Overcoming Extinction: 5 Tips to Stay Ahead of the Ever-Changing Marketing Curve

For marketers, Fear of Becoming Obsolete (FOBO) will be the new buzzword in 2014.

For marketers, one of the most important days of the year is December 26, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. A few years ago on this bright, cold, winter morning, I woke up energized with pre-coffee excitement. Leaping from the cozy warmth of my bed, I sprinted out the door to get the newspaper (yes, that ink-enriched dead tree left on the edge of the driveway for maximum foot chill). I was eager to see my then-company’s sales offer in the national newspaper.


You see, the competition was cleaning our clocks on a daily basis. In an attempt to close the gap, my marketing team and I had recommended a few offers that our CEO had approved. I was anxious to see what eye-catching, sales-inspiring option the VP of advertising had selected to run in every major newspaper in the country.

I ripped open the newspaper, hurriedly paged through the front section, and found it. To my complete surprise, the full page, color ad showcased a big, bold headline:

Welcome to the Data Buffet! newspaper ad with spilled coffee on it

“Welcome to the Data Buffet”

What? I read it again.

It was even louder and more confusing the second time. “WELCOME TO THE DATA BUFFET”.

What does that even mean?

There was no strong call to action like, “Buy 1 get 1 free” (the ad from bone-crushing competitor A) or traffic-driving offer like, “Get 50% off your next handset” (the deal from the-kicking-you-in the-you-know-what competitor B).

At that moment, I had what can only be described as an out-of-body experience. I went apoplectic (but I may be understating). I fired off a long-winded tirade to every major executive in the company. I bemoaned the poor judgment of this ridiculous ad and the baffling “buffet of data” headline.

The president of sales, who was sympathetic, (apparently he didn’t know what “welcome to the data buffet” meant, either) emailed me and told me to pull a new plan together. He would help me take it to the CEO to get it implemented—immediately.

Emboldened, empowered, and caffeinated, I sat at my breakfast table thinking about what to do.

I was fired up to do something.

There was just one problem.

I didn’t know how to DO anything – at least, not without a lot of help.

As the head of consumer marketing for a Fortune 50 company, I was accustomed to enlisting the support of a small army of talented managers, coordinators, agency media planners and digital wonks to light up the factory with marketing brilliance.

Unfortunately, the factory was closed for Christmas.

Here I was, armed with campaign ideas, executive approval and time earmarked to make it happen. But I didn’t have the skills to make it happen: I didn’t know how to set up a Facebook campaign, let alone a custom audience. I didn’t have the knowledge to create a landing page, much less A/B test for success. I didn’t even know where to start to send out a quick email to our subscriber list—and forget about optimizing the email for keywords that would improve my SEO.

At that moment, I realized I was useless.

I was in my late 30s and had become obsolete. There would be no chair for me at the data buffet.

Everything I knew about “new technology” I had read in the Wall Street Journal, learned from canned agency presentations or gleaned from pithy sound bites taken from vendors trying to sell me yet another expensive bag of tricks.

I was a classically trained marketer who had cut my teeth at Procter & Gamble, negotiated multi-million dollar deals with the NFL and received an MBA at Harvard Business School.

I was a fossil – a senior marketing executive who was doomed to extinction.

Fear of Becoming Obsolete (FOBO) – a growing trend

If misery loves company, I was in good stead. A growing number of marketers understand that they, too, could face extinction.

A recent IBM study of 1,700 chief marketing officers reported that nearly 80 percent believed the level of job complexity would be “high” or “very high” over the next five years. But only 48 percent felt prepared to cope with it.

The majority of CMOs reported that they were unprepared to manage the impact in key areas such as data; social media; proliferation of channels and devices; consumer shifts in behavior; collaboration and influence. As the study’s author Jack Iwata puts it, “They (CMOs) have to use tools and technologies their children often understand better than they do.”

The fear of being left behind extends well beyond the CMO. Paul Roetzer’s (PR 20/20) survey of hundreds of marketers emphasizes that “organizations lack confidence in their internal marketing teams, which are particularly weak in key digital marketing skills.”

