Chapter 3 (Part 3): Surprise!

By Jonathan Goodman | Follow Him on Twitter

My Boss is a Jerk

1984 was supposed to be the year of big brother. George Orwell predicted that, by now, we would all be slaves of the Government in a dystopic existance. Some would argue that, in a boiled down way, he was right.

By 1984, rudimentary systems of email communication were being used and it was transforming how human beings communicate. All major instant communication mediums before this point were synchronous, that is, two people speaking face to face with little time to respond or think about how their actions were going to be perceived. When I speak to somebody I just met at a coffee shop I have a lot less control over the outcome than I do if I met them over the internet.

People were themselves not necessarily because they wanted to be but because they couldn’t think quick enough not to be. Email created the first widespread asynchronous but instant communication system. It changed the way people acted.

The phenomenon was first demonstrated by Sara Kiesler et al. in a 1984 study. Here she found that employees were more aggressive and hostile towards their superiors in email communication than they were willing to be in person. 3*9*

Following email was the advent of instant messaging with the first modern day GUI (Graphical User Interface) messaging systems. The two main ones were ICQ with its popular “uh-oh!” and AOL Instant Messenger in the 1990s. Even in 2010, ICQ had 50 million active users when it was sold for $187.5 million. 3*10*  3*11*

By the mid 1990’s good old synchronous conversations were getting rare. I asked my first girlfriend out on a date over ICQ and she later broke my heart over MSN messenger. The times had changed.

So what does this mean?

It’s starting to become normal to hide behind a computer screen. The network is here and people’s perception of their online status is sometimes just, if not more, important to them than their offline reputation.

The era of selective self-representation online is upon us and it is only going to get bigger and more widespread.

A Place to Call Home

Perhaps the most notable positive benefit with the advent of the network was the development of groups with perceived similar or shared benefits. Off-line support networks have been in existence for a long time but they weren’t always accessible to everybody. A religion affiliation might have a sect in every major town but somebody who was obsessed with teddy bear collectables might be hard-pressed to find a collector group nearby.

Quickly these networks or social groups started to develop online. People from all over the world could share and bond over common interests as obscure as civil war teddy bear collectables or as mainstream as Christianity.

The nodes were being built.

The specialty networks grew just like small communities with levels of implied or unspoken bureaucracy. They were largely self-contained and driven by passion, not profits. The members identified themselves with the product, service, or idea contained within that group and the Internet made it easy to find others like them.

The most powerful of these groups were ones where no equivalent off-line group existed, is hard to find, or is stigmatized. Some examples are people with life-threatening illnesses or those with stigmatized social identities such as gay and lesbian groups. The Internet provided relative anonymity for sharing and social support and people within these groups felt like they had a home.

Online networks, either established or unspoken, gave members the perception of belonging. Feeling a part of a bigger whole is important for somebody’s self-worth and sharing relevant information to that network works to build ones perceived social status within that network. Perceived social support is more important to one’s well-being than actual received social support. 3*12* A like is therapeutic and potentially addictive.


I started a comic on a whim because I felt like it. I’ve never read a comic book aside from Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. I also can’t draw and don’t know anything about comics.

Why did I start one? I did it because I needed something to go viral within the more experienced weightlifter networks. But I needed to be different. What’s old is new in weightlifting and I didn’t care to provide another article or book on the best way to get abs. So a comic was different, fresh, and fun.

And with that, MightyTrainer was born.

I’ll be speaking in detail about the theory behind the comic later in the book. For the purpose of this chapter consider a couple things:

  1. Each main gym personality is caricaturized.
  2. The drawings are good but very basic with lots of room for imagination.
  3. It was designed specifically to spread only within the exact audience it was developed for. Everybody else would receive it either with disinterest or anger.
  4. It was a surprise. Every strip has some sort of twist and turn that isn’t expected.

Andy Nulman in, POW! Right Between the Eyes! Profiting From the Power of Surprise, described the concept of surprise better than I’ve ever heard before:

“To initiate a flow of eye-popping, talk-inspiring, extreme expanding Surprise, all you have to keep in mind are the four key theories that permeate just about every action that causes a delight-filled reaction:

  1.  Everyone’s a Kid in Disneyland.
  2. Balls beat Brains; Balls Beat Budgets.
  3. Little Things Mean a Lot.
  4. Sometimes, There is No Reason

The Surprise Theory Quartet […] delves deeper into and expands upon the core values found within all Surprises – the sense of wonderment, the display of guts, the disproportionate reaction, and the constant unpredictability.” – Andy Nulman 3*13*

I want to examine each of these individually. Surprise is everything. It sets you apart within a network and is a pillar in Viralnomics. But surprise doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, it should sneak up on you.

Everyone’s a Kid in Disneyland because surprise brings out the inner child in all of us. Surprise is one of the most powerful weapons to weaken the defenses of your consumer no matter who they are. Put a smile on their face or make them sit up a little straighter in their seat and they are no longer worried about being marketed to.

A network has people from all walks of life from powerful executives to everyday laborers. They gather within the network with a common perceived purpose yet their barriers are all different. With surprise everybody in your network displays the wide-eyed innocence of a child. As Nulman states “by getting adults to return to their short-pants and lollipop roots, they can find the positive and let the sunshine chase the clouds of cynicism and distrust that may hamper many marketing messages.”

