It’s awfully easy to profess expertise when you’re playing with someone else’s money. Perhaps that’s part of why we remain skeptical at smashLAB. There are some great new tools out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build a brand. That’s why we take on our own projects: so we have some skin in the game.
I shouldn’t be parading this as a virtue, but I believe it to be one. By testing things out for ourselves, we’re better equipped to understand them when we make suggestions to clients. Sure, each experience is highly specific and not always transferable. All marketing suffers from this—particularly in a digital context. The rules about what works are increasingly becoming more difficult to plainly define.
Some are making big promises, and I worry that’s unfair to clients and ultimately damaging to those who make them. SEO companies perhaps suffer from this dubious legacy the most; having (as a whole) made a great many promises that have proven hard to live up to. This has caused many to look at that entire practice as a shady one, even though this is at times quite inaccurate.
Making a promise doesn’t take much. Living up to it does though. As some of you know, I’ve recently penned a book on a particular way to look at marketing and building one’s brand. Writing it was a lot of work. Now it’s my opportunity to test it—with smashLAB being the guinea pig.
Let me start with a little bit of context. Over the past few years this blog has gained a tiny bit traction. We’re not talking “Digg” numbers or anything, but given that I average a post every few weeks, we do okay. Monthly traffic varies from around 15,000 uniques up to somewhere north of 50,000. (The latter being a bit of an exception.) For a series of essays, that seems pretty reasonable in our minds. Plus, it seems that a lot of readers return to this blog regularly, which we’re grateful for. Overwhelmingly, though, we’re unknown.
This book was a bit of an experiment. Frankly, I’m pretty happy to just know that we were able to put it together—a task that felt pretty daunting at some moments. Additionally, we chose a somewhat different (and likely more harrowing) road by self-publishing it. Yes, we had support from friends and a great editor who lent their hand along the way; nevertheless, we have been forced to learn more about things like ISBN numbers and the book industry in general than we had ever really cared to.
We didn’t have a defined marketing budget for the book; nor do we have the support that a respected publisher can afford. Although you can buy Speak Human online, you won’t find it at a book store unless you ask them to order it in. (At some point in the future I’ll explain our reasons for self-publishing, and share a few of our findings related to this strange process.)
I’ve noted that this was an experiment. Well, we’re now on “phase two” of that experiment. While the first part was pretty vague and largely involved us trying to write something sensible and useful, this next leg actually puts our observations and beliefs to the test. It seems that a lot of marketing writing is concentrated on what I’d characterize as unreasonable expectations: do this, be outlandish, watch profits roll in. Speak Human proposes that it doesn’t work like that, and that the real success is found by consistently and honestly messaging in an effort to build brand loyalty over the long term.
It often unnerves clients when I state that most marketing is an educated guess. If you really pressed any marketer, though, they’d probably say the same. No matter how much strategy and science is behind marketing, it’s hard to replicate successes, simply due to the number of variables involved. In light of this, there’s an “Outliers”-like element to Speak Human‘s thesis: find your story, stay the course, adapt as necessary, keep working. If you get lucky, great! But, you don’t pin your organization’s hopes on going “viral.”
We’re applying this same thinking to the marketing of Speak Human, and I’ve taken to calling it the “band in a van” approach. We’ve done something we believe in and are proud to have our name on. Now we have to get “out there” by spreading the word with interested folks, and hustling up interest: one gig at a time. No magic, no free rides, no multi-million dollar ad campaigns; just a decent product and a lot of sweat.
My bet is that the book will (at best) see modest sales in the first year. It’s not big on promises or instant results, so folks aren’t going to race to buy it. On the other hand, this also means it’s less likely to be a flash in the pan. There’s a lot of good information in it. As folks see that, we believe they’ll pass it on to friends and we’ll see sales slowly climb.
Aside from spamming people about the book, we haven’t struck the possibility of anything from our marketing arsenal. Ultimately, we think any approach should be up for grabs. We will, however, concentrate on methods that resonate with our message (doing so wouldn’t be “speaking human,” would it?).
We’re leaning towards more direct and personal (go figure) approaches to get the word out on the book. Part of this involves a videocast in which I share candid and sometimes unflattering examples. Like this one:
(There are more of these on the YouTube Channel.) We’ve also set up a Twitter feed and Facebook page for it, but only because they seem like tools that will help facilitate better discussions. Actually, I make a lot of fun of the “fan” notion on Facebook, but the discussion forums and such are awfully handy, and hard to pass up.
On the notion of those discussion forums, you’ll note that they’re dead, dead, dead right now. That’s part of the fear with this thing. Marketers often talk with glee about setting these things up, as though they’ll instantly result in online discussion and community. I’ve seen first hand how hard it is to get people to commit the time to do this sort of thing. I’m hoping that questions like, “How does your organization speak human?” or “Which company is the least human?” might get some folks to post a thought or two.
We are also using some selective advertising on our sites, and in targeted purchases. Our budget for this is very low. Currently it’s capped at $20/day. (Let’s be real here: one can’t expect much return on a lunch’s worth of daily advertising.) We don’t see advertising as a big part of this; instead, we’re trying to spur real discussion for the book. As little as we may like it; that will simply take some time. On that note, I should also mention that we’re putting a great deal of effort into connecting individually with bloggers, in hopes that they’ll give it a read and make note of the book if they feel so inclined.
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I think the web marketing world is filled with charlatans and con-men. For every honest practitioner, there are a hundred others who tossed out a website filled with jargon and are lurking in wait to capitalize on some unsuspecting sucker. Perhaps I say too much on this topic, I just hate hearing from the small business owner who paid exorbitantly for a promise that was simply unrealistic, and never delivered on.
We do this work for a living and have helped a number of folks along the way. Still, I’m quick to point out that each situation is different, and that when it comes to brand building and marketing, there’s always much more to learn. This is one of those experiences, and I want to put some of our own money on the table.
On December 14, 2010 (exactly one year from this date), I’ll post a follow-up to this article. In it, I’ll share the results of our hypothesis: that something can be effectively marketed by creating a useful offering and then concentrating on personal approaches, without need for the traditional “machine.” I think this will work, but honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to pan out. Then of course, I think that’s the fun of it: there’s plenty to be learned, and I’ll share all of the findings, be they positive of embarrassing.
As I make this commitment, I’ll admit that it isn’t without some trepidation. When it’s your cash and reputation at stake, this notion of transparency gains some actual weight. It feels more like being “naked” when you say you’ll put it all out there. I invested nearly a year into just writing this book. If I can’t use the same ideas I’ve espoused to make this book a success, it sort of invalidates any claims I’ve made, doesn’t it? Yup, on the walk to work today, I thought this post was worth skipping. Where’s the fun in that, though?
Want to lend a hand?
If you’ve enjoyed ideasonideas, I ask you to put aside $20 and buy the book. We’ve put a lot of effort into it, and have filled it with as much hard-won (and hopefully useful) information as we could. You’ll probably get something out of it, and even if you’re really well read on the topic, it would make a lovely gift for any entrepreneurs you know.
It would also be nice if you could tell me (and anyone else who’s interested) what you thought about the book. If you’d be so kind, I’d love it if you might write a review on Amazon.com—be it glowing or critical. After this many months of looking at the same concepts, it’s hard to tell which parts work, and which ones are simply tangents.
And, of course, that’s the biggest variable in this whole exercise. If it turns out that the book sucks, all the marketing in the world won’t save it. I’ll let you be the judge of that, though.