“The marketing industry is advancing at an unprecedented rate, creating seemingly insurmountable gaps in marketing talent, technology and strategy. The job of marketer is more challenging than ever before; things like changing customer expectations, proliferation of media outlets, greater customer power, globalization and media fragmentation are making it harder and harder to create a message that will be heard. The result: marketers are largely unprepared for the marketing paradigm shift happening now.” Paul Roetzer

From the Corner Office to a Corner in the Office (literally)

After the post-holiday advertising fiasco, I left the large company. And with a newfound determination, I decided that I was not going to simply roll over and become obsolete. With that in mind, I found myself joining a small start-up, Zave Networks.

With one staff member, a small office, and an even smaller budget, I had no choice but to start understanding the new tools needed to acquire customers. I learned about marketing from the ground up. With total annual marketing budgets that wouldn’t cover the tab for most corporate holiday parties, my plan of attack was to roll up my sleeves.

Several years (and many data buffets) later, I have had the privilege of working for dozens of start-ups that have been successful: my path includes a Google acquisition, a positive corporate liquidity event and even successful Kickstarter campaigns. Along the way, I have advised corporate executives on matters related to marketing. I am far from what I would consider to be an expert, but have gleaned a few things that I thought might be worthwhile to share:

5 Tips To Stay Ahead Tip1- Get Smart

 

Tip #1: Get Smart – Invert Your Mentoring

The benefits of mentoring are well understood. At a minimum, marketing professionals should seek help for career navigation, hold themselves accountable to clearly defined goals, be open to feedback and constantly look for new knowledge.

As David Hosmer, MIT’s learning and organizational development professional, puts it, “It’s not therapy, but a quiet place to think out loud.”

The paradigm that you can only learn from people who are more senior and presumably, older, is now being turned on its head.

Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company introduces a new term – reverse mentoring:

“It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your 40s and 50s, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young 20-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”

Digital natives (the 20-somethings) can teach you how to spruce up your Twitter page, how to research new mobile trends on social media, and how to find the best Chinese food in Toronto before you even get to your hotel.

Many companies around the country are instituting inverted mentoring programs.  Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Citbank and the originator of the concept, GE, have implemented reverse mentoring programs in their respective organizations. I think this is helpful, but would also recommend finding a mentor outside your organization. How do you find these mentors? I used a combination of LinkedIn, Twitter and old school word-of-mouth to find my “tribe of five” digital experts. I cannot tell you how helpful this has been for me.

5 Tips To Stay Ahead Tip 2 - Adopt a Start Up

 

#2: Adopt a Start-Up

When you’re introduced to a new tool, you need to see it in action—work with a startup to put your new knowledge to the test. Start-ups live and die by being customer acquisition machines. I never understood the power of digital marketing until I had to “make the numbers” each day.

Being around these start-up marketers will inspire and motivate you. Beyond that, I guarantee they will cause you to look at your current business in a completely different way. So consider taking a role as a marketing advisor—you can add a ton of value to the start-up as well by building brand equity, develop good positioning, understanding and segmenting customers needs. They need your skills. You can actually help stimulate the economy, hone your marketing skills and get inspired in the process.

To find these new ventures, start with LinkedIn. You can also go to your local business journal. Tap into local private equity groups and call a few incubators in the area. After two or three calls, the problem will be not finding a startup to mentor—you’ll need to figure out how to narrow down your enthusiasm to the right one.

This strategy, while highly effective, comes with a warning: make sure to clarify your role and get a clear time commitment before signing on, whether as a board member or advisor. These guys will come to depend on you. If you don’t deliver on your promises, you will be labeled an empty suit and the news will spread like wildfire.  The world is indeed small and your personal brand will take a tumble.

5 Tips To Stay Ahead Tip 3 - There Is No Try

 

#3: There Is No “Try.” Do…or Do Not

Yoda was right when he spoke that line to a young Luke Skywalker. If you want to win in marketing (let alone lift a X-Wing fighter out of a swamp) you can’t just try. You have to do. I recently spoke with Neil Patel, a brilliant marketer who, at the ripe old age of 28, has already started two successful Internet companies and is now sharing what he knows via Quick Sprout.

Neil tells a story of starting his first company and giving $20K to an expensive agency that did nothing for him. He realized that he needed to start “figuring stuff out”, which meant experimenting like crazy until he understood what the key underlying drivers were in the world of acquisition marketing.

Why is this important? Relegating your social strategy to fresh-out-of-college digital natives at your impressive agency is like letting the local bank teller prepare your 10K financial statements; you can do it, but is it wise?

