What I learnt from three years of non-marketing

January 2012 was a watershed year for me. The Social Media Mind was just being published and I was staring at the usual publisher list of marketing requirements, canned interviews, media articles to write and Facebook and Twitter posts to help promote it. It was the usual rollcall of things that screamed “buy my stuff” that every author is expected to go through these days as part of promoting a book.

Now, no book can ever hope to do well without marketing but that doesn’t mean that working hard to sell a book is the right way to go about it either. In June the previous year Google+ had just opened up, I had joined on day three as part of the early adopters and Beta testers and in the months between my joining and my book coming out I came to enjoy the level of deep engagement and conversation that the platform made possible. It was that, more than anything else, that tipped the scales. I decided to simply stop marketing.

I bring out a book every nine months on average. After a while the traditional marketing that’s associated with it begins to grate to the extent that one book begins to sound much like another the marketing-blah associated with it totally interchangeable. But that’s not how books (and writing) really work. The idea for one book starts even before the previous one has properly finished. Frequently research periods overlap by a considerable amount and, in the process, the book’s content trajectory may change from the original, agreed outline.

“Now a book is never such a huge purchase as to be a deal-breaker on price alone. But along with the price readers commit much, much more.”

The problem I had with marketing up to that point in time was that it did everything backwards. It posed questions but never provided answers (you had to buy the book for that). It promised solutions but never provided evidence that they would be provided (you had to take it on faith and buy the book). It highlighted the expertise and experience of the author (yours truly, in this case) but never provided proof (you had to buy the book for that and decide for yourself). As a matter of fact everything it did was intended to prod people towards making a purchase.

Now a book is never such a huge purchase as to be a deal-breaker on price alone. Most of my books, for instance are under the $20 mark. But along with the price readers commit much, much more. They have to commit their time to read the book and their attention to understand it. This alone increases the value they commit to when making a purchase. In addition they put in a certain amount of faith in its author.

In 2012 I tore up the publisher’s marketing sheet and decided to try and do things differently:

  • I shared content directly from my book, sometimes before it was even edited.
  • I made myself accessible, open to any question.
  • I did not directly mention my books except where excerpts were concerned or questions were specifically addressed to me, about them. I must admit when I first did it I was not sure it would work as well. Conviction and personal dislikes are one thing but like every writer I do need my books to sell in order to make a living. By going against my publisher’s marketing plans I was taking quite a chance with a formula that had worked up to that point.

Here’s what happened next:

All of this can be chalked up to marketing success. I suppose from a certain perspective you can say that I applied the “eat your own dogfood”principle and used social media, transparency, valuable content sharing and Hangouts on Air to increase visibility across social media platforms and dominate search for particular search queries. But that is not all that happened.

Everyone Really Matters

Every kind of interaction takes time, attention and energy. Each kind of interaction demands a certain amount of investment of oneself. A Tweet cast across cyberspace, arguably, takes a lot less thought and investment of time and energy than, maybe a Facebook post. A Hangout-On-Air however represents a considerable investment of time and energy that cannot be avoided. That investment then subsequently demands that the conversation that continues across Google+, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn is deeper, lengthier and much more thoughtful than a, let’s say “Like” or “Thank you for sharing” comment.

That changes everything.

When you invest that amount of time and energy so does your audience. That makes the interaction, engagement and conversation equally valuable. Amongst the usual casual surfers who will briskly acknowledge your contribution to the digital content flying across their screens are also people who have thought deeply about it and have questions, observations and suggestions to make.

Conversation changes the tone of the online relationships. Maybe not everyone who comes across a thread and comments in it is really looking to follow you or expects you will remember their name weeks afterwards, but a great many of the ones who interact and engage with you now become more than just avatars on a screen.

Real people have real concerns. Their thoughts and questions really matter. The conversation that ensues is more than just a part of sales patter or a “counting Likes” metric. It tackles the subject, brings in other questions, raises topics and actually drives everything forward.

Sometimes relationships are formed in that those who have engaged and interacted with you will tag you in some other thread asking your opinion or offering evidence of something that is of interest to what a previous discussion was about.

This makes the world porous. Borders begin to fade in importance. Timezones become insignificant. The notion of the global village begins to take real shape and form, its denizens begin to acquire real names and personalities. True relationships begin to form and deepen.

The networked connection increases the value of what we each do. Business suddenly becomes about more than just making money. It also has an impact in terms of ethics and ideas. Knowledge stops being siloed. Freely shared it acquires value because it is used, discussed and examined.

There are additional fringe benefits. In meetings and talks I give across the world people have come up to me whom I meet for the first time but whose names and faces, ideas and interests I know well from dozens of digital conversations. The first physical interaction we have feels unforced, casual, and familiar. A continuation of our online engagement.

My thoughts and ideas, usually expressed in detail in my books are now quoted not just by those who are my readers but also by people who have not read my books but who are familiar with their content and impact through the conversations they have had with others. As a result my books are mentioned in blogs, social media posts and online conversations by people that could not have been easily reached through a traditional marketing approach.

This leads to a much greater awareness of me as an author than I might otherwise have attained through the pure sale of books. Happily it also leads to more book sales in the long term and more requests for talks and appearances.

Marketing has changed. The traditional “this is what I sell. This is why you should buy it.” approach now really doesn’t work. The percentage of those who are convinced by it (and yes, a segment of the target audience still is) is getting smaller and smaller each year. Mentions of “a trough market” and “a difficult audience” are a direct reflection of this fact.

In an attention economy attention is given to those who invest time and effort, creating value by putting in valuable energy themselves and delivering something that is of use to those they engage with. When the “one to many” shortcut of broadcasting a sales message to the masses no longer works, what remains is guided by some basic, human principles:

  • Be open. Every suggestion and interaction has merit, even if it appears at first to be contentious.
  • Respect people’s time. Those who have taken time to engage and interact are as invested in the connection as you.
  • Deliver value. Forget content that sells things. Explain instead the impact of what you do, its direct value to those who may find it useful. The advantages they will gain. The impact all this will have.
  • Connect with people. The avatars, nicks and thumbnails across your screen are no different to people in your livingroom, They have passions, likes, biases and ideas. None of them are going to be perfect, but then neither are you. It is the connection and ensuing conversation that is changing many of the ways we do things across the globe.
  • Grow. The online conversation can sometimes get very deep. Insights frequently arise out of it. Some of them will change you. Sometimes insights may come to you from the online engagement. Share them freely. They do, often help others change, too.

Traditional marketing techniques, the dreaded “call to action”, the “email list”, the “click here and subscribe” button, the “to know more about this you need to…” approach still have a place. Personally they annoy me and I tend to move away from websites that apply them or companies the implement them. They do deliver some results but they also are part of a philosophy and way of doing business that belongs to the century we’ve left behind. We should be able to reinvent the way business is done and marketing executed for a new century where the human connection matters more and where the personal interaction is deeper.

My latest book is called The Tribe That Discovered Trust — How Trust is Created, Propagated, Lost and Regained in Commercial Interactions.