Surprise! You Can Be All Things To All People
Even though we’re still a few light years away from flying jetpacks, we have officially entered the age of mass customization. Thanks to powerful new technology, what has long been a marketing fantasy can become an operating reality. In this age of hyper-personalization, inexpensive access to interest and intent data, and high-velocity computing, you can actually be all things to all people. More important, you can tell each and every one of them, individually, exactly what they want to hear -- no more, no less and right to the point. Marketing, media and politics will never be the same.
Smaller companies and start-ups should be the ones to capitalize on this first. Done properly, mass customization should let companies reduce operating costs, maintain or shrink their headcounts without negatively affecting customer interactions, and provide more relevant and personal offerings to their customers.
In order to intelligently and cost-effectively employ mass customization, there are some basic concepts that you’ll need to understand.
1. There are Only Nine Stories in the Naked City
We all like to think we’re unique. This might be true in some philosophical sense, but to marketers and statisticians, we’re pretty much all the same within some very narrow and easily determinable ranges. In 1921, Georges Polti demonstrated that in the entire history of drama and story-telling, every single tale could fit within one or several of 36 dramatic categories he devised. Yet, in our daily lives, we don’t really appreciate how common and recurring certain themes and ideas are.
Similarly, in virtually any evaluation or sale, there are a finite number of things that are right or wrong with anything. The vast majority of behaviors fall within a very limited range of standard deviations. This means that we can immediately shrink what would appear to be the insurmountable task of messaging millions of people into a fairly trivial set of responses that apply to 99% of the individuals within any targeted population.
As for those few special cases? You can absolutely forget them. They don’t matter, and that’s the charm of the immutable laws of large numbers. This is how actuaries stay in business. Scale is what sells and what matters. Mass customization permits even small players to address and interact with massively scalable audiences.
When it’s done right, the messages you’re sending end up being halfway between a fortune cookie and a horoscope. Everyone wants to believe your messages, because they mostly “fit,” they don’t have a better option, and they like to think they’re being singled out for personal attention.
2. A Few Things are Important. Most are Not
We can juggle a few balls (or ideas) at once, but frankly, not that many. The more choices that someone has in a shopping context, the less likely they are to choose anything. The fewer the choices, the quicker the decision.
Systems that reduce noise and simplify selections for the consumer win. This is why we still rely on brands. They are mental shorthand for a set of attributes that we desire. They keep us from having to evaluate all over again and make a new set of choices. The power of a good story and the value of a great brand are exactly the same: They help put complex facts into a proper context.
By giving us the “evidence” to support our often foregone conclusion, brands address another fundamental human condition. We are far better persuaded by reasons and justifications that we think we have reached on our own than by anything offered in support of the same conclusions by third parties. This is why advertising needs to be informational and additive rather than simply persuasive.
3. More Data is Not the Same as Better Information
We’re drowning in data. But it’s not making us any smarter, because having more data isn’t the same as having better decision-making information. In addition to fewer overall inputs, we need smarter and simpler outputs that we can readily act upon. Here again, mass customization can help convert a pile of facts into advice and solutions, and get us all much further up the learning curve relatively painlessly.
Only a small number of people understand the elegance and power of simplicity. The vast majority think that something simple must be cheap or insufficient or incomplete. But too much of anything technical is actually a form of mental pollution. It doesn’t clarify our thought processes - it muddies and mucks them up.
We’re swamped, we’re stumped, and we need help. Something sufficient this Saturday beats the heck out of something super next September. I want a product or a service that does a few important things for me really well, and I want it right now. Perfect can wait for another day.
4. There’s an Art to Being Wrong with Confidence
The final basic element of mass customization is to have the courage of your own convictions. If you don’t believe it and believe in it, you’re never going to be successful in selling it to anyone else. Your solution is better than any of the alternatives and provides real immediate value to the users - regardless of how many of them there are and/or how many of them receive only slight variations of the same advice. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t apologize. Just go sell it and see how well you do. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised. If you need a handy attitudinal reminder while you’re out there in the field, use one of my favorite mottos: “Sometimes wrong; never in doubt.”
HOWARD A. TULLMAN is the CEO of 1871 – Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman
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