Anne Lamott speaks the truth

We all hate to be bad at something.  As Kathy Sierra says, “The User wants to kick ass.”  And most of us don’t start out kicking ass.

One solution is to embrace what Anne Lamott perfectly dubs the “shitty first draft.”  I hardly need to tell you what that means, but let’s use Lamott’s words.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

This maps perfectly into Ed Catmull’s thinking, that Pixar’s entire method is to go “from suck to non-suck.”

If you’re noting a theme, you’re right.  Creating content for your brand is much more about craft than art.  The way to get something decent written is to start with something (anything).  If you hide from the process and “wait for inspiration,” you will never accomplish anything.  Your first drafts will suck.  By definition.  Get over it.  Your first 20 completed posts will someday fill you with cringing embarrassment, just like your high school poetry.  But there’s a big difference between someone who’s out there trying to create and someone who’s too afraid to try.

Does this mean you can just throw bad stuff out there?  Of course not.  You still have to respect your readers’ time and energy.  Is any of this easy? Of course not.  But if short cuts existed, you would have found them by now.  If you’re afraid to step up to bat, you cannot get a base hit.

John Lennon described how he wrote Nowhere Man (for my money, the best thing he ever did).

“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down”.

Keith Richards has similarly said:

(P)eople say they write songs, but in a way you’re more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around, it’s just a matter of like an antenna, of whatever you pick up. So many uncanny things have happened. A whole song just appears from nowhere in five minutes, the whole structure, and you haven’t worked at all.

But if you’re not there with a guitar in your hand, the song won’t get written at all.  By all means, be open to inspiration.  But show up to work every day anyway.  Embrace the shitty first draft and start creating.  That act alone puts you ahead of most of the human race, who are still waiting for inspiration.

And read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Most honest book about writing I know.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


What Viktor Frankl can teach us

Viktor Frankl made a titanic contribution to human understanding.

He was held in Auschwitz during World War II, and endured horrible privations.  Maybe we’re all so familiar with the Holocaust that we lessen its severity, but it was as ambitious an act of cruelty as homo sapiens has ever been involved in.  Every day Frankl and his fellow inmates worked at pointless labor, froze or sweated depending on the elements, and starved.  As the war worsened, the welfare of these inmates became even less important to their jailers, and numbness set in for everyone.  And then one day, the war was over, and Frankl was released.  He had no one waiting for him.  His wife had died in the camps.  His family was dead.  He had suffered through years of imprisonment and cruelty.  So what exactly was the point of life?  Why go on?  More specifically, why did some prisoners survive the camp while others died?  Conditions were equally cruel on all prisoners, so shouldn’t they all have met the same end?  As a psychiatrist, he thought he might have a way to answer that question.

That question was answered in Man’s Search for Meaning.  His principal finding was that those who survived were those who took meaning from life, or as he called it, “the intensification of inner life.”  Even when there was no hope, they found meaning in getting up every morning and conducting themselves the best way they knew how to.

No matter what the circumstances, man has the right and the ability to choose how he reacts:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.


[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

He quotes Nietzsche: He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. 

Most powerfully, he says there is no point searching for a universal meaning of life.  Every path is different, and one size does not fit all.  I can have a meaning for my life, and that can be very different from the meaning that you have for your life.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

We are all on a difficult journey through life, and there is no silver bullet.  As Ben Horowitz says, there are just a lot of lead bullets.  The work has to be done, the work is often hard, and there are no short cuts, no matter how much we want them.

The people who he saw survive the camps, and any other tribulations they faced (because the cruelty of human experience doesn’t stop simply because you’re released from prison) had these three things in common:

  1. They had something bigger than themselves to live for.  It could be love, it could be integrity, it could be their kids.  It didn’t matter what it was, but they had to have something.
  2. They had complete intellectual integrity.  They knew exactly how bad things were, and they didn’t pretend that it was going to get better anytime soon.  They were brutally honest with themselves.
  3. They could improvise.  They didn’t have a plan chiseled in marble, so they could react to opportunities.

Frankl wasn’t the first to inquire about the meaning of life, but his book has struck a chord that few philosophers have.  It’s profound but short, and if you haven’t read it yet, do it now.  It will stay with you for the rest of your life.

