“What are you willing to stop doing to get back the energy and time you need to achieve what you really want?”
Thus began my 30-day writing challenge when the clock gave way to January, 2017. Over the next 29 days I was emailed 29 more piercing, insistent questions. Each preceded by inspiration from Tara-Nicholle Nelson, founder and CEO of Transformational Consumer Insights.
In person, Nelson is passionate, articulate, and possesses a zest for life that is rare to behold. She’s a person who makes things happen and who inspires others to make things happen—be it to complete a writing challenge, a book manuscript, or a career pivot. She's also known to get companies to shift—focusing less on what they want and more on what the customer needs.
This is something Nelson knows a lot about. In her prior role as vice president of marketing at MyFitnessPal, the fitness company saw its user base more than double and was able to increase engagement by 22 percent during her time there. That’s moving the needle. And in March of 2017, Nelson saw her own book published, The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair with Your Customers by Helping Them Get Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser—the book a culmination of years of research, experience, and insight.
You’ve identified a segment of consumers—of people—that have some distinct desires or needs around how a company should engage with them. Where do you draw the line in the sand between “the Transformational Consumer” and everyone else?
I have spent the last 10 years of my career focused on customers who are clearly, loudly, asking for help from companies around specific categories of aspirations: to be healthier, to be wealthier, and to be wiser. And the first thing I'll say about these aspirations is that they are age-old. They are universal.
Most people would say that they want to live healthier, wealthier, wiser lives, but when we’re talking about Transformational Consumers, these are people who view their lives through the lens that by taking on projects or challenges, their lives can change. They’re optimistic and have a growth mindset, and they know that their own behavior is the lynchpin to that change actually happening.
So this consumer already has what they need to change—the desire and the willpower. Which means that clever advertising showing how a product or service can change or improve their lives might fall flat. How can brands reach this consumer?
Right, it’s not about the product or service. It’s about a company focusing on the customer's’ problems, in their real lives, and helping them overcome those. That’s how you win love, mindshare, attention, and loyalty.
Transformational Consumers are constantly out there spending, looking to invest their time and money on the products and brands and content that can actually help them make these changes successfully. That means they’re often very experimental, and are early adopters of new technology and brands—which also means that they can be very influential on the buying behavior of the people around them.
These consumers are very aware of what I call the “personal construction conundrum,” which is another big picture truth about human aspiration: For the most part, people know, in broad strokes, what they should be doing to make changes to their behavior. The struggle is in actually making those changes. They struggle with motivation. They want help and need help making themselves do the things they already know they need to do.
For the most part, people know, in broad strokes, what they should be doing to make changes to their behavior. The struggle is in actually making those changes.
Are Transformational Consumers a new generation of shoppers, or a growing niche? Put another way, how concerned should businesses be about marketing to this segment?
Very! They are a huge group. We did a survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers for the book, and 50 percent identified as a Transformational Consumer. By that I mean that a full half of the respondents said they use physical or digital products at least three times a week in an effort to live a healthier, wealthier, or wiser life.
I’m often asked: Why is this salient now? Those of us who grew up in the Oprah Winfrey television show era were the first of an entire generation to have grown up constantly hearing from both media and our parents that we have the power to change things in our lives. Preceding generations received more cultural messaging about needing to play the hand that life dealt them. We’ve also grown up in the era of the blogosphere, in which every person who's ever made a big life transformation can share it with whomever they want. Think about it: Is there a single thing that you see that you can’t, literally, within a few clicks on a device, get access to? The power of that is not to be underestimated.
If our parents wanted to start a business and hadn't been in business before, they would have had to go to the library, buy books, study up, and go to school. It just wasn't feasible for people to make life changes at the level and speed that we can today. So going back to that 50 percent, that’s half the human beings that you want to reach in almost any business.
There are many businesses today that cater to the Transformational Consumer, I think—MyFitnessPal among them. But we can’t all be the latest cult fitness app. Some of us sell…. vacuum cleaners.
Really, for most any product, there is a transformational use case. I like to joke that the only products that can’t use a Transformational Consumer framework are alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. Regardless, it’s a lens that companies have to apply—you’re selling a type of transformation, based on a problem you can solve. Perhaps your product resolves a point of friction along a very particular journey. It’s not that you’re making the consumer’s life easier—you’re making the transformational progress easier—and also more beautiful, joyful, faster, or more fun.
Take, for example, something like soap. People will choose different kinds of soap when they’re thinking through the lens of the Transformational Consumer. They’ll think about the purity of ingredients and the non-toxicity of the chemicals, because this is something they’re using on their skin or asking their families to use.
