In the age of information, we have many opportunities to learn, but the availability of information doesn’t necessarily translate into learning. Giving yourself the “sustainable competitive advantage” that de Geus refers to requires creating a real culture of learning in your organization.
When it comes to marketing, it’s not just about learning faster: It’s about learning more and learning better than your competition. That means being committed to ongoing experimentation and consistently uncovering insights.
Here are three ways to ensure that your marketing team is operating in a culture of learning:
Test, Test, Test
One of the great promises of the age of digital marketing is the ability to measure, to clarify the difference between what works and what doesn’t. You should definitely integrate testing into the design of each program you run. Every initiative, especially email, banner or search campaigns, provides numerous opportunities to test and optimize.
Not only will testing help you improve the effectiveness of your tactics, but it can also provide feedback on wider strategic issues. You can use channels such as email and search to test broad messaging concepts, gathering intelligence that can inform your entire program. The more systematic your approach to testing, the more effective your tests will be. Create a test matrix for every campaign. Determine what you want to find out, how you’ll measure it and what you’ll do with the information.
Learn How to Fail
New marketing technologies offer a new world of channels and targeting opportunities. Taking advantage of these opportunities involves taking risks. If the marketing leaders and would-be innovators in your organization are too afraid of the consequences of failure, they will be unlikely to take the risks necessary to move your organization’s marketing program forward. No one is going put their neck on the line if your culture hasn’t made room for failure.
It’s a hard change to make. Business leaders are programmed to seek success. No one wants to be associated with initiatives that fail.
But a forward-thinking organization needs to encourage managed, intelligent risks by embracing the type of failure that is part of the process of innovation. You can’t stay ahead of the curve without falling off a few times. (Even Google has had its share of failures.)
The way to fail correctly is to answer a series of strategic questions before taking on a new strategy or tactic: How do we define success? How are we going to measure performance? What will we learn? How are we going to act on what we learn?
Be careful about how you define success. Unrealistic expectations can lead you to declare failure and pull back resources in the wrong places. Some B2B companies, for example, have tried social media marketing but pulled back after not seeing an immediate return on investment. Social media is a long-term play; it’s about amplifying your content marketing efforts and being part of the conversation. You’ll need to look at new marketing opportunities in the appropriate context if you want to apply learning in a meaningful way.
Stop Working with Assumptions About Your Audience
When it comes to their marketing programs, many organizations are working with a broad set of assumptions. Some of the most dangerous ones have to do with how well they understand their audience.
If you asked 10 people on your sales and marketing teams to describe who your audience is — that is, to specifically define what constitutes a qualified lead — would they come up with the same answer? Getting aligned on this issue is critical to effective marketing.
Once you’re clear on who you’re targeting, you should learn as much as you can about them. In the B2B world, purchasing dynamics can be complex, so understanding your audience begins with the development of comprehensive buyer personas that put names and faces on the decision-makers and influencers involved in purchasing your products. The most effective personas are grounded in actionable purchasing insights. In the best-performing organizations, these personas become part of the culture and the marketing process, driving media, content and even product decisions.
Gathering ongoing feedback will add to your market intelligence. While there are highly efficient tools available to do online surveys, you shouldn’t underestimate what you can learn by talking directly to your customers and prospects. Pick up the phone and find out what’s on their minds, what’s driving their decisions. Don’t forget to contact the ones who got away — you can learn a lot from the customer who bought from someone else.
With most B2B industries transforming at a rapid pace, the companies that stay ahead of the competition will be the ones committed to innovating, testing and uncovering actionable, data-driven insights about their marketing programs and their audience. Embracing change and creating a culture of experimentation and measurement are the keys to creating a sustainable edge as the changes in the world of marketing continue to unfold.