Sally Hogshead and the Art of Fascination

The Queen of Fascination shares a new crop of insights with us …


Those of you who came to our 2015 live event probably remember Sally Hogshead’s memorable and valuable talk … that kicked off with her taking two shots of Jägermeister before 9:00 AM.

Our team still talks about Sally’s mantra,

Different is Better than Better

In this 23-minute episode, Sally and I talk about:

  • What “different is better than better” really means for content creators
  • A new “fast pass” tool Sally has created to find your content’s most compelling advantage (free for now)
  • How to manage the increasingly fragmented “goldfish” attention spans of the 21st century
  • The three hurdles we need to manage as content creators
  • Giving your audience the tools to be fascinating themselves
  • How to use a culture of experimentation to keep the creative fires burning


The Show Notes


Sally Hogshead and the Art of Fascination

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM is brought to you by the Digital Commerce Institute. Do you want to build the business of your dreams without squandering time and money? Stumbling around to find the right path? Or making unnecessary mistakes? The market is ready and waiting for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier. Digital Commerce Institute is here to change that. Go to Rainmaker.FM/DigitalCommerce and get the training, education, and community you need to start building your digital business the right way.

Sonia Simone: Well hey there, I am so glad to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger Blog. If you want any link that we have, you can swing on over to Copyblogger.FM, and the magic of the Internet will take you to the show notes and all of the archived episodes. On some of them, we’ll go ahead and spell them out for you, but we always have lots of resources and digital material for you.

I’m very happy that we were able to get Sally Hogshead to come join us today. Sally was a keynote for us last year at our live event, and I really think everybody who saw it agreed that she walked the walk, especially when she opened her talk at something in the neighborhood of 8:30 in the morning by taking two shots of Jägermeister, so that was memorable. It was remarkable, it woke everybody up, and she went on to really engage, educate, and fascinate us. I think we’ve all seen keynotes that are a little bit samey same, but this was really a remarkable performance and a remarkable experience.

She’s the author of Fascinate, which has been revised and updated, and she has also created some tools that we’re going to let you know about on this podcast. Welcome, Sally. It’s so lovely to have you here.

Sally Hogshead: You know what? I have been looking forward to our conversation, Sonia. I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you. I’ve got to tell you, I have a huge crush on the whole Copyblogger/Rainmaker audience, and it’s totally my peeps, so I want to give away some cool cheat sheet-type stuff in our conversation today.

Sonia Simone: Yes, yes, awesome. I love that. I want to jump in by congratulating you. I know you have a new edition of the book, and I also know that it’s really been considerably expanded and updated. Do you want to let us know what’s up with the new release?

Sally Hogshead: Sure. I originally started researching the science of fascination in 2006, and that book came out in 2010, which was the single worst time to release a high-concept business book. Nobody wanted to do anything but keep their jobs in 2010. In marketing, it’s like the first thing that gets cut is the marketing or content budget, and so I went on to write How the World Sees You. After that became a New York Times bestseller, the publisher came back to me and said, “Hey, let’s go back and take the same system, all this research with almost one million people, let’s take that and revisit the original version of Fascinate.”

In my mind, I was thinking, “Oh, cool. I’m just going to do a little find and replace in my Word document, and the whole thing’s going to be done.” You know how it goes, you start deconstructing a piece of content, and suddenly the whole thing unravels like the sweater pulling the thread.

Sonia Simone: Oh, yeah.

Sally Hogshead: It was a massive, massive overhaul, because the truth is, when I originally wrote Fascinate, I was basing it on my experience as a creative director for a decade inside of advertising agencies and brands, but I didn’t really have the algorithm yet, I didn’t have the hack. And so I’m incredibly proud of this new edition, because it’s got over 100 new case studies, it’s 68 percent new content, and it’s more the how-to book that I always wanted to write, but just didn’t have the studies yet to back it up.

Sonia Simone: That’s so cool. I would venture to say that for a great majority of keynotes, maybe I feel very excited by the speaker’s expertise, and then an hour later, I have no idea what they just said. I really think people who saw you talk last year really came away with what was for me your key point, and I talked about it with our team: being different is better than better. I thought maybe you could unpack that for the folks who didn’t get that chance to see you live.

Sally Hogshead: Yes. We spend a lot of time with our clients and even ourselves when we’re writing blogs, we’re writing ads, or even writing an email to our team. We try to focus on being better. The problem is that better works if you have a bigger budget. In other words, if you have the biggest budget in your category, then you can focus on being better. You don’t have to worry about being different because you can put more messages out, you can have a bigger media budget. And so you want to focus on that competitive stance of being better.