You don’t want to strain credibility, but the thing to take away is that businesses should think about aspirations as broadly as their customers do. All businesses need to take a problem-first perspective instead of a product-first perspective.
Using the soap example, you can market your soap to be transformational—organic and chemical-free—but really, it actually needs to be, which means that reaching these consumers isn’t solely the job of marketers.
Right. It has to be at the center of your company’s ethos. The product actually has to serve those consumer needs. It begins with first creating a product that can unlock transformation and then marketing it that way. All consumers are really smart and will call BS fast, so a product needs to deliver more than good intentions.
One of the things I talk a lot about is how so many executives are focused on growth, on new customers and new revenue, to the exclusion and underinvestment in repeat engagement. I believe that engagement is the lifeblood of a business, and you can’t really be working through this transformational lens if you’re not developing love and loyalty. If the product doesn’t do what you say it does, or isn’t what you say it is, you’ll get people to use it once and then you’ll never see them again.
Engagement is the lifeblood of a business, and you can’t really be working through this transformational lens if you’re not developing love and loyalty.
How can companies apply a transformational lens at every step of the customer journey, including customer service?
For this to work, the company has to have some internal knowledge and understanding of what the customer's “real-world journey” is as they’re trying to solve their healthier, wealthier, and wiser aspirational challenges. If your company exists to solve some of these challenges, everyone needs to know, with clarity, what that real-world customer experience looks like.
This is not the same as a customer lifecycle chart that depicts a customer's course through your brand's own channels. That sort of customer journey mapping is a worthy thing to do, but it’s something different than this. What I advocate that companies do is to literally create a visual map of the customer’s real-world journey to understand the stages that they go through as they attempt to make a change, and learn what their sticking points are and where they hit resistance along the way. From this exercise, you develop an inventory of progress triggers or micro-moments where they stop and ask questions, and you can begin to learn their natural language patterns as they talk about the problems they experience, and how and when to help them progress.
If companies don’t have the resources to hire a research company to do this kind of work, they can start by talking to their sales and customer service people—they talk to prospects and customers more than anybody else and tend to have a great, perhaps undocumented, set of internal knowledge and wisdom around customer challenges, and they know what questions consumers ask most or where things don’t make sense to them. Often, customer service teams can be useful forces of customer knowledge and insight for the whole company as they are trying to learn about their Transformational Consumer and how to serve them better.
I think the reverse is true, too. Because customer service people have so much frontline contact with customers, once your company has this body of knowledge, this beautiful customer journey map and language, customer service can take those insights and change the way that they talk to customers about the product.
There are many examples in your book but, off the cuff, what’s a company that’s doing a good job of serving the Transformational Consumer?
Airbnb has talked about how they see both their hosts and guests as Transformational Consumers. You could travel before Airbnb, but there are people that want to travel in a certain way. One way might be to save money, but there are also people who use Airbnb because they want to feel more like a citizen of the world than a resort guest. We’d count that under “wiser,” going back to the framework in the book. You can see how Airbnb’s platform has totally opened up a completely different type of “wiser” experience that didn’t exist before by creating a whole new set of possibilities for travelers.
You’re also passionate about helping leaders to unlock “transformational leadership” in themselves and others. Can you tell me more about that?
My whole interest in working with Transformational Consumers is that we have such a disengagement epidemic in marketing. There's all this new content coming out all the time and it is very hard to get people to engage with it. So what is that about, especially when we are able to communicate directly with consumers at a level we never have been able to before?
The same is true for internal teams and employees. Data shows that around 70 percent of American employees are disengaged, and that level of disengagement ranges from kind of neutral to super toxic and hateful. I have a slide for my talks on this that reference a Drew Carey quote. He says: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody, and they meet at the bar.”
“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called everybody, and they meet at the bar.” - Drew Carey
Ask yourself honestly: How much of the work I do is based on being in love with life? Do I experience feelings of joy and eagerness and gratitude that I get to do the work I do every day?
It brings me great discomfort to see how many people think that’s an abnormal way to look at work. I know that work can be one of the most uplifting things—the ability to have impact on the world around you, or even outside of your sphere. People in so many lines of work have the ability to create change, but don’t feel like they do.
So if I care about my impact on the world being that we unlock health and wealth and wisdom for billions of people, that's never going to happen if all I'm doing is talking to people about marketing. I also need to help them unlock their own leadership potential, find their voice, and be influential in their organization. Transformational leadership is about the character and activities of a leader who is clear about the change that they want to be part of in the world, and who is committed to creating great change in their own company or team. These leaders are willing to speak up boldly and put their soul on deck—even at work. This has become something that is increasingly important to me and increasingly part of my work.
