• by William Mougayar
    Venture advisor, 4x entrepreneur, marketer & strategist. I live in Toronto, curate a lot, blog a bit, and help startups.

The Noise in Availability and Differentiating Yourself

different-imageThe decentralized and fragmented aspects of the Internet are becoming almost unmanageable at the content and services levels for end-user applications.

This can lead to a poverty of attention and complexities in managing information, if you don’t adhere to a disciplined usage approach.

Part of the reasons are user-habit inflicted, i.e. we are used to visiting a variety of places. Another part involves following the solutions that already exist, and not having other choices.

Every time a new service is created with marginal benefits, it adds a layer of complexity and potential distraction.

When we add something, if something else is not removed, often we are contributing to increasing the attention deficit because we are bloating the system or our habits.

For example, there are too many social channels, too many options, too many choices, and too much overlap in what we have.

My Facebook stream is becoming like a randomly eclectic newspaper (which is ok sometimes). My Twitter stream is a perfect hit and miss, and thanks to their daily email, it tells me if I missed anything potentially important. Nuzzel and Insider don’t add anything new. I don’t go to Zite anymore since Flipboard acquired it. LinkedIn and Google+ are just fixtures that are there. I do rely on Feedly to pull all the blogs I want to read.

In Search, we have Google of course, and DuckDuckGo occasionally, and that’s a good thing, compared to the 5 mediocre choices we had during the late 90′s when you literally had to try all search services to be complete.

Take email. It is centralized in your Inbox/email client, although its infrastructure is distributed. For the user, it’s a central experience, and that’s good.

Take travel. There are at least 4-5 travel services you need to try if you’re truly shopping around. Same for booking hotels. The differences between them remind me of Internet search prior to Google. You need to try several of them, and that takes time.

Choice is good, when the choices are clearly differentiated. But when the choices are not well differentiated, the end-result is confusion and distraction, and we drown in the marketing of noise, because we can hardly see clarity in a sea of marginal differentiation.

Have you ever been to a street market, farmers market or open bazaar/souk? After a while, most choices start to look very similar from one to another. Attempting to differentiate becomes difficult.

I sometimes wonder if abundant choice is good for the consumer. Choice without differentiation is a distraction of attention. Just because a new service or product is available doesn’t mean that its value is clear.

If you are bringing a product or service to the market, please make sure you differentiate well, and explain how different it is from other existing solutions.

You must be able to nail your value proposition early on, even if it evolves later. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be perfectly aligned with your offering.

Yet I still see startups at various stages of their evolution that don’t do a good job at clearly communicating their differentiated value. They keep talking about product features, instead of understanding the real meaning of their positioning.

When I worked at Hewlett-Packard during its peak years as a top admired company, differentiating our products was a religious objective. We had to know exactly how our products were different from the competition’s. We had to know how to present them to the market, with that kind of clarity. If we didn’t differentiate, we didn’t win. And differentiation happened in the selling and marketing steps, because we were given the products we had to sell.

Having too many choices that aren’t well differentiated seems to be a trend I’m seeing in Internet products and services. We must ensure that we are being really clear and knowing how we are different. That pulls users and customers into your direction as they identify with your differentiation.

When products aren’t so perfect, more expensive than others, or drowning in a sea of competition, how you market them and communicate their value becomes really important, and you must put attention into that. Sometimes, the product gets ingrained into a habit, and it connects you with other users, and the differentiation happens inherently via its usage, but that product had to start by being really good. Unfortunately, not all products start by being really good.

Let’s not practice lazy marketing. Imaginatively applying technology to develop great products is not enough. Engineers need marketers to help them bring products to the market, especially in a crowded marketplace where there is always competition for new ideas, whether it’s from another service or to displace an old habit.

Dumbing things down to explain what you are doing is important to get a VC’s attention, and perhaps to gain initial market entry, but it’s not enough to be successful in the long term. You need to follow through by differentiating yourself in the marketplace and by resonating with the emotions and needs of your users and customers. As Nancy Duarte says, “It’s easier to rattle off jargon and keep communication emotionally neutral. But easiest doesn’t always mean best.”

  • Matt Kruza

    Have you heard of Paradox Choice by Barry Schwartz? I am betting that you have, but in short it says after a certain number of choices / complexity, more choices becomes worse because it overwhelms the brain and then makes us unsatisfied with any outcome. Its one of the core concepts that I think businesses need to focus on, is deciding for the consumer that you get 5 choices not 500… making a guided experience that leverages your core expertise to optimize.

