Growth Hacks Gone Too Far

Advice for software companies looking to delight users

During my career, I’ve been a major fan of enterprise collaboration tools. I was always quite excited about trying new applications and recommending some of them to colleagues.  
Later, as I made my way into marketing I became very interested in the place where the disciplines of marketing and product intersect.  The “growth hacking” industry has become  quite popular and as it turns out somewhat ruthless in terms of what it will do to get new users to target.

Case in point, is a very popular design prototyping and collaboration product, InVision.  One of our partners introduced me to the software years ago. It is a very convenient way to showcase designs in progress to stakeholders.  Unfortunately, being on the receiving end of a share link to a project and choosing to comment on a design puts you in the crosshairs of their sales team.
I understand that the application currently requires you to create an account to comment on a design. It is a bridge too far to assume that everyone commenting is considering purchasing a tool for prototyping designs.
I’m all for ingenuity and creativity in trying to gain new users. I also think there is a balance to achieve between an individual’s privacy and right to work and not be prospected. There is an opportunity for InVision to pop a simple message to a user who has logged in to comment. Something like: 
“Hey there, We hope you’re enjoying the experience of working with our product to review a design with your team. Do you know anyone who might be interested in this product for their work? Please tell them about your experience!”
I’m not naive, but I am getting a bit jaded after seeing these tactics explode during the last decade. Let’s start a new trend of making sure people have a delightful experience and then making them feel special rather than jumping to what they can do for us.  


What examples have you seen from other organizations in this vein?  Please share in the comments.

How to Avoid Becoming Hamsters On Wheels: 3 Questions That Will Simplify Your Content Marketing

3 Questions That Will Simplify Your Content Marketing

I can remember sitting in a digital marketing conference workshop just a couple of years ago. The topic was optimizing performance and we began a discussion about how to simplify your content marketing. The facilitator kicked us off by saying: “So you all are doing content marketing in your organization. How is that going for you?” The response was sort of a collective groan.

Hamster On A Wheel
Hamster On A Wheel – By Doenertier82 at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The general sentiment was that content marketing can be a ton of work. More so, it’s hard to prove value to the business. Multiple people used the analogy of feeling like a hamster on a wheel. Leaving that workshop, I started to look at what content we were offering those feeling like content marketing had become a slog.

What I found was that there is quite a bit of material out there on:

These are all valuable topics, however, they can seem overwhelming to those that are struggling under the weight of too much to do.

When trying to simplify your content strategy, here are three simple questions to ask:

  1. What is one thing we can change tomorrow?
  2. Are there pieces of content we have already created that more of our audience should see?
  3. Could we be clearer in what we ask our audience to do after reading our content?

What is one thing we can change tomorrow?

Often we get paralyzed with inaction when staring down the face of a large project. Launching a new content project is no different. An essential truth of project management is that planning is an essential activity, but plans are obsolete as soon as they are finished. You will never be able to keep up with all of the changes in your business and the digital marketing industry while expecting your plans to remain unchanged. Your team needs to be prepared to adapt to change and look for incremental ways to measure value delivered to your business partners.

A question I often like to ask teams that know they need to make a change to their strategy is: “what is one thing we can change tomorrow?” This forces them to prioritize and make a choice. Once they make one small change, be it a copy change on a key web page, or the call to action in a customer email nurture, they will realize that they have the power to make bigger changes over time.

Are there pieces of content we have already created that more of our audience should see?

When someone joins your audience today, there is a strong possibility that everything you produced up until now will be new to them. To that end, your team can extract value from existing blog posts that explain a core issue for your business or on boarding emails that explained how to make the most of your product. You do not need a fancy marketing automation platform to obtain these gains, either (although they can sometimes help); having a simple report of your web pages and emails with the most consistent performance over time can help here.

Note that this phenomenon also plays out in the social media space. Those who have mastered communicating on Twitter will tell you that it’s a game of repetition. Because people tend to check their feeds consistently at the same time each day, you may miss them if you are not broadcasting your posts at numerous intervals. Tools such as the wonderful MeetEdgar help take the work out of posting your content at a schedule custom to your audience.

Could we be clearer in what we ask our audience to do after reading our content?

Do your blog posts get quite a few views but fail to keep people engaged on your website? How about your emails? Do you drop in a boatload of sections chocked full of links and then wonder why your emails with high open rates just don’t convert?

It is possible you are either, not clearly presenting your audience with a call to action (CTA), or doing it in a very ineffective way. You should always have a CTA in your content, even if you just want to drive the reader to another important article that you think they will find relevant.

Keep your CTA’s short and to the point. Use simple and clear language, present them boldly and let your reader see the benefit.

