Be delighted to eat dog food.
It makes no sense to disdain the choices your customers make. If you can't figure out how to empathize and eagerly embrace the things they embrace, you are letting everyone down with your choice. Sure, someone needs to make this, but it doesn't have to be you.
If you treat the work as nothing but an obligation, you will soon be overwhelmed by competition that sees it as a privilege and a calling.
Great marketers have empathy.
They're able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else's shoes.
Bullies are tone deaf. They don't always set out to be brutal and selfish, but their near-total lack of empathy amplifies their self involvement.
"What's it like to be you?" is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren't tone deaf manage to ask it.
Gravity, for example.
I can't do a thing about gravity. Even if I wanted to move to Jupiter or the moon for a change in gravity, it's inconceivable that I could.
On the other hand, there are lots of things I can do to control my reaction to gravity. I can take Alexander classes or get in better shape. I can avoid situations where gravity makes me uncomfortable (the trapeze, for example). I can choose to not whine about gravity and its effects.
There are countless forces in our lives that are out of our control. That doesn't mean we can't do anything about how they influence our work and our life...
Nine years ago last month, a few of us sat down in my office and started working on Squidoo. Since then, there have been billions of visits to our site, and many of you have clicked, written, and contributed to what we've built. We've been able to pay people from around the world for great content and donate to dozens of charities.
Squidoo was launched before Pinterest, Twitter and Medium were the platforms of the day. It arrived just in time to remind people that in fact they could share what they cared about with people who were interested in hearing about it.
Last week, we announced that HubPages is acquiring the key assets of Squidoo and HugDug, creating the largest site of its kind. Like most projects, this one is coming to a close, and we hope that the combined platform that we're giving to our users will allow them to do more than ever before. HubPages has built a platform that gives user content even more prominence online. I'm excited about where they're going.
I want to point you to the team that built (and even more arduously, improved) Squidoo for all of these years. Many of them are off to start new projects, and some are looking to join teams that are doing important work--people with this much talent don't find themselves in between projects for long. I can't say enough good things about the Squids--each and every one of them is a generous, talented and hardworking expert at what they do.
Thanks to those of you who were part of what we built. I can't wait to see what (all of us) build next.
This is far from a new phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago there were holier-than-thou people standing in the village square, wringing their hands, ringing their bells and talking about how urgent a problem was. They did little more than wring their hands, even then.
In our connected world, though, there are two sides to social media's power in spreading the word about a charitable cause.
According to recent data about the ice bucket challenge making the rounds, more than 90% of the people mentioning it (posting themselves being doused or passing on the word) didn't make a donation to support actual research on an actual disease. Sounds sad, no?
But I think these slacktivists have accomplished two important things at scale, things that slacktivists have worked to do through the ages:
- They've spread the word. The fact is that most charities have no chance at all to reach the typical citizen, and if their fundraising strategy is small donations from many people, this message barrier is a real issue. Peer-to-peer messaging, even if largely ego-driven, is far better than nothing. In a sideways media world, the only way to reach big numbers is for a large number of people to click a few times, probably in response to a request from a friend.
- Even more important, I think, is that they normalize charitable behavior. It's easy to find glowing stories and infinite media impressions about people who win sporting events, become famous or make a lot of money. The more often our peers talk about a different kind of heroism, one that's based on caring about people we don't know, the more likely we are to see this as the sort of thing that people like us do as a matter of course.
Spreading the word and normalizing the behavior. Bravo.
The paradox? As this media strategy becomes more effective and more common (as it becomes a strategy, not just something that occurs from the ground up as it did in this case), two things are likely to happen, both of which we need to guard against:
- Good causes in need of support are going to focus on adding the sizzle and ego and zing that gets an idea to spread, instead of focusing on the work. One thing we know about online virality is that what worked yesterday rarely works tomorrow. A new arms race begins, and in this case, it's not one that benefits many. We end up developing, "an unprecedented website with a video walkthrough and internationally recognized infographics..." (actual email pitch I got while writing this post).
- We might, instead of normalizing the actual effective giving of grants and donations, normalize slacktivism. It could easily turn out that we start to emotionally associate a click or a like or a mention as an actual form of causing change, not merely a way of amplifying a message that might lead to that action happening.
The best model I've seen for a cause that's figured out how to walk this line between awareness and action is charity: water. My friend Bernadette and I are thrilled to be supporting their latest campaign. It would be great if you'd contribute or even better, start a similar one.