I love it—Putting your soul on deck. That’s a big charter. What are some things that have worked for you in terms of finding your voice as a leader?
My daily writing practice was so important in changing the clarity with which I saw patterns and discovered what the purpose for my own work was, and with which I could make decisions at work. I like to talk about a daily writing practice as an emotional windshield wiper.
When you get into a leadership position it can be very challenging emotionally. Every day you have to make hard decisions, have hard conversations, and seek out the resources that you need for your team. You have to push back against the higher-ups that may have a different sense for what your team should be doing, and sometimes making the business case for doing the right thing is not the popular thing to do.
People often take on the burden and develop layers of emotional stress. And after days and weeks and months and years, you can get lost and shut down. It becomes hard to make powerful decisions today if yesterday was rough and stressful. So, part of the practice and power of daily writing in my own career was to have that clean emotional slate every day. To get everything out on the page, and get a good night’s sleep so that I wake in a state of clarity, without mental clutter.
Part of the practice and power of daily writing in my own career was to have that clean emotional slate every day. To get everything out on the page, and get a good night’s sleep.
I strongly believe that my daily writing practice has, over the years, increased my ability to think clearly, to reflect on my patterns and connect the dots between life experiences. I’m much clearer on what I want and don’t want, and I believe I make bolder decisions with much more ease now that I write every day than I did before.
As a leader, I’m more grounded and less stressed, so less stress trickles down to the people I work with. I’m much more creative and productive in everything I do for work, and having the ability to speak up with conviction and clarity was a real accelerant for my own path into higher leadership levels. You don’t always have to be right, but people value when you can bring clarity into situations that are chaotic and confusing.
Practices like daily writing, meditation, self-care, physical care and exercise all contribute to how I think about the life of a transformational leader.
In fact, you’ve shared this practice with a much wider community in the form of your 30-day writing challenges, whose participants are, in effect, Transformational Consumers. Are there any stories of transformation that have come from the challenges?
There’s been three challenges so far, and I can’t even communicate—and you know I’m a wordy chick—how incredible these challenges have been for me to participate in and interface directly with participants. I’ve heard from people who’ve quit their jobs and started their own businesses. I’ve had 2-3 people write books. In the last challenge, we had 610 people participate and we already have almost that many signed up for the next challenge, without having promoted it yet. It’s stunning.
If we go back to your Transformational Consumer framework, what are some real-world challenges that participants face as they attempt to journal every day, and how do you help them move forward?
One, they say they don’t have time. Also, sometimes people are afraid of what will come out on the page, but I tell them that if the challenge sparks something inside and then they feel resistance, then the challenge is already working. Resistance is what growing pains look like, and discomfort accompanies growth.
Also, they let perfectionism stop them. So part of the challenge is that no editing is allowed. It’s not supposed to be grammatically correct, or entertaining, or even well-written. The goal is to generate flow, so that your heart and mind learn that they always have access to this safe space to pour out.
A third challenge is that they worry that someone will find their writing and maybe be upset about what they find. And this actually happened to me, but it also was a great opportunity for me to practice speaking up for myself and to practice good boundaries. These days I mostly journal in Google Docs because I can easily search back over time and it can also be password protected.
The challenge is simple: Write every day for thirty days. Every day I send a prompt, built around what I’ve learned from goal science and about behavior change, and a Nightly Nudge, which people really come to rely on. I also offer occasional video prompts and inspiration to keep writing and have a set of tools we offer to help people keep track of their writing as we go along. And we maintain a private Facebook group, which is the most loving, inspirational, kind, and radically accepting place on the internet.
Some people use the challenge just to build a daily practice of free-writing and others use it to make progress on a project. Overall, the challenge is just meant to help people learn that they have capacity to do more than they thought they could. That’s really game-changing. And the messaging is important because I believe people are born perfect, and then we believe these cultural lies that we’re not. So this challenge helps them unlearn those lies. It helps to remind people of their true fullness and worthiness in the world. If you can integrate the idea that you’re a worthy being, then anything you want to do is doable.
If you’re interested in mapping a real-world journey toward transformation, join Nelson's next writing challenge. It starts in November.
Suzanne Barnecut loves reading and writing stories of all kinds and duration. She is a frequent contributor to Relate, and creates brand content and tells customer stories for Zendesk. In her spare time, she can be found writing fiction, reading The New Yorker, and consuming (too many) pastries from San Francisco’s bakeries. Find her on Twitter at: @elisesuz.