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Book Review-The Pumpkin Plan

Who wants to know how to grow pumpkins?  The answer is a handful of people, but that’s not really what The Pumpkin Plan is about.  It’s about an approach to your business that follows the pattern of the $500-per-seed great pumpkin growers.  The book was a recommendation from an entrepreneurial friend who thought the fundamental premises were interesting.  I found the process to be problematic.  Normally, I’d not post a review like this one.  I want you to know what books are good and add value to your world.  I avoid criticizing them, because that’s not valuable to you or me – but this is different.

The Oversimplification Class

The reason I’m writing this book review is so we can use the book as a case study for the kinds of books that provide formulas and checklists that are your supposed paths to success.  There’s always an “and then the magic happens” step, even though it’s almost never called that.  It’s something that if you knew how to do it, you wouldn’t have been looking for a book to make things better in the first place.

Mike Michalowicz isn’t alone in writing books that claim to have the magic formula.  Don Miller in Building a StoryBrand and Marketing Made Simple has a simple formula for clarifying your message.  Clarifying your message is a good thing – and something I still need to work on.  However, reading Don’s work and even consulting with his certified consultants doesn’t solve the problem.  Of course, there are dozens of other books that can fit in this stack at some level: Duct Tape Marketing, Guerrilla Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, The Challenger Sale, Fascinate, Launch, Launch!, and Traction to name a few.

What’s special about The Pumpkin Plan is that it takes the simplification to a whole new level.  It’s simple: focus on only those things that are going to give you the biggest pumpkin – and weed out the rest.  Straightforward.  Simple.  But, importantly, it’s impossible.


Our ability to predict the future is awful.  Superforecasting, The Signal and the Noise, and Noise are all great at explaining the challenges.  However, it can be summed up by understanding the difference between a Fermi estimate and the Drake equation.  With a Fermi estimate, you take many known factors and you put them together for a larger prediction that’s generally reasonably accurate.  The Drake equation is designed to determine the number of observable intelligent life in the universe.  The problem with the Drake equation is that we don’t have reasonable answers to the factors and the result is you end up with either an infinite number of detectable intelligent life forms – or zero.  (Sometimes on this planet, I wonder if there’s intelligent life myself.)

So, the core concept in The Pumpkin Plan is – for many of us – difficult to figure out.  Over a decade ago, I wrote the very first version of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide.  The very first year, it was a dismal failure.  It didn’t cover my direct costs not to mention my indirect costs.  A year later, it was a phenomenal success.  The difference was an email marketing campaign.  That’s it.  The product didn’t change.  The market didn’t even change that much.  It was one thing that worked that made the whole thing fit together and start to generate a substantial amount of revenue.  Had I assessed the growth potential of The Shepherd’s Guide using Mike’s formula, I would have trashed it and the seven digits of income it has produced to date with almost no effort.

Are there reasons to focus?  Are there reasons to stop doing what isn’t working?  Yes.  However, I can look at dozens of other entrepreneurial books that give equally bad opposite advice.  They tell you that most entrepreneurs would have been successful if they had just stuck with it a bit longer.  They’re using a variation of the benevolent dolphin fallacy.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So.)


The real difficulty isn’t in nurturing the things that are going to bring you success (as you define it) but rather knowing which things to weed out and which to nurture.  The difficulty isn’t in doing – it’s in deciding.  Entrepreneurs are necessarily and perpetually short on data.  They live on hunches and minimize their risks as best they can while waiting on the rest of the information to come in.

Precision agriculture has started to make the data for farming more available.  Equipment, seed companies, and others in the agricultural business are looking to eke out just a bit more from everything – and they’re doing it but slowly.  They think in terms of growing seasons.  They look for what did and didn’t work over the last season and try to adjust make it just a bit better each year.  Complicated forecasting models and precision performance data yield only minor improvements from the land each year – but those compound and are worth it.

Following Mike’s analogy is making decisions on insufficient data to the extreme.  You’re just as likely to prune or weed out the winner as you are the loser.  In fact, when you consider how little of what we do really works, you’re probably more likely to weed it out, because you can’t see its hidden value.  Consider it from another perspective: Richard Hackman explains in Collaborative Intelligence that the best metrics are far-leading metrics that sometimes show negative short-term performance.

How do you know what to nurture when you can’t know what the real winners are?

Stock Markets

Mike says, “Don’t waste your time planting seeds that may or may not work out.  Plant the seed that you know has the very best chance of making it, and then focus your attention, money, time and other resources on that tight niche until all of your entrepreneurial dreams come true.”  Great – if you know with a degree of certainty what will work.  His advice is the financial advisor equivalent of picking the one stock that you put all your assets in.  No financial advisor would recommend that.  They’d lose their license.  What do you do that has more financial impact than the company that you’re running?

The answer for most entrepreneurs is that they pour their heart and soul into their companies, and often they neglect their retirement and other investments expecting that they’ll sell their company – “cash out.”  They tell themselves that they’re handling their requirement by building equity in the business.  Their only investment is their business, and Mike’s recommending against diversification.

Pick the Market

If you’re good at picking the market, then it could work, but it’s just as likely to lead to bankruptcy and starting over again.  Mike explains that he found markets and sub-markets that weren’t being served.  He went into them and was able to capitalize on the vacuum.  Good for him.  The number of entrepreneurs I’ve talked to will attribute success to just two factors:

  • Dumb Luck – At some point, if you play the lottery long enough, you’ll hit it big. Sure, you want better odds than the lottery, but at some level, you know that there’s only so much you can do.  You don’t and can’t have positive control of your success.  You can only hope to influence the right factors.  Louis Pasteur said, “chance [luck] favors the prepared.”  That’s all we can do: try to be prepared.
  • Surviving – Staying long enough to try the next thing and open the door for luck tomorrow.

I’m not arguing against improving your odds, trying new things, or learning.  I’m advocating an eyes wide open approach that makes sure that you’re not stuck with The Pumpkin Plan.

