Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can Meditation Help You Leave Stress Behind?

At some point in your life, you may have asked yourself the question “Should I take up meditation?” There really is no right or wrong answer. For many people, meditation is an effective stress reliever and aid to productivity, concentration, and personal contentment. Others, having attempted meditation, still fail to see what all the hype is about. The only way to find out which camp you fall into is to give it a try.

Meditation is a skill.

Like all skills, it can be acquired, cultivated, and eventually more-or-less mastered. But you won’t become an expert overnight. Finally, as with all other skills, consistency and discipline are key: your progress is more likely to be noticeable and beneficial if you practice diligently.

The goal is to release tension, and quiet your mind.

If you’ve seen the second film in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, you will recall the Millennium Falcon’s perilous voyage through an asteroid field, with Imperial fighters hot on its tail. Commander Han Solo and his passengers manage to evade their pursuers and navigate a slew of hurtling boulders suspended in the vacuum of space, only to find themselves engulfed inside a giant carnivorous worm disguised as a cave.

The asteroid field is analogous to an overloaded mind, deluged with thoughts, distractions, and stressors, and generally unable to function at its full capacity. Busy people are often haunted by the spectre of opportunity costs—the notion that they could or should be doing something more productive at this very moment, and the irritation of knowing that, try as they might, they simply can’t perform five complex tasks at once. If you’ve experienced these feelings, you know how challenging it can be to escape the mental asteroid field, and regain your focus and composure. An effective round of meditation can help to quiet your mind by redirecting your attention toward a single objective.

Start with a simple breathing meditation.

Begin by finding a relatively quiet space, and seat yourself comfortably in a balanced position, with your back straight but not rigid. A straight spine, with your chin facing forward rather than drooping down, is important in order to avoiding lethargy or sluggishness during and after a meditation session.

Next, close your eyes. Search out tense areas of your body with your mind, and give them permission to relax. Direct your focus toward your breathing. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale fully, imagining all the while that the air entering your respiratory tract is cool, pure, relaxing fuel, while the air that exits your body is hot, tension-filled exhaust. I find it helpful to pretend that oxygen is filling my body all the way up to the peak of my forehead. I then release 100% of the breath stored within me, all the way down to the pit of my stomach.

 Feel the sensation in your nostrils as air flows in and out. Concentrate on this as you relax, and gradually settle into a natural, comfortable respiratory pattern. An array of thoughts will probably enter your mind at this stage; this is perfectly normal. Gently direct your attention back toward your lungs and nostrils, and resist the temptation of allowing your mind to wander far off course. Continue this exercise for about 10 minutes, or until your focus settles singularly on your breathing, your brain quietens, and you feel ready to resume your day.

Potential benefits.

Meditation yields different results for different people. If you commit to a 10- to 15-minute session daily, you may find that your overall stress level declines, your concentration improves, and your relations with others become smoother and more amicable. Over the long term, diminished stress and strife and greater personal contentment can promote improved physical health and career longevity too. In any event, there is no harm in trying.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What is Growth Hacking, and Could it Work For You?

Growth hacking is a term that originated in the tech industry—coined by entrepreneurs Sean Ellis, Hiten Shah, and Patrick Vlaskovits in 2010—and remains popular in Silicon Valley. In effect, it describes a non-traditional approach to marketing, wherein expansion of the business is the primary focus. Many growth hackers (some of whom have even adopted that title) would describe themselves as more-or-less analogous to the VP of Marketing at a conventional firm. Historically, growth hackers have tended to work with small- and medium-sized enterprises rather than major established companies—although there are indications that growth hacking is now making inroads into the corporate mainstream.

You needn’t be an IT wizard—or even a self-identified growth hacker—to take advantage of growth-hacking techniques.

A common perception of growth hackers is that they are mostly associated with the dot com sector, and as such, possess extraordinary technical knowledge and skill, including the ability to code at an advanced level. While this is undeniably true of many in the field, technical expertise is not necessarily a precondition for growth hacking. Marketing and expansion techniques familiar to growth hackers can be adopted by traditional marketers, entrepreneurs, managers—in fact, just about anyone in the business world. And now that website design templates are widely available, non-techies have ample opportunity to establish a profitable online gateway.

Growth hackers’ approach to marketing resembles more conventional marketing strategies in some respects, but principally revolves around the online medium. Like traditional companies, firms that adopt growth-hacking principles aim to attract customers, facilitate sign-ups, and retain clients over the long term, in part, by offering innovative products and services. But under a growth-hacking framework, the effectiveness of the website (and online pathways thereto) take precedence.

