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Chapter 25: Screwing Up and the Long Run

We’ve spent many pages together, talking about theories and strategies that might rely too heavily on analogy and metaphor. (I know—I have a predilection for that sort of thing. Sorry.) For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you do everything exactly as I suggested. Will it work?

I don’t know.

Some marketing dude I am; aren’t I? You bought the book, read carefully, and actually did this stuff; yet, the best I can do is, “I don’t know.” Pathetic—I agree. The fact is, it would be hard for anyone to promise any more. There are recipes and formulas for almost everything out there. In reality, the path isn’t all that clearly marked no matter how much we might like it to be. It’s a personal journey, one that you’ll have to figure out for yourself as you move along. I’ll suggest a few things to consider as you do so. Let’s first look at how you can screw the whole thing up.

Lose interest

Few expect to turn into bad spouses. Similarly, not that many of us think that we’ll ever grow negligent in servicing our customers. As we sit there, planning our companies, we dream of the kind we might be, “We’ll offer great service! No, no… better than that! We’ll make our customers feel like kings and queens—they’ll only ever say the greatest things about how hard we’ve worked to make them happy!” Then, real life sets in. We get busy, errands pile up, and we get pulled in several directions. Or, we get so many orders that we just can’t give all of our customers the attention we might like.

We can talk about marketing until we’re blue in the face, but most of us treat it as something that helps bring people in, instead of a way to keep the clients we already have. Losing interest in the people who already buy from us is costly. Still, people struggle with the notion of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”100 I ask you to market your company as much to the people who already buy from you as those newcomers you hope to eventually seduce.

Companies get excited about new business, and lose interest in what they think of as boring “customer service.” They are fools; the way you treat your existing customers is as important as any marketing you do. Always remind your customers that they’re important.

“Hold out for a management position”

Standing back from your company’s marketing, or pawning it off on a staff member, can be tempting. Once the initial shine of “doing something creative” wears off, we realize that it’s work just like anything else. Thing is, it’s really important work. The voice you speak to customers with; the way you present your company; the promises you make: none of these should be put solely in the hands of another. You’ll want to pull in others with specific expertise, but don’t confuse this kind of work for something that can be shuffled off entirely.

All too often creative teams are brought together to explore strategies for how to best market the company. Concepts are presented, ideas tested, and assets produced with the notion that all the relevant decision makers have been involved in the process. Then, at the last meeting (just before moving ahead with the campaign), the team learns of an influential person who just decides to “pop in.” Midway through we hear, “Wait a second! This isn’t us! We can’t say this sort of thing!” This is accompanied by a deafening roar of time and money spontaneously bursting into flame and vanishing forever. The frustrated and emotionally exhausted team is forced to begin again.

This sort of derailment is common, and it’s awfully effective if you want to wear out your people and squander precious resources. If instead you’d like to concentrate on getting the job done, there’s one way to bypass this nonsense altogether: get involved from the first moment and take an active role in messaging and marketing your company. If you’re going to make the final call on what “goes to press” anyway, you had best be well aware of the process and the directions presented, entertained, discarded, and developed. When it comes to marketing, you just have to get your hands in the dirt.

Getting cheap with your customers

While waiting to order a burrito at a franchised taco stand in the food court, I spied a sign that was intended only for their staff members. Management created it to remind those negligent workers to not become overly generous. It nagged them to portion their servings carefully, as not doing so would cost the company valuable dollars. While I appreciate the need to manage costs, messages like this should remain hidden from customers. The last thing we need to know is that you’re scrimping on us.

Most of the time, such things aren’t really that big of a deal anyway. What’s the actual cost of throwing a few extra fries on the plate or giving a piece of pie to a regular? What’s the cost/loyalty ratio for taking a few moments to sweep the steps well after mowing your customers’ lawn? As a moving company, are you making more money by rushing and breaking furniture, or are you just sacrificing customers for a quick buck?

Part of keeping customers, and getting them to talk about you, relates to making them feel like the most important people in the world. You don’t get cheap with friends; likewise, doing so with customers will only hurt your company.

