Why Memorable Experiences Will Always Trump Flashy Marketing Tactics

A post about how our visit to the hospital to deliver our son provided a great example of why a wonderful experience can serve as the most powerful marketing tool of all. Sometimes, the best marketing is not really marketing at all.

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(Almost) Everything I Know, I Learned from Video Games

Beyond the simple joy I find in playing games, I realized recently how much I’ve learned from them over the years. In this post, I wanted to share some of these life lessons with you in the hopes that you too can find something that makes you feel and think in the same way.

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Seeking Out the Curious Idealists

In my experience, too many interviews, hiring processes and internal cultural guidelines focus only on optimism, pessimism and realism in reviewing the qualifications for "good" candidates. In this post, I introduce a new personality profile to the professional mix: The Curious Idealist.

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Elevating Our Guiding Principles from “What” to “Why”

Throughout my career and life, I’ve found that one thing that unites all the businesses I admire, regardless of size or industry, is a strong sense of mission, vision and values, and a determined adherence to live these ideals in every decision they make. To that end, I’ve been considering how we can all work toward the type of messages and actions that set these organizations and people apart, and wanted to share my thoughts with you.

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Is There a Difference Between the Expertise Journey and Being The Best?

From a purely competitive standpoint, becoming the best is often an all-or-nothing proposition, and there will be times where we are forced to make choices that help ourselves at the expense of others. If we all strive to be experts, to help each other as we move forward, and use the quest for expertise as an opportunity to build important, lasting relationships, becoming the best can be a useful by-product of our journey, but something we don't need to feel fulfilled.

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Empathy, Awareness and the Need to Belong

The need to belong is an important part of what makes us human. Whether it’s feeling like we’re a part of a club, community, a movement, a mission, or all of the above, this deep desire to be included is one thing that unites us all. This post focuses on a few things I feel I can improve on (and that I think most of us can improve on) when it comes to helping others feel like they belong. 

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A Thank You Note for Nine Gestures That Shaped My Journey

In the spirit of the season, I've been thinking quite a bit about what I'm thankful for over the past few weeks. As the list is too long for a single post, I chose to focus on the short, in some cases seemingly inconsequential gestures from family, friends, teachers, colleagues and bosses that have fundamentally shaped my journey thus far. I hope that each of you can take the time to make your own version of this list, as remembering each of the points in time listed above brought a smile to my face and gratitude to my heart (rarely a day goes by when most of us can't use those types of reminders).

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Separating Who We’re “Supposed” to Be from Who We’re “Meant” to Be

The weight of the expectations we place on ourselves can be such that we can fall into a mindset in which we never quite feel like we've done well enough. As with my other posts, it's been sobering to find out how many others have experienced or are experiencing these powerful (and often toxic) feelings, yet I've also been encouraged to see that it's possible to step out from under the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves and begin to live in the present. I wanted to share with you a few of the ways I remind myself on a daily basis to temper what I'm "supposed" to be doing with where I am.

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Lessons from the Fascinating World of Workplace Culture

A healthy culture is something that nearly everyone agrees is critical to success, yet few, if any, have truly figured out. There are many wonderful treatises on culture, yet the application of the vast array of theories and frameworks available is so often rendered nearly useless in practice, as the mix of human beings and their personalities at every organization is truly unique. While I'm not a culture expert by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to share with you a few of the lessons I’ve learned (such as they are) from my own experiences. I'd love to hear your thoughts about culture in the comments as well.

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How to Position Ourselves for the Roles We Want

Struggling to differentiate ourselves from the hordes of other job seekers can be a difficult and deflating exercise, and I think this is even more of a factor for those who have already been in the workforce for at least a few years. Having slogged my way through the process many separate times, perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that, at least in my experience, getting the new role or promotion you want can be less about the unique skills and qualities you offer, and more about how you position them, and yourself, to your desired organization.