I think the goal needs to be that activism and action are not merely the right thing to do, but the expected, normal thing to do.
It's not a silly question. It has a lot to do with culture and crowds and the way we decide, as a group, what's right and what's not.
A quick look at some colors confirms that there is no algorithm, no accepted pattern for color names. They range from short and obscure (puce) to long and obvious references, like cotton candy.
No color has a name until a significant group accepts that name. You can start calling the sky, "gluten," but it's not going to be useful until others do as well.
That's what mass, cultural-shifting marketing does. It creates an idea or a label or a habit or a discussion and enables it to become a building block of our culture.
No one who invents a name for a color is applauded or instantly successful. It never works right away. And then, person by person, it starts to stick. The first person leaps, and leaps again, and persists, inventing something we sooner or later all decided we needed all along.
Escalators make people happy. They're ready when you are, there is almost never a line, and you can see progress happening the entire time.
Elevators are faster, particularly for long distances, but we get frustrated when we just miss one, and we often wonder when the next one is coming, even after a few seconds. (That's why lobbies have mirrors, to give you something to do when you're waiting).
The ferry schedule, invented by Cornelius Vanderbilt, is a third way to deal with transport. Instead of having each boat turn around the minute it arrived, he guaranteed when it would leave. We can build our day around a schedule...
[Or you could point them to the stairs.]
What do you offer your clients?
On the first 100 pages of the new, thick issue of Vanity Fair, there are about 95 full page ads. Those ads feature, best I can count, 108 people. Of these, 24 of the people are some combination of not-sad and not-ghostly and not-skinny. The other 84 send precisely the same signal: Brands like ours feature people like this.
Here's the thing: green lights aren't green because there's something inherently go-ful about the color green. A long time ago, green got assigned to go, red to stop, and that's the semiotics of traffic.
The same is true for this class of luxury goods. There's nothing about too thin, too pale and really sad that implies that people will want to buy an expensive good, and in fact, there is probably data that shows that happy people actually lead to more sales. But these ads are about labeling and fitting in and sending a coherent signal. "Brands like ours advertise in places like this with ads like this."
In the tech world, ads featuring fonts like Myriad Pro and Helvetica send a similar signal. Creative people fall into the trap/use this shortcut of fitting in all the time, because so many other elements of their work feel risky, they choose to do what feels safe when the committee starts making ads.
And we make the same risk-averse decisions when we decide which trade shows to show our wares, what sort of stock photos to put on our website and alas, what sort of entrepreneurs we invest in. Culturally driven choices, not based on fresh analysis or actual impact.
We confuse the size of a diamond with how big a commitment of love the groom is making. We assume that movie characters that smoke cigarettes are more heroic or brooding. Or that how famous a college is has something to do with the future potential of those that attend. Executives assert that office size and inaccessibility are actually correlated with power...
Part of the art of making change happen is seeing which cultural tropes are past their prime and having the guts to invent new ones.
If you're engaging in a neck and neck battle for supremacy, it's entirely possible you've lost track of the purpose of the work you set out to do in the first place.
Consider recent stats about college sports:
- A coach who makes $6.9 million dollars a year
- A weight training coach who makes more than $6,000 a week
- A dozen non-profit universities spending more than $100,000,000 a year (each) on their athletic programs
What's it for? If winning is the point, and winning can be purchased with money that's available, then I guess it makes sense.
But often, winning is a proxy for something else. I think it makes sense to figure out what that is before you spend a nickel. Does spending ten times as much give you ten times as much of what you set out to create in the first place? Is bigger the goal? Is first place the only way to get to where you're going?
"You have to continue to move forward. The moment you decide to stand still, the rest of the industry goes by you very quickly." The industry in discussion is college sports, and that's one athletic director's take.
Not just college, not just sports. When in doubt, try not to turn your mission into an industry. It's distracting. What are you giving up in order to win a game you didn't sign up for in an industry you don't need to dominate?
Better to do the work that's worth doing.
...is actually not the same as, "doing everything I can."
When we tell people we're doing the best we can, we're actually saying, "I'm doing the best I'm comfortable doing."
As you've probably discovered, great work makes us uncomfortable.
I need a sales rep (or ten) to do the selling so I can do my work.
And investors to put up the money so I can do my work.
And an accounting staff so I won't have to think about inflows and outflows so I can do my work.
And an admin to process and answer all my email and my paperwork...
And employees who already know what to do so they won't ask me...
