Essays & Stories

RC Victorino

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Author: RC

The power of voicing your opinion

I’ve been an active Asana user and evangelist since 2012. Many clients and colleagues swear by Asana now, thanks to my passionate support. 

In other words, there is no reason for me to switch from Asana. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and my project management workflow is definitely not broken. 

Still, the other night, I spent more than an hour inside Basecamp, wondering if it’s time to switch. The journey that led me there, to what marketers might call the evaluation phase of the marketing funnel, was jumbled and messy. But it wasn’t out of the norm. 

We have so many channels from which we can interact with a brand; it makes sense that how we get from Point A (stranger) to Point B (customer) is, well, complicated. 

My own experience with Asana and Basecamp is evidence of that. This is why subscribing so blindly to marketing models, like the marketing funnel, can be shortsighted and harmful.

But first, some context. 

What is the Marketing Funnel?

I won’t waste your time defining the marketing funnel. There is plenty of content out there, including this post from Neal Patel (more on this article in a moment). 

Here’s a brief look at what the marketing funnel is.

  • It contains several stages representing the journey we take as consumers. 
  • Below is a good example of a 6-stage funnel:
Marketing-Funnel

As you see, the top of the marketing funnel is wide. The funnel then narrows with each ensuing stage. 

That’s because many people can and will become aware of your product. But from that vast pool of people, a smaller amount will be interested. 

From those who are interested, a few will consider your product, and so on. 

This is all quite logical and commonsensical. But I find two issues with this model. 

1. You end up filling the funnel with crap

Subscribing to this model has inspired companies to assume the best approach toward growth is to fill the funnel with more leads. The more people aware of your product, the more who will become interested, and so on. 

Again, sensible. The issue is this kind of thinking leads brands to spend millions of dollars on ads to fill the funnel because it’s a quick and easy way to increase awareness. 

This has been my least favorite aspect of working on growth teams. Growth teams fixate on more, often while disregarding what happens post-acquisition. So long as folks convert, growth has done its job. The rest is up to some other team, right?

Not really. I’ve always had a huge issue with how organizations hand off customers to different teams based on where those customers are in some disenfranchised funnel. This always results in incongruous experiences.

It’s also worth noting that ads with pithy ad copy are by no means a natural way to connect audiences to a brand. If I were ever to convert via an ad, I can assure you that every step of the way (including post-conversion), I’d be looking for reasons to abandon ship because an ad convinced me in the heat of the moment to convert. It didn’t allow me to make up my mind at my own pace. 

2. This doesn’t represent how people interact or want to interact with brands

I don’t know about you, but I don’t walk a straight line from stranger to customer with any brand. I’ll make this point in a moment, but for now, let’s revisit a portion of Neal Patel’s marketing funnel blog post. Below he outlines how the marketing funnel works in real life, as well as online: 

Marketing-Funnel-Example

My god, that’s a linear theory reliant on weak assumptions. While there are times when I walk into a store, look at products, and buy, there are just as many times when I walk into a store, look at products, leave, and maybe come back some other day. 

Maybe not.

And sometimes it’s messier than that. Let’s take a look at the journey I took to consider leaving Asana for Basecamp’s project management tool.

My Messy Non-Marketing Funnel Journey to Basecamp

The point of this rundown is to show the many back-and-forth steps we as consumers take in our purchasing-decision process. And how many of those steps aren’t easily measurable the way marketing-model advocates would love them to be. 

1. I accepted a new role as the head of content for Slab. 

This milestone moment (the job at Slab) inspired me to get more engaged — and potentially active — on Twitter.

Through following some key voices in the spaces I was interested in, I discovered @DHH, founder of Basecamp. I didn’t follow him because he was the founder of Basecamp. I followed him because of tweets like this:

FB-Privacy-Scandal

This tweet has nothing to do with Basecamp, at least not overtly. It’s about data and privacy — which I’m passionate about. I thought to myself, heck, maybe he’s worth following. So I scouted his Twitter feed and profile. 

I liked how he wasn’t afraid to post politically charged tweets. I can’t stand people who ignore things that actually matter in life just because they’re afraid to offend. 

I view that as either cowardly or, worse, apathetic. These are not times to be indifferent. 

2. I also learned he wrote a book that struck a chord with me:

Rework-Book-by-Basecamp

I agree — work doesn’t have to be crazy. The way people assume 40+ hours during specific hours, and in one particular location, is a practical approach to work — for everyone, is inane. 

After evaluating all of this, in a matter of seconds, I thought to myself, @DHH was worth following. 

Keep in mind — I did not buy his book. I haven’t yet. I might if I find the time, but following him on Twitter was the only conversion point I was interested in at the time. 

By the way, kudos to him for not flooding his feed with tweets masked as ads for his book, or Basecamp. That would have resulted in my disinterest in everything else he had to say. That’s not why I or anyone else go onto Twitter. Twitter is a marketplace where folks can exchange ideas. 

Ideas. Not elevator pitches. 

3. Through Twitter, I learned about his other content: blog and podcast

Basecamp has a blog called Signal vs. Noise. I learned of it through @DHH’s Twitter feed. Not because he posted something elementary like: “Check out my latest post.” Here’s what led me to the blog:

WeWork-and-Open-Office

DHH tweeted this during the recent shakeup at WeWork. The tweet made sense from him. He’s been quite vocal about open offices before, which is why he included a link to an article he wrote back in July of 2018 regarding open-plan offices. To let folks go more in-depth on his perspective if they wanted. 

His tweet intrigued me, so I read the article. It made me a bigger fan of his, and now of the blog. 

Still, I didn’t subscribe. Why? Because why would I subscribe to a blog after one post? 

