I interviewed 14 expert marketers to learn their secrets. Here’s what I discovered.
I reached out to 14 of the best marketers and growth hackers I know, and I interviewed them to learn what it takes to become a top performer in this field.
I found some remarkable lessons, including the surprising reason why growth hacking doesn’t work.
If you want to know how to have a great career in marketing, and what skills to develop to rise to the top of the industry, read this.
1. Great marketers don’t climb the marketing career ladder
Think of the most famous people you consider “great at marketing”. Now study their career paths: you’ll notice that they didn’t get there by climbing the marketing department’s career ladder. In fact, they rarely formally studied marketing at all. They got there by being extremely knowledgeable about some product, technical domain, or industry they were already specialized in, and then became a “great marketer” simply by being the best communicator in that field.
The point of focusing on domain expertise instead of wanting to be a “good marketer” reminded me of Paul Graham’s advice on how to be a good startup founder:
The optimal thing to do […] if you want to be a successful startup founder is not some sort of new, vocational version of college focused on “entrepreneurship.”
The component of entrepreneurship that really matters is domain expertise. The way to become Larry Page was to become an expert on search. And the way to become an expert on search was to be driven by genuine curiosity, not some ulterior motive.
What will you do a better job at selling: A product you spent the last 10 years building, polishing, and shipping yourself? Or someone else’s product that you just learned about last week?
Truly great marketing can only come from the people who are wholly invested an idea’s success, because they’re the ones that will persevere through the failed campaigns and wasted money beyond all rational motivation to make sure that the success happens.
Caveat: Hire an outsider only if you believe yourself to be too emotionally attached or of poor self-awareness, because if you are too emotionally invested in a specific outcome (instead of the process itself), then you won’t have the flexibility to experiment with the creative ideas that good marketing requires.
Ok, so now you’ve got the domain knowledge, how do you become the best communicator in your field?
2. How to communicate: Listen
I asked all my interviewees, “What’s the most obvious part of your job that no one talks about because it’s so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning, yet is crucial?”
Almost unanimously, they answered “listening”.
Think of the last person you met recently. Try to remember what you talked about, and what you learned about them. Can you recall:
What positive quality about them do you admire the most?
What is the biggest negative in their life right now? Is there anything you can do to help them with this?
Deep down, what is it that they truly want out of life? Not what they say they want, what do they really want?
It was probably difficult to recall any of these for anyone you met recently. But that was for a stranger—can you honestly say you know all of these things about a close friend? What about a family member? What about your spouse?
We go through life thinking that we are good listeners because during a conversation we can understand everything the other person said. But this is not listening—truly good listening means understanding what the other person needs and wants. It means feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, and hearing what they hear. Only then can you begin to understand what it is that is driving them to want the things that they want.
More simply put: If you can’t listen, you can’t know what your customers want. If you don’t know what your customers want, you can’t sell them something they want. Full stop.
How to become a better listener? You could spend your whole life learning this skill, but the best book to start with is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
Alright, so now you’re great at listening and can understand what people want. But now it’s your turn to talk—how do you get good at that?
3. How to communicate: Message-Market Fit
The product manager’s holy grail is Product-Market Fit . The marketer’s holy grail is Message-Market Fit.
Message-Market Fit means hitting a nerve with your audience. Because you did so much listening in the last step, you really understand what it’s like to be your target audience, and you’re able to craft a message that speaks to them on a deep level.
The message “love all love” did more for the LGBTQ community than the message “gay rights”, because “love” is a universal and enduring concept that we all understand and accept, whereas “rights” is abstract, judicial, and combative.
Apple’s “1000 songs in your pocket” message was much more effective than its competitors’ focus on “5GB storage capacity” because the customer cares about songs, not gigabytes.
How to get better at finding the right message? You could spend another lifetime learning this skill, but the best book to start with is Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.
Message-Market Fit is imperative. You could be a great marketer if you stopped reading this article right now, ignored the rest of the lessons, and just focused on cultivating domain knowledge and communication skills for the rest of your career.
