Man viewing a maze

If you remember the Y2K scare — in which computers worldwide would crash as the year 2000 arrived — I’m proud of my role in exacerbating your panic. 

Y2K, Servers and Shoes

At the time, I was a copywriter at an agency well known for shoe ads, and my client was a very large software company. I was new at the agency, and thanks to my total lack of knowledge about my client’s product, I was able to contribute to the fear, uncertainty and doubt about the looming calendar change.   

I was working on a B2B campaign for server software, of which I knew very little. But I at least knew what a server was, and thus I was vastly more knowledgeable than many of my colleagues, who would have much preferred to work on the shoe account. I read everything I could about SQL software, looking for a hook, but, let’s face it: in the relational database world, SQL is SQL is SQL. I had nothing. Until I noticed a comment box on a client Word doc with the cryptic question, “Y2K compatible????” A second note replied, “Yes. Y2K is a joke”

I perked up. If there was nothing else I could say about the SQL software — and there was nothing — I could at least pump up the fear and uncertainty about the looming “Millennial Bug” and note that even if the rest of civilization collapsed, end users could at least enter the apocalypse confident that their SQL server would work.

So, I made the entire campaign about Y2K fever. It was baked into every element of that campaign, perhaps in part because I was too lazy to figure out how to convey the value of integrated OLAP services. The campaign was incongruously successful, and I was pulled from the B2B side of the office to the consumer side to inject Y2K into a campaign for a new consumer software product. Then of course, 2000 arrived, nothing happened, and we all moved on.

Can a Little Ignorance Actually Help?

My point here is there is virtue in looking at companies, new products and new technologies from a standpoint of ignorance. There is also virtue in focusing on the first interesting tidbit you find in a steaming pile of input, and building from there. Above all, there is virtue in devoting precious hours researching trivia for tidbits, instead following the bulleted content map sitting on your desk.

I’ve worked with a number of colleagues at TriComB2B for years who recognize the value of my ignorance, and who sometimes make a point of assigning me to accounts and brands that others (and I, at times) might find initially to be incomprehensible or hopelessly dull. I just don’t get it. I don’t know what this company or product is all about, or why anyone should care.

That’s what they want. An empty mind is an open mind. And if I spend enough time trying to find something I can comprehend, I will eventually “get it.” When I get it, I write a letter to myself explaining just what it is I got. Then I share that letter, adding an explanation on how the agency might express “it.”

Of course, when I get it, it often looks wrong — except it’s not wrong. It’s just grossly over-simplified or tangential. I’ve taken a complex and esoteric business or technology and reduced it to terms I can understand and explain in a few sentences. (Sounds similar to brand positioning, right?)

My perception of that brand may be vastly different than the client’s, but that’s the point. They already know everything there is to say about their brand. My advantage is that I know little to nothing about them. Neither do most of the people they need to talk to. And, so I am one of those people dumb enough to tell a company, “I don’t think your business is what you say it is. I don’t think you realize just how interesting your product is.”

One Unexpected Idea Leads to More

That sounds cheeky, but there’s neuroscience behind it. In “Why,” Mario Livio’s study1 of the science of curiosity, he notes that for some individuals, “The satisfaction of curiosity (of any type) is closely related to the neural reward circuit, and it enhances memory and learning, especially when the information violates prior expectations and when the exploration is active and volitional.” In other words, the first unexpected fact that someone comes across can spark their curiosity to learn more. I’ve rarely come across a company that didn’t have some fascinating attribute that explained something much bigger about its brand. My habit of going with my first impulse has often led to unexpected ideas, helping agencies nudge initially reluctant companies into odd, unexpected, but easy-to-understand positions.

So, when I realized that the only thing interesting about that SQL server software was it was Y2K ready, I got it: it was the only easily understood benefit of the product.

I’ve had to convince a company that their customers trust them utterly because they are unrelentingly boring. I had to tell a company that after five years of producing brochures and white papers trying to explain their radically new technology, all they ever needed to say was that their technology was saving their customers $1 million per day. I had a software company completely encrypt their ad about encryption. I once worked with a client to make a video of a five-year-old girl operating a $275,000 packaging system to show ease of use.

Ignorance Might Actually Be Bliss

With a little effort, I could have drawn up compelling bullet lists of competitive advantages, features and benefits (too lazy). In many of these cases, I just went with the first fact or claim that caught my attention. Because I’m just ignorant enough to believe that if something captures my attention or imagination, it might capture someone else’s as well. Which is why you might hesitate before saying, “The writer doesn’t understand our company.” Because there’s a possibility your customers don’t, either. But they might find a reason they want to learn more about you — if you just let me be ignorant for a bit.