Book Review-Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell

Stories are narratives that help others put pieces together, and while many of the stories we encounter in the media and in the movies are fictional, the kinds of stories you’re implored to tell in Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell are non-fictional.  They’re the stories that allow you to connect, differentiate, and ultimately close the deal.

Story Design

Of course, there’s content to a story.  There’s the “who.”  There’s the “what.”  There’s the “when.”  However, these components by themselves aren’t a story any more than flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast are a bread.  There are plenty of guides to help you learn how to craft a story.  I’ve reviewed Wired for Story, Story Genius, and Building a StoryBrand, all of which can help you craft your experiences into a telling story.

Mike Adams is not focused on the development of the story itself, rather he’s walking us through what stories are important, why they’re important, and when they’re needed.  He does, however, offers a simple, four-step story design:

  • Setting: By convention, the setting includes time and place markers. It flags the start of the story, sending the audience a subliminal signal that a story is beginning. Failing to start a story effectively is a common way to lose and confuse your audience.
  • Complications: It’s a boring story if nothing unexpected happens to the “hero.”
  • Turning point: Something happens that shows the hero a way out. Although vulnerability and failure are the grist of good stories, we have a strong preference for stories that end on a positive note.
  • Resolution: The complications have been resolved. The hero is transformed, having learned something of value, and the business point is made. Tension and suspense are resolved

Who Closes the Deal

Before delving into the stories, it’s important to recognize that it’s not our reason that closes the deal.  The rational rider on top of the emotional elephant has the role of press secretary – not chief executive officer.  Jonathan Haidt developed an Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis that Dan and Chip Heath picked up for their book, Switch.  The short version is the rider is our reason, rationale, and consciousness.  The elephant is our feelings – and they always win when they want to.  In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt clarifies that our rider acts much like a press secretary – making up plausible sounding reasons for whatever the elephant decides.

This is an important point because stories engage us emotionally as well as rationally and can therefore persuade us to act.

Prediction Engines

Adams makes the same point that was made in The Body Keeps the Score that we are fundamentally prediction engines.  It’s the primary purpose of consciousness.  He further makes the assertion that we update our world model when our predictions fail.  I’d qualify this with “sometimes.”  Sometimes, people deny reality and ignore the truth.  Sometimes, the corrections come in the form of laughter.  Inside Jokes explains that we laugh because our expectations were violated – and we detected it.  We’re rewarded with dopamine for correcting our mistake – without getting hurt.

The fact that we’re prediction machines that are constantly making corrections is important, because it means ideas that we submit to others, which are too outlandish or divergent from their beliefs, may be rejected as bad data rather than causing us to update our model.  When we’re communicating with clients, we’re constantly pushing the envelope so that we’re inside their acceptable range and far enough out that they might move it.

Selling Archetypes

Adams also explains that there are five selling archetypes:

  • The Authority — a sharp, confident voice tone
  • The Friend — a warm, easy, melodious voice tone
  • The Custodian — a low-pitched, furtive, secretive tone
  • The Investigator — a curious, questioning tone, used in exploratory conversation
  • The Negotiator — a reasoning, persuasive tone, used when negotiating

Of course, there are other models, like those found in The Challenger Sale; however, the models here work just fine too.

Hook Stories

There three stories that are designed to get customers to want to know more about you:

  • Your personal story
  • Key staff story
  • Company creation story

These stories provide a way for the customer to connect and identify with you, your staff, or the company itself.  These stories are designed to get people comfortable with who you are.

Fight Stories

The two kinds of fight stories are:

  • Insight stories
  • Success stores

These show why you’re the right people to work with.  They differentiate you from your competition and from the rest of the world.  These stories are critical, because insiders often place too much emphasis on small differences.  Clients want to know why we’re the only people that should be helping them.

Land Stories

There are two land stories:

  • Values stories
  • Teaching stories

These stories are to help you land – or close – the deal.  They share that you’re aligned with their values and that you’re going to be a partner with their development – as well as solving the specific problem.

Guides and Heros

The key thing that you need to remember when telling all the stories to your customers is that they are the hero – not you.  Your goal as a product or service provider is to act as their guide so that they can be successful.  That’s the point of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

Book Review-Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business

It’s sat in the backlog for a while now.  Read but not written.  Pondered but not shared.  Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business was recommended by a marketing consultant I was working with.  I appreciated the promise of the title but was skeptical of it as well.  Having sat on the implementation of the recommendations of the book (and the consultant) for just shy of a year, I’m not sure that the book lives up to its title – but, like George Box said, “All models are wrong, some are useful.”  I think you may find that there’s something for you in this work.

Building a StoryBrand

I’ve got to start with the fact that this isn’t the first book by Donald Miller that I’ve read.  I started with Building a StoryBrand.  It encourages you to use a framework – Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – to create a story about how your consumers can succeed with your help.  Miller calls this a BrandScript.  It’s what your brand says to the market and comes in various forms to communicate clarity in any space that you may find yourself in.

Marketing Made Simple translates that BrandScript into a website – which presumably sells your products or services.

Relationship: It’s Complicated

I’d love to say that you can follow the formula that Miller lays out and the result will be money beyond your wildest dreams.  However, it’s not that easy.  It’s complicated.  From my point of view, you must have the right offering – something that you’ll need to look for other books for.  Simon Sinek implores you to Start with Why, while Clayton Christensen encourages you to ask How Will You Measure Your Life? while Competing Against Luck and after having looked through the lens of The Innovator’s DNA.  Christensen believes that the core product question is what are the “jobs to be done” that your product or service offers?  He believes that it’s critical to get to clarity about what these jobs are, so you can communicate value to people that want these jobs done.  It’s like the old saying: “Consumers don’t want ¼” drill bits, they want ¼” holes.”

With the right offering, you then must connect to the right market.  Books like Duct Tape Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, Guerrilla Marketing, Launch!, Traction, Launch, and This is Marketing all try to help you connect with the market.