Also, I didn’t go from that one post to another post. Why? Because I have other things to do in my life than read through a blog’s entire archive. So, I closed out the window after reading his article and moved on with life. I didn’t even bookmark the site, add it to my Feedly list, or anything else. I simply moved on.

Would a marketing team consider that a loss? Perhaps. But that’s shortsighted. 

Just because I didn’t ‘convert’ (become a subscriber) didn’t mean this interaction didn’t make an impression on me. 

It did. 

Enough so that I thought it a good idea to listen to Basecamp’s Rework podcast. I wanted to hear more about DHHs ideas and perspective. At times he reinforced my own preconceptions. At times he challenged them. That’s the kind of person I want ‘in my life’ (albeit virtually, in this instance). 

In other words, he helped me shape my view of the world and how I live in it. 

I listened to what at the time was the most recent episode of the podcast. It was about fast fashion vs. slow fashion. I didn’t love it, because it’s got little to do with me. I don’t care about fashion. I don’t run a factory-based business.

But I didn’t give up on the podcast (although I didn’t subscribe). Because at this point, I had faith that something associated with DHH (still, not yet Basecamp) likely had quality content I’d be interested in. 

Why? Almost entirely because of his Twitter feed. It’s authentic. It’s opinionated. It’s not a feed filled with salesman crap. He established a good rapport with me. 

So I researched some older episodes and found one on healing the internet. This was the first time I heard DHH speak. There’s something far more compelling about listening to someone talk vs. reading their likely-heavily curated words. 

This entire episode inspired me to be more proactive, both personally and professionally, when it came to data protection. It also introduced me to Basecamp beyond the product. 

What I learned from this episode is that Basecamp recently ended its practice of using pixel trackers in emails, a move I applaud. But the episode wasn’t some infomercial on why Basecamp is best. It didn’t cheat me of the experience I expected. It delivered on its promises of introducing me to new perspectives and ideas about data protection.

So I subscribed to the podcast, not just because of this episode. But because of the constant positive content provided to me by DHH via his Twitter feed. 

4. I got introduced to the ‘other’ Basecamp founder

Tweets, blog posts, and podcasts under my belt, I now felt pretty connected with DHH, and even Basecamp a bit. Yet, I still hadn’t visited the Basecamp website. 

Why? I’m not in the market for a new project management tool. Asana works just fine for me. 

Imagine that. I’m not just some automaton that mindlessly funnels through steps. I have a life outside of all of this. I don’t automatically become aware of a brand and jump into the interest phase. 

I’m more complicated than that. You are, too. 

Anyway, I carried on with Twitter (again, mostly because I started a new position). While on Twitter, I did happen to see a tweet by Jason Fried that caught my eye, enough so that I felt compelled to retweet it: 

How-to-be-a-customer-minded-company

Notice how Jason commented on my retweet. Little old me with my 300+ followers. That two-word phrase was enough for me to feel connected to Jason, meaning I now felt even more connected to Basecamp, even though that was not my intention. 

It took Jason seconds to do it. I know that. But that doesn’t matter. It was a meaningful connection. 

5. If these folks are aligned with my perspective, then …

Here’s where all this messiness comes to fruition. Once again, I repeat: I am not in the market for a new project management tool. But, as with everyone else on this planet, I am always looking for new tribes to join. 

DHHs tweeting, the book he and Jason co-wrote (that I’ve yet to read but have on my radar), the podcast, Jason’s comment to me: they all led me to wonder, should I look at Basecamp? 

And that’s precisely what I did the other night. I spent more than an hour inside Basecamp, setting up an account and figuring out how I could make it fit my workflow and replace Asana. And trust me, it’s not a simple replacement. There are compromises I’d have to make, and adjustments to processes I’ve had in place for years.

If an ad or some gated material (please, god, end this push for gated content!) led me to try out Basecamp, these friction points would have been enough for me to stop trying. 

But I came on my own, at a time of my choosing, after building a rapport with the brand behind the product. As a result, I am far more inclined to work harder to get this product, and this tribe, to fit into my lifestyle. 

In fact, I went into it saying how can I make this work, which is almost certainly not what I’d have said if I were led to this conversion point via an ad or some other typical marketing tactic. 

All this to say that opinionated brands speak to me. They spur me into action — and not necessarily actions that marketers can measure.

Along the way, if I had seen ads peppered on my social feed asking me to try Basecamp, I wouldn’t have clicked. In fact, I’d have been annoyed, because I would have known that Basecamp used my behavior (following its founders, visiting its blog site) to target me. 

And that doesn’t sit well with me. 

The good news is it doesn’t sit well with them, either, which is how I found myself inside their platform, pondering a mutiny against Asana. 

Now, will I become a Basecamp customer? I don’t know. Asana is perfect for my needs, especially as a content calendar. 

But I’d argue that my becoming a Basecamp customer is moot. Because here I am, dedicating a couple of hours of my life writing about how awesome Basecamp and its founders are. I’m linking out to their blog, their podcast, and their Twitter accounts. 

Perhaps, somewhere, somehow, someone will read this and also follow the same messy path I took. And maybe they will become Basecamp customers.

And if they do, no marketer will have been able to know the exact origin of this conversion, because it didn’t happen as neatly as all these marketing models want them to happen. 

It never does. 

Don’t get me wrong. Data is empowering. But it should not drive the marketing vehicle. 

Marketing-Revolution

I became interested in Basecamp because the people behind the organization have genuine interests aligned with mine. They share these interests in a natural way, not in some preconceived fake manner where it’s evident they’re looking to rank for some keyword. 

They’re just true to themselves. As a result, I fell in love with their purpose, not their product. And so I’ve become loyal to their message. 

