November 6, 2008

the cocktail party rule


True Story: A friend of mine, call her “Jane”, is a really good corporate blogger. Really good. She’s won awards. Her work has been featured in the mainstream media. She’s a pioneer. She’s a rockstar.

Anyway, last week one of her company’s major competitors started their own blog, basically trying to emulate Jane‘s work, or perhaps more importantly, Jane‘s success.

What did Jane do? She was cool about it. On her blog she wrote them a “Welcome to the neighborhood” post. “Good luck with your new blogging adventure” etc. Oh, and she also praised one of her competitor’s products, which truth be told, is a really good product for that industry.

Well, no sooner had she posted it, than one of the senior suits wrote a group email to everybody, berating her for “Advertising one of our competitor’s products, instead of talking about our own excellent products”.

Sigh. What the poor suit doesn’t realize, of course, is that on a basic, primal level, how you talk about your competition actually says a lot more about you, than talking about yourself ever will.

I call this The Cocktail Party Rule- what’s true at cocktail parties is also true in marketing: "If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. If you want to be interesting, talk about something other than yourself."

If you have the cojones to actually say “Nice job!” in public to somebody in the same business as you, it means you’re probably secure enough about your own schtick. It means you’re not exactly worried about your own product. And people can tell. Animals can smell fear, or the lack thereof.

I’ve seen this happen in the art world, many times. It’s the great artists who are the biggest fans of other great artists. It’s the hacks and no-hopers who go around calling the great artists “overrated”.

Jane explained her actions to the suit, and the logic behind them, the suit grumbled a bit, then conceded. Crisis averted.

Nothing I haven’t seen before. It's human nature to want the benefits of this brave new world of ours, without wanting it to have to actually exist, without having to do anything differently themselves. At least at first. Education is expensive.

Posted by hugh macleod at November 6, 2008 7:03 AM | TrackBack

So true - and one reason why corporate blogging changes coporate culture after some while. If coprorate culture does not kill the blog before. But, psst, don't tell anyone.

Posted by: Wolfgang Luenenbuerger at November 6, 2008 8:14 AM

Agree, Hugh.

Businesses too often behave as though they exist in a parallel universe to life and human conduct–that the mechanics of how we should behave in corporate life are somehow decoupled from the basic rules of person to person interactions. Often it takes the form of this quasi-militaristic, scorched earth approach in which our competitors are viewed as enemies that must be eliminated . . .while we describe people as "resources" and "targets" etc.

In fact the more corporations humanize themselves, the more successful they'll in building and actually sustaining relationships internally and externally. Here's to hoping they do.

Posted by: RIck Julian at November 6, 2008 8:24 AM

I'm really glad you said this Hugh. It all comes back to the conversation and there isn't much of a conversation if you're blabbering about your damn self (or what your peddling) all the time. I want to know what's on your mind damn it. Right on my man.

Posted by: Joshua Smith at November 6, 2008 8:37 AM

If you say that someone else's product is good when it is good, people are more likely to believe you when you say yours is good.

If the suits honestly believe they have a great product, they should be out there encouraging people to try out all the alternatives and consider them carefully. People will always prefer to choose a product because they think it's a great product, than because no one told them there was an alternative until it was too late.

Good for Jane.

Posted by: Jessica Meats at November 6, 2008 9:05 AM


Posted by: SFG at November 6, 2008 9:16 AM

Hey Hugh, this is so true. people automatically try to eat out competitors. Not only that this behavior is not really polite and doesn’t show a real care for the customer, it is actually a wrong business move. As mentioned in the book "Yes!" research shows that when stores provided information regarding their competitors, they were perceived as more trustworthy, leading the customers to buy in their store, even though they charged higher prices. People don’t think before they act.


Posted by: Elad Sherf at November 6, 2008 9:32 AM

absolutely LOVE the line ... "If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. If you want to be interesting, talk about something other than yourself."

Posted by: johnmoore (from Brand Autopsy) at November 6, 2008 9:37 AM

spot on, hugh.

