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Seth's most important book about the art of marketing

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The practical sequel to Purple Cow

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Why the internet works (and doesn't) for your business. And vice versa.

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Seth's worst seller and personal favorite. Change. How it works (and doesn't).

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Top 5 Amazon ebestseller for a year. All about web sites that work.

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« December 2008 | Main | February 2009 »

What is school for?

Seems like a simple question, but given how much time and money we spend on it, it has a wide range of answers, many unexplored, some contradictory. I have a few thoughts about education, how we use it to market ourselves and compete, and I realized that without a common place to start, it's hard to figure out what to do.

So, a starter list. The purpose of school is to:

  1. Become an informed citizen
  2. Be able to read for pleasure
  3. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
  4. Do well on standardized tests
  5. Homogenize society, at least a bit
  6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
  7. Give kids something to do while parents work
  8. Teach future citizens how to conform
  9. Teach future consumers how to desire
  10.  Build a social fabric
  11. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
  12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
  13. Learn for the sake of learning
  14. Help people become interesting and productive
  15. Defang the proletariat
  16. Establish a floor below which a typical person is unlikely to fall
  17. Find and celebrate prodigies, geniuses and the gifted
  18. Make sure kids learn to exercise, eat right and avoid common health problems
  19. Teach future citizens to obey authority
  20. Teach future employees to do the same
  21. Increase appreciation for art and culture
  22. Teach creativity and problem solving
  23. Minimize public spelling mistakes
  24. Increase emotional intelligence
  25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
  26. Increase understanding of a life well lived
  27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players

 If you have the email address of the school board or principals, perhaps you'll forward this list to them (and I hope you are in communication with them regardless, since it's a big chunk of your future and your taxes!). Should make an interesting starting point for a discussion.

What are you good at?

As you consider marketing yourself for your next gig, consider the difference between process and content.

Content is domain knowledge. People you know or skills you've developed. Playing the piano or writing copy about furniture sales. A rolodex of movers in a given industry, or your ability to compute stress ratios in your head.

Domain knowledge is important, but it's (often) easily learnable.

Process, on the other hand, refers to the emotional intelligence skills you have about managing projects, visualizing success, persuading other people of your point of view, dealing with multiple priorities, etc. This stuff is insanely valuable and hard to learn. Unfortunately, it's usually overlooked by headhunters and HR folks, partly because it's hard to accredit or check off in a database.

Venture capitalists like hiring second or third time entrepreneurs because they understand process, not because they can do a spreadsheet.

As the world changes ever faster, as industries shrink and others grow, process ability is priceless. Figure out which sort of process you're world-class at and get even better at it. Then, learn the domain... that's what the internet is for.

One of the reasons that super-talented people become entrepreneurs is that they can put their process expertise to work in a world that often undervalues it.

What would a professional do?

Every day, you do a hundred or a thousand jobs, some of which are occasionally handled by specialists. You make a sales call or give a presentation or answer the phone... you design a slide or create a simple spreadsheet. You get the idea.

When you are busy being a jack of all trades, you're competing against professionals. The recipient of your work doesn't care that you are also capable of doing other things. All she wants is the best she can get.

I'll define a professional as a specialist who does industry standard work for hire. A professional presenter, for example, could give a presentation on anything, not just the topic on which you're passionate about.

When you compete with professionals, you have a problem, because generally speaking, they're better at what they do than you are.

I think there are four valid ways the think your way out of this situation:

  1. Hire a professional.
  2. Be as good as a professional.
  3. Realize that professional-quality work is not required or available and merely come close.
  4. Do work that a professional wouldn't dare do, and use this as an advantage.

The first option requires time and money you might not have, and I'm presuming that's why you didn't do it in the first place.

The second is a smart option, particularly if you do the work often and the quality matters. Slide design and selling are two examples that come to mind here. The first step to getting good is admitting that you aren't (yet.) Invest the time and become a pro if it's important.

The third option is worth investigation, but it's what you've probably already decided without putting words to it. Is the assumption really true? Does your customer/client/employee actually believe that they haven't been shortchanged by your amateur performance? It is costing you in ways you're not measuring because you're willfully ignoring the consequences? Think of all the sub-pro experiences you've had as a customer, instances where someone was pretending to be a chef or a bartender or a computer jock but just came up short... Were you delighted?

The fourth option is really exciting. From personal YouTube videos to particularly poignant and honest presentations or direct and true sales pitches, the humility, freshness and transparency that comes with an honest performance might actually be better than what a professional could do. Harvey Milk was an amateur politician, not a pro. If you're the only person on earth who could have done what you just did, then you're a proud amateur.

You can't skate by when you refuse to mimic a professional. You must connect in a personal, lasting way that matters. That's difficult, but the professionals have no chance to compete with you.

Be an amateur on purpose, not because you have to.

Take the ball and go home

Bullies can't be bullies when they are alone.

If you work with a bully, this is all you need to know. They need you.

A bully is someone who uses physical or psychological force to demean and demoralize someone else. A bully isn't challenging your ideas, or working with you to find a better outcome. A bully is playing a game, one that he or she enjoys and needs. You're welcome to play this game if it makes you happy, but for most people, it will make you miserable. So don't.

