When you want to say “I get it!” to your customers: the art of merchandising your ideas to make an impact

One of my responsibilities in managing my old Borders store was overseeing merchandising. Each month or so, we’d receive a giant binder full of displays and sign changes to execute. Each display would come with a list of titles we could pull from our store inventory to create the arrangement.

Pulling titles and arranging them was a boring and never-ending process. Luckily, much of the store was merchandised according to the store’s preferences. We could create displays based on local events, timely trends, or staff interests. Those were displays I took real pleasure in dreaming up and managing.

I encouraged my staff to pay attention to the questions people asked and patterns in interest. We took those ideas and applied them to inventory requests and then fresh, store-driven displays. Our goal was to turn the pulse of our customer base into relevant and useful store displays.

It seems needless to say but those displays consistently outsold the merchandising suggestions of our corporate merchandising team. They also reduced our workload by countless hours since they preemptively answered common customer questions.

Merchandising was a key factor in both sales and operations.

So what is merchandising?
Despite my experience, I’m no expert. But this is what it means to me:

  • Making products visually appealing to the customer.
  • Putting like objects together to relate a bigger story or to tie into a trend.
  • Creating experiences that naturally lead you towards buying the products involved.

Merchandising is, sadly, a lost art in digital business. What’s truly sad about the lack of merchandising in digital business is that it reflects a lack of true understanding of the customers businesses are serving.

You see, merchandising is all about perspective.

It’s being able to see how other see, feel how others feel, take interest in what others take an interest in.

Merchandising is how you say to your customers, “See, we get it!” It creates a context that connects the customer to her desire.

Merchandising doesn’t just apply to physical products. Merchandising your ideas–especially bold or innovative ideas–can help you gain buy-in (and lead to “buy now!”) much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Faster buy-in means more subscribers, more sales, and less time answering email.

Chris Brogan & Julien Smith write about the importance of using emotion to create connections between your customers and your big ideas in The Impact Equation. Being able to hone in on the emotion your idea generates allows you to use that emotion to create a context around your idea that contrasts your idea from competitive ideas. That’s how you make a bigger impact.

“The goal is to build a bridge between the emotion you want them to experience and how your idea serves that emotion.”
— Chris Brogan & Julien Smith, The Impact Equation

What does merchandising an idea look like?

First, for the sake of this post, we’re going to talk about ideas in a very broad sense. It could be an innovative product that challenges the status quo, it could be a movement you’re leading, it could be a new discovery in your niche, it could be a brand-new formula for success.

1.) Identify the emotional context behind your idea. How do you want people to feel when the encounter your idea (i.e. project, product, movement, discovery, formula)? What other ideas or stories foster that emotion? What’s the “before” emotion, in other words, how do people feel without your idea?

2.) Focus on the visual element of your idea. Do particular colors or images portray the emotion or story around your idea? What environment (home, the great outdoors, fancy restaurant, crunchy coffee shop, etc…) would your customer associate with that emotion or story? Who are the other characters in the story?

3.) Gather related ideas. What ideas inspired you in this new idea? Are you playing with a trend or cultural zeitgeist? What well-known ideas or projects will help people connect with your new idea?

Once you understand the emotional context, visual elements, and related concepts of your idea, you have a loose story that you can create an experience from. That experience could be a well-styled photograph. It could be a reimagining of your brand or personal image. It could be a free event. It might just be the story of your idea told in its full context.

When Seth Godin created The Domino Project, the name he chose was part of the way he merchandised this brave new idea. He wanted to create & publish books that were inherently shareable. He wanted to spread tough questions and fresh ideas the way well-placed dominos cause each other fall in a neat line: effortlessly. The Domino Project was a well-merchandised idea.

When Lululemon created it’s Right as Rain jacket, it chose to harness the story of its Vancouver origins to create a cultural buy in. They identified with the Pacific Northwest dweller who just wanted to stay dry on a daily basis because they lived it. So they used that story to merchandise the idea of the perfect raincoat.

When I created Kick Start Labs, I chose to hone in on the thrill and childlike anticipation of experimenting with a chemistry set and tied it to the traditionally less thrilling idea of experimenting in your business. My goal was to reframe business learning by merchandising in relation to seeing what happens when you combine some volatile chemicals. Safety first, of course.

No doubt, you’re already working at merchandising your ideas. But bringing attention to the full process might mean that your idea goes from being spread at a snail’s pace to setting the world on fire.

Leave a comment to tell me one thing you could do today to improve how your ideas are merchandised.


Want more on seeing the world through your customer’s perspective? I’ve got a whole process for that. But first, check out these other posts.

The Great Engine of the You-Centered Economy: Media

Media is the great engine of the You-Centered Economy.

Why? We are all producers, writers, broadcasters, and personalities. Access to all forms of media has never been so open. You are at the center of media creation & media consumption.

Media is also a source of connection (to each other, to our communities, to the world) and a source of experience (trust me — watching True Blood is an experience). Meaning? Well, we’ll get to that.

Media is a unique entity in which we actually understand how we are both – constantly – creator & consumer. In the You-Centered Economy, this is true for all forms of commerce but it is less obvious. Media is a give & take of production, attention, and manipulation.

Chris Brogan has been considering what it means to be a “media channel” in 2012:

The ‘gee whiz’ has worn off, and now, if you’re looking to build professional value from this whole jumble of the social web, it’s important to start thinking like a TV station and a magazine and start building out content that takes advantage of that.

