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The best career advice I can give? Take it easy.

It’s impossible to take any tech industry blog post (e.g. marketing, programming, growth hacking, etc.) seriously while listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins sing “Going Down Slow.”


And I believe that, in general, this is the right attitude to take as it relates to this internet business of ours. All too often, I run into industry colleagues who get swept in a frenzy of algorithm chasing, (not provided) lamenting, and character count obsession. There’s really no reason for that. In fact, I think that taking oneself and their craft too seriously can be a detriment to their long-term professional prospects.

And perhaps their personal ones as well.

I ran into one of my closest industry colleagues - a true friend – on the subway yesterday. And we got to talking. About a lot of things. Absinthe, the good old days, and what it takes to be true leader.

The yeller and screamer type is out – both in the NFL and in Corplandia. Nobody has time for the pissing and moaning type either. The worrier is out too (and won’t live long). But the over zealous micro-manager is by far the worst offender.

Mind you, we all have a little of all four in us. Our job is to wring them out of our existence one laid back moment at a time.

I was outside walking my dog earlier tonight, and I swear that I saw a mini Tsunami rolling into the Western coast of the Hudson River. Charlie barked. I got to thinking about the fleeting, frail nature of life. There’s  no time for getting hung up on the nitpicking, not-going-to-move-the-needle-anyway details.

So just take it easy. Your data is directional? No worries. Taking a long time to convince the Powers That Be that original content makes measurable money? No biggie.  Google did something that upset the apple cart you’re little world balances on? So what.

Just focus on making friends and providing value when/where you can. You’re not going to win every battle. The internet is a very new place, so some people from the pre-internet generation are never going to fully grasp it. And guess what? Those people are often the real movers and shakers in an organization. So until those generations fully adapt – or more likely – fade into the retirement sunset, it’s probably not a good idea to annoy the crap out of them by constantly insisting that your channel(s) is the most important thing in the world and that it – and you – should always be the first consideration.

P.S. What’s his name statistician (you know, the famous one that predicted the election) suggests that you ante up and teach yourself proper statistics. He’s right on. That’s the future (and present) in virtually every professional field and domain.

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been using spreadsheet software since the 80′s (props to my dad and brother for turning me ontoVisiCalc during the Apple IIe days). I’ve also been in love with the predominant spreadsheet software, Microsoft Excel, more or less since its inception. And as scary as it might sound, I’m not overstating things when I tell you that I eagerly await the arrival of each and every one of Annie Cushing’s wondrous treatises on advanced Excel functionality.

And yet I don’t have Excel on my personal computer.

Why? Because while Excel is certainly a very powerful software application with a wide range built-in functionality as well as a plethora of outstanding bells and whistles, my experiences over the past few years has suggested to me that Excel is simply incapable of handling the immense data sets that are fast becoming the norm in today’s (and tomorrow’s) enterprise business landscape.

I first realized this a few years ago, after building some custom Excel formulas and data tables that helped automate various types of acquisition marketing analysis. The formulas worked like a dream, but as the data sets became larger and larger, the delays, crashes, and file corruptions became a frequent and very painful nuisance. Eventually, it became quite clear that in order to scale our efforts my team and I would have to shift to more powerful programming languages and data structures. Initially, it was just some simple Python scripts, but gradually the focus shifted to full-fledged applications based on object-oriented programming principles.

Mind you, a lot of the coding had to be done by other people because I was (and still am) a fairly mediocre developer. But even at my level, I find that moving away from Excel and leveraging more powerful languages like R has had a profound impact on the speed at which I can produce actionable insights, the depth of those insights and associated visualizations, and last but certainly not least, the way that I view and approach marketing and business problems. It’s been a profound and fundamental shift for me.

Granted, I still use Excel at work because that is still the standard tool for playing with data and sharing it with colleagues in a corporate setting. And I do occasionally lean on Google Spreadsheet at home for quick and dirty analysis (and for playing around with the Google Analytics API). But the bottom line is that I’ve more or less abandoned Excel and spreadsheets in general, so that I can build up my software engineering and data science chops.

