It’s easier to show up when it’s off the record. When it’s just you talking to a friend or chatting over the fence with your neighbour. Most of our conversations aren’t recorded and stored forever (well, at least we don’t think they are), and our communication style reflects that.
If we think we’re being recorded, we act accordingly. Our posture shifts. We start to edit ourselves.
Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat (one of the few social platforms built on ephemerality), gave a great interview on this. He talks about creating a social network where it doesn’t feel like we’re performing, because when we think we’re on stage we actually narrow the range of emotion that we communicate with.
Something to think about for those of us who lead online communities. How does the tech you use modify your audience’s behaviour? How does it modify yours? How does this impact the values and interests of the collective?
Metrics direct behaviour. If you remove the metrics of success that don’t serve your mission (such as likes or views) perhaps people would show up more like you want them to—more like themselves.
You know how they say more money won’t solve your problems, it’ll just make you more of who you already are?
It’s the same with advertising. Before you throw money behind your business or product, ask yourself what you’re paying to amplify.
Getting more eyeballs isn’t going to improve your customer’s experience. It’s not going to make your service easier to use or your onboarding any less painful. It’s not going to make people like your product more, it’s going to make it extremely obvious what people don’t like.
Attention doesn’t equal customers, and it certainly doesn’t equal retention.
Before you pay for visibility, ask yourself if more eyeballs will measurably solve your problem. Ask yourself if you’re proud of what you’re calling people over to look at.
You’re asking the wrong question. Better to ask, “How can I be helpful?”
Building a business isn’t about being seen, it’s about making others feel seen.
Focus on that and, in time, the right people will notice.
Taken at Cadette Studio’s most recent Gather & Connect event. Allison Asis, the founder of Cadette Jewelry, hosts events every few months so that Toronto creatives can meet and learn from each other. They always sell out which is proof, to me, that she’s doing the hard but necessary work of making others feel seen.
“Statistics simply tell us the range of what we can expect to happen, not why or how it will happen in any given moment. What we need is understanding.”
Seth Godin shared this on his podcast, Akimbo, as a reminder that when two things are correlated it does not mean that one caused the other.
In a world increasingly driven by data, correlation can be a trap. It’s easy to look at the data and see what we want to, to find correlations that fit our biases and serve our agendas. It’s easy to offload the responsibility of our actions by pointing to the numbers and saying, “I did what they told me to do.”
If your actions are driven by data alone, you’re missing an opportunity to do better.
Your understanding—of others, of systems, and of your own blind spots—makes all the difference.
Curiosity is meeting the unknown with humility. It’s about asking questions others aren’t willing to, allowing you to do things others aren’t able to. This is how you get attention.
Curation is connecting people with what matters to them. It’s about discernment, taste, and timing. This is how you provide value.
Empathy is the desire to understand and advocate for an experience that’s not your own. It’s about making people feel seen by helping them make sense of themselves. This is how you earn trust.
Ownership is taking responsibility for a group of people and leading them to where they want to go. It’s about being in it for the long haul, owning the cause over the product. This is how you create change.
Most brands don’t have an awareness problem—if only we could get in front of more people then we’d get more business!—they have a trust problem.
People know you exist, they just don’t believe you’re right for them.
This is hard to hear and even less fun to talk about in meetings. Trust problems aren’t sexy. They can’t be solved with money and funnels and ad campaigns.
When you’re solving a trust problem, there’s no clear roadmap to follow or metrics to measure. This is about strategy, not tactics, and more than anything it demands empathy. Good ole’ emotional labour.
That said, how do you work on a trust problem?
Your brand isn’t your logo, it’s the story I tell myself every time I see it. Strong brands are consistent brands—everything they do and every touchpoint they have with their audience reflects everything they’re about.
Consistency means we know exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what we can expect when we buy from you. It makes you a strong yes to the right people and a strong no to the wrong ones. This polarizing reaction is what you want.
Before you layer on new tactics (see the aforementioned funnels and ad campaigns), start with where you are and who you’re already serving. Look for the gaps. Address those first.
It’s tempting to try, but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it.
Caution! Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not launch another Facebook ad campaign until you’ve addressed this first.
There’s what we see: product, tactics, messaging, etc.
And what we feel: values, strategy, brand, etc.
The tangible versus the intangible. The explicit versus the implicit.
You with me?
The things we can see, we’ll refer to that as “above water”, are what people think they want: a budgeting software, a new mug, etc.
The things we can feel, we’ll refer to that as “below water”, are what people actually want: empowerment, sustainability, etc.
Everything above water requires hard skills, like coding or throwing clay on a wheel, to develop.
Everything below water requires soft skills, like empathy and creativity, to develop.
The tangible stuff scales with money.
The intangible stuff scales with emotional labour.
When you work at the tangible, above water stuff your customer experience will improve. You will see short-term gains.
When you work at the intangible, below water stuff the trust between you and your customer will strengthen. You will lay the foundation for long-term growth.
You can, and must, develop both.
The tip of the iceberg does not a business make. That’s how you get fragile companies and hollow brands that crumble unexpectedly (think of all the VC-backed companies we’ve watched fail in the last year…).
You cannot, no matter how tempting it will be, ignore what’s going on below water. The work is less sexy down here and progress is harder to measure (it’s easy to know when ads are working but how will you measure empathy? Creativity?), however, this is where change lives.
Resilient brands are rooted brands. All the above-water stuff we see as customers (social media profiles, products, advertisements, web copy) is an expression of what’s going on below (strategy and values). Products reflect values. Tactics reflect strategy. Messaging reflects brand. You can mess up the tangibles if you’ve got a strong foundation. If your audience trusts you and is enrolled in the change you represent, they’re going to be a lot more forgiving when your app breaks or you send out the wrong link in your newsletter. It’s not that it makes mistakes okay! It simply means that your audience trusts you to figure it out. They’re not going to seek out alternatives at the first sign of inefficiency or discomfort.
You cannot build a business by writing code or making mugs, by only working above water. That’s how you end up with a commodity.
What we truly want, what we’re actually buying, and the change you seek to make lives below. This is how you build something remarkable.
When is doubt, look there.
And remember: marketing is a privilege.
It’s a privilege to be able to show up and advocate for a group of people that trust you to lead the way.
Use that responsibility wisely.
My expert graphic skills at work AGAIN, aren’t you lucky. There are about a zillion ways you can slice and expand on this theory but this feels like a good place to start. And it’s certainly not original to think of it in terms of an “iceberg”, this is simply a take on this theory that makes sense for my brain. See here for iceberg theory and applying the iceberg theory to content marketing.
It’s an advantage because few people are willing to put in the hard work to develop it. It requires humility to admit that you don’t know anything about the person sitting across from you. It takes curiosity, compassion, and courage to hold space and advocate for an experience that’s not your own.
Empathy is the only shot you have at getting to know your audience and building something that serves them.
You can’t outsource it. You can’t buy it. And you can’t make the change you’re seeking to make without it.
The best thing about empathy?
It’s a skill all of us can learn.
Taken at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It’s a journey, a climb, or some such reference?