Once you’ve found the right product and the right market – and you know how to reach them – then and only then can Miller’s guide help you.  The problem is, of course, that you can’t know whether you have the right product or whether you can reach the “right” market.  So, what you get from Marketing Made Simple is a recipe for a website that presumably brings business.

What concerns me is that this leads to the easy out, “well, your product wasn’t right,” or “you didn’t connect with the right market audience” answers that aren’t helpful to entrepreneurs who are struggling to bring their ideas to life without killing themselves financially in the process.

That’s why the relationship with the book is complicated.  You’ll never know if the formula doesn’t work because it doesn’t work or because you implemented it wrong, you have the wrong product, or you aren’t able to connect with the right market.  That being said, there are two recommendations with a little additional support that Miller does offer – so it’s probably uncharitable to suggest that it’s just about the website.

Lead Generation and Email

Miller does briefly suggest that you need a lead-generating PDF – something that people want and are willing to exchange their email address for.  From there, he recommends a drip email campaign to keep people connected to your brand.

These are both fine ideas and can be very powerful.  The problem is neither does – or can – explain what works.  Having created dozens of lead generation resources, I can tell you that I never know what will generate interest – and what will not.  Sometimes, a tiny, crazy thing drives tons of leads.  Other times, the most beautifully crafted resource that was targeted at what people were telling me they needed flopped.  It’s about repetition and perseverance.  It’s what Brené Brown calls gold-plating grit (see Rising Strong).

The other side is equally challenging.  Email series that people have signed up for have much higher open rates than things like newsletters, which in turn have much higher open rates than SPAM.  However, what Miller fails to share is that many email campaigns fall flat.  They’re too short, don’t build enough trust, don’t transition people to the final product, and more.  It’s not just that you have to have an email campaign, but you must also get the right messages in – with the right timing that varies by audience – and you’ve got to have the right calls to action embedded.

Results are better than not having an email campaign, but it’s not like an email campaign magically converts prospects into customers – even when your website is amazing.  Getting email campaigns right takes time, perseverance, and a willingness to try, to be wrong, and to try again.  It may be simple – but that unfortunately doesn’t make it easy.

Relationship Stages

Miller suggests that consumers go through three stages of relationship with your brand:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Enlightenment
  3. Commitment

This is a good high-level overview; however, enlightenment and commitment are not a single thing.  There are degrees in both.  Often, customers only know a part of what you do, and step-by-step they learn more and become more committed to your organization.

He does clarify that people aren’t curious about you – rather, they’re curious about how they will solve their problem.  You will need to convert that curiosity about how to solve their problem into curiosity about how you might solve their problem.  However, care must be taken to minimize confusion about your offerings, because confusion is a vulnerable state – and one they won’t want to enter until they feel safe enough.

Miller further shares that intimacy and trust take time.  The need for time to elapse is one of the reasons why drip email campaigns are effective.

The Structure

Miller suggests that your website should be structured with a main page setup like this:

  • The Header: The very top of your website, in which you use very few words to let people know what you offer.
  • The Stakes: The section of the website in which you explain what you are saving customers from.
  • The Value Proposition: The section of a website in which you add value to your product or service by listing its benefits.
  • The Guide: The section of the website in which you introduce yourself as the brand or person who can solve your customer’s problem.
  • The Plan: The part where you reveal the path a customer must take to do business with you and solve their problem.
  • The Explanatory Paragraph: A long-form BrandScript in which you invite your customers into a story.
  • The Video: A video in which you reiterate much of what was on the website in more dynamic form.
  • Price Choices: The divisions of your company or your list of products.
  • Junk Drawer: The most important part of your website, because it’s where you’re going to list everything you previously thought was important


The overall tone you’re going for is empathetic – that you understand the customer – and authoritative – you know how to solve their problems.  Your goal is to do this in a way that anyone – even a caveman – could understand.  It’s not dumbing down the language or making the problems too simple, but it is using language that will resonate with the customer.

I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that can take marketing and make it simple, but at least Marketing Made Simple makes the attempt.

Book Review-Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage

Any publicity is good publicity isn’t true; however, often, publicity can be good publicity. In Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage, David Meerman Scott walks you through the process of getting attention you don’t deserve.


In short, newsjacking is finding a way to insert yourself into a story that isn’t yours – or to amplify your presence in a story that is yours. Newsjacking is about getting attention by being well-placed to take advantage of journalists’ need to cover breaking stories. While Scott doesn’t break things down like this, I tend to think about these in terms of stories and social.


For some time now, I’ve been receiving notices about journalists who are working on stories and need credible people to quote. Having written a few books and having a few gray hairs makes me more than qualified to be credible in some circles. So, when the topic of burnout is something that journalists need to know more about or quote someone for, I’m happy to jump in. (My wife, Terri, and I published Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery for The Society for Human Resource Management in 2019.)

The good news here is that you can get some good mentions and inbound links. For instance, The New York Times article that quoted me drove about 700 people to the website in the first week. The long-tail impact is hard to measure, since the link immediately increased our Google page rank. The bad news is that there are a lot of pitches you make to journalists that won’t make it. Though Scott didn’t mention it here – or in his last book The New Rules of Marketing and PR – the main source of journalists looking for quotes that I use is Help A Reporter Out (HARO).

These tend – for me – to be less about newsjacking and more about being persistent in sending a message for a long time.


The real key to newsjacking is seeing a trend on social media and grabbing it. Whether it’s a fire and you start offer free fire training or it’s something that you can connect to with a weird angle or connection, finding something on social then becoming a notable bit for the story can be valuable and can land you in the center of the story.

The trick to newsjacking is coming between the breaking story and the scramble for journalists to come up with more about it – including a unique angle. My problem with this is that you’re going to be chasing a lot of stories that look like they might break only to find a small number that actually convert into journalists looking for something new.