P.S.  Nice post, bro, but what does this have to do with social media?  Well, social media is communication, which is about understanding the audience and what they are experiencing.  You are not the only one looking for meaning.  You are not the only one who needs the truth.  You are not the only one who needs to improvise.  If you treat your readers with disrespect and churn out crap, you don’t deserve to be read.  The bar is too high today.  But if you connect to meaning, to intellectual integrity, and to opportunities, you will connect with your reader on a much deeper level.  Are you churning out marketing copy, or are you trying to connect with human beings?  You can use all the modern tools to do either.  Twitter and Pinterest can deliver banal messages or meaningful messages.  The choice is yours.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Pixar is Cruel to its Stories

For content creators, Pixar is a fantastic organization to study.  Part of it is because they make such good movies.  You don’t have to have kids to get choked up by Toy Story or The Incredibles, or Ratatouille.  Just check out this montage, without words, from Up.

That’s artistry.  But you know what else it is?  Craft.  Sweat, and false hopes, and disappointments, and tearing stuff up and starting again.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, has a new book out called Creativity, Inc., which is about how Pixar developed its culture.  As someone who ran a magazine and has worked in creative industries a lot, I’m looking forward to hearing his thoughts on how to manage creative people (which is different from managing engineers), but I’m equally interested in seeing his thoughts on the creative process per se.  The fact that Catmull is trained as a computer scientist, and not as a theatre director, is not lost on me.  The common misconception people have about managing creative people is that they need to be coddled and kept away from the hard edge of business.  In my experience, creative people are all different, just like engineers are all different.   There is no one size fits all for them, but the best creative people I know live in the real world.  They have always relished getting as close as possible to the business problem that needs to be solved.  It’s not so much that they are trying to sell out and make something that is empty but popular.  It’s that you can’t create anything great until you understand the cruel reality of the world.

Catmull’s thinking is deeply rooted in the real world:

People say they want to be in risky environments and do all kinds of exciting stuff. But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

Part of being the successful Pixar is that we will take risks on teams and ideas, and some of them won’t work out. We only lose from this if we don’t respond to the failures. If we respond, and we think it through and figure out how to move ahead, then we’re learning from it. That’s what Pixar is.

A lot of it is understanding our basic software as human beings.  We don’t like failure or risk (even though we all claim to).

Think about our industry, or the things that your readers are facing: The underlying technology continues to change, successful people are always getting older and aging out, and everyone is drawing new conclusions about what really works. There is no stable place. But there is this illusion that somehow you can get to a stable place, figure it all out. People have their fear: They want to be in a secure place; they want to know what to do; they want people to tell them what to do. And there isn’t anything that can remove that underlying piece of human nature. It is when we try to avoid, stop, or control change that we get into trouble

Unfortunately, even at Pixar, all of their ideas start out awful.  And some of them need to be killed, even after a lot of sunk costs have gone into it.  Years of work in some cases– Toy Story 2 had to be completely rewritten a year before release.

The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It’s a baby. It’s like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive, and it requires protection.

Catmull cheerfully describes the Pixar creative process as “going from suck to non-suck.

One of the ways they manage this is a tool called the Braintrust. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.  Read the whole piece, but the process looks scary as hell.  The smartest people in the organization meet together every few months to review where they are on a movie, and are encouraged to be candid and solve problems.  Not all of us have this luxury of having brilliant people give tough love to your content, but if you have guts to go through with a similar process, your content will get immeasurably better.  We all have blind spots, and no one is enthusiastic about having the flaws in their work pointed out.  But that’s the only way to kill mediocrity.  Pixar has had 14 film releases, and every single one of them has been #1 at the Box Office.  Even the Beatles and Michael Jackson didn’t pull that off.

But isn’t that the story of every successful recording artist? Over time they drive away anyone who will tell them that their new stuff is weak.  They surround themselves with yes-men and lose their edge.  (Elvis Presley, Lady Gaga, Kanye West– the examples are countless. Look at the Beatles after they stopped working with George Martin.)   It takes a lot of bravery to expose yourself to real criticism, and very few people are willing to do it.  But those that do have that discipline, keep their edge.

Part of Pixar’s success is surely due to the creativity of their team.  But a hell of a lot is due to their process, and having the guts to do painful things in order to drive out mediocrity.  Think of the world we live in now, with infinite choice and almost perfect competition.  What is the point of producing anything that’s mediocre?  Adding to the noise in this world is not a worthy end.  Be cruel to your stories.  Make them good enough to be worth taking up space in other people’s heads.

