Can you answer the most painful question in marketing?

The other night I was having a beer with a friend who is a beginner blogger. He was lamenting that he was not attracting many new readers or comments.

I let him go on for awhile but finally had to hit him with the most painful question in all of blogging … marketing… perhaps in all of business:

“What makes you special?”

A confused and strained look came across his face. In fact he looked a little green.

This simple question is so very excruciating to confront!

Yet, if you don’t address it, answer it, and burn that response into your soul,  it’s probable that your blog, and your business, will just languish in mediocrity forever!  If you can’t explain how you differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack, if you are not offering something truly unique and interesting, why WOULD anybody ever read or comment on your blog … or buy your product?

The world doesn’t need more posts about the “Five biggest mistakes on Twitter.”  However the world does need more of YOU.  I mean really, really, really you.

So I challenged my friend to dig deep into his heart and tell me why he wanted to master the social web and blogging.  He paused … thought … and then unleashed a passionate story about his family, his wife and his determination to overcome some pretty serious personal pain to urgently re-invent himself as a social media marketer.

I simply responded, “Write that.”

Within a few minutes we were mapping out his own voice about a journey on the social web that could only be uniquely — and dramatically — his. If he follows through, he will have a blockbuster of a blog.

So what about {grow}?  What make this blog special?  I would describe the soul of {grow} as the unique combination of:

  • Global community of bold, smart professionals who attack issues, not people.
  • Entertaining, and sometimes humorous, presentations of topics that are not part of the social media echo chamber
  • Original commentary built on a unique blend of personal work and life experiences
  • An authentic desire to support and nurture the people of the community

I believe this is the brand promise of {grow}.

It didn’t happen overnight.  It took me awhile to find my footing just as my friend will take some time to find his voice, too.  So be patient, but look inside of you — not at what Chris Brogan is up to — to find the soul of your blog.

Can you answer the question?  Do you think of your blog as having a brand promise?  Have you found your unique voice?

Illustration: “Man carrying Question marks” by Saul Steinberg

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  • Love the blog post Mark!

    My blog started out to be a blog which I wanted to use to brand myself and also to prove myself that I can do things which I set my mind to.

    I hear a lot of people telling me, you can’t write, your english isn’t good enough (yeah I have spelling errors and grammatical errors here and there)and even my parents say that I should be blogging yet I continued to blog and today my dad reads my blog from time to time and he supports it. Mom don’t though.

    However “what makes me so special”? This is something I need to put more thoughts into.

    Thank you.

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  • I found your post very thought provoking. I only starting blogging in January so am still finding my feet and voice. Am reviewing the whole thing at the moment so will keep your question in mind as I do it. Very helpful.

  • Great stuff here. I think it’s speaks to a larger issue of objectively analyzing your blog as a business. What are the assets, costs, risks, weaknesses, opportunities, etc. We should always plan for everything into whic we invest our time, attention or money in the professional world. Blogs are no different.

    Thanks for the read, Mark.



  • Mark,
    This post has my thinking…I’m wondering what comes first.

    An authentic voice or an authentic mission. By “Authentic Mission” I mean a goal to meet your readers needs.

    Is it possible to have a “successful” blog without an authentic voice – as long as you consistently meet the needs of your readers. I hope not but am curious about your opinion.

    Regardless of my noodling – your post was a productive break on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

  • Mark

    @Aaron — I am a regular reader of your blog and find it informative and delightful. Although your English is not always perfect, you more than make up with it in the passion that comes through and frankly, I find that part of your charm. You’re a student in Malaysia urgently learning about the social web, you show your heart, and you’re extremely smart. You rock!

    Friends, don’t miss Aaron’s blog at:

    @Ali — Having the awareness is the first step toward having an answer so there is no doubt you’ll get it. Also, listen to your readers. They’re going to tell you when you start hitting your stride.

    One thing that might help on your blog, Ali, is to shoot for a post at least every other week (ore more) — that will really stretch you to find that unique voice. A post doesn’t have to be a PhD thesis. Just write about your everyday business observations — unique by definition, right? Please let us know of your progress along the way and thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • It’s so interesting, that I just clicked away from a .doc to see who said something interesting on twitter.

    In that document I was trying to write down what social media and blogging actually means to me. I’m starting to guest blog on another blog and i’ll have to write things about social media, what I learned during this years and why I’m working in this field.

