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Are You Trying to “Keep Up” with Technology, or Ride It?

Across my 40-year career in technology, I have increasingly heard clients and others express to me their greatest fear, which is that they are not “keeping up” with technology. 20 years ago, I would hear that worry expressed a few times a year. Now I hear it a few times a week.

Honestly, at first I wrote it off. I thought that it was just a few Luddites who didn’t want to put in the effort to stay with the pace of change. But then I started to experience that feeling myself, so it became personal. And uncomfortable. I wasn’t “keeping up.”

And, it wasn’t just a feeling. It couldn’t be explained away that I felt like I wasn’t keeping up, but in actuality, I was doing just fine. No, I was convinced that I was in fact not keeping up. Technology was passing me by. And it started feeling worse than uncomfortable. It started to feel downright scary, because my business was about technology. I started thinking about how I rarely saw any 50-year-old programmers. And I started hearing about how venture capitalists would pour millions into a company founded by a 20-year-old, while companies were laying off middle-aged technologists left and right.

No, this wasn’t my imagination. There was a popular perception out their that technology was a young person’s game, and that most people can’t keep up. And the older you get, the more it’s true.

So, I started thinking about this attitude, and I began to realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense to try to “keep up” with technology. No one tries to “keep up” with a car or an airplane. People can’t do what those technologies do. You don’t need to keep up with them–you need to ride them. Technology is a tool that makes you better, not something you need to outdo, like some kind of modern-day John Henry hammering spikes.

That change in attitude changed the way I approached my job. I no longer cared whether I kept up with all the changes. I just focused on a constant search for tools–things that multiplied my effectiveness, making me better. When I found them, I rode them. And I ignored everything else, reasoning that if whatever I was currently ignoring in fact turned out to be important, then they would be brought to my attention again soon enough, and I could ride them then.

That change in focus also changed who I thought I was. In my first few years as a digital marketing consultant, I was named to a couple of lists as one of the “100 Best Internet Marketers” or some such monicker. And then they stopped naming me, which should have been upsetting, but it wasn’t, because my focus had changed.

I no longer wanted to play the game of keeping up and proving that I was keeping up by speaking on every new development or coming out with a new book that “explained everything you need to know” about some new development. Instead, I wanted to find the most important things to ride and teach my clients how to ride them, too. It was at that point that I changed my focus from consulting to software. Instead of manually analyzing problems and telling clients what to do, I started to develop techniques that automatically collected data and analyzed it, eventually using Artificial Intelligence techniques, because AI was the best technology to ride for the problems that I am trying to solve.

And I don’t worry whether I am keeping up with 5G or IoT or blockchain. They might be very important technologies for me to ride someday, but, for the moment, I am ignoring them, because I don’t judge them to be important technologies to ride in pursuit of the problems I am solving. At some point, I might change my mind because i can see how useful they are for the problems I am trying to solve then. And you know what? They will still be there waiting for me.

The truth is that human beings didn’t evolve at the pace that technology evolves, so none of us are designed to keep up. But the entire history of humans show that we invent tools to solve problems, and if you treat everything in technology as a tool that you should evaluate to see if it is interesting as a solution to a problem you have, suddenly it stops being scary and starts being fun.

I hope you go out and have fun with technology. Go for a ride.

Best Practices Marketing Personal Development Technology

Your Response to AI Is Actually a Personality Test

I am working with large companies on their use of Artificial Intelligence all the time, and it is possibly the most polarizing technology I have ever been involved with. Some people believe that AI will give us all a life of leisure, with machines doing more of the work so we don’t need to slave away for 40 hours a week. Others are spooked because they think that AI is coming for our jobs. What seems hard for each of those groups is that they are both essentially projecting the same thing–it’s just a question of whether they are optimistic or pessimistic personalities.

I see the same thing with my own clients–AI is equally polarizing, but this time it is around its effectiveness. Some are AI skeptics, talking about how the technology is over-hyped. Others believe it is magic, and will buy anything with those two magic letters. Both views are right–and wrong. AI just isn’t very simple.

Businesses should always be looking to improve their return on investment, which means choosing the simplest technique that solves the problem. Sometimes that’s AI, but often it’s something simpler, cheaper, and lower risk, so we should start there. Many folks are surprised when I say that, because they expect me to be pushing AI for everything, but I don’t see how that makes any sense. I spoke with a potential new client who was so taken aback that as we were leaving, they said to us, “Gee, we speak to a lot of vendors, but thanks for surprising us.”

