When I founded Templeton Interactive several years ago, I needed a way to keep in shape and clear my head, while coming up with new and interesting ways to help my clients. It turns out that running is a great way to do all of these things. You’d be surprised how much brainstorming you can do while out on the road or trails for 3-4 hours at a time.
I caught the marathon bug in 2010, and most recently completed my fifth marathon, the Long Beach Marathon, in October 2013. During the long runs to prepare for these races, I started thinking about how similar marketing campaigns and marathons can be, and came up with eight insights I’d like to share.
1. While it’s not how you start but where you finish, it does help to start near the front.
At any marathon, the best runners all go to the front of the starting line, so they aren’t slowed down by the other runners. The top marathons like Boston’s and NY City’s give front row priority placement to the world class runners – the ones who have the best chance of winning. Most of us running a race aren’t expecting to come in first, and so working through the crowd at the starting gate is a minor inconvenience. With 26.2 miles, you know you have a lot of time to distance yourself from the pack. Indeed, by about mile 20 you’re going to be with the same people for the rest of the race, people that share your level of strength and conditioning.
So how does this apply to a marketing campaign? In the business world, the front runners are the market leaders with the deepest pockets. There are usually only about 2-3 companies at any time that can realistically expect to gain the title of market leader – the other companies are simply looking to increase their market share or increase profitability. It would be nice to launch a marketing campaign as the front runner with corresponding deep pockets and associated strong brand awareness, but companies don’t let the fact that they aren’t in front discourage them from making the best of the situation. You’re going to be competing with the other companies in your market niche, of similar size and resources, and these are the ones that you should be focusing on.
2. With both, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result ISN’T the definition of insanity.
Everyone knows the famous quote, attributed (perhaps erroneously) to Albert Einstein. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It’s easy to see how this applies to a marathon. You run the same race over the same track, and it’s certainly not insanity to expect that you’d improve your time. But how does this apply to marketing campaigns?
Marketing is a lot about branding and impressions. Billboards, TV, radio and print ads, banner ads, Google AdWords campaigns and direct mail all aim to familiarize customers with a brand. When I was contacted by the local AM radio station about running ads for my company, the sales rep told me that if I didn’t commit to at least 30 spots a week, I wouldn’t get any benefit. I’ve even heard one expert say that the average person hears an ad 11 times before actually LISTENING to it.
So, with marketing, as with marathons, you need to do the same thing over and over before you get the results you want. Take that Mr. Einstein!
3. It’s always better when you can measure the results.
Most serious marathon runners keep careful logs of their training routines and race info. They record their training distances, the weather, even their mood – before and after they run. My race goal is pretty simple – finish faster than my previous time. Technology helps me track this info. Event organizers have developed timing chips that attach to shoelaces, and thanks to strategically placed readers along the course, data points are collected along the way, not just at the finish line. When the results are combined with demographic data supplied during registration and posted after the race, runners can see how they did compared with others in their age and gender groups, and even whether they were the fastest runner in their town. When I ran the Long Beach Marathon in 2010, the detailed data they recorded even showed how many people I passed during the last few miles! (Happily it was more than the number of runners who passed me.)
Record keeping and measuring results are just as important when running a marketing campaign, yet many marketers don’t give enough attention to this critical step. There are various reasons for this. Familiar excuses include “we don’t have any way to measure the results” or “we are too busy trying to close orders to record this data.” Compounding the challenge is the growing influence of social media marketing. E very company is either active with social networks, or considering a strategy, but how does a company measure the value of social media activity and engagement? What is the value of a Facebook “like”?
Luckily there are technology solutions that are every bit as elegant as the timing chip on a runner’s shoe. Web logs are a common way to track company website activity, and there are also popular tools for tracking “mentions”, “likes”, Tweets, and other Social Media activity metrics. Custom URLS paired with site redirects, custom PBX extensions for inbound calls, and custom QR codes are just a few of the ways marketers can create a unique identifier for leads. With carefully planned CRM integration, it’s easier than ever for marketers to close the ROI loop.
Whether your goal is just to finish better than the last time, or aggressively trying to shatter your historical results, measuring and tracking won’t be a problem. May your next campaign be your best one yet!
4. Praise and recognition make the whole effort more enjoyable, and can even improve performance.
Anyone who has ever run a race knows that their race day finish time is almost always better than their best training time. Part of this is because of the primal competitive instincts that come out during races. When pushed by others, we’re able to exceed our normal performance. Another equally important part of this is the motivating effects of the spectators cheering the runners. It’s always nice to get a cheer, and my favorite part of any race is high-fiving the crowd lined up near the finish line.
A well run marketing campaign can also be accompanied by cheers and praise. Everyone likes a pat on the back. If you’re in charge of the campaign, you usually have some sort of internal communication to alert inside sales, order entry, operations and any other constituents that they can expect an increase in activity. If you’re on one of these teams, be aware of how important it is to offer encouragement to the marketing campaign manager(s). The Gallup Organization has compiled 50 years of research showing how positive reinforcement can powerfully boost productivity, satisfaction, and stability in all kinds of organizations. Don’t be shy – do what you can to create a happy productive environment – you’ll feel good too!
