Baptists and Boundaries
A few days ago I noticed that I had moved up to page one.
If you search Google for the word "eric", my blog is usually
on the second page of the results. On that day, it was on first page, well
ahead of all those poor, unfortunate, lesser-known Erics like Eric Clapton.
At first I thought I might write a blog entry to announce my
ascent, but there really isn't much point. The fact that I am ahead of Eric
Clapton in Google's page ranking is not interesting.
However, there is a reason why this fact is not
interesting, and I think that reason is interesting.
Let's start with a joke that is older than I am
Just inside the gates of heaven, St. Peter sits at a desk
checking people in.
Peter: "Welcome to heaven. What
The man at the front of the line
Glancing at his clipboard, Peter
says, "Room 33. Be very quiet as you pass room 6."
The process repeats itself with the next person in line:
Peter: "Welcome to heaven. What
Person #2: "Catholic."
Peter: "Room 17. Be very quiet as
you pass room 6."
The next person moves to the front of the line with a look
of curiosity on her face.
Peter: "Welcome to heaven. What
Person #3: "Methodist."
Peter: "Room 54. Be very quiet as
you pass room 6."
Person #3: "Why do you keep
telling us to be quiet as we pass room 6?"
Peter: "Because the Baptists are
in room 6, and they think they're the only ones here."
A rough outline for the remainder of this article
- We have boundaries.
- We rarely look beyond them.
- We assume that stuff outside our boundaries is similar to
the stuff inside.
- That assumption is always wrong.
- Building your product strategy on those assumptions is a
Most of us rarely step outside the part of the world which
- I live in Champaign. I hardly ever go to St. Louis.
- There are 130 churches in Champaign. I've never stepped
inside 122 of them, and I mostly go to the same one every week.
- I read the same websites and blogs every day. It would be
easy for me to read other things on the Web, but I don't.
In those rare circumstances when we do step outside our
boundaries, we are usually surprised that everything is different. A part of
us expects everything outside our boundaries to be just like the stuff we see
every day. We are familiar with the very small piece of the world that is
nearby. We extrapolate that and assume that the whole world is similar to what
we know. But it's not.
Whenever I speak to a bunch of developers, one of my
favorite things to do is ask the crowd if they have ever heard of Joel
Spolsky. Most of the time, far less than half the crowd raises their hand.
Why do I do this? Because it helps me remember that life outside my boundaries
is a lot different than life here inside.
In this example, one of my boundaries encircles the
community built from a cluster of blogs that I tend to read. If you are
reading this article, you are probably a part of that very same community. You
probably also read Joel and Mike and Steve and Jeff and Ian and Scott and Roy and Dharmesh and Larry.
And you probably know that Joel on Software is the #1 blog for software
developers. So does it surprise you that most software developers have never
heard of Joel? It always surprises me.
But the fact is that most software developers don't read
For that matter, most people on this planet are not software
In fact, most people on Earth don't have a computer and
don't use the Internet.
On a certain level, we know all these facts and consider
them to be obvious.
But on another level, we get surprised every time the
reality of one of these facts confronts us.
We don't look outside our boundaries. We think we're the
only ones here.
Geek bloggers vs. Grammy winners
Google's page ranking is really screwed up. If you search
for the word "Eric" (and ignore the results that are not people), the ranking
looks like this:
- Eric Meyer (geek)
- Eric Raymond (geek)
- Eric Sink (geek)
- Eric Rice (artist)
- Eric Clapton (popular musician)
The order of this list tends to fluctuate a little, but you
get the idea.
A similar problem happens when you search for the word
- Joel Spolsky (geek)
- Joel Osteen (pastor)
- Joel Coen (filmmaker)
- Joel Schumaker (filmmaker)
- Billy Joel (popular musician)
Now Google doesn't explicitly say that it sorts people in
terms of their world influence or their level of celebrity. But the ordering
suggests something, and whatever that something is, it's just
gotta be wrong.
Eric Clapton is maybe the greatest guitarist of all time.
Billy Joel has sold over 100 million records. These two guys have 16 and 6
Grammy awards, respectively. Eric Clapton is probably the most well known
"Eric" since that Viking explorer a thousand years ago. Billy Joel is probably
the most well known "Joel" since that guy who wrote a book of the Old Testament.
And both of them are languishing down at #5 in Google's rankings for their
Any ranking that puts us geek bloggers ahead of these two
guys just looks wrong. If it's a ranking of the world's most well-known
people, then Spolsky and I don't belong at all. If it's a ranking of the
world's most well-known "American geek know-it-alls running small software
companies that sell tools to software developers", then these legendary
musicians should be booted off the list until they can credibly explain to me
what a C pointer is.
Objects in browser are smaller than they appear
My point here is not to gripe about Google's rankings. My
point is that extrapolating from very little data can give us a really warped
view of the world. In this example, we think of Google as really big, but
relative to the whole world, it's really quite small.
It's not just Google. Everything on the Web tends to look a
lot bigger than it really is. Amazon is big, right? Sorry -- If you sort all
retailers by revenue, Amazon doesn't make the top 25. The gorilla in this
market (Wal-Mart) has over 30 times as much revenue as Amazon.
One of my favorite things about the web is all the
individual communities that live there in the form of discussion boards. The
web connects people in ways that were never possible before. When we find
ourselves in a discussion forum with people from five different continents,
that forum looks really big. But it's still just five people.
Application of this point to marketing
Most of the time, this "web distortion field" doesn't really
cause much damage. It's not really a big deal to be somewhat clueless due to a
narrow perspective. Eventually we learn the truth. We're surprised. No harm
The problem of interest to me is when we wield our cluelessness
in making product marketing decisions.
- In the neighborhood where I live, 100% of the people need
a well that is at least 300 feet deep. I could extrapolate from this and
decide that there is a big market for well drilling in my area. However,
the city water system is only three miles away. This example may seem
absurd, but at this very moment, there are lots of entrepreneurs writing
business plans which use similar logic.
- One of the most common things you see on an Internet
message board is people complaining about the price of something.
Yesterday, Martin Guitar Company announced a new
model with a price tag of $39,999. Folks on the guitar message boards
are griping. Should Chris Martin respond by trying to get this guitar closer
to the price of a Toyota Corolla? Certainly not. At 40 grand, he will
have no trouble selling every one of those guitars he can make, and all of
them will be bought by people who do not post to Internet discussion
- Should HP start making the 15C calculator again just
because they see a vocal minority of people on the Internet who want one? No. Despite all efforts to
show otherwise, the opportunity just isn't big enough to be worth the
- Should Microsoft respond to the clamor of
hardcore geeks on the Internet by removing DRM and product activation?
Not unless these issues start negatively impacting their sales to normal
people and corporate buyers.
- Should Joss Whedon and Universal make a sequel to Serenity simply because so
many of us here on the Internet are crying for more?
Yes, obviously. :-)
Oh, wait -- that was me being selfish. The actual marketing answer is:
Nope. Not unless they've got some credible reason to believe the next
film will gross a whole lot more than the $25M they got from the first
So here's my call to action: When you do market research
for your product idea, make sure you get outside your boundaries.
I spend time in several web communities, and every one of
them looks bigger than it really is:
For every market niche I know, if I made product strategy
decisions based on what I see in communities on the Web, I would be
extrapolating from far too little data. And my decisions would be wrong.
If by chance your boundaries coincide exactly with your
target market segment, then go buy a lottery ticket, because you are obviously
one of the luckiest people on earth. The rest of us need to work very hard to
fully understand the people we hope will buy our products.