Marketing by sharing

Jason Fried at ChicagoConvergence 2009

This post is a side effect of our work to translate Jasons’ speech at ChicagoConvergence in 2009 to Russian.

As we maintain our blog in two languages we decided to produce English version with captions and transcript for those who does not have time to listen it or simply can’t hear. We thank 37signals for a permission to do so.

We wanted to add our captions to original video published by ChicagoConvergence but they did not get back to our emails. So we had to load their video, split it into two parts and add English and Russian captions and republish it. There were no intension to steal but to add value. Transcript was completed by SpeechPad. We highly recommend them – high quality, very fast and just 1USD per minute of audio.

So here it is …

“What I want to talk about today, is kind of a different way of marketing your company. I sort of touched on it a little bit earlier with the idea of personal branding, but this kind of takes it to a different level. I kind of figured this idea out when I was learning how to cook a few years ago. I decided that I wanted to be a better cook. I kind of knew how to cook, but I wasn’t really that good at it. I’ve been watching the Food Network for awhile and I decided that I’m going to learn how to do this. And whenever I learn how to do something or I want to get into something, what I have to do is I have to go buy stuff. That kind of gets me in the mood, gets me in the mindset.

So I went over to Crate & Barrel, and I looked at the cookware section and there’s like a lot of pots, a lot of pans, shapes, colors, different materials, copper, aluminum, anodized aluminum, stainless steel, etc. I’m not one to ask for help, so I just kind of looked around and I picked out a few things. Then I went over to the knife section and I picked out a few knives, and I went over to the accessory section and picked out some accessories. I checked out and I got the stuff back in my car and I got in my car and I drove over to Borders, which is across the street, and I went to the cookbook section. Holy shit, there are there a lot of cookbooks. A ton of cookbooks, a lot of different kind of cuisines and inside of a cuisine there’s just hundreds, there may have been thousands of cookbooks, I’m not even sure. But I knew I wanted an Italian one, so I went and picked one of those up and I wanted a Mexican one. I wanted one on barbecue and I wanted just a general purpose one.

So I found the ones that I wanted and I took them home. Well, I paid for them first, took them home, went home. When I got home, this is kind of what I do when I buy stuff. I look at the things that I bought, and I think about why did I make the selections that I made. This is just something that I do, because I kind of like this idea of marketing and branding and the whole thing. So I was looking around at the products and I realized that the products I purchased weren’t necessarily by these big brands, but they were products attached to someone who’s taught me something.

So I realized that I bought a Mario Batali Italian food cookbook, and I’d been watching Mario Batali’s show on the Food Network. I bought a Emeril Legasse pot, I’d been watching his show. I bought Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday or Everyday Mexican, something cookbook and I’d been watching his show on PBS. This other book by a guy named Steven Raichlen, who’s a barbecue guy, I’d been watching his show on PBS. And I realized that all the stuff I bought, I bought because someone taught me something. I didn’t see any ads for these products. I didn’t see an ad on TV. I didn’t see an ad in newspapers or in magazines. I don’t remember hearing a radio spot for these products. I simply remember them because someone taught me something, and I realized how valuable that actually was. That when someone actually teaches you something, you have a different level of respect for them. You kind of trust them at a different point, a different level, than if someone was pitching you something.

So I started thinking to myself, this idea of sharing and teaching is a really effective way to get the word out about a product or a service or a business. and I wondered to myself why more companies aren’t following the lead of these chefs, who are out there teaching. In fact, instead of trying to outspend the competition, they’re trying to out-teach the competition. I thought that was a really interesting idea. So I was thinking more about why more businesses don’t do this. What is it about the business world that prevents businesses from acting more like chefs? I don’t know the real answer, but my initial assumption is that the reason they don’t is because they are scared and paranoid. They think that if they give away these ideas, their “recipes” to extend the metaphor, their recipes or their cookbooks or if they let people in their kitchen, essentially, that these companies are going to give away important information to their competitors. Who are then going to use this information against them, and to compete with them.

A couple things. First of all, you really shouldn’t worry too much about your competitors. You can’t really do anything about them. You should be kind of aware of who they are but don’t worry too much about them. Secondly, your competitors aren’t just waiting for you to slip up and give you certain bits of information about your business they can use against you. That’s just not how it works. Mario Batali is not afraid that someone’s going to watch his cooking show, and buy his cookbook and open an Italian restaurant next to his and put him out of business. That’s just not how it works. But businesses seem to be petrified of that possible scenario. Although it’s unlikely, people seem to be worried about it.

