Today marks my 10 year anniversary working in digital marketing. 10 short years ago, I turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed to the front doors of Reload Media where Craig Sommerville and Llew Jury took me under their wings and taught me the foundations of all things digital.
The digital world was very different back then and it’s been a rollercoaster of an industry ever since. Algorithm changes, privacy concerns and new platforms entering the market meant that only those with the passion to immerse themselves in this ever-changing world, with the dedication and focus to keep their finger on the pulse, would be able to maintain their “digital strategist” status.
What started out as an all-encompassing “Digital Marketing Consultant” role, quickly required specialisation. Those of us who found ourselves in this new world worked hard to acquire our scout badges across every digital marketing discipline (along with learning a new lexicon of acronyms). SEO, PPC, CRO, email marketing, sales funnels and more. It seemed in order to be an effective, well-rounded marketer in this world, we needed to study these new modules that were never offered up as subjects at university.
Despite the volatility of the industry and navigating daily tactical changes such as whether to sign up for TikTok or how to navigate the impending cookie changes, some core themes have remained true over the years.
So on my ten year anniversary, reflecting back with my laptop and a view of the ocean as I welcome in not only the new year, but another decade working in the industry I love, here are ten lessons learned over my first ten years (in no particular order). May it serve as a journal entry for future reflections in the decades to come.
1. Comparison is the thief not only of joy, but of results
The best tip I’ve learned to achieve this creative innovation and artistry is to carefully curate the information we expose ourselves to. Benchmarking against competitors only helps as a method for understanding the size of an already-primed market that we might seek to “steal away”. While a fine strategy, it’s a safe one. True unrivalled success comes from knowing who we are and telling our story to the people who we seek to serve, and in almost every example I’ve observed, in trying to be everything to everybody we end up being nothing to nobody.
When Hungry Jacks define their success by capturing the hearts, minds (and taste buds) of every person who believes their “burgers are better”, they know the size of their market. It’s only when they glance at the golden arches that they feel less than, but those who love the golden arches, weren’t for them anyway.
2. Measurement is futile unless you know where you’re going
Everyone wants a crystal ball, but the art of measurement isn’t quite as left brained as many would like to believe – for information without insight is entirely useless. Context and storytelling are key to being able to use data to guide decision making. Coming up with suggestions after the fact might help us sleep at night as we offer ourselves tidy justifications for decisions we’ve already made – but it rarely yields accurate insights for future planning. Instead, we must know where we are going, formulate a hypothesis, test and prove or disprove. Only then can we roll these learnings into the iteration of future strategies for further *ongoing* testing and refinement.
Marketing is an infinite game and with measurement always taking place after the event has occurred, it must be considered before we get started. The most successful brands are forever agile, testing, learning, responding, iterating and improving. Logging learnings in their own “black box” of data insights and referring back to it often. Do this and you’ll also have an insurance policy for when staff move on from the company.
3. What got you here won’t get you there
Looking back will only ever tell you whether the decisions you made then with the budget and resources you had available at the time, was an effective decision.
I’ve sat in many boardrooms where mutterings along the lines of “We tried this campaign last year and it worked so well!” dominate campaign planning and ideation sessions.
I can guarantee that regardless of what may have worked then, the market now, that we’re planning for today, is different, even if only slightly. From macro-economic impacts (#thankscovid) to new competitors entering the market and even new consumer expectations set by industries vastly different from yours (such as the on-demand free marketplace of Airbnb or the introduction of TikTok and Instagram Reels that has changed attention spans forever). All of these macro environmental changes impact how we should construct a message that cuts through and resonates with our market.
Everyone wants a crystal ball but looking back won’t predict the future if the only data set you’re working with is the one you collected back then.
4. Brand and culture outperform every clever “silver bullet” digital marketing tactic and hack that’s ever existed
My 21 year old budding digital marketing self would never have thought my left brain couldn’t outsmart the marketplace with clever strategic tactics and plays to leverage the algorithms. From “tricking” Google into first page rankings, understanding how Instagram is promoting content to the explore page and the plethora of tactics used to collect data, leverage website notifications, email funnels, SMS and more to nurture prospects and encourage conversion. All of these tactics support a robust multi-channel marketing strategy but they really should be considered hygiene, not ever the core components of a strategy.
The truth is, we need to zoom out. Most brands and individuals are successful in digital not because they’ve banked hours understanding the algorithms and spending their time implementing silver-bullet tactics, but because they’ve immersed themselves in the culture of the people they seek to serve and constantly optimised their offering and communications to deeply resonate with them.
It took my working with some pretty brilliant brand strategists to plant my feet firmly “on the bus” with this line of thinking, but I can confidently now say that no money is better spent than on brand.
We need specialists to cast the net wide, helping us optimise the pointy end of the delivery, but we need brand visionaries to create the hook line and sinker.
5. Ship it, don’t overthink it
Tales of making it on the front page of the news as a result of a poor response from a social media community manager put the fear into every brand owner and digital marketer around the globe. While this is a very real reality and can be the unfortunate outcome of a careless engagement, it’s (unfortunately) encouraged a generation of fear-ridden marketers.
Many of the businesses I’ve encountered let this fear create bottlenecks as their creative teams are forced to engage in laborious approval processes simply to ship their content ideas across social media platforms.
If we flip the script for a mere moment, we can see that the vast majority of every piece of content or campaign message we’ve shipped has long been forgotten. I’ve also very rarely seen a tweet completely destroy a brand that otherwise had a strong market presence (we are as a market, while at times judgy, capable of forgiveness).
