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Tech is always changing tremendously If there’s one thing I’ve delved more deeply into during the last 18 months, it’s practical virtual reality. I bought an Oculus Quest headset a couple years ago when it became the first VR headset that didn’t need a computer to power it, and I played with it a bit when I first got it, then put it away as other things caught my interest. Fast forward to 18 months ago when the world first shut down for the pandemic, and I dusted it off. I played around with the entertainment for a bit, but found two applications that were incredible.

The first was YouTube VR, the ability to see videos made with 360 degree cameras. From riding roller coasters to doing a spacewalk to going on safari in Africa with a lion pride, there were all kinds of interesting virtual experiences to be had, some of which I simply don’t plan to do, like skydiving or going on a wing-suit ride. But the second experience, the killer app for me, is an app called Wander. Wander is simply Google Street View in VR. Any place Google Street View has data is a place you can go, and I spend at least 15 minutes a day in the app, sometimes much more. One of my favorite games to play is to turn off the in-app map, hit Random Location, and then try to figure out what country I’ve been dropped into using the contextual clues around me, like this: A place on Earth I was dropped off Take a guess without Googling where this might be.

What are the clues that could give you hints as to what nation it is? I had to travel down the road a bit further before I knew where it was, because I wasn’t familiar with that brand of gas station. Here’s another example. I had a guess based on the writing, but I was wrong. Another place on earth The first photo is from Czechia, which for those of us who are older is the modern name for the Czech Republic. Benzina is a Central European gas station chain; it wasn’t until I saw a billboard with an ad for a .cz domain name that I knew where I was. The second photo is from Mongolia, which you could tell by the writing on the green door in the lower right hand side of the photo. I didn’t know that Mongolia uses two different writing systems, Cyrillic and Mongolian, but if you knew that, then this was a dead giveaway. I’ve learned four things while traveling the world virtually. If you ever wonder what it’s like to be illiterate, drop into a nation where you don’t know the language at all, like Bhutan or Thailand for me. It’s hard to imagine illiteracy if you are literate and you never venture outside the region where your language is spoken, but it’s a fascinating, empathy-building experience once you do.

Travel to places virtually where you’re unlikely to go. I was in Puerto Williams at the very southern tip of Chile the other day. To get there from Boston would be something like US$3,500 one way and 51 hours of flights, three planes, and then several hours of driving. Is dropping in virtually as good as the real thing? No. Is it better than not knowing or seeing at all? Yes. There are places like Venice, Italy that I may not ever get to, or at least not in time before climate change makes them unrecognizable. But I can take a ride on a gondola virtually right now. You don’t have to wait or save up money to start traveling virtually to interesting, hard-to-reach places around the world. Learn the underlying meta-language and meta-culture of humanity. There are only a certain number of rational ways to do things as humans, and we develop a design language of sorts in our behaviors that crosses boundaries and cultures. As a business person and a marketer, this is an invaluable lesson.

When you start to decode what’s common in our human experience regardless of culture and language, you can make your own marketing more powerful by making it more universal. Take a look at this street in Cherven Bryag, Bulgaria: Cherven Bryag I can’t read Cyrillic. I can’t speak Bulgarian. But you can probably decode just by the general shapes and sizes of the signage alone what kinds of shops these are, where the door is, how you would go about doing business here as a customer. You can understand the marketing even if you don’t understand the language. Start breaking your own biases. In the USA, American media tends to portray certain countries with very specific stereotypes (and rarely positive ones). When you start journeying around the world in VR, those stereotypes get put to the test – and often fall apart. When you think of Mexico, what comes to mind? It’s probably not this: Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Other than the Spanish language on some of the signs and vehicles, you could easily mistake this part of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico as any southern USA city. Quite different than what is shown in the news and in movies and TV.