Another challenge to the approach – for me – is that you must be noisy and available. That means trumpeting your perspective via every channel known to man – even smoke signals and carrier pigeons. For me, that will turn off my regular followers as I bombard them with the kind of things that journalists might find interesting.

It also means making yourself easily available. Demand explains that small barriers stop people in their tracks, and when it comes to a story, something as insignificant as leaving a voice mail may be a major hurdle. The net effect is that you’ve got to be willing and able to answer the phone the moment it rings – without sounding like you’re desperate.


For me, the biggest problem is that I’m not very newsy. I don’t read all the sites, watch the latest happenings, or generally get all that concerned about what some star ate five minutes ago and who they were with. That makes Newsjacking a bad fit for me. However, maybe for you, the only thing that separates you from your next stardom is Newsjacking.

Technology Advice Podcast: How Understanding Change Makes You a Better Marketer

I recently went on the Technology Advice podcast and talked with Mike Pastore about change management and marketing. In it, I talk about how understanding change helps you understand your clients. Change can lead to stress and fear, and while much of marketing is based on stress and fear, it’s important to realize why fear-based marketing won’t always work. I also discuss how managers can help their employees feel supported enough to adopt a change – as long as there is sufficient trust to avoid too much friction stopping the change.

You can hear about these topics and more by listening to the full podcast here:

Book Review-Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

Every brand has a story, but does every brand tell a story? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not every brand has a coherent enough message that it does tell a story. That’s what Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen is out to fix. The interesting thing about the work is that, when you’ve seen the root works it’s drawn from, there’s a sense of familiarity and clarity that makes you wonder what level of detail is right.

Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is a classic framework that’s been used for movies and stories. In A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains that every civilization with stories have a commonality. These stories all follow a predictable 12-step pattern. I was first exposed to the idea by Nancy Dwarte in her book Resonate. Her explanation wasn’t perfect, but it was a great launching point. When asking my good friend Heather Newman for additional resources, she suggested that I look at StoryBrand as a possible source. While I don’t believe that Building a StoryBrand is the best framework for building a hero’s journey, it’s a simplified model that can make sense as a starting point.

It was in my review of Story Genius that I first wrote about the journey and the criticisms that it’s too formulaic. However, in the context of marketing like Building a StoryBrand talks about or, more broadly, for corporate communicators trying to encourage change, I think that the framework is helpful. Without a framework, it’s hard for someone who isn’t a professional to get started. The journey is sort of a paint-by-numbers deal: you know the basics of what goes where, and you use what little – or great – skill you have to paint those colors in.

Who’s the Hero

It was in a darkened room at a comedy club when I first heard that you should never be the hero of your own story. Early on in our training, we were taught that the audience should see you as relatable and not better than them. That meant we had to be careful to tell stories in the third person if we were really a hero. (See I Am a Comedian for more about my comedy training.) Donald Miller makes a similar statement about your organization’s brand. The hero of the brand’s story isn’t the organization. The hero is the customer.

If your organization isn’t the hero, then what is the organization’s role? The organization’s role is that of the mentor. Your organization is the helper who enables the hero to be great.

Clear not Complete

Many organizations develop solutions that are complete and therefore complex. Their products have the greatest features – but those features aren’t what people buy. They buy clarity. They buy what they understand. They buy a solution they feel they can sink their teeth into. When designing a StoryBrand, the goal isn’t to check every box and enable every feature. The goal is to make your brand understandable, so that people will feel okay buying it.

Clarity can come through a clear message about who your customers are, what they’re facing, and what you do to help. It can come from speaking in a language that they understand.

The Internal External Split

Embedded into the hero’s journey is the split between the outside environment, circumstances, and behaviors when compared to the inner thinking world of the hero and those around him. There’s a natural tendency for organizations to sell their products and services on the features that will drive external rewards. However, the actual reason that people buy is to address their internal needs.

Campbell makes the point that each hero struggles with their being up to the task. Every hero doubts that they’re the right one to accomplish the mission. It’s the meeting with the mentor (one of Campbell’s 12 stages) where the hero realizes that they are the one. They are intended to accomplish this mission.

Discovering internal needs isn’t easy. Clayton Christensen in Competing Against Luck (and many of his other works) describes the process of figuring out how to optimize products as the process of figuring out what job consumers are “hiring” a product or service to do. The famous example is the milkshake being hired as a treat for children in the late afternoons and a treat for adults in the morning. During the morning commute, consumers want the milkshake to last. As a treat for children at night, the goal is the opposite – to make it possible for kids to eat it quicker so the parents can move on with their evenings. It’s one product with two different jobs to be done – or two different stories using the same actors.

Caring, The Challenge, and Getting Married

Graeme Newell and Stan Phelps in Red Goldfish speak about how consumers are changing their buying habits, and they’re looking for more responsible organizations. They make it clear that you need to communicate the good work you’re doing in a way that employees and customers can resonate with. Miller makes the point that you must tell people you care – or they won’t know. I’m not convinced this is the case, but it’s never a bad policy to share that you care about someone.

The problem is that even if you care about them, there’s no impetus to action. They need a trigger, a challenge, a push into the world of resolving their challenges. They need to have that moment of conviction when they decide they need to address the challenges.

However, the challenge has to be such that it seems more like asking the customer out on a date – a chance to get to know one another – rather than a marriage. Too often, the calls to action and requests an organization makes are too large too quickly. They tend to scare prospects off more than draw them in.

Being Scared is the Salt

Salt is an interesting ingredient. The right amount is imperceptible. Having too much salt in food will taste bad. However, a lack of any salt will feel off. Many recipes don’t work without a pinch of salt. The use of fear – or the prospect’s perception of fear – as a part of your pitch is important, but, just like salt, too much fear can create problems and prevent forward motion. The goal in your messaging is to explain what they’ll miss out on without your solution and what the risks are and prepare them to be able to say yes – without pushing so hard that they’re turned off.

