7 marketing lessons from folk music

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At the heart of folk music is story.

As I write this, the world waits with bated breath to find out who will lead our country into the next decade. Folk music and the numerous artists releasing and collaborating on songs new and old have been keeping me sane. I lost count of how many times I listened to the new A Beautiful Noise duet from Brandi Carlile and Alicia Keyes.

I was raised on folk music, first on family road trips and then at summer camp. I’m raising my own kids on the same tunes, along with so many of the new folk artists I’ve come to love.

We even named our dogs after two of our favorites, who strangely enough seem to personify their namesakes.

Meet Dylan and Ani. I’ll let you guess who’s who.

So in this election week, while it feels a bit tone deaf to focus on the latest marketing strategies, I’m instead turning to some of my favorite singers who have been teachers and voices of moral clarity over the last few generations.

And since this is a marketing blog, I’m sharing what we can learn in marketing from folk musicians. Those lessons are there too if you look.

Good marketing is so simple it’s obvious

Let’s start with one of the greatest, Woody Guthrie, a father of America’s tradition in protest folk music

Woody wisely tells us:

Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.

It’s sage advice in life and especially in marketing.

Marketing today is more complicated than ever. All you have to do it is get caught up in Facebook’s Business Ad Manager to see how hard it can get. I could do marketing for my business 24 hours a day, never stopping to support my clients, let alone live my life, and I could still come up with more I could do. That’s the nature of the beast.

But figuring out how to simplify marketing while still remaining successful? That’s no easy feat. My goal this year has been to do just that. I have a system called Everyday Marketing that I’m releasing in a group course soon. I’ll letcha know about it when the world feels a little less crazy.

On second thought, I’m not sure that’s coming any time soon. I’ll fill you in next week instead.

The best marketing tells a story

Harry Chapin was my personal introduction to folk music. Family lore is that my mom left me as a newborn because my dad scored two tickets to see him live. It was the last time they saw him in concert prior to his tragic death in 1981.

What Harry mastered is the art of storytelling in music. He shares stories of universal feelings and experiences in ballads that can last over six minutes, like Taxi. Harry even added a sequel to that song, aptly named “Sequel” for another six+ minutes (who else does that?!).

Like any good story, Harry’s lyrics are relatable and memorable, just as any good marketing should be. But because he sets it to music, you can listen enough and go on to memorize every word. I’ve spent many nights around campfires belting out lyrics to songs like Mr. Tanner and Flowers Are Red.

I dare you to watch this live on the Tonight Show with guest host John Davidson and keep from smiling

There’s a reason marketers today are obsessed with storytelling: it works. All you have to do is listen to Joe Biden speak on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast to hear just how well stories work as messaging. He tells more stories about his family than talks about policy. If he weren’t a politician, pretty much anyone with a heart would listen and appreciate the messages he offers through stories.

Stories work. It’s true in music, and of course it’s true in marketing.

Marketing moves quickly so ‘keep your eyes open wide’

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing might as well be the digital marketing theme song. Fourteen years ago when I entered the field, websites were little more than a digital yellow pages and social media was a space to socialize with friends. It’s been changing nearly every day since.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Changes in marketing have made it easier for businesses to target their audience, but it’s harder to keep up and nearly impossible to get ahead. But rather than feel frustrated by the rapid pace of change in the industry or to wring my hands over Facebook’s latest algorithm change, I prefer to enjoy the ride. I learn something new nearly every day on the job. It’s what I love most about the industry.

And when I do feel overwhelmed, I turn to my pen. I can’t say I’m able to prophesize, but good writing is a skill in marketing that will never expire, no matter what the future medium looks like.

Good marketing is more art than science

I can’t talk about Dylan without mentioning Ani DiFranco

They’re not the pair that Dylan and Joan Baez were, but in our house and in real life, Ani and Dylan are “frenemies.”

Ani’s words, like the best of folk musicians, read like poetry. (Whether you’re a fan or not, I recommend listening to her book.) Her words are stunning and powerful.

