What if I told you that you that a Shamrock Shake could make you a better writer?
Your first instinct might be to sniff my shake to see what sort of “special ingredients” I was imbibing.
But hear me out, because this is a story about a marketing giant that can teach us all a thing or two about how to get ahead in whatever endeavors are important to us.
And, if you apply these lessons, you just might tap into a bit of the old “Luck O’ the Irish” in your own writing.
Shake-Up Under the Golden Arches
You probably know McDonald’s as the home of the Golden Arches, Ronald McDonald, and Special Sauce, but every March, it’s also home to the legendary Shamrock Shake.
First introduced in 1970, the Shamrock Shake is the standard McDonald’s Vanilla Shake with a squirt (or so) of green mint Shamrock syrup. Like the McRib, the Shamrock comes and goes, usually only on menus in February and March.
The Shamrock has become a favorite seasonal treat for McDonald’s customers, who eagerly await its return each winter. You can imagine the euphoria, then, when McDonald’s announced (story from Brand Eating) that it was introducing four new varieties of Shamrock Shake to its lineup. Fast food aficionados everywhere were sent immediately into a lip-licking frenzy, and the news outlets jumped all over the story.
It was another in a long-line of buzz-generating moves from the venerable burger shack, but the announcement is much more important for scribes like us.
Because, if you study McDonald’s in general and the Shamrock saga in particular, there are big lessons that every author can apply to his own work.
Let’s start with …
Double Down on Your 20%
The Pareto Principle says, roughly, that 80% of your results in any endeavor come from only 20% of your effort. The numbers aren’t exact in every situation, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that some of your efforts will deliver most of your bang.
I don’t have any knowledge about how McDonald’s sales break down, and I doubt that Shamrock Shakes make up a huge portion of their revenue. But I’ll bet the shakes yield a good profit margin, and I’m nearly positive they pull in customers. In that sense, the green goodies are almost certainly in McDonald’s 20% of “keep doing” activities.
But the super successful aren’t content to just keep doing what works. They exploit what works until they stop getting better returns for their increased efforts. That’s exactly what McDonald’s is doing by expanding their Shamrock offerings. They hope that five flavors will make the shakes all that much more popular and drive more diners to their restaurants.
If the results are awesome, don’t be surprised if Ronald’s peeps push even harder on the Shamrock next time around.
And you should do the same thing in your writing.
What are your 20% activities? All of us can count actually creating content in that bucket, but there are plenty of other duties that come along with being an author in the 21st century.
Social media, editing, book cover design, blogging, building an email list — they all factor into your profile as a writer, and they all eat away at your time.
Do you know which ones are yielding good results?
If you don’t, you need to find out FAST. Measure what you’re doing, then measure how many visitors you get to your website. Measure how many books you sell. Measure how many email addresses you collect.
When you find a positive correlation between an activity in which you’re engaged and the achievement of your goals, push it hard. Push it until the margins diminish.
Then re-evaluate and find your new 20%.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New
You’re a romance author.
Or is that a mystery writer?
Or maybe you’re a blogger … or a self-help guru … or a fantasy world-builder without par.
Whatever it is you do with your writing skill, chances are you’re pretty invested in your author’s identity. You can’t just change genres midstream and still feel good about yourself — or have any success. Right?
I mean, Stephen King writes horror novels, and he’s the best at it. So it would be silly for him to try his hand at short stories or serious, dramatic pieces, right? Can you even imagine King writing something with the gravitas of, say, The Shawshank Redemption?
Except … he actually did write that one, of course. And Stand by Me. And Green Mile. And any damn thing he wants.
The same goes for McDonald’s.
They started life as a burger joint, then became famous for burgers and fries, and, well, that was their sweet spot. Sure, they sold a shake or two and some assorted other “health food,” but they knew who they were, and they stuck to it.
Except … they didn’t stick to JUST “it.”
Sure, McDonald’s doubled down on their own 20% (see above) and became the best — or at least most popular — damn burger joint in the world. But occasionally, probably when their margins started to narrow a bit, they tried something new.
Something like the Shamrock Shake. And it was enough of a hit that they brought it back, and then brought it back again and again.
So, are you sure you don’t have any room in your writing repertoire to at least try your hand at westerns, even when you know your secret dream has always been to become the next Louis L’Amour?
All you have to lose is a little time. If your foray into something new doesn’t pan out, you can safely slide it into your 80% pile and go about your business.
But maybe, just maybe, your new adventure will “shake up” your life.
Use This to Do That
McDonald’s and Stephen King were able to venture into new territory partly because they had huge, successful portfolios to stand on. It doesn’t matter all that much if your clam-flavored cookies fall flat on their crumbly faces when you’re serving billions and billions of your other comestibles.
So the folks at the Golden Arches knew that their Shamrock Shake wouldn’t make or break the company when they launched the concoction in 1970 — it was a fungible adventure in many ways. If the Shake didn’t stick, something else would replace.
McDonald’s used their sway in the consumer market to build a safe test bed, but they did more than that. Much more.
With the Shamrock Shake already growing long and strong legs by 1974, McDonald’s owner Ray Croc worked with local Philadelphia affiliates and the NFL’s Eagles to raise money for the cancer treatment of a little girl whose dad played on the team.
That push turned out to be the seedlings of the Ronald McDonald House that today serves sick children and their families all across the nation.
Now, the company hopes that expanding their Shamrock offerings will bring in new customers, pump up revenue, and fund further developments throughout the organization.
You may not have designs on starting your own charity — though you may — but you can look for ways to turn what you’re doing now into something new and, maybe, better down the road.
If you’re a blogger, can you turn a series of your posts into a book?
If you’re a mystery writer, can your detective cross over into vampire hunting?
Can you use the social media skills you’ve built up promoting your own work lead to a side gig helping other authors?
You’re limited only by your imagination and, since you’re a writer, that means you aren’t limited at all.
Will the Shamrock shake-up prove profitable for McDonald’s?
Only time will tell, but you can be sure they’ll act on the results one way or another, and probably sooner rather than later.
If the added varieties don’t increase direct sales or customer flow enough for the McD’s tastes, we might be back to just one flavor in future Marches. But if the numbers spike, so too might our choices when the leprechauns return.
Whatever happens under the Arches, writers would do well to learn the “Lessons of the Irish,” as taught by a hamburger joint.
Double down on your most productive activities.
Branch out to identify new opportunities.
One thing can lead to another, if you let it.
Shake it up every once in a while and see if you’re not a happier author for your trouble.
Also published on Medium.