What to Do When You Absolutely, Positively Must Know If Your Content Will Rock

nobody knows anything ... except the audience

Ever had a great idea, and then started to doubt yourself?

Or maybe you’ve already executed on that great idea, but you’re hesitating to launch. Maybe it’s an article, or an ebook, or a new product or service.

How can you be sure it will work? Should you ask for feedback?

I’ll answer both of those questions in this article, but first I need to tell you a couple of stories from the nutty worlds of music and film.

Let’s start with a band called Wilco.

Wilco gets the shaft

In 2000 and early 2001, Wilco recorded a selection of songs for a fourth studio album.

Signed to Reprise Records (a subsidiary of Warner Music), the band was continuing to shift away from its “alt country” roots toward a more experimental alternative rock sound.

This made the folks at Reprise nervous. After a shakeup at the top executive level of the label, a guy named Mio Vukovic was assigned to monitor the progress of the new album and offer suggestions.

Let’s just say that Vukovic wasn’t much impressed with what he heard, and Wilco wasn’t much impressed with his suggestions. This resulted in the band being unceremoniously canned by the label.

Wilco negotiated its contractual divorce from Reprise. Part of the deal allowed the band to keep the master tapes and full rights to the unreleased songs.

The band was down, but not out.

Nobody knows anything

Before we get back to Wilco, let’s take a trip to Hollywood.

“Nobody knows anything” is the most famous line from the book Adventures in the Screen Trade by screenwriter William Goldman.

That’s because it’s the truth.

Goldman isn’t saying (contrary to popular belief) that Hollywood is filled (exclusively) with idiots. He means that prior to a movie’s release, no one has any real idea how well a film will do.

Smart people in Hollywood seek writers, producers, and directors who have a proven knack for being right more often than wrong. Because that’s the best you can hope for.

The same is true for anything designed to entertain, educate, delight, motivate, or move people. The best you can hope for is to take your best guess and do your best work.

This is how online content marketing works, too.

Welcome to the media business.

That’s not to say people won’t have opinions about the viability of your ideas.

Oh boy, will they ever have opinions. Everyone has those, right?

Let’s get back to Wilco.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Later in 2001, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy decided to stream the “album without a home” from the band’s website.

The move was prompted in part to curb piracy of leaked mp3s, but it also let the fans decide if they liked the collection of songs known as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

People did like it. But that’s not all.

Suddenly, more than 30 record labels offered to sign the band. Wilco went with Nonesuch Records, which is ironically also a subsidiary of Warner Music (who says the music business is screwed up?).

Here’s what happened next:

  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains Wilco’s highest charting album, even though the band won two Grammys for its next album.
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains Wilco’s bestselling album, even though the band’s status has grown with its subsequent releases.
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot topped numerous critic’s “Best album of 2002” lists and was named one of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Q Magazine.

Nobody knows anything … except the audience.

Put it out there

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t relentlessly think it through.

This certainly doesn’t mean this particular idea of yours will succeed.

Here’s what it means:

  • Online, there are no gatekeepers to shut you down.
  • The audience decides what’s worthy across the board — in film, music, books, and any other form of content that’s produced by the imagination of a determined individual or group. It’s always been this way, but now the relationship is direct thanks to the Internet.
  • Consider feedback and apply fundamentals, but ultimately realize that your boss, your spouse, your colleagues, and your high school friends don’t know anything. That also applies to me and everyone else who gives you advice.

You’ll never absolutely, positively know until you put it out there.

Go ahead … we’re all waiting for the next fascinating thing.


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Reader Comments (79)

  1. says

    This is a very informative article that can really help a starter who wants to build quality blog especially when you consider the Google panda update. Thanks Brian Clark

    • says

      Another great post Brian. When I first started publishing my work online I always had the urge to delete it… I’ve had some great feedback so far, so I’m looking to work with more people and produce more cool stuff!…

      All the best,

      David Edwards

  2. says

    This line is spot on “Consider feedback and apply fundamentals, but ultimately realize that your boss, your spouse, your colleagues, and your high school friends don’t know anything.” – I can’t tell you how much time you’ll waste going through iterations if all you do is take feedback. At one point you need to realize its yours, not anyone else’s.

    • says

      Absolutely! Sometimes you get criticism that appears good at the onset but when you try to act on it, it just doesn’t fit into the overall feel or vision of your project.

