Over the last few months, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad. The “opportunity” (quotes intentional because I want to kill my children) has given me a fair amount of free time. During that time, I’ve connected with a few small business owners online and in person.
Invariably, the topic of marketing comes up. I’ve had a moderate degree of success with Barefoot Running University mostly because of the way I’ve marketed it. Through books, consulting, coaching, and ad revenue, I make enough money to survive with minimal effort. Most importantly, I genuinely enjoy what I do.
So what is my marketing strategy?
I focus on understanding people, then use that information to change the world
I have very little formal marketing, advertising, or public relations training or experience. I DO have extensive experience working with people, however. I’ve worked in a wide variety of retail environments which gives me insight to consumer behavior. I’ve worked as a high school teacher which gives me insight to how people learn and what motivates us. I’ve participated in a wide variety of sports and hobbies including football, baseball, wrestling, weight lifting, running, combat sports, paintball, magic, sports card collecting, etc. I’ve studied various aspects of psychology, especially social psych (the study of the effects of groups on individuals.) Finally, I have an insatiable curiosity about human behavior.
Most of my formal marketing ideas come from other sources like Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, Hugh MacLeod, the guys from 37 Signals, and John DeVries. I’ve also learned how large corporations market themselves based on my shoe industry consultation gigs. I mix and match their ideas that mesh my my own experiences and beliefs to come up with a method that works exceptionally well.
The marketing plan I use is based on a few guiding principles, which is based on one of Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Shit really works! Most of what I do is based on a set of guiding principles (I’m guessing my friends would be shocked to know that), and this is no exception. When strange or ambiguous situations arise, I can fall back on these principles as a guide. Here are the principles that guide how I market BRU:
1. Help people by giving gifts; don’t sell products or services. This is a Seth Godin idea- we should base our busiinesses off a gift economy, not a scarcity economy. Instead of treating resources like a limited commodity to be hoarded, treat resources like an unlimited resource. You know, like fossil fuels.
Anyway, the idea is to freely give whenever you can. Personally I do this by writing all my blog posts, facilitating discussions, giving free advice and consultation, coaching and teaching for free, and doing volunteer work. This is my default setting. I don’t actively market anything I “sell.” I give. That giving builds an audience. When I do offer a product for sale, many members of my audience are willing to buy it because of the relationships we’ve built.
2. Embrace openness. This idea is the mantra of the open source movement that has created such things as the Linux operating system, Wikipedia, Firefox, the mapping of gnomes, Android, and the Khan Academy. I strongly believe the free sharing of knowledge is absolutely essential to democracy.
Both my barefoot book and ultramarathon/ trail running book exhibit this ideal. All information in both books can be found in my various blogs. Indeed, some of the people that read all my blogs have commented they didn’t read anything new. That’s intentional on my part. The books are merely a more convenient way to digest the information.
Indeed, this very post is an example. I could organize this information in expanded form, convert it to a pdf, and sell it to create another decent income stream. That would violate all three of these principles, though. Now after that brilliant segue…
3. Become a leader by developing a vision and connecting like-minded people. This is another Godin idea. We often confuse “managers” (people that do tasks in an efficient manner) with “leaders’ (people that make shit happen.) Leaders create a vision, then empower their audience (or workers, group, organization… whatever) to make it happen. Leaders also create a means to allow the group to communicate.
These three principles guide almost all of my “business decisions.” The methodology I actually use is a manifestation of these ideas.
1. Take a stand. Define the dent you want to make in the universe. This is the stage where you actually spell out exactly what you’re trying to do. The more specific the focus, the better. Different endeavors can have (and should have) different paths.
- For barefoot running, I wanted to change the way the running industry thought about how we run.
- For the Squirrel Wipe book, I wanted to open the world of trail and ultrarunning to people that thought they couldn’t do it.
- For the Sexpressionists blog, I wanted people to reframe how they interpret relationships and sexuality to live happier lives.
… and so on. Each of these goals could change over time, but defining exactly what you’re trying to do it important for the next steps.
2. Develop a way to make it happen. How exactly are you going to make this dent? The natural (and most common) solution to to study what others have done, then copy them. While this may get you to your goal, the road is probably crowded with all the other people with similar goals.
A far better solution is to find a different path. Embrace the unconventional and find a better path. There’s always another means to any given end.
When I was interested in writing what became The Barefoot Running Book, I looked into literary agents and publishers. As it turns out, there are hundreds of thousands of writers querying them. The odds of success are remarkably low, requires a lot of time and effort, and the outcome if you DO get published is usually disappointing.
