Seth Godin is a pretty smart guy.
He invented permission marketing, popularized the idea of tribes, and taught us how to become the linchpin of our professional environments.
Among his many good ideas is the concept of the Purple Cow: the idea that being remarkable is the key to attracting attention and success.
In Seth’s words, being remarkable means that you’re unique and different, or “worthy of remark.”
Well, I like Seth as much as the next guy, but in this particular instance, I think he got it wrong.
Would You Eat a Burger Made from Purple Cows?
There are two problems with the Purple Cow concept.
The first problem is that it would take a lot of convincing to get me to try a burger made from one.
In other words, remarkable might get you attention, but that doesn’t mean that it will make sales.
For that, we need more than just attention — we need to be credible, we need to show that we have the solution to a problem, and we need to get attention in a way that doesn’t undermine that solution. (“Yeah, the burger solves my hunger problem, but … it’s purple! I’m not eating that!”)
In other words, we have to be remarkable in a way that is functional. Just being remarkable is what Peter Shankman calls “a stunt for stunt’s sake” … and it isn’t enough.
You’ve got to do better than just remarkable. You need to be remarkably useful.
It’s Gotta Be Remarkably Useful
There are two things that come together to make something remarkably useful:
- It’s gotta be remarkable. As in different, special, or unique.
- It’s gotta be useful. As in valuable, helpful, and interesting.
Remarkable is the sizzle, and useful is the steak (to stretch the purple cow metaphor just a little bit further). For something to be remarkably useful, it has to solve a problem or create value in a way that the other cows just aren’t doing.
This is where most people go wrong.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that a purple cow just needs to be different enough to stand out. The result is that most purple cows aren’t really useful at all. They’re just different. And novelty can seem useful, until it isn’t novel anymore, and then the magic goes away.
The Trap of Chasing Remarkable
A purple cow is only special when all the other cows are black, white, and brown.
If we see another purple cow everywhere we turn, we become as blind to them as we are to all the other cows out there.
In other words, when everybody tries to be remarkable, our field of vision gets filled with noise, but no particular piece of “remarkability” is going to stand out.
The trouble with purple cows is that the most attractive ones are the ones that are easily copied. Which means that pretty soon, everybody’s got one, and it isn’t remarkable anymore.
This process happens in most new markets. One or two people stumble onto an opportunity, and get great returns. Some other people notice, and there’s a gold rush. Everybody rushes in and the returns start diminishing until they’re all gone.
That’s all purple cows are: an untapped market of consumer attention. Except that if you’ve seen an effectively used purple cow, that particular angle isn’t untapped anymore.
Purple Cows As Far As the Eye Can See
There are lots of tactics that were fresh and new when they were first used, but now they’ve been used so much that they aren’t remarkable anymore.
Here are just a few examples:
- Round–up posts of the experts and stars in your industry, and showcasing them on your blog. This has been so overdone, that the effectiveness has dropped to almost zero — unless you do it differently (more on that in a moment).
- Offering a free ebook as an “ethical bribe” in exchange for people’s email addresses, to get them on your mailing list. This used to work a lot better, because a “free ebook” isn’t quite as special when you can get it anywhere.
- Video blogging and podcasting. These methods used to be unique enough that you could get make an impact just by virtue of the medium, but now they’ve become so common that you’re back to being judged on your content.
- Webinars. These are hot right now. They’re the latest version of “easy to do, but high perceived value.” Watch as their effectiveness drops over the next 6 to 24 months.
All of these examples are fairly easy to put together, which is what triggers the gold rush effect — someone did it, and it worked well, so everyone rushes to copy their success.
Which raises the question — is any “purple cow” strategy immune to this effect?
Some Cows Will Always Be Purple
Actually, yes. Some cows will always be purple, in the sense of always being fresh and unique.
- Epic Content. Content that is awesome and interesting and useful — like Corbett Barr’s Write Epic Shit — will never go out of style.
- Manifestos. Stuff like Chris Guillebeau’s 279 Days to Overnight Success will always be effective, no matter how many more great manifestos are written.
- Books. Putting together an entire book of useful information, and then giving it away for free, will always be effective, too. Like my book, Engagement from Scratch!
What do these strategies all have in common?
In a word: work!
They’re all hard to execute, which means that they will always be protected from the gold–rushers. You can’t write epic content easily on demand, you can’t put together a quality manifesto in a weekend, and you can’t put together a 239–page book without putting a huge amount of time and energy into it.
So how do you come up with the next purple cow? Keep reading.
A Blueprint for Being Remarkably Useful
Cooking up a purple cow is actually pretty simple. Not easy, but simple.
There are only three steps in the entire process:
- Figure out what your audience wants. This shouldn’t be all that difficult, as long as you’re paying attention. Read their comments and their emails. See what they like (what performs well), and what they don’t. Flat out ask them if you have to. What do they really need?
- Figure out how to give it to them. Not the solution that you could build in an hour or two (i.e. an average blog post), but the home run solution that would take you six months to build, and that they would remember forever. If you really know what they want and need, then coming up with the solution shouldn’t be very hard, as long as you don’t constrain yourself with “what can I do in an afternoon” thinking.
- Build it and give it to them. This is the really hard part. Simple, but hard. You just have to do the work. Spend the six months, and write the book or manifesto. Create the solution that they want. And then, when it’s ready … give it to them.
This is exactly the process that I followed to write Engagement from Scratch!
I knew that it would be a lot of work, but hey, you’re going to be doing a lot of work anyway, so you might as well put all that work into something that will get you real results, right?
And remember, it’s not about being remarkable. It’s about being remarkably useful.
Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book Engagement From Scratch!