March 23, 2023

Navigating comms and PR | Lulu Cheng Meservey (Substack, Activision Blizzard)

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Lulu Cheng Meservey was formerly head of comms at Substack (where I host my newsletter and podcast) and is currently the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer at Activision Blizzard. She also writes one of my favorite newsletters, “Flack,” where she shares tactical advice for company comms, PR, and messaging. In today’s episode, we dive deep into the world of PR and comms. We discuss why taking risks is crucial, how to gain attention as an underdog, and why it’s important to have a super-specific audience. Lulu outlines several frameworks I’d never heard of before, including a concentric circles framework for identifying your audience, the cultural erogenous zones, and even a physics-based framework for comms.


Where to find Lulu Cheng Meservey:

• Twitter:

• LinkedIn:

• Newsletter:


Where to find Lenny:

• Newsletter:

• Twitter:

• LinkedIn:



• “Binders full of women”: Mitt Romney’s four words that alienated women voters:

• Bill Bishop’s newsletter on Substack:

• Hamish McKenzie on Twitter:

The Network State: How to Start a New Country:

• How to increase virality:

• Ryan Petersen on Twitter:

• Brian Armstrong on Twitter:

• Palmer Luckey on Twitter:

• Pirate Wires:

• NYX:

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae:

The Last of Us on HBO:

• Notion:

• Lex:


In this episode, we cover:

(00:00) Lulu’s background

(04:36) What helps an idea spread

(06:17) Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”

(07:19) Advice for coming up with contagious phrasing

(08:36) Lulu’s esoteric reference that left her Twitter followers confused

(11:08) The importance of taking risks, and Lulu’s thread on standing for free speech

(12:53) An example of another sticky phrase

(14:40) The cultural erogenous zones framework

(16:08) How Kamala Harris made people care about education

(17:29) How to get attention as the underdog

(20:25) How Substack used the concentric circles framework to spread information

(21:32) Understanding the layers in those concentric circles

(25:44) How to get started figuring out your concentric circles

(27:03) An example of aligning messaging with people’s values 

(28:19) Lulu’s mathematical formula framework for comms for a purpose

(28:54) A physics-based framework for comms

(35:56) How Balaji Srinivasan used the concentric circles approach with his book The Network State

(39:46) The importance of a super-specific audience

(41:12) Reasons your comms are failing

(42:40) Why you should focus on one direct communication channel at first

(46:58) Why not every founder needs to be on Twitter

(48:02) Who LinkedIn works better for

(49:23) Examples of messaging with a human voice and hopping on trends quickly

(51:11) Reasons for direct comms 

(53:52) How to get started setting up a direct channel

(56:09) Why consistent, good content is better than trying to go viral

(59:28) Lightning round


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Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:00:00):

I often say to find your audience's cultural erogenous zones. So what it means is people have things that they either care about or don't, and you're not going to change that. So it's a huge lift to try to change someone's worldview or their passions. It's a light lift to take the thing you want to talk about and just shape it into, to fit into their worldview or their passions. There's not always a fit.


There's going to be people who are just not your natural audience, and you should know that and not waste your time. But if your natural audience cares about X and you're offering Y, then it's your job to create the API or to create the bridge from X to Y. With messaging, it's not build it and they will come. It is so hard and you'd have to be superhumanly gifted to the extent that I can't recall seeing in my entire life, where you create a message and a story so powerful that someone who didn't care at all before suddenly makes that their passion. It's so much easier to take what they're passionate about and understand it, and then convince them that if they care about that then they should care about your thing because of this connection.

Lenny (00:01:18):

Welcome to Lenny's Podcast where I interview world-class product leaders and growth experts to learn from their hard won experiences building and growing today's most successful products. Today, my guest is Lulu Meservey. I met Lulu while she was head of comms at Substack, where she was infamous for taking big risks and bold stands, and as a result creating a lot of attention for Substack, and other companies she's represented. Lulu is definitely the most innovative and interesting comms person I've worked with.


She's currently executive vice president of corporate affairs and chief communications officer at Activision Blizzard. And she writes what I'd say is the best newsletter on PR and comms strategy, a newsletter called Flack. In our conversation we get tactical about how to make your idea spread, cultural erogenous zones, the growing importance of going direct versus relying on traditional media. The importance of taking risks in your comms and much more. Lulu is so insightful, I could have continued to explore the subject for hours. Enjoy this episode with Lulu Meservey after a short word from our sponsors.


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Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:04:39):

Thank you Lenny. Great to be here.

Lenny (00:04:41):

I am really excited to chat all things comms and PR. I've never met a founder or product leader who doesn't want to get better at spreading ideas and getting their product out there, and you're very good at this. We're going to talk about some of the things you've done in the space. But just to start maybe just broadly I'm curious to hear just what have you learned about what helps an idea spread?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:05:03):

So there's a few ways to make the idea spread, the overall principle is you have to make it memorable and you have to make people want to say it of their own volition. And so what doesn't make them want to say it is doing a favor for a corporation. What does make them want to say it is they want to bring joy to somebody else, they want to make somebody laugh, they want to appear interesting, or they want to project some part of their identity. And so a few things that you can do with an idea to make it spread better, you can make it into a joke, so you can turn it into a line that people will repeat. You can use an analogy, you can take something and just say it over and over, move fast and break things, don't be evil, build something people want.


You can create a mental image that is very colorful. So I have a mental image for people that I use a lot, which is put the pill in some cheese and we can talk about it later, it's about how to craft a story that will stick. But when I say put the pill in cheese, people tend to remember that and it's more easily repeatable. And then the last thing is use a story, use an anecdote instead of using adjectives because adjectives are so subjective, they're meaningless to people. So if you give them a story that's something they can repeat over the dinner table.