5. Repetition and experience will yield better results.
Did you know that a study by Yale University of the top runners in the NY Marathon found that over a 16 year period, older runners improved their performance more quickly than younger runners? The study, published in the August 2004 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the average finish times of older age groups improved more than the average times for younger age groups. The group of females showing the greatest improvement, more than 2 minutes faster each year from 1983 to 1999, was in the 50 to 59 group. The corresponding 50 to 59 men’s group improved about 8 seconds each year.
While this shows the value of conditioning and repetition, it is also in no small part due to mental fortitude. I remember reading in Runners World about Kenneth Feld, the owner of Ringling Brothers Circus and a fellow marathoner. He said he started running at age 39, and when asked how much he trained, he replied “It’s all mental after the first.”
While I would never suggest to anyone that they run their 2nd and 3rd races without training, a big part of running is being confident that you can succeed. Once any doubts enter your mind, you’re in trouble. So, having done it before is the best way to keep that mental fortitude.
Marketing campaigns are no different. Almost every campaign I’ve ever launched has benefited from those that came earlier. I launched an email newsletter integrated with a new ColdFusion program designed to stagger email delivery times in order to prevent my company from being flagged as a spammer, and to eliminate straining our server’s capacity. A missing word in the code caused the newsletter to go out 15 times to the first segment of recipients before we caught the error. After eating some major humble pie and profusely apologizing, you can be sure that we didn’t make that mistake again.
This is particularly relevant with the onset of social media marketing campaigns. Many companies are hiring social media managers based on who is most active on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, not realizing that being skilled with the tool does not equate strategic thinking skills. A lot of what goes into a successful social media marketing campaign is behind the scenes, away from view of most users of the platforms. The person who has the most friends on Facebook, for example, may not know how to create a company page, or even how to encourage visitors to click the important “Like” button.
Creating engaging content, understanding buyer personas, tracking performance metrics and driving traffic through non-social media tools like direct mail and print ads are just a few of the tried and true techniques utilized by savvy marketing veterans. Leverage experience and put yourself in the best position to win.
6. Your performance will be better if you’re able to compare yourself to how others are doing.
Insight #4 above, comparing marathons to marketing campaigns, stresses the importance of praise and recognition for successful races and campaigns. The other factor leading to improved race day performance is having competitors. Nobody ever set a world record in any race running by themselves. We feed off the competition, getting an adrenaline rush by facing off against those who are trying to beat us.
Marketing campaigns are no different. When planning a marketing strategy, it’s important to see what the competition is doing. By tracking their performance, it inspires better performance all around. With the ease of collecting information from secondary sources, it would be foolish to ignore an entire industry of campaign results. The Greek playwright Aristophanes said “The wise learn many things from their enemies“.
The first of my six recommended steps to developing a strategic approach to social media is to study the competition. When putting a client proposal together, it’s relatively easy to spend about an hour to see how sophisticated a company’s social media efforts are. From simply looking on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, it’s easy to see not only which tools are being used, and by whom, but also how active they are. Remember, it’s all too common that a company will launch a social media strategy and then ignore the platform, not realizing that a good strategy is a (forgive me) marathon, not a sprint.
A San Francisco company called Klout has even developed a social media measuring tool to help companies see how influential they are as a result of their social media efforts. Just like your racing results, you can now strive to improve your social media score.
A non-social marketing arena where the competition is furious is with Google AdWords’ bidding and organic rankings on search engines. There are more than seven components which make up the quality score of an ad, and this quality score affects an ad’s placement just as much as how much a person bids. It makes sense – Google won’t make any money if you bid a high amount for an ad that nobody clicks on. Google also changes their organic ranking algorithms frequently, so it’s hard for many businesses to maintain high natural rankings without putting in some effort. Take a look at the companies that appear above yours, when searching for the keywords you’re optimizing to attract new customers.
You’ll get better results when you’re familiar with the playing field. I’ll conclude with a terrific quote by John W. Holt Jr., coauthor of “Celebrate Your Mistakes. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere. The key is to make errors faster than the competition, so you have more chances to learn and win.”
7. You don’t know what you can accomplish until you try.
My inspiration for starting running was a book I stumbled across in my parents’ attic almost 30 years ago. First published in 1968, and largely forgotten now, Aerobics was written by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a former Air Force Colonel who is credited with introducing the term “Aerobics” into our lexicon. The premise of the book was very simple. He tested people on a bicycle ergometer for cardiovascular fitness, and was puzzled that the most muscular people often performed badly in long distance swimming or biking. After extensive testing, he found that the fittest people, by far, were Nordic Cross Country skiers – trim and lean, yet full of aerobic energy.
Dr. Cooper developed a point system for running, biking and swimming certain distances within a set timeframe. The goal was to increase point totals by covering greater distances in faster times. To get started, he created a conditioning test for people to gauge their level of physical fitness. Run as fast as you can for 12 minutes, and the distance you cover determines your level of fitness. Intrigued, I put on some sneakers and ran towards town. 12 minutes later, and a mile and a half away, I was officially in good, but not great, shape. My casual running career had begun.
