Marketing Mind: Fear-setting to Antifragile
Table of Contents
- Risk Analysis Exercise
- Risky Business
- Naming Risks
- Adrift in the Sea of Noise
- Risk & the Fragility Continuum
- The Antifragile Marketer
- Fear-setting for Content: Charrettes
- The Small Print
Risk Analysis Exercise
Recently, someone gifted me with analyzing risk for an in-house marketing department that I manage on a consulting basis. You could say that I’m a part-time marketing director and part of my job is to handle departmental exercises like risk assessment.
Larger organizations generally analyze risk, so it’s not something I do regularly. In a way, that’s a good thing. Small organizations lack the resources for activities that might devolve into either navel-gazing or superficial compliance.
In another way, meditating on risk seems warranted in the wake of recent events. Things seem riskier than usual as we navigate a land war in Europe, rampant inflation, a stubbornly persistent pandemic, subsequent economic transformation, and management accommodations to these conditions.
So I am genuinely interested in this risk analysis work.
Weighing risk is precisely what we should be doing right now. Risk assessment pushes us into reflection on the things that are likely to trip us up, with the promise of making an organization (or individual, for that matter) more competent, more resilient, and more fault-tolerant.
Risk assessment can be a very effective way to channel what I, as a manager, ought to be thinking about. One should engage in this kind of thing often since it pushes active threats and looming risks to the fore.
A better question materializes in the course of this risk assessment. How can my marketing department be immune from risk?
This question drives my deliberation toward how these risks are really weaknesses or, more really, how risks exploit weaknesses. Once my assignment is complete — categories assigned, threats dutifully named, controls proposed — the result is: Perhaps I’ll be more vigilant, and maybe I’ll develop and implement management controls. Perhaps those management controls will minimize vulnerabilities, inflection points of fragility.
A more effective approach is to work on the vulnerabilities directly. Better to use Nassim Taleb’s mental framework of antifragility.
I think of risk assessment as the business version of Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting exercise, based on the Stoic practice of imagining the worst possible things that can happen and then marshaling your thoughts on the matter. Stoics didn’t have a catchy name like fear-setting, but Seneca, Cato, and Marcus Aurelius wrote about preparing for adversity.
The risk analysis home version defines worst-case scenarios, preventatives for those scenarios, and disaster relief plans if one of these nasty, destructive things comes to pass.
Corporate risk assessment does pretty much the same thing, albeit with spreadsheets and pseudo consultantese terminology. There are risk matrices, risk categories, threat catalogs, control catalogs, and summaries along with likelihoods, impacts, and strategies.
Researching risk online, you tend to find a lot of commentary by information technology firms. They talk about threats, vulnerability, and risk. Besides epidemiologists and FEMA planners, I suspect cybersecurity types spend more time contemplating risk than anyone.
Vulnerabilities are inherent flaws in technologies, processes, or teams. Security wonks think of these as systems flaws in databases, routers, or control policies. According to them, a threat is an immediate scenario like a typhoon or a Google de-listing. Risks are the noxious result when threats meet vulnerabilities, and things go south.
For more background, I consulted the OED about the three furies:
Threat “… an indication of the approach of something unwelcome or undesirable; a person or thing regarded as a likely cause of harm etc.”
Vulnerable “Able to be wounded…liable to damage or harm…”
Risk “Danger; (exposure to) the possibility of loss, injury or other adverse circumstances”
Eve Ensler said, “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things. Language has the capacity to transform our cells, rearrange our learned patterns of behavior and redirect our thinking. I believe in naming what’s right in front of us because that is often what is most invisible.” Here, she’s commenting on an idea central to her play, the Vagina Monologues, but the concept broadly applies.
The big risk for this marketing team is that all that work and effort tallies to nothing — to not exist online. Nada. A big fat “ho-hum.”
Adrift in the Sea of Noise
We’re geared for regular old content. Our work is the work of being seen and heard by the right audience. Anything else is beating against the proverbial current, blending into the tapioca depths of the totally ignorable.
Lost in a sea of noise is the most adverse, dangerous, what’s-the-point-in-it-anyway scenario. Now we can start to unwrap the package.