Lenny (00:06:17):

Do you have any examples of the frameworks you just shared? So you talked about maybe having an analogy or putting the pill in the cheese, which I think is referring to when you feed a dog a pill. You want to hide the pill in the cheese. Is there any stories or examples that come to mind of this in action either something you've done or other companies you've seen?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:06:34):

One example not for the better is binders of women. You remember when Mitt Romney said binders of women and it just absolutely caught on like wildfire, and it's because you can picture the binder, it's a hilarious mental image. You make lots of jokes about it. It's a very specific unusual phrasing that is very repeatable, and it lends itself so much to memeing. So it's not something that they wanted to have happen, which is a word of caution, this can backfire on you as well, but that's an example. I mentioned move fast and break things, software is eating the world, it's time to build. Those are these short phrases that take normal words and put them in an unusual order, and then especially if you repeat them a few times they just become very sticky.

Lenny (00:07:19):

These things sound really smart and wise after the fact, do you have any advice on just how to... So we're talking about coming up with a cool phrase that'll spread of how to do that. I don't know what have you seen work for coming up with move fast and break things, how would a founder approach that?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:07:35):

You want to make it something that a second-grader could understand. You want to minimize the cognitive burden on the recipient. So it should be something where they're not having to expend any extra energy understanding the thing, where it immediately paints a picture. Or if you were to make a joke, it has to be a joke that they immediately get, or it's a very widely understood reference. You don't want it to be this inside joke with yourself that other people might get if you explain it to them. So if you were to boil down the essence of let's say your company or your mission, get it to one sentence and then turn it into a sentence that you could explain to a second-grader, and then cleanse it of all cliches and common parlance. And if you can then turn that into an analogy or if you can make it into something that has imagery, then you're probably 80, 90% of the way there.

Lenny (00:08:36):

So you've definitely done this on Twitter. It might be fun just to share a tweet or something of yours that has done this that has spread like crazy. I noticed you delete your old tweets, which I think is really smart and I should probably do that. So I couldn't find any examples, but I remember just being like, "Holy shit, it's got a bazillion views." Is there there an example that comes to mind that you could share? Just share something you put out that just went crazy.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:09:00):

I actually have a negative example too. I think it's useful to share my mistakes or missteps in addition to what went right, because there's more mistakes and missteps than what goes right. In general, you try a bunch of things every once in a while they succeed. But I think it's useful to think about what didn't land. And so one of mine was when you might remember this because this was the Substack era, when we were taking a lot of incoming for not censoring enough, and we took a stand that we want to encourage free expression. I was actually on maternity leave, so I was a little bit out of the loop, but I wanted to jump in there and support the cause. And so I did a thread about why we're standing by this principle even when it's hard, and the thread was pretty well received, it traveled a lot.


I think it was 30 something thousand likes among people that we cared about, people who write on the internet. And then there was one tweet in the thread where I said something like, "Doing this isn't pleasant, but neither for that matter is the sea." Completely esoteric reference, it was fresh in my mind because it was from a New Yorker book review where in that context it was poetic and evocative and beautiful. And I did the thing you're not supposed to do, which is take an inside joke with yourself and release it into the world.


And that one tweet was a dud in the middle of the thread where you could see the likes drop off precipitously and people were like, "What are you talking about?" And then afterwards I looked at it with fresh eyes, "Yeah, this makes no sense whatsoever out of a context." And also I'm not a New York book reviewer, so that was a good don't. But the fact that it was such a colorful metaphor actually caught people's attention in an accidental way. I didn't mean for it too. I guess that's a don't, does that serve as an example?

Lenny (00:11:08):

Yeah, that'll work and we'll go through other examples. But that's a good segue to something I was going to save for later, but it may be a good time to chat about is just something that you're big on is this concept of taking risks as a comms person, I think you have the sense that comms people are just very conservative, and there's a big opportunity to get a little out there. And in this case maybe it didn't work out, other times you have and it has. So just talk about that philosophy you have around taking risks.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:11:34):

I think if you're a startup your enemy is the status quo. And when you don't take risks, when you minimize risk by doing nothing, the best way to minimize risk is to do nothing. You're letting the status quo win. You're letting your greatest enemy and rival and threat to your business win by default, because you're not even going to try to compete. And so I always encourage people to try to make mistakes of commission rather than omission. Because if you make a mistake of commission you can observe it, you can learn from it. You know right away that it's happened. You can move really quickly and adapt and become better.


Whereas if you make mistakes of omission you're letting status quo win, you're not observing, you're not learning, and you're maybe not even noticing opportunities slip by. So the example that I use, again, an analogy to make it more memorable, my analogy for this is if you are investing money in the market versus if you're just sitting in cash. If you're sitting in cash you won't lose your money and it feels safe. But over time the world moves and the market grows, and everybody else is getting richer and you're getting poorer in real terms. Whereas if you make an investment it'll go up and down, there'll be some volatility. It's not just going to go up every day, but over the long run you'll be much, much better off.

Lenny (00:12:54):

Is there an example of something you did that you took a risk and it worked out, or you saw someone else do this really well?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:13:00):

The stand for free speech thread would be a risk that worked out. It was a risk because it was a topic that a lot of people were already mad about, which will happen with every topic that matters. It felt a little risky for me because I was on leave, I wasn't really in the middle of things. I was addled already, so I had at least one thing in there that was nonsensical. So there was the execution risk of would I'd be able to do this well.


There was also the risk of you poke your head up and make a thing where there wasn't a thing, and if that were to go wrong and embarrass the company or if that had made Chris or Hamish or Jerraj upset, that would've been upsetting to me and obviously a failure of my job. So that was a risk that I took and we took and they were supportive, and it did work out because the people who were most likely to write on Substack generally appreciate that stance.


I actually have one more for you Lenny when you asked about what are things that help stick in people's memory, there was the fail example of the sea analogy. I think a useful example that works is I often say to find your audience's cultural erogenous zones, and it is something that you immediately know what I'm talking about. If I say know your audience's cultural erogenous zones, you know what it means, it's a shorthand that everybody understands. It's not an inside joke with myself, and it's something that is unusual and upraising that you're going to repeat it and hopefully remember it, so there's one for you.