In the end, that’s far more valuable than convincing me that their product is right for me. 

The brand experience genius of Cotopaxi

I recently spent 24 straight hours on a quest through Seattle arm wrestling strangers, doing pushups in Pioneer Square, and decorating a friend’s face like a cake:

It was all a part of a 24-hour scavenger-hunt-like event called Questival, put on by a company named Cotopaxi.

Prior to the event, I had no idea who Cotopaxi was. I assumed it was a company that organized adventure outings across the country.

Cotopaxi is actually an outdoor gear brand (like The North Face). I didn’t find that out during Questival. Despite organizing it, Cotopaxi didn’t shove their branding or products down my throat.

I only discovered it afterward, when, following a much-needed nap, shower, and solid meal, I hopped online to learn more about the people who just gave me one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Unbeknownst to me, the entire event was one big clinic on kickass content marketing.

Bravo, Cotopaxi.

Here’s what I mean.

Questival: An Extension of the Cotopaxi Brand

Cotopaxi’s mission is:

Bold products. Big events. Better ways to help others. 
Gear for Good.

They target adventurous folks who value the importance of being good to the Earth and others.

It’s no coincidence that Questival attracts these types of people, myself included. I like the outdoors. I like adventure. I try to do good by the Earth. As a result, I learned about Questival through the social circles (and social profiles) I spend my time with.

Questival wasn’t an e-book to download. It wasn’t a webinar to sign up for. It was a unique and potentially memorable experience. I didn’t care who or what Cotopaxi was.

I wanted to be a part of this Questival. 

Most of the challenges my team and I had to complete involved meeting strangers (and doing something nice to them, for example) and doing something good for nature (like pick up 50 pieces of trash).

Both of these align with Cotopaxi’s mission:

Better ways to help others

For 24 hours Cotopaxi marketed their culture to me. But I sure didn’t feel like I was being marketed to.

That’s the goal, isn’t it? To market your business without alienating your prospects?

By the end of 24 hours, I’m certain some folks never gave Cotopaxi a second thought. Marketing in any form isn’t an absolute.

But for many people who never heard of Cotopaxi and love their experience at Questival, it was only natural to learn more about the brand behind that experience.

I did what most other people do when they want to know about a brand. I went to Cotopaxi’s social profiles — in this case, Instagram.

While their 69k followers impressed me, vanity metrics only go so far. I was far more affected by their bio and choice in images inside their feed.

My road to discovering Cotopaxi is not unusual.

Yet many brands continue to focus only on selling the benefits of their services or products. They completely disregard the experience of their audience.

Thanks to Questival, I knew more about Cotopaxi as a brand than I do most companies I’ve done business with for years.

And I like what I saw. So while I’m not in the market for any new gear at the moment, when I am, I’ll almost surely look to them first.

Can You Be Like Cotopaxi? 

Brand-building strategies like Questival are resource-intensive — and don’t equate into conversions as quickly as, for example, a Facebook ad.

But brands who have the means should invest time and money toward something like this. Unique experiences like Questival turn strangers into brand devotees — rather than passive customers who’ll jump ship at the next best 10% off coupon.

It’s unlikely you can afford the time or money to host a 500+ team event that takes over a city but doesn’t create immediate sales.

But you can think beyond the e-book box most marketers are stuck inside.

  • What is your company mission? What do you stand for?
  • Build an experience for your audience around that mission — even if your service or product takes a backseat in the process.

Cotopaxi pulled it off with perfection and, in the process, very likely created a lifelong fan.

How to get value out of SEO articles

It’s not as easy as targeting keywords. 

Brands are wrong when they pay me to write articles to target keywords and rank higher on Google.

The theory is these articles will increase traffic, which will increase sales.

That logic is faulty. For example:

Floorings R’ Us hires me to write SEO blog posts. I’m told to write an article on the 5 Benefits to Using Engineered Hardwood Flooring in Your Home, based on their keyword research.

They hope when someone searches for a phrase like engineered hardwood flooring, their article will appear at the top.

Sometimes it does. Sometimes people do click on that blog post. Website traffic increases because of that blog post.

This is an effective strategy — if you want website traffic, only.

That’s typically reserved for media companies. More than likely, you are not a media company.

You want conversions, which most SEO articles don’t deliver.

SEO articles introduce two challenges:

  1. The traffic these articles attract is ridiculously superficial and unqualified
  2. The articles are not designed to push folks down your sales funnel

Fortunately, you can overcome these challenges. But it goes beyond hiring some freelancer to write 400-word blog posts around a few keywords.

Know Your Audience

Blog posts are not just repositories for keywords. When done well, they’re one of the most effective ways to target specific audiences and get them excited about your business.

Let’s take my flooring blog example again: 5 Benefits to Using Engineered Hardwood Flooring in Your Home.

The key phrase my client is (likely) targeting is engineered hardwood flooring. The title includes the key phrase, signaling a good start.

But nothing about the title motivates anyone to click. Here’s a Google search I did for the phrase benefits of engineered hardwood flooring:

The top three results are remarkably similar to the post my client wants.

So let’s assume my client’s article ranks alongside these existing articles. What would it be, about our article, that inspires someone to take notice and click, rather than click on the post by a recognizable brand like Bruce or a trusted resource like HomeAdvisor?

By the way, use this free tool to see how your titles (and descriptions) look on the Google results page. 

To complicate it further, who’s to say the traffic that our post attracts is made up of folks looking to buy flooring?

There’s no way of knowing. Not unless you do these two things before you write an SEO article, or hire someone to write one for you.

  • Identify your audience. Know who you’re targeting. Only then can you conduct …
  • Keyword research. Tap into the mindset of your audience. What do they want or need that you offer? And how do they look for that information online?