    I saw that I’ve learned a lot during these years, and all that I did, all my interests were in a big relationship, and now, I can put them all under an umbrella, while I’m working with all this, using social media.

    So, I do have my own story. Everything that I’ve read and learn makes me understand what I do, and makes sense to what I wanna realize in the future. The blog was always there as a destination of what I was, and what I became.
    I do think my ambition makes me special and the constant need of learing new stuff.

    Great post, fits my thoughts even if i’m miles away…!

  • Mark

    @Eric — Very good perspective. My blog is part of my business indirectly, but it is also an important creative outlet and way to connect with new friends. I think that probably comes through on the blog that this is FUN for me, too. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today.

    @Stanford — That is probably a post in its own right (and probably will be!) but let me give you an answer from my personal experience. I started the blog with a “mission” that had an aim to find certain readers. However, it was not until I found my “voice” that I no longer had to find readers. The readers found ME. One of the most important lessons for me. Thanks for the new blog post friend! : )

    @Gloria — Sounds like you are well on your way! Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

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  • Your insightful description on {grow} was worth reading alone. Such an important and meaningful question that even experts can get wrong.

  • Mark,

    So many people get wrapped into starting a blog or a site to make money that is similar to others. Why? They see that they are doing well, but overtime they will notice that they won’t really be happy or make as much money.

    It’s all about the simple things. Your voice and what you can bring to the table that totally says YOU.

    I remember having a conversation with my mom when she didn’t know what to really blog about. And I asked her what she loves doing and is good at. She replied by saying she loves to fix and improve recipes. So, I said do that just like you’ve stated.

    Many times blogging with a simple mission and passion will bring out more creativity and uniqueness on how you are going to dominate.

    Best, Derek

  • I feel the need to blog about my daughter’s Down Syndrome. But I don’t want to write a diary. I would like to write something that would help people to see beyond her disability. I would like to contribute to her integration to society. I wrote the first post on an impulse and now the task is paralyzing me. I just can’t write the second post…
    Any recomendation?

  • Brilliant, Mark. And so true. I talk a lot about finding the brand of you – whether it’s online or in “real life” …. and people so often forget that they are one and the same. A lovely post – and something that people will, hopefully, take to heart.

    Cecilia, just write. Write what you feel. Write what you think. Sometimes it will be pretty and sometimes not so pretty. But how do you think other parents with Down Syndrome children feel? Oh, wait … they feel just like you! And will totally relate to your blog. By the way, find my friend @jonathandmast on Twitter and follow him. He and his beautiful wife have an equally beautiful Down Syndrome daughter and are very active in that community. He will be a great friend and resource to you! Write on!

    Thanks again, Mark.


  • Beautiful, Mark. I’m taking an MBA class now called Personal Branding with Dr. Bret Simmons. Your post distills the essence of what we’re doing in class.

    I’m blogging now about something I could be TOTALLY off base about: the impact of health information exchange on health care marketers. I’ve been out of the field for a few years. No one seems to be talking about it. But I’m passionate about it and have learned so much already, and that’s what matters. Passion.

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  • This simple question has no simple answer. I’m still struggling with finding the answer. I know it’s there, what makes me different, that is. Defining it concisely, is more than difficult and can be a little scary. The level of honesty required to form this definition about your own blog, and by extension, yourself, then to put it out there for all to see is a very naked experience.

    I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

  • Mark

    @Phaeton — Thanks for you comment.

    @Derek. Great advice. Your mom is lucky to have you as her son! Thank you!

    @Cecilia — I think Shelly has it right. Your love and passion is already shining through and this is bound to show up in your writing. Please feel free to email me or DM me if you would like to talk on the phone if you want support getting to the next step!

    @Shelly — You are awesome and thanks for the perfect advice to Cecilia!

  • Mark

    @Kate — I think you are really on to something there. Sounds like a great idea and you just might have a nice niche for yourself. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to comment!

    @Brian — You are correct, of course. I do think it is possible to be authentic and honest without necessarily having a lot of personal disclosure. Blogging doesn’t have to be a public therapy session but I do think adding some of your personal experience almost always leads to great writing and a better connection with readers. Thanks!

  • James Adams

    That’s a pretty interesting post, Mark! Now that I come to think about it, you’re completely right.

