What PT Barnum Knew That You Don’t, and How it Can Explode Your Business

by David · 0 comments

Phineas Taylor Barnum, 19th century entertainer, businessman and circus king was a master of getting attention. He became known as the Shakespeare of Advertising because of his uncanny ability to draw a crowd.

“Without promotion something terrible happens,” he said. The name of that terrible thing? “Nothing!”

When he died, he was given more column inches in the newspapers than anyone before him, other than presidents.

He revealed his secrets by writing a book and touring the world to make speeches.

Today, for you, we have distilled his wisdom into a single blog post.

Give People What they Want

“The noblest art is that of making others happy.” ~ P.T. Barnum

This is the paradox of getting attention. If you want to get noticed, don’t shout about yourself. Instead, talk about your audience and what they’re interested in. That way, people will come to you, instead of you having to go out to them.

Barnum called the ability to give people want they want “the noblest art”. More importantly, it works as a marketing strategy.

How to find out what customers want? You can always ask them. Alternatively, read on to find out how Barnum answered this question.

Arouse Curiosity

People want to be tickled, tantalized and teased. Nowadays, that’s why we watch movies, TV shows or read novels, or ride roller coasters. They leave us holding our breath until the final moment of release.

In the 19th century, entertainment was an even bigger game. Barnum used jugglers, musicians, giants, midgets, exotic women, and models of famous battles to draw people in to his Museum of Curiosities.

Talking of curiosities, Barnum knew how to get people to turn up to his shows in the first place: arouse their curiosity with big promises and headline acts. These included a Monkey Mermaid (with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish), and back-to-front horse, with a tail where its head should be, and a head where its tail should be.

Getting attention means being able to write or create great headlines. And whether you’re writing headlines for a product or a blog post, you must always deliver on the headline’s promise. Never bait and switch. (The only exception to this rule is when you’re being funny. Barnum’s “back-to-front” horse was simply a regular horse with its tail tied to the feed trough).

Put Yourself in the Ring

Though he owned the circus, and made millions of dollars doing so, Barnum never took a back seat. Instead, he performed in his own shows, riding around the ring in a chariot, waving to the cheers of the audience.

If you want to make a name for yourself, you must put yourself out there. It’s not enough to hide in the corner and let the marketing people do the promotional work for you. In today’s world, where everyone is connected, people want to get to know the real you.

Hang Out With the Right People

Barnum was sure of one thing: his network was his net worth.

Visiting England, he secured an audience with Queen Victoria, who was amused by both Barnum and the tiny man who traveled with him, Tom Thumb. Out of this encounter, he met face-to-face with royalty from countries all across Europe, and got his hands on many new artifacts and curiosities for his museum along the way.

Twitter and LinkedIn both offer you the opportunity to network with the thought leaders and power holders in your niche, right from your iPad. That’s an opportunity that’s too good to refuse. And if you make friends with Royalty (or anyone else with a big name), ask for a LinkedIn recommendation or a Twestimonial. Their magic and sparkle will rub off on you.

Reach for the Sky

While touring Europe, Barnum heard legends of a Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Popular across Europe, but unheard of in America, Barnam approached and offered her $1,000 a night, plus all expenses paid, to do a 150-night tour across the US. This was a huge risk – and one only a character like Barnum had the big dreams and courage to take.

During his visit in England, he planned to buy the birth home of Shakespeare and ship it to America, brick by brick, to be rebuilt and exhibited on Broadway. The sale fell through.

As a young man, he invested his life savings – thousands of dollars – into a grease to cure baldness. His business partner took the money, and fled to Europe, leaving Barnum bankrupt.

Another time, he pinned all his business hopes on illustrated copies of the Bible. The agents he hired to sell them conned him out of every penny he owned.

The Jenny Lind punt, however, paid off, and made the singer a huge International success. Barnum took home $5,500 a night from her performances, while Lind made over $350,000 in America, and donated it all to charity.

Barnum was still taking risks in his 60’s. Age 61, he set up his circus, and in a leap of faith, made it the first circus with three rings. Crowds flocked from across America to see the travelling show.

In seeking attention, as Barnum knew well, risk is inevitable. In his own words:

“‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.”

In other words, no marketing strategy is a guaranteed success. But monitor what works,and you’ll be more likely to repeat your successes.

Even the best can be fooled

“There’s a sucker born every minute” was a favorite phrase of Barnum’s, so much so that he is (wrongly) credited with inventing it. HE did, however, call himself “the Prince of Humbugs”, and knew that in taking risks and trusting others, he was liable to fall for their scams.

The next time you feel downhearted, or taken for a fool, remember the story of Barnum, a man who once sat and wept in a hotel room in Liverpool, England for homesickness.

On top of the Bible sales swindle and the cure-for-baldness con, Barnum once entrusted all his wealth, hundreds of thousands of dollars, as loans to a clock company. The clockmaker went bankrupt, taking Barnum down with them.

Yet he never lost his belief in humanity.

“A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.” ~ P.T. Barnum

David is Social Caffeine’s acting editor. He’s British, but we don’t hold that against him.

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