The way to work with a bully is not to try to please her or to question the quality of your work or to appease her or to hide from her.

The way to work with a bully is to take the ball and go home. First time, every time.

When there's no ball, there's no game. Bullies hate that. So they'll either behave so they can play with you or they'll go bully someone else.

Call her on her behavior (not who she is, but what she does). "I'm sorry, but when you talk to me like that, I'm unable to do good work. I'll be in my office if you need me." Then walk out, not in a huff, but with a measure of respect for the person (not the behavior).

This is a shocking piece of advice. It might even get you fired. But it will probably save your job and your sanity. Most bullies are deeply unhappy and you might just save their skin. If you're good at what you do, you deserve better than a bully.

Creativity and stretching the sweatshirt

What does it mean to be creative?

You could watch the most non-creative, linear-thinking, do-it-by-the-book cop work to solve a crime and you'd be amazed at how creative her solutions seem to be. Creative for you, because you've never been in that territory before, it's all new, it's all at the edges. Boring for her, because it's the same thing she does every time. It's not creative at all.

For me, creativity is the stuff you do at the edges. But the edges are different for everyone, and the edges change over time. If you visualize the territory you work in as an old Boston Bruins sweatshirt, realize that over time, it stretches out, it gets looser, the edges move away. Stuff that would have been creative last year isn't creative at all today, because it's not near the edges any more.

This gives you two useful tactics for problem solving:
1. If you want to be creative, understand that you'll need to get to the edges, even if the edges have moved. Being creative means immediately going to the place the last person left off.

2. If you are "not creative," if you are the sort of person that gets uncomfortable being creative or has been persuaded you're not capable, don't worry about it. Just stretch the sweatshirt in your spare time, watch the creative things other people have done, keep up with the state of the art. Then, when you do your "not creative" thing, most people will think it's pretty creative indeed.

The goals you never hear about

Doing goal setting with friends and colleagues is always motivating and invigorating for me. You hear things ranging from, "I want to help this village get out of poverty," or "I want to double our market share," or "I want to be financially independent."

What you rarely hear is, "I don't want to fail," "I don't want to look stupid," or "I don't want to make any mistakes."

The problem is that those goals are really common, and left unsaid, they dominate. If your goal is not to be called on in class, that's a largely achievable goal, right?

Think about how often your goal at a conference or a meeting or in a project is, "don't screw up!" or "don't make a fool of yourself and say the wrong thing." These are very easy goals to achieve, of course. Just do as little as possible. The problem is that they sabotage your real goals, the achievement ones.

It's not stupid to have a stated goal of starting several ventures that will fail, or asking three stupid questions a week, or posting a blog post that the world disagrees with. If you don't have goals like this, how exactly are you going to luck into being remarkable?

Jeff Jarvis' new book

It's out this week. I strongly recommend you give it a look.

Anatomy of a campaign

The box just said "Scharffen Berger" on the return label.

I opened it up and there was a simple hand-written note. It said, "Seth, have you ever tasted a chocolate bar like this before? Regards, Raymond Major." His business card was stapled to the note. His title? Senior Staff Scientist.

Attached: exactly one three-ounce chocolate bar, in grey cardboard. The bar itself was wrapped in a waxed-paper like substance, hand folded with a label.

And the chocolate (Tome-Acu 68%) was mind-blowingly good.

Handmade, anticipated and wonderful. From a division of Hershey!

So, what exactly happened here?

  1. They know me. I met John, the founder, years and years ago, and he gave me a plant tour and the story of his product blew me away.
  2. I read John's book. He was true and authentic and inspiring.
  3. I wrote something negative about an engagement with their customer service folks on my blog and they reached out and we had a great conversation on the phone.
  4. The note they sent was hand written.
  5. It was from not just a scientist, but from the senior scientist.
  6. The chocolate was clearly a limited, special item.
  7. And, yes, the chocolate was terrific. Better than terrific.

So, you ask, what if I (the marketer) don't know the blogger or the reporter? What if I don't have permission? What if they don't care about me? What if my product is mediocre?

Alas, the answer isn't good. The answer is: tough. Is this an unreasonable expectation? Lengths too great to have to go to? Well, it's cheaper than buying an ad on the Super Bowl or even buying shelf space at the Safeway.

The way to win is to make things that tiny (or large!) groups want to talk about, or care about, or engage in. That's the story that spreads.

PS as I finished writing this, I got a letter in the mail at home from the local Mexican restaurant. They probably purchased the address of every single person in town from a mailing list broker. It's cheap. Add a stamp and a return address that's interesting (why are they writing to me) and I'll open it.

It was a letter apologizing to the town for how lousy the restaurant had been since it opened three months ago and how hard they were working to fix it and how much they appreciated everyone's feedback. It had a real name at the bottom, a phone number and a $10 gift certificate attached. Wow.

Good guys finish...

I got a note yesterday that said, "I'll be curious to know if it's possible to succeed and to stay clean as I see a lot of dirty "crooks" out there. I am trying to work with good ethics, but I see a lot of successful people talking/teaching "black Hats" strategies that scare me."

