How to Spot the Warning Signs of a Troubled Program

You finally get the bandwidth at your start-up to begin a marketing program. You brainstorm the strategy, set the budget, create the tactics, do the planning, and put the program in motion. In the best of all possible worlds, the leads and sales start coming in, first slowly, then at a robust pace.

But what happens when the phone doesn’t ring?

If truth be told, most marketing programs don’t set the world on fire right out of the box. It’s hard to get it exactly right the first time out, but it’s the subtle (or not-so-subtle) course corrections and tweaking that turn a fledgling marketing program into well-honed sales-generation machine.

The key to saving your campaign is to understand the early warning signs that a soon-to-be or newly launched marketing program may have trouble connecting with your key target audiences. Certainly lagging indicators like a limited or zero response rate over a program’s early run is a good sign that things may be awry; but by then it may be too far along in the campaign, and your money is spent and gone.

However, some tips and leading indicators may help you spot potential trouble before a campaign rolls out full-speed into the marketplace.

Test first. Even if you don’t think you have the money to test-market your new marketing program, do it anyway. Taking a test run with creative, either with focus groups, in a limited market area, or by using a variety of other techniques is a great “gut check” for the quality of the marketing program. The test market and customer-feedback mechanism should be structured to measure exclusively and specifically the objectives that the marketing program was set up to accomplish.

Was it strictly to boost sales? Create leads? Generate Web traffic? Create a brand personality? Whatever your program’s goal, the feedback you get will be critical in fine-tuning or even changing the direction of a campaign.

Analyst/journalist appeal. Taking your new story out to the analyst and media community is a great early-warning system. Remember that, by nature, these groups are somewhat jaded, having been pitched on every single business model being the most unique, first-ever service or product of its kind.

That said, they do react well and provide feedback to good stories well told. Your ability to solicit understanding and some level of enthusiasm for your story from the journalist and analyst is a good sign that the story will also resonate with your customer.

Does your company get it? It’s my hope that your company’s employees understand the vision, objectives, and message of the company and that throughout the organization, they can all recite the elevator pitch in 30 seconds or less with good consistency. In other words, when you show employees your marketing program, do they understand the message, tone, direction, and type of response you are trying to elicit?

If they don’t, this should send up a red flag, and you should check your work.

We don’t offer that! A true sign of trouble ahead is when early respondents to your marketing efforts ask for products or services that are not core to your business. Make sure that the folks receiving the calls know to look for this and tell you, so you are aware that confused customers are calling in looking for a service you don’t offer or don’t plan to have for some time.

One start-up I know of in the technology sector got itself in this trap by talking excessively about the long-term direction of the company versus its current product offering. It was overwhelmed with calls about products that were only a glimmer in the minds of the technology team. Meanwhile, the company’s current product suite, which solved real problems in real time, took a back seat to the vision.

The “vision thing” may be great for fundraising, but it’s not necessarily a plus for sales. People always want the next best thing and will pass on what’s in your sales bag now until it comes along.

You may already have your own early-warning system and testing mechanisms to make sure your new marketing program will hit the mark. The key is not just to use them, but to leverage the information gained to tweak the message and its distribution. Remember that the best marketing programs evolve, and this is just the start of that process.

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