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Letting Go and Moving On From the Things We Leave Behind

To help others who may experience difficulty in letting go of their work in the future or who are going through this struggle today, I wanted to share my experience with you and how I was able to come to terms with leaving my work behind:

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The World Needs More Than Correct Heart Placement

The central issue with the rampant use of "his or her heart is in the right place" is that we have become far too comfortable with setting the bar so low for ourselves and for others. I believe that having your heart in the right place is only a baseline, and something that should be implied as being part of an empathetic human being. We should and must expect much more from ourselves and from others. So how can we go about changing the paradigm?

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Making Retirement Security Personal

This is a post I originally wrote for the Financial Planning Association. As it's one of my favorites and is no longer available via the FPA blog, I wanted to share it here.

Retirement security is a little bit like "the cloud" in that it's something we all know we want, but most of us aren't 100 percent sure what it means. As a result, a potentially important component of most Americans' financial future is in danger of becoming a buzz phrase.

With the possible exception of the healthcare industry, the financial services industry reigns supreme when it comes to the overuse of acronyms, technical jargon and, of course, buzz words and phrases. I want to ensure that "retirement security" doesn't suffer the same fate as "leading edge," "think outside the box" and "paradigm shift" in taking the dreary march toward a complete loss of meaning. To go a step further, I want to help you, as an investor, take the first steps toward changing "retirement security" from a nebulous concept to something deeply and intimately personal for you and your family (if applicable).

Let's start by defining "retirement security," via Annuity Digest: "[Retirement security is a]…very broad term that refers to the level of comfort you have with the resources that are intended to support you through retirement and provide a standard of living similar to what you experienced before retirement."1

I like this definition because it combines the touchy-feely nature of the term (i.e., level of comfort, standard of living) with the very concrete aim of retirement security (i.e., resources intended to support you through retirement).

In my opinion, the emotional and psychologically-driven items in the definition are just as important as the hard monetary goals, with both representing equal importance to American savers and investors. As such, before we get into the nuts and bolts surrounding your quest for retirement security, I think it's important to discuss the "why" behind retirement security.

As referenced in the title of the article, at its most basic level, retirement security is an immensely personal concept. I believe this is an important thing to keep in mind, because it can help you avoid comparing your retirement to others. One way to bring things back to a personal level is to think of retirement security as a recipe.

PREPARING THE RECIPE FOR YOUR RETIREMENT SECURITY

To use an analogy that's close to my heart, look at how many different ways there are to prepare a delicious burger. No single approach is generally accepted as the "right" way to make and grill a burger, because everyone has "their" specific recipe for success. The point being, your recipe may differ from others, but it's your recipe! While there's no one-size-fits-all formula for everyone, I like to think of a retirement security recipe as being comprised of three basic parts: the master plan, the money and the mindset. As the money is fairly self-explanatory, I want to focus on the master plan and the mindset, as they fall on the more emotional side of the scale.

To begin with the master plan portion, "retirement planning" is another extremely broad term. From a retirement security perspective, I would caution against treating "retirement planning" as pertaining only to money.

One of the most interesting statements from a variety of the retirees I’ve talked with is that, while they had planned how they would retire from the workforce, they never really thought about what they were retiring to. The point being, the ability to keep busy doing something interesting turns out to be just as important to many retirees as the money they had saved to replace a recurring paycheck. As such, planning for what life will bring post-work can become an integral part of your retirement security recipe.

In terms of mindset, perception can serve as a major stumbling block when it comes to retirement security and confidence. We have always suspected that fear and stress can impact our physical health, but we now have the science to back it up. Lissa Rankin, MD wrote "How Fear Makes You Sick" in January 2013, and the article still serves as one of the most valuable treatises on what stress and fear can do to the body.2

In the article, Rankin outlines the phenomenon that our "lizard brain", the oldest and most primitive portion of the human brain, is basically a computer that can't tell the difference between life-threatening fears and those that are less imminent. Regardless of whether we are being chased by a hungry bear or stressed out about an upcoming deadline at work, our brain forces our bodies to react in the same way. As you might expect, beyond possibly escaping from the bear in a true life-or- death situation, these fear responses are not good for our health over the long term, as Rankin explains:

