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There are Kracos

Thirty years ago, I used to work the booth at CES. The software company where I was a brand manager launched its products at the Consumer Electronics Show, which was, at the time, the biggest trade show in the world.

You can imagine that a huge stream of people were constantly walking by, and making our pitch to each and every one of them was exhausting. We were there to get mass merchants to sell our stuff--getting into Target or Lechmere was a victory we needed.

A few hours into the first show, I noticed that some of the people walking by had little creatures on their shoulders. Kraco, the low-cost stereo company, had a huge booth, and they were giving visitors these little stick-on humanoids, made of some sort of wool, to ride along on their shoulder. They were about two-inches high and they looked precisely as ridiculous as you are imagining.

I loved this. These people, these lookers, not buyers, were identifying themselves to us from a distance. The little Kraco man on the shoulder meant, "I am here to waste your time, I am not a professional, what will you give me that's free?" We quickly began identifying anyone with one of these on their shoulder as a Kraco, someone not worth an investment of focus and energy or free stuff.

Alas, the Kracos in your world today don't wear a little man on their shoulder, but that doesn't mean they're not out there. All your prospects are not the same, and if you insist on treating them that way, you will waste your time and your enthusiasm on people who aren't bringing any to your interaction.

In search of meaningful

From the individual who needs to get her idea in front of the right people, to the New York Times, which faces a ticking clock to figure out the digital landscape, all of us are in the media business. There's a gold rush for attention going on, and, given how much the media likes to cover the media, we hear about winners and losers, those doing it right and wrong, and most of all, the template for what we ought to be doing if we want to succeed.

I fear that right now, many are laboring under Buzzfeed Envy.

Since 1989, when I first started doing online media, people have been transfixed by scale, by numbers, by rankings. "How many eyeballs, how big is the audience, what's the passalong, how many likes, friends, followers, how many hits?" 

You cannot win this game and I want to persuade you (and Dean Baquet at the Times) to stop trying.

1. Are you generic? Over the last few years, the Times has lost Lisa Belkin, Nate Silver, David Pogue and other big name writers, not to mention the opportunity to do more with Michael Lewis and the Freakonomics guys. Here's the thing: when you read what these singular voices create, you know where it came from, and you have an opinion about it. 

Buzzfeed doesn't focus on who is speaking, they focus on writing something clickable and shareable and urgent in the moment. Those that want to own a valuable 'brand' like the fact that it belongs to them, unlike the demanding star writer, who might leave at any time. The value all goes to the system, not to the individual contributor.

(Buzzfeed is well on its way to becoming a dominant media company. But the Times isn't Buzzfeed, and neither are you.)

The problem with generic is that it's easy go as well as easy come. The Onion just launched their own sharable silliness and to those that spread it, it doesn't matter at all if the person writing it works for one brand in the genre or the other one. Staying ahead and gaining scale gets more difficult, not less for those in this segment.

Kasey Casem is remembered precisely because he refused to become generic. When he left his show and started a new one, so many people followed him that he was able to buy back the original show and run both of them at the same time. We were connected to him, not the idea of a radio show.

2. Is it for the reader or the search engine? Here's an excerpt from how editors are deciding things at the Times now: "There was praise for headlines that had contained the right words ... to maximize online search results." 

The most important thing any individual or corporate media entity needs to learn is this: One subscriber is worth 1,000 surfers. Newspapers learned this a century ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer created one of the richest families in America on the basis of a focus on subscriptions. And Time magazine has turned into a nearly valueless relic because they forgot to focus on subscribers and pandered to the newsstand and to the listicle instead.

[A subscriber, by my definition, doesn't have to pay with money. Sometimes, it's sufficient to pay with attention.]

3. Would I miss it if it were gone? And here's the key question, the one that gets to the heart of meaningful. When we deliver meaningful content, it means we show up, invited, with words and images that matter. It means that we are trusted enough to be permitted to speak the first few words, and talented enough to keep the attention we've worked so hard to earn. Most of all, meaningful can't possibly work for everyone with a smart phone, for everyone in every potential audience, because there are so many ways to be seen as meaningful, so many different tribes of people thirsting for different kinds of connection.