These tasks take time. That’s where most folks lose interest. But you’re not most people.

The Strategy

1. Buyer personas.

This includes market research, interviews, and surveys of existing customers. Include conversations with your staff as well — especially those who work directly with customers.

Don’t assume you know your customer. Go out and identify him.

2. Keyword Research

People go through three stages before becoming your customer:

Awareness – Consideration – Decision

The search terms prospects use vary greatly depending on what stage they’re in.

Let’s expand that a bit using my flooring example.

Floorings R’ Us wants to target subcontractors. They even created a buyer persona, Contractor Calvin, to make sure their content is laser-focused.

Right off the bat, we have a problem. What are the chances a subcontractor would even google something like 5 Benefits to Using Engineered Hardwood Flooring in Your Home?

He wouldn’t. We know immediately that writing an article like that to attract Calvin is a waste of time.

Calvin might search for something like Cheap Options for Engineered Hardwood Flooring. Then he’d realize the word cheap has negative connotations, so he refines his search to Most Affordable Types of Engineered Hardwood Flooring.

Knowing this, and knowing whom I’m writing for, I propose a blog post titled 5 Affordable Engineered Hardwood Flooring Brands for Subcontractors.

Why? Because you write blog posts for audiences you want to target, not just match a set of keywords.

Identify your audience. Identify what they search for on Google. Then create content for them.

3. Conversions

A reminder of the journey we all take toward conversion:

Awareness – Consideration – Decision

This is a watered down representation, of course. We often go back and forth across these three steps. Or we enter the funnel on step 2 (consideration). And so on.

The engineered hardwood flooring article above targets audiences in the awareness stage. There’s an entire step most people have to take before they’re ready to buy:

Consideration. 

Why then do most awareness-focused blog posts feature calls-to-action like:

Looking for the best engineered hardwood flooring? Contact us today!

Or, even worse:

Like what you read? Subscribe to our blog!

Assuming your article gave Calvin everything he needs to know, Calvin has moved closer to the consideration stage.

Neither of the above CTAs speaks to Calvin in his consideration stage.

Not even close. First, no one wants to subscribe to your blog. Stop creating a terrible experience between prospects and your brand.

But just as bad as pitching your email list as some type of great coup is pitching the sell too soon.

Be mindful of what type of content your audience just consumed. Identify how successful that content moved your prospect down the funnel.

Example:

Calvin learned a lot from the blog post discussing the top engineered hardwood flooring brands. He has the information he needs to start comparing these brands.

He wants to see case studies, comparison charts, and testimonials. He uses search terms like “____ vs. ____ ” and “Difference between ____ and _____.”

A CTA for an awareness-stage article should help Calvin make these comparisons. It should guide him toward his desired next step – without sending him away from your brand.

Here are a few ideas you can use as gated lead magnets (hidden behind a form):

  • Guide: The Ultimate Contractor’s Guide to Helping Your Customers Choose the Best Hardwood Flooring.
  • Chart: Free comparison chart of the top 10 popular flooring brands.
  • Listicle: A list of the top engineered flooring brands in the U.S., ranked by ratings and reviews.

Calvin is more likely to provide personal information to access this content if he found value in our original blog post, Top 5 Engineered Hardwood Flooring Brands for Subcontractors. 

To clarify:

  1. Top 5 Engineered Hardwood Flooring Brands for Subcontractors: An awareness blog post that we write to attract folks like Calvin (through Google and even paid social media).
  2. CTA that leads to a desirable lead magnet.
  3. Calvin hands over his personal information to access that lead magnet.

Your call-to-action must get Calvin excited enough to overcome any objection about handing over an email address.

Example:

Save up to $20k every year — download our free price comparison chart

Most contractors pay $20k more every year on flooring than they have to. We researched the top 20 brands selling engineered flooring. And created the most comprehensive price comparison chart on the web. So you can keep that $20,000–not waste it.

Download free →

Not everyone who reads the blog post will download the guide. Those who do are probably highly qualified leads most likely to become customers one day.

Articles for Every Stage of the Funnel

Your customers are on a journey:

  1. Consideration: They identify a problem and head to Google for an answer.
  2. Comparison: They find a few acceptable answers. They start researching and comparing their options.
  3. Decision: They whittle down their choice to one and buy.

A vast majority of “SEO articles” on the web focus on step one: Awareness. These articles then try to force these readers to convert.

An entire step is skipped.

Don’t publish articles only to rank for keywords. Build an experience that attracts your customers, no matter where they are in the funnel. Then make it easy for them to move down that funnel.

Because web traffic is nice, but it’s meaningless to your bottom line.

What you need are conversions.

The natural way to survey customers

A SaaS company emailed this to me recently:

“Hey RC, we notice you haven’t upgraded to Pro yet. Would love to know more about your reasons why. Mind taking a short survey?”

I didn’t take their survey. And I’m not alone. 

A 2015 Survey Gizmo study reveals just 10-15% of people respond to “external surveys”. External surveys are those sent to people outside of your organization — like customers.

Our relationship with time is the primary reason for this low response rate. We value our time. It is a limited resource. 

So we prefer to exchange it only when we expect a valuable return. This is why we are most likely and willing to spend our time: 

  • With family — Family makes us feel loved.
  • At work — It pays us for our time. Money gives us control over the type of return we inevitably get for our time.

What is the valuable return we get for investing our time in a company survey? More often than not, it’s very little. 

Most companies typically offer one of three promises in exchange for our time: 

  • A discount on their product or service
  • A gift card
  • Nothing at all. They hope we’ll respond to their survey out of our own good will. 

Each can hurt your brand by making you look terrible in front of your prospects. I break down my rationale below. 