There are lots of great resources on the web for optimizing your calls-to-action. Here is one of my favorites about Designing Great CTA Buttons by Andy Crestodina at Orbit Media Studios.

Prioritize to optimize

For years I was coaching software teams on how to adopt agile software development practices. We used to tell our clients: you need to slow down before you can speed up. Similarly, I think that if we want to avoid becoming hamsters on wheels of our own design, we need to think about doing less content, better.

I hope that these suggestions can help you find some small wins to harvest right away. Our teams can often use that little bit of confidence before they move on to bigger goals. 

Keep on doing great work.

Cutting Through the Noise of Social Media: A Guide to Smart Content Curation Tools

Cutting Through the Noise of Social Media- A Guide to Smart Content Curation Tools

Being a digital marketing professional, I know how hard it is to find the best content on social media when there is so much noise. A question I am frequently asked is: what content curation tools can help me find and share the best content? What I’ve done in this article is provide a guide to the smartest content curation tools available.

So Many Tools, So Little Time

The content marketing revolution has resulted in so much content being generated and promoted that it hard to find the best material.  This problem doesn’t only plague professional marketers; it has spread to almost every field and topic, making it even more confusing if you are not a social media expert.

In the last few years, there have been a number of solutions that have popped up to help readers find the best content being published within their networks. Not everyone has the time to keep up with all of these.  I have organized them into a few groups to better offer perspective on which are best for you.

Different Models for Social Content Curation

These four types of curation are what I feel broadly represent the offerings on the market today. I define these as Tribal, Algorithmic, Outsourced and Self Service/Team Based.


For each of the types, I’ll give a brief overview of its characteristics and call out a few sample tools in that category.  I’ll also describe what I feel are the key characteristics suited for this category along with pros and cons of this approach.


Tribal Curation


Tribal curation typically happens through affinity groups. These are collections of people that share something in common: profession, industry, location, etc.  The barriers to enter these groups can vary, but they typically are self-organized and enforced by members peer review. The format is most often that of a souped-up discussion forum where people can post new topics and discussion happens in threads around that topic.

Sample Tools: 

Reddit and it’s more specialized cousins,, Hacker News and




Quibb, the members only sharing network for professionals.  Content here focuses on the intersection of technology and business culture.  There is an application process for membership, and an editorial team that helps promote content worth reading.


BeBee –  Professional networking through personal interests. BeBee plays on the idea of social communities as places where knowledge workers “swarm”. It allows experts to organize small hubs called hives, centered around content sharing.


LinkedIn Groups –  Focused forums  created around areas of career skill, academic or professional membership. Web-based and backed by email notification, LinkedIn Groups are powerful and credible resources.  Trust is high because providing identity is the cost of participation.


NextDoor – A personal favorite of mine, NextDoor has become a way to communicate with your neighbors in your immediate residential area and also surrounding neighborhoods.  Because members have to verify residence through mail, you again have an exclusivity element.  Content types include some you would suspect like local businesses and home services, but are not limited to anything.




Who it’s good for:  People who trust in group identity and preferences. Happy to digest what the community surfaces. Confident that the community will weed out bad content. These can be great solutions for folks comfortable in their role/career but looking to be kept up to speed on new developments.



  1. Mechanisms to let you see content by freshness and popularity. 

  2. Allow you to see many different formats of content.

  3. Once you find a group that matches your sensibility, you are likely to hang around for a while.



  1. There tends to be a fair amount of posturing in groups like this, and you can see certain archetypes play out such as oversharing, dominating discussions and see promotion.

  2. Finding the right group for you can take time, as it involves staying a while with each and trying them on before you know if you like the experience.

  3. Reading through group posts and deciphering opinion just to find out what content to read can be exhausting.  


Algorithmic Curation 


With a little help from your friends (and artificial intelligence), you too can find some of the best things out there. Algorithmic solutions are powering many of the services you are using today.


Sample Tools:


Facebook Newsfeed, Instagram – The service that needs no introduction. Consider that Facebook is trying to be the be-all, end-all destination for your entertainment and information needs. Similar to how Google owned search (It just works), Facebook wants to make your newsfeed be intelligent enough to fold in recommendations and smart-sorting, so that it satisfies your curiosities. While algorithms can be  effective in making the system easier to use, the criticism that many experts have is that the content tends to get too homogenous over time and you miss out on a great deal of important content. Ditto Instagram.


Flipboard – The original magazine reader for tablets, this software curates the links shared by your contacts on Facebook and Twitter into topical news “sections” that you can flip through.


