All posts by Adrian Blake

Why Frank Sinatra was wrong

“If I can make it there/ I’ll make it anywhere.”

I love New York.  And London.  And LA.  But they’re really provincial.  The Bay Area’s even worse.

Lots of technical diversity (people come from different ethnic backgrounds), very little diversity in thought.  And that leads to the easiest of all intellectual mistakes to make:  confirmation bias.  Confirmation Bias happens when you are so confident in what you believe that you’re unwilling to test the validity of your ideas.  Warren Buffett (who does not live in any of those places) puts it this way:  “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”  And nothing will kill your social media faster than confirmation bias.

People who live in big cities tend to think that big cities are where all the smart people live.  People who went to prestigious universities tend to think that’s where all the smart people go.  Both may be true, measured by test scores.  If you’re looking for the right place to convene a MENSA meeting, a large city with a great university is a great idea.  However, if you’re trying to understand what a customer will like, what your personal peer group thinks is irrelevant.

I spent 10 years in show business, and one of the iron rules that you can’t avoid is “Know your audience.”  Most of the time that I worked in the comedy business, I was not in the audience.  Adam Sandler is an extremely successful movie actor.  I haven’t seen any of his pictures, and don’t plan to.  Take a look some time at the Top Ten TV Shows or the Top Ten Movies.  How many have you seen?  How many of them are made for people like you?  How many of them would you have put money behind?

When I worked in the Agricultural Media, you can bet I wasn’t in the audience.  My complete ignorance of agriculture made for a great competitive advantage—I had to shut up and listen to the damn customer.  I couldn’t fake my way through a conversation about soybeans.  And if your publishing is going to be any good, you have to have the same kind of discipline.

Right now, I am in the audience for a certain kind of content—NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, The Economist.  I went to Harvard and Wharton.  I worked at McKinsey and have served clients all over the world.  Those content brands are for people like me.  If you were to ask me to pick mainstream sitcoms, I would fail.  Not because I’m better than other people, but because I don’t know what the mainstream wants.  I am not the mainstream.  And neither are you.  I have no particular insight into what most TV watchers would like, because I don’t watch sitcoms.  Yet every year, thousands of businesses fail because they don’t understand what their target segment wants or needs.  Companies starting in New York or Silicon Valley may have a talent advantage.  There’s no doubt, the average standardized test scores are higher there.  But they have an endemic confirmation bias that has to be explicitly managed.

Take driverless cars.  I think we all understand the appeal of efficiency and convenience that comes from on-demand transportation.  And it makes perfect sense if you live in a big city, where parking is inconvenient and expensive, the local stores are walkable, and car ownership is seen as a little self-indulgent.  I live in Omaha.  Parking is free and (usually) easy to get.  Local stores are assuredly not walkable.  And cars are the only way to get my kids to school, baseball, and dance.  And there are tens of millions of people like me across America—in Omaha, Phoenix, San Antonio, Jacksonville, et al. But when you have a community of people in Palo Alto talking to their peers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it’s hard to see an opposing view.  We all want to believe that what we personally think is a mainstream view.  It rarely is.  Suburbanites and Rural Americans have very emotional attachments to their cars.  And that emotional tie is very different from the utilitarian way urbanites tend to view cars.

Another favorite example is building high-speed rail.  Rail makes perfect sense in Western Europe, which is densely populated, has severely limited parking in cities, and very high fuel prices.  And if you live in Boston, New York, or Washington DC, it may make a lot of sense.  But the travel experience of most Americans is not like the travel experience of urban residents in the Northeast. La Guardia is awful.  So is O’Hare.  And Logan isn’t much better.  If I were flying between those three airports regularly (and all my friends were too), I would be convinced that our air travel system is fatally flawed.  But lots of people don’t fly through those airports, and have a very different emotional reaction to air travel.

In the excellent book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough cites an ingenious experiment by Peter Wason that underscores our desire to be proven right.  You should read the whole thing, but the crux is this:

“It feels much better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true than to find evidence that falsifies what you believe to be true. Why go out in search of disappointment?”

So what does this have to do with your Publishing?  Everything.

The content you publish needs to be clearly connected to the products you make, the value deliver, and your understanding of the landscape.  If your thinking about your segment and your market is flawed, your publishing will never succeed, no matter how gifted your blogger or social media manager.  You need to inhabit the space your target market lives in.

