First: This is not a rant against clients. It’s about the natural, healthy tension between risk-taking and risk-aversion in any business.
Second: “Client” I mean both an internal and external term. If you’re in-house, she’s your boss. If you’re a consultant, she’s your client.
You know the story
You get hired. The discovery process is smooth. Your research is fantastic. You walk into the new client’s office to present the results: Great ideas.
“Here are my great ideas,” you say, “you paid me for them.”
And nothing happens. So you try again.
“No, really, you paid me for these great ideas. You should try them.”
…and you’re invited to a meeting with the marketing team. At last, you think, progress.
An hour later, you leave the room feeling like you got fed, feet first, into a woodchipper. The meeting quickly shifted to “But what’s the ROI?” Your ideas died on the conference room table. When did they stop listening?
What’s going on?
There’s a natural tension: Marketers and stakeholders have the same responsibility but different mandates.
Marketers are paid to achieve goals through calculated risk. We’re given money to spend on stuff that, no matter how well-researched, may or may not work. That’s because we’ll get fired faster for doing nothing than taking a risk and failing.
Stakeholders are paid to achieve goals through careful execution and minimal risk. If the business is already moving in the right direction, they’ll get fired if they take a risk and fail.
Any business of any size has stakeholders. In a small business, the stakeholders are the owner and anyone getting paid. In a big business, the stakeholders are the entire marketing food chain, all the way up to the CEO.
- Be skeptical. They can’t take any recommendation at face value. They’re given clear business goals. They’ll pass on any tactic that doesn’t explicitly help them achieve their goals.
- Be risk-averse. If a tactic might hurt their ability to achieve goals, they’ll reject it.
Then you show up. You’re a risk-taker. From your perspective, that’s cool. But those stakeholders you’re supposed to lead? They’re paid to mitigate change and risk. To them, you’re reckless, or you’re competing for scarce resources, or you’re a direct threat to existing projects.
You know what you’re not? In charge.
The problem: We’re asked to lead, but we’re not in charge
We’re supposed to lead the company towards success. But we’re not in charge. Neither are the stakeholders. Instead, we’re placed in a tug-of-war.
I know your new boss or point of contact presented you to their team and proclaimed, “Do what this person says.”
It doesn’t matter. You. Are. Not. In. Charge. And that’s a good thing. That’s how this is supposed to work.
I’m not saying I like it, by the way. Maybe you’re a business-savvy marketer who can operate just fine without the risk vs. security tension. But most business leaders need some sense of checks and balances. Deal with it.
This tension works pretty well until it doesn’t. It all goes to hell when the stakeholders get to “Why should I?”
‘Why Should I?’
“Why should I invest in SEO?” “Why should I use day-parting?” “Why should I spend a dime on paid social media?” “Why should I invest in content?” “How hard will this be?” (aka “Why should I?”) “This will take months!” (yep) “What’s the ROI?” (uh-huh)
“Why should I?” is a request for proof that the tactic you’re suggesting will safely move the business in the right direction.
But we’re not in The Matrix. You can’t guarantee the effectiveness of any marketing. Reality is really, really messy.
“Why should I?” is a dead end. It means you, who are paid to take risks, lose the tug-of-war to the stakeholders, who are paid to be skeptical. You end up lying face-down in the mud. If you want to make any progress, you have to get to “Why not?”
Getting to ‘Why not?’
When you get to “Why not?” a lot of barriers fall away: You don’t have to prove ROI to the dollar. Everyone in the room perks up. Getting the work done well becomes more important than reporting each hour spent.
“Why not?” addresses risk. It shifts the entire conversation from “What will we risk by taking your recommendation?” to “What will we risk by not taking your recommendation?”
But you won’t get there by declaring everyone should change the question or saying “Why the hell not?!!!” It’s not a demand. It’s an exercise.
Reaching “Why not” requires frictionless clarity.
Stakeholders always take action when you create frictionless clarity.
Clarity is a big concept. Provide these three things, though, and it’s attainable:
The required task is easily explained, planned and resourced. “Invest in content” is not well-defined. I can’t explain it. Stakeholders can’t plan it. And there’s no way to determine how much effort it’ll take.
“Hire a professional editor to manage content production” is well-defined. Stakeholders can write it down. They can set criteria for hiring. They can appropriately delegate.
A perceived, relevant benefit of that action. The tactic has a perceptible upside. “People will like to read your stuff” or “you’ll improve engagement” doesn’t qualify.
You don’t need to create a direct action-to-dollars connection. Just show a perceptible benefit. Abstract connections work just fine: “People will stay on the site longer, increasing the chances they’ll buy. They will also share our content more often, which will help us rank higher in search results and get us more social media visibility. And, if we stick with it, we might get media coverage.”
There are defined Good Things that may happen if they act. Explain that and you’ll get clarity.
A perceived, relevant penalty for inaction. Show to the stakeholders that inaction risks serious steps backward as they try to meet their goals.
