Palahniuk marketing

I’ve always loved the story of how Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club.

He went around in bars, talking to groups of people about their fears and regrets.  He’d also ask them about what their life was like (their job, their living situation, etc.)  Then he would sit at the bar and write, letting the most common or unique answers shape characters and parts of the story.  Those answers were things like: being a grown man who’d never been in a fight, wanting to quit a worthless 9-5 job, self-loathing for getting caught up in a materialistic society, lacking a father figure, and being a caterer and pissing into the rich customers’ food.

Notice what Palahniuk didn’t do.  He didn’t go around to bookstores and libraries, asking people what they liked or didn’t like about his previous books.  He didn’t ask what kind of story people wanted to hear.  Instead, he tried to understand what makes people tick.  He tried to understand what all of us have in common, and how we can relate: through our fears, regrets, and stories.  He also brilliantly did his research in the most candid environment (pubs) rather than in a well-lit, controlled market research firm.

This is why his story resonated with such a large group of people — he had an abundance of empathy.

Don’t ask people what they want, or how they think you could improve your product.  People are idiots, and they all have their own selfish agenda.  They don’t care about your vision; they care about themselves.

Instead, try to understand the environment they live in.  It may seem trite, but you have to put yourself into your customer’s shoes and find out where they’re coming from.  What are the things that bother them on a daily basis?  What do these people have in common with each other?  What stories do they have to tell?  What do they hate about the current way things are done?  And why have they grown accustomed to it?

The answers to those questions will give you real insight, not focus group insight.


And all marketing talk aside, if you haven’t seen and read Fight Club, shame on you.  Both the movie and the book are incredible.  How often does that happen?

5 comments on “Palahniuk marketing

  1. I completely agree.. there’s times when strict research is necessary but nothing beats talking to real people and having real experiences. Chuck Palahniuk is an incredible writer.. what a life he’s had!

  2. Yeah, most people aren’t able to tell you much beyond what pops into their head at the time which, as you point out, is heavily linked to their agenda at the time.

    You put 6 men in a room with the object of finding out what they want in your product and most of them are worried about not looking like a fool. So you aren’t going to hear them talk about their need for community and to be able to be nurturers. You are going to hear a lot of BS and posturing and very little of substance.

    It seems this is what will separate successful anything from those not… listen to what people say, try to ferret out what they mean, and take a shot at making something you think they’d like. Just like getting gifts for a relative: get to know them and you have a good chance at pleasing them.

    Nobody can tell you what you should make, write, design… you can only get in others’ shoes and try something. If it doesn’t work try again. Oh, and never quit.

  3. Amen! I think it’s, at first, intimidating to get outside of the typical places to do research…but ultimately we’re selling to real people. I’m curious though, why not talk to his readers? Or rather, I can see why he went to pubs (he was looking for a more universal topic), but why shouldn’t most of us just approach our existing customers or at least the demographic we believe will buy? I think the missing piece is not who we usually talk to when we do our research but how broad our sample is and whether we really get outside of the simple checklist and into their environments on the ground.

    By the way, have you read much about the Customer Feedback Loop in The Four Steps to the Epiphany. (also frequently mentioned on the Startup Lessons Learned blog)? Sadly, the Four Steps is not anywhere near as much fun to read as The Fight Club.

  4. @technotheory – I think there’s a lot to be said about talking to customers directly. But the fact is that once you start putting a lot of weight on outsider suggestions, it becomes almost impossible to innovate and give people something fresh. It just doesn’t work. People have their own agenda and they aren’t interested in helping your company innovate — they just want things to be better for them personally. For instance, a survey of Apple users would have never lead to the iPhone as it is today. Like I said, people don’t always know what they want. I think it can be more useful to study the environment your customers operate in, and what problems they face.

  5. Pingback: Preventing resentment « Hoehn’s Musings

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