by Jeff

Portals and Why They Matter

portal“Taking it to the next level” is cliché. So is the phrase “he/she/it opened a lot of doors for me.” But people still reach for these phrases regardless. There’s a reason for that.

Both phrases reflect an intuitive understanding of transitions: that there’s always a threshold to cross. Boundaries define an area, environment, or world. Movement past boundaries necessitates movement through openings in those boundaries — or though portals, if you will.

So where there is change, there are portals, or so our subconscious minds expect. But all too often, businesses fail to meet our subconscious expectation for portals.

Businesses usually want to transition shoppers from thinking one way about a product or service (price sensitive) to another way of thinking, typically one that elevates shared values, big-picture performance, and total experience above price. The goal is to move shoppers from an objective, consumer-reports mindset to an enthusiast’s mindset.

And yet people don’t just snap from one state of mind into another; there has to be a transition and a portal to mark that transition. Put plainly: if you’re selling premium products or experiences, you need to understand the power of portals.

Fantasy Writers Understand Portals

When it comes to portals, perhaps the best people to study are fantasy writers, who have always intuitively sensed the need for portals between worlds:

  • C.S. Lewis had his Wardrobe.
  • J.K. Rowling had her Platform 9 3/4s,
  • L. Frank Baum had Dorothy ride her twister, and
  • The Wachowski Brothers gave Neo his red pill (among other portals).

Enter The Picture Book Powerhouse of Portals

0142404039But some of the most intense and easily observed stacking of portals I’ve come across take place in a children’s picture book: Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner.

And what follows is my breakdown of Portal Stacking in Skippyjon Jones. And to start, let me give you a bit of set-up…

Skippyjon Jones is a young Siamese Cat who likes to pretend that he’s really some other animal. The story starts with him pretending to be a bird, much to his mother’s dismay. So she sends him to his room for a little time out, and that’s when ol’ Skippyjon begins his transformation into the great sword-fighting Chihuahua, El Skippito Friskito.  A transformation involving portals galore.

First, Skippyjon starts bouncing on his bed, with the bouncing symbolically equivalent to flight. Then, during that flight, Skippyjon Jones encounters his first portal:


Literature is rife with the notion of mirrors as portals. And Skippyjon’s midflight glimpse into his mirror reveals his hidden chihuahua nature. A nature which is amplified through the donning of a Lone Ranger style mask by the little kitty. Skippyjon literally becomes invested in the identity.

Then we flash down to Skippyjon’s mother and sisters watching TV downstairs, talking about Skippyjon’s time out. But when the book cuts back to Skippyjon Jones, we’re not brought back up into the room, but forced to look into his room through — you guessed it — a portal:


We’re outside seeing Skippyjon objectively as a masked kitty racing around his room like a freak. And the half-conscious expectation is that when we move inside, we’ll transition from outside to inside in more ways than one, moving from an objective to a subjective understanding, so that we will start to see what Skippyjon/El Skippito Friskito sees.

Still, the reader is further prompted to engage in Skippyjon’s whimsy by yet another portal transition, this time from the room to the closet:


So we have a double-portal transition, from outside the room to inside, and from inside the well-lit room to inside the dark closet, wherein the magical realm of imagination rules, and where Skippyjon Jones, the Siamese cat, fully becomes El Skippito Friskito, the great sword-fighting Chihuahua.

But still, if Skippyjon is to fight something truly monstrous, he might have to cross yet another portal within the imaginary story, before he is to face the monster.  And so it is, as Skippito and his band of Chihuahua friends take a nap, using sleep as the ultimate portal to dreams…


And that’s when the adventures really begin. Until, at the conclusion of Skippyjon’s imaginative adventure, El Skippito is blown back through the portal/closet door, and back to the everyday reality of his mother and sisters. Portal crossing in; portal crossing out.

So why is this important for the book?

It makes the difference between watching a kitten dream something silly, and being emotionally pulled along with him into his dreams. All those portals really help readers (of all ages) “get into” the story. Yes the story itself is delightful, and yes, the author (Judy Schachner) does a wonderful job making the book a blast to read. But I can’t help but think the brilliant use of portals has more than a little do with the books critical praise and widespread popularity.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into this, take a look at the Official Skippyjon Jones Website’s entrance page:

2011-05-22_1231Anyone want to guess what happens when you click to enter?  Go ahead and try it!

So, that’s cool and all, but how can you use it for your business?  We’ll get into that next week…

But for now, let me just give Judy Schachner’s book a hardy plug for all those with young kids out there.  It won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award because it’s both a blast for the parents to read and a delight for kids to listen to. Highly recommended.

And who knows, you might learn something too…

P.S. My mentor and business partner, Roy H. Williams, teaches an entire course on portals. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, you probably ought to check out Wizard Academy at some point. And, yes, as adjunct faculty, my opinion on Wizard Academy is heavily biased ; )

McDonalds-Oatmeal-Commercial-Girl-300x122Have you seen the recent McDonald’s Ad for their Fruit and Maple Oatmeal?

It features a woman who sits down next to her husband, babbling away about the delicious oatmeal she bought.  As she sits down, she remains focused on the oatmeal and never really looks at her husband until after she offers him a spoonful.

Then — surprise! — the man she’s offering to spoon-feed isn’t her husband at all; he’s only dressed like her husband, and is, in fact, a socially awkward dweeb eating breakfast alone. That’s when the icky part happens.

As the woman recovers from her shock, with her extended spoon still hovering in front of the stranger, the social misfit puts his mouth around her spoon and eats the oatmeal.

And we all feel violated for her.

The woman, mortified beyond belief, drops that spoon like it was poison and recoils from the stranger, retreating to the safety of her husband. It’s meant to be funny, but comes off as deeply disturbing. Even after the husband’s “that’s actually how we met” joke makes light of the situation, most viewers remain disturbed and left feeling more than a little icky.

