Imagine you are in a classroom. Let’s say a high school classroom. You’re sitting at your desk, listening to your favorite teacher—the one who inspired you, the one who got you excited about that thing you love for the first time.
You’ve stopped taking notes because your body just can’t quite function normally when your mind is being blown. You don’t feel the pen in your hand, or the surface of the desk under your arms. You’re somewhere in between your body and the blackboard. That’s the magic of learning; it’s transportational.
Now, deep breath.
Back to reality.
Perhaps your learning experiences were not like this, but I hope they were. And if they were, did it ever occur to you in those moments that you were being sold something? That the moment was approaching when you’d be asked to sign on the dotted line or open your wallet? When you’d kick yourself for being fooled into thinking that your teacher was offering something to you for free? When you’d learn to stifle the desire and ability to trust someone?
Of course not. What you received came without strings attached; it was a free gift of knowledge to change you, to shape you, to edify you. Not to compel you to buy something.
After all, your teacher wasn’t a marketer.
Or, was he?
It’s worth asking at this point: What, exactly, is marketing? Here I won’t quote a definition—not just because we’re all capable of looking it up ourselves, but because it really doesn’t matter anymore what the “official” definition of marketing is. Marketing, in its ubiquity, is something we all live and breath. We know what it is, though we may struggle with articulating it with any meaningful precision. In our culture, the distance between marketing and creativity is virtually nonexistent.
Every bit of that space has been filled with the promotional. What were once barely overlapping magisteria have become fully integrated. It’s not enough that we make beautiful things, or have brilliant ideas, or even have powerful experiences anymore; they’re hardly real to the world until they’ve been shared in some digital burst of “Here I am, you should pay attention to me.”
Life and work has become noisy with marketing. And the noisier it gets, the noisier it gets, because we’ve bought into the lie that nothing cuts through noise better than the right kind of noise. But noisy marketing—of the parade for a naked emperor kind—is cheap; there is no there there, and we all end up feeling cheap for looking, anyway.
There is a better way, of course. But the better way requires that we get as far away from this sort of marketing as possible. In fact, it might be better that we call it something else entirely, because no one ever says, “I want to be a marketer when I grow up.” So, why not call it education? If you ever experienced the free gift of education—whether or not as I dramatized it above—let that be your model for marketing. For your sake; for the sake of all of us.
Disparaging marketing is easy, isn’t it? What I just wrote came naturally; it flowed out of my experience struggling with my own value for privacy and the frequency with which it is violated, coupled with my job representing a company and the frequency with which I have to market our services. I know the kind of marketing I don’t like, and to do it differently is easier said than done. Frankly, it’s just far easier to do marketing than to have marketing done to you. Yet, there is no Golden Rule for marketing—market unto those as you would have them market unto you. Shouldn’t there be such a rule? There can be.
It starts with doing something good.
There is nothing wrong with selling things, or even with making lots of money selling things. There is something wrong, though, with selling a product or service that you know is not worth its price. So there are some questions we must ask if we are to follow any “golden rule” of marketing: Do I believe in what I’m selling? Is it good for people? Is it worth what I am asking people to pay for it?
Could you imagine a teacher answering “No” to any of these questions? “No, I don’t believe in what I teach.” “No, what I teach is not good for people.” “No, what I teach isn’t worth the time my class requires.” Could any teacher with integrity answer no to these questions and still manage to show up for class every Monday morning? I doubt it.
Alan Jacobs, writing for The Atlantic about the role of quality in the shifting sands of business success, had this to say:
“What goes around comes around; what goes up must come down. Microsoft has been gradually drifting to the margins of our tech consciousness; Google is scrambling to find a way to compete with Facebook. Everything moves faster in a wired world, including the pace of change in business… A decade from now the landscape of the technology business will sure look very different than it does today. Maybe by 2022 Apple and Amazon will be marginal companies once again—underdogs that I can feel good about supporting.”
What shifts the sands of the business landscape isn’t marketing, it’s quality. Apple rose to the top because it made outstanding products, not “just fine” ones with outstanding advertising. Microsoft, on the other hand, stumbled not because its advertising is terrible—though it really is—but because its products weren’t very good, either. And as for Amazon, Amazon rose to the top by offering a level of service that shocked shoppers: an easy to navigate store, with an unfathomably large inventory, and delivery that exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations for speed. It reset those expectations.
If Amazon fails, it will fail because either someone else comes along who can do better—unlikely as that may be—or because we decide that we don’t feel comfortable with the costs of the level of service they offer. Many right now are already questioning that, whether inexpensive and immediate delivery are worth the working conditions that make it possible. Marketing will probably try to change our minds. It may even work on some of us, for a little while. But if failure is to be avoided, marketing will have little to do with it.
If you can do something truly good, you won’t have much of a marketing challenge. If you can keep doing something good without something bad subsidizing it, marketing will take care of itself.
But what if someone else does exactly the same thing you do? What if you can’t beat their price? What if you can’t outserve them? This is typically where “savvy” marketing comes in. When labels carry claims that either overemphasize a non-differentiator so that it seems like one, or straight up lie.
Imagine the educational corollary: “The same easy A, now with twice the History!” or “Become a Quantum Physicist, Results Guaranteed!” Preposterous.
It’s a whole lot easier to avoid resorting to manipulation if you don’t have any real competitors. Competitors force each other to make less meaningful but more manipulative distinctions between one another. If you think you’ve got the “good” thing down, consider your positioning. Are you actually different? If not, how will you survive without being sleazy?
Attract, Inform, Engage
So, let’s say you’ve got the quality and positioning stuff worked out. You do something good that nobody else does. Fantastic. That is, assuming people know about you. Taking a Field of Dreams approach—if you build it, they will come—won’t work. If you build it, and they know about it, they will come. But even if they come, you’ve got to make sure they understand what it is that they’re coming for. And then you’ve got to make them want to stick around. This is a three-step process: attracting prospects, properly informing them, engaging with them. That is what marketing should be all about. Attract, inform, engage; not attract, mislead, compel.
If you are well positioned, attraction is much easier. Imagine three hot-dog vendors at a baseball game. Two wander up and down the stands, shouting, “Hot dogs! Get your delicious hot dogs here!” Their success is going to come down to luck—who happens to be closest to the right people. But the third vendor sticks to the low seats. He’s shouting, too, except he’s got different dogs to sell: “Low-fat hot dogs! Eat two for the fat of one!” Now who do you think will have an easier time selling hot dogs? The more specific your audience is, the easier it is to attract them.
If you can attract a specific audience, informing is easy, too. You already know something about them and what they need. If you have a worthy solution to that need, all you have to do is tell them about it. That’s where the teaching comes in: Start generally—Introduction to Your Problem, then Our Solution 101—and be prepared to give them more detail as they need it. Incrementally informing, by the way, will also take care of engagement. Give them some, they’ll want more. Ask any engaged student sitting in Advanced Trigonometry 3 why they are there and you’ll likely hear many similar answers, all having to do with being attracted and informed by someone special back in their beginner days.
Know Your Role
If you make things, it’s difficult to avoid marketing. But if you can do it the good way—attracting, informing, and engaging—to serve that good thing you do, then that thing we’ve wanted to avoid no longer looks so bad. And even then, “marketer” is just one of many roles that people who make things play in some capacity. But it’s a role that should always be subservient to your primary one: making and doing good things. To keep that role connected to the good things we do, I’ve used teaching as a metaphor.
I know it’s abstract, but if there is one single characteristic of good teachers that could stand to make everything we do—as well as how we market it—better, it’s caring. Good teachers care. They care about the material. They care about how they teach it. They care about their students. If we care too—about what we do, how we do it, and who we do it for—then we’ll be OK.
Resisting the Dark Side
That’s the setup, anyway. But caring is hard. Caring requires a commitment to resisting the very things that currently seem to drive the culture of marketing—things like haste, deception, and even your own ego.
Slow down, please. Not everything needs to be right now. One thing I like to say that usually riles people up is that there are no marketing emergencies. Really. If there are, it’s because somebody screwed up or somebody’s expectations are out of whack.
But that doesn’t change the fact that other people feel differently. Open your email account and watch it fill before your eyes. Open Twitter and watch the nonstop flow of information push down your timeline. It’s incredible how rapid-fire online culture has become, and naturally, how marketing has followed suit. As marketing has become so predominantly digital, speed has become a defining characteristic of the experience. But when your blood pressure rises and you feel the anxiety of falling behind—that you should be blogging more, tweeting more, posting more on Facebook, Pinterest, and the like—ask yourself this: How good can it be if you’re producing so much of it so often?
Honesty is the enemy of traditional marketing. It’s sad but true. It’s not because honesty isn’t possible in marketing, but that if companies were completely honest about their products and services—about how they’re made, what they do, their flaws, their shelf life, etc.—fewer people would buy them. That’s why creating illusions is so essential to marketing. But it only takes a tiny crack in the surface to destroy an illusion. As a colleague pointed out to me recently, a supermodel only has to stumble once before the illusions so central to fashion fall away and you are left with just people wearing clothes. If the quality is there, there is nothing to hide.
