Frustration vs Disorientation

“A video game must frustrate a user, but it must never disorient them.”

That’s Howard Scott Warshaw discussing why E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a game he developed for Atari, is the worst video game ever.

Frustration in a video game is essential. It’s a motivator to get better, faster, and stronger, which ultimately leads to satisfaction.

Disorientation, on the other hand, is terrible. If you don’t know what’s going on, where you are, or what you’re working towards, there’s no motivation to play the game.

Consider how this applies to whatever it is you sell. Frustration is the tension that exists between where we are and where we want to go. People pay to get rid of that tension.

Disorientation is a result of inconsistent messaging. Confused people don’t become customers.

You Have A Trust Problem

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?

Be consistent.

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.

The Iceberg Theory of Marketing

Behold! The iceberg theory of marketing.

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.

Start there.

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.

Your Competitive Advantage

Empathy, your competitive advantage is empathy.

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?

Early Adopters vs Everyone Else

If you want to appeal to early adopters, you need to sell them on how innovative you are.

If you want to appeal to just about anyone else, you need to sell them on why they can trust you.

Early adopters seek innovation. They want the newest, shiniest thing. They like risk. They’ll put up with things breaking because it’s worth it to be ahead of the curve. They’re buying the cause the product represents.

Everyone else seeks trust. They want the thing that will work, every time. They like certainty. They’ll choose the thing that’s proven to work for people like them. They’re buying the security the product gives them.

All of us seek to be understood. We pick the thing that helps us tell the world who we are and what we believe.

Whatever you’re selling, innovation or trust, your marketing needs to be focused on proving it.


Taken on yesterday’s coffee break. Do you get your coffee from a chain because you like knowing exactly what you can expect… or do you seek out new places?

Where’s Your Long Tail?

If you’re building a business, it’s helpful to concentrate your efforts on the smallest possible audience you can serve. To get realllyyyyy specific.

This is hard for most of us. We want to be liked, and we have this idea that being liked means being liked by everyone rather than by 1,000 true fans. It’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t enjoy your work and say to yourself, “It’s OK, it’s not for them”.

We also believe that to make enough* money we need a big audience. So we go straight for the masses, we play to the middle in an attempt to appeal to everyone. We file down our edges because we don’t think we can afford to turn people away.

The irony, of course, is that the more we appeal to the masses the less appealing we become. 

Better to focus on your long tail, the smallest possible audience you can serve. Who are those people? Where are they? What do they believe? What can you offer them that no one else can? What can you promise them?

Great, now go prove it.


Spotted as part of the display at The Irish Design House in Riverdale (typewriters certainly aren’t for everyone in 2020…), who are a great example of finding your long tail. Aside from owner Sinéad’s local fashion label, they only carry handmade Irish crafts. Not European crafts, not craft from anywhere, but a small and curated collection of handmade Irish goods for the people who are looking for exactly that.

*arbitrary metric alert

Marketing vs Advertising

What is marketing?

  • Marketing is earning people’s attention, time, and trust
  • Marketing is done with people. It’s multi-directional
  • Marketing is relational
  • Marketing is storytelling
  • Marketing is dependent on community

How marketing scales: you build something worth talking about.

What is advertising?

  • Advertising is paying for people’s attention by interrupting them
  • Advertising is done to people. It’s one-directional
  • Advertising is transactional
  • Advertising is telling people to do something
  • Advertising is dependent on algorithms and optimization

How advertising scales: you spend more money.

You can always opt-out of advertising. You can never opt-out of marketing.


Banking On Virality Isn’t A Plan

Yesterday I watched a great interview between Scott Galloway and Derek Thompson on how Netflix, Disney, and Amazon are vying for content and distribution.

A couple things Derek said stuck with me, and this marketing wisdom applies to any industry:

“To sell something familiar you want to make it surprising. To sell something surprising you want to make it familiar.”

and…

Banking on virality is not a plan. 

When you believe content can go viral, when you rely on something going viral in order to achieve the (business) outcome you want… that gives you an excuse to not work on a marketing plan.

When you bank on outcomes, it’s easy to overlook the process.

If you say to yourself, “Hey I made something great who WOULDN’T love this and/or me” and you believe in the virality myth, then you think success will just happen. You find yourself believing that your job is making The Thing and that the rest (people finding and using The Thing) will take care of itself.

But we know that some of the best books, songs, and movies failed until they found the right distribution channel. Same goes for businesses. Same goes for ideas. Often something has to come from the “right” person/place in order for us to pay attention.

Content people downplay distribution. Yes, you need to build something great, but you also need to get it in front of the people who are going to care (or, who you can make care). To do that you need to understand the attention platforms (aka distribution channels) that already exist. The people you want to reach… who already has their attention?

If you care about the change you’re trying to make, offloading the responsibility of people finding out about you/your product/your business isn’t a good plan. In fact, as Derek says, banking on virality isn’t a plan to begin with.

To me, this is the interesting thing about growth hacker marketing. People pull stunts to get eyeballs but then don’t necessarily put a plan behind what they’ll do with those eyeballs once they have them (conversion, retention). Growth hacking optimizes for the short-term without thinking about (or worse, at the expense of) longevity.

You can’t control outcomes, but you can control the process.

Don’t outsource your process. Don’t absolve yourself of the responsibility of the change you seek to make. Have a plan, always.

Are you selling the wrong thing?

“NO PHOTOS.”

That’s what the sign said in front of this man’s booth at the Chelsea Market. He was selling shirts with fun quirky patterns on them. You know, the kind of locally-made-limited-run thing you’d expect to see for sale at an art market.

When I see a sign like this my reaction is always…

What are you scared of?

