Florian Heinemann on Lessons from Building the Zalando Marketing Machine and Marketing Automation

I have looked very much forward to bringing this post. Florian was my early teacher and the first person to open my eyes to how sophisticated digital marketing can be and he is still one of the persons, if not the person, who has influenced my thinking on digital the most.

To those unfamiliar with Florian, his impressive background spans back to the internet heydays of the late 90s. He’s the co-founder and managing director of the Berlin-based early-stage investor and company builder Project A; an angel investor in over 40 companies; a founding Managing Director of Rocket Internet (and through that, he was an instrumental co-CMO at Zalando); and not least, the co-founder of JustBooks/AbeBooks (acquired by Amazon). If I had to describe Florian in a single line, it would be that he’s a guru when it comes to automation, CRM and BI, among other things.

This is the first part of a two-part interview. Read the second part on the future of digital marketing and brand-building here.

Stefan: When you look back at your 15 years in the internet sphere, how would you describe what you have been doing?

Florian: Whether, it’s been on the entrepreneurial and operational side or more on the investor side, the common denominator has always somehow been related to customer acquisition, retention, customer behaviour, and trying to make that as good and systematically replicable as possible. It has always been somehow consumer-related businesses. That’s always been my interest.

I have always mainly worked in an entrepreneurial setting either by funding start-ups myself or by trying to help people to excel in this space.  So far, it has worked more often than not. It has been quite exciting. That’s what I do.

Of all the projects, you’ve been involved in, what would you consider the most successful from a marketing perspective and what was your role?

Zalando is by far the most successful one. That’s fair to say.

I would call myself a Co-CMO. There has always been somebody responsible organizationally or hierarchically for the marketing field, but I always spent roughly three days a week there trying to help that person find the right kind of marketing or CRM approach for the business. I think Co-CMO fits quite nicely.

The beginning of marketing automation at Zalando

How would you describe the campaigns and processes you set up to promote Zalando?

What I am the proudest of and also the unique part about Zalando was the industrialized and very data-informed or data-driven cross-channel approach. We were trying to encompass the customer journey across a wide range of channels and boil them down to the same metrics and optimization logic. To me, designing this machine has been a much bigger success than just setting up a specific campaign.

We’ve not been so creative on the actual content side of things. I mean, they have good content and TV commercials etcetera, but I did not come up with that. It’s not my kind of thing.

While it was not a very creative exercise in the sense of the message, the creativity was in how we designed the processes and the way we organized how people worked within these processes. I think that has been the biggest success and probably what we have been particularly good at. That’s not only Zalando, but it also applies to Rocket Internet and what we do today.

Zalando has been a prime example of that thinking: about how IT and data can actually make marketing more efficient and better. Often times, people in the marketing organization are not very data-driven and not very IT-driven. That has been the core achievement at Zalando for marketing and CRM. I wouldn’t say we had maximal usage of IT and data, but a solid usage of the possibilities that IT systems and data offered.

Where did that creativity come from? Back in those days, online marketing was not as developed as it is today, and most marketers would probably start thinking of creative messages in a traditional sense. Why do you think you thought differently back then?

It was because of the scarcities at Rocket very early on. The real scarcity is the experts on doing things like building a data warehouse or making excellent SEO campaigns. Those people are very scarce and, unfortunately, they mostly don’t get the credit they actually deserve.

Back then, what drove me was how we could scale the few very good people we had. It’s like in IT where you have an IT architect. You build a system and everybody uses the same architecture. I would also use the term “architect” in marketing. Very few people can design a good marketing machine or system and have good enough understanding of the creative, tech and data part involved to do this.

ProjectAInsightsBlogThe whole idea was really that the only way we could scale the Rocket type of companies was by scaling the few architects we had. You can essentially run it with very few people who know what they are doing. If you look at a Zalando type organization, they probably have 400 people in the marketing team. They probably still do. But they likely have only maximum 10 or 15 people in this organization with superior prior experience.

