Strategy Lessons: The Water Book

Musashi

A Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi in 1645, is one of the world’s classic sources of strategy. Its influence extends beyond military schools to the entire Japanese business culture, and has made its way into Western culture, too. Musashi’s work is one of the texts that comprises the foundation of Zoetica’s strategy services. This blog series looks at each of the Five Rings (chapters), and discusses how some of the phrases apply to the modern communications market.

The Water Book is the second primary chapter of the Five Rings, following the Ground Book. This book primarily focuses on the The Five Attitudes and Approaches to strategy; Upper, Middle, Lower, Right Side and Left Side. Here are interpretations about how these approaches apply to today’s communications marketplace.

1) Read the Tea Leaves

Loose Leaf Tea Sparrows (Stray Dog) Coffee 1-6-08 2292
Image by Steve Depolo

“Your attitude should be large or small according to the situation. Upper, Lower and Middle attitudes are decisive. Left Side and Right Side attitudes are fluid.” Musashi.

To be successful in strategy, one must be able to assess the situation, which in turn determines your approach. This requires research to garner a basic knowledge of the marketplace dynamics and stakeholder motivations. By assessing this data, a strategist should see obvious paths towards attaining desired outcomes, and choose the one that is most likely to succeed with the resources at hand.

In social media, the meme is to listen before participation, content marketing and other actions. This is no different than focus groups in advertising or public relations, market research studies prior to product marketing, or competitive research in all fields. The market landscape, current attitudes and opportunities should be revealed in research.

Dell is one of the better modern examples of consistency when it comes to listening and research. From its original online reputation turnaround campaign Dell Listens to its current social command center efforts in Austin, the company constantly reads its community to anticipate response and direction.

2) Direct Community Interaction with Stakeholders

Lance Armstrong pre-Boston Marathon Event at Macys 6
Image by Stewart Dawson

“The Middle attitude is the heart of attitudes. If we look at strategy on a broad scale, the Middle attitude is the seat of the commander, with the other four attitudes following the commander.” Musashi

Whenever possible, marketers and communicators want to directly interact with their primary stakeholders. This is the best and fastest way to achieve an outcome, if it is mutually advantageous to all parties. Whether that is sales, donations, input on ideas, agreements on civil action, public resolutions of customer or donor issues, customer reviews, or other actions, direct communications are more likely to produce outcomes.

One of the great benefits of social media to the strategist is the ability to build relationships and conduct direct interactions. Direct community interaction through conversation is one of the most powerful Middle Attitudes that a strategist can take.The travesty of the media form has been the use of it like a PR newswire or advertising media, when these media clearly lend themselves to different tasks.

Other direct interactions include a true opt-in email list (in some cases a preferred interaction to social media for core community members), live events like conferences and trade shows, and direct mail. Some of these approaches are more effective than others, and depend on execution. Integrating several approaches may be necessary for success.

One of the best examples of direct community engagement remains the Lance Armstrong Foundation via its LIVESTRONG brand. From its very visible Facebook, Twitter and blog efforts to its grassroots fundraising platform, email efforts, and experimental marketing via platforms like Gowalla, LIVESTRONG consistently directly engages its community with great successes.

3) Top Down Influence Approaches

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates

Image by Joi

“In the second approach with the long sword, from the Upper attitude cut the enemy just as he attacks… In this method there are various changes in timing and spirit.” Musashi

The Upper attitude is one where media and influencers are used to “inform” the marketplace about the right direction. One addresses the marketplace from a position of authority, in essence hoping that the position of media voices and bloggers are enough to trickle down to the community and persuade it.

This has varying levels of success depending on the communicating organization’s position of trust within the community. When an organization has a prominent place in the market and is trusted, it is likely that the approach will be accepted easily. Apple masters this approach better than any company or nonprofit in the marketplace. Consider how Apple successfully uses blogs to leak information, media to report on blogs and vice versa. Every product announcement is like watching a symphony.

When trust is not in place, dissent occurs. Both Facebook and Komen suffer from dissent because they are not fully trusted.

If an organization does not have either a prominent place or trust, than at best influence can buy the entity an opportunity at success. Quora’s hype bubble and subsequent reduction in traffic, and Jumo’s unsuccessful launch are both examples of the inherent weakness in this approach.

Top down PR and PR 2.0 approaches are good as a primary tactical direction when an organization can dominate a market, or cannot engage with its community directly. Otherwise it should be used as a tactic to galvanize a community within a larger strategy.

