Tag Archives: branding

Career Tips for the Delusional

I pissed some people off when I said this on Twitter yesterday, but I’m sticking by it:

“You are what you get paid to do.”

People disagree because they refuse to be limited or labeled. Notice that I didn’t say you’re just what you get paid to do. And yet, when you identify someone by their profession, they object.

“This is Karl. He’s a busboy.”

Oh. So that’s all Karl is?

No, Karl is probably also a son, a brother, a lover, a friend, a pet owner, a volunteer, a student, an aspiring playwright, and a noteworthy violinist.

It’s just that the only one of those pastimes that actually pays Karl’s bills is “busboy.” Thus, Karl is, for the purposes of declaring his worth to the world, a busboy.

“But what if Karl is the best playwright I’ve ever met?” you ask. “Or what if he’s the best violinist in the city?”

Well, that’s cool too. He can be those things in certain contexts. When he’s sitting in a coffee shop writing a play, sure, he’s an aspiring playwright. When he’s rehearsing the violin in his attic, then he’s a violinist.

But at both of those times, he’s also a busboy. Because that’s what it says on his taxes.

The day he gets paid to play the violin, he can say he’s a violinist.

The day he gets paid for the licensing of one of his plays, he can say he’s a playwright.

And the day he gets paid more — and more regularly — to write plays or play the violin than he does to bus tables, by all means, he should say he’s a violinist or a playwright.

Because that’s what it’ll say on his taxes.

I think the problem people have with labels is that they want to be known for their skills and passions, rather than for their ability to earn a living. Getting paid is so transactional, and there are so many more cash jobs than sex jobs, that we yearn to be recognized for our other, rarer, “better” skills.

But there’s a difference between being a writer — a person who suffers for weeks and months on end (or not) to produce a written work that others will pay her for — and, say, being the intern who adds titles and tags to her agency client’s YouTube videos. One of those people is a writer; the other is an SEO apprentice. Both of those people may be ashamed of their jobs (as writers often love to hate themselves), but only one of them is being honest about it.

We might be better off if people were willing to identify themselves as “aspiring” writers, or directors “in training,” or some other qualifier that denotes a person’s pursuit of a passion in which they have not yet achieved a status of transactional relevance. But the Internet is immediate, and we all want to succeed today. Why denigrate your aspirations by declaring them as works in progress when you can call yourself a success before you’ve even begun?

The truth is, if you’re so frustrated by your day job that you prefer to self-identify as something other than what you get paid to do, you should either change careers — preferably into the field you keep telling people you’re already working in — or pursue what you love to the extent that you actually achieve a level of skill that convinces others to pay you for it. Otherwise, you’re fighting a battle of diminishing returns in both directions.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a real sociologist; I just play one on the Internet.

10 Things to Think About Before You Do Anything Online

10. Does anyone other than me actually care about this?

9. Am I about to irritate everyone I know by spamming links to this thing?

8. If someone doesn’t read this story or watch this video, will s/he really be worse off?

7. Am I doing this because I think people expect it from me?

6. Do I even enjoy whatever this is, or is it just a reflex?

5. Am I trapped by my own personal brand?

4. Did I just say “personal brand”?

3. Will anyone care about this in a year?

2. Will anyone care about this in a day?

1. Should I have gotten a real job?

John Ritter Facebook Marketing Fail

Does Social Marketing Reward the Wrong Behaviors?

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

When The New Yorker published that cartoon by Peter Steiner in 1993, they were commenting on the anonymity of Internet users. 20 years later, social networks have greatly eroded our anonymity, but the joke is still on us. Because while we’re all demonstrably ourselves on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the advertisers on these networks seem convinced that we’re actually all dogs.

What’s worse is that we’re proving them right.

“LIKE this Photo if You Have a Pulse!”

Social networks were built for people, not brands. But wherever large groups of people congregate, salespeople are sure to follow. As “social media” became “social marketing,” the needs of advertisers fueled a push for measurable data, resulting in the endless drumbeat of “ROI” to help us measure which of our marketing messages are “working.”