Essentially, the basis for getting people up to speed at these organizations has been a very solid set of processes and systems to work by. Rocket Internet could be a lot better, and they have got a lot better, by valuing people a lot more.

How has this insight changed the way you engage with businesses now compared to the past?

I think we give a lot more credit to experts. At Project A, the internal power balance of experts and the McKinseys and business-focussed people, or what you’d call “triple-A guys”, is much more shifted towards the experts.

Another outcome of this thinking is to say, “well, infrastructure is not just a tool; it’s a very attractive field of investment that can be a lot more capital efficient compared to investing in other parts of the business”. We now invest quite a lot in infrastructure. When you look at the different fields of investment, infrastructure is the single biggest one.

How do you then find these experts?

It’s incredibly difficult to find these people, so we have to teach them ourselves.

The most difficult part is getting the first 3-4. You don’t need more than that. The biggest privilege of a company like yours or ours is that if you have a few people who know how to do this, then you can focus on finding people with the potential and on teaching them. It is a lot easier than finding somebody who works this way with 10 years of experience because there are very few organizations that teach you this way of working and thinking. Two, three or four is enough and you can teach the rest.

Designing the user journey

You touched upon that the creativity was in the process rather than the message. What has been some of the processes that made the biggest difference in the past?

2015-09-10_1759Understanding TV advertising on performance-like metrics has been a big step. It enables you to buy TV and have an, at least somehow, a similar set of KPIs to your online marketing. That has been instrumental.

We’re pretty good now at assessing the direct and indirect effects of TV in terms of how many customers come directly from TV and the later effect. However, we don’t really measure the quality yet and we don’t really understand what’s happening inside people’s heads and why certain things are successful. Comparing it to medical diagnosis, it’s like working on the symptoms but not really understanding the cause and effect relationships. That’s especially the case when it comes to branding.

People always say, “Offline advertising doesn’t work. It’s crap blah-blah-blah…” From today’s thinking, you might say that the old offline companies throw money out the window because they’re doing so much offline. In the end, many offline companies have often successfully built a brand before online was an option. They probably did not do it in the most efficient way, but they were nevertheless successful.

Having a better understanding of how brand-building works and how brands are created on a less fluffy level, is something that I would see as a great breakthrough. I don’t really know how it would work but that is something I would definitely appreciate or see as a great benefit from.

Another big area that has been instrumental in being able to predict lifetime values by introducing predictive analytics. We can now say that a campaign makes sense on a prospective lifetime basis early in the process or campaign. We have been quite good at that at Zalando. However, it’s also a scale game because you need quite a lot of resources to do it. You need somebody just focusing on this. It’s not that easy conceptually and there’s still a lot of stuff that we could do.

Finally, the understanding of the customer journey has been instrumental. We now have a good feel for it and have a much better understanding of how many contact points people actually need and things like that. But there is a part that we haven’t managed to understand yet, and that’s still a challenge for us. The next big step is going from understanding the customer journey to designing the customer journey. If you understand that the average shoe customer needs four visits, then you should know the optimal kind of mixture of messages, creatives and type of contact points that you need to show to a person across different channels to make the ROI, on the overall journey, the highest.

Even though we have an attribution- and lifetime-type thinking, we haven’t yet really implemented an optimization effort across the entire customer journey. We attribute, but we still optimize every channel individually. You take the effect of every channel into account, but you consider it as a given, rather than an object that you can actively manage.

Today you have one coherent logic across the customer journey from the first contact to first purchase and can target people at different stages. However, if you see a journey that continues with repeat purchases etcetera and if you are able to manage this in a better way, then that would be a concept that could be an equal breakthrough to some of the breakthroughs I mentioned earlier like attribution and customer lifetime value.

