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THE DIP BLOG by Seth Godin




All Marketers Are Liars Blog




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« July 2013 | Main | September 2013 »

"Get this over with" vs. ...

"Get something started."

When you walk into a fast food restaurant, the stated, measured, delivered-on goals are to get the transaction over with as cheaply and quickly as possible. The cashier, the fry cook, everyone is rewarded on running the line just a little faster and just a little more efficiently.

On the other hand, when you are the first time client at a contractor, a bank or even a resort, everyone on the staff ought to be focused on getting something started, not over with. A relationship that might last for many stays. An engagement that might lead to conversations that spread. Trust that might surface new opportunities for both sides. It's not about spending more time, it's about caring enough about the interaction and the other person that you're focused on this person, not the throughput level.

You can't do both at the same time.

First review: Malcolm Gladwell's new book

I was lucky enough to get a preview copy and I've posted my review of David & Goliath.

The book comes out in five weeks. Can't hurt to order a copy now, because you'll definitely hear it being talked about everywhere soon.

Understanding natural monopoly

Why is there only one Twitter? One centralized phone network?

A natural monopoly is a business that benefits its users by being the one and only. If there were two incompatible phone networks, you'd need access to both in order to call the people in your life--and remember who was on each network.

Metcalfe's Law states that the power of a network goes up with the square of the number of people using it. In networks, then, there's a real penalty to having a second one.

An expensive shared resource (like power lines) are also a natural monopoly, since the incremental cost of adding one more user to the first line is so much less than the cost of building a second one right next to it.

It's possible to transform a service that might not be a natural monopoly (an app that helps you track your workouts) into one that might be (an app that lets you share your workouts with others).

Many natural monopolies exist in the micro space, as opposed to being universal monopolies used by one and all like the telephone. We only 'want' there to be one trade show for our industry, one trade association, one certification board.

Over time, even natural monopolies fade away, but when you look for breakthrough new projects (particularly as an investor) the home run lies in discovering the next one.

Making costumes

Look through any fashion magazine and you'll quickly come to understand that fashion is the act of making a costume. This clothing isn't primarily functional (if we define function in this case as warmth, or modesty, or having a pocket to keep keys handy). No, it's a costume.

And costumes are an artifice designed to remind us of something else.

So packaging is a costume.

The experience of entering a store is a costume.

Typography is a costume.

The design of your website is a costume.

There are very few ways to make something perfectly functional. There are a billion ways to invent a costume. Most marketing, then, is costume work, not the search for the most efficient function. Your form can follow your function, sure, but without a costume, it's naked.

"If you don't start, you can't fail"

It sounds ridiculous when you say it that way.

But of course, it is ridiculous. It's (quite possibly) the reason you're stalling.

On the other hand, there's no doubt that, "If you don't start, you will fail."

Not starting and failing lead to precisely the same outcome, with different names.

Part of a community...

or apart from a community?

We can choose to "give back," or we can choose to give.

Viewing the web as a platform for generosity is very different than seeing an opportunity to turn it into an ATM machine. The way we spend our time online determines not only whether or not the community we choose grows and thrives, but it decides whether or not we will be part of what is built.

"What can I contribute today," might be the very best way to become part of a community. Relentless generosity brings us closer together.

The alternative? The masses of web surfers spending their time wasting their time, taking, clicking, scamming or being scammed.

When you think of the real communities you belong to, your family, your best friends, the tribes that matter... of course the decision is easy. We don't try to earn a little extra money when we split the bill at dinner or calculate market rate interest on a loan to a dear friend. And yet, when we get online, it's easy to start rationalizing our way to short-term behavior and selfishness.

Take or give?

Q&A: The Dip and knowing when to quit

Our series continues with the book that led to the most questions so far: The Dip.

I veered even further off the marketing path with this book, my shortest and one of my most popular books--a book that intentionally asks more questions than it answers.

This is a book about mediocrity—about having the impatience to get rid of it and the patience to avoid the problem in the first place.

Two simple, unrelated examples: You're probably mediocre at Twitter (if we define mediocre as average, then, do the math, most people are). Some people, though, set out from the first day intent on doing it often enough, generously enough and creatively enough that they would break through and become one of the handful that gets followed merely because others are following them. At some point along the way, this effort became a big enough slog that instead of leaning in, most people on the journey backed off and settled on being part of the herd of millions.

Or consider the case of the actor, the one seeking to be picked by the casting director and "made" famous. Just about every single person who enters this field fails, because the dip is so cruel and the arithmetic of being chosen is so brutal. People who are aware of the Dip, then, don't even try. They pick a different field, an endeavor where they have more control and more influence, a field where others have shown that effort can in fact lead to success.

[I don't use Twitter mostly because I saw the effort that would be required to do it 'right' and the toll it would take on me and my work. And I'm not an actor because I have no talent and because I couldn't imagine the grind of endless auditions.]

Asking the question, the one I get asked the most, "how do I know if it's a dip or a dead end?" is the wrong question, just as asking, "how do I know if it's remarkable?" isn't the key to the Purple Cow. No, the key insight is to ask the question, not to know the answer in advance. Asking yourself, "is this something that will respond to guts, effort and investment?" helps you decide whether or not this is where you can commit. And then, if you do commit, you're not browsing, you're in it.

