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Let’s start with “sorry”

By the time the phone rings, there's already trouble. When that manager is called or this department is reached, it's because someone is disappointed, angry or stuck. Illness, broken promises or a real urgency have led to this new conversation even taking place.

So don't start with, "[Name of company] mumble mumble" as if there's a blank slate just waiting to be written on. There's already a lot of writing on that slate. Don't demand to know the record number or begin with doubt and an edge of dismissal. Be on our team.

"It sounds like we've got a situation on our hands…" is a fine way to disarm the person you're about to talk with. He won't have to spend the first six sentences expressing his anger and urgency, because in less than ten words, you've done it for him. Or perhaps, "I'd like to help, if you'll bring me up to speed…"

It's not easy being on the receiving end of a days'-long parade of blame, but no one said it was easy. We asked you to do it because you're good and because it's important, not because it's fun.

Levels of marketing magic, the placebo effects of desire

ANTICIPATION: Before the product is released, the true fans are buzzing and speculating and waiting in line. The anticipation is self-reinforcing, a placebo effect of desire.

UTILITY: The album is good, the software is useful, the book changes things. It works better than we hoped. Exceeding expectations pays significant dividends.

REMARK: It's purple. Remarkable. Worth talking about. The word spreads. Ten people tell ten people and suddenly, it's abuzz. Not because of PR or hype, but because the remarkability is built right into the product or service itself. And more people enjoy things that are getting buzzed about.

TRIBE: The core group, the true fans, are even more connected than before. The organization has helped them organize, the product creates a culture, commitments are made, conversations persist, a culture is built. To use something that makes us feel as though we belong is magic indeed.


If this sounds like Apple, Bob Dylan, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Dead, gun collectors or Shake Shack, it's not an accident. It's definitely not an accident.

You should buy the book

Mitch Joel is a generous and perceptive blogger. Well worth the daily read. He has a new book. You should buy it.

David Meerman Scott writes an essential blog, daily. His book is a classic. You should buy it.

Tom Asacker writes a very thoughtful blog about marketing. Worth the read. He has a new book. You should buy it, too.

Every day, Mark Frauenfelder and Corey Doctorow blog tons of goodness at Boingboing. They each have books. You should buy them and share them.

Bernadette Jiwa’s blog keeps getting better and better and you are probably already reading it. She has a new book on the way. You can guess what you should do.

There are authors and actors who only show up when they have something to sell, who hit the road to briefly entertain us, pitch us and then leave. If you love their work, then by all means, buy it! But the frequent blogger is here for another reason. He or she has something to share and is relentlessly showing up to teach and lead and connect.

If you want that to happen more, if you’re getting something out of it, buy the book.

[I actually hesitated to write, “should,” because it puts books into the same category as classical music and supporting NPR. No one says you “should” buy comic books or go to action films…

Buying books is actually scary for many people, so they make up excuses about not having enough time or money. The reason that books are frightening is that they might make us feel stupid, or we might get a lousy one or we might end up feeling like a failure for not finishing it. This is pretty common, actually.

I think buying books from consistent bloggers is a little different, though. First, you’re probably not going to be disappointed with what you get. Second, it’s almost always their best work, because it doesn’t feel as ephemeral as a blog post to the writer or reader–it’s a far more focused and direct shot to your neocortex. And third, most important, because it’s a very concrete form of encouragement (not just for the writer! but for the reader too), one that will selfishly make it likely you get more blogging from the very people you’d like to hear from more often as well as reminding you, the reader, that you’re worth the effort and investment.

Plus, when you’re done reading, it’s a generous act to share one.]

No Signal

At a party the other day, I saw a dead TV monitor. On the screen it said something like, "No signal… check power, cable and source selection…"

It doesn't matter at all how hard the DVD player was trying to put on a show. It is irrelevant how good the show on cable was. If it's not getting through, no one sees it.

All of us own our own media companies now. We each have the ability to speak up, to tell our stories, and if we're good and if we're lucky, to be heard.

Too often, though, there's no signal. You may be pumping noise through your social media outlets, but noise isn't signal. It's merely a distraction. You're talking, but you're not saying anything, at least nothing that's being heard.