The problem is that if you don’t have the biggest budget and you’re not the most famous, then being better is really hard and really expensive. What’s better than being better is being different. When we’re working with clients and customers with our own readers, imagine that you have a choice. You can either focus on being better but then risk that nobody will notice or care, or you can focus on being different by identifying something that you’re already doing right and then doing it on purpose.

I’ll give you an example: it doesn’t matter if I write the best book if nobody reads it. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if an auto manufacturer creates the best cars if nobody buys them. Nowhere is this more true than with content. If you have the best idea but nobody cares, then you may as well have never come up with the idea in the first place. That’s why, over the course of the last decade, with taking a look at what the most fascinating brands and people and ideas are, how they consume our attention, we found ways to strategically and systematically identify what makes them different.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, I mean, you have so many fascinating stories on this and so many examples. Is there sort of a thumbnail one that you could give us? Just of somebody that had something so memorable, so different, that they really stood out and were able to build success on that?

Sally Hogshead: Yeah, you know what? I always like taking examples from people who don’t have a bigger budget because it’s easy to be fascinating if you can just buy your way into people’s consciousness.

My husband and I have a beach house in a sleepy little surf town named New Smyrna Beach. It’s about an hour south of Daytona. There’s a strip where they have restaurants and bars, and a lot of them have much bigger budgets than this one that we love named Gnarly’s Surf Shack.

It’s at the base of a bridge, and it has a huge competitive disadvantage because this bridge is a drawbridge that goes up and down for sailboats as they’re coming through, and there’s no way to predict when a sailboat is going to be coming through. So you’re sitting there having your fish tacos and ‘ding, ding, ding, ding.’ Suddenly, your whole meal’s disrupted by this drawbridge and the cars backing up.

Well what Gnarly’s did to gain a competitive advantage is they priced beers at 25 cents when the drawbridge goes up. As soon as people hear ‘ding, ding, ding, ding,’ everybody runs to the bar because they know that they’re going to get their beer for 25 cents for the next five to seven minutes. And it’s become a huge draw for Gnarly’s because they took this competitive disadvantage, which is a just crap piece of real estate, and they turned it into their key differentiating point.

Here’s the deal. For all of us, within our brands, within our personal brand, within our content, within the ideas that we’re creating, there’s always something that looks like a flaw. But if you can flip it around, it can actually become a massive competitive advantage. I mean, I grew up with the last name Hogshead…you want to talk about brand disadvantage? In the book, what we found is that great messages have two parts to them. We call this the anthem, and it’s the anthem exercise in part three of the book.

The first thing that great concepts have is they identify how the brand is different. In other words, once you identify how something is different than others in its category, you can have a superior competitive position because you’re not going head-to-head based on things like ad budget.

Part one is how the brand is different, and the second is what the brand does best. In other words, the brand’s key area of performance. As an example, my husband and I just bought a Tesla. How the brand is different is that it’s breakthrough. What the brand does best is technology.

When I say to you, “I’m creating content for a brand that has breakthrough technology,” it becomes much easier for everybody on the team to align around that, almost like a creative brief, like a North Star. So everybody can say, “Okay, we can write content in different formats, different forms of media, but as long as we are communicating breakthrough technology, then we can all stay aligned and not talk things to death.”

Another example would be Southwest Airlines. How the brand is different is that it’s friendly. What the brand does best is practicality. Everything that Southwest does is aligned around friendly practicality, from the way they hire their flight attendants to the peanut packaging and the way they market on their website. So in identifying how a brand or a person or idea is different, that’s how to create marketing content around it without having to overthink and rehash and getting confused and getting stuck.

Sonia Simone: Yep, I always wonder this when I see what you do and read your work. Do you believe that anybody can be fascinating? I mean, are there some people who are just never going to be fascinating?

Sally Hogshead: Not everybody has the drawbridge with the ‘ding, ding, ding, ding’ tug pass. The answer is yes, different brands fascinate in different ways. The ones that fail to fascinate are going to be the ones that have to compete on the basis of price. Competing on the basis of price is just a fast downward spiral into obsolescence and irrelevance. Because if you’re not breaking through from distraction and commoditization, then that’s going to be a big problem. Brands can still be trusted, they can still be consistent, they can still be stable and comfortable and reliable and be fascinating.

