together. Like peanut butter and jelly. (Or, my favorite, peanut butter and banana — shout-out to the King).

Please repeat after me: “Marketing and Sales are not the same thing!”

Categories

Objectifying the Consumer

How consumer-centric marketing devalues our humanity

Photo by Eren Li — https://www.pexels.com/@eren-li/

In the marketing technology world of which I am part, huge emphasis is placed on data. In the lingua franca of our industry, analytics, return on ad-spend (ROAS), click-through-rates (CTRs) and many other such metrics are the very air we breathe.

Algorithmic platforms such as Facebook/Instagram, YouTube/Google all serve up content based on measurable metrics and analytics, so that they deliver content that’s tailored to individual wants and interests. At least, that’s what they tell us. But, it’s all about the data at the end of the day.

And, of course, it’s specifically all about the money that can be made from all that juicy data.

This makes sense, considering their business-models are based on the fact that the product they sell is the attention of their users (us), and their customer the advertiser. The content anyone consumes is driven by what can best serve up ads to eyeballs — to people ready to consume, hopped-up on dopamine like cocaine addicts.

We tend to forget that these consumers are people; not eyeballs, but real people — real individual human beings. And each of those people have unique needs, motivations, fears and desires.

However, what they are consuming is driven by bots and algorithms — non-humans. And we (technologists) made the bots.

See any problems with this situation?

In our attention-based economy, we call this “Tuesday.”

As humans, we each have this brain-mushmelon-thing in our heads which craves certain chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones in order to function at all. We would die without them. We would never be motivated by any instinct to do necessary things like eat, have sex or run away from saber-toothed tigers.

Life, already brutish and short, would be a whole lot shorter.

As a consequence, we are literally creatures of habit. That mushmelon-brain of ours develops habits, hard-wired pathways in our behavioral matrix, which helpfully simplify our existence so we don’t go crazy and die. That hard-wiring is made possible through those chemicals flooding our brains.

Think about this: if you had to think about every action you take — every literal step for example — and make a conscious effort to make the next one, you wouldn’t even be able to walk, much less crawl. Ask any toddler.

We develop the required patterns of muscle movements and coordinated balance through developing a habit of being able to walk without having to think about it. This habit-forming superpower of ours is a really helpful mechanism. It’s great. We develop habits automatically and fairly easily. Some are helpful, but some not so much.

And there’s where our problem starts. In our own heads.

You see, the bot-makers have hacked our collective heads, and lumped us into “market segments” in order to sell our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s our highest vulnerability. What we perceive we need, as driven by those brain chemicals, we pay attention to. Whether or not it is really good for us. We pay attention to what triggers the most satisfying release of chemicals to our hungry-for-more brains. And, what triggers the largest release of those chemicals are the very impulses necessary for our survival: our fears, the need to eat, the need to belong, and the need to procreate.

Sex does sell — but not as well as fear, unfortunately.

Our fears threaten and override all other needs. That saber-toothed tiger in the bushes is not only a predator which may eat us, but also a competitor hunting for the same food we need to survive. If the predator eats all the deer, then we don’t have any. We wouldn’t live long enough to belong to a village which can band together for protection and efficient hunting. We also wouldn’t be around long enough to have sex and procreate in order to create a village in the first place.

Therefore, we naturally pay the most attention to whatever triggers our deepest fears.

That’s what the digital marketing platforms, with all those analytics and bots, have figured out. If we marketers (mea culpa) have figured out how to hack your fears, we can offer you the shiny trinket that will give you hope that you will overcome any threat.

Acquiring the shiny trinket produces dopamine and other feel-good brain chemicals. We naturally want more, so we feel more secure from our fears. So, we develop habits, which quickly form addictions, to the things which will help us overcome. Driven by the marketing machines.

In marketing, when we group many people together with the same fears, needs for belonging and sex-drive with the purpose of selling something to them, we call it a market segment. We call the people visiting our website, users. We strip away the individual, and reduce the whole to consumers, stereotyping and sorting them into profitable consumer markets.

It’s simply not worth it for us to enter the marketplace treating individual people as human beings because we have a million shiny trinkets to sell. We may virtue-signal that we do see people as fellow humans, but we all know this is a crass trick to get an emotional rise out of people so that they form emotional attachments to our sales-pitch.

Why do we do this? So that we marketers, who are also human individuals with the same fears and needs, can make a living like anyone else. However, we do it by hacking collective brains with algorithms and bots to gain attention for our clients — the folks who hire us to sell those million shiny trinkets. And our clients are also humans with the same fears and needs. We all gotta pay the bills, after all.

It all loops around in a circle, like a “dream within a dream.”

In reality, it’s the Circle of Life — and we have hacked it.

And, we know full-well what we are doing. Damn the consequences.

In doing so, we have created a huge problem. This problem boils down to the reality that in order to hack the Circle, we create entire societies of people who think and behave in ways that are manipulated by those bots and algorithms. Manipulated by a technology that doesn’t have fears, needs for belonging, or needs for sex (apologies to any sex-bots reading this, but it’s really not the same thing and we all know it). And manipulated by other humans who aren’t really interested in your own individuality or personal needs and desires but mostly by the money that can be made from the hack.

The sad consequence of all this manipulation is that we are living in societies without empathy. In psychology, those without empathy are known as narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths — abusers. And, often the abused cope with being manipulated by repressing empathy. The manipulated also become the manipulators. People who treat other people as objects.

This is what manipulating and objectifying the consumer, people, does. It strips away what makes us human. It turns us into nothing more than carbon-based meat-bots. Machines that eat.

We become machines without empathy. Stripped of humanity.

Proving “I am not a robot” on a website lead form seems ironic, doesn’t it?