That will be another big step in marketing efficiency and effectiveness. Once you are able to design customer journeys, real-time advertising will be an elementary pillar. You need though a Zalando type venture to do this as the infrastructure and intelligence that you’ll need for this has a high fixed cost. It doesn’t make sense for businesses where you plan to spend a million dollars a year on marketing. There are some businesses now where it makes sense to implement this thinking and integrate the CRM and customer acquisition perspective into one.

We’ve spoken a lot already about automation. What are some of the general trends that you think will dominate the next months and years?

The whole social advertising area is becoming incredibly interesting. We see most innovation right now around Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, not only on the social media part of it but also in the advertising products. It wasn’t clear to me a few years ago that in essence, Facebook is in, at least, as good a position as Google to do marketing. You’ll see some business actually shifting budget away from Google to Facebook.

I’m sure Pinterest will be the next thing because traffic coming from Pinterest is great for e-commerce or for any type of business that relates somehow to Pinterest. That’s an entirely new field. You can position yourself again as a very innovative advertiser by simply understanding that the possibilities you have on a Facebook-type tech stack. I’m sure the same will go for Pinterest.

The other thing I find very interesting and that very few people have yet understood is the whole usage of video advertising. A big shift will be away from TV towards YouTube or other video platforms and types of video advertising. That is where the customer journey aspect in the sense of designing customer journeys becomes much more relevant. Video advertising will give you the possibility to be much more sophisticated on the messaging you can get across. This allows you to design customer journeys actively. For me, it’s still a relatively early stage compared to the marketing dollars that potentially will go in there 5 to 10 years from now.

These are probably the two things I find interesting and then certainly mobile. Mobile advertising outside of Google and Facebook is still quite nascent and there’s lots of traffic around. Being able to benefit from this as an advertiser is still a big opportunity. I’m always looking for the new fields where I can get a competitive advantage if I do it more cleverly or more systematically.

Connecting the dots: Towards a better application of data

What are some of the trends you see inside data application, data analytics, and BI in general at the moment?

For me, the key challenge is how you can connect data to action. Trying to figure out what’s really the data I should look at. It’s often not so much about the big data stuff. Many people are talking about big data. My notion is that most people still have many problems identifying what is the relevant data out of the structured data like customer data and transaction data. There’s so much stuff around that’s not big data – structured data by definition is not big data – so, in essence, they’re not even at the big data stage. The first step and a big trend right now are to get all the data that you have—all the structured data – and making it available in one data repository that’s truly connected and usable. Analysing data, making it available, and then making it actionable. Then, after doing this, you can think about things like how you can integrate weather data into something like that. Well, then you have real big data, but not so much right now.

What are the challenges in data application and BI right now in your perspective?

For the companies that are successfully more sophisticated than others, it’s really about how they apply data. Just one example in the context of Zalando was saying, “Now we have attribution sorted out, but then it’s really about managing the customer journey.” That’s an application question. For the more sophisticated people, the problem is more about making use of it. Most people still have problems with collection and aggregation and not so much of a problem with analysis and making it actionable. That’s at least my feeling.

The challenge is that you have so few people who can architect this. People don’t really know where to start, because so few people have an overview of how to approach this problem.

Over time, more and more people will figure it out, but right now, people are still talking about their Hadoop clusters and talking about all the things you can do with it. But if you have 18 data warehouses, then a Hadoop cluster won’t solve that problem. The first problem to solve is how to reduce the number of data reports. Most people are not even at the stage of making it usable, so there is no need to talk about Hadoop. Hadoop is not your problem. It’s a nice buzzword, but it is not solving your lowest hanging fruit-type of problem.

FH1

Interesting. If we go to the acquisition part and talk about performance marketing –is that a commoditized product by now or is there still an opportunity to create an edge?

Yes. A year or two or ago I would have said it’s getting commoditized, but now with all the new platforms coming in like Pinterest and also still Facebook, I’m not sure any more. Very few companies use the full potential of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, et cetera. My feeling is that the possibility to make an edge there has improved over the last year or so with new platforms getting more reach or significant reach beyond Google.