As strategists and business owners, you have to go through the painful experience of watching your favorite ideas die.  If you don’t push your thinking hard, you will create mediocre content.  Test your hypotheses.  That means going more than 50 miles out of town.  That means immersing yourself in the world of your target market.  Knowing what they eat for lunch, how they define success, and what their own confirmation bias is.  (Nothing will endear you more to your target segment than understanding their emotional world—what they love and why they love them.  Are your customers the Navy or a bunch of Pirates?  Are they the snobs or the slobs?  Are they Spago, Pizza Hut, or Domino’s?)

CNN this week announced the end of Piers Morgan’s prime time show.  There’s a great summary here in the New York Times, but the crux is this—he didn’t know his audience.  He thought his audience was just like him and the other people who work at CNN—Internationalist, urban, anti-gun.  Guns are a subject worth debating, but Piers and his production team showed a remarkable tin ear.  They were guilty of obvious Confirmation Bias.  Maybe the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan agreed with them.  But the kind of people who watch CNN Primetime don’t live on the Upper West Side.

If you can make it in New York, that’s great.  But plenty of things that are popular in New York have no impact on the rest of the world.

I loved my years in New York and wouldn’t trade them for anything.  I hope my kids live in New York for a while when they grow up.  But it’s crazy to think that living in a big city like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco is representative of how most Americans live.

Omaha has its limitations, but at least we know we’re provincial.

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 should anyone publicly like your brand?

Why do people like your brand?  As we noted earlier, a brand is a feeling.  Put more reductively, it’s a blend of dopamine, serotonin, and other brain chemicals that get released when people recognize your brand.  So on a certain level, the answer is simple:  People like your brand because they like the way it makes them feel.  If the data points they know about your brand are mainly favorable, they will feel good about it.  If the data points they have add up to negative, they will not.

(If you’re very lucky, you’ll get to the point where Diet Coke is: “I really think of Diet Coke as my boyfriend.”)

So that may be why people have affection for the brand.  But why do they publicly declare their affiliation for a brand by “liking” on Facebook or following on Twitter or sharing your content?  That’s more complicated.

Danah Boyd is a researcher (working at Microsoft these days) who did some of the first work on social media by studying teens on MySpace almost ten years ago.  She found that the content that teens posted about themselves on their profile pages was “identity production.”  Just like brands put out content to shape the market’s perception of them, we all put out content about ourselves to shape our publics’ perception of us.  And those pictures can be different for different publics.  For example, on Facebook, I share content that makes me look like a good Dad as well as being a funny guy, someone who likes certain styles of music, and someone who keeps up with the news.  On LinkedIn, my brand is more focused around expertise in Media and Marketing.  On Twitter, it’s a different take, more about current events and social media.  In some forums, I have a pseudonym.  None of these personas are inaccurate, but none are complete.  We all want to look our best and to be well thought of by the various communities we belong to.  One of the ways that people do that is by affiliating themselves with certain brands.  At the top of the food chain, there are the most powerful brands. Some call them tattoo brands— Apple, Harley-Davidson, John Deere.  People join these brands rather than buy them.  As Godin says, they become “a mirror on our identity as consumers, tribe members and citizens.”  But most brands of any power will evoke a certain set of emotions.

Your personal brand is a sponge, and it soaks up data about you—where you check in on Foursquare (church or trendy bar), whether or not you commented on a mutual friend’s update, what car you drive.  People will publicly affiliate with your brand only if it makes them look good.  They may use it in private, and even be a loyal customer, but never like you publicly.

For example, I love Fritos corn chips, and have since I was a child.  I try not to eat them much, but they are my favorite indulgence.  But for me to publicly affiliate their brand with my personal brand doesn’t make me look good.  Sure, maybe it contributes an element of childlike wonder to my personal brand, but it contributes more a sense of carbs, cheap snack foods, and lack of willpower.  (Of course liking expensive wines sends a completely different set of signals—also indulgent, but with airs of connoisseurship and worldliness.)  I may enjoy Fritos.  But I’m not going to affiliate my personal brand with theirs.


