Recently, I came across a greeting card with lovely cursive letters on the front, surrounded by drawings of blossoming flowers. It said, “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” I laughed, particularly since I found it in the wedding card section. But it also got me thinking about the marketing profession.
Today’s marketing professionals don’t have the luxury of low expectations—we’re held accountable for real results and revenue. What’s more, the majority of the customer journey occurs digitally, allowing marketing technology to track, react and customize experiences accordingly. This forces CMOs to be held accountable for quantitative, data-centric metrics and strategies. They have to answer for revenue and prove the value of marketing initiatives, or risk getting the boot. After all, the average tenure of a CMO is a mere 42 months.
As new digital channels emerge, technology improves and buyer expectations skyrocket. These changes force marketers to regularly test, iterate and execute new strategies and tactics. Inevitably, there are flops. Yet, because of this changing landscape, modern marketers have an opportunity to learn quickly from our mistakes, dissecting them to understand where we missed the mark.
Failure isn’t fun, and while working at Kapost, I’ve experienced my fair share of missteps. However, whether tactical or strategic, our failures have informed our plans, building an even stronger foundation for our current marketing operation and helping us reach our goals.
Failures can be powerful catalysts for figuring out what doesn’t work, but also for determining what does. Here are three key failures that taught us invaluable lessons about successful B2B marketing.
It was one of our largest investments for the year.
Marketing automation software can be a powerful tool; you can’t scale modern marketing without it. But you also need the right content to feed it, to target specific audiences successfully, to drive action.
This is particularly poignant during event season. Events are still one of the largest line items for marketers, often consuming 20 to 25 percent of a company’s marketing budget. Eighty-one percent of B2B marketers incorporate in-person events into their marketing strategies, and, according to Content Marketing Institute, they have ranked as the most effective tactic every year for the past six years.
Driving buzz, booth visits and revenue during events requires a full-scale strategy, in addition to a significant investment. So, when we accidentally sent nearly 10,000 of our high-priority prospects an outdated email promoting a month-old conference, instead of driving RSVPs to the high-end private event we planned at an upcoming and expensive conference, we weren’t too pleased. However, when the panic settled, we regrouped, reevaluated and moved forward with these lessons learned.
Planning should take the majority of your time. A well-thought-out plan will eventually save time, making execution seamless instead of cumbersome. At the time of our snafu, the marketing operations team was working at breakneck speed. We hadn’t adequately planned for the peak of event season and the volume of emails that needed to move through our marketing automation platform. The lack of an overarching, big-picture strategy led to fire drills. We weren’t prepared, and because we moved so quickly, we missed key steps in the process of building out campaigns.
There’s a silver lining to this cloud. Our marketing operations team acted fast. As soon as we realized our mistake, it was all hands on deck. Collaboration was fast, approvals were immediate and within the hour, we sent an apology email. We made sure the copy was relevant and genuine.
As it turns out, we not only solved the problem, we turned it into an opportunity to engage with prospects in an authentic way. The call to action in the apology email, offering to buy recipients a cocktail, delivered 50 RSVPs to our happy hour. While that may not seem like a huge number, the cheeky, humble email also elicited personal responses from 25 prospects who shared their own marketing errors.
Respond to those responding to your campaign.
Remember, these are people on the other side of your communications. Everyone who responded—either letting us know of the error or replying to our apology—received an email back from our marketing operations specialist. The sentiment was overwhelmingly positive. This campaign led to genuine, active engagement with our audience to the level that some even thought we did it on purpose. We did not (and will not) purposefully deploy an outdated campaign, but the lessons learned helped us recover and pay close attention to the way we plan our initiatives in the future.
It should have been a traffic-driving sensation.
Not every idea needs to be a full-scale initiative, and this failure from May 2014 proves it. The marketing team conceptualized a Star Wars vs. Star Trek-themed marketing campaign. We’d ask marketers, “Is your content more like Star Wars or is it more like Star Trek?” Both Trekkies and Star Wars fans are well known, vocal and dedicated to their causes on the interwebs, we reasoned. Star Wars movies have grossed more than $4.5B over 39 years and inspired a number of events, conferences, movies, toys and books. The 13 Star Trek movies have drawn more than $1.9B worldwide, and their fans go all out when it comes to their love for the series and the movies.
While fun in theory, our failure rested in a flawed strategy, built on an idea that our team loved but that didn’t resonate with our audience. Additionally, we dedicated weeks of work time to this initiative, using developer and content resources to design and build an interactive quiz, something new and extremely time-intensive for our team.