Sometimes it takes some time to mature. If you compare the performance that Facebook generated for advertising clients 2 years ago compared today, the platform today is more scalable but it’s also more complex. You shouldn’t underestimate the time it takes to reach a Google-like level of sophistication to produce performance. The whole progress that Facebook has made through the custom audience and things like that just take some time. Because of the data they have, they’re probably one of the few platforms that can actually deliver performance in a scalable way.

CRM is the new SEO

In the context of acquisition and retention, I would like you to talk a bit about a passion of yours –CRM. Without risking guiding you too much in one direction or another, I would like to hear your take on where you see CRM going and what the future looks like for CRM.

I have posted something recently where I said that CRM is the new SEO. I think that’s true, in a way.

When we started at Rocket in 2007-2008, the idea was “okay we do performance marketing and then, if it doesn’t produce any ROI, we just keep generating growth. Then SEO kicks in after 1 or 2 years, and then the whole model has a chance to become profitable”. At least it has a chance to become profitable.

That sounds like a very cynical approach, betting it all on SEO to kick in?

It was okay in those days. I mean; you are on your way, right? It’s a process and not just that you sit there. That was the original approach and in a similar, but much more scalable and systematic way, we applied it to the CRM side. Today, SEO is very hard. It has become increasingly difficult and can be taken away at any point with new updates. The underlying risk profile is horrible. But if you think about it in terms of CRM, it’s really cool because it’s not visible from the outside. Nobody knows what data you have exactly, why you are giving what message to which kind of customer and at what point in time. It’s very hard to reverse engineer unlike SEO, SEM, or retargeting. All of that stuff is, not necessarily easy to reverse engineer, but much of what you do is visible to the outside world at least. That’s not the case with CRM. It’s very hard to say which kind of clusters you build and why you do that. It’s very hard to reverse engineer.

I like CRM so much because there’s a lot of room to build a competitive edge. That’s what it takes and that’s why we invest. That’s a similar thinking as we said earlier with data collection part, preparing CRM as early as possible. One should start early because if you do it right then it can give you a competitive edge and shoot you into profitability.

What are some of the trends that you think will affect the future of CRM?

A trend that we are working on and I would say probably only a few people are doing yet is the Facebook custom audience and, with mobile apps around, push messages. You have more ways to reach customers and you can theoretically do CRM via real time advertising as well.

By targeting existing customers via RTA, not just retargeting, I think you have completely new possibilities for CRM. It’s really about finding the best way to reactivate or keep customers active and orchestrate this: which kind of message through which kind of channel. We’re currently working on a tool that will help you orchestrate the CRM approach on existing customers or depending on which kind of customer segment they’re in, based on the behaviour they’ve shown. I think that will be a great way to become more profitable and better in terms of your business model. Again, the cool thing about is that it’s very hard to reverse engineer it from the outside.

This is the first of a two-part interview. You can read the second part about the future of digital marketing and brand building, here.

Photo: Vimeo.com

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What have been the most successful ways you have automated your marketing?

Florian Heinemann on the Future of Digital Marketing and Brand Building

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Florian Heinemann, co-founder and managing director at Berlin-based early-stage investor and company builder Project A Ventures and former Co-CMO at Zalando.

You can read the first part of Zalando’s marketing strategy and automation here. It is not required to read the parts in any specific order.

Stefan: In the digital space, if you think of great brand builders, what would be some of the names that come to your mind?

Florian: It’s the traditional American names: Warby Parker, Harry’s and these kinds of people.

In Germany, a company called Scarosso has done a good job on the brand-building side. They launched an Italian shoe brand. Germans launching an Italian customized shoe brand. I think, in terms of brand building, on their website and with the stores, they have done very well. They have six real stores where they sell their products. I think they have done a very good job on the brand-building side. The American e-commerce companies mentioned above are also all very good brand builders.

Is it all about the positioning or what exactly is it they do well?

