Commentary

In Search Of The Extra-Ordinary

I love that word, "extraordinary." My father used to say it in tones of awe and wonder, dragging out the second syllable and bathing the word itself with a kind of reverence: "ex-STRAW-dinary". His enthusiastic delivery obscured its literal meaning, that of something above or outside the ordinary, of something so special it simply does not exist in the world of the mundane.

My father's admiration for all things extraordinary has been on my mind lately. This Friday, I am hosting TEDxChCh, an independently organized TED event. (I am confident the vast majority of this readership is familiar with the TED conferences, but just in case...) Our speaker selection focused on unearthing those extra-ordinary souls, people who are not only doing amazing things but who are doing amazing things in unexpected fields or unexpected ways, people who open a new door, present a new way of thinking, offer a new perspective. We'll be hearing from a toxicologist concerned with the shrinking size of alligator penises and a man who has found compassion for his brother's murderer: in short, from people who are anything but ordinary.

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Our attendees share a desire to transcend the usual suspects, and this desire isn't only found in conference like ours. The holy grail of travel, for example, is finding the "truly local" restaurant that isn't in the guidebooks, the "authentic experience" that isn't a replica of every other hokey offering on every other corner. These encounters, by definition, are not the ones advertised at the information booths in the center of town; if they were, they would become overexposed, boring, and -- dare I say it -- ordinary.

And therein lies the problem, at least as it relates to search. It is a chicken-and-egg problem, an "I don't want to be a part of any club that would have me" problem. If we are too easy to find, we risk normality. If we are too hard to find, we risk, well, not being found at all.

For intrepid adventurers in search of the extraordinary, the primary solution is other people. You ask the taxi driver what his favorite eatery is. You ask your sister's friend's cousin whether the bungee jump is really worth it or whether the lesser known canyon swing is where it's at. You investigate, and ferret, and source trusted opinions. And if this turn-over-every-stone persistence pays off, you are rewarded with an experience that is made all the more special by its very rareness.

Standard Web search cannot help people seeking the kind of "in the know" products or services we're talking about here. Google cannot help. Bing cannot help. Neither of these two can say, "Look, none of the tourists go there, but it is cheap and delicious and jam-packed every night with savvy folks who could afford to eat anywhere they want," because, by the time Google and Bing are saying that, all of the tourists are going there.

If you are marketing something that seeks to retain the characteristic of being exceptional, you must focus on the intersection of search and citizen advice: services like TripAdvisor or Aardvark or Twitter. These are the services that allow you to be found while retaining your mystique, that bring you to people's attention without turning you into the online equivalent of a Denny's or a Starbucks.

There is a kind of dignity in standing up to commercial promiscuity. It allows you to create a special sort of bond with your customers, to share with them a sense of something that isn't on every street corner or every search page. In short, it allows you to be extraordinary. And, as my father well knew, being extraordinary is an exceedingly worthy aspiration.

5 comments about "In Search Of The Extra-Ordinary".
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  1. Derek Gordon from Re:Imagine Group, October 19, 2010 at 10:44 a.m.

    Great post, as usual and good luck with your conference. I wonder what you think of the Bing / Facebook announcement last week in which they indicated the Bing algorithm will now look at a searcher's social graph to surface results based on what their friends like?

  2. Kathryn Gorges from Essentials 3, October 19, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    Thanks for this insight. A great reminder that being popular is not the most important quality after all -- that substance is what is sustaining -- for people, places, relationships, everything, including websites ;) Great topic!

  3. Jinger Guerrette from KSTW, October 19, 2010 at 12:02 p.m.

    Nice perspective. I'm always on the search for the extraordinary here in the Seattle area. If I can't find it on Google or Bing, then it does have a bit more of mystique. I feel like I'm exploring more when there is less about it on the internet.

  4. Mark Watkins, October 19, 2010 at 6:44 p.m.

    Kaila - wow. you really nailed it precisely. You want something that is on it's way to becoming cool, but isn't yet....and a normal search engine can't do that for you. "Cool Hunters" are people who do this for a living...how cool would it be if an engine could detect that? The wheels are spinning....maybe the velocity of checkins on Foursquare or something could maybe do that....in the meantime, the intersection of search & social may be the answer.

  5. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, October 20, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    Thanks for your comments, guys! Much appreciated. And, Derek, feel free to tune in for the livestream! http://tedxchch.com :-)

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