How To Create An Experience That Sells... And Do You Want That?

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Mark Hurst Host of Gel conference, founder of Creative Good

You create experiences. You might design products or raise children or write books or teach classes or produce events or see patients - whatever you do, you create an experience for others. And most people, in their own way, strive to create a good experience.

I love exploring what makes an experience tick - what separates the good from the great, the everyday from the transformative - and what motivates the people who create outstanding experiences every day.

One of my favorite thought experiments on the subject is this question: Which would you rather do...

- create a experience that, even if you don't particularly care for it yourself, becomes wildly popular and puts your name on the map?

- ...or... create an experience you firmly believe in, no matter how popular, or not, it becomes?

Here again I'm talking about any experience you create. Whatever it is, would you rather become popular, or create something that you yourself would be happy to receive?

Of course we'd like to do both. Many lucky souls manage to achieve both, and I'm always happy to meet them - and strive to be one myself with my own projects. But there's often a trade-off between the two.

Let me put it another way. How far are you willing to defend the idea that "the customer is always right"? Let's say you've figured out that consumers absolutely love lemon-scented pork rinds, and you have the ability to bring them to market, but you happen to detest pork rinds. Is it worth it to you to get out on the street and spend a chunk of your professional life popularizing a food product you wouldn't yourself eat?

I'm fascinated with this question because it's so difficult to answer. Even more difficult to act upon. Even our larger culture can't decide which to value. Sometimes a "good experience" is the thing that makes a boatload of money, because it serves some consumer desire, no matter the intrinsic value or integrity - "the customer is always right." And if enough people buy it, we hear about it.

On the other hand, sometimes the "good experience" is the thing that is most authentic, and often popular to a small minority. The scrappy restaurant with cuisine for the foodie palate, the indie film refusing to dumb down its plot or characters, the neighborhood or book or community "keeping it real" - it's practically a cliche, given how obsessed the culture is sometimes with finding the real or authentic thing.

Of course there are people and products and brands that straddle both cases. And there's a spectrum in between. Still, it's worth considering the extremes.

This trade-off came to mind recently when I read a profile of the author James Patterson in the New York Times magazine - well worth a read, if you haven't taken a look.

Patterson, if you're not familiar, sells more books than John Grisham, Stephen King, and Dan Brown - combined. Combined! There are popular authors, and then there's Patterson. Wow.

Not having ever read a Patterson novel, I can't comment on the quality of the writing, though Patterson himself says in the Times piece that that's not his main concern.

Patterson, instead, is very interested in sales. It's no coincidence that before becoming an author, he was a successful advertising executive: the man knows how to SELL.

And in the Times piece, Patterson gives a pithy explanation of how to sell books:

"If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something."

In other words, the customer is always right. If you want to sell books to lots of people, find out what lots of people want to read. (Rule of thumb: people who sell a lot of any particular thing - books or music or tickets or whatever - tend to be good at selling.)

In the case of Patterson, that means - to take an example from the article - looking at sales numbers of his books versus a competitor, and, well, just take a look:

"When sales figures showed that he and John Grisham were running nearly neck and neck on the East Coast but that Grisham had a big lead out West, Patterson set his second thriller series, The Women's Murder Club, about a group of women who solve murder mysteries, in San Francisco."

And that, my friends, is what it takes to write books that SELL. Find out what the customer wants, and deliver it.

Contrast that with the approach taken by the late J.D. Salinger, who took some pains to write authentically, as described by this New Yorker profile.

"Salinger was generous with writers he admired, but he was unsparing about those who had what he called 'disguises.' He was hard on Kenneth Tynan. 'No matter how he stuffs his readers with verbiage, it never amounts to a core of truth,' he said. Tynan bent too much to current hip opinion, he thought. 'A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing,' he said. 'It takes me at least an hour to warm up when I sit down to work. . . . Just taking off my own disguises takes an hour or more.'"

Which brings me back to my original question: if you had to choose one - and I know you'd probably like to have both - would you create something popular and financially successful in which the intrinsic quality wasn't your main concern... or would you create something you believed in, suffered for, and felt represented your authentic self, even if it didn't rise to the heights of material success?

I'm interested in your take - please post a comment below!

(And by the way, for further reading - for those readers especially interested to dive in further, compare Patterson's approach to that of Charles Shaw, the maker of the inexpensive "Two Buck Chuck" wine, as profiled in "Drink Up," in the New Yorker, May 2009.)