A simple, elegant website, with an easy sign-up process

Modern society is characterized by short attention spans, and a rule of thumb for business website design is that there is roughly a ten-second window in which to attract a prospective customer’s attention and pique h/er interest. In your initial user interface, aim for short but clear descriptions, understandable options, and visible (but not gaudy) links and portals. Allow visitors to navigate to some areas of your site without registering, and give them the option of signing up for additional services.

Another vital consideration is the process of registration itself: You’ll want to collect relevant data from your prospective clients, but it’s also important to ensure that they know exactly what they’re signing up for, and don’t feel daunted by the duration and/or arduousness of the endeavour. Many would-be customers will simply give up and move on rather than endure even a few seconds of unnecessary inconvenience.
Tools of the trade

Among the devices in the growth hacker’s tool kit are search engine optimization (SEO), data analytics, viral video, guest blogging, mailing lists, and a wide range of specialized survey and marketing software. A fairly extensive list of utilities for marketing and metrics is available here.

Some common objectives growth hackers emphasize in the development of a new product or business are virality, effective distribution, and ease of access and use of the business’s website (from the customer’s perspective). The purpose of metrics, surveys, and other data is to provide feedback as to the success of those efforts.

Start with your networks to drive traffic. Use “calls to action” to generate sign-ups.

Online advertising can get expensive, and virality can be a difficult and time-consuming ambition. For start-ups with low cash flow, the cost and challenge of driving traffic to a website can be especially prohibitive. One of the ways around this problem is to start with your social network. Let your friends on Facebook know about your business, send e-mails to your contacts, call up friends to gauge their level of interest.

Create a landing page separate from the website’s home page, and direct visitors toward it. Once they arrive, the next goal is to promote registration. An approach that many businesses find effective is the Call to Action—usually in the form of a prominent icon that visitors can click on in order to “learn more”, “get started”, etc. This is where registration kicks in, which you can then measure, analyze, and, in turn, identify ways to improve.

Of course, there is no shortcut to a robust level of growth. But a growth hacker’s mindset can help to propel your business toward that goal.

A wealth of additional information is available online. Check out QUICKSPROUT’s Definitive Guide to Growth Hacking, GrowthHackers,, and the personal blogs of growth-hacking specialists Aaron Ginn and Andrew Chen.     

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reflections on Celebrity Endorsements

Many people automatically associate celebrity endorsements with large, established firms, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of CelebExperts—a U.S. outfit that matches businesses with celebrities keen to offer endorsements—says that more than half of the client enterprises his company serves are small- or medium-sized firms and non-industry leaders.

“The misconception by most is that only the P&Gs, Johnson & Johnsons and Gatorades of the world can afford a celebrity spokesperson, but that isn’t supported by our experience,” Morgenstein told Forbes contributor Susan Gunelius in 2013. Furthermore, just as businesses vary widely in scale and market capitalization, the category of “celebrity” is also broad, encompassing not only A-list actors, musicians, and professional athletes, but also television chefs, local news anchors, authors, and game-show contestants—to list just a few sub-sets.

If you plan to retain the services of a celebrity endorser, the process is not unlike that of hiring a new employee. You need to find the right person for the job—someone who is not only recognizable amongst your target demographic, but whose reputation is also consistent with the brand image you hope to cultivate. Finally, rather than seeking out the most famous individual who will agree to work with you, your overarching priority should be value for money.

Look for genuine enthusiasm (especially if your celebrity is not a professional actor).

It is always better to seek the endorsement of a celebrity who genuinely appreciates what your business has to offer, rather than one who is primarily motivated by the money or a desire for self-promotion. This is important for many reasons, but in particular, celebrities often have large numbers of followers on social media and make frequent public appearances. If your endorser ends up fielding an offhand question about your company, a positive, enthusiastic response would sure beat an indecisive one.

If you’re torn between hiring a highly renowned celebrity who knows little about your business, versus a less distinguished celebrity who loves and is conversant with your company, favour the latter.

Your endorser will be associated with your brand for years to come.