“We are losing share-of-voice and will continue to do so if we don’t increase visibility. That will continue to hurt search rankings and brand strength, which will hurt revenue,” describes a penalty that’s pretty darned relevant.
You can describe previous problems, too:
“We got laughed off the Internet for the typo in our last article, but we can’t expect perfection from the copy team. Only smart editing will help us avoid the next mistake,” may not feel directly relevant but as a penalty, it sucks.
Clarity gets you one step closer to that lovely place where the questions go from “Why should I?” to “Why not?” and the stakeholders are ready to act. Clarity changes “Why should I?” to “Why not?”
Clarity makes it far easier to lead when you’re not in charge.
Clarity motivates. ‘Frictionless’ reduces the perceived relative cost of action.
An action is frictionless when soft cost is effectively zero in context. Which always brings us to ROI. Have examples like these ready before you’re asked so you can lead the conversation:
Here’s my favorite: “Compressing this one little image will reduce home page load times by 50%. It will take 1 hour and we can handle it. That costs you $175, total. Our average order size is $50. If this increase helps generate ten orders, we’ll see a 2.8:1 return on investment.”
Here, the context is the company’s average order and the potential revenue gain. We know that reducing load times by 50% will help generate more than ten orders. In this context, the relative cost is zero: 1 hour of developer time? That’s a cinch. In that context, this is a no-brainer. Why not do it?
Another one I love: “Producing a great blog post will cost you $1500. Say we do 4 of those. That’s $6000. If any one of those posts gets a few links, they’ll help us with SEO for a long time to come. And, if any one of those posts attracts visitors, it contributes to brand building and gets us attention that can turn into PR.”
Links plus marketing plus PR? For $1500? That’s frictionless.
$1500 may seem expensive, but it depends on the context. A medium-sized business with $10m/year in revenue may feel this is a low cost. Remember context!
One last one: “I know you like having ™ after each mention of our brand. But that’s using up 3–4 characters in our PPC ads. We can use those characters to write better ads. That’s our main way to improve clickthru rate and quality. If we don’t improve quality score, we’ll continue paying 130% per click. It’ll take a few minutes to change. Our brand resonates without the (TM). If we can improve clickthru .5% we’ll get 500 more visits a week, which at current conversion rate means 100 more customers. And, if it doesn’t work, we can switch back.”
Here, the context is the company’s PPC advertising performance. The change is a tiny one that’s quickly reversed. The potential upside is strong.
Clarity motivates. Frictionless action reduces the relative cost. Together, they shove “Why should I?” overboard.
Leaders who aren’t in charge put the two together, bringing an organization closer to their goal.
Friction creators and fog machines
Certain things create friction and fog up clarity:
- Round trips. If you have to take every question back to your team or another expert, you delay the answer. That creates a lot of friction. The same goes for silly mistakes or forgotten guidelines.
- Poor meeting preparation. If you’re meeting with a client, have your meeting goals and required information at the ready. Stammering along while you comb through a pile of papers or notes creates friction and makes it harder for stakeholders to follow what you’re saying.
- Poor communication. Poor writing, rambling answers and proofreading errors confuse stakeholders and erode trust. I’m not talking about major gaffes. I’m talking about the little things that add up over time.
- One-track thinking. Get stuck on one action or task that’s not getting done and you frustrate everyone. You obscure the strategic goal. Stakeholders dread meeting with you and tune you out. Friction.
Things to do
There are specific things that’ll help you create frictionless clarity:
Have the answers at your fingertips
Fast responses to relevant questions reduce friction. The longer the delay between question and answer, the greater the friction. If you can’t answer a stakeholder’s question for a day or two, ‘why not’ becomes impossible.
If you don’t have answers when they need them, you cause round trips.
Unless you have one hell of a memory (I do not) you need all the useful information at your fingertips.
The best way I’ve found to get close to perfection? A knowledge base: A collection of useful information you organize for fast, question-based reference. That’s my definition, by the way. I accept responsibility if I butchered the real one.
This knowledge base should at least include:
- The numbers that matter: Revenue, cost per conversion, etc.
- Relevant stakeholder questions that crop up
- Even better: the answers to any relevant stakeholder questions
- Answers to common questions in the various disciplines
Evernote is great if you want information on and offline across several devices. You can answer questions with a delay of a minute or two. You can enter each item as a note, tag them and then collect them into folders.
You can share Evernote notebooks with others, so you can use it as a team resource.
If that’s not what you want, check out Atlassian’s Confluence Questions. It’s web-based and built as a knowledge base from the ground up. It comes with their wiki product, Confluence, so you can build out more detailed explanations and answers.
You can also use a spreadsheet, a bunch of text files (for the nerdier among us) or an actual database tool. Just make sure it’s fast and easy to search.
Do not expect stakeholders to use it. That doesn’t just create friction. It glues them to the floor. It also forces them to wade through subject matter and completely fogs up clarity. The knowledge base is your tool, designed to help you answer questions. Frictionless clarity.