    The crucial point of any business is how it stands out from the rest. What you need to realise is what makes you so unique and different, and then work on emphasizing those points. That will be the turning point and will help you stand out from the crowd.

    Thanks again 🙂

  • Another great post Mark. Reminds us that we all have a USP if we look hard enough. Don’t settle, differentiate. Nobody has the unique experience that we have individually.

  • Mark

    @James — Thanks for spending time here today. Much appreciated!

    @Rene — I find that everybody is amazing in their own way. It’s just having the confidence to unleash it. Thanks!

  • I believe there’s an important difference between brand differentiation and finding your blogging voice. Companies are in business because they differentiate. They have to, whether by price, personality, product or whatever. Brand differentiation for them should be a reasonably scientific and highly structured process of identifying the way in which they are distinct from their competitors.

    Finding your voice on a blog is tough because, as individuals, we are not sure how we sound. We have never had to project a personal persona [is that a tautology?] and we’re uncomfortable with it. That’s why good advice is to start by posting comments and responses until you learn what your views are and how you express yourself. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can graduate into blogging. If you do all of this with sincerity, you will not only become aware of your differentiation but also learn how to communicate it.

    So my advice to @cecilia would be to search around, find like-minded bloggers and join in. The rest will certainly come given your passion for your subject.
    And then you’ll find it’s not really a painful question at all.

    Thanks Mark for posting and for providing what is definitely not just another blog. Apart from anything else, you’re the only guy on the web who uses the {} punctuation.


  • Excellent post Mark, and great fuel for thought on a Monday morning. I blog more than I expected I would but not as much as I would like. Sometimes that ‘but I can’t think of anything interesting’ thought comes into my mind and stops me. Considering I advise friends and colleagues ‘don’t think so hard about it, just do it’, maybe I should take my own advice. And yours!

  • Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your amazing post.

    Indeed we should think about “what make you special?” and not only in social media or marketing, in life too. In my viewpoint, one should think about it each time that one does something.

    I am new to Social Media and Marketing (2 years) but I love it. I keep saying that one should be unique and companies should market their uniqueness. Uniqueness is the strongest part of the competitiveness equation leading people and institutions to grow and evolve. In my prospective and you also mentioned it with different words, uniqueness is the answer to “what make you so special?”

    Thanks for your brilliant and so acute post.

    Eufémia Santos

  • Mark

    @John Bottom — Truly exceptional insight John. In some ways a company brand strategy is the opposite of a blog voice, isn’t it? It’s typically built on data and analysis! Thanks!

    @Giff — You are doing a wonderful job with your blogging at Beyond and I highly recommend it. Those in the moment type of posts usually come out best for me!

    @Eufemia — And thank you for taking your valuable time to add your insights today. Much appreciated!

  • Mark, you were right – both of our posts today tackled the same topic in different voices (our own!). Another thing I suggest anyone trying to figure out their special sauce do is look at who they consider competition. And don’t say you don’t have any competition. Really look at what they’re saying about their special sauce. Way too often we hear people say their special sauce is X…and everyone says the same thing (hence the social media echo chamber). It takes three or four hours to do this kind of analysis, but it ensures you really do have a special sauce.

    And now I want to sing…two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

  • Mark

    @Gini — It took me more than 3-4 hours to find my voice. Still finding it, as a matter of fact in some respects, and it will change over time. But putting some upfront work into defining your “workspace’ is essential. The post we referenced is Gini’s article today:

    Thanks so much for adding YOUR voice today!

  • Finding your voice IS incredibly difficult if you’re not a “natural writer”. That’s why I’m a big advocate of daily writing. It’s like going to the gym. You have to grind through those tough days to keep improving, to keep working at building your writing muscles.

    When I used to teach writing to students I always got them to write 7 days a week in a journal (or online) to get them to dive into their unique voice. Or to speed write: i.e. give yourself just 10 minutes to write four paragraphs. Speed gets you away from the hang up of crafting perfect sentences and in touch with the unique you.

    Business bloggers can learn a lot from Creative Writing.

  • Thank you Mark for posing these all important questions…

    “Do you think of your blog as having a brand promise? Have you found your unique voice?”

    The answer for my associates and myself is…

    Absolutely 🙂

  • Mark

    @Jon — Fantastic advice. You are the Yoda of {grow} : )

    @Dr. Rae — I have NO doubt!!