If you are listening to vendors blathering on about that 5G blockchain kind of AI, it’s time to stop listening to buzzwords and start looking for competence. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If your spidey sense starts to tingle every time they start talking about neural networks, listen to that inner voice. AI is no different from every other kind of approach out there. Used appropriately, it can be a huge benefit to your business. But you should be asking questions if your vendors wave their hands and can’t really explain why AI is needed and exactly why it works better. Don’t pay surge pricing for the flavor of the month.

Best Practices Entrepreneurship Leadership Marketing Skills

DIY Personal Branding

It was great to be in New York last week and meet so many in the C-Suite Network and other Advisors!

It’s hard to cover everything in such a short amount of time, so I want to write down some tips that you can all use in your personal branding efforts.

I’ve done a lot of work in my own personal branding as I mentioned up on the stage. It’s really been a learning experience figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and what really fits my personal brand. I am always evolving in that sense of what I will add, change, etc. Also, I am constantly balancing what to put under the company brand, what is under the Mari Anne Vanella brand, and what is part of both.

I mentioned LinkedIn a number of times, and that’s because that is a digital office workspace that YOU control. Think of years back, you would go into someone’s office and look around and get a feel for who they are, today that happens on calls many times….so that physical office that told you so much about prospects has moved online in many cases. Is your online office saying what you want people to know? Even other thought leaders that have pretty robust websites, blogs, etc. still have a healthy LinkedIn profile. That’s because LinkedIn has SEO value, it will be one of the first things (if not the first) that come up when people search for you… And they WILL search for you if they are considering working with you.

When I first started my company, the idea of personal branding was still pretty unheard of. But with the physical office space moving to the digital office space it’s opened a lot of opportunities for professionals to get their name out there. In 2000, working remotely and having a distributed team was an odd business model, but over the years I have closed millions of dollars of business with organizations I have not met in person. What they discover about The Vanella Group, Inc. and me personally helps them make those decisions.

I realize there are people that are reluctant to do a lot on LinkedIn, or they think it’s not important. I can say with a lot of confidence that if you invest the time in creating a solid profile on there it will get the message out that YOU want out there. If there is a lot of white space when prospects are looking for what you do, they mentally fill in the blanks with things they assume, i.e. you are not on top of modern trends, you are not knowledgeable of common digital practices, etc.  Part of the training I do for teams include using LinkedIn to get up to speed quickly on who you are about to have a meeting with. It will accelerate your prospects feeling good about you when they can get to know you online.

If there is nothing to see online, they might think that you’re a late adopter and you haven’t gotten on the digital wagon of maintaining an online presence. If they are really pushing an online presence, you may get ruled-out without ever knowing it because they think it isn’t an area you work in. In today’s digital world, that’s not that great of a message to send out.

If you are online but don’t update your digital presence, what do people discover? Do you still have your last job on there as your current job, that also sends a weird message. If you are a consultant promoting a business and your last job is what they see when they look you up, your consulting business looks more like “unemployed.”

I also see LinkedIn as a place to show some generosity. I tend to find it strange to see people working at a company in a leadership role for a number of years, and no one took the time to write a solid endorsement for them….or visa versa. It puts out a message that could be construed as not having a lot of loyalty or influence. That may not always be the case, but when I see people that freely give praise to their team and their team and other colleagues taking time to share their positive experiences, it says something about them. I have never met anyone that has or has given a lot of recommendations to be a cold person.  It is a great way to give back to people that helped you get where you are. Is there anyone you can do that for?

What are some things that you can do right now?

Think of what your brand is. Is it modern? Is it edgy? What is unique? What do you do that no one else does? What part of the solution you bring is special? Put it on paper so you can mentally organize it. Name it something even….productize your solution.

Do you have a unique process you bring? I mentioned on the stage that I know no one does what my company does, and I built out a strong methodology around it. I own the Telesales 2.0® mark. I designed it to be different.

The value of doing this is twofold because it’s a methodology that is unique to my company and differentiates our solution, and it’s also something that I created that adds to my personal brand.

What have YOU created that you can package into something unique that YOU own?

A challenge I see with services related companies is trying to be all things to all people and having a cloudy message. It’s a good exercise to distill those top areas that you are solving into a 1-3 areas and those other auxiliary types of things that you do save for live conversations. That may not always apply, but if you can narrow it to something very concise, it is worth considering.

