21 Marketing Lessons Every Creative Needs to Master

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Marketing is pretty simple: Find your potential customers and tell them why they should buy what you’re selling. Of course, just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy (as a general rule, I tend to find that simple things are often deceptively hard.)

The reason why finding your customers and telling them why they should buy your stuff is hard is because all the assumptions baked within it: Knowing who are your customers, knowing how to reach them, deciding what the best sales pitch is, even accepting that doing any of this is the creator’s job (as opposed to some marketing firm).

Marketing is a tough gig. It’s been my job for the last ten years and I’ve learned a few hard-won lessons over the last decade. But doing it right is a must—and it makes a big difference. There’s a line from Herb Cohen, “You’re better off with a great salesman and a mediocre product than with a masterpiece and a moron to sell it.”

Below are the 21 marketing lessons every creator needs to know. And yes, you might recognize a few of them from my books…which means I’ve already successfully marketed to you at least once before. And as a creator, I think you’ll love my newest book, Perennial Seller, which is all about how to make and market work that stands the test of time.


[*] First, Make Something People Want — You know what the single worst marketing decision you can make is? Starting with a product nobody wants or nobody needs. Conversely, let’s say you are a writer, the single best marketing decision you can make is to take the time to write an amazing book. As famous investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham says, “Make something people want.” Forget what the traditional playbook says—marketing is not something that happens after the product development is complete.

[*] Second, Make Something Remarkable — More than making stuff people want, you should make things that are remarkable. As Seth Godin says, you wouldn’t tell anyone that you saw a cow. You would tell them if you saw a purple cow. Word of mouth is ultimately the most effective and most desirable form of marketing for any product. As a creator, you need to actively bake the marketing into your product. Think about it. Before the iPod came out all headphones were black. When people started hitting the streets with the white iPod headphones, everyone knew what they were listening to — an Apple iPod. Millions of people all around the world were marketing for Apple because they built it directly into the design of their product.

[*] Remember, It’s Your Job — Hey guess what, launching/promotion/marketing isn’t someone else’s job. It’s your job. Even if you hired other people to help, it’s still on you. No one cares about this project more than you. No one is a better spokesperson for it than you. If you think you can hand all this off to someone and still get amazing results, you’re wrong.

[*] Execute A Masterful Launch — You get to launch once. If you wait until the last minute, that’s on you. Planes need runway and so will your project. Planes also need velocity, without it, no runway is long enough. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind: First, do your research. Figure out what has worked for other people and products in your space. Second, knock off as much stuff early on as possible such as interviews, podcasts recordings, blog posts, etc. Third, hire professionals and support — whatever you can afford and then spend a little more. Remember, the point of a launch is to get as much attention in a short amount of time as possible. It’s about kick starting word of mouth. You can’t have that…if there is no one who knows about what you’ve done.

[*] Build A List  — As a marketer, if you don’t know how to build permission assets and you don’t encourage your clients to build them (or build them for yourself) you are bad at what you do. It’s that simple. As a creative, you need to do the same. If marketing isn’t building a list, directly or indirectly, it’s a waste. Over the years I’ve built my own reading list email, which started eight years ago and now has some 80,000+ subscribers, and has become one of the most valuable assets in my career as a writer. Start building yours today. Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing is a must read.

[*] Master The Art of Language — Creators need to understand the power of language and framing—nobody will give your product or idea a chance if the language is confusing or if you haven’t given them a clear way to explain it to their friends in one or two sentences. Think about political debates: it actually matters whether they’re talking about illegal immigrants or undocumented workers, or whether they describe the problem as climate change or global warming. (This book will help.)

[*] Tell a Compelling Story — This goes together with the previous point about language. Remember, people love stories and use stories to make sense of the world. A compelling story answers at a deep level one of the most important questions: Why did you create this? Why did you decide to spend years of your life on it? A good story elicits an emotional response—essentially what all great brands manage to accomplish over time. A tip for everyone on what a story is from the master, Robert McKee: A list of facts or events is not a story. It’s a narrative. Tell a story.

[*] Remember, Retention Trumps Acquisition — Yes, it’s more seductive to chase new marketing initiatives. Yes, it would be more fun to get some press. But it’s better to retain and optimize the customers we already have. Ask yourself: What’s the point of driving a bunch of new people through marketing channels if they immediately leak out through a hole in the bottom? Nurture relationships and retain these people to keep coming back to your product or service. Bronson Taylor, host of Growth Hacker TV, puts it in a phrase: “Retention trumps acquisition.”

[*] It Never Stops — Sean Beausoleil, the engineering lead at Mailbox (acquired by Dropbox), put it bluntly in an interview with ReadWrite: “Whatever your current state is, it can be better.” Well, getting better is a marketing decision, too. Actively solicit customer feedback and optimize your product. A good marketer always actively listens to their customers and translates what they hear into coherent suggestions on how to move a product forward.