"If you're getting attacked by a cave bear, your body ignores sleeping, digesting, and reproducing, while it focuses on running, breathing, thinking and delivering oxygen and energy wherever it deems it necessary in order to keep you safe…When your body is in the stress response, it can't repair itself…When the stress response is repetitively triggered, organs get damaged and the body can't fix them. The cancer cells we naturally make, which usually get blasted away by the immune system, are allowed to proliferate. The effects of chronic wear-and-tear on the human body take their toll, and we wind up sick."2

Since we already worry about money more than any other facet of our busy, crazy lives,3 the constant fear of not having saved enough for retirement, extrapolated out over many years, is bound to affect our bodies over time. Compound your concerns about retirement planning with the myriad other stressors out there, and the emotional aspect of security can actually make quite a bit of difference to your physical well-being.

Beyond the potential physical impact of the stress and fear responses surrounding retirement uncertainty, mindset can become an issue if you fall into the trap of comparing your outlook with family, friends or peers. For example, you may have friends who "feel" completely secure and are happily awaiting retirement, while others are very pessimistic about their plans for the financial future. It pays to remember that their views are entirely based on their specific recipes.

As money can be viewed as an extremely intimate and personal thing, you will likely never know about that portion of your friends' and family members' future plans. Your peers may be planning to downsize and have decided they need or want less money in retirement. They may be expecting legacy money from a family member or, in a worst-case scenario, they may just have no idea how much money and planning it actually takes to transition into the financial future of their choosing. On the other hand, by virtue of their propensity to worry, your pessimistic friends may actually be better equipped than anyone else to reach a "secure" financial future.

Few things can be more positive for our mindset than to remind ourselves to focus only on the thing we can control: our own personal retirement security recipe. Your mindset can be optimistic, pessimistic, realistic, or some combination of all three, as long as it works for you.

ADDING TO YOUR RETIREMENT SECURITY RECIPE

Once you have thought long and hard about the three M's (Money, Master Plan and Mindset), write your recipe down, put it in a safe place and get to work! Like any good recipe, remember that you can scribble in the margins, and add a dash of this or a pinch of that along the way to make something good even better. The following represent a few ways others have chosen to enhance their personal retirement security recipes.

RETIREMENT SECURITY AND THE VALUE OF SHARED EXPERIENCE

If we believe that it’s just as critical for those leaving the work force (however that may manifest itself) to have something to retire to as it is for them to be financially prepared, I think it’s valuable to discuss the importance of peer involvement when it comes to retirement security.

Yes, retirement security is a personal feeling, and I firmly believe that comparing your situation with others is often counter-productive. However, don't be afraid to share ideas and talk about how you're feeling with your friends, colleagues and peers as you approach retirement planning or retirement itself.

If you think about it, being emotionally unprepared (even if you are comfortable financially) is a very natural response, as retirement is something that you simply cannot fully comprehend or visualize until you get there. Yet, because the blanket of "retirement security" does not generally expand to cover how you're going to feel on the first day of the rest of your life, the barrage of emotions can likely be a major shock.

There may be no way to fully prepare for this type of unwanted surprise, but hearing how others have coped or are coping with the feeling may be a good place to start. Even if you don't have loved ones or close relatives who have left the workforce, your neighbors, peers and colleagues likely do. If you're active on social media, you might also look into groups based in your local communities, as this can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals. Above all, don't be afraid to ask!

FINANCIAL PROFESSIONALS AND RETIREMENT SECURITY

If you've been reading the news, you know that the advisor profession has been under fire from certain agencies and sectors as of late. While I won't go into detail in this article, much of the conversation stems from a recently implemented Department of Labor (DOL) Rule designed to regulate the adherence of all financial professionals and providers of retirement advice according to a fiduciary standard.

At the most basic level, the idea behind the proposal is to ensure that those providing retirement products, planning and advice do so in the best interest of their clients (U.S. investors). Obviously, there's a lot more to it (Google "DOL Fiduciary Rule" for more information), but one of the main implications behind the proposed rule is that advisors/financial professionals have not been working in the best interests of their retirement clients up to this point.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that one side is 100% right and the other is 100% wrong. As with any industry, financial services tends to contain more gray areas than black-and-white. This can be difficult to accept, since human beings tend to want things to be simple: good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, etc. Unfortunately, it's rarely that simple. In the case of the financial professional relationship, every situation is different because every financial professional is unique.