Lenny (00:14:40):

You told me about that framework and I definitely wanted to hear more about it. What does that mean and is there something that you've seen someone do that's just like, "Wow, they really nailed this erogenous zone approach."

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:14:54):

Yeah, they really got it in the erogenous bull bullseye. So what it means is people have things that they either care about or don't, and you're not going to change that. So it's a huge lift to try to change someone's worldview or their passions. It's a light lift to take the thing you want to talk about and just shape it into, to fit into their worldview or their passions. There's not always a fit.


There's going to be people who are just not your natural audience, and you should know that and not waste your time. But if your natural audience cares about X and you're offering Y, then it's your job to create the API or to create the bridge from X to Y. With messaging, it's not build it and they will come. It is so hard and you'd have to be superhumanly gifted to the extent that I can't recall seeing in my entire life, where you create a message and a story so powerful that someone who didn't care at all before suddenly makes that their passion. It's so much easier to take what they're passionate about and understand it, and then convince them that if they care about that then they should care about your thing because of this connection.

Lenny (00:16:09):

This makes me think about one of the other tweets that I think went crazy, which is where you share the things you're muting on Twitter. Where it's like the threads thimble and the pointing down thing, and it feels like that's exactly that where people are just like, "Yep, this is me."

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:16:25):

Yeah, it is that. I have an example for you Lenny. The one that my mind goes to is when Kamala Harris was running for Senate. Put aside what anyone thinks of Kamala Harris as a politician or if you agree with her politics, it doesn't matter. When she was running for Senate, she had this example where not enough people care about K-12 education. It's not a sexy topic and only moms care about it, whereas people cared a lot and still do about national defense, national security.


And so she said the way to get their attention is you go to people who care about national security and you tell them, "Did you know that in order to enlist for the army you have to have a 10th grade reading level?" If you can't read at that level, you're not going to be able to read the army field manual. And so if you care about the future of national defense and being able to maintain a standing army, you need to care about middle grade reading standards. So that's a perfect example, and in fact it stuck with me such that many years later I'm still repeating it to you.

Lenny (00:17:28):

Something else that I think what you teach helps with is underdogs coming up against incumbent companies, giving them a chance to stand out. Like Substack I think is a good example where you just helped elevate Substack on the world stage in a lot of ways. What have you found works best for underdog startups and companies trying to get attention?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:17:49):

First, you have to acknowledge that you're the underdog, and you're not going to use the GE playbook from the 1980s or whatever. So acknowledging that means knowing that you're not going to play the game that requires you to have more resources, more and deeper relationships, and institutional backings, and to be able to draft off of the current narrative. So all of those things are going to be not in your favor. If you're a startup for example, by definition you're trying to disrupt something, you're trying to do something differently, you're fighting the status quo. And if that's the case then you can't rely on maybe the government, maybe mainstream media to support what you're doing. And so you should assume that you want to go with an approach that doesn't require a lot of money or people, that doesn't require that institutional backing and those relationships.


That means building your own distribution, which you can do starting from day one. You can start doing that before you even have the company. It means taking your story and winning hearts and minds. Number one, by making it a story that you shape to fit people's cultural erogenous zones of your audience. And number two, by finding the centers of gravity in society, like the influencers that are going to help spread it for you. Because you're not going to on day one call up the New York Times and get them to print the story that you want them to. So you need to figure out who are the influencers and the way to do that, I'll cut off the rabbit hole after this because you can just go deeper and deeper, but the way to do that is in concentric circles. There's a general who said if there's a problem I look for it in concentric circles going back to my own desk.


If you want to spread something you go out in concentric circles starting from your own desk. So you need to get first really clear with yourself about what your message is and just get really crisp with it. This is hard to do because you know too much, so out of the 1,000 facts in your head you're going to have to pick just between one and three. And then the next circle is going to be your co-founders, your executives, your employees, your investors, you go to your power users, and you go out from there, and it has to be in that sequence.


But once you get the sequence and you identify who the people are and you know who your audience is, and then you're able to hone in on what their cultural erogenous zones are, then you're able to craft the message, have the delivery mechanisms, and then know your target, and then you're off. But you just need to do that exercise upfront, so you don't have a lot of wasted motion.

Lenny (00:20:25):

I really like this concentric circle framework. I haven't heard this before. Just to make it a little more real is there something that you can share, something that comes to mind that illustrates that?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:20:36):

Well, you and I have talked a lot about Substack, so I'm speaking out of term now that I don't have the employee badge. But something that I thought the Substack founders have always done so well is propagate product updates out in concentric circles. So there's a lot of things where you're going to know about it. You, Lenny will know about it more than a new writer who just joined, because you're a power user of the product and they would want you... Now they would want to make sure that you love the thing, and that you feel maybe even a little bit invested in the thing. You've been telling people about recommendations for nearly a year. No one asked you to do that. We didn't pay you to do that. You've done it because you were brought on board early and it was something that the company made sure that you liked, and then you became the next circle out that spread it to your next circle out.

Lenny (00:21:33):

It's interesting because I didn't think of it as an intentional strategy to get news out, and it feels like there's a synergy with just talking to your power users. Getting feedback from your power users leads to this interesting second order effect where they also want to... they feel like they're on the inside of something, they want to share it and maybe talk about it and tell friends about, "Hey, Substack's working this cool thing." So that's kind of a cool-

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:21:53):

Well, early on Lenny you asked about how do you get a message to spread? And I said you give people incentives who want to spread it. So your incentive was you helping others, you like paying it forward and helping other writers and podcasters, and you genuinely enjoy the thing. And I think there's some value to your own project that you get to show social proof that a lot of people like this thing and it's growing, and that's what you got. If it had been like, "Hey, Lenny, can you do us a favor and tweet this thing?" You might've done it, but you would've done it once and stopped and it wouldn't have been something that you organically keep doing.