Interestingly, I’ve had some people ask me why in the world I would invest so much time and effort into building entirely new skill sets like coding, applied math, and applied statistics when I could easily delegate these tasks to others. The answer to that question is really quite simple. I’m constantly meeting extremely young interns and new hires that have these skills (some have earned Master’s Degrees or even PhD’s in data science related fields) and these young kids will one day be vying for the very jobs that I (and you, the reader) want and/or currently have.

And I’m not interested in becoming obsolete.

P.S. If you think that you’re “just not a programmer” or “just not a math person” stop fooling yourself. There’s no such thing. I’m an English Literature major for goodness’ sake!

P.P.S. Thanks to Chris Le for inspiring me to write this post.

 

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Avoiding not even wrong syndrome

The phrase “It’s not even wrong” is arguably my favorite cliche. Granted, I’m not even sure that it qualifies as a cliche because it hasn’t really achieve mainstream status. In fact, it’s relatively unknown outside of scientific circles.

But I think it should be.

The origin of the phrase is usually attributed an Austrian theoretical physicist named Wolfgang Pauli who had a penchant for telling misguided peers, “That’s not only not right, it’s not even wrong!” Take a moment to let the context sink in. Realize that what he’s really saying is that certain ideas and intuitions are so malformed that they can’t be falsified. In laymen’s terms, they can’t even be proven wrong (or right for that matter).

While the implications of this are far reaching if you think it all the way through and apply it to even your most treasured beliefs and concepts, I’m writing about it here because of it’s implications to a marketer, analyst, and business executive.

I recently heard someone share a stat suggesting that even in this digital age the vast majority of marketing and business decisions are not made based on data. They are instead made on intuition, gut feeling, or appeals to authority (e.g. the dreaded “best practices” argument). More often than not these intuitions are – you guessed it – not even wrong. And worst of all, many of the folks making these decisions based on these unfalsifiable ideas don’t even realize how far off they truly are.

Take a moment to think about your approach to making decisions. Are your assertions testable? And if so, are you taking the steps to test them?

If the answer is no, it may be time to take a more scientific approach to your craft.

 

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Finding real answers to the hard questions

Ralphy is my good buddy. He’s also my 21-year-old nephew and arguably the biggest role model in my life.

Ralphy
You see, Ralphy was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was two years old. And while he is fortunate that his particular type of affliction is not as aggressive and deadly as others, the impact those rogue cells have had on his life is immense. He can’t really see and struggles with a variety of motor skills, so playing sports is out of the question. He also struggles with memory and other cognitive functions. And these are, unbelievably, just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he has to overcome on a daily basis.

And yet despite all of this adversity, Ralphy is one of the happiest and most fun-loving people you will ever meet. He’s almost always smiling, laughing, dancing, telling jokes and generally putting smiles on the faces of people around him. Which is what made the question he asked me yesterday so devastatingly succinct.

“Uncle,why am I disabled?”

The question froze my mind in its tracks as we ambled down Flatbush Avenue, making me momentarily forget all of the sunshine and happiness we witnessed in Prospect Park.

I suppose the stock answer lies somewhere between a religious platitude and a children’s nursery rhyme. Neither of those will fly for me. Ralphy deserves better. He deserves the truth.

And so I told him a little bit about genetics. About DNA. About cellular biology. I explained that sometimes the natural yet astoundingly complex beauty of evolutionary biology requires just a hint of randomness. Dumb luck. And that he was unfortunately the unwilling recipient of a genetic mutation that led to his present condition.

I also reminded him that as tough of a break as this was, he was fortunate to have working limbs, and a sense of humor, and an amazing appetite, and well, consciousness in general.

And he agreed.

Then he amazed me for the umpteenth time by reminding me about how he loves to help the less fortunate kids at his school. Kids that can’t talk, or walk, or think. He seemed sincerely thankful and mentioned that he relished the opportunity to help “his friends” out when they needed it.

