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The 10 Best Digital Marketing Books of All Time (Including 2020)

It shocks me that people will invest more than $100,000 to go to college, and then never sign up for a free public library card. There’s knowledge just sitting around on shelves collecting dust, people.

I average about two non-fiction books per week. Also, I love seeing what I stumble across in little free libraries. From the hundreds of books I’ve read, I’ve selected just a handful of the best digital marketing books to recommend to you for your 2020 reading list.

You might be surprised that not a single one is specifically about only digital marketing best practices (until the last section at the bottom). Don’t be. You know I’m big on the idea of combinatory play, and you should be too. These books apply to every marketer: whether your focus is building brand or channel growth for Pinterest.

Discover the 10 best digital marketing books:

1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini

Overview:

OK so this bad boy is at the top of my list because it’s had real impact on such a range of things in my life: I’ve re-considered a doctor’s advice because of this book, I’ve negotiated better leases because of this book; I’ve increased digital ad retargeting efficiency because of this book. I use this book nearly every day.

Do I wish it had a more persuasive cover? Yeah.

Inside you’ll find the six universal principles of influence. You’ll learn how to use them to become a skilled persuader, and how to defend yourself against dishonest influence attempts. Here’s a quick preview:

  1. Reciprocation: The internal pull to repay what another person has provided us.
  2. Commitment and consistency: Once we make a choice or take a stand, we work to behave consistently with that commitment in order to justify our decisions.
  3. Social proof: When we are unsure, we look to similar others to provide us with the correct actions to take. And the more, people undertaking that action, the more we consider that action correct.
  4. Liking: The propensity to agree with people we like and, just as important, the propensity for others to agree with us, if we like them.
  5. Authority: We are more likely to say “yes” to others who are authorities, who carry greater knowledge, experience or expertise.
  6. Scarcity: We want more of what is less available or dwindling in availability.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Concession is a useful technique. For example, if someone tries to sell you something and you pass (say ten $1 raffle tickets), they’ll try and sell you something less, that you’ll end up buying because you feel bad (one $1 raffle ticket).
  • Writing something down, even privately, strengthens your commitment to something.
  • Liking is an important part of influence. Attractiveness, similarity (identity and context), compliments, contact, and cooperation all can make someone more influential.
Concession can be used as a #marketing technique. For example, if someone tries to sell you something & you pass (say ten $1 raffle tickets), they’ll try and sell you something less, that you’ll end up buying because you feel bad… Click To Tweet

Practicality of advice:

Super applicable, right away. I use this book a lot when I think about website design, writing persuasive marketing emails, writing persuasive flash sale ads, shopping an idea around internally – it’s really endless.

Deep vs. wide:

This book goes relatively deep into each of the six principles, making it easy to apply.

Structured effectively:

Absolutely. Robert walks you through each principle with examples and specifics is critical to developing your understanding. He doesn’t meander.

Pros:

  • Applicable to nearly every aspect of life.
  • Actionable.
  • Short, fast read.

Cons:

  • Not exactly a funny read, though it is gentle.
  • You’ll need to apply it to digital marketing.
  • Jeepers, that cover though.

Get it here. (Click through to the “newer version” then hit paperback and it’s only $10, and support my affiliating.)

2. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath

Overview:

I think about this book all the time when it comes to managing people, and changing my own mental state. It has helped me build healthier habits by changing the design of my environment. For example, now I leave my work computer downstairs after 7PM, so as not to continue working.

This book shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you. Change is not inherently frightening, but our ability to alter our habits can be complicated by the disjunction between our rational and irrational minds: the self that wants to be swimsuit-season ready and the self that acquiesces to another slice of cake anyway.

The trick is to find the balance between our powerful drives and our reason. The authors’ lessons are backed up by anecdotes that deal with such things as new methods used to reform abusive parents, the revitalization of a dying South Dakota town, and the rebranding of megastore Target. 

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • What looks like resistance tends to actually be confusion or the result of misaligned incentives. That’s why the path needs to be shaped through environmental design: building sound habits, rallying the herd, and reinforcing the new habit until it becomes a way of life.
  • Give clear, concise, easy-to-carry-out directions.
  • Find the bright spots, script the critical moves, and clearly point to an end goal.
  • Emotionally connect (analogies and stories are great for this), and shrink the apparent change by carefully communicating progress.

Practicality of advice:

They break down the process of change into three easily-remembered and compelling constructs, and give lots of examples and hands-on tools that make it easy to move on right away. 

I think a lot of “performance review” feedback doesn’t really work, and that changing the environment is the best way to help an individual succeed. This book is also super helpful if you’re migrating users from one version of your product to a new one, switching to a new software stack, or considering rolling out any HR change at your company.

