Limiting choice can improve response

First, I apologize for my absence over the past three weeks.  I’ve been building a new website, Consultant Launch Pad, which is designed to help new consultants and people whose job searches may be at a point where they have to think about alternatives to pay the mortgage.  We have a lot of resources on the site to help you make your decision, set up your business, and get customers.  I invite you to come take a look.  Let us know what you think, suggest resources we don’t currently have, and join the Forum and ask — or answer some questions.  I think you’ll particularly like the 30 Second Launch Pad feature.

Anyway…

Too much choice can be paralyzing

I’m one of those people who believes that if you hear a good idea from three different sources, it’s probably worth paying attention to.   Today’s idea is Limit Choice.

It started with coming across Groupon, which is one of those businesses where customers are a great deal on a single item.  The deal depends on either a certain number of people taking it or it’s there until the supply runs out.   I signed up and while I haven’t bought anything yet, it’s true that the deals are great and I anticipate I will participate before too long.

A few days later I was listening to an interview where Gary Vaynerchuk, the author of “Crush It,” was offering some advice to start-ups.  He’s a bit over-the-top, but one of his pieces of advice had to do with simplicity and limiting choice.  Gary was talking about how he had tested the “Groupon” model in one of retail wine story by replacing a rack near the front that held 10 bargain wines with just one.  The result?  “We’re crushing it,’ he said.  “We’re selling these bottles at a staggering rate, one that trumps residual loss of not selling many products in that space.”

All this reminded me of one of the key “rules” we followed when offering credit-cards through the mail in a previous life.  We tested everything and inevitably found that Choice Suppresses.  The more variations on a card offer — different designs, different pricing, different value propositions — the fewer responses we received.

The reality is that people are overwhelmed these days.  We bring a lot of that on ourselves — travel teams, dance classes, and the like — but at some point businesses decided we needed more and more choices.  So that’s why today I can walk into a store and find razor blades with four, five, and even more blades when one can really do the trick (at a fraction of the price).

Think about places where you might be offering excessive choice to customers and what impact that might be having on their buying decision.  Are there opportunities to reduce the choice — perhaps by careful targeting of benefits — and actually increase response?

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Rats! to taking a conservative approach to branding

In the midst of some new projects and designing a new website that has a real chance to impact people’s lives, I’ve gotten to thinking about whether my personal-branding materials go far enough to explain what makes me different, whether I’m adequately reinforcing the “bulldog” brand on my personal website and elsewhere.

I’m not sure I’m being in-your-face enough, because that’s one of the things that makes me different from other communicators.  So I’m taking a second look at my website to get away from trying to make my message appeal to everyone who visits my page (or my LinkedIn profile) and appeal to the people who are actually looking for what I have to sell.

It was with that mindset that I came across Dan Pink’s posting from earlier this week and realized that this ad for the DC Metro  truly reflects the “bulldog” mentality that I need to more fully embrace…

As way of background, the Washington, D.C. subway system bans eating on its trains.  There are many different ways you can reinforce this message, but this is about as visceral as it gets.

Pink (who wrote Drive and A Whole New Mind) notes that he likes to highlight advertising that is emotionally intelligent (i.e., it either encourages empathy on the part of the viewer or demonstrates empathy for his or her situation), this one falls into the category of advertising that just “shocks and awe(s) us into thinking — and occasionally into action.”

I view it from a slightly different perspective, as someone who has embraced a goal of identifying ways that we can “subtract the obvious and add the meaningful” in business and our personal lives.  I can imagine DC Metro officials listening to their agency pitch this ad and saying, “you want to use a picture of what?” in our new campaign.

It’s bold.  It eliminates the obvious (statistics or a reminder that there are rules against eating on the trains) and gets right to the meaningful.

We need more of that in our writing — visceral images that make a clear and compelling point.

‘Creative confidence’ trumps historical indicators of future career success

Photo: Associated Press

As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage.  Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.

David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer.  As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.”   He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have  a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”

Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon.  Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase.   It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.

But Kelley’s Not Alone In This

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post.  He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:

“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”

He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible.  It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.

All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity.  I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence.  And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.

Taglines: Is yours a home run?

Tyler chose his college on Thursday.  He’s headed to Washington, D.C. this fall to American University and its terrific film school.

