How to Sell Ideas

Why should you learn how to sell ideas? Can’t you just write and let the ideas sell themselves?

It’d be nice, but in most cases you can’t.

It’s not enough for ideas to spread solely based on their merits. There are countless writers, artists, university professors, and inventors who devote their whole lives to creating useful, profound, and interesting ideas. Despite all this effort,however, few of their ideas seem to catch on. So, if ideas cannot rely solely on content to survive, what else is needed?

The answer is simple: ideas are products just like anything on the supermarket shelf, and you need to sell ideas in order for them to spread.

One sales strategy that holds many similarities to the strategy of selling ideas is the multi-level-marketing (MLM) approach. Although MLM has been much maligned as a kind of scam that’s only profitable for the people on the top of the pyramid, when you’re selling your original ideas, you’re almost always starting at the top.

Ideas are bought and sold through the intangible currencies of understanding and acceptance. If you buy an idea, that is, if you understand and accept it, you’ll most likely tell your friends about it. If you’re a writer you may write about it. If you’re a singer you may sing about it. If you come to completely embrace the idea, you essentially become a sales rep for that idea, passing it on to as many people as you possibly can so that they can buy it and pass it on.

The rewards you get when you sell ideas are often intangible at first. You get credibility, authority, respect, and recognition. These intangible assets can help you increase your blog traffic, book sales, or the amount of money you can charge per word as a freelance writer. Even though the monetary rewards aren’t immediate, they will come as a result of the intangible rewards. In this way we can see how the business of selling ideas is very much a business, and it should be treated in a similar way.

In order to sell ideas effectively, you can’t just focus on content. As far as selling is concerned, the packaging can be just as important as what’s in the package. Just as a bag of potato chips needs a label to entice us and tell us what we’re going to get should we buy it, an idea needs a label as well. It needs a meme. There are many definitions for a meme, but for the purpose of labeling an idea I’ve defined it as a phrase of three words or less that can fit onto the space of a gum wrapper or roll smoothly off a cable news pundit’s tongue, yet still be true to the core of the idea.

Some of the best ideas out there are very complex and unwieldy, and as such they can be difficult to distribute from one tier to the next in the MLM pyramid. Complex ideas without a label, without some phrase that brilliantly sums it all up, are seldom passed on because of the sheer effort it would take to communicate the idea and get someone to understand it. Because of this, less people are likely to become sales reps of the idea no matter how brilliant they think the idea might be.

Ideas with a great label, on the other hand, have an amazing way of infecting the public consciousness. Consider how many laypersons with only a cursory knowledge of molecular physics might talk about string theory. The phrase “string theory” has done much to crystallize an incredibly complex idea, even to the point where many people who don’t understand it fully have become sales reps for the idea. In this way, a label can do much to help people sell ideas without them having to explain the idea from start to finish.

The memefication of an idea is also important to preserve an idea’s integrity. If, for example, you write a great article about some social phenomenon without giving it a good label, chances are that not only will the essence of your idea be corrupted telephone game style, but it’ll be difficult for people to figure out who the original author of the idea was. It’s even possible that it won’t be you who is credited for coming up with the idea, but one of your “salespeople” down the pyramid who found your idea and repackaged it for easier distribution.

In order to market and sell ideas effectively then, a writer must learn to master the principles of Idea Chain Management. Idea Chain Management is the process involved when you work to effectively package, distribute, and sell ideas. If you do it well, not only will you get your idea to more people, but more people will become sale reps of the idea.

On top of this, your idea could be picked up by someone down the line who can sell ideas better than you. One of your sales reps may write a book that makes your idea famous. Just like in the MLM scheme where the vendor makes a share of the money from the sale and kicks some of it back up the pyramid, you, as the creator of the meme or buzzword that the book was based on, will naturally get to bask in some of the publicity that the book generated. People who loved the successful book that popularized your idea will naturally want to know about you, the idea’s creator, and whatever you’ve written.

The Principles of Idea Chain Management

Mastering Idea Chain Management is essential if you want to learn how to sell ideas and how to market them, so I’ve come up with some guidelines.

The goals of Idea Chain Management are threefold:

  1. You want to get your idea to as many people as possible.
  2. You want to preserve the integrity of the idea as it gets distributed.
  3. You want to make sure that you get the credit for coming up with the idea.

The first step of Idea Chain Management is to come up with a meme or buzzword that would best sum up your idea:

  • It should be three words or less. The shorter the better. For single-word memes you can make a portmanteau by fusing two words together.
  • It should be completely original.
  • It should be faithful to your original idea.
  • It should evoke an image or emotion.
  • It should be intriguing.
  • It should be quotable.
  • It should make people want to Google it.
  • It should sum up and clarify what people are thinking about at a subconscious level.

The second step is to secure authorship of the idea.

  • Google your meme or buzzword to make sure there aren’t any incidences of it on the entire web. If there are incidences of your meme with an entirely different idea behind it, that’s OK. I did find one page on the internet that used the phrase “Idea Chain Management” but in an entirely different context.
  • Before you publish the article or book or blog entry where your meme makes its first appearance, make sure you register domain names with the meme in it. Before even writing the rough draft of the article I registered the www.ideachainmanagement.com and www.idea-chain-management.com domain names.
  • Set up Google alerts with the meme name to see how it’s spreading on the ‘net. Make sure that people are giving you credit for coming up with it.

