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If you could meet one person…

Think about this for a moment. If a trusted friend could arrange a meeting between you and anyone of your choosing, who would you choose?

Not for entertainment or curiosity or bragging rights, but to help your business. Who could help? Someone who could actually aid your marketing or development…

Years ago, I went to the AOL partner’s conference. I’m no runner (unless someone is chasing me) yet I signed up for the early morning run because I knew Steve Case, CEO of AOL, would be running. I ran with him for twenty minutes, almost killed myself. Didn’t help. (But I’m glad I met him).

If you’re an author, can Jeff Bezos at Amazon help you more than a motivated promotions manager far down the ladder? It’s unlikely.

People in charge can rarely help you, because they are rarely (truly) in charge. Billionaires can’t help you, either, because they have their defense force fields on full strength during meetings like this. In fact, the person who can help you the most is almost always someone who doesn’t appear that powerful on the surface.

Remember, it’s not just that they can help you. It’s that they want to help you. Famous people qualify in neither category.

So, who is it? Hint, it’s not the Wizard of Oz or the Pope or Barack Obama. It’s someone not famous, someone who actually makes things happen and someone who actually cares. Think hard… Got it?

Great. Go meet them.

Two ways to deal with “no”

You could contact the organization that turned you down and explain that they had made a terrible mistake, the wrong choice and a grave error. You could criticize the vendor they actually selected, bring You could even question the judgment of the prospect and try to teach them to make better decisions in the future. And, while you’re at it, challenge the fairness of the decision-making committee itself, and explain how a more fair process would have favored you at the same time it would have helped the organization that turned you down.


You could be more gracious than if you’d won the work. You could send a thank you note for the time invested, you could sing the praises of the vendor chosen in your stead and you could congratulate the buyer, "based on the criteria you set out, it’s clear that you made exactly the right choice for your organization right now." That doesn’t mean the criteria were right, it just means that you’re not attacking the person for being an impulsive lunatic. You could even outline what you learned from the process and what you’ll be changing in the future. And you can make it clear that you’re in it for more than just a sale, and you’ll be around if they ever need you.

Couple questions:

1. Which one will make you more likely to be invited back, or to be the backup if the first choice fails?


2. Which one will increase your word of mouth at the same time it improves your organization’s feeling about itself?

It’s a no-brainer, I think. So how come the first is so common?

Confusing activity with action

Thing is, most of the stuff you do online doesn’t cost money.

In the old days, money added friction. Money made you choosy. Money ensured that you valued your marketing efforts appropriately, because if they didn’t work, they cost you money.

Today, reading and posting and linking and networking and connecting and commenting and podcasting and linkblurbling and doseedoing online all feel like essential marketing tasks. They certainly keep you busy.

But is the activity getting in the way of action?

Is the online work you’re doing actually leading you where you want to go, or merely keeping you busy?

Dmitri calls this "imitation of turbulent activity" or ИБД, Имитация Бурной Деятельности.

[Flipside: Vic sent me a stat that said that 57% of the online users surveyed hadn’t read a blog in the last year. These people are incompetent and should be fired.]

Another way to look at this:

For big brands and marketers with significant budgets, the internet represents a loss of leverage. Money doesn’t buy you as much attention, and you have to work much, much harder for every eyeball.

For individuals, the internet represents an increase in leverage. One person with a blog or a lot of followers or friends can reach more people, more quickly, than ever before.

These are colliding. Big brands on the way down, individuals on the way up.

Interesting new media charity efforts

Pistachio is putting her twitter followers to work ($2 a head)

Squidoo is giving away $30,000 via twitter.

Givelist is blog, clearinghouse and portal for a whole bunch of new thinking on this front.

Big donors always get the press, but there are a lot more little donors in the world. The act is often more important than the gift itself. May you have a grievance-free Festivus.

The best and the brightest

Here’s a piece of (quite) good news:

The smartest and most motivated young people are no longer itching to become investment bankers and lawyers. We’re always hearing about a shortage of engineers or nurses–but there never seems to be a shortage of people eager to work 90 hours a week helping to move money from one pile to another.