You get to choose your story. If the story you've chosen doesn't get through, it's up to you to fix that. Pick a story that reflects your work, sure, but also one that resonates with the receiver.

Learning by analogy

The story of Hansel and Gretel is not actually about Hansel or Gretel.

You are surrounded by examples and lessons and case studies that clearly aren’t exactly about your project. There’s never been a book written precisely about the situation you are facing right now, either. Perhaps one day they will publish, “Marketing Low-Cost Coaching Services to Small Businesses Specializing in .Graphic Design in the Upper Peninsula for Dummies” but don’t hold your breath.

Marketing, like all forms of art, requires us to learn to see. To see what’s working and to transplant it, change it and amplify it.

We don’t teach this, but we should. We don’t push people to practice the act of learning by analogy, because it’s way easier to just give them a manual and help them avoid thinking for themselves.

The opportunity is to find the similarities and get ever better at letting others go first–not with what you’ve got, but with something you can learn from.

And the opposite is even more true. We over-rely on things where the specifics seem to match, but the lesson is obscured by the trivial. Sometimes when we see something happen that we can learn a conceptual lesson from, we instead jump to conclusions that the specifics are the important part.

Remember that the next time you have to take your shoes off before you get on an airplane.

It’s Thomas Midgley day

Today would be his 124th birthday. A fine occasion to think about the
effects of industrialization, and what happens when short-term
profit-taking meets marketing.

is responsible for millions of deaths.
Not directly, of course, but by, "just doing his job," and then pushing
hard to market ideas he knew weren't true—so he and his bosses could
turn a profit.

His first mistake began when he figured out that adding lead to
gasoline appeared to make cars perform better. At the time, two things
were widely known by chemists: 1. Adding grain alcohol to gasoline
dramatically increases octane and performance, and 2. Ingesting or
sniffing lead can lead to serious injury, brain damage and death.

The problem for those that wanted to be in the gasoline business was
that grain alcohol wasn't cheap, and the idea couldn't be patented. As a
result, the search was on for a process that could be protected, that
was cheaper and that could open the door for market dominance. If you
own the patent on the cheap and easy way to make cars run quieter (and
no one notices the brain damage and the deaths) then you can corner the
market in a fast-growing profitable industry…

As soon as the lead started being used, people began dying. Factory
workers would drop dead, right there in the plant. Even Thomas himself
contracted lead poisoning. Later, at a press conference where he tried
to demonstrate the safety of the gasoline, he washed his hands in it and
sniffed it… even though he knew it was already killing people. That
brief exposure was sufficient to require six months off the job for him
to recover his health.

Does this sound familiar? An entrenched industry needs the public and
its governments to ignore what they're doing so they can defend their
status quo and extract the maximum value from their assets. They sow
seeds of doubt, and remind themselves (and us) of the profts made and
the money saved.

And we give them a pass. Because it's their job, or because it's our job, or because our culture has created a dividing line between individuals who create negative impacts and organizations that do.

People who just might, in other circumstances, stand up and speak up,
decide to quietly stand by, or worse, actively lie as they engage in
PR campaigns aimed at belittling or undermining those that are brave
enough to point out just how damaging the status quo is.

It took sixty years for leaded gas to be banned in my country, and
worse, it's still used in many places that can ill afford to deal with
its effects.

After leaded gasoline, Midgeley did it again, this time with CFCs,
responsible for a gaping hole in the ozone layer. He probably didn't know the effects in advance this time, but yes, the industry fought hard to maintain the status quo for years once the damage was widely known. It's going to take at
least a millenium to clean that up.

We might consider erecting a statue of him in every lobbyist's office, a reminder
to all of us that we're ultimately responsible for what we make, that
spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that
we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and
industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let's
scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.

I can't imagine a better person as the symbol for a day that's not about
honoring or celebrating, but could be about vigilance, candor and
outspokenness instead.

[Previously: No such thing as business ethics.]

Every day is an investment

You're not lucky to have this job, they're lucky to have you.
Every day, you invest a little bit of yourself into your work, and one of the biggest choices available to you is where you'll be making that investment.

