Why Most Stuff Online Sounds Exactly The Same

Do you ever find yourself reading something online that sounds a lot like other stuff you just read? Like the tone, sentence structure and tempo are completely indistinguishable from each other? I notice this A LOT. Sometimes I think I’m on “The Truman Show” and people are just regurgitating stuff because we all know Jim Carey can’t read. Of course, he can’t! All of his fellow students in that movie were actors pretending to be interested in him, and all his teachers ever did was tell him he’d die if he left town. You wouldn’t want to read either!

Then I remember that, although this universe very well could be a simulation, I’m not on “The Truman Show.” This is depressing because that means that the sameness is not my imagination. A lot of things published on the internet all look and sound the same. And it’s not just restricted to Geek Culture websites that I read every day. Although I swear to God if I see another video of some writer for a Geek Culture site wearing colorful sneakers, cargo shorts, a graphic tee, and a beard, I’m going to have to rethink how I dress. Seriously white guys in our thirties, get it together. If we all look the same while trying to be different, we ain’t different.

The media, mainstream and otherwise, also suffers from the same homogeneity problem, so don’t think I’m flinging feces exclusively at my fellow geeks and marketers, it’s a problem system wide across the internet. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is think back to the 2016 presidential election and how wrong the media was on Trump. The reporters are creating the news for us just didn’t pick up on key trends and attitudes. Why? Because they’re all pretty much the same — coming from the same parts of the country (NYC, LA, SF, D.C.) with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and degrees from the same Ivy League institutions. I joke about this a lot, but it’s true, for most people who live in New York City (and this includes a whole lot of journalists and media outlets), the world ends at the Lincoln Tunnel.

And so the content produced by those people looks and sounds the same. Another example: Marketing blogs and think pieces written by marketers. I dare you to read any marketing blog, or even the latest guest column in Adweek, and not look at who wrote it. Believe me, man or woman, you’re going to think it’s the same one or two people writing all those columns.

This is hilarious to me because marketing is about standing out from the crowd, and here we have an entire industry of people who sound like they’re all the same. How does that even work?

OK. OK. One more example. A lot of you might not care about marketers and journalists/bloggers. I know, because every time I pitch a book about those people I get the “Who gives a shit?” response from my agent, and he’s right! So here’s an example you will care about: YouTube Voice. Check out a lot of the stuff uploaded to YouTube by YouTube creators and close your eyes. The voices themselves may differ, but how they speak won’t. I’m not the only one to observe this. Linguistics professor Naomi Baron analyzed the properties of YouTube voice in a great piece in The Atlantic little ways back. “YouTube Voice” is essentially the overemphasis of words that hold people’s attention. And now that I’ve told you this, you won’t be able to unhear it. I’m not sorry.

It’s time to declare war on sameness

I’ve believed that smart marketing and using internet platforms effectively can bring you to a certain point of success, but you don’t need me to tell you there’s a glass ceiling you’ll eventually bump into after that. The odds are good most of you have smacked into that ceiling by now. Cracking the damn thing is going to take a lot more than one blog post, but I can give you a bit of advice here to get you started. And that advice is that you can’t sound, look or present like everyone else. The second you do that, what’s the point? You’re just another startup with some dumb corporate looking “me too” blog, you’re just another brand copying someone else’s gimmick, or you’re just running around shouting “me too” in some other way.

So “Don’t do what Donny Don’t Does.” Or if we’re pulling from the ‘90s well of confusing slogans, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”

The thing that sets people and brands apart are personality, and yes, brands should have personality. Don’t listen to the echo chamber of marketers who are all intent on building upon only what works instead of taking risks and encouraging uniqueness. (See: The ongoing discussion from marketers telling other marketers that the way Wendy handles their Twitter account is bad and you shouldn’t copy it.)

And don’t listen to the risk averse MBA and alleged startup gurus who don’t know how to quantify personality and marketing, and therefore want no part of it. History has proven again and again and again that multi-billion dollar companies, both in and out of tech, become multi-billion dollar companies because of great marketing and great PR. Uber, Amazon, Apple, Airbnb, Snapchat, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Nintendo, all say otherwise, and the list goes on. This “We don’t spend any money on advertising” / “marketing is stupid because we can’t quantify it” thing needs to die. I’m convinced this belief is why so many tech companies and startups tend to wipe out or just get bought by someone else as the end to their run, but again, that’s a different blog post. Maybe even a book. Or maybe a book I ghostwrote that’s coming out soon. Hint hint.

