Does Originality Lead to Failure?

Sheep Are Not OriginalBe original. Be unique. Be conspicuous. These are the mantras that surround blogging and social communications. But I want to throw something out there: what if deviating from group opinions simply does not work?

Finding something original to write about was identified by one in three bloggers as their biggest challenge in a recent survey I conducted. In the face of the sheer volume of competitive blogs and the traffic-sucking impact of the Mashables and the Huffington Posts of the world, maintaining relevance and being original is a real concern. But, ironically, unless you’re Danny Brown, going against the grain of popular thought doesn’t necessarily attract eyeballs or attention. Choosing to be a voice of dissention against commonly held beliefs or ideas can be a very lonely stance to take.

The Theory of Groupthink

In an interesting post on his own blog this week, Geoff Livingston wrote about how the rational examination of ideas can be rejected by a community’s yearning for harmony. He, quite rightly, states that: “Groupthink offers a safe choice for most members of any community”. And yet it’s obvious that any community only grows and learns by having its views, beliefs, opinions and behaviours challenged.

From a social marketer’s perspective, this has real significance. Having a distinctive communications standpoint (or ‘voice’) is widely acknowledged as being a way to create cut-through in order to become influential. It’s held up as a point of difference: “we’re unique because we say something different to everyone else”. And yet achieving true influencer status is incredibly difficult, and hardly any individuals or organisations really manage to achieve it. So what if saying something ‘original’ isn’t the secret to becoming influential? What if the secret to becoming influential is actually to adopt and to amplify the same thinking as everyone else?

I’ve been accused many times in the past of being cynical due to the style in which I write many of my blog posts. I may prefer the phrase ‘constructively critical’, but essentially the accusation is true in that I question what I read and hear. A lot. I’m like a child, constantly asking ‘why?’ I know there are some people out there who appreciate and like it when I probe and challenge. But I also know that I’d be far more popular and have a far, far bigger readership if I wrote in a less challenging manner and adopted some of the themes and styles that other comms bloggers use. By a magnitude of several times, I expect. Added to that, constantly being that voice of dissention is exhausting. Really. I’m starting to think there’s only so long you can keep taking a different viewpoint to try and encourage discourse.

Be Popular, Not Original?

So can marketers learn from the way communities self-regulate and leverage groupthink theories intelligently? I’ve observed many times in the comments of popular blogs how the community rallies around to eradicate divergent thinking and, sometimes, very rational questioning to come to a consensus that invariably agrees with the author. It’s almost as if debate is tolerated (by the community, not necessarily the blogger) as long as the conclusion is in line with the original post. And it can appear extremely sycophantic to the cynics constructive critics among us.

But if communities self-regulate and, as groups, adopt the thinking of others within those communities, is the key to success via blogging and social marketing to play the popularity game by mirroring community opinions, views and beliefs, rather than by trying to stand out or swim against the tide? Is it, in fact, simply to have a great product or service and to get in front of as many people as possible by shouting loudly using a groupthink approach, no matter whether or not you agree with them? What do you think?

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  • Bernard Gauthier

    Good question. I’d suggest it’s all about execution, rather than the big approach (group or original). We’ve all seen original campaigns win big (remember the early Apple TV campaigns) and lose big (Infiniti launched their new cars with an ad that showed trees and rocks but no cars – big mistake). Creative strategy matters but, at the end of the day, specific messages make or break a campaign. That’s why pre-testing is so important.

    • Paul Sutton

      Execution certainly plays a big part, Bernard. But maybe that execution needs to be focused on the middle line – something that doesn’t offend anyone or dare to be too different. Which is rather lame, isn’t it?

  • Geoff Livingston

    Great post, Paul. I actually have a companion post running on Monday about creativity.

    I think the challenge for original thought and creativity is to isolate and observe enough to innovate, then doggedly market the idea with early adopters until the idea takes hold in the larger world. You have to defy groupthink, but at the same time, not piss all over it so the group doesn’t ostracize you for a heretical point of view.

    Great companies and ideas make it because eventually the group finds it safe enough. You have to weather the storm of being unpopular to get there, I believe.

    • Paul Sutton

      Thank you Geoff. Interesting point about defying groupthink…but not too much. Walking the middle ground is dull, let’s face it. But I’ve been starting to think that you have to in order to avoid getting lambasted or, far worse, just ignored. Maybe it’s a patience game and I don’t have the patience?!

      Your post about groupthink really got my brain going on this though, as I’ve been mulling it over for weeks. Months, even. And as you can tell, I’ve still not come to any conclusion…

  • katehartley (@katehartley)

    I think we need debate and dissent in our industry. We need to show a bit of personality. Some will like it, some won’t (I once lost a fairly big pitch because the prospect didn’t like me and/or one other in the room. I didn’t mind – it was probably the most honest pitch feedback I’ve ever had – and long term we wouldn’t have been able to work together).

    You can create an original voice without always being a dissenter, but I doubt you can really become an influencer by being bland and following the crowd. Isn’t the definition of influence the power to effect change? (Obviously I’m not talking about Klout here…)

    Most importantly, a bit of a punch up every now and again makes life much more interesting. Stick with it!

    • Paul Sutton

      I don’t disagree, Kate. There was a list floating around last week of the ‘top 50 UK PR blogs’ that made me want to scream. There are some notable exceptions, but about 75% of that list is the same old, same old crowd mentality. Is that really the best the comms industry has to offer? As you say, what happened to personality and debate and dissent?

      It was one of the steps (only one though) to writing this post. Made me wonder whether ‘give them want they want, not what they need’ has never been truer.

      Here’s the list:

  • Danny Brown (@DannyBrown)

    To Geoff’s point, I think it could come down to strength and conviction. It’s easy to get dragged into the groupthink mindset, and see all the social shares and “kudos” they get by writing about popular topics and easy buzz posts.

    But does that satisfy you? Does that get your creative juices running? Does that make you feel you’ve challenged the status quo and advanced the conversation, as opposed to just advancing the ego of the conversationalist?

    Here’s to the disruptors, shitty traffic and all. :)

    • Paul Sutton

      I’d certainly agree with strength and conviction being key. I just wonder how long that strength and conviction can last. Even Geoff (who I’d notably include in your ‘disruptors’ list) acknowledged in a post on this very blog only a few weeks ago ( that he’d very nearly quit. And it’s criminal that his stuff doesn’t get the eyeballs and attention it deserves when so many other less thoughtful and challenging bloggers’ groupthink stuff does.

      I don’t meant to bitch about it. Just winds me up at times. You’re probably one of the very few bloggers who’s really succeeded and garnered a large following by truly challenging the status quo, Danny. Certainly hasn’t worked for me. Haha! :)

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