Creativity is a must-have.  But, cruel as it sounds, so is Rigor.

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



What we can learn from Winston Churchill’s painting teacher

Winston Churchill was under a lot of stress.

France had just fallen to the Nazis.  It was fully expected that the Germans were preparing for an invasion of the British Isles, and it was not at all clear that Britain would prevail.  It was so bad that his usual stress management routine of Champagne, whisky, and cigars wasn’t working.  Daily naps weren’t easy any more, and he was starting to feel the strain.  Finally, one of his Cabinet Ministers mentioned that when he felt stressed, he went into his garden and painted; his troubles just fell away. Churchill, willing to try anything at this point, agreed to give it a go, and had the Minister’s painting teacher come to Chequers, the Prime Minster’s country house.  The teacher and Churchill brought their easels into the garden, set up the canvases, and arranged the paints.  The teacher said, “Now Mr. Prime Minister, just paint what you see.” Churchill thought hard and very carefully drew a thin and labored line, then stopped and thought hard.  “Come on Mr. Prime Minister, just be free, and paint whatever you see.”  Churchill added a second thin, tentative line.  This cycle of encouragement and reluctance went on for some minutes until finally the teacher said: “Mr Prime Minister.  Will you please hurry up and get done with your first hundred bad paintings so we can get to work on your first good one.”

This story is apocryphal but incredibly evocative. (I think I got it from Martin Gilbert’s spectacular Winston Churchill: A Life, which condenses his eight volume academic biography into one volume for the layman.  He’s like the English Robert Caro.) Even Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest man of the 20th Century was afraid to be mediocre.

We all have a deep fear of sucking.  But until we go through the phase of sucking, we will never be good.  Most content creators are like Churchill in the first five minutes—tentative, afraid to commit, and not producing anything of merit.  Look at the blogs and Twitter feeds in your vertical market—how many are actually taking chances and trying to do something good?  It’s not that there are so many brilliant people writing blogs today—we’re still writing the rules of how to kick ass online.  But most people aren’t even trying to be good.  They just want to not get in trouble.

Unfortunately, the path to excellence leads through mediocrity.  That’s the nature of learning new skills.  We all start as beginners.  Mastery by George Leonard is a great explanation of how we learn.  And just like when you learned how to ice skate or type, you’re awful at first.  If you don’t get serious about improving, you’ll never get better.  But part of getting better is being willing to press “publish” even when your stuff isn’t that good.  You should always do the best you can at any one time, but, like a 14-year-old boy asking a girl out on a date, sometimes the best you can do just isn’t any good yet.

The good news is that, when you start out, no one’s paying attention anyway—Google doesn’t care about you until you have 20 or 30 blog posts anyway, and in the early days, no one is reading your Twitter feed.  Like a standup comic, you can be awful in obscurity.  If you’re focused, you can make it to Page 1 of Google in a few months, but you won’t get there without taking a lot of swings.

Being bad at something hurts because we’re vulnerable.  This is a terrific video from Brené Brown talking about the need to acknowledge your critics, make room for them, but not pay too much attention to them.  Your job is not to make everyone love you.  Your job is to show up and be in the arena every day.  And sometimes that’s painful.  But the only way to get past mediocrity is to go through it.

She puts it very well when she says “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked,  I don’t care about your feedback.”

Don’t be afraid to write your first 20 bad blog posts.  It’s the only way to get to your first good one.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Atul Gawande is right

Some things are simple, some are complex.

As we have built ever more complicated machines and systems, we eventually come up against the limits of what anyone can keep in their head.  For the most complicated tasks—like surgery or flying a passenger aircraft—we need something that allows us to build on what we know, but account for the fact that we’re mortals, and mortals mess up.  That’s why we have the checklist.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes for the New Yorker (that’s a pretty remarkable combination, by the way), wrote a terrific book about the power of the checklist called The Checklist Manifesto.

[Y]ou have a desperately sick patient and in order to have a chance of saving him you have to get the knowledge right and then you have to make sure that the 178 daily tasks that follow are done correctly—despite some monitor’s alarm going off for God knows what reason, despite the patient in the next bed crashing, despite a nurse poking his head around the curtain to ask whether someone could help “get this lady’s chest open.” There is complexity upon complexity. And even specialization has begun to seem inadequate. So what do you do?