      Sometimes even good criticism has to be set aside and marked as ‘interesting but not for me’. The problem is knowing which comments fall into this category :)

  3. says

    @Brian: So true. Nobody knows anything. I just read a book called The Help. Publishers rejected the idea 45 times. The book is a bestseller and the movie comes out in August. #GoFigure

    I’m sure at some point someone said, “Copyblogger? That might not work Clark.” (That person didn’t know anything either.)

    And I’m also sure you should start a project involving music somehow.

    • says

      Shane, how about twelve publishing houses rejecting the first Harry Potter book. It did alright after that. 😛

      I just published a weird post on my blog and one person unsubscribed, but the rest of the readers liked it. Experimenting is good!

  4. says

    This post came at the perfect time. I am literally a day away from launching my new blog. I have no idea if it will be hugely popular or a flock.

    But I have to put it out there. If I don’t put it out there, then we will never know will we?

    • says

      If you enjoy it and none of your friends have told you that you are crazy, it’s very likely that their are other people in the world that are interested in the same niche.

      The main thing is to know the 3 things people like to do: make money, spend money, laugh.

      • says

        I prefer to think of it in a different way. I think that the two main things people want unconsciously or consciously is happiness and success.

        Of course success often equals money and happiness often is accompanied by laughter. 😀

  5. says

    At the end of the day, you have to decide whether or not to forge ahead with an idea/piece of content. Everyone is going to have a different piece of advice to offer you, and you could spend years running in circles trying to please everyone you asked for help. At the end of the day, what your audience says is the only thing that matters.

  6. says

    Hit the nail on the head Brian… Small business owners get all wrapped up with protecting themselves from the competition, but what they really need to worry about is their customers.

    Some of it boils down to luck, but if you can listen to the pulse of your market, and allow yourself to release your Version 1.0 to the market before it’s perfect, then that’s where the REAL voting takes place.

    It’s all about screwing up fast and learning from those mistakes to tweak something that your market will eventually find palatable.

  7. says

    I create. I publish. I post.

    I do it because I feel compelled to.

    I do it because I don’t know what else I *would* do.

    Of course, I hope my work hits. I like to imagine that.

    Ultimately, though, I’m just grateful for the flow — that I’ve found something I enjoy doing, an expression for what interests me.

    • says

      Hey Dane,

      What do you enjoy doing? I’m sure there are others who share the same passion you have about hobbies or general interests or things to do on your free time. Have you ever thought about setting up affiliate sites for these topics? It’s the info-marketing world.

  8. says

    Right on, Brian – we need to trust our guts and put out what we think needs to be put out there.

    Feedback is great, but it can have a tendency of driving us to the middle of the road, which isn’t where exceptional things are usually found. :)

    • says

      I think it’s also important to get unbiased feedback. So you don’t want to share your new site with a friend or family member, because their opinions are likely not the truth. And lying at that stage can sway your natural decision making. So when it’s time to test, I think it’s still best to test it using paid traffic, or social groups like Facebook.

      Other than that, there’s only one option: set up a domain with hosting. Have a short form questionnaire that asks potential customers what they would like in the product.

      As for sites that are free, no buying whatsoever, it’s always best to look at it from a business perspective. So long as the site gives advertisers the ability to target specific groups of people with narrow ranged interests, and the user experience is rich and fun, the site’s potential should be rated high even within it’s first 6 months.

  9. says

    Thanks for the interesting and timely piece. I was thinking on a Very Similar Theme, the website for a piece of student software.

    The thought was and still is:
    Man, it got to look all right.

    Information & Relevance
    What the heck is this… tell me quickly, would it do things for me?

    Call to Action
    Now what, moving on to the download page, good! No, the battle isn’t won yet, is the visitor downloading now? If yes, cool, you’re my man or my lady!

    Where are we… how many visitors we got a day, average time spent, which page they spent most time,
    Most Importantly, for the download, have most of them decided to download, if not, why?
    What can we do better? Find Key Drivers… frequent iteration of improvement.


  10. says

    This is one of the best articles I have read recently, I suppose because it hit a nerve. It made me realize that that one of my favorite questions to friends, family and others, “What do you think?,” often squashes ideas before they have had a chance to get a vote from the real audience, the one that you describe so well. Thanks.

  11. says

    Great post Brian
    In my experience I have found that many times “outside experts”, or in this case the manager assigned to the group, may know what has worked in the past, or best practices, but often times they are not living and breathing in your specific business or niche.

