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What makes the difference between sporadic success and sustainable, continuous success? Kaizen.

Kaizen is a Japanese term for improvement. It specifically refers to continuous, incremental improvement through the reduction of waste and small improvements to efficiency. Kaizen is, in some ways, the opposite of innovation: improvement and focus on what you have rather than trying to create something new.

For example, if you’re looking to improve your personal profitability, make your own coffee in the mornings rather than buy it. It’s a small, incremental improvement, but 2/day over 52 work weeks is520 – a small change leads to a large aggregate change. Then after you’ve gotten the hang of making coffee, look for tiny ways to optimize the process, like preparing the materials the night before so that you just have to turn the coffeemaker on in the mornings.

Take any of your existing marketing channels and look at the metrics for them. If you don’t have metrics, stop everything else you’re doing and establish some metrics that contribute directly to profitability. Now, look at the metrics for your marketing channels and figure out which one is the linchpin that will make the biggest difference to your company.

For example, let’s say you’re talking about SEO metrics. You have link count to your web site (via Google Analytics). You have visitors to your web site, you have conversion to leads, and those leads eventually become sales. If you are pumping traffic to your site but converting 0.0001% of your traffic, the linchpin is conversion. If you are converting 40% of your visitors to leads but you have 5 visitors a day, your linchpin is probably traffic.

Draw this out on a whiteboard or piece of paper (or use a spreadsheet if you can’t draw). This is essential, because there’s no easier way to spot the problem area than to draw a proportionally sized funnel and see that one part of the funnel is abnormally narrow.

Sample Campaign Funnel

Once you’ve identified the metric that will move the needle the most, diagnose what goes into that metric. What builds traffic to your web site? Inbound links power search listings, so if your problem metric is traffic, look at building links. What drives conversion? Graphic design and workflow tends to drive conversion (or drive it away), so look at refining and testing design if conversion is a problem.

Once you’ve identified the pieces that make up your failing metrics, break them down into daily tasks that you or your team can execute on. For example, if inbound links are stagnant, assign your team to build a link a day – a small improvement, but continuously done will provide tremendous aggregate growth. If conversion is stagnant, make testing and refining your design a series of small tasks (new button colors, layout change) that you can do continuously.

As creatures of habit, we love this type of work. We love to have routine, to have habit, and for many people, wrapping their brains around a giant new marketing strategy is uncomfortably difficult. We have no trouble doing little busy work, though. Making a small incremental change every day is a great way to hijack the brain into making a large change over time.

At a certain point, you will hit diminishing returns on your kaizen – a sign that it’s time to switch to innovation mode. But for most companies, for most marketing, for most business processes, there’s still a lot of juice to be squeezed out of what you’re already doing before you hit that point. Figure out what’s broken most in your business and try applying a dose of kaizen to it. You’ll be surprised and pleased at how little but sustained daily effort can generate a big overall improvement.

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