At the start, it’s not all about the positioning. The product you sell needs to be a good product for the target group and really fulfil their needs. Storytelling cannot compensate for a product that doesn’t fit perfectly. Scarosso does a very good job on the product side. The people are extremely happy with the actual product. That’s a precondition you need and then you need a story that really fits well and has hype around it. That’s what the people at Harry’s and Warby Parker are doing extremely well. They’ve created a good product of good quality and then they created a very good story and positioning around it. The consistency between the product and the story is the third component of it.

Either you’re lucky and the thing goes viral or you apply solid traditional media planning to it, but applying media planning is not like magic. If you don’t have proper positioning and substance, it will fail. A lot of stuff fails.

Many vertically integrated brands fail because they don’t do the first two steps right. I wouldn’t start doing broader media before you’re sure that the first two components are right. It’s not just traditional media planning that works if the first two components are right, PR usually works better too. You see that with Harry’s for example who are very good in the field of PR. You could also do that in a systematic way. Rocket has become a lot better at this by the way. Rocket has become very systematic in terms of PR in Europe at least. PR can save you a lot of money if you do it the right way.

You need to be good on all four pieces: the product, positioning and storytelling, media planning, and the PR side. All these four components can be very systematic.

If you look at some of the early-stage start-ups, what are some companies that have impressed you with how they have been able to build up their brand? What exactly about them impressed you?

54eb50d54ecadscr_1424698303-700x466One start-up in our portfolio called ZenMate, which is a virtual private network installed via a plugin in your browser and help you encrypt your traffic directly through that browser. Encryption costs you speed and they compress it to compensate for that effect. All traffic goes to one server infrastructure and they have servers in 10 destinations or 10 countries, so you can decide that it look as if I were in the US. In this way, you can use Twitter for example in Turkey or you can watch American Netflix although you are in Germany.

By now, they have generated 9 million installs with minimal marketing money. They have been very good at initiating a viral campaign. This also highlights what we spoke about earlier; it doesn’t only apply to e-commerce. They’ve done a very good job at making security or failed security a very easy to access products. They’re growing 40,000 installs per day across Chrome, Firefox store, iOS and Android.

They also have a mobile app doing the same thing and that’s all via viral or social approaches. They have been very smart about using Facebook, Twitter, PR, and about having a very good product that people talk about quite a lot. They benefit immensely from what is happening in Turkey, Iran and these kinds of countries.

It impressed me the most how they’ve made security easy – not so much the campaign itself. It has always been a hassle to do and it’s very technical, but they’ve just made it into one-click install plugin, and it looks great. The strong product focus has enhanced its marketing efforts and the virality of the product a lot. The best campaigns or the best marketing programs are based on simple and beautiful products.

garyvaynerchukI listened to a talk lately that was very interesting. It was a speech by a Russian social media guy called Vaynerchuk on a conference in Germany. He said he always spends 80% of his time on what already works, such as Facebook or Google and 20% of his time on new platforms such as figuring out Twitter or Pinterest. He was one of the first ones doing Facebook App-install ads in the US. That really gave him an advantage. His advice was to always try new platforms where there is some kind of reach. For example, not many people use Instagram for visual products, but there’s a lot of reach on this channel and you can generate a lot of reach for very little money. Vaynerchuk said that he now tries to find out how to market on Snapchat. How can you do marketing on Yik Yak? The message we could probably get across is “always be among the first on the platforms that generate reach and try to figure out the best marketing strategies”. I think that’s a very sensible approach.

One thing is when the product is a marketing channel in itself, but that is obviously very product-specific. What do you think of the trends that will define inbound marketing in the next 1-3 years?

