Your company could be guilty of lying. Here’s how to fix it.

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. 

Gina Balarin has written and given a TED Talk titled “Confessions of a liar — Marketing in the era of authenticity.” In the latest episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, she joined me from Australia to talk about how we’re all liars, how marketing people are liars, and how she helps entrepreneurs not to become one.

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Understanding What the Audience Wants

According to Gina, the challenge with marketing is that there’s a bit of a bad smell hovering around its very name. However, it shouldn’t be like that. And it doesn’t have to be like that.

When marketing first started, it was about selling everything one could possibly sell to whoever would buy a product or a service. The problem was with the distribution method that was used at that time: People put advertisements on television and simply yelled at everyone. 

The thing is, people live in a completely different world now. It’s now possible to listen to your customers at scale. You don’t just have to pick up a phone and call them or do a survey. You can use the internet to ask them almost any — and every single — question. 

This means that marketers today can’t afford to lie. They just need to understand what their audience wants.

When marketers do this right from the beginning, they’re able to actually start with the fundamental problem that they’re solving for people. And when they’re trying to solve a problem, it means that the product or service that they’re providing is great and that they’re happy with it. 

By the time they need to connect information about whether they’ve done things right, it becomes easy for them to get customer stories, testimonials, quotes, and references saying that they love the product or service. In fact, it’s a no-brainer; it becomes a circular world of goodness.

When you start with an expectation and you meet that expectation, it builds back into the circle of creating a new product, service, or any other thing right at the beginning of that wheel again. As an entrepreneur this makes absolutely great sense: You start something, get feedback, then you refine the product, put it back out there, and it gets better and better. 

But why is this not happening? 

An Issue of Confidence and Certainty

For Gina, it could be about the people’s lack of confidence in their ability to serve their audience.

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When they first start, a lot of entrepreneurs aren’t super clear on the value that they have to add. Trial and error is required. And most people don’t have the confidence nor the capacity to do the necessary audience research. 

Whether you look at an entrepreneur who has kind of designed an intentional product or service in mind, or someone who’s just fallen out of a traditional workplace and into working for themselves, you’ll see a different attitude and different approach to work and to their audience. You’d be looking at people who are investing in a product design for the first time in their lives. It’s something that they’re doing intentionally. This means that they’re looking at audiences, at whether the product has a market or not, or whether there’s a service for it or not.

Gina has been an entrepreneur for five years now, working for herself. She’s a content marketer, someone who helps people understand words, what they mean, and how they can be used intentionally. 

To be honest, when she started this out — working as an entrepreneur individually rather than being in a corporate world — she said that it was a very different process. This is when you start and go: “I’m not going to lie about what I do because there’s no need to.” However, it’s a point wherein you really aren’t that clear on who you’re helping until you know who you’re not helping.

Getting Feedback at Scale

Most companies fail because they run out of money. The second most common reason is that they provide a product or service that people don’t want. So how can businesses get feedback at scale?

Gina said that it really depends on where your audience is hanging out. You have a raft of tools that are usable — including free ones such as SurveyMonkey (which is actually quite advanced and sophisticated) and paid-for tools. 

A lot of product marketers who she knows use Facebook to test a hypothesis. It’s even possible to use the little polls on LinkedIn to test hypotheses as well. However, bear in mind that a lot of the answers that you’ll get will depend on who you’re asking.

One of the great things about using a targeted methodology such as Facebook is that you can be very specific about who you want to ask your questions to. You can do the same thing to a certain extent with LinkedIn. 

When you use paid-for tools, they’re specifically looking for audiences that meet your criteria — in other words, the people who are your target audience.

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Bear in mind that if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re doing this on a budget, and you want to target or pull the audience that you already have access to, then you’re going to get a biased sample. For instance, if you reach out to your friends on Facebook, they’re going to tell you what you want to hear because they are your friends. This is why it’s important to get a less biased perspective on things.

Based on Gina’s experience (she has experience more on the communications side of things rather than the research side), by the time she gets involved in a traditional business-to-business (B2B) content marketing perspective, she’s assuming that the people she writes for know and understand their audience. 