I also looked into print-on-demand solutions. At the time, all POD services were essentially “vanity presses” that would take any crappy-ass manuscript, format it, and print it. They would usually retain the rights for exclusive distribution, charge an arm and a leg for copies, and do little to promote the title. It was basically a setup for those that were desperate to see their words in print, then were left to sell the book to friends and family. It was a terrible deal.
I took the rarely-traveled route and published it myself. It was a lot of work (but still less than acquiring an agent and publisher), but turned out to be very profitable and led to amazing life-changing adventures. I eventually got an agent and publisher, which was easy because the book was already successful. I didn’t need them, so when they approached me, I was in a great position to negotiate.
Finding that unconventional route is an absolute necessity.
3. Find a small audience. Once you have an idea and a means to make it happen, you need to develop a small audience. My original audience came from like-minded friends from a barefoot running online forum, but any small group that shares your passion will work. This group can be as small as about 10 people.
4. Interact with the audience; observe how they communicate. Share ideas with each other. Let them influence your vision. The goal of this is to learn how they think and how they communicate. You’re learning their language.
5. Give to the audience. This is another Godin concept I love. This giving is done with no expectation of reciprocity. If others insist on returning favors, simply ask them to pay it forward. Specifically, I like to give them a combination of stuff the educates, inspires, and entertains, usually in the form of blog posts or videos. When I was really into shoe reviews, I would give away the shoes after reviewing. The point- give gifts freely.
6. Give the audience a means of connecting within the group and outside the group. Allows the spreading of the message and mutual learning within the group. Do what you can to foster interconnectedness; encourage the sharing of thoughts and ideas between group members. Also give the group a means of communicating with those outside the group (recruits new members; maintains a steady flow of new ideas.)
I do this with social media (Facebook mostly), forums, and the comments section of my blogs. I also encourage people to share blog posts to those that aren’t part of the group.
7. Produce a good or service that will help the group in some way. This is the point where you actually make some money. I would LOVE to do all the above and be able to magically survive, but alas, this IS a business model. The kids need to eat. It’s entirely possible to maintain a gift-based open community AND make a living if the products or services are aligned with our “dent in the universe” goals. We’re going to produce a product or service that helps your audience in some way, is fairly priced, and an exceptional value (not necessarily cheap, just a proportional mix of cost and quality.)
Traditional businesses make a product or provide a service, then try to market it to people that may be interested. It relies on a constant expenditure for marketing and advertising to reach new markets. The product or service may or may not be a success, which is risky.
This model is the exact opposite- you’re creating a product for your audience. You know what they want; they know what they can expect. If the product or service is really good, your audience will spread the word for free. You know the product will at least be successful with your audience, so there’s little risk.
8. Go back to step 4, repeat. Throughout this process, the audience may grow or change, so you have to continually pay attention. The organic process of developing and maintaining relationships is quite natural, so this process is pretty easy.
This entire process is effective because it’s based on personal relationships of people that know each other. It’s a process of building an audience, then leading them to something better. Be a good leader, give freely, and produce meaningful products or services and your audience will take care of you.
So… If It’s So Good, Why Doesn’t Everyone Use It?
The BRU methodology has one major flaw- it’s counter-intuitive to everything we think we know about business and capitalism. There are forecasts, reports, projections, focus groups, market research, and a bunch of other crap that would be unnecessary if people simply understood their audience and stopped trying to pound a square peg in a round hole with hard sales tactics.
The idea isn’t based on the goal of making a shit-ton of money… it’s based on the idea of making the world a better place. The methodology provides a livable income that’s nearly guaranteed based on having an intensely loyal audience that genuinely cares about you. The methodology may make a shit-ton of money, but it’s merely a byproduct of the effectiveness of the process. The more open and willing to give, the more the audience will grow. The more the audience grows, the more potential income.
The best part- this method has virtually no risk. Going through the process above, even if it didn’t make a dime, would still give invaluable market information to be used for future endeavors.
Why Share This Information?
So… what’s the purpose of this post?
I’ve been kicking around doing some “audience-building” consultation work for the last year. As much as I would encourage small business owners to do this process on their own (because it’s a personal process), some simply don’t have the time or interest.
Personally, I love this process because I love interacting with people. I love developing communities and fostering a shared sense of purpose. It satisfies that deep curiosity of human behavior. It also helps me grow as a person.
And I fully understand why others would prefer to skip this process.
If you have a small business and would like to implement these ideas, go ahead! If you have questions, ask in the comments section. I’ll be more than happy to help out whenever possible.
If you like the idea but don’t want to actually do it yourself, I may be available to help you build an audience depending on my writing workload. Contact me at robillardj “at” gmail “dot” com; we can discuss services and rates.
Try it yourself first, though. You won’t be disappointed.