Your Startup Isn’t Growing. Is It From A Bad Product, Bad Marketing, Or A Bad Market?

You’re about to go on the fifteenth date with that “perfect” girl. Everything’s been great. She thinks your corny jokes are funny, she loves watching The Profit with you, and heck, she doesn’t even seem to have any annoying friends. She might be the one. But then one day, things… just… stall. Not only is she suddenly “too busy” to see you, but she even lets slip that she thinks Marcus Lemonis is kind of lame.

What happened?

Who knows. But what matters is that startups actually deal with this same scenario all the time. Growth takes off, and you’re sure this company is the one that’s going to make your mom proud. But one day your growth hits a brick wall. And no matter how your good your ad creative, how optimized your campaigns, every new customers is more hard-earned than the last.

Not knowing why your startup isn’t growing is the hardest part.

The good news is that there’s probably a good reason. In this post, I’m going to show you what those reasons are and how to determine which one is the culprit.

The 3 Reasons Your Startup Isn’t Growing

OK, there aren’t only three reasons your startup isn’t growing. For example, if your company catches a whiff of bad PR for, oh, I don’t know… FRAUD, then that might be the culprit. These are reasons why nice companies selling nice things to nice people might run find themselves caught in quicksand:

Reason #1 – Bad Product: Let’s face it… you can only get so far before people realize your product isn’t great. If you’re reading this and aren’t aware if your own product is good or bad, I’ll just assume that (a) you’re brand new at your job; or (b) you already know deep down inside and you’re hoping that this article will let you off the hook. Either way, I’ll show you the warning signs of a bad product.

Reason #2 – Bad Marketing: Your product is fine. Maybe it’s even great. And people seem to buy it. But they’re not responding to your marketing, because, well… it’s lame. If you’re a marketer, you probably don’t want this to be the reason. But better you find out yourself then someone else (your boss?) be the one to break you the news.

Reason #3 – Bad Market: Trying to sell the world’s best yoga mat to your local Harley-Davidson club? Life insurance to a 17-year old? This weird, cucumber-flavored Pepsi to someone who doesn’t live in Japan? You get the idea. You’ll always hit a brick wall if they’re selling a great product to the wrong market. 

So which one of these is the main culprit? Keep reading and we’ll find out…

It’s 3rd Grade All Over Again, And I’m Giving You a Worksheet To Do For Homework

At least I won’t be grading you on the results. And this assignment will only take about 5 minutes. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. First, download and print this PDF. Or click here for an Excel version.
  2. Grab a #2 pencil (or go really crazy and make it a #4)
  3. Below is a list of 10 areas you’ll evaluate your company on. Read them now and then return here.
  4. Go through each line on your worksheet and rate your company as weakaverage, or strong. Don’t spend more than 30 seconds on each.
  5. At the bottom of this post you’ll find what results look like for a company with a bad product, bad marketing, or a bad market. Don’t peek! Whatever result your worksheet most closely resembles will point you to the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Finally, at the end of this post, I’ll provide a bit more commentary on each result. 3-2-1-Go!

Click here to download your worksheet

Rating Your Company On These Areas Will Help You Find The Real Reason Your Startup Isn’t Growing

Again, on your worksheet, you’ll find these ten areas listed. Which of these your company is weak or strong in will indicate where your problem lies.

PPC/SEM Marketing – anywhere you spend money to drive leads, clicks, etc. Evaluate the ads themselves, not the entire conversion funnel (here are some good benchmarks to reference). Why this matters: if your ads themselves perform well but you’re not growing, it probably indicates a product- or market-related problem.

Search traffic for your product/company – what’s the search volume for the name of your company or if applicable, your own products? Nonexistent? Moderate? Growing? Why this matters: if people are searching for you, they’ve probably heard about you from someone else. That’s a usually good thing!

Search traffic for related terms – this is the search volume for terms that are related to what you do, like “landing page software”, “energy efficient lightbulbs”, or “books on how to find a girlfriend”. Why this matters: if there’s high search volume for things related to what you do, that’s a good sign that there’s a market for what you’re selling. 

PR coverage – are other sites interested in writing about you? Or does your local newspaper turn you down so they have space to cover that local fashion show for seniors? Why this matters: if you can’t get any PR, chances are your product isn’t interesting or valuable enough to be worth writing about.

Direct/referral traffic – having plenty of these visitors means people are (a) bookmarking your site, (b) heading there directly, or (c) coming to your site from articles written about you. Why this matters: it means you’re doing something right – people love you enough to visit you often to tell others.