Another important thing is to stay current and educate yourself. I mentioned on the stage how I keep Google alerts for myself, my company, but I also do that for topics and industry trends. I put the Internet to work for me so is delivering to me the content that I want to consume. I run across a lot of great content that I wouldn’t have discovered through the regular channels, so it’s a great way to identify sources as well. I can also see where others are using dated methods, are running into obstacles, and it helps me better define my deliverables.

Keeping your accomplishments current is also another important factor in how you brand yourself.  I’ve seen people that put minor accomplishments from 20 years ago in their bio that could be weakening their brand. What you did in 1992 is likely not super relevant to what is happening in 2019.  If you go too far back without a solid recent list of output, you run the risk of looking stale. I believe a lot of people that complain of ageism also put out aging messaging about themselves…not that it doesn’t exist, but why put something out there that causes more harm that good?

Something I see from time to time is a company with a pretty good website, but they don’t put their management team on it and we don’t really know who’s behind the curtain. Today’s buyers are astute, especially in executive-level services, and they want to know who you are and what you do. I would even recommend working with a content consultant or somebody that can help you to have a consistency across your website, your bio, your LinkedIn profile, Twitter, etc. Me personally, I spend zero time promoting anything professional on Facebook because my prospects just aren’t there, that goes with Instagram too.

I tend to avoid heated topics outside of my industry because it only would serve to alienate prospects. I do however engage in discussions about related topics that are flat out against what I know to be true. When I see people promoting the “cold calling is dead” message, I will gladly jump into that discussion. People do take calls, they don’t take bad calls…99% of the calls they get are bad calls. So that is another thing to think of, how will you engage in topics where there are differing opinions. Or will you step outside of your industry space and engage in other discussions too?

Another thing to consider is what you want to be discovered vs. what you don’t. I don’t want to impact my SEO results with things that are unrelated. I have an equestrian site that I don’t put my name on because I don’t want to have all this stuff come up that impacts my main business results.  People that know me know I adore my animals, I share photos on Twitter, etc. But one thing I don’t want is to have my potential clients of The Vanella Group, Inc. searching for B2B telemarketing and finding dressage and costume demo content.

There’s much more I could comment on, it’s a big topic and one you have to periodically stop and assess what needs to be changed. Please connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter, or feel free to email or call me.

Have an excellent week!

Marketing Personal Development

Why Machine Learning Should be in Your Present, Not Just Your Future

I have spent the last 40 years on the cusp of various technologies. (It’s a trick. If you are on the cutting edge, there are no experts, so you get to call yourself one.) Now I am an expert in Marketing and AI. (See what I did there?)

I actually have been working in text analytics since the 80s and was first exposed to machine learning in IBM Research in the 90s, so I have been doing this for a while, if that counts for anything. So I am used to hearing people talk about how AI is the future. And it is.

But it’s also the present.

Sometimes, it’s just how you talk about it. I remember early in my career, I did what I thought was a knockout presentation on some new superpower technology, and as the audience was filing out, a few people came up to speak to me afterwards. They were all very excited and all agreed as one person breathlessly said to me, “Wow, you are really a visionary.”

Except that’s bad. Because that means that they didn’t think they needed to do anything about that technology for three years. So if every time you hear about machine learning it sounds to you like Big Data 5G Blockchain, then you are missing the power of the present.

Machine learning can take the data you are sitting on and start predicting outcomes that you needed to wait to have happen. We are working with clients to predict the bounce rates of new pages without having to wait three months to see what they are. You can imagine applying the same approach to exit rate, social shares, inbound links, and any other content metric.

Think about what an advantage that is. Rather than suffering with poorly-performing pages for months until the data stabilizes, you can make changes presuming that those pages will perform the way similar pages have in the past. So make them look like better-performing pages instead. But do it now, not months from now.

That is what machine learning does. It takes all the data that you already have and speeds up the correct decision. That speed is your competitive advantage. Or at least it is your competitive advantage if you are using machine learning now. Conversely, if you think AI is the future, then it might be your competitor’s advantage now.

Marketing Personal Development

You Already Have a Personalized Web Page on Your Site

OK, I don’t know for sure if that headline is right about you, but let’s just see. You probably are interested in personalizing your customer experience–most companies are–but you are put off by the complexity and expense. So, it might surprise you that you likely already have a personalized page on your website.

It’s your site search results page.

Every person gets to put in a different search and they get back a list of (we hope) relevant results. So, it truly is personalized.

Now, you might be worried because you’ve never thought about your site search as delivering personalization–and because you know that page is probably not as good an experience as it should be. If you are truly serious about personalization, site search is the easiest place to start, for several reasons:

You’ve already paid for it.