Prismatic (RIP) – Shuttered in the last year, Prismatic was one of my personal favorite solutions for some time as it combined elements of a the Flipboard style solution with machine learning so that it got smarter over time.


guide-content-curation-tools-prismatic – Another personal favorite that was quite unique for a while, Nuzzel became  smart about understanding your reading preferences based upon your Facebook and Twitter connections and what you engaged with in their application. They also built in some nice newsletter features so that you could use their platform to build your own audience that enjoyed the stories you share.  I would love to see this one keep going, but I suspect that other products like Facebook are incorporating more of their ideas.




Who it’s good for:  People who follow large numbers of content creators and sharers. Individuals in fast moving industries. Those who do not have a great deal of time to focus on what to read. 

  1. Smart filtering based on topics.

  2. Automatic curation based on popularity.

  3. Some solutions learn your preferences over time.



  1. Algorithms are a black box – You don’t know exactly how they work and are subject to their decisions.

  2. Algorithms are based upon things shared by people in your network already. Since networks tend to foster group-think, these can reinforce you seeing items popular within the group but not necessarily new. 


Outsourced Curation


This category is where I consider that you as reader are deferring all control to a particular publication, host or expert to offer you their choice content picks. I find this to be one of the best ways to get introduced to new and interesting content, but its  the one that puts you least in control.




I consider the main tools in this space to be email newsletters. The email  newsletter has been a long staple of web culture, but it has seen a huge resurgence in recent years.  I subscribe to several, including, Nextdraft (one of my favorites). Of course, I also have created my own newsletter, which you should subscribe to.




Who it’s good for:  People that enjoy being taken on a journey through a new topic by an expert focused on that field. Those who relish in discovery of  new content. Lazy people who want a predictable number of new items dropped in their inbox every week. Individuals looking to get slowly introduced to a new field of interest/study.



  1. Delivered directly to your inbox.

  2. Curation is done for you.

  3. New content almost guaranteed.



  1. You are subject to the perspectives and passions of your host.

  2. Depending upon the outlet, there is not always a way to offer meaningful feedback on what content you like or not.


Self-Service and Team Curation

This category represents the needs of individuals with an ongoing need for content to fuel their work and creativity.  Often they demand a level of control over their tools that drives a more “self-service” working model. In other cases, they team with similar power-users that quickly digest, curate and repackage what they read for others in the group.  Tools in this category offer a different level of functionality for a more demanding user, but with some tradeoffs.

Tools: – Feedly came to fame as the product that picked up where the late Google Reader left off. A place to curate RSS feeds from websites you love, Feedly has become a very popular service for curating collections of sites and feeds for your audience.  In the past, one of my teams used Feedly Shared Collections to curate a large collection of our employee blogs; you can see the video describing our use case at their website. 



Pocket and Instapaper are two insanely popular “read later” services that also allow curators to share their wares with an audience.  I’ve actually enjoyed both services over the years and use a service called IFTTT (If This Then That) to keep them in sync.


guide-content-curation-tools-pocket-instapaper – An amazing service that allows you to create a web-based newspaper with a publishing staff of one, has built a steady following.  By allowing editors to create papers based upon the sources they follow already, automates much of the acquisition of new content.  Editors can also set their distribution preferences up once and the paper will automatically publish and promote itself at intervals.  For power users, it can be integrated into your website with ease.  Another great aspect of is that it can scale to teams as well. 

For an example of in action, check out my daily Digital Marketer’s Toolbox.




Anders Pink – A very new product on the scene, Anders Pink (AP) is brought to you by the team that created Buzzsumo, only it provides more utility for any sort of team of knowledge workers.  Organized around the concept of “briefings”, AP allows curators to build automated content feeds around extremely focused areas using keywords, influencers, websites and RSS feeds; it also allows them to filter out what they don’t want in the result set.  You can subscribe to existing public briefings or create your own, for free!   




Feel free to check out AP briefings I created for myself that I’ve since made public:


Who it’s good for


Individuals and teams who have very deep areas of focus and an ongoing need to monitor areas of content publication. Consider product marketing teams, investment groups or research teams as prime examples here.




  1. Customization of criteria for what is collected

  2. A range of capabilities from automated to manual collection and curation

  3. Ability to add value to existing content for an audience around your specific focus area.




  1. Time intensive – requires ongoing investment in monitoring, curation

  2. Hands-on – Although there is quite a bit of automation capability, the curator needs to have an intimate understanding of how these tools work.



The Best Tool for Your Job


Choosing the solution that is right for you requires that you spend a bit of time considering how specific your needs are and what kind of effort you want to put in.


Deciding what toolset will fit your needs will mean considering what is the balance of process automation, editor attention, content freshness and editorial control.


I have attempted to provide a few suggestions for different roles, but don’t just take my word alone. I encourage you to experiment with a few of these tools in order to find the best solution for you and your team.


Is there another tool that you like for your curation needs that I haven’t mentioned?  Share it in the comments!





