Singing In The Rain

or

“How To Be Creative In 4 Steps”

Ever pay attention to the affiliate network ads that pervade the blogs-on-blogging-and-marketing blogosphere? If you have, then you know that they’re all interchangeable. Every network promises you “better payouts and unique offers.”

The web is awash in generics, and so is the economy. Everyone understands the concept of a “unique value proposition” – because generic writing has repeated it ad nauseam – yet only a tiny minority apply it. One of the ironies of this is that a slew of images depicting a single red character amongst acres of grey characters have found their way onto innumerable blogs. A picture representing standing out has become generic.

That’s the problem I’d like to help you solve. How can you be creative amongst a ruckusof people trying to stand out? How can you sing in the din of the falling raindrops?

Creativity
Source: Archaeoastronomy Ancient Science

First, you’ll need to do research to get inspired. You’re looking to discover and identify problems.

As it concerns blogging, your research begins by finding out what others in your field are writing about.

Start by identifying who the thought leaders are in your niche and go catalog their categories. Excel will probably come in handy if you want to do this thoroughly, though an informal approach is just fine too.

What you’re looking for mostly is overlap in topics. The more others have covered it, the less you should consider it as a viable topic to address, because you’ll have to work harder to say something new/original, and even then you’ll only stand out marginally.

Next, go through these leaders’ category archives and read as much as you can. This will both teach you a lot in a very short amount of time, as well as give you an idea of what particular subjects within a broad category have been covered.

If you’re pressed for time, you can copy-paste the titles in the archives into an excel file. Then, make note of what keywords or ideas repeat the most often and you’ll have a fair idea of where their focus is.

As a kid in grade school, I recall asking the other kids what topic they were going to write about amongst the list our teacher had given us. It wasn’t that their choices were particularly fascinating for the insights they gave on the neurochemical functioning of their brains (we’d already done neurochemistry in grade 3), but rather just a way of making sure I picked one of those options that few others were doing.

As it concerns businesspeople outside of blogging, you need to start by looking at your competitor’s products and catalog their features and benefits. This information should be readily available from their website and other marketing materials like brochures.

If you create a product-comparison chart, this will help you visualize things and better understand what you’re up against. Similarly to blogging, look for the overlap in features.

In the soda world, Jones Soda came along and changed the game. They saw competitors whose marketing style was “Big Ad Agency Generic” and decided to incorporate their customers’ pictures on their labels. They saw flavours that could not be differentiated (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnzJQ6ZsZSQ) and came up with flavours that fit better in a pack of Jelly Bellies than in a soda vending machine. Which is fortunate for them, since they didn’t go the usual route in distributing their soda but rather started by bringing it to skater parks, tattoo parlours and other non-mainstream places.

Jones Soda Flavors

This brings me to the next aspect of research: finding pockets of customer dissatisfaction.

There are a number of ways of doing this, but the one I’d like to highlight is searching. If you know what keywords to use, search engines can share a wealth of consumer complaints. In effect, these sites are business plans waiting to happen.

That previous paragraph has a few keywords you can try out, like “dissatisfaction.” Better yet, use variants that people are more likely to use in describing their own experiences, like “I’m dissatisfied with my bank.”

More commonly used synonyms and expressions of frustration are likely to work even better. Searching for “I hate AOL” returned this result : http://forums.techguy.org/reviews/251607-why-you-hate-aol.html
“XYZ sucks” is another popular format, speaking from personal experience as someone who’s ranked #1 for “Google sucks.” Some other keywords of interest are complaint, rip-off, frustration and anything you can think of that expresses these ideas.

A tip to make this very current for the blogosphere and help you discover memes as they develop is to follow Twitter’s hot keywords, in the footer of its search.twitter.com subdomain.

For example, as I was writing this post, Motrin released some ads that offended some mothers by suggesting they were fashion victims – literally. The ads said that they were hurting themselves to carry their babies in stylish slings. If you wanted, you could run ads for your own brand of pain-relief as the mom-respectful brand. This is what my friend Susan Gunelius of Key Splash Creative would refer to as oppositional branding or differentiation.