    • hi Matt-
      Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard of it, but checking now. I’ll listen to his TED video and maybe buy the book. Thanks!
      But that’s kind of where I was headed.

      • Matt Kruza

        Oh yes. Let me know your thoughts. It is honestly one of a few key thoughts / insights in to how I view the world and startup world in particular. We basically are living in a world with infinite information (especially compared to what a human brain can comprehend) that will probably grow at 5x per decade for the forseaable future. With the financial planning company / community / decision engine I am currently building is simply cutting through the insane complexity of the financial world and trying to get it down to decisions which are actually relevant to each user’s situation. Great, great concept neatly explained in his book and ted talk

        • What does your startup do?

          • Matt Kruza

            It is a web-based personal financial planning platform and community that puts you in control of all elements of your financial choices (from taxes, to what home to buy, to insurance, to social security planning, investment strategies) for one annual price (have a pretty specific pricing strategy which won’t likely reveal until I launch). Essentially trying to replicate (and improve upon) what a good fiduciary financial planner does at much lower than their $2k – $10k price point. The closest competitor would be Learnvest which just sold to Northwestern Mutual for $250 million, (hellowallet also is / was sort f similar, $52 million exit to Morningstar I believe). Probably 3 months or so from launching, as I am bootstrapping and developing alone currently, but probably hiring another developer or two soon. Way more information than you asked for… but I felt I would explain it all (very verbose that way!). When the product is more polished would love to give you a quick tour and see if you have any thoughts.

          • @wmoug:disqus – I find it great that you invited @mattkruza:disqus to throw his hat in the ring.

            FWIW I think Matt has bounced off the ropes with a concise summary of how he overcomes a sea of unwelcome data (in a self-evidently big market) by partially optimising a parameterised “pick your poison” approach – joe or jane public can understand it at a gut level .

  • SubstrateUndertow

    In the physical world energy suppliers are facing the “Peak Oil” extraction constraint and in cyberspace the analogue is now the “Peak Attention” extraction constraint.

    We are building out the internet “Upside Down” and “Inside Out”.
    We are dragging our linear physical products/marketing vestigial habits into our new organic distributively-interdependent cyberspace products/marketing environment.

    “Upside Down”
    Meaning we are rebuilding old topdown structures atop a new medium/platform who’s revolutionary opportunities are embodied by a distributive remix-pony reinvention of our traditional human commercial/social/governance organizational spaces.
    The traditional corporate branding land-grab/good-rush is doing what it has been honed over centuries to do very well within its traditionally linear physical product/marketing space and that is to build a topdown chokehold on a product/market category whenever possible. This behaviour is in stark contrast to the true longterm organic value proposition inherent in a distributively abstracted cyberspace product/marketing remix/synchronization environment.

    “Inside Out”
    Meaning all these poorly differentiated parallel product functions/data-products are being built up inside traditionally proprietary corporate profit silos. These captured/crippled data-objects and processing-APIs belong to a vestigially linear organizational patter that robs both society and corporate-institutions of their collective revolutionary opportunity to ride the remix-pony value train into our true cyberspace frontier.

    OK . . . OK . . .
    I have absolutely no practical clue as to how we might incrementally shift gears here. Still it seems inevitable that as we continue to build these obsolete vestigially linear organizational structures atop our new organic cyberspace remix-pony platform-oppertunity it will inevitably collapse under the weight of its own inherent structural illegitimacy and it will probably do so on internet time.

    • I’m with you.
      I wonder what the words “Internet dinosaurs” would mean, but I’m sure there are a few them around, and they will die hard.

  • Thomas Cocirta

    Choice is good, but…we don’t need more than a railway between two cities. Networks are creating “winners takes all” natural monopolies, and that’s not as dangerous as it used to be. Such monopolies are created in just a couple of months but they are disrupted even faster.

    • true, market dynamics take care of winners and losers on the internet better than in the physical world.

  • Well content and services as a trend seem to rubber band between bundling and unbundling over the life of the internet. Certainly they are unbundled and all over the place. Im not sure that better marketing is going to help that. The root problem of “Having too many choices that aren’t well differentiated” is having too many choices. Sometimes you just want to order a pizza, and not 8 slices of differentiated toppings. Its probably time to start bundling all this stuff back up again.

    • I think I was describing the dilemma (too many choices), and a potential improvement (not enough differentiation).
      But you are right that in some cases, attempting to differentiate too many choices is a moot exercise. If the only perceived differentitation is choice itself, then it’s not always a strong differentiator.