So I started thinking about, “What would it be like if we as a company,” we’re a small business, we build web-based software, “what if we started sharing like a chef shares? What if we started teaching like a chef teaches? What if we kind of wrote our own cookbook?” I’ll tell you about the results of that a little bit later. But I started thinking about some of the other businesses that have done this and if I liked these businesses more than businesses that traditionally pitch me through traditional marketing channels.


I started thinking about companies like Zappos, people who sell shoes. People probably know who they are, They sell shoes on-line, and a lot of people sell shoes on-line. But what’s really cool about Zappos is that they’re more than just a shoe-seller. What they do is they actually talk a lot about customer service and a lot about culture. In fact, they care so much about their culture, that they write a book every year about their culture and the people who write the book about their culture at Zappos are the employees.

So Zappos management encourages their employees to write a book about what it’s like to work at Zappos. It’s not approved by anybody in management. It’s not approved by the CEO. There’s no editor. People are simply allowed to write what they think about what it’s like to work at Zappos. Then that book is available to anybody who wants to read, any other company. It could be another shoe-seller, it could be anybody else. They put their culture out there. They teach what it’s like to work at Zappos. They teach people about customer service. They teach people about what it means to be a Zappos employee. And I think Zappos is a lot more interesting because of that. Whenever I want to buy shoes after reading this book, I’m going to buy them from Zappos. Their prices are usually better than everyone else but it’s not so much about that. It’s more about what they’ve taught me about customer service, what they’ve taught me about culture.

Zingerman's deli

There’s another company called Zingerman’s. If anyone here went to the University of Michigan, you probably know Zingerman’s, out of Ann Arbor. There’s a wave. Yay. Zingerman’s is a really cool deli. It’s kind of turned into this whole little enterprise now. But one of the cool things about what Zingerman’s does to differentiate themselves, is they actually have something, I believe it’s called “Zingerman’s University”. Where if you’re thinking about starting a deli, if you’re thinking about starting a grocery store or something in the food services business, you can go to Zingerman’s and take their classes and they’ll teach you how to do this. Basically, they’re teaching you how to be a competitor of theirs, essentially. But they know, again, it’s not like someone’s going to take this information, open a deli across the street in Ann Arbor and put Zingerman’s out of business, they’re not worried about that. But what they are worried about, is not sharing this information because they think it’s incredibly valuable to share.

So companies like Zappos and Zingerman’s and, actually, Google is starting to do more of this too. Google’s working on a new browser called Chrome, and they’re talking a lot about the process, the thought process behind the browser. Even before it’s officially out, they’re talking about this stuff. Again, a traditional company would be afraid. They’d be in what they like to call “stealth mode”, or “secret mode”. Where they can’t talk about their ideas because they fear that someone’s going to take them. They should really be worried about people hearing about their ideas, not someone taking their ideas. They really have to get the ideas out and a great way to do that is to share. So companies like Google and Zingerman’s and Zappos, I find them to be much more interesting than some of their competitors. Mainly because they’re not afraid to share this information.

So I think this is especially relevant for small businesses, especially in the creative industry, in the new media industry. Because it’s really expensive and difficult, to kind of break out and get known. There’s a ton of small design shops, there’s a ton of video shops and web design shops. How do you get known? How do people find out who you are? Of course, you can hire a PR firm for $5,000-15,000 or $20,000 a month, which is a waste of money. I wouldn’t do that. You can advertise somewhere. I don’t think that’s going to work either, because it’s kind of hard to advertise web design services to the right kind of people, and it’s expensive. You can try some other marketing ideas, more traditional ideas. I don’t think those generally are going to work that well for you either.

What I think you should be doing, is thinking about how you can teach people about your domain. So if you’re a web designer, for example, you can teach people about what it’s like to be a web designer. You can teach people about CSS. You can teach people about HTML. You can teach people about what it’s like to land a client. You can talk about what it’s like to prepare a proposal, or respond to an RFP. And these are all things you can on your website. If you have a blog, If you don’t have a blog you should start a blog, and you should be talking about your domain. Talking about what it’s like to actually do these things, what it’s like to be a web designer. So other web designers will find out how to do this sort of stuff.

When you start sharing with other web designers and teaching other people, the great thing about this is that all of the sudden you create an audience. Which is kind of like the secret weapon when it comes to promoting your business. If you don’t have an audience, you have to constantly spend money to tell more and more people about your service. After they buy something, they go away and they’re not going to keep coming back until they want something else. Again, you’re probably going to have to advertise to them and market to them. But when you build an audience, when you generate content, when you generate useful content, people keep coming back to you. Instead of you having to go to them, they come back to you everyday for more information.

Now you have this captive audience and now you can actually come up new things to sell this audience. You don’t always have to sell to them. You can just share to them and teach to them. Eventually though, when they’re ready to sign up, or when they need a web designer or they need some web- based software or whatever it is that you do, they’re going to have you in mind. Because they’ve been coming back to you everyday. That’s a really effective way to reach people without having to spend a lot of money.

So that’s just a quick idea for web designers. Let’s say you’re a writer. Let’s say you’re a freelance writer or a journalist or someone like that. Who needs to find more gigs, or wants to get more people to hire them. You should be talking about what it’s like to be a writer on your site. Most sites will simply have a portfolio, an “about us” and a “contact us” page, and that’s pretty much it. But you should have a section on there about what it’s like to be a writer. You should be sharing the drafts that were rejected. You should be talking about the words that you left out. You should share one sentence that you’ve been working on for a few hours. Share all the different iterations of that sentence, and talk about why you left this one out, why you changed this word, why you transposed these two words, what’s different about the final version of the sentence compared to the initial version of the sentence.

You need to share that process, because people who read that and see it are going to go, “This guy, or this girl, they know their shit. They care enough about the words, they care enough about how the words sound, they care enough about sentence structure, to actually share with me the process they went through to get there.” That means a whole lot more than someone simply sharing a series of essays that they’ve written or a series of articles that they’ve written. When you actually show people behind the scenes what it’s like to actually have written these things, you get a whole lot more information. Again, you begin to build this audience.

If you’re a photographer, you should be talking about lenses. You should be talking about lighting. You should be talking about how many shots you have to take before you find the right one. You should be talking about patience. You should be talking about all these things, all these little tricks of the trade, and giving away as much information as you can about your craft. It’s a great way to get the word out. So one of the things that we’ve done, just to kind of bring this in perspective here and sort of add some context. During the introduction you heard that we build web-based software and we keep our products simple and things like that. I want to talk about some of the things that we’ve done to get the word out. Over the past five years or so, we’ve had currently 2.5 million people sign up to use our products. We don’t have a PR firm. We don’t spend money on advertising. We don’t do any traditional marketing. All we’ve been doing is sharing. All we’ve been doing is teaching.

For example, in one of our products, a product called “BaseCamp”, there’s a feature called the yellow fade technique. Or, actually, that’s what it’s called but the feature is you add a message or you add a to-do item, it flashes yellow for a second and then fades away, so you kind of notice what just happened. It’s a small, little, tiny thing, but we thought it was really effective, we thought it was really interesting. So instead of keeping that idea to ourselves and just having it in our product, we decided to write about it, and document it, and talk about how we came up with the idea, why it’s effective and how we did it. So you can do it too in your own product.

That single blog post has been read now over 800,000 times in the past five years. 800,000 different times people have opened that. There may be a few people who open it more than once but 800,000 times that blog post has been read, or viewed I should say. In that blog post, there’s a lesson, which is how to do this feature. There’s the thought behind that feature, and there’s a mention of our product. So now all of the sudden, we have 800,000 people who’ve seen this article, which has some educational value to it, but also has the name of our product in it and the name of our company in it. And that has traveled around the web, there’s over 7,000 other blog posts now that reference that one article that took me 15 minutes to put together. You can’t buy that kind of advertising. You simply cannot do it. Well, maybe you can if you have hundreds of millions of dollars, but for the people who don’t, which is all of us here probably, you can’t buy that kind of advertising.

We also did something, where we wrote about how we do mock-ups. So, when we design an interface for a product, we generally sketch it first and I talked about how I actually sketch an interface. This would normally be a really boring point that no one would care about, but, surprisingly, people do care about it when you give them interesting details. For example, I talked about how I don’t use ballpoint pens; I use thick markers when I sketch something. I explained this, because when you use a ballpoint pen, the resolution is so fine that you can actually worry about details that don’t matter right now. In the sketching phase, you shouldn’t be worrying about that level of detail, so I use a big, thick marker. It prevents me from worrying about details. I can just worry about shapes and general placement of items on a screen. That blog post, I put that out about a year and a half ago, it’s been seen over 400,000 times now. And people have linked that up all over the place.

If I was just writing a blog post about our products, they wouldn’t have been, you know, some people would read them, but it would kind of die there. Because it’s clearly an advertisement, it’s clearly a marketing campaign. But, if I talk about the techniques we used, the ideas we used, some of the things that we do to get our stuff done, that has a serious amount of travel and makes it out across the web in a variety of different places. What you end up doing is you end up attracting like-minded people. You end up attracting potential customers. You may not even know they’re customers, but they’re going to be customers down the road. Again, they trust you more and they’re paying attention to you more. They subscribe to your blog because you gave them something of value that wasn’t a pure pitch.

So my general suggestion is, that whatever it is that you’re doing, think about how you do it. Think about the domain, think about the techniques that you use. And go back to your office today or tomorrow or whenever you get back to work and instead of picking up where you left off, write something down about what you do. Share a process. Share something that makes sense to you and educate the people who come to your site. Even if you don’t have people coming to your site, start a blog today. Eventually, down the road, it may take awhile but you’re going to start to build an audience and when you start to build an audience you have a captive audience who you can sell stuff to and these people really, intimately know what you have to say and what you’re selling.

So that’s fundamentally what I wanted to talk about today. I know I’m definitely early here, so I thought I would take some questions if possible. I have two minutes. So does anyone have any questions about this sort of technique, this sort of idea of teaching and not being afraid to expose your ideas out there and get them out there in front of other people? I can barely see, so does anyone have any questions about this stuff? Yes?”

Audience1: For a start-up company that doesn’t have an audience yet, are you saying that just making a really interesting topic that people would really like and putting in on a bunch of different sites, is pretty much a way to get a lot of people circulating that information? Or are there more steps involved in actually driving that to your site?

Jason: So the question is, if you’re new and you don’t have an audience, how do you get the word out about the stuff that you want to share, right? Ultimately, what you have to do is it’s going to take time and you shouldn’t be in a hurry either. I think there’s way too much attention on urgency these days. I think it’s totally good just to start a blog and start posting this stuff. Find other blogs that might be similar, find other people that might be similar and let them know that you posted that thing. Link out to them. A great way to build traffic is to give away traffic, is to link out to other people that are going to link you back up later. So that’s a really great way to get started but it’s not going to happen overnight. You’re not going to build a huge audience overnight, but you’re going to slowly build an audience. The more you publish and the more you share, the bigger your audience is going to end up being. Yes?

Audience2: I’m gathering from what you’re saying, that this does away with the old notion of copyright?

Jason: No. So the question is, “Does this do away with the old notion of copyright?” In what way, actually? What do you mean?

Audience2: Well, a great idea you want to copyright because it’s yours and you want to own it.

Jason: You can’t really copyright ideas. You can copyright the ultimate execution of that idea. For example, if you design something that’s unique you can copyright that, or trademark that, things like that. But you can’t actually copyright an idea. So you’re better off sharing it. The truth is, these days, anyone can find out about anything. Anyone can figure out how to do anything, so you might as well be the one to share that information. So if you have a technique that you came up with that is incredibly unique, and you think that no one is going to know how you did it, someone is going to find out how you did it, and someone’s going to write about it. So it may as well be you. We’ll take one more, I think, and then we’re probably out of time.

Audience3: So, Jason, is this the process that you used when you fired your clients and you went to an application business?

Jason: Is this the process that we used when we got rid of clients and moved to the application business? It definitely helped us get the word out about the products. Because if you just purely pitch products at people, they’re going to know it’s an advertisement. They’re not going to pay attention. But if we can talk about how we develop the products, the ideas behind the products, the thought process that we went into, the products will spread themselves that way but they’ll spread themselves through the education that you provide. If you just talk about the products as a pure post about, “Look at what it does,” that’s not as interesting as, “Look at what it does, and how it does, and why it does, and why we’ve decided to do this”, and that’s really a great way to get the word out. That’s how we spread our message and got all these people to sign up for our stuff, is purely by teaching and sharing this sort of information. I think I’m out of time. Thanks so much for your attention, and I hope it was useful.

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