Surf’s Up! What Surfing Can Teach Us About Navigating the Marketing Waters

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 11 Issue 3

Marketing is a lot like surfing. Like the ocean, the market is huge and in constant motion. And while some market waves are predictable, others are unexpected and catastrophic.

Many companies underestimate the market waves they intend to surf. According to a study by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, of 2,000 companies that received funding between 2004 and 2010, three-quarters of those companies didn’t return their investors’ capital. These companies have no business going surfing.

Becoming a great surfer requires more than talent; it requires practice, dedication, perseverance, sacrifice and humility. You have to pay your dues. Just getting out beyond the swells takes persistence. Strong currents and gusty winds will try your patience. Huge waves will test your dedication. And if you go out with an attitude, prepare to be humbled. Marketing will also try your patience and humble you if you have the wrong attitude. Because your goal is to maximize the odds for your company’s success, it pays to approach the market with an open mind.

Just as waves constantly move and change, so do markets. Buyers buy, sellers sell and competitors innovate. And every now and then, a storm stirs things up and creates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To make strategic decisions that ensure your company’s success, the marketing team must think ahead to understand what the market wants. You can’t afford to burden yourself with false pretenses or preconceptions. The market is what it is and you—just like your skilled surfing friends—can’t be cocky going into a wave or you’ll get crushed. In surfing, you have to size up your wave before you paddle in; in marketing, you have to talk with these key representative groups persistently, patiently and humbly to build an understanding of the market:

Current Customers

Current customers are a valuable source of information. They entered the market for a solution like yours, made a decision to purchase your solution and now use it on a regular basis. Their feedback should be highly valued by the marketing and product management teams.

Churned Customers

Like current customers, churned customers bought from you but they ended the partnership. They may be even more valuable sources than current customers. Their rationale for ending the partnership can provide valuable insight into mistakes that were made or gaps in service.

Lost Deals

Lost deals are prospects who evaluated you, but elected not to do business with you. The decision must be respected, but it’s important to understand the reasons why. After an opportunity closes, request a win/loss call to better understand the research and decision-making rationale.

Current Evaluators

Evaluators are a tough group to speak with for obvious reasons: they’re still evaluating you. It’s not easy to convince a sales rep that you want to interrupt their opportunity for research purposes. But observing prospects as they evaluate is like watching Laird Hamilton size up a wave as he gets towed into it—there’s no substitute for seeing it live. Act like a fly on the wall and listen to the discussion. You’ll get real-time feedback on what prospects and your sales reps say.


The toughest population to talk with may be your addressable targets that aren’t even in the market for a solution yet. Their feedback is important because they’re likely to be your next set of evaluators. The best place to start is by asking your sales team for their cold leads, those silent companies that rarely respond to marketing programs. They’re the ones that attend trade show sessions but won’t set foot in your booth. To open them up, try saying “I’m not trying to sell you anything and couldn’t even if I wanted to.” Who knows? Your cold lead might even warm up a bit.
The same ingredients that make a good surfer—patience, persistence and humility—are also critical to marketing success. Your market is bigger and stronger than you are. Although you can’t control it, you can learn about it by interacting with the market‘s constituents: those who have bought from you, those who are considering buying from you and those who haven’t bought from you yet.

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