The resistance is real indeed, and it fears being best in the world, it fears being on top, it fears being seen as the winner. So the resistance is just fine with pushing you to wander, to quit the wrong things at the wrong time, and most of all, to seek out the sinecure of mediocrity. The resistance will cajole and wheedle you until you compromise and get stuck with what you believe you deserve, instead of what you are capable of. The resistance wants a map, when you really need a compass.

Someone is going to come out the other side, someone is going to be brave enough and focused enough to be the best available option. Might as well be you.

This might not work, sure, but who better than you to try?

[Here's a two-minute excerpt from the audio, and here's the original blog about the book.]

Thedip

Great design = getting people to do what you want

A copout: "Create a place or a site or a tool that helps the user do whatever the user wants to do."

I think that's just one small subset of what design is. There are only a few situations where what the designer (or her client) wants is for the user to do precisely whatever the user has in mind in the short run.

More often, designers find ourselves working to get the user to want what we want.

The goal is to create design that takes the user's long-term needs and desires into account, and helps him focus his attention and goals on accomplishing something worthwhile.

That well-designed prescription bottle, for example, is well-designed because it gets you to take your medicine even when you forget or don't feel like it. If that wasn't the goal, then a cheap Baggie would do the job.

And that well-designed web site doesn't encourage aimless clicking and eventual ennui. Instead, it pushes the user to come face to face with what's on offer and to decide (hopefully) to engage.

A good airport is designed to encourage travelers not to slow down the journey of their fellows, not to get aimless or distracted (what the traveler wants in the short run) and miss a plane.

A great book cover gets someone who isn't inclined to buy this book (if it had a plain paper wrapper) to pick it up and suddenly want what the author wants--for the reader to want to read it.

Good scissors for kids ought to be fabulous at cutting paper but not so good at cutting sisters, no matter how much little brother wants to.

Unethical design, then, is using the power of design to get the user to do something he regrets. Great design is pushing/focusing the user to do something that he'll thank you for later.

Designing for 'everyone to do anything' is difficult to do well and ultimately a cop out. It absolves the designer of responsibility, sure, but it is also design without intent or generosity.

Great designers can easily answer the question, "what do you want the user to do?"

"When I grow up..."

No kid sets out to make Doritos commercials. No one grows up saying, "I want to go into marketing."

More than ever, though, folks grow up saying, "I want to change the world." More than ever, that means telling stories, changing minds and building a tribe.

You know, marketing.

At least if you want it to be.

Misunderstanding quality

Kodak, of course, ruled their world. They were as close to a monopoly as they could get for generations.

Along the way, though, the company made the mistake of misdefining quality. They thought that what would ensure their future was better fidelity film. And without a doubt, they delivered on the promise of ever better film stock, with all the things a professional photographer could hope for.

Polaroid, for a while a disruptive competitor of Kodak's, fell into precisely the same trap. As they gained market share, they doubled down on image quality, raising their prices to support cameras and film that would compete with Kodak's leadership in fidelity.

It turns out that what people actually wanted was the ability to take and share billions of photos at vanishingly small cost. The 'quality' that most of the customer base wanted was cheap and easy, not museum quality.

This confusion happens all the time. Quality is not an absolute measure. It doesn't mean 'deluxeness' or 'perfection'. It means keeping the promise the customer wants you to make.

No decisions, no responsibility

We presume.

Human beings take shortcuts and believe in stereotypes. Sometimes we misjudge someone as dumb, who isn't, or unsuccessful, who is far from it. Too often, we make grave errors, disrespect our fellows and lose out on opportunities because we're too busy judging.

The way the authorities treated Aditya Mukerjee a few weeks ago will/should make you shudder. This goes far beyond one person relying on stereotypes, though. It's an indictment of how too many organizations work.

I don't think we can assume that the people we hire will somehow lose their prejudices. I do think, though, that we ought to build systems where the system itself works against those stereotypes, instead of amplifying them.

Throughout his story, we encounter individuals who should have known better, professionals who should have been trained and monitored, but most of all, we see a typical bureaucracy. People who refuse to make decisions and who are absolved of responsibility for their actions (or non-actions).

TSA, TSA, TSA, NYPD, NYPD, FBI, JetBlue, TSA, NYPD... in this parade of uncaring cops and bureaucrats, wasn't there one person who could grab Aditya a glass of water? One person who could talk to him like a fellow human, like a fellow citizen? In the many hours that he was held, why didn't even one person stand up and say, "wait!"

We presume. And often, we're just wrong.

There are only two choices available to any large organization:

1. Hire people who make no original decisions but be damn sure that if they are going to run by the book, the book better be perfect. And build in reviews to make sure that everyone is indeed playing by the book, with significant monitoring and consequences in place for when they don't.

2. Hire people who care and give them the freedom and responsibility to act. Hold people responsible for the decisions they make, and trust their judgment.

We can do better, all of us. We better hurry.

Getting smart about the time tax

If you want to go to Shakespeare in the Park in New York, you need to really want to go.

That's because it's free. Well, mostly free. They use a time-honored tradition to be sure that the tickets are allocated to people who truly want them: they tax the interested by having them wait on line, for hours sometimes.

It seems egalitarian, but it's actually regressive, because it doesn't take into account the fact that different people value their time differently. People with time to spare are far more likely to be rewarded.

Another example: Call the company that sells your favorite tech brand and ask for customer service. You'll be on hold for one to sixty minutes. Why do they do this? They can obviously afford to answer the phone right away, can't they?