And that’s the big meta-lesson that I learned: we’re all pretty much the same. A place to live is a place to live. A store is a store, whether it’s on Fifth Avenue in NYC or on the side of the road in Uganda. We all have much, much more in common than we do differences as humans, as a species, as a race. Media and politicians make their money on emphasizing the differences, but when you travel and see firsthand – virtually or in real life – what life is like for others, those differences are smaller than the similarities. Here’s some more great news: you don’t need a VR headset to do this. There are free sites and games like Mapcrunch or Geoguesser that do exactly what I do – drop you off somewhere randomly, and let you find your way. They won’t be in VR, but that’s not mandatory. You can also just hit up Street View in Google Maps on the web or download the Google Street View apps in iOS or Android.

Try it out. Explore your world from wherever you are. See how much you know about other nations and cultures. You might surprise yourself, find the next vacation you want to take, reduce a bias or impression you had, or discover an insight you can apply to your marketing. It’s a big world. Go see it. Millions of people turn to social networking sites in order to hold online meetings and keep communication while working from home. Another half gets online shopping apps to avoid going out and having real contact with anyone. Besides, there are a lot of people who are actively using online dating sites to escape loneliness or just to spend time. But instead of being safe, many of them face a scammer trying to trick them into sending money or other worse things. Just take a look at these facts:

Small Businesses are a Favorite Target of Cybercriminals The Average Cyber Attack Carries a Price Tag of Nearly $3 Million 43% of All Data Breaches Target SMBs Since the risk of becoming a victim of online scams is increasing rapidly during these hard times and the threat is incredibly serious, I finally got a chance to upgrade my work laptop after three years. At the time, my last laptop was state of the art, but a lot has changed in three years. Part of the process of upgrading machines for me is to back up my data but none of the applications. In this case, that’s essential because the new Apple Macs have entirely different processors now, so older apps wouldn’t deliver the benefits of the new hardware. So what I do when faced with a fresh new environment is reinstall apps from memory. I remember what I use on a regular basis and I install those things first. Only after I’ve done that do I look at my old computer and install the stuff that I forgot about and missed. Installing new stuff This tells me a couple of things. First, it tells me what I think is most important. For example, when I started installing this new machine, literally the first thing I installed was R and R Studio, my coding environment for much of my data science work at Trust Insights. Without that, I literally cannot do my job. What’s interesting is what gets left behind.

What apps didn’t make the first cut. What apps I frankly don’t need, period, and don’t make it over to the new machine at all. These apps don’t have mindshare. They don’t have space in my head dedicated to them, space in my brain that indicates their importance. What does any of this have to do with marketing? Suppose I ran a mass unsubscribe tool on every publication and subscription in your inbox. What email newsletters would you remember to re-subscribe to? This happens more often than you think – when people change jobs, anything they subscribed to at their old work address is forgotten, and they have only their memories to rely on for what matters to them. Is your content on that mental list? Would you make the cut if your audience had to start over? The same is true of your blog. Your podcast. Your YouTube channel.

Any communications medium where your audience has to remember you – whether it’s to remember you exist, remember to download things, remember to watch or listen. This is share of mind, share of memory. How much share of memory do you have? If your audience accidentally deleted all their bookmarks and subscriptions tomorrow, how many of them would come back? The answer, of course, is directly proportional to the value you provide. Just as the apps that don’t provide regular and frequent value to me are forgotten, our audiences will forget us if we aren’t providing them the same kind of regular, frequent, and great value. The only way to avoid being consigned to the dustbin of memory is to dramatically increase the value we provide. The Empathy Deficit What is empathy, and why do we care? The short, academic definition is: The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley We live in a massive empathy deficit at the moment. One look at the headlines or a site like NotAlwaysRight.com and conversations about how we treat each other, about how we do business with each other, and the deficit is clear. We lack empathy almost entirely in our interactions with others. Why? Why have things gotten so bad? It isn’t just the pandemic, though certainly the added strain and trauma of a global disease is part of the puzzle. Our empathy deficit has been decades in the making, however. What does empathy do for us? It helps us bond, it helps us find common ground, it helps us soothe and comfort each other in times of trouble.