  • I am drawn to your Voice for a variety of reasons that can be packaged nicely in one phrase: regardless of your topic, your values very much mirror my own ~ and so do the aspects of your personality that you so generously share.

    On some days, you remind me of my potential. On other days, you highlight the value of humour. At times, you are the epitome of kindness and always ~ you show the power of gratitude and appreciation.

    My voice has gone quiet temporarily ~ my Inner Hermit has taken the reigns and I’m re-assessing the Why behind all my online endeavours. What won’t change, though, is my desire to connect Heart to Heart, Spirit to Spirit to any who cross my path ~ to highlight the wonder in what surrounds me already, and to share the life lessons gifted to me that come clothed in adversity, struggle and pain.

    I always enjoy my time here – and your Community is truly fabulous.

    PS: Cecilia – your Love may flow with greater ease into your Blog if you imagine you are writing to your beautiful daughter ~ and in so doing, gifting others who find you the opportunity to see what you see, feel what you feel and perhaps – enabling them to carry the Love you share into aspects of their own lives.

  • Mark

    @Sally — Every time you comment I literally sigh at the beauty of your writing. I hope you decide to keep publishing online. The world is better for it. At least, I am better for it! : )

  • Once again, great question and great discussion, Mark. And, once again, we ate on the same page.

    I just added a sub-title to my blog, “Small business growth and leadership.” I read somewhere that to increase followers, one must focus. At first blush, it may seem counter-intuitive that narrowing one’s focus can increase followers. But after a little consideration, it makes total since.

    What makes me special is that I am more than just a finance guy. Many CFOs are great with implementing the details and crunching numbers, but few have the combination of strategic vision and the ability to execute. My blog is an outlet for what I’m learning as the CFO of a fast-growth company of 165+ employees. My original purpose was to reinforce my own learning (the best way to learn is to teach). I’m here to help grow small businesses and leadership.

    Thanks for asking 🙂 and thanks for letting toot my own horn. That may be the hardest pert of answering the question, what makes me special. Because I’m not special. But we are special.

  • OK Mark, I got over my green face, as you put it, and have my answer.

    So what do I have out of this that sets me apart?

    1.I am a fresh face in this industry, free of status quo bad habits.

    2.I want you and your business to grow with me and mine.

    3.Twitter and Facebook are not my automatic answer. I will research many platforms to find what fits you best.

    4.I care. Sure it is a cliché, but the way I see it, my business succeeds through your success.

    For now this is what sets me apart. Will it change? Sure will. Will I continue analyze myself and my business? Sure will.

    You can read the preface on my blog if you like. Thanks for the truly horrible question. I was definitely a challenge. 🙂

  • Thanks for giving me something to think about this week!

  • Better late to the party than never there!
    Ah, the very first acronym of my career is relevant here: USP. The process of finding one’s voice, and clarifying one’s interests, so others can say “Yes, yes, yes!” or “Well, maybe not – here’s my take on things.” IMO learning together is faster and more fun than trying to learn alone.

    What do I do in my very new marketing blog that provides value for others?
    Hopefully, add to and help turn the creative compost heap from which flowers (of fresh ideas, of revenue and business growth) bloom.

    BTW, some nuggets about Saul Steinberg, that most brilliant guy:
    He was able to escape fascist Italy with the help of The New Yorker. And he had a doctorate in architecture.
    One of my personal favorites, out of many – “I Do, I Have, I Am” –

  • Great thinking Lori, and thanks for the links!

  • You’re welcome!

  • Mark. thanks for leading me here via the other post… this is one of the key components I think anyone wanting to blog needs to answer for themselves. Too often, we are hearing look at what so and so did, and thinking it can be mimicked…

  • Hello Mark,
    When I first saw your question on Twitter, I thought you might be referring to the painful question, “What’s the ROI for Twitter?” But identifying and articulating what differentiates you — now that’s painful! And required. Thanks for the meaningful post.

  • James Altucher talks about just deciding one day to stop “lying” (his words) and just be radically honest on his blog. He went from 100 readers per day to 10k. He shares his weakness, his mistakes.

    Maybe it’s a relic of the old media world that you’ve got to look authoritative. I think in this new world of ours, readers want to know you’re human first.

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