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Why be good?

Was Jackson Pollock a good painter? The critics at the time certainly didn’t think so.

Twyla Tharp’s London debut was panned.

The Prius was largely ignored by car magazines, mostly because it wasn’t a very good car.

If we define ‘good’ as showing reasonable skill in the expected areas of performance, then good is not only useless, it’s dangerous. Good authors rarely change minds. Good politicians rarely get elected.

The worst thing you can be given as a marketer is a good product to sell.

Expertise and passion

Should the person who runs the customer service operations at a ski school also be required to love skiing?

Can the CFO of a large church be an atheist?

Does the head of marketing at Kodak have to have a passion for chemicals?

It’s true, "write what you know, write what you love." The commitment comes through. But does that mean that boring products shouldn’t be marketed? Does it mean that the community theater must limit the list it considers for any job only to people who are ‘in’ the theater, who have paid their dues?

How many worthy causes have lousy operations teams? How many hobbies and sports are staffed by fans, not professionals?

I think if the work is important, it should be done with passion and skill and flair. But the work of balancing the books, or running Google adwords or making sure that customers are treated well at the ski school often has nothing to do with the product or service itself.

It’s more important that you be passionate about what you do all day than it is to be passionate about the product that is being sold.

Give me someone with domain expertise and the passion to do great work any time. Belief in the mission matters (a lot!), but it doesn’t replace skill.

Best of both worlds: someone who has passion (and skill and insight) about their task and passion about the mission. The latter can never replace the former. Organizations staffed with sports fans or true believers worry me, because they often use their passion as an excuse for poor performance. What worries me more are the employees who have neither expertise nor passion.

(All that said, I’ve never met a great marketer who wasn’t passionate about what she sold. In the case of marketing, it’s not just a nice combination, it’s a requirement.)

10,000 hours

It’s not surprising that Malcolm Gladwell’s new book has made a splash. All his thought-provoking writing does and deserves to.

The argument of Outliers:

  • Where you’re born and when you’re born have an enormous amount to do with whether or not you’re successful.
  • Becoming a superstar takes about 10,000 hours of hard work.
  • Both of the bullet points above are far more important than the magical talent myth.

Bill Gates, the Beatles, Beethoven, Bill Joy, Tiger Woods–do the math, 10,000 hours of work.

In some ways, this is a restatement of the Dip. Being the best in the world brings extraordinary benefits, but it’s not easy to get there.

For me, though, some of the 10k analysis doesn’t hold up. The Doors (or Devo or the Bee Gees) for example, didn’t play together for 10,000 hours before they invented a new kind of rock*. If the Doors had encountered significantly more competition for their brand of music, it’s not clear that they could have gotten away with succeeding as quickly as they did. Hey, Miley Cyrus wasn’t even 10,000 hours awake before she became a hit.

Doc Searls and Scoble didn’t blog for 10,000 hours before they became the best, most important bloggers in the world. Molly Katzen didn’t work on her recipes for 10,000 hours before she wrote the Moosewood Cookbook either.

*(There were bar bands in Buffalo, where I grew up, that put in far
more than 10,000 playing mediocre music… didn’t help. Hard work may
be necessary, but not sufficient).

Here’s my take on it:
You win when you become the best in the world, however ‘best’ and ‘world’ are defined by your market. In many mature markets, it takes 10,000 hours of preparation to win because most people give up after 5,000 hours. That’s the only magic thing about 10k… it’s a hard number to reach, so most people bail.

Yo Yo Ma isn’t perfect… he’s just better than everyone else. He pushed through the Dip that others chose not to. I’m guessing that there are endeavors (like being CEO of a Fortune 500 company or partner at a big law firm) where the rewards are so huge that the number is closer to 20,000 hours or more to get through the Dip.

But, ready for this? The Dip is much closer in niche areas, new areas, unexplored areas. You can get through the Dip in an online network or with a new kind of music because being seen as the best in that area is easier (at least for now). You can get through the Dip as a real estate broker in a new, growing town a lot quicker than someone in midtown Manhattan. The competition is thinner and probably less motivated.

Yes, it matters where and when you were born. It matters that you get lucky. And it matters most of all that you saw the Dip, realized how far away it was and chose to push through it.

Service worth paying for

Let’s say you’re stuck in the airport and you need to figure out if you can transfer your seat from your airline to another. Would you pay $20 to talk to a competent, empowered agent who answered on the first ring?

That’s four calls an hour, $80 an hour for an agent that costs the airline a fraction of that. A new profit center, one that causes joy, not hassles.

Of course, no one would use the service if it wasn’t worth paying for.

So, that’s the interesting challenge. If you had to charge for service, what would the service be like?

Increasingly, the web makes pricing cutthroat. And service suffers, because it’s expected for free. So charge. Or at least act like you could if you wanted to.

In search of competition

If your pipes break at 3 am, Roto Rooter is happy.

They’re organized for emergencies like this, for moments when you have no choice but to do business with them. Since you’re out of options, their high-priced service is your best shot.

They do far less well in the light of day, when you can take your time and compare plumbers and perhaps bargain a little.

Some businesses prefer to catch you when you have no choice. They use market conditions or even patents to ensure that they can be the bully. I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with this, but I’m certain that it is a deliberate choice.

Other businesses, like Amazon, do better when they have lots of competition. Amazon has made it easy for other vendors to use their technology platform and even to sell items on their site. Why? Because they understand that more competition brings more attention, more business, more commerce. And since they are organized for volume and are eager to compete, more competition helps them.

The only way to enjoy competition is to have something different, or better, or something that scales. You need to offer a community that increases in value as it scales, or a unique perspective or technology.

Compare Amazon to the folks that make the Invisible Fence® dog containment system. They hate competition. In my experience, they have really high prices, nasty policies and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. That’s okay, as long as you really don’t have a choice–you need a system like this, and they have it. If there were a transparent market for this product, they’d fail in a heartbeat.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and competition does show up. Then what?

If you run your restaurant knowing that there are dozens of other restaurants on your block, things will be easier when in fact there are other restaurants down the block.

Which situation benefits your church or your political candidate or your store? Do you do better when you’re the only choice, with all the power that this brings, or when there are many choices, with all the audience and excitement that this brings?

You can pretend that you are unique, that you have no competition and never will. Inevitably, this will create an attitude that, while fun for a while, will probably harm you later. The alternative is to acknowledge that the competition exists and in fact, to encourage it. I have never met an author who believes that her book is the only one in the world you can buy… and this realization changes the way books are written and marketed.

The internet turns just about every category of goods or service into a bookstore-like bazaar of competition. You can either fight that or encourage it. No one will be exactly like you, not if you work hard, but it’s inevitable that there will be replacements just a click away.

A year’s worth of popular posts

As chosen by clicks, biggest one last. Feel free to vote:


I just found this post, lost and forgotten, in the bottom of a folder I was backing up.

I meant to publish it in January, 2002, when I started this blog:

Predictions for 2008

I know it’s six years away, but I’ve found that short-term predictions are too easy to make. So, here you go:

  • I predict that the number of blogs will explode, to more than a hundred times as many as we have now. If you’re an opinion leader, you’ll have one.
  • A virtually unknown politician, a black man who’s father is from Africa, will be elected president, in a landslide. He’ll take the office from George W. Bush, leaving with the lowest approval rating of any president in history.
  • Fidel Castro will step down.
  • People with AIDS will be living longer than ever before, but the disease won’t be cured.
  • Americans will watch more video online than on TV.
  • An earthquake in Myanmar will kill more than 100,000 people and their government will do nothing.
  • The economy will be in the middle of a once in a century meltdown.
  • Apple will make a cell phone and dominate the MP3 market as well. And the music industry will be in tatters. Napster will fail.
  • Starbucks will sputter, but the quality and availability of dark chocolate will get better and better.
  • You will know who the governor of Alaska is.
  • After six years, Ingrid Betancourt will be rescued.
  • Britney Spears will have a hit record.
  • I’ll have written some more books and will release a goofy action figure to raise money for Acumen.
  • China will become the fourth largest economy in the world, but they’ll get in trouble for putting poison into milk and toothpaste.
  • Google will be the center of the Web.
  • Most newspapers will either be on the verge of bankruptcy or considering it.

Sorry to kid. But just think about how impossible it is for you to predict what your life is going to be like in four or six years… being ready for anything is the only rational strategy. So, why exactly are you planning on the future being just like it is now, but with better uniforms?

One Santa to rule them all


All Santas look the same. This is important to you if you’re a marketer.

Lots of brands and markets splinter. We have markets with hundreds of different cell phone models, catalogs containing tens of thousands of different kinds of nuts and bolts. There are very few marketing examples of a natural monopoly.

The Bell phone system was a natural monopoly. Consumers benefitted from having one and only one phone system, so anyone could call anyone. The bigger it got, the better it worked.

Microsoft, for a long time, profitted from a natural monopoly on their operating system. Having the same system on every computer benefitted them as much as it benefitted the users. Google, of course, is now profiting from an ever more efficient and widespread operating system (the web).

But those are businesses, not marketing icons or brands. Santa, on the other hand, is the living logo of a holiday and an idea. And we don’t want multiple versions. There are no real pretenders to the Nast/Coke Santa that show any sign of catching on, because the market benefits when there’s just one icon to represent this idea–a key part of the appeal, even for rational skeptics, is that there’s precisely one Santa and this is what he looks like.

Which is the lesson for marketers: If you set out to build an iconic brand/logo, your best opportunity is to find a story, a market and a process that works best when there’s only one. They’re easy to recognize when someone points them out to you: Harley, the Nobel Prize, the Super Bowl. Walter Cronkite, Oprah, Warren Buffet. Tiffany, Sand HIll Road, Heinz ketchup. These are brands we rely on not when we want to have an argument (Ford vs. Chevy) but when we want to know we got the right one, the only one, the best one.

Hard to build, a treasure to own. Don’t forget to leave out some Tollhouse™ cookies.

Hubris vs. Humility

It’s pretty easy for a successful marketer to be persuaded that his performance is directly related to his skill.

