The problem with positive

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Positivity has a bad rep.

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point being positive and enthusiastic and optimistic became uncool. Even worse, being optimistic got conflated with being naïve or disingenuous. Former Opsware founder and CEO Ben Horowitz describes this phenomenon best.

“I had just met a senior executive at AT&T, and I was excited to find out if my brother-in-law knew him. When I inquired, he said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.”

At that moment, I knew then that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.”

In marketing, this is a particularly weird issue.

On the one hand marketing is compelled by a number of forces to be almost gratuitously positive. But on the other hand, that same positivity is usually the reason so much marketing sucks.

For instance, I deeply believe there’s a fundamental difference between writing for marketing and writing for entertainment. The difference is that most marketing is naturally geared towards being positive, while most entertainment is naturally geared towards being dramatic.

That is, in a film story, you focus on shit blowing up and strong people suffering. In a marketing story, you focus on a resolution that’ll make people feel good things about your brand. It’s a subtle difference in approach that makes a huge difference in impact.

We don’t intuitively believe Wall-E can hook up with Eve without first suffering a great deal and earning the right to hook up with her. It’s only once we’re duly convinced he’s been through enough challenges, that we’ll be happy to watch it happen.

Yet when it comes to marketing, we’ll often betray these instincts and craft sickly sweet, polyanna positive, weak willed messages that start at ‘good’ and end at ‘better’.

“You’re already a sexy, successful woman. Try our sexy, successful shampoo and you’ll be even sexier and successfuller.”

Nothing is only positive.

To be sure, I’m not saying that positive stories are bad stories. On the contrary, I think positive stories are incredibly powerful and if anything, we’re becoming increasingly cynical bastards.

But every story is not a positive story. And knowing the difference is the least we owe to our clients. More pointedly, no story is exclusively positive. For a good thing to happen, bad things often have to be overcome. If talking about those bad things brings us closer to our prospects, we have to deal with those bad things in our content.

In the same way we don’t intuitively believe Wall-E deserves Eve until he’s suffered for that love, we don’t intuitively believe your software is cheaper AND better without seeing an honest trade-off. The more you polish the story or the world the story lives in, the less believable you make it.

And if I can’t believe you, why the fuck would I listen to you?

Inciting change means insulting audiences

Let’s be perfectly blunt. Marketing exists to change minds. (Along with fundamentalist religious nut jobs, marketers are probably the only other group of people so single-mindedly obsessed with ‘converting’ people.)

But changing someone’s mind means acknowledging the fact that you disagree with their original stance. I can’t tell you to stop using the CRM you use today without believing that CRM isn’t good enough for you. And I sure as shit can’t tell you my CRM is better without implying your CRM is worse.

In order to sell, we must inadvertently insult or undermine the actions of the people we’re selling to. The problem is, taking a stance as firm as this is scary.  Because it feels like an inherently negative stance to take. And that’s just plain scary.

Sometimes it’s a fear of Legal. Sometimes it’s a fear of being wrong. Sometimes it’s a fear of offending certain members of your audience.

But in my (admittedly limited) experience, every single time a client has asked us to make something ‘more positive’, the request is rooted in some form of insecurity.

“I know we think they’re wasting their money on their current solution. And I deeply believe it’s true. I just don’t think we should say it to them. Let’s put a positive spin on it to avoid the issue.”

The positivity is a proxy for confidence.

The problem is, when you substitute an audacious stance with a safe, positive one, you substitute strength of conviction with insecurity. So even though the concerns and fears that have motivated you to doubt your right to say something negative might be justifiably terrifying, your positive marketing is unquestionably weaker for it.

As I write this, I’m actually confronted by one such fear. It goes like this.

As I’ve already said, I have clients who’ve asked me to make their content more positive. Not only do I like these people, I respect them as marketers. In describing my issues with their requests for positive spins, aren’t I basically undermining them? The short answer is yes.

Which leaves me with a choice. Either I weaken my argument against unnecessary positivity by being unnecessarily positive about my client experiences.

Or I confront the fact that we disagree and stand by a principle that I honestly believe is in their best interest.

For me, the latter is an obviously better option. Here’s why.

First, it means I give my clients the benefit of the doubt and respect them enough to know they’d see through my bullshit if I got disingenuous.

Second, it means I confront the fact that we disagree and prove the strength of my conviction by sticking to my guns.

Third, it means I can deliver a clear argument with no unnecessary caveats and holes.

I’ll happily avoid saying something negative in our content when it’s hypocritical or factually inaccurate. But when it’s an attempt to avoid causing a fuss, it feels like malpractice. Why?

Because we’re in the business of causing a fuss.

When positivity trumps confidence, everybody snores

To be clear (if a little repetitive), I don’t think positive, helpful, well meaning, warm, fuzzy content is bad. Nor do I believe that crap about negative headlines selling newspapers. (Even though there is some compelling evidence to suggest that’s true.)

I just know how rare it is to find a genuinely positive story that’s also compelling.

More importantly, I know that there are genuinely negative things about our prospects’ worlds that our clients’ products help fix. And each one of those shitty things is an opportunity to show those prospects we get pissed off by the same things that piss them off.

Before Velocity, I never even thought being viscerally upset about stuff was a valuable tactic in marketing. But the more I see unnecessarily namby pamby, sickly sweet messages about real life challenges that make it harder for prospects to do their jobs, the more I’ve grown convinced that a bit of negativity can go a long way in B2B.

You’d be surprised how much more brands are capable off when they get out of their own way.

Image source: The excellent Thumbs and Ammo blog.

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