Stop thinking about your website

by Chester McLaughlin on 28/03/2013

Stop thinking about your website. Think about your visitors. Think about what they’re thinking about. Think about what you want them to be thinking about. Think about how to change what they’re thinking about to what you want them to be thinking about.

Most of your visitors aren’t thinking about your website, at least not in any meaningful way. They’re thinking about the stuff on your website. Most people call that stuff content. That stuff is you, or if you’re a business that stuff is your brand. You are your stuff. It may be the tip of the iceberg and a gross oversimplification of who you are and what you do, but in the eyes, hearts, and minds of your first-time visitors, that stuff is you. Stop thinking about your website. Think about your stuff.

Now that you’re thinking about your stuff, stop and ask yourself, does your stuff *do* anything? Is its primary purpose informational or functional? If you stripped everything away, all the pretense, all the cleverness, all the web 2.0 design fads, all the SEO’d page titles and stock photography, what would be left? A button that does something or a message that communicates something?

Regardless of whether your stuff is informational or functional, make sure it works on a napkin. Literally, go get a pen and a napkin and show off your idea, message, or feature. If it can’t be explained on a napkin, then you have not distilled it into a potent enough concept to be brought to life as a website—or as anything else.

I hope you’re getting the picture. You’re website doesn’t matter nearly as much as the stuff on it. And if you think your stuff *is* a website, you’ve misunderstood me. Twitter is not a website. Craigslist is not a website. Anthony Robbins is not a website. It’s functionality, it’s content, it’s stuff. And it just so happens to be available on a website.

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Inform & Excite

by Chester McLaughlin on 8/11/2012

I feel then I think. And afterwards I believe.

This the fundamental marketing cycle. This is why branding is possible. Imagine a shoe or glass rectangle. So what, right? Now imagine that same shoe with a swoosh and that same glass rectangle with an apple engraved on it. Now you’re excited (or dismayed I suppose, depending on your brand persuasion).

Based on a thousand indicators (including brand, context, tone of messaging, etc.) we develop an immediate emotional response to each marketing piece we see. It could be boredom, excitement, or disgust, but it’s still an emotional response. That emotional response leads us to reject, ignore, or pursue information about the product or idea we’re being sold. And of course after we’ve reached a conclusion (whether by using the product/service, or by using deductive reasoning), we form a belief about the product, service or brand.

So when I’m approaching a communication piece, whether it’s a website, flyer, or speech, I keep two objectives in mind: inform and excite.

While “inform” is listed first, it’s merely because with absolutely NO information, people tend to just feel confused—there’s no framework on which to hang their emotions. So assuming there’s a foundation of information, my primary goal is to excite my audience.

Excitement is great. It’s anticipatory, positive, and it’s usually actionable and contagious.

What can you say or show to your audience to excite them? Is it “5% off” or is it a photo of someone actively relishing your product? Once you’ve won their focus and excited their emotions, are you following through with effective information?  Does the information overwhelm your audience, diffuse their excitement, or brush over necessary facts or details?

Ask yourself the three questions: How can I excite my audience? What information will catalyze that excitement into action? What beliefs do you want to develop or reinforce?

I feel then I think. And afterwards I believe.


Passion is the Best Currency

by Chester McLaughlin on 13/06/2012

Jacob is an artist. More specifically he’s a professional painter and graphic designer. He currently favors mural work over the often unappreciated tedium required by smaller canvases.

During an after-dinner discussion about life, the world, and everything, he commented that more often than not his pro bono clients get his better work and tend to be more happy with the final result. While not terribly shocking, it is a bit counter intuitive. I would have thought paying clients would provide the leverage necessary to elicit truly great work from him. And while that may sometimes be the case, it turns out that money isn’t the best motivator. Gasp.

So if money isn’t the best way to motivate an artist, and if Seth Godin is correct in his assessment that Knowledge Workers are at their essence artists, what’s the best way to motivate the elite of today’s work force?

Let’s look back to Jacob. His pro bono clients often get a sweet deal because when he takes them on as clients, they have to sacrifice their urgency. They care enough to wait. They’re passionate enough about their project to let it fully develop. Jacob accomplishes this by allowing himself the luxury of only working on their project when he feels inspired to do so. And in between moments of inspiration, the project stews in his artist brain, steeping in the creative juices that are the byproduct of his paying clients projects.