Website Conversion Rate – you might generate lots of “top of the funnel” interest from a paid ad campaign, but once visitors actually learn what you do on your website, are they still interested? Why this matters: a low-performing site means your product just isn’t compelling, or that you haven’t described it clearly.

Sales Close Rate – do leads show up for calls, and are they closing at a healthy rate? Or do you resort to discounts just to get a few closes? Why this matters: a really good marketing team can get people interested, but if the product is weak and/or the market is wrong, then sales won’t get very far.

Referrals – what portion of your does your growth come from referrals? If your not sure what a good benchmark is, look at this article from FriendBuy. Why this matters: if you’re getting little growth from referrals, that’s a sign that people aren’t passionate enough about your product to tell others. 

Retention/Repeat Purchases – do your customers buy from you again? And if you’re selling a subscription-based product, do they stick around for long? Why this matters: low retention or a low repeat purchase rate is a major red flag that your product doesn’t fit with the market. 

Reviews/Net Promoter Score – either one will tell you what people really think about your product. If you don’t know how to measure NPS, here’s how to do it. Why this matters: low ratings on either metric are a sign that your product is weak. But if you have high ratings and still aren’t growing, that points to a marketing issue.

Which Type of Problem Are You Facing?

With your worksheet complete, compare it to the three examples below. Chances are it will line up with one more closely than others. If you find a match, read that section to find out the real reason your startup isn’t growing.

Can’t find a match? Read each section a few times, and you’ll probably start to see one that sounds mostly like you. And if you’re still not sure, there’s probably a combination of reasons your startup isn’t growing. More commentary on that at the end.

What A Bad Product Looks Like

This is the easiest to diagnose, so we’ll start here. Your product gets few referrals, weak reviews, and customers don’t stick around for long.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad product
When your startup has a bad product, you might be able to get people to buy it, but as soon as they find out what it’s like, your referrals, retention, and reviews will suffer.

You might get away with decent performance in your paid ad campaigns, perhaps because you’re still addressing a need that your target market actually has. And perhaps your sales team or website can even do a decent job of generating new customers. But as soon as people find out what your product is really like, the truth becomes evident.

How is this different from a bad market? These two problems are most easily confused, so let’s look at that one next…

What A Bad Market Looks Like

The tricky thing about having a bad market is that you’re also likely to see mediocre reviews, a poor net promotor score, and weak referrals – just like you do with a bad product.

But there’s a key difference.

When you’re trying to sell to the wrong market, nearly everything is a challenge. There’s not a lot of search traffic in your product category, so you can’t rely on SEO. Since your paid ads aren’t really addressing a need that your market has (or understands) they’re never going to work well.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad market
Selling to the wrong market is the toughest battle to face – nearly nothing works!

You might have pockets of people who “get” how valuable your product is. But if you’re finding that potential customers just don’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve (regardless of how well you describe it), then you’re probably selling to the wrong market.

This can be a particularly thorny problem if you’ve sold most of the “early adopters” in your market but haven’t established enough credibility to sell to the “early majority.” The book Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore, provides some great insights here. If you were growing quickly early on but now your startup isn’t growing at all, it’s definitely worth a read.

What Bad Marketing Looks Like

If bad marketing is your main issue, then your company’s growth is mainly limited by your success with referrals, PR coverage, and search traffic.

when your startup isn't growing because of bad marketing
If you have a great product, some people will still buy it despite your poor marketing. You’re lucky – this is actually the best problem to have, as it’s the easiest to fix.

When customers have great things to say about you, when the press loves writing about how wonderful you are, and when more and more people search for you online, then you know that that product and the market are solid. So if these things are happening but your startup isn’t growing, it’s probably because: (1) you haven’t found the right marketing channel; (2) your ad campaigns themselves aren’t messaged properly; or (3) you haven’t figured out how to convert paid traffic into revenue.

While no one gets joy in learning that their marketing needs improvement, this is actually this best scenario to find yourself in. If you have a great product and are selling it to the right market, then marketing is really there to serve an accelerator for growth – not the only thing keeping your company alive!

The World Is Messy, And The Real Answer Might Be A Combination Of The Above

Of course, there’s probably more than one reason your startup isn’t growing. So which problem do you fix first? Here’s a quick rule of thumb:

  • Great marketing can only do so much to offset a bad product. If you’re dealing with bad marketing and a bad product, then improve the product first. Focusing marketing will only get you short-term gains. But you can actually build a business on a great product.
  • Likewise, a great product cannot account for a bad market. If you’re facing both of these issues, find the right market to sell to first. The right market will tell you what problems they need addressed (if you ask), and will lead you to the right product and the right way to market to them.
  • In other words, focus on fixing your marketing last. This may sound counterintuitive coming from a blog that’s focused on marketing, but if you deal with the underlying issues of bad product and bad market first, you’re marketing will be much more effective.

