For the longest time, I despised marketing. Couldn’t stand it. It just felt like pure dishonesty. I felt this way long before ever becoming a writer. Little did I know that just about everything I did was marketing.
In 2006, I started my first blog on Xanga.com, which was a precursor to the many blogging systems to come, such as Blogger and WordPress. I used that blog to wax philosophic about some of my favorite bands’ lyrics like that Deathcab for Cutie song where he talks about heaven and hell.
I was proud of that blog, but at the same time, it was a well-kept secret. I wanted everyone to know about it, and at once was embarrassed any time someone mentioned it.
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I never thought of this as marketing…
I distinctly remember emailing all my friends and family about one post, then refusing to talk about it in person when they asked me about it. That’s how I’ve always been with my creative work: eager to share, shy to discuss.
I’ve always yearned for attention and have never known what to do with it. With that blog, I would tell friends and family about it and encourage them to read it. I’d study other people’s blogs, especially the popular ones, and try to figure out what was working and how I could apply it.
But I never thought of this as marketing.
That same year, I traveled all across North America with a band, playing several concerts a week in churches, schools, and prisons. I was the lead and wrote a weekly email newsletter and blog for our friends and family. We would regularly inform our small list of friends, family, and fans we’d met on the road of our upcoming tour dates and locations, as well as how they could order our latest CD.
But I never thought of this as marketing.
After that year of travel, I quit the band and moved to Nashville, which is the opposite order in which those things tend to happen. I chased my girlfriend down here, slept on an inflatable mattress in a friend’s dining room, surrounded by a few clothes and many books, and started a new life in Music City.
I took a part-time job as a telemarketer where I would call over a hundred people every day and try to sell them a box of CDs. Now, this, I thought, this was marketing. But only that, the idea of forcing someone to do something they didn’t really want to do and then profiting from it. That idea was marketing, to me.
I didn’t care for that job, how it was the same thing every day, and who I felt it was turning me into. Though grateful for the opportunity to get started in a new city, I quit that position and got a job at a nonprofit working as a staff writer.
At first, I was put in charge of a new online magazine they wanted to start, which I did with excitement. It still exists today. I was also asked to train staff members and volunteers on how to blog. At the time, I didn’t know much about blogging, but was determined to learn.
Each staff member and volunteer (of which there were thousands) got a blog, so there were a lot of people talking about the work that we were doing, and it was my job to equip them in what to say and how to say it. I gave people the tools they needed to tell their stories and help their messages spread, which consequently helped further the mission of the organization.
But I never thought of this as marketing, either.
That is, until my boss, in passing, told me one day: “You know you’re the director of marketing here… Right?” We were sitting at a conference he was speaking at in Nashville, and I was confused about the growing responsibilities of my role but too afraid to ask. So he just said it, and from that day forward, I was the director of marketing, managing a team of over a dozen writers, designers, and videographers. For the next five years, we were in charge of helping spread the message of that organization.
Eventually, I did start to think of those things as marketing.
I worked there for a total six and a half years (first as a writer, then as the marketing director, and ultimately as the communications director) before feeling like it was time to move on. I was getting a little tired of marketing, of pushing our message on to others and thinking of people as numbers. So, I quit that job to do my own thing as a full-time writer.
For two years straight, I wrote a daily blog post and shared my ideas with the world. I connected with other writers who had similar interests and goals as I did. I learned about new social networks and technology tools that might help me grow my audience and spread the message.
And at first, I never thought of this as marketing.
Until I realized that in creative work, everything you do is marketing. And whether you realize it or not, marketing is everything. Every word you write is a promotional piece. Every relationship you make is another node in your network. You are constantly creating your reputation, which people will either remember or forget.
In creative work, everything you do is marketing.
Everything is marketing, and marketing is everything. The real question, though, is will you market your work consciously?
But first, let’s define our terms.
What is marketing?
Most of us equate marketing with advertising. We’ve inherited a Mad Men-era definition of the term, even though that mode of spreading ideas has long been outdated.
But make no mistake: there was a time when flooding the market with simple, almost insultingly plain, messages actually sold a lot of products for a company and made them a lot of money. There was a time when we believed the commercials on television and didn’t merely fast forward through them. But that was a long time ago when there were only three stations you could get each night, and they all told the truth.
So when we say we don’t like marketing, as I often hear many creative people proclaim, we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of marketing? The kind that pushes people to do things they don’t want to do? The kind that pressures folks into buying things they’ll quickly regret? The spammy, slimy kind of marketing?”
Well, I don’t like that kind of marketing, either. But that’s not really marketing. At least, not how it’s effectively done today.
I propose a new definition of marketing, which I’m sure at some point I inherited from Seth Godin, as it true of most of my ideas regarding this subject:
Marketing is the spreading of ideas. Plain and simple. If you spread ideas, you’re a marketer. You may also be a CEO or an artist or a plumber. But you are also a marketer. So might as well do it well.
Marketing is the spreading of ideas.
Marketing is an amoral tool that helps an idea get more attention. It’s like a hammer. You can use it to drive nails into a piece of wood. Or it can be a deadly instrument when wielded improperly. If I were to teach you how to swing a hammer, I would feel compelled to tell you not to hit people on the head.
Similarly with marketing, there are more noble ways to use this tool and less noble ways. But the bottom line is that it’s just a tool, and whether you like it or not, marketing works.
Marketing in itself is not bad. It’s just a tool, a way to spread an idea. Some people use it for nefarious purposes, and others do not. When you spread a bad idea, that’s bad marketing. And when you spread a good idea, that’s good marketing. It’s as simple as that.
Marketing for creative people
When we think about the work of a writer or an artist, we have to realize that it’s all, in its own unique way, marketing. It’s all self-promotion because the work itself is advertising. Everything you do is a promotion of everything you will do.
Everything you do is a promotion of everything you will do.
It’s best to think of everything you do as a marketing opportunity. I don’t mean spam (i.e. sending unsolicited messages to strangers) or pushy tactics that get people to buy something. I mean the realization that you are creating a body of work, and your portfolio is saying something about you and what you do.
Does the message you’re marketing adequately represent who you are and what you offer? Or does it merely reflect the state of emergency in which you find yourself? Does it communicate scarcity or abundance? Clarity or confusion?
Whether you realize it or not, you are marketing something—with every email you send, every tweet, every blog post, every interaction you make online. So what is it? What is the message that your work is speaking to the world? And is it the one you want to communicate?
Here are three tips on what it takes for you to be an effective marketer:
1. Don’t be good
Be interesting. Murray S. Davis showed us long ago that we pay attention to people not because their ideas are good, but because they’re interesting.
Your job is not merely to have something worth saying. That’s the minimum barrier to entry. Your job is to say it well in a unique and compelling way that invites people to be a part of the story you’re telling.
The best way to do this is to build on the work that has come before you. The greatest thought leaders in history have done this. Jesus. Buddha. Martin Luther King, Jr. They all started with a simple message that began with something like “You have heard this, but now I tell you this…”
Always start with the familiar before you take people into the new. Otherwise, it will be too overwhelming to grasp. That’s how you change people’s minds. Not by sharing a good idea, but an interesting one, building on the work that has come before and doing something new with it.
2. Become a mind reader
What I mean by this is the most effective way to market a message to an audience is not try to change their minds. That never works. People don’t want to be persuaded.
Most human beings assume their worldview is the correct one, and you will waste a lot of time trying to convince them otherwise. The way to win an election, to beat out your competitors, or simply sell more books is to agree with your audience. You have to tell them what they want to hear, at least at first.
Effective marketing is when you tell your audience a story they are already telling themselves. Like “it isn’t fair” or “other people have it easier than I do” or “this should be easier.” Once you do that, you can get people to trust you and then you can take them someplace new—by starting where they already are.
3. Make small promises and keep them
This is the hardest thing in the world—consistency.
To keep showing up. Day after day. Week after week. To keep doing your work. Shipping it out to the world. Even when the market changes, when the fads come and go, when you lose your motivation. To just keep going.
But we all have to start small. With a simple promise. To send an email, show up on time, write a blog post. And if we don’t do what we said, nobody will call us out or shame us. It’s normal to do those things. But this isn’t how influence is earned.
You must do the little things with care and excellence and deliver on the promises you make. It doesn’t mean you have to be a robot, but if you’re not doing this right now and wondering why people aren’t showing up or listening to your podcast or buying your books, it might be because you’ve not given them a good reason to. Because you keep changing the game on them or not even making a promise to begin with.
You must do the little things with care and excellence, and deliver on the promises you make.
This is how you earn trust and grow a tribe—you do what you say you are going to do. And gradually, those three people listening will tell others; and slowly, one by one, you will earn your fans, you will build your audience, and you will have a tribe.
Until that day, let’s just start with one small thing you can do to earn a little trust. Tomorrow is another battle.
Today, I’m sharing a live workshop about how to write a book using these writing lessons. Click here to join me.