4. Growth hacking “works”, until it doesn’t
My interviewees considered Ryan Holiday to be the most famous “growth hacker” (he literally wrote the book Growth Hacker Marketing); however, in an interview with Tucker Max, one of the case studies in Ryan’s book, Tucker admits that none of the tactics Ryan Holiday described in his books actually worked.1
TUCKER: All the stuff that I did, all the stunts that we pulled, most of that stuff didn’t actually work. We got attention for the stunts, but it didn’t actually drive sales.
CHARLIE: Which stunts?
TUCKER: Pick ’em. All the ones that Ryan Holiday writes in his books. They didn’t actually work. They got attention, so they worked in that regard, but not sales. None.
Andrew Chen wrote a famous article about how the future of marketing belongs to growth hackers who know how to drive distribution through existing “superplatforms” like Facebook or Apple.
While Andrew is correct in his observations, I see two major caveats:
First, is you must already have both Product-Market Fit and Message-Market Fit. If you don’t, you will get some attention, but it will fizzle out rapidly because your product doesn’t solve a need and your message doesn’t resonate on a deep level. This is what happened in Tucker Max’s case study.
Second, is the strategy is unsustainable over the long run. Growth hacking amounts to exploiting what is essentially a pricing anomaly: the superplatforms usually charge money for the privilege of reaching their audiences, but you were able to find a way to reach that audience for free. Do you really think Facebook will let you advertise on their platform for free forever? Like all lucrative arbitrage opportunities, the market eventually whittles profits away to zero.
Using a short-term tactic to go from Zero to One thousand true fans may get you a key beachhead for success, so growth hacking remains an indispensable tool in this regard, but don’t expect to build your entire business around growth hacking.
5. The greatest marketers are dead
I asked my interviewees for book recommendations, and was surprised to discover that most of the recommended authors are dead.
Human nature has remained remarkably stable over time. Technology can amplify or speed up existing behaviours, but technology on its own can’t create new behaviours.2
The principles of effective communication and influence have been known for thousands of years. You are better off studying Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (published in 1791) or Ogilvy on Advertising (published in 1985) instead of Seth Godin’s latest blog post (published last evening).3
Certainly, you need to read contemporary material to update these foundational ideas for the 21st century. However, if you haven’t spent enough time building this foundation to begin with, it will be harder to discern effective ideas from charlatanism. Modern ideas are not beneficiaries of the Lindy Effect, and are still early on the bathtub curve, so there hasn’t yet been enough selection pressure to weed out the bad ideas from the good ones.
What to do next
Y Combinator’s motto is “Make something people want”—but what happens if what people want is not what they should want? Big tobacco, big oil, and big data have for years given people “what they want”. Every 10th car in Silicon Valley is a Porsche and every 10th family is living on food stamps. People want Porsches more than they want to build more housing.
We already have effective technical solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems: solutions to climate change, solutions to poverty, solutions to violent conflict. But average citizens don’t know these solutions exist: 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, but only 13% of Americans know of this consensus. The science is clear that more gun control leads to less gun violence, but only 52% of Americans think gun laws should be stricter.
It’s easy to say “Oh, well those people are just dumb”, but that’s not true. It’s the scientists who are dumb: they were so focused on making a solution that they forgot to craft an inspiring message to promote their solution. They talked about the cold dead data, but they should have told a warm and engaging story. They tried to educate the audience, but they should have affirmed the audience’s desire to appear smarter than the scientists. They protested for change, but they should have negotiated incrementally because people like the idea of change but hate actual change.
We encourage our kids to get STEM degrees, but we don’t encourage them to become marketers. Not just any old marketers, mind you, marketers who have the domain expertise to push forward the technical solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.
Our wants are amply fulfilled, and what we’ve gotten for the service of our wants are more extravagant wants. What the world needs is better wants: the want for the alleviation of suffering. The want for democracy to be driven by science and not by charisma. The want for deeper connections with our fellow humans.
A technologist can Make What People Want.
It takes a marketer to Change What People Want.
Do you want more essays like this one? I only publish half of my writing publicly. The rest are posted exclusively on my email list, which you can read by subscribing here: billmei.net/email (it’s free)
Ryan, if you’re reading this, you’re still one of my heroes and your books on Stoicism have transformed my life for the better.
This might change once we start editing the human genome, or otherwise encourage everyone to modify their biology.
Seth, if you’re reading this, you’re still one of my heroes and I think you are doing important work in bringing education into the 21st century.