1. Discounts

Discounts devalue your product or service. They make prospects wonder why they should ever pay full price.  

Apple doesn’t discount their products to woo customers. They offer refurbished and stripped-down models. They offer gift cards to the Apple Store — so you can buy more of their products. But they never discount their pricing. 

In turn, millions of people hold Apple products in complete reverence —despite their typically high price points. 

2. Gift Cards

Gift cards (specifically gift cards that allow folks to shop anywhere) are problematic for at least three reasons. 

  • They don’t connect your offer to your brand — unless you’re like Apple, where you offer gift cards to your store only.
  • They’re thinly veiled bribery — and customers know it. Bribery cheapens your branding. It makes you look desperate. 
  • Customers don’t complete surveys for the right reason. You want honest feedback. They want money. They’ll do anything to get it, even give you answers they think you want to hear. 

Little good comes from gift cards, at least not long term. Ask the parent who bribes his kid with candy. Sure, the child acts proper at that moment, but you just taught the child how to get what she wants — whenever she wants. 

3. Nothing at all

Most brands favor this approach. It’s the approach the SaaS I mentioned earlier employed. 

Emails like the one I referenced earlier could easily just say: 

Mind doing us a favor? We can’t give you anything, but we’d really appreciate it. 

Favors among friends and family are generally OK, though not everyone survives those arrangements scrape-free.

But favors between customers and companies? That’s trouble. Particularly when your customer hasn’t shown himself to be fully invested in your brand. I, for example, was on the free version of this app. Clearly, I don’t love it enough to pay for it. 

“Having to ask for a favor puts you in a weak position. You expose a deficit (which the favor is supposed to fix) and you empower the other party to make a yes-no decision. Either way the other party comes out stronger.”Joachim Krueger, Ph. D.

The deficit your brand faces is lack of data — that’s why the survey, right? You’re asking customers to fill in the gaps. 

When a customer does you the favor of donating their time, they have leverage. It becomes even harder, now, for them to value you on equal ground.  

So how then can you access essential information straight from your customers and prospects without weakening your brand?

Bake Survey Questions Inside the User Experience 

The problem with most surveys is they come out of left field — a random email with a random ask, completely off-base from your customers’ experience with your brand. 

But there are plenty of opportunities for you to ask questions of your customers during their routine exposure to your brand. For example:

If you’re a SaaS company, you likely use an onboarding sequence to convert new users into power users. 

Every email you send helps the user get more out of your product. 

You provide value. You ask nothing in return. For example, you don’t say, “Would you mind filling out your profile for us? It helps us give you a better experience.”

Instead, you say: “To get more out of your subscription — complete your profile. It gives our powerful AI platform the data it needs to personalize your experience.”

Value. 

Surveys should work the same way. Provide value that’s baked right into the user experience, molded in a way that provides you with valuable insight. 

Let’s compare the traditional survey experience with an example of what I mean.

Traditionally, a SaaS company would send a survey to customers, say, a month after they complete their onboarding. The survey would run the gamut of questions, including staples such as How did you learn about us and Which feature of our product do you find most useful?

Good questions — but they lose their impact and relevance when you shove them inside a 6-question general survey. 

Here’s how we could drip those questions organically into the customer experience:

How did you learn about us?

Add this to your checkout experience after someone converts (to minimize friction). Once someone completes their main conversion, direct them to a screen that asks where they heard about you. Don’t make this a mandatory step. Yes, some people won’t respond. But remember, you’re competing with a 10-15% response rate from surveys. You’ll still come out on top. 

What is your favorite feature?

Send an email to customers after they use a certain number of your product features. In that email, tell them you’re making critical upgrades to your platform and have selected them to gain exclusive access to an advanced version of one of their features. Then have them choose which feature they’d like early access to. 

This provides value to them (upgraded versions of what they like best) — and lets you know which features they prefer.

The key is to bake singular questions into your customer experience — rather than bombard customers with a single 6 or 10-question survey. It won’t always be easy, but it certainly won’t be impossible. 

Consider all the ways you can — and do — naturally reach out to customers, already:

  • You email them when they first become customers (onboarding/welcome series)
  • You shoot messages to them when they visit your website (or dashboard, if you’re a SaaS)
  • You (should) retarget them on social media with ads and boosted posts

Each one of these points of contact is an ideal time to gather some intel on your customers. As a result, there’s no reason to have stand-alone surveys. 

Integrating questions into your existing customer touch points, at relevant times based on behavior and action, makes your questions better timed, less obstructive, and a positive contribution to the customer’s overall experience. 

Better yet, with this approach, you gain insight at the point of action, rather than as an afterthought.   

My Name is Redemption

This story originally appeared in Slice Magazine — Issue 14, 20 14.

Graphite pebbles scatter the page, trailing a mountainous line like chunks of snow from a plow. The pencil comes to a rest after passing through the final letter. He sweeps his palm across his mark. The third time tonight, evident by the silvery stains below his thumb.

Three times already, yet more remain. The list goes on for pages. He sighs at this, not out of annoyance or burden. It is a sigh of resignation. A sigh to signify the end of one task, the start of another.

Number four looms. The name beside it mocks him. Untouched by the pencil, it pulsates, breathes, laughs. It lives.

He taps the name with his finger, t hen the address. Commits it all to memory for fear of misplacing the list. He chants the words like a mantra, savors each syllable, cradles the cadence. He chews his pencil, realizes what he’s doing and stops, only to return pencil to mouth when his mind drifts once more. He wonders, What story will come from number four?

He looks at his pencil, frowns. He at first searched for a pen, a marker, in fact, something of permanence to equal the magnitude of his mission. Not a pencil. There is no erasing this. Not for numbers one through three. And, soon enough, not for number four. But what could he do? A pencil was all he had. Tonight was the night, and so he will make do.