Spiritual business is an interesting concept. Is what you do all day at work part of who you are? Is it possible to be a deceitful crook all week but a good person on the weekend?

Can you succeed financially by acting in an ethical way?

I think the Net has opened both ends of the curve. On one hand, black hat tactics, scams, deceit and misdirection are far easier than ever to imagine and to scale. There are certainly people quietly banking millions of dollars as they lie and cheat their way to traffic and clicks.

On the other hand, there's far bigger growth associated with transparency. When your Facebook profile shows years of real connections and outreach and help for your friends, it's a lot more likely you'll get that great job.

When your customer service policies delight rather than enrage, word of mouth more than pays your costs. When past investors blog about how successful and ethical you were, it's a lot easier to attract new investors.

The Net enlarges the public sphere and shrinks the private one. And black hats require the private sphere to exist and thrive. More light = more success for the ethical players.

In a competitive world, then, one with increasing light, the way to win is not to shave more corners or hide more behavior, because you're going against the grain, fighting the tide of increasing light. In fact, the opposite is true. Individuals and organizations that can compete on generosity and fairness repeatedly defeat those that only do it grudgingly.

Lonely, scared & bitter

Generous

Easiest cheap way to dramatically increase sales

Call your customers. Or write to them.

"I know that times might be tough for you. Is there anything I can do to pitch in and help?"

You'll end up doing a lot for your customers. Which is a wonderful privilege. Even for those that don't reciprocate.

The London Session

I'll be doing a rare public event in London, UK in February.

All the details and tickets from the sponsor have just been posted. Hope to see you there.

The five pillars of success

  1. See (really see) what's possible
  2. Know specifically what you want to achieve
  3. Make good decisions
  4. Understand the tactics to get things done and to change minds
  5. Earn the trust and respect of the people around you

It sure seems like we spend all our time on #4.

That's a special case

The reason it's so difficult for people in traditional industries to embrace new models online is that the transition isn't structured in an orderly way.

The new business isn't the same as the old business, just with computers.

People look at PCWorld magazine and they say, "that will never work online." And they're right, it won't, because the business is organized around print and monthly or weekly editions and display ads and a sales force and ...

"Our business will never work online."

And they're right.

But Mashable works just great online. And so does Lifehacker.

"But that's a special case!"

Exactly. But the New Yorker was a special case too. There are plenty of topics that couldn't support a magazine the way the magical mix of this magazine could.

Real estate online is a special case. Classifieds. Coaching. Commerce. Directories. In fact, everything online is a special case, different rules, different economics, different expectations.

What marketers actually sell

Hope2228331745_8a8b55f1be_o Not powder or chemicals or rubber or steel or silicon or talk or installations or even sugary water.

What marketers sell is hope.

The reason is simple: people need more. We run out. We need it replenished. Hope is almost always in short supply.

The magical thing about selling hope is that it makes everything else work better, every day get better, every project work better, every relationship feel better. If you can actually deliver on the hope you sell, there will be a line out the door.

Hope cures cynicism. Hope increases productivity. Hope needs no justification.

The best middle name ever

It's not Warren or Susan or Otis or Samuel or Tricia.

It's "The."

As in Attila The Hun or Alexander The Great or Zorba The Greek.

When your middle name is 'The', it means you're it. The only one. The one that defines the category. I think that focus is a choice, and that the result of appropriate focus is you earn the middle name.

Jordan's Furniture in Waltham was the place to go for that sort of thing. Bocce Pizza and the Anchor Bar were the places in Buffalo when I was growing up. Google is more appropriately called Google the search engine.

Seek the.

Of course, Winnie the Pooh is the exception that proves the rule.

Rubbernecking

I hate rubberneckers. Or at least I despise the human nature that creates that behavior.

Someone is in a horrible car wreck, so what happens? People slow down to look.

Leaving aside the time tax they place on the people behind them (once I was in a three hour jam due to rubber necking of a death on the other side of the road, across the median), what are these people doing? People who wouldn't dream of paying money to watch a snuff film are indulging their curiosity to see carnage on the side of the road and paying with their time and attention.

You know the punchline: the Net is suddenly filled with rubberneckers. People who spend their time at work watching flame wars or indulging their desire to act like trolls, just to get a response. They race to post about plane crashes or server crashes, and they have no trouble investing an hour in debating something that just makes them feel sick.

Move on folks. There's nothing to see here. Important stuff to do over there...

I know it's hopeless. I'll never persuade everyone not to rubberneck. But maybe I can persuade you.

Love (and annoying)

The goal is to create a product that people love. If people love it, they'll forgive a lot. They'll talk about it. They'll promote it. They'll come back. They'll be less price sensitive. They'll bring their friends. They'll work with you to make it better.

If you can't do that, though, perhaps you can make your service or product less annoying.

I understand that "love" and "annoying" are rarely two ends of the spectrum, but in this case, I think they are.

I think smart marketers at Apple work to make products that people love. Smart marketers at American Airlines ought to work at making an airline that isn't annoying.

Firefox used to be a product that people loved. Compared to the alternatives, it was magical. You could go on a quest to promote it and improve it.