Tell me how much I should love you

You know, I’m a pretty good looking guy. I make lots of money and I drive a shiny red sports car. Last week I met with Richard Branson on his private island and we smoked up together. Next week I’m getting together with Dick Cheney to play bridge and make jokes about all the “crazy shit” he did without Bush ever knowing. I once swam with dolphins, but got bored. So I taught a few of them how to do karaoke. Yup… I can’t complain; life’s good.*

How long do you think I could go on before you’d stop reading? Or, as the Gaping Void cartoon reads, “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.”101 Few companies actually take even a moment to think about this. Instead they spend all kinds of money taking out ads that talk only about themselves. “We brought on five new salespeople!”, “We won a bunch of awards!”, “We were rated best in class!” Some of these messages may need to be shared, but there are tasteful ways to do so; meanwhile, this kind should only be the exception. You aren’t the star of the show—your customer is.

*BTW: As you likely guessed, none of that first paragraph is actually true. (Except for the dolphin part—marine mammals really know how to rock the house.)

Bug the hell out of me

We all fall into patterns. Some are good for us, like running every day or checking in with customers once a month. Sometimes, we also find ourselves in less constructive patterns. Automation is in part to blame for this. Most of us send out email newsletters once a month regardless of whether we have anything to say. We need to build awareness, so we just keep on sending.

This isn’t marketing; it’s simply annoyance. I stress this point again: every message you send should be clearly considered and have a goal in mind. Moreover, it’s important we broadcast only messages that the recipient will find value in. I may be happy to receive a not-so-frequent email from you containing running tips and notices for upcoming races in my neighborhood. On the other hand, getting a weekly email about bargains at your shop will probably piss me off rather quickly. At best it will be deleted on arrival; worse, I’ll add you to a spam list.

This isn’t limited to email. Sales calls that aren’t spaced adequately, overly frequent mailers, and waiters who visit our table too often calling me “buddy” all fall into this category. There’s a fine line between being helpful and interrupting your patrons. An introduction may be useful, and subsequent ones may serve as helpful reminders. But without editing, even the most welcome messages become noise.

Get sneaky

When Mark Bayard at Belkin decided that reviews of their Wireless F5U301 USB2.0 hub and dongle weren’t quite what one might hope for, he took things into his own hands. Did he explore improvements, or assemble a group to determine why people weren’t in love with this product? Nope. Who needs to improve the product when the problem is really with the reviews? Instead, he enlisted the help of a service called Mechanical Turk, paying them 65 cents for every positive review they wrote for the product.102

Sadly (for the Belkin folks) someone let the cat out of the bag. Word quickly spread that they were trying to game the system like this. Belkin earned press for the story, but probably not the kind they wanted. Let this be a lesson for all of us. The temptation to rig the system in our favor is always there, but it comes with a steep price. I say the cost is far too great, and it’s all too easy to get caught. This makes the answer simple: play fair! You leave a trail wherever you go, whether it’s a traceable IP address or simply a line of people you’ve wronged. Posting reviews under fake names, tricking people into buying, making things sound like something they’re not… we all should know better.

Let’s move on to a few brief thoughts on how to look at your efforts as you get underway.

Does it feel right?

Regardless of what you do to market your company, you’re going to have moments when you’re unsure whether you’ve taken the right course. At times like these, it may help to bring in people you trust and voice your concerns. Meanwhile, you might also have to call on your internal sensibilities for direction. I should note that it’s not uncommon to feel uneasy when you’re first presented with a new idea. This isn’t what I’m referring to here. A lot of good ideas force us into new waters. I’m talking about whether it seems like “you.”

We often feel like different people from one day to the next as our moods shift and we see things in a different light. Nevertheless, some things don’t fit. When we learn of this, we have good reason to look critically at what we’re doing. For example, do you make excuses for some aspect of your messaging? (e.g., “I don’t get it, but they tell me the kids are crazy about it.”) If so, I’d take a moment to really think about what you’re doing.

