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Can You Be a Digital Minimalist AND a Marketer?

As a bit of a minimalist in my own life (I prefer to call myself an “essentialist” after reading Greg McKeown’s book of the same name), when I picked up Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism, I immediately liked the idea.

In fact, I already practice digital minimalism in some ways:

  • I don’t have any social media notifications on my phone or my laptop. The only apps that go “ding” are text messages and phone calls.
  • I don’t check email on the weekends — personal or work.
  • I use ad blockers on my laptop and an extension called “Social Fixer” to curate my Facebook experience.
  • I even have a setting on my phone where, if I tap the home button three times in rapid succession, it turns the screen to black and white — which supposedly makes all those apps less addictive to look at.
  • And yeah — I still have a home button because I still have an iPhone 6. And until it dies or the company bricks it, I don’t plan on getting a new one.

But I’m definitely addicted to my tech in other ways. I usually sit and look at Facebook while I drink my first cup of coffee. I find myself reaching for it and checking it during downtimes or as a way to take a break from other kinds of work, and I frequently have it open in a tab most of the day when I’m working. I’ve got Slack open on my laptop 24/7 — and now ClickUp (where we manage our tasks) and Notion for a client.

For a while, I convinced myself this was a necessary evil because of what I do; as a marketer who sells marketing services, it seems like I need to be on social media pretty regularly. Showing up, being visible is part of how social media works. You can’t, for example, post something once a week on Twitter or Facebook and expect to be noticed amid the sea of noise.

Or, at least, that’s the prevailing wisdom.

What’s the cost?

I also got to thinking about this because several colleagues are deep into Clubhouse right now, and I’ve been following their experiences with interest. Clubhouse is not a set it and forget it sort of app. The people whose followings are growing by leaps and bounds as this platform takes off are the ones who spend hours on it every day.

A colleague of mine made a post last week saying she wasn’t like those people who were spending 8 hours a day on the app, because she was only going in a few hours a day. It kind of shocked me. That’s like hosting a podcast or a livestream for hours — every single day.

That’s a lot of content, and it’s necessary on Clubhouse because of the live nature of the app. There’s no denying it’s working for some people — for some value of the word. That same colleague is making sales because people migrate from Clubhouse to her Instagram and see what she sells.

But Cal Newport and Henry David Thoreau would ask: At what cost?

In other words, is the amount of time she’s spending on Clubhouse “worth” the sales she’s making on the other end? Or whatever other non-monetary value she sees from it?

Can a marketer be a digital minimalist?

Digital minimalism is an important and appealing idea to me, but how does it actually tally with being a marketer?

If we assume that most social media users are “maximalists” — that is, using social media and technology as it was intended, scrolling for hours a day, then we could reasonably argue that a maximalist marketing strategy is also necessary. That means quantity of content. We need to be omnipresent, constantly churning out content at a prodigious rate in the hopes that our ever-scrolling audience will pause and click on one of them.

That’s sort of the standard marketing school of thought. More is better. And bigger, louder, flashier is even better than that.

But what if our audience are more aligned with digital minimalism — or we ourselves want to encourage that from an ethical or values point of view? How then do we reconcile our marketing with those values?

To me, it seems like the minimalist mantra, “less but better,” applies here, too: a minimalist digital marketer would focus on providing higher quality content, and potentially less of it.

But will that work?

Think of it this way: The digital minimalist is looking for better ways to interact with technology. She decides that reading insightful articles is a good use of technology, so she puts a system into place to check certain sources maybe once a week (email newsletters, blogs she likes, news sources, etc.) and saves them somewhere to read later. Then she spends Saturday morning reading with a cup of coffee.

If that person is your ideal customer, you want to make the cut. That means you can’t just be churning out fluff; you must earn the right to be a part of her conscious edit.

(Sound familiar? This is Seth Godin’s “permission marketing” all over again.)

The stakes just got a lot higher. A dozen Instagram posts over the course of a week might work for the maximalist, but attracting (and converting) the minimalist in this example requires something of more substance.

I’d also argue that any marketing has to earn an audience’s attention in these noisy digital days, but if your ideal customer — like a busy CEO, for example, a working mom, a deep thinker, a creative person — doesn’t have time for the noise and endless scrolling, a quality over quantity approach might guarantee your place in their curated experience.

And if you become important to a customer in that way, they’re much more likely to do business with you than with a competitor they’ve filtered out as being so much noise.

Finding balance

The truth is, it’s going to be extremely rare for the audience for a business to be completely made up of digital minimalists — it’s simply not that common a practice.

But that doesn’t mean that a business or business owner can’t practice a version of digital minimalism for themselves and their business.

For example, if you want more digital minimalism in your life, you might:

  • Focus on creating one piece of “deep work” (to borrow another Cal Newport phrase) as the nexus of your marketing each week (or every two weeks, or every month — whatever makes sense for you) and then share it frequently over the course of that time period on the faster moving distribution channels.
  • Automate or outsource sharing that content on social. An app like CoSchedule or Hootsuite could allow you to spend an hour or less creating and scheduling the posts that will share the content, or a team member could take on the job.
  • Some of the benefits of social media undoubtedly come from engagement — but that doesn’t mean it has to be you doing the engaging. Put a team member to work answering comments and messages as part of your customer service.
  • Offer ways for the minimalists in your audience to add your content to their curated experience with an email newsletter or an RSS feed (old school, I know!).
  • Make a rule that you will only share valuable content — for whatever definition of “valuable” your brand espouses.

Digital minimalism is always going to be a personal endeavor, but I don’t think it has to be completely anathema to the digital marketer, either. I’ve seen minimalist marketing deliver results — especially when it’s created and shared with the kind of thoughtful attention Cal Newport suggests a digital minimalist must have.

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