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 religion?"

The man at the front of the line says, "Lutheran."

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 religion?"

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 religion?"

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

  1. We have boundaries.
  2. We rarely look beyond them.
  3. We assume that stuff outside our boundaries is similar to the stuff inside.
  4. That assumption is always wrong.
  5. Building your product strategy on those assumptions is a Bad Idea.

Boundaries

Most of us rarely step outside the part of the world which is familiar.

  • 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.

Software Blogs

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 blogs.

For that matter, most people on this planet are not software developers.

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:

  1. Eric Meyer (geek)
  2. Eric Raymond (geek)
  3. Eric Sink (geek)
  4. Eric Rice (artist)
  5. 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":

  1. Joel Spolsky (geek)
  2. Joel Osteen (pastor)
  3. Joel Coen (filmmaker)
  4. Joel Schumaker (filmmaker)
  5. 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 name.

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 done.

The problem of interest to me is when we wield our cluelessness in making product marketing decisions.

Examples:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 boards.

  3. 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 trouble.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 one.

Bottom Line

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.