Deep vs. wide:

Deep into the psychology and science of implementing change.

Structured effectively:

Definitely. The stories they share make it easy to digest and bring each principle to life.

Pros:

  • Entertaining, so it’s easy to get through.
  • Tons of great real-life examples.
  • Great perspectives for working better with colleagues and reports.
  • Be more successful in making changes.

Cons:

  • A little bit jargony.
  • You have to think about how to apply it to your customer journey.

Get it here.

3. Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan

Overview:

Emotional intelligence is one of the most critical skills in a world heading towards AI infiltrating aspects of all types of jobs. That’s why this book is a critical read in my opinion. It’s a light way to venture into learning more about mindfulness, and about how you can bring more compassion into your interactions with colleagues. Clearing your thoughts can also give your brain the time to make connections, thus making you more creative. I’ve used this book most when it comes to difficult conversations.

The author’s job is teach Google’s best and brightest how to apply mindfulness techniques in the office and beyond to become more productive and improve their livelihood. This book is basically a short course in health, happiness, and creativity.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • There are some “short cuts” to meditation such as just trying to sit still for a minute. Think about the top of your head, then your forehead, then your ears, your nose, etc and work your way down to your neck.
  • Compassionate leadership is about having a sense of concern for the suffering of others and wanting that suffering to be relieved. There are three components: A cognitive component: “I understand you”; An affective component: “I feel for you”; A motivational component: “I want to help you.”
  • There are five steps to conducting difficult conversations: Prepare by walking through the “three conversations”; Decide whether to raise the issue; Start from the objective “third story”; Explore their story and yours; Problem solve.
  • It’s important to think about two things for more mindful emailing: That there is a human being on the other end; a human being just like you; People who receive emails unconsciously make up missing information about the emotional context of the person sending, so we take care and caution before responding.

Practicality of advice:

Very practical. In fact, there are exercises you can do to apply your learnings along the way. He presents easy steps to achieve mindfulness. And, he includes practical tips that you can use for building better relationships, including ways to manage emotional triggers in meetings.

I use this book when I write emails, when I attend meetings, and all the time when I have difficult conversations.

Deep vs. wide:

Wide in the sense that he covers a lot of ground across meditation, compassion, and emotional intelligence.

Structured effectively:

Overall, yes. This book is part anecdotal, part scientific, part (trying -to-be) humorous. There’s a bit of neuroscientist-level jargon used to establish credibility. And, there are recommended activities along the way, which sometimes were welcome breaks and other times felt like another roadblock to finishing it.

Pros:

  • You can use this within the first 10 minutes of reading.
  • Very valuable toolkit for tough conversations.
  • The awareness will make you a better colleague – for real!
  • Less expensive than going to a yoga class.
  • Google-approved.

Cons:

  • It’s a little woo-woo at times.
  • Some exercise sections kind of broke my flow.
  • A little too much of the author drinking his own syrup.
  • Also, the title though….little creepy.

Get it here.

4. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking with Statistics and the Scientific Method by Daniel Levin

Overview:

I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this book. If you only read one book from this list, make it this one. At a time when there’s so much mis-information being spread on the Internet, developing the skills to question what you’re seeing is critical. Here, Daniel J. Levitin shows how to recognize misleading announcements, statistics, graphs, and written reports. You’ll find it helpful as you present your marketing results, do budgeting, create infographics, and more.

We need to think critically about the words and numbers we encounter if we want to be successful at work, at play, and in making the most of our lives. This means checking the plausibility and reasoning—not passively accepting information, repeating it, and making decisions based on it.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Summary statistics (the mean, median, and mode) are all useful if they are used correctly. The mean is very sensitive to outliers, while the median and mode are far less so.
  • Graphs can easily be misleading by not labeling or creatively labeling the axes. Check the y-axis on any chart, especially one presented by a politician.
  • The content of footnotes are important and should be fully explored, to ensure you’re getting an actual expert’s opinion.
  •  When we’re given a likely story, it’s often difficult (but important) to think of another.
Summary statistics (the mean, median, and mode) are all useful if they are used correctly. The mean is very sensitive to outliers, while the median and mode are far less so. Get more #marketingtips. Click To Tweet

Practicality of advice:

Incredibly practical – used it the next day. It’s great for evaluating the effectiveness of your marketing channels, pricing, and presentations. I use this book whenever I make a chart, look at data from Google Analytics over time, or see a chart presented. It’s taught me to ensure I ask a question about any data set I see. While I’ve always done this, I’ve now doubled down on seeking the median and the average for most data sets.