Airline pilots are under the same strain to manage complexity.  This is a great story about how the pilot’s checklist came about.  Human fallibility is one thing you can depend on, and managing it is key to getting anything complicated done.

So what does this have to do with social media?  Isn’t it just about cat memes?

For all of us content creators, it’s hard enough to create something original, but we also have to get that content distributed.  In Hollywood studios, there is a fundamental difference between making movies and selling movies.  Both jobs are hard, and require specialization.  For the modern brand, you have to do both—come up with something clever, but also make sure you reach your regular audience by posting it everywhere it should be posted, make sure you are leveraging all the other audiences you are relevant to by getting others to share it, monitoring how the audiences are reacting to it, and scanning the horizon for good content to curate for your audience.  None of it is that hard as single steps, but it’s almost impossible to hold it in your head at the same time.  Constant partial attention is the curse of anyone taking social media seriously.  That’s where the checklist comes in handy.

There’s no one size fits all, but having a written routine that you follow is surprisingly effective for exercise or for writing and promoting content.  And it’s not just us.

 Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.

But we are vain creatures, too.  None of us think our jobs can be reduced to a simple recipe.

In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. (When you’ve got a patient throwing up and an upset family member asking you what’s going on, it can be easy to forget that you have not checked her pulse.) Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. In complex processes, after all, certain steps don’t always matter. … “This has never been a problem before,” people say. Until one day it is.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

I have my own publishing checklist, and I’ll share it with you if you ask, but it covers these basic sections.

  • Reading the news that matters to my audience (RSS feeds, Twitter lists, Facebook pages)
  • Filling the curation queue
  • Creating something new
  • Promoting the new content on the relevant platforms (owned pages)
  • Promoting the new content to people who might find it useful (chats, emails, tweets)
  • Monitor how my content from the last few days has been doing and adjust

The new world not only allows us to be our own media companies, it forces us to be our own media companies.  A checklist lets you ensure that you’re not missing the important steps of an increasingly complex process.

It’s almost humiliating to think that a checklist improves performance, but it works at the grocery store, it works at the gym, and it works in social media.  Best of all, it frees up your brain to worry about more important things.

Photo credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Irving Berlin was Right

Irving Berlin is a tremendous role model for all of us.

He started out as nobody from nowheresville—an immigrant from Czarist Russia who grew up penniless on the Lower East Side of New York City.  But he worked as an office boy, then a song plugger, and eventually a songwriter for hire.  And he wrote a lot of songs.  Over 1500 published songs, with enormous hits like “God Bless America”, “White Christmas”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  He was all about hustle.

He developed at this time the work habits he would retain all of his life. After dinner Berlin would sit down at the piano and write songs until dawn. Since he had no formal musical training, he could only play the piano in one key.

This anecdote says a lot:

Once, a woman who met Berlin at a party exclaimed, ‘I guess there’s no one who has written as many hits as you have!’ He replied, ‘I know there’s no one who has written so many failures.’ Perhaps his childhood experiences — initially cruel, and then impoverished and challenging — taught him that good times and comfort could be fragile, temporary luxuries.

He wrote a ton of clunkers.  A lot of songs that just didn’t work, and many that crossed the line.  Not everyone is Paul McCartney in 1965.  (And Paul wrote his share of clunkers too. )

You know who lost more games in his career than any other Major League Pitcher?  Cy Young.  If you create a lot you will fail a lot.  You also will succeed a few times.

Most of us have to be disciplined in order to crank out serviceable, professional, but not breathtaking content.  But if you’re diligent, you can get lucky a few times.  I like to think of this as “expanding the luck surface area.”   If you create a lot and get your work seen by lots of people, it’s much more likely that something good is going to happen.   Creating one flawless post is not the point.  It’s about creating 100 good posts and sending them out into the world.  You’re much more likely to hit a home run if you get up to bat more.

This plugs right in to one of Berlin’s rules:

It is said that Berlin succeeded in part because he followed a strict work ethic. The composer had “Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs,” which appeared in an interview in AMERICAN MAGAZINE in 1920; he explained one of them thusly: “The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK.”

And interestingly, he was not a lone wolf:

Berlin could not read music. He consequently would work out all of the details of the song in his head, and then sing and play it for his musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right.

