Back in the day, before my voice dropped and I discovered the joys of paying my own bills, my brothers and I spent a lot of time on outings with our dad. Pops would take us to the mall to buy everything from groceries to clothes and everything in between. One of his favourite pastimes was dissecting random ads on billboards, posters, and in-shop ads.
“See, they put a pretty lady next to a car to link her to the product. There’s no correlation between the two, but it’s a trick to get you to focus on the lady and think positively about the car.”Prof. Shehu, c. 2006
It’s incidents like these that stoked my early curiosity about how advertising worked. “Why would anybody fall for that, can’t they see they’re being manipulated? Why does 9.99 pricing work so well? Black Friday doesn’t even make sense; why are people urgently buying things they didn’t need just a day before?”
Those early teaching moments also vaccinated me against much of advertising’s seductive effects—I’m now hypersensitive to anything that sounds even remotely like a pitch. I’m more likely to call you out on your attempt, especially if I’ve already decided to buy your product.
The 4 Crucial Marketing Skills
Over the years, I’ve become exposed to many aspects of marketing, advertising, sales, consumer psychology, cognitive behaviour, and neuropsychology. Our brains are fascinating tools but easily manipulated once you know how they work. I’ve also binged on the works of advertising greats from David Ogilvy to Les Binet and even Don Draper. In that time, I’ve come to assemble a list of skills I think are crucial to anyone who wants to get better at marketing, advertising, and sales.
Let’s get into it.
Perhaps the most crucial skill any marketer needs to have is empathy. The idea of pain points is a central tenet of marketing. People are going through things, as every Twitter armchair psychologist likes to remind us—and as a brand owner or marketer, your #1 priority is to figure out those pains and solve them profitably. To succeed in that, you have to get used to the idea of stepping into other people’s shoes to see things from their perspective.
If you’re the type of person who agonises over how an email, text message, or voice note should read or sound like, you’re well on your way to mastering that skill. Marketers (especially copywriters) tend to obsess over each word and how it might come across.
This obsession is important, as you’re trying to figure out how another human being (often one you’ve never met) might think and react to your messaging. It’s mind-reading at its core, and it’s what marketers do daily. Brush up on those telepathy skills, Professor X.
I read somewhere that “best practices are past practices”. I want to add a corollary to that: “Know the best practice but test the next practice.” A key trait of marketers is curiosity: “What if we tried this instead?” You’ll need to be comfortable changing, tweaking, and constantly inventing new ways of landing a message. If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.
To this end, marketers never assume that anything works 100%. A marketer might write three headlines to test which one’s the best or use a different image when creating a poster. For example, read these three headlines and let me know which one would get you to open the email:
- Thank you for applying to Coca Cola
- An update on your application to Coca Cola
- We’ve found a Coca-Cola opportunity you might like
You most likely picked the third one. Now, what if I told you that these were all rejection emails?
The first two are tell-tale signs of an incoming rejection. As soon as I see those, I archive your email immediately (because humans are pain-averse, and no one wants to read about how the selection process was “so hard” for you and how you decided to go with another candidate).
That third one, however, sparks your curiosity: “Did I get the job? What opportunity is it?” The body of the email itself can say something like “While we’ve decided to move forward with stronger candidates at this time, we’ve found a similar opportunity at one of our branches that you might like.”
This goes back to our first point about empathy—putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to figure out how best to land a message (or a stinger). “We didn’t go with you this time, but we didn’t want to leave you hanging, either—so here’s a lifeline.”
I’ve seen smaller companies use tactics like directing candidates to their social media pages to get updates on future jobs, or the founders themselves connecting with you on LinkedIn to stay in touch. These little actions go a long way towards building positive brand equity.
Shortly after my voice dropped, Pops came home one day with three books by Robert Greene: the 48 Laws of Power, the Art of Seduction, and the 33 Strategies Of War. I read them all in 3 weeks. These books had a profound effect on my psyche as a teenager, and I’ve applied many of their rules over the years.
The seduction book, in particular, is a must-read for anyone who wants to be a better marketer. Marketing, you see, is simply seduction at scale: you’re attempting to convince total strangers to not only notice you and your product but also to trust that you’re credible, believe that your product won’t harm them, and part with their cold hard cash for it. None of this is as easy as it sounds.
If a big, burly man in a black jacket and a balaclava walked up to you, pointed to a van written “Joe’s Plumbing” and asked you to jump in, you’d (rightly) run off. He could be the sweetest Samaritan in town, and maybe he wanted to whisk you off to a secret party that the President was attending, but it wouldn’t matter. He didn’t inspire trust, safety or credibility.
I see this all the time with people trying to market their goods. You’re asking me to hire you for graphic design, but your poster looks like you coughed into Photoshop and called it a day. You’re selling your car, but you used terrible photos to advertise it. You’re an accountant, but there are spelling mistakes in your copy (so much for “detail-oriented”). It’s the little things.
Now, what if Joe approached you wearing a nice suit, flashing a big smile, and holding flowers and an envelope? Perhaps he then tells you that because you recently bought a bottle of wine at Spar, they’ve chosen you as one of the winners of their Secret Wine Party competition.
He points to the limo behind him (where a nice lady is waving at you from inside) and assures you that they’ll handle your hair, makeup, and outfit if you went with them right now—or, you could go home, get dressed, and call them to pick you up later; no pressure. And if you’re not feeling it, you could also politely reject the invitation, and they’d keep you on file for the next party—he then hands you his official business card. Would you be more willing to hear him out then?
This second scenario is how seduction (and marketing) works. You put in the effort, make them an irresistible offer, and make it easy for them to say yes.
- There are safety markers all over (nobody would rent a tux and a limo to kidnap you);
- There are credibility markers (he gave you his Spar business card and came with a colleague);
- They addressed your objections (“Who are you? Why are you talking to me? Where are we going? Am I even ready to appear in front of the President?”); and
- They let you decide a way forward on your terms (go with them now, later, or never—with no penalty attached either way).
People notice effort. If you’re going to seduce your customers, you’ll need to show them that you’ve done your homework, you’ve put in the work, and that you genuinely want their business. Going the extra mile with a smile makes it worth their while.
You can’t change what you don’t track. Marketers obsess over numbers: “How many tickets did we sell this month? Is it lower or greater than last month’s sales?”. To this end, good marketers set up ways to track things like how many people open their emails, visit their website, download their e-books, like and share their posts, etc. They’re always watching the numbers.
Without checking, how much money did you spend last month? How much did you make? What is your monthly income after tax? Is this number rising or falling? Did you spend more on food in November vs October?
I’ve written before about the need to track your budget. Building this valuable habit will translate to other parts of your life. If your child is in school, what are their grades like? How much fuel are you buying each month? What’s the exchange rate of the dollar to your local currency? Do you even know the price of bread?
Knowing your numbers is a handy skill to cultivate.
There are many other skills a marketer needs to have: an eye for design, a creative streak, persistence, communication skills, and more. But if you analyse each of these other skills, they almost always come back to the main four above.
A master copywriter is simply an empathetic seducer with a pen. Brand management requires seduction and a knack for numbers. An e-commerce or social media professional obsesses over metrics and tries to sell things in new ways. The building blocks are the same.
Life is sales. Whether you’re applying for a job, selling cars, or asking someone out on a date, you need to know how to package a product and sell it to your audience. It gets easier with time and practice.
Just stay away from Joe.
Till next week,
In my last post, I talked about why you’re wasting your time advertising. Read it:
Need to talk about your brand, career, or project? Get in touch.
I’m also on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on content and marketing for creators and brands. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.