Friday, April 19, 2013

Know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em

“I’m limited,” Elphaba sings to Glinda in the musical, Wicked. Recognizing one’s limits isn’t always an easy task.

If you work in marketing like I do, no doubt you find yourself connected to one or more organizations that need marketing help. My skills and background have led me into several non-profit organizations as a volunteer.

Such was the case with a local arts organization in my home town. I was invited to join the board of this little non-profit. I later became a board officer, carrying primary responsibility for marketing. The organization embraced some things I was especially passionate about, plus I enjoyed the people who were involved.

Like so many small, volunteer, start-up groups, this one had growing pains. While made up of local, dedicated people, few had business or leadership experience. As a result, the organization suffered from a lack of clear direction, few if any priorities, no business plan to speak of, poor delegation of authority and severe duplication of effort. I found the situation challenging, but I enjoyed the company of the people with whom I worked.

Spinning slowly around the drain
As a marketer, my professional orientation is around clear objectives and measures. For this little organization, the majority of board members instead valued the social aspects of working together. It carried me only so far until it became evident my personal and professional needs weren’t being met. In fact, they were being openly challenged. By pressing for a more business-like approach, I was alienating myself from people who were satisfied with “just having fun.” And as the organization began taking on debt and creating long-term financial obligations, the risks of such a loose-as-a-goose approach were mounting.

It became easy for me to blame the organization and its leaders. As I grew more and more dissatisfied with the situation, I was growing increasingly unhappy with those around me. It was becoming toxic.

My epiphany came one morning on a fly fishing trip in New Mexico. While perched with coffee at the foot of a mountain outside Taos, it dawned on me: I needed to leave. To paraphrase an old counseling axiom, accept your organization’s limits, and stay or go based on your own. I realized my problem was in me and not only in the organization I served. Call it a culture clash or being in the wrong place at the wrong time – bottom line, I just didn’t fit. I was limited.

My resignation from the board was received with expressions of regret, but few board members were surprised. They saw the problem, too, perhaps before I did.

Marketers drive toward clear objectives and well-articulated definitions. It’s the nature of our business to want strong strategic plans, carefully targeted audiences and measurable goals. But  some organizations are simply unable to function that way.

I experience this from time to time in the university where I work. While most departments appreciate the work my marketing staff and I do for them, a few are simply not geared to answer basic questions like What are your objectives? or Who is your audience? or What are the outcomes you want? For whatever reason, they just can’t do it. As a result, they often can’t prioritize needs or plan beyond a week into the future. This frustrates everyone involved. In such situations I often tell my team to fold up the tent – there simply may be nothing we can do to help.

I’ve often said that in marketing, relationships are the most important element to success. Sometimes, limitations dictate that relationships must be preserved at the expense of good business sense. It’s important to know when and how to accept an organization’s limits, and stay or go based on your own.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The secret to good marketing

What would you say if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to good marketing?”

In my book, the answer is the same whether you specialize in writing, graphic design, media relations, research, strategy, Web content or any other marketing specialty. Marketing is essentially problem solving, so it’s only natural that fundamental to the right marketing solution is understanding the problem in the first place.

To paraphrase Patti Crane of Crane MetaMarketing, every problem comes embedded with a solution. If you understand the problem well enough, the solution will be staring you in the face.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A runaway train or marketer's dream?

The Wichita State Shockers are in the NCAA Final Four. At a place like Wichita State and in a town like Wichita, that's news. Big, big news. A local ad agency friend reminded me this week that this is the stuff most marketers only dream about.

My staff has been slammed this week with all the media and public attention being heaped on the university, not to mention social media activity and Web traffic that have gone way off the chart. Don't get me wrong - it's a terrific problem to have. I characterized this to a group yesterday as like being on a speeding train while hanging on for dear life to the outside grab bars. You're doing well if you just hang on.

The challenge, of course, is to keep a strong brand message present through all the hoopla. With all eyes suddenly focused on our institution and our town, we have an opportunity that our meager marketing budget could never buy. We can tell our story to millions of happy people who suddenly have an insatiable appetite for any information about us. For this marketer, it's enough to make you giddy.

The lift in the community where we focus most of our marketing efforts is simply phenomenal. For Wichita, Kansas, this really is a transformative event. A professional colleague of mine, Deanna Harms of Greteman Group, was quoted as saying “The Shockers’ amazing run and multiple upsets create such an opportunity for Wichita. When the spotlight hits, you want to be smiling. And Wichita is. Ear to ear.”

Yesterday, my team and our marketing counterparts in the Athletic Department met to plan "what if" strategies. What if the Shockers advance to a national championship game? What if they come home Tuesday morning with a big trophy? This is all uncharted territory for us, but at least we have some sense of how we would further develop our organization's brand if this might happen.

There'll be time in coming weeks to assess and reflect. For now, though, we're just hanging on to the speeding train, and trying to help develop a brand that may never be quite the same again. Every now and then I believe marketers are given golden moments when the work they do can truly change an organization, or a community. For me and my team of marketing pros, this feels like such a moment.

Go Shocks!