Have you dealt with this conundrum at your own company? If so, what was the underlying issue – and how did you solve it? Let me know if the comments.

Should You Hire a Marketing Agency For Your Startup?

One of the defining characteristics of a startup is that you never seem to have enough people to get everything done. Marketing is no exception. The desire for extra marketing help is always going to be there, whether you’re a team of one or one hundred. While recognizing that you need to add manpower is simple, deciding whether to hire more employees or bring on a marketing agency isn’t so straightforward. There’s no answer that works for everyone.

I recently went through this dilemma myself. And to help you learn from my experience, I wanted to share why I decided to consider a marketing agency and what questions I asked myself to make the decision.

When Things Get Complicated, It’s Time To Ask For Help

Early on, we scaled our business mostly through Facebook and Instagram ads. Our campaigns were pretty straightforward, and our small in-house marketing team could manage pretty easily.

But as we grew, things got more complex. First, we decided to go after some new markets. The copy and creative that worked initially would not be effective with these new audiences, so we soon found ourselves allocating at least twice as much time to creating and managing Facebook ad campaigns.

Secondly, between 20014 and 2016 it got far more expensive to advertise on Facebook and Instagram. More advertisers competing for the same ad inventory directly increased our CPMs (they more than doubled for the audience we were targeting!). To hit our benchmarks, our ads had to perform twice as well just to get the same results. That meant even more planning, split testing, and campaign monitoring.

Finally, as our business grew, our internal team needed to spend more time on product messaging, website development, lead nurturing, and customer communication. While the time required to run a successful campaign continued to increase, the time we had available to do so only shrank.

Justifying The Cost Is Easier When You Can Measure The Results

Just because you need help doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it. So I couldn’t just hire a marketing agency (or an employee) because I wanted to; the numbers had to make sense.

But it wasn’t hard to calculate: based on our monthly ad spend, the agency we were planning to hire could pay for itself if it improved campaign performance by just 17%. In other words, if we could spend 17% less on our ad campaigns, use that money to pay for agency fees, and get the same results, we’d be good.

I actually shared this number with the agency before we began the relationship. They knew what numbers they’d have to hit in order to keep the contract alive, and they were confident they could deliver. So we agreed on a 3-month trial period and moved forward.

Could I have hired an employee instead? Maybe. But here’s why that didn’t make sense for us at the time:

  • The agencies we looked at all charged management fees of about 17-22% of ad spend. Based on our ad budget, we could hire an entry-level employee for that amount, but not a more experienced marketer that we’d actually need.
  • Finding an employee can take a while. And you never want to rush a hire just because the need for help is pressing.
  • An agency will likely get up to speed quicker than an employee. They only need to focus on the job you’ve assigned to them, and don’t have to deal with on-boarding, coming to meetings, understanding the culture, etc.
  • If an agency didn’t work out, parting ways would be pretty straightforward. But doing the same with an employee is much tougher on both parties.

Did It Work Out? Yes And No.

I’ll skip to the end of story. We ended up parting ways after a few months. But not for the reason you’d think.

The marketing agency we hired actually did a decent job of improving our Facebook and Instagram campaign performance. But shortly after we engaged them, we made some core business changes that took us away from marketing on Facebook and Instagram. The agency didn’t do anything wrong, we just no longer needed their help in running campaigns on social media. Fortunately, they were really understanding. Ending the relationship was pretty easy, no hard feelings.

Even though we only worked with the agency for a short time, having an outside perspective was really valuable. They taught us quite a few things about campaign structure, how to set up tests properly, and using Facebook’s ad units in different ways.

Not only that, but having to teach an agency about our own brand forced us to clarify own messaging. We thought we had pretty clear guidelines, but when we started to explain them to an outsider, we realized they could use quite a bit of improvement. Having someone ask you a bunch of questions about your brand is a great way to find out where all the holes are.

Takeaway: if you end up hiring an agency yourself, I recommend finding one that’s willing to share knowledge back and forth. Both you and the agency will benefit.

Should You Hire A Marketing Agency For Your Own Startup?

There’s no right answer for every startup. So to help you come up with the right answer for your own company, here are a few questions to consider as you ponder the decision yourself:

Do you have clear branding and messaging guidelines?

Asking an agency to create marketing campaigns without clear brand guidelines is setting them (and you) up for failure. These guidelines can’t just live in your head, they need to be documented in a straightforward and accessible way, so that everyone on your agency’s team can have a clear idea of how your brand should be communicated.

