The Book List To Replace Your Marketing Education

14 books and three months of reading followed up by targeted practice can advance your career further than a master’s degree in marketing. Education needs to be disrupted. Marketing is a good place to start.


Marcell Nimfuehr

2 years ago | 17 min read

14 books and three months of reading followed up by targeted practice can advance your career further than a master’s degree in marketing. Education needs to be disrupted. Marketing is a good place to start.

Marketing is not an art, talent and intuition are not mandatory to excel in the field. Marketing is barely a science. You don’t need to study it in academia to succeed. Marketing gives various answers to the question: how to motivate the recipient of my message in the best form to take an action favorable to my cause. Nothing more and nothing less.

Motivation, recipient, message, form, action. Each of these words offers countless options that can be linked to options from the others. The mathematical possibilities combined with rapid developments over time make Marketing a challenge. How to do it?

A college education is rather timeless. Even up to date knowledge you read at the beginning of the studies is outdated when you graduate. Much of it wasn’t relevant even when your parents studied it. Marketing has dramatically changed in the last 20 years, transforming from off-line to digital, from gut feeling to data-backed analysis.

If an eager novice spends $50 on Google ads for a mini-campaign on her own blog-page, she learns more in a week than classrooms can teach her in a semester. In the previous millennia, learning and errors were costly, thus getting the experience was limited. A smart novice can learn from a $50 campaign as much as she would have from a $50,000 ad campaign two decades ago.

All you need in the beginning is a pointer where to start among the immense possibilities. My suggestion: learn the what from books and the how from Youtube videos or free Coursera, EDx, or Khan university courses.

I have spent 20 years in communication, in nearly every discipline, and on every continent except Oceania. I helped to convince the Guatemalan government to take up treatment for a neglected patient group, coached an alternative living group in a 2-million crowdfunding and I sold esoteric gemstones in an online shop. It doesn’t get more diverse.

My college education was completely worthless, I had to teach myself through countless bad material, picking up scraps of wisdom and insight here and there.

I want to save you a few thousand hours I wasted. This is my favorite syllabus to replace a master’s degree with everything you need and that can be studied in three months.

1. Principles of Marketing

By Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong

One can work well in digital marketing without knowing all the basics. But it is always good to have a “marketing bible” at hand to read certain topics or check unknown stuff via the index. Philip Kotler’s Principles of Marketing is that and more since roughly the middle ages. It teaches four concepts:

  • building and managing profitable customer relationships,
  • building and managing strong brands to create brand equity,
  • harnessing new marketing technologies in the digital age,
  • and marketing in a socially responsible way around the globe.

Philip Kotler: “Over the past 60 years, marketing has moved from being product-centric (Marketing 1.0) to being consumer-centric (Marketing 2.0). Today we see marketing as transforming once again in response to the new dynamics in the environment. We see companies expanding their focus from products to consumers to humankind issues. Marketing 3.0 is the stage when companies shift from consumer-centricity to human-centricity and where profitability is balanced with corporate responsibility.”

This quote alone tells you all about the past, presence, and future of marketing. One more quote that is a marketing dogma, widely disregarded by non-marketing decision-makers: “No company in its right mind tries to sell to everyone.”

Takeaway: customers have different needs and marketing can address all of them.

  1. Stated needs (The customer wants an inexpensive car.)
  2. Real needs (The customer wants a car whose operating cost, not initial price, is low.)
  3. Unstated needs (The customer expects good service from the dealer.)
  4. Delight needs (The customer would like the dealer to include an onboard GPS.)
  5. Secret needs (The customer wants friends to see him or her as a savvy consumer.)

Might be difficult to buy here, maybe better to go to a library.

Find Principles of Marketing here

2. Measure What Matters

By John Doerr

It’s a weird choice to start your marketing curriculum. After all, Measure What Matters is not about marketing. It is about setting goals, comparing them to actual achievements, reflecting what can be improved, and setting new goals. This iterative and analytical approach is my mantra and our dogma for modern marketing. It’s a mindset. The book was written with managers in mind, but it appeals to everyone. Read, learn, and live by it, this mindset is the ideal foundation for your success.

“Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” — John Doerr

One key component is to include desired results in your goals. Those must be in a way so that they can be measured. “Actions and data speak louder than words.”

When a high-ranking Youtube manager implemented Doerr’s method OKR (Objective-key results), the team thought about what indicator could best measure the success of the platform. Would it be the number of users? No, because that didn’t tell the team if they were active or not. Would it be daily, active users? No, because that didn’t speak of the quality of their experience.

To quantify the quality and align that with Youtube’s main objective: sell advertising minutes they chose a single key performance indicator: Yearly Hours Watched. Having chosen that indicator, they now could make plans on how to increase that number.

The method OKR helped me a lot during my biggest marketing campaign for a new consumer app.

