As some of you probably already know, I took a bit of a hiatus this summer. My husband is a teacher who has summers off. I’d always dreamed of taking long, leisurely trips or renting an apartment in a foreign city for a month and working on location during his time off.
As a sole proprietor, that was never a possibility. In fact, I’ve always found myself working at least a few hours (or more) of every day on every trip we’ve taken — and extended absences beyond a week were never in the cards.
After 10+ years of these pseudo-vacations, I was tired. I’m a traveler at heart, and I wanted to wander. I wanted to show my daughter the world while she’s still young, and let my artist husband explore the great works in European museums.
So when flights to Barcelona dropped in price last December, I presented the idea to my partners who responded with a resounding, “Do it.”
And I did.
We left the country for 36 days this summer, exploring Spain and visiting Paris for a week. While I had a few conference calls, reviewed my team’s work, and counseled folks through a few sticky situations, I was gloriously unchained for the most part.
My team, and my partners, stepped up in my absence to allow me the space and time I needed to — honestly — not think about work for a while. Which leads me to the things I did think about, and how they relate to our work.
Because there’s always a blog post hiding in big life events, right?
Be vulnerable and reach out first.
You know how people talk about the French as being rude? After spending three weeks in what must be one of the most friendly countries on earth (Spain), we felt that when we got to Paris. Although I wouldn’t call it rude so much as I’d say Parisiens were frosty, or just a little cold.
The only ice-breaker that we found useful was an attempt at leading with our own terrible version of French, and asking politely (in French) if our server or shopgirl or AirBnB host could speak English. We put ourselves out there — and that little bit of vulnerability changed the dynamic of our interactions.
This is something we always tell our clients when we’re planning their marketing approach — we have to show a bit of vulnerability. Humanize your business; give your visitors and customers a reason to empathize with you, to care about you as a company and as individuals. Create content that shows your target buyers that you understand them and that you know what they need to solve their problems.
In short, that means staying away from heavy industry-specific jargon that your buyers might not understand. Write content that answers simple questions — even really simple questions — that make your visitors feel less alone in asking them. Meet them where they’re at with content that addresses their needs before they have to tell you what those needs are.
Cognitive ease changes everything.
The mental tax of not knowing what to expect in any given situation becomes hyper-real when traveling— and it’s exhausting. Nowhere was this more apparent for us than when ordering food. We’d Google Translate as much as we could, but there was no translation for the sauces or preparations they failed to mention on the menu, and at least twice a day we were met with complete surprises when our food came out of the kitchen.
Have you ever visited a website that was so confusing you didn’t know what to do next, or how to achieve what it is you’re trying to achieve? On the internet, you can just click away to a competitor. You go elsewhere.
But when you’re stuck in another country you learn to just accept whatever happens next, and you start to value really good wayfinding. You look for standardized and pluralistic approaches to symbolism in signage. You look for any way to lighten the cognitive load of even the simplest things, like ordering from a menu.
(My son learned that his once loved (and safe) Caesar salads were actually made with anchovies because he saw a “fish” symbol next to the Spanish version on a menu. He will no longer eat Caesar salads.)
Cognitive ease, otherwise known as cognitive fluency, is quite simply the ease with which our brain processes information. This level of ease impacts how positively (or negatively) we feel about something. Make sure what you’re building or designing isn’t so specific to you and your industry that it alienates, frustrates, and exhausts other visitors. It’s just the friendly thing to do.
Be where your buyers are, when they’re there.
Taking my T-Mobile data connection with me meant I had access to all the finest 2G networks Europe had to offer. Which meant everything we did was painfully and frustratingly slow. Want to know what time the museum opens while you’re walking there from breakfast? That’ll be 6 minutes.
Worse, there were times we’d be wandering and searching for restaurants or attractions nearby, only to (finally) land on a website so confusing or unusable on our mobile phones that we couldn’t even find the hours or address. Guess where we didn’t end up going?
Use your analytics to understand the technology and connection speeds of the people who are using your website and landing pages, and build for the 80%, for the majority of those visitors.
If you’re building a website for any sort of travel or destination, whether foreign or domestic — any time someone might be visiting a city, wandering on foot, looking up information about your restaurant or location or … anything — make it mobile first. Make it fast, too – because 2G isn’t making anyone smile.
Print is still alive and well — while traveling.
Our lives in the U.S. are almost completely paper free. From online bill-pay to Evernote and Google Docs, we have very little reason to print anything. (Our office printer has gone days without working before anyone even noticed.)
But while traveling? That shifts. Our research started with guidebooks while in our AirBnBs, then we moved to our mobile phones while we were out wandering. We saw many, many travelers pulling out their actual paper maps to navigate the big cities. We ran into a lot of adorable neighborhood guides and printed directories of neat areas. And we used them!
Media usage changes drastically while traveling. Tourists still use print maps and guidebooks when they’re traveling, so if your business relies on tourism in any capacity, don’t forego the print ads in the local neighborhood maps and listings in local directories. A well-placed, well-timed, and lovingly-crafted print piece can delight users when they need it.
Take a vacation.
Always, always just go.
I know I’m lucky to have built a workplace and culture that embraces adventure and travel. When someone says, “I got a crazy opportunity to go to Iceland on Monday!” we always say “Go!” — and we figure it out.
International travel — getting out of our comfortable cultural norms — makes us more sympathetic to our diverse buyers, clients, and visitors. Embracing the difference of perspective, of motivation, and even of shared language helps us better understand and accommodate our visitors when we’re writing, designing, and developing marketing materials.
It’s not just about being a better marketer though.
Mental breaks are necessary too. Being able to completely get away from work — even if you love what you do — and maybe more so if you love what you do — is something you need to be the best human you can be.
Get out there. Get lost. Get a little uncomfortable.