Why You Need To Research How People Allocate Their Attention


Friday, 5.16am

Sheffield, U.K.

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it. – Elbert Hubbard

In my last post I talked about the importance of studying who you could help so that you could build empathy and understanding with them, which in turn helps you understand what kinds of products and services you can build for them.

Let’s start by studying the things they pay attention to.

Data is everywhere now

One characteristic that you will start to notice if you study what happens on the Internet is that there is a pattern that repeats all the time.

It’s called a power law, and tells you the difference between being number one and anything else.

Let’s say you run a YouTube channel and list out your videos with the number of views each one has had, it’s very likely that one will be the clear winner.

The next one will have half to two-thirds of the views.

The third one will have half to two-thirds of the second’s numbers.

And then you have all the others.

This applies almost everywhere, actually, but it’s most visible on the Internet because the statistics are easy to collect.

For example, the chart below shows the views on my blog for the last month showing the first, second and third page views and then the average views of the next seven pages.


But, while there is usually a clear winner with this kind of situation, there are two observations you should take away.

The first thing is that you need first place to get attention.

But you will only get first place for one of your pieces of work – and the rest of your list, the backlist, still matters to build your credibility and conversion.

And while the winner brings people in through the door, it’s everything else that will get them to stay and convert them into paying customers.

Again, this is a phenomenon you see all over the place.

In the publishing industry, for example, it’s the initial book sales that makes reputations – as the publicity and attention get people to notice you.

But it’s the sales over time that make you a fortune.

Given that situation, what do we need to look for?

Look for models of how getting attention is done well

As part of this Getting Started book project I’m running experiments that can help support some of the suggestions made in these posts.

For example, one project that you may be considering is whether you should start a YouTube channel.

How would you go about looking for models of how this is done well in your sector – what people have done to get attention from others?

I started by doing a search for a term on Google and comparing the results on the “All” results tab and the “Videos” tab.

You get around 6 million hits for the term on the All page and around 550,000 on the videos page.

This first term is fairly technical so I put in a non-technical but also fairly specific term.

That had 440 million hits on the All page and 2 million hits on videos.

What this tells you is that the more technical the subject the less competition there is.

The richer the content, in terms of adding images, audio and video to text, the less competition there is.

And the more detailed, useful and longer your content, the less competition there is.

When you do this you’ll end up with a much smaller universe of people who you might be in competition with – and then you have to look at what they do well.

And the chances are that they do the basics extremely well – they do the things that make life easier for their viewers and audience.

As you look at each one take notes of the elements that you think they do well, the things you notice.

I like doing this on index cards or slips of paper for the first five or so results, because you notice different things each time you look at a video or page.

If you have notes on separate cards, you can then spread them out and see what elements are common, what are the things these successful pages or videos do well?

And then you have to ask yourself whether this is a space in which you can compete.

If you think you can do something differently, combine your skills to create value in a way that isn’t being done already, then you may have discovered a niche.

If the field is dominated by a small number of very well-known people then you’re going to find it harder to get attention – but if you keep researching and digging you’ll probably eventually find a niche that has space for you.

And then you have to make that niche your own, so that the next time someone comes digging they take a look at what you’ve done and decided there is no point competing with you and go away to find their own niche.

And that’s when you become a model for others.

Why can’t you just make stuff and not bother with research?

I wouldn’t argue with that point of view – I’m in favour of creating without restrictions, without keeping an eye on the market, without looking for an outcome.

But that’s about you – about you doing what you enjoy and creating something that you would make anyway whether people bought it or not.

And the best projects have their inspiration in something you care about, something you like doing.

If you enjoy DIY or writing or technology, then the core of what you do is the work, the thing you do.

And the first element of getting started is just to do more of that thing you want to do.

But we’re talking here about developing a market for what you do – getting other people interested in buying it from you.

In getting them to first give you their attention and later their money in exchange for the things you make.

And that requires a different approach – it requires starting from how they see the world and the kinds of things they need.

Now that you can see the kinds of things they already pay attention to from the research process described in this post, it’s time to start thinking about why they pay that attention – what kind of person are they?

We need to develop empathy with them, so let’s try and do that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out Who You Can Help


Thursday, 5.21am

Sheffield, U.K.

People in markets find a way of getting down to the essentials of I have, you want; you have, I want. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Let’s talk about circles.

In the last post we looked at how you could create a narrative, a story that explains who you are and what you do.

