There are many places in this world I hope to one day experience. On that list was Sofia, Bulgaria. I use the past tense as I’m so happy to report that I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful city (and country) for the DigitalK conference. What a great event!
I presented on topic that I refer to as ” A Prelude to Innovation.” It’s meant to spotlight the important actions and events serving as the introduction to innovation itself. Shortly after my talk, I had the opportunity to meet Vassilena Valchanova to answer a few of her questions. Our conversation led to an incredibly thoughtful article that I wanted to share with you here.
Even though the context of the article focuses on customer experience and marketing, you can substitute those monikers for innovation, transformation, or any role or industry.
It’s very honest and candid advice. I hope it helps you.
by Vassilena Valchanova
I am often amazed by how approachable big keynote speakers can be. It took about 15 minutes for Brian Solis to reply to my twitter-invitation for an interview at DigitalK. 4 hours later, we were sitting in the rooftop bar of his hotel. We talked about consumer experience, storytelling, and the skills marketers need to develop.
The context of the marketing world today
I’ve been following Brian Solis ever since, in university, I stumbled upon Putting the Public Back Into Public Relations. Turns out this was in 2009 – a whole eon in the digital world! So I started by asking what has remained the same in marketing since then – for better or worse. We started off with the worse.
The digital world has evolved. There are many new channels, devices, and platforms. “Marketing is good at scaling to these new possibilities, but is not good at adapting culturally to these new channels,” Brian explained. “[Marketers] are still creating messages, using brand guidelines, preparing statements approved by legal teams and execs. We’re not humanizing any of this to be relevant to human beings.”
Why does this happen, though? Because marketers only think about market share, target audiences, and stats in reports. We lack the customer understanding needed in the digital age where the distribution of power has shifted in favor of users. “Marketers don’t know customers, don’t think like customers. Although they all our customers. But when they go to work they become marketers and they forget almost how to be human.”
The reason for that is “the fallacy of busy” marketers fall into. “They have a campaign to plan. They have metrics they have for you. They have meetings. And so they find excuses not to branch into new directions because they’re so busy on all these other fronts.”
The solution, according to Brian, is having the discipline to discern between urgent and important, the strength to say no. “The thing that I always recommend is asking what would happen if you really didn’t send that e-mail newsletter. What would happen if you didn’t create that app? What if you took time to figure out what’s the next smart move? You have this thing I call “the fallacy of busy” where you get so consumed by everything you have to do that you don’t allow yourself time to invent or time to learn or time to experiment.”
Don’t get so consumed by everything you have to do that you don’t allow yourself time to invent or time to learn or time to experiment.
From awareness to understanding the full customer journey
Brian Solis is not the type of person who’d just pose a hard problem, so we moved into talking about solutions. There’s a lot happening that’s putting marketers in the corner. But they can learn and adapt.
The transition is visible in the startup world where “constraint forces creativity”. The availability of large budgets or lots of time are a luxury here, so marketing needs to scale very fast and drive users. The goal is speed of execution and driving tangible business results.
“Whatever you call it – agile marketing, growth hacking – it’s designing marketing for intent,” says Brian. “That way marketers start to become a much more strategic asset in any organization. They are focusing on business level deliverables that executives can appreciate.” Then marketing can expand its relevance and its worth by looking beyond the top of the funnel – focusing on the entire customer journey.
The key to doing this is for marketers to understand their customers well. “There’s a movement called micro-moments now. Micro-moments reveal how people go through the customer journey starting with [a smartphone]. I think 90% of customers start the journey on the mobile phone.”
The concept of micro-moments is not new. It started way back in 2015 with a report by Google and shortly after the focus moved to mobile. The next step in micro-moments is for them to increase in number and importance, as consumers expect more from brands.
Micro-moments give marketers a new level of understanding customer needs and how to serve them better. “It’s very insightful because then you can start to experiment with very specific strategies for marketing that are different than what you might do normally. And so that starts to put marketing on a path towards customer experience. Then you find that you’re getting new expertise and you’re also becoming a resource to other parts of the organization that you weren’t partners with before.”
Focusing on customer experience gets marketing from a simple awareness engine to an integrated part of the full business funnel.
Consumer experience as the way forward
Ever since publishing X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Brian Solis has been the herald of this elusive concept – customer experience. I was curious to learn what made him venture into this direction of research.