You don’t need some fancy whiz-bang new technology to bring in, so you don’t need to justify a big expenditure and you don’t need to run a great deal of risk. You just have to get more value out of what you already are paying for it, which is usually an easy sell.

You can drive great business value from improving just this one page.

On most sites, the site search results page is one of the busiest pages on the site–usually in the top ten and sometimes neck-and-neck with the home page for most visited.

Your best customers use it.

Studies show the site searches convert anywhere from 43% to 600% more than non-searchers–and its probably not because your site search works so well. Instead, it is because your best customers–the ones most convinced to buy from you–stick around and use site search when less-qualified prospects abandon your site completely. Improving site search targets your best customers when they are ready to buy.

It can be the basis of more personalization.

Imagine if your site search engine was so good that it provided excellent results for your most popular searches. You could suddenly start using the search engine as a content recommendation engine, where the words on your page pick out the teasers for related content, similar to how Google AdSense works, by putting relevant ads on a page. If you’ve been struggling with conversion rate optimization, up-sell, and cross-sell, this is where you can start.

With personalized customer experience all the rage, you can take the first step in that direction by measuring the effectiveness of your site search and improving it. Who knows? Once you have your first personalized experience delivering value, maybe it will be easier to justify that big personalization investment.

Growth Personal Development

How Differentiation Beats Marketing Tactics Every Day

I work with a lot of large companies on their content marketing strategy, and they are always expecting some new technology, a different take on their data, or some exciting new AI technique. What they aren’t expecting is for me to ask them about their differentiation.

Differentiation somehow seems quaint in these modern times. With all the bits and bytes flying around in digital marketing, such old-fashioned marketing seems unimportant. But it’s actually more important than ever.

Here’s why. Content marketing isn’t a victory of technology or analytics or anything else except messaging. Content marketing is the salesperson who never sleeps, who overcomes every objection, and who is there for every prospect who wants to find your product. But you don’t win content marketing on volume. You can’t just make more and more of it and expect people to find it and reflexively buy.

Instead, content marketing is about creating messaging that the people who should buy from you will find. And who are those people? The ones that you are differentiated for.

The problem is that most marketers don’t really understand the full meaning of differentiation–it’s not just more than mere difference. It’s a difference that a particular market will pay for.

And that is where content marketing needs to start. You need to understand your personas, and your buyer journey, but without understanding your differentiation, you won’t know which personas to target. You won’t know what to say at each buyer journey step. And you certainly won’t be persuasive enough to get anyone to buy.

With all the content out there, you can’t just keep creating more messaging targeted at more people with more problems. Instead, you must be more targeted. You must focus on exactly the problems your best customers have. By satisfying them, you create the case studies that persuade even more. Only by doing so can any of the exciting digital marketing tactics make an impact. Your differentiation is the core of your strategy–it drives the tactics.

So, yes, it is important to understand your product. But it is more important to understand how your product is more perfect for your ideal customer than your competitors’. That’s the power of differentiation.

Marketing Personal Development

Three Cheap Ways to Know What Content Your Customers Want

There are time-honored ways of determining customers needs, ranging from surveys to focus groups. And your organization probably has spent years using these and other methods to determine how to deliver want customers want through your products and services. But do you know what content they want?

That question has become critically important with the rise of content marketing. We often know what product features our customers care about, but we aren’t sure of which content subjects will draw them to our products. And the traditional surveys and focus groups won’t answer the question, because they are too expensive to use for this purpose.

Instead, we present three cheap ways to know what your customers are interested in, so you can provide that content to them:

1. Web and other content analytics. Start with the content you already have. Which pages are visited the most? Which lead to conversions? Which emails get opened? Which social shares are clicked? Start with understanding which content is already performing and identify those subjects as ones to tackle more.

2. Search keywords. What are your customers searching for? Yes, look at Google Trends or other keyword tools to find out big trends, but how about your own customers using your site search? Do you know even what those subjects are? You might be surprised that you aren’t covering some of the most important subjects.

3. Social conversations. What are people talking about? Better, what are they complaining about? Those problems are what content marketing can solve. How do you listen to social conversations?

These digital methods of listening to what your customers want are:

  • Cheap
  • Up-to-the-minute
  • Unprompted

That last one is especially important because surveys and focus groups get answers only to the questions that are asked. Knowing what people are thinking about before you ask tells you what they will be searching for–which is how your content marketing attracts.