It’s quite simple really. We’re at our very best when both our intellect and our emotions are engaged. And while money can sometimes redirect our attention, it can’t maintain a hold on both our thoughts and feelings for very long.

So, next time you have the opportunity to hire an artist (or knowledge worker, or marketer, or story teller), make sure you have the right currency to maintain a hold on their intellect and emotions. Make sure you have enough passion to pay them.

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A Little Background

by Chester McLaughlin on 13/06/2012

Technology as a Commodity
I began my career as a developer at Lambesis—a highly creative ad agency. After seven years there, I moved on to Hume Lake Christian Camps for the next five years to join their creative team as Marketing Technologist. During this 12 year timespan I’ve seen technology turn from a cutting edge instrument into a decidedly blunt sledgehammer. I view this transition as the inevitable shift from novelty to commodity.

The Human Problem
Practically speaking, the commoditization of communication technologies has enabled me to spend less time focusing on the particular tools required to complete a project and instead focus on the original purpose and goals of each project. This means more research, strategy, copywriting, and managing than coding. Connecting a client’s passion with the eyes, ears, head and ultimately heart of their constituents is primarily a human problem not based in technology at all—and yet technological tools are still the nuts and bolts of the final solution.

The Next Step
This is where I’ve found my current consulting niche, helping my clients take the next step towards their organization’s vision. Sometimes this means sitting down and rewriting their marketing copy so that it connects with our impatient, ad-savvy techno-culture. Sometimes it means helping them see that their CMS isn’t their problem, it’s their internal workflow. And more often than not it’s simply giving them the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about which technologies will effectively support their marketing efforts.


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The New Cutting Edge

by Chester McLaughlin on 8/03/2012

The cutting edge represents more than a cliché, a movie from 1992, or an insatiable appetite for the latest technology.

The new cutting edge is authenticity, generosity, and community. Notice you can only own the first—the last two must be invested in and cultivated.

The most effective technologies are transparent tools in comparison to the processes they facilitate. And the most meaningful process a person can engage in is human communication. So who are you talking to? What are you saying? What tools best facilitate the conversation?

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Who you are, What you do

by Chester McLaughlin on 29/02/2012

You don’t own your brand identity. It’s owned by your fans, critics, customers, and constituents. It lives in their hearts and minds—which means it can’t be defined by brute force. A brand is defined by casting a realistic yet aspirational vision of your organization then fulfilling that vision through your products and services. This type of conceptual leadership requires you to be able to proactively articulate who you are and what you do in a clear, concise, and consistent manner.

No one wants to be mischaracterized. But it’s impossible to communicate a full and perfect understanding of who you are in a reasonable amount of time—let alone within the typical span of time print or electronic media allows for. This is why, from a marketing perspective, it is critical to create a clear and simple summation of who you are and what you do.

This summation, or thirty second pitch, may not be what guides your organization internally. It may not even be your mission statement. But it’s the tip of the iceberg to all who interact with you. It’s what each one of your employees should be able to articulate.

After all, if your own organization can’t consistently articulate who you are and what you do, how can you expect your customers, clients, and constituents to do so?

So, how do you go about solidifying your brand identity and creating this powerful thirty second pitch? It’s simple. Identify your core audience. Identify your core message to that audience.

Ok, it may not exactly be simple, but it’s not impossible and it’s most definitely worth doing.


The Road We Walk

by Chester McLaughlin on 30/01/2012

The road we walk constantly changes and yet it’s constancy creates a sense of sameness.

Each step is abstracted into a vision of the whole road. Each step is new, but each step is simply repeating the past.

Young men look at the road in front of them and see one hundred thousand paths and variations.

Old men look down the road in front of them and see the same path they’ve traveled all along.

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Technology Guilt

by Chester McLaughlin on 28/12/2011

Emotionally Involved

Why do we become so emotionally involved with our tools? How can we feel betrayed by a golf club, mocked by a pull-start lawn mower, or sabotaged by backup software? How can a pair of shoes or a guitar bring about feelings of guilt? How can an emotionally inert, inanimate object affect our emotions so suddenly and powerfully?

When we understand that the value of a tool is directly related to the potential that tool represents, then it becomes clear why we’re so emotionally involved with our tools.