[*] Forget What Is or Isn’t “Marketing” — The mindset you need to go into is this: Anything that gets customers is marketing. Anything that keeps customers is marketing. Period. Don’t think what you are supposed to be doing, what you think marketing is—focus on the these two principles. One of Airbnb’s best marketing moves in its early days was its engineering team building a tool for its members that allowed simultaneous and seamless cross-posting of a listing on craigslist. The startup suddenly had free distribution on one of the most popular websites out there. Is that marketing? You bet it is.

[*] Ask These Three Critical Questions For Achieving Virality — It’s probably being said in a marketing meeting right now: “We want to go viral. Make people share this online.” Clients are so flip about. Everyone wants it. As though massive viral sharing is as simple as asking for it. You need to ask yourself: Well, why should our customers do that? Have we actually made it easy for them to spread the product? Is the product even worth talking about? You are asking your customers to tell their friends and family about you—remember, that’s a big ask. Answering those questions are useful starting points when it comes to virality. I highly recommend you check out Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.  

[*] Stand Apart — The best law in the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing—a book that every marketer has on their shelf—is “invent your own category.” It’s about competing where there is the least amount of competition. Successful businesses focus on being different, about carving out a new space for themselves. As a creative you need to ask yourself: How is what I am doing actually different?

[*] Do Crazy ThingsI’ve vandalized my own billboards. I’ve had clients give away enormous chunks of their own product. I lied to the New York Times, ABC News and the Today Show. The ends—almost any ends—justify the means.

[*] Know How To Approach The Media — I regularly ask my clients this question who are nervous or intimidated about media and publicity. I say, “Do you think reporters are sitting around complaining, ‘Man, there are just too many great stories to write about?’” Of course not. It’s the opposite. There’s never enough. They want you as much as you want it. Provided that you truly deliver the goods. Empathy is critical here: Are you pitching the right person? Have you made their job as easy as possible for them to write about you or they have to do unnecessary work? Have you shown why it’s in their interest to write about you?

[*] Know Who Your Audience Is Marketing, according to Noah Kagan, “has always been about the same thing—who your customers are and where they are.” Traditional marketers have limited this understanding to shallow demographic and geographic data, which is why author Christopher Locke urges you to stop treating your customers as abstract data. Instead, you should start fostering genuine relationships by tapping into your people’s online communities. Written years before social media, his book is still one of the best guides on how to engage with your audience online. As I’ve said before, the most effective tool in marketing is relationships.

[*] Ask For Help — For the launches of both The Obstacle Is the Way and Ego is the Enemy I used a marketing tactic I picked up from Tim Ferriss: I’d put up a short form on my website and ask my readers for suggestions on how they can be involved—and they had great ideas! I got to do guest posts and podcast interviews, an invitation to speak at Google, and even an offer to introduce The Obstacle Is the Way to staffers at the White House back in 2014.

[*] Trade It Up The Chain — If you want press and media coverage, the best thing to do is start small and trade it up from there, from a small outlet to a larger one. I’ve gotten national coverage for my campaigns with posts that have appeared first on small local blogs and I’ve made sure they get incrementally picked up by someone bigger.

[*] Make More Stuff — Creating more work is one of the most effective marketing techniques of all. Robert Greene saw his sales really begin to grow after his third book. This was enough for it to be seen as a series. This was an explicit part of Steve Jobs’s business strategy as well too. As he said, “If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.” More great work is the best way to market yourself.

[*] Find Your Champions — I’ve watched an Instagram post from Tim Ferriss take one of my books to the top of Amazon; meanwhile, a New York Times profile about the same project had next to no impact. When a real person, a real human being whom others trust, says “This is good,” it has an effect that no brand, no ad, no faceless institution can match. Create something amazing and find people who will champion your work. And if you have something truly remarkable, keep this in mind: Influencers want to be seen as tastemakers and the go-to resources in their field—as long as what they recommend delivers.

[*] Give Stuff Away For Free — Whatever the price of your product, we typically demand it up front from our customers. But that is not the whole story, nor the full price. In addition to the actual cost, you are asking for the person’s time and attention. When you are asking someone to check something out, you are asking for a lot. One of the best ways to reduce that is to give as much as you can get away with for free. Yes, there is a risk of losing sales, but it is better than the alternative. Cory Doctorow, a well- known science fiction author has explained, “Although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts…”

[*] Assume Nobody Cares — The final lesson I want to leave you off with is this: Assume that nobody cares about what you’ve created. People are busy. People are distracted. You are not competing only with other creatives. You are fighting for a person’s attention and you’re in a battle against Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and one million other things. Keep this in mind—it will make you work harder.


For more marketing lessons, you can read my post on the best books about marketing and like I said, I think you’ll love my newest one, Perennial Seller. It does not focus exclusively on marketing but it is a big part of it and I hope you give it a chance. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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