Why your work needs both cake & icing

Today, I decided to research (aka: spend hours on Google) the very sexy subject of… keywords.

Specifically, I was trying to figure out which words had the best conversions for signup forms, and what fields ensured maximum engagement.

PSST: Stop guessing when I publish new posts and get articles like this in your inbox every Sunday.

Things I learned from my hours of ‘research’:

“Free” is a much better performing than “Go”, according to some survey from a research firm I’ve never heard of, from a study done a few years ago. Obviously, I added it to my signup form and refreshed my newsletter subscriber stats.

Yesterday, I spent 4 hours rewriting the sales copy for my new book’s landing page. There wasn’t anything actually wrong with it, but I did it anyway.

Before that, I moved the testimonials around, then moved them again, then moved them again. I know social proof is important for making sales, so I wanted to be sure they were ordered properly, for maximum impact, you know. I published the changes and checked my website stats to see how well the new copy was converting.

And despite the whisper of sarcasm you might be hearing in my tone, none of those things are wrong or bad to do.

But sometimes, I catch myself spending too much time on these kinds of tasks. Tweaking copy, design elements or incentives to promote my mailing list or sell my products. Maybe the logo needs to be bigger or the buy button needs to “pop” more.

Then I realize none of those things actually make what I sell any better at their core.

How we promote, the language and visual cues we use and trends/studies that tell us what nets the best results are obviously useful for keeping us in business. But a lot of us focus more on that stuff than we do on the actual offerings we sell.

Both need to be present. You can’t make something awesome and just hope others find and buy it. Art existing without anyone knowing about it is like a tree falling in an uninhabited forest. Marketing and promotion definitely need to happen, and I’ve written about this extensively.

But in turn, marketing and promotion won’t do diddly-squat unless what you’re selling is valuable, useful and needed. No amount of tricks and tactics will help (at least not for an extended period of time). Even paying for promotion won’t sustain sales past small boosts in exposure.

Online articles on popular business websites seem to focus entirely on marketing. I searched and searched and couldn’t find any information, data or even opinion pieces about making your products/services better at their core. All I could find was how to promote them better. This is the state of the Internet right now. Marketing is king/queen and everything else isn’t even worth mentioning.

So why is this what we focus on?

Some of us just love marketing, and that’s cool. It may even be your job. Whether you love it or not, we all market our work because we want more sales.

But it seems like we think that whether our marketing is “good enough” is the lone factor that explains why our sales aren’t higher (regardless of how high or low they are).

For some reason, it seems easier to focus on marketing than it does to focus on what we’re selling. We’re sold a bill of goods that more sales = happiness, validation, fulfillment.

Creating products that are both meaningful to us and valuable to our audiences is scary. Sometimes those products will fail, not because our marketing sucked but because they just weren’t a good fit for their intended audience. Rarely does an amazing product fail when the right people see it, simply because the words on its sale page weren’t optimized properly.

There’s also a bit of perception bias happening here too. Those who market the loudest and then see success from it are the ones loudly talking about the success of their marketing campaigns (and writing all those articles). But those who are focused on making meaningful work and doing well for their rat people just quietly keep on succeeding at their work, and the rest of us are none the wiser.

Marketing is icing. If there’s not a cake underneath, it’d be pretty hard for it stand up in the shape of a cake by itself.

We can’t just focus on making icing. We need to also make the cake.

And if the cake isn’t delicious and moist, no amount of super sweet icing will fix that. And conversely, cake alone is ok, but cake with icing is better.

Obviously, there needs to be a middle ground for those of us who make things we want others to buy.

First, we make the best possible products that speak to the right people in the right ways. Then, we need to tell those people about what we’ve made. But when we get stuck in a loop of endlessly tweaking that second step, we can easily lose focus on how right or valuable the first step truly is.

I know for myself, I need to re-align my focus to products first, and marketing second.

And that starts with not getting sucked into reading 100s of articles on marketing techniques (or re-reading my own).

Now back to focusing on the cake for a little bit.