Why I Stopped Listening To Neil Patel, Or Any Other Marketing Guru

by Ben Pines  April 6, 2016

This is a guest post. It does not necessarily reflect the views of Cloudways or any of its employees.

Let me first make it clear – No, this is not an article that puts down Neil Patel, or any other marketing guru. It is an article dealing with a very important subject – why you should not fall into the trap of becoming a blind follower of a marketing expert, and why you should make your marketing decisions without relying on their expert advice.

According to Forbes, in 2015, 32% of the total marketing budgets were directed towards content, compared to 25% in 2014. In the past five years, and especially in the past year, there has been a huge industry focus on creating content as the best marketing strategy.

Why You Should Not Follow Them Blindly Banner

In the past, other fields were in focus: Web 2.0, SEO, social, mobile. Every period has its focus. The latest focus has generated a ton of content information overload, especially in the online marketing world. Now, more than ever, people are writing about how to do marketing.

The overflow of marketing content has made it very hard to learn and stay updated with online marketing, and especially to implement what you read, in your marketing strategy and daily operation.

My Experience: Getting Confused About Marketing

To make this problem clearer, I would like to share my experience in recent times as an example. I have been working as an online marketing professional for the past ten years.

A few months ago, I was immersed in a huge international project that took up most of my time. This meant that I neglected keeping up to date with the latest news by industry leaders.

After taking up as the new CMO at Pojo, I wanted to get updated and started catching up with various posts by marketing gurus like Neil Patel, Rand Fishkin, and Brian Clark.

As I began reading, what I noticed was that instead of making it easier for me to make my next marketing move, I became more confused about choosing what to do next.

4,000-word articles on how to build a title, an article on 25 must have plugins, in-depth interviews with top CEOs – How was I supposed to keep up, let alone implement this in my work? The flow of newly formed marketing knowledge kept pouring in. Each new content piece made me feel like a novice again as if I needed to devote more and more time for learning new skills.

Contemplating this difficulty, I now realize that my mistake was becoming too much of a fan of marketing experts. I began to ponder whether my target audience was dealing with such issues of marketing information overload. A lot of Pojo’s customers are web designers and agencies, which have a strong need to market their business online and also, need to stay informed with marketing material.

My Solution: Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Luckily for me, these challenges came at the exact time I was reading Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” The book discusses the phenomenon of unpredictable events and how people relate to them. I have found the book to give a huge insight on the exact challenge I was dealing with: How to make marketing content useful in your daily routine.

I am not going to try to summarize this book here though I do urge you to read it. What I am going to do is depict at least some of the problems with becoming a marketing fan, as well as offer some tips at the end.

Problem #1: Following Experts Is the Wrong Strategy for This Kind of Profession

According to Taleb, there are two types of professions: ones that are based on what is called “techne” (crafts and know how), and others that are based on what is called “episteme” (book knowledge, know what).

“Techne” professionals, like doctors, carpenters, accountants, and engineers, rely on exact crafts that can be followed step by step and by the book. This is why there can be a large percentage of successful accountants.

Episteme professionals, on the other hand, like investors, artists, writers, actors, politicians and online marketers, rely on an elusive “knowledge”. This is why only a selected few “episteme” professionals reach success, and why there are so many actors that work and make a living as waiters.

This is also why you cannot reproduce Episteme geniuses. There are many graduates that finish their MD and become great doctors. Graduates of music schools, however, spend years learning Mozart’s pieces. How come there aren’t as many new Mozarts as there are great doctors? Because this is a different type of profession.

Techne professions work in what Taleb calls “Mediocristan,” where each profession has a mediocre effect on the whole professional community. Think of how one accountant can affect the accounting world. Episteme professions work in what Taleb refers to as “Extremistan”. Think about the amount of readers of Neil Patel in comparison to a random unknown online marketer that writes for a small company blog.

The problem is that we think Episteme professions work in the same way as Techne professions, and by following the successful online marketing experts, we will too become successful. In much the same way as 85 of the richest people in the world have assets equivalent to the sum possessed by  3.5 billion of the poorest people, so will be the ratio of Neil Patel’s successful blog post and a random online marketer’s successful post.

Problem #2: Can’t Predict Success

There are many examples of articles that detail the strategy and practice that brought the author or company from X to Y. “A SaaS Startup’s Journey to $100,000 a Month” by Groove is an example.

The problem with these kinds of articles about success is that they are based on looking back and describing the past using a certain narrative. It is vulnerable to the Hindsight Bias, where things look as if success arose from a predictable and thought out plan and not from luck or random chance.

There is nothing wrong with having a marketing strategy, and also in reading about someone else’s marketing strategy. The problem is in choosing to follow this strategy in the expectancy to recreate the same results.

Problem #3: Success Stories Are Not Brought in Comparison

There is another problem with following success stories. It is not empirical. Let’s say the latest success story describes how the business grew by focusing on long form articles. Your logic might reason that because they focused on long-form articles, and they succeeded, this means that if you focus on long-form articles, you will succeed.