Unfortunately, we have a problem: we reward activity instead of impact.

For example, take this recent Facebook trend:

Radio station Facebook update asking people to LIKE if they're a fan of Three's Company, a TV show from the 1980s.

Majic 95.5 is a radio station in Austin, Texas.  To stay in business, Majic 95.5 needs to get people to listen to their radio station. The more people who listen to the station, the more money the station can charge for advertising.

How does asking people if they liked Three’s Company make Majic 95.5 money?

Directly, it doesn’t.

Indirectly, you could make an argument that widespread sharing of a popular image that was originally posted by the radio station increases the station’s brand awareness… except most people don’t live in Austin, Texas. So unless Majic 95.5 is trying to raise national awareness for its digital radio feed (which would allow it to court national advertisers instead of local) getting the attention of people outside of Austin doesn’t even have an indirect impact on its bottom line.

So why post this image at all?

Because a picture of John Ritter is much easier to “like” than an infographic of Majic 95.5’s ad rates would be. And so we’ll continue to see pointless pop culture references shared by brands all across social media, not because they’re directly (or even indirectly) effective, but because they trigger activity.

Ring the Bell and Watch Us Drool

A funny, touching or incendiary image is an easy thing to “like” or share on Facebook. That action requires no thought. It’s a reflex. And when you “like” or share that image, your friends also have a chance to see it, where they might also “like” or share it, and on, and on…

And because activity creates sticky repeat usage of these social networks (so that the networks themselves can sell ads), “activity” is grossly overemphasized regardless of whether or not it’s actually good for the businesses (and advertisers) themselves.

What kinds of Facebook posts generate the most activity?

  • Simple questions, like “fill-in-the-blank” sentences
  • Inspirational quotes
  • “Caption This” pictures

Of course these kinds of posts generate the most activity.  They require the least amount of effort on the part of the audience.  So now we’re creating a social marketing ecosystem built not upon valuable customer engagement but on triggering Pavlovian reflexes in our audience (“I love John Ritter!”), which tells us nothing useful about them or in any way elevates their interest in our brand or increases actual sales.

But, by God, we can tell our CMO that we had 100,000 likes last month on Facebook.

You Can’t Eat Compliments

“Even if a tweet can’t directly cause a sale,” we tell ourselves, “at least it can trigger a retweet, a response, a follow or a click-through.”

Well, sure. But that’s a bit like saying, “I’m in the business of selling pies,” and then measuring your success at the pie festival by how many people complimented your packaging.  Yes, compliments are an indicator that you’re doing something right, but they don’t sell pies.

Unfortunately, social marketing has become a business of compliments.  We spend time and money developing content intended to trigger the only actions we can measure, rather than content that moves our potential customers further along the path toward purchase.

This isn’t [entirely] the marketers’ fault, because they’re doing the best they can to measure what’s made available by the networks. And it’s not [entirely] the networks’ fault either, because they’re doing their best to provide any data that can be measured.

The rest of the fault lies with us, for rewarding brands that provide distraction, not value.

Think about that the next time a brand wants to know if you remember a certain ’80s TV show, or if you know the name of the unboxed vintage toy in their shared photograph. And then resist that urge to “LIKE us if you know what this is!!!”

Let the Internet know you’re not a dog.

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Are You a Maker or a Seller?

Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant painter who died penniless because he wasn’t a brilliant salesman.

Sound familiar?

You’re probably no van Gogh (let’s be honest), but you do have talents.  You’re good at some things, and you may even be great at something.  But unless one of the things you’re good at is convincing other people to pay you for the work you do, it’s probable that you and Vincent do have at least one thing in common:

You’ll probably die broke, too.

Creators Are Rarely Marketers, and Vice Versa

While interviewing Matthew Ebel on the Freelance 4 Real podcast this week, I realized that those of us who are truly passionate about art and creation are often horrible at selling the very things we make.