Here's the key flaw in the bigger-is-better reasoning: It's entirely possible to become an important voice merely because everyone is listening. (Walter Cronkite, or the front page of Yahoo in 1999). When everyone is listening, anyone who wants to be part of everyone also has to listen. That's certainly why the most viral viral videos get so many views--the second half of their views are people who don't watch viral videos, but need to get clued in.

There are still some advertisers who want the biggest mass they can find, who will pay extra to reach more people who care less, but those advertisers are going to find someone bigger than you to advertise with.

It's no longer possible to become important to everyone, not in a reliable, scalable way, not in a way that connects us to people who will read ads or take action, not to people who aren't already clicking away to the next thing by the time they get to the second or third sentence.

But it is possible to become important to a very-small everyone, to a connected tribe that cares about this voice or that story or this particular point of view. It's still possible to become meaningful, meaningful if you don't get short-term greedy about any particular moment of mass, betting on the long run instead. And we need institutions that can reach many of these tribes, that can bind together focused audiences and useful content creators.

Newspapers used to work because they were local, delivered and urgent, with few competitors.

Today, all four components have changed dramatically. Craigslist and others have stolen a lot of the revenue that came from local, anyone with email can be delivered, and the news cycle has bypassed the daily rhythm of the newspaper. And few competitors has become infinity competitors.

The future of newspapers (and for anyone making content) is to act more like a magazine, like Fast Company and Wired and The New Yorker of fifteen years ago. The center, the urgent center, of a smaller everyone.

My advice to the Times starts with this: Every reporter (and probably every editor) ought to have a blog (or be part of a focused group blog), and post every single day. That's perhaps 600 blogs, every single day, each charged with finding a group of people who care enough about that voice and that topic to hear about it daily. If a reporter can't write cogently and passionately enough about his topic to gain a following, he probably needs to work somewhere else. And if the paper can organize to hire and train and reward people who can do work like this, if they can figure out how to get out of the 48-page paper mindset, if it can create stars and pockets of true connection, it's inconceivable to me that they won't be able to turn a profit.

Of course, one straightforward act isn't going to change the future of the Times, but it represents a symptom, a visible sign that the focus is changing from making an above-average (or even excellent) newspaper for the masses into creating circles of expertise, organizing tribes, building subscriptions based on attention and publishing outside of the finite world of paper... (And I firmly believe that this applies even more to individuals and smaller organizations than it does to legacy newspapers).

The future of media can't possibly only lie in random mass viral entertainments, generated with the aid of computers and aimed at the lowest-clicking denominator. For most organizations, that can't lead to useful ads, it doesn't lead to subscriptions, and most of all, it doesn't lead to impact. Entertaining the people who click on 50 things a day will get you numbers, but it won't make a difference.

If it's not worth subscribing to a particular voice or feature or idea, if it's not worth looking forward to and not worth trusting, I'm not sure it's worth writing, not if your goal is to become meaningful.

The three questions to ask, then, at every editorial meeting:

Who is this for?

Will we be able to reach them?

Is it meaningful?

And here's the rhetorical question I'd ask the publisher of every media company, from the sole practitioner to the Times: If you had the loyal attention of the powerful, connected, concerned and intelligent people in any given (valuable) tribe or sector, and you regularly showed up with anticipated, personal and relevant content for those people, could you make it into a business?

[More on this (and Clay, too)]

PS From six years ago... Sorry to repeat myself.

Most likely to succeed

"Succeed" is in the eye of the beholder...

Most likely to hit a home run

Most likely to please my boss

Most likely to do the work

Most likely to work for free

Most likely to stick it out

Most likely to change everything

Most likely to be trustworthy

Most likely to attract attention 

Most likely to be invisible

Most likely to be worth it

There are many versions of most likely to succeed. When you're looking for a gig or a client, the category you are placed in by those that choose is up to you. And no category = invisible.

