Zigging when others zag

When it comes to building community, go small or go home

For years I've helped companies send hundreds of newsletters to active customers. However, the newsletter that I'm working on now will serve a community. A much different approach is required. You don't want people to click to order--you want them to engage in a conversation. Person-to-person recognition is required, and if the community will really grow, then we have probably have to staff employees to members at around 150-to-1. The total audience can be larger, but not the active community. 

Local News Lab: Journalism’s Dunbar number: Audience scales, community does not. 2019-Mar-4 by Damon Kiesow

To succeed, local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation, but reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.

Twenty years ago, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar postulated there was a limit to the stable and close social relationships a human being could maintain. He informally defined it as the number of people you know well enough to join “uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

“Dunbar’s number” is 150 — and he argued it was set by the cognitive capacity of the human brain. Smaller primates with smaller brains have smaller social groups.

Media have a similar limit — it is the number of readers who feel you are part of their community and are willing to invest their time or money with you.

We can work to boost that number, but it takes more than a marketing campaign. It requires actively listening and sincerely engaging with your community — see Trusting News as an example. It takes better understanding your readers, and better serving them — Shifting to Reader Revenue/API. And it takes a retreat from the artifacts of scale that litter your websites, organizational structure and business model.

What does that look like? How about fewer people focused on SEO and building products for Big Tech, and more working to source story ideas from the community — like Hearken. More ability to do targeted local news products such as pop-up newsletters and less time chasing the next “pivot” strategy — see Lenfest for local ideas. And less space on the story page taken up by spammy recommended links and… well, there is no “and” there actually, we just need less of some things.

But individual tactics are not as important as the philosophy: Local readers need to be served at local scale. The internet is infinite, your community is not. Go small or we are all going home.

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How to reach inactive subscribers through subjects lines

Email marketing guru Dela Quist has a very good point about inactive email subscribers. They are labeled 'inactive' because the email server can't detect any activity, but that tells you NOTHING about the person and what they've read or done with the information you sent. I am friends with a lot of IT professionals who block systems from collecting information from them. I, myself, read some emails with the images turned off because I know that I'll get slammed with needless follow-up emails if I don't. 

  1. Segment inactives.
  2. Review the names as much as possible. You may find people you know to be active in responding and purchasing. 
  3. Segment some more and send GREAT subject lines.
  4. Assume they'll unsubscribe if they want to. 

Only Influencers: Case Study: What is an Email Address Worth and How to Increase Its Value, 2019-Nov by Dela Quist

There are two key learnings to take from this case study.

The first is how valuable your inactives are and the second is how important it is to spend time and effort on reactivation

Start by identifying your inactive subscribers, but don’t remove them from your list, though as the data proves an inactive subscriber is a way better customer than a non-subscriber. What we recommend is to treat the your inactives as a separate, high value segment in the same way as you would your frequent purchasers or 30-day buyers. 

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Finally, when it comes to re activating dormant subscribers nothing beats the subject line it is the only thing every subscriber will see... 

 


Communicating one-to-few-to-many

A great email subject line is valuable, but targeting your message to the interests and preferences of your audience is even more important. If you can get someone who trusts and supports you to forward a message, that's worth more than a list. 

Quora: What is a good way to start promoting a church or business? 2019-Dec-4 by Paul O'Brien of MediaTech Ventures

Where once, a message sent was likely received by all (or at least most), now the two way relationship between communicator and receiver has changed; with the receiver being empowered to decide HOW and WHEN they receive. The communicator must participate on the receivers’ terms if they hope to be heard.... 

We used to live in a world where that 1 email, that one meeting, that one office flyer, or that one letter mailed, would reach and communicate with everyone. If I can impart upon you ONE lesson only, it’s that that no longer works.

Trickle down your communication to distinct groups, who can further and more effectively communicate what matters within their audience....

Where one-to-many... and newsletters fall short, is that they think in terms of the quality of the email exchange or the performance of an email sent. That is, they’re optimized for reception and engagement....

In organizational communication, our key metric isn’t an open or conversion rate, it’s KNOWING our “clients” and serving them meaningful communications.