(Click the chart to enlarge)

The data tell us that people like brands for three main reasons— as the chart shows us, the top three reasons are:

  • To support the brand I like (49%)
  • To get a coupon or discount (42%)
  • To receive regular updates from brands I like (41%)

“Get coupons” is a price shopper.  They’re not much good to you in the long run.  They might sample, but as we know, they’re not loyal.  “Receive regular updates” is the reasonable answer for someone who finds utility in  information alone. That information could be delivered via an email.  Or blog posts.  But that’s not publicly identifying with the brand.  The largest number of people want to publicly affiliate (or “support”) their own personal brand with the brands they like.  Identity production for grownups.


(Click chart to enlarge)

As the chart above shows, Ferrari doesn’t sell a lot of cars in the US, but it’s doing great on Facebook.  A lot of people out there want some Ferrari mojo as part of their personal brand.  Even though they drive a Chevy.  (BTW, great work there by Nissan, who clearly box above their weight on Facebook.)

A significant part of your success in social media will come from developing a brand that makes people want to affiliate with you—what sort of brain chemicals are released when your brand comes up?  Are any released at all?  If not, you know where to start building.  You have to mean something before people will affiliate with you, and use you as part of their identity production.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.



Hello Tel Aviv

Here’s the clip of my first appearance on Israeli television. (I’m just after Reed Hastings at 23:55.)

I’ve been on TV a few times, and the first booking is the hardest. Toughest part about this was getting Skype to work, and squeezing the interview in between school runs. As you can tell, I always look my best at 7:30 AM.

It’s a nice metaphor– commenting on Israeli television from Omaha via Skype about someone who’s disrupting the television market via online delivery. This is what disrupted markets look like. A little blurry, and in need of a little hair and makeup help, but fast and good enough to get the job done.

Thanks to everyone at IBA for making it so easy.

Welcome to Show Business

When I graduated from college, I went into the Entertainment business, and it was prescient.  I was attracted to it not for any noble reasons, but because, hey—it’s show business.  What could be more fun? I went to movie premieres, had champagne in Cannes with supermodels, saw rockstars in tiny studios, and saw the world.  A fine way to spend my twenties.

Little did I know that time working with entertainment brands, broadcasters, and movie studios would be such perfect preparation for the perfectly competitive world we live in online.  Clearly, the Entertainment industry remains in most ways an oligopoly.  But the lessons learned competing there are very relevant to what we all are trying to do online.

We all are in show business now.  As David Meerman Scott says “Any property that successfully aggregates an audience through content is a media company. “  That’s what we’re doing, so it makes sense to look at how Media & Entertainment companies have done it over the years.

A few lessons from show business that we all need to learn:

  • Be distinctive.  Narrow and deep beats big and general.  It’s very hard to please everybody.
  • Be where your audience is.  Don’t ask them to use formats or platforms they don’t like.
  • Reformat.  When you take your content to a new segment, recut it to suit local needs.
  • Sequels and Franchises work, but only for a while.  You will lose the trust of the audience if you milk your ideas too hard.
  • It’s all about talent.  Some people have more star power than others.
  • Word of mouth matters.  You want people telling their friends about how good your stuff is.
  • Scheduling matters.  Don’t release your big movie the same day your rival releases their big movie.
  • Storytelling wins.  Study everything Pixar does.
  • Guest stars can get people to check you out.  Borrow audiences where you can.
  • The money’s in the publishing/syndication.  It’s a hit-driven business, so you need a big portfolio.  The big hits make up for the misfires.
  • Service the superfans.  Star Trek made fountains of money for Paramount, and that money wasn’t coming from the cool kids.
  • Promote your stars.  Don’t be afraid to talk about how good you are.
  • Good artists borrow; Great artists steal.  There are no original ideas.  Just good execution.

What we do online is nothing new—on a certain level, we’re all carnival barkers trying to get bodies inside the tent, where we make money from them.  Entertainment and Utility are the two great levers we have to get someone into that tent.  If we can combine the two, we’re really getting somewhere.

Show business is about creating something appealing, getting it distributed to the right audience, and getting paid.  That’s what all of us are trying to do.  So while the world has changed in the last few years, there’s much to be learned from those who have gone before us.

You’re not the first person trying to figure out how to get the public interested in your content.


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 Scott Bedbury is Right

Your brand is a sponge. 

Your brand is also a psychological construct.  All a brand is is a set of chemicals that go off in someone’s brain when they hear your name or see your logo.  Seth Godin put it best when he said:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

It’s not the color or the price or the features—it’s how you make a customer feel.