Not only are we our own worst critics, but we’re also our own worst self-promoters, and it’s usually for the same reason: we know all the flaws in our work.

When I look at something I’ve made, I see what it could have been, and that makes it almost impossible for me to convince someone else that it’s wonderful, because — to me — it’s fallen short of what I want it to be.

Meanwhile, when someone approaches my work as a viewer, a reader, an outsider, they might love it because they have no idea what it could have been, or what I intended it to be; they can only appreciate it for what it is, or by comparing it to other things that also exist (and which have also probably been dismissed by their own creators).

So, as artists or musicians or filmmakers or other voluntary devotees of the aesthetic life, when it comes time for us to put on our business hats, we often have trouble thinking about (and pricing) our skills and services objectively.  We’re inclined to charge too little for what we do because we’re comparing our work to our own idealized version of ourselves — which is priceless — rather than pricing ourselves reasonably, or in honest comparison with our peers.

We might even feel like expecting people to pay us for our work is an affront or a burden.  (After all, we know what head cases we can really be; how can we saddle someone else with a bill for putting up with us?)

And this is why I think independent artists who have even a vague amount of self-awareness should do something radically practical:

Hire an agent.

Pay Someone Else to Pimp You

Maybe you only need one buyer or one contract to get by, or maybe you need as much work as you can handle.  Whatever the case, if you have trouble selling yourself, hire someone else to sell you instead.

An agent only makes money when you make money, which means your agent needs to find ways to sell you to the right buyer(s).  And that means your agent’s skill set is drastically different from your own.  While you might be great at creativity, problem solving and general efficiency, your agent is good at networking, pricing and sales.  S/he understands that creative types can’t see themselves for what they are, so s/he makes a business of convincing other people of how you should be seen.

And when that business model works, you both profit.

There’s a reason aspiring actors, writers and athletes rejoice the day they land an agent: it means someone with connections believes they just found an asset (AKA you) which their connections will believe is worth employing, AND it means you can now focus on your craft, rather than on convincing someone else that your craft is worth paying for.  (That’s your agent’s job now.)

But what if you’re not the kind of person who even wants long-term contracts?

What if the act of selling yourself is so unpalatable to you — even when someone else is doing it for you — that you’d almost rather revert to a 9 to 5 job than ever have to go to another pitch meeting again?

There’s a solution for you, too:

Make things that sell themselves.

Productize So You Can Prioritize

One of the dirty little secrets about freelance is that if you’re spending all your time trying to land new jobs, you’re never really focused on the work.  (When you’re part of a small agency, the same rules apply — there, your creatives are your salespeople, and they’re burning their candles at both ends.)

If chasing paychecks isn’t your idea of a fulfilling life, and if having someone else chase them for you just feels like screwing yourself with a condom on, change who you are: stop being a freelancer and start being a craftsman.

A freelancer goes where the work is.  A craftsman makes things that inspire the buyers come to him.

Sure, you still need to advertise.  And if you’re a typical self-loathing artisan (or, worse, if you’re delusional about your own talents), you may want to ask someone with a level head to do your advertising for you.

But this way you’ll be focused on making great work that people want or need, instead of needing to convince someone that you’re worth investing in over long periods of time, and then repeating that same sales cycle every time the work runs out.

As long as you keep making things that delight your audience or solve their problems, you can stay in business.  And isn’t making great work the whole reason you want to wake up in the morning?

Sometimes, freelance isn’t about convincing people you’re worth it.

Sometimes it’s about being worth it, and then handing out maps so people can find you.

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Are We the Generation That Destroyed the Concept of Communication?

I’m guilty.

I don’t really read for pleasure anymore, and rarely for insight.

Instead, I skim, in the vain hope that I’ll stumble across a piece of information that’s worth paraphrasing and sharing with my followers.  This makes me less of an audience member and more like a member of a relay team, who’s more focused on effectively passing the baton than in understanding what that baton really means.

I don’t have time to absorb the wisdom of blogs, articles, books, magazines or videos.  All I’m looking for are bits of easily-tweeted wisdom that will make me look like I’m curating quality content.