An example is Tiffany & Company. They sell a lot of low-end stuff for the $100, $200 price point. But really, the brand needs to keep its stature as selling $50,000, $100,000 pieces in order for it to maintain its prestige over time. They released a bracelet several years ago that was at such a low price point that all the high school girls were wearing it, and it was starting to become a fad. Tiffany made a really controversial move among its shareholders, and it got a lot of backlash for doing this. They created scarcity among those pieces so the prices would go up so that they wouldn’t become a fad that would then go out of style.
Because what goes up comes down, and they knew that when those teenage girls that had bought an $80 silver bracelet were at a point in their life when they would want an engagement ring, if the brand wasn’t aspirational, then the brand would lose trust. That’s an example of how a brand has to stay true to its principles, what I call its advantages. The language that the brand speaks in order for it to have a strong place in the market over time.

Sonia Simone: Well, I do know you have a new brand fascination profile, and I was just curious, what’s that about and what’s the deal with that?

Sally Hogshead: You know, I’m so excited to have you mention that because it’s sort of like my new baby. When I worked in advertising, I worked with a lot of really big brands like Nike and MINI Cooper and Target, and I saw that most brands, even if they’re small- to medium-sized businesses, have to make an uncomfortable choice.

And that choice is either they can hire somebody else to do their marketing, oftentimes at a bigger budget than they can realistically afford — they have to hire an ad agency or a high-end marketing expert — or they have to do it themselves and risk damaging their brand, getting frustrated, and ultimately losing money. And that just doesn’t make sense.

Every other category is commoditized. I don’t have to call a travel agent if I want to book a flight. And so I wanted to find a way to give anybody kind of a backdoor shortcut, like the fast pass at Disney World where you could just kind of jump right to the front of the line, building upon my experience working with brands.

I created an algorithm, and when you go to, you can take this assessment. And in about three minutes, you can get an outcome, which is what your brand’s most compelling advantage is. It runs on the same platform as my Fascination Advantage assessment. Which by the way, we had 5,000 people from Copyblogger take that assessment.

Sonia Simone: Wow.

Sally Hogshead: Yeah, so step one is to take the assessment at and find out what your brand’s primary advantage is, almost like a focus group, in three minutes. And then when you go to the book, I give examples of the words that you should be using to communicate that advantage. Once you have the words, it becomes a lot easier to create content. Because even if you don’t use my words, I’m giving you a copywriting secret. It helps everybody align on what that strategic brief should be.

Sonia Simone: I know I’ve definitely heard you talk about this idea of the goldfish attention span. We’re in such a hyper-fragmented attention space right now, and it’s getting worse. Every year you think it can’t get worse, and it gets worse.

Sally Hogshead: Right, yes.

Sonia Simone: And you know, content creators, bloggers, podcasters, YouTube creators are fighting with so much noise, and we’re fighting so much clutter. We’re trying to stand out. I know you have some thoughts on how to survive. Some people call it ‘content shock,’ where there’s just such a volume of content, and there you are. Maybe you’re even a super small business owner or a freelance copywriter, and you’re trying to swim in all this noise. What are your suggestions?

Sally Hogshead: There are three challenges that we all face with our content and really, anytime we communicate: distraction, competition, and commoditization. When I first started studying for Fascinate, I found this word, this concept of fascination in an old scientific journal. And I remember reading this clear as day. It said, “The word ‘fascinate’ is one of the oldest words in written language, and it goes back to ancient Latin. The word originally was fascinare. Fascinare means to bewitch or hold captive so that your listener is powerless to resist.”

I thought, “Now that’s cool, that’s dark and cool.” I began studying it, and I found that this concept of fascination holds true around time across the globe. Constantinople, the European Renaissance, even the Salem Witch Trials were not about witchcraft, they were all about fascination. We stopped focusing on how to bewitch or hold captive our listeners when we got into the 20th century with marketing. We thought that by slamming people with content that was not fascinating, we could simply dull their senses and dumb them down into submission.

Let me give you a couple of fast facts that I learned that give an example of how content can be fascinating, even in a world with the attention span of a goldfish. One of the pieces of research that we found was that women will spend more to be fascinating than they spend on food and clothes combined.

Let me break that down, because I think this is really key for people who are developing content. We asked women, “How much would you be willing to spend in dollar amounts to be the most fascinating person in the room?” They were willing to spend 15 percent of their take-home income to be the most fascinating person in the room, which is more than they spend on food and clothes combined.

The takeaway is, in a distracted and competitive environment, find out how to make people feel fascinating. In other words, don’t just try to fascinate your reader, give your reader tools to become more fascinating to others. Because that’s where the ROI is going to be for them. Another thing that we learned is that fascinating brands can charge up to 400 percent more for the same product. There’s a real dollar value amount in helping your clients make their brand more fascinating, and for you to make your own brand more fascinating.

