On useful surveys

You know you need to get feedback from your users – you probably already do it. Lately I’ve spent a ton of time carefully adjusting, rewriting and generally fiddling with customer communications, trying to pin down the perfect number of words and the right timing to say something and get a response without annoying people or turning them off. Something just happened that so perfectly illustrates a few key principles to follow that I had to write it down.

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4 business lessons from Eastern philosophy

This post was originally written for the LifeDojo wellbeing blog. I’ve reproduced it below. You can see the original post here.

Once in a while, someone will ask us about the name of our company, LifeDojo, and they’ll want to know: What’s a Dojo, anyway?

“Dojo” is a Japanese term that literally means, “The place of the way.” Typically, it refers to a place or room where Japanese martial arts are practiced – a place of intense focus, mindfulness and learning. In one branch of Eastern Philosophy, the term describes the rooms or halls where monks engage in meditation.

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How to Fail at Instagram: McDonald’s

McDonald’s recently attempted to appeal to millennials with a bunch of ads featuring some bacon covered sandwich. The ads clumsily attempted to use slangy phrases (“That glow tho”), other ads used soccer references to appear relevant and friendly. They were all roundly mocked, and they deserved it, but not for the reason that AdWeek suggests.

AdWeek wonders if “consumers aren’t ready” for ads in their Instagram feeds. This question completely misses the lesson here. I have no doubt that consumers are absolutely ready and willing to view ads in their Instagram feeds – IF the ads are attractive and relevant.

Millennials are used to seeing a ton of ads everywhere they go online. What distinguishes this class of consumer from previous generations is the expectation that ads will be relevant and targeted. For the modern and web-savvy consumer, the baseline has changed. An informal survey of my 20- and 30- something friends reveals a pervasive belief that it’s actually straight-up rude to advertising something that isn’t personally relevant, the equivalent to butting in to a stranger’s conversation.

We share an incredible amount of data online, we know it’s being collected and mined, and we expect that in part, we’re feeding all of our locations, preferences and purchases into the vast machine because all of this will make our lives better, faster, smarter and more convenient. I live in a world where Facebook knows exactly what bathrobe I was viewing on a clothing website and what hotel I was looking at while planning a trip, and can serve ads for those things to me as soon as I switch tabs. Sometimes I’m even pleased by the ads I’m served, because they remind me of something I wanted to look at again, or they offer me a discount on something I was going to buy, anyway. This is the best case scenario – a symbiotic, helpful relationship between the customer and marketer, enabled by social data and sharing. The key word is helpful!

McDonald’s Instagram campaign, on the other hand, reveals the worst kind of advertising as obnoxious, unwelcome interruption. Instead of targeting, for example, only customers who follow food-related accounts, or customers who previously tagged #McDonalds or even #bacon, the Instagram campaign is an untargeted bomb, detonated in a place where many image-conscious consumers are openly hostile to things like fast food. I follow a bunch of accounts on Instagram related to fitness, outdoor sports, health and beauty. I don’t think I’ve made a Facebook, Instagram or Foursquare checkin at a McDonald’s more than once in the last 2 years. I’m probably the last person on earth who should be seeing an ad for a McDonald’s sandwich in my feed, and the ability to figure that out already exists if brands care to use it.

On the flip side, some brands seem to hit it out of the park on Instagram. SPG (the official account of the Starwood Preferred Guest program) comes to mind. With 27,000+ followers, they aren’t nearly as popular as McDonald’s account, but a quick perusal of the comments has me convinced that they have a better understanding of how to use Instagram to evangelize the Starwood brand. While more than half of the comments on an average McDonald’s post are negative, angry and/or related to how terrible and unhealthy the food is, all of the comments on SPG’s posts are positive, happy, and aspirational. Fans love SPG’s peeks into luxury hotels, well-appointed rooms and picturesque views from around the world. The photography is top notch and the chosen images represent the brand in positive ways that are especially popular on Instagram, where great light, pretty views, sunsets and aspirational lifestyle images rule.

Sure, Instagram doesn’t offer advertisers the ability to target their ads in the ways I suggested above. Yet. So, how about admitting that Instagram just isn’t the right advertising avenue for McDonald’s right now? Not all brands are destined for success in all social ad venues. That’s OK! It’s really worth considering before wasting a ton of money on campaigns that invite consumer hostility – and there are a ton of other places out there to spend it.

Rent the Runway goes Netflix

Brilliant!

