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05/09/2013 Can Marketers Really Change?


Recently I’ve been struck by two simultaneous trends that at first glance seem diametrically opposed to each other, but may have more in common than you may think.

On the one hand, marketing departments are still having difficulty changing and transitioning from old practices of broadcast marketing to social businesses. Yes, many marketers have embraced social media tools and channels yet they continue to treat these as broadcast channels. In that sense, they find it hard to transition out of their old marketing habits and become more nimble and customer focused. It’s odd, in some sense, that so many very smart people have so much trouble changing. Or maybe I should say changing their marketing departments and organizations.

Change is a scary thing for most people and most brands. If you make a change and it doesn’t quite work out, your job or position may suffer. At the same time many marketing people have expressed to me their desire to change and their confusion as to what to do.

On the other hand, I’m witnessing a number of new people jumping into jobs in marketing departments who can’t wait to change things. Unfortunately many of these new people’s desire for change doesn’t stem from wanting to shift an organization but rather to put their mark on existing tactics.

This reminds me of the evolutionary strategy of male lions: kill all of your competitors’ cubs before you mate with a female lion.

Lion

New marketing people have a tendency to want to erase or undo their predecessors’ work in order to show their evolutionary value. Unfortunately this often entails doing the same type of work, just with a different spin or a different color. Coming in and fundamentally changing an operation is hard; just ask former J.C. Penney’s CEO Ron Johnson (who didn’t do organizational change well at all).

Change, especially in a digital world by traditionally oriented marketers, is a frightening proposition. It gets worse when marketers try something new and flashy, only to have it fail miserably, an occurrence more common than one thinks. This raises the distrust level of anything new and increases the resistance toward new initiatives.

For marketers who know in their guts that they need to change and are held back by fear of the unknown, here are a few steps to consider when jumping into the digital or social worlds:

  1. Do your homework – Remember: You are not alone. You are not the first marketer to try something. Make sure you do your research about brands that have done what you’d like to do. Pay attention to what has succeeded and what has failed. Pick a few small lessons from each and extrapolate to your own brand.
  2. Figure out the “Why” – “Everyone else does it” is not a good reason for doing something, even if we are herd animals. Why should your brand start a digital or social initiative? Ask the question: In the long term, how will this benefit my customers and ultimately our brand?  A good discussion about “Why” will stop a lot of poorly thought out initiatives.
  3. Start small and grow – Big initiatives are exciting. They take time and resources. They also have greater risk of failure. Instead, start modestly and follow your strategy. That will allow you to learn as you go. Small also means that failures along the way aren’t that important. They turn into actionable intelligence instead. If you can make failure your ally, your boss will give you more space.
  4. Connect with real people – Your customers are not an audience; they’re real people. Build your small digital/social experiments with real people in mind and make sure you are using these initiatives to connect with them through the digital channels. This human connection will give you more actionable intelligence and give your internal stories value.
  5. Educate and inform – Internal communication is important when you want to try a change. Tell stories and keep telling them. Successes and ruts keep people interested and allow you to keep changing. Make sure to keep the stories on a human level.
  6. Don’t pay attention to the shiny – Let the crows gather shiny objects. Your initiatives should have a longer perspective. That means that apparent quick fixes, like flashy contests or “new” social channels should take a back seat, unless you find a strategic use for them.

None of this will transform your marketing department or brand overnight. That’s not the point. Instead you will be building a culture that will accept change, even if it doesn’t always embrace it. It will make the “new” feel less risky. I’d like to hope it would make you happier and more successful in your job, too. 

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