When we express empathy, we help others and help ourselves in the process. From a human perspective, empathy is a really good thing, and we need more of it in our lives. From a commercial and control perspective, it isn’t. If your job is to sell more stuff by any means necessary, persuading people that they can soothe their pains through purchasing things – we even invented the term retail therapy to explain this – is what you’re after. In fact, we go out of our way as marketers to reinforce the self over others; count how many times during the holiday shopping season you see messaging and marketing about what you deserve, buying a little something for yourself, treating yourself right. That’s not to say you don’t deserve nice things, but the messaging and marketing is encouraging you to face inwards instead of outwards towards others. The expression of empathy is counterproductive to this commercial goal. If people find comfort and calm in each other, then they don’t need to buy our stuff to make themselves feel better. If they find self-worth and value in a community, then retail therapy rings hollow.

Second, if your job is to persuade people to support your cause, there’s no easier way to rally people to your banner than by creating an enemy to rally against. Politicians and demagogues have done this since time immemorial, creating us vs. them divisions where divisions didn’t previously exist. We even create those divisions for commerce; rallying Red Sox fans against Yankees fans to sell more stuff. What’s changed in the last 20 years is the reach and power of this kind of messaging and marketing, and the artificial intelligence algorithms used to reinforce it. If you’re trying to create an us vs. them split, empathy is your enemy. You can’t rally people to your cause if they don’t believe the “other” is really the enemy. On the other hand, if you can convince people to abandon empathy and demonize others, you can make the division so stark that it becomes as powerful and as compelling as religion, making your cause part of their identity. Consider the state of politics in many nations right now, so divisive and so ingrained in people’s identities that it is literally killing them.

What is the solution to the elimination of empathy? As marketers, we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to abandon tactics that persuade people to deprive themselves of empathy. If our products and services are good enough, we should be able to reach people without resorting to soul-crushing marketing tactics. Instead of telling people to simply buy more stuff to feel better, let’s find ways to persuade people to behave with more empathy towards each other and work our products and services in more organically to the ideal outcome. As individuals, we desperately need to find our tribes, find our people in the world and start there, start rebuilding a sense of concern and care for those closest to us – and then those close to them, and so on and so on until we remember why we should care about each other – and how good it feels when we do. Wherever you are, whatever your belief system, I hope that you have a chance to rest this holiday season, gather together with people you care about, and refresh yourself for the year ahead. This past year was a blur, while 2020 felt like a slog, but there are some days when I still think it’s March 657, 2020. Thank you for being here with me this year. This week and next, the newsletter will be a little shorter. Actually, a lot shorter, because we all want to enjoy the holidays as best as we can. One interesting exercise I think worth considering is a non-work catalog of the year. We all do reviews of some kind, be it quarterly reviews, annual reviews, etc. and we have – or should have – a decent sense of where we are in our professional lives. So… when was the last time you gave yourself a non-professional annual review? Look at the things we ask on annual reviews, like the GOOD framework from Quantum Workplace: Goals:

What goals did you set out for the year? Did you achieve them? Obstacles: What things stood in the way of your goals? Were you able to work around them? Opportunities: What did you pursue for learning and professional development to increase your skills? Decisions: What will you do more of next year? What will you do less of? That framework is useful for the workplace, but also really useful for the rest of your life. Where are you with your friendships and relationships? What goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions did you have this past year? For example, I’ve doubled down on Slack and Discord and participating in some creative communities that have really nurtured my soul, something essential during the last two years. Where are you with your personal finances? What goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions did you have this past year? For example, I set some saving goals this year that I managed to hit. Where are you with your spiritual life? What goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions did you have this past year?

For example, I set a goal to do more meditation, and missed that goal. Where are you with your health? What goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions did you have this past year? I set a goal this past year to run a 5K. Not only did I do that, I managed to improve my fitness so much that I basically run a 5K every weekend. Where are you with your self-expression? What goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions did you have this past year? For example, I started doing more tech writing last year and wanted to continue into the new year, and I managed to do quite a bit more, exceeding my goal. Before we can talk about our goals and plans for the next year, we need to look at the year that was. We need to do our performance review for the non-work parts of our life – and if it turns out that we got a bad review, that’s okay. That’s the place we start for building a better plan for the next year, and unlike a job where a bad review just gets us fired, a bad review in our personal lives is the blueprint for what’s next for us. Take the time if you can to do this review for yourself and see how things went for you for everything outside your technology work.

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