So how do you manage that?  Is it just about hugs and recycling and ads about fathers and sons?

The feelings your brand evokes are released by the sum total of what the customer knows about your brand.  In short, data points.  The ads you broadcast.  The smell of your stores.  What the customer’s best friend says about you.  The customer service.  How the user feels when she carries around your bag.  What your competition says about you.  Your last 10 posts on Twitter.

Some of this is within your control, and some of it is not.  These data points vary in potency based on trustworthiness of the source (do I trust what the neighborhood coffee shop says about Starbucks?), recency of the data point (do I care that a barista was rude to me in the Chicago airport 4 years ago?), and relevance of the point (I don’t care if Starbucks matches 401K contributions, but I do care if they are chopping down the rainforest to grow coffee.).

This concept was articulated by Scott Bedbury in his book A New Brand World, the smartest book about branding out there, and one that is made even more relevant in the social media era.  In his words:

A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the off-strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award-winning advertising as well as by the god-awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and, not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by the accomplishments of your best employee– the shining star in the company who can do no wrong– as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made. It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when they are placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by derisory consumer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the minds of the public, where they may stay forever. As such, you can’t entirely control a brand. At best you can only guide and influence it.

The rest of the book is great, but this concept is what has stayed with me for a long time.  The more data a customer knows about a brand, the less volatile their feelings are.  And you can’t control what data points they get.  I know just about everything about my local supermarket.  My emotions about it are pretty mild, but I am sure of my feelings—I have firsthand experience of that store, and new information is probably not going to change my mind unless it’s radically out of keeping with my existing feelings.  (When a robbery was reported there, it was jarring, because I think of it as safe and dull.)

Your brand is “a sponge for content.”  That’s why what you publish matters.  One stupid tweet that goes viral can undo years of work.  Equally, one customer success story that goes viral can supercharge your brand.  Realistically, almost nothing goes viral, so that’s not what you have to worry about.  But you do have to worry about two big things—

  • Are the data points you can control consistent and high quality?  A misspelled tweet is like a dirty store lobby.  Doesn’t kill the sale, but gets someone thinking the wrong way.
  • Are the data points you can’t control on your radar screen?  Do you know what people are saying about you?  Are you correcting misconceptions?  Do you know why you’re getting bad reviews on Yelp?

Your brand is constantly throbbing and changing as new data comes in.  Some of it is good or bad, but much of it is neutral.  Can you minimize the bad data points?  Can you turn the neutral data points into good ones?  And can you get the good data points shared?

Good social media alone won’t save a bad brand.  (I don’t know what I would do if I were running Sears, but their biggest problem isn’t social media.)  And bad social media won’t destroy a good brand.  But social media is a fertile source of data points—and that’s all your brand is.

This thinking simultaneously makes our jobs easier and harder.  All we have to do is manage the data points.  Unfortunately, we have to manage floods of them.

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 Clayton Christensen is right

I was interviewed about Netflix this morning for IBA, an Israeli Television network.  (God bless Skype.)  Short case study—they found me via Twitter, checked out my blog, saw I had been interviewed on NPR, and booked me.  Publishing works.

They wanted to know why the release of Season 2 of House of Cards is such a big deal.  To me it shows an application of Clayton Christensen’s thinking (The Innovator’s Dilemma, etc.) to the world of content.

House of Cards Season 2 matters because of a series of changes that started 20 years ago.

First of all, there is the cultural context.  Prime Time (8-11 Eastern Time in the US, but different in other markets) became a fact of life in the 1950’s, during the birth of network television.  In those days of typewriters and landlines, America started work at 9AM and ended at 5PM.  We all were home together, and there were relatively few home entertainment choices.  Culture has changed in many ways since the 50’s, but the most relevant driver is continuous access to work.  Hours are different because they can be different.  People do independent work on connected computers.  When people are connected 24/7 and offices have flextime, Prime Time doesn’t mean as much.  Prime Time depends on large numbers of people at home at the same time.  It also means limited choice, so that people are watching the same shows in large numbers.  Work doesn’t work that way anymore and neither does television—we all have hundreds of channels to choose from.