[****A reader helpfully left a youtube link to the commercial in the comments — thanks, Susie! The video captures has some weird overtape in the first few seconds of the commercial, but you can see all the important parts.  Check it out:***]

YouTube Preview Image

But why?

Magical Thinking

goldenboughWhether we admit it or not, we all believe in essences.  Sure, our conscious minds might try to over-rule our emotional belief, but we still believe – we still have the same emotional reactions and make the same decisions as if we consciously believed in essences and cooties. This is why people shy away from cookies placed next to say, tampons or kitty litter, even when both the cookies and the kitty litter are safely wrapped in plastic and never actually touch each other.  It’s also why the billion dollar sports memorabilia industry even exists!

So when the woman in the ad started eating the oatmeal and stuck that spoon in her mouth, she imbued it with some of her essence.  And by eating from that same spoon the stranger not only exposed himself to her germs, but on an emotional level, he enacted a violation — a stolen intimacy with the woman, made against her will. He took some of her essence, and in turn, intermingled his essence with hers, contaminating her spoon.

This is one reason why the woman immediately ditches the spoon — she doesn’t want his essence creeping up the spoon to her hand — and also why she recoils in disgust at the man’s actions.  For any man who fails to recognize that kind of transgression is dangerous, almost sociopathic.

It all makes perfect emotional sense. And if you think I’m spinning off into English Major la la land, just ask yourself:

  • Would you buy furniture from a convicted child molester, even if it was sold for pennies on the dollar? Why not?
  • Would you be upset if you knew that an old bed you had sold in a yard sale was bought by a child molester?
  • Would you give special treatment to some item (aka relic) that had belonged to one of your heroes?

If you answer, no, to the first two questions or, yes, to the third, then at least a part of you believe in essences.

Magical Advertising

So what does this have to do with advertising?

The Laws of MagicBecause the decision-making part of our brains work according to the laws of Magical Thinking. Meaning that your advertising ought to at least be in harmony with those same laws, if not actively leveraging them to your benefit.

And, just so you know, the Law of Contagion/Essences is just one of about two dozen “Laws of Magic” that you’d probably want to keep in mind.

So does your advertising weave magic? Or are you violating these laws and inadvertently leaving your audience feeling icky all over?

P.S. One might say that McDonad’s oatmeal itself is a sign of magical thinking, wherein the mere contact with oats somehow imbues healthful qualities onto a snickers bar’s worth of sugar, chemicals, and saturated fat.



by Jeff

AK-AngryCustomerFor awhile, the conventional wisdom online was that negative reviews typically helped sales by lending credibility to positive reviews, so long as the positive reviews significantly outweighed the negative.

Of course, it’s a lot dicier than that, though, isn’t it?  A ream of other factors come to mind almost instantly, for anyone who has ever shopped on Amazon or Zappos or any other review-heavy site:

  • How articulate and specific are the negative reviews?
  • How much are the negative reviews in agreement about the failings of the product?
  • How damning are these specific faults?
  • Do any of them contradict your brand promise?
  • Do any of the positive reviews countermand the points raised by the negative reviews?

But the question remains: on average, how many negative reviews does it take to make a shopper reconsider a purchase?

The answer, it turns out, is somewhere around three.

And that sounds about right for anything but books, movies, and music — those categories are different, since polarizing ideas and art attract as much as they repulse.

Still, even accepting the 3 negative review rule, there’s a big difference between a negative review of a shoe on Zappos and a negative review on your Website, I’ll bet.  Here’s why:

1) You’re likely either a manufacturer or curator of the products you sell

If Walmart has a badly reviewed item, they can just drop it. Plus, they likely have several other options for customers to choose from. That bad review doesn’t truly reflect on them.  And it’s the same thing with Zappos.

But if you actually MAKE the products, it’s a different story. Especially if that bad review contradicts your marketed quality claims. If you manufacture computer backpacks, for example, and your claim to fame is tough functionality, then negative review over a a bag that frayed and became all-but unserviceable in only 6 months represents a much bigger problem for you than for a mass e-tailer like ebags.com

Similarly, if you’re a small retailer specializing in, say, stereo equipment, and you market yourself as the audiophile’s choice and the place for the discriminating buyer, then the lines and brands you carry and the equipment you sell all carry with them an implicit recommendation: if you’re carrying it, it must be good. So a negative review becomes an attack on your expertise/recommendation.  Not good.

2) You’re likely competing on quality and customer satisfaction

Whether a negative review is fair or not, it almost always betokens an unhappy customer.  Occasionally, the reviewer might commend your resolution of their complaint or dissatisfaction within their negative review, but this is far more the exception than the rule. Most negative reviews just trash the product.  And if your brand promise centers around satisfaction, negative reviews of this kind hurt your credibility.

What Lands End Could Learn from Orvis

So I was looking at buying a new blazer recently, and came across the following reviews of Lands’ End’s Year Round Blazer:




So, you get the picture right?  Lots of reviews calling Land’s End out on dramatically reduced quality and sub-par value for the price point.  And quality and value ARE this brands supposed calling cards, so you’d think that Land’s End might want to DO something about that.

But then, what can they do?  They’ve promised to post all honest reviews, so they have to let the negative reviews stand.

Well, they could do what Orvis does when a negative review pops up.  Take a look:


And that’s how you do it.  You REMIND your customers of your satisfaction guarantees and you visibly show potential shoppers that you did everything possible to resolve the issues brought forth in the review.

Now, Amazon and Zappos probably can’t do that, due to the sheer number of SKUs and reviews they deal with. But YOU can and should do it.

So when it comes to customer reviews, be like Orvis not Land’s End.