After moving to a completely new industry and starting from scratch in terms of marketing, I quickly learned one very important fact: the internet is fuller than it’s ever been. Reading that line back to myself out loud, it sounds a little Yogi Berra-ish, but what I’m trying to highlight is how much shit there is to navigate through online these days, and the incredible effort it takes to break through that content dilution. Between the world wide web, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the various other platforms that compete for our remaining cognizance, attention spans are as low as I’ve ever seen them and no one has the patience to read more than a few sentences. Everyone wants the shortest possible explanation you can give them. No one has time for context. I don’t know how the New Yorker is still in business!
In the tech world, that push for simplification is on steroids. All communiqués require as few words as possible. Most feedback ends up like the Emperor in Amadeus: too many notes. That’s why you see billboards from Apple that say things like: “New. Sleek. Powerful.” Nothing else. I have to laugh sometimes when I go into strategic planning sessions where we try to strip our messaging down, chiseling away at each sentence, because it’s so crazy to me! I believe in editing, of course, but I also believe in storytelling. Passionate and well-chosen words are what persuade me personally to buy as a consumer. Id-driven monism that harkens back to neanderthal-level communication doesn’t inspire me whatsoever, and often leaves me desperate to find someone who can talk like a normal person. But I’m part of the minority these days because the data is not on my side. Studies show that the more simply you talk about your product, the easier it is to sell. As long as that phenomenon continues in capitalism, marketing wordsmiths will need to get better at summarization.
The wine and spirits world, while brimming with passionate online content from professionals and amateurs alike, went through its own simplification process, starting with Robert Parker’s infamous 100 point rating system—now the standard. When I broke into the business back in 2007, customers would come into K&L with lists of all the 90+ point wines under $20. Our job was to help them locate the bottles, not offer advice. The simplification worked. More people were buying more wine than ever before, and the easy-to-navigate rankings made it easier for them to do so with confidence. Over time, the obvious limitations of numerical rankings have become more apparent, and as a result I feel like even mainstream consumers have gravitated back towards a desire for better information. Rather than ask: “is it good?” they’re asking: “why is it so good?” and that’s where context comes back into play. People eventually want to understand the fundamentals of quality, and maybe even talk about them!
What began to turn me off to whiskey appreciation over the last year, however, was yet another push toward simplification. The above-mentioned context was getting further summarized into bullet points that—like a security blanket—consumers could cling to as proof of quality, beyond any subjectivity. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details here because what I want to get to is this point: there will always be a market for people who need black and white analysis to make a decision, even when it comes to subjective appreciation. Living in Silicon Valley is like a daily masterclass on this subject. You have to take the emotion out of everything and break all analysis down into short, succinct details, which can be compared and contrasted, regardless of subjectivity. When you see people get mad about wine or whiskey analysis (especially online), I find that it’s data related. Someone attempts to insert a subjective opinion into a conversation based on (what others think is) objective information, and it immediately leads to anger. In my humble experience, the simplification of context isn’t just a reaction to shorter attention spans. It’s an attempt to take the emotion out of evaluation altogether (and, like sports, it gives people something to argue about).
I’ve worked closely with people who don’t understand (and don’t believe in) gut decision making; or any sort of analysis based on emotion or experience over data. If it can’t be proven with numbers, it can’t be validated. Moreover, those same folks—in my experience—tend to have a difficult time identifying or even talking about their feelings when it comes to business. They get uncomfortable when the data isn’t clear, or the objective facts don't provide a clear answer. What do you like? What do you think? What does your heart tell you? Those are scary, even terrifying questions for some. For me, those are the core questions of my being, so it can lead to a clash of perspectives. Whereas in the past I used to somewhat enjoy writing in grey tones, often invisible and infuriating to those who can only see black or white, today I’m less interested in stirring the pot. I’m looking for a real solution as to how we can bridge the marketing gap between emotion and data. How do you create a marketing funnel that brings everyone in without dumbing enjoyment down to bullet points and numerical scores?
I think the bigger question is: how do you succinctly summarize passion for the masses? Can it be simplified? Will it cut through today’s “fuller” internet? I don’t know, but I want to figure it out. I want to fuse these two markets, but can you cater to raw emotion, while simultaneously including those consumers who want to leave emotion out of the equation?
More importantly: can you do it in four words, or less?