Lenny (00:22:30):

To make this even more real I'm trying to help people understand this concentric circle idea, so first Substack is an example. What would be the few layers of the concentric circle on the middle would be maybe the power writers. What would be the next couple layers?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:22:46):

It's the employees at the middle, almost always, and then it is depending on the company. So here it would be the power writers, it's youth, a lot of the original writers. Bill Bishop comes up a lot, he was Substacker number one, he's always really meaningful. And then it's fast growing writers. It is writer influencers. There are certain members of the media that cover media and writing, and so they matter a lot. And then investors are in there just to keep close to the fold.


But if you're a different kind of company that might be employees board, institutional investors, government and regulators then users, just depending on how much power each group has to influence your future. And the reason I say go out in concentric circles as opposed to just hit each of these groups kind of haphazardly is that's your way to control the message. Because each circle is going to assume that the inner circle knows better than them and they're going to follow the lead of the inner circle. So an example is if you and I have a company, Lenny and Lulu, this is a DTC startup.

Lenny (00:24:01):

That's a great name.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:24:02):

It is, we should do it.

Lenny (00:24:03):

We should do this.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:24:04):

If we had a company and we were trying to put out a message to the world that our new thing works, it's really revolutionary, our genes are the best genes. If employees are not saying that, then people are going to look at employees and say, "Well, they would know, they're closer to this than we are. So if they're not excited then why would we be excited?" And so that undermines everything that we're trying to do, you can't skip a circle is my point.

Lenny (00:24:32):

Super interesting. And I imagine the closer they are to the employees the more time you spend with them, and the more innately they're closer and also their perspective and what they share is more powerful because they're closer to what's happening.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:24:48):

And if it goes wrong the more damage they can do. So on the spectrum it's if they are not totally on board and they're not an effective messenger, versus they're just lukewarm and they're not really sure they believe it. All the way to they actively fell off the bandwagon and you lost them, and now they're out there proactively contradicting everything you say or even trying to destroy the company, that can happen. If an early employee, for example, feels disgruntled, which is easy to do and it's easy to do through a comms mistake. If you sell them on one thing and here's a vision, and now either that's changed or you miscommunicated. If they feel like there's a bait and switch they're going to be really mad. And now you've created someone who is incredibly credible and has the same social and professional circle as you and is trying to ruin you.

Lenny (00:25:44):

That's such a good point. For someone that's trying to do this maybe internally they're like, "Oh, cool, we got to create these circles for our startup." What do you recommend they do? Do they make a list of here's our inner circle, here's the next circle of people.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:25:56):

Yeah, you take out your one-page Google Doc. I feel like most comms problems can be solved with one-page Google Doc. So you go to your one-page Google Doc and you take your audiences, you list them, probably stop at five or six because past that it's like way, way first world problem. You'll have more than enough work to win over the five or six inner circles, and then you have to rank them. And you rank them by how much they're able to influence your success and how much credibility other groups assign them. So then you have your inner to outer circles.


And then for each of them you would think about what do they care about that's their cultural erogenous zones and where do they reside intellectually? So do they listen to podcasts, if so, which ones. Do they go to in-person conferences? Are they getting all of their news from Reddit? If so, which subreddits are they on Hacker News? Once you map that out, then again you have the people you're trying to reach, the ideas and messages that resonate the most with them, and then the ways to actually reach them.

Lenny (00:27:04):

This is becoming a real template we can start using. In the bucket of erogenous zones what are some examples of erogenous zones for people in this context?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:27:15):

We've talked about the free expression stand from last year. A lot of people care about first amendment, protecting press freedoms and free expression. Not a lot of people care that a journalist said something mean about Substack. And so there were a few times when we did have to push back publicly against a journalist saying something mean and unfair or untrue about Substack. So obviously my and our ulterior motive is to vindicate the company and show people that this isn't true. But if we had just done that, nobody would've cared or maybe a few diehards would've cared. There are people who care deeply about Substack, but not as many people and not as deeply as the people who care about their ability to express themselves freely or their right to build their own media platform without too many controls.

Lenny (00:28:20):

The way you described it earlier came back to me as you were talking, which is this idea that lights people up. What lights people up within this list of people that you're making? So that's really interesting. So the idea is create this list of people across circles further and further away from your employees. Think about what lights them up, what are their erogenous zones intellectually, and then think about where they spend their time intellectually, what are they listening to? What are they reading?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:28:44):

Yeah, that's it.

Lenny (00:28:46):

Amazing, this is super cool.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:28:47):

It's not easy, it's hard, you have to make very difficult tactical decisions every day when you're doing that, but it is simple.

Lenny (00:28:54):

Yeah, it seems pretty easy. Okay, this is great. Another framework that we haven't talked about yet, do you have this math formula for how ideas spread? Does that ring a bell?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:29:04):


Lenny (00:29:05):

Okay, let's get into that.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:29:06):

I think it's useful to try to bring as much discipline as possible to comms, because you're really just measuring vibes. In a world of OKRs and data and metrics it's hard to know if you're doing the right thing with comms. And so I think whenever you're able to establish a framework its useful, so this one is kind of a mathematical formula of comms for a purpose. It assumes that you have a business goal and as a business goal, not communications goal, it's not get this many impressions or go viral or blah. It is we're going to grow our revenue by X, or we're going to make this penetration into this user base. When you have your business goal you're going to need certain people to do certain things for that goal to come true. So for example, you're going to need this type of person in this quantity to buy these sneakers in order for you to meet your revenue goal.


So now you know who the people are and the action they need to take. The next step is what do they need to believe in order to take that action? So they need to believe that their feet are not comfortable now, and that it's possible for their feet to be more comfortable and that'll have a positive effect on their life, and that this new sneaker technology is real, so they need to believe these things. Then it's where do they reside intellectually? How do you deliver that message to them, and that's the who do they listen to? Which accounts do they follow? Which podcast do they... what trips do they take? What newspapers, et cetera. And when you have that then you have the equation of we need to deliver this message to these people through these mediums in order to get them to do this thing with this call to action. And that way you know that you're at least pushing forward and getting something done with your comms as opposed to just saying words into the ether.