MoviepilotI think Movie Pilot is a great example. They have built one of the largest web entertainment websites in the US. That’s where it’s really heading. They built a platform for people who really know a lot about specific topics – in this case, movies or films – and curate it. My feeling is that it’s really about the platforms. It will be more and more difficult to create a completely independent platform, e.g. have your own specific blog. The inbound marketing channels will rather be via the platforms that generate reach, because all the platforms we just talked about have incredible reach, whether it’s Instagram, Tumbler or Pinterest. Twitter is a different case with less reach, it is very difficult and it’s not growing that fast anymore. But Pinterest for example is growing extremely fast. Then you have Facebook and Instagram of course, they are all growing very strongly.

The most successful marketing techniques will be the ones that benefit from these platforms. As long as you do things that help them keep attention of the users on the platform, they will allow you to do that for free. It’s providing platforms with engagement and they know they can place the ads around your content.

Movie Pilot built, I think, 30 million uniques in 2 years in the US. That’s huge. Facebook gives them the platform for free because they say, “well these guys generate so much reach and engagement that we can monetize through our ads and get data.” That’s perfect.

The same thing goes for Onefootball, which is a football app. Facebook allows them to do a lot of marketing stuff on Facebook without monetizing that because they provide engagements. For me, the underlying theme is really picking the right kind of platforms and doing stuff that improves engagement on that platform. This will give you reach, and speaking of reach, that’s how BuzzFeed works. It provides a competitive advantage if you understand that better than others do.

You have been in the entrepreneurial field for quite some time; what would you say are lessons you have learned the hard way?

You always have to have a very good feeling of what your monetization strengths are on a per-user or per-user-contact level. We and several other businesses have had the problem that if your relative monetization strength is too low, you will not make a business successful. The important thing to remember is that monetization strength is not absolute, but always relative to other people going for the same users.

In some businesses, the monetization per user is just lower than in other business models and that simply cannot work. If the relative monetization is too low, there’s no way of having a systematic marketing approach. The moment that happens, it’s just very difficult to scale.

Although I thought I understood this, we have been engaged in that kind of business again. That’s the thing about comparison businesses for example; sometimes you might not be able to get the same monetization as other business models get for the same user. In finance, for example, I would argue that there are insurers that simply can make more money per user. In other comparison verticals, the actual business models you compare can make more money per user. It’s very difficult then to sustainably and systematically grow a business. That is something I definitely learned a few times and have understood by now – hopefully.

We are getting towards the end, what is some good advice that you got early in your career that made a big difference later on?

One thing is to always stay experimental and always stay curious to try out different things. It’s always about finding new channels, finding new angles and staying experimental. I think if you stay open and flexible in your thinking, that’s the safest way to keep differentiation. Many people are too focused on optimizing their existing activities rather than always trying to find new ones.

What would be sort of like 2-3 books that you recommend to new or younger marketers?

I have to admit I don’t read any marketing books.

(Laughs) isn’t that a bit ironic given your previous companies? [Edit: Florian sold AbeBooks to Amazon].

Absolutely. I read books but not these kinds of books. I read them for pleasure. It’s always better to talk to people and to try things out. I think a book on digital marketing is somewhat ironic. (Laughs).

It is indeed moving fast. I know you follow some blogs; maybe you can share a bit about that?

I read things like AdExchanger, ExchangeWire, and Search Engine Watch. But for me, it’s really about talking to people and trying new things. I get a lot more out of these kinds of conversations and visiting conferences where I know that people have the same curiosity-driven mindset and are willing to talk about it. I would rather recommend people to find other people that have the kind of mind-set I just talked about, and then exchange ideas, and just trying it out. I think that’s a lot better than reading too much.

Final question; if people want to hear more of your thoughts or meet you, online or offline, where will they have a good chance of catching you?

You may follow me on Twitter where I have around 3,000 followers and I post quite a lot of articles. The same goes for Facebook. To meet me offline, I speak every 6-8 weeks at a conference, mainly in Europe, which you can follow through the Project A website as well as on blog posts that I write for our Project A Insights blog. That is something that I regularly do; either about e-commerce or in the online marketing field. This is probably the best way to catch up. Then, there are quite a few videos. That’s the cool thing about going to conferences – many of these conferences publish videos of my talks. There are quite a lot of talks online right now.

