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May 31, 2019

Dear Marketers: Improve Your Ability to “Position” Anything with These 3 Books

By: Cassidy Shield

I consider myself a self-taught marketer.

Yes, I attended the best marketing business school in the world, but school isn’t where you learn marketing.

And this is what I love about marketing today—it’s constantly changing, and the expectations have never been higher. Your marketing education is constrained only by your level of curiosity. You can read a book, listen to a podcast, talk to another marketer, and apply the concepts immediately to test whether they work for you.

I owe a great deal of my success to those who have taken the time to share their experiences with others, and I’d like to pay it forward by sharing my experiences as well.

One way I’ve learned is by reading a lot of books—marketing books, business books, books on leadership and life.

What I’ve observed over the years in talking about books and business is that while many people read the same books, very few ever apply what they have read to their everyday lives. While there are many reasons for that, one reason I’d suggest is, unlike school, where you are provided context and a means to practice (homework, research paper, team assignment), reading on your own does not.

So, what I’d like to do is share the books that have helped me over the years and provide a little context for how best to use the information within them.

Let’s get started with what I consider the most important first lesson for a marketer, which is Positioning.  

For a chief marketing officer, this may mean positioning your company. 

For a product marketer, this could mean how do I best position our new product for launch.

For the head of demand generation, this may be how do I best position our message on a given channel.

For the marketing intern, this could mean I just heard this term, and I don’t know what it means and need to find out.

Here are the three books I recommend reading on the topic of Positioning.

Book #1: “The Battle for Your Mind” by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

I’d go as far to say this is the first book anyone should read to learn more about marketing. It’s an easy readsimilar to reading a Seth Godin book (which I’d recommend as well).

Ries and Trout defined the term Positioning … literally. And the definition of Positioning is the biggest takeaway from the book, as written:

Positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.

The notion of Positioning as an approach to communication is so fundamental, and that is why every marketer should read it.

Ries and Trout “positioned” Positioning as something marketers and CEOs need to do. There are multiple books by the two of them, but if you only read one, this should be it. The book has been around awhile, and when you go on Amazon, you will read a few comments that the content of the book is dated. I have no problem saying those who write these comments completely miss the point of the book. The lesson is timeless, and the examples are valuable regardless of the timeframe.

The irony is that every marketer will say they understand the conceptvery few do it well. Therefore, if you want to get ahead, read this book. You will have a better framework for positioning your work than 90 percent of most marketers.

Book #2: “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore.

Now we take the concept of Positioning and delve deeper into the world of marketing, product, and go-to-market strategy with Crossing the Chasm. Chasm wins the award for being both the most bought and least followed book by marketing leaders.

This book is the blueprint for understanding how to bring new products to market and the technology adoption lifecycle these products will go through as their market matures.

It’s an amazing framework for thinking through go-to-market strategy. There are many points that have stuck with me, but two of my favorites are:

  1. The clarity Moore uses to define the early market—who you target (tech enthusiasts and innovative leaders), how you identify who they are, and then how you reach them.
  2. The specifics on how to shift from the early market to the mainstream market where true scale happens; specifically the concept of the “Whole Product” and the shift in buyer persona.

What I appreciate about this book is that in looking back over my years in technology, every example I can think of played out consistently with this framework.

Book #3: “Play Bigger” by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, and Kevin Maney.

The newest book on my list is on its way to being a classic. However, I’ve put it third not because of its age, but because it’s the natural progression compared to the above two books.

Play Bigger focuses on category design. Category design in terms of building a new category or in redefining an existing category—in essence, how to become the category king. There is a lot to like about this book and here are a few highlights:

  • Category design involves three things: defining a great product, a great company, and a great category, all at the same time.
  • The book is a fun read if you have a sense of humor. I particularly like the “Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Read the Rest of the Book.”
  • The team quantifies the financial impact of those who are category kings versus those who are not.
  • Most of all, the book does an excellent job of providing a framework that any company can go through to identify and design a category.

As an aspiration, it’s how every marketing leader should be thinking and attacking their role; though, in reality, it’s an extremely difficult process to execute.

So there you have it—three books on increasing complexity to build your knowledge of Positioning in the context of your product, your market, and in the creation of a new market category.

You may ask, “but does this guy actually use these books?” The answer is yes. Today, at Narrative Science, the following is happening:

  • Our interns are required to read Positioning.
  • We spent Q1 studying Crossing the Chasm for two purposes:
  1. Understanding where our flagship product Quill is in its market maturity and
  2. What, if anything, we need to do to evolve our position and go-to-market. The short answer is we need to evolve, and we are now in the process of implementing. We also have been using Cross the Chasm in the development of our early market campaign for our newest product Lexio.
  • We are now studying Play Bigger because we believe with Lexio, we have the opportunity to define and create a new market category. The book has become our blueprint to walk our marketing and leadership team through the process. More to come on this journey.

A few final points.

If it helps to think of this list as a curriculum, then consider it this way:

  • Positioning fundamentals (101): The Battle for Your Mind. Every marketer should read it.
  • Positioning your product (201): Crossing the Chasm. Marketing leaders and product marketers launching or evolving their product portfolios.
  • Positioning your company (301): Play Bigger. Marketing leaders looking to change the trajectory of their company through defining and creating a category that they market along with their product.

Now I know there are folks—some of which are on my team—who always want to shoot for the extra credit. So, if you want to read more on the topic, try the following:

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen.

I read these books years ago, and I’ve seen the principles hold true across multiple customers and products I’ve worked with. If you read only one, I recommend actually reading the second book, The Innovator’s Solution, as it both defines the Dilemma and what you should do about it.

The biggest takeaway that has stuck with me is that the majority of market disruption starts on the low end of the market: The underserved. Where your product is “good enough.” Simple and profound because how many times have we heard of a new product and said, “yeah, it’s cheaper, but it doesn’t do A, B, C, D …only to have that product be the market leader several years later.

What am I reading today and may write about in the future?

  • “Traversing the Traction Gap” by Bruce Cleveland. It’s really good so far and could have the makings of a classic.
  • “Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy. It’s on almost every list of those I follow, so it’s time to give it a read.
  • “Behind the Cloud” by Marc Benioff and Carlye Adler. It’s applicable to category creation and our journey.
  • “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky. It’s appropriate for any startup or early-stage company.

If you find this list valuable, I’m thinking the next topic will be on helping marketers build stronger relationships with sales.

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