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Converting viral traffic

Getting stuff to go viral is sexy. It's a miracle when it works. It makes you famous.

Everyone wants to get tweeted, liked, mentioned on a blog, spread by email and watch the numbers go up and up and up.

The thing is, drive-by viral traffic doesn't convert. 50,000 visitors might end up buying just 23 items.

Ultimately, if you want to get elected, make a sale or even change minds, you can't survive on viral traffic, no matter how big the tsunami is.

After I started talking about permission marketing, the question readers wanted answered was, "how do I get permission in the first place?" The answer was to create an ideavirus, an idea that spreads. And then, as it spreads, don't try to make a sale, merely work to earn the privilege of a follow up, the opportunity to reconnect over time. By email, sure, but phone or reputation are fine too.

Ten years later and the ego pendulum has clearly swung in the direction of the virus. That's what we brag about and what is too often measured.

How many eyeballs are passing by is a useless measure. All that matters is, "how many people want to hear from you tomorrow?"

Don't try to convert strangers into customers. It's ineffective and wasteful. Instead, focus on turning those momentary strangers into people eager to hear from you again and again.

Yes to spreading ideas. Two yesses to using those ideas to earn permission going forward.

Conservation of anxiety

Events scale. The magnitude of our impact and the impact of our decisions can vary wildly, depending on the stakes. You can decide which chocolate bar to buy or you can decide whether or not to take a job.

Our fear, though, can't scale. It doesn't work that way.

The screaming fear in your stomach before you give a speech to 12 kids in the fifth grade is precisely the same fear a presidential candidate feels before the final debate. The fight-or-flight reflex that speeds up your heart when you're about to get a speeding ticket you don't deserve isn't very different than the chemical reaction in the brain of an accused (but innocent) murder suspect when the jury walks in.

Bigger stakes can't lead to more fear.

And, in an interesting glitch, more fear often tricks us into thinking we're dealing with bigger stakes.

Not only that, but we have trouble overlapping our fearful moments. If that sales call is right down the street, you will probably put more anxiousness into the preparation for the meeting than if it's two plane rides and ferry away, because you'll be reserving some of your available agita for the transport.

Fear has very few gradations and it has a ceiling. We evolved to have an alert system that kept us alive, but while it's powerful, it's crude.

This is why we're able to teach ourselves to confidently give a speech to 10,000 or make life or death decisions in the battlefield. Fear is fear, and once we learn to work with it, we can scale the stakes.

All of which is a way to remind yourself that emotions kick in and then we start telling ourselves a story about how important/make-or-break/high stakes this next event is. Fear floods our brain with chemicals, we go on high alert and then rationalize that fear by describing just how vital this thing we're anxious about is.

No need to fool yourself. We all have a limited fear vocabulary, and it tends to yell.

The best way to be missed when you’re gone

Is to stand for something when you're here. Works for people, works for brands.

[When I say "missed when you're gone," I'm not talking about having a lot of people come to your funeral. I'm talking about creating a reputation where you get asked back, where people seek out your product, where a store or a conference or an agenda isn't complete without you.]


At the seminar I did in July for college students, we talked a lot about impresarios. (You can read one student’s take on it here).

Weave together resources and opportunities and put on a show. That’s what impresarios have always done. You rent the opera hall, find the singers and sell tickets. You see an opportunity, connect people who can benefit from it and make something happen.

I challenged the group, 20 strangers who had just met, to orchestrate an ebook of brainstorms and opportunities for their fellow students (and to finish it in just 80 minutes). Here’s a copy of their short ebook. School

The magic of the impresario opportunity is that it can start on the tiniest of scales. You can organize a lunch outing at work. You can start a bowling league. Over time, you can work up to a Kickstarter or a small association of fellow industry professionals. It’s not strategically difficult to imagine fifty ways you can use the resources you have right now to start something.

But actually becoming an impresario is far more difficult than it looks. Not because the systems aren’t in place, not because it’s not straightforward, but because it is fraught with risk. The risk that you’ll be called out for going against the grain and the risk that it might not work. We’ve spent so much time worrying about how hard things are that sometimes we overlook how easy today’s tools make it to actually create something.

And here’s the recording from the seminar I did in 2014: https://seths.blog/2016/04/on-being-an-impresario/

A tacky mess: the masses vs. great design

Designers prune.