The panda and the bicycle

Many tribes gain in power and connection by finding their opposite, by identifying the choices that members won't make.

"People like us don't do things like that."

So the vegan tribe obviously chooses to not eat meat. And during the key formative years, the Apple tribe wouldn't deign to buy Microsoft products. The Amish build solidarity and define themselves by the machines they choose not to use, and for a long time, many professional photographers wouldn't use digital cameras.

The smart choice is to understand that tribal identity is based on choices, not on facts, based on allegiances, not the intentional disregard of the rest of the world. Some sects of the motorcycle tribe don't wear helments... not because they believe it's safer (and thus denying the obvious) but because it's a choice they want to make.

Shortly after Copernicus rocked the world by proving that the Earth goes around the Sun (and not vice versa), many religions condemned this insight, "people like us don't believe things like that."

The problem is this: science is not the opposite of a tribe, just like the panda is not the opposite of the bicycle and the avocado isn't the opposite of the semicolon. Facts are different than choices. The scientific method is a process, a series of questions and iterations that is distinct from what any particular observer chooses to believe. So yes, professional scientists have a culture and belong to various tribes, but no, that culture is not the same as the scientific method. And yes, scientists are often wrong, but scientists following the method correct their mistakes.

The same thing is true about accounting. When your balance sheet or your direct mail numbers don't add up, don't blame the process that counted them.

Tribes thrive when they connect and coordinate and synchronize. They work when they create a cultural connection. But they can't thrive when they merely embrace (or deny) the reality of the world around them.

You can choose not to ride a bicycle, but it makes no sense to deny that bicycles exist, regardless of how important your tribe thinks the panda bear is... unrelated ideas, ideas that don't benefit from being put in opposition to one another.

As you organize and lead your tribe, then, the opportunity is to be crystal clear about what you stand for, but to give the alert observers within your clan the ability to stick with you and what they believe without having to pretend that the world outside doesn't actually exist.

Micro marketing and the called bluff

Just ten years ago, what difference could you possibly be expected to make?

How could you make music without getting picked by a record label, or help the local community garden more than showing up on Saturday to pull weeds? How could anyone expect you to change a conversation, or raise enough cash or move the needle more than a little?

Today, armed with Mailchimp and Indiegogo and Vimeo and Meetup and a dozen other nearly free tools, you can make quite a ruckus.

You can organize a hundred or a thousand people and get them in sync with a weekly newsletter. You can tailor goods or services or a cause to a small group of people that really want to hear about it and really want to spread the word. You can self publish to your thousand true fans, you can host an event or a dozen events, you can enable your work to become famous to the crowd that matters.

Pick yourself.

If you care enough.

Worldview and stories

Why did McDonald's post signs saying, "More than a billion sold"?

Why do some people pay big money to go to galas that support charities, but not donate otherwise?

Why was the guy on the plane yesterday reading The Fault in Our Stars, years after it came out?

Why are some hipsters getting their tattoos removed?

What makes so many people vote against their long and short-term interests?

How come it's so easy to like or dislike a person, a brand or a politician before we even get to know much about them?

What's a fair price to pay for a decent bottle of wine?

Do doctors cure people more often than alternative medicine?

Is it worth owning a Leica?

When was the last time you took something out of the library?

Do you fly a flag outside of your house?

Enough with the facts and figures and features and benefits. They rarely move people into action. It's our worldview (the way we acted and believed and judged before we encountered you) and your story (the narrative we tell ourselves about who you are and what you do) that drive human behavior.

We make two giant mistakes as marketers:

We believe that everyone has the same worldview, that everyone in a group shares the same biases and expectations and dreams as everyone else... and,

We believe that the narrative is up for grabs, and we ought to just make the thing we make.