Then changes in Entertainment Technology over the last 10 years kicked in—the DVR, on-demand movies, online streaming.  People are used to watching things when they want to.  Once you break the habit of watching a program at the time the network tells you to, it’s hard to go back.  Outside of Sports and Events (the Oscars, etc.), there’s very little that we all watch simultaneously anymore.   The phrase “spoiler alert” only exists in a world where you can time shift.  (There were no spoiler alerts about “Who Shot J.R.?” in 1980.)

Then increase in supply—  decrease in satellite costs, increase in cable capacity, and the rise of online streaming gave birth to hundreds of new viewing options.  And more competition in video meant more experimentation, while the broadcast networks were continuing to do the same old thing.  The new entrants like AMC, Netflix, and Amazon started out with library content (old movies and TV shows), but as technology allowed them to act like a television network, they inexorably were led to producing original content.  Not surprising that the new entrants had the better content.  AMC wasn’t trying to protect its old business—it didn’t have much of one.  NBC needed to keep its advertisers – Toyota, Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble—happy, and that meant no surprises, and no disruption.

This is where Christensen’s thinking comes in.  In short, he asserts that disruptive competition is always dismissed because it looks like a toy.  Minicomputer makers thought the PC was a toy.  Xerox thought cheap Canon copiers were toys.  Western Union thought the telephone was a toy.  These new entrants excel on a different basis of competition than the big guys—they’re not luxurious but they’re fast.  They’re not high-fidelity, but they’re cheap.  And they don’t set out to serve the mainstream consumer.  Yet.  By being good enough to do one job, they establish a foothold in the market, and then start to climb into the mainstream.  Netflix used to be a place that mailed you DVD’s of old movies.  Through the post office.  Now it’s where Oscar-winners have creative control for their projects that end up on magazine covers.  That’s not a toy.

This all has severly affected branding—the broadcast networks are now seen as old and boring—the place where your grandparents watch NCIS or the Today Show.  The cool places are basic cable, pay TV and new entrants like Amazon and Netflix.

Why can’t you do the same?  No one is asking you to replace the trade magazines in your vertical.  But at the same time, you can carve out one small distinctive niche and build an audience around it.  Once you have that adience, you have the right to grow.  You might look like a toy to the legacy players.  That’s good.  Embrace it.  You know what happens in the long run.

Photo Credit: EJP Photo via Compfight cc

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 Jack Welch is right

Jack Welch is no dummy.    He evokes the 1990’s as powerfully as Friends or Smells Like Teen Spirit, but he has understood what social media is about for a long time.  (How many 79-year-olds have 1.4 million Twitter followers?)  From a tactical perspective, he’s good at Twitter and LinkedIn, but his real contribution comes from his #1 or #2 rule.  

Back when he took over GE in 1981’s, GE was a conglomerate with over 350 business units.  The majority were in manufacturing in the USA.  At that time, Asia was about to take over the manufacturing industry with cheaper products made by cheaper labor.  Welch could see what was coming, and it was going to be ugly for a complacent company who felt it was entitled to its position.  He had three fundamental components to his philosophy, all of which reinforced each other:

  1. Performance:  Every GE business had to be either #1 or #2 in its industry, or it needed to be fixed or sold.    The market was not kind to also-rans.
  2. Efficiency:  GE needed to eliminate waste from its processes.  Asian competitors would have much lower costs, so GE had to eliminate any excess costs to have a chance of keeping up.
  3. Talent:  GE needed to have the best talent and talent systems.  He made this real via the the 20/70/10 rule, where the top 20% of managers are stars and compensated as such, the 70% in the middle are well-treated but given instructions on how to get to be in the top 20%, and the bottom 10% are “counseled out.”  Ruthless, but effective.

He did this because he saw the competition that was coming.  Companies that felt they deserved to be on top would be stepped on, and only the truly hungry would survive.  He changed the culture of GE, getting rid of hundreds of business units and adding dozens of new, more efficient ones, all in keeping with his philosophy.  He was not interested in being the biggest, but in being the best.  (And by being the best, they of course became the biggest.)

The competitive situation in manufacturing in the early 1980’s looks a lot like the competitive situation in digital media today.  With no barriers to entry and very little cost of production, nobody is entitled to anything.  Look at the remarkable lubricating power of Google.  When it comes to organic links, if you’re not #1 or #2, your odds of success go way down.

The chart below shows click-thru rate by position in Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).


