Heart in or heart out?

The more empathetic you are with your customers, the better the results. Two examples.

Today, two true stories of digital marketing projects I was involved with, one with my heart in it and one without. Warning, these have a predictable plot: “heart in it” wins. But as you read, I encourage you to find two similar stories in your own project history – and ask yourself: how can you generate genuine enthusiasm for a project which at first seems dull?

Case 1: Heart In It

I helped a group of researchers and scientists find volunteers to test their approach to ending the tragedy of Alzheimer’s.

These scientists were (and are now) working on a drug to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease about 10 years before its likely onset – likely based on genetic predisposition. 

If you have one copy of the APOe4 gene, you are 4x as likely as normal to get Alzheimer’s. If you have two copies, 25x as likely – effectively giving you a 1 in 2 chance you’ll get Alzheimer’s. People commit suicide when they find this out.

At the onset of the project, I knew nothing about any of this. I knew about creating a complex web platform – in this case for digital recruiting and marketing. The platform was designed to recruit, screen, and (genetic) counsel clinical trial participants – and it needed to go through 100,000 people to find 1,200 suitable candidates. That’s 100,000 buccal swab kits and… you get the picture. Complexity.

Why use digital marketing to solve this problem? Because there are 50 thousand clinical trials actively recruiting – competition is fierce. I have the highest hopes for a COVID vaccine but I’m aware of the enormity of the task – so many massive Alzheimer’s studies have come up empty. Eli Lilly invested 400 million and got nothing.

Faced with likely failure after years and perhaps an entire lifetime of work, these scientists’ passion infected me. Over the course of a summer, I spent weekends reading – a long book on the disappointing history of Alzheimer’s Disease research, a short book on clinical trials, and dozens of articles about those subjects. I learned about genetic testing trials, the human genome, and genotypes vs phenotypes. I learned that trials are being outsourced to India to avoid regulations. I understood why 23andme.com was reprimanded so heavily for playing doctor. I learned that researchers used to use family doctors (general practitioners) to recruit – now that door is closed.

I even watched the Notebook. Much better than I expected.

As we worked through the design of the recruitment approach, the screening, the genetic counseling – the bits and pieces of what I was learning began to enrich our discussions and improve the outcome of our work. And they could see that it had become something that I also cared about.

My heart was in it. The trial is happening – fingers crossed.

Case 2: Heart Not In It

I converted the entire King James Bible into a searchable website, where each of the 1400 chapters of each book was its own webpage with a discussion thread. I had a newsletter and built up a list of over 2,000 subscribers. I drove people to the site through Google Ads and SEO, kept them their using emailing marketing, quizzes, and discussion, and even sold subscriptions to Christian dating sites. This was 2007 and there weren’t many other sites, if any, with the entire text of the bible on them (now there are probably 100s), so it got some traction from search engines.

But I was something of a fraud because as the site owner and maintainer, I didn’t really have the level of passion for the topic that site visitors assumed I had. The site had the organization and feel of a community site, with a heavy emphasis on commenting and discussion. Many epic, pages-long Bible arguments happened.

In fact, many of the people who came to the site, commented, and signed up for the newsletter, were very devout Christians and bible lovers (I mean that non-judgementally). Naturally, they assumed the site creator was too. For my part, I found the Bible interesting and the KJV extremely beautiful – it’s one of the most beautifully written works ever created. But I was not part of the tribe site visitors assumed I was.

I had chosen to use the Bible as “content” because it was the largest amount of free, high-quality content I could find. I simply wanted to create a site that I could use to improve my digital marketing skills. I didn’t realize I’d be creating a community based on a false premise. Eventually, I closed down the site. In a way, I regret doing so – it was the best way to search the KJV I have yet encountered. I should have given it to someone else to take care of. Someone whose heart was in it.


What did the two projects have in common? Both used digital marketing to bring together people over a serious subject. People volunteer 7 years of their life in an Alzheimer’s trial because their mom or dad died of it; volunteership is not random. Considering that the Bible’s central story is Christ’s Passion, both projects dealt with death and dying.

But what’s most important is that both projects required passion – whether long-held or freshly cultivated.

That’s true of any work you take on – find the crack, the edge, the angle, that you connect to, where it touches you. Why? Because your work and time is important – and so is theirs.

Take good care,