Great marketing, small marketing: How it all fits

Ian Lurie

I did a presentation today at Emerging Media Conference: How marketing can change the world.

I’ve distilled it down to the essential bits here. It’s not the best organized ever, but it covers the essentials. Give it a read:


First, a quick mental stretching exercise: “Marketing” is not “Selling stuff”. “Marketing” is:

Communications created to deliver and promote concepts and offerings that have value.

Maybe we’re convincing our kids to eat broccoli. Or we’re trying to convince someone to go out on a date. Or we’re trying to sell something on Craigslist. It’s all marketing.

And we’re all marketers.

Marketing has power

Communications drives us. It can start wars or end them. It can educate people or drive them into ignorance. Communications as a whole form this huge conversation that’s always going on. In London, in 1854, people are steeped in it.

And marketing is the gateway drug to all communications. It’s what everyone experiences, all the time. It primes us for decision making. Every little chunk of marketing stuff contributes to a sort of ambience – a tone – in the big communications conversation. One ad at a time, one product at a time, one message at a time.

So: Marketing. Change. World. The quality of that marketing matters, a lot. That’s why GREAT marketing is so important.

Great marketing

Great marketing helps others make good decisions with powerful, durable messages.

Good decisions mean decisions that are in their best interest. That’s not always a clear thing. The happiness you get from buying an iPod may count as in your best interest. A simpler way to put it: Good decisions are those that you won’t regret in the morning.

Powerful messages drive the point home simply and effectively.

Durable messages can withstand examination by smart people. That means true, thoughtful messages. Not just drivel designed to fool/abuse/bully/beat people into buying.

Do marketing that includes those three ingredients, and I don’t care what you’re selling – you’re changing the world, one tiny bit at a time. You’re improving the tone of the conversation.

Small marketing

Small marketing becomes part of that big conversation, too. It hurts the quality of the conversation, a bit at a time. It makes people make bad decisions. It makes people ignore messages. It spreads, lightning fast. And, it creates so much noise that no one can hear the great marketing.

Getting 4,000 people to fill out a mortgage ‘evaluation test’ that doesn’t evaluate anything, then using that to funnel their contact info to a mortgage broker for a commission, is small marketing.

Fast-talking, don’t-mind-the-dents used car sales is small marketing.

Propaganda is small marketing.

Recent history: The Tylenol Killings

In 1982, a lunatic poisoned Tylenol bottles. The company could have gone on the defensive. They could have fought to keep their product on the shelves, dragged things out. That certainly would’ve been financially OK in the short run. Ford did, right?

But Johnson & Johnson practiced great marketing. They pulled their product from the shelves. They revamped production and put practices in place that made the product safer. They took a huge risk.

The result wasn’t just that J&J ended up saving lives – they also forced other companies to adopt better practices. And, consumers came to expect that kind of response.

One change altered the conversation, not just for J&J, but for everyone. J&J helped people make a good decision based on a powerful message that easily withstood the test of time.

And, by the way, helped J&J strengthen trust in their brand.

Recent history: The Arab Spring

Now, the internet lets it happen even faster, and even smaller bits of great marketing can have huge results. The Arab spring is a huge change in the conversation that started really small, years and years ago, and slowly caught on. But it exploded because with the internet, great marketing can spread almost as fast as small marketing.

The message of Arab spring is one that supports good, if dangerous, decisions. It has power, and it’s sure as hell durable.

Great marketing worked where small marketing never could have.

Now, this all hangs in the balance. Will these uprisings turn into civil wars because small marketers appeal to prejudice?

I dunno. It depends on the people involved. Hopefully, they’ll do great marketing.

The lessons

There are some great lessons in history:

  1. Marketing drives conversation, one little bit at a time. That makes it very powerful, in scary and good ways.
  2. Great marketing requires you to be brave. Snow was a successful doctor. Whitehead already had his assumptions. Neither had to risk their lives and reputations. But they did.
  3. Great marketing isn’t always the easy way. It is always the better way, from a business standpoint, but that may not be evident to your boss, or your client.
  4. Small marketing spreads fast. Scary fast. It feeds on emotions that drive that spread.
  5. Small marketing burns itself out. It’s like a bad virus that kills the host so fast it can’t spread.
  6. Small marketing leaves pissed off customers.
  7. Great marketing, on the other hand, can grow and grow. It persists. It sticks around.

Great marketing must happen

Great marketing MUST happen. Otherwise we just erode the conversation, and the effectiveness of all communications, until we end up with Congress.

Angry tone leads to angry decisions. Cheap marketing leads to cheap thinking. Small marketing leads to small thinking.

We can all do it

That’s why I don’t care what you’re selling. If you practice great marketing, you’re saving the world, because you’re influencing this huge conversation that’s always going on. Especially on the internet, where everyone’s talking, all the time.

We can consciously practice great marketing, whether we’re professional marketers or folks who’re just doing marketing in our every day lives. We can, and we must. We can influence the tone of conversations. Our messages spread like crazy. All we have to do is practice great marketing in tiny little bits. So please, go do it.

The Ghost Map

My entire presentation, by the way, was based on a fantastic book by Steven Johnson: The Ghost Map.

Read it if you want to get more insight into just how important the Broad Street Pump was.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I love this way of thinking. In a similar vein, there’s a great article in the Dec/Jan issue of Fast Company about “pioneers who are meshing tech, culture, and commerce in new ways” — i.e. creative folks who are embracing marketing as a valuable part of the process. I hope this is just the beginning of a sea change in our perceptions of marketing as a whole.

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