Like the mom who waits for the sixth whine before responding to her kid, these companies are making sure that only people who really and truly need/want to talk to them actually get talked to. Everyone else hangs up long before that.

You can hear the CFO, "well, if we answered on the first ring, more people would call!"

Again, at first glance, this seems like a smart way to triage with limited resources. But once again, it misses the opportunity to treat different people differently. Shouldn't the really great customer, or the person about to buy a ton of items get their call answered right away? The time tax is a bludgeon, a blunt instrument that can't discriminate.

We don't need to make people wait in line for anything if we don't want to. Why not have the most eager theater goers trade the three hours they'd spend in line in exchange for tutoring some worthwhile kid instead? Instead of wasting all that time, we could see tens of thousands of people trading the lost time for a ticket and a chance to do something useful. (Money is just one way to adjudicate the time tax problem, but there are plenty of other resources people can trade to get to the head of the line).

This logic of scarcity can be applied to countless situations. First-come, first-served is non-digital, unfair and expensive. And yet we still use it all the time, in just about everyone situation where there is scarcity.

The opportunity isn't to auction off everything to the highest bidder, but it might lie in understanding who is waiting and what they're willing to trade for the certainty and satisfaction of getting out of line. [A great example].

When in doubt, treat different customers differently.

120 seconds (shipping vs. rushing)

If you have a ten-mile commute to work, the difference between pushing yourself to drive 40 miles an hour and driving safely at 35 works out to about two minutes. In the first scenario, you're running yellow lights, passing bicyclists and rolling stop signs. In the second, you're not only dramatically safer, but you're also breathing.

Decades ago, when I had a Saab, I used to drive fast (95 mph fast) on trips home to Buffalo. The highway is straight and designed for speed, but it was an incredibly stupid, selfish and dangerous thing to do. The upside was that I ended my trip from Boston an hour or two faster than I would have otherwise. Of course, then I'd sit, nearly in a stupor, for at least two hours until the world was moving slowly enough for me to engage again.

The problem with setting the standard at super-fast, up to 11, is that you can't sustain it. You've extracted all the slack and safety out of the system and gotten very little in return.

Of course, this isn't true if you're actually in a race, if responding to the RFP first or getting around the track a nanosecond faster is actually the point. But for most of us, most of the time, it's not actually a race.

The other extreme is the one I rant about often, the extreme of not shipping, of going slowly because you're afraid, of stalling as a way of avoiding the fear of feedback and the need for vulnerability. That clearly doesn't work either.

Yes, ship. Do it with flair and guts and grace. But take two more minutes before you do, because slack pays dividends.

All good ideas are terrible

Until people realize they are obvious.

If you're not willing to live through the terrible stage, you'll never get to the obvious part.

Now it's ruined

Photography is a cheat, the death of painting

Photoshop is a hack, the death of photography

Instagram filters are crap, the death of Photoshop

Typing is mechanical, the deathknell for organic handwriting

Word processors are a cheat, the end of linear writing via the typewriter

eBooks are for losers, stealing the magic and majesty of the printed book

Blogging is impermanent, the end of thoughtful word processing

Tweeting is stupid, the end of intelligent blogging

Video is too easy, a cheap shortcut that destroys the essence of film

YouTube has no curators, the end of quality video

Wikipedia is an unproven shortcut, true scholarship is threatened

Selling by phone is for losers, closers show up in person...

Technology almost always democratizes art, because it gives us better tools, better access and a quicker route to mediocrity. It's significantly easier to be a mediocre (almost very good) setter of type today than it was to be a pretty good oil painter two hundred years ago.

And so, when technology shows up, it's easy to imagine that along with the old school becoming obsolete, the new school will be populated by nothing but lazy poseurs.

Don't tell that to Jill Greenberg, Sasha Dichter or Jenny Holzer.

... all this ending is leading to more and more beginnings, isn't it? It's not ruined, it's merely different.

Q&A: The 14 revolutionary trends and the Meatball Sundae

As our series continues, Louisiana Mitch wrote in to ask for an update of the fourteen trends I wrote about eight years ago in Meatball Sundae.

Here they are:

•     Direct communication and commerce between producers and consumers
•     Amplification of the voice of the consumer and independent authorities
•     The need for an authentic story as the number of sources increases
•     Extremely short attention spans due to clutter
•     The Long Tail
•     Outsourcing
•     Google and the dicing of everything
•     Infinite channels of communication
•     Direct communication and commerce between consumers and consumers
•     The shifts in scarcity and abundance
•     The triumph of big ideas
•     The shift from “how many” to “who”
•     Democratization of the wealthy
•     New gatekeepers, no gatekeepers

Every one of these trends has either appeared up or been amplified dramatically in the last ten years. Two questions come to mind:

1. How many of these ideas have you and your organization made big bets on since 2005? (Think about all the disruptive organizations that have been founded or grown significantly because of one or more of these drivers...)

2. Do you think these trends have played out? If it's too late, then by all means go looking for someting new to take their place. In my experience, though, every single one of these is just getting started.

People often ask for a map, but maps are no good if you haven't decided to go somewhere new.

"Do you have three minutes?" The conservation of mental bandwidth

It's not the three minutes it will take to do this favor for you. Everyone has three minutes.

And it's not even the noise and the wear and tear of the mental clutch as we shift from one task to another.

