My 10 Biggest Marketing Screw-ups of 2013

Alexander O'Neal Criticize

It’s nearing Christmas, time for “Top 10…” and “Round up of 2013″ style posts, so here’s mine. One of my failings is that I’m a terrible self-critic, so I thought I’d write a piece on “My 10 biggest marketing screw-ups this year”. I don’t think I’ll get fired because luckily I work at a place that believes that “Visible mistakes are a sing that we are a healthy organisation.”, from p82 our Book of Red Gate. More seriously, we actively encourage learning from mistakes (a sort of kaizen I guess) and, as the quote says, if you’re not making mistakes, perhaps you’re not trying hard enough.

So, excuses out of the way, here are the top 10 mistakes I think I made in marketing this year. I’m sure my colleagues could list many more, but these are the ones that are top of mind. NB: I was going to do a “What I learnt” section for each item, but for most it’s pretty obvious – Don’t do it it again!

  1. Trying to do too many things in parallel rather than in series
    This covers a lot of the year in fact, and was perhaps the thing that took me the longest to correct. In essence, there have been many times in the year where I’ve kicked off multiple activities (e.g. some Adwords work, a new site, some new emails, a change to pricing, some new social media activity), all at once, I guess with a view that “Well, one of these things must work!”. This is, I believe, a mistake for two reasons – i) Measurability. When you (hopefully) get a lift in traffic, which of these activities made that difference? Who knows!?  And, ii) I think if you try to do 10 things at once, you’ll do each of them, at best, adequately, and likely fail at all of them. If, instead, you focus on one specific activity, get that working, tuned, and implemented to the best of your ability, then move on to the next thing then this is more likely to get the results you’re after long term. Better to do 3 things well, than 10 things poorly.
  2.  Not being brave enough about making some significant changes to marketing spend
    Obviously I won’t go in to details here about what we spend on what, and that’s not really the point. The real issue is about following one’s gut feel for certain things, and having the courage to carry those changes through. For much of this year I’ve believed in making significant changes to certain parts of the marketing mix spend, but for a long list of reasons, none of which were insurmountable, I haven’t pushed those changes through. I could have done, but the changes would be risky, unpopular with many, and aren’t strictly in the area I work in. Nevertheless, I wish I’d pushed these changes through.
  3. Occasionally being too “Marketing-ey” in copy
    I work in the software industry. Tech people have a radar for marketing spiel second to none. Any hint of hyperbole or marketing-speak, and it’s a massive turn-off for our customers. Our copy needs to be plain, say what it does, talk in the customers’ language and so on. There’s been at least one major and a few minor incidents this year where I’ve written copy which is definitely on the wrong side of this line, and which shouldn’t have gone out. I guess it’s a quality/attention-to-detail thing, making sure I’ve done a final check of everything I’m sending out with a final “Is this just marketing BS?” check at the end.
  4. Periods of time out of contact with customers
    There are have been dry periods during the year where I’ve gone for weeks and weeks without speaking to a single person who buys our products. Just no good and, basically, laziness. Even if I’m not at conferences, or going on customer visits, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t just call a couple of them up and see how they’re getting on with our products. As I said a couple of posts ago, if you’re not at the coalface a lot of the time, keeping yourself up to date with what the customers really need, you can drift in to an ivory tower of speculation and digression, losing focus on what the customers are really interested in.
  5. Too much time re-jigging pages on our website
    It’s just too easy! Perhaps it’s borne of the Lean Startup movement, but it’s very tempting to endlessly play with web page layouts with the (I believe, mistaken) belief that “If I just put the video on the left and change the colour of that button, conversion rates will double!”. It never has. As I say, it’s just so easy to play with the website (rather than doing something more difficult and longer-term, such as “Building a community” or “Finding 10 reference customers”), and I should have resisted the temptation to sit in this comfort zone.
  6. Too much short-termism; not thinking long-term enough
    This is related to the previous point, but the Lean Startup movement implies “Make change X and watch conversion rates go up 10% in a week!”. But that rarely happens – genuinely building demand not just leads can take significant investment of time and effort, and you might not see the results for months, even years – if you can even measure the impact anyway. Endlessly pivoting week-to-week, just because some minimal piece of marketing work hasn’t shown immediate results is a hiding to nothing.
  7. Chasing shadows in KPIs
    This is a phrase borrowed from a colleague, but if leads go down 10% this month, compared to last month, does this matter? I’ve spent too much time investigating ups and downs in various metrics, to little effect. It’s the long term trends in KPIs – whether tracked over quarters, years, or even longer, that bring real insight in to your market, movements in customer demand and so on, and just chasing the shadows of local changes doesn’t really lead anywhere very useful.
  8. Not implementing marketing automation earlier
    We’ve been crying out for marketing automation for a long time and now, finally we’re implementing HubSpot (hurrah!). It’s going to be transformational to the way we carry out certain activities. But we’re not implementing it because of anything I did – thankfully another colleague made the effort to push the trial and implementation through, and it’s down to him that it’s now up-and-running. Given the importance of the change to all our activities, I should have prioritised it earlier in the year, if not last year and not let organisational difficulties get in the way. I guess the real learning here is that if something is going to fundamentally change the way other things are done, you should implement it first, as the other work will just become obsolete. It would be like endlessly tweaking all of your music and playlists in iTunes, getting it all perfect then at the end just switching to Spotify anyway..
  9. Not supporting Sales properly
    Sales people are the individuals actually talking to your customers on a daily if not hourly basis. If a sales person says “I really don’t know what to say when this problem comes up for customers, or how our tools solve it”, you need to listen and you need to help. In particular if your products do actually solve that problem for customers and you haven’t told your sales people it does, you’re throwing money away – revenue from leads that probably cost you a lot to acquire. Why throw it away at the final hurdle?
  10. Not just accepting that some things are unmeasurable
    Some (if not most 😉 ) of good, effective marketing is basically unmeasureable. You’ll never be able to quantify the enormous value to be gained from, say, taking a key industry influencer out to dinner and taking him/her through your ideas. I think I’ve spent too much time worrying about measuring everything. Instead now, I partition activities in to “measureable” and “unmeasureable”, I try to accurately measure the former and just forget about the latter – it’s pointless.

And I’m sure there are many more things (I know there are lots of small things along the way..). Most mistakes are obvious with hindsight – of course if you don’t support sales properly, they won’t be able to sell as effectively as they could – but certainly not all are obvious with foresight. For example, at the time, it seemed like a great idea to analyse KPI data on a month-by-month basis (we’re all data driven aren’t we?) and it’s only with hindsight and experience that I see how little impact and importance that endless burrowing has had.

So I’m quite happy to be open about these mistakes – some perhaps I should have avoided, but most are just things I’ve learned from another year of working in marketing in the real world.

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