An accurate description of a worldview has nothing to do with you or your mission... it's the way a person acts without you in the room. In the case of McDonald's, it's the worldview of: I don't want to take a risk in this transaction, and one way to do that is to follow the crowd.

And the story is the (true) narrative that unlocks that worldview and turns it into action.

Tell me what your ideal customer believes, at the most emotional and primordial level, and then you can tell me the story you'll craft and live and deliver that engages with that belief.

[More on this]

Even better than an app?

Mitch writes about the very near future when most fast-serve and mid-priced restaurants will have a tablet on the table, letting you order and pay without ever speaking to a waiter. It sort of takes the magic out of restaurants for me, but I get his point.

And your store, your store is likely to become not much more than a showroom for an online seller if pointing and clicking is cheaper, faster and more satisfying than hunting down a salesperson and dealing with a transaction.

And this rash, perhaps it might be better diagnosed right now by emailing a picture of it to Jay Parkinson than it would by hassling for an appointment and spending the time and the money to drive an hour to the doctor's office to show it to someone in person.

And when was the last time you looked forward to waiting in line to talk to a bank teller? Or a loan officer? 

It used to be that the goal was to be perfect, like a computer. Now, of course, that's not nearly good enough if you're in any job that can be done by a computer (or a customer with an app in his hand).

Once we acknowledge that the measurable, objective job might be taken by an app, we have to make service dramatically better than self-service, or else this job is gone. If it's not special, don't bother.

What an opportunity! Instead of seeing a job as a shuttler of information and stuff from place to place, we can acknowledge that in fact, the shuttling isn't unique or even particularly valuable. The human being part is what's worth something.

Are you solving a problem or creating a problem?

Uber solves a problem. You always needed a reliable way to get from a to b, and Uber does that, in many ways better than a cab.

Lady Gaga solves a problem. You have neophilia when it comes to music, and she'll bring you new music to satisfy your curiousity.

Same thing goes for Zara. They solve the 'what's new in fashion' problem for a lot of early adopters.

On the other hand, Uggs created a problem for people who aren't necessarily fashion forward but want to wear what everyone else is wearing. Once "everyone" was wearing Uggs, these fashion-laggards had a problem—if they wanted to keep up, they had to go buy a new pair of boots.

In most successful business-to-business selling, the big wins come from creating problems. Once the competition is busy using your new innovation, the other companies have to buy it to keep competitive. Once other brands are using your social medium, the laggard brands do too—not because you've solved their problem, but because you've created one. The people in a traditional bureaucracy buy something new when they have to, not when they want to.

(It's interesting how we recoil from the idea of creating problems. Of course, progress is about creating opportunities, and opportunities always bring along their close colleague, problems.)

Or consider the case of a non-profit seeking to raise funds or gain government support. Without a doubt, they have to create a problem in the mind of the donor, or there will be no funds or no support to solve that problem.

It is clearly more fun (at first) to solve problems because everyone is happy to see you and the discussion is simple indeed, "You know that problem you used to have? We just solved it." The innovations that change the world, though, often create (or highlight) problems before they solve them.

[HT to Mo for the title]

What if you could love what you get paid for?

Really tempting to spend time trying to get paid for what you love.

It's probably easier and certainly more direct to talk to yourself about loving what you do.

It's not about you

Right in the front row, not four feet from Christian McBride, was every performer's bête noire. I don't know why she came to the Blue Note, maybe it was to make her date happy. But she was yawning, checking her watch, looking around the room, fiddling with this and that, doing everything except being engaged in the music.

McBride seemed to be too professional and too experienced to get brought down by her disrespect and disengagement. Here's what he knew: It wasn't about him, it wasn't about the music, it wasn't a response to what he was creating.

Haters gonna hate.

Shun the non-believers.

Do your work, your best work, the work that matters to you. For some people, you can say, "hey, it's not for you." That's okay. If you try to delight the undelightable, you've made yourself miserable for no reason.

It's sort of silly to make yourself miserable, but at least you ought to reserve it for times when you have a good reason.