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Best Practices…Mediocre Results

Why a hyper focus on measurement and incremental gains makes marketers average.

Let’s talk about how a myopic focus on measurement can suck all the innovation and success out of our strategy. Here is an experiment: Walk around your office and ask everybody three questions. The first question: “Should companies be innovative?”  I’ll take a wild-ass guess and predict a 90-percent-plus response in the affirmative.

Then, independent of that answer, immediately ask the next one. “Has our company ever been innovative?” Here, you may get that confused it’s-4 p.m,-and-I-haven’t-had-my-Snickers look. They may ask “Do you mean are we innovative right now?” And you’ll reply, “No, I’m asking whether we have ever been innovative? Ever?”

Here, your mileage will vary, but I’ll bet you one thing to be 100 percent true. Of those who said “yes” to the second question, when you ask them the third and final question, everyone will cite a success.

You see … everybody LOVES innovation. You know, just so long as it worked.

Nobody wants to be the dope who said “yes” to the new content marketing strategy that wound up causing a social media tsunami. As a friend said to me recently, “I’d rather get a zero out of 100 on a test rather than a 22. Because a 22 means I tried.”

Today it seems we are under constant pressure to obtain data, prove ROI and justify our choices—even those we haven’t even made yet. Content marketers in particular seem to be in the grips of ROI monomania. At almost every conference, webinar and client meeting I attend, one of the first things I’m universally asked is “We’re thinking of doing some content marketing, but my boss wants to know it will work. How do I show the ROI?”  

So, what are we really looking for when we ask that question? There is almost certainly no way to draw a straight line between the expense of a content marketing initiative and revenue. And, arguably, many successful content marketing initiatives aren’t designed to generate revenue anyway. No, what we’re really looking for are best practices. They’re safe. Whenever we’re trying something new like content marketing, we become so focused on following best practices that we forget our real job is to be innovative. We become incapacitated by this feeling that our measurement should always be moving up and to the right, and unable or unwilling to embark on any activity we can’t ensure will nudge our measurement stats in the right direction.

Best practices are maps for us to follow to get the same results as those who went before us. In short, they are the marketing equivalent of sitting down at the restaurant and saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

But, here’s the thing: When we are satisfied with a best practice—when we end at best practices—we are saying that we’re satisfied with being average.

You’ve all heard them. Here are a few “best practices” that we’ve grown up with:

  • 40/40/20 rule: Started by Ed Mayer, a pioneer in the direct marketing industry, the 40/40/20 rule says we should focus 40 percent to the right list (audience), 40 percent to the offer and 20 percent to everything else (format, paper, stock, graphics, etc.).
  • No navigation on landing page: This best practice says that you should remove everything extraneous from your landing pages or risk your conversion rate.
  • 1 to 2 percent conversion rate: This one is so ingrained that it’s even become a “rule” within Google Adwords. If you can’t maintain a higher than 1 percent click-thru rate on your text ad, your ad quality score is penalized.

And there are tons of others …

The point is not to disabuse you of these practices (although I have personal experience that the second example is definitely not always true). In fact, quite the opposite—these are best practices precisely because they have worked for many in the past. 

Do you want to be the chicken or the egg?

Who was the first marketer to discover that removing 75 percent of her email list and culling it down to just those who opted-in actually improved her marketing performance and saved money?

Almost certainly this wasn’t a best practice when she tried it. She either discovered it accidentally (happy accident) or there was a decision to test this as a theory and the marketer tried it out. Then, a case study gets written, the idea gets passed on and passed on … and ultimately becomes the rule of thumb for marketing best practices from that point forward. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Content marketing is no different. It’s a new practice we’re putting into our organizations. And, it’s a practice that doesn’t replace the channels we’re using. Rather, it’s one that ideally makes everything else we’re doing more effective. So we should build our business case and our measurement strategy with that in mind.

Say we produce high quality content and distribute it through a number of channels (blog, social web, etc.), and we notice an uptick in visitors to the site. That’s measurable but let’s be clear: higher traffic does not mean that content marketing is providing a return. It means our one, great piece of content is providing value to our existing advertising process. And, we can quantify that value based on how many more people we get into our sales process because of it. In short, this is what gives you the permission to think outside the box. Using a content marketing strategy more likely increases the ROI of other activities you’re supporting (search tactics, lead nurturing, advertising, CRM, etc.). That’s where you stretch your unique and creative strategies and test your assumptions—and create new best practices.  

Stop looking at content marketing as yet another channel. Instead, think of it as a new, comprehensive process and mindset that you integrate into your other marketing efforts.

Consider this example: At the beginning of this 2011, a B2B organization launched a new blog. It spent tons of time and effort developing a solid set of “big ideas” around which to have a discussion. It wasn’t going to be about the brand; the blog was going to offer leading-edge insights about its area of expertise, positioning the members of this company as thought leaders in the industry. The company acquired an amazing, one-word URL that summed up the exact theme of these ideas. It developed a content strategy. It put together the targeted personas. It created an entire editorial calendar. In short, this organization did everything just right.

Then, as the launch date approached, and the blog started filling with posts and content, the executive team began to second guess themselves. What started as quiet hallway conversations a few weeks before launch became a full-blown conference room debate about marketing’s best practices:

  • “We can’t talk about competitors here.”
  • “We should incorporate this into our corporate SEO strategy.”
  • “What’s our official position on that? We need to add that into every post.”
  • “We’ve never talked about that before. We have to delete that.”
  • “We don’t compete well on that issue.”
  • “Aren’t we helping our competition with that post?”
  • “We need a lot more persuasive calls to action on this blog.”

What’s the ROI?

So, the company changed the blog. (To be plain, it was gutted.)  It deleted the “offending posts,” added a call to action for a free trial on every page and changed every mention of a competitor to a generic term.

Guess what happened? When the blog launched, it was basically an extension of the corporate marketing site—and was about as well recognized a thought leadership platform as you might think. Crickets chirped.

Too often marketers’ fear of failure in the short term stands in the way of the learning—even the breakthrough new practice—we might achieve in the longer term. In short, we’re so afraid that we might lose sales or disenfranchise a prospect that our practices stay safe, incremental—and ultimately mediocre. We get so boxed in by measurement that we have no choice but to grasp tightly to best practices and strive to be “a little bit better than last time.”

Peter Drucker says that business “only has two functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation create value, all the rest are costs.”