I finished this particular conversation by mentioning that if it weren’t for an army of anonymous scientists and medical researchers he and others like him wouldn’t even be here today and that had he been born a 100 years ago he’d of likely had no chance at life. I made sure to remind him how these true heroes never make the evening news, never have an entourage, never get a red carpet gala, and are rarely wealthy. Heck, they are often attacked when their discoveries don’t align with previously established dogma, superstition, etc.

But I digress.

He seemed to appreciate my answer and so we left it at that for now. Then we got back to clowning around and talking about the more mundane things in life. Like which types of girls he likes the most and how we could work on getting him a steady job around town.

I also got to thinking about my renewed resolve to encourage my fellow digital marketers and analysts to donate their skills and their time to non-profits and other charitable and socially-benevolent organizations, so that we can help kids like Ralphy – and other disadvantaged members of society – get their fair share of the good life.

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Change is good

I’ve purposely been laying low in recent months due to the significant changes that I foresaw coming both in my personal and professional life.

And now those changes are manifesting themselves, so I figured I’d share.

For starters, I have decided to leave my current role as head of search for HSN and take on a senior role with J.P. Morgan Chase, working to help build their burgeoning digital marketing group. It’ wasn’t an easy decision because HSN was doing some truly innovative things within the digital space and because I made some truly great friends and built some valuable professional relationships in my tenure. But at the same time, the Big Apple has been calling me and my wife back for some time and the opportunity that presented itself was truly profound on many levels.

For those of you that are based in the NYC area, feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to connect in person. I’m a big believer in building relationships in the real world, so I’m open to grabbing a bite to eat, etc. once I get settled in. Don’t be shy! Reach out.

Also, it worth noting that I’m taking advantage of this life pivot to expand the scope of this blog. I’ll definitely continue to touch on subjects relating to digital marketing and analytics, but I will take an opportunity to branch out into other subjects that I am passionate about including but not limited to:

  • programming and software development
  • mathematics, statistical analysis, and quantitative analysis (I believe the cool kids call it “Data Science”)
  • scientific research and experimentation
  • art & philosophy
  • non-profit and charitable causes
  • Being a father and a husband

I’m doing this partially because I just enjoy expressing myself regarding topics beyond the bounds of my current profession and partly I believe that enriching your mind by exploring varied domains will actually help you improve both your professional and personal standing in life.

If you were only here to read about search or digital marketing, then I apologize and I hope you’ll stick around. I promise to try and keep things interesting and insightful.

Cheers!

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I love working for an enterprise-caliber company. I love the complexity. I love the mountains of data. I love leveraging a large bevy of internal resources and expertise. Heck, I even love the excruciating amount of work involved in getting buy-in from the myriad of business divisions and departments that play a pivotal role in green lighting digital marketing efforts.

But most of all, I love outmaneuvering other enterprise brands that appear set in their ways and incapable of innovation.

And I find that one of the best ways to develop a nimble approach that’s well-suited for outmaneuvering the competition is to develop a startup mentality. What do I mean by that? Here are a few observations that might help paint a concrete picture:

  • Startups can’t afford to schedule tons of meetings filled with tons of procedural aspects but thin on strategic, analytical, or tactical rigor or discovery
  • Startups can’t afford to build a deck every time they want to convey and idea or get buy-in from parallel stakeholders
  • Startups adhere to the DRY principle (not just with their code but with all aspects of their business)
  • Startups know the value of subscribing to news outlets like Hacker News (again, not just for the coding insights but for the amazing myriad of powerful business intelligence tools and insights that are referenced there on an almost daily basis)
  • Startups aren’t afraid to fail, aren’t afraid to push boundaries, and try to avoid skating where the puck was
  • Startups like hiring entrepreneurial types and like cultivating that mentality as opposed to repressing it

If you find yourself working for an enterprise-level organization (or even just a relatively large and/or traditional smaller business) try to think of your role and your department as startup of sorts. Doing so will help you expose areas in desperate need of innovation or fat-trimming within your own department or even the broader business. And perhaps most importantly, it will help you easily spot opportunities where you can out-innovate your competition and cultivate measurable ROI increases.