At the risk of oversimplifying, American has a great tagline — Media That Matters — and a group of passionate people who believe the mantra and communicate it consistently.

From the academic counselor to the professors to whom he spoke to the School of Communication’s materials, the message is consistent and to the point.  Had I had my work hat on, I’ll bet I could have stopped anyone involved in the Film and Media Arts department and heard the theme (or a tight variation on it). 

Tyler wears his heart on his sleeve…and his eyes don’t lie, and both his mother and I knew the moment he made his decision.  It was when he heard “Media That Matters.”  He wants to make a difference.  He wants to make documentaries and touch people’s lives.  His path could change over the next four years, but I kinda doubt it.  The medium could change — film, Internet, or something else — but the direction and passion won’t.

As good as the tagline is, American backs it up with strong supporting messages…a great story, if you will.  Where better than Washington if you want to get involved in effecting change? If you’re interested in documentaries and environmental film, we have Centers devoted to those disciplines and we work closely with National Geographic, Discovery, the Smithsonian, and so on.  We have professors who work in the business and are looking for passionate students looking for experience.  You get the idea.

Media That Matters.  Three words that resonate with a kid like Tyler.  Three words that tell a story.  That ignite passion.  That change lives.

What’s the tagline for your business or your job search?   Is it simple enough?  Does it tell your target audience who you are and what you do?  Do you support it with all your other marketing materials, from your resume or company fact sheet and collateral to your LinkedIn profile?  And perhaps most important, does your tagline tell the person who’s reading it how you’re going to “scratch their itch” (i.e., solve their problem or address their needs)?

If it doesn’t, it won’t matter how terrific you actually are.  You just may finish second to someone who gets it right.

Nike’s Tiger Ad: Simplicity with an edge

I just finished The Art of Simplicity by John Maeda, who boils simplicity down to being about “subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” 

Nike “relaunched” its sponsorship of Tiger Woods today with an ad that subtracts any mention of its footwear or clothing, color video, music, or sight of Tiger hitting one of his extraordinary golf shots.  It instead uses a single zoom shot of Tiger looking incredibly sad with background audio of his dead father talking about responsibility.

So there’s no question the ad is simple.  But is it effective?  For those who haven’t seen it yet,  Tiger’s dad (who likely wasn’t talking about his son’s sexual indiscretions when he was recorded) is heard saying, “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”

I’d like to know Tiger’s answer to the question.  Based on his decision to approve using his father’s voice in this way I’d say no.  Did Nike achieve its goals?  Everyone’s talking about the ad, so the answer there is probably yes.  And it’s consistent with some of its previous ads focused on the personal branding of their spokespersons.  Remember Charles Barkley and his “I am not a role model” ad?  That was Nike too.

Tiger said during a press conference on Monday that he was just looking forward to getting back and playing golf.  This ad undermines that goal and leaves many thinking it’s all about the press coverage for Tiger and Nike.

The ad is simple.  The motives are not.  I doubt many of Nike’s target audience will change their buying habits as a result of this ad.  But the consistency of the brand message and subtly reminding people they didn’t drop Tiger may be enough. Not that it matters all that much, but I don’t see this ad as helping Tiger’s efforts to restore his brand, unless you want to view it as further penance.

Getting back to John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity, I don’t believe Tiger and Nike satisfied the second half of his core law.  The obvious was subtracted, but very little meaning was added.  Perhaps a simple shot of Tiger juggling a golf ball at the end of a club, apologizing to fans and saying he’s back and committed to re-earning the trust of his family and fans would have been more appropriate…and more consistent with the Just Do It brand.

Five ways to improve your LinkedIn profile today

Give your LinkedIn profile a helping hand.

