Waiting For Godot

I had a deja vu experience reading the Wall Street Journal the other day. It was like I’d seen the article I was on before, and could even close my eyes and predict what the next paragraph would be about… and I was right.

But it wasn’t anything spooky going on. I was merely reading yet another “the market is holding its breath” story, which are almost boilerplate at the WSJ. Investors, as a lump, are either waiting for the latest profit reports from some conglomerate, or waiting to see what the Fed is gonna do with interest rates, or waiting for some political event to happen.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. There’s a sense that, as a culture, we’re just lurching from crisis to crisis, like a desperate frog leaping on lillies while avoiding the alligator tailing him.

We all need breathers once in a while. It’s good to step back and take a look at where you’re at, versus where you want to be.

But you shouldn’t make this kind of reflection permanent. That’s like setting up camp in a rest area — you gotta hop back on the highway to get anywhere.

The winners in business keep moving, and they refelct a lot. You must be awake to do this. Most of the population are sleep-walkers, stumbling through life in a daze that never lifts.

The uncertain nature of civilization does this to people. The title of this blog entry refers to the existentialist play where two characters do nothing but wait for this guy Godot, who never shows. It’s a bit baffling, if you’re expecting raw entertainment, but the concept of existentialism is worth knowing about.

The first world war knocked everyone for a loop. An overwhelming dread bubbled up, and even non-intellectuals were asking “what’s it all mean?” All the hard work of making cultures and economies and governments function properly and fairly seemed useless — whatever was created was destroyed by war. What was the use of even trying?

People partied through the twenties, suffered through the thirties, and — like a married couple just itching for a fight, fed up with the status quo — finally succumbed to the urge to go to war again.

It was part of a repeating cycle. Cycles are fascinating to history buffs… but they represent opportunity for savvy marketers. It pays to get a handle on the Big Picture of our culture.

There is, right now, a powerful sense in the world that we’re all just hours away from something monumental happening. And so people wait. And put off decisions. They don’t want to get burned in another stock market bubble. They don’t want to be away from home if another terrorist attack occurs. They don’t want to buy a liquid screen TV until they’re positive it won’t be obsolete in six months.

This sense of “why bother” comes and goes in the culture. I’m old enough to remember it from the mid-sixties, when nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. You can’t predict exactly what the next part of the cycle will be, based on what happened before… but you can come pretty damned close.

We are a fairly predictable species, though no one wants to admit it. Understanding how some of this predictability can be used in your business plans is a profitable exercise. People need and crave certain things at certain times in each cycle. Right now, for example, huge swaths of the population are desperate for something to give their lives meaning. This started to show itself with the amazing boom in psychic hotlines just two years ago.

I’m not suggesting you start your own religious movement… but you should pay attention to the fact that other people are, in droves.

Just consider, as you advertise whatever it is you’re selling, that your target audience is caught up in the same general cycles as the population at large. There are forces acting on their ability to make a decision that you need to know about, so you can address them.

And, to make a sale, you need a decision. Ask yourself: What can I say or do to get someone to act… while they’re in “waiting mode” for almost everything else in their life?

Answer that, and you’ve got a campaign that will burn through the market like wildfire.

Here’s a couple of books to check out, to get a better idea of how people act predictably, and make decisions: “Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069” by Wm. Strauss and Niel Howe. And “Blink”, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Don’t wait around with everyone else. The other shoe is always dropping, somewhere. Movement creates results. Even when you feel like you’re slogging through molasses, each slog is still an action that will generate consequence. Good or bad, marketers thrive on consequence.

John Carlton

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  • John,

    Fascinating and thought provoking post. Your comment about people looking for meaning in their lives prompted me to reflect on this aspect in our business. There is a certain “spiritual” aspect in what we do and that seems to strike a chord with our clients. I probably don’t emphasise this enough in copy etc.

    Interested in your comments about cycles and will check out the book you recommend. Any comments on things like the Elliott Wave Theory and Bob Prechter’s “Socionomics”? Regardless of what you think about it as a market forecasting tool, it’s the aspects of “social mood” (as Prechter calls it) that I find fascinating and most relevant for marketers.

    Thanks for the post. Certainly got my brain cells working on a Saturday morning!

    Kevin Francis

  • jay says:

    Put 100 Elliott Wave Theorists in a room, show them 1 stock chart and ask them their opinion. You’ll get 100 different opionions.

  • Johnson says:

    I agree with you the way you view the issue. I remember Jack London once said everything positive has a negative side.

  • Yup – just look at today. Oil and food prices are spiking, everybody is complaining – but companies selling gas saving devices, locking gas caps and organic seeds (people like to grow their own vegetables since they’ve gotten so expensive in the stores) are making a lot more money. If the problems get more urgent that just means people are ready to spend their money differently to solve these problems. (And even – I don’t know whom I heard talking about this, maybe it was even you, but during the great depression people spent their last dime to go and see the movies even though they’d have no food to eat tomorrow).

    In “Fooled by Randomness” Nicholas Taleb writes about how important it is to factor in rare and unlikely events. He explains how many traders can be mega-successful, bringing in hundreds of millions in a couple of years – but finally “blowing up” (loosing more than double or three times all the money they ever made in one deal) and being put out of business for life – just because they acted based on “this is so unlikely to happen that I can take the risk”. He said it’s kind of playing Russian roulette with a 1000-shot revolver, being offered one million to play it. So it’s 999 to one that you’ll be a millionaire after you pulled the trigger, but if you catch that one bullet you’re dead.

    Now let’s say there’d be a gameshow like this once a month on TV.

    Chances are, with just 12 episodes a month – every candidate would be a millionaire and nobody would get shot for the first couple of years. So it wouldn’t be that difficult to argue that these people “have what it takes” and all kinds of positive traits would be attributed to them because of the successful outcome.

    Even though this is a bit of an extreme example, I think this also is a good explanation for what happened during the dot-com bubble. (“I know nothing about this internet business – but look at Peter and Fritz and Robert, they bought stocks and they also know nothing but they’re getting rich from it!” – this is kind of like: look, the other candidates all went out with a million dollars, none of them with a bullet in their head).

    I think specially to small entrepreneurs, big changes (like a crisis) are a blessing in disguise, and you just have to see through it and act fast.

    With all those “new churches” – like “The Secret” – I’m sometimes flabbergasted by this, although it just shows the power of great storytelling.

  • Jesus Miguel says:

    I start to experience what you say and remembering the Gary Halbert maxim. “More answers will be found through movement, than to meditation”

    It has proven right so far, all the times I have tried.

    Thank you for the book recommendations.
    Thank you John

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