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We accidentally marketed ourselves into a corner

What if I told you about an industry which:

  • Indebts most of its customers, sometimes for twenty or more years a person
  • Not only consumes most of four years of its customer’s time, but impacts its prospects for years before even interacting with them
  • Enjoys extremely strong brand preferences between competitors and has virtually no successful generic substitutes
  • Dramatically alters relations within a family, often for generations
  • Doesn’t do it on purpose


…according to most of the studies I’ve seen, there’s very little or no difference in the efficacy of one competitor vs. another.

Of course, I’m talking about undergraduate colleges in the US.

The most competitive colleges are as competitive as ever–in most cases, more so. Many admit only one in ten students. According to two senior officials at Swarthmore, the differences among the ‘good enough’ applicants is basically zero. Rather than putting tens of thousands of kids through insane anxiety, they wonder, why not just put all the ‘good enough’ students in a pool and pick the winners randomly?

Here’s the amazing part: According to The Chosen, an exhaustive study of college admissions, there’s no measurable difference between the outcomes of education with the most exclusive schools and the next few tiers. Graduates don’t end up happier. They don’t end up with better paying jobs. They don’t end up richer or even healthier.  The whole thing is a sham (which costs a quarter of a million dollars a person at the top end).

There’s no question that a Harvard degree helps (or is even required) in a few fields. There’s also no doubt that spending four years at Yale is a mind-changing experience. The question isn’t, "are they wonderful?" The question is, "Is it worth it?"

It’s almost as if every single high school student and her parents insisted on having a $200,000 stereo because it was better than the $1,000 stereo. Sure, it might be a bit better, but is it better enough?

Boomer parents have bought in to the marketing hype at a level rarely seen in any other form of marketing. They push school districts, teachers and their kids to perform pointless tasks at extreme levels just to be admitted to the ‘right’ school, even though there’s hardly evidence that the right school does anything but boost their egos.

Schools respond by spending a fortune on facilities that will increase their rankings in various faux polls, even though there’s no evidence at all that a better gym or a bigger library matters one bit to an undergraduate’s long-term success in life.

If it weren’t so expensive (in terms of time and money) it would make a marvelous marketing case study. Add in the tears and wasted anxiety and it’s really a shame. Very few people are pointing out that the emperor is barely clothed, and those that do (like me, I guess) get yelled at.

I’m not criticizing a college education per se. No, it’s clear that that’s a smart investment. I’m talking about the incremental cost (and anxiety) separating consumers of the ‘top’ 500 schools from students of the ‘top’ 50. It appears to be pure storytelling, a story that so appeals to the worldview of baby boomers with teens that they are absolutely unable to resist the story, despite the facts.

High school students are thrust into a Dip, in some cases the biggest one of their lives. The Dip extracts significant costs along the way, and then ends with a giant spin of the roulette wheel. I wonder if we’re marketing ourselves to a dead end.

I guess I’d do two things. First, I’d figure out how to teach parents to understand what really matters and what doesn’t about time spent in high school and the choice of a college. Second, I’d push for every selective college to share one application and do a draft similar to the one they do for medical residencies. Every applicant ranks the schools they’d like to attend, in order. Every school considers all the applications, grabs the students they’d love to have in priority order, puts the rest into the "good enough" pile and lets a computer sort em all out as pareto optimally as possible. At least kids will go into their twenties correctly blaming a computer instead of mistakenly blaming themselves.

PR and the first amendment and keeping your job

Chris Anderson has had enough: Sorry PR people: you’re blocked. He’s calling out all the PR flaks spammers, who, in the name of "it’s my job," spammed him.

I doubt it’s going to work.

That’s because PR people who spam bloggers don’t think of themselves as spammers. They’re "getting the word out." They think they have some sort of obligation/right to announce whatever the client wants.

Here’s why this is a problem: stamps add friction. The processing of 100 press releases the old-fashioned way cost more than $100. Doing it to 5,000 people was out of the question.

Email means the cost of adding one more name is zero. Email means that lists keep getting bigger and bigger and once you’re on one, you’re on em all.

So, the smart PR folks (the successful ones) struggle to make their lists smaller and smaller. The lazy ones just try to make them bigger.


If you got an email in the last two weeks from godinseth@gmail.com, that wasn’t me or anyone I know.
This is an incredibly simple hack that works so well because we now
trust email as a magical, instant and secure communications tool. It’s
not. It’s sort of a cross between CB radio and two cups and a string.

Recipient beware.

Digg Tools

Amy points us to The Digg Toolbox: 70  Digg-related Scripts, Tools, and Tutorials.

Glasses update

Thanks to the hundreds of folks who chimed in with advice about my new glasses. There are several options in the works, but in the meantime, my holiday pair just arrived. As promised, here’s a glimpse.

Farming domains

To pick up a bit on yesterday’s post, one strategy that smart domain owners are pursuing isn’t particularly groundbreaking: they’re putting up good content.

When you have millions of free visits, it’s okay if you’re sloppy, it’s okay if you waste some and it’s okay if you don’t get organic traffic.

For a long time, domain owners acted like real estate investors. Buy. Hold. Sell.

Now, though, they’re starting to act like real estate developers. Buy. Build. Hold. Make money on ‘rent’.

To that end, we did a deal with the people who own ever.com. Ever isn’t a particularly useful domain name (though it’s short). So organic traffic is pretty limited, especially if you just put up a few links.