At that point, a few years ago, the Firefox movement had a choice. Either continue to make it ever more quirky and lovable (engaging a small audience, but with more passion), or work to make it less annoying (and allow it reach more people). Today, people like (not love) Firefox, they continue to use it, the idea spreads, but slowly. The goal has been chosen by the Firefox folks: to continue to make it less annoying. That's disappointing to the passionate, but it's a strategy.

Another example: I use iCal to keep track of my schedule. It defaults new appointments to 9 am, and if the appointment isn't at 9 am, I have to manually change it. Makes sense. Problem: If the appointment is at 4 pm, and I change the 9 to a 4, iCal sets the alarm to go off at 4 am. Hey, wait a minute. I have never, ever had an appointment at 4 am. Doesn't iCal know this? Why is it so annoying! No one is ever going to love iCal as it stands, or even with some simple improvements, so why don't the engineers spend time making it less annoying instead?

What could iCal do to make the product something you would love? Really love? Clearly, that would require an overhaul. What could they do to make it less annoying? 100 little things, easy to do.

Example: Momofuku was a New York restaurant beloved by many people. People loved it because (not in spite of) how annoying they could be. They were annoyingly inflexible. They didn't have particularly comfortable seating, or great waiters. And the flagship restaurant makes getting a reservation almost impossible. The quirkiness was part of the deal. Something to talk about when you brought a friend...

If all they did was think of ways to be less annoying, the restaurant wouldn't get better for the people who loved it, it would get worse. Unfortunately, they got really popular, forgot what made them lovable and crossed a line. The annoying parts got really annoying, and they forgot to dream up new ways to be beloved. I gave up. It flipped and I hate it now. It's unloved and annoying. Boy are customers like me fickle.

Think of the pretty ordinary things you do or places you go. Could they be less annoying? What if the marketers there spent time and money to eliminate annoying? No, it's not the sort of big time stuff that leads to love, but they're probably not going to get to love anyway. I'm not going to love my dry cleaner or the post office. But if they made them less annoying, I'd spend more money and go more often. Face it, you use Fedex because it's less annoying than the post office, not because you love them.

I think there's a chasm here. You don't go for love and end up with less annoying. You need to do one or the other. There are products and services I love that are annoying, but that's okay, because that's part of being in love. And there are products and services that are annoyance-free, but I don't love them. That's okay too. I like them just fine.

Put a sign on your office door, or send a memo to the team. It should say either, "Everything we do needs to make our product less annoying" or "Everything we do should be idiosyncratic and engage people and invite them to fall in love with us. That's not easy, which is why it's worth it." Can't have both. Must do one.

Who you are and what you do

The neat thing about the online world is that you are judged almost entirely by your actions, usually based on just your fingers.

If you do generous things, people think you are a generous person.
If you bully people, people assume you are a bully.
If you ask dumb questions, people figure you're dumb.
Answer questions well and people assume you're smart and generous.
... you get the idea.

This leads to a few interesting insights.

1. If people criticize you, they are actually criticizing your behavior, not you.
2. If you're not happy with the perception you generate, change the words you type and the messages you send.
3. When you hear from someone, consider the source. Trolls are almost always trolls through and through, which means that you have no obligation to listen, to respond or to placate. On the other hand, if you can find a germ of truth, can't hurt to consider it.

The biggest takeaway for me is this: online interactions are largely expected to be intentional. On purpose. Planned. People assume you did stuff for a reason.

Be clear, be generous, be kind. Can't hurt.

National Day of Service

Monday, January 19 is Martin Luther King Day. And wonderfully, instead of adding yet another shopping day to the calendar, it's being transformed to a day of service.

If every person in the US spent an hour doing something selfless, useful and leveraged, what would happen? What if you and your circle committed to doing it an hour a day for a year? 300 million hours is a lot of hours for just one day, a year of that would change everything.

While I applaud stopgap contributions like helping out in a soup kitchen (where labor and supplies are really needed), I wonder how those that are lucky enough to be web savvy can create work that really adds leverage. What if you did one of these things every day?

Here are some ideas that you can do online or in your community, with time, not so much with money.

  1. Read a copy of the Lorax to a child that's never heard it.
  2. Teach someone how to sell their services on Craigslist, or how to use the web to find a job.
  3. Build a Squidoo lens every day for a year about a favorite author or musician and dedicate the proceeds to charity. 300 a year could earn tens of thousands of dollars for a cause you care about. That adds up to serious money.
  4. Start a blog and profile one worthy non-profit every single day.
  5. Go through your house and find beloved books that you're glad you read... and give them to the library.
  6. Find an artisan and redesign their website or help them figure out how to promote their work.
  7. Create and promote an online petition for a cause you care about.
  8. Make a video that teaches people how to do better in a job interview or balance a checkbook or spot consumer fraud.
  9. Start a Facebook group for like-minded people who support the same non-profit you do. Commit to spending time to promote it, organize the people there and actually create outcomes of value.
  10. Seek out a religion that isn't yours and volunteer to help build a bridge between your circle and theirs.
  11. Write ten letters a day to corporations seeking donations for a local homeless shelter.
  12. Find a tool that non-profits need online, and then organize some brilliant people to build it as an opensource utility.
  13. Find a cause that supports soldiers or diplomats or other public servants that are on the road, and make it easier for them to connect with people back home.
  14. Use Copilot to diagnose and fix computer problems for people or causes that can't afford fancy IT support. It's free on weekends.
  15. Find an entrepreneur in the developing world and become her email penpal. Daily advice and encouragement might save hundreds of lives.
  16. Lobby Congress with letters and blog posts to make a change to a law that doesn't benefit you at all, but helps the community in the long run.
  17. Write a great wikipedia article every day about a person who is changing the world for the better.
  18. Find video and remix it into an insanely viral video that promotes a cause that you believe in.