CTR by SERP position

It’s a very simple story.  The top organic search result gets clicked on over 50% of the time.  The third-ranked gets clicked on less than 30% of the time, and anything after eighth-ranked gets clicked less than 10% of the time.  The page at has lots more charts that show how the curve changes for different queries, but its basic shape remains the same.  If you are not at the top of the Google results pages for your preferred search, it is unlikely that anyone will click on your link.

This is why new people aren’t reading your blog—even if you get Google or Bing’s attention, it’s hard to get to the top of the food chain.

How do you fix this?  Tactically, do all the things you know you need to do.  Run down your social media checklist of all the blocking and tackling that needs to be done.

Strategically, refocus.  Instead of being about stationery, be about stationery for adoptive parents.  Be relentless about being #1 or #2 in your competitive set.  Sometimes that means redefining your competitive set.  Once you are the #1 or #2 player for stationery for adoptive parents, expand your competitive set—stationery for parents.   Only by being relentlessly focused can you earn the right to grow.

Welch’s other two rules fit well also—be ruthlessly efficient about your social media.  Don’t waste time on things that aren’t working.  Test and measure.  And be humorless about talent.  Don’t give your social media to the youngest and cheapest person you find.  Owning social media means owning the brand.  It’s a sobering responsibility, and not everyone can handle it.

Too many times we assume that the lessons from the past don’t apply in this era.  Social Media has upended a lot of received wisdom about Marketing tactics, but it hasn’t invalidated much strategic thinking.  Welch’s rigor and focus are a perfect fit with the social media era.  Almost perfect competition means that the lazy will be eaten, and people will barely notice.

He may be a 79-year-old man and a bit of a loudmouth, (think Gary Vaynerchuk’s even more outspoken uncle from Boston) but ignore him at your peril.  He knows what it takes to win in viciously competitive markets.  This stuff works.

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 Good Social Media is Harder Than You Think

All art is about the tension between order and chaos.  If something is too orderly, it’s boring.  If something is too chaotic, it’s irritating.  But when the two sides are in balance, you have something transcendent.  Like Carousel.  Or London Calling.  Or Lawrence of Arabia.  Or Starry Night.  Art History majors refer to the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but it’s the same idea—too much of one side is not good.  Art that connects with us is balanced.  (And yes, I am calling social media art—if you want someone to spend their precious time looking at something you did, then you had better think of it as your art.)

In the old media era of oligopoly, structural advantages were huge—you watched mediocre television because it was the only thing on.  You read the local newspaper no matter how bad it was.  Take a look at local TV news sometime—obviously they think we’re living in the age of reduced choices.  I think it says a lot that the new Golden Age of television, ushered in by The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men et al., arrived just at the time that people stopped watching so much broadcast TV.  When real competition exists, you have to raise your game.  The crap we accepted in the 1990’s was no longer economically viable, so people raised their game and started creating better work.  But not everyone did—even in the age of Orange is the New Black and Louie and Breaking Bad there is still plenty of studio-made crap on broadcast television.  In fact there’s a big enough supply of crap out there that two big ideas are immediately apparent:

  • The crap makes the good stuff look even better in contrast.
  • The people making the crap don’t really realize anything’s wrong.  Or even if they do, they can’t be bothered to improve.

If you’re willing to do the work and make something really good, it will be easy to notice, even in this very noisy world.  Very few people will raise their game.

Unfortunately, making something perfectly crafted isn’t enough.  If your idea is beautiful, it has the right to spread and the potential to spread, but it’s not going to spread unless you do the other hard work.


Blogging every day.

Hitting Google+ every day.

Following the right people every day.

Thanking your retweeters every day.

Someday the world may beat a path to your door.  But until that day, you have to make yourself easy to find.  And that means following a checklist.  Even when you don’t feel like it.

Old media had years to build up their distribution network—the green newspaper trucks of The Boston Globe, the tv stations coast-to-coast that make up NBC’s distribution, the individual relationships Columbia records had with music stores.  But for your brand, not only do you have to be the Creative Director, you’re also Head of Distribution.  And you have to build up that distribution from scratch.

In our perfectly competitive world, you need to be more creative AND have better distribution.  Slip on either one and you don’t get seen.