The third step is to do your part to market and sell your meme.

  • Use your meme as often as you can. Use it whenever it applies to the topic of your writing, the subject of an email, or even to a conversation you might be having. Use it use it use it. Just like any product, the more you try to sell ideas the more they’ll be bought.
  • Keep track of your most successful memes, the most quoted and the most written about, and capitalize on the success. Write more articles that apply to topics covered by your more successful memes and less articles for the less successful ones.
  • Don’t try to memify every idea that you have, only the very good ones. Too much memefication can be a bad thing and make your writing seem gimmicky. It’ll also diminish the importance of your best memes.

Memefication is Not Easy

After trying a little memefication of my own I realized that it can be just as much work to label and package an idea as it is to come up with the idea itself. It actually took me longer to come up with the phrase “Idea Chain Management” than it did for me to write this article. I had already come up with the concept of working to sell ideas effectively by repackaging them for easier distribution, but I figured that since this whole article was about making memes and using them to sell ideas, I should come up with one of my own. I spent nearly five hours going through my thesaurus looking for good synonyms for words like “ideas” or “packaging.” I also did a million searches on an online rhyme dictionary to see if I could pull a clever pun or portmanteau out of a hat.

One thing that was incredibly helpful in coming up with the meme was discussing the idea with a friend and bouncing meme ideas back and forth. It led me to believe that meme-making, as opposed to writing, is more a social activity than a solitary one. Discussing possible memes with a friend helps you explore the same idea from two different perspectives at the same time. It can make it much easier to distill your idea and find its three-word-or-less essence.

Since the process takes quite a lot of time, save your memefication for your best work. If you have a concept that’s truly great, you may want to pull out the stops and consider implementing some Idea Chain Management. If your idea is half-baked, it probably won’t benefit much from memefication because in the end it’s the contents, not the labels, that sell ideas.

Mini-Memes

Will the concept of Idea Chain Management sell? I don’t have a clue. Just because I put the time and effort into naming the idea doesn’t mean that the idea will catch fire. I’m confident, however, that using the words “Idea Chain Management” will probably take the idea much further than just letting it sit label-less on my website and hoping someone likes it.

Although I feel the Idea Chain Management meme will do well, I doubt that it’ll become a household phrase. It simply isn’t relevant to a general audience–few memes and buzzwords are. There are always degrees of distribution. Take a look at the Wikipedia list of buzzwords and you’re bound to find a few that you’re not familiar with. Some memes and buzzwords are only destined to be mini-memes. They might not enjoy much mainstream coverage, but they can remain very active within certain interest groups.

The concept of “Learned Helplessness,” coined by Psychologist Martin Seligman, for example, is a very simple meme that sums up the idea that people aren’t born helpless, but that they learn to be helpless. This meme doesn’t enjoy much mainstream popularity, but it’s a big buzzword in the personal development community. If you’re a personal development enthusiast, it won’t take you very long for you to bump into this phrase. The more you bump into it and the more you see it in connection with Seligman and his book, Learned Optimism, the more you’ll want to read the book. This mini-meme is one of the factors that has led Seligman’s book to be one of the biggest bestsellers in the field. However, I probably would’ve gone my whole life not knowing about it if I hadn’t been interested in personal development in the first place.

Become the Main Authority

Becoming a master of Idea Chain Management can be very helpful to sell ideas. When you give a brand or trademark to your idea, you become the undisputed creator of it. Instead of being some lowly distributor somewhere in the middle of the MLM pyramid, you jump straight to the top of heap as the idea creator, and as such you’ll be looked to as the main authority behind it. If your meme spreads to a million pages on Google and you decide to write a book about the idea behind it, how long do you think it’ll take before you get your bestseller?

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  • Shirokuma

    Pretty good content here. Thanks

  • bob

    Hmmm…can you think of any specific examples of people getting rich because they were credited with starting a buzzword? I tried to think of some, but…

  • Kenji

    One example is Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” which effectively describes how making every possible form of content available on the internet can be profitable. The meme was easy enough to remember, spread like wildfire, and lead to many many book sales.

    Other examples are Malcom Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” Tipping Point became a phrase used often in viral marketing strategies and the term Team of Rivals was used repeatedly when Obama was picking out members for his cabinet.

  • Thank you for this. I have been thinking about how memes go viral and I think you give sound advice about coining a buzzword label.

    People may not know what they are talking about but as long as you give them the phrase they can use, they will talk about it. String theory is an excellent example.
    .-= Tammi Kibler´s last blog ..Write Fast: 5 Tips to Accelerate Your Output =-.

  • Kenji

    @ Tammi
    Thanks for your comment. I think making a meme can be useful for something as complex as String Theory, but it’s certainly isn’t applicable to everything you write. If you really think you have a good idea, however, it might be worth a little Idea Chain Management.

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  • Hmm… fascinating idea about the importance of memes. Definitely need to think more about how this can apply to my niche.

    You should write a second post giving case studies of memes/examples of idea chain management!

  • Kenji

    @Travis

    I’ll have to look into that. I have a feeling that the folks at Icanhazcheezburger.com are implementing some of the idea-chain-management techniques to a level that few are aware of. They’d make a great case study.

  • Llo

    I think your article is awsome! Genial! Thanks!

  • Robert Ndlovu

    “Well packaged” !