What You Can Learn From Author Tim Ferriss, the Four-Hour Marketer

Four-Step Learning Model Can Be Applied by Marketers Pressed to Master New Skills

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Tim Ferriss is something of an anomaly. Most authors dream of making the best-seller list once. Ferriss has done it multiple times. All three books in his "Four Hour" series -- including his latest, "The Four Hour Chef" -- are perennial chart-toppers.

Lucky, you say? Perhaps. Formulaic? Somewhat.

What I discovered, however, is that Tim Ferriss is just as much an expert in marketing as he is in the skills he's mastered for his books: lifestyle design, fitness and, now, cooking. He's homed in on the 20% of the effort required to deliver 80% of the results. And this all starts with innovation.

"It's easier to gain market share by being different vs. marginally better," Ferriss told me. "You can train yourself to be different by asking seemingly ridiculous questions."

One of those questions, about how to generate book sales, spawned a unique partnership with Bit Torrent. The file-sharing network distributes Chef for free. To date, it's been downloaded more than a million times without any negative impact on sales.

I asked Ferriss how his four-step learning model can be applied by more classically trained marketers who are always pressed to master new skills. Here's what I learned.

The first step is simple, but also the most time-consuming. It involves deconstructing how the best do what they do. For marketers, this would involve having teams pick apart competitors as well as companies and/or products in other verticals.

For example, Ferriss knows more about the grassroots success of "50 Shades of Grey" than most book wonks. This is because he is a relentless clipper.

Ferriss files away marketing creative that captures his attention in a swipe file he keeps in Evernote, a company he advises. He then scours these for best practices but also keeps an eye out for a herd mentality.

One of his favorite maxims, he told me, comes from Mark Twain: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."


Next, he identifies the 20% of the audience and the 20% of the tactics that will deliver 80% of the desired results.

His segmentation approach is somewhat unorthodox. Instead of shooting for an "average" consumer that doesn't actually exist, he recommends looking for the exceptional customers at the fringes and then addressing their needs. These tend to be more defined and therefore measurable.

Solve for the extremes -- in his case, die-hard life hackers -- and you solve the mean.

This also extends into tactics. The author recommends identifying 10 bloggers to engage who will create an impact rather than spamming thousands. He also advises leveraging the platforms your teams like to use rather than exploring new ones.

With his priorities set, Ferriss then engages in a series of two-week tests that help him determine a logical order. But he does so in a completely data-driven way. For example, he tested Pinterest by mapping it closely to Nielsen BookScan sales. Two weeks creates two comparable data sets. Ferriss recommends choosing data points that aren't subjective—in other words, indisputable numbers.

Finally, there's the stakes. For marketers, these are built in. If you don't succeed, you won't climb the ladder or, worse, you can lose your job. This is especially true of CMOs.

However, in a more personal realm, Ferriss recommends StikK.com, which donates your money to a charity you abhor if you fail to meet a stated goal.

Can Tim Ferriss' D.S.S.S. learning model, which he calls "diss" for short, work in a marketing team? I believe it can, but not without risks.

Still, there's no doubt that the ideas he shares -- zeroing in on best practices, Paretto's 80/20 principle and more -- are in fact timeless even as his methods are unorthodox.

And I believe a little bit of controlled chaos can go a long way in a chaotic world.

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