As it turns out we’re all human (surprise) and, despite whatever titles are given to us as we grow, we maintain the same childish innocence to be impressed and affected. Most companies realize this but don’t have the cojones to act on it. Surprise is all or nothing.

Balls Beat Brains, Balls Beat Budgets because it’s not the smartest person in the room that inspires you, it’s the most courageous. It takes balls to do something different and veer from the established, measurable path. If a campaign screws up that has evidence backing up it’s effectiveness the person in charge likely won’t be put at fault. But if a new and risky campaign fails the person in charge will be held accountable.

One of the most infamous stunts involved the tv show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and resulted in a major bomb scare in the city of Boston in 2007. Interference, Inc. was representing the company and shipped 40 electronic signs to be placed in a variety of locations including train stations, overpasses, and other high traffic / high visibility areas. 3*14*

On January 31, 2007, somebody spotted a sign and reported it to the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) and the Boston Police Department was called in to identify the device. 3*15* At 10am the bomb squad exploded the sign as a precaution and by 10:21am announced it was a hoax.

The result of the incident was that Turner Broadcasting was forced to pay for all costs and there didn’t end up being any criminal claims. It totaled $2 million in fees. 3*16*

On one hand the incident landed everybody involved in hot water. The main players were arrested and, even though they were later released, the $2 million dollar penalty was not anticipated.

This campaign had balls though, and it got National media coverage for the show and upcoming movie. Oh, and Peter Berdovsky (the one who created the signs) came across the scene and watched the events unfold. He was instructed not to say anything. 3*17* The marketing company knew how good this fiasco was for publicity.

When the two responsible for making the signs were questioned they refused to speak about anything other than their 1970s hairstyles. 3*18* By all accounts this stunt was stupid, but I’m still talking about it in a book years later. Balls won out.

Little Things Mean A Lot because we often notice small differences before large ones if we’re expecting things to be one way and they are not. People talk about what’s different especially if they aren’t expecting it. One pillar of a joke has always been to string along the listener for as long as possible getting them to nod their head then, at the last possible minute, make one change of reality.

One great way to get your material to spread is to use this concept and change something very small. Those who pick up on it will develop a sort of ownership over the concept and share it.

Last night my roommate and I were speaking and he remembered a sign that he saw from his time living in southern Texas. The sign was a regular A frame sign outside the front of a shop advertising firewood. But instead of saying “firewood” for sale it said “faarwood” poking fun at the southern accent.

The sign got his attention and he still remembered it fondly years later. If the sign had glowing lights, whistles, bells, and a guy in a mascot suit outside he wouldn’t have gave it a second thought. The advertisement was effective because my friend expected to see a certain type of sign and he did, but with a little change that fit the scene perfectly.

Sometimes, There is No Reason because sometimes it’s important to answer with “because” instead of “why” when explaining why you took an action. Because doesn’t need to be followed with an answer. Because is surprising. Because is one of the most powerful words in the English language and it will set you apart.

Sometimes you don’t need to explain yourself when deciding on a promotion or a funny gimmick. Do it because it’s fun and what’s funny to you will attract others who think the same way you do.

Every once in a while I decide to give away copies of my books. I’ll pick people at random from my email list and send them a personal message asking which book they would like. Because once I do, they turn into a kid in Disneyland.

Interesting Aside – The True Power of A Network (or how to raise over $1 million for a cause nobody cared about previously)

In the summer of 2002 a popular web comic, The Oatmeal run by Matthew Inman, decided to attempt and raise $850,000 to buy Nicolas Tesla’s old laboratory. The amount, if raised, was to be matched by the state of New York to buy the land and refurbish Tesla’s old lab into a museum. He called the campaign, “Operation Let’s Build a Goddam Tesla Museum” 3*19*

So Inman wrote a comic stating his goal and offering a variety of perks for different levels of contribution. The perks ranged from bumper stickers to t-shirts to a hand drawn comic from Inman himself. The results were astounding:

  • Within 24hrs $450,000 was raised.
  • $873k was raised in the first week from 20k people in 102 different countries.
  • The average contribution was $41.
  • As I write this there are 20 days left in the promotion and $1,220,821 have been raised. 3*20*

This was all done through one comic strip and a massive interconnected network all based around a cause that many of the contributors hadn’t given more than a quick thought about until they decided to donate. My guess is that many people who donated hadn’t heard the name Nicolas Tesla since high school science class.

The comic acted as a spark that ignited a stagnant but powerful network. The network loved Inman for his comics and, when Inman stood up for a cause, his network came out of every corner. They did this not because they cared about Tesla (if that was the case they would have done something sooner) they did it because it made them feel as if they were a productive part of a greater whole that Inman had created.

The campaign took balls and he did it because, well, he felt like it. That and Tesla was the fucken man.


3*9* Kiesler, S. (na). Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communcation. na: Unknown Binding.



3*12* Uchino, B. (2009). “Understanding the links between social support and physical health: A life-span perspective with emphasis on the separability of perceived and received support.”. Perspectives on Psychological Science 4: 236–255.

3*13* Nulman, A. (2009). Pow! Right Between the Eyes: Profiting from the Power of Surprise. Hoboken New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.









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