I never considered myself a serious runner; indeed, until I moved to California about 15 years later, I’d only run one race, a 5K intramural event during my undergraduate years at Cornell. A friend in Atlanta had talked me into running Atlanta’s famous Peachtree Road Race but then forgot to sign me up after I’d spent weeks training to get my time and endurance up.
In 2005 living in California, a friend talked me into running another 5K. It felt good finishing, and just like that, I’d caught the competitive racing bug. The next distance on my racing radar was the 10K, 6.2 miles. That would be the longest distance I’d ever run, but I thought if I don’t do it, I never will. A few months and a couple of 5Ks later, I completed my first 10K, in about 56 minutes.
The next level of racing is the half marathon, 13.2 miles. It was one thing to go from 5K to 10K, but holy cow, that’s more than FOUR 5Ks! How could I ever do that? I dug in, started a running log and got my training up to 10 miles. I was confident I could do it, and sure enough, I completed the Orange County half marathon in 2009.
After completing the race, I felt that I could have gone further. I’d been tentative during the race and stopped several times for breaks, but at the end, I was passing the other runners. Could I tackle the next level, the full marathon? What had never seemed even a remote possibility was now within reach.
A friend that’s I’d run a few races with told me that he’d completed a marathon, and finished and collapsed at the end, exhausted but satisfied. It turned out that simply knowing that he’d done it and I hadn’t drove me to start training. Nervously, but eagerly.
You don’t realize how long 26.2 miles is until you start training. I’d run from Laguna Beach to Newport Beach and back, a beautiful oceanside two hour run along Coast Highway, and that’s only 13 miles. For five months, I worked on getting my endurance up. I reached 20 miles, and felt I was ready. On May 2nd, 2010, I completed the OC marathon in 4 hours 20 minutes. I’d reached the plateau – I was a marathoner! Something I never thought I would do I’ve now done three times, with number four coming up in October 2011 in Long Beach.
Marketing campaigns can be very simple or very challenging. As marketers develop their skills, they come across projects that can be overwhelming, but like with running, the first goal is to succeed with small projects and then combine them into more complex activities. This similarity is illustrated by a marketing campaign I ran in August 2008 that was subsequently profiled by Marketing Sherpa.
I was tasked with improving channel sales of a fiber optic networking device, with a very limited marketing budget. I developed a comprehensive campaign designed to get the most out of a onetime rental of a distributor’s customer database. The campaign integrated list segmentation, competitive analysis, a catchy direct mail piece, informative downloadable web content, automatic lead entry into CRM, an opt-in for an email newsletter and tracking through the distributor’s point of sales reports. Each component was something that I’d done before, just like a 5K race, so putting them together into a marathon project wasn’t so intimidating. The project, like my marathons, was a success.
Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Don’t be afraid to try, and enjoy the great feeling when you succeed!
8. Planning your strategy carefully with tracking milestones will help you get the results you need
Runners have it pretty easy when it comes to the end result. There’s only one result, completing a race, and one parameter to measure, time of completion. It’s how the runners get to that point that requires developing a plan and an execution strategy. For example, a runner trying to beat a certain time will set a goal for reaching the different mile markers. A runner aiming to finish under four hours would want to make sure they were at least at mile 13 in under 2 hours. A runner also needs to be familiar with their own running style and skill level, in order to maintain the right pace over time. Other considerations include when to make time for periodic rest to allow legs to recover, and planning for water and energy breaks. Any good runner knows to keep hydrated; if you’re thirsty, it’s too late!
Marketing campaigns are more complicated to measure than race performance, since the critical metrics include sales and leads generated by the campaign. Companies are even measuring a new metric which popped up thanks to social media: the reduced cost of support. But, both marketing and running are similar when it comes to the difficulty in developing milestones. This is where experience comes in handy. A company running a new campaign may not have any success reference points, any “mile markers” to gauge how well they are doing early in the campaign. A good example, as mentioned in #2 above, is how experienced marketers know not to expect immediate results from certain kinds of radio, direct mail or billboard campaigns until the level of impressions have, well, made an impression. Once a marketer has executed a campaign and is ready to launch it again, he or she will know what to expect, and whether they need to increase spending or not to get the desired results.
Another example of marketing milestones comes with Google AdWords. Most companies develop AdWords campaigns without knowing what to expect. They write their ads, develop landing pages, bid for their favorite keywords, set a daily budget, and sit back and wait for sales. A larger sample size is needed to account for fluctuations from seasonality, time of day, and day of week. With experience and good data points, company can do A/B testing with different ads and different landing pages, to optimize their results. Daily budgets can be increased to fine tune results. Luckily, there are tools to simplify management of paid search campaigns. SEMRush and SpyFu both help companies track their keyword performance, and even help businesses see what their competition is doing.
Plan your milestones carefully and keep striving for greater success. I’ll wrap this up with a quote from the great Yogi Berra “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”