So far in this book project we’ve looked at where you are right now, because the situation you are in and the constraints you have dictate what you might be able to do, and looked at what you’ve done in the past, because that’s where you’ll find proof to persuade others to believe in you.

Now, you need to find those other people and the next few posts will explore this idea and how it works in these rather interesting times.

How to get your mind set up right

If you’re anything like me, sales and marketing is something that you’re a little afraid of – it’s got to do with putting yourself out there and talking about yourself and learning how to pressure people into buying things they don’t need.

Isn’t it?

Well, not if you look at it from the point of view of a consumer.

Let’s think of the kind of states a consumer can be in, parallelling the famous unknown-unknowns matrix approach.

Think of a two-by-two matrix, labelled “want” and “don’t want” on one axis and labelled “know” and don’t know” on the other.

The four categories in this matrix that consumers can inhabit are then: know they want something, don’t know they want something. know they don’t want something and don’t know that they don’t want something.

The best people to be aware of, ironically, are the ones who know they don’t want what you have to offer.

If you know who those people are then you can ignore them, in terms of what you spend on marketing and in the time you spend on paying attention to them.

The most dangerous category is the one that contains people who don’t know they don’t want what you have to offer.

They will take up your time with enquiries and free consultancy before discovering that you’re not a fit.

The people who should be in your circle, then, are the ones who know they want what you have to offer and the ones who don’t know they want it yet.

These are the people to focus on, the ones you can help

The first thing to do then, to get your mind set up right, is to get clear on who is inside and who is outside that circle – and then work on the approaches that are going to work for you.

Singing on the street versus asking a question

It’s tempting to think of marketing as a predatory activity, dominated with the language of “targets” and “hooks”.

When you use that language then it becomes a mechanical hunting exercise, where you go after creatures of less intelligence armed with the best hunting machinery you can buy.

But, what would your approach be if you treated others as human?

Broadly, there are two main approaches.

You can make yourself visible and discoverable, like positioning yourself on a street and singing.

Or you can try and get their attention, like a person with a clipboard, interrupting them and asking if they’re willing to talk to you.

The terms I’m going to use for these two approaches are “attraction” and “outreach”.

And the people who you’d like to interact with form an audience – that ranges from a small, niche one to a large, diverse one.

The thing you need to figure out is what strategy will work for you in the situation you are in.

The one that most people who are getting started will probably settle on is a balance between attraction marketing and outreach marketing for a niche audience.

Doing your research

They key to understanding the people who live inside the circle – the ones who will want the thing you have to offer – is to do your research.

We live in a time where people are more visible than ever and more open about what they like and dislike than they have ever been in the past.

That makes it hard to stand out from the crowd if you want to get attention for yourself.

But, at the same time, the goal of the algorithms that power the social engines of today is to match users with relevant content based on the preferences they display on their platforms.

And of course, since more than one person can create relevant content, they have a way to jump the queue based on your ability to pay.

But that’s something to think about later – the first thing is to work out what is already working in your space.

The best test of workability is whether people are paying for something or not – with their money or with their time.

If you are working in a field where sales results are easy to get then that’s your starting point.

Books are a good example – what kinds of books are people buying in the genres or categories you’re interested in?

What kinds of videos are getting the most attention on YouTube?

What topics are people talking about and engaging with on social media?

Take notes, collect your research, start by just mining the world around you for information.

That sounds like a big task – surely you have to spend a lot of time or perhaps you should pay someone else to do the research for you, or buy a report?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy out here.

You have to take the time to understand the people who live inside your circle – and that means putting in the time to do your research.

What you need to do is a participative ethnographic study – look at the group from the outside as an observer and also look at it from the inside as a participant.

You have to build empathy and understanding with a group of people who may not know each other but are connected by a web of interests.

How can you do that?

Perhaps that’s something we should work through in the next post by looking at how anthropologists work in a digital age.


Karthik Suresh

How To Arrange The Elements Of Your Story


Wednesday, 5.31am

Sheffield, U.K.

Nonfiction is both easier and harder to write than fiction. It’s easier because the facts are already laid out before you, and there is already a narrative arc. What makes it harder is that you are not free to use your imagination and creativity to fill in any missing gaps within the story. – Amy Bloom

Why should we believe you?

Why should we buy into your idea, sign your proposal, invest in your scheme, go with what you say?

In the last few posts on this book project I’ve been discussing ways to look back at your life and get a sense of what you’ve done.

The idea is to look at things from multiple perspectives and, as you do that you will start to notice significant elements, from significant events that influenced you to specific creative opportunities that helped you grow.