The list is what matters, he assures himself. It’s what’s most important. Remembering this, he folds the pages into a perfect square and tucks it into his coat pocket.
The list makers will be proud, he thinks. Proud of what I accomplish.

It does not matter that they know nothing of him, for, he believes, they will by the end of the night.

Knowing this quells some of his fears. Crossing out three names has dismissed what remained.

His train heads north, away from what is left of number three. He is relived to be gone from there. Bars on windows. Broken glass outnumbering stones on the sidewalk. How desolate, hopeless, how fitting a home for number three.

He assumes his journey will lead him back there again. The lowly prefer the trenches. But he cannot skip around. The list has an order, and he must oblige. Number four is next, and number four is north.


The bunny refuses to jump in the hole. It willingly circles the tree, but near the hole, it stutters, collapses clumsily in defeat.


Jackson chuckles in spite of himself. He looks toward the oven clock. Far too late for an impromptu shoe-tying lesson. But he never can resist those pouting lips and down-turned eyes.

“You’re gonna be such a sleepyhead tomorrow,” he sings to her. “Gram’s gonna be mad at me.”

“No she won’t,” Sarah sings back. She kicks her legs like a swimmer.

“Hey, Pele, hold your horses,” he says. “I need to undo those knots.” Sarah giggles. Jackson fumbles with the laces. “And she will get made at me.” He leans closer to her and whispers, “She might even ground me.”

Sarah gasps. “She can do that?”
Jackson nods. Sarah contemplates this.

“Five more minutes, Daddy. Then I’ll go to bed.”
He nods. “Five more minutes, princess. Deal.”
Five turns into fifteen. Fifteen turns into the bunny finding the hole, which turns into a celebratory dance, followed by Sara tying and untying all of Jackson’s shoes.

He has to remember to record this in her scrapbook, alongside a strand of hair from her first haircut, the date of her first steps, the moment “momma” left her lips.
By the time she’s washed up for bed, it’s past Jackson’s bedtime. But the night never ends without a story. He reads Black Beauty and stops only when he recognizes her deep breathing. He kisses her forehead. God, he wants to pick her up, squeeze her, swing her in the air.

But he resists. He must always resist. Sleep is too precious these days.

He slides off the bed, tucks the comforter under her chin. He turns off the light, leaving the room cast in pink from her nightlight. The one he gave her last year when the nightmares began.

He lingers at her door, lost in her breathing. He sways with the rhythm. Hi s own lullaby, Sarah’s breath. But it is his nightmare as well.

What if it stops? What if one night her breathing stops as though she’s unplugged? He’d be helpless, again. He’d fail, again. Left alone with only himself to blame.

Again.

He is no Superman. He can’t stop death, save lives, right wrongs. But that’s what Sarah needs. How can he tell her he’ll always fall short?

The least he can do is be ready for tragedy. To listen and make sure the breathing never stops. It’s a job that robs him of sleep many nights.

But not tonight, he insists. Please, not tonight.

He remembers Kathryn, sleeping, breathing, her warmth tickling the nape of his neck. The hint of a snort every now and then, though she’d deny it later on.

He took Sarah to see her once, shortly after it happened. It. Such a tiny word. Such an enormous impact.

She nearly fainted, Sarah did, that day. Both of her hands fit inside his. She pulled her right one out from his grip and pointed down.

“Mommy’s there?” she asked.

What could he say? He didn’t want to say yes. Now it all seemed so grotesque to him, so primitive. Burying what once was his wife underground. What was he thinking, bringing Sarah here? There was no easy answer to give her; then again there seemed no more difficult question to ask.

Is Mommy there?

What did he tell her? He can’t be sure. Something about resting there, but that she lives here now, as he touched Sarah’s chest. She lives here now.

Sarah put her hand on her chest. Perhaps she believed the beat of her heart was Kathryn. But then she looked back down, forgot about her heart. She dropped to her knees. Began to shake. “She can’t breathe in there,” she wailed.

Jackson had to pull her away before Sarah’s nails dug in the earth.


They hadn’t returned since.


Over the last two months, Claire, Kathryn’s mother, hinted to Jackson that perhaps it was time he date, find a woman to help him with Sarah. To help him, period.
Jackson smiled, nodded, said maybe, but pushed the suggestion aside. No other woman fit in his world, in his and Sarah’s world. He could go through the rest of his life offering pleasantries to a person he’d just as well have never met.

Or he could be alone, with his little girl, guessing each step as he led the way. He preferred to guess.

Once he listened long enough to Sarah’s breathing, Jackson tiptoes to the kitchen. He needs water, warm milk perhaps. Instead, he pours a whiskey, hoping it will help him sleep. He never drinks when Sarah’s awake, usually does so only when she stays with Claire.

But some nights the loneliness shouts at him, trails him wherever he goes. The unrelenting shadow. Sometimes he smells Kathryn’s perfume. Sneezes from it. He’ll hear her hum, feel her fingertips. He’s certain of it. He searches the house, sure he’ll find her, until he discovers the truth. Just a breeze, an open window, something other than her. Just the house settling.

But nothing is more unsettling. On these nights, he needs a drink.

There is no Alex Foote. Not on any of these pages.

He made sure of it from the start. Not that he expected much. How long has it been? Who even knows about it? Too long. And no one.

Except him, that is. He knows. And for him it hasn’t been too long, can never be too long. Alex Foote is always near. The show breathing down his neck, making him flinch, cower. Close. Always too close. The hand on his shoulder, his back. The breath in his face.

Too close. Go away.