Don’t have guidelines yet – not even in your head? If building these isn’t your strong suit, you might actually consider hiring an agency on a project basis to help you craft them.

Are you trying to scale a proven strategy or are you still looking for something that works?

Many startups acquire their customers primarily through one or two channels. But finding out which channels those are is going to take some experimentation. If you’re still in that experimentation phase, ask yourself if you’re able to move faster than an agency.

If you think you are, then you’re probably better conducting those experiments yourself. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend a lot of time just figuring out the basics of some new marketing channels, partnering with an agency who already has experience may help you get moving sooner.

Are there specific gaps in your team’s talent that you can’t fill otherwise?

Agencies can be really valuable if there are skills your current team lacks and (a) you can’t afford the time it takes to learn them; (b) it will take too long to find someone who already has them; or (c) adding these skills doesn’t require a full-time hire.

For example, your own team might be great at paid advertising on social media, but doesn’t know left from right when it comes to PR. If PR needs to play a core role in your marketing strategy, then maybe it makes sense to hire an agency that specializes in that.

Is your time being taken away from the core business?

If you’ve established a marketing strategy but find that managing it day-to-day is taking you away from actually running your business, a marketing agency might be a good choice as well. You’ll still need to provide lots of direction on marketing campaigns, but freeing yourself from managing the details may give you time to look at the big picture.

Are you stuck?

If you’ve tried “everything” but can’t seem to get traction with any marketing strategy, having an outside perspective can be really valuable. You might consider hiring an agency on a consulting basis to give you a more objective assessment of your business.

Is there a special project you need help with?

Perhaps there’s a big campaign you need some creative horsepower behind. Or maybe there’s a video you need to create that’s beyond the capabilities of your own team. Marketing agencies are perfect for this type of work. Your employees should handle the work that requires ongoing effort, but when you need to deliver a special project that requires skills that your own team doesn’t possess, an agency can be the perfect partner.

What are your expectations?

Don’t think that hiring a marketing agency abdicates you of your responsibility to grow your business. An agency can help you execute something that doesn’t make sense to do in-house, but don’t expect to just write a check and see your business to grow on its own. It’s up to you to get the fundamentals right. Once those are in place, your next job is to find the right resources to get the job done. Whether that’s through employees, freelancers, or agencies is up to you. Chances are that as you grow, you’ll make use of all three.

Still considering an agency? Do this first.

If you think that hiring a marketing agency makes sense for your startup, don’t start making phone calls just yet. Before you go down that path, get your team on board first. You all need to understand why you’re considering bringing on an agency – what they’ll be helping with, what they won’t be helping with, and how your team is going to engage them.

If your team doesn’t understand how an agency fits into the big picture of your marketing strategy, it will decrease the chances of everyone’s success. Once everyone’s aligned and you know exactly what you want out of an agency, begin your search. Good luck!

Your Company Will Fail Without A Brand Promise. Here’s Why.

“Come on,” my dad quipped, pretending not to notice the look of sheer horror pasted on my face. “It’ll be fun. I promise.

I was just a 9-year old kid, getting ready to ride a roller coaster called the Loch Ness Monster: 3,240 feet of bright yellow steel tubing wrapped around itself like a two contortionists playing a game of Twister in the middle of tornado. I nearly crapped my pants when I saw it, prompting my dad to issue that promise.

By making that promise, my dad was taking a risk. Any father knows that if you promise something, you better be damn sure you’re right. But, precisely 2 minutes and 10 seconds later, he proved that he was as I exited the ride with a huge grin on my face.

Promise was delivered on. Trust was established. And many more roller coaster rides ensued that afternoon.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because just as kids look to parents to fulfill any promises made, consumers expect that brands do the same. When promises are kept, a loyal following ensues. When they’re broken, disaster awaits.

To find out what a brand promise really is and learn how to develop your own, keep reading.

loch ness monster busch gardens
The Loch Ness monsters at Busch Gardens. Causing heart attacks in children since 1978.

What is a brand promise anyway?

Let’s test your knowledge. A brand promise is…

(a) When a brand assures you that this time, it won’t be late for your 8 PM date at The Olive Garden
(b) An unconditional 110% money-back guarantee on skydiving equipment
(c) Something that only overpaid marketing consultants understand
(d) A pledge to not spill massive amounts of oil and light the ocean on fire any more

The answer is (e) None of the above. A brand promise is simply what consumers expect a brand to deliver. It’s the very reason someone chooses to buy something. It’s what connects the actions of the company with the needs and desires of the buyer.

