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The choke point

Sooner or later, all big public media companies go in search of a choke point, the place where they can find a leg up in terms of attention and monetization.

FACEBOOK said to you and to everyone else: Build your content here on our site, and we'll make it easy for you to effortlessly share it with your friends and their friends and their friends. Over time, of course, the clutter leads to less sharing, and now you can pay them to promote your work to the very people who used to bump into it for free. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

LINKEDIN approached many bloggers over the last year and asked them to contribute original posts on their site. In exchange, they'd direct lots of their readers to the content. Of course, it's not hard to see how soon it will become an isolated garden, a platform they own and can charge a toll on. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

GOOGLE cancelled their RSS reader because RSS is a free, unchokable service, one that's hard to put a toll on. On the other hand, when you build on their platform, you become part of their ecosystem, a click away from all sorts of revenue. They have control of a scarce resource (attention) and they're building a business around it.

Worth noting that GMAIL has figured out (acting, it seems, on behalf of users) how to use tabs to differentiate between "primary" emails and "promotions." If you're used to getting this blog by email, odds are you haven't seen it in awhile, because even though it's not a promotion, even though you signed up for it, by default, it's in your promotions tab (easy to fix, by the way, just drag one of the emails to the primary folder). While this tabbing default probably saves you from emails that are actually promotions, it also provides Gmail with a choke point for the future, because the person who controls which tab an email arrives in is powerful indeed.

I could go on about other companies and other platforms, but you get the idea.

Again and again, we see that if you're not the customer, you're the product. "Free" usually means, "you're not in charge." The race continues to be one for attention.

Tim Wu's book on the history of this process is a must-read for anyone who makes media.

“Oh, that’s just a hack someone put together…”

Just about all the big decisions, innovations and perfect solutions around you didn't start that way.

They weren't the result of a ten-person committee, carefully considering all options, testing the reasonable ones and putting in place a top-down implementation that went flawlessly.

[The idea behind Amazon, the Mailchimp logo, the medical approach to childhood leukemia, the cell phone, the microwave oven, ethical email marketing, Johnny B. Goode, the Super Bowl, Kiva, Buffalo chicken wings…]

No, they were the result of one person, a person in a jam or a hurry or somewhat inspired. One person flipping a coin or tweaking a little bit more or saying, "this might not work" and then taking a leap.

Inventing isn't the hard part. The ideas that change the world are changing the world because someone cared enough to stick it out, to cajole and lead and evolve. But even though the inventing isn't the hard part, it scares us away.

Before you tell yourself you have no right to invent this or improve that, remind yourself that the person before you had no right either, but did it anyway.

The sophisticates

Every profession creates them. Doctors and lawyers, sure, but also speakers and programmers and rodeo riders.

The sophisticate is on one side of the chasm, and the hack, the amateur, the self-defeating noob is on the other.

The sophisticate knows how to walk and talk and prepare, but mostly, to engage with us in a way that amplifies her professionalism. We spend months at business school or med school or at boot camp teaching people to be part of that tribe, to establish that they are, in fact, insiders.

The people at the fringe booths at a trade show, the ones who get rejected from every job they apply to without even being interviewed, the ones who don't earn our trust or our attention–this isn't necessarily because they aren't talented, it's merely because they haven't invested the time or found the guts to cross the chasm to the side of people who are the real deal.

It's fun to make a fish-out-of-water TV show about the outsider who's actually really good at his craft. But in real life, fish out of water don't do very well.

Yes, acting like you are a professional might be even more important than actually being good at what you do. When given the option, do both.

Q&A: Purple Cows and commodities

Earlier in this series, I wrote about the failure of Survival putting me at the end of my publishing rope, publisherless. Then I self-published Purple Cow (the original, now-out-of-print edition came in a milk carton) and the self-referential marketing, combined with great reader buzz, got me back into the good graces of the publishing world. That wasn't my goal, but in retrospect, it had a big impact on my output as an author.

Josh asks, "How do you turn something that is considered to be a commodity into a Purple Cow, when the lowest price is the only thing that seems to matter to customers?"

If you tell me that price is the only thing that matters to customers, I respond that nothing about this product matters to them.

When something matters to you, you talk about it, care about it, research it, tweak it… If all that we've got to care about is the price, then the price is the discussion, not the item itself.

Businesses have worked overtime to turn things into commodities, telling us that they sell what the other guy does, it's the same, but cheaper. No wonder we've been lulled into not caring.

Every time you say, "all they care about is price," you've just said, "they don't really care, they just want to get the buying over with, cheap."

The thing is, it doesn't have to be a commodity if you don't want it to be. It's easy to forget, but before the smartphone, cell phones were treated as a commodity as well. And that's the opportunity in every industry, in every segment, for any product or service that has become a commodity. [Edited out the Nucor reference, per insight from Professor Len Sherman.]

No, you can't magically make it interesting to all. But yes, with enough effort and care, you can find those that are interested enough if what you create that they'll choose to talk about it.