Because it doesn’t matter if you’re working for a one-person startup or a Fortune 50 corporation. The name of our online marketing game should always be ROI.

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Want to have the ability to upload thousands of optimized title tags in one fell swoop? Or add custom SEO tools to your company’s CMS? Or build complicated redirect logic to nip a myriad of potential canonical/duplicate content issues at the bud? Want to truly scale your SEO and take it to previously unforeseen heights?

There’s a dev team for that. And it’s probably sitting right under your nose.

In my experience, most in-house dev teams – particularly at large organizations – have the programming, server admin, and database admin capabilities to achieve some truly profound SEO implementation. Unfortunately, it’s also been my experience that many in-house, agency, and freelance SEO leaders fail to fully tap into these capabilities for a variety of reasons, none the least of which is anadversarial approach to communicating with the individual members – including executive leaders – of said team.

Granted, making friends with a dev team can be a daunting and potentially complex task depending on the size of your organization and depth of it’s technological underpinnings, so I figured I’d share some techniques that have paid dividends for me:

  1. Have some respect – Seriously, if I had a nickle for every time I heard an SEO bad-mouth a developer or development team either in person or in the Twittersphere I probably wouldn’t have too much money since I’d need to accumulate 2,000 nickles to make $100, but I digress…my point is that just because you know your way around an htaccess file, some javascript, and a handful of PHP functions doesn’t mean that you fully grasp the complexity of maintaining a large, data-driven web portal. Moreover, even though certain coding conventions seem like obvious missteps from your SEO-centric viewpoint, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other non-SEO-related factors that are potentially complicating the situation. Therefore, it’s better to address dev-related SEO opportunities respectfully and with a spirit of collaboration and cooperation than it is to go in guns blazing with a healthy dose of condescension. 
  2. Remember that SEO isn’t always (e.g. almost never is) the No. 1 priority – Heresy, I know. But the fact of the matter is that – for example – if a new code release creates problems with the checkout functionality or slows down page load speed (or creates a myriad of other potentially business critical issues) addressing said issue is going to trump your needs. So instead of escalating SEO-related dev requirements to the executive team prematurely (or unnecessarily) start by working directly with the developer(s) and the product/project management team to understand what the current priorities are and where there might be some open time slots where your SEO tweaks can fit into the overarching plan.
  3. Remember that usability trumps SEO – Even worse heresy, I know. Yet while it’s seemingly counter intuitive, I’ve found that giving ground – and some case completely giving way – on decisions that might not be 100% SEO friendly is the most sure-fire way to earn the trust and respect of your dev team (and your product team, and your design/creative team, and your C-level executives). And you know what? More often than not, what you will find is that those elements you gave ground/way on don’t end up being as “make or break” as you thought they would be and/or as that supposed SEO guru/blogger/thought leader said they would be. Moreover, your willingness to not always make it about you will help ensure that when you do raise the red flag on truly critical SEO facets folks will take time to listen and comply.
  4. Learn to code, learn to manage a server(s), and learn to manage database structures – Few things will be more humbling, liberating, and empowering. The perspective you will gain will be profound, and best of all, you’ll be a in a much better position to understand exactly what your site(s) and your dev team are up to as well as being in a much better position to lucidly explain your needs and desires.
  5. Give your team explicit and public-facing credit when things go right – saw a big increase in SEO visits or revenue that were at least partially attributed to dev implementation? Made it through a major site redesign and/or CMS migration with no major SEO hiccups? Etc, and so forth? Make it a point to give your team a healthy dose of praise. And don’t just praise them directly. Make sure to also give your bosses and your bosses’ bosses the heads up via email and/or in-person, so that the dev folks know that you’ve got their back and that you plan in sharing the success. This is yet another way to get serious buy-in and collaboration.