If you're considering a relationship with a financial professional, it's important to remember your recipe – it's not about what everyone else thinks, it's only about you. What you can do is be as informed as possible. In situations like the DOL Rule, with arguments at opposite ends of the spectrum, sharpening the grey area is often the best we can do. You will see statistics and data out there that paint a negative picture of financial professionals, and you will see those that are positive. When confronting these types of issues, use a variety of sources of data from each side of the argument, consider the source in each case when looking at the data, and fact-check vigorously.

For the purposes of this piece, I will offer you recent data showing that financial professionals can have a positive impact on investors' perception of retirement security. According to LIMRA,4 a worldwide association of insurance and financial services companies, consumers who work with a financial professional are:

Further, eight in 10 consumers who work with an advisor believe that he or she helps them in ways they would not be able to achieve on their own.4 Does this mean that you need to work with a financial professional to attain a higher level of retirement security? Of course not. Could a financial professional be part of your recipe, now or in the future? It's certainly possible. I urge you to gather as much data as possible on the value of a financial professional (as well as the opposite) so you can complete your own analysis and draw your own conclusions.

RETIREMENT SECURITY AND THE POWER OF KNOWLEDGE

A third, and equally important facet of retirement security (in my opinion), is the knowledge you gather on your own. I encourage you to do the research, find your favorite types of content and mediums and make financial education materials part of your recurring reading list.

Remember, every investor is unique, and what works for you might not work for your neighbor (or vice versa). Because retirement security is so personal, it's also subjective, meaning that no amount of money or planning is the "right" amount. Ultimately, retirement security hinges on how you feel. If you've crafted your recipe with love and care and followed your own instructions faithfully, I hope you can crack a smile when you think about pulling the final product out of the oven.

SOURCES:

1 n.a. (2015). Retirement Security. Annuity Digest. Retrieved from AnnuityDigest.com.

2 Rankin, L. (January 31, 2013). How Fear Makes You Sick. LissaRankin.com. Retrieved from LissaRankin.com.

3 n.a. (February 4, 2015). American Psychological Association Survey Shows Money Stress Weighing on Americans' Health Nationwide. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from APA.org.

4 n.a. (2015). Informing the Debate: Facts About Retirement Security. LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute. Retrieved from LIMRA.com.

Insights from Content Marketing World

Yes, these insights are from Content Marketing World 2015, but the speaker lineup was amazing, and the information below is still massively applicable.

CREATE MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS THAT PASS THE “MOM” TEST

I am a great believer in the philosophy (made famous by Jay Baer in his excellent book Youtility), that content, campaigns and initiatives that offer help, not hype, not only benefit an organization’s key stakeholders, but are also more successful from a revenue and profit standpoint in the long run. I’ve been delighted to watch this style of promotion, commonly referred to as content marketing, gain major traction in a variety of different industries over the past few years.

With the growing prevalence of content marketing comes increased competition. The size of the industry and the low barriers to entry make it difficult for content providers to stand out to
consumers and/or clients, regardless of whether they operate in the B2B or B2C spaces. According to Baer, the true differentiator between content that gets read, viewed or consumed and content that is ignored is the same today as it has been for more than 100 years: passion. In other words, our readers can tell whether or not we truly care about the mission or calling behind the content we’re creating and distributing.

Baer presented at the 2015 Content Marketing World conference, and one of my favorite quotes
from his session was “competition commoditizes competency.” In other words, if we all have
access to the same information, ideas and tools, we’re all essentially on the same level. What
separates the great from the good is people, and even more so, passion. So how do we ensure
that our materials and communications represent a differentiating level of passion? Jay’s
measurement tool is called “The Mom Test.”