For example, two similar mobile phone services might each offer their own brand promises. Brand A might promise that you’ll always be able to connect with loved ones. Brand B might promise that you will always receive an affordable bill, as long as you never travel outside the United States, never call someone outside the United States, never exceed your data cap, never forget to look both ways before crossing the street, and never even touch at your phone. Two similar services, two very different promises.

How Do You Know If A Brand Promise Is Great?

There are two ways to find out…

First, you can pay a fancy agency a fee of $100,000 (along with the hand of your oldest daughter in marriage), and they’ll develop a fantastic brand promise for you. It will be fantastic because you just paid $100,000 for it, dammit, and only a fool would pay that much for something that was less than extraordinary, and you sir, are no fool.

Alternatively, you can use the $17.34 Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System For Marketers Who Get S**t Done to create your own, which I’m offering at a 100% discount for an unlimited time.

The Rougeux 5-Point Brand Promise System can be easily remembered with a simple acronym: DDDMM. Pronouncing it is easy, especially if you’ve ever had your jaw wired shut from a bizarre softball accident and were later forced to recite German poetry.

DDMMM stands for Distinct, Desirable, Delivered, Measurable, and Memorable. Here’s what each means.

DDMMM: The 5 Points Of A Great Brand Promise

Distinct

Any decent brand promise has to stand out from similar products. If you’re Starbucks, and your brand promise is simply “Hot coffee in a cup”, that’s not going to help you much unless you’re the only coffee purveyor on the planet.

Or if you’re a trucking company, don’t tell me that you’re “On time, every time.” You better damn well be, as that’s pretty much table stakes for every trucking company in the America. Instead, a powerful brand promise is one that only your product can deliver.

Desirable

This sounds kind of obvious, but how many times have you heard a company tout that if offers something like, “Strategic, value-added solutions.” A promise so frustratingly vague that you’re probably tempted to leave this page just because I made you read it. In fact, I dare you to read it again… Strategic. Value added. Solutions. Still here? Wow, your pain tolerance is pretty high.

A great brand promise has to be something that gets the buyer excited through its appeal. If your brand promise involves a unicorn descending from a rainbow to deliver you cauldrons full of crisp $100 bills, then you’re on the right track.

What is a brand promise? Saying "strategic value added solutions" is a poor answer.
Did you make the mistake of using “Strategic, value-added solutions” as your brand promise? Don’t worry, so did 4,649 other people.

Deliverable

I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve got this whole brand promise thing figured out. It involves unicorns, rainbows, and lots of cash. But there’s one problem. You probably can’t deliver on that. Especially since unicorns are notoriously difficult to train. A great brand promise needs to be something you can actually do. (That’s why it’s called a promise).

An appealing brand promise that you can’t deliver on is worse than having no brand promise at all. Fail a customer’s expectations and they’ll never come back.

Measurable

Now we get into the tough part. A brand promise is far more likely to generate raving fans if the buyer is certain that her expectations were met. If a brand promise is both deliverable and measurable, then buyers who see that promise fulfilled are going to love you.

One of my favorite examples is BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine. You can head to any dealer, plop your butt in 3-series, nail a few onramps, and come away feeling pretty certain that a BMW provides a much more satisfying drive than that cushy Lexus you’d been cruising around town in. Pro tip: do this when the dealer is open and with the permission of a salesperson. Doing so greatly reduces your risk of jail time.

Memorable

This is where many good brand promises fall short of becoming great. If no one can remember your brand promise, it’s of limited value.

Not only will your customers have a tough time remembering it, your own sales, marketing, and customer support teams will, too. How can you expect your team to build an experience around a promise that no one’s aware of?

Geico’s promise that “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance” is probably the best example on Earth:

What’s Your Brand Promise? Do You Even Have One?

If you haven’t defined your brand promise, two things will happen.

One, people will make their own conclusions about what your brand represents. Their answer is unlikely to be the same as what you’re trying to deliver, and you’ll be setting them up for disappointment.

The other scenario is this: potential customers won’t be sure why you exist, and they’ll patronize a business that is clear about what they have to offer. Especially if unicorns are involved.

P.S. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way… just because you’ve established a brand promise once doesn’t mean that you never have to touch it again. As your product evolves (and as the tastes of your customers change), your brand promise will need to be adapted.

Being Humble when you’ve raised $12.6 million

What would your reaction be if you walked into Starbucks and the barista told you that you could pay whatever you wanted for your coffee? Oh, and if you wanted all the money to go to charity instead, that’d be cool, too? In addition to buying 17 carmel macchiatos with the 13 cents you found in your pocket, you’d also probably wonder who in Seattle lost their sanity.

