Creating categories and definitions by doing, not debating

I just read a post by Peep Laja which talked about the old advice of inventing a new category to be able to charge more for your products than just slotting into a predefined definition, followed by a post by Neville Hobson on an attempt to redefine what PR means. And both have reinforced my belief that you only create new categories and redefine existing ones by actually going out and doing stuff.

As much as I can have respect for the people who get caught up in debates about what PR, Social Media Marketing, Content Marketing, Transmedia, SEO, etc all should mean exactly, the simple fact is that noone cares. Seth Godin talked about successful modern marketing beginning with product planning and development, but still many businesses and consumers see marketing as part of advertising.

When I try and define what I do for people, it comes out as:

  • I write for my own projects
  • I write for other people’s projects
  • I market my own projects
  • I market other people’s projects
  • I run training courses in writing and marketing
  • I run training courses in writing and marketing for other people
  • I provide research for my own projects
  • I provide research for other people
  • I host my own websites
  • I provide hosting for other people
  • I manage my own paid advertising campaigns
  • I manage paid advertising campaigns for other people
  • I manage affiliate campaigns for other people
  • Or I do: Writing, Journalism, Blogging, Natural SEO, Paid SEO, PPC, Content Marketing, Social Media Marketing, Training, Tutoring, Affiliate Management, Community Management, Analytics,

Either way, it means I should need the world’s biggest business cards. I don’t.

Dan Thornton business card - AKA and

It's me. And a quick meeting or search tells you more...


But actually, what tends to happen is that my client list has grown from referrals from existing clients or from people finding out about me for one area of what I do, and those that are more rewarding for me in terms of enjoyment and financial rewards grow more quickly than areas that I might not favour, so over time my reputation in some areas will naturally build and lead to more focus.


Defining what you and your brand do:

Rather than worrying too much about an exact definition, it’s better to have an idea which you and any employees can broadly follow, but also be flexible within. I always loved the idea of my former employers at Absolute Radio, which was that we were ‘a digital entertainment company with audio at it’s core’, and targetted ‘reluctant adults’. That meant we always focused on sound and sound quality first, and always prioritised those people who were incredibly passionate about their interest (music, comedy, sport), but it didn’t matter whether we had an idea for a website, mobile app, radio station, or anything else, as long as it involved the best possible audio and delighted the right people. And in a challenging market for all broadcasters, it seems like they’re doing better than ever.

But noone ever tuned in because of those definitions – they tuned in because they liked what they heard as a result.

Too often I speak to companies who declare that ‘their customers don’t do it that way’ – and it turns out that actually it’s because they don’t allow customers to interact that way for some reason.

Or that customers ‘just don’t get what we’re trying to do’. Or that ‘clients just don’t understand’.


Building brands – do stuff, monitor, do more stuff:

You don’t build a brand simply by having logos or mission statements. Those are brand assets. What builds a brand is making stuff available, seeing how people respond and then building on it. Google didn’t define itself as a search engine, it set out to index the world’s information. Apple didn’t say it only made personal computers – it put design into technology, whether it’s a Mac, iPhone or iPad. The legendary production line methods of Ford went from one colour of car to over 1000 different variations for the Ford Transit van alone.

Geek Pride

Obviously to be successful, it’s not enough to be different – the recent demise of Saab is one example of how you can be known for being unusual but still fail due to not managing sales and costs effectively. But that name will still stand out for many years for a lot of people, and it’s easier to optimise a supply chain than to become known for brilliance and character.

Look at Amazon – offering web servers, books and Kindles. Artists such as Hugh McLeod, Tom Fishbourne, or Penny Arcade. Authors like William Gibson. Musicians from Robert Johnson to Hendrix to Skrillex. 37Signals and Wunderlist are as much about design as project management. I’m already incredibly excited about HiutDenim because I know Howies and The Do Lectures.

Put stuff out there and look at the response, using the wealth of data that is available and complimenting it with the right research.


Industries and reputations:

Some industries stuggle with their reputation. Obviously banks and bankers aren’t particularly well respected at the moment, and neither are journalists.

At the same time, SEO and Social Media ‘snake oil salesman’ has become a common criticism for digital marketing.

And yet I know brilliant journalists, SEOs and Social Media specialists who are incredibly well-respected and constantly in-demand because they do brilliant things consistently well. I’ve also had meetings with top marketing and SEO agencies which ended in disaster because they seemed to spend all their time talking a good game in public, but not delivering on it directly in a client meeting.

I actually have a couple of lists which are close to my heart – one is a list of companies I’d love to work with, whether as a freelancer or even possibly as a full-time employee because over the years I’ve known them, they always done things brilliantly (I also have a list of companies who seem to squander their potential and wish they’d let me help sort it out).

