Surviving mediocrity

Posted on 21/10/2011


"your mediocrity is insulting" - DanielIn an information and choice filled world, mediocrity permeates everything. Take the review website Qype. Founded in 2006, the site had 1 million unique users by March 20081. By the following year, this had grown to 7.5 million and as of April this year (2011) this figure reached 18 million2.  It has continued to grow enormously, but the result is increasingly average ratings and more average reviewers. This is because:

a) More reviews means more “average” ratings. The more people eat out, and the more they experience, the more jaded they become. Finding somewhere unique is difficult when you’ve tried everything and been everywhere.

B) More reviewers means more average reviewers. Ok, so we’re not all restaurant critics. Our reviews shouldn’t have to be anything more than straightforward. But this does mean that well written, interesting reviews are harder to find among the mass of opinions.

Amazon reviewsJumping now to Amazon, you can see this effect more clearly. Pick a product and look at it’s reviews. Amazon gives you a handy graph to understand how many 5 or 1 star reviews there are(image). Looking at this you can see what I mean. It takes an exceptional product (iPad) to generate large amounts of reviews at either end of the spectrum. Most products, on the other hand, have a large number of 4 and 3 star reviews. These essentially say “it’s ok” or” meh”. They suggest a mediocre product, and when you’ve the huge range of choice that Amazon provides, you’re hardly going to be sold by reading one of these.

Another issue comes from the “Marmite effect”. Take something that is hugely popular, the X-Factor, for example. A lot of people like the show, but there’s also a fair majority that dislike it (given the reviews it gets in the press). Fans will rate the show high, haters will rate it low. The result of this is a bimodal distribution where two distinct opinions emerge. The resulting mid point (be it mean or median) doesn’t really reflect the quality of the show, which makes a linear (1-5 star) or even the more complicated Amazon ratings less useful.

This is why Amazon pulls out the top 5* and 1* reviews (image) because it’s these that make the difference. Areas of grey confuse decision making- what we need is black and white: like or dislike. And so it’s only these exceptional products that buck the trend of mediocrity, because we can understand them. Word gets round and before long we have ourselves a success.

This is the world of the long tail, as Seth Godin points out.

With so much around that’s rating as “average” (films, songs, companies, blogs), this is where your product, “thing” or service is likely to end up. It affects everything from films to restaurants, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds.

If mediocre is financially sustainable they you’re doing fine. Not everyone needs to run an empire, and a healthy “lifestyle” business is rewarding and allows you to have a personal life. But human aspiration often pushes us to want more. If you want to beat mediocrity then I can see two ways around it:

  1. Gamble big
  2. Work small

1) Gambling big

Even after decades of trying, we still don’t know how to make a “hit”. TV and film execs have tried and failed so often to distill this into a formula it’s become a modern day alchemy.

But having lots of money/ time/ effort to lavish on something can increase its chance of being a success. Films with big stories, big names, and outrageous special effects rely on the power of spectacle. Think the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Avatar.

Even if you don’t make it big immediately, don’t fret. Films, musicians and companies can still make it big after being around for a while. It took three cinema releases and seven Oscar nominations for The Shawshank Redemption to become hit with the public. It’s now one of the highest rated films on IMDB (9.2 stars). Sometimes it takes a generation to become successful: people like Jeff Buckley and Van Gough only died before their fame even began to peak.

Despite the past two paragraphs it’s still worth remembering: gambling big doesn’t guarantee success. The films and artists I’ve mentioned are the exceptions, not the rule. Money and talent can still be squandered so think twice about how you use them.

2) work small

Investing heavily in a film, TV show or business can increase the chance of success but it could also mean you’re more likely to lose substantially. Working small reduces amount gambled and reduces the risk.

The film industry in Nigeria takes this approach. There the biggest threat is video piracy, and film bosses usually have little more than 2 weeks before their profit margins are obliterated by copyright thieves. As a result they work quicker, spend less on productions and produce crowd pleaser’s to ensure they make their money back within those two weeks. You can still make a hit on a shoestring (The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite), it’s just less likely. Doing more, more often, can help counteract your modest resources.

Getting better

Mediocrity’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ve all got talents in different areas and we can’t be good at everything. It’s ok to be mediocre at some things.

But everyone has a talent, an interest or something they’d like to be brilliant at. Do it. In one or two areas don’t be satisfied with being average. Everybody has to go through mediocrity to succeed, which gives you a reason . In the same way that not everything’s going to succeed first time, you’re going to find that what you do is sometimes just mediocre. More people and products succeed by they starting small and working big. Mr Godin uses the examples of HP and Google to show that you can’t just jump start your company into be successful.

Twitter prez of revenue @adambain:

“First billion tweets took 3 years and two months, now we do a billion tweets in a week.”3

So how do you go become better than average?

  • Working harder: the more time or effort you put in the better you’ll get.
  • Think/ use instinct more: focus on something and eventually it will become second nature. Use this instinct.
  • Differentiator: why repeat what someone else has already done (unless you’re doing it better). Find something unique and specialise.
  • Consistency: reliability is surprisingly underrated. It’s not always worth over-performing if you can’t repeat it again. Consistent performance works in your favour.

Using 5-Star Rating Systems by Christopher Allen. Great post on ratings systems dating back from 2006.