Tag Archives: distinctive

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

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:  http://flic.kr/p/8oCHKy

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.