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Deeper or wider

If you want to grow the size of your customer base, you need to confront the buffet dilemma.

Any decent buffet has foods that please 85% of the population. Meats, cheeses, potatoes… the typical fare.

Once your business hits a natural plateau, it’s tempting to invest in getting more people to come. And what most buffets do is double down. Now, they have bacon, plus they have beans with bacon and turkey-wrapped bacon. Now, instead of one chocolate cake, they have three.

This is essentially useless. You haven’t done anything to grow your audience. The base might be a little more pleased, but not enough to bring in any new business. And the disenfranchised (the vegans, the weight watchers, the healthy eaters, the kosher crowd) remain unmoved and uninterested. And one person like this out of a party of six is enough to keep all six  away.

So, there are two ways to go. Much deeper, or a bit wider.

Deeper would mean a bacon-focused buffet, a dozen bacon dishes, including chocolate-covered bacon. Deeper would mean a chocolate-obsessed dessert bar, ten cakes, fondue, everything.

Deeper gets you people willing to drive across town to visit you. It’s remarkable. It’s not like every other buffet but a little bit bigger. It’s insanely over the top. People will bully their friends in order to get them to come.

The other choice is wider. Instead of adding a handful of dishes that mildly please the people you already have, why not add brown rice and tofu and vegetarian chili? Now you’ve opened the doors to that last 15%.

This thinking isn’t available only to buffet owners. It works for summer camps. Resorts. Conference centers. Spiritual institutions. It works for any business that seeks to attract customers that come in groups where people have different wants and needs.

The next Google

Microsoft, home of the Zune, has just announced that they're going to launch Bing, a rebranding and reformatting of their search engine. So far, they've earmarked $100 million just for the marketing.

Bing, of course, stands for But It's Not Google. The problem, as far
as I can tell, is that it is trying to be the next Google. And the
challenge for Microsoft is that there already is a next Google. It's called Google.

Google is not seen as broken by many people, and a hundred million dollars trying to persuade us that it is, is money poorly spent. In times of change, the rule is this:

Don't try to be the 'next'. Instead, try to be the other, the changer, the new.

If Microsoft adds a few features and they prove popular, how long precisely will it take Google to mirror or even leapfrog those features?

With $100 million, you could build (or even buy) something remarkable. Something that spread online without benefit of a lot of yelling and shouting. Something that changes the game in a fundamental way. The internet works best when you build a network, not when you buy a brand. In fact, I can't think of one successful online brand that was built with cash.

[For an answer to the popular question: "The next Seth Godin" and a few more pithy Q&A, click here]

[For a preview of the real next Google, check out this presentation of Google Wave. As a presentation geek, I need to point out that the intro (the first 2 minutes) is a fantastic example of how someone (you?) can stand up in front of 4,000 people with no slides and make a significant introduction with no hesitation and no apologies.]

The troll that hates yes

Sonia has a great post about what happens when you try to close the sale.

The difference between marketing and sales

Marketing tells a story that spreads.
Sales overcomes the natural resistance to say yes.

If you don't pay the salesforce (because you go direct, or you go free), then who is going to do that for you? The only answer that occurs to me is, "your users/fans/customers."

This means that a critical element of any strategy that ditches the salesforce is to figure out how you will empower and encourage your customers to take their place. Easier said than done.

Prizes, kindles, subscriptions, tweets

You can get alerts whenever this blog is updated by following @thisissethsblog on Twitter.

Twitter is immersive. It washes over you. But what happens when a great link or clever post goes by?  Squidoo just launched a promotion around the new TwttrList tool. The power of this tool is that it turns the momentary stream of tweets into a permanent sign post. A curated best of instead of a random time-based river. You can chronicle a conference, or highlight great posts about your brand or event.

This lets other people find your collection of the best tweets on Google, or see a series of messages without the noise in between. Here are a few good ones.

Give it a try. Maybe you'll win something.

Challenging convention

The smart guys at Contrast came by the office to talk about their thesis of abandoning conventions. It's the intent of changing what we expect when we use something. Obvious things like the design of a cell phone or subtle things like the design of a door knob. There are terrific benefits to successfully coming up with a solution that invents and leverages a new convention.

I'd argue that there are four things to keep in mind when deciding to challenge a convention. You should incur the costs and hassles of inventing a new way to do things when you can are prepared to deal with all four. The costs can be huge, because a new user convention can slow people down or turn them away. A new financing convention makes it harder to raise money. A new hiring convention causes some people to avoid you…

  1. Notice it. When you make a new way to do something, people are going to notice it. We'll notice it when the volume knob on the radio doesn't work the way all the other ones do, or when the navigation on your website isn't where it 'should' be. Is your creativity about the convention? For example, if you make a stereo that sounds better, it's not clear you should also change the way the volume control works. Noticing the shift in interface doesn't help sell your concept of better sound.
  2. Talk about it. Often, a new convention leads to conversations. People need to teach other about the ideas in your product or service, or complain about it or debate it. Again, no point changing the convention unless what you want is people to talk about your new convention.
  3. Leverage it. Does the success of the new convention in the marketplace actually help you? Sure, you could invent a new kind of handshake or a new pricing structure. But if it catches on, do you win? Is it at the core of your business model? Which leads to the last one…
  4. Protect it. Once the convention catches on, does the new way of doing things reinforce your position in the marketplace and lead to long-term benefits?