Within the first 30 days of the campaign launch, the Star Wars vs. Star Trek assets received 59 percent fewer unique visitors compared to other Kapost campaign launches. It drove only 15 leads within the first 30 days of launch, and none went past the lead stage to an opportunity or closed-won deal. So, what went wrong, and what did we learn?
Create the campaign for your audience, not yourself.
Before you build a massive campaign and dedicate significant time and resources to it, make sure you understand what your audience cares about. Even though we loved the idea of the campaign and had gotten one another excited to execute on our idea, we never tested it with our target audience. Thus, it flopped. Comparing Star Wars and Star Trek to marketing strategies didn’t resonate with our audience.
Don’t skimp on distribution.
Unlike other campaigns, we didn’t reach out to our networks to guest blog and further promote the assets we worked so hard to produce. The truth is, even if you create the most brilliant and awe-inspiring assets, your content will fail without a strong distribution strategy. True success lies in getting your content in front of a wider audience.
We didn’t have a dedicated content asset to support this initiative, or an effective way to segment prospects in our database without blindly guessing who would be most likely to like Star Wars or Star Trek. As a result, we didn’t utilize marketing automation to drive more traffic and move more leads down the funnel. This had an impact on our ability to deliver a relevant message across the funnel and drive the right traffic to the interactive page.
The campaign needed to drive the majority of our leads for the quarter.
Every year, our team puts together a major, integrated initiative called the Kapost 50. The effort demanded is Herculean and includes research, interviews and collaboration across our internal teams. This is followed by the creation of 50 brand profiles, published on a custom-created microsite, requiring additional investments in time and web development. It’s a team-wide effort.
In December 2015, The Kapost 50: The 50 Best Brands in B2B Marketing officially launched. This was the fourth consecutive year our team ran this initiative, and, based on past performance, we predicted a huge spike in traffic and leads. On the day of launch, our social media campaign blew performance benchmarks out of the water with targeted posts—largely on Twitter—to the top 50 companies. Not only did the campaign trend on Twitter that day, but social media drove approximately 50 percent of the traffic to the microsite.
The interactive microsite was completely ungated, similar to our previous Kapost 50 campaigns. As users scrolled down the page, before they even got to the main content area they saw a full-panel call-to-action button, driving people to register for a webinar series featuring the stories of four brands that had made the list: Rockwell Automation, Netskope, Wiley and Brady Corporation. This call to action was also a looping video, aligned with the overall campaign theme. It was beautiful, modern, sleek.
And yet, it drove three times fewer leads on the day of launch than the year before, and by the end of the month, there were 1.2 times fewer conversions. This was not just a content fail; our team was in danger of missing our lead goal. Here’s what we learned from the experience.
Campaign traffic isn’t enough.
The team responsible for social media did their job beautifully, driving significant traffic to this interactive page. However, the page wasn’t optimized, and thus, it failed to convert. Every step of the journey has to be optimized to drive the results you need for marketing. Marketers have to align on the ultimate goals of the campaign to drive the results we expect—and need—for our business.
Don’t be afraid to pivot your campaign.
There’s something beautiful about modern marketing: You can shift immediately. We tried testing different messaging on the call to action to drive more leads, and we were able to make up some of the lead-generation failures from the first day of the campaign. But, what if we had focused on a different call to action entirely? There are many ways to test and shift in digital marketing, and you need to build into your plans immediate analysis and time to pivot. It has been said that luck is the residue of design, and by dedicating more time to post-launch optimization, we may have been able to reach our lead goal expected by this particular campaign.
Test small, push big.
There were many new components to this particular campaign, and we hadn’t tested many of them first on a smaller scale. We put all of our lead goal “eggs” in this untested basket, including a new web layout and a webinar series, which provided a less-than-seamless customer experience.
Had we taken the time to perform smaller tests on the webinar or landing-page designs, we could have better predicted audience reactions and planned accordingly. Instead, we depended on untested structures to be the foundation of our quarterly lead goal.
Perfection vs. Excellence
A fellow marketer and close friend recently reminded me that perfection is impossible. “Instead of being a perfectionist,” she said, “I consider myself an excellentist.”
In marketing, we can drive ourselves crazy with our failures. However, there’s a silver lining to failing. Mistakes allow us to validate some strategies, while leaving others behind. They force us to learn more about our audience and how they engage with our brand. They wake us up, turning us into better marketers. Our failures prove we aren’t perfect, but they do give us the experience we need to be excellent.