Of course, we aren’t just naming a list of threats, vulnerabilities, and risks; we’re considering how best to address them. We think of the things that might happen, threats and describe how we can manage or remedy those threats. Because this is a formal exercise, we take these threats and fixes and add categorizations, controls, and owners to the whole thing, so it’s specific, measurable, attainable, and time-bound.
Risk & the Fragility Continuum
In our case, we approach risk naming and fix planning this way. Identify and rate a bunch of bad stuff like boring content, running afoul of the search lords at Google, or public relations fiascos. Rate those scenarios for likelihood, impact, and other criteria. Then plot the ratings on some kind of grid or table. Scheme ways to make sure they don’t happen or things to do when they do happen. Add that to the table so someone can make sure you follow through.
This is a legit exercise, not because it helps you deal with the proverbial black swan, but because it helps you deal with the expected. The risk assessment exercise is not hypothetical; it’s got me thinking about what’s wrong right now. The threats are already inside the wire. What’s failing? What needs a tune-up? What happens when the rust sets in organizational inertia/entropy combo and individual ennui?
Thinking about dealing with risk naturally leads to Nassim Taleb’s ideas on fragility and antifragility discussed in his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
The thrust of his thesis is that trying to spin scenarios like the above to create contingencies and manage risk with policies and controls might make brittle, fragile organizations. Things that don’t fit into the neat borders of our spreadsheet can’t be addressed. Antifragile organizations thrive on chaos and disorder because they frame their activity with constant shifting ground of permanent change. Antifragile teams have policies and controls that embrace the furies rather than avoid them.
It's Taleb’s invention and so: “Given the unattainability of perfect robustness, we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.”
This is where things start to get interesting.
The Antifragile Marketer
Antifragility may not be something that I can develop within a marketing team; I may have to settle for aspiring to robustness since I’ve inherited a few vulnerabilities, and I’m not likely to shed these any time soon.
At a basic level, marketing antifragility lies with an audience interested and wanting more content. The way to get an audience is deceptively simple: write valuable content that interests people. Simple, but not necessarily easy.
Even with quality content, pushing audience growth from infancy to adolescence can be fraught with fragility. This is because the best content approaches make a leap of faith in an idea. Perhaps it’s better stated this way: good content articulates a point of view.
Brands can make a point of view a valid route to audience engagement, but it’s not easy. It takes time to build an audience because audience building is a plodding affair until it isn’t. You can be sure that plenty of social media viral phenoms weren’t very viral in the early days. That’s when people think you’re crazy or stupid — until they don’t.
Take, for example, Steak-umm’s social media presence, managed by millennial Nathan Allebach, who emailed The Washington Post, “The voice is based on a combination of brand features, like it being a family-owned frozen meat company built by the working class, then me trying to personify it based on those features, my own thoughts, and an adaptable human-esque style that feels like someone you know.”
I’m curious about the work of developing the message and keeping in-house brand managers at bay while the voice breaks through. The mad rush to duplicate that voice from other brands with varying degrees of success is even more interesting.
More from WaPo: “Many brands have attempted a conversational, human(ish) voice on Twitter, with varying results. Wendy’s has taken up the role of an insult comic, endlessly roasting its fast-food competitors. Taco Bell sends out a mixture of offbeat and sassy messages. Planters opts for the absurdist. Steak-umm, on the other hand, goes for empathy and, Hoffman noted, “authenticity.”
Building and keeping an audience is work, but it’s resilient when done right.
Fear-setting for Content: Charrettes
What if we develop a set of fear-setting scenarios to consider to slowly develop the capacity to absorb Taleb’s “random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.”
If you happened to be in Paris near the École des Beaux-Arts sometime in the late 1800s, you’d see students would running next to a wheelbarrow on the way to their final presentation. In a run/walk sort of way, they would assemble, making changes to paintings with much debate and Gallic flourish. This approach became known as working en charrette or “in the cart”. Now the province of architecture departments, the charrette comes from the French word for cart or chariot. Now, it means highly pressurized scenarios where students ultimately present work for critique.
Here’s a scenario that applies to back-office service providers, call centers, BPOs: how do you market people-intensive processes when automation is making inroads and shrinking human headcount? Do you utter a protection spell “people want to talk to people at the end of the day”? Do you embrace it? Do you learn how to deploy blended seats with human escalation? How do you talk about and sell automation without cannibalizing your market?