You can’t just sit on the sidelines. You have to start blogging, tweeting, pinning, Snapchatting—in short, use the tools. Without a good understanding of the tools, you will fall short of what is happening with your marketing message, let alone be able to monitor how your consumers are interacting with your brand.

Dorie Clark, brand expert and author of Reinventing You reiterates the advice, saying to just “…get started, try it out, write things down and iterate.”

5 Tips To Stay Ahead Tip 4 - Be The Customer

 

#4: Be the Customer

One of the best marketers I ever worked with was Mark Schweitzer, who now runs marketing at Comcast. He has the rare blend of being strategic and understanding the way customers shop. He would provide rare clarity when it came to our overarching three-year marketing strategy.

From time to time, he would bring back a picture of a local ad from a paper in a small or mid-size town he visited. The ad would be marked up with specific issues that were counter to the brief, or confusing to the customer. This is akin to Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and Sam’s Clubs, counting the cars in the parking lot.

My current CEO, Ben Legg, is obsessed (and I do mean this in a good way) with how customers view our brand online. He is constantly checking all digital channels, ensuring our message resonates with our customers.

The big idea? You have to live through the customer experience that you’re crafting. Relegating this task to the junior manager – or, worse yet – an aggregate summary in the form of a trend line that appears on page 79 of a brand awareness study, just isn’t going to help you understand what’s going on.

5 Tips To Stay Ahead Tip - Growth Hacking

 

#5: Learn about Growth Hacking

Growth hacking is one of the most exciting things to happen to marketing in a long time. Sean Ellis coined the term “growth hacker.” Sean was the first marketer at Dropbox and defines growth hacker as “a person whose true north is growth.”

Every strategy, decision and tactic is informed by the growth hacker’s ability to grow her business. Of course all marketers care about growth, but a growth hacker’s singular focus is about using digital tools to grow. The most celebrated companies in the new world—Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, airBnB, Buffer, Mint, Zynga—all used growth hacking (as opposed to big budgets) to amplify their customer acquisition.

To get started, I recommend the following:

If you like learning via video, go to Growth Hacker TV for hundreds of videos and see growth hacker in action.

If you learn through books, read Ryan Holiday’s eBook, Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising. For less then the price of grande, non-fat latte ($2.99), Ryan provides a clear, concise view of growth hacking.

If you are into infographics, take a look at Neil Patel’s Quick Sprout, an easy-to-read website that’s great if you have a couple of minutes waiting for a conference call to start or you’re number 27 in line to depart LaGuardia.

If you learn by PowerPoint, I recommend Growth Hacking by Mattan Griffel, founder and CEO at One Month Rail.

Finally, for good community sites, go to GrowthHackers.com or Quora.

This IS the future of marketing and is as important as any Philip Kotler or David Ogilvy strategy.

Finally – Learn from the Material Girl Herself.

Madonna - Material Girl illustrationI recently attended my B-school reunion. It struck me that very few of my classmates enjoyed a linear ascent. Their career path was less like a ladder and more like a trampoline.  Many—most, actually—had incredible successes as well as stunning failures.

There is no safe, sure path today. The only sure thing is that the world is rapidly changing. If we, as marketers, don’t embrace this change, what is that saying about us?

We all need to be more like Madonna and reinvent ourselves every five years.

The topic of reinvention is incredibly important. The average tenure of a senior marketer today is four years. Even industry rock stars are not immune. A friend of mine who was CMO at one of the largest restaurant chains in the country was recently let go. She had killer reviews, provided great strategy, was loved in the field and had grown the business. But at the end of the day, she had become “too expensive.” Weeks after, she remarked, “It’s a brave new world. The principals are the same but the tools are completely different.”

The announcement last month that consumer goods giant Unilever would be laying off nearly a thousand marketers worldwide should have sent a chill down our collective spine. While no one is bulletproof in today’s job market, staying ahead of the digital game is one way for marketers to make themselves (almost) indispensable.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to have all the answers when it comes to digital marketing. But by actively participating and getting into the game, you will—at the very least—be able to ask the right questions.

There has never been a more exciting and challenging time to be a marketer. In this series, we’ll take a look at the changing digital landscape and how this evolution is challenging marketers to stay relevant in their careers by using new tactics, rebranding and constant innovation. First in a four-part series.