“The New York-based company, backed by $54.4 million in venture funding, caters to what chief executive Jennifer Hyman calls the “woman 2.0,” a customer who values experiences over possessions. In the case of clothing, this woman is willing to rent a designer dress for one night because she’s smart enough to know it’s not worth spending $1,000 or more on an item she’ll only wear once.”

The article leaves out one important driving factor (discussion of which is buried in the video clip): the celebrification (can we call it that?) of the average woman as brought about by social media. Once upon a time, a regular young woman might scrape together her spare money and save up for that designer dress of her dreams, rationalizing that it was high quality, well-made, would last a lifetime and give her many proud occasions to wear it.

Sometimes we still do that, if it’s a classic style or color – a black column gown, say, or high end suit. But the proliferation of smartphones with their cameras means that whenever we go out, everyone is taking pictures. The ubiquity of social sharing means that all those pictures end up on the internet, often right away. This has had the interesting side effect of making everyone a character in their own reality show, constantly observed and evaluated by everyone else in their lives. The modern woman about town is conscious of being observed like never before, and now worries about being photographed in the same outfit twice in a way that used to be the exclusive purview of international movie stars.

This is why Rent The Runway’s new subscription model is a brilliant idea and relief for the fashionista on a budget. The old arguments about timeless style and quality just don’t hold anymore when every outing in the city is relentlessly documented. Furthermore, as CEO Jennifer Hyman notes, cloud entertainment services like Spotify and Netflix have acclimatized us all to the notion that we needn’t physically “own” things in order to use and enjoy them. Actually, it’s way more convenient to have someone else hang on to them for us, so we can download them whenever we want. Millennials in particular don’t understand having to choose, and why should they when they can virtually have everything?

Far from being in the business of “just renting sparkly dresses,” RTR’s Hyman appears to understand a very crucial thing: Objects are meaningless, trends are transitory, and we are all just made of information. She emphasizes at the end of the discussion that they’ve built the platform to allow anyone to rent anything, for any duration of time. One immediately thinks of other high cost items we might want to share or rent-to-own: consumer electronics, vehicles and artwork all come to mind. Perhaps RTR is coming for those next.

Productivity & new tricks

I read a lot about productivity and how to work smarter. I don’t usually read these hoping to find some magic piece of information that will change my life, though, because I think a lot of the tips in productivity blogs and books are restatements of what I consider common sense or things that I already know. More often, I read because I am fascinated by the details of how different people work. A couple of themes emerge and stand out for me: The real positive weight of specificity and the negative weight of interruptions.

Specificity

I find that everyone explains their situation and challenges differently. A group of similarly busy high level executives will all discuss their routines differently. So will a group of entry level assistants. No matter what their rung on the corporate ladder, everyone is very focused on their own particular routine and challenges, and broad, sweeping tips for how to “be more productive” tend to wash over us and make little impact on our lives because they don’t address anything specific enough to lead to real actions of change, right away.

The trick to increasing real productivity is not just to read a bunch of tips and tricks and try to apply them in a general sense, but to make the effort to tie specific changes to specific moments in our routines. We have only to look to most past New Years resolutions to recognize the truth: General and vague changes, like “lose weight” or “Play more piano” are destined to fail because of their lack of specificity. “Exercise every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday” or “learn this particular piano music” are specific enough to become real life actions and achievements.

Interruptions

On average, office workers check smartphones 125 times per day, spend over 2 hours per day writing email, check Facebook over 14 times per day, etc. is it any wonder if we find it hard to have any sustained thoughts about anything?

The cost of interruptions in the modern workplace is staggering. Most corporate workplaces were organized, workplace behaviors and expectations codified, when communication was not instant and constant. Now that communication is both of these things, the modern workplace has yet to adapt. As a result, we’re making ourselves insane and draining employees’ creativity, energy, and, sometimes, their will and ability to work productively at all.

Tips for real people

I recently read a workplace productivity article that recommended simply not answering the phone. This is great advice in theory, but it just isn’t possible for many, especially those who aren’t at the top of the ladder. Ditto the often-repeated tip of not looking at email in the morning. Many mid-level employees simply don’t have this ability as they are expected to be on call at all times by sometimes inefficient managers.

I wish more productivity literature discussed this dynamic and offered advice for how to keep sane and protect ones workday from outside forces such as a demanding hierarchical workplace, or even just a demanding family, rather than offering tips for CEOs able to call all the shots with their own schedules. I don’t have it all figured out by any means but here are my own personal tips, for real people.

