Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Financial Illiterates

I get a fair number of people writing to me, both online and off, about all kinds of issues.  Most of the time, they're brand-related topics, although like this blog, some of those topics stretch the very bounds of "tangential."  I am surprised, however, at one deficit common to so many of them:

Financial illiteracy.

Mind you, the people with whom I engage are not uneducated in the general sense.  They run the gamut, from high schoolers to post-graduates.  Some are intuitively brilliant; others incredibly motivated and disciplined.  So it's not that they're stupid or naive.  They're simply not educated about how money, finance, business and the economy works. They lack critical thinking skills.

It's not completely their fault.  Try finding a middle school, high school, college or even a graduate school that teaches people how to think critically or actually do business.  I'm not talking about that useless crap that passes as a "business education," like Introduction to Accounting 101."  I'm talking about the drive, the initiative, the critical thinking and decision-making that propels people into business success.  And don't get fooled by "entrepreneurship" classes, either. They may show you the lay of the land, but not how to successfully navigate it.

To see what I mean, try Frankel's Financial Literary Test yourself or on any of your peers.  It's really simple. One question:

What would you do with $1,000?

The top answers are usually, "I'd buy something nice for my Mom," followed by, "I'd buy something nice for my Dad."  After that, you may hear, "I'd buy something really nice for myself," and occasionally, "I'd pay down my credit card."

All wrong.

The correct answer is, "I'd see how fast I could turn it into two thousand."  If you hear anything else, you've lost.

It's a mind set thing.  And this is why just about every MBA I meet is so thoroughly disappointing.  Sure, they know how to read a balance sheet and a financial statement, but rarely know how to do the one thing that drives business success:  spot and exploit an opportunity.

One reason why so many people have so little money is because, let's face it, it's been a tough economy since 2008.  But lots of people have managed to succeed even during these tough times, not because they were connected or privileged , but because they not only knew how to recognize opportunities, they actually hunted them.

Prior to America's Great Softening in the 1970s, the top rated characteristic of Americans was self-reliance.  The vast majority of citizens took pride in the notion that if they didn't kill, they didn't eat. Everyone, sporting the bluest blue or whitest white collar took pride is his ability to seek out opportunity, and once found, exploit it to his advantage.  It's how he provided for himself and his family.

That's only half the equation, however.

The second part of financial literacy comes about after success, when questions arrive as to what can be done with the proceeds of success.  Once again, Frankel's Financial Literary Test comes into play.  I'm impressed by the number of people who have no idea what to do with their money after they've made it. Prominent citizens -- not just students fresh out of college -- have no idea how entrepreneurial investment, the stock market, bonds, fiscal or monetary policies affect them. The same laziness that likely landed them in their corporate law firms prompts them to turn over their earnings to financial managers whose only real talents are in herding "easy money" clients into company-created mutual funds.  The very same funds, by the way, that take the hardest hits when the economy goes south.

Especially at the time of this writing, there are no simple answers for "reliable income" or "financial security."  And despite the free seminars being offered on TV and radio,  there are no courses that provide "survival skills" for the financially illiterate.  You can teach people how to flip houses, but you can't teach them motivation. You can only convey the importance of recognizing opportunity.

It's the foundation on which successful lives -- and successful countries -- are built.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Truth About Online Ads

If you subscribe to my blog, you know I spend a fair amount of time touching on issues that are tangential to branding. That's because branding - despite what every other "authority" might tell you -- is really just about harnessing human behavior in order to increase your bottom line.

Let's face it: Why even bother with branding if it doesn't enhance your profitable revenue?

This time out, I'm hitting closer to home, answering the often-asked-but-never-answered tactical question, "Does online advertising really work?"  The short answer is yes. And no. The correct answer is, "It depends."  And here's the real-life data I have to back it up for you.

If you're going to commit to advertising your product or service, the first decision you have to make is whether your offering is a solution or a lifestyle issue.  I'd define a solution as a definitive remedy to an immediate problem, whereas a lifestyle issue is less an immediate solution than it is an elective purchase.  Finding a plumber to fix your leaking pipes is an immediate solution; purchasing a box of chocolates is more of an elective lifestyle decision.

This is a major variation on the traditional methods used by advertising agencies to plan and buy media for clients, because in the past, most ad buying was determined by demographics, targeting audiences by quantifiable data such as gender, age, education and geography.  If you can put a number on it, demographics was the way to go.  As media flourished, however, psychographics have become even more important, focusing on wants and needs.  After all, if you're selling maple syrup, you can be either gender, any age, with any education in any part of the world.  The only qualification is your love of maple syrup.

