My first article: The Science of Marketing (Forbes / Women 2.0)

I’m an author! My first article is now published on both Forbes and Women 2.0.

I hope that you like reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it – and if you do, don’t be shy about clicking on of those ubiquitous social sharing buttons to let others know. The text of the article has been copied below:

The Science Of Marketing (Forbes link, Women 2.0 link)

Marketing in Silicon Valley requires a scientific approach.

By Julie Zhou (Growthmaster, Hipmunk)

Math was my favorite subject in high school. After college, I was primed for the well-trodden path to investment banking where I could play with numbers all day. Instead, when Google came calling in search of marketers, my career took an unexpected turn.

Marketing? The department first to get budget cuts in tough times? Why was a company that had grown into a global powerhouse by living and breathing data hiring marketers?

Years later, I had learned that marketing was unmistakably a science – it was the science of discovering what people loved about your product and of engendering love if none previously existed. Much as Google used mountains of data to match a user to their precise search query, marketing in Silicon Valley required the same scientific approach of matching a user to the magic of your product.

The Power of A Brand
It’s the concept of “magic” that has unfortunately cast marketing in a mysterious and sometimes hokey light. The infamous quote by a former marketer “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted… I just don’t know which half,” hasn’t done our reputation any favors either.

In the current era of marketing, customer communication via the lightning speed of social media can change the perception of a company in an instant. Gone are the days when a marketing department could funnel messages through three major broadcast networks and see what stuck. Just ask the Susan G. Komen Foundation, whose single decision against Planned Parenthood earlier this year ignited a social media firestorm and continues to cost them untold numbers of supporters and donations each day equaling millions of dollars in brand value.

A company cannot afford to not care for its brand, nor can it afford to waste a single advertising dollar or hour of marketing labor. In the age of the Internet, marketing has become a science of speed and precision. And when it’s done right, the effect is truly magical. Google’s brand is now worth over $111 billion, or over 50% of its total market cap.

The Power of Experiments
A brand isn’t born overnight (unless you’re Pinterest). A strong, long-lasting brand is most often the result of thousands of minute improvements rather than one enormous change.

I once worked on launching a new product at Google where I managed a budget greater than the value of most startups devoted to… text ads. What struck me initially as colossal overkill on an un-exciting medium revealed itself to be the foundation of all our marketing work.

On a canvas of 95 text characters, tiny changes had massive effects – clever capitalization and site links increased engagement rate by three or four times. Plurals outperformed singular keyword nouns. The list of minute changes was endless, and even the tiniest one had significant impact when multiplied across millions of users. Then, everything I learned in the cost-effective medium of text ads, we carried over into our display, video and eventually offline channels. Refining the science of our marketing at the text ad level allowed us to avoid costly mistakes in less measurable channels with far more variables – background color, logo size, color matching, vocal tone, billboard angle, oh my!

And lest you think that the value of marketing experiments is limited to the world of online advertising, President Barack Obama would beg to differ. The Obama 2008 election campaign attributed at least $75M worth of donations and 4M email sign-ups to vigorous A/B testing on everything from choice of cover photo to button text on its sign-up page.

There is resistance, I’m sure, to turning marketing into a numbers game – as if doing so will suck the magic out of your product. But just like knowing that Adele’s ability to make us cry is the result of dissonance and large leaps in vocal range doesn’t make her songs any less tear-jerking, revealing the science behind marketing should not make the magic of the product any less powerful. Just like any other skill, marketing done right means making it look easy.

Getting Started
Here are some resourceful blogs and interesting articles for math-conscious marketers:

  1. Nothing but Google Analytics love
  2. Seth Godin’s Blog
  3. How A/B Testing helped Obama win the presidency
  4. How a “growth hacker” leverages distribution channels
  5. Why Good Advertising Works

Presents of all kinds

Yesterday was my birthday. We celebrated with too many flowers to fit into one vase.

Happy tulips

A more surprising present came from the impersonal world of the Internet. Since Google and I share a common birthday, I had always jokingly told people that their annual birthday doodle was for me. This year, though, I discovered it actually was.

Nice hovertext, Google

Try it when you’re logged into Google on your own birthday. Pretty sweet of them to do!

Trying to get ahead in work or life? Eliminate this one phrase from your vocabulary

The advice in this post applies to your lives both inside and outside the office. It applies to all people, but especially to women, who tend to be guilty of using this phrase far more frequently than men do.