Sure, some things that make sense to the rest of the team just won’t resonate with you personally, and that’s OK. My suggestion, is to just keep your “fake-meter” active as you develop messages and determine execution strategies. If it sounds like bullshit, well…

Are they talking?

Being polite doesn’t necessarily result in additional awareness. Sure, you have to treat customers with care and respect. You certainly won’t get far by acting unethically. But sometimes the worry of being seen as “impolite” scares us off of doing things that might work.

I ask you to look carefully at the marketing efforts you undertake—specifically those aimed at generating awareness—and ask if they are the kind of thing that people will feel the need to discuss. If not, I think it’s a good time to ask why and determine if it’s acceptable to keep moving on this path. If your message is not remarkable in any way, there’s little point to wasting time and money or trying to get people to remember you.

It’s often better to ruffle some feathers than go unnoticed. Sure, you might upset a few people, but there are always some casualties in marketing. Getting a few people to take notice and act is worth losing a few who might not have cared anyway.

Patterns versus wild swerving

In the Embracing Change section of this book, I talked at length about being ready to change when the need to do so presents itself. At this moment, I’d like to temper those suggestions with a degree of caution—hopefully without negating those points I’ve already made. While there are good times to consider a change of course, doing so does come with associated costs.

As a teenager with a newly minted driver’s license, I once found myself caught in some loose gravel as a result of edging too close to the shoulder of the road. It sucked me in and threatened to toss the car in the ditch. I rashly turned the wheel to correct this, forcing the car to lurch abruptly to the other side of the road. I did this once more before learning to correct more subtly. Those aggressive corrections were only creating other, equally dangerous movements.

Marketers often lose confidence in a direction, only to swerve wildly to correct course. While the impetus for doing so is understandable, it’s no less hazardous. Instead of jerking around wildly, changes need to be made tactically and with careful consideration of the potential ramifications.

A memorable brand can’t be achieved if your marketing changes course every few months. Your purpose and associated messages need repetition and constant confirmation. Someone once suggested an analogy to me of marketing being like hammering a nail into a board. No one expects it to be done in one swing, but by repeating the same action a few times you’ll get the job done.

Change for the sake of change can be awfully seductive. To avoid giving in to temptation, I ask you to carefully contemplate what you expect from altering your plan. If your efforts are working, stay the course. As Markus Frind, founder of the successful free dating site Plenty Of Fish noted in his 2009 interview with INC Magazine, “The site works … why should I change what works?”103 There are plenty of things he could do to improve his site, but the fear of messing up a formula that works keeps him from acting prematurely.

It’s not easy for anyone

Remember that movie The Blair Witch Project? It was an independent film with a budget of $22,000 that went on to generate over $248 million in revenue.104 This massive success was in part achieved by employing a nontraditional marketing campaign that created massive buzz. That film was released to theaters in July 1999, which has left Hollywood with over ten years to learn from those tactics and repeat them. If they would have managed to do so they’d be able to create films that return revenues of 11,000 times the original investment. What happened?

The studios went back to work and created Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was largely a dud. The new film generated less than $50 million, with a $15 million budget.105 Now, I’d be happy with $35 million in profit, but I can see how they might have looked at this as a failure. Meanwhile, it stands to reason that without the momentum of its predecessor, it wouldn’t have even had this measure of success.

The bigger question, is why the marketing methods from the original film didn’t serve as the new blueprint for every film marketing project to follow? How did this first attempt succeed in a way that the brightest marketers in Hollywood couldn’t reverse engineer and replicate? The answer is likely manyfold; perhaps it was tied to the fact that the story of its underground success and low budget was part of the movie’s plot and therefore difficult to effectively replicate. My feeling is that it’s just hard to make magic happen twice.

We know this from life experience. Sometimes we throw a party that turns out to be one of the most memorable nights of our lives. The summer breeze is light, and the moon in the night sky is crystal clear. Everyone just connects, and the conversations are electric. The barbecue is mouthwatering, and the smell in the air is sweet. This only happens every once in a while, so we have to hold on to such moments. The same exact steps taken a week later, with all the same ingredients, might result in a completely different experience—void of any magic.

