What Is Marketing?

I’m old, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m old school. When I learned it back near the close of the 20th century, marketing was what you did to figure out what product or service you’d produce for which market. Basically figuring out what kind of widget you’d make to sell.

On its face, a simple process.

Step one. Where is there a need that isn’t being met? Step two. Figure out what you can do about it.

In marketing speak, these are external and internal scans.

Externally, you’re looking at market size in terms of revenue, geographic location, innovation adoption rates, and market penetration. You're looking for underserved customers or products that need improvement. The bigger the potential market, the more likely you'll be able to attract enough customers to warrant entering.

The internal scan involves what you can bring to the table. How much time and money can you spend? What special knowledge do you have? Even what kinds of things interest you enough that you’d be willing to stick with them for more than a couple of years?

Writers get it backwards for the most part. Instead of figuring out what market they want to be in, they write something. Then they’re left with trying to figure out if somebody will buy it.

In my case, I knew I needed to write a novel for my future podcast experience. I also knew I wanted to write science fiction because that’s my comfort zone. I’ve been reading it since they let me sign out books from the elementary school library.

I always picked the ones with the rocket ship or atom stickers on the spine. Do they still do that?

Anyway, that’s when I realized a couple of important factors about writing science fiction.

  1. There’s a lot of different stuff there. Near earth, first contact, time travel, military sf, space opera, science fiction romance. I can’t even tell you how many there are without looking them up.

  2. I couldn’t write better than the household names already on the shelf.

Rephrased, I needed to pick a niche and I needed to figure out a story that all those people weren’t already telling.

I needed to fine tune my scans and focus on my goal, reaching readers. I picked space opera as my target. Partly because it’s what I like to read most. Partly because I believe that space opera could be more than just the military science fiction that dominates the niche.

In marketing terms, I picked my market and differentiated my product so it would stand out on the shelves.

But how could I compete with all those big names? I’m just one guy in his basement.

Luckily marketing showed me I didn’t have to.

The big names all have one liability that I don't. They all rely on publishers to sell books to bookstores and on bookstores to sell books to readers. I only need to convince readers to give my books a try.

I never have to worry about availability because there's a 100% chance my books will be published.

My books appear on the same digital shelves as the big names, albeit at somewhat more reasonable prices. The largest bookstore in the world is on everybody's desk, available on everyone's phone. All day, every day, twenty-four/seven. Readers can even order an edition with a non-refreshable cellulose display, if they prefer.

So how do I convince readers to try my stories?

First, we need to talk about markets and media.

Conceptually, markets exist on a continuum. Mass markets, like national or even global brands, make goods and services available to the most people across the widest geographical area. Niche markets exist to provide specialized products to limited numbers of buyers.

Think about media as an abstract. Television and radio networks, large publishing houses. Or so-called “consumer brands” that provide commodity goods like toothpaste or tissues. They use mass media channels to make people aware of their goods and services.

The other end of the spectrum is niche. Niche is sometimes local but always limited in what it offers. Model railroads are niche. They only appeal to a smallish subset of any given population. Science fiction novels are — likewise — a niche. Doug’s Dog Groomers is niche because Doug runs his business out of the strip mall down the street. While a lot of people have dogs, it’s just Doug so it’s local and niche.

How do these two different scales of commerce work in this continuum?

On the mass media side, they use a lot of broadcast (one-way) communications. TV ads on national programs. Print ads in appropriate print media. Billboards. You name it. The goal is to put your message in front of everybody you can reach in the hope that some infinitesimal percentage of those people will respond favorably to your message. If you can reach a hundred million people, you may only need a fraction of a percent of them to buy your widget.

But it takes deep pockets to reach that many people at once.

In niche media, you find some of the same techniques but they tend to work best in local settings for products or services that a lot of the locals want. Restaurants. Dog groomers. Hair salons. Everybody has hair but nobody wants to leave town for a haircut.