What I’m describing here is the practice of footprinting. In short, it describes the practice of analyzing similar websites to identify common phrases they use, which don’t necessarily describe their content.

Have a look at My 3 Cents for an example of one such review site that could be helpful. Looking it over, the phrase “write a review” stands out as something that they’re likely trying to rank for, and which other review sites would also feature information on. Rating sites are going after the same game…

Analyzing The Data To Identify The Problem

Finding and understanding problems is step 1, researching the principles to solve the problem is step 2. That’s a good start.

Now, you need to analyze the data. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

a) What assumption underlies the competition’s way of doing things?

A complaint I read about some bank’s crummy customer service had a life-long customer asking them to let him off for his first ever late fee, an accident.

That bank assumed a number of things. First, the customer should call customer service to clarify problems. That’s a pretty reactive attitude. Perhaps calling customers to see if things are OK when they’re late on a payment would be a non-abrasive way of getting money repaid quickly while maintaining friendly relations.

Second, the Bank assumed that the customer acted irresponsibly. In a court of law, they could make the point that he should have checked the online bill he’d opted into. In the court of free-market economics, the customer is always right and that bank just lost a client.

Third, the bank assumed that punishing late payment was more effective than rewarding timely payment. Over the years this customer had paid promptly, was he ever rewarded for it?

Fourth, the bank assumed that such a late fee would not encourage the customer to leave for another bank. Oops.

b) Why does the current market have the features it has? If the reason is “that’s how it’s been since the 1920s,” then you’re onto an opportunity. If the reason is that the barriers to entry require a 10-person corporate legal team, move on. Another way to phrase this is: What has changed in the market since our competitors’ products first developed?

And from UC Davis’ critical thinking page:

1. What is the purpose, goal, or point?
2. What is the problem or issue being solved or described?
3. On what data or evidence is the decision / definition / problem based?
4. What inferences are being made from what kind of data, and are these inferences legitimate?
5. What is the solution, outcome, or resolution of the problem or issue?
6. What are the short-term and long-term implications of the solution / consquences of the outcome?
7. What are the biases or assumptions behind the inferences, selection or collection of data, or framing of the problem / experiment?
8. What are the basic concepts or terms being used? How do these definitions affect the framing / understanding of the problem?
9. What point of view is being expressed? What political / ideological / paradigmatic considerations inform or govern or limit point of view?
10. How would someone from a related but different discipline look at the problem / solution / issue, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis / discussion / evaluation?

What Are The Rules In This Area?

Ten Commandments Rules
Source: George Bannister

Once you’ve identified the problem, you need to figure out what rule to apply to the problem. Generally speaking, this means you’ll have to learn about what others have done and the lessons – the core principles – they’ve derived from their experience. I’m talking about studying using case studies.

You’ve addressed this in part by finding out how others in your niche have answered the problem you’re considering. Now it’s time to go beyond that and look for more obviously formatted case studies or self-help business books. The following resources (plus your favourite library and bookstore) can get you started:

Business ethics case studies
Many categories of case studies
Free business case studies
Case studies at Case Place
Acadia Case studies
Case studies hub with links to several resources
Asian Case Studies
http://blogsearch.google.ca/blogsearch?q=business+case+studies.

Personally, I also recommend the following books for helping you think better and become a better problem solver:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens (adaptation of 7 Habits of Highly Effective Adults – it’s easier to read and shares the same lessons).
The 4 Hour Workweek

Let’s make up an example to illustrate. Competitive research on dissatisfaction reveals that in the niche you’re considering, the potential competition often pay suppliers late. Your reading on business helps you identify the problem as a cash-flow issue. At that point, you can either rely on cash-flow management principles you’ve learnt from past reading, or research the area now.

How The Rules Apply

It’s up to you, really, so long as it solves the problems you found and thus differentiates you from the competition.

I’d love to hear your reactions and thoughts on this in the comments!

Gab Goldenberg writes a search marketing blog and has plenty of good reasons for you to add his SEO blog’s RSS feed to your reader. He’s hoping to launch Original Monetization, a platform for offering webmasters new tools to make money, soon.

photo credit: Photospin

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