For me, and for many people, it's the leakage of mental bandwidth.

Fear is the enemy of creativity and innovation and of starting things. The resistance hates those things—they are risky, they might not work, so the resistance pushes us not to do them.

On the other hand, it loves the notion of to-do lists and favors and multi-tasking and yes, continual partial attention, because those are perfect hiding places, perfect places to avoid the scary work but still be able to point to a day's work, well done.

But if you have nothing else due, nothing else to do, no other measurable output but that thing you've promised yourself, if all your mental bandwidth is focused on this one and this only, then yep, you can bet that you will get more brave.

Before internet connectivity poured from the sky, I was able to get on a train, plug in my Mac and have nothing to do for four hours but write. And so I wrote. I once bought a round trip ticket to nowhere just to eliminate every possible alternative... pure, unadulterated mental bandwidth.

Plenty of places to run, plenty of places to hide. None of them are as important as shipping your best work today.

Mirrors, cameras and cultural evolution

It's safe to say that everyone reading this has seen an accurate reflection in a mirror. Everyone you know has seen their face in a mirror as well.

A thousand years ago (a nanosecond in evolutionary time) virtually no one had.

Mirrors are a big deal. Elephants and primates have been shown to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, and the idea of self-image is one of the cornerstones of our culture. Hard to imagine walking through the world without knowing what you look like.

Fascinating aside: When we see a famous person in the mirror, our perception changes.

I hope we can agree that in 2013, anyone who gets uncomfortable around mirrors, who says mirrors aren't their thing, who tries to avoid a job where they might see a mirror--that person is a bit outside the mainstream.

Cameras are mirrors, but unlike the momentary glimpse of the traditional mirror, they are permanent, and now the web amplifies them. Do you see how many people pose for snapshots? The unnatural posture, the fake smile... there's anxiety here, and it's because unlike seeing ourselves in the mirror, we're being captured, forever. Multiply this fear by the million people who might see this photo on Instagram...

No one gets tense in front of mirrors any longer. Experienced professionals don't get tense in front of cameras, either.

It probably used to be okay to say, "mirrors freak me out," or to assert that they contained demons. No longer. It certainly wasn't uncommon for cultures to resist cameras at first, and to take the phrase, "take a picture," quite literally. This resistance is also dying out and almost gone.

And yet... And yet we still freeze up when someone takes a picture, we hold our breath before we go on stage, we give away our deepest insecurities when someone puts us on video...

Mirrors and cameras each took a generation or more to catch on as widespread foundations of our culture. It's not surprising, then, that so many people fear social media. It's about us, and when we're on the hook, in front of people we can't know or trust, we hold back.

For a while.

And then we don't.

The self-defeating quest for simple and easy

Bullet points, step by step processes that are guaranteed to work overnight, proven shortcuts...

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Worth noting that surgeons don't sign up for medical school because they're told that there is a simple, easy way to do open heart surgery.

It's not that we're unable to handle complicated problems, it's that we're afraid to try. The Dummies mindset, the get-rich-quick long sales letters, the mechanistic, industrial processes aren't on offer because they're the best we can handle. No, they sell because they promise to reduce our fear.

It will take you less time and less effort to do it the difficult way than it will to buy and try and discard all the shortcuts.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight with sixteen extraordinary people from around the world. I'll be sharing some of what we built in a few weeks, but in the meantime, you can see a short video they made along with the list of talented folks and their contact info here:

Summer_2013__The_Krypton_team_on_Vimeo

Also worth sharing from the last two months: A podcast on branding and making a ruckus.

Stop Stealing Dreams is now available in Chinese.

A short video on my part in the lineage of style canoeing.

And live, at Ford. The bell curve is melting.

Also, before it gets cold outside, you can get the entire text (every word!) of Poke the Box on a t-shirt. They donate a worthy book  to charity for every shirt sold.

Poke-tee-6_grande

Will I see you tomorrow?

There is no greater indicator of future behavior than the answer to this question.

Fly-by, drive-by, anonymous, see-you-sucker interactions are easy to start, easy to be disappointed by, hard to count on when it comes to civility or a career.

We work to create the alternative. Masks off, snarkiness set aside, committed to long haul. That's the connection that the connection economy is built on.

An end of books

Books, those bound paper documents, are part of an ecosystem, one that was perfect, and one that is dying, quickly.

Ideas aren’t going away soon, and neither are words. But, as the ecosystem dies, not only will the prevailing corporate systems around the paper book wither, but many of the treasured elements of its consumption will disappear as well.

THE BOOKSTORE as we know it is doomed, because many of these establishments are going to go from making a little bit of money every day to losing a little bit. And it’s hard to sustain daily losses for long, particularly when you’re poorly capitalized, can’t use the store as a loss leader and see no hope down the road.

The death of the bookstore is being caused by the migration to ebooks (it won't take all books to become ‘e’, just enough to tip the scale) as well as the superior alternative of purchase and selection of books online. If the function of a bookstore is to stock every book and sell it to you quickly and cheaply, the store has failed.

THE LIBRARY is limping, partly because many of them have succumbed to being a free alternative to Netflix or the boarded-up Blockbuster. As fewer people dive into a sea of printed books, libraries will have no choice but to stop stocking that sea with expensive items that few use.

