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« November 2012 | Main | January 2013 »

Question the question

The best creative solutions don't come from finding good answers to the questions that are presented.

They come from inventing new questions.

What you waiting for?

I'm not asking in the usual hectoring, pushing sense of asking you to hurry up and get started.

I'm genuinely, rhetorically curious. What, exactly, are you insisting will happen before you start shipping your art?

Write it down. Write down what has to happen before you can make and ship your ruckus.

Being clear about what you're waiting for makes it far more likely that your art will happen and far less likely that you're merely stalling.

But which is the sideshow?

What's the most urgent, important, celebrated element of your organization's work?

If it involves the status quo, the thing that got you here, it means the new stuff is going to be treated as a little bit of a sideshow or a distraction. (Another example: The team that typesets traditional books at most publishers is talented and driven. They do it with care and very high standards, and have for nearly a hundred years. The team that typesets ebooks at most publishers, though, is more junior, understaffed and has a very low bar for what is considered good enough.)

One reason that incumbents are so often defeated by newcomers is that the incumbents put their best people and their urgent focus on the stuff they used to do (like winning Pulitzer prizes, selling ads to cosmetic companies and counting dead trees) while the new guys have nothing but the new thing to focus on.

The same effect occurs when we approach our art/sideline/new venture. Some people spend their best energy on the new project, squeezing in the day job when they must. Others (the ones who rarely ship) insist on every element of the day job being finished before they practice their music, write their book or otherwise make a ruckus.

If you're serious about building a new sort of asset, or experiencing the cutting edge of new technology, or rebuilding the way you grow, the first way to demonstrate that seriousness is to put your heavy hitters in charge of it, while refusing to pay much attention at all to the people or the metrics of the old thing. Easier to say than to do, but consider how the upstarts that are eating your future are allocating their time and their talent...

Win the behemoth

I've gotten a ton of requests from people who want to get their hands on a copy of the limited-edition giant book I did. I also want to thank those of you with enough confidence in me to pre-order my new books. Hence a sweepstakes.

Enter here.

An old school sweepstakes, the kind I first ran in 1991, before, I don't know, everything.

And two PS bonuses:

1. This crazy ad has been making the rounds (see paragraph 4). On one hand, you probably get what you advertise for if you're direct enough. On the other hand, not the sort of place most of us would like to work, which tells you a lot about what sort of place you might want to create if you want to hire the people that don't want to work at this place...

and 2., a second iphone app, so you can compare, collect and trade. Thanks to Fred and his team at Jacobs Media for building it. (The other app is linked to here).

The danger of starting at the top

When making a b2b sale, the instinct is always to get into the CEO's office. If you can just get her to hear your pitch, to understand the value, to see why she should buy from or lease from or partner with or even buy you... that's the holy grail.

What do you think happens after that mythical meeting?

She asks her team.

And when the team is in the dark, you've not only blown your best shot, but you never get another chance at it.

The alternative is to start in the middle. It takes longer, it comes with less high-stakes tension and doesn't promise instant relief. But it is better than any alternative.

Starting in the middle doesn't mean you're rushing around trying to close any sale with any bureaucrat stupid enough to take a meeting with you (or that you're stupid enough to go to, thinking that a sale is going to happen.)

No, starting in the middle is more marketing than sales. It's about storytelling and connection and substance. It's about imagery and totems and credentials and the ability to understand and then solve the real problems your prospects and customers have every day. It's this soft tissue that explains why big companies have so many more enterprise sales than you do.

You don't get this reputation as an incidental byproduct of showing up. It is created with intention and it's earned.

Utility vs. entertainment

A graduate seminar is going on, with a dozen students paying a fortune to fill seats that are in high demand. Some of the students are using cell phones to update Facebook or tweet--and they are sitting right next to students listening intently and not merely taking notes. This juxtaposition puts a very sharp point on an overlooked distinction: some forms of media we engage with because there's a significant utility, and sometimes, we're merely entertaining ourselves.

Every student in the lecture makes a choice in each moment--to be entertained and be in sync with the crowd online, or to find utility, by doing the more difficult work of focusing on something that only pays off in the long run.

And if that was the end of it, caveat emptor. But it's not, because media consumed doesn't merely have an impact on the consumer.

Media, of course, has morphed and expanded, and the change is accelerating. It has grown in both time spent and impact on us. Now, media consumption changes just about everything in our lives, all day long. While a century ago, a few minutes a day might have been spent with a newspaper or reading a letter, today, it's not unusual for every minute of the day to involve consuming or creating media (or dealing with the repercussions of that). Media doesn't just change what we focus on, it changes the culture it is part of.

I think we can agree that sending animated gifs or wasting an hour with the Jersey Shore have no utility, really, other than as a pastime. Court TV didn't make us smarter, it just wasted our time and attention. At the other extreme is learning a difficult new skill or attending an essential meeting, bringing full attention to something that doesn't always delight or tantalize. Or consider the difference between viewing politics as a sporting event with winners and losers each day, compared with the difficult work of digging in and actually understanding (and participating in) what's being discussed...

The blended situations, though, are worth sorting out. Is watching the news an activity that has utility? Perhaps it does for a headline, but is an endless, shallow, pundit-filled examination of politics or disasters actually producing value? When we involve desperate strangers in reality TV shows (planned or not), where is the utility? Does it make us better?

The media-industrial complex, of course, wants to turn everything into a profitable show. Is that what we want? 

More media is not better media.

Fast media is not improved media.

Pack media is not the media we need.

Entertaining media is not the only option.

Ridiculous is the new remarkable


Babybehemoth
Click for more silly pictures
Ten years ago, in Purple Cow, I argued that in a media-saturated marketplace, there was no room for average products for average people to gain the same foothold that they used to. Merely pushing an idea via relentless ad spend is no longer sufficient. The alternative: remarkable products and services, where 'remarkable' means something that someone is making a remark about.

