Communities, Part 2: This Isn't for Everyone


Y’all may not know this, but when you unsubscribe from a newsletter, the person on the other end can tell that you did it. Unlike with social media, where the friend or follower count drops but the specific culprit remains a mystery, with email marketing it’s right there on the screen: the email address of the person who no longer wants to receive the sender’s precious emails. And until fairly recently, I would feel a little pang whenever I saw someone had unsubscribed from my list. I was trying to appeal to everyone, and felt I hadn’t succeeded in that goal when someone unsubscribed. But, if you’re like me and struggle with wanting everyone to like you (thanks, The Patriarchy), I hope this inside knowledge won’t keep you from unsubscribing from emails that you don’t want to receive. Because actually, you’d be doing the sender a favor.

In part one of this three-part series, I described how we have moved away from broadly shared experiences—watching the nightly news, shopping at department stores, and seeing the same commercials on TV—and have found ourselves in little communities, communities that can feel like the whole world to us, but are in fact just one curated set of experiences for the particular people who feel an affinity for that community. There are good and bad sides to this state of affairs, but regardless, this is how it is now. This shift has had a profound effect on how we market things to people, and even on the kinds of things we choose to make for them.

In the past, a product was most likely to find commercial success if it was palatable to most people. In order to make something appeal to the masses, it had to avoid extremes. It couldn’t be too risky, or too bold. People had a loose set of shared experiences (network TV comes to mind) and the products they were offered stemmed from those experiences. They decided whether they were going to buy something based on whether it fit with their narrative of themselves, which was in turn shaped by influences that were, by necessity, mainstream. (This whole paragraph is a little outside of my area of expertise, but I’m going to, as they say, stride forth with the confidence of a mediocre white man.) Anyway, it was very hard to target the specific person who was most likely to buy your product, so it was better to blanket the market with ads in the hopes that the right person would see it. And it was best if the thing that you were selling would appeal to a lot of people, because either way you were forced to spend your ad dollars marketing to everyone. It was called mass marketing for a reason.

In order to make something appeal to the masses, it had to avoid extremes. It couldn’t be too risky, or too bold.

But these days, it’s so rare that I see ads for the next big game, Mercedes Benz, or Arby’s. What a relief; I am not their customer. On the other hand, pretty much every sponsor of my favorite podcasts has Inceptioned me with all my best ideas for what to spend money on, from what platform my website is on to how I listen to audiobooks. I’m going to need a new mattress soon, and if you’re in my special community, you know the one I’ll likely end up buying. But if you’re in a different community, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Since it’s now possible to speak directly to a hyper-specific group of people (and of course the factors that make this possible can be either innocuous or creepy), small business owners no longer have to bother the 99.9% of people who are never going to buy anything from us. What a relief to them, and to us! This ability means that now, instead of developing products that must have widespread appeal, we can make things that are bold, and special, and decidedly not for everyone. It’s now possible, advantageous in fact, to make things that are extreme in some way. We can make things that will catch the attention of a very specific audience, who we can now talk to directly without bothering anyone else.

Now we can make things that are bold, and special, and decidedly not for everyone.

So getting a rejection from a potential customer—in the form of an unfollow, an unsubscribe, or a good old-fashioned “no thanks”—is information, not failure. They’re helping you refine your understanding of the audience you’re speaking to. In fact, that person was not actually a “potential customer” in the first place, because a potential customer might one day buy something. And in order to do that, they have to opt in, to engage with what you’re sharing. They can’t be coerced, or tricked, or spammed with emails. Those days are mostly over, which is a relief to me, because it makes the whole prospect of marketing my work much more palatable.

Next week, in the last post of this three-part series, I’ll share more on the challenge of aligning my business with a particular community while maintaining my unique voice. In the meantime, get on the newsletter if you want more behind-the-scenes musings and info on this small business adventure. And, if you are a person getting marketed to (and you are), or a small business owner, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post in the comments.

PS A lot of my ideas about marketing have been informed by the work of Seth Godin, specifically his latest book, This is Marketing. I find his Yoda-like communication style a little tiresome, but his ideas and generosity of spirit have had a profound effect on me.