Get Measure What Matters here.

Tip: The first half of the book is about the method, interspersed with case studies. Read that. The second half is about team management and can be easily skipped.

3. Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins

Mark W. Schaefer

While working with aid organization Doctors Without Borders I learned to communicate with politicians, media, and patients in intercultural settings in crises. There is one communication method I found to work every time, in every place with every person: radical authenticity.

Want something, be somebody, express yourself in your communication, be visible as a human being. This is an appeal that goes against what we learn in school and college — applying professional distance in communication.

Schaefer’s “Marketing Rebellion” transplants my own non-profit experience into the corporate context: “The fact is, we cannot love a logo, a jingle, or a piece of branded content. But we can love a person.”

He claims that in today’s world, people are fed up with adverts, cold calls, unsolicited emails. They filter and block. The days of automated mass media is over, the most human company wins.

Example: One year after being founded, AirBnb had no success except in a few dozen places in New York. Motivated by their angel investor, the founders went to visit all of them as well as their guests to find out, what they need. They never thought to do it because it can’t scale. It turns out, without relationships, you’ll never get to scale.

Get Marketing Rebellion here.

Tip: Read as far into the book as it adds to your experience.

As a supplement, enjoy Brené Browns “Daring Greatly”. To get a taster, see her TED talk (maybe the best one ever): The Power of Vulnerability.

4. Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

by Derek Thompson

For once, something from the book’s blurb: “Every business, every artist, every person looking to promote themselves and their work wants to know what makes some works so successful while others disappear. Hit Makers is a magical mystery tour through the last century of pop culture blockbusters and the most valuable currency of the twenty-first century — people’s attention.

What is the anatomy of a hit? We know what virality is: Your product or content is so engaging that every person you show it to, shares it with at least one person on average. The following snowball effect is virality. While we can’t predict what will go viral, we can at least analyze what made previous hits successful.

A few quotes from the book that give us a hint:

“To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.”

“People prefer paintings that they’ve seen before. Audiences like art that gives them the jolt of meaning that often comes from an inkling of recognition.”

“Quality, it seems, is a necessary, but insufficient attribute for success.”

“The mere observation that something is popular, or even that it became so rapidly, is not sufficient to establish that it spread in a manner that resembles a virus. Popularity on the internet is driven by the size of the largest broadcast. Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments.”

Get Hitmakers here.

Tip: Read all the chapters that interest you. I read all as it was so entertaining.

On psychology in marketing

We now know why to tell a story, also how to write one. Next in line to understand how people function, what they need, what you can give them, and what it does in human psyche. Just as I presented the ideology of authenticity, I follow up with the books that teach you to trick and manipulate. Well, tool or weapon. Your choice.

5. Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior

by Nick Kolenda

A few quotes from Methods of Persuasion that give us pointers to effective marketing:

People’s initial exposure to your message will mold their perception for the remainder of your message. In order to maximize your persuasion, you need to create a strong initial impression so that you convey high expectations for the rest of your message.

This experiment has been conducted across the globe, and although the percentages vary depending on the culture, the results are generally consistent: humans are psychologically compelled to obey authority figures to a very large and frightening extent.”

Website aesthetics are crucial for a number of reasons. First, people use aesthetics as a heuristic for quality; if your website is aesthetically pleasing, they’ll assume your content is above average, and vice versa. This benefit leads to a second benefit: aesthetics will influence website visitors to actually evaluate your content, a decision that’s usually made within 50 milliseconds

Get Methods of Persuasion here.

I compressed Kolenda and a few other sources into a practical little guide for crowdfunding, it gives you a good primer of how to use/abuse psychological mechanisms:

Crowdfunding anyone? The Psychology of the Crowd

6. Neurodesign: Neuromarketing Insights to Boost Engagement and Profitability

By Darren Bridger

Marketing-oriented communication is the art of delivering information in a fashion that gives the recipient what she needs, how and when she needs it. For this, you need to understand people. Both as individuals and as groups. I believe that the best marketer is a psychologist with a set of tools. This and the next book are two in a great arsenal.

Bridger recalls product history: Coca Cola invented the classical curvy bottle in the 1920ies as a desirable reflection of a female body. They brain is hardwired to find feminine round curves attractive. Thus, the positive attitude towards the curvy bottle rubs off on the product. That is Neuromarketing in a nutshell.

I liked Neurodesign since it gave my touchy-feely radical authenticity a scientific opponent. Bridger is deep into product design, but every communication is a product.

Get Neurodesign here.

Alternatively, you could also read: Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing by Roger Dooley


Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain by Patrick Renvoise

On Storytelling

You are armed with radical authenticity and the psychological understanding of your audience — now we add storytelling. Everything can be told as a story. Without a story, nothing can be told. This goes way back to the camp-fires of cave dwellers. We are wired to story. The previous book Hitmakers told us which stories turned into hits. Now we have a look at how to tell them.