“I’m sorry.”

How many times a day do you say this phrase?

Now, how many times did you say this phrase when you were actually at fault? Unless you’re going through a particularly bad day, I predict this number to be a mere fraction of the total instances. Instead you have probably used this phrase when:

  • you don’t understand something
  • speaking up at a meeting
  • offering an idea
  • you bump into someone
  • someone else bumps into you
  • etc.

In which of these cases are you at fault? Unless you make a habit of purposefully running into people, it’s none of them! So why are we apologizing?

Never apologize unless it’s your fault

“I’m sorry” is a very powerful phrase when used to signify remorse and to ask for forgiveness after arguments. By using it out of this context, you at best weaken the power of the phrase and at worst prepare everybody to find you at fault.

We say “I’m sorry” because we want to avoid people criticizing us for a bad idea or for thinking ill of us. And it works. Saying “I’m sorry” is the equivalent of saying “Don’t hurt me” and few people are soulless enough to ignore that plea.

But then what reason do they have to like or admire your idea? You’ve already warned them in advance not to be disappointed. Your credibility as the confident and smart person that you actually are is lost.

We – especially women – must change this perception. There has been much literature about the income and achievement gap between men and women – but we cannot claim our equal rights in the workplace until we stop selling ourselves short.

Here a couple of steps to start eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary.

1) Identify your self-deprecating phrase. “I’m sorry” is the most common one, but here are some similar and equally undesirable variations:

  • “This may be a stupid question but…
  • “We may have already already covered this but…
  • “I wanted to say real quick…
  • “I kind of think that…

Pick just one phrase. It will be tempting to try to stop them all at once, but you want to maximize your chance at success.

2) Determine 3 situations when you’re most likely to say this phrase. Mine were: in meetings, in the gym locker room and on the phone

3) For the first couple days, don’t actively try and change your behavior. Start by making notes of how often you say your phrase in these situations and whether there are any triggers in common. Do you say it most often in meetings with your colleagues or only when your boss is present? Figuring out your triggers will make changing your behavior much easier.

4) Now do whatever works for you to consciously stop saying the phrase. For some, telling someone else about your goal holds you accountable. Others need to put a post-it note on their computer screen. Others pay a dollar every time they slip up. Pick the method that works best for you. And be patient, changing any ingrained habit takes about a month, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip up along the way.

It’s hard to comprehend at first how small changes in your language can make such a difference in how others perceive you, but I can attest to it from personal experience. Showing others only your best and most confident self builds your reputation in their minds, and the rewards just compound over time.

So put only your best self forward! And send me your stories if you’ve applied this advice successfully in your life. Especially if something amazing has come from it.

Doodle 4 Google a.k.a best day to be a Googler

On May 4, 2011, online voting for the 4th year of the Doodle 4 Google contest started. Out of a whopping 107,000 submissions, there were now 40 regional finalists, each with a chance to have their doodle featured on the Google homepage for one day.

On that day, I had the pleasure of flying to the school of Victoria Ta, one of the lucky winners, and congratulating her in front of her entire school in an unforgettable assembly.

Click here to watch a video of the happiest girl in the world:

What was different about presenting to 400 middle school students versus 400 adults? Both groups loved being entertained with demos, with the students far more enthusiastic about audience participation.

"Who's been to Disneyworld?"

(l-r) Alicia, Mrs Kirsch, Victoria, Asst Principal Stout, Principal Kircher, me

Conquering your fear: Tips for public speaking

UPDATE: The video of my speech is now available!

A Gallup poll of American adults listed public speaking as the #2 most common fear. Snakes hit #1 – any tips for conquering that fear are not going to come from me. For most of us, we’ll encounter public speaking situations much more often, even if they don’t always look like this:

The same techniques to master an audience this size can be used to keep the attention of your 3-person team. In either situation, you’ll have the same percentage of people distracted, tired or playing with their cell phones – you’ll also have the same potential to capture their interest and give them an experience that will stick in their minds long after you’ve finished speaking.

There are a million and one tips for public speaking out there – I will share the two that I found most useful for my experience speaking at the press event launch of Google for Nonprofits (G4NP) to a 200-person audience that I did not know.

