May 10, 2013

Talking to Yourself

Hang with me here. When you first see what this post is about -- but not what it’s really about -- you are going to want to bail. There is a marketing lesson in here, I promise.

So, as I am wont to do, I was reading an article about a debate amongst 19th Century Russian Literature scholars -- Just hang on! I told you, patience! -- surrounding an essay published in 2002 that claimed that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens had once met. The idea of this encounter between two of the greatest writers of all-time captured the imagination of several historians, who included it in major biographies they published about Dickens, all citing that same, single essay that described the meeting.

As the story spread, though, questions arose from other scholars. The facts didn’t line up -- Dostoevsky didn’t speak English and never got along with other writers of his time. And why would this historic conversation only be now coming into public knowledge in 2002?

Upon investigation the article’s author, Stephanie Harvey, had cited sources that appeared to mostly be non-existent. Except, oddly, one of her sources did seem to be real writer. But when scholars looked into the work of that writer they found an even stranger pattern: he was connected to a whole web of other writers who only ever wrote about or cited the works of each other.

The whole untangling of the plot is worth reading here (warning: it’s 10,000 words), but long story short -- it was discovered that there was just one real man, A.D. Harvey, publishing work and writing reviews of his own work under various pseudonyms: Stephanie Harvey, Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay, Ludovico Parra, and many others. One man having a conversation with and about himself in numerous literary journals and opinion columns. Sometimes he wrote articles praising work he had written under another name. Other times he would actually criticize the writing of his alter egos.

If not for his Dostoevsky hoax, he may never have been discovered. It’s an entertaining story, but -- and here’s the connection for those who have stuck with me -- it actually had be thinking about how insular entire businesses can become. They may not make up a dozen fake names and write letters to themsleves, but how often do businesses in their marketing or social media efforts find themselves talking amongst the same group of people about the same things? Telling themselves the things the want to hear? For all the time and money they spend on it, their marketing adds up to talking to themselves.

Getting a fresh, outside perspective is the key to breaking out of this looping conversation. Knowing your industry is vital, but you will stagnate quickly if you don’t know how to reach into new areas -- or bring new ideas into it. Take your marketing seriously by working with people that will bring more voices to the conversation surrounding your business.