Right. So it used to be quite the marvel that you could create your own TV station all from your MacBook Pro. It’s not anymore. Now it’s your job. Your responsibility. Your livelihood.

Or maybe just a super fun pass time.

Either way, as Brogan said – the ‘gee whiz’ is gone.

In social media & online entrepreneurship, the ‘gee whiz’ has turned into formulas and proven techniques. It’s boring. It’s noise. I don’t want to read it.

What should be playing on your particular station? I write about what is currently inspiring me, nagging at me, or pissing me off. I’d like to read more of that from you. I want your analysis. I crave your insight.

For me, what adds “professional value” to this content is understanding my purpose & vision. It means I can take a story or inspiration and turn it into meaningful content at the drop of a hat. You get relevant posts that feel professional but immediate.

Use your own media channel to present professional passion. Click to tweet it!

Then you won’t be saying “Me! Me! Look at me!” to get my attention. Your content is already part of my attention because it’s what you’re paying attention to. I trust you.

Creating professional content doesn’t mean following a formula but it does mean understanding your purpose & vision.

Click to tweet that!

Creating professional content allows you to connect with your audience in a personal way.
They see into your psyche. They get how you think. They know how to relate to you. You’re not an Every(wo)man but you are in touch & in tune.

Creating professional content enables you to create an experience for your audience. Whether it’s an experience of that very moment right on the page or an experience that is formed over time outside your media channel, your work has the capacity to affect your reader & the way they experience the world. Affect them.

Creating professional content empowers you to imbue meaning into every aspect of your business.
Just as traditional media has provided channels for better understanding the way conventional news, trends, and entertainment create meaning in our lives, “new media” powers the meaning that drives our consumption. You suggest that a product, service, or application has a certain meaning and suddenly, it does.

Media, more than ever before, is helping us consume better.

True, you can listen to the hype. You can watch the ads. You can endure product placement after product placement. Or you can stop. And listen. Pay attention. Share what matters.

Media is now giving consumers more choice than they ever had before. We have the choice to put up with paid promotion. Or we can pay attention to media that educates us, entertains us, and connects us.

Media that educates, entertains, and connects is still media that we’re consuming. The media, in turn, is teaching us what to consume outside of the experience of the media. It is begging us to make lifestyle changes, associate with a community, and better understand our own role on the planet.

And, again I agree with Brogan, we have a greater responsibility to the media we consume:

1. Don’t just consume, absorb. Take it allllll in.
2. Share. And don’t just push the stumble, the retweet, etc, but give some value to the share by giving your points, adding your two cents, blogging a piece around it, etc. If you had time to read it, take the time to share it well.

If what we’re consuming – media or otherwise – contributes to a great relationship with the world we want to live in, it’s our responsibility to share that consumption with others. The more people we can bring into our communities of affinity, the better for us.

Share. And comment. Tell me why. Bring me into the fold. Connect me.

As you share, you are bumping up against those touchpoints: connection, experience, meaning. I need you to share with me. Connection, experience, meaning: that’s what we’re all looking for in this New Economy.

The context of our media consumption – and our general consumption – suddenly has a greater meaning. It’s part of our identity. It’s part of our network. It’s part of our movement.

Media: the great engine of the You-Center Economy.

We are in & of the media. We are creators. We are consumers.

The media drives our connection and our experience. It influences the meaning of what we pay attention to.

Don’t fear the media. Embrace it. But do so with purpose & vision. Do so in service. Do so with passion.

500 million users & chris brogan can’t be wrong

Well, last week Social Media raced ahead with 500 million Facebook users. And this week, Chris Brogan announced that families run on Facebook.

Every demographic, every interest group, every religious & political group, every income level is represented on Facebook.

If you’re not using Facebook to market your business, you’re missing out.

Your customers are on Facebook.

When I worked for one of the big box bookstores with a capital B (there’s at least 3…), part of the mission of the company was to be the “third place.” We wanted to be that place you wanted to be when you weren’t home or at work. We were pretty good at that part… not so good at turning that affinity into sales though. But that’s a post for another day…

Point being, if you could provide an environment that offered comfort, style, entertainment, COFFEE, and a wee bit of education, you had great potential for being able to influence customers.

Well, forget “third place,” Facebook is the internet’s “second place.” As a society, we wake up, check our email, and then head to Facebook.

Using Facebook strategically & authentically, your business has the ability to insert itself into your customers’ second place. It’s an environment of comfort, style, entertainment, and education. All it’s missing is the coffee. Why, why can’t there be coffee?!

The good news is that building a brand on Facebook is easier than ever.

The bad news is that you’re probably doing a half-assed job. And, you forgot the coffee.

Consider these questions when building content for your Facebook page. Am I …

  • speaking directly to my customer in a way that is meaningful to them?
  • engaging my customer rather than broadcasting a message?
  • sharing my entire brand message and not just promoting a product or service?
  • building a community that is empowered to spread my message organically?

Providing content that considers those questions means that you’re not selling to your customers, you’re influencing them. You’ll have opportunities to sell down the line. Draw them in, build a community, get customers talking to each other. Selling – while oh so important – comes a little later. But it will come.

The important thing to know about building your brand on Facebook is to not become a part of the noise.

If you engage your customers meaningfully, give them useful information, entertain them, and find out a way to give them coffee, you won’t be noise. You’ll be part of the experience: the experience that takes up the most important part of the internet day, save for email.

Your customers are on Facebook. Bring the coffee.