Give customers what they want.

It’s a sturdy principle of business, one that most of us endorse. Ā But it’s also a principle that can carry seeds of its own demise. And nowhere is that clearer than in the suddenly wild and wooly world of journalism.

As newspapers disappear and big media’s business models crater, there’s been a flurry of entrepreneurial activity in journalism. Many of these ventures — from new ones likeĀ Smoking Gun to remade ones likeĀ The Atlantic — are inspired. Others, well, less so.

But one of biggest trends is assigning and displaying stories based on what people are looking for in search engines. Demand Media and othersĀ troll the millions of Google (and Yahoo and Bing) searches that take place each hour and then fashion offerings based on what people seem to want. There’s nothing wrong with “search engine journalism.” But it’s hardly a model for a really successful venture — in media or any other realm. Why?

Because many times we don’t know what we want.

The individuals and companies that make a difference — and make a buck — are those who are able, to paraphrase the great Paola Antonelli, to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing. Ā So if you look at the real gamechangers, in media and elsewhere, they’re things people weren’t looking for.

For instance, nobody was searching stuff like this:

What are the lesson’s here?

Enhancing a category is cool; creating a category is cooler. Providing people what they want is a smart tactic; giving people something they didn’t know they’re missing is an even smarter strategy.Ā Listening to the customer can be helpful; listening to your own voice can be revolutionary.

19 Responses to “The peril of giving people what they want”

  1. Dere says:

    Wow, well put. Daniel just put into words what I was thinking and couldn’t articulate.

  2. And it’s not surprising that leaders, thought and otherwise, continually rise to the top and set the bar higher! (can’t believe all the business-speak I just used! ugh!)

  3. Darin Schmidt says:

    Like Henry Ford said, people wanted a faster horse.

  4. One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

  5. This is the vintage Daniel Pink that I have loved for so long. Concise, spot-on and inarguable. Thank you, Dan. I hope you will come visit my blog at
    All the very best,
    Rick S. Pulito

  6. Great point Dan. I remember Gary Hamel commenting once that “innovation results from insight into an unarticulated need.” And Roger Martin makes a strong case in The Design of Business for the same when he talks about abductive logic and piecing together disparate data points and then forming inferences about what might be possible.

  7. David says:

    Deming once made a point to the effect that no man ever told a market researcher that he needed a lightbulb. Edison just went out and made it.

    But the lightbulb was made economically possible by declining prices for its components, not unlike the LED was 80 years later. So yeah, great inventions come from the producer, not the consumer. That said, many businesses are created because a need is perceived, not necessarily determined though some scientific demand study. And there are far more businesses who succeed making mundane, everyday products than there are built around “revolutionary” or “cool” products.

  8. Julio A. says:

    If we stuck to what we know and want, we’d never move forward. One of the most important lessons I learned from studying Music History (and I’m sure this applies to many other fields as well) is that there are hundreds if not thousands of great composers in history, but only a handful that brought something fundamentally different, innovative, or just plain bizzare to the table. As one clinician I hear put it: “music history is made by the weirdos.”

  9. Agree wholeheartedly. Many of today’s “power brands” started out by creating new categories. Serendipity has often played a role in developing new categories. Some are the result of research. But not research that sets out to find out what people want.

    Really good research is not just taking a picture of what is, but asking the right questions and having the intuitive analytical skills to see openings that are meaningful new category opportunities, which consumers are open to discovering. Openness to discovery is especially critical to launching a new category amid today’s abundant choices.

    I do not think a good example is the new category created by exploiting interactive technology to mine behaviorial data. It is cloaked in the words of “listening to consumers”,but isn’t listening at all.

    Consumers young and old do not like the idea that their behavior is being tracked, remembered, and interpreted by a software program. People do not like being interpreted by anyone, let alone a compassionless computer. People avoid others who “remember” what they don’t want to remember. And being stalked is generally not considered flattering in the real world.

    There’s research that concurs:

    Katherine Warman Kern

  10. Daniel – Which is why some of the best businesses actually don’t solve a problem…they create a market.

  11. Perhaps if Henry Ford had listened to those customers demanding a faster horse and asked “How much faster would you like to go?” he might have invented VOIP video conferencing. Now that would be fast.

    There’s nothing wrong with listening to customers. The danger is in taking them literally. Harvard professor Ted Levitt observed many decades ago that if you go to the hardware store thinking you need a quarter-inch drill bit, think again. You need a quarter-inch hole. Good marketers know the difference.

  12. JK Hudson says:

    What timing! I just blogged on the “faster horses” quote by Henry Ford last week. I covered this very topic for designers interacting with clients.

    It’s a universal truth that we should all take to heart in our work. Well done, Daniel!

  13. It’s hard to listen to your own voice many times, especially when there’s so many out there who aren’t ready for the radical changes (read: improvements) that you’re trying to make in the world. It’s nice to have reminders like these from time to time. To paraphrase the words of a very wise man: the time has come to choose between what is right, and what is easy. (Albus Dumbledore!)

    Geoffrey Greer

  14. John Barnett says:

    Awesome article, Daniel. A wonderful reminder that success is built on listening. Not only to the customer, but also the creative voice within. I need to make sure that everyone in my company gets a copy.

  15. Jim Hayward says:

    In my consulting I always attempt to act in the best interest of the client. That is quite different from giving them what they want. I think you point is just that in a broader context. However people only do what they are ready to do, so that principle must also be kept in mind.

  16. There is a just good example. According to my intuition, I planned the seminar of the new book of you put on the market in Japan on July 7. Though I did not hear such a demand from our clients, the applications are more than the expectation!

  17. Hey Dan –

    Great marketing insight. It’s true, nobody would have ever gotten the ideas for ‘GLEE’ or ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ from a search engine or focus groups, and yet it’s hard to think of a 2009 or 2010 without them!

    Awesome examples – and good luck on your column for the London Telegraph. Your first article was a great extension of your book.

    Looking forward,

    Jonathan Flaks

  18. tornadoes says:

    I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this web site. Thanks , IĀ”Ā¦ll try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your website?

  19. The same can be said for employees. Too often employers try to give their employees exactly what they want and wonder why 70% of the workforce is not engaged.

    Most people don’t benefit from the things they think they want.

    More than recognition, employees want to be a part of something worth recognizing.