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Marketing failure should not be fatal

We live in a society that extols winning and winners. As a result, we spend a disproportionate amount of time analyzing why things have worked well, but very little time understanding when they don’t. Given the fact that many initiatives do not achieve the lofty goals set for them, it would appear that we would be wise to spend more time learning from failure to avoid repeating the same errors.

From my experience, figuring out who to blame usually takes precedence over a thoughtful post mortem to figure out why.  A poor product launch may be the fault of poor pricing, the wrong distribution channels, or simply a poorly made product. An under performing advertising or digital media campaign might be the result of lousy creativity, unclear messaging, the wrong media plan, or some other factor. It might be the agency’s fault or simply the result of misguided direction from the client.

The problem with many quantitative marketing metrics is that they tell us frequencies and levels but do not get into the reasons why. This often results in the fixing of the wrong things, leaving us wondering why results have not gotten any better.   In addition, given the availability of metrics such as number of followers and likes, we sometimes forget that having a large number of followers is really good, but having and reaching the right one is critical. We need to ensure that we truly understand what is occurring.

When trying to understand the root causes of failure, it is helpful to think about strategy issues versus the execution elements. For things to work well, they must both be appropriate and in alignment. If things do not go as planned, the questions that need to be addressed are:

  • Was the right strategy in place, but things were simply poorly executed?
  • Was the execution great, but achieved under a poorly conceived strategy–or were both sub-optimal?

While it is not always easy to figure out if the right strategy was in place, a good marketing strategy usually includes:

  • market insights
  • proper selection of target audiences
  • compelling value propositions
  • a branding strategy to ensure relevance

Good marketing execution usually includes:

  • compelling and creative content
  • clear messaging
  • media placements that reflect targets
  • sufficient investment in resources or dollars to ensure breakthrough

One way of understanding why things didn’t work well is to speak with members of the target audience and ask them what they thought of the product, campaign, content, etc.  This can be done with an online survey, a chat room, through a phone survey, or even a focus group. The key is to get unbiased responses. Keeping the sponsor of the research unidentified is usually a good idea. And, I have seen that the reasons attributed to failure are often the wrong ones. Getting a customer-centric perspective is essential.

Another method to understanding what happened is to speak with those responsible for the execution. Find out what compromises were made or how clear the strategy or directions were.   Oftentimes staff members and agency partners understand all too well why things did not go well.  You might want to use a third party researcher to get this information, and aggregate responses to ensure anonymity of the participants. Otherwise, you probably will not get the full story.

Failure does not have to be fatal. The key is to learn from mistakes and use this information to make the next go better than it would have been before you had the new insights.  So keep on measuring things, get appropriate feedback, and ensure that you truly understand the “whys”!

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