Well, that’s exactly the pricing model Humble Bundle offers. They provide limited-time offers on bundles of video games, in which buyers set their own price, and then choose how much goes to charity. The latest bundle, simply called “The Humble Bundle for Android 2”, was released just this week. How does it work? Instead of being one of those blogs that just regurgitates content found elsewhere, I’ll just point you to their video:

Here are some stats on their success: 2 years old, 2 million transactions, and $12.6 million raised for developers, charity, and themselves (the exact breakdown to each party isn’t made available). It’s an interesting pricing model that’s likely raised a handsome sum for charity, but could it be applied to other types of products as well? Let’s take a look at what makes the Humble pricing system tick and see where that leaves us:

Acting like the boss

When you learn that your boss at your new job doesn’t come into the office until 10:00 AM, you learn that’s OK if you don’t want to arrive until after 9:00. When he shows up in jeans, you can confidently come back to work the next day in that acid washed denim that’s been in your closet for 26 years (right?). He sets the norm; you feel better because you know what’s expected. Humble Bundle does the same thing. They start buyers off with a default split of 55% to developers, 30% to charity, and 15% to Humble Bundle. Hard to feel anxious about getting the allocation wrong, when a strong suggestion is made for you.

A gentle guilt trip

Humble Bundle does a couple smart things to encourage you to pay a legit price. First, they show real-time data for the average purchase amount. If you decide to pay less then that, they’ll remind you with a nice blue warning banner before you pay. Secondly, if you pay more than average, you actually get an extra game. It’s a slick combination of guilt and rewards to keep buyers honest.

Freeloaders don’t (really) count

Some users are going to pay only a few cents for these games. But in addition to not being cool, they’ll also be negated out by the thousands of buyers who do pay a reasonable price. A high transaction volume (over 70,000 just three days in) keeps the moochers at bay.

Standard fare

Downloading video games is becoming pretty standard. You do have Angry Birds, yes? Even though the pricing model is strange and new, everything other aspect of the promotion is standard fare. That’s important, because if potential buyers are asked to digest too many unfamiliar pieces, they’ll leave.

$0 marginal cost of distribution

This one’s pretty boring, but it’s one of the most important. Downloadable digital goods cost next to nothing to distribute. Each copy sold costs about $0.00 to make and deliver. So if a user pays a mere penny, no one is any poorer for it.

Obscure quality

It’s indie developers who submit games to these bundles – newer companies who are relatively unknown. Even if these developers don’t make much per copy sold, they still benefit from the increased exposure and gross sales. Gamers benefit, too, by being exposed to quality games they may not have discovered otherwise.

Limited time

If “set your own pricing” were available all the time, then that would customers to expect such treatment all of the time. That’s not sustainable, and it certainly won’t make developers happy. (Is there any reason why an “add your own donation” piece couldn’t stick around forever, though?)

That’s a long list of things that contribute to the success of the model. Could this work elsewhere? Not at Starbucks, but I think there’s plenty of ideas here that could be applied to online retail, for one. Where else do you think a Hunble-esque offering would do well? Let’s hope that Humble Bundle continues to be successful, raise gobs of money for charity, and encourages others to follow suit.

Is the criticism of KONY 2012 legit?

It’s been a full week since Invisible Children launched their now-famous “KONY 2012” film, which seeks to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, an African war criminal who’s responsible for the death and abduction of thousands of children. Seven days old, and KONY 2012 has garnered nearly 100 million views. With all this attention, both the film and Invisible Children itself have received their fair share of critics. Are the attacks warranted? In this post, we’ll deconstruct the criticism and find out.

But first, if you haven’t seen the film, watch it now:

Here’s a short list of what the critics have been saying:

There are several issues raised, but we’ll examine three of them here: (1) the way in which Invisible Children allocates its funding; (2) a critique of the film’s message and it’s “truthiness”; and (3) that the film and Invisible Children promote “slacktivism” instead of real action. Let’s tackle each of these directly:

Finances

Invisible Children has been called out an apparent lack of funding that is used on “direct” programs, i.e. work on the ground. Things like building schools and building radio towers. A cursory glance at their finances reveals that “only” 37% goes towards African programs. Typically, non-profits that primarily engage in “on the ground” work will allocate 80-90% of their expenses to those programs, and the rest towards overhead and fundraising. If Invisible Children were a traditional non-profit, then that number would be appalling. But Invisible Children isn’t a typical charity; instead; filmmaking and advocacy are also core parts of their mission. Making documentaries and educating people about Joseph Kony is what they do. If you look at their expenses used on all three of these programs, you’ll find that they’re just about as financial efficient as any non-profit. So as long as Invisible Children makes it clear that direct work is just one of their focuses, along with film-making and advocacy, this shouldn’t be an issue. And for someone who wants to educate others about Joseph Kony, supporting Invisible Children would be a great way to do that.