1. Plan phone calls that matter.

If your workplace relies on the phone and you don’t have the option of simply not using it, remember that you can treat calls just like meetings. Schedule and prioritize them. Create an agenda for your call and share it ahead of time. Make sure you have a goal in mind for your call, and give yourself an allotted amount of time. Don’t begin calls without an end time and an end goal in mind. You might find that people appreciate this and are eager to remain within these constraints, because it helps them plan, too.

2. Schedule meetings with yourself.

Some workplaces are social and informal, with coworkers dropping in to chat, invited or not. It can be hard to say, I’m busy, without feeling rude in these situations, especially for those of us who are naturally shy or reserved. If you are finding it hard to get through the social disruptions in your workplace, it can be very refreshing to schedule a meeting with yourself! If you decide to allocate a specific amount of time to a specific task or set of tasks, you might be surprised at how much this act of decision helps you focus. If you don’t have a door that you can close, you can still book a conference room, just for yourself. Meetings are generally accepted as Do Not Disturb time – no one needs to know who the meeting is with, just say you have a commitment during that time.

3. Group similar tasks.

The psychic cost of switching between tasks is huge. Minimize it by grouping like tasks. If I need to schedule a bunch of calls and meetings regarding big project X this month, it makes a lot more sense for me to schedule them all in the same week or few days, rather than spreading them out. I’ll reap the benefit for the brainstorm effect, where talking about and examining the challenges and to-dos for that project will inspire more, better ideas and solutions. If I spend two or three days immersed in that project, I won’t waste any time switching between all of my projects. I’ll be fresh and focused every day on the tasks at hand. Maybe I’ll even dream about it and have a brilliant idea.

4. Stop thinking about how busy you are.

Everyone is busy. You probably are busy. But no one cares. No one really wants to hear about it and it doesn’t get you much sympathy from anyone. If you forgot about some thing or took extra time to respond to someone, don’t make self deprecating excuses about how frantic and busy you are. Just apologize if necessary and move on. Continually telling yourself and others the story of how chaotic and stressful your life is makes you seem out of control and unreliable to others, and even worse, to yourself. Repeating negative ideas reinforces them in your own mind, making you feel even more stressed and busy than you did before. Thinking about how busy you are is a huge stress-inducing time waster. So stop! You won’t be any more or less busy, but you’ll be way less miserable about it. And happy people are more productive.

Play games

Today, as I sat waiting for my plane to New York to take off, I had a moment of witnessing one of those strange cultural assumptions in action that make no sense to me.

I heard a woman seated in the row behind me tell a young kid, presumably her son, that he could watch two movies on our flight, but she wouldn’t want him to play video games for five hours. To my surprise, the kid readily agreed. Ok, he said, as though it made any kind of sense. Since it wasn’t not my kid, and this didn’t exactly constitute an abuse worthy of an intervention, I kept my mouth shut, but here’s what I would have liked to ask her.

image via qui.
[image via qui.]

Why would you not allow your child to play video games for a few hours during a flight? Can you think of another way to more fully engage the mind? Do you know that games are one of the most effective teaching tools? Do you know that games can help people learn everything from new vocabulary and languages to quick reaction times, decision making and reasoning skills? Do you know that today’s games are incredibly complex and sophisticated, that a few hours of playing a game might help your son level up in Spanish or Econ?

Why would you prefer that your son passively watch idiotic movies for five hours? Current mainstream cartoons and children’s films generally have a low level of sophistication and emotional intelligence. Most mainstream kids films serve only as vehicles for product placement, embedded advertisements, mindless catchphrases, toy tie-ins, and the relentless reinforcing of insulting stereotypes about gender, race, age, class, etc. Would you truly rather subject your kid to five hours of passive brainwashing as opposed to five hours of engaging interactive play? Isn’t the possibility of interactivity and creatively always better than passive viewing?

When people over 40 say the phrase “video games” they tend to call up a set of sinister stereotypes: pointless numbing violence. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of popular video games are full of violence, as well as the endless sexism, product placement and so on that I just accused kids films of peddling. But games at least offer choices, decisions, the activation of the brain.

It always surprises me when I hear people discuss games as inferior to films or books, as though one format of content delivery could be objectively inferior, and that games were that inferior format. To use violence as an example: If a similar level of violence is present in a game or a film, do gentle parents prefer the film because their child is not pulling the theoretical trigger and is therefore less complicit in the violence, less responsible for their consumption of violence? I’d argue that passive consumption is almost always the “inferior format” if such a thing exists.

Play games, kid. Play lots of games.