And if you’re doing this halfway—stop. I mean it.  Social media probably isn’t for you.  If you are asking someone to spend their time (the only asset most of us have) focusing on your content instead of their family and friends, or more important work, then you are cheating them.

You owe them your best work.

A sobering thought, I’m sure, but if you’re not willing to meet that bar, you’re wasting money, you’re wasting time and you might as well buy PPC ads or a coupon in the Sunday newspaper.  Those are irritating and interruption marketing, but at least those might work.  Cynical social media does not work.

To succeed at social media for your brand, you need to work harder than you’re working now.  You need genuine creativity and empathy and soft skills to get people interested. You need mirthless discipline to make sure that every channel is updated in the best way.

It’s very hard to do either well.  And it’s vanishingly rare to do both well.  But if you can do both well, you can change the world.

Photo Credit: Scripting News  

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why Jerry Garcia was right

In a way, social media is to our era like rock’n’roll was to the 1960’s.  Not because we’re necessarily changing the world or dressing like idiots, but because there are no barriers to entry– anybody can do it.  Back then it took three chords and a dream. Elvis and the Beatles changed the culture and showed kids that they could make a mark with music.  And everybody wants to make a dent in the universe.  So thousands of kids started bands in their garage.  Most of them were awful.  (This is a great compilation of what the good ones sounded like.)  And most relevantly, they all sounded about the same.  As the English say, “Much of a muchness.”  Everyone was ripping off the same blues riffs that the Rolling Stones had already ripped off, and most bands were born, lived, and died without a trace.  In this explosion of supply, tons started, fewer kept it up, and only a few survived and thrived.  Those that did succeed did so because they offered something unique—not just another cover of Hey Joe or Wild Thing.  Detractors said it was all trivial (and in most cases they were right), but those thousands of bands changed the culture anyway.  Even if most of them were crap.

It’s much the same today with social media.  Everyone else is doing it so why not?  (In fact it’s easier because to howl at the moon today, all you need is a smartphone.  You don’t even need guitar lessons.)  The supply is even greater—a billion people on Facebook, 240 million on Twitter.  And almost everyone is mediocre.  We’re seeing the same sort of cultural evolution now.  Millions try, most are mediocre, a few stars emerge, and the culture permanently changes, even if lots of people are tweeting about celebrities.

But in a world of infinite supply, how do you ensure that your brand is one that does survive?  Whatever you’re selling, there are other sources for it.  The only option is to be distinctive.  Jerry Garcia captured this when he said: “You don’t want to be merely the best. You want to be the only ones who do what you do.”  Tom Peters has used this quote for years because it neatly captures what it takes to be competitive on a global scale.  He calls it excellence, I call it distinctiveness.  Being the only one who does what you do.

Who’s distinctive?  Seth GodinGlenn ReynoldsKathy SierraMaersk’s Instagram Feed.  GE’s Pinterest Board “Badass Machines.” Lowes’ Fix in Six Vines.  There’s distinctive work all over the place.  What do they have in common?

  • They know their audience.  They are not trying to please everyone.  (Lowe’s Fix in Six is not for their Contractor segment.  So what?)
  • They have a voice.  They are not afraid of sounding like themselves.  Being generic is not a long-term strategy for a media company.  And we’re all media companies now.
  • They consistently publish.  With the exception of Kathy Sierra (who has a good excuse), all these examples are constantly producing new things.  They don’t have to be perfect.  Plenty of their stuff is just OK.  (The Beatles, The Clash, and Radiohead made mediocre songs as well as the good ones.) But they don’t let one weak data point stop them.  They keep creating.

Whether you liked the Grateful Dead or not, they knew their audience, they didn’t sound like anybody else, and they kept creating.  That’s how they gained an audience that was insanely devoted.  (In a way that Foreigner’s or Nickelback’s audience never could be.)  They were distinctive.

So now that every organization is expected to be creating content, how do you make yours stand out?  In a world of perfect competition, what hope do you have of capturing your targets’ attention?  The only guarantee you have is that mailing it in doesn’t work.  So get to work.

P.S.  The counterexample is Lee Mavers from The La’s, who recorded the sublime There She Goes in 1990 and then was paralyzed by writers’ block.  He hasn’t released anything since.  Creating a great single is a beautiful thing.  But after a while, the market forgets about you.  The objective is not to make zero mistakes.  The objective is to connect with your audience.  That’s how you make a dent in the universe.