Fear can be paralyzing, or it can be motivating. The big difference between the two is that paralyzing fear is generally too much fear.

Transforming or Being Transformed

StoryBrand proposes that everyone wants to transform. I’d argue this is incorrect. What’s correct is that everyone wishes they would transform or be in the process of transforming. I’d also argue that the true sentiment is they would like to see that they’ve been transformed and that it’s in the past. Learning you have done the transformation is more powerful than any recognition you might see.

Not all writers enjoy writing – but most enjoy having written. Being done with something offers the sense of completion – and accomplishment. Done well, the process of writing can be frustrating, difficult, and seemingly endless. Managing Transitions explains that we want to have the results of the change – but we don’t necessarily want the change process itself.

We want to have a clearer message that will resonate better with our audience, but we don’t necessarily enjoy the process. However, the process of Building a StoryBrand leads to having a clearer message, and that can be worth it.

Book Review-This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See

In This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See, Seth Godin builds on his other writing and tries to explain marketing today. When it comes to marketing, he is about as popular as it gets. His writing spans decades, and he’s worked with some of the other leading marketing authors, including Jay Levinson in an early version of Guerrilla Marketing. In Tribes, he calls out his strategy for creating a following. In This is Marketing, he widens the field to explain why he believes tribes are necessary and how they fit into marketing objectives.

The Myth of Marketing

There are many myths about marketing, but none more pervasive than it’s easy or there’s some simple, 5-step formula for being successful. (See Got Your Attention?, Email Marketing Demystified, Launch, Pitch Anything, Traction, Launch!, Killer Web Content, and Platform for some examples.) Repeatedly, we hear about “overnight” successes that weren’t so overnight. Chick-fil-A and Walmart are popular exemplars for people to pull out for “overnight” successes. The irony is that both organizations spent decades in relative obscurity, until, eventually, they developed enough of a following and scale to really ramp things up. Apparently, organizations aren’t alone, Godin explains, as both the ice cream sundae and the stop light weren’t overnight successes either.

We want to believe that marketing is easy and quick. We want to believe that anyone can do it. However, reality doesn’t bear that out. We need to delve into the psychographics of our potential audiences and find out what consumers want. More than the ¼” drill bit and even more than the ¼” holes, what is it that they really want? We could stop short and say that they want to mount a shelf, but continuing further, what kind of an emotion does the person want to obtain by hanging the shelf? A bit more peace about the order in their world? That’s a far stretch to sell them a drill bit. Will they even understand the emotion they’re trying to solve when they’re staring down the ten options for purchasing a ¼” drill bit? (If you want more, Clayton Christiansen in Competing Against Luck and The Innovator’s DNA says that buyers hire things to do a job for them.)

Time and Measurement

In today’s world, we have more capacity to measure the efficacy of our advertising and the ways we engage the market than we’ve ever had in history. I can tell you which ads people clicked and even how long they stayed on my website after clicking the ad. We can see where our website hits are coming from. We can tell what time of day people come to our site. Not only are we swimming in data, most of the time, we’ve got solid dashboards to help us make sense of the data.

The problem is that Godin encourages us to realize that marketing is about forming a relationship with our prospects – our tribe – and this takes time. We’ve got to keep showing up day-after day with generosity for years and years. When we’re doing direct marketing, we can see that the users clicked, but we can’t see if we’ve built into our relationship or if we’ve made a small withdrawal from our relational bank account.

So, on the one hand, Godin encourages us to carefully watch our metrics, and at the same time, he encourages us to be patient for results to come. Some – but not all — of this discrepancy can be resolved by understanding that Godin is encouraging a relationship and not advertising. While advertising is necessary, he feels like advertising is unearned media.

No More Rock Stars

Fundamentally, Godin explains, marketing has changed. It’s more personalized, fragmented, and diluted. We simply don’t have as many megastars as we used to have. Growing up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, I can remember Madonna and Michael Jackson. I don’t expect that we’ll see stars of their magnitude any longer. Things are just too diffuse. (See America’s Generations for more on differences in generations.)

Instead of trying to reach everyone, we should be focusing on our target market and finding a few raving fans who will share their passion for your solution with others. You want a group – even if it’s small – that believes so strongly in your solution that they’re willing to tell everyone they know.

Brand Promise

Most of the time, when I’m talking to an organization about their brand, they instantly move to a discussion of their logo, fonts, and colors. They talk about what it looks like, but that’s not the core of a brand. The core of a brand is the promise that the brand makes to consumers. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explained that every brand makes a promise, and the strength of the brand relies upon their ability to deliver to that promise.

Marketing and Pricing

Your approach to marketing and your pricing are not distinct things. They’re related. If your brand promise is luxury and your price is low, the consumer won’t be able to reconcile the difference. They’ll be stuck trying to decide your messaging or your price. In the end, they’ll accept your price as truth – whether it is or not. When you’re deciding the spot you want to occupy in the market, you must consider not only the key emotion that you’re selling but also whether your price supports that position.

Brands have the power to cause people to spend money for little or no additional value. They’re selling status. They’re selling exclusivity and elite. That status is something that many people are quite willing to pay for. Somewhere deep inside, they believe in scarcity, and that, when things get scarce, those with the higher status will get the remaining resources. The problem is that the things marketers sell for status have no relationship to how much or little someone will have when resources become scarce. But, then again, This is Marketing.

Book Review-Got Your Attention?

It takes more than a clever title and a tagline to connect with people. That’s just one of the messages from Sam Horn’s book Got Your Attention?. The chapters are short, just like the goldfish-sized attention span that Horn says we all have today. She’s not the only one. In Fascinate, Sally Hogshead sets the same expectation. Whether we’re literally as distractible as a goldfish, or it just seems that way, getting people’s attention is hard. In Got Your Attention?, Horn teaches you how to get – and keep – people’s attention.