As much as we might like, we just can’t bottle this stuff. That’s simply the way it is. Some things have patterns you can learn from, but winning the lottery in no way predisposes you to repeating this act. Instead we need to bank on a few general principles that ready us for luck when it strikes. We clarify what we’re about, remain open to possibility, and experiment with some variations. Meanwhile, we work hard and repeat our message and values until we make enough connections. Instead of putting unreasonable demands on ourselves to create “blockbuster” campaigns, we accept that most of the things we do just are just another swing of the hammer.

Keep on truckin’

My bet is that the first thing you do to market your company will not be a resounding success. The nice part is that it doesn’t matter that much. You have plenty of time to get it right. Some will argue this, saying that there’s little time to waste. This isn’t altogether untrue, but I fear that such thinking can result in haphazard efforts that don’t pay off as one might hope.

I like to think of marketing as a cumulative set of efforts. Planned well, it stitches into your daily activities without requiring Herculean gestures. This way there’s room to think, plan, test, augment, and repeat, perpetually moving in one direction appropriate for your company. As marketers, we’re all doing something akin to running a marathon. We’re rewarded for reaching our destination, not for making random bursts along the way.

Sometimes this takes years, and you’ll find yourself frustrated, just trying to figure out what will work and when. This can drive you crazy. Sadly, there just aren’t a lot of good shortcuts out there, and I’d advise against trusting those who suggest there are. Just keep at it and remain open to new possibilities that get you closer to your overall goal. In my mind it’s not about being right today; it’s about getting it right in the long run.

It’s easy to beat yourself up

I find it both curious and somewhat disheartening to think of how readily people criticize those who fail in business, or those who don’t immediately succeed. The fact is, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and toss about opinions. I suppose for such people, there’s little to lose. Perhaps there’s even some comfort to be found in judging, when one fears that they don’t have the guts to try for themselves.

You, though? You’re in business and you’re putting it out there. I respect the hell out of people like you for actually putting some skin in the game. At times you might find yourself frustrated that your business isn’t doing quite as well as you had once hoped. Perhaps you’re looking at competitors, thinking they have it all worked out and this is putting you into a bit of a funk. Don’t sweat it. In my experience, almost no one has it “figured out.” You know, some put on a really convincing show, but are still stressing out behind the scenes.

I don’t know anyone who thinks business is a cake walk. The tricky part is that even if someone does have this experience, theirs is probably a pretty unique situation. It seems to me that the rules are different for every player. Think of your business and marketing as its own unique race and try to not obsess over what all the other guys are doing. That can really only lead to “grass is greener” thinking.

Perhaps you feel like you’ve made the wrong marketing decisions up to this point. You haven’t. Everything you’ve done is part of your journey and will inform your actions as you determine the next step. Some lessons may be hard-won, but those tend to be the most illuminating ones. There’s no time for lamenting what’s done; just pick up and move on!

Perhaps you’re uncomfortable about trying a new marketing approach because you’ve experienced some failures in the past. Cast those worries aside. Inaction and waffling won’t get you anywhere. Get to work and keep trying. Even if you fail, you’ll have learned something. Standing still teaches you very little, if anything.

My son Ari is seven months old and he really wants to move. He lies on his belly and rocks back and forth. He wiggles and squirms, trying to coordinate his movements. He gets mad and visibly demonstrates his frustration in not being able to make it happen. All of these struggles lead to something. Last week he finally linked it together and started making his way across the room. Nothing will stop him now!

When you get to a point at which it feels like you’re just not making any headway, I ask you to reconsider where you’re at. Maybe your marketing is just a second from “happening” and you’re on the verge of connecting with people who love what you do. It could be the things that you’re doing are working, but they just haven’t quite connected yet. No one can say when it will come together for you. Keep struggling—it’s your fight to win!


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