Now let’s say you’re not a company, but a person. What example can I give you? Take a look at Brain Pickings. The website is a masterpiece. But conceptually, few marketers would endorse the idea of a site that analyzes and curates from classical literature and philosophy. “No one has a concentration span for that,” they’d say. Don’t believe me? Just remember that the “conventional wisdom” from marketers is that nobody reads long articles. Or that nobody reads. Wrong.

On Brain Pickings, articles on the website often go way over the standard 500-800 words — The site has a strong following and has received several accolades, including being added to the Library of Congress permanent web archive. It’s decidedly not like anything else on the internet. It’s an honest reflection of the work and evolution of its author Maria Popova. In an interview on the podcast OnBeing, Popova said, the site “is really a record of my becoming who I am. And I started so early in my 20s.”

Only Popova can become who she is, which is why the website has such a fresh voice and feel, and really we are all better off when content is a true reflection of who we are and what we’re becoming. It doesn’t matter if you’re a person or a company. Bland business (and bland marketing) spells death. The content should be emotional and real (which often means NOT SAFE) because anything else is soul-crushing. It doesn’t help the reader, and it’s not elevating the content creators. So what’s the point?

There isn’t one! If you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re wasting your time, and that’s the most valuable resource that you have. So stop doing that and follow Maria’s lead.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of the book, “Social Media is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press, and the CMO of Roosterly.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

These Two Books From 100 Years Ago Can Make You A Better Person

Before we get too deep into this, let me lay my cards on the table: neither of these books are exactly 100 years old. One is 91 and the other one is a sprightly 81. But sometimes it’s wise to round up.

The newer one, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, may be the most famous self-help book of all time. Carnegie, a failed actor turned speech instructor, developed his methodology while teaching at the YMCA and spun it into a set of 30 principles that are easy to understand. Illustrated with personal stories from across the business world, it’s a dense read that’s packed with useful ideas.

Slightly lesser-known is The Richest Man In Babylon, George Samuel Clason’s 1926 tome that was originally written in pamphlet form and given away by banks and insurance companies to encourage thriftiness in their customers. In contrast to Carnegie’s tome, the anecdotes Clason uses to deliver his wisdom are fictional stories from the ancient world – most notably the city of Babylon, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

When these guys were writing, the genre of “self-help” wasn’t really a thing. And they both had more specific goals in mind. Carnegie just wanted to help people improve their communication skills. Clason was only interested in money and making it grow. But their advice extends into fields far beyond those narrow niches.

Both of these books preach a gospel that in 2017 talk would be known as “mindfulness.” That term has become remarkably hot in the last few years. Simply explained, it means devoting your present consciousness to the experiences, both internal and external, that are happening to you right now. Not being lost in reverie of the past or fantasies of the future, just attending to what you need to accomplish in the present moment.

This makes sense, right? In today’s distraction-saturated, information-rich environment, being able to narrow your focus to the “right now” can be a powerful lever. Both Clason and Carnegie knew it, too. Their books are about making a better future for yourself, socially and financially, through actions you take in the present day. Even though economies and cultures have radically transformed in the intervening century, everything they prescribe is still valid.

In How To Win Friends, Carnegie shares quotations from some of humanity’s great thinkers, but one in specific stands out – “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” from Hamlet. That nugget of wisdom is embedded in a chapter mandating keeping a smile on your face and being aware of how that smile affects the people around you.

It’s easy to see the basic lesson Carnegie is imparting here. Psychologists call it “mirroring” – the unconscious tendency for people around us to replicate our emotional states. The trick in How To Win Friends is making that unconscious action conscious. Smiling – something that we all do without really thinking about it – is a perfect example of mindfulness in action. The benefit is in being conscious of the public face you display to others.

Clason didn’t really give a damn about how people perceived him, as long as the money was right. But at the core, his message is pretty similar: be aware of your moment-to-moment actions, take personal responsibility for them, and work to make them better.

The Richest Man In Babylon shares a number of tales from a successful man named Arkad, who is questioned about his ever-growing wealth by his less fortunate peers.

“Should I say to myself, ‘For a hundred days as I walk across the bridge into the city, I will pick from the road a pebble and cast it into the stream,’ I would do it. If on the seventh day I passed by without remembering, I would not say to myself, Tomorrow I will cast two pebbles which will do as well.’ Instead, I would retrace my steps and cast the pebble. Nor on the twentieth day would I say to myself, ‘Arkad, this is useless. What does it avail you to cast a pebble every day? Throw in a handful and be done with it.’ No, I would not say that nor do it. When I set a task for myself, I complete it. Therefore, I am careful not to start difficult and impractical tasks, because I love leisure.”

Arkad was no fool (if he even existed, which he didn’t). He knew that the single most effective key to success was awareness of your actions and responsibility for them. While his fellow Babylonians spent their wages freely and bemoaned their fate, Arkad realized that self-awareness and self-control were the keys to unlocking his future.