In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how technology has simultaneously increased our connection to one another and moved us farther apart. We can share screens and web cams with people on the other side of the planet – yet fewer and fewer people feel like they’ve got someone with whom they can share an intimate conversation. Horn quotes Stephen Marche: “We suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another.”

This leaves us all with a longing for connection – a connection that we crave ourselves and that we can offer to others. In offering connection to others, we can get their attention.


Connection comes when people are interested in each other, and the headwaters of interest start at intrigue. When we encounter something interesting, our reticular activating system (RAS) focuses our attention, so that we can move closer and find out more. (See Change or Die for more on the RAS.)

For some, they believe they don’t have anything interesting to say. For others, they can’t wait for the other person to stop talking, so they can start talking about themselves more. Neither end of the self-confidence spectrum serves us well when it comes to having a dialogue with the other person.


We know that our first step is to create intrigue, to get folks to want to know what we know – and we should simultaneously cultivate a sense of intrigue for what they do. However, it’s important to keep our end goals in mind. We want more than just an opportunity to sell or a chance at some funding we need. Our goal is connection. Whether we can help the other person in their business goals or not, can we find a way to connect with them?

The initial spark of interest comes from intrigue, and the result of interest is dialogue. Dialogue isn’t just communication. It’s not a barrage of words we inflict upon each other. Dialogue is the road on which we travel when we’re looking for the opportunity to connect with others. It’s a special and difficult form of communication that requires both parties be vulnerable with their whole self and who they are.

The ability to have a dialogue requires a degree of self-confidence. (For more on dialogue, see Dialogue.)


While Horn’s advice addresses the tactical issues surrounding getting people’s attention and how to maintain it, there’s a normal range that it works in – and sometimes people are outside of that range. I was reminded of an old chemistry class comment that chemical reactions often only happen inside of a pH range. As a result, you can put two chemicals together that should normally react violently, but if the pH is wrong, nothing happens.

The same is true of Horn’s advice. She recounts a story of an aspiring author whose meeting with a publisher goes horribly wrong, and the author doesn’t attempt to pitch her idea to anyone else – even when there were opportunities available to her. Her self-confidence and self-esteem were so crushed that she couldn’t continue to put herself out there in ways that someone else might be intrigued by. Despite this, other than a brusque comment that you must keep going, there’s little advice for how to build and maintain your self-esteem.

Before you can take advantage of Horn’s advice about the tactics you can use to increase your performance, you’ve got to find your courage. That is, you must find enough self-confidence to be able to step up to the plate and take a swing. One way to start that journey is to look to the advice of Find Your Courage.

The Introduction

If you were taught sales at any point in your world, it’s likely that someone taught you to perfect your elevator pitch. The idea was that, if you were in an elevator and someone asked you what you do, you have 30 seconds until one of you is going to get off the elevator. How do you express what you do in 30 seconds? If you were good, you were taught to say that you do A, B, and C, then end with the question about whether they know about those things or need them. The idea is to throw out three lines for potential connection and allow them to pick up one of them.

Horn’s approach is different. Instead of explaining three things you do – or three problems you solve – the idea is that you ask them three “did you know” questions. The point is to find something that is intriguing to the audience. It needs to be intriguing enough to want to know more. From there, Horn recommends transitioning to a set of “wouldn’t you like…” statements and finally close with the fact that you’ve already created that solution – so they don’t have to imagine.

This illustrates a difference in perspective. The elevator pitch isn’t really a pitch. It’s a summary and an open invitation for the other person to engage. Horn’s approach is what you would do from a platform, when you’re speaking to a group and you want to draw them into your line of thinking. Because this opening is so important, let’s look at it in more detail.

Did You Know?

Did you know that web articles can be read in about one minute? The average person reads somewhere between 450 and 600 words per minute, and most web articles now are only 600 words. Did you know that reading is 3 to 4 times quicker than listening? Most people speak at the rate of only 150 words per minute compared to the reading rate of between 450 to 600 words.

While you don’t know exactly where I’m going with these questions, didn’t it get your attention? “Did you know” engages your brain to test what is being said. “Did you know” can lead you to discovering the scope of a problem that you didn’t even know about. Did you know that roughly 100,000 people die each year from healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) in the US alone? That’s true – and now you have a sense for the scale of the problem.

“Did you know” can also provide a different perspective. Did you know that only 50% of the high-risk objects in a hospital room are cleaned during a standard “terminal” (between patients) room cleaning? Did this question move you to expect that the hospital room you’re entering is clean or dirty?

“Did you know” can also expose previously unconsidered possibilities. Did you know that you can reduce healthcare-associated infections by helping employees escape burnout? Most people wouldn’t directly make the link between provider burnout and patient outcomes – but the research says that there is a direct causal relationship. Most folks wouldn’t have considered working on employee mental health to improve outcomes, but that new possibility may be more effective than the standard training.

Wouldn’t You Like?

Imagine what it would be like for your audience to start leaning in and asking for more information. Imagine what it would be like to have a line of people waiting to speak with you after your presentation. This strategy of “Wouldn’t you like”-type questions and “imagine” statements decouples the possibility of the solution from the presentation of the solution.

The traditional strategy of telling someone that you can do something is met with initial resistance. Our initial reaction is to find ways that this can’t be possible. By using the keyword “imagine” or phrase “Wouldn’t you like,” you remove the constraint of whether it’s possible or not. This, coupled with a concrete vision, can be a powerful way to help to drive to your solution.

The Solution

The closing is to indicate that the solution they’re dreaming of isn’t a dream after all – it’s something you can do. It’s something that has been done and is real. After making it clear that it’s real, you simply need to apply credibility markers, so they know your claim of the solution is something they can trust in.

The Phrase-that-Pays

If you’ve ever watched infomercials at 3 in the morning, you’ve heard phrases that get stuck in your head. Ronco will forever be remembered for “Set it and forget it.” You may remember Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign or Calgon’s 1970s-era “Ancient Chinese Secret” campaign. These phrases got stuck somewhere in our consciousness.

