My family and I love Maine and when we go we try to stay in an out-of-the-way part of the state on the water. One thing we always bring with us is our little 8-foot Walker Bay rowboat, mainly so I can explore the coastline and take the kids out for mini sea excursions.
Historically I've been the one doing the rowing due to the fact that I've been doing it all my life and it's become practically second nature to me. Having picked it up at a very young age, I'm long past the point of having to think about what I'm doing. I just jump in, grab the oars, and go.
This year, however, my wife Claire decided that she wanted to learn how to row. I gave her a few tips, but the fact is that just like riding a bike, rowing is one of those things that you just have to get out and do.
But as I watched her head off to sea - haltingly dipping one oar into the water, then the other, often wildly swinging off course and then correcting with a quick dip in the opposite direction until she started to get the rhythm down - it occurred to me how much her initial halting pulls at the oars reminded me of how many small and mid-sized organizations approach online marketing. Try one thing. See what happens. Try something else. Check your progress toward your goal. Try to keep moving forward.
But as the days passed and the ripples of her wavering wake through the cover got straighter and more sure and she moved from short excursions to hours-long trips into the deeper waters, the linkage between rowing and online marketing became stronger and clearer to me. It's a perfect metaphor, and one that, when examined, can teach us all a lot about how we need to go about planning and executing our campaigns.
Know your destination. One of the most confusing things to first-time rowers is the fact that you're rowing backwards. Many spend a fair amount of time looking over their shoulders and weaving back and forth until they learn to pick a point on the shore that lines up with their destination and keep their focus on that point. Soon they're rowing in a straight line. For marketers it's equally important to know where you're going and to have a point of reference for your campaigns. One of the hardest questions to ask (and answer) is "What are we trying to accomplish?" Only by aligning your campaign with a visible and measurable goal will you be able to achieve measurable and repeatable success.
Focus on measuring what matters. If you're rowing that usually means being able to answer the question "Am I doing what I need to be doing in order to reach my destination?" Sure, it's possible to get distracted by the totality of the experience, but if you're going to get anywhere your oars must be aligned the right way, your stroke long and in the water, and you must be able to bring your oars up and back around in unison to do it all over again. For marketers, reaching your goal means paying attention to the metrics that have a direct impact on your campaign based on your goal. It's easy to get distracted by the hundreds of charts and graphs most analytics packages offer…the trick is to focus on what relates directly to your campaign. There's no right answer as to what those are - time on site, traffic, sales, shopping cart abandonment, leads, and campaign ROI can all be legitimate measures. It just depends on what you're trying to do. Sadly, several recent studies have found that many marketers don't bother measuring anything but instead rely on gut instinct, historical spending, or nothing at all.
As you move forward into the online world, don't be afraid to experiment. Just as beginning rowers have to go through a process of weaving one way and then another until they learn how to move their oars in unison, so should online marketers expect to do a fair amount of experimentation until they get into the rhythm that's going to move them swiftly toward their goal. For many newbie marketers, this process might seem a bit aimless at first, but by paying close attention to the measures that matter (see above), analyzing how one change or another (creative, offer, placement, format, channel, etc.) affects your course, and finally using that knowledge to correct your course, you'll eventually find the way that works for you.
Be prepared to make frequent, small course corrections. Just like the sea, the marketplace is always shifting and in motion, constantly influenced by a huge range of factors even when it may seem still on the surface. No matter how good you are as a rower, you quickly learn that you can't just take for granted that what worked yesterday will work the same way today. Being rigid and ignoring the tides, the wind, and the current will probably result in ending up in unexpected places. Only by being flexible and attentive to the conditions as they are right now will you be able to get where you want to go.
It never hurts to be prepared and take sensible precautions. Experienced boaters know that checking conditions before you head out, wearing a lifejacket, and bringing along the supplies to help you weather adverse conditions - even if those "supplies" are nothing more than a bottle of bug spray and a tube of sunscreen - are just common-sense preparations that can make a big difference if problems arise. When it comes to launching a marketing campaign, you should strive to be just as prepared. Do your research and understand the current conditions and the trend vectors. Prepare for contingencies by reserving some of your budget to take advantage of new opportunities or to react to unexpected cost increases, response rates, and other forces. If you're heading into the rough and uncharted waters of social media, work out ahead of time how you're going to respond to customer feedback about your brand and have a coordinated plan in place to address anything negative that might arise. As the Altimeter Group reports in this recent study, using social media to market your brand poses significant risks to your company's reputation, especially on popular channels such as Facebook and Twitter. This doesn't mean you should be afraid to boldly head out into the waters of social media…but it makes a lot of sense to take along a lifejacket.
Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.