And an organization that not only doesn't make me go to meetings, but also instantly understands and adopts my best ideas...
And a coffee boy to bring me an espresso, a police escort so I don't get stuck in traffic and a publicist so every media outlet in the world communicates what I'm working on.
By now, you've probably realized:
This isn't going to happen. Not as completely or as flawlessly as we'd like to hope. We need the leverage that comes from working with other people, but that leverage also means that we're responsible. People who do great work also embrace the fact that this is their work too. It's not merely an interruption or a distraction, it's part of what they do. There are no monasteries reserved for productive, successful artists who regularly ship inspiring work. Our culture responds to instigators and impresarios who figure out how to make a ruckus in a complicated world.
Years ago, you had to work with a quill or a manual typewriter. You needed to wait for the post office and you had no free and highly-leveraged outlet for your work to be seen by others. You had no access to a huge, instant and free library of the work that has come before... and yet, despite all of those missing elements, great work was created.
My guess is that the few people who find themselves isolated with nothing to do but what they believe is their work find a way to distract themselves with something anyway. And people who have too many distractions to actually do any real work are in that bind because they haven't invested enough time, effort or risk in their organization and their process. Yes, there's a sweet spot. As you obtain leverage, that leverage becomes part of what your work becomes.
We are leaving you to do your work. Go!
and How will we know if it worked?
Answer these two questions first, please. If it's worth doing, it's worth knowing before you do it.
A hammer is for getting nails into wood, and it's pretty easy to tell if it does the job well. That's one reason why we have so many good hammers available to us--real clarity about what it's for, and whether it works or not.
Too often, we wait until we see what something does before we decide what we built it for.
[Examples: what's a receptionist for? Dog food? Life insurance?]
This is a pretty long post, and I know that you could easily substitute another round of Angry Birds instead of reading it. I hope you’ll find it useful.
One of the key elements of pricing is realizing that people have choices, and that substitutes are available. This is more nuanced than it sounds, though, and I want to highlight key things to keep in mind when you think about how much to charge and how people might react.
Marketers make two mistakes over and over. They create average, commodity products and expect that people will pay extra for them. Or, in the other direction, they lose their nerve and don't charge a fair price for the extraordinary work they're doing, afraid that people will find a substitute.
"Why should I buy this from you, that guy over there sells something just like it?"
"Why should I buy anything from any of you guys? I'll just watch TV/eat in/skip it..."
- There are two kinds of substitutes--between markets and between competitors
- Commodity goods and services have easy substitutes between competitors
- Some goods are difficult to understand before purchase and use, and most consumers undervalue them and treat them like commodities
- Industry norms are an important signalling device, part of the way price tells a story, and a way that substitutes across categories often come into play. Norms make us think something is fair and safe
- Network effects make substitution difficult and need to be amplified in many markets in order to create more value
- In commodity markets, price often drops to marginal cost, and in digital markets, that’s often zero
- Luxury goods, for many of the reasons stated above, have few substitutes for those that value them
Consider the market for a dozen eggs, sold at the supermarket.
There are commodity eggs, normal, regular, use-these-eggs-in-your-cake-or-your-omelet sort of eggs. When you have a choice of two brands of normal eggs, you buy the cheap ones, because, of course, all eggs are the same. One is a perfect substitute for the other.
Right next to those eggs, though, are eggs with a story. Eggs that are free range or organic or cruelty-free or high in this or low in that. And these eggs cost more. Some people happily buy these eggs, substituting them for normal eggs, because to them, they’re worth more.
If you want to charge extra for eggs, then, you need people to believe that they are worth more than the substitutes. This sounds obvious, but it is the key wisdom that gets us started. How much it costs you to make an egg is completely irrelevant to this discussion (or even how much it costs the chicken, but that's a whole different discussion). People will switch to a similar good any time you haven't given them a good reason to pay extra.
When the price of all eggs goes up, because of an egg truckers strike or because of increasing costs, very few people stop buying eggs and start buying cream cheese instead. That’s because if you want to make a cake, you need an egg. And because if you sell tamago, you need eggs. Eventually, if the price goes really high or the high price sticks around for a long time, some people will find a substitute in a different market, eating Cheerios instead of eggs for breakfast, for example. (This is called elasticity, and we could talk about it forever, but one thing that's worth noting is that elasticity varies wildly across and within categories).