We need to capture these memories.

The power of slips of paper

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila describes the way in which the main character, Phaedrus, documents his research on slips of paper.

When you write things down on paper, you freeze them in place.

What we want to do is capture your thoughts but put them into a form that’s flexible and useful for what we want to do next.

Get a stack of index cards or tear up some A4 paper that you need to recycle into 4 parts.

It’s time to mine for memories.

Look back at your past and start to jot down key memories about what you’ve done so far.

On one slip, you might make a note about a school you attended.

On another, a particular class that opened your mind.

Perhaps notes about each of the mentors you had and what you learned from them.

A note about each of the projects you’ve done and what’s significant about them.

These notes don’t need to be long and detailed, a few words will do unless you want to add detail.

Now, you could write about anything and everything, so how do you keep from writing forever?

Perhaps the time to worry about that is after you’ve got a few down – for most people the act of remembering and writing is going to be naturally tiring and you’ll stop after a while.

So perhaps give yourself twenty minutes or so to write as much as possible and then sit back to look at what you’ve done so far.

What is your purpose?

The reason why you are collecting these memories is to support the project that you’re trying to get started on.

For example, let’s say you want to start a business as a consultant, doing something you specialise in like analysis or data management.

You’ve made things a little more challenging by handing in your resignation shortly before the start of a global pandemic and it’s important that you get something in place fairly quickly.

Now, let’s say you are given the opportunity to pitch to a prospect – what are you going to do to get them interested in you?

You could list a series of facts about yourself.

Or you could tell them your story.

What is a story?

A story, your story, is at its simplest a telling of one thing that happened after another.

This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

The things are connected in time and you go from start to finish like travelling along a road.

What do you need to keep in mind when making that journey?

The first is to recognise that there is a main path, one that takes you from start to finish.

Other paths and side roads are not relevant to this particular story.

The second is that darting about to different points in the road is probably not the best way to make the journey.

Going from start to finish along the road is the most effective way, unless you find that it’s useful to dart forwards and back, flash forward or back.

The third is that an interesting road is not a straight line from A to B, a narrative arc is more interesting.

So, how do you tell your story?

Arranging the elements of story

Let’s go back to those slips of paper.

The first thing to do is put them in order.

You can do that simply by taking two slips and comparing them.

Does one come before the other in a narrative – did one happen before the other?

If so, arrange them in order.

Then pick up the next slip and compare them with the ones you’ve already ordered.

They will fit in there somewhere.

Repeat until done.

When you’ve finished you will have an ordered pile of slips of paper that set out key memories as they’ve happened over time.

You now have the raw materials for your stories.

Creating a narrative arc

Let’s go back to that example of a consultant and that pitch.

What is it that the prospect wants?

They may have a “presenting problem”, something they say is an issue that they’re looking for help with.

That’s their state at the start of your discussion.

When you’ve finished doing your work you want to have helped them solve that issue, improve their state.

And so the purpose of the stories you tell is to provide proof, a narrative of how you’ve done that before so that they can see that you know what you’re doing and should believe that you have the ability to solve their problem.

Too many people spend these valuable pitch minutes talking about things unrelated to the presenting problem.

Not you, not when you have your slips of paper at the back of your mind.

You can draw on the ones that create a linear narrative that provides proof of what you can do.

And you make it interesting by following an arc – a road or through-line – that connects the elements.

Start with the introduction – I’ve solved this very problem in a few other situations.

Provide a build up – for example, I was in this situation and these were the challenges we were facing.

Rise to the main problem – things came to a head because we had to deliver in two weeks and our systems just couldn’t cope.

Resolve the problem – what I did was create a set of spreadsheets that could work with our systems to deliver the information.

Provide an ending – and so we shipped on time and the client was happy.

That simple narrative is often much more powerful than a list of facts or certificates or courses you’ve taken.

Why does storytelling matter in business?

People don’t care about you and what you’ve done and why you’re so clever.

Not because they’re mean or cantankerous – it’s just they’re busy and they have their own problems.

They care about what you can do for them.

But they won’t just believe you – you have to show them why they should believe in you.

And the best way to do that is to provide proof – evidence that they should believe.

And the best way to present that proof is in the form of stories, narratives that describe how you did this, for whom and when.

And it helps if you can make it interesting.

Now that you know how to mine your memories, record them and select and arrange them to tell a story it’s time to find someone who’s willing to listen to you.

Let’s look at that next.


Karthik Suresh

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