Natural Language Processing and SEO


As you know, I have a strong interest in the future of search. This is particularly true of new software developments that help people find what they are looking for.  I recently had an opportunity to write a piece for the TrackMaven Marketing Blog on natural language processing (NLP) and its impact on search engine optimization (SEO).

nlp-seoThe premise of the article is that natural language processing has come to change the way the web works in a fundamental way: shifting discovery of content from an explicit keyword based search to discovery based on context and intent.

I argue that NLP will change life for the SEO professional in some significant ways, from the strategies they develop to the tactics they recommend you implement on your site.  If you have strong opinions on the topic, I hope you will leave a comment for me here or reach out to me on Twitter.

I encourage you to read the entire article over at the TrackMaven Marketing Blog:

How Natural Language Processing Has Changed SEO

My ERE16 Talk on Digital Strategies for Recruitment Marketing

It looks like this month cannot possibly get any busier. In addition to selling one house, buying another, starting a new job and moving across country,  I am speaking at a conference in Las Vegas in early April:  ERE Media’s Talent Acquisition Conference (#ERE16) is one of the leading conferences for Talent Acquisition Leaders. I am flattered to have been invited.

The main theme of the conference is data-driven talent acquisition. My talk is called, “Data-Driven Digital Strategies for Recruitment Marketing”.  In it I will talk about how we defined our strategy beginning with a customer-journey mapping approach, using numerous sources of analytics to determine the potential value of the goals we set for ourselves.

For a taste of what I’ll be talking about, take a look at this fun article I put together for the ERE Blog, called 5 Secret Techniques to Transform Your Recruiters Into Digital Marketers.

See you in Las Vegas!

Update:  Slides from my talk are now included below.


The Future of Podcasting Is You

 The future of podcasting is looking bright. I think it might be the next major wave of personal publishing.  It could become the darling of advertisers who will see it as a way to reach legions of new buyers. I’m going to explain how we got here, and what you can do to ride that wave with your business. 

When Did Podcasting Start, Anyway?

I became a fan of podcasting before it was such a thing. Initially, it was mp3 audio recordings of my favorite late night radio show, Idiot’s Delight with Vin Scelsa.  Pretty soon, some folks that were smarter than me, like Dave Winer, changed things. They released a set of open technologies to publish and share audio just like other blog articles.  Thus podcasting was born.
What’s interesting is that it never slowed down.  Podcasting has grown more modestly than other media formats, but grown nonetheless.   If you were an NPR listener, you most definitely hooked up with some of their podcasts over the years.   Certain author and Tech communities loved them as well.  Even @ev, created a podcast oriented company called Odeo on the heels of Blogger. He and his team got the idea for Twitter during that time and moved on with its development instead.  That said, podcasting had lots of great mind power, but no huge breakout hits.
Percent of Americans (12+) listening to podcasts monthly
Source: Digiday, The Second Coming of Podcasts
Over the last couple of years, podcasting has returned to popular conversation. It seems like someone is always talking about a new podcast they are listening to or coming up with an idea for a new one.  It feels like there is a new swell in podcast activity.  Not to mention resources for podcast creators and brand advertisers.
As it turns out, the swell had been building over the last decade. The audiences are now starting to become large enough for advertisers to care. All it took was a couple of hit shows, like Serial to inspire a new generation of content creators. Consider the content marketing boom, and it is the perfect storm for a medium like podcasting.

Why Are Podcasts So Successful?

1. Podcasts fans love to collect podcasts 

Collecting, you say?  Like baseball cards?  Sort of. More like having a favorite band or author.  Once you fall in love with one of their works, you want to hear their whole discography.  You then graduate to listening to the bands that inspired them. Podcast listeners are no different. They like to set their pod catchers to download a mix of regular favorites and new finds.

2. Episodic Content

Podcasts are sticky. The short storylines allow for quick immersion into a new topic without being comprehensive.  A regular publishing cadence keeps listeners returning; much like our favorite television shows.

3. They are tribal

Podcasts provide a way to bond with fans of your respective niche. A familiar host is an old friend that you get to spend time with.  New ideas are available on demand. No more waiting months until your favorite conference comes to town.

Will Podcasts Lead to A New Wave of Personal Publishing?

I think so. Increased mobility has positioned smartphones as the control panel of our lives. They are becoming the center of entertainment and workplace interactions.  They provide the single thread that weaves these experiences together.


Beyond this, I see two benefits for people with something to say (content creators):


1. The Tools to Create Great Podcasts Are Plentiful and Often Free 

There is a high probability that if you are reading this, you own a smartphone. If you do, you likely have access to a high quality piece of recording software for audio.  Do you use Skype to talk to colleagues? Skype is helps produce many of your favorite podcasts today.  Need to edit those recordings?  Tools like Auphonic make it possible for a small fee.