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The Anti-Amazon: T.J. Maxx

A strong commitment to a clearly differentiated strategy is serving T.J. Maxx. One of the hardest things for a business to do is say, "no, that's not our customer," but they know what they're doing in ignoring e-commerce. 

Forbes: How Walgreens and T.J. Maxx Are Winning With Minimal Online Sales, 2017-May-25 by Barbara Thau

The retailer’s store vibe — disheveled racks, DMV-esque lighting, barebones customer service —belies the oft-cited “experiential” checklist of what a brick-and-mortar retailer is supposed to need today: mobile checkout options, sales associates with the chops of a personal shopper, and perks from cafes to cooking classes.

T.J. Maxx has none of that.

What they do deliver shoppers is the thrill of the hunt of designer duds for a song. It marks the work of a 1,000-person buying organization and global-sourcing gurus that collaborate with 18,000 vendors from more than 100 countries in a bid to fill its unglamorous stores with an ever-changing mix of fresh and surprising finds.

As a result, T.J. Maxx is “un-Amazonable,” Chen [Oliver Chen, retail analyst at Cowen & Co.] in another research note this month. That’s because “customers engage in an in-store treasure hunt, many brands have preferences not to be online, and average ticket and prices are sufficiently low relative to shipping costs of $5 or more.

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Why the strategies of Google, USAA and Vanguard have been so effective

When we decide how we want to compete, we have to look at how we're going to fit into the market, both from our customers' point of view, as well as from our internal capabilities. 

Harvard Business Review: Strategic Choices Need to Be Made Simultaneously, Not Sequentially, 2017-Apr-3 by Roger L. Martin

The only productive, intelligent way to generate possibilities for strategy choice is to consider matched pairs of Where to Play and How to Win choices. Generate a variety of pairs and then ask about each:

  • Can it be linked to an inspiring, attractive Winning Aspiration?
  • Do we currently have, or can we reasonably build, the capabilities that would be necessary to win where we would play?
  • Can we create the Management Systems that would need to be in place to support the building and maintenance of the necessary capabilities?

Those "Where to Play" and "How to Win" possibilities for which these questions can plausibly be answered in the affirmative should be taken forward for more consideration and exploration. For the great success stories of our time, the tight match of Where to Play and How to Win is immediately obvious.

  • USAA sells insurance only to military personnel, veterans, and their families — and tailors its offerings brilliantly and tightly to the needs of those in that sphere, so much so that its customer satisfaction scores are off the charts.
  • Vanguard sells index mutual funds/ETFs to customers who don’t believe that active management is helpful to the performance of their investments. With that tight Where to Play, it can win by working to achieve the lowest cost position in the business.
  • Google wins by organizing the world’s information, but to do that it has to play across the broadest swath of search.

It doesn’t matter whether the strategic question is to aim broadly or narrowly, or to pursue low costs or differentiation. What does matter is that the answers are a perfectly matched pair.

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Unhealthy growth

We seem to have a growing awareness that unbridled growth is not healthy. 

Signal v. Noise: Exponential growth devours and corrupts, 2017-Feb-27 by David H. Hansson

As Douglas Rushkoff says, we need a new operating system for startups. The current one will keep producing the same extractive and monopolistic empires we’ve gotten so far. No, what we need is a new crop of companies that are institutionally comfortable with leaving money on the table. Leaving growth on the table. Leaving some conveniences and some progress on the board, in order to lead the world into a better direction.

The solution isn’t simple, but we’re in dire need of a strong counter culture, some mass infusion of the 1960s spirit. To offer realistic, ethical alternatives to the exponential growth logic. Ones that’ll benefit not just a gilded few, but all of us. The future literally depends on it.

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Finding the best clients by cultivating conversations about our processes

Alex Mather points out that moving away from supplying a commodity means finding and nurturing relationships with people who are interested in creating unique and powerful work. Those people will expect a journey and not a product. 

Red Lemon Club: How to Survive the Biggest Creative Job Decline of All Time, 2017-Feb-1 by Alex Mathers

Meaningful art and design that makes an impact on its users is growing and vital, and relies on ‘expert practitioners’ who understand process to carry it out well with their clients.

But at the other end, commodity products and cheaper labour allow others to get a vital start on projects and businesses that can eventually develop into ones that do rely on more focused design expertise.

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