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Forest for the Trees

There’s no arguing that people like things that are shiny and new - things they haven’t seen before.

As humans, we are biologically wired to respond to novelty. The substantia nigra/ventral segmental area of the midbrain is activated by things that are brand new, giving us a hit of dopamine. Our animal brains then spur us on to explore this new thing we’ve been exposed to.

For example, a few years ago, I was a big fan of parallax scrolling - a type of design where background layers move more slowly than those in the foreground, creating an illusion of depth. As it became more widespread, however, the novelty wore off - for every good implementation, there were a dozen mediocre ones.

We’re so captivated by this new possibility, and we’re so eager to explore it, that we don’t take the time to ask ourselves if we should.

In the face of possibility, we don’t know how to focus.

As the old saying goes, we can’t see the forest for the trees.

A fairly recent example of this comes in the form of a social network called Peach, which was created by one of the co-founders of Vine.

Peach had a lot going for it when it was introduced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. It had the best on-boarding process I’ve seen to this day, a version of Slack’s slash shortcuts as its killer feature, and took a firm stance against the more “traditional” features of social networks - no news feed, no tagging, no hashtags.

People were very excited for the network. Many marketers believed it could be the next big thing.

By the end of the month, interest had waned significantly.

When Snapchat and Kik launched, they had a specific audience in mind: teenagers who want some degree of control and privacy over their communications.

Peach may have a lot of cool features, but it’s just another social network to throw into the pile.

It wasn’t radically different or specifically useful enough to attract people.

And every day, hundreds of businesses make this same mistake. It happens so often there’s almost a storybook quality to it.

As a matter of fact…

Once upon a time, there was a company.

The company developed a product with near-limitless applications and a strong value proposition versus the products of their competitors.

The value proposition was true - once customers learned how to use the product.

The company devoted the resources of its marketing department to creating materials about ways people could use the product.

Maybe it could help small business owners receive messages from their customers after-hours. Maybe it could help long-haul truckers avoid accidents and dangerous areas. Maybe it could help warn the populace of dangerous weather events.

As the product had near-limitless applications, the company higher-ups instructed the marketing team to branch out in every conceivable direction.

The marketing team created materials for the tourism industry, and the communications industry, and blue-collar workers, and so on.

Over time, they gained a few customers in each of these industries.

As we know, businesses need to make money.

In trying to target all of these different segments, however, the company made a major mistake.

Their product did have near-limitless applications, but because it needed to be applicable to everyone, that prevented it from having the complexity that some of the targeted groups needed.

Over time, many of their customers left for competitors that better fit their individual needs.

There is a notion that is as true in product development as it is in marketing.

If you build something that everyone can use, you’re really building it for no one.

If you’re marketing something to everyone, you can’t be surprised when it doesn’t perform well, since you have no target audience.

No one to know that your message is intended specifically for them.

Matt