Any fan of Ani would recognize the irony of citing Ani DiFranco in a marketing blog. She’s a bit of an anarchist and has her own record label because of her refusal to conform.

For the sake of this blog theme and because she’s one of my favorites, I’m going to share marketing lesson from Ani’s words nonetheless.

She writes in Out of Habit:

Art is why I get up in the morning but my definition ends there. You know I don’t think it’s fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define.

Watch out for the F-bomb in this one. Listen at your own risk.

Good marketing is an art, and like any art, you have to make a massive amount of it to create that one masterpiece. Big companies with money and whole teams can nail it, like Nike in their You Can’t Stop Sport ad or REI with their documentaries that subtly promote their brands by not mentioning them at all.

But small business owners doing their own marketing can nail it too with that one piece of content that finally resonates and reaches thousands of people.

We work tirelessly at our craft, and we never really know how our audience will receive it. What we think are our best ideas can totally bomb, while others we throw together on a whim succeed.

Stare at your analytics all you want, but the numbers can’t conjure up the perfect marketing campaign. It’s the fact that you show up every day to create content that lands you on the piece that works.

Do a little and improve a little each day and believe in the process.

Done is better than perfect

At the risk of sounding cliche, I’m going to quote the most well-known song by the Indigo Girls for this marketing lesson, Closer to Fine.

I heard this song at age 12 in 1991 when my cool older sister put her yellow Sony walkman headphones in my ears and said simply, “Listen to this.” I have few memories of childhood, but this one I recall with clarity. A whole world opened up for me in that song, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. There were years when my friends and I saw them play every concert within a four-hour driving range.

They’ll always be the original IG to me.

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine, yeah
The closer I am to fine, yeah

Marketing is fast and furious, and digital marketing is never done. The minute you launch a website or an ad campaign, there is more to do to improve it and build upon it.

There’s no room for perfectionism in digital marketing. I’ve seen many business owners go down the rabbit hole of perfecting a website before launching it. All the while, they’re losing customers with a lousy site that no longer does the job.

Whatever the digital marketing project, get the dang thing up as soon as it’s “closer to fine.”

Know what to keep to yourself

Not long after I discovered the Indigo Girls, I found Joni Mitchell. In this quote, it’s almost as if Joni predicted the age of social media, particularly Instagram, where users would reveal too much in the effort to “be real.”

There are things to confess that enrich the world, and things that need not be said.

Thank you, Joni. Enough said.

That quote didn’t come from one of her songs, but I can’t resist sharing my favorite with you.

In case you’re wondering, she’s playing a dulcimer, an instrument she plays like no other.

There is power in your authentic voice, so use it

And finally, let’s end where we started, with the stunning duet from Alicia Keyes and Brandi Carlile:

Okay, fine, this isn’t folk song at all, but come on! It’s Brandi, and it’s my campaign 2020 anthem.

I have a voice
Started out a whisper, turned into a scream
Made a beautiful noise

These are powerful words focusing on how each of us can use our own voice to create change in the world. It’s true in every area–even in marketing.

Marketing gets a bad rap for being sleazy and manipulative, but that kind of sales pitch is no longer effective. The most successful marketing today comes from a place of authenticity. We as marketers are most successful when we use our voices to promote a product or service that we believe can improve people’s lives in some small measure. Then, marketing is about helping, supporting and connecting. It’s about getting something positive into the hands of those who need it.

We all have a voice. We can use it to promote something that doesn’t matter, or even something that is false or manipulative. Or we can use it promote brands that improve lives.

I’m gonna hold myself back now by stopping here. I haven’t even mentioned Mumford and Sons and Avett Brothers, who are two of my current favorites.

But you’ve got a business run, and I do too.

I’ll be fueling mine with folk music in the background.

Maybe now, you will too.

P.S. If you’re still reading, this, I can’t resist doing my thing and marketing my own business. I share marketing lessons and Facebook Live “How to’s” every Thursday. If you want to hear more or be among the first to hear about my simplified Everyday Marketing system course launching in January, stay in touch.