Friday, May 13, 2011

You Can't Always Get What You Want Unless You Really Don't Want It

Almost everything I say or do bewilders someone, but one of the hardest things for some people to fathom is my explanation for why sometimes I’d rather listen to the radio than plug in my 3,000-song iPod.

“I want to listen to something that I don’t know I want to listen to,” I tell them. And pennies descend from the firmament and pop into their eyes. But I stand by my words.

At least 2,750 of the 3,000 songs on my iPod are arms-around-the-neck familiar. When I hear the drum roll that kicks off the Raspberries’ “I Wanna Be With You” I’m immediately struck by one of two emotions: I’m flipping triple solchows that I get to hear three minutes of cherry-soda euphoria courtesy of America’s first and best power-pop band, or I’m thinking, “Oh, man; not that again.”

And the thing is, I love “I Wanna Be With You.” It’s in my all-time Top 10, along with Warren Zevon’s “Frank and Jesse James” and the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “The End Is Not In Sight” and the Everly Brothers’ “On The Wings of a Nightingale,” and Graham Parker and the Rumour’s version of “I Want You Back” – and I turn off all of them from time to time when they pop up on the shuffle.

(The lone exception to this on my iPod is Bob Newhart’s “Introducing Tobacco to Civilization.” I never turn it off, and I always laugh.)

On the other hand, I can listen to campus radio plow through hour after hour of thrash and throat singing and never be tempted to reach for the dial. If you had told me before I turned on the radio that I was going to hear three hours of thrash and throat singing I would have told them what they could do with their kilohertz, but once it started I was there. And I wasn’t going anywhere.

So the question is “why.” Why am I at heel with music I will tell you I despise – and I actually do despise, if willingness to purchase is a measure of likingness – and more than willing to turn up my nose at my favorite songs of all time?

The answer is my explanation for why I sometimes choose the radio over the Pod: I want to listen to something I don’t know I want to listen to. I don’t want the familiar. I want the non-familiar. I want randomness beyond the proscribed randomness of the “Shuffle Songs” command on my iPod. I don’t even want the near-miss shiftiness of Pandora or the billion micro-channels offered by satellite radio. I want the sort of randomness campus radio – or just about any kind of radio, even the kind with playlists tighter than Christina Aguilera’s bustier – can provide.

And here’s the deal: I’d even be willing to pay for it.

Just so you know, this column is not about my willingness to pay for a radio service that figures out what kind of music I like and then plays the antithesis of that. Call it the Anti-Pandora, or maybe the PanDiego. (I’ve been to PanDiego. Have you?)

It’s about the difference between playing to your audience and giving your audience something they’d pay for.

Think about how you go about creating the products you market to your audience, or crafting the marketing approach involved in selling those products. In most cases you look at what’s been done before, what they’ve bought before, what you’ve said before, and who you talked to before.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as long as you don’t rely solely on those tactics moving forward or fail to ask the question: “Yeah, but what do they really need?”

The past can be very instructional. Knowing that a client hates mustard, for instance, is essential information if you’re in the mustard business. More to the point and further from the land of whimsy, selling an international penny-stock growth fund to someone whose observed risk tolerance is somewhere west of certificates of deposit is like walking on the treadmill with George Jetson. At best you’ll be one with the belt.

An even more tangible example: A former client wanted to sell a familiar consumer packaged good via an unfamiliar package-delivery vehicle. The packaged good and the delivery vehicle were positioned as having value. The downside was that the delivery vehicle had to be … oh, bugger it. A former client wanted to sell baseball cards in collectible cans. The problem was the cans had to be destroyed to get to the cards inside.

While the can was a new delivery vehicle, it was simultaneously an old commodity: a quasi-collectible. If you want to sell a quasi-collectible to collectors, there’s one big, black, and inviolable rule: don’t make them destroy the quasi-collectible. The approach was new but the lesson from the past was powerful, and the cards go where all bad cards go – either ashes or dust, doesn’t matter which.

The flip side of course is the geegaw that started this whole melty ice-cream cone of a discourse, the iPod.

No one was asking for an iPod. It was in no one’s shuffle, but it was what people wanted without knowing they wanted it. You could have done a billion focus groups or studied the past back to Plutarch without getting a lightbulb that screamed, “iPod!!!” Yet once Apple gave people an iPod, they embraced it and its descendants like they hadn’t embraced anything since television. The iPod is neck-and-neck with the cell phone as the most transformational invention of the 21st century (even though – don’t remind me – they were invented in the 20th) because they went beyond giving people what they wanted to giving them what they need.

So how’d they do it? Some of it was the inspiration of Steve Jobs and the Jobs-Ettes, no doubt. But some of it was also hinted at by the founder of another transformational enterprise, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

“They just can't wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things,” Zuckerberg said in talking about how Hollywood missed the point when it made The Social Network, and he’s right. Hollywood, that golden empire with the throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude of a life-insurance actuary, doesn’t make anything because it likes making it. It doesn’t flip the switch on a single klieg light without having it paid for in advance by some multiplex in North Platte.

Sometimes you have to make a product or make a marketing decision just because you like it. You like what it says or what it does, and you have a feeling that if you like it, other people will too. Especially these days, where cool stuff gets tossed around the web like Little League baseballs, that’s at the very least no worse a marketing strategy than doing something because it’s always been done that way.

The problem, to paraphrase Red Smith, is knowing when to stick to the book and when to play the bloody fool. The only measure I can suggest is your level of excitement over the status quo. Do you believe in what you make and what you do? Does it excite you? Does it excite others? Is it cool by any definition, by any stretch of the imagination? Is it what people say they want, or what they actually need?

Let’s go back to the cards-in-cans analogy. People didn’t say they wanted cards in cans, and that’s fine, but they also didn’t need cards in cans, and that’s a problem. People needed to spend $2 on something that gave them good odds of getting back something worth $5. They didn’t care much whether it was a card or a can or a card in a can. They simply wanted their $5 for $2.

Obviously my client would go broke giving everyone $5 for $2, but they made a particularly poor choice of the delivery vehicle for its version of not-quite $5 for more-than-$2.

Would something more direct would have worked? Maybe. Something less direct? Maybe. But it would have to be a little better-built than cards in cans.

Next time you’re stuck in a marketing rut, try building something, just by yourself, just because you like building things. See where it leads you. It might not take you to the next iPod, but it’ll probably take you away from your playlist. And there’s nothing wrong with that.