Deep vs. wide:

Very deep on how to think about numbers and the stories told with them.

Structured effectively:

Yep! The first half focuses on numbers, while the second half focuses on word use and logical reasoning. In the last third of the book, he runs through how to think straight: deduction and induction, logical fallacies, framing risk, and belief perseverance, ending with a chapter on Bayesian probability.

Pros:

  • You can use it right away.
  • Make better decisions when looking at data.
  • Think critically about what you see on Facebook and blogs.
  • Create better marketing results presentations.

Cons:

  • Can get a little dry and into the details at times towards the end.

Get it here.

5. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Overview:

There are two systems that drive the way we think: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman shows where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. This book is very helpful for questioning your decision making, which is something that impacts every aspect of your job as a marketer.

He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • First impressions matter more than we think due to the halo effect.
  • We think we understand the past, but we really don’t. We create coherency by attributing causality to events, but not to non-events. Basically, we underestimate the role of luck or the role of unknown variables in a given situation.
  • Quick thinking and multitasking increases error rate.
  • Focusing on what you want is very important. 
  • When in doubt, rely on an algorithm rather than an “expert.”
  • Determine the baseline before you come to any decisions.

Practicality of advice:

OK this book is a bit less practical than others on the list so far. The value this book brings is that it gives you the vocabulary to spot biases and to criticize the decisions of others, not necessarily be able to change your mental habits. But I make hundreds of decisions every day, so this has helped me understand things that may be impacting my ability to do that best. And, I don’t multi-task!

Deep vs. wide:

Very deep. It’s a challenging book to get through at times. There’s actually a book someone wrote called “Thinking Fast & Slow: The Simplified Version” which probably explains this book’s depth best.

Structured effectively:

He takes you through an exhaustive tour of biases and fallacies people are prone to making. By about half way through the book I was exhausted. So, I do feel it could have been cut down by quite a bit.

Pros:

  • An original perspective on decision making which impacts all the marketing you do.
  • Helpful for understanding biases.
  • Chapters 1 and 3 will give you insights you can apply right away.

Cons:

  • Ooof, it’s long honey – and it feels it.
  • You have to deduce how to apply parts of it.

Get it here.

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6. The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill is one of the best digital marketing books

Overview:

Based on hard data gleaned from thousands of hours of field research — in shopping malls, department stores, and supermarkets across America, Paco Underhill tries to figure out exactly what makes us buy things. I use this book a lot when thinking about website design.

He explains: How a well-placed shopping basket can turn a small purchase into a significant sale; What the “butt-brush factor” is and how it can make sales plummet; How the “boomerang effect” makes product placement ever more challenging; What kinds of signage and packaging turn browsers into buyers, and so much more.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Customers need to be slowed down when entering a store from a parking lot (hello Walmart greeter!).
  • Locking things in glass cases hurts sales.
  • People look at flashy things.
  • Waiting in line feels longer than it actually is.
  • Parents will buy things to shut up their kids.
  • Customers like interaction and information when making large purchases.
  • People don’t like to hang round a display, no matter how tempting the contents, if they are bumped from behind by through traffic. So, placing a big table of discounts right by the door is not necessarily a good idea.

Practicality of advice:

Super practical for applying to shopping environments. I put stuff to use the very next day on websites.

Deep vs. wide:

Quite deep. He shares anecdotes from a lifetime of studying shopping spaces and how people use them. He provides dozens of insights into commonly-overlooked, yet critical to sales success, retail tips and concepts such as seating, placement of displays, lighting, and more.

Structured effectively:

It’s very readable with dozens of anecdotes from client case studies. Mostly it’s fascinating and it’s entertaining because it makes you think more about why you actually bought something.

Pros:

  • Quick easy read.
  • Amusing because it really makes you think about your own shopping.
  • Lots of insights for choice architecture and merchandising that you can apply to your website.

Cons:

  • About retail shops (but I applied learnings to websites and it’s worked).
  • Author promotes his own company and makes some seemingly sexist statements.
  • It’s outdated, obviously (but that’s why I love it! It’s not the same tech groupthink most business books are now).

Get it here.

7. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink

Overview:

OK so they say timing is everything. But we don’t really know much about timing itself. This book helped me shape the best schedule for maximum marketing productivity.