Humans haven’t changed much in the last hundred years, really. We’re a little taller and our vision is a little worse, but the pathways of our beautiful brains still run along the same patterns of risk and reward. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten much better at working with said pathways in any meaningful way.
Here’s a good example, and one both Carnegie and Clason would love. Millions of Americans make one big decision at the start of the year. We call it a new year’s resolution – to get in shape, or quit smoking or whatever. But making that one decision is easy. Making the hundreds and thousands of small decisions to stick with it is where the challenge lies. How many people do you know who have already abandoned those promises for self-improvement because something else got in the way? It’s one thing to say “I’m going to be happy,” and another to make a conscious effort to smile each and every day.

World culture over the past century has made a tectonic shift toward consumption and away from production. The ease and convenience of the modern world leave citizens without the need to create their own entertainment. We’re seeing the passivity of the people come to the fore in some strange places, like the inexplicable popularity of watching other people play video games. It’s that passivity that these two books warn against, noting correctly that when you let other people make decisions for you, they probably won’t be to your benefit.
We’re seeing an interesting illustration of this right now in the American political process. Hundreds of thousands of people who thought they only had to make one big decision every four years to shape their future are learning that they’re going to have to actively resist each and every day, with their bodies and with their wallets, to keep this country on the track they think is right.

As you read self-help books, advice columns and other popular forms of personal course correction, you start to see the underlying principles beneath their gimmicks. Writers bring rules and guidelines and precepts to the table, but at the core they’re rooted in a few simple pieces of understanding on how the brain works. Without any formal study of psychology or behavior science, How To Win Friends And Influence People and The Richest Man In Babylon both zeroed in on some of these behaviors and gave people the tools to change them.

We’re going to talk more about Carnegie’s 30 principles and Clason’s Babylon tales on this blog in the weeks ahead, digging deeper into their methodology and applying it to how we live now. There’s a lot to be learned from them, even in this modern world.

Irfan Jafrey is Founder & CEO of Roosterly.com and Co-Founder and JafreyFoundation.org, a non-profit that every year, allows one deserving student to attend college that otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The most Important Question You Should Ask About Your Business

You know your business through and through, right? You understand your stakeholders, your products and services, your competitors and your marketplace. When someone asks you what you do, you’ve got that 30-second elevator pitch ready to go.

But do you know the answer to the most important question about your business?

What does your business stand for?

Consumers today have millions of options at their fingertips. The internet, mobile devices and social media have created a world of too many choices, of noise. Standing out as signal among the noise is difficult for any business, large or small.

Those that do stand out likely do so because of their reputation. One offline word-of-mouth impression drives five times more sales than one advertising impression and can drive and as much as 200 times more for high consideration categories according to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s 2016 impact study. Peter Storck, a WOMMA board member and SVP of Research at Crowdtap, helped to organized this study. Peter told me,

We’ve known since The Sixties, through academic and industry research, that a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member is the most powerful form of marketing. And in the last two years we’ve learned just how much more powerful it is. In the future, as consumers get bombarded with more and more ads, and as they increasingly use technology to skip, block and avoid those ads, authentic word of mouth, both online and off, is going to become more powerful than ever. All major brands will rely on it.

So what someone says about you to someone else is the key component of the economy we live in today.

And what drives your reputation? What you stand for.

How To Know What You Stand For

The answer to the question is known in strategy circles as your vision statement. I like to think of a vision statement as a one-sentence employee manual and sales pitch all in one. If written well, it tells your employees what’s important and how to behave. It tells prospective customers whether or not they can get on board supporting you.

My vision statement is that I help make the world a more collaborative place by connecting people to opportunities, ideas and other people. I do this by consulting with companies on marketing, sharing expertise and advice to small-business owners and the like. But the focus is about making us all more collaborative.

And therein lies the trick: Vision statements aren’t about you. They’re about your audience. “We aim to sell more recreational vehicles than our competition,” is not a vision statement. That’s a sales goal.

A good vision statement focuses on the world your audience wants to live in, one that you can help create, and hopefully one they will want to help create with you. Can you guess which of these vision statements belongs to PepsiCo, the corporate entity that owns Pepsi, Frito Lay and Tropicana?

a) We create refreshment to improve the lives of families everywhere
b) We continually improve all aspects of the world in which we operate creating a better tomorrow than today
c) We make every day fun

If you guessed B, you would be correct. Some might find that statement vague, but it gives employees a compass and potential corporate partners, clients and even customers some idea of what the company stands for.