4) The Groundswell

Tahrir Square Country
Image by magdinio20

“In the third approach, adopt the Lower attitude, anticipating scooping up. When the enemy attacks, hit his hands from below.” Musashi

A more powerful, yet difficult approach to successfully garnering strong community interaction is the Groundswell, as first discussed in concept by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. The Groundswell and its Technographics ladder helped dissect online grassroots actions, but really word of mouth and grassroots efforts occur just as frequently offline as online. A synergy between both is ideal as the Obama presidential and GOP 2010 midterm elections have shown us.

To successfully influence a market using a groundswell, one most focus on both content creators and critics (commenters). Both have voices, and as they continue to speak they create momentum that trickles up until the heart of the community is abuzz. There are a variety of ways to achieve groundswells and word of mouth, including David Sifry’s Magic Middle theory on the social webs, a trickle up media relations theory via trade press to influence mainstream press, and the use of community gatherings to drive larger community and media attention.

In many ways, the Middle East uprisings with their blend of community protests, behind the scenes, organizing, social media peer-to-peer networking activities, and blogging from outspoken dissidents created the most powerful groundswell we have seen since Europe’s nationalist revolutions of the 19th century. On the for-profit side, one of the greatest examples of word of mouth is Zappos.

This is a hard strategy that requires time, patience and constant effort. Do not assume you can achieve it over night. It takes practice.

5) Flanking Techniques

“Left and Right attitudes should be used if there is an obstruction overhead or to one side.” Musashi

The techniques discussed so far — the middle, top and bottom — are from the social, public relations, networking or direct marketing disciplines. But sometimes there is no community in place at all, no way to engage with the media, and/or there may not be time or the means to use a direct approach. This could be because of lack of market attention as a start-up, the need to circumnavigate an entrenched market leader, or other market factors, such as restraining communications or legal policies.

It is in such times when flanking techniques such as advertising, content marketing or SEO must become a primary thrust for a communications effort. BP’s failed communications effort last year — grounded in ethics issues and fear of liability claims — resorted to advertising and SEO placement to combat negative publicity about the Deep Horizon oil spill.

Perhaps a better example is Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad. The Chrysler product deservedly suffers in market perception, and the acclaimed Eminem ad may have bought the car company an opportunity for reconsideration. While there is good reason to be skeptical of the car company based on the overall product, given the handicaps at play, this ad did more than almost any other communications technique could have for Chrysler‘s chances.

All of these strategies work best when integrated as part of a holistic campaign, but invariably one technique or another is the primary lead for an effort. In addition, the Water Book has many more interpretative lessons to offer from bearing and stance to specific tactical technique.

Related Reading

Strategy Lessons: The Ground Book

Strategy Lessons: The Ground Book

Musashi

A Book of Five Rings, written by Miyamoto Musashi in 1645, is one of the world’s classic sources of strategy. The book’s influence extends beyond military schools to the entire Japanese business culture, and has made its way into Western culture, too. It is one of the texts that comprises the foundation of Zoetica’s strategy services. This blog series looks at each of Musashi’s five chapters, and discusses how some of the phrases apply to the modern communications market.

The Ground Book opens the Five Rings with the basics of becoming a successful strategist. Here are five points that illustrate some dynamics in today’s communications marketplace.

1) Conquer Your Fear of Failure

“Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” Musashi

Soldiers understand that death may await them on the battlefield, yet they perform under this duress. A communicator needs to understand that some efforts fail, and in the worst cases, enrage stakeholders. These are not desired outcomes, obviously, but the fear of communicating and negative outcomes has actually crippled some organizations and communicators. There’s no better example than the paralysis facing U.S. Government agencies as they attempt to embrace their public stakeholders on and offline.

This fear must be overcome. It is impossible to envision success if the first thought that comes to mind always involves avoiding failure. Success comes with understanding that failure is a possible outcome, and that you and your organization will learn from the experience, as unfortunate as it may be. Knowing this, the communicator should focus on what will create the best opportunities for success.

As a communicator, preparation through research, consistent practice in creating meaningful interactions between stakeholders and organization, and testing via advisory boards and focus groups comprised of stakeholders are the hallmarks of strong program design. By excelling at the practice of communications, one minimizes the chances for failure. Further, crisis communications remains the only way to handle rough spots, and this too is the hallmark of a strategic communicator. One must know how to interact with dissatisfied stakeholders.