Lenny (00:31:11):

I think you had something like there's pressure and force and area, is that part of this or is that a different framework?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:31:17):

Different framework.

Lenny (00:31:18):

Oh, okay, cool.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:31:20):

Oh yeah.

Lenny (00:31:21):

Okay, okay, let's talk about this other framework too.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:31:24):

I've got more frameworks, Lenny.

Lenny (00:31:25):

I love it, this is what this podcast is all about. Let's do it.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:31:29):

This is a useful one for early stage startups especially, or anybody who's just trying to be lean and efficient, which is anyone who's an underdog like we talked about earlier, that if you decrease the surface area than with the same amount of force you can apply more pressure. So the amount of pressure is the force divided by the surface area, this is a basic equation for physics, but it's also true of communications, which is if you decrease the surface area and don't try to appeal to everybody with everything. And you're targeting exactly whom you're talking to and you are sharpening your message to a point, to get them in the bullseye of the cultural erogenous zone. Then you're able to with the same amount of effort or expense or time, you're able to make more of an impact, you're able to apply more pressure.


So I think of it as there's a continuum between you can either hyper-target, so the extreme of the continuum is you are becoming the life partner of one person. That's the ultra hyper targeting. And then the other end of the spectrum is you're appealing to everybody. You're appealing to a larger number of people, but with a weaker message, in a weaker way. So you could say world peace is good, nobody disagrees with that practically, but also it doesn't stick and it's not meaningful to them. So you have to choose where you're going to be along that continuum. And for most startups I would choose towards the fewer people end of it, where you choose who's going to be your diehards and then you foster them and create really deep meaningful relationships with them. And the way to do that is to decrease the surface area and apply more pressure.

Lenny (00:33:23):

It feels like you did that with Substack where it was focused on people writing online, or I guess tell me is that how you thought about it Substack of here's our little focused area and we'll focus target message to that.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:33:37):

That was the goal and that's actually why I started spending time on Twitter. It was a very self-loathing exercise like Hamish doesn't like the Twitter model, nor do, we would talk about this a lot and I always felt a little bit fringe being on there. And before I worked at Substack I had a sleepy account of a couple hundred followers that didn't do very much. And I realized that the people that we were trying to speak to are heavy Twitter users, whether it's media people or online writers. And so I decided I'm going to spend some time and try to build an audience and then that audience became leverage, for better or worse. I don't think we should measure people by their Twitter following, but the fact is that if you have more then journalists and writers take you a bit more seriously. And so if I was going to try to carry a message on behalf of the company, I felt like it would be more effective if I had more people.

Lenny (00:34:38):

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Going back to this formula, pressure equals force divided by area. Basically, to increase the effectiveness of your message you can either increase the force and what is in this context force? Is it like the amount of messaging or is it the success of your message?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:36:11):

It's the amount of effort you put into it. So it's how much you are spending on this campaign or you have a limited amount of hours in the day and dollars in the bank. And so anytime you're doing something with comms, you're either paying the dollars or you're paying the time. Sometimes you're drawing down on credibility too, you have a certain amount of credibility and there are times when you just have to say, "Please trust me." You can spend that more efficiently if you focus. So instead of if you just take a simple ad campaign, instead of spending a million dollars to reach a million people, maybe you spend a $100 to reach the hundred most important people. And focus that message exactly to them so that when they see your ad they're actually going to click on it and they're actually going to forward it, and that's a much better return. And then you might end up with a million dollars worth of return, because those people were so passionate that they then became their own messengers without you even having to be involved anymore.

Lenny (00:37:12):

This is a really great framework, again, is your advice that for the smaller you are just basically reduce the area?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:37:21):


Lenny (00:37:22):

And the larger you are increase that over time?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:37:24):

Yes. If you're just starting out, get 10 diehards and just spend all your time... You can't start out and try to win over the general public. You start out by creating a tiny, not the best analogy is one I can think of right now, a tiny monopoly. And it's the same like succeeding on Substack or creating anything on the internet. You choose what is going to be your tiny corner of the internet that you are going to just dominate entirely. And the smaller it is, the more you can dominate it and then these people that are in it become your true believers, your diehards, and they'll expand it out to the next circle and then you go from there. But if you try to win over everybody at the same time, it's a food coloring in the ocean kind of thing as opposed to food coloring in a cup.

Lenny (00:38:17):

Is there an example that comes to mind of someone that did this really well? I don't know. I know it's hard to think of just an example off the top of your head, but does anything come to mind?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:38:25):

Balaji did this really well with his book The Network State, that book was super successful. He didn't do a lot of the traditional book tour New York Times stuff. He went his own route, and I think that was really smart if you're going to put it in the setting of this framework, it's he created his own distribution channels. He didn't try to compete with the roster of Harper Collins on their turf, and when he created his own distribution channels he focuses on who are the diehards and the truth fans, and these are people that he fosters. He goes on podcasts that reach these people. He doesn't deviate from messaging to try to appeal to everybody. There are people who just will never like that guy and he is totally fine with it. So he's not watering down who he is to appeal to people who will never like him, which it's tempting for companies to do.


You hate when people are mad at you, so you try to appeal to them and then your true fans lose their passion because the thing that made you so special has now gone milk toast. So Balaji fosters his true fans and then when the book launched they propelled him to the top of the Amazon list, because they were out there evangelizing, proselytizing. You probably saw all these tweets about his book. He didn't pay anybody as far as I know. He didn't pay anybody to do that. He just shared it with the people and they wanted to show that they were into this.

Lenny (00:39:46):

That's a great example. I know that founders often worry focusing too narrowly limits their market, and it's never going to grow into anything large. In your experience do you find that that's just often not true, that there's often a much bigger opportunity than they think? Or is that just a good way to start and then you expand from there?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:40:03):

It's both. If you're writing online or doing something online, the denominator is the size of the internet. You don't need to capture 80% of it. If you capture 0.01% of it, that is a great business and then you can go from there. Once you've won that then you can decide to go from there and the world is a big place. So now that everything's digital the denominator's so large that I wouldn't worry too much about the numerator. But it is also true that if you start off trying to peel to too many people, you have to water down your stuff so much that you'll never stand out. And you've written about this Lenny with how to be viral, how to be noticed, and one of the things is be remarkable. And you can't be remarkable if you're trying to appeal to so many people that you have to become the average of 500,000 people's tastes.