Thank you so much for your time Florian, it has been very insightful. I’m sure that our readers will find it interesting!

In case you missed the first part of this interview, where Florian goes in-depth on the learnings from building Zalando and marketing automation, you can read it here.

Photo: Benne Ochs (http://benneochs.de/)

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What have you successfully experimented with and what channels or platforms do you think will drive the future of acquisition and retention?

Lessons on Flow State and 9 Ways To Get There

As many others, I have often worked long into the night and until the early morning. Nowadays, it is rarely because I have to. There is rarely a pressure for me to work until 4am or the expectation for that sake. Most often when I sit up late at night, whether in the office, at a hotel room or in my apartment (when I am occasionally at home), it is something else that drives me. Something internal that makes me forget about time and about how I should get more sleep than what is now left of the night.

Since I was little, I have had the experience of being “completely sucked into” certain things I was doing, whether that was drawing (a passion of mine when I was younger) or nowadays when I am working on the growth of our companies. It feels as if time just fast-forwards whilst I am being highly productive. My pen (or the cursor on my computer) leads itself.

Not until a few years ago, have my interest in psychology led me onto the phenomenon of flow or flow state. I am sure most people have experienced this highly productive state, even without being aware that there was a term for it. As with so many other things, once I got a term for it, it becomes “a thing” and once it is a thing, it became something that I can pursue and explore further.

I will use this post to share some of the insights I got from researching about flow state, particularly on how to reach it (which seems to lack research) and what the consequences are for the person experiencing it.

Flow state, the quick background, and the consequences

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term flow in his book Flow – The Psychology Optimal Experience – Steps Toward Enhancing The Quality Of Life. He describes flow as being “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

The consequences of being in a flow state are predominantly positive. The effect of flow state comes in one or more of the following three forms:

  • Affective form – i.e. related to the intensity of arousal or motivation derived from fulfilling the task
  • Cognitive form – i.e. mental abilities and processes related to knowledge such as problem solving, comprehension, memory etc.
  • Physiological form – i.e. the full concentration of all body functions to the given activity (have you ever wondered why many top athletes perform best under pressure?)

All of which can influence the quality of your output positively both during and immediately after the flow state. While the increased quality of output could be a motivation for reaching flow state in itself, the feeling of being in flow is by many described as being so intoxicating that it becomes the main reason people want to reach flow.

In his TED talk, Professor Csikszentmihalyi emphasises an interview with a successful American composer describing the feeling of flow state as: “[He doesn’t need external input to compose], he needs just a piece of paper where he can put down little marks, and as he does that, he can imagine sounds that had not existed before in that particular combination. So once he gets to that point of beginning to create […] a new reality; a moment of ecstasy. He enters a different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist.” While the world around you may feel blurry, a flow experience is usually described by:

  • Focus and concentration
  • A sense of ecstasy
  • Great inner clarity
  • Believing that the activity is doable
  • A sense of serenity
  • Timelessness
  • Intrinsic motivation for completing the task

I am sure that most people have tried this experience of focusing so much on one task that the external world seems to blur.

[The flow state] sounds like a romantic exaggeration, but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second.
In order to hear me and understand what I am saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That is why you cannot hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you. [4]

The shortage in processing capacity also describes another familiar phenomenon:

When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, [you don’t] have enough attention left over to monitor how [your] body feels, or [your] problems at home. [You] cannot feel even that [you are] hungry or tired. [Your] body disappears, [your] identity disappears from [your] consciousness, because [you do not] have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do something well that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time feel that [you] exist. So existence is temporarily suspended and [you brain] works by itself. [4]

How to reach flow state

We have all tried reaching flow state at one or more occurrences in the past. Reaching flow state is desirable both when it comes to productivity and joy of working with a challenge. Given the increased quality and quantity of output, there is no doubt that we can benefit from being in flow state in many cases. This leads to the big question: What can we do to reach flow?