The Film

How many documentaries are you aware of that have universal appeal, and were made without bias? I can’t think of many either. Much of the criticism of the film itself has to do with it delivering an over-simplified message. Other critics point out that the film promotes that idea that Americans (and white people) are the “saviors” and that Africans aren’t capable of helping themselves. Those are valid points, and the film isn’t without its faults. But let’s also consider a few other factors. Who is the film intended for? Invisible Children focuses mainly on educating high-school kids, college students, and young adults, many of who are unlikely to know very much about foreign issues. And their audience isn’t as interested in sitting through a lengthy, comprehensive documentary as a foreign policy expert would be. So the fact that the film focuses on delivering a simple, easily understood message makes sense, considering its target audience. If the goal of the film is to engage a young generation around a pressing issue halfway around the world, then KONY 2012 is an astounding success. If it were to educate viewers on the long and nuanced history of war crimes in central Africa, then it would a failure, but that was never its intention.

Slacktivism

“Slacktivism” is a disparaging term used to describe feel-good actions that don’t have any real impact. When someone merely tweets about a cause and says “I’ve done my part”, that’s slacktivism. You’ll find Invisible Children accused of promoting slacktivism in more than one critique. If KONY 2012 campaign merely engaged 100 million people for 30 minutes and nothing else resulted, then yes, Invisible Children’s efforts would be pretty meaningless. But let’s not forget that no real action can start until people are aware of an issue. Sure, merely watching or sharing a video won’t do anything to directly change anything in the world. But that’s just as true for a film about Joseph Kony as it is for an IMAX movie about rescuing orangutans and elephants. But I don’t hear many people cracking down on IMAX movies, do you? Educating people about a cause is a first, and necessary, step to get people involved. In fact, Americans already suffer from a pretty severe lack of global awareness, so films like these are a great way to prevent future generations from becoming ignorant and passive about the rest of the world. Efforts to enlighten others about issues that cause human suffering in the world shouldn’t be criticized, they should be championed.

Invisible Children’s Response

This post wouldn’t be complete without including Invisible Children’s own response to criticisms KONY 2012, which they’ve done here. Their CEO also did a decent job of addressed detractors in this video, which he posted today:

Whether you agree with Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign or not, the important thing to watch is the results. What will happen now that nearly 100 million people have seen their latest film? Will our government change its support African troops in arresting Kony? Will children in central Africa be any safer? These questions are the ones that matter. If Joseph Kony is brought down and kids in central Africa can begin live without fear, then Invisible Children should be applauded for their efforts. Share your own thoughts in the comments below.

Will Causes end up the Yahoo! of web philanthropy?

Causes.com was one of the more exciting things to happen in the online philanthropic space when it launched in 2007. Here was a charitable platform that offered something truly unique at the time – deep integration with Facebook – just as the social network’s user growth started to chart skyward. Moreover, Causes founders Joe Green and Sean Parker had close ties with the early Facebook team, giving them a strong connection that any startup would envy.

Early advantage doesn’t sustain

But these things do not a successful startup make. Causes did accomplish some amazing numbers – over 170 million people have used Causes at some point, and they’ve raised over $40 million for charity. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at. But where is Causes headed form here? Take a look at their monthly active users since September 2009, and the answer isn’t pretty:

A massive user base, impressive numbers, but users headed out the door. Remind you of anyone? How about Yahoo!? There’s more than one similarity that the two platforms share:

  • Identify crisis – like the purple web giant, Causes doesn’t seem to be sure of what it wants to be. Is it a site for non-profits to raise money? A platform for individuals to raise awareness? A better way to share your philanthropic activity with your friends? A campaign tool for corporations and non-profits to deliver messaging? It’s tried all of these things. It does some of them well, but none of them better than anyone else.
  • Scattered content strategy – Yahoo! was all over the board here, publishing content from its partners, producing material itself, and even allowing its users to generate and share content. Causes isn’t much different. Thoughtful, well-produced campaigns lie right alongside spammy calls to “Abolish the Band Nickelback”. And that material is mashed together with features that Causes develops itself, often with corporate messaging involved as well. The result is a confusing mix with highly diverging styles, purpose, and quality.
  • A “big but cheap” user base – nearly 300 million people are active users of Yahoo!’s services. That’s an asset nearly any web company would kill to have. But what are those users worth to Yahoo!? Are they actively engaging in (or even paying for) a product? Or are they just inactive names in a database? It’s not clear if is a long-term asset for Yahoo!, or just a number. With 170 million users of its own, but declining usage over the past couple years, Causes should question the value of its own user base.
  • Poor UI – do you remember what websites looked like ten years ago? No? Just go to yahoo.com and you’ll see. Causes.com’s UI suffered a different fate – not of being outdated, but of just being plain awkward. It felt like each part of the site was designed by a individuals working in nearly complete isolation from each other, only to come together at the last minute to make things consistent.
Is there light ahead?

