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

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