THE TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER is culturally connected to the bookseller. That's their customer, not you, the reader (ever tried to call customer service at a book publisher?). As the bookseller disappears, and as the open nature of the ebook platform rewards individuals and quick-moving smaller entities, many in traditional book publishing will find their particular skills no longer valued the way they used to be.

SINGLE TASKING is an anachronism. As soon as ebooks moved from the Kindle to the iPad, the magic of reading was threatened by the opportunity (“for just a second”) to check on email, Words with Friends or an incoming text message.

READING FOR PLEASURE was largely extinguished by four generations of not-very-good teaching philosophies. By treating a book as homework and a punishment, we’ve raised people to not look forward to reading. More than once, friends have said, “you should be really pleased, I even finished your new book.” My guess is that no one says that to Laurence Fishburne about his new movie. There’s no real ebook piracy problem because most people don’t think books are worth stealing.

THE BELOVED SHELF (or wall) of books is less well-thumbed and less respected than it was. We’re less likely to judge someone on their ownership and knowledge of books than at any time in the last five hundred years. And that shelf created juxtapositions and possibilities and prompted you when you needed prompting. Ten generations ago, only the rich and the learned owned books. Today, they're free at the local recycling table.

THE PAVLOVIAN RESPONSE will fade. You go to a bookstore, a quiet, civilized, respected greenhouse of ideas. A person you connect with hands you a book, wraps it, charges you a surprisingly small amount of money and you go home, ready to curl up for five or six or thirty hours, to immerse yourself in a new world or a new set of ideas. And then you will take that volume, one that’s designed to last for a century with no technology necessary, and either share it with a friend or place it in just the right place on your wall. Your brain was wired to be taught to be open to these ideas, to be respectful of the volume itself, because all of the elements of the ecosystem, from the author who took a year to the editor who curated the book to the jacket designer and the printer and the store… they all aligned perfectly to create this method of consumption.

None of these changes, by themselves, are enough to kill a venerable information delivery and cultural touchstone like the book. But all of them together? I’m writing this on a train filled with educated, upper income suburban commuters of all genders and ethnicities (book buyers, until recently). I can see 40 people at a glance, and 34 are using electronic devices, two are asleep and exactly one person is reading a traditional book.

Yes, we're entering a new golden age for books, one with more books and ebooks being written and read today than ever before. No, books won’t be completely eliminated, just as vinyl records are still around (a new vinyl store is opening in my little town). But please don’t hold your breath for any element of the treasured ecosystem to return in force.

Is it traitorous to my tribe to write these words? I'm not arguing that we should push the ecosystem out the door, but I am encouraging us to not spend too much time trying to save it. First, it's a losing battle, but more important, we have bigger opportunities right in front of us.

Twenty years ago, I saw the web and wrote it off. I said it was a cheap imitation of Prodigy, but slower and with no business model. Partly, I just didn't see. But a big part of me wanted Prodigy (my client) to succeed, along with a business model I understood. As a result of my arrogance, I missed the opportunity to take advantage of a brand new medium.

I fear that our cultural and corporate connections to books as a delivery system may blind us to the alternatives.

I’m not as bitter as I might be, as we’ve traded in our books for some fabulous alternatives mixed in with the time-wasters. But yes, after 500 years, after building not one but several industries around the creation, publication, distribution and storage of books, I’m pretty nostalgic.

I called this post, "An end" as opposed to "the end." As always, we'll reinvent. We still need ideas, and ideas need containers. We've developed more and more ways for those ideas to travel and to have impact, and now it's up to us to figure out how to build an ecosystem around them.

Your first mistake might be assuming that people are rational

Your second mistake could be assuming that people are eager for change.

And the marketer's third mistake is assuming that once someone knows things the way you know them, they will choose what you chose.

Message amplification isn't linear

Put two loudspeakers next to each other, and the perceived sound isn't twice as loud--and ten times as many speakers certainly doesn't seem ten times as loud.

But when you hear an idea from two people, it counts for twice as much as if you randomly hear it once. And if you hear an idea from ten people, the impact is completely off the charts compared to just one person whispering in your ear.

Coordinating and amplifying the evangelists of your idea is a big part of the secret of marketing with impact.

Q&A: Where is the free prize inside?

"Where do Purple Cows come from?"

Continuing in our series, Bob at Arnold Architectural Strategies asked a question that was similar to many: What's the free prize, why don't you talk about it more and how do I use it?

In Free Prize Inside, my sequel to Purple Cow, I point out: As marketers, our instinct is to believe that we have to make a product or service that flies faster, jumps higher, costs less, works infinitely better and is generally off the charts at doing what the product is supposed to do. We get our minds around one performance metric and decide that the one and only way we can be remarkable is to knock that metric out of the park. So, hammers have to hammer harder, speakers have to speak louder and cars have to accelerate faster.

Nonsense. This is a distraction from the reality of how humanity chooses, when they have a choice.

We almost never buy the item we buy because it excels at a certain announced metric. Almost no one drives the fastest car or chooses the most efficient credit card. No, we buy a story.

The story is the thing that the product also does. It's the other reason we buy something, and usually, the real reason. Simple example:

You have a seven-year old daughter. The last time she unexpectedly woke up after going to bed was three years ago. Of course, you're going to hire a babysitter and not leave her alone, but really, what are you hiring when you hire a babysitter? Is it her ability to do CPR, cook gourmet food or teach your little one French? Not if she shows up after the kid goes to bed.