He didn’t have to know how to do everything—he focused on writing something good, and then let other people help him to turn it into something that suited what the market needed.  He needed someone to transcribe the tune into the sheet music—you might need someone to shoot a video based on your blog post.  It’s OK to have partners.  It’s not OK to avoid creating content.

Irving Berlin was not afraid to write something that wasn’t perfect, and you shouldn’t be afraid either.  It’s a very noisy world, and you’re crazy if you think that every piece of content you write will be cherished and pored over under a jeweler’s loupe.  Most of what you write will be ignored.  But that’s no excuse for not trying.  If you don’t create, you won’t be noticed.  At all.  If you’re diligent, you will probably get there.  Maybe they won’t be singing your song at every Major League Baseball game, but you will be in the conversation.

Irving Berlin had the guts to keep on creating.  You should too.  Listen to this Irving Berlin playlist and see what’s possible when you put in the hours.

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



Growth Hacking v Traditional Marketing

Lean Startup thinking is the most important addition to business thought in the last 20 years. What Steve Blank, Eric Ries, and many others have uncovered is a way to manage the biggest issue in a new venture– uncertainty.  There is so much uncertainty about so much (customer base, value proposition, business model) that the tools of traditional marketing (e.g., spend money on media) are comically inappropriate.  The Lean Startup method allows you to rapidly try many different versions of your idea cheaply to see what gets traction.  If the market ignores it, you have data.  If the market loves it, you have data.  And the data is what tells you where to go.  It is humbling, exhilarating, and might lead to nothing at all.

The Marketing role at a Lean Startup ends up being part of the whole fail-fast-and-pivot model, and doesn’t look much like marketing at a mature company.  When done correctly, customer acquisition (what we normally called marketing) is baked into the product itself.  (Think about Hotmail, Dropbox, and AirBnB—if you use the product correctly, you help it acquire new customers.)  It’s the very opposite of what most marketers do all day.  When Johnson & Johnson want to launch a new line of Band-Aids, they put in years of research and work in product development, and when it’s done, they throw it over the wall to Marketing and say “go generate demand.”  (I simplify, of course.  They don’t throw it over a wall—they send an email.)

This is a great summary of how Growth Hacking is different from traditional marketing.  And why growth hacking is all about cheap or free tools rather than giving money to ad agencies.  Startups by definition are about extreme uncertainty.  Nobody knows what will work, so why bother spending a lot of money on media?  A big bang is irrelevant—in most cases, startups can’t handle a million customers, so why would you want to even think about TV?  (Moment of silence for  Growth hacking is all about experimenting, gathering data, and abandoning things that don’t work.

In a way, it’s a similar insight to what William Goldman said about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”  We don’t know if any idea is going to work.  So we dumb things down to be inoffensive.  This fear of offending makes most marketing safe and mediocre. When it fails, you can always shift the blame away from yourself.  You can blame the product, you can blame the economy, you can blame the weather.  For the last 100 years, marketing was about guessing, not about knowing.  Why?  Because there was no feedback loop, so you had to wait until your work hit the street before you knew if it worked.  You could use your best judgment, and maybe even test it with audience samples, but you never knew what was going to work.

Today, you can create as many different messages as you want, release them into the wild, and see what the market likes.  This is a fundamental difference with the pre-Internet era.  Now we can see what dog food the dogs like before we commit to buying a big batch of it.

This feedback loop is being leveraged all over the economy.  My personal favorite is the work Amazon Studios is doing.  Rather than present finished products with hidden flaws, it exposes projects at their early stages and asks the audience to find the flaws.  Before money is spent.  It makes a huge difference not so much in the number of hits, but in the number of misses.

Amazon are real growth hackers, because they are putting data from the audience into the design of the product itself—if the audience hates it or is just meh, they know they have to abandon it or fix it.  But most companies aren’t pure growth hackers.  They throw you a completed product over the wall and say “go find me leads.”

While you don’t have the freedom to revamp the product itself, you certainly can revamp the marketing.  Experiment, fail, and learn.  Instead of Product-Market Fit, search for Message-Market fit.  Try multiple approaches and see which, if any, stick.  You’ve got essentially free message production and message distribution, so why don’t you see what people actually respond to?  As I said at the start—it’s humiliating.  Most of your ideas are bad.  (That’s OK, most of my ideas are bad too.)  But it’s much better to find out your idea sucks before you make the company spend $100,000 on it.  Denial is a lot safer psychologically, but denial doesn’t make you better or smarter or more valuable.  Denial keeps you on the same treadmill of mediocre work.

