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 Godin. Glenn Reynolds. Kathy Sierra. Maersk’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.