The PepsiCo Foundation follows through on the breadth of that promise by supporting grant programs that fund community improvement, funding disaster relief efforts in various places around the world and funneling employee volunteerism. In fact, PepsiCo employees have completed projects around the world that improved and promoted rainwater harvesting, encouraged healthy eating habits in developing countries and supported sustainable agriculture projects.

So how do you know what you stand for? Ask yourself:

1) Why do we do this?
2) Who do we do it for?
3) How does our product or service help people?
4) How does our product or service help the world in general?

Those answers should lead you down a path of defining your point, purpose, vision and what you stand for.

Don’t underestimate the power of developing a sound vision statement. After all, if you can’t answer the big question – Why? – then what the hell are you doing?

If you need help defining your company’s vision statement, feel free to reach out. You can find me at JasonFalls.com or as @JasonFalls on most social networks.

 Jason Falls is the author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media (Que, 2011) and The Rebel’s Guide to email Marketing (Que, 2012) . He is a widely read digital marketing pundit. Jason focuses his personal time helping small businesses with digital marketing through his workshops and content at JasonFalls.com. By day, he leads the Conversation Research Institute and is a strategic adviser for Elasticity, a digital marketing agency.

Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Need To Focus? Try This One Simple Trick

There are a lot of things I’m pretty bad at. Dating is one of them. Making sure I stay focused and on task is another. But wouldn’t you know it, while out on a date with this awesome woman, I learned something from her that’s gone a long way to keeping me focused and on task.

Now, fair warning, there are a ton of tips out there about how to be better at getting things done. It’s the best kind of clickbait. Who doesn’t want to believe that by adjusting the order in which you do certain tasks or waking up one hour earlier you could quadruple your income or guarantee yourself a date with Ryan Reynolds?

We’ve all fallen under the spell of the productivity content genre. I have! Do you have any idea how many Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday books I’ve read? (Spoiler alert: All of them.) So for that reason, I’m not going to bore you with a lot of that sort of content here at Roosterly. I also don’t want you to take this advice as anything more than something cool I observed in the wild that I thought was smart and useful to my fellow mammals. Results may vary. Buyer beware. Yadda yadda yadda.

So What’s The Trick?

The productivity tip that has helped me most is simply remembering to be productive — with the aid of a regular productivity alarm. I know, I know. Something else to beep at you and make you crazy throughout the day, but hear me out.

On my date, I noticed that at the top of each hour, her phone would go off. The first time it happened I didn’t think anything of it because when you’re out with someone who checks every box on your future partner wish list, you’re oblivious to everything. The second time though I made a joke and asked if that was her escape from bad dates. She laughed and told me that it was an alarm that she has on her phone, set for the top of every hour that serves as a reminder to keep her productive.

That is genius.

Think about how often throughout the day you get sidetracked by something not related to what you’re supposed to be doing. Or something you want to be doing, but then complain later that you don’t have time to get to it. It happens to all of us. That’s the world we live in now. It’s nobody’s fault, but in the rush of notifications and things to distract ourselves with, there isn’t often something set up to remind us, “Hey, you probably should be productive right now and not watch six more hours of “The Shield” on Hulu.”

After the date, I went home and tried it out.

The Productivity Alarm

If you have a smartphone, and the odds are good you do if you’re visiting us at Roosterly, all you need is the default clock app that comes with your phone. Using the alarm feature on my iPhone’s Clock app; I then set the alarm for the top of the hour from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (I’m usually in bed around 11 and like the last two hours of the day to be completely unstructured, so I don’t set the hourly alarm for 9 p.m., 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.)

The real power of the alarm is that it helps build a habit of following through and doing what you say you will. It got you out of your head and focused on tasks by providing a friendly little shove when you need it most. Of course, you have to let it work. It’s one thing to set all those alarms and then flake on them and not follow through on what the alarm is reminding you to do, but I encourage you to give this a try and see how it works.

I’ve already seen the results. In addition to my work for Roosterly, I’m also writing a comic book and working on a fiction novel. There’s no way I’d be able to do all three, let alone trying to find Wife #2 and read the disgusting mountain of unread books that’s slowly beginning to take over my room if I didn’t have something keeping me on task. And since I have trouble with people telling me what to do, the phone isn’t a person. In a lot of ways, our smartphones have become extensions of ourselves, so I don’t greet its alarms and reminders to stay on task the same way I would if it was another person. (You might not want to admit it, but I suspect this may be true for a lot of us reading this.)

So give it a shot. Let me know at Brandon@roosterly.com if this trick worked for you after a month or so. I hope it does. But if it doesn’t, and you have a system in place that keeps you focused and on task, I’d love to hear about it.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of the book, “Social Media is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press. He is currently working on the sequel.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Christopher Stadler on Flickr