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Should Business Books Make You Think?

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As host of the MarketingProfs podcast, Marketing Smarts, I've read more business books over the last 18 months then I did over the preceding three decades.

What I've learned along the way is that not all business books are created equal. Some, like Lee Odden's Optimize or Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, by Beth Kanter and KD Paine, have a strong "how to" bent. Other books, like Dan Pink's To Sell Is Human or Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, use interesting stories and scientific research to suggest how we might better do things.

Still others, such as Humanize by Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter or Brandscaping by Andrew Davis invite us to reconsider and re-conceptualize our approaches to the way businesses are organized or the way that marketing is conducted.

Finally, there are those "business" books, such as Spreadable Media by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, that, for good or ill, simply make you think.

Get Ready to Work

"We presume," Sam Ford told me during this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, "that anybody who comes to read this book is coming ready to bring a lot of labor to the project."

The reason behind this presumption is that the question at the core of this book—What is "the role the audience plays, not as a mass aggregate but as real people"?—is, as Sam puts it, "a very complicated thing to think about."

The problem is that when you are in the thick of actually conducting business, it's difficult to find the time to think about such things as whether the concept of content "going viral" accurately describes the way content circulates or the implications of thinking about your "audience" as a set of eyeballs to be aggregated.

"In the agency world, we are always so focused on client needs and the next big meeting or the next new business pitch, whatever it is you're working on, that it's hard to stop and have these sorts of conversations," explained Sam.

"And when you do," he went on to say, "it so often becomes about new tactical things, new platforms, new analytical tools, new ways of doing your job, rather than these sort of deep-seated conversations."

Being Useful By Posing Questions

Spreadable Media contains some practical advice—at one point the authors list out characteristics of content that can make it more "spreadable"—but what the book asks you to do is reexamine your assumptions about audiences, content, how the latter benefits the former, and vice versa.

Rather then tell you to do something, the book invites you to question what you are doing and, as a result of that questioning, consider what you might do instead.

In other words, it doesn't tell you to do, it asks you to think.

And is that such a bad thing?

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My name is Matthew T. Grant, PhD. I'm Managing Editor here at MarketingProfs. I divide my time between designing courses for MarketingProfs University and hosting/producing our podcast, Marketing Smarts. You can follow me on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or read my personal musings on my blog here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me about being a guest on Marketing Smarts or teaching as part of MarketingProfs University or, frankly, anything else at all, drop me a line.

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  • by Andrew Davis Fri Mar 22, 2013 via blog

    Thanks so much for posing this question. I like to think that a good marketing book isn't a 'how to' book but rather a 'how to think' book. I look forward to reading Spreadable Media.
    Thanks for including my title in your article. I'm honored to have been included in such amazing company!
    Thanks again for a great podcast and article!
    - Drew

  • by Kumar Gauraw Fri Mar 22, 2013 via blog


    I agree with Drew that a good marketing book is about making you think, not making you go through a "how to" steps because that makes it a manual.
    However, why only marketing books, any good book really makes you think than make you do. Thank you for this very interesting topic.

  • by Matthew T. Grant Sat Mar 23, 2013 via blog

    Thanks for the comments, Andrew and Kumar.

    While I do believe there is a place for how-to manuals focused on technical aspects of marketing (SEO and analytics being but two examples), I agree that the best books (business or otherwise) invite us to to think both about the way we frame the specific problems we may deal with professionally, but also about the broader context within which our professional work takes place.

    "Spreadable Media" definitely does both.

  • by Sam Ford Mon Apr 1, 2013 via blog

    First, Matthew, I really appreciated this piece. I agree with you that there are room for very different types of books. Believe me, if I needed to do my own plumbing job and bought a manual to help me figure out the "101," I wouldn't be too pleased if the first line of the book was, "If you're looking for a how to manual to fix your pipes, this ain't it. We want to help you understand the mechanics of why plumbing works and be able to think through the ethical and cultural underpinnings of the plumbing industry in the 21st Century." :)

    In all seriousness, I like the categorization you laid out: how to manuals, case study books, grounded strategy books, and "reconceptualizing" books (that was my quick shorthand, anyhow). I agree that all can be valuable, and you have to be as clear as you can about what people are getting when they pick something up. That's why we started "Spreadable Media" with a "How to Read This Book," so that we didn't have anyone disappointed because they misunderstood the category of book we'd written. We didn't want it to sound too "applied," even though we tried to keep an eye toward how professionals in various industries might be able to apply some of the thinking throughout.

    Finding the space to think about larger issues not in direct relation to day-to-day problems is a problem we knew we couldn't solve, but we wanted to gather all we could about how to start that process of questioning and conversation for those people who do find the time/space to do that thinking. We definitely don't promise to have all the answers, but we firmly believe these are some important questions to ask...

    (And, as Andrew said, thanks for the examples you used to illustrate your point. Gave me some good pointers for my reading list...)

  • by Matthew T. Grant Fri May 3, 2013 via blog

    Egregiously delayed in responding here, Sam, but I was just this morning thinking about the fact that everything we do in a business context generally depends on bracketing out the larger context. Going back to your plumbing example, we want to simply focus on the problem at hand—installing this water heater, for example—and we don't want to think about what makes heated water, and even clean water, a commonplace in our society and a desperately needed novelty in another.

    While I appreciate the need to just get things done, I appreciate even more the desire to step back and ask bigger questions, which your book does.

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