This leads to opportunity and challenge of marketers who choose to sell something that we don't buy very often and that we can't tell if it's better (or if the story is true) until after we buy it. In situations like this, our instinct is to assume that the thing is generic, a commodity, not worth extra.
Paradoxically, pricing itself also tells a story. If we're picking a surgeon or a restaurant or yes, even a dozen eggs, sometimes we intentionally don't buy the cheapest one. It has to do with the story we tell ourselves about money, certainly, but it's also based on an awareness of how markets work. When we don't want to make a mistake, we seek information, and expensive successful items in the market carry with them the information that other people like me have bought this more than once, that it's probably worth it.
Industry norms become critical when we try to understand substitutes. Take the seventy-year run that paperback books had as a dominant form of spreading a certain kind of idea. At the beginning, they were just a dime, a throwaway item featuring detective stories and romances. As established publishers started putting their books out in paperback, the industry set norms as to what price people should expect to pay for a book. It was a price that was considerably higher than the cost of making a book, but it was also seen as fair, particularly when compared to the price of a hardcover book (the only sensible substitute).
Because the industry established a price range as a norm, the story of appropriate value was established—not the other way around.
Norms are especially important in markets where the marginal cost of delivering the good or service is really low. How much should image processing software cost? What about a movie ticket? In commodity markets with no marginal cost and many competitors, rational economics would predict that the price would go to zero. But of course, in many markets, it doesn't. That's because industry leaders set a standard and deliver goods that feel fairly priced, so people don't seek inferior substitutes in other markets.
If you're unknown and making a digital good, it makes a lot of sense to charge zero, because it's free marketing, a powerful way to spread your reputation. But the second digital good you make, presuming it's worth paying for, ought to have no substitute, and thus your pricing strategy is very different.
And every marketer must consider network effects. What really creates a lack of substitution is the fact that, due to connections made and stories told, there are no substitutes. If you want to send a fax to someone with a fax machine, you can't buy a typewriter. If you want to share files in Photoshop format, well, then, you're going to have to pay for Photoshop. Money well spent to create the value a network provides.
And for anyone who seeks to offer a good or a service that costs more than the good-enough commodity substitute, we have to understand and embrace the fact that we are in the business of making luxury goods.
Bottled water is an example. A luxury good doesn't have to be for the wealthy--in this case, it's a product with an historically available (and largely free) substitute, and yet many people buy it. And it's worth noting that in most places, a norm for the price of bottled water exists, a norm that's high enough for everyone in the chain to make a profit and to lead to ubiquitous distribution.
Consider the market for ebooks. David Streitfeld, writing in the Times, quotes George Orwell:
“It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,” he wrote. “Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”
“If our book consumption remains as low as it has been,” he wrote, “at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.”
It's surprising but true that now, books and ebooks are a luxury good, something that (if we're considering all the ways we have to spend time) has many substitutes, costs more than it should, is better than it needs to be and most of all, has a network effect that allows us to tell ourselves and other people a story about what kind of person we are.
Lowering the price of ebooks won't increase the number of people who read them much, as evidenced by how many free ebooks aren't read by everyone (a viral video might be seen by five hundred to a thousand times as many people as a viral ebook). Increasing the urgency, the network effect and the quality (and setting a new, higher norm that allows that) will serve the people who love books in the long run and the short urn.
Booksellers will only be able to do their best work (and enable their industry) when they acknowledge and embrace that this is a luxury good, not something for everyone (most people in the US buy one book a year) but something for people who realize that for the right book, there is no substitute.
Email and web surfing are a free substitute for reading, even when it comes to reading books that are priced at zero. This blog and many others compete with books every day. There is no price at which everyone will start reading books. Instead, we have to set a norm, figure out a price that (having nothing to do with the cost of delivering one more unit) enables the creation of a powerful stream of goods worth talking about.
That norm elevates a platform for great work.
Intermarriage has always been a problem, all the way back to Romeo and Juliet (and West Side Story, of course). Intermarriage de-demonizes the ‘other’, and the insecure tribe member sees this as an existential threat, the beginning of the end of tribal cohesion.
Gangs in LA view high school as a threat. A kid who graduates from high school has options, can see a way up, which decreases the power of the gang and its leaders. Public school is seen as a threat by some tribes, a secular indoctrination and an exposure to other cultures and points of view that might destabilize what has been built over generations. And digital audio is a threat to those in the vinyl tribe, because at some point, some members may decide they’ve had enough of the old school.
