My Top 5 Marketing Books of the Year (with key takeaways and actions)

I LOVE reading and 2016 has been an excellent year in terms of what I’ve read. I’ve read some new books and got around to reading older classics. The lessons I’ve taken from them have been immense and I’m excited to share my top 5 reads with you.

But it’s not really what you read or how much you read that’s important – what you know counts for little. It’s how you synthesise the information in a book and the action you take from it that really counts.

So, the aim of the article is to not only share my top 5 marketing books of the year, but also to share my one key learning from that book and an action inspired by the text that you can implement yourself today.

Note: some of these books may not strictly be classed as “marketing” books, but the concepts and thinking they evoke can be applied to marketing practice for better results.

Now onward to the books (in no particular order)!

Contagious by Jonah Berger (get it here)

What’s It About?
It’s an examination into what makes things popular and go viral. But beyond that, the author distills his research into 6 key areas (known as STEPPS) so what you get is effectively a recipe book that uses powerful examples to highlight just how you can create insanely popular products, services and content. It’s rich, extremely well written and very inspiring.

Key Takeaway
If you’re looking to create content, products or services to go viral, best practice is to focus on one or more of the following key principles:

Social Currency (i.e. how it makes someone look to talk about the product/idea etc.)
Triggers (i.e. how are we reminded about that product/idea?)
Emotion (i.e. the art of crafting messages that make people feel something)
Public (i.e. can others see when someone is engaging in your product/service etc.)
Practical Value (i.e. how useful is the content/idea- if the practical value is high, it will get shared)
Stories (i.e. is there a compelling narrative that we can embed our products or ideas into? Humans are storytelling machines, so tap into this and the shareability factor rises.)

You don’t need all six principals to be present – hence the comparison to a recipe book. The key is for these principals to be inherent to the “thing” (idea/product etc.) – they can’t be added as an afterthought.

Your Action
For the next piece of content you create or product you develop, I challenge you to embed two or more of the above principles into it. As I said above, do it as you create the thing, don’t add them as an afterthought!

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed (get it here)

What’s It About?
On the surface you could say that this book was about learning from failure. But that would be doing it a serious injustice. This drills into the very specific reasons why failure happens and the difference between why some learn from failure and why some don’t. The storytelling in Black Box Thinking is second to none. It’s truly riveting and packed with incredible insights. You’ll be glad you picked it up.

Key Takeaway
The main thing I took from this was that the reason why some people learn from failure and some don’t is very complex. But it can be broken down into a question of differing mindsets. People with growth mindsets are likely to frame failure as feedback – and adjust their forward motion accordingly. They won’t try to hide their errors or shirk responsibility – accountability is ownership and ownership leads to taking control and making change. While others with a fixed mindset will hide from the lessons of failure. Psychological elements like cognitive dissonance and intellectual contortions and fear of blame are obstacles impeding growth from failure. Essentially behind success is a lot of very necessary failure.

Your Action
Look at the last thing (project, campaign, piece of content, launch etc.) that didn’t go according to plan. Don’t assign fault even if you are strongly tempted – and don’t beat yourself up. Be dispassionate about what you can learn from what went wrong and plan out how to avoid a similar fate on the next project. Crucially, frame the “failure” as feedback rather than a judgement.

Becoming a Category of One by Joe Calloway (get it here)

What’s it About?
This is pretty much a masterpiece manual on how to truly differentiate yourself in whatever marketplace you happen to operate in. It addresses some very fundamental aspects of business – including mission statements, behaviours and what outstanding customer service really means. Especially in the area of mission statements, this book can cause powerful paradigm shifts. It is very practical and contains lots of tools and case studies that reinforces the theory.

Key Takeaway
The thing that most hit home about this book was the message that it’s not really important to top your category – actually it can be a bit of a false economy. Real innovation and sustainability (and genuine value to your clients) comes from creating your very own category. This means you will have an identity all of your own and everything from your product/services to your core messaging that is sent out into the market will have that uniqueness fused into it.

Your Action
One of my favourite examples from the book is when the author writes about a tyre company (Les Schwab) where the attendants run to your car upon arrival. Yep, you pull up to one of their stores and the Les Schwab’s attendants there run to your car! What a message! It shows urgency, that you matter, that they want to serve you…now!

Your action is to figure out what your version of running to the car is. Develop something that is worth talking about, something outstanding that only you do that shows your customers how much they really mean to you.

Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim (get it here)

What’s it About?
This book and Becoming a Category of One can be thought of as companions. Both are about creating your own space in a given market place and having a unique value proposition that means a lot to the audience.

A Blue Ocean Strategy is opposed to a ‘red ocean strategy’ – red with the blood of competitive battles. This book is a very practical guide as to how you can dig deep into what you do, where you stand in a market and how you can innovate to create value that sets you apart. It inspires deep thinking, hard questions and crucial business breakthroughs. It’s packed with tools that enable you to do the work necessary to create your very own blue ocean.

Key Takeaway
After reading this I understood more than ever that “competing” in a market place wasn’t just a bad business move, but it could be the main thing holding back your potential. By creating a “blue ocean” you create real value and innovations that serve an audience. If you want to truly stand out, then this is the way to go.

Your Action
Create a strategy canvas (a term from the book). It basically entails creating a grid: along the x axis are the market competing factors, i.e. what is it that is compared by the market when they are looking to buy from someone like you? Then the y axis goes from “low” to “high”. So what you do is plot where your product or service sits for each of the factors. Maybe price is low, but speed of delivery is high, for example. Once you have plotted them all out, you have your value curve.

The innovation comes from playing with the competing factors and how they are plotted on the y axis. So, you can choose to reduce, increase, eliminate existing competing factors…and add new ones.

Get some paper and a pen and have a go.

Start with Why by Simon Sinek (get it here)

What’s it About?
It is about discovering your “why” i.e. the real driving force behind what it is that you do. As the author states, in business, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Not only is this the most fundamental aspect of business, but finding your why transcends into your own life. It’s really inspirational to read and forms the basis of identity, which can then be extrapolated up into core marketing messages and branding.

Key Takeaway
That finding your why is like discovering a north star. It guides you, informs you and gives you the motivation to do what you do in the face of all kinds of setbacks. It can breath new life into old ideas and helps to make your messaging resonate and sparkle. Basically, it’s a must and the sooner you start working on finding your why, the more you stand to benefit, both personally and in business.

Your Action
It’s a biggie, but get some paper and a pen and brainstorm your “why”.

Why do you do what you do? Clue: it’s not making money. Making money is a result of what you do – it’s a result of your why.

What you want to end up with is; articulating what you do, knowing how you do it…and understanding why it is that you do it. Take your time, go deep and don’t stop until you get there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summary of my favourite reads of 2016. Let me know if you pick any of them up and also what your most outstanding read of the year was. Catch me on Twitter.