Lenny (00:40:57):

This is a good way to think about I think when something's not working, when you're trying to get a bunch of attention for your product and no one cares. Feels like this is one reason is just you're going too wide.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:41:09):

Yeah, I think that's probably the most common reason.

Lenny (00:41:14):

Maybe just thinking about diagnosing why your comms may not be working. This may be too big of a question, but just what other explanations could there be for why no one cares about what you're trying to put out?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:41:25):

You're doing it as a corporation instead of a person. This is another super common mistake is you're letting yourself speak like a faceless corporation because it feels like that's what you should do now. Okay, now you're a real company and now you got to do real company stuff, that means you have to issue decrees on behalf of the C corp and you don't. And it doesn't work because people don't trust institutions. People don't like corporations or at least are not passionate about them. People care about people and trust and like people, and so there's a sense of wanting to cosplay an executive and it doesn't work, it doesn't resonate. A good example of this would be Ryan Peterson at Flexport. His company, even after it got huge, he never became the generic corporate chief. He always was a person. And there are people, many, many people who became interested in Flexport because Ryan's an interesting guy. And it's not like they had a passion for logistics and freight and shipping, but he's doing something interesting. And then he became the human gateway drug for people to become interested in his company.

Lenny (00:42:40):

Yeah, absolutely. He had that crazy viral tweet about the ports and that's a really good example. Man, I was going to go in a different direction, but maybe we go to this idea of going direct. You're a big fan and Balaji is a really big fan of this too, speaking of just the importance of going direct. So maybe just talk about what does that mean and why is that important these days?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:42:58):

Well, Balaji is more go direct than me. He thinks that I'm soft in this area because I think that there's still a place for engaging with media and that it's just another tool. He's for just straight-up go direct undistilled. But I think that for everybody a 100% of the time you want going direct to be a part of what you're doing, whether it's all you're doing, or whether you're doing something else, you can't not have a direct channel. So what that actually looks like, and people say this all the time go direct. What does that actually look like to go direct? It means that the founder or executive for some very senior person has to be speaking from themselves. First person, may be first person plural, and speaking in a human voice authentically. You see them make mistakes, you see them be vulnerable, and they have to become an ambassador to the community.


If you don't have that, then you don't have a direct channel even if you have a Twitter or a Substack or whatever, it's not direct if not connected to a person because if the other side of it is a corporation there's no direct connection. And then the second thing is start building your own audience as soon as possible. You can do this alongside engaging with the media or doing traditional things. To the point of focusing your energy and decreasing the surface area, for startups I would not recommend trying to do an Instagram, a Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and TikTok. I would choose the thing that that person is the best at. So if your spokesman is going to be your CEO, which is a good default, they're going to have a dominant communication style where they're the best at being themselves. And that's important because if somebody else is ghost-writing all their stuff, it shows.


So some CEOs are better at writing long form. Some CEOs are better at doing videos. Some do better with audio or podcasts, some are better with short form. The way that Elon Musk communicates on Twitter, he's born to do Twitter. You can't picture him writing long thoughtful blog posts, it's not a thing that he does. Whereas Brian Armstrong or Hamish or Chris, they write great blog posts that are sincere and effective, and that's better than them just trying to do it only through tweets. So pick the thing that your spokesperson is the best at and then invest everything into that channel, and then build it up to a decent amount and then expand outward. Because if you try to build six or seven channels at once you're just not going to get anywhere.

Lenny (00:45:47):

I think that's such a important point. I feel like me choosing a newsletter was actually a really good choice. As much as you may not believe this I'm not a performer person, I just want to hide behind the computer and just type stuff. And the newsletters, especially during COIVD, I was like, "I just sit at home and share stuff and edit and think about it where it's like, 'Hello everyone.'" And it took me a while to get to this point of like, "Oh, I can maybe do a podcast because I've built up a little more confidence that this is useful." So I so agree with that and that's what I tell a lot of people. Just pick the platform that is most natural to you. Maybe you like talking, maybe you performing on video, maybe you just want to sit and type.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:46:24):

And that's a good point too, Lenny, because it changes over time. Just because you pick one thing doesn't mean that you're stuck with only that forever. Over time you might choose different things and I've seen founders become a lot more comfortable in front of the camera, for example, once they've done a few reps. And the other reason to know that you can just change it over time is otherwise it feels like a deterrent to getting started. Sometimes there's paralysis if I don't know which thing to choose, and so I'm either going to do a bunch of them or none of them. Go with your gut pick one and you're not wed to that forever, you can always change it down the road.

Lenny (00:46:58):

Do you think every founder needs to be on Twitter? I get this a lot from founders. Do I need to be on Twitter? I hate Twitter. What's your take?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:47:04):

No, I think a lot of founders do. If they are super mission driven, for example, that's one way that you're going to find other people that resonate with your mission and that you're going to make the case for the mission. If you're mission driven there's also a good chance that you're doing something that some people love and some people hate. And so you're going to need to be out there fighting the fight in a way. I don't mean in a pugilistic antagonistic way, but you have to defend your thing. And so I think it's important if you're mission driven. I also think it's important if your charisma is a big part of recruiting for the company. There are some companies where the founder's charisma is a big part of why people want to go work there. So Palmer Lucky and Anduril, he is magnetic to a lot of engineers and they want to go work with that guy, specifically. Whereas there are companies where people want to go work for the company and it's less important that the founder is vocal.

