by Jeff

Por­tals and Why They Matter

portalTak­ing 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.