Focusing on the Potential

I bought a guitar a decade and a half ago. It cost $300. I still have it. I’ve played it 20 times. Maybe. And when I look at it I’m filled with mixed emotions  of regret, guilt, inadequacy, and shame. Not because I owe the guitar anything, or even because I promised anyone that I’d use the darn thing. It’s because I love music and dream of someday being able to create music on my own, and when I see the guitar it reminds me that I am not accomplishing my goal or fulfilling my dream.

It’s not an overwhelming feeling, and it passes in an instant. I don’t think I’m alone in this, or even in the minority. Most of us have a possession or activity (or person) that consistently evokes in us a feeling of guilt. And the reason for this has nothing to do with the object, but has everything to do with the potential of the object—the task that we imagined we’d accomplish with it, or the person the tool would enable us to become. This is both natural and understandable.

Potential vs. Theoretical

I’ve frequently heard people express a certain feeling of guilt when they think about their neglected blog or twitter account. Some people feel a sense of obligation to technology that can’t necessarily be blamed on social pressure or financial investment. I think it’s because people inherently recognize the immensely powerful potential of technological tools, particularly ones that enable instant global communication. But without a specific goal or end result in mind, a tool’s value becomes more theoretical than potential. So, if you have nothing to say, why do you need a microphone? If you have no goal to accomplish and no vision to pursue why are you emotionally investing in a particular tool?

Don’t be passionate about swinging a hammer, be passionate about building wonderful furniture. Don’t be passionate about social networks, be passionate about connecting people or sharing meaningful ideas. Don’t be passionate about technology, be passionate about humans.


Scale and Scalability

by Chester McLaughlin on 26/12/2011

The scale of a problem dictates the solution.

I’ve built a small script that automates the creation of multiple time-lapses from webcam snapshots. It works well and I don’t have any plans on fundamentally changing the code. At one point in time, I considered turning the script into a web service that would allow an unlimited number of people to have time-lapses generated from their own webcams. While thinking through what it would take to accomplish this I realized that my script (and the server it was running on) simply could not create more than a few dozen time-lapses an hour without failing. Image storage, timing, processing power, multiple instances, and bandwidth were just a few of the issues that arose when I looked at my problem on a larger scale. The solution that I identified was unfortunately out of my area of expertise, and while still captivated by the idea of a web service to create time-lapses for every cubical-sitting, cat-loving webcam owner, I’ve embraced the fact that even though I’ve solved the problem on a small scale, I can’t (within reason) solve the problem on a large scale.

The scale of the solution presents a problem of it’s own.

Take the problem of cookies. Say your going to start a business baking cookies. The task of supplying your local coffee shop with fresh-baked cookies is infinitely simpler than the task of supplying a nation-wide grocery chain with fresh-baked cookies. While the process may still be the same—identify a recipe, procure ingredients, mix, bake, deliver, and collect—the solution will be directly shaped by the scale of the problem. Are there 100 grocery stores in the chain or 10,000? Are those stores distributed across six states or 48? These questions must be answered before the question of flavor or quality can even be considered. Simply put, the problem of baking four dozen cookies is an entirely different problem than baking four thousand dozen cookies, and the person who can identify and solve problems of scalability has a much more valuable skill set than the most talented baker of cookies.

Scale is different than scalability.

During the early 2000′s, I spent several years working with a small advertising agency that frequently fluctuated in size between 40 and 50 employees. The reason for this fluctuation was that Bill, the creative director and part owner, had identified his optimum scale of operation. He knew that once the organization grew beyond about 45 employees he would have to drastically change the way he led, managed, and operated his organization. So instead of focusing on scalability, he focused on maintaining a specific scale that allowed him to be very effective.

Identify a scale or a series of scales

Most organizations don’t have a hard cap on the number of employees they hire, instead they keep their labor costs at a certain percentage of their revenue. This practice is great if you don’t plan on growing. If you do plan on growing, at what point does your scale require a fundamentally different solution to your basic business problem? At what point will your cookie business require an IT specialist, ad buyer or distribution manager? In many cases, as an organization scales there are clear phases, caps or boundaries that, once crossed, require that you reassess your business strategy because, in all reality, you’re no longer in the same business. So why not think through the next 3-5 phases ahead of time and include those in your business plan? Or at least be like Bill and put a hard cap on growth so that you can instead focus on effectiveness and optimization.

The solution you’ve found to your problem is specific to the scale of the problem. How will your solution perform when your problem changes? Will you simply try harder? Will you simply double your resources? Or will you acknowledge that you’re dealing with a fundamentally different problem and create a fundamentally different solution.