Take the blindfold off.  You might learn something.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


The Right to Aggregate

The hardest part about using social media to market is the constant demand for new content.  There is a never-ending demand for something new.  (At Comedy Central, we used to call it “feeding the beast.”)  And you can’t just acquire your way out of it—too much of other people’s content makes you look voiceless, and wandering sheep-like after other people.  You have to have a point of view about your industry, and you have to demonstrate that you understand the buyers’ problems.  Reposting generic business content will do nothing for you—in honesty, mediocre social media is worse than doing nothing.  At least when you abstain from social media, you can redeploy those resources to something that MIGHT get a response.  Like wearing a sandwich board around the city center.  But mediocre social media will do nothing for your brand.

That being said, you don’t have to start your journey with a 24-7 newsfeed of original thought.  You, and everyone else in the world, have the right to aggregate other people’s content.  This is a slightly dangerous tactic, as it’s possible to put in a lot of work and not be distinctive, but under the right circumstances, with the right focus, it’s a great way to build audience while you’re preparing to create original content.

This is based on something I understood back in the 1990’s when I was selling US TV shows around the world and refer to as Blake’s Law of Television Channel Development.  It goes like this:

All TV channels go through three phases of development:  Phase 1 is when they acquire everything, and have no original content.  (Lots of reruns of old sitcoms.)  Phase 2 is when they create a few original flagship programs.  (Lots of reruns of old sitcoms, but The Daily Show and South Park in prime time.)  Phase 3 is when they produce mostly original content, and have a few distinctive acquisitions.  (Mostly original, with a few beloved imports like The Office (UK).)  There is no Phase 4.

This can be adapted to just about any media play.  For example, the main US and EU broadcast networks have been in Phase 3 for years—it’s almost all original content.  It may be produced by studios, but it’s produced at the behest of the channel.

Netflix is at Phase 2—House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are on the front page of the annual report, but the majority of traffic is made up of people streaming acquisitions like 30 Rock and Cheers.

New market entrants start at Phase 1—they have space on the dial, but not much else, so they buy in programming originally produced for other people (e.g.,  retweeting popular things from Business Insider and Huffington Post).

So if you are just starting out, you are in Phase 1.  You need to get content from other places.  In a world of infinite content, that isn’t hard.  But in a world of infinite content, you had better be doing something interesting to that content if you want people to pay attention to you.  At the beginning, nobody cares about your stupid little startup and nobody cares about your stupid little Twitter feed.  So your first step remains the same—pick a market where you can be distinctiveOwn one word.  Identify where your brand is, and what if any emotions it evokes.  Identify what you want people to feel and how you can get there.  Then you can start with a few easy tactics:

  • Beginner Tactic:  Industry curation.  One of the most powerful features of social media (and the entire point of Pinterest) is to aggregate a bunch of stuff you found somewhere else.  This goes back to the Carnivals and Roundups of the early days of blogging.  The formal term for this is curation, but it’s no more complicated than putting together a playlist on Spotify—here’s stuff I like that goes together.  The ability to do this is open to anyone, so you have to be clever about your angle—it’s not about aggregating “Education News”, it’s about aggregating “News of interest to staff at single-sex Catholic High Schools.”  The general categories are all very well spoken for, but you should be able to identify an underserved niche among your buyers.  This works well for Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, but not for blogs any more.
  • Beginner Tactic:  User-generated curation.  Be the party that rounds up all the user-generated content in your space.  This is a bit more challenging and labor-intensive, but can have a big emotional payoff.  The best place to start with this is two existing conventions for photos: Throwback Thursday and Selfie Sunday.  Maersk has done a tremendous job of leveraging its rich history into a popular Instagram feed, simply by harvesting its archive of historical photos.  It turns the freight-forwarding world, which is about shipping identical containers on enormous industrial ships with underpaid third-world labor for the lowest possible price into a romantic world of adventure and travel.  @HistoryinPics has over a million people following their Twitter feed of old photos.  You can do the same with photos you own, or even better, photos that other people have posted.  Go back to that one word you own.  Where are there photos that show that word throughout history?  Where are the photos of the old equipment people used to do the job back in the day?  A Pinterest board is easy to do (and avoids any difficulty around rights to the image), but a creative commons search on flickr will go a long way as well.  By appointing yourself steward of the industry’s history, you have the right to start building an audience even before you’re putting out high-end original content.  Supplement it with a few original pieces and you’re in Phase 2.The same tactic goes for #selfiesunday.  Who’s taking pictures of themselves with the icons of your industry—the equipment, the clothing, the uniforms that your community cares about?  Aggregating them in one place creates an asset that grows in value, but also attracts the people who are in the pictures.  (Again, Pinterest is the place to start for this, but Twitter can be equally useful.  It all depends on how people behave in your industry.)
  • Advanced tactic:  Adapting from other industries.  This takes a bit more work, but is more likely to make you unique.  Pick a broad general skill (e.g., SEO, Storytelling, Finance) and show how it adapts to your own industry.  Harvard Business Review may not be writing original content about the pool filter industry, but by taking their content and showing specifically how this applies to the pool filter industry, you show you’re a smart outfit that reads the good stuff AND you understand your industry.  It takes a little work, but can set you apart before you have the chance to start doing original work.

