After about thirty years of creating and producing high-quality musical performances, mostly directly related to what we do, we began doing high-touch one-to-one volunteer work with at-risk people, won a national award, and considered how to productize our lived experience as a business.
Turns out, one could do that back in the day, so we created an authentic, immersive, compelling online program to scale up what we do to a wider audience. Since no one else was doing what we did back then it seemed like a winner, and many of the good people we met through our volunteer work thought so too, and signed on to the experience.
“But no one can find you online!” some said.
So we hired a website designer and an SEO expert and a copywriter and the analytics said that people could find us better.
“Are you on social media?” they asked.
We hired a social media manager/content creator and automated our postings to a half-dozen platforms. We’re approaching 50,000 total connections across three of the most popular platforms that aren’t based in China, and we felt good about that.
“Do you post regularly?” It was a good question, and we felt we could be more regular about articles and blogs and eBooks and memes and status updates and reels and stories, so we did that, tested our skills on a bespoke website, got syndicated, and learned that almost anyone can publish almost anything good, bad, or awful, almost anywhere for a price.
“Do you have a compelling sales letter?” they asked. It didn’t take a minute and we had an expert Gen Z copywriter create one for us that we could connect to our automated social media bot tools.
“Where’s your book?” was their next question.
We wrote an Amazon best-seller using all the tips and tricks and marketing tools to do that and it was Number One domestically and internationally in a few different categories for a bit more than 24 hours. That was fun, so we self-published another book of fine art portraits of people experiencing homelessness, this time in coffee-table format, printed 1,000 copies, and gave them away as gratitude to organizations and individuals who serve people experiencing homelessness.
“Have you been on podcasts?” they asked us next. “Yes!” we said. We have been a guest hundreds of times and we co-host several podcasts and have co-founded a couple of channels, both video and audio. We have one podcast in its third season, one in its second season, and a video channel that, after several years, is close to breaking 1,000 subscribers, although truth be told, we paid for about 750 of them.
“You’re going to need a TEDx talk” they said. We looked at that, but TEDx was crowded even back then, and getting to TED was by invitation only. Plus, there was the “anywhere for a price” factor. So we recorded some teaser video and auditioned and, instead of getting into TED, we got into a pipeline of people who were hiring consultants to get them into TEDx. The expense didn’t have a predictable ROI, so we said farewell to TEDx.
“You need to post video regularly, because that’s what your winning competition is doing” we were told.
So in addition to video podcasts, we did that, too. Lots of it. Explainer videos, talking head videos, music videos, “live” videos, and webinars. We discovered copyright strikes and censorship, too, and learned how to avoid both without being de-platformed. We learned how to set up webinar funnels, decorate them with short videos, and deploy them using all kinds of bigger better faster strategies and tactics and methods and DIY tricks we can’t remember anymore.
“What’s your offer?” they asked. It had to fit into a very specific box, and we dumbed things down and sharpened them up and used the language we were told to use and came up with a really good offer. While we were doing that, we optimized all our social media profiles and figured out how to drive traffic on social media sites that prevent one thing or another and require workarounds to continue to reach our many thousands of connections without appearing stale. We started swatting the SEO flies that pestered us about one thing or another in our vast library of content not being SEO’d enough or recently or at all.
“Are you advertising on social media?” was their next question. We took a look, thought about it carefully, paid for expert advice and technical support, and dove in. We learned a lot about how to connect email campaigns to funnels to webinars to challenges, and we built 100 trust points, cast a wide net, niched down, ramped up, filtered for the gold, and saved time by contracting for services, which we had to do because of the complexity of our content calendar.
Ultimately, we had great messaging and reached thousands of potential customers, none of whom could afford our program, according to the metrics and analytics, which were great, but didn’t translate into sales. You see, by that time we had spent so much time and treasure responding to the questions from when we first built our new website up until then that the price of our formerly-economical program had to go up to a bit match the costs of being slaves to technology. And the coaches we paid to help us said that was a good idea too because no one of consequence will buy a bargain-basement program.
“Are you networking online?” Turns out that networking online is a more time-consuming and automation-free version of posting to social media, and it seemed like a good idea, so we jumped in. We discovered joint ventures, subscription-based networking services, and pay-to-play online appearances, and learned how speed-dating works with others who aren’t interested in our offer. We found that there are ways to look and sound like professionals with cool tech-enhanced realtime audio and video tools that we couldn’t afford and that seemed to make some people pop out of a Zoom room. Still, at the end of the day, it was serial frog-kissing.
So, we re-pivoted and rebranded into the coaching space. We learned that, if we dumbed our program down even more, we could be competitive in an overly-saturated marketplace where the business goes to the best thirst trap not the best program, regardless of the quality of the offer.