And if all else fails, I hear that the occasional round of drinks doesn’t hurt ; )

 

 

 

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The most challenging things about digital marketing is the ridiculous pace at which its very landscape changes. Social networks come and go. Search engines rise to supremacy only to be superseded right under the mainstream’s nose. The very technology frameworks that provide the foundation for the internet evolve at break-neck speeds. The sheer amount of marketing data being produced grows ever more profound.

And yet I find that it’s this exponential rate of change that provides the lion’s share of competitive advantage within this digital marketing thing of ours.

Like Aaron, I’m a big believer understanding – and predicting –  how macroeconomic forces will shape the digital marketing landscape both in the short term and the long term. However, unlike Aaron and other industry thought leaders I’m not interested in painting Google  - or any other industry entity for that matter – as the bad guy. Why? Because in my opinion it’s a) a waste of precious time b) there are much bigger bad guys to fry.

That said, it is important to understand how subtle changes in the landscape, like this one or this one, could ultimately lead to a complete redefinition of the rules for this marketing game. That’s what the big money is doing, and they’re not thinking 2013. They’re thinking 2023, 2033, and beyond.

So make sure to leverage mental tools like conjecture and criticism along with a healthy dose of skepticism in order to come up with innovative hypotheses on what it will take to differentiate your marketing programs from those of your competitors. And always be prepared to falsify and abandon even your most treasured “best practices” if the data and evidence seem to point in a new direction.

Because it’s this willingness to accept and embrace change that will likely determine your long-term ROI.

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Could Have Been

George and Trayvon
Could have been best friends on another day
But instead, George pulled his nine piece out
And took Trayvon’s life away

Could have been
My son
My brother
My best friend
Could have been
Somebody’s doting daddy someday

But instead
He’s a media feeding frenzy
Travyon’s the lead on the news every day

But that don’t help
His momma with her cryin’
That don’t help
His daddy take the nightmares away

He ain’t the only one
We’re killing them every night and day
‘Cause shooting instead of retreating
Is how we do it in the US of A

Don’t stand your ground
Even though it’s the law in 2o odd states
Don’t stand your ground
It’s a doorway to increasing hate

Cause I got a gun
And there ain’t nothing wrong with that
But the way we’re making the law
I can do what George did and still get away

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Not too long ago, marketing was dominated by gut feelings, intuition, and vague definitions of creativity. TV shows glamorize this analogue era as if it were the golden age of marketing and advertising but the truth of the matter is that it was an era dominated by truisms like:

“Half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

Sadly, though we know have the technology and mathematical rigor necessary to identify and address the wasted half (as well as all sorts of interesting pieces of information about consumers and competitors) many marketing and business leaders insist on continuing the Madmen-inspiring tradition of relying on what amounts to subjective opinion.

More on that in a moment.

I’m very fortunate to work at a place that employs real life data scientists. Why? Because they’re able to help me apply statistical rigor to the various hypotheses I come up with as I pour through the mountains of data produced by our digital marketing programs. This ultimately helps me sift through subjective ideas and opinions, falsify the ones that are ultimately nonsense, and focus in on the ones that might lead to measurable business impact.

More importantly, they help me realize just how deficient my own quantitative analysis skills are at this point in time. That’s a problem because like most people I talk to in our industry, analyzing data is one of my favorite things to do. Heck, for many years, I thought I was really good at it.

But the reality is that I’m not. Not even close. Sure, I can slice and dice some obvious data points and come up with an interesting angle from time to time, but if the world’s leading consultancies and thought leadership collectives are correct, we’re on the verge of a literal revolution in terms of the degree of expertise needed to properly leverage data to optimize marketing programs. This revolution could and likely will render my current level of analytical expertise obsolete. And me with it.

I’m not about to let that happen. You shouldn’t either.

P.S. If you think reaching that a senior leadership position provides you with immunity from prerequisites like mathematical proficiency you might be right. But then again, you might not be…

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