“Lightnin' change when Lightnin' wanna change”

Philip Morgan

I like to imagine Lightnin' Hopkins wearing cool sunglasses at all times, even while doing his business in the bathroom. To be clear, I don't like to imagine him doing his business, but I do like to imagine him with cool shades permanently affixed to his head.In all the pictures I've seen of him, I've maybe 1 out of 10 show him without cool shades on. I mean, imagine not just looking, but actually being this cool:I love this particular story about Lightnin':

Two of my favorite stories about Lightnin’ come from an article written by Jas Obrecht and published in a book edited by Mr. Obrecht called: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – The Postwar Blues Guitarists.”One story was told to Mr. Obrecht by Billy Gibbons, guitarist and singer for the Texas-born Blues-Rock band ZZ Top. Mr. Gibbons recalled an experience the band had once while accompanying Lightnin’ Hopkins.“We were playing a traditional blues and we all went to the second change, but Lightnin’ was still in the first change. He stopped and looked at us. Our bass player said, ‘Well, Lightnin’, that’s where the second change is supposed to be, isn’t it?’ Lightnin’ looked back and said, ‘Lightnin’ change when Lightnin’ want to change.'”Source

Traditional blues uses a 12-bar pattern of chord progressions. No matter what key you're playing in, it's always the same: 4 bars of the root, 2 bars of the 4th, 2 bars of the root, 2 bars of the 5th, and 2 more bars of the root. There are variations of course, but the variations are also quite formulaic.This raises the question: what does your business need to do to stand out from others with similar skills or capabilities?Lightnin' made his music unique and well loved by departing from the formula whenever he damn well pleased, and it worked great.You have lots of opportunities to stand out by departing from the "professional services marketing formula". Here are four good ones and three bad ones.

Genuine Point of View

I'm by no means the first to point out that a genuine point of view can help you stand out from the "we're clever, eager, and hardworking" professional services marketing formula.A point of view is your opinion on how best to achieve results for your clients.

  • You make your point of view more memorable or shareable when it is specific, can be summarized in a short, punchy sentence or phrase, and addresses something that is important or of-the-moment for your clients.
  • You make your point of view more convincing to your clients when you combine it with examples or evidence that supports it.
  • You make your point of view more attractive to a subset of your prospective clients when it expresses an opinion they also hold but have to be somewhat reserved about expressing because of company politics or other reasons.

Being Human

Yep! You can be a professional and a human at the same time. These are called human professionals. Or professional humans, depending on who you ask. And you can be one of them!Imagine you are CEO of a startup that sells an expensive data product to huge companies. You'd be tempted to try to act like your competition, which is Gartner, and other big-shot analyst firms.But what if you didn't? What if, instead, you sent out a really interesting email each weekend that is a roundup of interesting stuff your data team discovered last week? And what if you began each of those emails with a very human, oftentimes humorous, always genuine section where you simply connect with readers?If you did, then you'd have one of my favorite examples of being human. (If that email is interesting, you can join that guy's list here)

Being Vividly Specific

I talk about this a lot, so I probably don't need to elaborate much on this. Replace generalities with specifics.

  • You don't make things "better". Instead, say how much better.
  • You don't work with clients, companies, or businesses. Instead, say exactly what your best or most successful clients look like, think, believe, or do.
  • You don't have "experience" or "skills" or "expertise". Instead, you have a specific way of doing things, a specific framework, a specific dataset, or a specific process that produces superior results for specific reasons. Explain all of this in detail. Maybe not right there on your site's homepage, but explain this uniqueness at some point on your site.

Unique IP

Intellectual property, in the services world, is your expertise packaged and made usable by non-experts. Most services businesses have nothing like this.But if you do have something like this, then it's a great way to show prospective clients how you are different.And now we get to the several things that might seem like good ways to stand out but actually aren't:

Magikal Process

I remember back when I was starting out working for myself. After a year or two, I had cobbled together a process. I was excited, and so I made a big deal out of this on my website.My process, which seemed so impressive to me, was nothing different than any other competent marketing writer would use. So in retrospect, my excitement about it is kind of embarrassing. It wasn't anything special, and the fact that I thought it was just made me look ignorant.If your "magikal process" looks a lot like agile, scrum, xp, waterfall, or any of the dozens of established project management frameworks out there, it isn't special. It's standard.And that's good! Using a proven process can be a really good thing. But it's also not something that's going to make your business stand out. It doesn't make you special, and your usage of industry-standard process doesn't justify that much real estate on your website. It just makes you competent. Which, again, is good!Special requires more than just good.

Magikal Team

Your team--if you have one--is probably also good, competent, or possibly very above average. But great? World class? Truly special in an irreplaceable way?I doubt it. I'm not trying to be mean here, just cynical. Because your buyers are seeing a lot of claims about special, amazing, unicorn, world-class teams on your peers websites. And so your buyers are kind of cynical. That's why I'm also coming at this from a somewhat cynical perspective.At the same time, your buyers are hopeful, at least a little bit. Part of them wants to believe your claims about your special, amazing, unicorn, world-class team. But they're also cynical. They've seen other special, amazing, unicorn, world-class teams underperform due to shitty communication or people dropping the ball or political BS. And those teams were described as special, amazing, unicorn, world-class teams on their company's website. So buyers deploy healthy cynicism as a risk-mitigation tool to prevent bad decisions or unrealistic expectations.It's good that you have a good team. But realistically, you got the best talent that you could under numerous geographical, financial, and time constraints. Don't overplay this hand, because it's fake differentiation and it's doing to fall on ears that have been partially deafened by cynicism. Find another way to be special.

Playing with--rather than against--type

I think this is a personal pet peeve more than anything. But in my work, I look at a lot of marketing websites for dev shops, and I see a lot of them playing with--rather than against--the "type" of developers. You drink a lot of coffee. You're zany non-conformist eager, clever, hardworking geeks.This won't make you stand out. It might be true. It might be fun to rep that vibration. But it won't help you stand out against your peers.Sorry to end this email on what might feel like a real rant. Just being human here. :)If you'd like help standing out from your peers, my small group coaching program can help.-P