    I’ve noticed this with mentors and advisers of mine too…Though they can point you in the right direction they are not in the day to day grind of your business or industry. It’s up to the audience, or customer to truly reveal what they want and you’ll find it if you are listening.

    Do the research / get informed opinions, then trust your gut and ready, fire, aim.

    Hope all is well my friend,


  12. says

    It amazes me how many people second-guess themselves into oblivion. I’ve done the same thing numerous times, and every time, I can look back and see that all it did was screw me up. It kept me stuck at a desk in a customer service job for a miserable year until I decided to just pull the trigger (after doing my research, of course). If you’ve got something going, get after it and make it work!

    • says

      Proper research is wise, but it’s easy for so many people to get caught up in “Analysis Paralysis”. You can keep researching forever…it could never end being that there are always new trends, competitors, industry research, etc.

      Research–>Believe then jump in and you’ll either sink or swim, but if you have the right mentality you’ll make sure you don’t drown. I’ve noticed as you get moving many doors will open.

      Good luck!

      • says

        Agreed…sometimes you just have to put an artificial end to research (especially when there is no ‘right answer’ to the questions you’re asking) and dive in with both feet to continue your analogy.

        Preparation is invaluable but with a firm deadline in mind, even if it’s only one you give to yourself, you can remind yourself that the ‘action’ part is the goal, not the research itself.

  13. says

    Awesome post, Brian.

    I used to be so afraid of failure that I never took a single risk – what a shame that was. Now, I try to put as much out there in the world as I can. I do this knowing that not all of it will possibly succeed, but that failure is guaranteed if I do absolutely nothing at all.

    So I keep trying. You have to try, or you’ll never succeed at anything.

    Anyway, thanks as always for your thoughts.

  14. says

    Love it, Brian. So true, put it out there, people’ll give feedback whether you want them to or not. If they love it, do more of it. If they don’t, then change it up.

    Your story about Wilco reminds me of U2, how they’ve changed their music styles over the years…

    And the Beatles. They were the next fascinating thing back in the day.

    • says

      Don’t we all? :)

      But life is about rejection as well as success and ‘getting up eight times when you get knocked down seven’.

      Posts like this remind me that there is hope!

  15. says

    This is the sort of article that everyone should be reading as it provides inspiration to those who are perhaps stuck in a rut and are longing to get out there and find themselves!

    It cheered me up no end and I completely agree with the philosophy that people should not allow themselves to be prejudged or pigeon holed.

    Thank you.

  16. says

    Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (on my personal ten best albums ever list) Wilco has had 3 additional studio albums and a live collection. A fourth record is due out this September. They have an interesting documentary about the making of YHT called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I think it’s available to stream on Netflix. Jeff Tweedy exemplifies Brian’s point in every way.

  17. says

    Great post. The Wm. Goldman posit is timeless. If TPTB did know what they were doing, there would NOT be flops in any industries. That’s why you have to go with your gut instinct and not listen to the naysayers. BTW, the other day, I saw Mio V. bagging groceries at Safeway.

  18. says

    Great points. I prefer the sound of Uncle Tupelo (pre Wilco formation) over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But like one says, “nobody knows anything.” So write on.

  19. says

    Wow. I never thought I’d hear the name ‘Mio Vukovic’ on a Copyblogger post! I used to deliver magazines to him at Reprise in the early 90’s and he used to attend our Christmas parties. Small world. :)

  20. says

    Awesome. I’m actually doing an experiment now. I’m writing one guest post every day for the next month and submitting them. The hardest part about it is worrying the article will be rejected or that it won’t be good enough. I spent all day writing one for Copyblogger and kept thinking this over and over, even though it is a damn good article.

    What I’m realizing is I really just need to get the articles out there. Like you said, I can’t judge what people will like. Only the audience can tell me. So there’s no point in sitting all day and worrying.

    Hence, forcing myself to write and submit each guest post every day.

  21. says

    I never thought of streaming music as content marketing, but it really is – insightful analogy!

    Why do I sense that one of the modules in Authority Rules is called “Nobody Knows Anything”? :)

  22. says

    Thanks I needed that!! I second guess myself all the time!! If I hadn’t been doing that during the last 5 weeks of summer I’d have gobs of content (let the audience decide if it’s useful) by now. So off to make those two tutorial videos right now!!

  23. says

    Thanks, great article… I’m about to take the plunge and relaunch my own site in the next day or so, so this is very timely. My wife’s been telling me I’m spending too much time on it, but I haven’t been heeding her advice :)


  24. says

    Brian, do you have any examples of content on Copyblogger that you thought would regular awesome, but turned out super-awesome, as decided by your audience?