This is not empirical and is not even logic reasoning because you do not take into account information that contradicts the reverse assumption, that short form did not produce success.

Most of these articles do not give you an example of how a business that chose the opposite or different approach failed to succeed. You also did not take into account information about other businesses that failed to grow with long form articles. These examples are ignored and are not even considered by the reader.

This phenomenon is what Taleb calls silent evidence:

Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyzes. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors, who never won an audition— therefore, cannot analyze their attributes. To understand successes, the study of traits in failure needs to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study bankruptcies. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success.

To take this analogy to marketing, the person that failed miserably is not likely to write a post about it, because it will damage their brand. You are only left with success stories that are not helpful.

Action Items – How to Filter Expert Marketing Advice

When I realized what was going on, it completely changed my perspective on choosing the right strategy. I still keep updated with the experts, only that I am very critical of what I write, and look for more “techne” content.

There is still more to write about choosing a marketing strategy and learning from other people’s experience, and I hope I’ll cover more about it in the future, but for now I’d like to leave you with a few tips to help you make this article actionable and not just philosophical.

You might see a contradiction in writing action items after telling you not to listen to expert marketing advice, but the fact is I am not going to tell you what to do (maybe to your disappointment), but tell you what to be aware of when reading experts.

  1. Know which type content you are reading: Extremistan or Mediocristan. If a blog post gets thousands of shares or implies of a get-rich-fast/get-growth-fast technique, know that you are in Extremistan. Results for this article will be harder to reproduce than say, an article explaining how to publish a post in WordPress.
  2. Don’t become a blind fan of an expert: These kind of fans will follow the advice of an expert because they’ll feel they do not have the means to test what the expert is saying. Prefer smaller scale tests that you can perform and verify yourself.
  3. Stop looking for “the right” marketing action: In many cases, you just cannot know. Eliminate alternatives that you know are wrong rather than trying to find out what’s right.
  4. Be skeptical of success stories and stories in general: They do not include the failed silent evidence and are often written in hindsight.
  5. Consider the effect and consequences of a failure: You cannot make a marketing move without taking a chance, but sometime the wrong move can be devastating and costly and other times it can go unnoticed and have a minor effect.
  6. Seek to refute what you are reading, rather than accepting the confirming evidence.
  7. Don’t seek out a structured methodology for extremist markets.
  8. Stick to what you need to know: Avoid getting overwhelmed by reducing the things you try to implement. Keep your marketing systems simple, without over-complicating it with every new piece of advice that the experts give.
  9. Avoid abstract and theory knowledge and focus on explicit knowledge: Instead of focusing on articles like “how to increase traffic to your site” focus on articles like “how to build a remarketing list on google analytics”.
  10. Experiment and tinker rather than theorize. Try to find content that you can test and tinker with, rather than content that involve complex theories. A great example of a marketing tutorial book that utilizes such experiment methods is the book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg.

Conclusion

Not automatically following the experts’ advice and not getting confused with the mass of online marketing information can be hard and counterintuitive. This is why I want to give you one other takeaway from the list above.

The decision-making process for people dealing with marketing is difficult at every level, both strategy-wise and action-wise. Should your strategy be focused on branding, email marketing or SEO, and with what exact mix? Should the next content action be a blog post, newsletter or contact page copy?

By examining the different faults of marketing experts, as seen through the Black Swan theory, we see that these experts are not better equipped or better informed to make such a decision than you. Reading them can be helpful, as long as you read skeptically and as long as you are not afraid to make the final decision yourself.

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About Ben Pines

Ben Pines is Pojo's CMO. He has been in the online marketing industry for over 10 years, specializing in content marketing. WordPress has been Ben's platform of choice since the time when it was only used to blog.

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  • Andrew Mucci

    These are great tips, especially #10. Spend more time doing stuff than strategizing to the point of paralysis. I always tell people to take others advice with a grain a salt and learn from doing it yourself. Cheers!

    • Ben Pines

      Thanks! You’re right, it’s much better to try and gain 10 more leads this week than to come up with strategies to gain 100% more leads in the next quarter.

  • Nice post, Ben – and nicely thought out. I think a post like this needs to be published.

    I think it is really easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding the marketing gurus. I find myself chasing after their content occasionally, so I am guilty of it too.

    So let me ask you this … after decompressing from the gurus for a while, did you find your own marketing efforts improved? If so, what did you focus on and how did that work out for you?

    Just curious as to what ended up working for you?

    • Ben Pines

      Thanks for the positive feedback. To answer your question, today I am a lot more selective about what I read, and tend to read more when researching a specific post I’m writing.

      I am a CMO in a WordPress theme & plugin company, and while I used to read more about marketing, now I try to find the best articles on WordPress and design. This might seem obvious, but it sure wasn’t to me.

      Nowadays my main focus is on content, outreach and PPC, but that’s something I will depict in more detail in my blog – blog.pojo.me, so you are welcomed to subscribe.