Maintain a consistent narrative
Never, ever contradict yourself or your team. Or at least be prepared to explain why you’re changing course. Avoid the accidental course change, like that time that you completely reversed course on a simple decision, leaving the client in confused disarray, creating months of confusion and traumatizing your entire team…
If the narrative changes for no clear reason, everyone focuses on the confusion. Clarity goes spiraling down the toilet. Friction turns all surfaces to sandpaper. It’s not pretty.
You can maintain a consistent narrative by recording it. Create a place where you can take a glance at previous messages, meeting notes, etc. all at once.
Again, I like to use Evernote for myself. If I’m working with my team (and I always am) I send all notes, etc. to our project management tool. Most PM tools provide an e-mail address for each project. Anything you send to that address gets added to a single message thread.
I still screw this up all the time, by the way. I always will. But this at least cuts my screw ups in half.
Get help editing
I won’t say “have someone edit everything you write.” My editor says this all the time. But sometimes she goes on vacation. Or sleeps. Slacker. The reality is you can’t always do that. So have a few automated backups:
Grammarly has saved me from forehead-smacking writing errors more times than I care to admit. In e-mail clients and other text editors Grammarly checks grammar and spelling as you write. If it doesn’t work with your favorite editor (like Word), you can cut-and-paste your writing into an online form.
The Hemingway app checks writing grade level and points out where your prose could be clearer.
Things to know
If you want to establish frictionless clarity, you’ve got to change some assumptions.
Testing doesn’t get you to ‘Why not?’
Testing is a crucial part of all marketing. I love testing — when things are working, it’s a great way to find the best alternative.
But many tests are just a proxy for “Why should I?”
Unnecessary tests introduce unnecessary questions. They kill clarity. They create friction through round trips.
Tests also move ideas from “Why not?” to ‘To be considered.’ If there are other things to do, ideas slated for testing get pushed aside. I’m not suggesting abandoning testing as a marketing tool. Just carefully choose what to test.
Don’t test general knowledge. A faster web page is better than a slow one. We know that. Duplicate content creates problems. We know that. Placing the call to action above the fold boosts conversions. We know that.
Test real questions. Will this audience prefer an image of a person or the product? Which headline works better? The answer may vary based on the context. You have to set a hypothesis and test.
When you have a recommendation based on general knowledge, reduce friction by bringing clarity. Get the answer first using a site like User Testing or Which Test Won. Do some research on Google. Run your own, small, low-budget experiment using a tool like Unbounce. You can create an entire page, run your test, etc. within the toolset, no developer time required.
Marketing leaders test, but they execute, too. Much more of the latter than the former. Use testing as a learning tool, not an excuse to abdicate leadership.
Learn the shit out of everything
Leaders who aren’t in charge must understand the bits and pieces that pull things together. That lets you bring clarity (with quick answers) and reduce friction (by resolving questions right then and there and providing quick solutions). Learn the shit out of everything. Learn new stuff. At least one new thing every month. Examples? Learn:
- HTML basics
- CSS 101
- How web servers and browsers work
- A little bit of one scripting language
- How to leverage the crap out of Excel or Google Spreadsheets (or both)
- To use at least one new browser plugin, like the Web Developer Toolbar
- To use at least one new tool, like Screaming Frog
- A little human psychology wouldn’t kill you
- Growth as a writer wouldn’t, either
Learn the little bits that make internet marketing work. That helps you link tactics directly to the stakeholders’ strategic goals. And, it reduces round trips to experts. You can provide clear, relevant action with zero friction.
What if I can’t create frictionless clarity?
Shortest section in this article: If you have a recommendation and just can’t move it forward, maybe you shouldn’t.
Great marketing leadership gets from ‘Why should I?’ to ‘Why not?’
As marketers, we have to move organizations closer to goals through effective communication.
We only do that if stakeholders act on our advice. It’s up to us to make that happen. Marketing skills alone won’t do it. We need to take the lead.
The problem: We’re not in charge, but we have to be leaders.
Shifting to “Why not?” isn’t a religious crusade: It’s about getting things done.
It’s not the only way. It’s an option. Create frictionless clarity and move your whole organization from “Why should I?” to “Why not?”
It is not easy. You have to be brave. When you start, you’ll get dirty looks and hear how you’re ‘stepping on toes.’ Hold your ground. Be diplomatic and respect everyone on the team. Don’t take it personally if stakeholders resist. Remember, they’re paid to be skeptical. Doing otherwise would be irresponsible. The tension between risky change (you) and secure status quo (stakeholders) is a natural and important result.
If a business is anything short of a disaster, that tension will always tend to inaction. If you want stuff to happen, you have to lead. But you’re not in charge. To do that, demonstrate frictionless clarity and move the audience to “Why not?”
Go change the discussion. I’m cheering for you. You’ll be surprised how many others are, too.