Our mothers love us unconditionally, and are also uniquely unafraid to tell us the hard truth. If our Mom says that something “isn’t our thing,” it’s probably not our thing. Our Moms can also sense passion. With each piece we create, in the back of our minds, we should ask “What would Mom think of this?” Few things are better than a gushing email or phone call from a proud mother, and every piece of content we create should be designed to elicit the following reaction: “This, I can tell, is your thing.”

In the financial services industry, “The Mom Test” can be expanded to include writing/creating
content that Mom can not only understand, but that would also hold her interest. Our industry is
saturated with jargon and industrial language, and it can be easy for us as marketers to fall into the trap of writing in a way that only industry players can understand. It’s not enough to get our content in front of the right people at the right time; it has to be consumable and engaging as well. 

What’s the right amount of passion? Jay Baer entreats us to ask, with every piece: “Am I just
making content, or am I making a difference?”

PRACTICING INSANE HONESTY IN B2B MARKETING

The amount of radical change in the marketing industry over the last decade was one of the main themes of the overall conference. One of the biggest shifts lies in the steadily deteriorating
consumer perception of marketing and advertising in general. Think about your own buying habits.

When a company tries to aggressively sell you a product or service, do you simply trust that the
product or service is as good as “they” (marketers) say it is? Of course not! You use search
engines to check reviews from multiple sites, talk to your friends about their experiences and check competitors’ sites to look at similar products. If anything, you inherently mistrust a message that includes only the positives about a company’s offerings.

As a consumer, this mindset has likely become automatic and therefore may not seem like much of a change. For most companies and marketers, however, it represents a completely different way of looking at how to promote and sell products. Today’s marketers must answer fundamental and difficult questions that were not nearly as applicable 10 years ago:

First, in a world in which a staggering 27 million pieces of content are shared every single day, how can a brand cut through that noise with a message that resonates with its target market? Second, even if the right consumer sees the intended message, how can a company rebuild a consumer’s waning trust in a short period of time? I believe at least part of the answer lies in authenticity and transparency; yet, while simple in theory, both can be difficult to achieve in marketing practice.

One of my favorite presentations at the 2015 Content Marketing World event came from Doug
Kessler of the U.K.-based Velocity Partners: How to Practice “Insane Honesty” in B2B Marketing.
Given the content of the presentation, I think Doug has his finger on the pulse of what differentiates genuine, authentic marketing from the impostors.

The definition of “insane honesty” in B2B marketing is volunteering weaknesses in your product or service, unasked. Doug believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that this level of proactive honesty is a fundamental facet of relationship marketing, as it:

  1. Shows that the company truly cares about the well-being of the consumer. Transparency and vulnerability let the consumer know the company doesn’t want them to have a poor experience because they weren’t told what to expect upfront.
  2. Shows that the consumer/client can trust everything the company says about the positive side of its products or services (because they were so honest about the flaws or downsides).
  3. Shows true confidence. Only a company truly confident in its value proposition would offer such a transparent look at its offerings.
  4. Surprises and charms the reader/viewer. If you want people to do a double take on your piece of content or advertising mechanism, telling the hard truth can be an excellent differentiator.
  5. Builds trust. Marketing messages shouldn’t be written in a different kind of language from the way we communicate with each other on a daily basis. In fact, using a “marketing” voice exposes a company now more than ever. Marketing content should build relationships, which build trust, which drives revenue.
  6. Alienates less likely buyers. This goes against every tenet of traditional marketing, which says “Alienate no one!” The bottom line is that we can’t be everything to everyone – if we can successfully identify our ideal prospects and craft personal messages that resonate with them, we shouldn’t worry if we alienate everyone else in the process.
  7. Focuses the company on battles it can actually win. By attracting ideal prospects and focusing only on them, insane honesty (in theory) allows the company to dedicate time to the consumers who might actually buy its product or service. One of my favorite examples is the Hans Brinker Hotel which, without waiting for the media or consumers to do it, went ahead and labeled itself as the “Worst Hotel in the World.”

As an extreme budget motel with small, dingy rooms and massively outdated appliances, the company knew it was never going to woo travelers seeking a nice family vacation or those who routinely stay at the Ritz-Carlton. So, Hans Brinker chose to alienate those people entirely through its marketing and advertising efforts. 

