"Jocelyn is a horse whisperer," I explained to my kids as we pulled into the long driveway of the rural farmhouse in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. "That means she trains horses not with force, but by understanding their psychology and using her posture, movements and words to communicate with them."
Driving back to North Carolina after a week in Manhattan, we arrived at 8pm in need of a quiet, peaceful, safe place to decompress for the night. Iverson the giant poodle greeted us warmly, without suspicion, even though we were complete strangers to him. Jocelyn Pierce Audet came out and greeted us, suggesting that we spend some time with the horses now before it got too late.
Mia, the kids and I followed Jocelyn down to the barn, where the doors were all open and the horses nowhere to be seen. Jocelyn began calling her horses' names, inviting them to come meet the new people. As her shouts echoed over the farm's 52 acres, I saw my kids exchanging glances that clearly said, "She's a horse whisperer?"
As we waited for the horses to finish grazing and chilling in the fields, Jocelyn explained her training philosophy and methodology.
"Horses are herd animals, and they have a very different psychology than humans. As herbivores (grazing prey animals) whose main defense against predators is speed and a good head start, their primary goals in life are safety and peace. In horse whispering parlance we say that horses always seek the place of lowest pressure."
Serafina, a six year old Andalusian filly, galloped up to meet us and instantly demonstrated this constant need for safety by rotating her ears in all directions, in response to every single noise in her environment.
"In order to train a horse, you have to show her that she'll be safer and more comfortable with you than she'd be on her own. That's why I don't need whips or threats or any kind of force.
"Let's say I want to train Serafina to walk up the ramp into a trailer. She's naturally a little scared of this new environment. So I keep her feet moving until she steps on the ramp. Then I let her relax. If she backs down I get her moving again, which corresponds to agitation in her mind. Again, she finds peace, or the spot of lowest pressure, on the ramp. After a bit of this, she'll naturally be drawn to the ramp as the place she can relax."
The next morning, Jocelyn invited us to watch as she gave Serafina her workout. We had no idea how Serafina knew to walk in a particular direction, when to start trotting, when to slow down, stop, canter, gallop, or do some fancy side-stepping footwork. Jocelyn used few words and almost no gestures. She just rode and seemed to telepathically communicate her wishes to Serafina. When she dismounted, she turned her attention back to us.
"I speak to Serafina using my core muscles. First I have to really tune in to my own energy, so I'm really conscious of what I'm communicating. Horses are incredibly sensitive, and they often pick up on tension and fear in humans that the people themselves aren't aware of. Next I assess her mood and state, and see what she needs in order to feel safe and at peace.
"Once those channels of communication are open and clear, I use my muscles to communicate what I want Serafina to do. Since I'm the alpha of the herd, she's happy to give me the responsibility of taking care of her. So it makes her happy to please me, because in her mind that ensures her own safety. She associates me with that spot of lowest pressure she is always seeking."
All that got me thinking about marketing, and the Web, and human beings. I think there are some useful lessons here.
I can totally relate to the horse's need for safety and peace. After a week in Manhattan that included a family wedding, maneuvering a minivan through three episodes of alternate side of the street parking, never-ending honks and sirens, loud construction, and Chinatown during rush hour, I was craving a shady pasture myself. Some place where I didn't have to be on high alert, where nothing unexpected would happen, and where I could let down my guard and be taken care of.
Too much of this state of relaxation has a name. Humans call it "boredom." We also need excitement, novelty, challenge, and surprise. And one requirement of human happiness is the right balance - different for each of us - of excitement and security. Think of the safety/peace requirement as the foundation for the excitement/challenge requirement.
On a physical level, we can only run and jump when our legs are supported by solid ground. On an emotional level, we can make ourselves vulnerable only when we trust the person we're opening up to. On a transactional level, we can only take a financial risk - aka "buy something" - when we feel safe enough with the entire commercial system to open up our wallet.
Online, the "entire commercial system" includes several components. First, the Web itself. People have to feel comfortable making an online purchase of any kind. In the last century, ecommerce was a scary proposition. I remember the rush of exhilaration and fear as Matt and I sat at my Mac SE in 1990 and ordered a pound of pistachios over CompuServe. I sure was glad it was his credit card!
Second, people must have confidence in the "recommendation engine" that brought them to your site. That, as much as anything, is Google's main contribution to the Internet. Finding a site on the first page of Google was like "as seen on TV." Not only were the search results faster and more relevant, they came to seem more trustworthy. After all, Google must employ some quality control to rate Web sites, right?
Third, people who leave Google for a third-party site must feel instant reassurance that they're in the right place. Think of Serafina's ears swiveling like a submarine's sonar, constantly pinging her environment for any sign of danger. On Google.com, the searcher feels safe and protected. Once they leave the protective nest of search, they are momentarily disoriented, unable to process anything beyond "Am I safe here?"
Sean D'Souza of Psychotactics.com likens the Web to an airport in a foreign country you're visiting for the first time and you don't speak the language. If you're on your own, without a trusted guide, your overriding question every step of the way is, "Who can I trust here?"
The cab drivers who are beckoning and shouting at you? The guy with the red cap and semi-official uniform? The airport money exchangers? The rental car desk clerks?
Until you decide to trust someone at least a little, you can't leave the airport. And you can't really concentrate on their offer until you feel safe in their company.
That's the Web. Google's the airport, and all the links on the search results page are offers to take you away from the familiar and into the new. The new is exciting. The new is where all the undiscovered treasures lie. And the new is the only way you make progress on your search. You can't spend your entire vacation at the airport, and you can't spend your entire search on Google. At some point you have to venture out into the world and take your chances.
So your first job as a Web site owner is to be a "Visitor Whisperer": to present a design, content, and functionality that allows your visitor to relax, to feel safe and at peace. Before you can agitate their problem and get them to buy, you must convey your confidence that you can help them. You've helped dozens or hundreds of thousands like them before. You're not afraid of questions and objections.
The fastest way to project this calm, assertive confidence is to align yourself with the whole truth. Eliminate spin, and simply talk about your prospects and how you can help them from a place of integrity. Raise likely objections yourself, and explain clearly whom you can and can't help. Empower your prospects to trust their own judgment and they will automatically trust you.
And like a horse whisperer, build a trusting relationship slowly, letting your prospect lead. Offer them free useful information on your Web site. Offer them a chance to find out more by leaving an email address or calling you on the phone.
Honor their shy skittishness for the intelligent survival mechanism it is, and demonstrate that the safety and peace they seek can be found in your online pasture.
Only then can both of you run free.
For more information on Jocelyn and her horses, visit Enlightenedhorsemanship.com. And here's a video of Serafina learning how to jump: