“This is Marketing” is a book written by Seth Godin. This article is a summary and distillation of the lessons from this classic marketing book. Ready? Let’s dive in.
What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the term “marketing?” If you’re like most people, you’re thinking “advertising.” For so long, the two activities have been so inextricably linked that they’ve almost become synonymous.
However, in today’s world, advertising is increasingly becoming a dead end for many businesses, or at best a side road on the road to success. We need a much broader, deeper understanding of marketing now more than ever, one that goes far beyond mere advertising and takes a more philosophical approach to the subject.
Table of Contents
- Advertising is losing it’s effectiveness
- Digital advertising has both advantages and disadvantages
- Identify an underlying human desire that your product fulfills
- Focus on the adopters
- Where to find your key target audience (Adopters)
- How to build a tribe
- How to get your audience to take action
- Leverage on network effects
Advertising is losing it’s effectiveness
Assume you are a marketing executive in the 1960s. Your company has a product, but your sales team is experiencing a sales shortage! So, how do you deal with it?
If you took the traditional marketing approach, it would come down to two words: buy ads – preferably lots of them – and get them seen by as many people as possible.
It’s known as the “Coca-Cola method.” You would flood the airwaves and magazine pages with advertisements, as the world-famous soft drink company has done year after year.
What is your goal? In a nutshell, mass. You use mass media to achieve mass market saturation with a mass message aimed at – you guessed it – the masses.
What is the message? Mass once more. It is all about convincing your target audience that your product is part of popular culture. For Coca-Cola, this meant persuading people that everyone drinks Coke and enjoys it!
That was a viable strategy in the 1960s, when the United States had three major television channels and nearly everyone watched the same shows. If you ran an advertisement on The Beverly Hillbillies, your message would reach millions of people – a sizable portion of the television audience.
Those days, however, are long gone. The public’s attention is now divided among thousands of television channels and shows, and many people prefer to watch YouTube or Netflix instead.
The internet has changed the game. On one level, it’s the largest mass medium ever devised, connecting billions of people. On the other hand, it is also the least massive medium. This is because everyone can create their own private version of it, complete with personalized Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, as well as tailored YouTube video recommendations and Spotify playlists.
Just as mass media has splintered into numerous smaller media, so has the mass culture that was once centered on it. Mad Men, which aired between 2007 and 2015, chronicled this shift, and the show itself is an example of the change that has occurred. The show received a lot of praise, but only about 1% of the US population watched it on average.
The mass-advertising approach to marketing is obsolete. Clearly, a fresh approach is required.
Digital advertising has both advantages and disadvantages
At first glance, the internet appears to be the ideal medium for advertising, far superior to the three-channel television of yesteryear. Sure, you can’t reach a large audience with a single ad on a popular TV show – but you can do something even more effective.
You can precisely target the demographic you want to reach with your advertisements. Facebook, Google, and YouTube all allow you to do this with a few mouse clicks. As a result, unlike in the past, you no longer need to broadcast your message to nearly everyone in the hopes of reaching a specific demographic.
But wait, it gets better! You can also reach your target audience at any time and from any location. You don’t have to wait until they’re watching TV at 9:00 p.m. Your ad could appear on their Facebook timeline whenever they log in, no matter where they are.
And here’s the cherry on top: you can measure your results with precision that would make 1960s advertising executives green with envy. You can see how many people saw your ad, clicked on it, and then purchased your product. You can then optimize your content and advertising budget based on what works and what doesn’t.
There’s only one problem: every other company can do everything. As a result, people are bombarded with advertisements almost everywhere they go online. As a result, even if they are precisely targeted, the majority of your ads will end up becoming yet another thing to ignore.
Knowing this, many businesses turn to search engine optimization, or SEO, for help with online marketing. The hope is that by using the right keywords, your company’s website will appear near the top of Google results when someone searches for the type of product you provide.
However, most Google searches produce more than a dozen pages of results, and only a few businesses will get their SEO so right that they appear on the first page. The remainder will appear on the dreaded second page (or worse).
Fortunately, there are some steps we can take to improve our marketing approach. These will be addressed next.
Identify an underlying human desire that your product fulfills
The first step in effective marketing is as simple to state as it is difficult to execute: create something worth purchasing. But wait, isn’t that the responsibility of designers and manufacturers?
Yes, but it is also a marketing task. To understand why, consider what makes something worthwhile to purchase in the first place. Consider a drill bit with a quarter-inch diameter.
Nobody wants a quarter-inch drill bit for its own sake; they want it for the quarter-inch hole it makes, as Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously stated.
But no one wants a hole just for the sake of having one. It’s simply a means to an end, such as installing a shelf on the wall of your living room. And that shelf is merely a means of storing items, which in turn is merely a means of making your home appear tidy.
And why do you want to be tidy? Perhaps it gives you the impression that you have control over your surroundings. Perhaps it makes your visitors admire you. Perhaps a little of both.
In other words, you do not require a drill bit. You want safety and respect, which are two of the most basic human needs. The drill bit is simply a tool for carrying them out.
Identifying people’s underlying needs and desires is the first step in effective marketing. These almost always boil down to deep-seated, emotionally resonant desires like adventure, belonging, connection, freedom, strength, and tranquillity.
A product is worthwhile to purchase if it provides a compelling answer to one or more of these desires. Consider the purchase of an SUV by a man. Why does he purchase it?
Perhaps he’s drawn to it because of its off-road capabilities. But here’s the thing: he may never actually go off-roading, but the prospect of being able to do so may be enough to entice him to buy. Why? Because it satisfies his desire for adventure.
The task of marketing in this case is to persuade the man that the SUV can quench his thirst – and the most compelling way to do so is to build an SUV that can actually go off-road and conveys this fact through a rugged appearance.
As a result, effective marketing begins during the design and manufacturing stages. It guides the process of developing products that speak to people’s aspirations by making compelling, deliverable promises of fulfillment.
Focus on the adopters
The next step in effective marketing is to recognize that you can’t please everyone because different people want different things. Even when two people appear to have the same desire, they frequently define it differently. For example, some people associate adventure with thrill-seeking. Others associate it with international travel.
Remember that the product you’re marketing represents a specific definition of the desire it fulfills, and your target audience is made up of people who share that desire and definition. Everyone else is, for the time being, outside the scope of your product.
You can then further narrow your target audience by dividing it into two groups: adopters, who are open to change, and adapters, who are resistant to it.
Adopters welcome new experiences. They enjoy the thrill of discovering something more effective and innovative than what they’ve previously encountered. Consider the crowds of technology enthusiasts who swarmed the Apple Store on the day the new iPhone was released.
Adapters, on the other hand, are wary of new experiences. They enjoy the security that comes with familiarity. Consider the people who still use flip phones.
Of course, they’ll eventually feel compelled to purchase a smartphone, just like everyone else. They’ll adapt at that point.
The distinction between these two groups is critical because the product you’re marketing is novel to everyone who hasn’t purchased it yet. It provides them with a novel way of satisfying one of their desires, which they already fulfill in other ways.
Adopters are far more likely to try out your product than adapters. If you try to sell it to the adapters, you’ll be asking them to do something that goes against their nature: give up an old, tried-and-true way of satisfying their desire in favor of something new and unproven, at least to them.
So disregard the adapters. Your product isn’t for them – at least not yet. Make the early adopters your primary target audience.
If there are enough of them, they will form the smallest viable market – the fewest people who can make your product profitable.
Where to find your key target audience (Adopters)
We know that people make purchases based on deep-seated needs and desires. But there’s something else that influences purchasing decisions: personal values, or the things people care about when pursuing their desires.
Consider someone attempting to meet one of her most basic human needs: nutrition. There are various values that can sway her purchasing decision as she browses the potato chip options at the grocery store. If she is concerned with affordability and popularity, she will choose the cheapest big-name brand. If she values health and sustainability, she’ll go with the organic local brand.
Each value can be paired with its inverse. They represent the two extremes of a spectrum. Consider the contrasts between riskiness and dependability, casualness and professionalism, old-fashion vs trendiness, and speed vs methodical.
If you want to be safe as a marketer, try to find a middle ground between these values or one of the more popular extremes, such as affordability. After all, those are the areas where the majority of people can be found.
However, it is in these safe zones that most businesses attempt to market their products. As a result, competition is intense. It can be difficult to get your message heard above the din if your company is new.
The more effective approach to finding your smallest viable market is to move out to the extremes that haven’t yet been overcrowded. Even better, find a one-of-a-kind combination of extremes. You can even connect opposing extremes!
That’s one of the things the Grateful Dead did to become one of the most commercially successful rock bands in history, despite only having one Top 40 Billboard hit in their 30-year career from 1965 to 1995. They embraced both extremes of opposing musical values.
They gave their fans raw and loose music by performing long, sprawling jams at their concerts, but they also gave them polished and concise music by recording 13 slickly-produced studio albums and cutting shorter songs for the radio.
The Grateful Dead earned more than $450 million in record sales alone, primarily by gaining a cult following from a core group of fans.
How to build a tribe
To find a core group of fans who will become the smallest viable market for your product, you must first recognize an apparent paradox: those fans already exist.
They may not realize it yet, but there are people out there who have the desires, needs, and values that could lead them to become your fans. They are simply waiting for you to bring them into a new tribe and lead them to your product.
A tribe is a group of people who are affiliated with one another and share a common worldview – the set of assumptions that they use to view the world around them. This worldview influences how they seek to meet their needs, desires, and values.
As a result, the next step in effective marketing is to create, connect, and lead tribes by telling stories that resonate with the worldviews of their members.
A successful story makes a promise that the audience can understand. “If you buy this product, use this service, or visit this store,” they essentially say, “you will receive the fulfillment of one of your desires in a way that you value.” That is the guarantee. Then there’s the language: the symbols that make the promise feel credible by appealing to the audience’s worldview assumptions.