That project that you're working on, or that boss you report to… worth it?

Investing in the wrong place for a week or a month won't kill you. But spending ten years contributing to something that you don't care about, or working with someone who doesn't care about you… you can do better.

The river guide and the rapids

It's probably not an accident that rapid (as in rapid change) shares a root with rapids (as in Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon).

The river guide, piloting his wooden dory, has but one strategy. Get the boat to the end of the river, safely. And he has countless tactics, an understanding of how water and rocks work, and, if you're lucky, experience on this particular river.

The thing is, the captain changes his tactics constantly. He never whines. He doesn't stop the boat and say, "wait, no fair, yesterday this rock wasn't like this!" No, the practice of being great at shooting the rapids is a softness in choosing the right tactic, the ability to hold the tiller with confidence but not locking into it. If your pilot keeps demanding that the rapids cooperate, it's probably time to find a new pilot.

Domain knowledge underlies all of it. Give me an experienced captain over a new one any day–the ones that got this far for a reason. Yes, the reckless pilot might get lucky, but the experienced pilot brings domain knowledge to her job. It takes guts to go onto the river, but once you're there, the one who can see–see what's coming and see what matters–is the one you want piloting your boat.

Applications open for a short summer internship

I'm offering a short-term paid internship this summer. You'll be in my office, working with me and a tightly knit group to develop a brand new idea. Here are some details, the links to apply are at the end. Please feel free to forward to those that might be interested.

The first intern project happened more than eight years ago, and we built changethis.com, which, in the capable hands of 800ceoread, just published its 100th issue. This project has lauched and amplified dozens of bestsellers and even more important, truly valuable ideas to millions of people. Team members included Amit Gupta who went on to found Photojojo, the esteemed designer Phoebe Espiritu and FourSquare’s Noah Weiss.

Then we built a team to create Squidoo, which to date has received more than a billion visits and paid more than $16,000,000 in royalties to charities and to our members. Squidoo’s COO Corey Brown was/is part of that team, and so was Harper Reed, who went on to be the instrumental linchpin in Barack Obama’s re-election.

Two years ago, the third intern project launched The Domino Project, which published a dozen bestsellers in a row. Successful graphic designer Alex Miles Younger and sales guru Lauryn "lil zig" Ballesteros were part of that team.

Apparently, it’s time to do it again, and as usual, there are no guarantees. No guarantees that it will work, or even launch. I can promise that it’ll be interesting.

You can find all the details on the gig on this page.

Please read the whole thing before applying, because creative rule breaking (or ignorance) of the application process doesn't work this time. (No emails please!) Thanks for considering this one.

Appropriate cheating in the nine-dot problem

All geeks, nerds and puzzle folks are aware of the nine-dot problem, along with the lesson it is frequently used to present.

NinedotHere’s a pencil. Here’s a piece of copy paper with nine dots on it. Without lifting the pencil or folding the paper, connect the nine dots using four straight lines.

The narrator smiles as you try as hard as you can, unable to do it. Then he ends your frustration and points out you’ve been tricked by your own limits, because, of course, there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t have the lines go beyond the edges of the nine dots.

The thing is, this isn’t the end. This is the beginning of the cheating, and anyone who stops here, satisfied at his breakthrough, is missing the point.

Some innovators point out that because the dots and the pencil have width, it can actually be done with three lines. (Here’s how). At this point, some people get uncomfortable because a lot of what we assumed (the edges of the nine dots, their magical zero width) is being challenged.

I think we can go far beyond this.

What revolutions do is change more than a few common conceptions. If you roll the paper into a tube, with the dots on the outside, you can go round and round and round (like an Edison music cylinder) and do the entire thing with just one line. Without folding the paper.

That’s cheating! (You could also burn the paper and just call it a day at zero)…

Wikipedia is that sort of solution. So, in fact, are just about all of the innovative successes of the last decade. They took an assumed rule and threw it out. People who have been online for awhile have seen this happen over and over, and yet hesitate to do it with their own problem. Not because it can’t be done, but because it’s not in the instructions. And the things we fear to initiate are always not in the instructions.