Left to its own devices, the mob will augment, accessorize, spam, degrade and noisify whatever they have access to, until it loses beauty and function and becomes something else.

The tragedy of the design commons.

A farmer's market with no entry requirements turns into a bazaar and then into a souvenir stand and finally into a flea market.

A bulletin board with no moderator or hierarchy becomes a random mess of affiliate posts and noise, where only a smart search engine is helpful.

An Apple product designed with user feedback would have thousands of extra features, multiple input methods and weigh 18 pounds.

(The best exception to this rule are some–not all–places where people live, including parts of Manhattan and Kibera, Kenya. But even in the best instances, as soon as commercial interests are served, it starts to fail).

It seems democratic and non-elitist to set it and forget it and let the users take over. But the tools we use (Wikipedia) and the brands we covet (Nike or Ducati) resolutely refuse to become democracies.

What’s your average speed?

My car informs me that I've been averaging 26 mph over the last month. Much lower than I would have guessed.

It's low not because we don't drive on the highway, it's low because there's also a lot of time spent sitting still in traffic and at lights.

When we remember our journey and our work, the highlights are the fast parts, the thrilling moments, the peaks (and the valleys). It seems, though, that we spend most of our time in preparation, or circling, or considering. Probably worth investing some effort into our performance there, and enjoying those parts as well.

Analogies, metaphors and your problem

Innovation is often the act of taking something that worked over there and using it over here.

Your problem, whatever it might be, probably has a solution somewhere in the world. And your organization is probably stuck because they don't know what to do, and more important, don't have the guts to do it.

An example in the real world that's precisely about your particular problem, then, is fabulous because it not only shows you what to do, it gives you the confidence to do it.

Louis CK had the same problem of many comedians–too much time, not enough money. His pay-on-the-honor-system internet special was a huge success, and of course, dozens of comedians (ostensibly creative risk takers) rushed to follow in his precise footsteps.

What were they waiting for? After all, Radiohead did a similar thing years before Louis did. Of course, they make music and he makes comedy.

"Oh, that's a fine example of how a company in the hockey stick industry grew, but we make lacrosse sticks. Do you have any case studies of how a lacrosse stick company has succeeded?"

If you're waiting for a proven case study, directly on point, you're going to wait too long.

The skill, it seems, is having the desire and the guts to seek out examples by analogy instead of insisting on being a follower of someone with guts.

Long-term manipulation is extremely difficult

In the short run, it's easy.

It's easy to fool someone or lie to them or give them what they think they want. It's easy to write a great block of copy, to sell on credit, to grab the attention of the mob.

Not so easy: to build mutually profitable long-term relationships that lead to satisfaction, trust and work worth doing.

Lincoln was right about fooling people, but along the way we often forget that while trickery is easy, the longer path of keeping your promises is far more satisfying and stable.

There isn’t one shark

Happy Days is famous for jumping the shark. In an episode near the end of their run, the writers ran out of ideas and went so far to please the masses that they wrote a script in which Fonzie, wearing a leather jacket, rode water skis up a ramp and over a shark.

Since then, the kind of people who like to say, "no one goes there anymore, it's too crowded," are happy to point out when a popular organization jumps the shark.

The thing is, there isn't one shark. There's your shark, my shark and their shark. The masses have a different shark than the early adopters do.

For some, Apple has already jumped the shark. A new upgrade or a new TV commercial might be a step too far, and they walk away, sad that yet another cutting edge organization has succumbed to mass mediocrity. For others, they're just feeling safe enough to take a shot, and the shark is nowhere in sight.

The insight is to have the empathy not to confuse your shark with the shark of the kind of person you're hoping to delight. Choose your customers, choose their shark.

Time frames

The giant multinational can start a project knowing that it will take years to pay off.

The struggling freelancer might be willing to invest a few days.

Venture capital, particularly for web companies, mostly changes the time horizon. It means that the bootstrapping entrepreneur can make longer term investments, building assets that scale instead of cashing them in daily.

Goverments do some of their best work when they take on projects with time horizons that would frighten away even large companies. You're going to wait how long for that bridge to pay off?

One interesting side effect of going public is that companies that use venture capital to lengthen their time horizon suddenly (in just one day) have to switch gears to a time horizon that's measured in days or quarters.

And one useful note: if you're having trouble selling/working with or for an organization, it might be because you don't understand each other's time frame.