Here’s Some Marketing Advice: Your Product Is Terrible
The One Thing No One Wants to Admit
For whatever reason, in my writing I seem to have assumed the role of the guy who says the things that no one else will say. But in my actual business life as a marketer, I’ve been struggling with that. Namely, I seem to get paid a lot of money to specifically not say this one thing.
Because of my successes in marketing working for bestselling authors like Tucker Max, Tim Ferriss and Robert Greene, in working on the marketing at American Apparel for a number of years, people see that success and they come to me and they ask me to work on their projects. They say, “I love the risks that you take and I love all the ridiculous media stunts that you’ve done/ I’ll do whatever you say, let’s just do something crazy.”
They say everything is on the table but really it isn’t. The one thing they don’t want to hear from me is that their product sucks. Like it really sucks.
It’s not worth talking about, it’s not interesting, I can’t get excited about. I don’t think deep down they are even excited about it but they see the success other people have and they want it. And even though they’re paying thousands of dollars for my advice, they blow off the most important advice that I have.
See, if I contributed anything to the massive projects I’ve been a part of it was in adding velocity something that already had its own momentum or I concentrated an organic process that would have happened already into a smaller period of time.
It should go without saying that to have marketing success like that you need to have a truly remarkable amazing product. But doesn’t go without saying. Not at all. Like I say it over and over and over again and people still don’t hear me.
What happens is an author will come to me and they clearly phoned in this book or worse they went off into the writers cave for a year not thinking about who this book was for or how they were intending to reach them. They just think there is this mythical audience of smart people out there who buy books that marketers put in front of them.
Or people who have never done anything newsworthy in their life come to me and ask me to put them in the news like reporters are just sitting around trying to do favors or will just print whatever I say which of course is not the case either.
Or companies come to me and I’ll say “Hey what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish with this launch?” And they’ll look me straight in the eye and say “Oh I want featured in Vanity Fair, I want to be profiled in Fast Company or the New York Times,” and of course why or what for has not crossed their mind. What is their angle here? Why is their thing worth talking about. This is a thing that they think they outsource to marketers and thats not how it works.
I’ve dealt with a few old school publicists and marketers myself and look occasionally they’ll surprise me with the ability to call up some old friend and place some story and I’ll think, “Wow I wish I had that power,” but I don’t. I don’t think many people do anymore.
That’s not how my clients have been successful, thats not how I’ve seen marketing evolve in my years of doing it now. Increasingly it is the product that does all the heavy lifting and the marketer’s job is simply the communication or facilitation of the relationship of the idea to the influencers that spread messages. We are the accelerant, but rarely the cause of the fire.
The three variables my clients have in common they all did these three things.
They did something totally new.
They did something provocative and controversial in some way.
Finally they knew exactly who they were doing it for and where those people were located.
And I know you think you are probably doing these things and look, this audience is better than most, but I’ve done enough of these events that what inevitably happens is I get off stage (or check my email) and having a bunch of people come up to me and tell me about their project and I pretend to be interested and immediately forget about it. Because there is nothing there.
I’m not saying their project will have no success, it might even have a decent amount of success but it’s not going to spread and it doesn’t matter how much work or effort I put behind it when people read it they’re disappointed or see it they’re disappointed or try it they are disappointed.
Those of you who understand the online marketing space know this concept as “bounce rate.” Most of the projects people pitch me are destined for a high bounce rate. You can get people to it and they don’t stick and so it doesn’t matter how good a marketer you are. It doesn’t matter what relationships I bring to the table, how hard I go to bat for you or how hard any publicist goes to bat for you.
Part of the problem with marketing, of course, is that publicists don’t care because their job is to bring media to you but not ultimately results. We are not usually partners in the outcome of your product so we don’t really care.
One of the best pieces of marketing advice I’ve ever heard actually came from Paul Graham who is the founder of Y Combinator (the angel investor behind AirBnB, Looped, Reddit, many of the web services that have become integral to our lives). Startups come in and they are like how “Ok how can we get people to talk about our product?” And he just says, “Make stuff that people want.”
And it seems simple and we nod and think, “ Oh yeah people want this,” but we don’t actually want to hear if they want it or not and we are deaf to that feedback. We will not let anyone tell us otherwise.
The process of creation go something like — I’m going to make this thing, then it’s done and now I’m going to talk to a marketer and start marketing as though these are two distinct phases when they are not.
I’m seeing marketing become this sort of fluid spectrum. In this Silicon Valley they’ve started to describe this concept as “Growth Hacking.” The term is not all that important, but the results are. To see people with no experience or no traditional background in marketing turn an unknown web service into something with a million or 100 million users really rapidly.
And how do they do that? It’s a set of distinct phases, the first of which is Product-Market fit, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of, which is you make something that people actually want or need and the marketing can happen on a much smaller scale. You only need to reach a few 100 or 1000 people because they actually want this, and when you build in features to help spread the product, you watch 1 user become 2 users become 3 users become 4 users the product spreads itself and you don’t need marketing.
And finally there is this process of optimization, improvements and iterative refinements of the product itself. All of that is made possible by the simple understanding that I started with which is, chances are the first version of your idea sucks and it’s not that interesting and it’s not worth marketing. We put the cart before the horse and then we wonder why our efforts don’t build the kind of products, or the kind of successes, or ground swell support that we were hoping for, that we saw in other people.
I think if I could close with one thought it would be, don’t spend your money on marketing, don’t give it to me even though obviously I would be glad to take it, but spend it on going back to the lab and making something that’s really special, that’s provocative and interesting and unlike other things out there and it’s actually meant for a specific person that you can almost reach out and touch rather than for this vague idea of success and massive appeal that far too many people aim at and never end up hitting.
Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author and advisor to many brands and writers. His newest book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry. He gives monthly reading recommendations as well.
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