When conferences aren’t enough

At a certain point in your journey to becoming a competent marketing professional, you’ll find yourself at a marketing conference. Conferences are terrific places to meet new people, to get exposed to new ideas, to jump headfirst into a topic area and see what’s available, at least at good conferences. Think of conferences like a buffet restaurant with a thousand different dishes. You can have the experience of snacking on a little bit of everything, or have a few exploratory bites and dine on a familiar, reassuring dish.

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At some point later in your career, you will wonder whether conferences are enough. Or you’ll reach a point where it feels like conferences might not be generating the same sense of enthusiasm and “ah-ha” moments that they once did. The answer for your continued growth as a marketing professional at that point is not more conferences. It’s at that point when you will want to start thinking about more formal training, from workshops to entire degree programs.

The turning point that will help clarify when you’re approaching that point (so that you don’t get overly frustrated or feel like you’re wasting time and money) is simple to diagnose: when you find yourself struggling to organize everything you’ve learned. What you typically get out of conferences and related events are little hints, tips, tools, and tactics. They’re the equivalent of little dishes, like the samples from the buffet or perhaps a tapas restaurant.

Your ability to make use of all of those tools and tactics is dependent on understanding a big picture context of where they fit into your overall marketing strategy. If you feel like you’re drowning in tips and ideas, that’s the point at which conferences aren’t enough. Neither are blogs or social media posts or any other “snackable” content going to be helpful, as they’ll just add more stuff you can’t organize and contextualize.

When you reach that point, go in search of strategies and frameworks instead. Formal education can provide some of them – instead of reading blogs every day, consider taking a timeout and reading something like the Portable MBA in Marketing or other solid business textbooks to get those bigger frameworks.

Once you have those bigger picture strategies and frameworks, then you’ll find that reading blogs and going to conferences becomes a pleasure again, as every new tip and tactic fits neatly into your framework – and when you find something new that doesn’t fit in the frameworks you know, you realize that you’re exploring new territory. That should then be a sign to seek out or create a framework around the new topic area so that you can quickly learn it.

That’s my preferred long-term strategy that will help you learn marketing as quickly as possible and keep making it a joy rather than a burden.

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Play to your strengths or mitigate your weaknesses?

When you’re thinking about business strategy, one of the most basic questions you have to confront is whether to play to your strengths or mitigate your weaknesses.

Playing to your strengths at first seems like the logical answer. Do what you’re best at. Push the envelope. Hit your numbers hard.

By contrast, mitigating weaknesses doesn’t seem like it improves very much in the short term. Sure, you’re less bad at the things you’re bad at, but forward-moving progress isn’t always obvious.

Here’s why both matter. Playing to your strengths is great in the short term, but ultimately your strengths have a limit on them. At a certain point you have growth-limiting factors. This is true in so many areas. It’s true in macroeconomics – structural problems can be masked with economic stimulus for a little while, but eventually stimulus stops working. It’s true in marketing. Your marketing will only succeed as well as the weakest link in the chain; poor customer service or a bad product can nullify even the best marketing program. It’s true even in something as simple as running. The weakest part of you – nutrition, equipment, health, form – ultimately inhibits the strongest part of you.

Those weaknesses create a ceiling that limits your strengths. They cap your growth. Only by removing those weaknesses can your strengths continue to flourish.

This is what it might look like, visualized:


Here’s the challenge: many weaknesses take a long time to overcome, longer to overcome than playing to your strengths at that moment. The sooner you can start raising the weakness cap, the sooner your strengths can shine to the greatest extent possible.

Ultimately, the answer comes down to balance and careful measurement. Once you start to see the hints of a plateau in your strong metrics, start shifting focus and resources to remediate your weakest metrics.

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How the consultant’s 2×2 matrix helps your marketing thinking change

If there’s one tool we overlook more often than not due to overuse, it’s the simple, humble 2×2 matrix. This business strategy tool is badly overused, from publications and speeches to every case study you’ve ever had in business school. Every major consulting firm on the planet has thousands of these laying around. It’s trite. It’s cliche. And yet… the reason why it’s so overused is because it works so remarkably well at doing two things.

In business, we tend to have two core blind spots when we’re trying to solve a problem. The first blind spot is a tendency towards binary thinking. What’s the solution to this problem? What’s the answer to this question? Should I do more of X or more of Y? When’s the best time to post on Instagram? These are all questions that hint at binary thinking, when the answer may not be binary.

The simple 2×2 matrix helps to get you thinking differently by breaking you of the habit of assuming there is just one answer when there may be a spectrum of answers. There may not be a best time to post on Instagram, but a series of them. Your choice may not be X or Y, but a little bit of X and a little bit more of Y.

Here’s a simple, facetious example. Rather than asking yourself or your significant other where to have dinner (and the inevitable “I don’t know, what do you want?” debate), put your choices in a 2×2 matrix based on proximity and price. Now it’s not a binary question, but a question of spectrum:

2x2 examples.001

The second blind spot is a tendency towards one-dimensional thinking. We focus, for example, on website visitors or Twitter followers or Facebook Likes. We focus on ROI or net revenue or daily downloads, and we look at a metric often to the exclusion of other related metrics that can help give additional context.

The simple 2×2 matrix expands your mind a little bit by asking you what related metrics you can examine. What else might impact that metric? Or, how would you categorize those two metrics together to draw meaningful conclusions?

Here’s an example using two related metrics from Google Analytics (or any web analytics). Instead of just wondering about the ratio of new vs. returning visitors, categorize them as low or high:

2x2 examples.002

By laying out these two metrics and the relationships they have to each other, we can suddenly start to glean insights from the data that we have, and even hint at what potential solutions we might pursue to change one or more of the metrics.

Just because a tool is overused doesn’t mean it’s bad at what it does; its overuse may indicate that it should factor prominently in your own work. Keep the humble 2×2 matrix handy, and the next time you’re stuck looking at a problem from one dimension or in a binary way, bring it out and see if it expands your thinking.

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