If you want to add some brainstorms to the list, here's a plexo just waiting for your ideas.

What tools should Twitter add?

Darren wants to know.

Twitter is a protocol, of course, not a company or even a platform. They've made it so open that just about any tool you can imagine has been built or is about to be.

You can find really good coverage of new Twitter tools here and here and here.

The smart kids at Squidoo just launched a new tool, too. You can shout out for our hero Guy Kawasaki or build your own storm. I'm still waiting for someone to start a 'smart' list and of course a 'stupid' one. Have fun.

You're boring

If the marketplace isn't talking about you, there's a reason.

If people aren't discussing your products, your services, your cause, your movement or your career, there's a reason.

The reason is that you're boring. (I guess that's what boring means, right?) And you're probably boring on purpose. You have boring pricing because that's safer. You have a boring location because to do otherwise would be nuts. You have boring products because that's what the market wants. That boring staff? They're perfectly well qualified...

You don't get unboring for free. Remarkable costs time and money and effort, but most of all, remarkable costs a willingness to be wrong. [There's more in an interview I just did with John.]

Remarkable is a choice.

When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?

Years and years after some pundits began predicting the end of newspapers, the newspapers themselves are finally realizing that it's over. Huge debt, high costs, declining subscription rates, plummeting ad base--will the last one out please turn off the lights.

On their way out, though, we're hearing a lot of, "you'll miss us when we're gone..." laments. I got to thinking about this. It's never good to watch people lose their livelihoods or have to move on to something new, even if it might be better. I respect and honor the hard work that so many people have put into newspapers along the way. If we make a list of newspaper attributes and features, which ones would you miss?

Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand... I think we're okay without them.

The sports section? No, that's better online, and in no danger of going away, in fact, overwritten commentary by the masses is burgeoning.

The weather? Ditto. Comics are even better online, and I don't think we'll run out of those.

Book and theater and restaurant reviews? In fact, there are more of these online, often better, definitely more personal and relevant, and also in no danger of going away.

The full page ads for local department stores? The free standing inserts on Sunday? The supermarket coupons? Easily replaced.

How about the editorials and op eds? Again, I think we're not going to see opinion go away, in fact, the web amplifies the good stuff.

What's left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn't a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.

But then I see the in depth stories about the gowns to be worn to the inauguration or the selection of the White House dog and I wonder if newspapers are the most efficient way to do this anyway.

The web has excelled at breaking the world into the tiniest independent parts. We don't use this to support that online. Things support themselves. The food blog isn't a loss leader for the gardening blog. They're separate, usually run by separate people or organizations.

Punchline: if we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it's a public good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of journalists.

The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction. The magic of the web, the reason you should care about this even if you don't care about the news, is that when the marginal cost of something is free and when the time to deliver it is zero, the economics become magical. It's like 6 divided by zero. Infinity.

I'm not worried about how muckrakers will make a living. Tree farmers, on the other hand, need to find a new use for newsprint.

Traffic magnets

Here's a trick that's as old as the web: Run a popularity contest with public voting. It could be anything from a listing of the top blogs to a creative contest for best tagline or ad.

The nominees run around like crazy, hoping to get their friends to vote. Which of course brings you more traffic. This is a large part of the strategy behind Threadless.

I get invited to vote in these all the time, to participate as a nominee regularly and most vexing, to post them here as a way of helping this person or that person achieve some sort of nirvana.

My feeling is that most of the time the cause is too thin and the prize is too lame. If your blog gets picked as the most popular woodworking blog by some other blog, it's really unlikely that you'll find many benefits other than a nice smile for your ego. On the other hand, if you can offer a great prize and/or be useful and relevant, this is a permanent tool in the web toolbox for you.

As I've said, I don't promote these. But, just this one time, I'm breaking my rule for Becky, who didn't even ask me to mention this, and for my friend Dan Pink, who has written another terrific book. If you'd be so kind to visit Dan's site and vote for "stay hungry," it's quite likely that Becky will win a paid for trip to TED UK, which she deserves and will benefit from.(She's only a hundred votes out of first place as I write this).

I promise to do something like this no more than once a year, so wait unto 2010 before you send me a note about your contest! Thanks.

Don't get sued

If you write online, on a blog, on Twitter, on Squidoo, even in the comments section of a site, you are a published author.

Congratulations.