What we’re hoping for is to create a flicker of joy as our audience offers us a cursory glance, a half smile and a double tap. We’d do well to remember that the game is to measure the volume, the aggregate sum of these small touchpoints so that they add up to become a meaningful contribution to our brand in the minds of our audience over time.
Set a clear brand vision and empower teams to just ship it and not overthink it.
6. Get there first before marketers ruin it.
Marketers are hungry for attention. As Seth Godin would say, this is because they aren’t great marketers but nevertheless, it remains true. Many are just doing everything they can to get your eyeballs (and your money) on their brand.
The art of Trojan Horse Marketing used to be coveted, reserved only for the brands with the budget for big agencies and the courage to try something new. Now, content marketing and the art of high value content exchange for prospect data is the absolute baseline for entry into the digital market. Arguably, consumers are also totally fatigued by this strategy, as it seems like most things, it no longer yields the results it once did when it was a new tactic on the market.
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen Facebook go from the biggest online party hangout to a storage facility for family photos and digital address book for the people we’ve collected throughout our lives.
Instagram moved from the arty digital polaroid feed to a digital glossy magazine spruiking the “ideal life”.
Podcasts went from meaningful commentary from experts in their fields to audio dictations of the lives of every influencer and wannabe solopreneur.
Every platform seems to follow the same cycle:
- Phase #1: Glossy, new and borderline uninteresting with little content to be consumed.
- Phase #2: The masses flock, content quality improves and the platforms introduce new algorithms and features to keep the platform exciting.
- Phase #3: The tipping point of oversaturation ensues. Marketers are pumping out attention seeking content (many, adding very little value). Platform users find it increasingly difficult to navigate and curate their feeds with meaningful content. Fatigue sets in and engagement drops.
- Phase #4: We’re on the hunt for the new, shiny, glossy platform, typically a platform that indulges our lack of time and feeds our shortening attention spans (hey there TikTok)!
As the cycle continues, the brands and individuals who adopt and embrace new platforms early tend to hijack the most attention when the masses make it to the platform. While tactics like these won’t replace the value of a considered and well thought through multi channel marketing strategy, jumping on as an early adopter and riding the wave of early attention can certainly offer a quick boost.
Just be sure to get there before the masses flock and marketers ruin it. Have you signed up for Clubhouse yet?
7. But stick around for long enough to show you’re offering value
While the “get there before marketers ruin it” can be a quick grab tactic to ride a new wave of attention, the highest converting payoffs always come from the brands and individuals who invested in long term value creation.
There’s still merit in creating long form pillar content on one or a few core platforms, then using all the other rented channels to distribute and promote it. Just don’t do “it all” at the cost of doing them all poorly. One channel where we offer value consistently will convert more highly than throwing different content at a hundred different platform walls to see what sticks.
8. Build it and they will convert
It can be an easy scapegoat to blame the teams responsible for marketing and acquisition for a lack of conversion but how easy and compelling do we make it for people to take the actions we’re asking them to?
Over the years I’ve observed the majority of businesses prioritise optimising the front end, tweaking audience segments and hacking algorithms to drive high volumes of traffic to websites with little focus on optimising to convert more of these people to take action.
I get it, infrastructure improvements can be expensive, but in a world where there are so many opportunities for distraction, creating the most streamlined, simple and compelling experience allows us to minimise as much fallout as possible. Plus, lowering the cost per acquisition results in profits that allow us to diversify our offering and maximise opportunities to engage the people whose hearts and minds we engaged in the first place. Cyclical, low cost, high profit, simpler scaling.
This leads me to my next learning…
9. Optimise the back end of the journey for long term growth
Something I’ve observed in the humble beginnings of small businesses trying to get their brands noticed, is that they truly “get” how a focus on customer experience can catapult growth, hugely minimise costs and maximise profits.
In a digital world, it’s easy to forget that there’s a person behind the other side of our screen, but it would do us well to remember that it’s emotion that drives us. Almost every action in our lives, we take so we can feel a certain way. Whether that’s turning up to the office (financial security, pride, legacy, impact) or purchasing the latest big screen Sony TV (joy and entertainment), optimising the post-purchase customer experience can pay off big. It’s in the simple touches, demonstrations of gratitude, personalisation and requests for genuine feedback that brands can truly create a connection.
Not only does it lower post purchase dissonance (reduced returns anyone?) but it encourages repeat purchases and the spread of word of mouth, allowing conversion rates we’ll never see at the front end, direct from our acquisition channels. When we compare that effort to the cheap impression we bought on Facebook to plug ourselves while interrupting someone’s day, it’s easy to see where the focus should be.
10. Attitude over ability, every time.
When I worked with the team at Reload Media, leadership always spoke about their focus on hiring for attitude over ability, knowing that in doing so, they could easily “teach a man to fish” when that man had a passion for learning.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked in house for large corporates and consulted to start ups, B2B and everything in between and the same challenges exist everywhere I go.
Appetite for certainty, difficulty influencing stakeholders, lack of integrated infrastructure, lack of data insight (and usually, very little governance and integrity around it anyway), red tape and navigating the ever-changing market.
When we strip it back to what we’re here to do, our task is actually quite easy. We must play the infinite game that is marketing. Ideate solutions that bring together commercially minded strategies with the brand essence and emotional hook to capture hearts and minds – then measure the effectiveness of these strategies over time as the environment changes.
This is an impossible task with a workforce of fear-ridden status quo lovers.
The only way to do this is to foster a culture of innovation, hire people with a growth mindset (or those who are open to developing one) and appointing leaders who aren’t afraid to fail.
We’re never done. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no certainty.
So just fake it until you make it today, and then try to make it again tomorrow.
Here’s to the next 10 years of that.
Do you work in digital marketing? I’d love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned in the comments. Let’s learn from one another.