Pink reveals how best to live, work, and succeed, covering such topics as: How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Power naps (about 20 minutes) in the afternoon are super helpful, especially if you drink coffee right before one.
  • We’re “dumbest” about 8 hours after we wake up. The majority of us are at peak capability in the morning till noon, tapering into a trough till about 4 PM and recovering till about 9 PM.
  • Adequate sleep and appropriate breaks are key to high performance.
  • Projects start with a bang, slump mid-way and recover towards the deadline. A good project manager should split the project into logical milestones, celebrate each of them and ensure that the team works with the same level of enthusiasm throughout.
The majority of us are at peak capability in the morning till noon, tapering into a trough till about 4 PM and recovering till about 9 PM. Click To Tweet

Practicality of advice:

Super duper practical. I began applying this one the next day. Each chapter has a “time hacker handbook” at the end, with takeaways and how you can apply them to your life.

Deep vs. wide:

Deep. Pink summarizes a huge amount of research on how to get things accomplished more efficiently, despite basic biological and organizational challenges such as afternoon lulls and beginning-of-project chaos.

Structured effectively:

Yep! Daniel’s researched this meticulously and presented it really well – making it flow easily and kept it to a digestible length. He uses interesting, scientific case studies to set up an idea and then follows them up with concise discussions and lessons.

Pros:

  • Easy to apply to your work schedule.
  • Helps you decide when to make decisions.
  • Know when to hold meetings.
  • Helpful for considering timing of marketing messages.
  • Super fast read.

Cons:

  • Parts felt slightly repetitive.
  • Little too much “pop-culture” psychology.

Get it here.

8. Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Overview:

I love how deceptively simple this book’s main takeaway is. I use this to manage projects, and avoid marketing campaign mistakes.

Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument that we can do better, using the simplest of methods: the checklist. In riveting stories, he reveals what checklists can do, what they can’t, and how they could bring about striking improvements in a variety of fields, from medicine and disaster recovery to professions and businesses of all kinds.

And the insights are making a difference. Already, a simple surgical checklist from the World Health Organization designed by following the ideas described here has been adopted in more than twenty countries as a standard for care and has been heralded as “the biggest clinical invention in thirty years.”

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  •  Checklists make us more effective at completing complex tasks correctly.
  • The checklist needs to be short, 100% accurate, and tested. It also needs to be accepted by employees, and given to the proper person to manage.
  • Checklists aren’t chocolate chip cookie recipes, they’re not meant to tell you all of the steps necessary to do any particular thing; only all of the things that must be done.
  • We all tend to think that checklists are important for other people to follow, not us. LOL I’m so guilty of this.
  • Checklists need to be evidence based (include what normally goes wrong) and culturally implemented (how do you trip people to make them check before they do what needs to be done).

Practicality of advice:

Easy to apply to things like proofing email sends, ad launches, and so on. But you’ll have to figure out the keys to making your check lists, there’s no one fix-all template included.

Deep vs. wide:

✅Deep into checklists.

Structured effectively:

More lively and fast-moving than you’d think a book about checklists could be. The book starts at why we need checklists then goes through how they work, what makes good or bad checklists, the successful applications of good checklists in many things around us, the different types of checklists, and how and why they work.

Pros:

  • Very actionable.
  • Quick read.
  • Big impact from a relatively small lift.

Cons:

  • A little redundant at times.
  • Lots of medical field talk, so you’ll need to apply it to marketing.

Get it here.

9. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

Overview:

OK this dude built like the greatest American brand ever. He basically invented “surprise and delight,” and also a multi-million dollar empire. As a marketer, you’ve got to care about that, despite it – of course – taking many other people to bring his vision to life.

Walt Disney revolutionized the entertainment industry. In a way that was unprecedented and later widely imitated, he built an empire that combined film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandise.

There are a lot of books about Disney, and I’ve read a few (Disney’s Land for example), but I picked this one because the author had cooperation from the current Disney corporation, and it’s incredibly thorough in its research.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Disney created things we take for granted such as color animation, sync sound in cartoons, camera animation stands that allowed depth of field, and storyboards.
  • Disney was an idealist and a perfectionist, so a lot of his problems came from him not understanding why everyone didn’t see things like he did.
  • He spent a large part of his career not being widely acclaimed and not making much money.
  • His first big hit was Snow White, the first feature cartoon ever.

Practicality of advice:

Fairly unpractical. This is history told as best it can be, which is ultimately quite a selective view. Still, it’s interesting to learn how one of the greatest marketers of all times functioned, and persevered.

Deep vs. wide:

This book is very thorough and so well researched. It covers Walt’s story, the story of Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, EPCOT, the relationship with ABC, and even a few other characters not as popular now, such as Davy Crockett and Zorro.

Structured effectively:

This book guides the reader from the early days of Walt’s family life to the Disney Brothers Studio and an exploration of motion picture technology, through to the consummation of Disney’s dream of building a theme park with fastidious detail and insight.

Pros:

  • Very well-rounded look at him.
  • Exceptionally detailed.
  • Great insight into the business.