Before you write something negative about another person, you need to realize that the casual nature of your post doesn't protect you from a lawsuit. Charles Glasser is an expert on this and a new edition of his book just came out. You should consider reading it, or be sure to hire an editor who did. It's more sophisticated than a quick overview, but you know you're getting the straight scoop.

Beauty as a signaling strategy

What's beauty? You know it when you see it, sure, but what is it? It turns out that beauty is an important evolutionary byproduct.

An organism needs to invest energy in being beautiful. You won't see healthy skin on a sick animal, because maintaining a healthy coat is too 'expensive'. A sick peacock isn't as spectacular as a healthy one. Or a genetically damaged chimp isn't going to have as symmetrical a face. As a result, most creatures evolved their definitions of beauty in a mate to match the displays of healthy creatures.

Human beings have adopted this signaling strategy with a vengeance. I know a woman who is going to spend more than $9,000 having her hair styled in 2009 (hey, that's less than $200 a week). Entire industries are based on human beings spending time and money in order to manufacture temporary physical beauty.

Businesses build lobbies that they rarely use, giant atriums with big windows and lots of empty space. It's a waste, it's expensive and it's beautiful. It's beautiful because it's expensive.

Stop for a minute and think about the relationship between expense and beauty.

Do you make something beautiful? It could be the way you write hand written letters or leave a little extra on the product, even if maybe it's not so efficient. Sometimes efficiency is beautiful, but only when it took a lot of extra effort to get there. Ordinary products are almost never beautiful. Austere products might be, but only when real effort is expended to make them that way.

Even the most hard-hearted people are suckers for beauty. We treat people and products differently when we think they're beautiful. The reason people and organizations have invested so much in beauty over the years is that beauty pays off.

A website that doesn't cram ads into every single nook and cranny is more beautiful... it's also more expensive to run in the short run. A salesperson who doesn't squeeze you for every penny is more confident, earning more of your trust--that's beautiful.

When everyone has it, it ceases to be beautiful. (Babies are beautiful because time takes their babyhood away so quickly... it's a guaranteed temporary effect). Beauty is a signal, not just a physical state.

In the mood

Songs about romance don't tell you how to make out, they merely encourage it. It's not the data that people seek, it's the mood.

If all we needed to do great work was information, our problems would be over. The internet is the greatest repository anyone could imagine... if you want to know how to do something, the Net will show you how. Anything.

The how, of course, is not important. Books and songs and movies that have an impact work because they motivate us to take action, not because they show us exactly what to do.

Did you not have enough information or expertise to start a successful business during the last boom? Or the boom before that? Are you so ill-informed that you are unable to make a profitable sales call, unable to answer the phone, unable to persuade someone to join your cause? That's unlikely.

We don't have a knowledge shortage. Far from it.

I get very annoyed at pundits who criticize a book for not having enough proof, not enough data, not enough rigorous case studies. I am disappointed at people who hesitate to start something important because they're just waiting to learn enough or know enough or to figure out the answer.

It's like the annoying kid at the magic show shouting, "I know how you did that trick!" Of course you do.

The question isn't, "how do you do the trick?" The question is, "do you feel like doing the work, taking the risk, making a stand and getting it done?" If you don't know how to do the trick, go look it up. Get a tutor. Figure it out. That's the easy part.

You already know how to deliver excellent service that blows people away. You just don't feel like it. Your organization has the resources to buy that machine or enter that market or change that policy. They're just not in the mood.

If I accomplish anything on a good day, it's helping you change attitudes. I'm working hard at getting you in the mood to do the things you already know how to do. I think that's what your boss/the market wants you to do as well.

How to send a personal email

Here are some easy to follow tips that will help you avoid being seen as a spammer, or having your emails trashed or ignored. The thing is this: email reduces friction. Greedy, lazy organizations have embraced this and tried to figure out how to blast as many emails as they can as cheaply as they can, relying on the law of large numbers. The real law of large numbers is, "using large numbers is against the law."

I want you to add friction back in. If you want to be seen as being personal, the best strategy is to be personal, which is slow and expensive.

  1. Don't send the same email to large numbers of people.
  2. If you have more than a few people to contact, you'll be tempted to copy and paste or mail merge. Don't. You'll get caught. It shows. If it's important enough for someone to read, it's important enough for you to rewrite.
  3. Careful with the salutation. Don't write, "Dear Claudia," if you don't usually write "Dear" at the beginning of all your emails.
  4. Don't mush the salutation together with the rest of the note. If I had a dollar for every email that started, "Joe, When experts come together..." That's not personal. That's lazy merging. See rule 1.
  5. Don't send HTML or pictures. Personal email doesn't, why are you?
  6. Don't talk like a press release. Talk like a person. A person is reading this, so why are you talking like that?
  7. Be short. The purpose of an email is not to sell the person on anything other than writing back. If you don't have a personal, interesting way to start a conversation, don't write.
  8. Don't send an email only when you really need something. That's not personal, that's selfish.
  9. Do you have a sig with a phone number in it? Your phone number? If you don't trust me enough to give me your real phone number, I don't trust you enough to read your mail.
  10. Don't mark your email urgent. Urgent to you is not urgent to me.
  11. Don't lie in your subject line, and don't be cute. You're not clever enough to be cute. Just be honest.
  12. Following up on an impersonal spam email is twice as dumb as sending the first one. Invest the time to do it right the first time.
  13. Anticipated, personal and relevant permission mail will always dramatically outperform greedy short-term spam. I promise.
  14. Just because you have someone's email address doesn't mean you have the right to email them.