The explosion in supply of content has created a real filter problem—no one can keep up on everything, so they turn to trusted sources to filter it for them.  If you can play that role in your industry, and get people turning to you for what they need to know, you’re halfway to the shortlist already.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Get Distinctive

Every media company has the same basic strategy. Attract, retain, and monetize viewers.  The strategy involves identifying your target market, identifying their needs, determining how to monetize the viewers (ads or subscription), and creating a machine to pump out the content.

The tactics are in constant flux– the basics of storytelling go back a long way, but the way we tell stories keeps changing as new mediums and techniques pop up.  You’ll never get all the tactics right, but as long as you keep up with your viewers, you’ll be fine.

It’s not easy keeping all this in balance, but when the strategy and the tactics are right, the company becomes distinctive– the only ones who do what they do.

Distinctiveness comes from meeting 4 criteria

  1. They know and respect their audience
  2. They solve a problem
  3. They have an authentic voice
  4. They keep cranking out content

We all know the examples of great content from traditional media companies, but in this new world, it’s important to recognize the new players who are distinctive.

This is the start of a series that identifies creators who are making something distinctive.  As the exception that proves the rule, we’ll start with Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra.

Kathy Sierra is a writer and blogger specializing in product development.  She spent the early part of her career in exercise physiology, but developed an interest in cognitive science, due perhaps to her own issues with epilepsy.  She took to her new field with a vengeance, and introduced a new style of writing to the (usually unbelieveably dull) world of technical instruction books.  Her Head First series was a revolution in programming books.  Subsequently, she started the very influential blog Creating Passionate Users, which became a top resource for Product Managers.  Her difference– instead of focusing on features, she evangelized focusing on creating the user experience.

The four criteria:

  1. Know and respect their audience.  Kathy’s audience was product managers, usually at tech companies.  Product Management is a well defined yet infinite job.  They are constantly trying to evaluate customer requirements and translating them into features, and turning that bundle of features into a remarkable experience.  (This description is pretty close:  idea -> prototype -> feedback -> design -> build -> launch -> feedback -> iterate -> collect payment.) As a PM, Sierra knew exactly what their issues were because she was  the audience.  (Solving a problem you actually have always makes a better startup .)  Every post is oriented around the need to harmonize what the customer says he wants with what it takes to give the customer an outstanding experience.
  2. They solve a problem.  Every pm is under pressure to be more effective and more efficient.  The need to improve the pm process never ends.  They are the nexus between the customer, sales, IT, finance, and every other department.  Every PM is looking for ways to transform their bundle of features into not just a solution, but a compelling experience.  Sierra nailed it when she said “Users want to kick ass.”  And she gave lessons in ass-kicking.
  3. The voice.  Sierra was unafraid to use technical language that the target segment would understand, but also wrote in plain English,  including profanity when necessary.  She also made great use of visuals and charts.  Some of her best are here.  (I particularly like the “featuritis curve.”
  4. They keep cranking it out.  CPU ran for 4 years, and stopped at the height of its popularity because Sierra started receiving death threats.  It’s an ugly story, and has little to do with why she is so good.  She has started put a toe back in the water with her new blog Serious Pony.  Sadly, it doesn’t have the same pulse as CPU, but it still has gems like this, about stage fright for presenters:

“And since I’m a software developer, I’ll think of the audience as my users.