2. Podcasting Has An Ecosystem of Democratic Distribution Tools

For some time, the main option for podcast distribution was iTunes. That not the case anymore.  SoundcloudStitcherPodbean and many more offer hosting for creators. Some provide tools for listeners to find your show via topic affinities.  Others like ACast, include rich analytics and monetization tools for creators.


What’s Next?

Individuals creating specialized content are a threat to big brand dominance of the airwaves.  Smart brands will try to create environments for content creators to build a platform.  Streaming leaders like Spotify and Amazon have the opportunity to take the lead here. They could also get overtaken by more focused upstarts like Acast.  Our new “radio” stations will be custom built and travel with us, in our pockets, on our wrists and in our cars.

With this in mind, what is stopping you from creating a podcast focused on your area of expertise? You could become the next star of my morning commute.



Over the last two years or so, I’ve had a hankering to write this article.  The title of this article is also a nod to the great Chris Brogan, who included it on a list called “Top 100 Blog Topics I Hope You Write.”

Recommended Reads:

Have any favorite podcasts or thoughts on podcasting?  Share in the comments below or on Twitter.

When Brand Messaging Misses The Mark

Today a friend pointed out this great example of messaging gone awry.  In the image below, from a recent RiteAid circular, you can see their familiar “Welcome to Wellness” tagline is followed by a listing of items on sale, specifically: chips, soda, ice cream and candy!

Rite Aid Welcome to Wellness Circular

Now, as a fellow marketer, I want to give RiteAid the benefit of the doubt.  I’m sure that the masthead was designed to be constant, no matter what the contents of the page were.  Still, in today’s market, is it excusable to have such a bold tagline with such a weak follow through?  After all, CVS boldly removed all tobacco products from stores to support its wellness agenda.

Let’s explore the tagline a bit further. As far as I can tell, this is a part of a greater Wellness program that the brand has been rolling out. The Wellness program includes products and services designed to promote long term health and well being of individuals and communities.  There are some incredible aspects to this program, including the placement of Wellness Ambassadors in individual stores.   More benefits are found for members of the Wellness+ Loyalty Program, including specialized products and services for Diabetes patients.

RiteAid is not alone. These examples are all around us. It is up to us to call these brands out for false promises and mixed messages. I can recall another example from Budweiser just a few months ago where they released cans with messaging that claimed their beer helped “remove no from your vocabulary“.  That one didn’t go over so well either.

I do not think there was intent to mislead customers in RiteAid’s marketing, rather a neglect to test the content with the overall presentation. The net result was that the overall brand messaging rings hollow. That and the fact that I have no trust that RiteAid cares about my wellness while it promotes me junk food at cheap prices.  Hopefully someone at the brand will see this error and have a chance to run it up the flagpole.

Until then, I’ll just assume this circular is a promotion targeted at future Wellness Plus for Diabetes customers.

Many thanks to @KWeischadle for sharing this example today.

Stay Gold, Twitter. Why the 140 Character Limit Must Remain.

In S.E. Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders, the dying Johnny Cade speaks the words, “Stay Gold” to his friend Ponyboy Curtis.  He’s trying to tell him to keep his special spark, his interest in literature and poetry, that separates him from everyone else they know.  In the larger scheme of things, its a reference to a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, that the two read together while hiding out.  The poem itself talks about the end of innocence and inevitable changes that happen with time.

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

This week, Recode reported that Twitter is considering expanding Tweets to handle major essay lengths (10,000 words).  Jack Dorsey of Twitter chimed in to the ongoing dialogue on the topic with a history of the character limit on the service, but basically affirming the experiment.

I’m here to ask Twitter to reconsider and here are my main reasons:

  1. The 140 character limit makes Twitter unique.  Do we really want to see Twitter conform to a Facebook standard? Heck no.
  2. We don’t need another blog engine.  10,000 words is white paper length. To me, this suggests that Twitter is trying to expand its scope to allow people to compose blogs and other long-form prose. This means competing with Medium, Facebook, WordPress and many more.  It’s already an overcrowded market.
  3. Twitter is about news and happenings in real-time.  The new moments feature works because it’s built on top of that notion.  The ad products work because they’re built on top of that concept as well.  Let’s look for ways to focus on that.

All of that said, I see tons of ways that Twitter can be improved by loosening the rules to make the 140 character rule far less encumbering.  I would recommend starting by seeing what other items in the Tweet payload could be removed from the actual 140-character message limit. For example, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t include @usernames in the 140 character limit
  2. Don’t include hashtags
  3. Don’t include links
  4. Don’t include images
  5. Don’t include videos

I’ve had a long relationship with Twitter as an early user who took a while to fall in love with the service. Now that I have, it’s become an integral part of my business and personal life.  I’d like to see it forget following Facebook and staying true to its roots.