Same thing with investment managers. In the fiscal year just ended, Harvard paid its top five investment managers an average of more than $4 million. Each. Per year.

Of course, if you believe in the "you must be present to win" theory of management, in which being part of the right organization in the right moment of time is more important than who you are, this is totally outrageous. Surely there were managers just as good who could be hired for a paltry million dollars a year. Surely the high-paid Harvard team was taking no real personal risk. Surely they don’t work much harder to earn 20% for the University than on the days when they might earn just 15%. No real connection between effort and results.

On the other hand, if you belong to the "great minds" school, then this team was underpaid, and if Harvard had just paid a little more, they would have ended up without such a loss on their hands. I think it’s clear from current events that there was no correlation between talent and pay on Wall Street.

Back in 1999, every internet marketer was a genius. And well paid, too. A lot of those marketing geniuses brought hubris to their work. They acted big, spent big and never looked at or learned from their mistakes.

Others, just a few, approached their work with a sense of gratitude. They realized that the good times wouldn’t last forever and they tried to develop skills and insights and connections for the future.

It’s interesting–years later, very few of the arrogant guys have done much of anything. They never developed perspectives or attitudes that extended beyond, "hey, shut up, I’m here, we’re winning," and so they failed once they left the mother ship.

This is why you should hesitate to hire a marketer or salesperson who comes from a successful big company marketer (like Apple or Microsoft). Sure, they ‘contributed’ to the growth of a great brand, but how much? What did they learn? What will they do when they don’t have a one in a million brand and the wind at their back? Or in the case of P&G alum, what will they do when they don’t have billions of dollars to spend on advertising?

Confidence is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly in marketing or investing. Arrogance, on the other hand, is hard to reward. My favorite combination is the quiet confidence of knowledge, combined with the humility that comes from realizing that you’re pretty lucky and that you have no idea at all what’s guaranteed to work tomorrow.

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is an idea that spreads–and an idea that while it is spreading actually helps market your business or cause.

Two kinds of viral marketing: The original classic sort in which the marketing is the product and which a self-amplifying cycle occurs. Hotmail, for example, or YouTube. The more people use them, the more people see them. The more people see them, the more people use them. The product or service must be something that improves once more people use it.

A second kind has evolved over the last few years, and that’s a marketing campaign that spreads but isn’t the product itself. Shepard Fairey‘s poster of Barack Obama was everywhere, because people chose to spread it. It was viral (it spread) and it was marketing (because it made an argument–a visual one–for a candidate.)

Something being viral is not, in an of itself, viral marketing. Who cares that 32,000,000 people saw your stupid video? It didn’t market you or your business in a tangible, useful way.

Marketers are obsessed with free media, and, as is often the case, we blow it in our rush to get our share. We create content that is hampered or selfish or boring. Or we create something completely viral that doesn’t do any marketing at all.

I wrote the first mainstream book about viral marketing. It’s free (still) eight years (and millions of downloads) later.

Download 2000Ideavirus.pdf

I haven’t updated it or made it pretty, but I think the core ideas stand up pretty well. (I even talk about the Zipf’s Law and the long tail, but didn’t realize it at the time).

Here’s how the book itself is an example of viral marketing:

1. I posted the PDF for free. Three thousand people downloaded it on day one.

2. The file is small enough to email to your friends. I encouraged people to do just that.

3. Some people mailed it to fifty or a hundred people. It spread.

4. That’s just viral. The marketing part? I released a $40 souvenir hardcover edition. People knew the idea but didn’t like the format or my design skills. So they paid a lot for a book they had already read. It went to #5 on Amazon (#4 in Japan). We sold the rights in dozens of languages. And the paperback rights. And it helped me get speaking gigs.

BUT! 5. That’s not why I did it. If I had done it as a clever way to sell books, it would have failed. It would have failed because I would have somehow tried to track it, or added friction, or tried to profit in some way from the idea. I was way too dumb at the time to have done it right if my goal was to do it ‘right’.

The critical element of viral marketing is this: it’s built in. It was built into Hotmail and built into YouTube. The more people used the camera on their cell phones, the more the idea spread, the more people wanted a camera.

If you want to do viral marketing, you can try to come up with a viral ad, but you’ll probably fail. You’re better off building the viral right into the product, creating a product that spreads because you designed it that way.

Viral marketing only works well when you plan for it, when you build it in, when you organize your offering to be spreadable, interesting and to work better for everyone involved when it spreads. If I don’t benefit from spreading it, why should I spread it? I won’t. If you don’t benefit from your users spreading the idea, it might spread, but it won’t help you much. So both elements have to be present.

The reason for this post is that viral marketing is getting a bad name, largely from clueless marketing agencies and clueless marketers. Here’s what they do: they get a lame product, or a semi-lame product, and they don’t have enough time or money to run a nationwide ad campaign. So, instead, they slap some goofy viral thing on top of it and wait for it to spread. And if it doesn’t spread, they create a faux controversy or engage a PR firm or some bloggers and then it still doesn’t work.

Being viral isn’t the hard part. The hard part is making that viral element actually produce something of value, not just entertainment for the client or your boss.