Lenny (00:48:02):

What's interesting I found recently is I get more traffic to my newsletter from LinkedIn than Twitter. Is that something you think about at all? Going to LinkedIn instead of Twitter feels so wrong to say, but what's your take there?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:48:14):

Yes, if you are career related, LinkedIn will be a lot better. One, it's better because it's not such a cesspool where anything immediately becomes controversial and people fight over it in their mentions. Two, because LinkedIn is really underutilized and founders should know this, PMs should know this. LinkedIn is super underutilized because it gets a ton of eyeballs in time, but most of the content sucks. 95% of the content this is not scientific-

Lenny (00:48:49):

Seems right, seems right.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:48:50):

This is my might estimate. 95% of the content is people congratulating each other on work anniversaries or people saying, "I'm so proud of my team for this thing they did." And then people react out of a sense of friendship and affection or support, but actually genuinely interesting and useful content on LinkedIn is very rare. So the ratio of your competitive set of interesting content versus how much time and attention people spend on there is excellent.

Lenny (00:49:24):

That is really good advice. I'm going to throw a fishing line into the pool of examples. You talked about people doing this well, going direct. Balaji talking about Ryan Peterson and Elon obviously. Is there anyone else that's just like here check out what they're doing and could be a good model to learn from?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:49:41):

I think it's really interesting to see what Mike Solana is doing with Pirate Wires. Here's an example of why it clearly makes sense to have the founder be very active on Twitter because he is his own recruiter and spokesperson. So I think the makeup industry actually is at the forefront of this. The makeup industry is smarter than all of us in how they use social media and influencers, because they caught on very early on that people don't buy makeup to subscribe to makeup brands, that they do it because a certain celebrity or influencer or Kardashian has this nice looking eyelid and they want their eyelid to look that way.


And so going back years before the rest of us were talking about going direct, there are makeup companies that would spend $0 on marketing, and minimal efforts on press and pour all of it decreasing the surface area. Pour all of it into fostering a small roster of influencers and having them spread the message. And so I think watch makeup companies, watch consumer companies, they're doing it right, they speak with a human voice, they speak through human beings and they're fast. If there's a trend the same day they will have hopped on the trend... within an hour they're on the trend, as opposed to other industries or more traditional companies that take a few days and they route through approvals and then the opportunity's gone.

Lenny (00:51:11):

What are some makeup companies for people to check out to see what they're doing?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:51:14):

So NYX, N-Y-X, it's a division of L'Oreal. NYX is wanted the makeup companies that has, as far as I know $0 spent on marketing and all of their dollars and all of their effort spent on paying influencers. And they really out punched their weight in terms of using humans to deliver a message that contains a call to action and then selling out product. And the product will be like a normal black eyeliner. It's the most fungible thing you could possibly imagine, and that one eyeliner will be sold out at CBS's across the country for a couple weeks, because they did something right with their social media using a person.

Lenny (00:51:57):

Just a couple more questions around this going direct concept. I don't know if you actually talked about why that's important because I think we talk about this a lot, and I think people may not recognize why people find this so important these days. What's the motivation behind that with Balaji and other founders?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:52:14):

There's two reasons it's important, there's the offense and the defense of it. The defense of it is going back to having the underdog, the insurgency mentality. If you're trying to do something different that goes against the grain, people are going to attack you. Not everyone's going to like it. And the point is that not everyone should like it, but you need a way to stand up for yourself because you don't have the big institutions and power structures that are going to do that work for you because you're going against the grain. So if you're going to stand up for yourself there's only one way to do it, which is you do it. And so building the audience and the channels and you have to prime the market. By which I mean if you're a public company, you're priming the market by getting them used to how you convey information to them.


If you're a small startup or a founder, you're priming the market by making your audience aware of how you normally communicate, so that when you do something it's not weird. If you never post and then suddenly you start posting, people are going to think you're having a crisis or something like what is going on? They're going to try to read into it. So you have to already have the cadence and the relationships set up so that when you need to draw on them if you're under attack then you can, that's the defense of it. The offense of it is if you're doing something new and if you're mission driven, and if what you're doing is truly unique and innovative, no one else will be to tell that as well as you. The most friendly, sympathetic reporter on Earth could not tell that as well as you because they don't understand it as well as you, and so the onus just falls on you to do it.

Lenny (00:53:52):

If someone listening is like, "Yep, okay, I fully agree, time to do this." What do you suggest as a next step to starting to build an audience and going direct broadly.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:54:03):

Step one would be assessing what are you good at and what do you enjoy? So that's where you decide, do I like long form writing, or do I enjoy podcasting, or what are my mediums? Step two is setting up your account on those channels. So if you enjoy long form writing then you're going to have to choose, do you do a Substack, do you do Medium or whatever else? There's a objectively right answer on that one. But if you are doing short videos you're going to choose are you going to invest in Instagram, or you're going to invest in TikTok, you set that up. And then you start building your audience. And when you start if you're actually starting from zero, get some pipeline of talent ready. Sorry, not pipeline or talent, pipeline of content. Get it ready, it's the same way as if you're launching a Substack.


If you're launching a Substack you want to get a week or two of posts ready to go, so that out the gate you can build a lot of momentum. With different social networks it actually helps the algorithm if you come out the gate strong and are really regular. So TikTok, for example, if you're starting at TikTok with zero followers, you want to get a week or two of solid data just in the pipeline so you can hit it, hit it because the algorithm favors you right as you're starting out because they want you to keep going, so you want to ride that as much as possible. So that's step two is just get yourself ready for launch. Don't do one post and wait, get a bunch of posts ready and then boom, boom, boom. And then three is to have an ongoing content strategy, you know who you're going to reach, you know what they care about.


So you have to plan out, "Here's the cadence with which I'm going to talk to them. Here's how I'm going to do community management and respond to people, and here are the ways where I'm going to do announcements." And you get into a cadence because it's the same as growing a newsletter. The regularity and the consistency is a big part of growing. And so it's the same with audience. A mistake that people make I think is just every once in a while trying to go viral as opposed to just being consistent. And then some posts do better than others organically, but that's the way to do it. I don't live that. I'm not a good example because I'm so self-loathing about being on Twitter I will go away for one or two weeks and do nothing, and then I'll come in with a bunch of posts in one day. It's not a best practice. It's not the way you're supposed to do it. Ideally, you're just there every day saying something and then it builds over time.