Before I get too far into it, let me add one more caveat:  Ad agencies are very fond of "generating awareness" as an worthwhile goal.  And while it's true that people have to know about your product before they can buy it, awareness alone is worth nothing.  In fact, the worst case is when everyone knows about your brand but nobody buys it.  Awareness that produces no revenue is merely a trajectory to complete failure.

In my own little corner of the world, I've tested both approaches with products/services of my own.  I figure my own pontification is just that more credible if I've played with my own money, so here's the deal:  

My findings (and I'll bear this out with numbers for you) is that solutions do well with Google AdWords while lifestyle purchases do best with Facebook and, to a far lesser extent, Twitter.  Here are the two projects I've tested.  If you know me, you already know them.  But if you're new here, they are as follows: is an online settlement service that allows anyone in America to avoid small claims court by settling and paying out any monetary dispute by simply going online.  It's a disrupter. It does for small claims disputes what PayPal did for payments.  It's cheaper, faster and more efficient than any small claims, arbitration or mediation. is clearly a solution.  The only people who would need it are people who need to resolve an immediate situation that's happening right now.  

When people need a solution to a problem, they don't hang around scrolling through Facebook or Twitter.  They do what you and I do when we have a problem:  They Google the problem in search of a solution.  That's exactly how the numbers play out for  Neither Facebook nor Twitter did anything to move the needle on site activity or even visits, because nobody scrolls through their feeds looking for solutions to problems they're not immediately facing.  

Google AdWords, on the other hand, is like Facebook/Twitter's evil twin.  If you subscribe to my definition of branding being "perceived by prospects as the only solution to their problem," you need only consider what situation prospects experience to search Google for your offered solution.  In this case, our Google AdWords ad appears when our prospects find themselves threatened by some sort of court or collection action.  In an industry where a 1% clickthrough rate is considered nominal, ads generate well over three times that rate -- at the ridiculously low cost of less than 42¢ per visit -- to send qualified prospects our way.  That's way better than Facebook, Twitter or even national TV.  Google AdWords is the "go to" medium.

But for different products/services, Facebook succeeds where Google flops:

The other project is my latest book, The Artist Who Loved Women:  The Incredible Life & Work of Patrick Nagel, the Most Successful & Anonymous Artist of the 1980s.  Believe me, it's a great book, but nobody is scanning Google searching for it.  Why would they? It's not an immediate problem for them.  The book is more of a lifestyle decision, which lands directly in Facebook's wheelhouse.  If you haven't noticed, all the political haters, zombie television fans and cat lovers have proven that birds of a feather really do flock together, if only to follow pages and people who endorse and promote their common agenda. Love Trump? Hate Hillary? Feel the Bern? Your age, gender and geography doesn't matter; your common interest does.  

For that reason, Facebook allows you to reach people based on those common interests which are more casually experienced.  In the case of my book, that means reaching out to art lovers, design people, hipsters and baby boomers (read: fans of the eighties) through Facebook groups devoted to them.  As part of its program, Facebook creates a landing page that others can join, which can also direct them to your commercial site.  I participate by commenting from the book's Facebook page, so that anyone curious can simply click to the book's Facebook page and then on to either Amazon or the book's website to actually buy the book. And they do.  While Google AdWords fails to drive any traffic, Facebook users click through at over 3% -- at only 9¢ per visitor -- and sales are increasing.

If you're still with me, you should know two more things:

First, Twitter is pretty useless, even if you have a decent following. I tested two accounts, one with 2500+ followers and one with 26 followers.  Believe it or not, neither produced any discernible sales, but interestingly, the account with 26 followers produced more visitors, simply due to one basic strategy: using hashtags to get other accounts to retweet my posts.  Turns out that a generic hashtag will get you retweeted by robots designed specifically to send out updates and build their own followings.  So one tweet with the URL, a graphic of the book's cover and the hashtag #book got retweeted to about 100,000 Twitter accounts.  So who really needs a huge following?

Second, Google does a lot of pick up work behind the scenes, meaning its robots are constantly scanning the internet, tracking and listing all your efforts.  A simple search for the book's title shows an increasing number of Facebook and Twitter activity and links which I didn't lift a finger to create.  The only caveat here is to make sure all your URL links are valid and accurate so that prospects land where you want them to be.

And here you were, thinking I ever do is snark.