The simplest marketing strategy: a great product + stories + generosity

This is an extract from the Simple Business book.

There are three things you really need to have in your business to make it successful: a great product, stories, and generosity

When you get these three things right, everything else becomes infinitely easier. Because it’s a formula for building a community and generating referrals from happy customers, you can get away with minimal or even zero marketing. 

Here’s how to make each part of this super simple marketing strategy work for you.

The three components of simple + effective marketing

1. Focus on your product, not your marketing

For an idea, product, or business to be good, it has to be useful. 

Useful doesn’t require funding rounds and endorsements from Oprah. It just has to make someone’s life better or easier.

If a business doesn’t work out, usually it comes down to one of these three things: 

  • It doesn’t solve a problem well enough
  • It tries to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist
  • People don’t know about what you offer

Often, business owners get so caught up in the third problem – people not knowing about what they’re selling – that they double down on expensive, time-consuming marketing. 

They think marketing will solve everything. And sometimes it does, very temporarily.

But really, the first two problems are much more lethal than a lack of marketing.

A great product beats an incredible marketing strategy any day.

Having a bad product that you need an expensive advertising budget for to make any sales, or a product that doesn’t even need to exist, will make it near impossible to create a successful business. It’ll be especially difficult to create a business that requires minimal time and investment and allows you to live a gloriously simple life.

The number of businesses that have serious product issues hidden under fancy marketing is mad. If you’re pouring money into marketing without having a solid product, you might as well tip it down the drain.

How do you know if you have a good product?

You’ll know it if making sales is easy. You barely have to do anything; your customers do the bulk of your marketing for you. People easily and happily recommend you and your business to others. 

So before focusing on anything else – and especially not marketing – make sure that your product is solid.

Offer something that’s so useful for the right people that buying it is a no-brainer.

You’ll know these people as if they’re good friends, and you’ll understand the problem they struggle with that you can solve. 

Selling to them will be a piece of cake – all you have to do is outline how you solve their problem and the transformation you offer. No pressure or sleazy sales tactics are needed (not that they ever should be).

This doesn’t mean you need to spend the next five years analysing the market and perfecting your product. Instead, create the quickest, easiest version of your grand idea.

This doesn’t mean that you should sell something low-quality and unfinished. But if you’re a fellow perfectionist, your idea of “finished” can be very different than your customer’s. 

Sometimes, what you think needs several more weeks of tweaking is actually incredibly useful for someone already. (Especially when compared with sitting on your computer hard drive, unfinished and gathering digital dust.) What a product needs more is usually feedback from actual customers.

Even if what you create right now is only a glimmer of what you dream of it becoming, just get it done and into the hands of your first customers. It’s only then that you can start making the real adjustments so it can become your best possible product.

2. Tell stories

Stories are at the heart of what makes someone compelling, interesting, and memorable – and that goes for businesses, too.

Often, there’s just something about a person or business that draws you in and resonates with you… something you can’t quite put your finger on. But it makes you trust them. You want to know more and be a part of what they’re offering. 

When you share honestly and openly about your own journey as a real, flawed human, you earn respect and let people relate to you. (I’ll add one exception here: if you have a cooking website, please stop sharing your life story before every post, I just want your mapo tofu recipe.)

Stories make us human, and sharing them can give you awe-inspiring results without costing a thing.

Sometimes this involves writing (blog posts, books, etc.), but not always. There are also podcasts, videos, events, workshops, and just plain old conversations with another human. You can choose to tell stories your way.

Telling stories can mean sharing what you’ve learned, but it can also mean sharing who you are. Think about these questions:

  • What valuable experiences have you been through, and what have you learned?
  • What do you know to be true about life and your industry? 
  • What’s your ethos?
  • What are you working on now?
  • What does your work process look like day-to-day?

Consistently sharing your answers to these questions is one of the best ways to build an audience around your work. You don’t need a budget or a team; you can do it with just a laptop, internet connection, a good idea, and some time.

You don’t need to share photos of your newborn baby or let everyone know your home address. You can keep your privacy while still giving people an idea of how you work and get inspired. 

It’s about getting back to what works and remembering that we’re humans here to help other humans – not leads, prospects, clients, or viewers. 

When you tell great stories with nothing expected in return, you create something that your fans will share without needing to be asked. Then those people can share it again. You get it.

This also lets Google do your marketing for you. Search engine algorithms are always changing, but one key principle is stubborn: search intent.

Writing for search intent means creating content that effectively answers the questions that someone is googling. When you do this better and with more value than other sites, your website leaps up in search rankings.

Sure, there are some technical things you need to pay attention to, like how established, fast, and user-friendly your website is. But on the whole, Google wants to showcase the most valuable and relevant content.

Every time I was hired to help a client get to the top of the rankings, I helped them create content that was super valuable and matched search intent. Because it always works. 

Here are some of the best prompts for generating content ideas that will be valuable to the people you serve:

  • What problems are people in your community facing?
  • What questions do they want an answer to?
  • What decisions are they trying to make?
  • What goals are they hoping to reach?
  • Who are they hoping to become?

For each of these, ask yourself: what exact words will your audience type into Google to find an answer?

These can be the keywords you focus on in the content you create, so the right people have the highest chance of finding it. But don’t just think about keywords. That makes for boring, robotic writing without a heart.

Think about the experience you’ve gained during your time here on earth, the lessons you’ve learned, and what you’re here to share.

  • What’s your unique perspective? 
  • What would you tell your audience if they were sitting right here in front of you?
  • How can you make people’s lives better with what you know and what you’re offering?
  • How can you connect with people beyond your product?
  • How can you step up and be seen as a real, flawed, and open human being who doesn’t always have it all figured out?

Keep asking yourself: how can I share more of my stories to help and inspire my community in their own lives?

3. Scale your generosity

Any type of work can be meaningful. Meaning is created when you feel like you’re serving others in a way that you’re proud of.

If you’re offering way more value than you need to in your business, you’re getting it right. 

There are many businesses out there that don’t operate from a place of kindness and generosity. Maybe they still make a lot of money and have offices in every major city in the world. But you don’t need to do things that way.

When you share a tonne of value with no expectation of anything in return, you create a business that really thrives, as well as a legacy you can be proud of.

When you’re the most generous business in your industry, you have no need for shady sales tactics. 

You use your business for good when you freely share information that makes people’s lives that little bit easier or more enjoyable. 

People will love you for it, too – and jump at the opportunity to buy what you’re offering.

You can deliver so much value that your paid offerings are such logical and easy next steps that you barely have to ask for the sale.

This doesn’t require a budget or funding. Just start by sharing what you know and making useful things. You can start doing this now.

The easiest way is by making your knowledge open-source. Think about one thing you know that will make the people in your community’s lives easier, and share it on your blog or website, via podcast, or in a free workshop.

Similarly, what’s one thing you can make or offer to be generous? Some ideas:

  • Offer a free version of your product that’s useful alone, but hints at how impactful your paid product will be
  • Follow up with customers one-on-one to ask how they’re getting on and if you can help them with anything
  • Give away a free product or service to a customer that doesn’t require any extra work or cost for you but is valuable to them

You don’t need a huge vision for your business. You don’t even need to think about five-year goals or your roadmap for the next quarter. You can just focus on helping someone every day.

When you don’t know what to prioritise, ask what your customers (or potential customers) most want you to do now. 

What actually matters to them? It’s probably not growth and scaling to new markets. Truth be told, they probably don’t care about that at all.

Instead, it could be a tweak to your product based on their feedback, a blog post, a weekly podcast, a free workbook, a heartfelt personal email, or an offer they can’t get anywhere else.

Being generous doesn’t mean going bankrupt by giving away everything for free. But if you need to scale anything in your business, make it your generosity and the value you add to people’s lives. Do this, and they will pay you back – perhaps handsomely.

How can you tell when you’ve got these three components right? You’re getting referrals.

Referrals show you’re getting your marketing (and product) right

When I published Mountain Song in 2020, I ran some ads and did some marketing to bring in early sales and generate word-of-mouth recommendations. 

I never actually did any real marketing for my consulting business, though. I never did this because I kept getting new leads, had enough work, and wanted more time for my creative projects instead. 

Rather than wanting to find more customers, many times I’ve actively tried to deter people from working with me. At the height of my consulting business, I hardly ever shared any information about my work and projects online. I didn’t post on LinkedIn. I didn’t big myself up in calls with potential clients, or even accept most of them. 

Now, this isn’t the best strategy if you actually want more work. Don’t play hard to get if you want someone to be your customer.

But back then (and now), I felt like I had more than enough work, and I wanted to enjoy my time rather than earning more cash. (I’ve had an ongoing joke with Iain that I only have to complain about my client work to get another project request in my inbox.)

I don’t want to toot my own horn and say that it’s because I’m fantastic. There are many people out there with better skills and experience than me. (Also, I’m not sure I want Fantastic Marketer engraved on my tombstone.)

But my existing customers liked my work, and they had friends who wanted to solve the same problems and achieve the same goals. So I kept getting referrals.

In a post on Medium a while back, I looked at where my first fifteen consulting clients came from. It was pretty much 100 percent referrals and word of mouth.

When you have a good product and happy customers, the marketing you need to do to bring in new customers can be minimal – or even unnecessary. Your existing customers can do it for you.

When I started my consulting company, I had a head start. I hadn’t planned on starting a business at all, but several different projects came up at the same time and I had the flexibility to do them in parallel.

If you’re starting completely from scratch and have no relevant contacts, testimonials, or experience to speak for yourself, you might need a bit of a push to get going.

Start with your current network of friends, work contacts, and other people you know. Put the word out about the business you’re starting, the product you’re offering, and how they can get it. You might be surprised at who’s interested, or who knows someone else who it would be great for.

Use your website real estate to write about the product you’re offering and share blog posts (or podcasts or videos) answering your audience’s questions and writing about what they care about.

Get clear on the type of person who would most benefit from your product, and learn where they would hang out – offline and online. Maybe it’s a board game cafe, gym, subreddit, forum, or blog. 

Then, find a way to reach them with something free that will provide a tonne of value, while also subtly pointing them in the direction of your paid product if they’re interested.

I love Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1000 true fans: the thousand people in your community who will jump at anything you offer.

These are the people who sing from the rooftops about your business without you even having to ask. If you put out a book, they’ll read it. If you launch an app, they’ll want it.

Kevin says that’s all you need for a business to succeed: a thousand true fans. In the early days of your business, achieving ten and then one hundred true fans is one of the best goals to have. For some businesses, this is more than enough to thrive. 

No matter the number, over time, one of your top goals should be to maintain the respect and interest of those fans.

If you nail the pillars we’ve talked about earlier – a great product, stories, and generosity – having a tribe of true fans who want to refer you to others should be that much easier to achieve.

Over time, aim to be so good you don’t need to ask for referrals. This doesn’t mean perfection, but it does mean showing up consistently, delivering everything you say you will, and being a little more generous than you need to be. And just being a good, friendly human.