Certainly, some degree of this is just the sheer number of times that we heard them due to marketing budgets behind these key phrases. However, there’s a bit more to it than just that. Horn recommends these tips:

  • Distill: Condense your call to action into eight words or less.
  • Rhythm: Put your words into a beat so they’re easy to repeat.
  • Alliteration: Use words that start with the same sound.
  • Rhyme: Use rhyme if you want to be remembered over time.
  • Pause and punch: Deliver your phrase-that-pays with distinctive inflection.

Undivided or Undevoted Attention

Horn admits that she doesn’t always garner the undivided attention of her children all the time. Most parents recognize that they sometimes get the undevoted attention from their children as they focus on their phones, a show, or a game.

The question becomes how you can convert the undevoted attention of your audience into undivided attention.In the service of the goal of getting people’s undivided attention to your message, you may want to see if Horn Got Your Attention? in her book.

Book Review-Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

I’ve known for some time now that it’s better to be lucky than smart. The organizations and people that are successful are more frequently the result of luck than intelligence or skill. So, then the key question when you’re looking to compete is the one answered in Clayton Christensen’s title Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. The unfortunate thing is that there aren’t any easy answers.

Jobs to Be Done

The kernel at the core of Competing Against Luck is the thing Christensen has been working on for a while. Back in The Innovator’s DNA, he spoke about how consumers hire products to do jobs for them – to solve problems that they don’t want to have to solve for themselves, or at least not have to solve them over and over again. One story includes why people buy milkshakes, and the split between two different answers. The first answer is for the morning commute, to have something that will stick with people during their drive and through the morning. The second answer is as a way to say yes to a child to one thing – instead of having to say no to everything.

This example presents a problem, because the morning commuter wants a shake that lasts longer. It’s thicker, so it should be served through a smaller straw, and thus take longer to finish. (See Nudge for simple and unconscious ways to change the outcomes without people noticing.) However, the parent wants the shake they buy their child to be done as soon as possible, so they can move on with the next thing on their task list. The product is the same, but the job that the product is being hired to do is different.

Cheap Labor

One of the interesting things that happens when this “jobs to be done” theory is applied to innovation is that, frequently, the disruptor – the innovator – in the market enters the playing field at a significant disadvantage. Their products are technically inferior to the historical products – but much cheaper. This allows many people to try them out and allows the disruptor to develop more robust product offerings.

Even Khan Academy, which was started by Sal Khan to help his young cousin, was “cheaper and crappier” than the educational videos already online – but it allowed students to learn at their own pace, and that made the difference. The disruptors are those in the market who can focus on the aspects of the product that are essential and do it at a price that the market can bear.

Hiring for a Different Job

An important point when considering a potential innovation is whether it solves the same problem as the existing players in the market. For instance, Airbnb competes not just with hotels but also with not going on the trip or staying with friends or relatives. Uber competes not just with taxi and limousine services but also with public transportation and asking a friend to give you a lift.

The beauty of innovations is that they can help to redefine a category in ways that broaden the potential market. These changes are natural as the market evolves. Magical numbers happen in the market where utilization takes off. VCRs and DVD players – for instance – both started to take off in popularity when the mean price point for them hit around $200. Suddenly, they became viable alternatives to going out to the movies a few times a year. The same is true for high definition televisions. Once they became “affordable,” they changed how people started to think about where and when to buy them.

Needs and Behaviors

Behaviors aren’t explained by needs. There’s a stunning gap between what people say they want and are willing to spend money on and what they will part with money for. There’s a disconnect between the emotional brain that makes the buying decisions and the rational brain that answers survey questions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.) It seems what people will actually do is shaped by their perception of how OK the solution is – and how powerfully they feel the need.

Everett Rogers discovered that there are many factors for the rate of diffusion (or adoption) of an innovation with Iowa farmers as explained in The Diffusion of Innovations. He found that some people were willing to adopt very early, where others needed more social evidence that the innovation worked. So just having a need isn’t sufficient to cause a change in behavior. It takes a sufficiently large motivation to break the inertia of continuing to do the same thing.

Indicators and Causality

As Nassim Taleb points out in The Black Swan and Antifragile, causality and correlation are different things. Competing Against Luck quotes Nate Silver from The Signal and the Noise in his clarification about correlation and causation. It turns out that neither ice cream sales nor forest fires cause the other. It just so happens that they’re both correlated with warm weather.

Sometimes the key metric, the one that leads to the results, isn’t the one that you’d expect. (See How to Measure Anything for more on leading indicators.) Batting average isn’t – it turns out – the best way to measure offensive success in baseball – on-base percentage is. When looking for innovations, we need to consider whether we’re measuring our results against the right yardstick.


Christensen is effectively advocating for ethnography. He’s saying that someone needs to get to the point that they understand the culture of the target audience so well that they can see the product the people need – that they never even realized they needed. (See The Ethnographic Interview.) Sometimes, you can’t listen to what they’re saying. You must look for ways to experience the situation with them to learn more. (See Creative Confidence for more.)

It’s possible to do market research with the illusion of truth in quantitative numbers. However, to truly understand the nature of the situation, you need the qualitative answers. It’s only through these answers that you can see the struggles that are washed away by statistics and averaging. Qualitative answers give you a palpable feel for the people you’re studying as potential customers. It’s in this feel that you can often find the best insights.

Peace of Mind

If you stare deeply into the data about innovations, a strange thought starts to emerge. Peace of mind is a necessity in today’s world. It’s not a luxury upgrade. If you think about successful products, whatever they are, they’re likely selling peace of mind. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups.) Peace of mind is so hard to come by in today’s world, we often find ourselves seeking it out – and craving the relief it provides.

Peace of mind takes many forms. Some of the peace of mind can be conveyed by the brand, and some of the peace of mind is conveyed in how completely the solution solves the job for which the item was hired for.

