Content, in theory, should be a boon to marketers. The Content Marketing Institute says that “consumers have shut off the traditional world of marketing“ and touts content as a “strategic marketing approach that can attract and retain audiences” and “drive profitable customer action.”
Sounds great. The only problem, as I’ve noted before, is that content is crap. Nobody calls anything good, like an Oscar winning film or a hit song, content. The concept mostly exists as a fantasy in the minds of strategic planners who want to replace paid media with long-form ads on media assets they own and control.
In other words, content marketing fails largely because it is pursued by marketers who bring a traditional mindset to a completely new field. Rather than discovering and telling stories, they try to wrap marketing messages inside canned narratives. The truth is that marketers need to shift their mental models to think less like carnival barkers and more like publishers.
Yet this year I can’t think of anything truly new that is having a major impact. Yes, there is a sharing economy that’s emerging, robots are taking our jobs and we seem to be in the middle of a new industrial revolution, but those things have been going on for some time. They are, essentially, the continuation of previous trends.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t big things underway. In fact, we’re on the cusp of some transformational changes. We are entering a new era in the fight against cancer, closing in on a major breakthrough in energy storage and open sourcing artificial intelligence. Those aren’t your typical hot trends, but represent new paradigms of enormous significance.
The past few years have been especially good for books. It seemed like every time you turned around, some great CEO or brilliant scientist was publishing a memoir. Or somebody else you’d never heard of just comes out with something incredibly insightful and interesting that you just had to read. It was hard to keep up!
This past year wasn’t nearly as well stocked, but there were some truly excellent titles to choose from. What’s more, the somewhat slower pace gave me a chance to go back and read some great stuff I missed from previous years. So, all in all, I had no problem getting my fix.
As in past years, this list reflects the books I’ve read and written about on Digital Tonto. While this year’s list may not be as current as previous ones, there’s no shortage of great insights to be gleaned from some really smart people. I hope you find a few that you like and enjoy them as much as I did. Have a great holiday!
Thirty years ago, when Marty McFly arrived in 2015, there were hover-boards, robotic gas stations and a Mr. Fusion machine that could power everything (yet strangely, still pay phones and newspapers). Instead, we got global terrorism and Donald Trump as a viable Presidential candidate.
Not all of the news is bad though. We’re on the brink of curing cancer, sent a spaceship to Pluto and got a global climate deal. Mostly, 2015 has been a strange year. Europe moved right while Canada moved left. We lost Letterman and Jon Stewart, but elevated Stephen Colbert to new heights. It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry.
Through it all, one constant has been Digital Tonto, delivering two articles a week and a newsletter on Sunday. We’ve come a long way, geographically and otherwise, since I launched the site in my apartment in Kyiv six years ago. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support! Here are my top posts of 2015.
In 1985, a relatively unknown professor at Harvard Business School named Michael Porter published a book called Competitive Advantage, which explained that by optimizing every facet of the value chain, a firm could consistently outperform its competitors. The book was an immediate success and made Porter a management superstar.
In truth, neither view fully represents today’s business environment. Certainly, companies like Apple and Southwest are still able to dominate their industries, but the source of advantage has changed. We no longer compete in a resource economy, but a semantic economy where firms that can build, manage and widen connections win out.
Corporate leaders love to talk about values. They put them on web sites, frame them, place them prominently in boardrooms and proudly espouse them in media interviews. The notion of values has become so pervasive that it’s hard to find any CEO who doesn’t tout their importance.
Yet all too often, values are little more than window dressing. Key stakeholders, including employees, customers and partners are either completely unaware what the stated values are or don’t believe that they ring true. In some cases, corporate talk about values amounts to no more than a cruel joke.
I doesn’t start out that way. It’s hard to imagine even the most jaded executive team affirming values they don’t believe in. Rather, the problem is usually that values are easy to write down, but hard to live up to. So what begins with a sincere effort ends with a lofty checklist of anodyne virtues that don’t reflect reality. Here’s how to create values that stick:
In The Outsiders, William Thorndike argues that the most essential skill for a manager is capital allocation. To prove his point, he profiles CEOs such as Henry Singleton of Teledyne and John Malone of TCI who, while not household names, achieved outsized returns by wisely deploying their firm’s resources.
Thorndike also points out that most CEOs get their jobs not through exhibiting financial acumen, but for excellence in some other area, like production, marketing or sales. So capital allocation is a skill that many executives lack, having no opportunity to gain experience with it until they reach the top job.
It’s a interesting argument, but its fatal flaw is that he omits innovators like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg—and even Sam Walton and Herb Kelleher—because they represent “genius” that is too uncommon to replicate. That’s a startling omission. I would argue that while capital allocation is an important skill, innovation is the only true way to create value.
Ted Cruz wants to abolish the Department of Energy. Sarah Palin can’t decide. In 2008, she said that she wanted to get rid of it, but more recently she declared that she would like to run it and then abolish it. Eliminating a $27 billion agency is a big deal, so it makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.
On Cruz’s website he says we should, “cut off the Washington Cartel, stop picking winners and losers, and unleash the energy renaissance.” Palin says she thinks a lot about the department because, “energy is my baby: oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use.”
Those are strange objections, because they have very little to do with what the Department of Energy does. (It does not, as Palin implies, have anything to do with oil leases). In fact, I think most would agree that the main activities of the agency—nuclear defense, scientific research and empowering innovation—are essential programs that we couldn’t do without.
In a recent Businessweek article Jack Clark explains how Apple’s famously secret culture is inhibiting its ability to compete in artificial intelligence. Simply put, top scientists want to be able to publish openly and be recognized by their peers. At Apple though, they can’t even disclose their positions on social media.
This is in stark contrast to competitors like IBM and Microsoft, whose research divisions do attract world class scientists and allow them to publish openly. Tesla has even taken it a step further and open sourced its patents. Increasingly, technology is becoming less proprietary and more open.
So should Apple worry? Clearly, it remains the world’s most valuable company by far, with arguably unrivaled talent in design and engineering. What’s more, it’s latest earnings report shows that even with its massive scale, the company shows no signs of slowing down. Yet its inability to make headway in crucial technology areas exposes a flaw in how Apple innovates.
The majority of a company’s value is intangible, so a strong brand is a significant competitive advantage. As Philip Kotler wrote, “The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand, you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low-cost producer is the only winner.”
Brands and communication have long been intertwined. From TV ads and press releases to events and endorsements, the way consumers view a brand will influence their decision making, so crafting and reinforcing a brand image has long been a top priority for marketers.
Yet historically, brand images were often only skin deep, the result of careful messaging and slick production values. Today, however, digital technology allows brands interact directly with customers and they, in turn, now expect more than talk. They demand positive brand experiences. Marketers need not only new strategies, but to adopt new mindset.