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Initially, I cringed at the term marketing. I viewed myself as an artist who thought that my work would be discovered. I viewed marketing as trickery. However, over time, I realized that if the initial goal of the design thinking cycle involved solving a problem then I needed to figure out a way to get the solution into the hands of people who wanted it. Similarly, if the goal of a creative work (such as a novel) meant reaching an intended audience then I needed to use a specific set of strategies to get my work into their hands.

Although marketing gets a bad reputation, it’s a vital part of any creative work. If you create a product, service, or event, you want to reach a specific audience. Not only that, but if you have any confidence in what you have created, you want to persuade people to use it.

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, most creative types hate selling because we are afraid. We’re afraid that it will look like selling out. We’re afraid that it will look disingenuous; that somehow it will strip the virtue out of what we created. There is a cultural myth that creative work should be done for the sake of creative work. And, sometimes that’s true. Sometimes. There’s a time and a place for journaling or writing a story for a small group for an intimate poetry slam. However, there’s also a place for going big. If you created something you are proud of, there is value in sending it to the world.

The Greater Fear

I wonder, too, if the fear of selling out is just a mask for a deeper fear of rejection. See, when you make something and you send it to a small group, you are hedging your bets. You can aim low, reach the goal and move on. You never have to hope for anything bigger. And the inherent risk in hope – real hope, gritty hope – is that you’ll be disappointed. So, you keep the audience small because you don’t want be crushed by the failure to reach a larger audience.

Another way you hedge your bets is by avoiding the persuasive side of marketing. I hate selling stuff. I get terrified. I feel like I’m imposing. I feel like I should just explain what I made and walk away. And, on some level, it’s because I don’t want to face rejection. I don’t want to impose. I don’t want to annoy. But it’s more than that. If I’m honest with myself, I am insecure about my creative work. I’m not entirely sure that it’s good enough for the whole world to buy into. So, I don’t sell. I explain. I describe. I politely mention it at the margins of a conversation.

But here’s the thing: if you spent days working on something, then the universe deserves it. If you made something and you poured your heart into it, chances are it’s awesome. And if it’s awesome, the world needs it. We need more awesome. When you market something you made, you are adding awesome to the universe. You’re not imposing. You’re not being annoying. You’re offering something awesome.

Not everyone is going to get it. In fact, most people aren’t going to like what you have to offer. That’s okay. Chances are, what you created appeals to a specific audience. In business, this is called product-market fit. The key here is to know that it’s not personal if people don’t get it. Some people like pumpkin spice lattes. I don’t get it. I never will. However, there are hoards of people in America who embrace all things pumpkin-related. My distaste for pumpkin spice lattes has nothing to do with the barista behind the counter. It’s just not my thing.

I had to learn this when we launched Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard. Some people loved the humor, the wizards, and the robots. Some people connected with the story. However, others didn’t. Some people just don’t like fantasy in the same way that I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes (or as I like to call it “gourd-flavored sugar milk”). I felt rejected when friends didn’t bother to read it. But the truth is that the book wasn’t for them. It was written for a different audience.

My point is that we need separate ourselves from the product and understand that when we launch and market, we aren’t saying, “You need to buy this.” What we are saying is, “Here’s why this might be right for you,” and then letting the audience figure out if it’s a good fit. This isn’t easy. It requires a certain level of courage that can be hard to muster. However, if you have an idea, a product, a service, or an event that you care about, you ultimately want it to reach an audience. That process of reaching out to the right people is the heart of marketing.

What This Means for the Classroom

So, what does this have to do with teaching?

If we want students to create, maybe it’s time to think about authentic audience with the concept of marketing in mind. I’m not referring to slick, manipulative marketing. It’s more about the notion of sending what you’ve created to the right audience. It’s the idea that when students make something that truly matters to them there might be a time and a place to send it to a larger community.

When we include marketing and launching into student design projects, we are sending the message that their work matters. We are saying, “I think the world needs to see this.” Moreover, we are encouraging courage and risk-taking. We are telling them, “the world needs more awesome and what you made is going to make that possible.”

In most cases, the “sell” part is a little easier for a classroom. After all, most student design projects are free. However, the same fear and insecurity you might feel in doing creative work is often not only present with students but also amplified. However, when students engage in structured marketing, they can face this fear head-on and launch their design to the world.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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