Things I've Changed My Mind About, 2021 Edition
I recently had a quick back and forth with a list member about SEO, and it reminded me I should write up a list of things I've changed my mind about.
In fact, I should do this every year or three. As my CPA could attest, I am terrible at hewing to yearly deadlines (I think in terms of significantly shorter and longer timeframes and function better with habit-based output), but I think anyone in the advice business has something approaching an ethical obligation to document and publish significant changes in their perspective or advice and, if they don't do that… have a good reason why, I guess? I'm not your mamma; do what you think is right. :)
Anyway, documenting and publishing these changes feels right for me if for no other reason than to prove to myself that my thinking hasn't stagnated.
Here's what I've changed my mind about in the past few years.
My previous perspective saw search traffic as low value "junk" traffic and lumped all efforts at attracting more search traffic into a single, dismissive, "that's the tail wagging the dog" bucket. I thought search engine optimization was little more than letting the whims of the crowd -- as measured by studying search volume -- dictate business strategy.
This flawed understanding gave way to what I believe is a more accurate perspective. I thank Jim Thornton for helping me develop this improved perspective.
I now see search traffic as a valuable way for the indie consultant to increase the impact of their work. I understand the effort to attract more search traffic as an information design project with two major components:
- Make thinking more accessible to human beings. Accessibility has a mechanical component: reduce friction in finding the needed information. Accessibility also has a cognitive component: make the thinking easier to understand, even across a variety of skill levels.
- Close the question-to-expert gap. Many people who could benefit from an indie consultant's work ask the "wrong" questions. They're not actually wrong; they're just coming from a beginner context and are phrased as such. Every one of these questions is an opportunity for impact if we take seriously the task of meeting the questioner where they are today, giving them a useful answer, and inviting them on a journey of growth that takes them to an evolved state down the road.
For years, I further justified my dismissal of search traffic by advocating a digital marketing funnel based on podcast guesting where you would end with a CTA to subscribe to an email course that provides value while introducing subscribers to paid product/service offers. While this can be a marvelously effective funnel -- and it's completely free of a dependence on search engines -- it relies on certain prerequisites (willingness to do the emotional labor of speaking over and over again, relative comfort with the podcast medium) that not everyone in my market will have, and I've realized through experience that if you don't just fundamentally love the podcast medium, there's only so much podcast hosting or guesting you can do.
My updated understanding of the value of search traffic fits into an updated understanding of digital marketing in general, which I touch on later in this article in the Digital Sharecropping section.
Disambiguation: a platform can be 1) a collection of marketing or media tools that let you reach an audience with a message or 2) a product that lots of businesses use and need help understanding, planning for, implementing, operating, extending, supporting, fixing, optimizing, and upgrading. In this section I'm talking about the second meaning of platform.
My previous perspective saw specializing in a platform (two examples: Custom Software for Salesforce, Entrepreneurial Operating System Implementer) as an unacceptably risky route. I responded to anyone pointing out an example of a business thriving on a platform with some variation of, "Well, just wait and see. They'll regret that choice eventually."
I now see this all with more nuance and context.
Platform specializations have risks, like every other specialization.
Platform specializations have unique upsides, like every other specialization.
The primary risk of a platform specialization is not that the platform will change or become hostile to your business overnight, but rather that within a year or three you will have to evolve your business from an innovation to an efficiency model. Most businesses can't execute that evolution that fast, and many simply don't want to. But some can! Those businesses might do very well with a platform specialization.
Furthermore, with some platforms, this moment of forced evolution never happens. Seeing evidence of this required I become more nuanced in my thinking. I believe the idea of open and closed systems helps explain this.
Open systems feature relatively high levels of novelty, chaos, and flow. Closed systems feature relatively high levels of centralized ownership and control. This means that a business that was born as an innovation business can remain an innovation business more easily and for longer within an open system.
Further, I believe that some platforms function more like open systems. Let's start at the beginning of the alphabet. AWS, despite having the owner's name right there in the first letter of the platform name, functions more like an open system -- lots of novelty, chaos, and flow happening in a very large-scale system. Apple's App Store is an example of a very closed system and their iOS platform is an example of a relatively closed system.
If a platform functions (and remains) more like an open system, then your business can function and remain like an innovation business. Most indie consulting businesses are innovation businesses.