Then, they started saying something new.
“All of what you’ve been doing? Toss it! It’s not going to work next year…maybe it has already stopped working now!”
“What shall we do?” we asked. “Start a movement,” they said.
By this time, a lot of water had been flowing under the bridge and we were flowing with it. In fact, we were so far downstream from where we started that it felt like a good time to dock the boat and remember what we started out to do in the first place before considering this new “movement” thing.
From the riverbank, we saw quite a number of other boats headed downstream in the same direction we had been going, loaded down with a lot of the same baggage we carried: SEO, content of all kinds, optimized everything. More than a few of them were riding low in the water, too, and could have easily capsized in even a Class 2 rapid. “Fear of missing out is a thing,” we said, “but we’re smart and we know better because it’s just fear: false evidence appearing real.” And we were grateful that we’d hauled our boat ashore because it was, honestly, very heavy with all that baggage, and we knew there were some significant rapids just downstream.
As we watched traffic on the river, we noticed that most of the boats going by were small like ours, but occasionally a houseboat, barge, or even a riverboat would go by, full of people partying like it was 1999. We wondered: were these real live movements or just boats full of people having fun? It was hard to get attention from any of the people on board – they were out there on the river and we were safe on the shore, still, a few of the bigger barges had loudspeakers proclaiming how great their particular party was going to be once they got downstream a little further and that messaging seemed to be aimed at us.
There’s a thing about rivers. Eventually, after sometimes turbulent sometimes placid journeyings, they dump into lakes or oceans, and their river current stops flowing. When that happens, the amount of progress anything floating on a river can make rapidly slows or stops until an engine big enough to power the boat, barge, or ship gets things moving again. We wondered what all the big boats were going to do when the river stopped moving and they needed power for movement.
We were reminded of that old story about the executive officer in charge of a barge who says to all the oarsmen: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news! The good news is that there will be extra rations and extra grog for lunch today!” which brings cheers and huzzahs from all the rowers, chained to their benches as they are. “And the bad news,” the XO continues, “is that, after lunch, the captain wants to go water skiing.”
We imagined the mouth of the river, full of boats of all sizes, some more agile than others, in one giant floating traffic jam. It reminded us of the troubles that happen when international shipping lanes get clogged up by canal closures or piracy or sheer costs of transit: hundreds of container ships with plenty of power and paid cargo going nowhere.
We imagined the bigger boats we saw going by – the ones with flashy lights and happy music and captains encouraging their crew and passengers to reach new heights – and what would happen when those boats stalled in the doldrums where the river meets the sea. We began to understand that “a movement” actually meant “you pay to play” and that oars would be available to rent for a nominal annual fee. Then we wondered: to what port the captains of those movement-based boats intend to have their acolytes row them? Would the acolytes themselves care so long as they still had their oars in the water? And what about the water-skiing factor?
High and dry on the riverbank, we reflected on our progress over the last several years. We humbly reviewed the expert advice in which we’d invested. We took counsel with a few others who had also taken a break and come ashore from the downstream flow. We introspected. And then we considered what we had set out to do when we first built our website.
Looking back, we observed that, while our program was and is still the only thing of its kind in the world (we’re told that regularly), the world appears to be most interested in things that look and feel like everything else – things that are headed pell-mell down that river.
We observed that everything we had done to bring us to that riverbank was an attempt to fit into a paradigm that, according to all the loudest experts, was shifting under us even more quickly than the water in the river itself.
Finally, we observed that the time and treasure we had spent to arrive at that very moment and place had done very little to benefit our potential clients and customers, and quite a lot to benefit the experts who had guided us. We realized that, instead of even volunteering with those who needed our program most, we had been paying to serve the systems that were supposed to help us scale our tried and true program to reach more people. And, that we had, after all the expense and effort, done precisely none of that.
So, we took the little money we had left, bought some beach chairs and umbrellas, ordered adult beverages from the servers who had established a concessions stand there for that purpose, and settled in to greet the new year with anticipation, curiosity, and a healthy check on reality.
We realized that we had greatly enriched the digital marketers, lawyers, website designers, and other consultants along the way, and we were grateful for the education and experience we had purchased.
We realized that our several years of interaction with the bigger/better/faster crowd had resulted in a clarity that couldn’t have appeared any other way, and we were grateful.
We became poignantly aware that, instead of niching down to a client avatar, our client avatar was niching down to us. All that remained was to grasp the hands held out towards us. This made us even more grateful.