Originally, when I started studying fascination, I thought it was simply just going to be about holding people’s attention. But we really saw that there’s a strong correlation of dollar amounts.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, exactly. Because I always say attention is not business. You can get attention in all kinds of ways that do not translate into anybody actually making a purchase from you.

Sally Hogshead: Yeah, in and of itself, if nobody takes action, then in fact … in a lot of ways, if you’re not delivering value in return, you’re actually making your reader or customer feel cheated because you’ve asked them for their attention span. Which we’ve just established, is only nine seconds, which means that’s the most precious nonrenewable resource, but you’re not giving them any value in return.

Sonia Simone: Before we wrap up, and I want to let people know where they can find you and all that good stuff. But something that I find really fascinating about your methodology is that it just seems to spark really interesting, creative processes. Our Copyblogger audience is all about content, and I think we have lots of different types of content creators, but almost all of us share this challenge with keeping the creative fires burning.

The challenge to generate the ideas day in and day out, the creative sparks that become memorable, remarkable, fascinating content every day and over the long haul. You’re a creative, longtime copywriter, you’re a creative business owner, what do you tell people who are looking for ways to keep the creative magic alive?

Sally Hogshead: We do a lot of experiments among our team, and I find that the curiosity of finding out what’s going to happen over the course of one of these experiments keeps me emotionally very engaged, but also opens up a lot of possibilities for us to continue to evolve. An example was, originally when I created the Fascination Advantage assessment, it was free, and it never occurred to me to charge for it. And then I learned the content model of, “Hey, you can actually make money for stuff you write? How cool is that?”

It was through that process of testing price points and finding ways to give it away as a freemium. We did an experiment for three months named Project Fascination, in which we gave people codes they could pay the assessment with. They got 100 free assessments that would normally be $47, and they could pay it forward for free. Then we just watched organically what happened without putting any media dollars behind it.

We had 120,000 people take the assessment within three months because we gave them tools to share. We showed them how to donate it to a church or give it to a school or share it on Twitter, and the way we did that was by giving them an advocate’s kit.

This is something that I think is, first of all, an example of how an experiment can become richer and more dimensional as it goes. But it’s also an example of how the more you build your content and do people a service so that they love your content, and then give them as many ways as possible to share it out and pay it forward, it comes back to you over and over again. If you try to keep your content like it’s this fragile doll up on the shelf where it gets dusty like your grandmother’s China doll, then it just rots.

The more that our content can be living and breathing and red-blooded and out in the world and spreading a message, the more inspired that we as content creators become, because we’re seeing the difference that our message is actually making out there.

Sonia Simone: Very cool, I like that a lot. I know you’re a busy lady, you’ve got a book to launch here. I would love to just let people know where can they find you. The brand fascination profile is at, but I know you have a couple of other places that they can connect with you as well.

Sally Hogshead: Sure. Well, first of all, I want to say, as a content creator, it’s very, very important to me that this is useful for people in a very practical way. I invite you to come and plagiarize as much as you want. Take the adjectives that I give to describe your brand and then apply it and see how it works. All I ask is let me know how it’s going. I’d love to hear success stories. My main website is I love when people talk to me on Twitter. I’m @SallyHogshead.

Of course, the book is now available on Amazon. They were sold out in two hours but they have ample in stock.

Sonia Simone: I saw that, yeah, that’s crazy.

Sally Hogshead: I know. How awesome. It’s actually awesome news and weirdly bad news at the same time. I couldn’t quite decide. They had to overnight 2,200 books. The book is Fascinate: How to Make Your Brand Impossible to Resist. I love hearing from people about case studies that we could be featuring. So if you have a fascinating story of how you’ve applied it, let us know because we can share that content out. And you can do that by emailing us at

Sonia Simone: Awesome. Really cool. Well, as I mentioned, Sally was a wonderful and a very memorable part of our event last year. This year’s event takes place in October. Once again, we’re in Denver, Colorado. We would love to see you there. At Rainmaker.FM/DigitalCommerce, you can find out more about it, and there’s still a pretty good early bird deal on, so I would love to see you there.

I think that that’s going to wrap it up for now. And Sally, I just want to thank you. Your approach to things is just so fun and, I mean, you really walk the walk, you really speak from who you are, and you speak with such a distinct voice. I just always love talking to you.

Sally Hogshead: Thank you. You know, I love being able to feature you in my keynote, too. I love that your archetype is the maverick leader, which is the same as my husband’s, so I knew before I’d even met you we’d get along famously.

Sonia Simone: That’s right. We had a bond. All right. Super thank you so much, Sally. Thank you guys for your time and for your attention, and I’ll catch you next week. Take care, everybody.

Sally Hogshead: Bye, everybody.