No, you're hiring peace of mind. You're hiring the way it makes you feel to know that just in case, someone talented is standing by.

If her goal is to be a great babysitter, then, good performance doesn't involve honing her CPR skills or standing at the door, listening to your daughter breathe. Good performance is showing up a few minutes early, dressed appropriately, with an air of confidence. Good performance is sending a text every 90 minutes, if requested, to the neurotic parents. Good performance is leaving the kitchen cleaner than she found it.

It sounds obvious, but it's rarely done. It's frightening to build and stand for 'other' when everyone else is making slightly-above-average.

The free prize is the other metric, the thing we want to talk about, the job we hire your product to do when we hire a product like yours. That's what we tell a story about.

Magic + Generosity = the brand crush

A decade ago, I was walking through Union Square in New York. The farmer's market was on, and the place was jammed with early adopters. Fortunately, I was wearing a Google shirt, a rarity at the time, a gift from a gig I had done for them.

Across the way, a woman shouted, "Google! Do you work for Google? I love Google! Google is my best friend..." as she waltzed through the crowd toward me.

How many brands get a reaction like that?

Let me posit for a moment that most people aren't capable of loving a brand, not if we define love as a timeless, permanent state of emotion, connection and devotion. I do think, though, that people have crushes on brands all the time. And a crush can get a brand really far.

The first element of a crush is magic. When a product or service does something so unexpected, so inexplicable that we are in awe of what just happened, it feels magical. It might be the mystery of how a 1969 air-cooled Porsche made someone feel when being driven for the first (or hundredth) time. Or, more recently, it might be the surge that comes from connections found, the sort that Facebook used to deliver to new users all the time.

Sometimes that magic is almost Jungian--the roar of the crowd, the smell of flowers on your wedding day, the look in a student's eyes when she hears she got into Princeton. Other times the magic is literally that, the magic of Arthur C. Clarke and any sufficiently advanced technology (the sort of magic that woman in Union Square felt in 2002).

Remember back to the first time you saw an iPhone or tasted a warm donut--these are leaps in experience that connect us to a feeling of wonder we don't often experience, one that (sadly) decays over time.

The second element? Generosity. When the wizard happily shares his potion, when the device or the service is affordable, sold for less than it's worth. Not necessarily free—Harley Davidson motorcycles were never free, but the magic of being accepted by a generous tribe was more than enough to overcome the price of entry.

In software, particularly online, generosity comes naturally. Not only does Google find you what you seek, not only does Twitter let you broadcast to your world, but they appear to do it at no charge at all. Magic and generous at the same time.

It's difficult for the day laborer, the replaceable freelancer, the commodity supplier to earn a crush, because they are cogs in the system... selling the expected, for a fair price. We complete our transaction with you and then move on, even steven.

The crush, in contrast, goes far beyond delivering what's expected. The crush builds value for both sides, delivering a quantum leap in the urgency of the interactions. Ask David Cassidy...

Here's where the famous, "don't be evil" mantra kicks in. When it was first uttered at Google, it meant, "don't be like Microsoft was." In particular it meant, "don't use the magic we're creating in one place to allow us to be ungenerous, and in particular, don't use our magic in one place to eliminate choice in others." When Microsoft used the hegemony of the Windows OS to force people to use IE, they were being 'evil'. They traded their magic and stopped being generous.

Crushes don't last forever. You need to keep adding magic and generosity.

Marketing driven or Market driven?

A marketing-driven organization is run by the Marketing department. It revolves around what marketers do.

A market-driven organization is driven by what the market wants, regardless of what the marketing department feels like doing.

(And of course, there are organizations driven by Sales, by Shareholder Relations and by Operations and Tech too. Even a few that seem to be run by the Employee-happiness Department. Not many, though. Even in these organizations, the option remains: you can be market driven instead. The first step is to choose your market...)

Why not give?

Not because it's the holidays or because you get a tax deduction.

Not because someone is going to match your funds or because your neighbor won't be able to enter a marathon if you don't.

Not because the kid is at the doorbell with those cookies or because it's pledge week.

And not because you read something that pulled your heartstrings.

Right now, for no good reason (and for every good reason), even if it's only $5. Pick whatever cause you care about. And tell a friend.

What if everyone did that, right now?

Generosity is its own reward. Go for it.

Choosing to be formidable

You've met people who are an accident just waiting to happen. What's the opposite of that?

What we're looking for in a boss, in a CEO to invest in, in a business partner, in a candidate, is formidability. Someone to be reckoned with. Not someone with all the answers, because no one has all the answers. No, we want someone who is magic about to happen.

This is the electricity that follows the star quarterback around. We aren't attracted to him because he's a stolid, reliable, by-the-book playmaker. No, it's the sense that he has sufficient domain knowledge combined with the vision and the passion to create lightning at will. Sarah Caldwell was the same way, bringing a sense of imminent possibility to the work she gave us.

They don't teach formidable in school. They teach compliance and rote and perhaps spin. They teach us to be on the alert for shortcuts and for ways to get away with less. Not surprisingly, the formidable leader takes the opposite tack in every respect. She's willing and eager to take the long way if it gets to the elusive destination. She doesn't need to spin because the truth as she knows it is sufficient.

There might only be two critical elements in the choice to be formidable:

1. Skill. The skill to understand the domain, to do the work, to communicate, to lead, to master all of the details necessary to make your promise come true. All of which is difficult, but insufficient, because none of it matters if you don't have...