We mused on the kinds of bots that we could deploy to fend off the middle-of-the-Bell-curve marketers, coaches, consultants, developers, fractional-C-everything-ers, and others whose notions of creativity are doing the same thing bigger better and faster. We considered – again – whether or not making a play into that first standard deviation was where we ought to be, the overly-crowded nature of that space, and the distinct differences we have with it, both functionally and philosophically, and we became even more grateful to be sitting on the riverbank in the sun with our adult beverages, musing on the moving picture of traffic flowing downstream before us.
From that safe, warm, and dry vantage point, we were one of the first to see a flash flood approaching.
Riding the headwave of the flood were geeks on surfboards wearing formal robes and hoods, every one of them waving at least one advanced degree confidently in the air as a kind of counterbalance to the current. Some clutched several diplomas in both hands. As they got closer – which they were doing quite rapidly, we could hear them all yelling. As nearly as we could make it out, they seemed to be screaming “YAI! YAI! YAI!” just as loudly as they could.
“Ah ha!” we said. “This must be that new movement everyone is talking about!” It looked a bit dangerous to us, particularly as the flood started to swamp most of the smaller boats in its way. We were impressed in a macabre sort of way as their occupants were forced to clamber aboard the bigger rafts and barges and riverboats, although this clambering process was somewhat hindered by the flash flood itself. A great many of the surfers found themselves victims to much crashing into and falling off of and general disarray as well.
The flood continued for some time, and the river rose several feet above its normal banks, almost reaching us in our comfortable beach chairs. Even though swollen in size, the unmistakable fact about the river after it swept all the traffic downstream was that, despite its size, it appeared both calm and powerful and, perhaps without irony, completely free of boats or anything other than the normal sort of flood flotsam and jetsam.
We thought about making a quick end-run downstream and opening a life-preserver stand for those who hadn’t yet been caught in the flood. Then we stopped thinking that way, realizing that someone else would already be doing that bigger better and faster than we could or wanted to.
Then we noticed someone, swimming hard, trying to stay afloat on the still-swollen river. We had some rope in the boat, and working as simply as we could, we coiled the rope, tied our one life preserver to the end, and tossed it as hard as we could out towards the person battling the river to stay alive. Somehow, that brave individual saw the possibility of rescue and managed to swim towards the life preserver, grab on, and gratefully allow us to pull them to the shore.
Then, it happened again. And again. Slowly, a small group of survivors found refuge with us. There were plenty of beach chairs, and people took advantage of the sunshine to dry out and recover their injured spirits. As we began to talk together it seemed that everyone – every single one of us – shared the same kinds of experiences that we had had over the last few years. Everyone had a truly novel idea or program or invention or method that had been completely ignored by The Algorithm, and every one of those ideas, programs, inventions, and methods was particularly well-suited for people who had left the river behind, either by choice or out of necessity.
Gradually we began to understand what was happening. Counter to all the mainstream beliefs and current understanding now being swept downstream in a flood, our little band of survivors were one and all Outliers. We had been swept onto the river in the first place out of common interest and trust in expert opinion, gotten immersed in the flow and fascination of the current, and discovered at last that none of it served our desires.
And, to everyone’s great delight, despite the vast differences we shared, our biggest common desire had nothing to do with what or why and everything to do with how. That is, we began to realize that borrowing a “why” from a paid expert was not the same as re-affirming an authentic “how.” We realized that “what” we were expecting from The Algorithm would dilute or even drown the creativity we all embodied – the “how” of human potential unrestrained by the demands of Web 2.0, or even Web 3.0. We began to wonder together if the disruption was itself organic and that all we needed to do was to be present once the disruptive events passed.
To be honest, we also began to wonder if the movement everyone had been talking about was already on the move. Not the movement that was being flushed downstream before us in chaos, but a stronger, shared-purpose working-together-ness that found each one of us eager and curious about what we could accomplish, now that we had found each other. If we were correct, we thought, perhaps the experts were right, too: movements are the next big thing, just not in the ways the experts assumed they might happen but organically, among survivors of the Big Digital Marketing River and the Great Flood of 2023.
Happy New Year.
Over the course of more than 40 years of paying attention to how music works on us, Bill Protzmann discovered the fundamental nature and purpose of music. Bill has experimented with what he learned through performing concerts, giving lectures, facilitating workshops, and teaching classes. For example, he first published on the powerful extensibility of music into the business realm in 2006 (here and abstract here). Ten years later, in 2016, he consolidated his work into the Musimorphic Quest. In this guided, gamified, experiential environment, participants discover and remember their innate connection to this ancient transformative technology. Also, The National Council for Behavioral Healthcare recognized Bill in 2014 with an Inspiring Hope award for Artistic Expression, the industry equivalent of winning an Oscar.