Celebrity endorsement is always a risk-reward proposition. In many well-known cases, celebrity endorsers have become the de facto “face” of particular companies and brands—for instance, consider actress Catherine Zeta-Jones’s relationship with telecom provider T-Mobile, or NASCAR driver Danica Patrick’s association with web domain name purveyor

But business deals of this sort have also gone awry due to celebrity endorsers’ personal or professional struggles. Anheuser Busch (the parent corporation of Michelob Ultra) probably never anticipated that Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles would be rescinded because of the cyclist’s doping. Likewise, Nike invested much reputational capital in one of the world’s most gifted athletes, Tiger Woods, producing a memorable and emotionally evocative series of print and television advertisements. Little did Nike’s executives suspect at the time that Woods’s objectionable activities off the golf course had the potential to tarnish their brand image.

Of course, you can’t know everything about the celebrity you hope will endorse your business, but as always, due diligence is important. Has your prospective celebrity endorser ever been credibly accused of wrongdoing? If so, you’ll need to consider how this reflects on your brand before deciding whether to proceed.

Look for potential freebies and “barter” exchanges.

A productive celebrity endorsement can be a huge marketing boon for a business with modest cash flow and little public exposure. But this begs the question of how such a company can possibly afford to remunerate a prospective celebrity endorser.

There are a couple of ways around that obstacle. In some instances, you may have the opportunity to strike a barter deal, like a celebrity endorsement in exchange for a discount or free merchandise. Otherwise, if a celebrity happens to pay you a visit, you can follow up and encourage h/er to share positive testimonials about your business with friends and associates.

To return to the theme with which this post began: Don’t make the mistake of assuming, just because you run a small firm with an unextravagant marketing budget, that the prospect of a celebrity endorsement is entirely out of reach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tactful Self-promotion

In most facets of life, it is wiser to err on the side of moderation than to indulge in excess. The same
is true of the way we portray ourselves to others: confidence and self-assuredness, especially when grounded in a realistic appraisal of one’s own abilities and expertise, are admirable traits; on the other hand, cockiness, false modesty, and “humblebragging” tend to elicit disdain.

So, how can you project an air of confidence and proficiency without seeming arrogant? What is tactful self-promotion, and how does it differ from boastfulness?

Authenticity is key.

Human beings are by nature social animals, and consequently, our desire to engender a positive first impression profoundly influences our interactions. In situations where we have a significant stake in the outcome—like an investment funding pitch, or a first date with a person in whom we have a romantic interest—the motive to put our best foot forward is even stronger.

However, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, our intuitions about the strategies most likely to impress the target of our self-promotional efforts are often misguided—namely, we tend to underestimate the value that others place on perceived authenticity. Studies conducted by Gino and her colleagues Ovul Sezer and Mike Norton suggest that humblebragging (for example, claiming in a job interview that your greatest weakness is a tendency to work too hard) is likely to instill an unsympathetic impression in others: the opposite of the desired outcome. Revealingly, their research found that the interviewers’ opinion of seemingly insincere humblebraggers was even less favourable than the same interviewers’ perception of chronic complainers.

Build relationships.

No one likes to feel used. Accordingly, it is important to approach other people as potential friends, allies, partners, and associates, and not merely as means to an end or targets of an impromptu sales pitch.

Introduce yourself by describing your profession and/or significant interests in about three seconds. (See “Perfecting Your Three-second Statement”.) In conversation with individuals to whom you hope to appeal, make use of open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, how) and listen attentively to their responses. Concentrate on ascertaining their wants, needs, and objectives. Then consider how you can contribute to the fulfillment thereof.

Add value.

You know what you do well, but your interlocutor may not. Specifically, prospective employers, investors, clients, or even potential romantic partners will be interested to know what you have to offer, and how they would benefit from becoming more acquainted with you.

If you feel you have a good understanding of the wants and needs of the individual to whom you hope to promote yourself, you are about halfway to your goal. At this point, rather than simply claiming to excel at X or Y (which can rub people the wrong way), an alternative technique is to recount an experience where your skills in a particular area served you well, or enabled you to overcome a challenge. A common saying in journalism circles is “show, don’t tell”, and for good reason: the facts often speak for themselves.

Rely on talking points rather than a fixed pitch.

This point should not be construed as denying the importance of a sound elevator pitch, but in real life, the context in which a conversation occurs informs its tone and content—and a rigid, memorized pitch may seem out-of-place. Therefore, it is worthwhile to have talking points in mind: pieces of knowledge or insight you can invoke that will offer people a better sense of who you are, your areas of skill, passion, and knowledge, and what you aim to accomplish. Stay abreast of news headlines too, especially items that are relevant to your areas of expertise, and be prepared to discuss at least two current events at social gatherings.

The ability to communicate those points effectively, while showing genuine interest in the people you meet, is the key to promoting yourself without sounding like a braggart or tawdry careerist.