2. Care. The passion to see it through. The willingness to find a different route when the first one doesn't work. The certainty that in fact, there is a way, and you care enough to find it. Amazingly, this is a choice, not something you need to get certified in.

Formidable leaders find the tough questions, and then, instead of being afraid to ask them, eagerly decide to seek out the answers. They dig in deep to the details that matter and ignore the ones that merely distract. They bite off more than others can chew but consistently avoid biting off more than they can (because they care so much, it hurts to admit that you've reached the end).

It's not a dream if you can do it.

Paul Graham gets full credit for coining the term. "A formidable person is one who seems like they'll get what they want, regardless of whatever obstacles are in the way." A must-read for startup CEOs.

The choke point

Sooner or later, all big public media companies go in search of a choke point, the place where they can find a leg up in terms of attention and monetization.

FACEBOOK said to you and to everyone else: Build your content here on our site, and we'll make it easy for you to effortlessly share it with your friends and their friends and their friends. Over time, of course, the clutter leads to less sharing, and now you can pay them to promote your work to the very people who used to bump into it for free. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

LINKEDIN approached many bloggers over the last year and asked them to contribute original posts on their site. In exchange, they'd direct lots of their readers to the content. Of course, it's not hard to see how soon it will become an isolated garden, a platform they own and can charge a toll on. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

GOOGLE cancelled their RSS reader because RSS is a free, unchokable service, one that's hard to put a toll on. On the other hand, when you build on their platform, you become part of their ecosystem, a click away from all sorts of revenue. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

Worth noting that GMAIL has figured out (acting, it seems, on behalf of users) how to use tabs to differentiate between "primary" emails and "promotions." If you're used to getting this blog by email, odds are you haven't seen it in awhile, because even though it's not a promotion, even though you signed up for it, by default, it's in your promotions tab (easy to fix, by the way, just drag one of the emails to the primary folder). While this tabbing default probably saves you from emails that are actually promotions, it also provides Gmail with a choke point for the future, because the person who controls which tab an email arrives in is powerful indeed.

I could go on about other companies and other platforms, but you get the idea.

Again and again, we see that if you're not the customer, you're the product. "Free" usually means, "you're not in charge." The race continues to be one for attention.

Tim Wu's book on the history of this process is a must-read for anyone who makes media.

"Oh, that's just a hack someone put together..."

Just about all the big decisions, innovations and perfect solutions around you didn't start that way.

They weren't the result of a ten-person committee, carefully considering all options, testing the reasonable ones and putting in place a top-down implementation that went flawlessly.

[The idea behind Amazon, the Mailchimp logo, the medical approach to childhood leukemia, the cell phone, the microwave oven, ethical email marketing, Johnny B. Goode, the Super Bowl, Kiva, Buffalo chicken wings...]

No, they were the result of one person, a person in a jam or a hurry or somewhat inspired. One person flipping a coin or tweaking a little bit more or saying, "this might not work" and then taking a leap.

Inventing isn't the hard part. The ideas that change the world are changing the world because someone cared enough to stick it out, to cajole and lead and evolve. But even though the inventing isn't the hard part, it scares us away.

Before you tell yourself you have no right to invent this or improve that, remind yourself that the person before you had no right either, but did it anyway.

The sophisticates

Every profession creates them. Doctors and lawyers, sure, but also speakers and programmers and rodeo riders.

The sophisticate is on one side of the chasm, and the hack, the amateur, the self-defeating noob is on the other.

The sophisticate knows how to walk and talk and prepare, but mostly, to engage with us in a way that amplifies her professionalism. We spend months at business school or med school or at boot camp teaching people to be part of that tribe, to establish that they are, in fact, insiders.

The people at the fringe booths at a trade show, the ones who get rejected from every job they apply to without even being interviewed, the ones who don't earn our trust or our attention--this isn't necessarily because they aren't talented, it's merely because they haven't invested the time or found the guts to cross the chasm to the side of people who are the real deal.

It's fun to make a fish-out-of-water TV show about the outsider who's actually really good at his craft. But in real life, fish out of water don't do very well.

Yes, acting like you are a professional might be even more important than actually being good at what you do. When given the option, do both.

Q&A: Purple Cows and commodities

Earlier in this series, I wrote about the failure of Survival putting me at the end of my publishing rope, publisherless. Then I self-published Purple Cow (the original, now-out-of-print edition came in a milk carton) and the self-referential marketing, combined with great reader buzz, got me back into the good graces of the publishing world. That wasn't my goal, but in retrospect, it had a big impact on my output as an author.

Josh asks, "How do you turn something that is considered to be a commodity into a Purple Cow, when the lowest price is the only thing that seems to matter to customers?"

If you tell me that price is the only thing that matters to customers, I respond that nothing about this product matters to them.

When something matters to you, you talk about it, care about it, research it, tweak it... If all that we've got to care about is the price, then the price is the discussion, not the item itself.

Businesses have worked overtime to turn things into commodities, telling us that they sell what the other guy does, it's the same, but cheaper. No wonder we've been lulled into not caring.

Every time you say, "all they care about is price," you've just said, "they don't really care, they just want to get the buying over with, cheap."