Applications to work on the Obama team are over 300,000 (up from about 44,000 at this point in the Bush administration). Students are deciding to become fellows at Acumen or to set up innovative small businesses or volunteer their time or bootstrap a music career. Perhaps we’re on the verge at getting much better at making useful things, spreading ideas that matter and helping people, and not quite so good at leveraging capital for financial institutions. Imagine what would happen if 5,000 investment bankers or 500 M & A lawyers put their talents to work doing something else…

As I look through all the notes and applications I received for the program I’m running next year, I’m not just optimistic. I’m thrilled. There must be hundreds of thousands of movers and shakers out there, people of all ages who are smart and get things done. And more and more, they’re being motivated by the quest, or the outcome, or the people they work with, not just the cash payout. It’s exciting beyond words. The ten people I’ve chosen are just astonishing, each and every one of them.

If you can’t find people like these, you’re not looking in the right places. And if you can’t figure out how to work with them, you’re missing out.

Best free subscription of the week

Kevin Kelly is syndicating his classic book, the book that changed everything, over RSS. Free and mind-changing, at the same time.

Brands, social, clutter and the sundae

The Times reports that traditional brand advertising on Facebook is a total failure. If you’ve been doing this for a while, this is no real surprise.

Mark Drapeau asks whether brands belong on Twitter [I apologize to Mark for initially misunderstanding his post. My fault.]. Venture Beat says that Twitter made Dell a million dollars. That’s nuts. Did the phone company make Dell a billion dollars? Just because people used the phone to order their Dell doesn’t mean that the phone was a marketing medium. It was a connecting medium. Big difference.

There are two key problems here.

First, these big companies are asking precisely the wrong question. They are asking, "how can we use these new tools to leverage our existing businesses?" They want to use the thing they have (money) to get the thing they need (attention) and are basically trying to force ads onto a medium that just doesn’t want them. Do people really want to follow P&G on Twitter so they can learn about the history of the soap operas they sponsored? Why? There are millions of people to friend or follow or interact with… why oh why are you going to spend time with Dunkin Donuts unless there is something in it for you?

Traditional advertising is inherently selfish. It interrupts in order to generate money (part of which pays for more interruptions). That approach doesn’t work at a cocktail party, or at a funeral or in a social network.

This is the meatball sundae. Asking what the medium can do for you instead of what you can do for the medium.

The second problem is a lot more subtle. It’s the clutter of the impersonal. Yes, you want an alert from a friend when it’s really a friend and really an alert. But what happens when it’s an ad that pretends to be an alert? Or what if it’s not an ad, but not really a totally personal tweet either?

It’s too late for the social sites to go back to descriptions of what you had for lunch. There will be a line drawn, and right now it seems to be at the point where marketers discover that they are wasting their money.

The clutter is going to get a lot worse. Marketers and free media are drawn to each other, even if the results aren’t always very good. Until marketers get off the greed train, though, it’s going to be a long time between pots of gold.

The power of smart copywriting

Consider this riff from a professionaly printed freestanding sign in front of a Peet’s in San Jose:

"Unlike Any Coffee You’ve Ever Tasted Before."

Wait. Why the capitals?

"Unlike any coffee you’ve ever tasted before."

"Before" is redundant.

"Unlike any coffee you’ve ever tasted."

Too negative. And why is "unlike" a positive trait? I mean, boiled leech guts is also unlike any coffee I’ve ever tasted, that doesn’t mean I want to drink it. How about:

"The best coffee you’ve ever tasted."

Well, the thing is, the only coffee that matters is coffee I’ve tasted, right, so we could get shorter still:

"The best coffee."

The problem with that is that it’s nothing but bragging. Of course you think it’s the best coffee. So what? You’re lying. And even if you’re not lying, how do you know it’s the best? Compared to what?

This is where the smart copywriter becomes a marketer.

"Better than Starbucks."

Well, it’s still bragging. This is the moment where the marketer becomes a smart marketer and realizes that changing the offer or the product is more important than changing the hype.

Are we better than Starbucks?"

Invest $20 in espresso in little cups, and maybe, just maybe, your sign will make some magic.

Selling ideas to a big company

I have been selling ideas for a long time, and decided to become a book packager (which I did before doing what I do now) solely because it’s an industry that makes it possible to sell ideas.

One project took more than five years (selling Stanley Kaplan on creating a line of test prep books, finding a publisher and then creating them and launching the series) and one book took a day to invent, a day to sell and three days to write. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way–I got 900 rejection letters my first year and sold exactly one project.