  • Put yourself in the moment: As with roller coasters, job interviews and skydiving, the anticipation is the worst (or best) part of public speaking. At the G4NP event, a series of engineering directors and nonprofit CEOs took the stage for over an hour as I stood backstage, feeling more and more like the butterflies were going to punch a hole in my stomach. I was in no shape to get up on the stage.

    The solution is to force your mind into the moment so you have no chance to dwell on your worries. There are many ways to do this, some people listen to music, others repeat tongue twisters, others play games – I look at pictures of cute animals online. Not only does this wipe worries from my mind, I end up taking the stage with a huge smile on my face.
  • Give the audience a reason to listen: The amount of time since the beginning of an event is directly proportional to the percentage of your audience that will be on their mobile phones when you take the stage. My speech took place well over the event’s halfway point – not a good starting point. There are two reasons that will focus your audience’s attention on you and keep it there:

    1) It’s all about them. This was my intro at the G4NP event:

    “I am honored to be speaking before you today. The technologies I am about to demonstrate have the power to multiply your organization’s impact on the world. I challenge you to think big – because with mobile phones, we are entering a whole new era of technology.”

    A selected mix of flattery, relevance and accountability that the audience do more than just listen – captured their full attention before securing it with…

    2) Show don’t tell. Preferably pretty things. There’s a reason keynotes begin with high-budget video reels and why the massive screens behind Steve Jobs project images of the latest shiny product and not his face. The audience loves watching things, especially amazing things. I was very fortunate to be giving a speech on mobile innovations – the topic is made for awe-inducing demos. In my 10-minute speech, I spoke for roughly 2 minutes and let the phone be the star of the other 8 minutes.

    Composing an email with Voice Actions

    I knew that I had succeeded when after I had composed this email simply by speaking, a woman got up from her seat to take a picture of the screen.

Class dismissed. Now go conquer that fear!

Full video of my speech: Audience member stands up at 6:00

Self-experiment: Blogging-while-drugged

I am staying home from work today. My out of office message says:

Hi everyone,

I am at home with the flu and will be available by e-mail after noon PST. Please do not call my phone as I currently sound like Vito Corleone with laryngitis.


Not only did writing this make me feel slightly better during a time when I couldn’t remember feeling more miserable – I also got 3 replies from co-workers within 15 minutes about how much they loved my away message. Highly-targeted e-mail marketing could not have asked for a better response rate.

Now to justify the title of this post… here are all of the ingredients currently coursing through my bloodstream:

Hydrogen peroxide (I must have swallowed some of it while gargling)

All of this confirms what I feared when I visited the doctor this morning – they don’t actually know if it’s the flu or something else entirely… just that my mouth feels like it’s swollen twice its regular size. So the best course of action was obviously to throw every drug they could think of at it while the lab techs do their work to diagnose. Where’s Dr. House when you need him?

As someone who never gets sick beyond the occasional sniffles (squashed within 24 hours with obscene amounts of vitamin C), this situation wasn’t likely to repeat itself. Why not make the most of it? Especially since Vicodin = codeine + acetaminophen, and the last time I had codeine following wisdom teeth surgery left me passed out for 12 hours.

Today, I’ll experiment with doing various things while drugged, all intended to provide maximum amusement:

  1. blog (already done!)
  2. have a serious business phone call (scheduled for 30 minutes from now)
  3. film a funny video
  4. learn Java (I’ve had the lesson plans downloaded for weeks)

Additional suggestions are welcome!

Buzzwords for Good: Week 1

learning OR “drill down” OR “ducks in a row” OR “hard stop” OR “think outside the box” OR “synergize” OR “move the needle” OR “it is what it is” OR “impact” OR “take it to the next level” OR “manage expectations” OR “low hanging fruit” OR “utilize” OR “circle back” OR “take it offline” OR “reach out” OR “deep dive” OR “bandwidth” OR “have that conversation” from:me

The above search of last week’s e-mail correspondence revealed:

learning – 1
reach out – 2
deep dive – 1

To this I’m going to add a blatant use of:

take it to the next level – 1

…in speech when I was psyching myself up to jump from 5.10d to 5.11a in rock climbing. It wasn’t work-related – but it was a clear case of generalizing when I could have chosen something much clearer and more specific.

$5 has been earmarked for Room to Read.