I elaborate more on open/closed systems here: /pov/open-systems-closed-systems-and-commoditization/
"Digital sharecropper" is a dismissive term used to describe someone who relies on an un-owned platform like Facebook to earn visibility and trust for their services. I first heard Brian Clark use this term many years ago.
I previously espoused the idea that you were voluntarily agreeing to a bad deal if you relied on platforms you don't own or control.
My current perspective on this issue is a combination of two views:
- Every approach to marketing involves tradeoffs, and thinking of the overall marketing mix as a portfolio is the best way to think about it.
- Indie consultants -- even if we are spending about 40 to 50% of our time on "doing marketing" -- have constraints that mean we need to be selective about where we invest in our marketing portfolio. We can't invest equally across every major platform the way bigger companies can.
I've now seen enough cases of indie consultants and similar businesses successfully using platforms they don't own that it's obvious to me that it can be a useful way to configure a marketing portfolio, and it's not deserving of a broadly dismissive term like digital sharecropping. I elaborate on this here: /pov/the-un-owned-marketing-platform/
I haven't thoroughly checked it out, but at first blush I find the approach used in Ship 30 for 30 impressively resourceful in its use of un-owned platforms to bootstrap a writing habit. Seeing clever uses of social media in service of larger goals has also been a part of changing my thinking about un-owned platforms. Here's another example: /indie-experts-list/the-night-i-was-born/
There's something so appealing about how it feels to use terms like "digital sharecropper" to simplify the world into simple competing binaries, but I've seen enough people transcend that cartoonish view of things through careful, effective marketing portfolio management that I'm pulled into their slipstream and grateful for the forced evolution.
Direct Response Marketing
Previously, I advocated that those new to marketing make strong use of direct response marketing. I did so myself. Further, I advocated combining the direct response marketing toolset with a forceful writing tone.
I now see direct response marketing tools as a subset of a larger marketing toolset that can include brand marketing tools, which I think of as a gift with a logo on it.
I now advocate that these toolsets be deployed differently as your business matures. Specialize first. Then, in the early days, make full use of direct response marketing tools because of their efficiency. Then, as soon as you are able, reduce their usage and blend in brand marketing tools. Make sure you don't wait too long to make this transition because there is a conflict between the use of direct response marketing tools and the brand power of your expertise. Always be on the lookout for something -- an idea, philosophy, approach, or ethos -- that lies beyond yet animates & steers your services and products. If you identify such a thing, make it the center of your marketing and reconfigure your products/services as enablers of progress towards this central idea, philosophy, ideal, approach, or ethos.
And whenever possible, study how those who crave impact but don't need the money do marketing and apply what you can from what you see them doing.
I elaborate on the direct response to brand marketing evolution here: /pov/brand-marketing-and-direct-response-marketing-for-indie-consultants/
The Role Of Innovation Research
I often refer to exploratory qualitative small-scale research that uses an inductive method as innovation research because this style (customer development & JTBD) is used to generate new options for product development. Aka, innovation.
I used to advocate using this approach to validate a specialization decision. If someone was considering specializing in some way, I would recommend that they recruit interviewees -- ideally buyers for that potential specialization -- and do customer development-style research.
I now think this is a sub-optimal use of time and energy because it's costly (from a time and effort perspective), has a real learning curve, and even when it works it can leave us second-guessing our specialization decision rather than feeling more confident about it. In other words, it's expensive overkill when used as a specialization validation tool.
Innovation research has its place, and in the right context can be very valuable. But if you want to validate a specialization decision, I now believe there are better ways:
- Make sure it's not too risky.
- Make sure there is some competition already doing the thing you're considering specializing in.
- Make sure it's a reasonably right-sized market, and if your specialization decision is a tiny beachhead, make sure you can see some kind of path from that beachhead to a right-sized market.
For most specialization decisions, those 3 are enough validation. In some cases, more is needed, and in those cases I recommend a live market test. And if pursuing a highly entrepreneurial opportunity, that's when the expense of innovation research is justified. David C. Baker's approach to positioning work has helped me evolve my thinking here.
I do think the most compelling entrepreneurial opportunity for the indie consultant is finding and adopting an orphan problem and building a brand colosseum around their solution to it, but the first time you specialize, most people should aim a bit lower -- land on a less risky beachhead -- in order to build up some business momentum before tackling the brand colosseum construction project.
An article like this is certainly part therapy for me, part value-add for my prospective clients. I hope it's at least a 60/40 split in your favor.
There are other differences in my current perspective, but they are more evolutions than hard left or right turns.