Lenny (00:56:36):

I'm actually an example of trying to focus on consistent non-viral content and it's worked out.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:56:44):

It has worked out.

Lenny (00:56:46):

It's worked out. It's worked out so far, but it's interesting to see how different people act and how it's like I'm trying to go viral every tweet, every post and that is hard. And it's also just like people can tell you're just trying to create some viral thing and no one cares.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:57:00):

And it's very obvious when you're just trying to go viral for the sake of it and you don't have a real message. It's like the post when people screenshot the iPhone six digit security code and they say best feature apple's ever built. A few people did that, and now I've seen it probably dozens of times. And it doesn't even help to get you followers because that's not something where people say, "Only this person could uniquely give me this kind of content in the future." If you're going to get followers with a one-off joke, it has to be an incredibly hilarious one-off joke where they say, "This person is going to keep entertaining me." But with these kind of viral baits, I don't think it's even that effective.

Lenny (00:57:41):

And also what I find if something does go viral, whatever the correct term is and then life goes on, nothing's going to significantly... that's just one thing, and then you have to do it again and again. That's where people don't realize like, "Oh, I went viral. I'm done. My life is good now." Nothing's going to really change most often, and you have to do it again and again.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:58:03):

I think that's true. One thing that I've noticed about your audience, Lenny, is that it's the right audience. It's the people who find value in what you do, and they're in the right place and there's a match. Sometimes in the effort to just gain followers for the sake of it or a go viral for the sake of it, you end up with a mismatch of the audience. You had this viral hamster tweet, and now they're all here expecting hamster content, and they're not engaging with you, you're not bringing value to them. It's just making the number go up, which is not that meaningful. So one example of this is there's all these threads about how to just grow on Twitter for no reason, just grow for the sake of growing.


And it's a lot of generic advice of make sure that you bullet point out the 10 things. But it's always pablum of make sure that you value your relationships, and make time for yourself. And things that are not enriching people's lives they get a lot of likes that are low value likes from random people about the internet. But I don't think that they're deepening a relationship with a meaningful audience, and I don't think that they're really capturing the respect and admiration of their peers. So I think it's just important to consider what trade-offs people make in their efforts to grow.

Lenny (00:59:28):

Well, with that we've reached our very exciting lightning round. I've got five questions for you. Are you ready?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:59:35):


Lenny (00:59:35):

First question. Great. What are two or three books you've recommended most to other people?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (00:59:41):

I recommend Gates of Fire, it comes off the Marine Commandants Reading List, it's on there perennially. It is about the Battle of Thermopylae, it's the 300 Spartans, but it's the whole backstory. And if you get into it's about leadership, it's about courage, it's about creativity, and it's really well-written, so that's one that I recommend a lot.

Lenny (01:00:00):

What's a favorite recent movie or TV show?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:00:03):

I've been watching The Last Of Us, like everybody on Earth. I've been watching it both for entertainment and for work, because it's really interesting to see how the show drives sales of the video games, and how you can use that to make the whole of the sales greater than the sum of its parts. So I'm watching that really carefully.

Lenny (01:00:24):

Interesting. We have a drinking game now. Every time someone says Last of us that's a new thing because it's starting to come up a lot, so everyone enjoy your drink. Favorite interview question you like to ask?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:00:36):

I like to ask people what they've been reading too. It's a good way to get good book recommendations. It's also a good way to see where their head's at when they're not working.

Lenny (01:00:45):

Favorite SaaS products that you use day-to-day and bonus points for something that is new or interesting that you've recently discovered?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:00:52):

I don't know that this is new or novel because I use Notion for almost everything, and I really like the new AI that they've built into it. I also have been using Lex, which is Nathan Baschez startup, where it's like the AI writing editor that you've probably seen. I'm trying to think if there's anything that I use that other people don't. I don't think I'm terribly original in that sense. I use a lot of Microsoft Excel, which I think is controversial.

Lenny (01:01:21):

That is, wow, that's cool, but I get it. That's when you know you're doing serious work, you got to accelerate.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:01:27):

Yeah, exactly.

Lenny (01:01:28):

Final question, best tip for someone trying to get attention for their product, take away tip, best takeaway tip.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:01:37):

Give it away for free to the right people. If you can choose the people who are going to love it, look at the Venn diagram of people who are going to be obsessed with this product. And people who have a large following among the other people that you want to get to, whoever falls into that sliver of the Venn diagram shower them with free product.

Lenny (01:01:58):

Amazing. Lulu, I think this conversation is going to lead to a lot more people going direct, taking risks and ideas spreading. Thank you for being here. Two final questions where can folks find you online if they want to learn more and reach out and how can listeners be useful to you?

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:02:13):

People can find me at, that's where I write down my ideas, hopefully more frequently in the future than in the past. But that's where they can find some of this stuff if they're interested. How can listeners be helpful to me is to give me feedback. I'm learning on the job. I don't think that there's anyone alive who's an expert in communicating in this crazy environment that we have now. I think we're all crossing the river by feeling the stones, and so your listeners have gone through this in many different ways. And I hope that if they have new ideas of feedback or objections, that they'll email me through that website or on Twitter and let me know what they think.

Lenny (01:02:54):

Amazing and its get

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:02:55):


Lenny (01:02:55):

We'll link to it in the show notes.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:02:55):

Thank you.

Lenny (01:02:57):

Lulu, thank you for being here and sharing your wisdom with us.

Lulu Cheng Meservey (01:03:00):

Thank you, Lenny, appreciate it.

Lenny (01:03:03):

Thank you so much for listening. If you found this valuable you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. Also please consider giving us a rating or leaving a review as that really helps other listeners find the podcast. You can find all past episodes or learn more about the show at See you in the next episode.