Are you scared that someone’s going to steal your idea? That someone is going to copy you?

If all it would take for you to lose customers is someone showing up and making what you make, but cheaper, you’re doing it wrong. You’re selling the wrong thing.

You’re selling what you make instead of why you make it.

You’re selling what you do instead of why you do it.

Doing that means you’re asking to be treated like a commodity. You’re asking to be compared on price.

If you’re doing it right, people aren’t buying shirts from you they’re buying why you make shirts. The shirt is just a souvenir. Tangible proof that they were there, a signal to others that “Hey, this is what I believe in.”

The shirt isn’t the product, the way I felt when I bought it is.

That’s what I’m buying.

If your customer would buy from someone else because it looks like the same shirt but it’s cheaper, then you’re in the business of selling shirts. You don’t want to be in that business because there’s no loyalty and because nobody needs another shirt. We’ve got to think in terms of wants. 

You’re selling an experience. A promise. 

That’s what a brand is.

What does your brand stand for? What’s the promise you’re making? What does it say about me when I wear your shirt or have your logo on my website? What do I tell myself about it? What do I tell my friends?

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a product like shirts or a service like a website or a financial plan, you’re selling a story. That’s what I’m paying a premium for. I’m coming to you and buying your product or your service because this is the story I want to tell myself. 

No one can steal that.


Photo from my recent trip to NYC, taken at the Mociun Home store in Brooklyn. (Ceramics are my true weakness…)

You’re not spending $50 on any of these mugs because you need a mug (if you needed a mug you’d go to IKEA) you’re buying the way it makes you feel every time you take it off the shelf. You’re buying the story you get to tell your friends when they ask about it.

So, what story are you selling? 

A marketing primer for financial planners

You’re a financial planner.

How do you get clients? How do you get people to see the value in what you do and choose you over other options, including the option of doing nothing at all?

More specifically, how do you get the right clients? You know, the ones that don’t make you want to gouge your eyeballs out with a spoon when you’re on a call with them.

I got to see Seth Godin speak at the Smart Hustle Small Business Conference in New York City last week and someone in the audience, a financial planner, asked just that. His question was along the lines of, “How do I get noticed and get people to choose me?”

In other words, how do I get people to give me their money?

Between Seth’s response, the concepts I learned taking his Marketing Seminar (10/10 would recommend), and my own experience working in the financial industry here’s a few things financial planners should consider when thinking about marketing.

Yes, this is marketing. And yes, you have to do it yourself.

You can’t opt out because how you do business is your marketing. And you can’t outsource it because no one cares about your business as much as you do.

Familiarity is not the same as trust.

Just because people know you doesn’t mean they trust you. You can be familiar because you’re active on Twitter or host events or because you’re known as “Rhonda, the finance woman!” at parent events at your kid’s school… but that doesn’t mean people trust you. They might know what you do (familiarity) but not how or more importantly why you do it (trust).

Getting in front of people so they know you exist is only part of it. For someone to work with you they’ve got to trust you.

Being specific helps build trust.

How do I tell you apart from all the other financial planners?

You have to give me a clue. Something that shows me, “Oh, she’s the financial planner for people like me.” I need to be able to figure that out quickly and I can’t do that if you look and sound like every other financial planner.

You have to resist the urge to play it safe because safe equals generic, and generic equals ignored. Be clear about who you are and are not for. If you’re “a solution for everyone” you’re a solution for no one.

Share specific, detailed stories that your client can see themselves in. Stories that act as a mirror… “I work with families going through exactly this moment who believe this” kind of stories.

If you tell a potential client a story that sounds exactly like the one they tell themselves every day, guess who trusts you now?

You must create tension.

Tension is created when I realize I have a problem and that you’re the one who can solve it. Tension is why we go from interested to paying client.

We pay for solutions.

How do you create tension? Bring to someone’s attention a problem they’ve been burying. A great example Seth gave was picking up a Brené Brown book… “I didn’t know I had a shame problem until I read the cover. The answer is inside so I’m going to buy it.”

Once we know we have a problem we’re dissatisfied until we get the answer (that’s tension) and the answer should cost money (that’s a business).

Those free intro calls with prospective clients? They’re great as long as they create tension. If you solve someone’s problem on that first call—and don’t bring up other problems you can solve—they’re not going to become a client because they’ve already solved their problem. They’ve already relieved the tension.

Change what people know, not what they believe.

You can change what people believe or you can change what they know.

It’s much easier to find people who believe what you believe and change what they know. Keep this in mind when you’re thinking about how to show people they have a problem you can solve.

What do they currently believe about money or financial planners? And what do they currently know about those things? If someone doesn’t think they have a fee problem then that’s not going to be a selling point for them. You’ve got to show them why they have a fee problem (change what they know) while connecting with them on something they believe in i.e. “my kid deserves to graduate from university debt free” or “I don’t trust banks”.

And finally…

They are not wrong.

Sure, if they knew what you knew and believed what you believed then they’d do what you’d do. They’d open retirement accounts and save diligently and become properly insured and hire a planner.

But they don’t.

And furthermore, they are not wrong for that. 

Everyone does the right thing based on what they know and what they believe at the time. That’s why it’s so important to start with where people are, because nobody likes to be told that “they’re doing it wrong”. It puts them on the defensive and makes them much less likely to trust you.

And yes, showing people they have a problem is different than telling them they’re wrong.


Another reminder that these concepts come from things I’ve learned through Seth Godin. I’m not this smart… *winks*. This is simply my interpretation and expansion of those concepts and how I think they apply to financial planners.

Well, any business, really.

And here’s a photo from that trip to New York. A reminder to always look up.