“It’s a very personal endeavor. I started writing because, as a human being, everything that we do on [our smartphones] – every app, every network – tells us we’re the most important person in the world. And it becomes the standard. When you go to traditional marketing it is nothing like that. And that’s the problem. And so I was trying to get to the core of what that was.”
Going on the hunt for good customer experience design, Solis found that it’s not a marketing tactic, rather a full business philosophy. And marketers are still pretty inefficient at creating interactive experiences. To illustrate that, Brian talked about Disney Land:
“From the rides to the placement of trash cans to how the buildings are designed – everything was designed for a very specific experience. And they’re all not just designed as one thing, they are designed as a complete, what I call, experience map. Everything is designed to the tiniest details.
But when you try to shop on Disney online, it’s an outmoded experience. It’s very very traditional. What’s the difference? What’s the disconnect between the people who work at the park and the people who work on the online property? Why aren’t they bringing that same thinking to this?”
The reason would be digital marketers think only about conversions rather than what customers value, want, or need. They haven’t unlearned the old marketing rules.
Learning to unlearn
During his keynote at DigitalK Brian Solis touched upon learning versus unlearning. As digital specialists, we need to not only learn new things. We need to unlearn the old comfortable solutions we know. To break the rules and be innovative, you need to unlearn the tactics you automatically default to.
Brian practices what he preaches, as he’s unlearning things on a regular basis. When writing X, he designed a completely new reading experience. Recently he collaborated with LinkedIn on a storytelling ebook, and he worked with a storyboard artist to teach him the art and science of telling a story. He has done his fair share of unlearning and admits it’s not an easy thing to do.
“Unlearning is hard because it goes against every convention that makes you who you are today. We’re human beings and we all have experiences and skills and things that we’ve learned throughout our whole life. And if there were somebody to tell you, “All of that is part of the problem,” that’s hard to hear. Very hard to process. Because it is that experience and that expertise that has made us successful in where we are today.”
I almost felt like our conversation was following a steady wave pattern. We were swinging between the bad news of how the world changes, making us inept to deal with it, and the good news that there is still something we can do about it. So I was almost holding my breath to hear about the flip side of unlearning. It didn’t take long:
“The question I had to ask was why do I have to do a book the way that every book is done? If I had to invent the book what would it be? Once you start asking these questions you start getting different answers. Once you start getting different answers and you start experimenting you get better at unlearning and you get better at having ideas you never would have had before.”
Unlearning breaks the usual process of iteration that we often mistake for innovation. Unlearning makes us go to places we’ve never been to before and although it’s extremely hard, the return on effort is astronomically high.
Unlearning is hard because it goes against every convention that makes you who you are today.
The motivation of Brian Solis
All the things Solis talked about were inspiring, but also extremely difficult to apply. He’s not the type of speaker who’ll give you hollow inspiration and no clear next steps. He won’t focus on tiny easy iterations that will make you feel better for achieving something.
So I had to ask what was the motivation giving Brian the energy to continue researching, writing, and advocating for the hard way out.
“I’m done with the bull…, I’m done with the hype. The world is changing and the only solution is to figure out how the world is changing and how to be more relevant as the world changes. No amount of cheerleading, no amount of motivation is going to solve that problem. The only way to solve that problem is to understand how to reverse engineer how people are changing, what’s important to them, how they make decisions. And then build the bridge between today and them. What I know, what I don’t know, and them. What I need to learn, what I need to unlearn, and them. That’s your purpose, that’s your inspiration, that’s your motivation. The only way to do that is through hard work. And I understand that hard work is not a sexy message to send out. It’s not a best selling message. But it is the solution. It is the answer and that’s why I determined that that’s going to be my role in life.”
The world is changing and the only solution is to figure out how to be more relevant as it evolves.
I drank the rest of my cappuccino and left the rooftop bar feeling like I was at the base camp of a high mountaintop. The clouds cover the peak and you’re not fully sure what the end goal looks like. But you know the road to it will be hard.
It feels like challenges arise all the time and the life of a digital change agent is to always focus on the next one. But consistency in taking on the hard challenge is what distinguishes the no-BS marketer from the pat-on-the-back snake oil salesman. There’s no easy way forward, so get to know your customers, start unlearning, and drive meaningful change.
Brian Solis is principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter, the digital analyst group at Prophet, Brian is world renowned keynote speaker and 7x best-selling author. His latest book, X: Where Business Meets Design, explores the future of brand and customer engagement through experience design.
Please, invite him to speak at your event or bring him in to inspire colleagues and fellow executives/boards.
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