Cash money for social entrepreneurs

Ramit has a scholarship if you're in your 20s.

The man who invented marketing

This year is the 200th birthday of the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood. That's the good news. The bad news is that his company has filed for bankruptcy. It's sad.

When I first wrote about Wedgwood in Meatball Sundae, I was stunned that one man could have created so many innovations so long ago. The Times piece repeats much of what I wrote, but doesn't go far enough. I hope you'll check out the book if you haven't had a chance.

Marketing is being reinvented, and the difference this time is that you have far more resources, that will pay off far more quickly, than Wedgwood ever did. And who knows what your granddaughter will do with your inheritance?

Time to start a newspaper

What should not-so-busy real estate brokers do?

Why not start a local newspaper?

Here's how I would do it. Assume you've got six people in your office. Each person is responsible to do two things each day:

  • Interview a local business, a local student or a local political activist. You can do it by phone, it can be very short and it might take you ten minutes.
  • Get 20 households to 'subscribe' by giving you their email address and asking for a free subscription. You can use direct contact or flyers or speeches to get your list.

Twice a week, send out the 'newspaper' by email. After one week, it will have more than 500 subscribers and contain more than 20 interesting short articles or quotes about people in the neighborhood. Within a month, (if it's any good) every single person in town who matters will be reading it and forwarding it along to others.

It will cost you nothing. It will become your gift to the community. And it will be a long lasting asset that belongs to you, not to the competition. (And yes, you can do this if you're a plumber or a chiropractor. And yes, you can do this if 'local' isn't geographic for you, but vertical).

Own your Zip code. The next frontier is local, and this is a great way to start.

What to do when the new thing doesn't work

Every once in a while I hear from frustrated bloggers and other new media denizens. They're frustrated that their work isn't spreading fast enough, that the new tools aren't working the way they want them to.

The kneejerk rejection is always the same: Spam! Promote! Advertise! Enough with this zen nonsense, I want to be in charge. Who can I hire? How can I spend? Who do you know? The new tools didn't work, I need the old tools.

Winning an online popularity contest, being mentioned on boingboing, doing a direct mail campaign... these things are tempting, but they are the panicked half-measures of someone who is going to lose.

From the start, you have to choose a path and stick with it. Either you are on the path of the TV Industrial complex, and you're prepared to promote and spam and spend and make average stuff for average people... or you are busy embracing the new media for everything it can offer.

Don't get stuck in the middle. It's painful.

When the new stuff doesn't work, do the new stuff more and better.

The thing about goals

Having goals is a pain in the neck.

If you don't have a goal (a corporate goal, a market share goal, a personal career goal, an athletic goal...) then you can just do your best. You can take what comes. You can reprioritize on a regular basis. If you don't have a goal, you never have to worry about missing it. If you don't have a goal you don't need nearly as many excuses, either.

Not having a goal lets you make a ruckus, or have more fun, or spend time doing what matters right now, which is, after all, the moment in which you are living.

The thing about goals is that living without them is a lot more fun, in the short run.

It seems to me, though, that the people who get things done, who lead, who grow and who make an impact... those people have goals.

Boundaries

I think you can tell a lot about a person or an organization by looking at how they deal with boundaries.

Rigid boundaries: What do you do when you hit a wall? Do you have a tantrum? Spend countless resources trying to scale the unscalable? Or do you accept reality and put your energy into something else?

No boundaries: When there's nothing but open space, do you run? Or shrink?

Consider the American car companies. When faced with real boundaries (like the diminishing supply of oil and the high price of gasoline) they ignored them. When faced with no boundaries (like the opportunity for rapid technological advancement) they hid.

Or consider that misbehaved kid in school. He has a fit when he doesn't get what he wants, and then spends days scheming to get it. Or that student who excels in college, takes extra courses, starts organizations and runs as fast as he can.

Microsoft has had boundary problems. The challenges of the US antitrust suit were a boundary, one that led to a huge timesink and distraction for the company. And the internet is a no-boundary zone, one that seems to intimidate them.

Sure, sometimes a boundary isn't really a boundary. Telling them apart is a key pat of the process. But once you realize that there is (or isn't) a boundary there, what now?

Willing to be lucky

I just heard Kurt Andersen quote E.B. White with this glorious phrase.

How willing is your organization to be lucky? What about you in your career and your marketing efforts? Or in the people you meet or the places you go or the movies you see or the books you read?

My closest friends each were found as a result of chance encounters and luck. So were my biggest ideas and some of my most successful ventures.

It's very easy to plot a course for today that minimizes the chance of disappointment or bad outcomes or lousy luck.

I wonder if you could plot a different course, one that created opportunities for good luck?

