When I was working as a Management Consultant it was back in the days before the internet — you know, those prehistoric times when the only way that businesses could get hold of potential clients was through widespread advertising, bulk mailing or cold calling.
Any small business wanting to acquire more clients had only a few options. Back in those days, it was common practice to place a small ad in a local paper — which is partly what kept local papers afloat financially — or to design a leaflet and have it dropped into mailboxes in the local area. To contact a wider audience, one needed national press or a TV or radio campaign. If you happened to have a list of previous buyers, you could try going through the list on the phone, though this was much more expensive. All of these options were costly and tremendously wasteful. They were ‘shotgun marketing’ or ‘shouting from the rooftops marketing’ at its worst. Out of every ad placed, maybe less than 1% of newspaper readers would respond; similarly, leaflets and cold calling were hugely uneconomical.
What any enterprise was trying to do was the same thing that it tries to do today: contact likely buyers. But there was no way of establishing who they might be with the technology of the time.
It brings us back to the question asked earlier: what exactly is marketing?
In simple terms, marketing is communication.
You want to communicate about your product, but ideally in such a way that the person on the other end of your communication becomes interested, is enticed, and decides to come closer or look more deeply into what you have to offer. Theories developed in the middle of the 20th century about all this: how the prospect could effectively be ‘hypnotised’ in various ways by a product through the use of marketing techniques. Clearly, if you were selling an unhealthy product like a cola-flavoured soda loaded with questionable ingredients, you needed to be able to convince people outside the fields of logic and common sense that the product was worth buying. Hence the ‘mass marketing’ of the last few decades, which was basically an attempt to communicate on a vast scale to everyone who lived and breathed, in the hope of getting enough of a ‘trickle-through’ to sustain a business.
These ideas have rolled forward into the internet age. We are all spammed daily, even hourly, through the supposedly advanced channels of newsfeeds and smartphones and so forth, using complex algorithms.
What’s the purpose of these algorithms?
Algorithms are designed with the aim of communicating, just like mass marketing was — but, using data from our own choices as we reveal them when we use the internet, algorithms are supposed to ensure that the communication isn’t so much ‘mass’ but contains a high element of relevance.
Many of us have now had the experience of searching for something in Google only to find ads about that same thing popping up in our Facebook newsfeeds minutes later. (It gets even spookier when one has a verbal conversation about something and finds ads on one’s screen a few hours later.)
The point is that marketing is about communication. In the absence of any means of establishing exactly WHO one should communicate with, one has to resort to shouting from the rooftops through mass marketing; but as things get more refined and as it becomes possible to find those who might actually be interested in what we have to offer, there needs to be less shouting.
It’s no wonder that small business owners used to look at me blankly when the subject of marketing came up, therefore, or why today I get similar responses from writers trying to market their own work. The field is full of fabulous promises and mystical formulas. That’s what we should expect, given the above background.
But if we accept that marketing is communication and that a writer, having written a book, is trying to communicate it to a reader, then things begin to resolve into simplicities and practicalities. What is it that writers need to do, when they first look into marketing? Their first task should be to find those readers who might be interested in what they have written. One could resort to the old tactics of shouting from the rooftops — and many, many writers still do — but a more effective way would be to establish the parameters of one’s ideal reader: who is he or she? Where does such a person live? What else are they likely to be interested in?
If one can narrow down the answers to these questions, then one can ‘go to market’ much more effectively and economically.