No, Foote is not here. Not on this list. But the others, all these others, surely they’re good enough.

They must be good enough. When this is all over, he’ll recall them as good enough. But number one will stand out among them all. His first.

The first.

Those eyes will remain.

“You are Nicholas Lumme, aren’t you?” he asked the man in the doorway. The man was frail, hard-edged bones jutting out beneath his skin like tent poles. He had eyes that squinted and a handful of white hair barely holding onto his head.

“Who are you?” the old man asked. Rather than raise his eyelids for a closer look, he raised his head, in fact bent back his whole body, at an upward angle.

“My name …” the old man’s visitor began, but he paused. Licked his dry lips. He practiced this exact moment for days, rehearsing, the line aloud, perfecting the delivery.

Examining the impact of each potential name he considered. My name … what is my name? He used a thesaurus, for good measure.

My name is vengeance. No, too sinister, not altruistic. Too bitter on the tongue. Justice. No, too emasculating. Too much like a superhero.

Redemption. He said the name once, then twice. He smiled.

Yes. My name is Redemption. His lips curled around those words. That’s what I say. That’s who I am. “My name is Redemption.” Then I burst through the threshold.

“My name,” he repeated, “is Redemption.” He leaned his shoulder into the door and surged forward. Lumme flopped to the floor. Redemption’s heart raced. My God! This is it. It’s begun.

He brought a hammer, just in case. But Lumme was so delicate, already two steps from death. Redemption’s gloved hands would suffice.

He cradled the fallen man. “You are Lumme,” yes?”

The old man nodded, attempted to speak but choked and coughed instead. His eyes locked on to Redemption’s face. They revealed a sense of understanding, an acceptance of this fate.

Yes, Redemption thought. You know why I’m here. You know what comes next.

There was a groan. Gurgling. A tremor from the body pinned beneath Redemption. And then … stillness.

Nothing but silence.

It is cold tonight, painfully cold. The air punishes him like needles as he climbs the stairs toward the street.

He wipes his eyes with his gloved hands and remembers Lumme’s eyes, swimming in water like pickled olives.

The faces of numbers two and three are difficult to recall. After Lumme, the process became clockwork, habitual. Ask a question, say his line, burst through the threshold. Act. Stillness. Leave. Pencil. Next.

But he can’t forget Lumme or those runny eyes. His hands curl, as though conforming to the shape of Lumme’s throat.

“I must do this,” he had whispered to Lumme, as the man twitched one last time. He repeated these words with two and three as well, justifying their ends and his means.

“I must do this.” Commissioned. Sent for a purpose.

Sometimes ugliness must occur to preserve beauty, and somebody must assume that burden. If not him, then who?

“Alex Foote,” he mutters. Foote’s face replaces numbers two and three. That’s who he sees, who he’ll continue to see as he runs down the list.

A nose like a bicycle horn, eyebrows thick and wild like his mustache, breath more foul than the odor from his unwashed clothes.

Alex Foote, nowhere, yet everywhere on that list.

Redemption takes out those pages. He smiles at the three uneven lines, then regains composure as he sets his eyes o his next target. A new beginning. Another ending.

His hands again curl around the phantom neck of Lumme. Number three had gone the same way, number two was … messier. Less intimate, yet perhaps more appropriate.

He says number four’s name aloud. Lets the wind carry it away. He follows the words into the cold.


Six months ago, Jackson downsized. A king-size bed seemed an ocean to him. It felt that way to

Kathryn from the first night they slept in it.
“It’s like sleeping alone,” she complained.
Jackson made a show of proving to her that the extra space would not drive them apart. “Besides,” he reasoned, “we’ll need the space when Sarah has a bad dream and wants to sleep with us.”

In truth, Jackson welcomed that empty space. He had never loved the intimacy of small beds, never cared for the closeness of another person as he slept. He didn’t want to push Kathryn away. He just wanted legroom. First-class accommodation.

After Kathryn died, he clung to routine. He fought hard to change little. The way he flicked on and off Sarah’s light switch every morning, cutting toast into squares, not triangles, writing notes in her school lunches. A different person performing the tasks but, still, the same routine.

But his bed changed, grew larger. Too large. It swallowed him every night, only to spit him out each morning. He’d lie on his stomach, right arm outstretched toward the space Kathryn once filled. He cursed himself for ever wanting space from her. All he’d wanted was a few inches. Not all of this.

The bed had to go.

It was replaced with a twin. The smaller the better, he believed. He might’ve gotten a crib if he could, or a dog crate. No need for any space. Empty spaces welcome hauntings; there was enough of that inside of him.

He drifts a bit, but can’t yet fully sleep. Down the hall Sarah breathes. He tries to pace himself with her but instead holds his breath, returns to listening.

Why do I get to see her grow up, he wonders. Why me? I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve her. She needs her mother. Not a clueless fool.

He empties his second glass, sets down the magazine he’s reading, and turns on the news. A strangling downtown.

Jackson shakes his head. Maybe it’s time to leave here. Find a new home. Someplace safer. For Sarah. Why stay here?

But no. This is home, this city. It was his and Kathryn’s home. He’s not ready to leave it. And, besides, bad things happen only to bad people.

Number four is more difficult to find than anticipated. Redemption is spending too much time on this one. His quest might be cut short, interrupted by the morning sun. There are too many eyes in the light of day. But each tossed out name is a tiny victory. There are no losers from this.

This one’s neighborhood is much nicer than the last—row houses of brick, matching metal awnings, and private doors, each with their own stoop. Chalk drawings decorate some stoops; others are dressed with holiday lights, even a few plants fighting the cold.

There is order here, a neatness. Number four’s home looks no different than his neighbors’. Do they realize who lives among them? This predator in men’s clothing?