      I am also reading Nassim Taleb’s second book Anti Fragile these days, which has even more insights.

  • Carly Klineberg

    Hey Ben – the google+ link to follow you doesn’t work. I love this post though. Someone posted it on inbound and I put a link to it in a comment via a post I wrote here on “How do you improve your digital marketing skills?” https://inbound.org/discuss/how-do-you-improve-your-digital-marketing-skills. I think you’ve made some great points and answered a really important part of the question I was trying to get answered; how to learn, without getting bogged down in content. Thank you this 🙂 Hope I can find you on google + 🙂

    • dS

      Same here.. Also I would like to follow you on twitter if possible 🙂 One of the best marketing article I’ve read so far!

      • Ben Pines

        Great to hear. Here is my twitter account: https://twitter.com/bpines1
        You can also subscribe to my companies newsletter: blog.pojo.me

    • Ben Pines

      Wow that’s so nice to hear! Here is my Google +: https://plus.google.com/+BenPines

      Also I invite you to register for updates at my blog: blog.pojo.me

  • I enjoyed your post because it is different to the to the other stuff being published. There is so much information overload, because content is king, and the gurus know it, hence the very long posts with lots of information. I agree to not blindly follow the gurus, but they do provide exceptional information. To cut through the clutter, you need to focus, especially as far as SEO and digital marketing go. You can’t do all things that everyone recommends, so how do you choose which will be the most valuable over time? I wrote a post about which SEO tasks to perform that will get the best results in the least amount of time. I hope it gives focus to someone as much as your post does: http://www.virtualbusinesssolutions.biz/step-by-step-guide-to-streamlining-your-beginner-seo-process/

    • Ben Pines

      Thanks! great post. Will definitely take a closer look after the weekend.

      • Brian Philip Gurnett

        ‘Emperor’s new clothes’?

        Ben, thanks again for some reality.

        You have strongly made the case that examples of success dominate – no one seems to want to analyse failures.

        It also appears that nearly all the examples that are being published are about ‘digital’ products or services – being sold to and bought within a pre-conditioned ‘digital’ audience following the latest fashion trends.

        Fundamentally skewed research not related to the rest of the real world?

        Doesn’t this all sound very much like the Hans Christian Andersen ‘fairy tale’ about the slavish followers of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ Where people who are unwilling to risk looking ignorant or stupid by admitting they cannot see the value of something go along with the “experts” who extol its value.

        Had been great for the ‘tailors’ pockets but I wonder what happened to the audience?

        • Ben Pines

          Great analogy Brian.

  • This is amazing stuff Ben. One of the best articles I’ve read in ages. Thanks for saying what all of us need to hear every so often – we are the biggest experts when it comes to our businesses!

    I always think that great marketers have to act like great leaders – take in and assimilate all of that advice from the experts, but at the end of the day, be aware of your unique circumstances and make the final call.

    • Ben Pines

      What I claim is actually that you don’t have to assimilate all that advice from experts. Quite the contrary. I believe you’re much better even trying to copy or mimic another marketing expert you find doing a great job. This way information overload is less likely to hurt you.

  • piltdownman

    Really, really like this piece. Thanks Ben for poking holes in the concept of “celebrity geniuses.” It’s OK to read the stuff and ponder it, but you should never take any of it as “the answer.” It is tempting for companies to latch onto terms like “inbound marketing” and seemingly leave behind all the lessons that advertising and marketing people have been using for decades…

    http://www.overeasyseo.com

    • Ben Pines

      You raise an excellent point. I agree that there’s a tendency to say that everything in the past is over and that “content marketing”, or whatever trend, has changed the world.

  • Hi Ben,
    This is a great piece and I’m so happy I clicked and read it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in front of my computer in the morning with every good intention of writing a piece of content, only to find myself an hour or two later completely sidetracked and exhausted from reading post after post that was in my inbox from a whole bunch of these gurus.
    The best thing to do, as you’ve highlighted, is to stop reading so much, remembering that these gurus, when promoting one of their outstanding case studies, are only presenting us with one side of the equation, because as you’ve so beautifully clarified in your article, they don’t tell us about all of the failures. Hindsight is 20/20, but real foresight is often an accident. Which, of course, completely destroy the idea of anyone really having the ability to foresee with any great accuracy what’s going to work next week, never mind next year.

  • Some really good thoughts here. I am starting to step back and ask if it fits into a Minimum Viable Product. I feel it is disingenuous for me to write about something I have no experience with. On the flip side, I love online marketing articles and would love to try things out.

  • As I was reading this post, I felt like you somehow had gotten inside my head because I had the same thoughts your were conveying.
    I am streamlining my info “education” and deleting all “Gurus” mail. I have hundreds of pages bookmarked and the Gurus have made a nice living off my purchases over the last year.

    Spending too much time reading about Other’s success keeps one from achieving their own success. Now, it’s my turn as I get set to retire (again)