Teaching people a lesson

David writes in to point out that banks are losing a fortune on foreclosures because many frustrated homeowners are trashing the houses before they leave. This dramatically diminishes the value of the home and leaves scars all around.

Why not, he wonders, offer the homeowners $1000 in cash if they leave the house in great condition?

I can hear the objections already. "What! Why should we pay people not to break the law!" After all, if you do it this time, if you bribe people to behave, then you'll have to do it every time...

Every time? How often, exactly, do you expect to evict a person?

It's very easy to set up policies and procedures designed to give people what they deserve, to set a standard, to teach a lesson, to make sure they understand who's boss. And I think that for parents, this is an excellent idea. Bribing your kid leads to spoiled kids who don't get it. But businesses aren't parents and customers aren't kids.

"I can't let you in, because you didn't follow the procedure, and even though you're never coming back here again, if I let you in now, without having followed the procedure, you'll think that you can ignore the procedure the next time you do business with someone else..." It sounds stupid when you say it that way because it is stupid.

You can extend this all the way to how you hire people. Is penalizing a 40 year old by not giving her a job a way to teach her a lesson about studying harder for the SAT when she was 17?

Instead of worrying so much about establishing good habits among transient customers, perhaps it's worth figuring out what works best for both sides and doing that instead.

Is everything okay?

Unless you work in a nuclear power plant, the answer is certainly no (and if you work there, I hope the answer is yes.)

No, everything is not okay. Not in a growing organization. Not if your company is making change happen, or dealing with customers. How could it be?

And yet, that's what so many managers focus on. How to make everything okay.

We spend so much time smoothing things out, we lose the opportunity for change, or for texture or creativity.

Instead of working so hard to make everything okay, perhaps it is more helpful to work hard at living with a world that rarely is.

When marketing goes nuclear

Scarcity plus Christmas plus social pressure plus greed plus kids = critical mass.

The most poignant moment comes just after 3:00 when a young boy totally loses it.

This is the most disturbing video I've seen today.

Do ads work?

If the local bank were offering a sale on dollar bills, ninety cents each, how many would you buy?

Most rational people would say, "I'll take them all please." Especially if you had thirty days to pay for them.

So, why, precisely, do you have an ad budget?

If your ads work, if you can measure them and they return more profit than they cost, why not keep buying them until they stop working?

And if they don't work, why are you running them?

The time-tested response is that you're not sure, that ads are risky, that you can't tell. And for some sorts of products and some sorts of ads, you'll get no argument from me.

Digital ads are different (or they should be). You should know cost per click and revenue per click and be able to make a smart guess about lifetime value of a click. And if that's positive, buy, buy, buy.

And if you don't know those things, why are you buying digital ads?

When Amazon was at its key growth peak, the mantra there was $33. They would buy unlimited ads, of any kind, as long as they generated new customers for $33 or less each. There was a risk that $33 was too high a number for the business to sustain, but the ads were no risk at all. As long as they came in under that number, there was unlimited money to buy them.

How often do you hear the marketing person say, "that's a neat idea, but we don't have the budget this year"?

Shouldn't she say, "We have an unlimited budget for ads that work"...

Change your pricing

When a restaurant goes from a la carte to either a buffet or a prix fixe meal, it is able to find a new class of customers.

Could a law firm charge by the project? When I incorporated Yoyodyne, a fancy firm charged us a fix rate.

Netflix went from charging by the rental to charging by the month.

We use tolls to charge people who drive over bridges more than other folks. We don't hesitate to charge people ordering steak more than people ordering pasta in a restaurant. Could the library charge frequent readers more? What about insurance companies charging more to young families (more likely to have a baby).

Ski areas have a huge fixed cost base (land, grooming, etc.) so they get greedy, sell too many lift tickets and the lines get long. Fixed pricing encourages people to ski a lot, at peak times. What if only cost $3 to get on the mountain, plus a small charge for each lift ride and a premium price for popular lifts at popular times? The technology is already there, the only reason not to try it is momentum.

If you're a copywriter or masseuse or other sort of freelancer, how many retainer clients do you need to relax and spend more time on the work, less on the billing/looking part? What happens when an artist does this?

Why don't airlines experiment with auctioning of seats, baseball card style? You could buy the rights to a seat for $200 (speculating, if you like) and then try to sell it off as the flight time get closer--it's not hard to imagine an easy to use website for these transactions. The seat might change hands a dozen times, earning the airline a processing fee each time, and enriching those that want to start trading this expiring commodity. Sports teams are already trying to figure out how to make this work.

Changing your pricing changes your story.

Happy new year

I don't like New Year's. Faux merriment, excessive drinking, ridiculous resolutions and general malaise. Not to mention Dick Clark.

There's one great opportunity, though... Brand new expectations are set, expectations just waiting to be shattered.

Like an empty Moleskine notebook, the possibilities are exciting. Why not exceed them?

The place where expectations are lowest: leadership. Everyone expects you to get in line and follow, not lead.

The opportunity this year is bigger than ever: to lead change, to create a movement in a direction you want to go. While the rest of your world huddles and holds back, here's a golden chance to use cheap media, available attention and great talent to make something that matters.

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