Stay gold, Twitter.

Stay Gold, Twitter
Stay Gold, Twitter

Thanks to the incredible David Meerman Scott for speaking out against this change quickly!

A Step by Step Guide to Building Your Digital Vision

Why Empathy Maps Are Your Secret Weapon

This article is part 3 of an ongoing series on Digital Strategy Development.  (Read Part 1: Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing and Part 2: How to Develop A Digital Strategy)

Your digital vision needs to start with real people. If you’ve been following along with me in previous articles, you may have already done some work around assessing the current state of your digital presence. The purpose of the assessment to inventory your existing digital assets, tools and processes. Your vision needs to be oriented around your organization’s audiences and presented in terms of how they will have their expectations met.

Many people will tell you that the next thing to do is to create personas. I’m not going to do that, and it’s not because I do not like personas nor because I don’t think they work. It really has to do with efficiency. Personas and archetypes can be really helpful when designing software applications. Doing them right requires proper research and a fair amount of work and therefore time; even then, many people take shortcuts and end up just basing the personas on their opinions. There are more efficient tools to learning enough about your audience to frame out your vision without getting bogged down in persona work that may or may not be correct.

If you would like to learn more about the pros and cons of persona use, here is some further reading from around the web for and against the use of personas:


Who is Your Audience, Really?

Meet Emily. Emily is a Technical Lead at a growing start-up, with a “particular fondness for Javascript” and ironic t-shirts. She happens to follow one of our ThoughtWorks colleagues, Laura, on Twitter, which is how she noticed when Laura shared the news about the latest version of our Technology Radar.

When Emily follows the link in Laura’s tweet to the Radar, she notices that Javascript has been highlighted as a theme. Curious, she uses the search function within the Radar to learn more about what ThoughtWorks has to say about Javascript frameworks. Emily was unaware that the radar went so deep and wide; being interested in mobile testing frameworks, she also uses the site search to peruse some of the articles ThoughtWorks developers have written about Android and iOS development for low-connectivity situations.

Just then, Emily receives a push notification on her phone indicating that she has a meeting starting in 15 minutes. In order to keep reading later, Emily uses the context menu on her phone to push the link for the article she was reading into her Pocket account for later. Emily suspects she will have time to read the article on her 90 minute commute home on the train. She is hoping it gives her some ideas to share with the team during their off-site next week; they have been struggling with the fact that their mobile application performs poorly over slow internet connections. Emily knows that the team is talented and driven enough to solve this problem, but they seem to need a push from the outside to let them know that it’s OK to reach for some new inspiration.

Emily is not scattered. Her life, like many of ours, is complicated. She is trying to balance a fast-paced career with the realities of commuting and family life. She appreciates a technology firm that can get her smart answers but even more, she appreciates a company that appreciates her pain. She wants empathy.

Introducing Empathy Mapping

The empathy map is one example of a useful technique for getting to the heart of your audience concerns, without the overhead. Developed by Dave Gray and his colleagues at XPLANE, empathy mapping offers a low-fidelity mechanism for aligning your digital team around the needs of specific individuals in your audience.

There are many resources and adaptations of the empathy map provided online. I’ve included one basic template below that is available under Creative Commons. It’s intended to be an illustration of the model, although we tend to run the exercise with sticky notes and flip chart pages so that we can hang the results around our team room. If you have a distributed team, you might enjoy this online empathy mapping game from the folks at Conteneo.

Empathy Map Example

In its simplest form, the empathy map asks that we consider the customer through five different dimensions:

1. Thinking and feeling – what is important to them: hopes, dreams and fears
2. Seeing – what their environment looks like
3. Hearing – what influences them
4. Pains – obstacles and challenges they have
5. Gains – what they hope to achieve and how they might measure success

I like to look at these dimensions as guidelines that allow you and your digital team to put yourself into the mindset of the customer. Depending upon your industry and problem space you may need more than this. As an example, consider how we used empathy mapping when developing our strategy for recruiting at ThoughtWorks.

We applied the technique as a part of a larger strategy to develop longer term talent sources for our business. Our hypothesis was that we might be able to apply some of the strategies we used for communicating with potential sales leads to those who might one day be interested in a career with us. To test this, we brought together a cross-functional set of stakeholders that we thought could be useful in building out our empathy map.

Our stakeholders included:

  • Our head of recruiting
  • Recruiters and Talent Sourcers
  • Marketers
  • Head of operations
  • Content strategists
  • Social media strategists

What we brought to the sessions

There are a number of supplies you will want to ensure you have for the sessions. I’ve detailed those below. In addition, you’ll want to look at what sort of data you can bring that will give the working team insights into the mindset of your customers during the workshop. Some of the reference data we used included insights from online recruiting communities where interviewees posted reviews of our company.

