Serendipity vs narrowcasting

Posted by David Meerman Scott 12:00 PM on August 18, 2011

The real-time information world allows you to precisely personalize to your exact interests and requirements. The tools of real-time are powerful indeed:

  • A few favorites among millions of blogs.
  • Just your friends on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.
  • Precise searches on Google and Bing.
  • RSS feeds, email newsletters, news alerts sending only what you want.
  • Travel with GPS.
  • Eat with Yelp & Zagat.
  • Watch just a few television stations in a universe of thousands.

But there is a huge problem for you and your business by relying too heavily on narrowcasting and personalization.

  • We only focus on the bloggers whose opinions we share.
  • We maintain only a close network of friends, excluding new voices.
  • We find exactly what we want, and miss what we’re not looking for.
  • We are only alerted to what we’ve already thought to ask for.
  • We go only where we already know to go.
  • We eat at only the “best” places.
  • We narrowly focus on a niche political view or idea.

There is a sad coldness to a pre-programmed life.

And there's no doubt that building marketing and PR plan that relies exclusively on what you already know (and what you think your buyers want) will mean diminished success because it is too predictable and mundane.

Serendipity or happy accident is an incredibly powerful tool for your personal life and for developing marketing and PR strategies.

Getting your company into breaking news

I've talked before about the idea of the second paragraph – how smart marketers cleverly insert their company or product in real-time into a breaking news story. This technique is virtually impossible if you're only following news about your company and industry. To use this very powerful form of PR, you’ve got to be open to a "happy accident" of a story that you can use to your advantage.

Or consider how most marketers build websites

Sadly, most organizations' Web sites organize primarily around providing answers to questions we think visitors already have in mind. We arrogantly believe people always visit our site or use our online service simply to find a piece of information they already know they need. Sure, sometimes you go to, say, an online bookseller site with a particular book in mind, so a search engine is important. But what about the other times?

We've focused too much effort on one way that people look for information and products: answer my question, while not spending enough energy on the other: tell me something.

With a site organized around answering questions, users must already know what they want before proceeding. But people also need services or sites to tell me something. Contrast Google search the Drudge Report. Google answers our questions while Drudge tells us stuff we did not think to ask.

You need to do both.

Amazon excels at providing a site that answers questions we already have – through the site's search engine, we can find a product instantly. However, Amazon also has a great set of tools to help people find something they didn’t think to ask. "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" tools prompt us to look further. Customer discussions allow us to learn from others. Product category listings allow us to see products ranked by sales or by ratings. In short, Amazon helps us find products we didn’t know existed.

Build serendipity into your life.


Here some of the things that I do to build happy accidents into my own life. Many of my blog posts and stories in my books have come through "planned serendipity" of this nature.

1) Go to Google News (and turn off any personalization you have). Scan the headlines. Do this a few times a day.

2) Read a daily newspaper and a weekly newsmagazine. Read it with a critical eye and learn what the professional editors deem important.

3) Wander the streets of an unfamiliar city. Go to a restaurant that seems interesting to you from the street. Ask for the special.

4) Sit down with someone you do not know at the next conference or event you attend.

5) Go to a music festival and catch the bands that play in the afternoon (before the headliners).

6) Ask your kids what's cool at their school.

How else do you build serendipity into your life?

Image: Shutterstock / littleny

David Meerman Scott

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