Consider the American discount department store chain JCPenney. Originally, the stores were geared toward a specific tribe of shoppers: those who enjoyed the game of bargain-hunting because of their desire for play and hunger for affordability. JCPenney promised them that its store would be a rewarding place to look for bargains.
And the company’s language for making this promise feel credible was a never-ending stream of coupons, discounts, and clearance sales – all of which provided symbols that JCPenney fans automatically associated with bargains.
JCPenney was sending a second, implicit message to their fans by encouraging them to interact with their store through means such as coupons. “People like us” are those who clip coupons, look for sales in the newspaper, and, well, shop at JCPenney.
Marketers risk ignoring their fans’ shared worldview and the symbols that speak to it. When Ron Johnson took over as CEO of JCPenney in 2011, he thought the coupons and other discount-related symbols were a little tacky; they weren’t how a high-end store would present itself. As a result, he got rid of them.
The end result? The bargain hunters fled, and sales fell by more than half.
How to get your audience to take action
Assuming you’ve begun to build a following for your product, your next step as a marketer is to persuade them to buy it. And the key to doing so is to create and relieve tension – a feeling of uneasy pressure to which your product provides an antidote.
One method is to question their status – their connection to a group and their position within its hierarchy. This is the ranking system that tells them who in the group has the most respect and power. The tribe that has gathered around your product is the group in this case.
Raising the prospect of separation is the simplest way to challenge your tribe members’ status and thus create tension. Most people want to stay with their tribe; they don’t want to be left behind when it advances or changes course.
Your tribe is doing exactly that by adopting your product; its internal culture is evolving. Your product is becoming one of the variables in the statement “people like us do X, Y, and Z.” As a marketer, your job now is to spread the message of that statement.
How do you go about doing that? It is dependent on the type of people in your tribe and how they approach their status relationships. There are two basic strategies: affiliation and dominance.
People who seek affiliation are looking for two things: kinship with other members of their group and assurance about whether and where they fit in the organization’s hierarchy. You want to send signals of popularity to these people in order to create tension. This could include having a crowded trade show booth, inviting celebrities to your product’s launch party, or enlisting renowned authors to write a blurb for your book. Such actions will indicate to everyone that the tribe is enthusiastic about your product or service.
People who seek dominance, on the other hand, want one of three things: to rise through the ranks of their own group’s hierarchy, to see their group outrank other groups, or to achieve a bit of both. You want to send signals of, well, dominance to these people in order to create tension.
Uber, for example, did this in its early years by boldly confronting local governments, competitors, and even their own drivers. This sent a message to dominance-seeking investors, customers, and employees alike: “We’re here to win, and nothing will stand in our way.” So why not come along with us and become a winner as well?”
Leverage on network effects
Unless you’re marketing a highly specialized product that can only appeal to a small group of people, you’ll probably want to expand beyond your initial fan base and reach out to the general public, where a much larger market awaits.
To bridge the gap between your fan base and the general public, you must complete the final step of effective marketing: constructing a bridge that will allow your product to spread.
But first, you must understand the nature of the gap you are attempting to bridge. It all comes down to the distinction between the two groups in question.
Your fan base is mostly made up of adopters, whereas the general public is mostly made up of adapters. As a result, you become popular with your fan base for the same reason you’re unpopular with the general public: you upended the status quo.
Assume you were an early adopter of online video streaming in 2010. Tech enthusiasts are eager to use your service, but the general public prefers to keep their DVDs.
How do you persuade them to relinquish control? How do you reach out to them?
A powerful answer can be found in a phenomenon known as the network effect. It occurs when the value of a product or service increases as more people use it. This establishes the foundation for a positive feedback loop: as more people use the product or service, it becomes more useful; this leads to even more people using it, which makes it even more useful, and so on.
Consider the online collaboration platform Slack for coworkers. It was initially embraced by a small fan base of people eager to learn the intricacies of a new program that no one else was using.
After learning it, they set about converting their coworkers to Slack users. Why? Because the platform became more useful as more coworkers used it.
So the platform began to spread, and before long, even those who were resistant to change felt compelled to, well, adapt to the new Slack reality of their workplace.
Why? Because they didn’t want to miss out on the conversations and collaborations that everyone else on the platform was having.
To summarize, network effects can assist your product’s mainstreaming, and your initial fan base can pave the way.
With the rise of the internet and the decline of mass media’s monopoly, marketers can no longer rely solely on advertising. Instead, they should adopt a marketing strategy that identifies people’s underlying needs and desires, develops a product that can satisfy them, and uses value-positioning and storytelling to cultivate a core group of fans who are open to trying new things and can serve as the product’s smallest viable market. To motivate these followers to take action and spread the word about the product, marketers could generate and alleviate tension by challenging their statuses and exploiting network effects to establish a connection between the fans and the wider public. You might also find other marketing book summaries useful, such as Marketing made simple, How brand grow, and Free Prize Inside.