Our supplies and reference data:

  • Large print-out of the empathy map (nice to have – lots of big sticky flip-chart paper will do also)
  • A prioritized list of our most important roles for each of our hiring locations
  • A mix of colored sticky notes
  • Dry erase marketers
  • White board
  • Data from candidate interviews
  • Testimonials
  • Glassdoor (online recruiting site) reviews
  • Insights from our web analytics about conversion rates, popular pages and blog articles
  • Social media mentions

Mechanics of the empathy-mapping sessions

We started off the sessions with a “Hopes and Fears” exercise, a favorite of ours in many workshops that we run. If you have not run this before, it’s a variation on the Speed-boat technique popularized in Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games book. This session nicely kicks off the mapping workshop as it gets the group directly focused on the “thinking and feeling” dimension of the map and typically raises a few outliers that help us as a group designate items to the more appropriate segment of the map.

Once we have “thinking and feeling” out of the way, we’re able to move onto the other sections of the map. The beauty of the empathy mapping technique is that the rules are relatively simple. The group would put ourselves into the targeted role, discussing the segment of the map we were concerned with (e.g. Hearing, seeing, thinking, etc). Once we did a couple of rounds we moved to a time-boxed “capture and post” format in which we passed out post-it notes, set the timer, and allowed ourselves to capture as many items as we could until time ran out or we were all done.

Once we got into a rhythm, we found things flowed quickly and we soon had a large number of sticky notes. We also learned that we were starting to uncover a bit more of a shape to the data we were collecting. The items we captured started to form a picture of the lifecycle for recruiting prospects. The lifecycle looked something like the map below, with stages from awareness through commitment. We even identified post-hire phases of advocacy that could include concepts such as referral and recruitment, but decided to put those out of scope for our initial exercises.

Note that if you run this exercise, the stages are going to need to be specific to your business. In our case, we considered these stages to be similar to a sales funnel:

Awareness – General awareness of us as a company
Discovery – That point when there might be some curiosity as to what we might be like as an employer
Consideration – Thinking of exploring a new role with a number of companies
Commitment – When the prospect decides to actually apply

Note that we not only captured these phases, but we annotated our map with a brief definition for all to see.

Recruitment Life Cycle
Phases of the Recruitment Life Cycle


Building a customer journey canvas using our empathy mapping outputs

Your data will start to tell a story of the journey your customers take through your business. You need a visual format that accommodates this. I recommend using a very useful visualization called the customer journey canvas, developed by the folks at This Is Service Design Thinking.

The Original Customer Journey Canvas


The canvas can be a bit overwhelming when you’re first introduced to it, but after a bit of research about the technique, you’ll learned that it really has become a successful open-source technique for mapping your business in a visual manner.

The essential elements of your canvas:

  • Your roles/personas/archetypes
  • The lifecycle stages
  • The questions you would like to answer for the roles in each stage
  • The experience you would like to deliver for the roles in each stage. Note: As you flesh this out, you’ll typically want to denote what items are “Front Stage” (read: seen by the customer) and which are “Back Stage” (read: internal activities that are not intended to be seen by the customer).
  • Content needed to deliver the experience for the role in each stage

There is no one way to create a customer journey canvas.  Once you are familiar with the basics of the exercise, you may want to explore modifying the canvas to suit your team.  To that end, I have assembled a Pinterest Board of Workflows, Journey Maps and Canvases so you can borrow from the work of others.

As you can see within the graphic below, these elements can be arranged on the canvas using some simple swim lanes. We found that this made it very easy to construct the board on the wall using flip charts, sticky notes and sharpies. As we moved through the workshop, we liked that we could quickly arrange our outputs in a way that visually made sense to the other participants. You can also probably get a sense of where you might want to use more or less detail as appropriate for your team. For example, I think some teams might feel comfortable with a separate swim lane for the channels involved, whereas we were comfortable without it.

Our Proposed Canvas


5 Things we learned from empathy mapping

1. Process over results

Completeness is not what we’re going for in these exercises. I’ve expressed it in earlier articles, but its worth repeating: your digital strategy is never done and it’s always out of date. The value you get from running these exercises with your team is the discussions that happen along the way, as they provide the understanding as to why you are prioritizing the work you are.

2. Customer feedback often contains the answers you are looking for

I cannot underestimate the value of customer and community data when running these exercises. We found so much rich data right within our interviewee reviews on Glassdoor that became central to our group discussions. Much of it was corroborated by our web analytics and post-interview feedback as well. As an example, we found that we simply

I love a term created by John Jantsch (Duct Tape Marketing) and expounded on by Ann Handley (MarketingProfs): FUQ’s (Frequently Unasked Questions). These are things that people don’t know enough to ask when they are beginning their search for information, but ultimately do want to know! You can see Ann talk about FUQs much more eloquently than I do in her talk from Wistiafest 2015 (jump to 24:04).