Simple example: as a bestselling author, you could upend the convention that books cost money by publishing the first popular book-length ebook. For free. The new convention will be noticed. People will talk about it. They'll share the ebook because, after all, it's free. You can leverage this new convention by gaining attention, new readers, speaking gigs, etc. But can you protect it? Of course not. Now, everyone can make a free ebook, because your act of breaking convention showed them how. But that's okay, because as an innovator, the process was worth it.

Compare this to Kai's Power Tools, which was a series of super powerful image editing software programs that came out a decade ago. The interface had all sorts of new conventions. The problem was the new conventions had nothing to do with editing images, didn't make the software work better, increased the learning curve and ultimately led to failure in the marketplace.

Is marketing an art or a science?

It's both, and that's the problem.

Some marketers are scientists. They test and measure. They do the math. They understand the impact of that spend in that market at that time with that message. They can understand the analytics and find the truth.

This sort of marketing works when it works, but it usually doesn't. That's because we're dealing with humans, the wild card in the system.

The other marketers are artists. They inspire and challenge and connect. These marketers are starting from scratch, creating movements, telling jokes and surprising people. Scientists aren't good at that.

The problem is caused by two things:

1. Outsiders are confused.
Which are we? When we're artists sometimes and scientists other times, we often seem like charlatans, because we're associating scientific results with artistic endeavors.

2. We're confused
. If you don't know if you're doing a science project or an art project, you'll probably emphasize the wrong elements. If you go to school to study marketing and the blowhard professor acts like she's teaching you science, you'll waste a lot of time trying to apply taxonomy and hypotheses to something that is essentially a gut decision. And vice versa.

We need hats. The hat of the scientist and the hat of the artist. You can only wear one hat at a time, which is why I didn't suggest that we need gloves.

Figure out what sort of marketing you're going to do today and go do that.

Saying ‘no’

If you've got talent, people want more of you. They ask you for this or that or the other thing. They ask nicely. They will benefit from the insight you can give them.

The choice: You can dissipate your gift by making the people with the loudest requests temporarily happy, or you can change the world by saying 'no' often.

You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can't bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.

Saying no to loud people gives you the resources to say yes to important opportunities.

When the writer becomes the publisher

Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin were both printers who became writers… one would imagine they did this because it was cheaper to write your own stuff than hiring someone, and having words to print and sell is good business if you’re a printer.

The joke as we know it was unknown before the Civil War (so says Bob Mankoff [Jason disagrees and points us to this article]). Sure, there were funny stories, but not jokes with punchlines. We don't know who wrote the first joke, but by 1920, there were books of thousands of jokes. What shifted? You could get paid for writing jokes. Magazines bought jokes, so jokes got written.

I did a ridiculous series of videotapes twenty years ago, videos that certainly wouldn't have been made if there hadn't been a market for them.

Today, of course, being a printer is no fun. Anyone can be a digital printer, publishing their words to the web. And so we have a mysterious flip, in which writers are becoming ‘printers’, not the other way around.

In a world in which just about everyone is a writer and just about every writer wouldn’t mind benefiting from their work, there’s a huge need for people who can help us publish profitably. Or, failing that, figuring out a way to get your own words published profitably. Some people will happily remain amateurs, but history shows us that the real explosion in content happens after people figure out how to make money.

Mark this down as another job for the new economy: someone who can collate, amplify and leverage the work of writers and turn it into cash. I don't believe that there's one solution, not this time. But I'm confident that around the edges and deep into niches, there's money being made.

On becoming a household name

The guidance office at the high school has a big poster for Wellesley College hanging by the door. It's just a picture of a building, no features, no benefits, no text at all.

Kids apply to schools (a quarter of a million dollar investment) for crazy reasons. A big one: "Well, I've heard of it."

Gonzaga University features basketball players on their home page. No doubt a few people attend to play basketball, but my guess is that the school believes that the fame of their school will somehow get someone who doesn't play to attend.

It's completely irrational and it's also what your customers do every day.

Being a familiar name takes you miles closer to closing a sale. People like to buy from companies they've heard of.

It turns out that this is an overlooked benefit of banner ads. Banner ads are fairly worthless in terms of generating clickthroughs… you have to trick too much and manipulate too much to get clicks worth much of anything. But, if you build ads with no intent of clicks, no hope for clicks… then you can focus on ads that drill your name or picture or phrase into my head. 100 impressions and you're almost famous.

A household name. Not for everyone, but for people who matter.