And I have another list of individuals I’d love to work with on a project at some point – it’s grown to quite a size over the years, with everyone from creative talents to hard-headed business people. And pretty much everyone on the list has worked on multiple projects, sometimes concurrently, but what they’ve done is always interesting or exciting or innovative or profitable – often all four.

The simple fact is that I don’t worry about crap definitions of the industries I nominally work in. And I’ve stopped worrying about being painted with the same brush as the snake oil salesman. If a million people see a great example of content marketing, or social media, or SEO that I’ve been involved in, then that’s far better mechanism for change than debating definitions.

The stopping power of simple and effective marketing

Before you click on the video below, which shows a very literal example of being simple and effective, I should point out that it does contain a very small amount of violence, that I know it’s from the film ‘Never Back Down’, and I also know it’s not an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of Capoeira as a martial art.

But still…

I’m not going to suggest that business strategy, marketing or writing are related to fighting or violence, although I do know that to excel in martial arts or any endeavour requires similar levels of focus, dedication and perseverance. What I wanted to point out is that the most effective route to a solution is quite often the simplest, and that’s something easily overlooked in a digital world which tends towards information overload and constant hype cycles around the latest startup and innovation.


The thing of it:

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t experiment, innovate and impress. But these should always come after your core business and marketing ideas. The hardest bit is often stripping back everything to the simplest expression of what you do and why you do it. In fact, you can often find business people will try to delay answering or avoid the question altogether, and I imagine that’s because they fear that actually there’s nothing there.

That’s never been true in my experience.

It’s simply about digging deeper and asking the right questions to find the one core element that will really resonate. Even the dullest business you can possibly imagine, which may have been set up purely to make a profit, will have something of interest in it, whether that’s something in the story of the founders or workforce, or in the history of the business, or in future ambitions. The trick is to find it, and this is something which is potentially a lot easier for someone like me to discover as an ‘outsider’ working on a freelance basis, who can take an overall honest view and then ask potentially career limiting questions if you were putting them to your boss.

I recently had an epiphany when trying to simplify the brand idea for a client, after losing myself in all the great functionality of their product, and struggling to explain a lot of detailed technical terms. I’d succumbed to selling the features, rather than the benefits. But looking at it from the angle of their potential consumers, I suddenly realised that the one key benefit was incredibly simple, and could be summed up in 6 words. Now that’s got potential as a strapline, message, brand idea and identity etc.

Image courtesy on Flickr (CC Licence)


It’s about simple messages:

Particularly in the early stages of a business, it’s about getting who you are, and what you do, across in the simplest, most comprehensible ways.

People are great at passing on information. They’re not always great at taking information in, processing it, and repeating it all accurately, and that diminishes as the amount gets bigger.

Imagine you’re at a party, and you’re introducing an old friend to someone. Would you tell them absolutely everything that you know about your lifelong friendship? Or would you be more likely to say ‘Here’s Dave, he works in marketing and I’ve known him since I was five.’

One of my favourite tricks when it comes to simple messaging is to think about the classic game know as ‘Telephone‘ in the U.S, and without wishing to cause offence, ‘Chinese Whispers’ in the UK. If your message isn’t simple enough to pass from the CEO of the company down to the receptionist without the basic gist of it remaining, then it isn’t simple enough.

Or just think about the companies and slogans you remember off the top of your head. There are plenty of examples which not only function as a simple and effective strapline, but go further in explaining what it is you do, e.g.

Making collaboration productive and enjoyable for people every day. 37Signals

That goes a bit further than the classic strapline. And if it passes down the line and comes out as ‘they make working together more fun’, then it still works.

And there’s another reason why it’s more important than ever:

If you’ve ever come across Gary Vaynerchuck, you’ll already known why ‘passions,hustle, wine and business’ is a great 4 word summary. Generally SEO advice is always about ranking for keywords, but that site description is what converts people to following up on the search results. And as search and social become more and more intertwined, then memorable and sharable become even more important.

Oh, and if you can keep it under 140 characters, that’s even better:


Practising what I preach:

Along with a lot of bloggers and commentators, I can often fall into the trap of talking a great game about other people, and failing to do it for myself.

That’s particularly true when I’ve spent a lot of time working on client projects – part of the reason I took up blogging was to have an outlet for writing which didn’t follow a traditional news structure (At the time I was writing a lot of online news). That probably explains why I tend to write lengthy posts whenever I get the chance.

But now that TheWayoftheWeb is increasingly a lead generator for my marketing and content business (which is continuing to grow and may well expand in the future), and I’m also responsible for the marketing and lead generation side of Jodanma design and development, I’m going to be able to show more of the process that goes into that simplicity. The current Jodanma holding page will be replaced by the full website shortly, and the initial attempt at conveying what we do isn’t anywhere close to what it should be.

So here begins a real journey to apply what I do for clients to my own two businesses, and explain what goes into it along the way…