And if they’re my users, then this presentation is a user experience.

And if it’s a user experience, then what am I?

Ah… now we’re at the place where stage fright starts to dissolve.

Because if the presentation is a user experience, than I am just a UI.

That’s it.

I am a UI.

Nothing more.

And what’s a key attribute of a good UI?

It disappears. 

It does not draw attention to itself.

It enables the user experience, but is not itself the experience.

And the moment I remember this is the moment I exhale and my pulse slows. Because I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them. “

Kathy Sierra is a national treasure, and a great resource for anyone looking to turn their nascent product into an actual user experience.  Interestingly enough, she had no monetization model (although the blog readership and speaking gigs it led to it sure helped her sell books)– but it solved problems in an authentic voice.

She’s one of the pioneers of the new media, and CPU offers a lot to steal from– authentic language, persuasive charts, relentless focus on creating value.  Read the whole thing.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Us Against the World

Someone once explained to me the difference between a solo artist and a band.  A solo artist is saying “Hey look at me!” And a band is saying “Us against the world.”

One of the most powerful things you can do in your content is to declare your membership in a small group (that consists of your users) against the world.  Harold Ramis used this construction in his successful 70’s comedies like Caddyshack and Animal House.  The slobs banded together against the snobs.  The outsiders became a family.  There’s something very primal about this construction. It taps into something deep inside us– tribal allegiance, teamwork, and disdain for the Establishment. It really only works for attacker brands, but in those circumstances, it can be very effective.

Cadillac’s new spot is a perfect example of this.  It positively asserts some of the values that are likely to resonate with the Cadillac target buyer– value of hard work, ambition, and enjoying luxuries you have earned.

Better yet, it intensifies this by It antagonizing the sort of people who will never buy a Cadillac.  It ridicules some of their sacred cows (like Europe).  The reaction to this spot in my personal group of overeducated urban haute bourgeoisie friends has been an outraged howl of indignant pain.

(Ironically, this ad ran during Super Bowl and the Olympics and no one noticed; but put something like this on the Oscars and listen to the howls.  Context is king.)

The brilliance of the spot is this:  Cadillac has no other options.  The brand is up against the wall.  It’s certainly in no position to call itself the choice of the smart set so it might as well make a virtue of necessity.  It can’t play the elegant European card like Mercedes and BMW.  It can hardly play the quality manufacturing card like Lexus and Infiniti.  But by loudly asserting that it is the choice of the brash and unapologetically successful it becomes an attacker rather than defensive.

Think of their historic positioning.  Who exactly buys a Cadillac?  What emotions does the brand evoke?  For me it’s about elderly people in Boca Raton who drive slowly in the left lane.  And who don’t know better.  Mobsters, too.  The nouveau riche.

Subaru nation despises the Cadillac brand and these archetypes.  Whole Foods nation despises it.  NPR Nation despises it.  (I think they missed the point that the car is electric, which usually is the highest good in those communities.). What does Cadillac have to lose?  Toyota can’t pull this off. They have to be Ned Flanders and be nice to everyone.  Cadillac takes the snobs vs slobs positioning of Animal House and Caddyshack and puts themselves on the side of the heroes.  (This is CADILLAC– the most Eisenhower 50’s establishment brand there is.  Probably what Judge Smails drove.)

What was the last Cadillac ad you remember?  The brand has been Nice for a long time.  And nice is a defensive posture.   You don’t conquer new markets when you’re nice.  Niceness is not a virtue– it’s a default, the opposite of making a choice.  (As Sondheim says “You’re not good/ you’re not bad/ you’re just nice.“)

Cadillac had been cringing.  But the emotion the brand evokes now goes from embarrassment to cocky.    Not every competitive scenario demands this sort of decisiveness, but in a crowded, mature space like this, it’s a brilliant move.

Next time identify how your users think of themselves.  Are they insiders or outsiders?  Who do they identify with?  Who represents everything they’re not?  Give your users a chance to say “Us against the World.”  Like Steve Jobs said– it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.

P.S.  It’s also not lost on me that this ode to self-reliance comes from a company that got bailed out by the Federal government.  Irony is fun.

Photo Credit: Dr. Xu 徐醫生 via Compfight cc