Cons:

  • It can get into the dry minutiae such as contract details.

Get it here.

10. Bossypants by Tina Fey

Overview:

This book is genuinely funny, and that’s why marketers need to read it. Humor is one of a few tools that really work in a marketer’s toolkit, and this book makes for a great study. Plus, Tina shares some really great perspective on how to be a leader.

From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon—from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence: Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • Photoshoots are really as terrible as they seem.
  • Tina has a girl crush on Amy Poehler and a work crush on Alec Baldwin.
  • Making analogies can be very funny.
  • She insists on “calling blonde hair “yellow” when reading stories to her daughter because why should yellow hair get a special term when brown hair doesn’t?”

Practicality of advice:

Not a ton of directly actionable insights. But the humor techniques in the book are worth studying. She sets up jokes many different ways, and is one of the best at it. Her Second City, SNL, and 30 Rock stories are filled with the details of how the shows are developed and the writing process. And it’s inspiring from a feminist point of view.

Deep vs. wide:

Fairly wide. It has a good mix of heartwarming anecdotes, comedic happenstances and career musings. And, she raises some solid questions about how women treat each other, being a working mom, and how to deal with institutionalized sexism.

Structured effectively:

It’s a nice tour through her life starting at the beginning. I like the “question and answer” chapter where she answers blog comments. And she takes us through the details of the whole Sarah Palin era. Also, the comedic structure of very end is amazing.

Pros:

  • Truly funny.
  • Easy to read.
  • Great humor writing study.

Cons:

  • Not as much depth or actionable tips as the other books on this list.

Get it here.

11. Bonus: A Year with Nature: An Almanac

Overview:

Why have so few people read this book? It’s such a gem! As a marketer it’s really important to have diverse interests, as this can help fuel your creativity. This book will open your eyes to incredible wonders in the world, and give you a million ideas for things worth celebrating (hello, content calendar heaven!).

This almanac combines science and aesthetics; it is a daily affirmation of the extraordinary richness of biodiversity and our enduring beguilement by its beauty. Herpetologist and natural history writer Marty Crump shares date-appropriate natural topics ranging from the founding of the National Park Service to annual strawberry, garlic, shrimp, hummingbird, and black bear festivals.

A few of my favorite takeaways:

  • There’s a Save a Spider Day and International Respect for Chickens Day.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to be a mermaid, Weeki Wachee Springs offers mermaid camp.
  • Snake worship is deeply rooted in Benin West Africa where pythons were believed to control the water supply.
  • The Loch Ness Monster’s scientific name is an anagram for “monster hoax by Sir Peter S.”
  • Thomas Nast popularized the donkey as a symbol of the democratic party in a. cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly in January 1870.

Practicality of advice:

Applicable to create engaging marketing messaging calendars. And, to help you develop new ideas. But no actionable tips.

Deep vs. wide:

Wide! The topics range from politics to nature and beyond.

Structured effectively:

This book is full of short passages to read each day that inform, intrigue, surprise and delight. You can also easily read it right through, which I did.

Pros:

  • Inspiring.
  • Easily digestible in chunks.
  • Reconnects you to nature which is good for your well-being.
  • You never quite know what you’re going to get on a given day – but that spontaneity is part of the fun and can help you brainstorm.
  • Cute illustrations included.

Cons:

  • Some days are more interesting than others.

Get it here.

Only interested in marketing specific books? Check these out.

Explore the best digital marketing books of 2020:

What is the best digital marketing book?

Permission Marketing by Seth Godin. Unlock the key to developing long-term relationships with customers, creating trust, building brand awareness – and greatly improve the chances of making a sale. You’ll notice big brands such as HubSpot making a return to this strategy today.

Which is the best book for marketing?

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy. Discover the secrets to effective marketing communications, including but not limited to: facts, emotion, narrative, and connection. While the medium changes, the marketing principles remain the same. And, nobody knew the principles like David Ogilvy.

How can I become a better digital marketer?

Understand your customers by doing both qualitative and quantitative research.
Study the techniques of your favorite brands.
Invest 30 minutes every day in learning new skills and reading about the latest techniques.
Also, set aside 30 minutes every day to think – reflect on what’s going well and how you can do more of it faster.

Now you know the best digital marketing books to buy online

Well, now that you’re finished reading about the best digital marketing books, get to reading! Or learn more by discover the top digital marketing trends of 2020.

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By Megan Mitzel

I'm the wearer of overalls behind the marketing advice website Marketing Overalls. I'm also a senior marketing director with more than ten years of experience leading acquisition and lifecycle marketing at successful startups. Before that, I got a business degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before that, I owned a seashell shop. And that's the tea on me.