Let’s turn those @&#*ing buzzwords into something good

I read this article in Forbes, in which the author rants against the overuse of buzzwords and jargon in American businesses. The top offenders, which I have been guilty of at some point:

drill down
ducks in a row
hard stop
think outside the box
move the needle
it is what it is
learning (noun)
impact (verb)
take it to the next level
manage expectations
low-hanging fruit
circle back
take it offline
reach out
deep dive
have that conversation

The last two I’ve highlighted in red as I overuse them in particular but were not included in the list. I’ve taken public speaking classes, am an active member of Toastmasters International and have taken at least one course in “Making it Stick“. Yet buzzwords persist in my language – Google is a corporation like any other in that we are equally victim to buzzwords.

After reading this article, I searched through a day’s worth of e-mail for these buzzwords and found 5 occurrences. And this doesn’t even count how many times I use these words in speech, which has less of a mental filter than my typed e-mails.

Short of audio-recording myself the entire time I’m in the office, I can’t hold myself accountable for all of the buzzwords I use in speech. But buzzwords in my e-mail I can do something about.

MISSION: For every time I use one of the buzzwords above in an e-mail, I will donate $1 to Room to Read, a charity that works to improve education of children in developing countries.

Let’s turn these buzzwords into the only good they will ever do.

P.S. Yes, I scanned through this blog post before posting to make sure I hadn’t accidentally used a buzzword in it. Fortunately my buzzwords seem isolated to work conversations.

P.P.S Added “have that conversation”

Self-Experiment: Ignoring vacation e-mail

For most of us, taking a vacation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you really need time off to recharge after a grueling year. On the other hand, you dread your e-mail inbox when you return – and by the time you’re finished cleaning out your inbox on your first day back, you need another vacation.

I once spent 4 hours cleaning my inbox after a 2-week vacation. This time, after my 2-week vacation I spent precisely zero minutes cleaning my inbox. The reason was simple: I auto-archived everything and didn’t read anything when I got back.

If a nervous sweat broke out on your forehead at the thought, keep reading. I had planned a vacation from December 24 through January 9. How to ensure that while I was in Costa Rica sipping water from a fresh coconut, the only things going through my head were electrolytes?

I knew myself well enough to be sure of two things:

1) No matter how good my intentions were, I would check e-mail at some point.
2) If I read anything that I desired to respond to but couldn’t, I’d stress out and vacation feeling was ruined.

Logically, the only possible solution that also ensured that I wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown from dealing with e-mail pileup when I returned was to make sure that I never saw it. But what of the consequences? At Google, your inbox is your umbilical cord to the world. In fact, it’s quite rare to ever hear the phone ring in my office. The first week without e-mail would be fine as things were always quiet in the last week of the year. But thefirst week of the new year would be a problem, as everyone clamored for your attention to finish things that didn’t get done in 2010.

What’s the worst that could happen? I tried to scare myself as much as possible: I’d miss a huge launch, I’d delay a huge launch, or I’d not respond in time to a VERY IMPORTANT E-MAIL (VIE). All of which would result in me getting fired.

Getting past this fear took time, but I eventually realized that: no one was going to fire me close to a major holiday week, and if a launch was so huge, they would have told me beforehand so I could arrange backup. Once the decision was made, I had to bring my co-workers around to the idea. This was my out of office auto-response:

I will be OOO until January 9, 2011. If you need to contact me, please resend your e-mail on January 9 as I am auto-archiving all messages received before then and won’t even see it. Happy holidays! Julie

And then I had to hold myself to it. In Gmail, set a filter where anything “To:*” is archived. This diverts any incoming message away from your inbox, whether addressed to you or a mailing list. And honestly, after the third time checking e-mail and seeing no messages, I stopped checking altogether.

So what did end up happening?

  • Several frantics e-mail about launch happening the day I got back. Later got pushed back two days, so I had no problem supporting it.
  • One blog post that I ended up launching one hour later than it was supposed to.
  • Several people worrying about my well-being due to not receiving e-mail responses
  • A massively improved sense of well-being and the most productive day back from vacation I’ve ever had

2000 = Number of e-mails filtered between Dec 24-Jan 9th
4 = Number of e-mails resent to me after vacation

The pros so massively outweighed the cons that I wondered why I’d ever had doubts. But if ever in doubt, put your worst fears into writing and you’ll see that they’re all manageable.

Then kick up your heels and relax. You deserve it.