Fortunately, Causes is midway through a makeover. The platform has some great things going for it, and it would be fantastic to see it take off again. How are they doing?

Good – The user experience is far more streamlined – each page now feels like it’s a part of the same app. And all of the site itself, (except for payment processing), is now hosted externally from Facebook. Earlier versions of Causes were just Facebook apps veiled as websites, and they gave you this uneasy feeling of not knowing where you were on the web. The new standalone site feels much more solid.

Caution – The whole issue about hosting/publishing/creating content still exists. Causes still needs some streamlining here. And since there are still about a dozen “causes” related to abolishing Nickelback, there hasn’t been done much about elevating the level of quality, either.

Warning – The site still suffers from an identity crisis. Until Causes can focus on doing one thing better than anyone else, I don’t believe users are going to stick around. Who is the site really made for, and for what purpose? I don’t feel like I can answer this question well, and that doesn’t bode well for any web product.

Causes will definitely be worth watching this year. This should’t be the last of its improvements. But there is no shortage of other cause-based startups who’d like to bite off a large chuck of its users for good. Stick around, there’s plenty more to come.

What do you think – will Causes turn into a the Yahoo! of philanthropy, or can it turn itself around?

Pinterest is just a bunch of bumper stickers

Pinterest is mainly a site for (mainly) women to share things they love. Recipes, fashion, and furniture abound. But that didn’t stop me from trying it out. After all, Pinterest has been experiencing massive growth, so it must be doing something right. In this post, we’re going to take a look one thing it’s doing particularly well, and what this means for causes.

Pinterest has done a great job of allowing users to curate their own identify, by giving them simple, visually appealing ways to “pin” content available for other users to see. It’s a new concept for the web, but it’s merely a new take on something we already see all the time – the heavily bumper-stickered car, shouting to the world a hundred brief messages about the kind of person who’s behind the wheel.

Here are couple stereotypical classics: first, the eco-liberal Prius (driving 10 miles under the speed limit), with the mandatory Coexist, Free Tibet, and “Topless Mountains are Obscene” bumper stickers, accompanied by a tasteful arrangement of anti-war and local farmer’s market decals. It’s arch-enemy is the “we’ll never run out of oil, I’m not compensating for anything” gun-rack equipped Dodge Ram with 40″ tires. At minimum, a full array of George W. Bush, NRA, and Support Our Troops decals are present, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the classy image of Calvin taking a leak on the Ford logo.

They seem like polar opposites, but what do these two vehicles have in common? Owners who feel strongly about their identify and want to express it to the world. They’ve simply chosen their vehicles as a medium for doing so, by prominently displaying organizations, attitudes, and movements they associate themselves with.

While most of us don’t drive cars like either of those, we still want to be seen as unique individuals with defined interests. That’s where Pinterest comes in. Users can easily “pin” images of things they love and display them to the world. Visit any Pinterest user’s profile, and it doesn’t take long to see what they’re into. From there, you can probably begin to deduce a little bit about their personality, their beliefs, values, and so on. It’s a quick, lightweight, and addicting.

Essentially, Pinterest has created a virtual version of the bumper sticker-clad car. The difference is that the content is much less tacky, it’s easy to share and “repin”, and there’s no messy glue to remove when you want to move on to something new.

So why should the world of causes care about all of this? Again, most people have a strong desire to tell the world about who they are. And a person’s giving choices are no less a part of their identity than the other ephemera that Pinterest users share. In fact, I’d argue that the manner in which someone supports causes is one of the most revealing characteristics about who they are. Every philanthropic person has a unique “cause identity” that’s made up of the donations they’ve made, the hours they’ve volunteered, and any other talent they’ve shared towards the greater good. So why can’t we just as easily share those actions like we do with recipes and pictures of shoes? It would be a hugely revealing statement about one’s values.

Unfortunately, most of our cause-related activity is private, forgotten, or simply not available on the web. Our “cause identity” is separate from the rest of our identify, but I don’t had a good explanation as to why. But I guarantee that this will change, and I plan to be a part of it!

What do you think – how can causes be better incorporated into one’s identity on the web? What other things can we learn from Pinterest that can be applied to causes?