The thing is, it doesn't have to be a commodity if you don't want it to be. It's easy to forget, but before the smartphone, cell phones were treated as a commodity as well. And that's the opportunity in every industry, in every segment, for any product or service that has become a commodity. [Edited out the Nucor reference, per insight from Professor Len Sherman.]

No, you can't magically make it interesting to all. But yes, with enough effort and care, you can find those that are interested enough if what you create that they'll choose to talk about it.

And if you can't, go make something else. Something that people will choose to care about and talk about.

We sell commodities by choice.

Colors or numbers?

As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.

Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.

The other path is to focus on colors, not numbers. Instead of measuring, for example, how many people click on a link, we can measure how something you wrote or created delighted or challenged people... You can see the changes in emotion, or dignity improved or light shed.

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

Words are hooks, words are levers

There's a debate raging in my town over whether or not to replace the existing planted-grass school football field with what used to be known as Astroturf. One side has already won a crucial victory: the local paper calls the new alternative, "turf."

Turf is what we call a racetrack, or half a fancy dinner (surf and...). Turf is short and punchy and feels organic. If they had called it 'plastic' or 'fake grass' or 'artificial turf', every conversation would feel different before we even started.

What to call the new diamonds that are being manufactured in labs, not dug out of the ground under horrible conditions? Some want them to be called 'artificial diamonds' or not diamonds at all. Others might prefer 'flawless' diamonds (because they are) or 'perfect'.

Is it a 'course', a 'group' or a 'club'? It might be all three, but the word you choose will change the anchor and thus the leverage that word has going forward. Are you a 'consultant', an 'advisor' or a 'coach'?

Engineers and doctors and other scientists seem to think they're skipping all of this when they use precise, specific language. But the obvious specificity and the desire to scare off untrained laypeople is in itself a form of leverage.

For politicians and others that want to re-invent the language for their own ends--you can work to plant your hook anywhere you choose, but if you torture the meaning and spin, spin, spin, you risk being seen as a manipulator, and all your leverage disappears. If your hook finds no purchase, you have no leverage.

On the other hand, the great brands (Pepsi, Kodak, etc.) planted words that meant nothing and built expensive fortresses around their words, words that now have emotional power.

The only reason words have meaning is because we agree on what they mean. And that meaning comes from associating those words with other words, words that often have emotional anchors for us. This isn't merely the spin of political consultants. It goes right to the heart of how we (and our ideas) are judged.

Mumbo vs. Jumbo

Jumbo was the famous elephant that PT Barnum exhibited. His name came to stand for the big story, for the audacious claim, for making quite a noise.

You probably need more Jumbo in the story you're trying to tell.

Mumbo, on the other hand, is deliberately obfuscating the facts. Mumbo is manipulation, the creation of placebos that don't scale or the extension of power without the facts to back you up.

No more mumbo please.

Feel free to quote me on that the next time someone brings you a big heaping plate of hype.

[In fact, Mumbo-jumbo was probably a term that was xenophobic when it was first used more than a century ago (having nothing to do with elephants but probably something to do with an exotic religion), but I think it has evolved to have more to do with technology and slick salesmanship now.]

Mumbo just doesn't last as long as it used to.

Death and Taxes, 2014

When people first encounter this brilliant poster about the state of our government, they are transfixed, then transformed.

Newly updated, Jess continues to make a ruckus in offices, schools, homes and government agencies. Feel free to post one in the office of someone you voted for (or didn't).

The opposite of anxiety

I define non-clinical anxiety as, "experiencing failure in advance." If you're busy enacting a future that hasn't happened yet, and amplifying the worst possible outcomes, it's no wonder it's difficult to ship that work.

With disappointment, I note that our culture doesn't have an easily found word for the opposite. For experiencing success in advance. For visualizing the best possible outcomes before they happen.

Will your book get a great testimonial? Write it out. Will your talk move someone in the audience to change and to let you know about it? What did they say? Will this new product gain shelf space at the local market? Take a picture.

Writing yourself fan mail in advance and picturing the change you've announced you're trying to make is an effective way to push yourself to build something that actually generates that action.

One reason this is difficult is that we've got a false humility that pushes us to avoid it. The other is that when we're confronted with this possible success, we have to confront the fact that our current plan just isn't that good (yet), that this site or that menu item really isn't as good as we need it to be.

If you expect rejection, it's a lot easier to ship lousy stuff. Said that way, it's clear that this is a ridiculous strategy. Better to make it great now rather than mourn failure later.

Go ahead, write yourself some fan mail, in advance.

Stoogecraft

You probably have better things to do than to analyze the basic trait of the Three Stooges, so I will do it for you.

They have impulse control problems.

It's not that they are evil or even particularly selfish. No, the challenge all three Stooges face is that they do whatever comes into their minds, immediately. If they want to lash out or poke or twist, they do. If they think it might be effective to make money running a plumbing company, they don't consider, they merely do it.

Stoogecraft is what happens when people or organizations in power do what feels right in the short run without thinking at all about the alternatives or the implications. It's the result of fear or boredom or a misplaced focus.

Every customer service horror story is an example of stoogecraft at work. Every business development deal gone awry because of personalities, greed or miscommunication is a result of the same thing. When we don't say what needs to be said, postponing it for later, we're playing the Stooge game.

Humans being human. People who can do what they want doing what they (think) they want.

Short-term thinking used to mean a rake to a face. Now it leads to dead ends, broken promises and success avoided.

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