Pander to pandas

Depending on which report you dig up, the average panda (yes, the bear — please bear with me a moment) eats an average of 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo per day.

Want to feed that panda? Hoo boy, do I have some good advice for you: Feed them between 20 and 40 pounds of bamboo per day.

Of course, in all likelihood, you don’t feed pandas for a living.

Maybe you make a podcast.

Depending on which report you dig up, the average commute of the average American worker is somewhere between 25 and 35 minutes long.

Want a successful podcast? Hoo girl, do I have some good advice for you: Make it between 25 and 35 minutes long.

Maybe you’re in marketing.

Depending on which report you dig up, the average consumer prefers video to text content by between 50% and 70%.

Want a successful brand? Hoo wee, do I have some good advice for you: Make more video content — a LOT more video content — than written content.

No matter the job, we follow a logic that seems inescapable, until you logically examine it: We start by figuring out (more quickly and more easily than ever) what the average person we’re trying to reach does or says, and we do more of that. In other word?

We pander.

And that’s all well and good … if you feed pandas.

Just one problem. How do I put this? Let’s see… (come closer) … (a little closer) … (a little closer) … (okay, there’s good. Ready?)

PEOPLE ARE NOT PANDAS.

You can’t convince a panda to eat anything but what a panda already eats. But people are not pandas.

So when we start by asking what people already want and already do, we’re asking how to fit into the current status quo, not innovate or get creative or provide a refreshing wrinkle on that status quo.

When we pander, we’re giving people what they expect, exactly meeting their expectations, rather than trying to exceed them. We’re settling. We’re acting like commodities — easily found, easily forgotten.

But we don’t aspire to be commodities. So what can we do then? We can choose to lead. We can choose to introduce a small but welcome change on the status quo, rather than pander to it. We can show people what’s possible and, in doing so, exceed their expectations, instead of just giving them more of what they expected.

We can choose not to pander.

So, yes, the average individual has a commute of between 25 and 35 minutes. Why should that dictate exactly how long our podcasts are? What if ours is good enough to command attention for longer? What if the best version of our show is 45 minutes or an hour? Or what if it’s 5 minutes?

Turns out people will eagerly consume anything if they adore it. Shouldn’t that be our goal? Not 25 or 35 minutes, not “the typical thing the typical person already knows about.” Our aim should be to create something they adore, something refreshing compared to the status quo.

This is why some podcasts — ranging from Hardcore History (average runtime two hours) to The Way I Heard It (average runtime 11 minutes) — can thrive and generate passionate fans despite not pandering. It has nothing to do with runtime. It has everything to do with doing something resonant. They push for something more, something better, something exceptional against the average.

Producers and hosts and NPR aim for what they call “driveway moments” — episodes that are so enjoyable, people keep listening after they’ve already arrived at their destination.

I want you to create more driveway moments. Not more average stuff.

But video! The data says video.

Sure, the average consumer says they prefer video content to text content … on average. Are we targeting average consumers? Are we selling average stuff? Are we trying to create the “average” version of that type of content which those consumers must have been picturing when they responded to that research study? What if you’re a masterful writer? You don’t exist in the “average” situation. Only yours. What if you can spin a tale so intriguing and entertaining and insightful using the written word that people who thought they’d never read something longer than a tweet will gleefully invest hours of their time with your work? That’s how blogs like Wait But Why (average article length 1 bajillion words) and newsletters like Ben Thompson (aka Stratechery) can thrive and generate passionate fans. It has nothing to do with looking at what they average person does or says. It has everything to do with understanding what makes them exceptional and leaning into that. In doing so, they refuse to pander. They push for something more, something better, something unique. And, by the way, congratulations on reading a paragraph whose length is so far beyond anything a “content marketing expert” would ever recommend you write. (Wasn’t so bad, was it?)

When we pander to what people do “on average,” we end up simply handing out more of the same. This is a race to the bottom. It’s a way to proactively do perfectly middle-of-the-road work.

You’re no longer for this and not for that. You’re just sorta … there.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But if we want to do something truly resonant, something that sticks in their minds and feels refreshingly different than the stale status quo, we can’t start with what’s happening on average. We can’t merely look at what people already say they want and hand them more of that. We have to be students of their problems and their beliefs, understand their lives, and then give them what we know they need but could never have asked for. We have to be the ones who can imagine a two-hour podcast worth listening to, or a lengthy essay without video that people eagerly consume.

We can be the ones who give them something they didn’t expect but that they end up loving — not because we wonder what works on average but precisely because we refuse to settle for that very same thing. That’s what leaders do. That’s what artists do. They have vision and imagination. They push beyond the status quo. They lead people away from expected norms to something that is finally, mercifully better.

This is a simple choice. It’s also an urgent one. So I’m begging you to make it right now. In this world of ubiquitous information and advice, it has never been easier to be average. So what’ll it be? Push people forward? Or pander?

My advice (and hoo, Lord, do I have some advice for you): Only pander to pandas.

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Posted on October 1, 2019 .