Purple Cows, Pie Kitchens, and the Blogosphere: Does Quality Really Matter Anymore?

There is a place down the street from me called the "Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen." Most people don't get the name right. It is usually called "The Pie Kitchen" or "Homemade Pies" or "Ice Cream Kitchen" or some other variant. I guess you could say they have done a less-than-stellar job of branding.

The truth is, their sign looks like hell, like it's been there since they opened in 1982. The building looks plain. They don't advertise. The "carryout menus" are poorly photocopied pieces of paper folded in half with type that is almost two small to read. Then employees don't wear uniforms. The inside of the store has a mixture of old restaurant booths and wire patio furniture. Both are uncomfortable to sit in. Yet, every time I go, the place is packed.

This store, which is in violation of just about every marketing law known to man, always seems to have a line at the register. And even though no one ever gets the name right, they all know what you mean if you mumble some random combination of the words "pie," "homemade," and "kitchen." So why is it so popular?

1. You can get all kinds of cool desserts there that you can't get anywhere else – some that you have problemably never even heard of.

2. They all taste fantastic.

I'll have to take back what I said earlier. There is one marketing rule they follow. They offer a purple cow. (As Seth would say) They offer something great that you can't find anywhere else. It's proof that quality pays.

But maybe it doesn't. Actually, blogs have got me thinking that quality really doesn't matter. It all started a while back when Jory posted that she would rather give out her bra size than her blog traffic. What ensued was a discussion about quality writing, blog popularity, and whether or not the two are related.

I pointed out that when Businesspundit used to get a few hundred visitors a day, the average time spent on the site was well over two minutes. Now that there is another zero on that number, the average time spent on the site is about 45 seconds. Does traffic really matter if people just pop in, read your headlines and leave? My guess is that most of my readers only find one or two things a week here that really interest them. The discussion had me wondering, how much of blogging is luck and timing? If Glenn Reynolds started blogging today, would he be so popular? problemably not. Sure he's witty and plugged-in, but so are lots of other bloggers. But the problem with popularity is that you reach a tipping point where you grow because you are popular rather than because you are quality. Okay, so maybe that's not a "problem," but you know what I mean.

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When I started blogging back in early 2003, things were different. There was no money in it and we did it for the love of…er, because we were geeks obsessed with trying out new things. Quality was easy to find because there weren't that many blogs. Good stuff filtered to the top pretty easily. Linking power was more distributed. Now what is popular is more determined by what can catch the eye of a few superbloggers than what can catch the eye of the most bloggers.

Which brings me back to my original question – does quality matter? Sure it does. Look at the Pie Kitchen. Of course it doesn't. Look at the blogosphere. Can a brand new blog crack the top ten because it is unique and well written? Does anyone pay attention to a purple cow if everyone else is ignoring it? If Oprah and Jessica Simpson and Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman and other social influencers aren't talking about it, who are we to think that it may actually matter?

I'm confused. It seems that things become popular because they are good, but popularity can then sustain itself once the goodness has faded away. Is it human nature to prefer popularity over quality? We assume if it's popular then other people like it for some reason, but perhaps that is a poor assumption. Maybe the Emperor has no clothes. Maybe Google is no longer the best search engine, Ebay is no longer the best online auction, and Windows is no longer the best operating system. Yet they are all the most popular in their category.

Does quality still matter? The Pie Kitchen gives me hope that the answer is yes.