  25. says

    I LOVE this Brian. It’s one of the best things you’ve written, I think. You’re sounding like Seth Godin here.

    Just one quick thing here. Unless you’ve changed it in the past two weeks, the signature of your Aweber confirmation email says “Thank Again.” I think you want an “s” there.

    You know how Robert Scoble is criticizing Apple big time over there on his blog? That’s because he loves Apple so much. 😉

  26. says

    Hey, brilliant thank you Brian! from my small experience so far of blogging it seems to me that if you really believe in what you are saying and you say it from the heart and from your experience you can’t go far wrong. You’re looking to attract like minded people and those who don’t like it – well, you’re just not meant for each other!

  27. says

    I dig the cut of your jib Brian…

    Jump into the unknown without fear, for your courage will set you apart.

    Those who try and fail are the most successful.

  28. says

    I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s book: Linchpin, and as someone else up there noted, “you’re sounding a lot like Seth.” Great message and well-written. I’ll be using this article as an example of content AND structure for a class I’m teaching tomorrow on writing for the web. Gracias.

  29. Donina Ifurung says

    I look at this as “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” (as long as as it isn’t totally rubbish) – I added that last part. I think it’s about being fearless and confident about what you have to say. Not all people will get it!

    Great post!


  30. says

    Wow. This is exactly what I needed to read today. I keep going back and forth between different ideas, but really I really need to just test. Whatever the audience votes for is what I need to stick with.

    Thanks, Brian. (In a very genuine sense. Not in the spammy comment kind of way.)

  31. says

    I love the thought that there are no gatekeepers. I know plenty of bloggers and entrepreneurs who spend all their time trying to get what they do in front of the “right people” instead of getting it out to their real customers. They turn more successful bloggers than themselves into gatekeepers, when the audience was always right in front of them. That’s a Post-It-note-on-the-computer-monitor thought if ever there was one.

    • says

      I think the “no gate keepers” aspect of social media is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, it allows a lot more people to get ideas out into the world but it also means sifting through a great deal more mediocre or poor ideas (who knows, mine may belong in this category?) before you get to the great undiscovered stuff.

  32. says

    Nobody knows anything. Who knew?

    Our first venture: we did all the research. We did 3 beta versions of the product and tested each one with an international audience. We asked friends and strangers standing still long enough on street corners specific targetted, marketing-infused questions about the venture’s viability. We got enough thumbs up from all that research to move ahead, which meant engaging a professional crew to film the final version (costing us thousands) and having a website custom built (ignorance was our main enemy there – also costing us thousands).

    We’ve sold very few of those products. One might even label it a ‘failure’ if one was into labelling. We certainly haven’t made back anywhere NEAR our initial outlay.

    Our second venture (cue: get up if you fall down gene): I did no research. I got some general feedback about the copy on the sales page, and I chatted to lots of nice people in cafes about it. But I didn’t do research. I’m still trying to work out precisely what I DID do, but it couldn’t be called research. The very first month, we were making money. Within 3 months, we’d recouped our initial outlay. We get media calls at least once a month to talk about it. No research.

    So, yes.

  33. Jonathon says

    Excellent advice. Reminds me of what I say about my university degrees. All those bits of paper say are that I gave enough professors what they wanted to hear to give me straight A’s but at the end of the day all it proves is that I know nothing about everything and everything about nothing.

  34. says

    Great post Brian perfectly timed 4a light bulb moment.

    I’ve been sitting in the nest getting fat on the juicy worms of copyblogger excellence. If there are many paths up the mountain, then it’s time I got over needing to be perfectly prepared and just get my content marketing wings flying.

    If you hear lots of flapping noises that’s the sound of me trying to fly high with a belly stuffed full of fantastic content and now a determination to succeed.
    Thanks Copyblogger.

  35. says

    Thank you for this post.

    This comes at an auspicious time for me. We family historians and genealogists have an expression, “hitting a brick wall” where you feel thwarted and stopped after expending so much energy – doing what you love. This post has suggested that perhaps I’m going about things the wrong way. Perhaps my eyes are on the wrong prize.

    I need to get rid of the ‘Mio Vukovics’ in my life in order to get back on track and break through those brick walls. Copyblogger has helped me rethink things. Again, thank you.