Leading back to the perception of marketing — what it is and what it’s supposed to do — Gina stated that, unfortunately, not everyone knows who they’re talking to and why they’re talking to them. 

You’d expect that entrepreneurs would start being less clear about this and figure it out over time. On the other hand, you’d expect larger organisations and enterprise-size organisations to know the answer to this. The sad thing is, they still don’t know it even decades later.

Comparing Models of Communication

During the episode, Gina discussed models of communication. She explained that, initially, the idea is that you have a sender, a receiver, and noise in the middle. It’s about sending a message one-way. 

When you think about the original marketing and advertising media of communication, they were all “shouty” media. You’ve got television; you’ve got radio. You don’t have the opportunity for feedback.

If you look at a communications model that has evolved, you’ve got a sender, a receiver, noise, and then feedback, which also has its own noise. With this, you’ll be able to listen to people more effectively. Today, social media has fundamentally changed the nature of marketing communication so that it was no longer possible or advisable for organisations to only have one-way communications. 

Often, marketers sit in the previous distribution method. They think about how they want to get their message out there and they don’t necessarily pay as much attention to the information that comes back, which can almost be more important than the message that they’re getting out there. 

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Now, there are, in fact, much better ways of listening to an audience. One of which is simply testing your marketing campaigns. If you’re going to do an A/B test, wherein you test one version against another version, you’ll see which one will perform better. Ironically, you’re actually listening to your audience when you share those messages in the first place.

How to Do an A/B Test

For entrepreneurs unfamiliar with an A/B test, it may sound like doing twice their work. 

From a practical perspective, Gina mentioned that one of the best ways to do it is not to do an A/B test before you send out a campaign. Because, more often than not, entrepreneurs don’t have enormously large databases. This means that you can’t necessarily get a meaningful, reasonable sample size. 

For instance, even if you split your database in half and do a true A/B test — or if you send out 10% on one instance, another 10% on the next, and then 80% on the one that does the best — you won’t have meaningful results because your current database is not large enough. 

What you can do is to test over time. 

For example, if you have a newsletter, you can try out a certain format. Next time, you can try it out with images instead of without images. When you find out that more people respond to the version with an image, you can try changing the headline format or structure next time. A lot of this comes down to iterative refinement, as they say in software terminology. Basically, it means, step by step, get better and better. 

In reality, this is what most people do: As we learn, we become knowledgeable of what to do and what not to do. 

On the Fear of Failure

Gina stated that one of the things that drives a lot of entrepreneurs is their fear of failure. This fear can drive you to try and make your product perfect the first time or prevent you from actually doing things in the first place.

One of the most important lessons that she can share with anyone who’s trying to communicate effectively with their audience is to try something — anything. 

If you get it wrong the first time, it’s great because you can learn from it. If you get it wrong the second time, it’s even better. Because it means that you can test and see what you did differently between the first and second time and improve accordingly.

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Communicating Meaningfully

If people presumably keep failing repeatedly, they can end up upsetting their audience. So how do you communicate meaningfully?

Gina quoted an old phrase saying, we have twice as many ears as we have mouths so that we might listen twice as often as we might speak. People forget that we have two ears and one mouth to listen twice and speak once. And part of the problem with that is that when we’re communicating, we’re often communicating to be heard — not to listen

She admitted that she’d been guilty in the past for waiting for a gap in the conversation so she can put her point in rather than trying to hear and understand what the other person is saying. The big problem with this is that we assume people hear things in the same way that we’re communicating them. 

Earlier, she spoke about the problem with noise and communication. Noise can refer to the background noise on a podcast. It can be the stuff that’s going on between people’s ears that you actually can’t interpret. Things get much harder when you’re not face-to-face with someone. When you can’t see them, you’re only relying on cues. This is why emails are often misunderstood. 

Misunderstandings also happen when people have different intentions when they communicate. In this instance, Gina brought up the DiSC profile. It’s an old tool but a helpful way of categorising people into four quadrants. Traditionally, the D’s are thought of as the dominant groups; I’s, the influential; S’s, the steady; C’s, the compliant. 

If you look at these categories, the dominant tends to be the CEOs of the world. On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are steady, stable, supportive, and sincere. When they communicate with each other, the D’s who are direct and decisive are in opposition with the S’s who are slow and sensitive. 