If you ask me what’s really going on in the world, I probably know less about the news today than I did fifteen years ago, even though I’ve come into contact with fifteen years’ worth of additional knowledge.  But my long-term memory has atrophied, and that energy has instead been applied to the brave new world of info-sampling.

See, my short term memory traps all the info-bits I need to appreciate memes, retweet commentary and answer trivia questions.  I can probably tell you “who,” and maybe “when,” but the nuances of “how” and “why” are generally lost on me.  This is why so much of the web is simply repetition of old news: no one’s reading it anyway; they’re just endlessly re-sharing it.

The Obsolescence of the Audience

For eons, humans have communicated because they had information to share, and a need to be heard.  But the way the web works, I’m not so sure we need audiences anymore, since most of us are writing for a new kind of reader:

The Indifferent Identifier.

This reader differs from all previous readers, because s/he:

  • doesn’t care what an article says
  • doesn’t care who wrote it
  • doesn’t even read it

All this person does is sees that an article exists, and passes it along to their social network because s/he thinks that social network might enjoy the information.

In other words, none of us are reading anymore; we’re just collectively pretending we did.

But that’s okay, because none of us are really writing anymore, either.

We’re playing with magnets.

Replacing Culture with Polarity

Today, words are only as good as the clicks they attract.

I don’t have to write anything profound.  I just have to write something catchy.

I don’t need to be right, or even to take a stand.  I just need to be interesting enough to be momentarily quotable.

I don’t seek out well-reasoned responses or rational debate.  I just want comments, likes and retweets, which prove that I still have a pulse.

I don’t judge the quality of my writing by whether or not I believe I’ve made a valid, nuanced point and supported it with logic, wit or a compelling narrative.  I judge my successes based on how many complete strangers take the time to load the pages my words appear on.

That’s a shallow rendition of an audience, but that’s okay, because I’m a shallow rendition of a writer.  In fact, I’m not even writing anymore.  I’m just fishing for validation.

Aren’t we all?

Of Course Not; You’re Different

Kerouac, Truffaut, Mingus and O’Keeffe created art because they had to, they wanted to, and / or because they could.

Meanwhile, we create content as a means to…

  • attract attention
  • monetize that attention
  • justify our choices according to the income those choices generate

In theory, we’re no different from “actual” artists, trying to make a living (and a life) from our own creations.  But in practice, we’re far more Andy Warhol-esque, manufacturing attention for its own reward.  Ultimately, the monetization is incidental; but instead of being driven by the thrill of expression or the exploration of process, we’re slaves to the wandering eyeball and the Facebook like.

We crave the glance, but we avoid the contact.

We are brands, but our product is diversion, which people pay for with attention.

Our metrics are broken, and instead of looking for a meaningful way to fix the system that’s led to this cultural dissonance, we spend our time finding more ways to take advantage of that same broken system.

Now that everyone is simultaneously a brand, a mogul, a tastemaker and an entrepreneur, we’ve run out of time to be thoughtful human beings.  We’ve replaced resonance with relevance, not because we have a greater plan for all that relevant information, but because imposing a hierarchy of relevance on our information makes it easier to categorize our choices as good or bad, profits or losses, advances or failures, all in our ongoing quest for…

… what, exactly?

Something more than accidental fame?

A new way of relating to our fellow humans that can only be reached by divorcing ourselves from the process of better understanding them?



And perhaps it is attainable, digitally at least.  Although I’m not so sure any of us truly want it, so much as we’re aware that we could, conceivably, obtain it.

Couldn’t we?

I mean, we’re all playing the game, and we suspect there must be an end somewhere, so we might as well claw and scrape toward it, right?  After all, someone has to win.  Maybe that someone is you.

And if no one does — if we don’t even try — then what was this all for?

Maybe you agree with me.

Maybe you don’t.

But, in the end, all I ask of you is one thing.

By god…

… in the interest of fostering a true, meaningful and redemptive dialogue…

… please retweet this.

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