Posted by: christopher carfi at November 6, 2008 9:50 AM

Nice job.

Posted by: John Dodds at November 6, 2008 11:10 AM

Well said, Hugh -- and I especially like Jessica's summation in her comment above: "If you say that someone else's product is good when it is good, people are more likely to believe you when you say yours is good."

Your comparison to artists is apt, and it reminds me of the same phenomenon in sports: the really good players have no trouble saying "We've got our work cut out for us, because that's a really good team they've got." It's the bush-leaguers who feel the need to belittle the opposition.

Posted by: Tim Walker at November 6, 2008 12:23 PM

Instead of don't be boring, how about "How to get a date," i.e. how to look appealing to others. RULE 1: take a shower. Ok, this doesn't apply here, but RULE 2: be confident! Insecurity ain't sexy! If you have the poise and confidence to regard other products with respect, it says "Things are ok here, in fact we are the best. So much so that we don't have to berate competition or disavow their existence." Customers see this as brand transparency and integrity! Cheers, Hugh! Blog on!

Posted by: Drake at November 6, 2008 2:20 PM

Always a smart reminder - And in today's engagement connections through shared passions - people want talk about what excites them.

And if they don't know you - yet - unless your amazingly sexy or charismatic - starting off with information about yourself - well you most likely won't excite or interest them.

As the old saying goes - Talk to people about themselves and they will listen for hours.

Posted by: Bob Collins at November 6, 2008 3:55 PM

Low down, dirty, spineless



Posted by: KAPITEL at November 6, 2008 6:19 PM


Posted by: Rasul Sha'ir at November 6, 2008 7:34 PM

She was fortunate that disaster was averted. The whole issue of what may and may not be said on a blog is such a minefield - especially if the blog is professional but privately held. I effectively got canned for one of my posts and for the comments others made on it!

Posted by: karyn romeis at November 7, 2008 2:07 AM

You made my day! I'm supposed to sit by the computer and read articles about business cards and other promoting printed materials. At last - a real profound message delivered by few words and a funny picture. Thank you! My job title is: Online Business Development Manager of an Online Print Website named: DCP-PRINT (Digital Color Production) our website is: and you are invited.

Posted by: joe alon at November 7, 2008 3:11 AM

Know want you to that smoking prevailed cessation
make sad ashtrays and lonely cigarettes divorced from usefulness. Lied to myself apocryphal incoherence and blog fast nonsense instead of love at blog site reknowned.
Make sense it does you know.

Posted by: KAPITEL at November 7, 2008 4:39 AM

If instead of talking about myself I hire a PR firm to talk about me - do I get in under the rule?

Posted by: peter at November 7, 2008 1:23 PM

How can there be any honesty in the world of corporate blogs? It sounds like it's always just a matter of time before your client or employer gets offended.

Posted by: SplendidMarbles at November 7, 2008 4:53 PM

Remember, and repeat, someone's name.

Ask questions. Then ask more questions when you get answers to the first questions.

Say something good about someone, or don't say something at all.

Age-old principles that are sporting new duds now in the digital age. Surprised it hasn't completely infiltrated our political system yet, but we've now got four years to see if that will change for the better.

Posted by: Brett Duncan at November 13, 2008 6:25 PM

" you talk about your competition actually says a lot more about you, than talking about yourself ever will." Man! Spot on. Are you on a roll, or what!

Posted by: Harry Joiner at November 14, 2008 7:55 AM

To Joe Alon of you're being too forward, IMHO...

[If I were you I would have held off the invitation to your website after I've made at least a few dozen comments at Gapingvoid and made myself an interesting character yet be so mysterious that curiosity would lead others to naturally click on my link.]

[And no, I'm not interested in visiting your website. Yet.]

[I'm not sure about Hugh, though...]


[note to self: if you wanna be interesting bla-bla-bla....]

Posted by: Lemi4 aka. fERDI:) at November 16, 2008 6:47 AM