Number four’s at the end. He scouts the front and back, notices three sets of windows, all at the ground level. Which one will do? Which one is right?

There are two large windows at the front, adjacent to one another, dark curtains cutting them off from the street.

There’s no way to be sure, but Redemption assumes these lead to the living room. Living rooms are a gamble. Many people, he surmised, spend waking hours in living rooms. If they were asleep, it must be restless sleep, TV on, curled up on a couch.

He decides against these windows, goes around to the side. Here is a single window, similar to the single window around back, but this one has a glow. A thin, wisp of pink, like shining strands of cotton candy. Though weak, the light is strong enough to make transparent the curtains in the window.

This makes stealing a peek inside easy, maybe too easy. As visible as the room is to him, won’t he be to anyone inside? How unfortunate if he announced his presence before getting in. Once inside, it does not matter. He’ll take care of whatever obstacle comes his way. But to be prevented from his duty by a careless judgment call?

Unacceptable.

That would mean skipping a number. Letting number four live. A gaping hole to haunt him for years.

He’s not sure what to do. If he could steal just one peek, he’d know if this room was a perfect gateway.

He creeps toward the window from the side, crouching lower with each step, holding his breath. He refuses to lift his head the few inches to crest the sill. Instead, he places his hand on a lower corner of the glass. There’s a warmth bursting through. Too much warmth, he thinks. There’s life in here. And it just does not feel right.

It will have to be the next window.

Jackson leaves open both his and Sarah’s bedroom doors. This makes him feel closer to her, more accessible, just in case.

She has nightmares often. Nightmares that conjure screams, screams that steal sleep, sleep for both of them.

Jackson was a deep sleeper when Kathryn was there. Sarah’s diaper-change calls or demands for feeding never stirred him. Only a hard shake could wake him. He’d set his alarm each night, fully aware he set it for Kathryn, not him.

Kathryn mockingly threatened separate bedrooms, said she was better off beside Sarah’s crib.

“It’s the only way I’ll get a good night’s sleep,” she said.

“I’ll get better,” he promised. But he never did. How could he? Get better at sleeping lighter? Was that even possible?

The answer, he came to discover, was yes. When Kathryn died, his sleep passed away as well. There was no longer a cushion, a fall back, a partner to rely on. He was the last line of defense for Sarah.

Every whimper, sniffle, scratch, and sneeze shook him like thunder. He’d never forgive himself if he slept through something important.

He lies in bed, TV now off, waiting for sleep like it was a long overdue train. “Daddy.”

His body jolts alert. Instinct takes over. His feet hit the ground. His body lunges to the hallway before she calls a second time.

“Coming, sweetie,” he says.

At her doorway he flips the switch, washing out the pink. His eyes squint from the light. He falls onto Sarah’s bed, swoops her up in her arms.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he whispers. “Just a bad dream. A terrible dream.”


Sarah’s body temples like a rabbit’s. He squeezes her, hoping it stops.


She shakes for both of them, he wants to say. She is the conduit of terror. What he fights to bury, she lets erupt. He holds on to her, knowing he holds on to himself as well. “Do you remember what it was about?”


She shakes her head, wipes her nose on his shirt. She doesn’t remember. She never remembers. Is that good or bad? Jackson has no idea. But if she does remember one day, will she share it with him? Will he always be daddy to her?

He may not have the answers, but he’ll listen. He’ll nod and listen. He’ll tell her he knows how she feels. The nightmares, they visit him, too. He’s just too numb to react.

“I’ll stay right here, sweetie. Go back to sleep.” He lays her back on the bed, lets her head sink into her pillow. He strokes her hair.

Will I always be Daddy? Or will I just be your father one day?

He hears the trees sway outside. Creaking. Moaning. Threatening to snap. Blocks of snow fall to the ground with echoing thuds. Why does his mind drift to nails in a coffin?

Sarah’s window rattles.

Why did I bury her? Jackson wonders. The thought of Kathryn out there, cold, alone, blocks of snow falling down, crushing her … why?

“Thank you, Daddy,” Sarah whispers, reminding him there is no Kathryn. No one is there to feel the cold.

This little girl, she’s the closest Jackson will ever be to his wife again. This little girl who thinks of him as the slayer of her fears, like some kind of hero.

But you’re the hero, he says to himself. Every day you save me.

Eventually her breathing deepens. Jackson stops stroking her hair. He pulls himself from her bed. “Thank you,” he whispers. He turns off the light. The pink returns.

He stands at her door. He feels a cold breeze against his back. The hallway is cool, a sudden draft. He folds his arms for warmth.

He doesn’t want to think it, but he does …

“Kathryn?”

Goosebumps rise on his arms; the hairs on the back of his neck stand. He wants to shake this off, but he can’t. Is this Kathryn?

He hesitates at Sarah’s door. With reluctance he closes it, thinking the cold might creep in.

Every sneeze, every sniffle … like thunder.

There’ll be no more nightmares tonight, he reasons, then turns back toward his room. Again, that breeze.

There have been other breezes, other sounds, other nights of false hope. None of it amounted to anything, none of it led to Kathryn. But what if this time is different? What if this time it’s her?

If it is Kathryn, he’ll welcome her, lie with her in bed. Feel the warmth. Cherish how little space there is in the bed. Promise her he’s a light sleeper. Promise he’ll save her this time. Keep her from the cold.

Please be Kathryn, he begs. Please don’t be just another cold breeze, just another disappointment. The unsettling settling. Doesn’t he deserve this? One more night with his wife, his love? Doesn’t Sarah deserve her mother?

Is tonight the night God redeems Himself? “Kathryn,” he whispers into the cold.

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