I’ve been helping some job seekers improve their LinkedIn profiles in an effort to increase the number of recruiters and potential employers who can find them online.  Here are five ways I think you could improve your results if you’re not already doing them:

  1. Write a Compelling Headline.   It’s one thing to list what you do if you already have a job (and in that case you should include your company’s name).  It’s something different if you’re looking for work or clients.  Would you read a newspaper story that says Dog Bites Man?  Probably not.  Grab the reader’s attention.  Keep in mind that it’s what people see when they accept your invite.
  2. Change your Status Update regularly.  I know someone who provides employee-communications services who changes his status update nearly every day.  My impression?  He’s always busy and probably has a lot of people working for him.  I was really surprised when I had a chance to work with him recently to find that his was actually a pretty small shop.  But I suspect he gets a decent amount of business from people who see the activity and regular updates on LinkedIn and view those as de facto referrals.  The same thing is true for job seekers: Show activity, direction, and motivation through your Status Updates!
  3. Focus on your Summary.  First, you need to have one.  I’ve been surprised to see how many people who are actively looking for jobs are only using the Experience sections.  Talk about what you do most often, what you want to be doing, and explain why someone would want to hire you or work with you.  Show what makes you special and/or different from everyone else who’s searching for people.  Make them want to contact you.
  4. Proofread it.  People who know me know that I’ve rejected great job candidates because of a typo in their resumes.  I believe typos are the best indication of your attention to detail.  If you don’t care about your resume or LinkedIn profile — also known as your most important marketing document — why would a prospective employer or client think you’re going to care about their project?  Check your spelling.  Check for run-ons and fragments. Take a look at it after you save it; you will often get weird breaks within paragraphs. 
  5. Ask for Recommendations.  Be smart and provide clear direction.  Ask people who really know you to focus on the skills that are most likely to get you hired.  Getting a recommendation that talks about your negotiation skills isn’t going to do you a lot of good if you’re trying to get a job writing business plans.

I’m a big believer in karma when it comes to job searches.  One other thing you might do is go through your list of Connections and pick a couple and send out an unsolicited Recommendation.  Take a look at their summaries and see what they’re looking for and tailor your recommendation toward that.

Portfolio Careers: Is consulting in your future?

If you're at a fork in the road between consulting and your full-time job search, keep in mind that consulting is no walk in the park.

So you’ve been out of work for far longer than you — or anyone else in the family — ever expected.  You had — or more correctly, have — something special but nobody seems to be seeing it.  You keep hearing that good jobs that seem to fit you perfectly attracted 200+ resumes in three hours.  And nobody’s calling back.

And now your severance is gone.  Or will be soon.  What’s next? 

Assuming the issue is not your failure to develop a compelling personal brand or effectively help recruiters and hiring managers find you,  for many people, the answer to the What’s Next? question is exploring consulting or 1099 work (and there is a difference, but that’s a different post). 

The New York Times says we’ve lost 8.4 million jobs in this recession and many of those jobs aren’t coming back.  As many as 23% of U.S. workers are operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, contractors, or micropreneurs, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The percentage of unemployed workers starting companies rose to 8.6% in 2009, a four-year high, with the biggest increases among people 55 and over, according to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas outplacement firm.  The underemployment rate — which counts people who have given up looking for work and those who are working part time for lack of full-time positions — has been hovering over 17% for a few months now.

The trend toward “portfolio careers” — where employees cobble a career together from multiple consulting (or 1099) engagements is growing and demand for high-end temporary business talent is not focused on cost-cutting projects but on driving innovation.

But not so fast.  Even with a great value proposition or skill, it’s not that easy.  First you need to think through whether you have the temperment for the ups and downs of this strategy.  Then you need to think about company structures, the sales process, and a myriad of other things.

Recapturing what you used to make may not happen for years, if ever.   The percentage of new projects you capture will be much lower than you might expect.  You can’t do aa full-time job search and consult at the same time…at least not effectively. For many people, the process of selling yourself is more daunting than a root canal and may require skills that are somewhat alien to those you had when your company was giving you direction.

On the other hand…

The best way to find a full-time job may be through an “audition strategy,” where you demonstrate your value to a full-time employer prospect through a short-term project.  Many people think that’s the best way to separate themselves from the masses these days.

And this may be a way to pay the bills and prevent you from taking a job that will make you miserable.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be blogging on some of these considerations and assessing the market for offering services that help people like you (the ones who have read this far) make the decision.

So two requests.  First, let me know what concerns you about making the leap to consulting.  What do you need to know before making the decision?

Second, if you’d be interested in learning more and finding resources that will help you make the decision or be more successful if you do pursue consulting as a full-time career choice or a short-term bridge to something else, please send me a note at peter@bulldogconsultant.com.

I look forward to hearing from you.