When someone remarks on what you're doing, the word spreads, replacing the predictable and expensive Mad-Men strategy of advertising with the unpredictable but potentially magical effect of significant word of mouth--ideas that spread win.

But what makes something remarkable?

Last month, I self-published an 800-page, 19-pound book, a book big enough to kill a small mammal if misused. It's not for sale, but those that received a copy via Kickstarter have posted about it, talked about it and even made videos.

The nicest thing anyone told me was that it was, "ridiculous."

Of course it was. It weighs too much, it cost me too much to ship it to the recipients. It's too big to bring to the beach and will probably disintegrate under its own weight over time.

It's ridiculous to not sell a book this cool at retail after you've gone to the trouble of making it, and ridiculous to spend that much time making something at a loss.

It turns out that most of what we choose to talk about today is ridiculous. The dramatically overproduced music video.  The business model that is so generous that we can't imagine it succeeding. The painter who produces a new painting every single day.

Hugh's cartoons are ridiculous, of course, as is his promiscuous non-business business model.

The audacity of caring too much, sharing too much and connecting too much.

If it's not ridiculous, it's hard to imagine it resonating with the people who will invest time and energy to spread the word. The magic irony is that the ridiculous plan is actually the most sensible...

We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.

Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we're being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.

Two more thoughts on this:

Ridiculous isn't safe. If you do something ridiculous and you fail, people get to say, "you idiot, of course you failed, what you were doing was ridiculous." Which is precisely why it's so rare. Not because we are unable to imagine being ridiculous, but because we're afraid to be.

And second...

Don't be ridiculous because it's a clever marketing strategy. No, be ridiculous because while the effectiveness allows you to be, the real intent is to be generous or thrilling or to touch some stars. Because you can.

 

Ridiculous-new-remarkablev5

 

The short head, the long tail and buying expensive scaffolding

Hits are more valuable than ever, mostly because they're more rare than ever.

The Zipf Distribution, also described in Chris Anderson's Long Tail, helps us understand just how valuable hits can be.

A bestselling book/record/movie/consultant/tech startup might make a thousand times more profit than one that's only seventy or eighty rungs lower on the bestseller list.

Simple example: In 2010, Toy Story 3 took in more than $400,000,000 at the US box office, turning a profit of more than a quarter of a billion dollars, while just about every one of the thousand movies below #80 on the list lost money.

While this makes it clear that there's a huge reward to being seen as the one, the best in your field, the current sensation, it also gives us a chance to wonder about how important it is to invest in dressing up your work with the trappings of the inevitable winner. Not for nothing did Toy Story 3 sell more tickets in the first 48 hours than just about any other movie did over its entire run... that's the result of expectation, distribution and marketing, not just in being good.

Shawn Coyne shows us how some of this math works in book publishing. Having the biggest book of the year translated into enough profits for Random House to not only pay for bonuses for everyone, but to bank millions more. We can all agree (I hope) that 50 Shades isn't the best book published this decade, but it's certainly one of the biggest.

The question (sorry it took so long to get here) is this: how much should the author have invested in creating an environment where this was more likely to happen? Shawn argues that she gave up a fortune by selling the ebook rights cheap in order to get a big bookstore push. Which is true. But, and it's a huge but, did the imprimatur of a huge publishing house help her avoid the chasm of being merely popular? Did the bookstore distribution and hype and media attention provide the magic that made her book tip?

Every industry is filled with agents, marketers, promoters, retailers and associations that promise just that--the little bit of magic, the last bit of straw, the finger on the scale that will turn a good product into the biggest hit ever. That celebrity endorsement or joint marketing venture might just work... This scaffolding is expensive, but worth every penny when it works. 

Here's the error and the challenge:

The error is in thinking that once you figure out how to pay for the scaffolding, you're sure to cross the chasm to hitsville. This is easily disproven by glancing at just how many non-wins were published by Random House, represented by CAA or given shelf space at Walmart. There may be some causation, but there's also a lot of credit-grabbing correlation going on as well. (And yes, credit to publishers who take chances and pay money and support authors when they need it most...)

The challenge is in investing enough in the scaffolding of expectation and distribution that you don't damage your chances at the same time you keep overhead low enough to profit even when you don't make the top 100. Which, given the odds, is more likely than not.

Today, it's easier than ever to put your work into the world. Easier to have a blog, to share your technology, to sing your songs, to connect, with no middlemen. So, the question is: how much should you give away/pay for the scaffolding that promises to take you over the hump to the other side of the tail?

The magic of the long tail is that it's open to everyone. The danger in overinvesting in the hype machine and the turboboost of outbound marketing is that it may just distract you from what actually creates viral videos, hit books and freelancers in high demand: genuine excitement from a core group that won't rest until they tell their friends.

My take is that the benefit for winner-take-most markets is that anything you can do that realistically increases your chances of being the winner is a smart move--unless (double emphasis intended) the cost decreases your opportunity to do it again soon, or the compromises you're required to make undermine the very excitement you're trying to create.

No obvious answer, no map. Asking the question is the essential first step in finding a path.

Empathy takes effort

When we extend our heart, our soul and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one crisp and certain point of view.

It's easier to walk on by, to compartmentalize and to isolate ourselves. Easier, but not worth it.

Most advice is bad advice...

People mean well, especially friends and family, but they're going to give you bad advice.

This leads to two challenges as you strive to create original work that matters:

1. Ignore their advice, even the well-meant entreaties that you stick with the status quo

and

2. Try to discern the actually useful good advice, so you don't insulate yourself in the bubble of the self-deluded. In general, this good advice pushes you to go faster, or to do things that make you uncomfortable.

PS the irony of this post is not lost on me.

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