Lately, two significant threats seen by some tribes are the scientific method and the power of a government (secular, or worse, representing a majority tribe). One fear is that once someone understands the power of inquiry, theory, testing and informed criticism, they will be unwilling to embrace traditional top-down mythology. The other is that increased government power will enforce standards and rituals that undermine the otherness that makes each tribe distinct.
If a tribe requires its members to utter loyalty oaths to be welcomed [“the president is always right, carbon pollution is a myth, no ____ allowed (take your pick)”] they will bump into reality more and more often. I had a music teacher in elementary school who forbade students to listen to pop music, using a valiant but doomed-to-fail tactic of raising classical music lovers.
Tribes started as self-defending groups of wanderers. It didn't take long, though, for them to claim a special truth, for them to insulate themselves from an ever-changing world.
In a modern, connected era, successful tribes can’t thrive for long by cutting themselves off from the engines that drive our culture and economy. What they can do is engage with and attract members who aren’t there because the tribe is right and everyone else is wrong, but instead, the modern tribe quite simply says, “you are welcome here, we like you, people like us are part of a thing like this, we'll watch your back.” It turns out that this is enough.
What's the point of being open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, especially if you get zero calls between 3 am and 4 am?
Why take the risk of offering a no-questions-asked money-back guarantee when you know that a few people are going to show up with ridiculous requests for refunds?
Do you really want to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet? What about the trolls that eat too much? Shouldn't you have limits?
Simple. Because you've just eliminated a reason for people to wonder. They don't have to wonder about your rules or your hours or your fine print, because you took away the doubt.
"I don't like it"
"I don't understand it"
Those are the only responses your new idea can possibly generate from many around you if your new idea is actually a great idea, something ownable, something you can build work around.
The popular, obvious, guaranteed ideas have definitely been taken, or are so small that they're not really worth your blood and tears.
That means if the new title of your book is instantly understood by all, it's generic or descriptive, not something that people will associate with you as a creator or as someone who brings us new insight.
That means if your app does something so predictable that everyone is sure it's going to work, you're not making a big enough leap.
And that means that if your political idea is so palatable that everyone is going to vote for it immediately, it's not going to change anything.
"I'll ask around the office," is shorthand for, "no. Make it more boring. Banal. And less likely to succeed, please."
That's the perfect advice, and the advice that spreads, the advice we seek.
Of course, advice that's simple, guaranteed, easy and free isn't worth very much, because if it worked, we would have done it already.
No, the advice worth seeking out is really difficult to execute. It costs time or money (or both), and it just might not work.
Hey, if it's worth asking for advice, it's worth doing the hard stuff once we get it, right?
Don't measure anything unless the data helps you make a better decision or change your actions.
If you're not prepared to change your diet or your workouts, don't get on the scale.
This isn't a tourist attraction or merely a remarkable gimmick. What it does is reverse systemic bias by requiring paying customers to adapt to a system that isn't of their choosing. If you want to eat here, you need to play by a different set of rules.
The original reason for systemic biases is usually benign. "Most people" can't use this, or most people don't look like you or most people won't benefit. Over time, though, the bias in favor of most people becomes more ingrained, and often serves as a barrier to change, reinforcing the power of the dominant group.
I'm well aware that much of what I create is difficult to engage with for people with certain disabilities or cultural backgrounds. And the dynamics of the market often mean that this standard is maintained, usually longer than it needs to be. Signs is a beautiful reminder that we need to actively re-think some of the paradigms about race, gender and disability that we've assumed are normal.
It's extremely unlikely that many other restaurants will hire waiters capable of understanding sign language. For me, the breakthrough here is permitting us, even for a little while, to understand what people who aren't 'most people' or aren't like those in power, have to accept in order to engage with the systems that have been built.
Perhaps the only truly authentic version of you is just a few days old, lying in a crib, pooping in your pants.
Ever since then, there's been a cultural overlay, a series of choices, strategies from you and others about what it takes to succeed in this world (in your world).
And so it's all invented.
When you tell me that it would be authentic for you to do x, y or z, my first reaction is that nothing you do is truly authentic, it's all part of a long-term strategy for how you'll make an impact in the world.
I'll grant you that it's essential to be consistent, that people can tell when you shift your story and your work in response to whatever is happening around you, and particularly when you say whatever you need to say to get through the next cycle. But consistency is easier to talk about and measure than authenticity is.
The question, then, is what's the impact you seek to make, what are the changes you are working for? And how can you achieve that and still do work you're proud of?