General Threats to Marketing Teams and In-house Marketing Teams
The infinite capacity for self-delusional activity characterizes marketing work. The content you think is connecting connects to the wrong audience or connects not at all. This is the voice of the pointless, the also-ran. Technology bromides supplant the unsexy, workaday of audience-building. Surface understanding a product or service renders content teams incapable of rhetorical panache resonating with the right audience.
As Peter Drucker might have said, the work can be “doing the wrong things” content-wise, media-wise, and failing to connect, or the right message loses to poor execution or “doing the things wrong.” Inconsistent output is probably the greatest of these sins. Everything else falls into the bucket of fit-and-finish or technical proficiency.
Like many professions, marketing is lousy with pitfalls and deceptive strategies. When you consider the in-house variant of marketing, other traps pop up like whack-a-moles. Departments siphon-off time for inconsequential design or copywriting, management inserts its spin on creative, the team grows comfortable.
The Small Print or a Selected Taxonomy of Threats for large-ish boutique BPO Marketing Departments
The original risk exercise includes sundry matrices, catalogs, registers, instructions, and definitions. In this formulation, there are three conceivable areas where threats may arrive to interfere with our marketing work: management, operations, and external sources. For the following, I omitted external threats here to focus on them in the future.
To start, it’s helpful to understand what we’re trying to do since we don’t have a lot of standard marketing work like develop pricing or repackage services. I am interested in the things that impact content marketing and all things adjacent: SEO, performance reporting, etc.
Lack of Vision
Vision in in-house marketing departments is tricky. Content marketing must rise above all other competitors for attention. To achieve this, marketing leaders must work relentlessly to conceive, construct, and protect the vibrant message to deliver the goods.
The reason this is tricky is because in-house marketers live inside their industry box. Things get self-referential quick and fresh messaging, frankly, isn’t trusted. There is a constant border war to implement hasty solutions that promise instant web traffic or to run back to marketing-as-usual with a veneer of fresh rhetoric.
It’s a natural tendency to market to everyone, especially when you are an outsourcing company when you do have something for everyone, in a sense.
This approach usually results in marketing to no one. Broad, one-size-fits-all messaging lacks the kind of specificity that garners online views. Business process outsourcers excel at targeting overly broad audiences as they ply commodified services suited to any and all comers.
Inappropriate Media/Channel Mix
Getting after that defined audience reflects a sense of the suitable medium for the message. The media landscape is expanding like mapmaking in the 15th century. Social media is atomizing while passion-economy influencers multiply like rabbits. Landing your message lands where an audience will germinate combines research, persistence, and luck.
Keeping remote teams focused and motivated is a sign of the times, judging from all the blog posts and webinars on the topic. It’s also deep in outsourcing’s DNA. Managing distributed teams effectively is something that every offshore leader should have in their tool kit. The challenge remains to keep everyone connected, motivated, and on-task.
Lack of Cohesion
As Seth Godin pointed out, “Marketers don’t use [clients] to solve their company’s problem; they use marketing to solve other people’s problems.” Our message should describe how we solve our audience’s problems.
Solution messaging means marketers working embedded with the core team as investigative reporters looking at what the company does and how it makes clients’ lives better, happier, more effective.
Tracking the value of marketing can be challenging even with (perhaps because of) the profusion of metrics available to track marketing: site traffic, average time-on-site, content produced, social clicks, social engagement, leads generated, and so on.
The work lies in assessing work for qualities that aren’t inherently trackable. Intangible values like message adherence or writing quality (beyond spelling and grammar) remain rugged terrain to traverse.
Management can conjure a visionary message and lock in the audience to deliver Wired Editor Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans. Often the effort gets derailed when content routinely slips off message. Unfocused intent or execution effectively blunts the whole messaging basket.
Ineffectual content aligns with but remains distinct from off-message content. This is work devoid of texture or a stated position and therefore floats in the limbo of uninteresting noise. This is content that ticks the posting frequency box and not much else.
Content marketing thrives when we produce it consistently. Quality material + consistent production + effective dissemination (social posting, SEO) build audiences and create customers. Inconsistent output prevents audience-building.