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Future and Opportunity of Online Education

Future & Opportunity of
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Seth Godin Was Wrong: The Trouble with “Remarkable”

Seth Godin purple cowSeth Godin is a pretty smart guy.

He invented permission marketing, popularized tribes, and taught us how to become the linchpin of our professional environments.

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.

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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.

We need:

  • 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.

No, you’ve got to do better than just remarkable… you need to be remarkably useful.Click To Tweet

It’s Gotta Be Remarkably Useful

There are two things that come together to make something remarkably useful:

  1. It’s gotta be remarkable. As in different, special, or unique.
  2. 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

remarkable trap

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.

Except that if you’ve seen an effectively used purple cow, that particular angle isn’t untapped anymore.Click To Tweet

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.
  • Webinars. 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.

For example:

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

blueprint for success

Cooking up a purple cow is actually pretty simple.

Not easy, but simple. There are only three steps in the entire process:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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About Danny Iny

Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is the CEO and founder of Mirasee, host of the Business Reimagined podcast, and best-selling author of multiple books including Engagement from Scratch!, The Audience Revolution, and Teach and Grow Rich.

14 thoughts on “Seth Godin Was Wrong: The Trouble with “Remarkable”

  1. I agree, there’s nothing remarkable in simply being different. Attracting attention is the easy part, providing true value (usefulness) is the greater challenge. However, I don’t think that Godin had it all wrong either. Our advice to clients is to ‘Be Brilliant!’, you don’t have to worry about the competition when everybody is talking about how brilliant you are, and you will certainly Stand Out from the Crowd!

  2. Great post, Danny. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never seen a purple cow but I have seen a blue one. And it is no more than a novelty. And my email inbox is full of invitations from purple cow breeders asking me to buy a steak that normally costs $5,000 per pound but until midnight tonight can be bought for only $1,995 per pound.

  3. Hi Danny,
    Great article as usual. Customers want their pain or hurts to go away so that they can sit down and concentrate on whatever is their priority number one. If you deliver that solution then you are their knight in shining armour! I think the important point is the timing – solution when it is urgently needed. The danger of purple cows field scenario is that the customer may already be burnt by buying a solution so that the one you spent six months developing means you missed the boat, customers have become to weary to take you up (or worst do not want to stick out their necks and get shot down by the bosses they answer to). That is the danger I see in your argument. Do I make sense and have you already got a workaround for that? Just my tuppence worth. I get lots of food for thoughts reading blogs etc from Mirasee so keep it up and a big thanks.

  4. Very concise and insightful…..as you already know or you would not have written this piece.
    I enjoy drinking a tasty Black Cow myself.
    Purple Cows are just ad you say……distractions to get you to notice their attraction.

    Give me what I need and I will follow you all over the net to extract that information from you and put it to good use.

    Here’s to Purple Cows that provide me with the milk i need for my bowl of cereal.

    Seth will love your post!

  5. Danny – spot on with these comments. I too grow tired of the same old types of things being offered. It seems people are forgetting how to be creative on their own. Two overused words: remarkable and awesome. Please folks, unless it is significantly standing out, don’t negate the meaning of the words.

  6. Remarkable, spot on, and useful too! When people know who you are and/or can quickly recognize the value you offer, they opt in. This makes your message of knowing your niche and how to appeal to it crystal clear. RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH is the online education equivalent of LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.

  7. Your thoughts provide a great place to start — insightful as always! What I got out of this was: Be imaginative. Too many entrepreneurs are trying to figure out what out there works for them. As you suggest, keep your eyes focused on your customers. Maybe they need a plaid cow. Or a purple hippopotamus.

  8. Danny:

    I love how you reignite the purple cow theory and reframe how to think of it. I’m going to be giving something away here…my age, but okay, I’ll spill…I think when this came out, it was a different world and in fact, standing out in any way at all was not very appropriate in business. It was a different “old boys network” corporate world back then (I am, actually, pretty sure I was just in college when it was published) and it was monumental at the time, if I remember some of the discussions, from back then. Just thought I’d add another context to consider. Thanks for your insights. Sue-Ann

  9. People want what is real, what is tangible, what makes sense. We want reality and we want a happy reality. I’m always reminded of my road trips across the country, before the GPS and cell phones with internet. I would be in need of food or gas at night, then I’d see lights in the distance. There was the anticipation and excitement that civilization was getting closer by the mile, only to experience disappointment at the reality of numerous scattered street lights and closed businesses. I think most people are tired of the bright, pretty lights that do nothing more than illuminate, but not fulfill, the vacant lots in their souls.

  10. On the drive to my sister’s house, there’s a gas station with a statue of a giant pink pig sitting out front, so I always know when I see that pig that I’m close to her home. The giant pink pig isn’t really relevant to the gas that this station is selling, although it is quite a work of art.

    I directly relate this to one of your podcasts about marketooning. Those are eye catching and still relatively unique. The difference is that they convey relevance to the topic. They make prospects smile before reading the articles. It leads them into content in a very different and better frame of mind.

    With marketooning, the purple cow can be blue or pink, or it can be a giraffe, as long as it is remarkably relevant.

    Great article, Danny!

  11. Danny, thanks for your thoughts on the Purple Cow, which was indeed a remarkable observation by Seth in a business climate that did not realize that the purple cow was so significant – only weird. A couple of things I notice in your analysis though:
    1. A purple cow’s meat would not be purple. Is a brown, black or white cow’s meat brown, black or white? No. All red meat is just that, red. The difference is the attraction factor – the remarkableness of how to attract someone to notice you’re in that sea of red meat providers.
    2. It looks to me like you endorse the purple cow as you criticize it. Your last section depicts how you come up with purple cow’s without apology I might add.

    Overall, as I look through Seth’s book, I don’t see that he skipped or overlooked the points of hard work or usefulness. His input on the usefulness of pre-slicing bread vs how long (20 years) it took for someone to figure out how to market this useful idea so the consumer saw value in pre-slicing of bread. Usefulness means nothing if it can’t be marketed in a way that catches attention. There are many useful ideas and products on the market that have not caught on with the buying public.

    Seth knows that it takes a lot of guts to stand out–still does in today’s market. There may be a lot of purple cow’s out there, but not all are recognized, because the user is not looking out the window, or is not aware that all cows only come in 3 colors. A field of purple becomes the new brown, so a new purple emerges and that’s what we see in our markets today. You are correct in that as a purple cow emerges and gets copied, it’s purpleness fades, yet there always seems to be those out there who are willing to develop the next purple cow (products & marketing), which is what you express in your last paragraphs that you love doing. I encourage you to keep on doing it.

    Thanks for the stimulating article!

    ONward, Bob

  12. Danny … Without exception, I find your articles refreshing, enlightening and challenging. The pièce de résistance here is the “Blueprint for Being Usefully Remarkable”. Without it, this article would have missed the mark of “useful remarkability” … but would surely find its way to the grazing nook of other Purple Cows. I appreciate your generosity, which seems to have no bounds. Shalom!

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