Marketing Personal Development Technology

How to Build Human Trust in AI

To read the popular press, AI can outdo humans at anything, but the truth is far more complex. AI applications are typically to do just one thing well, such as when Watson took on all comers in the Jeopardy game show. But while many of us are fine with letting computers play games, polls show that many of us are distrustful of self-driving cars. And that trust is a key issue, because otherwise valuable applications will be slowed down or even stopped if people don’t trust the technology. Research also shows that when AI systems give incorrect answers too frequently or answers that make no sense to humans, it reduces their trust in the system.

So, how do you build human trust in AI?

Explain the system’s decisions. There are calls for explainable AI, where the system must provide an explanation of how it came to its decision. This technique is still R&D, because techniques today are notorious for being proverbial black boxes. The problem with the research is that when you force systems to use only those techniques that are explainable, they inevitably work worse. Someday, this might be the answer, but not today.

Improve the system’s accuracy. The reason you want AI to explain itself is so you understand how mistakes happen. If you can make it work well enough, maybe no one needs an explanation. After all, most is us don’t know how our cars work, but we trust when we apply the brakes that it will stop. Hardly anyone knows how Google’s AI works, but we trust that our searches will get us good results, so we keep using it.

Reduce the really big mistakes. Watson once gave a really bad answer to a Final Jeopardy question in the category US Cities, providing the response of “Toronto.” We call that a “howler”–an answer so bad that even if you don’t know the correct answer, you still know that response is wrong. You can actually tune the system to reduce howlers by scoring bad answers as worse responses than wrong answers that are “close.”

Put humans in the loop. This might be the simplest of all. Instead of treating every AI system as one to replace humans, maybe it is easier, safer, and more trustworthy to set up the AI to help the humans do their jobs. Watson is being used to diagnose diseases, but rather than replacing doctors, Watson shows the doctors possible diagnoses based on the symptoms, with the doctor making the final decision. When decisions are so high stakes, this might be the most prudent approach.

AI is no longer science fiction, but people are understandably nervous of this kind of powerful force that works in mysterious ways. We need to pay close attention to building human trust in the system to see AI used in the safest and most valuable ways possible.

Marketing Personal Development Technology

The Most Powerful AI Needs Human Judgement

I grow weary of reading the simplistic headlines around the impact of AI. Some people say that AI will put many of us into a new leisure class that doesn’t need to work. Others argue that AI will make us all unemployed. They are both saying the same thing, actually, so it is just a personality test to divide optimists from pessimists. But there is no technology that in the past had that kind of impact, so why is this one different? It probably isn’t.

What is much more likely is that as machines do more, we humans will do something else. Something machines can’t do yet. That’s the way it has always been, so I think that is the way to bet.

What fuels my belief that this is true is that the most powerful AI we see today depends on human judgement. No, I don’t mean the highly-paid data scientists and AI engineers that are all the rage these days. Sure, they are important, but I am talking about ordinary people doing ordinary jobs using judgement that computers just don’t have. This technique is called semi-supervised machine learning or active learning.

Here is how it works. Supervised machine learning is what most AI applications use. They need human judgement, too. But they use it only at the beginning. They ask humans to tell the system the right answer to a question–for example, whether a tweet has positive or negative sentiment. You pile up enough tweets with human answers and use that to train the AI system. So, far, so good. But that is where most systems stop.

The most powerful systems keep getting better, using semi-supervised machine learning. The secret is something called the confidence score. Most AI systems can do more than just answer the question. Beyond telling you that they think this tweet is positive or that tweet is negative, they can tell you how confident they are in that opinion. So, the system might be 90% confident that this tweet is positive and just 60% confident that another tweet is negative.  This provides some interesting possibilities for semi-supervision.

You can set up your system so that your system handles automatically any tweet with over 70% confidence. If it is that sure of itself, let it provide that answer on its own. But if it is less than 70% confident, you can refer that tweet to a human being to check its answer. Is that tweet negative–the one with 60% confidence? Checking the answers the system isn’t sure of is semi-supervision, and it has two benefits. The first is that the system is more likely to get the answers right if it can ask a human to check its work.

The second benefit is that each new human answer is new training data that the system can use to improve its model. By constantly asking for help with the answers it is least sure of, the system is improving itself as rapidly as possible. You can add more training data at any time to any machine learning system, but if your new training data is merely adding more examples of what the system is already doing well, it doesn’t cause any improvement. Only by adding new training data in the areas that the system is getting wrong does improvement happen.

So, yes, machine learning is very important. But semi-supervised machine learning is what provides that most rapid way of continuously improving your machine learning application. If your team isn’t using that approach, it might be time to ask why not.

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