Commanders Intent

The armed forces, and particularly the Army, has been known for its command and control attitude. Great plans are created and assumed to be how things need to happen. However, there’s an old army saying that “no plan survives engagement with the enemy.” That’s why orders now come with a specific “commander’s intent” component. That is, in addition to the specific details of the mission, the commander’s goal is clearly articulated, so that the army soldier can find a way to meet the intent, even if the specific plans are thwarted. This commander’s intent is key to soldiers operating in the uncertain world of today.

Luck and Timing

Much of luck, I believe, is timing. The market must be in the right spot for the right idea. We can try to time the market, outthink it, or outsmart it; but, in the end, it’s luck and, particularly, the right timing that drive a lot of success in business.

While I appreciate Christensen’s title, I’m not sure that there’s much specific to offer in the way of Competing Against Luck – unless you expect that your behaviors are going to bring you better luck. Still, trying to learn how to compete is better than not.

Book Review-Email Marketing Demystified: Build a Massive Mailing List, Write Copy that Converts and Generate More Sales

It’s been several years ago now. I had a technology client that was a marketing firm. In a conversation with the president, we were talking about getting responses to an advertising campaign. He said to me, “I can guarantee you a number of responses, I just can’t guarantee you it will be cost effective.” That stuck with me as a fundamental truth of marketing. I had always thought that you might not get enough responses, but, in truth, if you’re willing to spend enough money, you can always generate the responses – it’s a matter of whether that will be cost effective or not.

That’s why people turn to email marketing. In general, it’s cost effective. The Direct Marketing Association says that, on average, for every $1 spent in email marketing, the business gets $43 in sales. That’s a huge return. However, how do you get those kinds of returns? That’s what Email Marketing Demystified: Build a Massive Mailing List, Write Copy that Converts, and Generate More Sales seeks to help you do.

The Point of It All

Before getting into the details of the how, it’s important to focus on the why. (See Start with Why.) You do email marketing to market something – but what is that something? In some cases, it can be consulting services. In others, it’s product sales. However, product sales to whom, and what is the product being sold?

For me, we sell The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users to corporate customers, who buy it for everyone in their organization. We sell courses to individual corporate buyers who are looking to learn more about SharePoint themselves. We want these products in the hands of more people.

One of the insights from Email Marketing Demystified is that if you continue to pitch the same products to the same audiences, you’ll see diminishing returns. The business question becomes how much time do you spend marketing, and how much time do you spend creating new products? There is – of course – no answer to this question. You can build lists and write great copy, but if you’re not selling products, eventually the whole system will fly apart.

Copy Writing

The heart of getting conversions on your emails – moving someone from reading to responding – is copywriting. On the surface, this is an easy task. Everyone learned to write in grade school. However, the subtle arts of copywriting aren’t as easy as they seem. The difference between a 1% and a 2% conversion rate aren’t impressive until you realize that this doubled your effectiveness – or can move you from one hundred purchases to two hundred.

Simple tips like keeping your headlines and subjects to five to ten words that will fit on a single line of text flow throughout the book. The copy on a button can dramatically change how many people click and respond. (“Sign Up Now (Free)” is the recommended copy for a button.)

List Building

In the category of list building, Email Marketing Demystified isn’t silent – but it’s definitely not verbose. Effectively you’re directed to Traction and to for finding ways to build your list. There is the tongue in cheek response that you just build great content for years and years until it starts to work. Of course, no one wants to hear this – but to some extent, it’s true. The Halo Effect focuses us on the truth that the world is filled with probabilities, not certainties. You can increase your chances – the probability – that your list will grow, but there’s no certainty in its growth.

A good friend of mine who teaches marketing once told me that all marketing is “throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks.” I can tell you that in my experience this is true. There are some things that I thought were going to be great for list building that did nothing. Other things that I didn’t expect much from have been very useful to me.

In short, if you’re looking for solid techniques for actually building your list, you may need to look elsewhere.

SPAM Shift

Before completely leaving the topic of list building, I should say that there has been a shift from purchased lists and mass mailings to smaller numbers of people who are more actively engaged in your content. While it’s still a valid list building technique to get someone else to pitch your offer to their list, rarely does acquiring a list work these days. Lists todays have to be built.

The tools that exist to help users protect themselves from SPAM have becoming increasingly more effective, and this may have something to do with the shift. Major mail systems are prioritizing the emails that you interact with, and, as a result, the massive number of emails that are being sent – and delivered – aren’t being seen by the users.

List building isn’t like the old days, where you could build your list by acquiring it.

Frequency and Timing

One of the considerations when you have a list is how frequently you should be emailing your list. The guidelines are interesting… No more than once a day, and not less than once a week. Of course, if you look at books like Launch, they’ll tell you to send reminders on your launch day so you may end up above the once a day rule – but at least it’s not every day.

My own results have been mixed. I believe that, between product launches, there is a place on your refresh list for emails to be sent out once a month. Basically, these are people who are interested in you and what you’re doing, but there’s nothing that they need to buy right now. You don’t want to inundate them – but at the same time you don’t want them to forget you. I still send a monthly newsletter to people who are interested.

In addition to that, I send people email campaigns when they want them. We offer 30 Office Tips (delivered every other weekday) and a set of SharePoint Secrets that are delivered every three days. It’s possible that we’ll be emailing folks more than once a day – but only if they’ve asked us for that frequency of contact.

The other dimension is how long do you hold onto a lead? The recommendation from Email Marketing Demystified is to have autoresponder sequences that last three to five months. This feels long to me, but who knows? They also recommend that if someone hasn’t interacted with you in six months you should remove them from your list.


I don’t know that I’d say that Email Marketing Demystified lives up to its title. It feels more like a set of clues to find your own path than a secret decoder ring. However, if you’ve been doing email marketing for a while, you probably realize there is no such thing as Email Marketing Demystified – the best you can hope for is some useful clues that make you a bit more productive.

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