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Perfect Is Boring: Why Vulnerability Is The Best Marketing Strategy

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, money & life

Photo via Flickr.

It used to be that, if you wanted to be in business, you had to be perceived as bulletproof. Which might be easy for some people with especially ironclad nerves and unflappable poker faces, but for most of us — and especially those of us who engage in creative pursuits — that’s a really tall order. But it’s also an expectation that is rapidly being dismantled by creative people who are willing to let down their guard in a very public way.

Brené Brown’s now-infamous TED talk on the subject of vulnerability seemed to kick off a public conversation, not just about how people feel vulnerable, but how we express it to others, and how it’s perceived when we do.

“We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability,” Brené explained in her talk. “And in doing so, we also numb other emotions, including joy and gratitude. Additionally, we dampen our own innovation and creativity. When we work hard to not be vulnerable, we’re also working against our own motivation to do interesting, new, and original things.”

Brené’s talk, and her subsequent writings on the subject, including her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, focused mostly on the personal aspects of vulnerability’s importance, but that feeling of being ok — if not actually comfortable — with allowing yourself to be passionate and enthusiastic and also nervous about whatever’s going on in your life is scalable to business and entrepreneurship, as well.

Take, for example, This American Life producer Alex Blumberg’s latest project, StartUp, which is a podcast about his quest to start his own podcasting company. With just a handful of episodes released into the world so far, Alex has already gotten lots of attention, not just for the actual project, but for his own willingness to make the process public.

Calling StartUp “the business origin story you never hear,” Alex told to Planet Money‘s David Kestenbaum that he began recording the process because it’s something that he’d reported on for a long time, but had never really felt privy to until it was actually his business, his dream that was being tested by outside forces, like potential investors and public opinion.

“I’m just trying to channel the self-doubt that I think all entrepreneurs feel, but they can never say.”

StartUp also includes intimate conversations with his wife about the launch of the company, wherein Alex explains that he’s “not feeling a lot of confidence.”

“I’m just one guy with a stupid little plan, and there’s like… a gazillion people out there with better plans that are going to make more money and that people want to invest in more than me,” Alex confides in one especially honest moment of recording.

But that vulnerability — the kind that most potential new CEOs would likely never go on-record with, actually seems to be endearing Alex to the world. Already, StartUp has become one of the most talked-about new podcasts. Which is great for it as a product, but also has huge implications for Alex as he moves forward with his podcasting company, which will require a lot of buzz once it launches. By exposing the process, rather than concealing it, he’s actively marketing the end product, long before it’s really even out of the gate.

“At first, I found it strange that I had gotten so into StartUp,” writes New York Magazine‘s Jesse Singal. “I’m not the target audience for a podcast about the business world, after all. But as I listened to Blumberg fumble through his early attempts at raising VC, talk things over with his supportive but helpfully critical wife, and find and attempt to come to an agreement with a potential partner, I realized why I was hooked: This is, above all, a story about psychology, about how to charge out into uncharted territory and find success, about having difficult conversations in as productive a manner as possible.”

That kind of origin story — which is about a lot more than venture capital or even the necessary elbow-rubbing that creative entrepreneurs often dread — is the sort of thing that marketing professionals dream of. Because, as Science of People founder Vanessa Van Edwards explains, people love stories, and, especially, success stories.

“Our brains light up,” when we hear a story, says Vanessa, “[it] activates as if we ourselves are in the story. That’s what our brain loves it so much.”

Which means that a relatable story, and one that includes the same kinds of emotions that we all experience (like vulnerability), is not only a good thing to break out at a dinner party, but also a really savvy marketing tool. By allowing yourself to be someone that people can empathize with, you’re actually helping them identify with you — and your product — more.

Every great business has an origin story, and any marketing professional will tell you, as a small business owner or sole proprietor, that you need to hone yours, whether it’s an elevator pitch or a more in-depth explanation of who you are and why you do it. But attempting to hide vulnerability and self-doubt while also crafting an authentic story that people will want to invest in (and remember, when people buy your product or service, they’re buying you, too) is a self-destructive attempt. Instead, consider your vulnerability a marketable quality. People want it more than you realize.

Get more insight from Alex Blumberg by joining his class, Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.