    Peace & Blessings,
    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  36. says

    Great content. Writing for the web demands our total FOCUS and we must know what our blog readers cherish the most. Isn’t it wonderful to know that you and Seth Godins are sounding the same. Intelligent post, full of inspiration for my next project. God bless you for giving your mind to creating this – it’s TOPNOTCH!

  37. says

    How right you are! This article definitely puts everything in perspective. Being the music lover that I am, the example of Wilco really tied the whole thing together in a pretty bow. I wondered what was going on when all of my favorite artists were releasing singles via the internet. I’m an avid believer in no piracy, I hate piracy being a writer and all, and what Wilco and many others are doing is taking back control. That is what we as authors and artists have to do: take control back! Put your stuff out there, take control away from major publishing houses and other known areas, just take the risk and find your audience. Bravo on a well-written, well-timed article.

  38. says

    Hey Brian

    Whilst I agree with you that ‘nobody knows anything’ – always loved that Goldman line – I think there are two things that you can take to take an element of the guesswork out of equation.

    First you can do a detailed interview with a target profile from your audience. That way you can more readily identify the problem areas that your audience are facing and present information that will solve those problems. If the problem is pressing enough, that should guarantee some sales. (The go to guy on Target Profiles is your old buddy Sean D’Souza.)

    Secondly once you’ve identified that problem you can PRE-SELL your eBook or eCourse. If not many people take up the pre-sell offer (and presuming your offer doesn’t suck!) then that’s a good indication that your idea is not gonna fly. If on the other hand you make a bunch of sales…there’s a good chance you hit one out of the park.

    The beauty of pre-selling is that if not many people buy, then you simply refund those that did and move onto something else. And if enough people buy to make it worthwhile then the fact that you’ve got their money in your bank account to act as a motivation to actually get the seat of your pants in the seat of your chair and get the eBook or eCourse actually written and published. (Sean D’Souza – again – teaches about pre-selling. And so does Clay Collins).

    Hope that’s of interest.


  39. says

    Couldn’t have wrote it better myself!
    There is no 1-2-3 step process that guarantees success. Artists have made career defining smash hits and also had their huge failures.
    The failures are just learning experiences though. Not smart to just quit with the first big flop.

  40. says

    Everything was impossible until it wasn’t.


    Cars, planes, clothes, skyscrapers, toilet paper, digital music, etc.

    This emphasizes the truth in “nobody knows anything.”

    And you better believe the people who pioneered each of these technologies were told by the Mio’s of the world that they were stupid for even thinking these were possible to create and that people would flock to them if they did.

    Overcoming your own opinions that are dominated by fear of failure, fear of rejection and the fear of being wrong is the most important mission any of us could ever embark on, but few will. Thank you Brian for building this site which aspires to nudge us along towards the grand destination of becoming conquering heroes!

  41. says

    This was a great article. Good good traffic and sales goes back to what people want and like. It’s hard to say what people like when we don’t give them a chance to try it.

  42. says

    Yes, even though I am pretty much inclined in getting feedback about products and services of mine, at the end it is only me who decides what to incorporate and what not to change. There is a think line between being high headed and yielding too much. I must take into account of the feedback but if I totally yield to it, my own touch on the product or service will be lost.

  43. says

    Well, praise be to Brian Clark for writing this little motivational piece. I agree with the jist of things here, that you won’t know what kind of response you get until you put it out there.

    Recently, I joined LinkedIn and sent out requests for referrals. Now, the vast majority of these requests are unfulfilled, but if I didn’t ask, I’d never have known. I do have a few awesome referrals though, which makes the effort worthwhile.

    If you aren’t prepared to move onto the branch, how can you expect to get the fruit? :-)

  44. says

    Thank you for this post! It’s just what I needed today.
    Many people ask me if there’s a market for what I do. Do parents really want to teach their kids to read? I think they do. I’m working on ways to help and make a profit. I haven’t felt the confidence to work hard enough to produce something to make a profit. I’m ready to work harder and put it out there. I have a lot of ideas. It’s time to try some.
    Thanks again.

  45. Jimmy George says

    This was truly a motivating post. I am fed up with all the guru bloggers trying to give you 3 advices a day only to give exactly the opposite the very next month. Nobody knows Nothing (for sure) until its out there. Very true …

  46. says

    Great advice – and even better examples. People are so afraid to say what’s on their minds for fear of people thinking they are “odd” or “different”, but that is exactly what you need to succeed online! If you don’t make yourself stand out, you will just blend in with the other tens of millions of people online. This is inspirational – I think I will go write a new blog post right now:)

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