If you know the classic tale of Robin Hood, then you’re familiar with the concept of rob from the rich and give to the poor. Emerson Spartz gives Robin Hood a 21st century facelift.
Instead of bows and arrows, his weapons are Wikipedia and user testing. Instead of plundering gold and jewels, he’s grabbing up intellectual capital. What the real world Mr. Spartz shares with the mythical Robin Hood is a fundamental drive to raise the quality of life for the people around him.
What has made Spartz so successful in his pursuits thus far (a happy marriage, great friends, an internet media company that serves 10 million monthly visitors) is his focused and voracious approach to learning. To me, a learning scientist, Emerson is the perfect case study in deliberate learning. He recognized the most powerful mechanism of human learning at an early age (12), and he had the opportunity to design his own education (through self-directed home schooling). What is this fundamental perspective that Emerson credits for his success?
“The fastest way to learn a new skill is to emulate those who have already mastered it.” – Emerson Spartz
And this is what Emerson does. He steals from the masters in every topic or skill he sets his sights on, from psychology to sports, from finance to poverty. His unending goal is to use what he learns to make the world a better place.
“We’re all standing on the backs of giants. Instead of learning the hard way, why not start with the best way?,” Emerson says. So let’s apply this practice to Emerson himself. After all this thieving (aka: learning), what are his best practices? What can we steal from him?
Here are five pieces of pure intellectual gold that you can plunder from Chicago’s very own, new, and improved Robin Hood:
“I felt like I had a cheat sheet to life.”
The secret weapons behind Emerson’s education are biographies. At one point he was reading four a day. He credits his parents for the tip. You can credit him for the indicators of its success. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying individual success, applying pattern recognition across thousands of biographies. Whether they were about athletes or writers, tycoons or politicians, they tend to approach life in the same way. They respond to adversity in the same way. Even though their upbringings are different, and even though their backgrounds are different, it didn’t change their belief systems,” says Emerson.
So, he studied those who’ve already figured it out and he does what they do. And you can, too. Where should you start? Well if you ask Spartz what faces he sees in the mirror (other than his own), you’ll hear him say Soros, Gates, and Zuckerberg.
All three have very analytical minds. George Soros was one of his childhood heroes, because he loved the idea of using intellectual capital to amass a fortune and then spend it creating open societies and making the world a better place. Bill Gates applied a savvy business mindset to the world of non-profits and organizations for social good. Mark Zuckerberg sees “more chess moves ahead,” one of the qualities Emerson admires and aspires to develop personally.
All three of them are deeply influential on a global scale, which inspired Emerson to pursue a path of study that ultimately led to…
“The more incentive you give people to share, the more they share.”
Starting with influence, Emerson researched the art and science of persuasion. Again, he modernized this research by applying it to the burgeoning phenomenon of internet virality. Through his experience building Mugglenet.com, OMG-FACTS, and GivesMeHope (as well as several other popular sites) with his colleagues at Spartz Media, Emerson has learned a few things about what goes viral and how. Given that he’s amassed 160 million monthly page views, he’s proven himself to be the guy to emulate when it comes to getting people to share online.
“There are two ways you can get people to share. Bribery works for people who have products that don’t sell themselves. The other strategy is well-tested user experience. I usually just recommend bribery,” Emerson jokes.
Emerson suggests a “two-column approach.” Start by making two columns. In the first, put every possible action you want your customers to take (likes, +1s, shares, etc.). In the second column, write down all the incentives you can offer. Then match up the two columns. Try all the different combinations and see which ones work best together.
But there’s got to be more…right?
If you push him, Emerson will tell you that there are a few things that increase the “viral coefficient,” or the probability that something will get shared. To oversimplify Emerson’s wisdom enough so that novices like you and I can get started, I will call these the “ABCs of virality”:
- Arousing (emotionally, not physically)
Positive emotional messages, as well as a narrow range of fearful or angry messages, tend to get shared. The briefer the media, the better the likelihood it will get shared. And often more controversial messaging will get passed along, but only to inner circles- not necessarily to extended ones. In other words, be brief and pack a pleasing or prickly punch.
However, even Emerson says that virality is not something you can contrive. Eventually, the only way to make something truly sell itself is testing, testing, and even more…
“My idea of a good Sunday is sitting in a room with a bunch of screens and looking at data driven sites to try and deduce what changes were made to those sites and why they made those changes.”
Emerson tests everything. Everything. Here’s an example: I owe him lunch today, because years ago he tested the phrase: “I’ll get this one, you get the next” and it turns out to be a great way to complete a good conversation over a shared drink or meal.
When it comes to your product, he recommends: testing small, changing a little bit, then testing again. It’s easy for him to do this with millions of users clicking on his sites every day. For those of us who aren’t so fortunate, our Robin Hood of the web recommends starting with family and friends, then buying a hundred dollars worth of adwords, then using random samples from your online network as it grows. If your product isn’t web-based, you can still test it; just make sure you do so iteratively (test, make changes, then retest), over and over again. If you’re Emerson Spartz, you never stop testing.
Learning is all about applying feedback. So I’m not at all surprised that endless testing and countless iterations have led Emerson to ultimately learning the secrets to his own success, not just in business but in life.
“I got to a point very quickly, where I’d checked off all the boxes on what I thought was important in life. I had a great family and friends, I was making plenty of money, and I was in a loving, supportive environment. Then I had this kind of epiphany: I realized I didn’t have anything more to do for myself, so the only thing left to do, logically, was focus on helping other people have the same opportunities I had.”
Success for Emerson means having the biggest impact possible. After watching his Mom run a community foundation, he learned that money can be an “incredible power for good.” But financial success isn’t the only path he sees to build influence and impact the world. If it were, he says he would have become a hedge fund manager. In addition to his rapidly increasing social influence (12 million followers distributed across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube), he has some very encouraging words for entrepreneurs like you and me. “With entrepreneurship, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can make money andcreate tons of value using capitalism at its finest: starting ventures, funding ventures, and getting solutions off the ground,” Spartz says.
Emerson believes that answers to many of the world’s woes will likely come from commercializing technology that indirectly impacts the lives of everyone on the planet for the better. He points to existing examples like Wikipedia and Facebook’s “Newsfeed,” as well as not yet fully realized opportunities like game-enhanced learning.
So for Emerson Spartz, it comes down to a very simple equation. And while he thought it up when he was just a kid, it rings no less true today…
5. “Brains + $$$ = Smiles to Infinity”
I start smiling when I think about what Emerson might create with his smarts and his wealth. I know now that he’s not going to stop testing and reading and learning his way to more of both. How many billions of smiles he eventually adds to mine is a secret we’ll have to wait to read about in his biography.
For now, I wish this modern day Robin Hood good looting and happy giving. I’ve stolen some of his know-how. Now I owe him some lunch.
Get your ticket now to hear Emerson’s keynote address at this month’s Technori Pitch!