2) Know More Than One Tactic

Bali Dancers / Balinese Dance - Yellow Moths
Yellow Moths by Dominic

“Recently there have been people getting on in the world as strategists, but they are usually just sword-fencers… In olden times strategy was listed among the Ten Abilities and Seven Arts as a beneficial practice. It was certainly an art but as beneficial practice it was not limited to sword fencing. The true value of sword-fencing cannot be seen within the confines of sword-fencing technique.” Musashi

Particularly apropos for today’s social media expert, this phrase can be applied to any discipline. Most media relations aces do not comprehend marketing. Direct marketers do not understand crowdsourcing. Advertisers rarely understand the long term relationship work that business developers and fundraising pros participate in. Like the sword fencers, specialists are just specialists.

To be a true strategist, a chief marketing officer, a leader of a communications department, one must have first hand knowledge of as many communications and marketing disciplines as possible. The insights drawn from one discipline lead to integration as well as the hybrid deployment of individual tactics. This creates the ability to wage campaigns using a wide a variety of best practices.

For example, consider the use of calls to action on right hand columns of blogs and social dashboards. This simple integration of advertising principles into social media creates opportunities for return on investment and clear measurement. Copyblogger is an extremely well written, engaging blog. It also masters the use of calls to action in its right hand column.

3) Envision the Entire Effort Act by Act

“There is timing in everything… From the outset you must know the applicable timing and the inapplicable timing, and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing. This is the main thing in strategy.” Musashi

Many strategic plans end at the selection of tactics. This is not enough. You must envision the entire program, and plan it out in an efficient manner and time the delivery of your efforts appropriately. Whether it’s a methodical daily commitment via an editorial calendar to communicate with a community, or a sudden burst of activity to market a new product/launch an advocacy campaign, actions must be planned. And they need to be planned with metrics and end goals in mind.

Without a plan to get somewhere, you only have tactics. To quote another Asian strategist, Sun Tzu aptly said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

When you envision the entire effort, one can sequence events accordingly. Timing is an essential part of a strategic plan, and Musashi goes into great lengths to discuss timing in the Ground Book, and throughout the entire Book of Five Rings.

Consider that the well discussed Old Spice campaign featuring Isaiah Mustafa moved from targeted ads in movie theaters, to national TV ads, to online influencer outreach, to culminate with online social media responses on Twitter and YouTube. This sequencing was intentional and orchestrated as part of Old Spice’s strategy.

4) Know Your Community Intimately

Seesmic desktop4

“The Way of strategy is the Way of nature. When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally.” Musashi

In tandem with measurement, scenario planning helps the strategist foresee outcomes. Communities and entire markets do not always react the way we anticipate, but when we are in touch with our stakeholder and have considered different scenarios, the pulse is not hard to read. We understand the order of things and evolve as necessary.

Understanding how things may or may not go empowers the strategist to adjust to situations as they arise. When disagreement and discord occur, strong community management often allows an organization to anticipate issues in advance, and address them. Further, measurement as a management tool allows the strategist to play to a program’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses midstream.

In social media circles most people know Seesmic for its social network dashboards. It started as a video social network, but over time Loic Le Meur and the company’s executive team adjusted their strategy to meet the market. It acquired Twhirl, a desktop client to integrate video into Twitter. Demand for the dashboard client was so strong the company simply focused on this aspect of its business, leaving the video social network behind.

5) Don’t Get Stuck on a Tool

“You should not have a favorite weapon. To become over-familiar with one weapon is as much a fault as not knowing it sufficiently well… It is bad for commanders and troopers to have likes and dislikes.” Musashi.

To become overly reliant on any one tool limits your ability to successfully address different stakeholders and situations, and remain successful over time. Let’s be frank, tactics and tools wax and wane as media technologies evolve. Otherwise we’d have Friendster and MySpace buttons atop this post. Kevin Dugan calls this T&F Tunnel Vision, short for over-reliance on Twitter and Facebook.

In any discipline over-reliance on a tactic can significantly limit opportunities for success. Competitors can exploit weaknesses. While one company only engages in media relations, its competitors are actively working trade shows, conferences, industry analysts, online communications, and more.

Zappos’s most well know marketing success is its Twitter efforts. But its direct customer marketing and extended social communications ensures the company’s grassroots efforts will live beyond Twitter.

These are just a several of the lessons gleaned from Musashi’s The Ground Book. The next part in the series is The Water Book.