And if you can't, go make something else. Something that people will choose to care about and talk about.

We sell commodities by choice.

Colors or numbers?

As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.

Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.

The other path is to focus on colors, not numbers. Instead of measuring, for example, how many people click on a link, we can measure how something you wrote or created delighted or challenged people… You can see the changes in emotion, or dignity improved or light shed.

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

Words are hooks, words are levers

There's a debate raging in my town over whether or not to replace the existing planted-grass school football field with what used to be known as Astroturf. One side has already won a crucial victory: the local paper calls the new alternative, "turf."

Turf is what we call a racetrack, or half a fancy dinner (surf and…). Turf is short and punchy and feels organic. If they had called it 'plastic' or 'fake grass' or 'artificial turf', every conversation would feel different before we even started.

What to call the new diamonds that are being manufactured in labs, not dug out of the ground under horrible conditions? Some want them to be called 'artificial diamonds' or not diamonds at all. Others might prefer 'flawless' diamonds (because they are) or 'perfect'.

Is it a 'course', a 'group' or a 'club'? It might be all three, but the word you choose will change the anchor and thus the leverage that word has going forward. Are you a 'consultant', an 'advisor' or a 'coach'?

Engineers and doctors and other scientists seem to think they're skipping all of this when they use precise, specific language. But the obvious specificity and the desire to scare off untrained laypeople is in itself a form of leverage.

For politicians and others that want to re-invent the language for their own ends–you can work to plant your hook anywhere you choose, but if you torture the meaning and spin, spin, spin, you risk being seen as a manipulator, and all your leverage disappears. If your hook finds no purchase, you have no leverage.

On the other hand, the great brands (Pepsi, Kodak, etc.) planted words that meant nothing and built expensive fortresses around their words, words that now have emotional power.

The only reason words have meaning is because we agree on what they mean. And that meaning comes from associating those words with other words, words that often have emotional anchors for us. This isn't merely the spin of political consultants. It goes right to the heart of how we (and our ideas) are judged.

Mumbo vs. Jumbo

Jumbo was the famous elephant that PT Barnum exhibited. His name came to stand for the big story, for the audacious claim, for making quite a noise.

You probably need more Jumbo in the story you're trying to tell.

Mumbo, on the other hand, is deliberately obfuscating the facts. Mumbo is manipulation, the creation of placebos that don't scale or the extension of power without the facts to back you up.

No more mumbo please.

Feel free to quote me on that the next time someone brings you a big heaping plate of hype.

[In fact, Mumbo-jumbo was probably a term that was xenophobic when it was first used more than a century ago (having nothing to do with elephants but probably something to do with an exotic religion), but I think it has evolved to have more to do with technology and slick salesmanship now.]

Mumbo just doesn't last as long as it used to.

Death and Taxes, 2014

When people first encounter this brilliant poster about the state of our government, they are transfixed, then transformed.

Newly updated, Jess continues to make a ruckus in offices, schools, homes and government agencies. Feel free to post one in the office of someone you voted for (or didn't).

The opposite of anxiety

I define non-clinical anxiety as, "experiencing failure in advance." If you're busy enacting a future that hasn't happened yet, and amplifying the worst possible outcomes, it's no wonder it's difficult to ship that work.

With disappointment, I note that our culture doesn't have an easily found word for the opposite. For experiencing success in advance. For visualizing the best possible outcomes before they happen.

Will your book get a great testimonial? Write it out. Will your talk move someone in the audience to change and to let you know about it? What did they say? Will this new product gain shelf space at the local market? Take a picture.

Writing yourself fan mail in advance and picturing the change you've announced you're trying to make is an effective way to push yourself to build something that actually generates that action.

One reason this is difficult is that we've got a false humility that pushes us to avoid it. The other is that when we're confronted with this possible success, we have to confront the fact that our current plan just isn't that good (yet), that this site or that menu item really isn't as good as we need it to be.

If you expect rejection, it's a lot easier to ship lousy stuff. Said that way, it's clear that this is a ridiculous strategy. Better to make it great now rather than mourn failure later.

Go ahead, write yourself some fan mail, in advance.


You probably have better things to do than to analyze the basic trait of the Three Stooges, so I will do it for you.

They have impulse control problems.

It's not that they are evil or even particularly selfish. No, the challenge all three Stooges face is that they do whatever comes into their minds, immediately. If they want to lash out or poke or twist, they do. If they think it might be effective to make money running a plumbing company, they don't consider, they merely do it.

Stoogecraft is what happens when people or organizations in power do what feels right in the short run without thinking at all about the alternatives or the implications. It's the result of fear or boredom or a misplaced focus.

Every customer service horror story is an example of stoogecraft at work. Every business development deal gone awry because of personalities, greed or miscommunication is a result of the same thing. When we don't say what needs to be said, postponing it for later, we're playing the Stooge game.

Humans being human. People who can do what they want doing what they (think) they want.

Short-term thinking used to mean a rake to a face. Now it leads to dead ends, broken promises and success avoided.