Enter the new ever.com. We hooked up the Squidoo engine to it and people have already built pages like:  best.cameras.everbest.lyrics.ever, funkiest.mammal.ever and even worst.president.ever. We’re limiting the number of pages built per person, and after thirty days, if the page isn’t improved and promoted, we put it back the pool.

I think it’s likely that you’ll see more domain holders invest the time and energy to make the domains actually useful. Development, not just investment.


Gil points us to this new piece of malware.

Basically, it’s a way for spammers to get around that horrible Captcha code. The short version: A spammer tricks you into answering a captcha in order to get into a striptease program. What you don’t know is that the spammer is sending you the code he just grabbed from Yahoo mail. You type in your answer, the answer goes to the Yahoo mail interface and boom, he just grabbed another disposable email address.

Lesson 1: don’t try to get into striptease programs.
Lesson 2: we need universal webwide identity.
Lesson 3: in the meantime, we need new, friendlier, smarter captcha.

Thinking about domains

Thirteen years ago, Josh Quittner wrote an article in Wired that almost made me richer than Donald Trump.

He wrote about how many domain names were up for grabs, including McDonalds.com.

Inspired, I sat down and registered hundreds of them. I was about to hit the ‘buy’ button when my office mate persuaded me that it was somehow unethical. Persuaded, I only ended up buying one or two generic terms.


Anyway, a decade and a half later, boom over, domains persist. Many are worth a fortune, tens of thousands are worth a semi-fortune.

Why are they still worth so much?

For a long time, clueless surfers would type a word into the address bar of their browser, figuring it was some sort of magic search engine. Type "gloves" into the address bar of Safari, and yes, it will take you to www.gloves.com.

But Firefox and others are wising up and connecting that spot to the search engines. Type "gloves" into Firefox and you’ll automatically go to the number one result on Google. Research shows that the number of people who accidentally end up on these sites is going down. So why the value?

I’m going to argue that it comes from two things.

1. Commitment. Because there’s ony one "dot com" TLD and no serious contenders, there’s only one neighborhood for business online. You’re either on Fifth Ave. (or Rodeo Drive, your choice) or you’re not. If you build a site at mexicansugarskull.com, you’re making it really clear to the surfer that you care about this topic, that you’re here to stay and that you can be trusted.

2. Focus. Similar, but not quite the same. By having a domain that matches what you do, you are able to focus the attention of the surfer. They know what to expect before they get there, and you can spend less time explaining yourself. The web already offers too many choices–this way, your site doesn’t have to.

I think this can help lead us to some useful strategies. If you own domains:

  • Reinforce the idea of commitment. Don’t use generic photos or standard layouts. The incremental effort to make your domain look like it sounds, to demonstrate your commitment through your actions, is very small, but worth it.

If you don’t own a domain that’s a perfect match (and that’s most of us):

  • Make up for the fact that your domain is imperfect by using design, testimonials and other substantial cues to remind people just how committed you are.
  • Don’t hesitate to create multiple domains for your efforts if you think it will help your visitors focus.

Over the last few weeks, Squidoo has launched a number of new domains to take advantage of this focus impulse: Squidbids, Squidvids and Squidwho, to name a few.

I’ve been amazed at how quickly people ‘get it’ when they visit each domain, and how productive the effort has been. The internet has taught people what to do when they see a domain. It’s not just an address, it’s the first bit of marketing.

One last bit of backward thinking: if you’re looking to start an online business, consider finding a great domain and build the business around it, not the other way around. If you subscribe to the snapnames newsletter, you can see which interesting domains are about to be sold for not much money. No guarantees as to how effective this service is, but it’s a neat way to think about what to build next.

Word of the day: Tricklit

Trick Lit is the term for a chick lit novel that pretends to be something else, hoping to rope people in with an interesting premise. 30 pages later, you discover that you were deceived, that it’s just another piece of genre trash.

I don’t invent really good neologisms very often, so I felt compelled to share.

[One man’s trash… please forgive me if you like the genre! I realize now that was a little too flip. I happen to love other genres that many think are trash, so I hope you’ll cut me some slack at the poor choice of words…]

Meatball Mondae VI (short)

Attention spans are getting shorter, thanks to clutter.

In 1960, the typical stay for a book on the New York Times bestseller list was 22 weeks. In 2006, it was two. Forty years ago, it was typical for three novels a year to reach #1. Last year, it was 23.

Advise and Consent won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. It’s 640 pages long. On Bullshit was a bestseller in 2005; it’s 68 pages long.

Commercials used to be a minute long, sometimes two. Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of running two per minute, then four. Now there are radio ads that are less than three seconds long.
It’s not an accident that things are moving faster and getting smaller. There’s just too much to choose from. With a million or more books available at a click, why should I invest the time to read all 640 pages of Advise and Consent when I can get the idea after 50 pages?

Audible.com offers more than 30,000 titles. If an audiobook isn’t spectacular, minute to minute, it’s easier to ditch it and get another one than it is to slog through it. After all, it’s just bits on my iPod.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t limited to intellectual property. Craigslist.org is a free classified-ad listing service. A glance at their San Francisco listings shows more than 33,000 ads for housing. That means that if an apartment doesn’t sound perfect after just a sentence or two, it’s easy to glance down at the next ad.

If you’re exhausted, it’s no wonder. You’ve been running around all day.

The end.

[The story is all here. And here’s a relevant post.]