What about global settings for niche products? Think: hobbyists like stamp collectors and model builders. Specialized mass media still works there. A limited pool of potential buyers makes this difficult but a limited number of outlets helps focus attention where it matters.

While niche media might not need deep pockets, it still needs more than pocket change.

Authors who’ve tried advertising to promote their books with ads found out pretty quickly. It can work, but making it scale and making it reliable is big ask.

Key point: Ads are mass media tools. Mass media relies on a lot of views to get a few positive responses.

Luckily there’s social media. With social media, you use a two-way channel to reach your customers. Your readers. It doesn’t cost much out of pocket to talk to people around the world and have them talk back. That “talk back” part is why it’s social media and not broadcast.

But there’s a catch.

Not only can they talk back, they can also control who talks to them. Unlike broadcast/mass market channels, if the recipient of your message doesn’t like it — or you — they can block you. They’ll never hear another word. Their willingness to put up with your promotional messages hinges on maintaining a “yes” with them. As soon as it flips to “no,” you’ve lost them forever.

So how do you let people know about your story without actually telling them? The common wisdom is “be interesting.” For a lot of people that winds up being cat pictures or dining experiences. They intersperse “oh, by the way, I wrote a book. You might like it” messages between the snappy snapshots and witty repartee. They try to find the balance point between promotional content and filler.

A concept known as social capital drives this bus and it’s based on something called social presence.

Social presence is the degree to which people perceive you as being there in any given context. In physical spaces, some people are wall flowers. They’d have a hard time getting an alibi from the cocktail party because nobody remembers they were there. They don’t earn a lot of social capital with the various attendees.

You know who does? The drunk with the lampshade on their head dancing on the coffee table.

Again, there’s a catch.

The drunk has a lot of social presence. People know he’s there alright. The catch? It’s a unilateral decision on the observer’s part. Maybe they’re amused and the social capital is positive. “That Bob. What a cut up. We’ll have to have him over for dinner.” Maybe they’re appalled and the social capital is negative, draining any goodwill away faster than a red Solo cup rolling down the stairs. On the way home they say, “That Bob. Remind me to never invite him to any of our parties.”

But poor Bob doesn’t know which is which. He might not even notice the snub until, suddenly, nobody’s inviting him to parties any more.

I think of social capital as pennies. Every time somebody reads one of my messages on social media, they make a choice. If they like it, they drop a penny in their bank. If they don’t like it they take a penny out. If the bank is empty too many times, they block me. I’ve lost them, probably forever. No matter how much they may like my next message, they won’t get it. I’m dead to them.

The logical question is “How much is too much?”

Can you do nine cat pictures and a promo? Sure. You can. How risk averse are you?

There's a non-zero probability that your mass media message won't be welcome in a social media channel. Are you willing to take the chance that your promo won't hit them the wrong way? That they didn't have a flat tire on the way home and the first thing they saw was a message about the great review you just got on your book? Are you willing to lose a few potential future readers for the sake of a few new ones now?

Most writers — rightly — hate this. It’s why they feel like marketing is icky. Of course, that’s not marketing. It’s sales and promotion, but I digress.

Personally, my approach has always been “one.” Not one a day or one a month. Not one out of every ten. Not one per time zone.

One notice on my blog. One notice on my newsletter. Just one and only to those people who, theoretically, want to see it.

Key point: The goal of niche marketing is to get your messages in front of only those people who want to see them. People sign up for the newsletter to get that message. They visit your website to find out what’s happening.

But they only follow you on social media if you’re interesting enough. As soon as you stop being interesting, you’re toast. Do they want your promotional messages cluttering up their various timelines? Maybe. Maybe not.

So how can you be interesting?

Be interested in them. Find out what books they like. What movies they’ve seen. What games they play. Share what others are doing. Talk to them, not at them. Have conversations, not speeches. Make it easy for new people to find you and your work, but don’t put the lampshade on your head.

So how do you get that new audience?

Do what any normal person would do.

Borrow one.

Up Next: Priming the Pump