Shaping a strategy

Strategies take all shapes.  And according to Mark Pollard  every shape has its unique building blocks, here are his:

  • Problems
  • Insights – unspoken human truths
  • Strategy statements – one-line summary of the novel solution
  • Brand purposes – how the brand will serve humanity
  • Experience plans – how people interact with the brand and related topics
  • Ideas (see How to explain an idea – a megapost) – novel concepts
  • Three-act campaign structures – story-making

Mark’s go-to sources for stimulus:

  • Qualitative research – store visits, stakeholder interviews, consumer research, expert interviews, using the product (if you can)
  • Social listening –  turn up unexpected language, image sharing and behavior. Try to identify typologies for hashtags, images, communities, commenting language, abbreviations etc…
  • Keyword research – search patterns and volumes (language, seasonality, geography, etc.)
  • Behavioral economics –  Google Scholar alerts can get your head around most subjects with a day of research (many papers summarize other people’s findings).  Keyword research identifies the language that academics use so there can be back-and-forth as you hone in. For instance, when I was trying to understand why and how people donate, a lot of the research gathers under ‘charitable giving’ and ‘altruism’ – not words I used to start my search. Websites like Physorg are useful too.
  • Consumer reviews – yes, more social listening. It’s usually worth mapping the attributes that people use to rate a product or shop. Often you’ll find market research that paints another picture but your own labeling of the attributes may be more provocative.
  • Business and financial points of view – find articles about the company and category, annual reports and so on.
  • Analytics – website analytics, previous campaign analytics, social analytics. What content gets discovered most and why? What content converts the most and why? Where is the content opportunity?
  • Always be reading – I try to have a non-fiction book going most of the time.  Behavioral economics, writing, screenwriting and story-making, the history of ideas, psychology and social sciences. There are anecdotes and research riddled through these sorts of books that can directly influence your thinking or give you somewhere to start. I’m also in love with Zite – a great content aggregator – and trawl it daily for news in these areas.
  • Life – while it’s important not to assume you are your audience, developing the habit of paying attention in life and banking observations will come in handy. Personally, becoming a father and needing to understand a whole lot of new information and decisions has been very useful in making me pay more attention more often.

Writing your strategy into shape

1. Gather your stimulus

You obviously need some useful information about the brand, the business objectives, the products, the competition, culture and human behavior to start with. I’ll give myself brackets of time to dig – maybe it’s a day to dig through the behavioral economics related to the subject, for example. Yes, I use the computer to save and screengrab but I’ll mindmap the most potent stuff on paper. I want something easy to carry around and point to.

2. Shape-sprint

Once I’ve grabbed some stimulus, I’ll play with it – hopefully in fast sprints (perhaps thirty minutes to an hour) – and bank some strategies, then move on and dig in other directions. I trust that my subconscious will help me find shapes when I’m on the subway, at the gym, taking a shower, and having lunch, so my aim is to fill myself with stimulus and give myself some strategies to argue about with myself. So, I tend to dig then sprint and let it all percolate… then repeat.

Try not to latch onto one line of thinking too early. One way to avoid early shape-latching is to give yourself a number of strategies to hit in a certain period of time. Perhaps you can come up with ten strategies in a day or two. Then you must find peace in the turbulence and force those ten lines of thinking out.

Stephen King talks about writing with the door closed, however, I find it useful to close the door and think, open it to share and debate, and then close it to hone it. Every now and then you’ll work with a bunch of people and can consistently deliver great thinking without closing the door ever. Still, at some point, someone will need to take the thinking and write it down in a way that compels others.

What actually gets written during a shape-sprint? As little as possible. I aim for unexpected shapes and may simply jump off one behavior or insight to a strategy and then bank it. And then I may try to summarize the strategy in a word – brutal reductionism.

Let’s look at an examplePatagonia makes for an interesting study.

The insight that drives Patagonia is this: getting people out into Mother Nature makes them more interested in protecting it.

So Patagonia’s purpose is to arm people with the clothing and equipment to help them get the most out of adventures with Mother Nature. The purpose is born from a belief that the world won’t save itself – people need to up their ante. And if they follow through on the CEO’s own ideas (as they appear to), the company is not merely an outdoor-wear brand – they’re really an environmental activism company. And with those few thoughts in place – you can start to describe how the business (and the people in it) will behave – what content makes sense, which products, what sorts of CSR activity. If you were bold, you’d try to measure how many adventures in nature that people who buy Patagonia take – and you’d try to compare it to other brands as well as prove to what degree Patagonians helped the environment.

So, in a Patagonia shape-sprint, that one CEO quote would lead to this one strategy which we’ll call ‘the environmental activism’ strategy. I’d park it and try to find another nine – some of which may come off image-sharing behavior, or research about what motivates people to help the environment, and so on.

My checkpoints:

  • Is it based in truth? Yes – the CEO’s own words.
  • Is it unique and unexpected? Yes. Well, at this stage, I’m not familiar with a brand in the same category as Patagonia that talks about being an environmental activist. If we ended up liking this area, we’d double-check its uniqueness.
  • Can we do something with it? Yes. It’s a strong purpose and leads to a lot of ideas about helping people take adventures in the outdoors. We’d then define what sorts of adventures for what sorts of people.

3. Re-write your shapes – This time, with paradox!

Translate the marketing speak and brand fluff into plain English

Perhaps, you have stumbled on provocative strategies in your shape-sprint. Test yourself to write them differently and even more provocatively. Again, give yourself a number to aim for. Take your favorite three strategies and re-write them ten times each. Keep making them shorter and punchier. Play with words that don’t seem to belong – make new shapes.

4. Shape your argument in a short story

Strategy is an argument. So, why not get your argument straight before you present it?

If your team favors one or two strategies from the steps above, take the strategies and write one- to two-page stories for them. Take someone on the journey you’ve been on: from the problem, to the twist, to the ‘what if we…?’, to the imaginative answer (or argument). An hour or two will be all you need but it will help you get your thoughts together in a more compelling way. Again, don’t just settle for the first words out of your head. Re-write them.

5. Finally, determine the shape of your presentation

The ultimate shape your strategy needs to take will depend on many factors. I have presented a hand-drawn mindmap on a page to discuss different ideas (it led to great discussions and a new strategy), I have hand-drawn entire presentations

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