Here’s how neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sums it up: ‘The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable — in a word, of how to make it stick — was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution — storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly.… [I]t should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures’”

The shortest guideline for stories is the story spine by Kenn Adams. It looks like this:

Story spine by Kenn Adams

We need some more of that. I haven’t yet found a favorite book on storytelling. Here are two, of which one you could read:

7. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

By Lisa Cron

If I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention.”

Even more important for our marketing purposes: “Stories are about people who are uncomfortable.” In marketing, we call this pain-point. What’s the problem, this product is solving?

Get Wired for Story here.

Alternatively, you can read:

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

by Jonathan Gottschall

This quote is a good example of what storytelling brings to marketing: “When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

Get The Storytelling Animal here.

On writing for marketing

Writing is easy to explain. It starts with the headline. Its only purpose is to make you read the lead, which purpose is to make you read the first paragraph. And so on, and so forth. With every part you make an unconscious decision to say yes and keep on reading. The first yes is the hardest. That is the headline.

That first line is roughly worth as much as all the rest combined. I have distilled a few books on advertising into an article:

How to Write a Killer Headline.

What we learn from headlines can also be applied to all other writing.

If you want to dive deeper, these are the books:

Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz. First published in 1966, reprinted in 2004. This is the masterpiece. And oddly up to date. The internet has not changed how people respond to headlines and body copy. Clickbait is as old a technique as advertising itself. Likely, that you can’t get the original book, but there is a rip-off explaining his stuff.

The First 100 Million by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. That’s an oddity, over 90 years old. It’s a study on publishing 1.200 books in nine years and what makes them sell. This might be especially interesting to book writers looking for the perfect title.

Tested Advertising Methods John Caples. Reprinted countless times, a book with many examples and an exhaustive number of tips. If you can’t write good headlines afterward, you can’t be helped.

On Sales

Most marketers hate sales. So do I. But we need at least a tiny glimpse into the profession as marketing is about selling vision as well as products. Again, I choose an atypical book:

8. Never Split the Difference

by Chris Voss

From the blurb: After a stint policing the rough streets of Kansas City, Missouri, Chris Voss joined the FBI, where his career as a hostage negotiator brought him face-to-face with a range of criminals, including bank robbers and terrorists. Never Split the Difference takes you inside the world of high-stakes negotiations and into Voss’s head, revealing the skills that helped save lives. But also helps when buying a car.

Quotes that resonate with marketing:

“Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.”

“Negotiate in their world. Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.”

This one is a teaser, it blew my mind to learn how to do it: “The fastest and most efficient means of establishing a quick working relationship is to acknowledge the negative and diffuse it.”

As a bonus: this is great storytelling. Put your learnings from that field to the test and analyze what Voss did there.

Get Never Split the Difference here.

Tip: I listened to the audio-book version. It is the right topic and the right kind of storytelling for that medium.

On data and marketing, finally!

Digital marketing is only half about social media and content marketing and user acquisition. The other half is about the business of selling a product or service. Studying digital marketing brings you to the realm of the CEO. You have to understand economic processes, business models, and the new paradigm, platform economics. Let’s start with that. Platforms have transformed business by the possibility to scale exponentially without exponential cost. This has so mind-boggling consequences that I won’t explain it here. Read one or several of these books:

9. Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy — and How to Make Them Work for You

by Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Sangeet Paul Choudary

The book teaches newcomers how to start and run a successful platform business, explaining ways to identify prime markets and monetize networks. As digital networks increase in ubiquity, businesses that do a better job of harnessing the power of the platform will win. That paragraph is from the book’s blurb.

“The shift from protecting value inside the firm to creating value outside the firm means that the crucial factor is no longer ownership but opportunity, while the chief tool is no longer dictation but persuasion.”

Get Platform Revolution here.

10. Platform Scale: How an emerging business model helps startups build large empires with minimum investment

by Sangeet Paul Choudary

The co-author of Platform Revolution goes into the nitty-gritty of a platform with this book. Quotes:

“In the quest to transform into platforms, organizations must shift from a culture of dollar absorption to a culture of data absorption.”

“If you’re building for network effects, you’re not building mere software anymore. Platforms that shift the design process from a technology-first to an interaction-first approach will win.”

Get Platform Scale here.

11. Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster

by Alistair Croll, Benjamin Yoskovitz

Finally, one of the most insightful books in the marketing realm. This book shows you how to validate your initial idea, find the right customers, decide what to build, how to monetize your business, and how to spread the word.

Lean Analytics speaks about data not from the marketing perspective, but the economic side. Before you can delve into digital marketing acronym speak (CAC, LTV, ROAS, etc.) broaden your horizon on using data to succeed as a company.