3. Your goals are often different than you thought they were when you started

We tend to be such a growth focused culture that it’s almost natural to always be thinking of how we create more leads, more recruits, more content! There’s just no end to our desire for more sometimes. Well, somewhere along the way, we realized that we could definitely provide the information to excite more potential hires about careers with ThoughtWorks, but we could also dramatically reduce the number of interviews we would have to conduct with people who actually would not be interested in jobs with us. If we provided the right information to people before the interview process that previously they only learned during the interview process, that might help folks qualify themselves out.

4. Non-marketers can be passionate about content too
Those of us in the content business often lament that stakeholders within our business think they can order up content as if its a cheeseburger and fries. They’re not interested in how its made or if its even good for them; they just want it fast. We found this process raised so many great discussions about the best way to deliver a message. We even found that as the workshop moved into later stages where we had to prioritize what we really wanted to work on, people really were willing to advocate for certain content ideas and look for creative ways to make them happen.

5. Prioritize your segments before you start empathy mapping

You will want to consider the segments of the audience that you have prioritized as your focus area. You may be tempted to try to rationalize all of the combinations that you need to consider at this point in time. I urge you not to get bogged down with this. We actually found ourselves starting to map out all of the life stages (graduates, lateral hires, alumni), possible roles we might hire for (developers, testers, designers, etc) in all of the possible geographies (US, UK, Africa, Australia, etc); it became clear we would never get our work done. I recommend picking the one that is the most immediate priority for the business. You can always circle back through the model later to do the exercise for another audience segment.

To simplify our process we decided to focus on experienced developers and designers (lateral hires) within our US market for our first pass. This covered a large population of our recruiting goals and allowed us to get a hang of the process we were going to use in our workshop. We later did a second pass for graduates, as they helped us consider a whole other range of questions.

Pack up your vision and take it on the road


I have found that there is no substitute for a good, old-fashioned roadshow to get people behind your vision after you’ve created it. It certainly won’t survive the first meeting, but many elements of it will, and the plan will be the better for it. From this point forward it will be a living breathing strategy. We have experimented with a number of strategies for communicating vision and keeping it fresh and I will be working on a post to talk through some of those successes and failures soon.

In subsequent articles, I am going to touch on a couple of core areas that you will need to think about as you begin to operationalize your vision. One will be deciding on your channel mix: this is an area that sorely needs attention, as marketers continue to get bombarded with so many new channels that they feel they need to address all of them. The other is governance. Project and program management on the marketing side of digital often does not get enough attention and leads to a great deal of inconsistency and lack of progress as compared to our comrades in I/T. I look forward to sharing these pieces as they are available.

This article is part 3 of an ongoing series on Digital Strategy Development. Did you miss the other  parts? Read Part 1: Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing and Part 2: How to Develop A Digital Strategy.

Facebook Notify is a Big Deal for the Future of Search

Today, Facebook finally launched a long-awaited stand-alone iOS application called Notify.  Contrary to much of the hype, the application is not a newsreader, rather, it’s a push notification manager for your iPhone.

If you’ve read the blog, you know that I am actively contemplating what the future of search looks like. I think this development could actually be a big one in Facebook’s ongoing quest to become your favorite search engine.


If you think about it, unlike traditional push notifications for status updates, every notification will now be coming through with a link. Some of those links may live on Facebook, but most will not.  We know that earlier this year, Facebook started indexing public links inside of its index, and recently started surfacing them to users in search results.

So, in my opinion, the discovery is this:  what better way to build an index of search listings and rank criteria than by having all the links pass through your Facebook proxy? Every time you click on a result, it’s like an automatic scoring mechanism for Facebook to be able to understand how many publishers are really living up to their subscribers’ expectations.


I think that this data presents some commercial opportunities for Facebook in terms of working with advertisers and publishers. It also provides them with a tremendous resource in overall search and discovery.

I suppose that there is little from preventing Apple from using the same strategy for enriching its Spotlight search engine, however, I don’t think it gets the add-on benefits that Facebook does in terms of advertisers.

Under the hood of Notify, you’ll find a manager where you can basically control the updates you receive from participating publishers. I would imagine that as they ramp more publishers up, we might see some changes in how many publish to the news feed, but perhaps not. That’s definitely one of these things that I think we will only know as it starts playing out.

You’ll be able to learn more about Notify including publishers at the Notify website.

Looking forward to see how this technology evolves. Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments.