Marketers can be weird (and sad)


I’m a marketer myself, and I like the idea of marketing. But I think a ton of us have got it wrong. And the end result is depressing.

I think marketing has an important role to play in making the world a better place. But I think a huge number of us are doing it wrong, and that bothers me. I think we have really intelligent people who are focusing on all sorts of silly details that don’t really matter, and I’d like to make the case that we could be doing better.

The most basic role of the marketer is to move a needle.

That’s what you’re hired to do. If you can’t do that, you’re not worth anything. The converse is also true: As Shopify VP marketing Craig Miller says, if you can move a needle, you’ll never be jobless.

Moving the needle requires manipulating human behavior. Influencing what other people do. We believe that incentives influence behavior, so we try to devise a system of incentives that get us what we want.

This is the bread-and-butter. This is what you get paid for. If you can’t move a needle, it doesn’t matter how clever or smart or genius you are. You’re failing. David Ogilvy has written some pretty sobering stuff about this. If you can’t convince someone to buy something, you have failed. We can zoom out about this and look at a broader, bigger picture. Sometimes something that doesn’t sell something overnight is part of building a relationship that sells more in the future. Sometimes you’re selling something that doesn’t deserve to be sold, that people don’t actually want. It’s pretty complicated, and if you want to simplify it for yourself you have to start by building your own internal compass. You have to be able to have taste, you have to be able to decide for yourself if something is worth selling or not. And then you have to work towards selling things that you do think are worth selling.

Incentives influence behavior

We’re led to believe from a young age that incentives influence behavior. And they do, to some degree. If you point a gun at somebody’s head, they’ll agree with you that 2+2=5. But the problem with incentives like that is that they’re conditional, contextual. The really good stuff isn’t there.

This is why discussions about A/B testing can get so infuriating, why talking about the color of a button is silly. It’s not that these things don’t matter at all. It’s that your time is precious and limited, and you’re spending on really superficial things.

I had a realization recently when I was reflecting on how frustrating my experience in school was. A teacher is assessed according to the outcome of his students’ assessments, so his job is to improve his students’ grades. The teacher tries to do this by incentivizing or disincentivizing student behaviors.

People do respond to incentives, but not nearly as much as we think. There have been cases where people have heart diseases- they’re literally going to die if they don’t change their habits and practices- and they don’t. And they die.

Incentives are not enough.

Results are influenced by behavior. What is behavior influenced by? Incentives, yes, but also social groups, and also identity. (Writing this now makes me think about militaries, and a great post that Jon Davis once wrotes about what the marines know about leadership.)

If you want to get different results, in your personal life, if you want to write more, if you want to run more, you can’t just set up a clever set of incentives and call it a day. They’d have to be really dramatic. In the marketing world, this might mean giving exorbitant discounts. And you know when you do that- you’ll move the needle, sure, but you’ll attract the wrong kind of customers, and you’ll damage your brand. Short term gain, long term pain.

What do we do then? I think we have to think beyond incentives. We have to think about social groups, identity and beliefs. In the context of marketing and branding, I think we have to think about what really matters to us. I feel like this is a conversation people have had so many times that we cease to be mindful of it. Kind of like “How are you?” is a question we don’t actually pay much attention to, and we don’t really take the trouble to answer properly.

Great marketing, great branding, that happens when the brand asks “How are you?” and really means it. It’s about attention to detail, it’s about obsessive, pathalogical focus that you can’t quite pay for in a contractual sense. This is a conviction I’ve been building over time- the realization that you can’t just pay for quality. Quality is something that requires more than you can bill for in a contract. The only way you get amazing writing is if the writer thinks about what she’s writing 24/7. If she wakes up in the morning and it’s on her mind, if she goes to sleep thinking about it.

Well, you can’t ask for that in a contract. You can’t say “We’re hiring you to think about this day and night, to bother your family and friends about this.” Yet this is the attribute that amazing founders have. The Bonobos founder Andy Dunn, he was a guy who brought his clothes to a friends’ wedding. Chris Peters of Opena Case would bring his prototype around wherever he went. If you’re serious about something it has to consume you. Or, to be more practical about it, you have to find something that consumes you, or has the capacity to consume you, and find a way to get serious about it in a way that is economically viable.

Marketing should begin, not end, with human emotion.

I’m really exhausted that we spend so much time talking about how to get more people to read our content, how to get more people to open our emails, how to get more people to convert and buy our stuff. I mean, those are the results we want to achieve. We’re ultimately paid to move the needle. But we have to realize that the needle is just the heartbeat. We keep the needle alive so we can do interesting, wondrous, beautiful and empowering things that make life worth loving.

We live in a world where a lot of people really dislike math.

But the reason for this isn’t that math is intrinsically bad. The main reason why people hate math is because they hate the way it was thought. To quote Dan Meyer, a math teacher who’s really passionate about math, Math is the vocabulary for your own intuition.

1: Marketers obsess about open rates, about getting 247% more people to read their content. This is silly. It’s like obsessing about grades. It makes people suicidal.

15 Twitter Hacks That Will Turn You Into A Twitter Ninja is meh. Do enough of it to pay the bills, but you have to have an exit strategy or you’re going to go mad. (Check out “I’m A Social Media Community Manager” by Valiant Lowitz, which is presented as satire, but is actually closer to the truth than most will admit.)

2: What we ought to obsess about is- how do we identify what is gratifying? (Jiggity) How do we identify what matters? What is genuinely delightful? What do you want to do with your life?

Who’s really doing this? When you look around, who’s saying “Wow, this really needs to happen, this is great, this is really cool?” I personally think that procrastination is misunderstood and needs solving, that’s one thing. I also think that we need to accelerate the rate at which we experiment with and adopt technology, because I think that will make the world a more interesting, compelling place. It’s a kind of distributed science that we do.

Marketers: What do you see when you look in the mirror? Why? What do you believe to be true? Why? What do you want out of life? Why?

Once you have answers to all those questions (it might take a long while, and you might not be satisfied with the initial answers you get- but that’s okay, you can refine them over time), the question to ask is- how do you figure out parallels between what you believe to be true, what you believe to be important, and the work that you’re doing? There are multiple stages to this. If you can’t afford to work on stuff that you care about, you ought to work towards being able to work on stuff that you care about, with people that you care about, towards an end that you care about.

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