It means that no matter how well they communicate with each other, the chances are they’re looking to get something different out of that interaction. The D’s might feel that they’ve communicated really effectively, for instance, after they’ve made a decision or when they’re going ahead and processing something. The S’s, on the other hand, might feel really disconcerted by that conversation because they don’t feel like they’ve been supported. They don’t feel like they’ve been able to have that steady and consistent interaction — that they’ve been heard.

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What then happens is a fundamental miscommunication: People don’t understand that what they’re saying is not necessarily being understood by the person who’s listening to them.

What Gina’s Company Do

Gina has a company called Verballistics. And they’re helping with getting people to understand who they’re talking to and what an authentic message would be, which are absolutely fundamental to making communication happen.

Verballistics is a content marketing agency and they help make sure that people hear the right words and that the words are in the right context. But the evolution of the company is going to be about how to help people understand what meaning is for them. 

Whether it’s about helping people talk on a TEDx stage or in an interview, or about turning people’s words into a case study or about building website pages, emails, and blog posts for clients — it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, any marketing is only good when people are able to reach their audience in a way that touches hearts and minds. And that can only happen when you listen to what people are not saying and when you ask them what they think.

The problem with a lot of marketing is that people don’t actually want to listen. We’re so busy trying to get messages out that we think are going to influence people. The lesson here is that you don’t just have to listen — you have to listen with your heart. There’s a very big difference between wanting to solve a problem and actually understanding why the people need that problem to be solved — or whether they even have that problem in the first place. 

With Verballistics, Gina and company try to help people communicate more meaningfully — whether you’re looking at actual content production for your organisation, or you’re looking at trying to speak better, listen better, or build communication skills in your team. This is what Verballistics stands for: genuinely meaningful communication.

Honesty with Your Brand

When communicating with your audience, the kind of language and tone of voice that they’re familiar with and they’re willing to listen to is important.

If you’re an entrepreneur bringing a marketing agency onboard as your business grows, the first thing that you have to do is to define who you’re talking to and how you want to communicate with them. 

You might have a tone of voice that’s very vibrant and vivacious, or something that’s very formal and a little bit process-oriented. The important thing is to think of your brand as a reflection of who you are and who you want to appear to be. This really comes down to defining how you want to talk to people.

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Gina personally finds ghost-writing for the CEOs of organisations enjoyable because there’s nothing that makes them prouder than seeing their own voice in writing. When clients compliment her writing, she says that that kind of writing is possible only because of the CEOs themselves. All she does is to listen; her output is really a reflection of the client — their personality, what they believe in, and who they are. 

Going back to the question of honesty, Gina noted that the great entrepreneurs are those who are honest enough about their brand and what it stands for right at the beginning. And that honesty shines through in their marketing. It allows them to touch the hearts and minds of their audience. As a result, if they ask people what they think about their product or service, they’d get that honesty reflected back at them — in a way that allows them to attract new audiences in exchange.

How She Gets Herself Noticed

A lot of entrepreneurs in the Software as a Service (SaaS) space or in the B2B world end up working in organisations where they’re part of an extended team or an extended marketing team. 

She considers herself fortunate in the sense that she has clients across the world. When these clients get delighted, they tell other people about her. For her, word of mouth is a very important way of reaching new audiences. So are things like newsletters. She also uses LinkedIn extensively. 

Her book, titled “The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People,” is also a great way of introducing the thoughts that she tries to put in front of people. People, in fact, often call her book a thick business card.

Gina also regularly posts on relevant publications, including the Content Marketing Institute where she has a quarterly column called The Content Therapist. These, including podcasts, are different ways that she uses in reaching out to people. 

For her, it’s a delight to be able to share the knowledge that one accumulates over time; to be able to help others feel less afraid of sharing their own voice. 

If there’s one thing that she could teach entrepreneurs, it is to be brave and to realise who they are and what drives them, because it’s what will also drive their organisations to success. She also believes that the world needs to hear more about these — what makes people happy or angry, why entrepreneurs are running their businesses, and why they created these brand-new things in the first place.

This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.

Cover image by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash.