Learning to talk to customers, directly

A little bit over a year ago, on the advice from a friend, I put together a philosophy of how I approached marketing. One of the key points was going direct. Here’s how I described it:

Start where you are and work directly with your customers. Talk to them directly. Find metaphorically (and sometimes physically) nearby markets and opportunities to do business. Put your work out there and look for ways to amplify it and improve upon it. Build relationships with the gatekeepers and people who hold opportunities, show them your momentum and look for opportunities to work together (“Make twice, sell twice,” “Walking both paths”)

When you go direct, you take responsibility for distributing your own work. This approach has produced a lot of results for me (ranging from my job at Figma, to selling 3,000 copies of my book). I also recently came across two interesting pieces on going direct. 

The first is Rostra’s manifesto, which emphasizes a leader’s responsibility to craft their own narrative:

Founders need to take their narrative as seriously as they take the rockets or robots. They would never outsource their product — and when it comes to convincing others to support the mission, the story is the product. Outsourcing comms is as bad as outsourcing code.

(I’ll pause here to say that quite a few founders outsource code.)

The second is Ted Gioia’s recent piece highlighting how artists and creators are buying their own distribution channels in order to bring their work directly to other people through in-person experiences (such as buying a movie theater). He writes:

Stop worrying about what happens in some gatekeeper’s office in New York. The action right now is happening at the grass roots level. And even if you make that decision to get down and dirty in the grass right now, you’re still getting in early….

The system is formidable, but growing weaker with each passing year—sometimes it feels like each passing week. Somebody is going to benefit as the insiders falter, and it might as well be you. 

There are all sorts of starting points for this. One is to build deep relationships with your loyal customers, the same way a restaurant owner might with their regulars. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your team—or ask your friends who are in the same industry.

Another starting point, which I learned from Sarah Stein Greenberg’s Creative Acts for Curious People, is to map out what a supply chain for your business looks like. Sarah calls it distribution prototyping. What are 10–15 steps that it takes for you to deliver each of your products or services? What is preventing you from taking over every single step? Can you solve it with some combination of expertise, relationships, and capital?

Generally, it’s a good idea to try to obtain and keep your customer’s data—at least contact information. Savvy companies have entire databases so their teams can send marketing information, pull up support tickets, and such. Your database may be much simpler—names, emails, phone numbers—maybe even purchase histories and birthdays—as long as you have one and can let your customers know what problems you can solve for them.

Going direct is practical, but that’s not what I like most about it. Going direct also changes all of the opportunities that are available to you. Instead of being constrained by a gatekeeper’s whims, you are deciding to make your own channel to deliver value to customers. It requires some hard and smart work, and it puts the possibilities back in your hands.

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