That’s the big-picture, but I think most honesty-erosion tends to happen on a smaller scale, where the line between truth and fiction can be pretty blurry. There’s a general impulse toward bending that line intentionally, one often motivated by our desire to bring attention to something we believe deserves it. Whether it’s a product, a service, or even a cause, we might be willing to “sex up the story” if doing so means bringing greater awareness to it.
This isn’t just a marketing problem, by the way. We do it when we believe the attention garnered by a thing or an idea or an injustice isn’t as big as it should be. Listen to the retraction issued by This American Life of Mike Daisy’s account of working conditions in Apple’s factories in China. Pay attention to how uncomfortable you feel. That discomfort is a measure of the distance between truth and fiction.
For the first year after graduating from college, I did freelance design work. I registered a business, created business cards, set up a website, the works. I wasn’t alone, either. Several classmates did the same thing, and we would often compare notes and even help each other get work from time to time. We learned all kinds of things by trial and error back then, but the one thing that left the greatest impression upon me had to do with how honest we were in describing ourselves. Every one of us made heavy use of the word “we” on our websites—though “we” was almost always just one person working from a room in a shared apartment—because we feared we wouldn’t be hired if it was clear that “we” was really “I,” a freelancer flying solo.
We believed that no matter how good our work was, we’d be ignored as individuals. So we created an illusion that we thought looked strong. “I” was just a kid on my laptop at a desk in his bedroom; “We” was a company, confident, experienced, secure. But that, of course, wasn’t true. I learned that there was no point in trying to convince potential clients of something other than that which would quickly become clear to them if they hired me. So, a simple rule: If you’re one person, never refer to yourself as “we.” That’s the kind of small-scale honesty we need to take seriously.
In, but not of
But let’s be realistic. Even if you change, you can’t expect everyone else to change too. It’s certainly possible that if enough people embrace a new way of doing things, the culture might shift overall, but that is unlikely to happen overnight.
The culture of online marketing is unhealthy—the lack of criticism of it is pretty astonishing to me—but the real tragedy is watching the forces of self preservation turn good people with good intentions into obnoxious, self-aggrandizing loudmouths that collect into BS echo chambers. Sometimes what you see accepted or celebrated around you is exactly what you shouldn’t do. I liked how Oliver Reichenstein put it in a post-SXSW tweet:
“Studied the SXSW talks to find out what not do as a speaker: 1. Don’t think you’re cool 2. Don’t preach 3. Don’t sell. 4. No false modesty.”
Why do we feel that the only way to survive is to do things like everyone else does? There’s no good reason for it. In fact, we’re all waiting for someone to pave the way for us by having the courage we don’t have, the courage to do something different. Why can’t you be one of those people? When it comes to doing the right thing, don’t wait for someone else’s courage to stand in for your own.
Ground control to _____
Remember those clumsy supermodels? They do us a favor when they stumble. They bring us back down to Earth, where we’re all just people wearing clothes. No matter how important we think we are, or how important we think the things we make or do are, we could all stand to stumble down the runway every once in a while. Especially when it comes to marketing.
A great example of this came in the recent blow-up over “Homeless Hotspots,” a campaign created by BBH (a marketing firm) that turned the homeless of Austin into roaming internet access points available to the throngs attending the South by Southwest conference. Needless to say, it was controversial. Plenty has been said about it—both in support and in criticism—but amidst the noise, one comment written by Thomas Wendt resonated most for me:
“In the end, everyone is full of shit—supporters and detractors—and it’s all a result of spectacle and denial. The entire system creates such dissonance that we lash out against it. We’re unable to reconcile the differences between image and the real, altruism and self-interest, trust and deception. So we gravitate toward poles: BBH is a charitable company or BBH is a lying capitalist institution. Of course, the truth in somewhere in between, but denial and self-deception keeps us from admitting it.”
Wendt’s post was titled, Staring Down the Spectacle, which really gets at the point: It is the culture—and the spectacle it creates—that is your adversary, not any specific action per se, nor any other person. Yet culture has a profound power to shape each of us, so just as much as we should scrutinize what we observe around us, we should bring equal scrutiny to what we observe within ourselves. When it comes to marketing, the most meaningful question I can ask at any point is, just how full of shit am I?
Guilty as Charged
I wrote this as an act of resistance, as a way of keeping myself from disappearing into the “dark side,” not as a prophet condemning from atop a mountain. I see myself struggling to maintain the integrity of an educational marketing model and I often don’t like what I see. But, I’ve also discovered that we must intentionally learn from examples—both good and bad ones. The bad ones are easy to study. We’re all close enough to them to do it. We’re among them. We may even be one of them. The question is whether we’re willing to do something about it.