Photo Credit:

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.


Why the Content Market is becoming Perfectly Competitive

Social media draws upon many disciplines—marketing, design, communications—but to me the most interesting part is where it overlaps with economics.  The last five years have seen a spike in available content that is clearly unparalleled in human history.  And this has changed the economics of content.

I spent a long time in the Media & Entertainment business, and one thing that was clear was that while there were hundreds of entrants, it was an Oligopoly.  A few players—the movie studios, the major record labels, the cable operators, the major television channels in each territory—had the power to shape the market.  Star Wars was worth more than Weekend at Bernie’sCheers was worth more than My Two Dads.  Paramount had more power than a small producer.  Market inefficiencies were exploited, barriers to entry were high, collusion was a fact of life, and the biggest players in general made most of the profits.  That’s what Oligopoly looks like.

But unlimited content production tools (Blogger, iPhones, WordPress) and practically free global distribution (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, et al.) have caused not only the supply of content to go up, but the supply of suppliers to go up.  Everyone is their own content brand.  There is considerable overlap—when I see a New York Times article by Sam Sifton shared by a friend on Facebook, there are at least four content brands involved. (Sifton the author, the aggregator, Facebook another aggregator, and my friend the curator). And if the story refers to another source, or the story was shared in a Facebook group, the chain continues.  Every one of these content brands can have a relationship with the reader.  And if one of them goes away, they can be quickly replaced.  That looks like something very different, something which until now has been a theoretical concept—perfect competition.

We’re not there yet, but it is where we’re going.  In Economic Terms, Perfect Competition has the following characteristics:

  • Infinite buyers and sellers – An infinite number of consumers with the willingness and ability to buy the product at a certain price, and infinite producers with the willingness and ability to supply the product at a certain price.
  • No barriers of entry and exit – No entry and exit barriers makes it extremely easy to enter or exit a perfectly competitive market.
  • Perfect factor mobility – In the long run factors of production are perfectly mobile, allowing free long-term adjustments to changing market conditions.
  • Perfect information – All consumers and producers are assumed to have perfect knowledge of price, utility, quality and production methods of products.
  • Zero transaction costs – Buyers and sellers do not incur costs in making an exchange of goods in a perfectly competitive market.
  • Profit maximization – Firms are assumed to sell where marginal costs meet marginal revenue, where the most profit is generated.
  • Homogenous products – The qualities and characteristics of a market good or service do not vary between different suppliers.
  • Non-increasing returns to scale – The lack of increasing returns to scale (or economies of scale) ensures that there will always be a sufficient number of firms in the industry.
  • Property rights – Well-defined property rights determine what may be sold, as well as what rights are conferred on the buyer.
  • Rational buyers – buyers capable of making rational purchases based on information given
  • No externalities – costs or benefits of an activity do not affect third parties

Not all of these conditions are strictly met, but it’s close enough that we need to adjust our content strategies.  We certainly have de facto unlimited buyers and sellers, no barriers to entry or exit, perfect factor mobility (bloggers can freely move from brand to brand or set up their own), and perfect information (Google).

So what?  Hasn’t it always been this way?  Yes and no.  There have always been many places to get your news, but your local paper or the New York Times or the AP always had huge advantages from scale.  Those advantages are melting. Scale still matters a little, but not enough to ensure success (ask CNN).

So what can brands do to win in this perfectly competitive world?  One level, a perfectly competitive market should behave like a commodity market (e.g., Corn & Soybeans), where everything is perfectly substitutable for each other.  Or maybe the airline market (with no barriers to exit).  We’re not there yet—ESPN, Perez Hilton, and The Motley Fool are not perfectly substitutable goods.  But readers do have a fixed time budget.  Even if the time allocation for digital media continues to increase, at some point people will have maxed out on consuming content.  And if ESPN is good enough, and soaks up a lot of time, maybe the Motley Fool doesn’t get looked at.  Even though they are not in the same niche, they both are fighting for the same fixed supply of attention.  But within each market niche (news, sports, entertainment news), we are in many cases at de facto perfect competition.

This has big implications for all of us.  We’re already there in many categories, and yours is probably next.  No matter how obscure your niche, there’s someone who can enter at any time and take away your audience.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Photo Credit: x-ray delta one via Flickr

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

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.