“If you’re going to survive as a founder, you have to find the intersection of demand (for your product), ability (for you to make it), and desire (for you to care about it).”

“Instincts are experiments. Data is proof.”

“Your job isn’t to build a product; it’s to de-risk a business model.”

I would have ten more great quotes. But enough is enough.

Once you circle back to digital marketing you will realize that it is the same as analytical business planning.

Get Lean Analytics here.

On AI and marketing

It’s a stretch from Lean analytics to machine learning and ai. The following book doesn’t teach how to use it, but what you can achieve. The best overview book I found is:

12. Predictive Marketing: Easy Ways Every Marketer Can Use Customer Analytics and Big Data

by Omer Artun, Dominique Levin

I want to point out two interesting things you can do with smart algorithms. You can analyze past data to find patterns and insight that you can’t see just by looking at it. Feeding an algorithm like K-means with a handful of variables (demographic customer data, sales data, web KPIs) returns customer clusters.

The cluster can tell you that rural mid-income females in their 20ies that came to your site via Pinterest are your best customers. This allows you to target them directly. Neat, isn’t it?

Marketing is about what you don’t do. You can always spend more money and time that you have. Your task is to choose the most cost-effective actions. Tools like clustering show the way, beyond human bias.

The second nifty thing to do is that past data can be computed to predict future actions. It can tell you that when a user has not logged into your app for 10 days, there is a 90% likelihood that she will cancel the subscription. You can then focus on reactivating her.

Predictive Marketing is the reason I took up data science.

Get Predictive Marketing here.

On marketing and the real world

It is a long way from the insight that marketing is about building relationships to predicting when the relationship will sour. This and all the steps in-between don’t exist in a vacuum.

They are applied in a global economy, sometimes as a tool to build and sometimes as a weapon to exploit. You don’t have to take sides, but you should understand what makes the best players so successful and how they weaponize marketing.

13. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

by Scott Galloway

From the blurb: “Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are the four most influential companies on the planet. Just about everyone thinks they know how they got there. Just about everyone is wrong. For all that’s been written about the Four over the last two decades, no one has captured their power and staggering success as insightfully as Scott Galloway.”

The author is both a professor for marketing as well as an entrepreneur himself. His insight is mind-blowing as much as it is hilarious. Apple is the most valuable company in the world. What do they sell to get there? It is not products. It is luxury. The iPhone is closer to a Prada bag than to a Samsung Galaxy. Google is the smartest of them all: “Google not only sees you coming but sees where you’re going.”

On ugly practices of selling data and influencing elections: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”

On Facebook: Netflix is shelling out more than $100 million for each season of The Crown and will spend $6 billion on content in 2017 (50 percent more than either NBC or CBS).

26 Yet Facebook competes for our attention, and wins it, with pictures of fourteen-month-old Max curled up with his new Vizsla puppy. This is fascinating to a small audience, maybe two hundred or three hundred friends, but that’s enough. It’s easy for the machine to aggregate, segment, and target.”

And then one of Galloway’s hilarious rants:

“It is conventional wisdom that Steve Jobs put ‘a dent in the universe.’ No, he didn’t. Steve Jobs, in my view, spat on the universe. People who get up every morning, get their kids dressed, get them to school, and have an irrational passion for their kids’ well-being, dent the universe. The world needs more homes with engaged parents, not a better fucking phone.”

Get The Four here.

14. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

By Shoshana Zuboff

The Four is a great introduction that makes reading Zuboff’s Age of Surveillance Capitalism easier. Zuboff dives deep into the dealings of Google and Facebook and explains what it means. In The Matrix, humans are reduced to a “copper head”, a Duracell battery. Platforms do something similar. Humans become behavioral surplus. We are not customers, but livestock. It is not the data that has value, but the predictions on our future actions and — even worse — the knowledge of how to nudge us to action such as buying stuff.

This doesn’t help your marketing career, but I want to stress the point of how far the most successful digital companies deviate from Mark Schaefer’s authenticity paradigm.

Get Surveillance Capitalism here.

Greater than the sum of its parts

What have you got when you read these 14 books? I like to distinguish between strategy and tactics. Strategy is what I want to achieve. Tactics are the means to achieve, to validate the strategy. With this knowledge, you got a solid understanding of marketing strategy. You then know where the trade is at in the early 2020ies.

After three months reading, you can then dive into whatever tactics that interest you: content marketing, social media, analytical marketing, community management, B2B sales, SEM & SEO, ecommerce, and what not. It is far easier to learn these when you know when to use them and where they fit in the overall game.

Then go and find yourself a pet project to learn. Your blog, a friend’s shop, a non-profit organization. It is cheap to apply nearly all of the tactics in small-scale. In my experience it just gets easier, the more money you have. If you can achieve a decent success with your blog, you can rock the world.

See you out there!


Created by

Marcell Nimfuehr







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