Two things have to happen before a big company buys your idea:

1. They have to be in the business of buying ideas.

The book business buys ideas. The toy industry does, but only through a tiny number of agents. The car industry… hardly ever. Apple doesn’t buy ideas, but they don’t mind stealing them.

A company that likes buying ideas has a process. They make it relatively straightforward and they have no upside in stealing from you. A company that isn’t in that business puts up barriers. They troll around trade shows looking for ideas to take (and there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with that, imho).

Years ago, I invented the first fax board for the Mac. Our plan was to build a prototype and then sell the rights to one of the many Mac peripheral companies. The experience was eye opening. We talked with more than a dozen companies and had meetings with more than six. Some companies were clearly professionals at this, others were just fumbling in the dark.

I also invented a version of the wireless music player (sort of a precessor of the Sonos). We spent a lot of money and built a prototype and brought it to various hi-fi companies to license. One of the first stops was Polk Audio, a leading speaker company with direct mail experience looking for growth. It seemed a perfect fit.

We had a nice meeting, but I was sure we were out of luck before it started. To get to their offices, we had to walk through the factory. Polk is basically a furniture company that makes speakers. The entire culture was focused on cutting wood and shaping it into speakers. They had no experience or desire to make an electronic device off shore and market it.

Short summary: if you have an idea for a company that doesn’t know how to buy it, move on. And if you want to be in the business of selling ideas, find an industry that has experience buying those ideas.

2. They have to trust you

This is far bigger than it sounds. Venture capitalists, for example, appear to be in the business of buying ideas. They’re not. Far from it. They are in the business of funding entrepreneurs. The ideas are secondary, easy to find, not so important. The entrepreneurs, the ones you can trust to stick it out, to push through the Dip, to tell you the truth, to hire and lead and inspire… that is the scarce resource.

The reason that big companies don’t want to hear from you is that they don’t trust you. They don’t trust you to understand their industry, or to understand implementation. They don’t trust your judgment about whether it’s a good idea. They don’t trust you won’t flake out, or sue them, or sell your ideas to multiple parties.

You may be tempted to seek out a middleman, someone they do trust, an idea scout. While I’m sure there are a few reputable people out there, in most industries, they’re just scam artists looking to take your money. Again, in the book business it’s different, there are reputable agents, they never charge their authors and they all charge about the same commission. But in my experience, there are very few analogues to this in other industries.

So… if you want to be in the business of selling ideas to industry (as opposed to getting that once-in-a-lifetime idea off your chest and cashing out), the thing to do is find an industry, one where you are likely to be trusted, one where you have a sense that they understand how to buy ideas. Invest in that industry, spend time, speak at trade shows, earn your right to credibility. Then, over time, day by day, you’ll have the ability to bring them profitable ideas.

Side note: the more complicated your idea is, the better off you are patenting it. Dean Kamen made his fortune patenting wheelchairs and other devices that you and I could never hope to build. On the other hand, if your idea is simple enough to dream up in a week, the only way you’re going to protect it is to build it, fast and well.

Set the agenda by showing up first

If you want to win an Academy Award, it’s clear that you need to release your movie at the end of the year. Early movies don’t get remembered, don’t get nominated, don’t win.

But for most marketers (and job seekers) most of the time, being first is an advantage.

First competent mover advantage is real. The first person with a great product or story that matches the market establishes the narrative, sets the bar and forces followers to conform to her specs. If you’ve got the good stuff, going first means you’ve set a standard… the consumer now has to abandon you to choose someone else, which means pain and admitting an error. People hate to do that. (Evidence: Pownce).

Sure, there’s the advantage of sniping in an auction situation. Last bidder in an auction always wins, right? But there’s no reason that an impressive marketing effort can’t lead to an implied topping privilege. If they like you, they can always bring you their final best offer for you to consider.

Applying for a job, or to college, or visiting a client to pitch a project–in each case, going first is a significant advantage. Why, then, do so many people wait until the last minute? Why do we insist that this is a strategy, not a mistake?

Fear, of course. Procrastination. It’s easier to wait. The impending deadline gives us the energy to overcome our sales call resistance, forces the committee to get its act together, pushes the project up the priority list. Those are all fine reasons to wait. But don’t pretend it’s good marketing, because it’s not.