How to reach flow state is still a rather unexplored area of research. Scientists have tested the likelihood of reaching flow state in different environments and while there are certain factors that increase the likelihood, some seem to be so basic, that reaching flow state without them is impossible.

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Skill-demand compatibility

Clear goals and immediate feedback

The first two parts are relatively easy to grasp. The task needs a goal and you have to easily know whether you are progressing or not. It is best if the task has a finite goal, but to my experience, it is also possible to reach flow with a task as long as the desired direction is clear. I have reached flow state in projects where there is no logical ending – i.e. a painter can feel flow, even though the painting may not be “done” at a specific point.

Photo: WikiMedia

Skill-demand compatibility

Csikszentmihalyi first described flow as a specific match between the skills of the person and the challenge he faced. If the match is wrong, the feeling will be boredom, relaxation, anxiety or any other of in total seven non-flow states (see diagram). However, in a certain mix of skills and challenge, the flow state can occur. Skills vary from person to person so no single task will allow all people to reach flow state. In the same way, a task that may cause flow today, might not have caused it yesterday and may not cause it tomorrow as your skill level develops over time.

Underlining the importance of matching skills and challenge, a set of researchers made a group of people play the video game Tetris. Three groups got a different challenge level each. The first group got one designed to instil boredom; the second one to instil an overwhelming challenge and the last one to adapt to the skill set of the player. Not surprisingly, the last group experienced the highest degree of involvement in the game.

No silver bullet

Fulfilling all the above preconditions will not necessarily put you in a flow state. The readiness of an individual to reach flow state differs from person to person and some people may not be able to reach it at all. The readiness differs because the potential to control his or her consciousness differs from person to person.

Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness, for some people attention is directed from the outside, by stimuli like external emergencies and the demand of work and family. Others direct their psychic energy guided by goals and values that they have simply taken from their cultural environment without reflection. [2]

If certain features decrease the likelihood of reaching flow, the big question is how to increase the likelihood.

People who need only a few external cues to represent events in consciousness are more autonomous from the environment. They have a more flexible attention that allows them to restructure experience more easily and therefore to achieve optimal experiences more frequently. [3]

While it may be difficult to measure if a person is directing their attention predominantly towards internal or external factors, research has isolated a number of traits common in the people who are more likely to experience flow state.

  • Internal locus of control – i.e. believe that you can control your own life
  • Autonomy orientation – i.e. the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined
  • Action orientation – i.e. a proactive as opposed to a reactive personality

9 things you can do to increase the likelihood of flow

With the prerequisite conditions outlined, the big question remains “what can make me more likely to reach flow state?”. Firstly, you need to make sure that you fulfil the requirements explained earlier:

  1. Ensure a good skill-challenge match. Alternatively, go for something that will challenge your current skill set – e.g. raise the bar
  2. Have clear goals. You can use sub-goals if the main goal is very large and seems incomprehensible
  3. Focus solely on the task and avoid interruptions. Shut the outside world off with a noise cancelling headset if your surroundings seem distracting
  4. Ensure you have enough time. Flow state is rarely reached straight from the start. Make sure you have enough time to reach it

Secondly, you may find some of the following tips useful:

  1. Be regularly physically active. The state of the psycho-physiological system is more likely to affect the period an individual is able to stay in a state of flow. Multiple people have described the feeling of control and will to action following activities such as running, yoga or martial arts
  2. Train your ability to focus attention. “Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness”. A common way to train focus of attention is meditation
  3. Listen to music. Listening to music can help get you in a certain higher mental state enabling flow
  4. Be creative. Some people describe how being creative stimulates flow. Some of the commonly described ways are through e.g. arts
  5. Be fresh. Exhaustion, fatigue, or self-regulatory resource depletion is likely to inhibit your readiness to enter a state of flow

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What have you done to reach flow state and are there any particular techniques that have worked for you?

Please share your experience in the comments below


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