Seth Godin is a pretty smart guy.
He also reinvented book publishing with the Domino Project.
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.
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 it makes sales.
For that, we need more than just attention.
- to be credible
- to show we have the solution to a problem
- 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 works for us—just remarkable is what Peter Shankman calls “a stunt for stunt’s sake.” And it isn’t enough.
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 it to be remarkably useful, it’s got to solve a problem, or create value, in a way that the other cows just aren’t doing.
And the truth is that way too many purple cows aren’t really all that useful—they’re just different. Once the novelty wears off, the magic goes away.
But “would you eat a purple cow” isn’t even the biggest problem. The biggest problem with a purple cow is that our fields of vision seem to be full of them.
The Trap of Chasing Seth Godin’s Purple Cow
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.
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.
It’s what happens with any new market; 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.
Fields of 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. 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 “ethical bribes” e-book in exchange for people’s email addresses to get them on your mailing list. This used to work a lot better, because “free” isn’t quite as special when you can get it anywhere.
- Video blogging and podcasting. They used to be unique enough that you could get by just by virtue of the medium, but now they’ve become so common that you’re back to being judged on your content.
- These are hot right now. They’re the latest version of “easy to do but high perceived value.” Watch their effectiveness drop over the next 6-24 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 awesomely interesting and useful will never go out of style.
- Manifestos. Stuff like Corbett Barr’s 18 Months, 2 Blogs, Six Figures and 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 Engagement from Scratch!
What do these strategies all have in common?
In a word: work.
They’re all hard work to execute, which means 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 featuring Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and others without putting a huge amount of time and energy into it.
So how do you come up with the next purple cow? I’ll tell you.
The Purple Cow Cookbook: A Blueprint for Being Usefully Remarkable
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 they will 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?
Let us know what you think about purple cows and being remarkable in the comments.