I own scores of books about writing. In my younger days, I read all sorts of books about how to write science fiction and how to be a novelist and the art of the short story and overcoming writer’s block. I was looking for–something. That one little tip, that bit of insight, a secret that, once unlocked, would make sense of everything I had ever learned and propel me into the limelight. It had to be there. So I kept looking.

I never found it. And I could have saved myself a lot of time and cleared a lot of bookshelf space if I’d stopped looking for the trick and concentrated on the craft. The trick to being a better writer and making your characters come to life and getting published is writing. A lot.

Americans buy millions of self-help books every year. We buy business books by the briefcaseload. Everybody’s looking for a magic bullet.

Marketers know plenty about magic bullets. Sometimes, we’re in the magic bullet business. Buy this product, and your troubles

“Add a zero, carry the three…and…yes! More customers!”

will end. Call this number, and you’re on your way to freedom. Even as we know that life is complicated, we doll up solutions to make them look easy.

But that doesn’t stop us from wanting magic bullets of our own. The rapid and ongoing changes in media and technology over the past couple of decades have created huge gaps in our comfort zones. The old tricks don’t work. There have to be new tricks out there.

So we look for formulae. We want rules.We want to believe that if we apply this advice in that way, good things will happen.

For example, we hear that, today, marketing is “all about having a conversation with your customers.” So one “rule” would have me stop this piece right here and ask you a question: “What’s your formula for marketing success?” If I ask a good question, the responses are sure to follow. This will influence all sorts of high rollers to think I’m smart and want to hire me and pay me lots of money to do smart things for them.

According to another “rule,” I might put a headline on this piece that reads “Five keys to marketing success,” because “people like lists.” Of course, they do. Everyone wants a magic bullet. Right? (This is a rhetorical question. Please don’t feel the need to answer it.)

But these bits of advice and every other admonition to tweet eight times a day or seed your copy with keywords or make four new friends a day or Facebook are beside the point. They may actually be good advice. They may help you achieve your marketing goals.

But you still need great content.

There’s nothing magical about asking a question at the end of your blog if no one’s interested in what you have to say: the formula works only if you’re smart and entertaining. Your “five keys to success” may attract a few eyeballs–but you won’t keep them unless those keys actually unlock something valuable. In fact, bad content will cause the tricks to backfire. You’ll get a reputation for being shallow and unhelpful.

Great content will do just the opposite. When you have content that’s interesting or illuminating or inspiring, you don’t need as many tricks. Crafting honest, compelling communications isn’t a trick. It’s the result of training and study and lots and lots of practice.

So, no: there is no magic bullet. There is no formula for marketing success that works for everyone all the time. You have to do the work. You have to put yourself in the shoes of your customers and prospects–to think like them and dream like them and understand what they want from you. Then you have to translate what they want into powerful messages that engage and educate and influence.

And when you can do that well, you find out that customers like you and appreciate you. They trust you. They buy your product and tell their friends. The results you tried to force with trickery happen all by themselves. I guess there really is a sort of magic in that.