While the ads undoubtedly turned away more discerning clientele, it resonated deeply with the
company’s target market: young, extremely budget-conscious travelers looking for an all-night party in Amsterdam. Each advertisement reads like it was created expressly for these types of travelers, and the response was incredible –Hans Brinker quickly became one of Amsterdam’s most popular hotels (with its target crowd, of course).

Overall, the theme of Kessler’s presentation can be summed up as follows: In today’s hyper-aware and distrustful world, talking about how great your company’s products and services are no longer signals confidence; on the contrary, it can actually signal weakness. Actively seeking out weaknesses and sharing them openly may sound over the top in theory, but in practice, may actually be what sets a company apart from its competitors.

TELLING AUTHENTIC STORIES

On the theme of authenticity, Ann Handley (CEO of MarketingProfs.com) gave a wonderful
presentation on how to tell bolder stories as a marketer. As marketers and communicators, all of us consider ourselves to be good storytellers to some degree. As we are in the Golden Age of
Storytelling, however, we each need to work to find new ways to rise above the noise.

Ann believes that tone of voice is a marketer’s bravest, gutsiest asset, and this is true today more than ever. As both readers and storytellers, we can identify with the visceral satisfaction that comes with a happy ending. It can be easy, however, to transmit these “fairy tale” endings to our brand stories. While there’s certainly a place for positive stories in a brand’s library, the most powerful stories may be those where everything doesn’t work out.

Ann used case studies as an example, as many (regardless of the industry on which they are
focused) tend to use the exact same formula: Identify the Problem, Discuss Challenges in Fixing
the Issues and Explain How [Company] Provided a Solution. It’s difficult to judge case studies too harshly, as the formula has certainly worked (and continues to work) for many companies and brands.

That said, the information in case studies is often incomplete, leaving out what can be important parts of the story. Specifically, case studies rarely include any mention of when things didn’t go according to plan or failures of any kind throughout the process. According to Ann, these portions of the story can provide major lift for a brand by giving readers/viewers a peek inside the inner workings of a brand. In other words, eschewing a “marketing” voice for a real one.

It is, however, one thing to understand the importance of authenticity in your communications, and quite another to execute on it. In my opinion, tone of voice is the single most important factor in achieving marketing and communications success. The concept itself is subjective and ethereal, however, and is thus one of the most difficult to perfect in practice.

According to Ann, to craft the appropriate tone of voice for your company/brand, you must take into account:

  • Who You Are – Are you super smart, really creative, scrappy, or a combination of all three? Don’t try to be everything to everyone; your tone should represent only the aspects of your brand personality that you feel are the most important and that define you above all others.
  • Why You Do What You Do – As Jay Baer said, passion remains the true differentiator. Don’t tell your readers/viewers that you’re the best in your given field, as that should already be demonstrated through your actions. Instead, make sure that “the fire in your belly and the light in your eyes” comes through in every piece of content you create.
  • What It’s Like to Deal with You – Nothing turns a stakeholder or consumer off like learning about who a company “is” through its materials and communications, then finding out it was all a sham when they actually interact with the organization. If you say you have a “unique culture” or you “treat employees and consumers like family,” it had better be true, or your brand will take a huge hit when consumers and stakeholders find out they’ve been misled.

Ann then takes the three items outlined above and represents them as part of an equation:
Company Culture (Who We Are) x Story (Why We Do What We Do) x Empathy (What It’s Like to Deal with Us) = Tone of Voice.

One important note about the equation is the use of multiplication instead of addition to string
together the components. In a multiplication scenario, if the value of any of the three items is “0,” then the product of the equation is still “0.” In other words, you can’t fake it.

Overall, in today’s ultra-saturated and commoditized world, a tone of voice that tells the real story gives brands an advantage over its competitors. Ann ended the presentation by encouraging marketers to ask the question: “If the label falls off, will your target market still know it’s from you?”

Put another way, “If you cover up your logo, would you recognize your company by the copy?”
Excellent food for thought.