How many of you remember the classic martial arts movie The Karate Kid? If you’ve never watched it, go find it on the movie rental service of your choice.

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Remember how Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel was put through a series of seemingly pointless exercises by his teacher Mr. Miyagi, the most famously quoted being “wax on, wax off”? As humorous as those examples were, they served an important purpose, to teach Daniel about the basics before the basics in the martial arts. Wax on, wax off was a rote drill designed to teach the chudan-uke mid-level block to a punch, and by having him practice it over and over again in the context of a chore, Mr. Miyagi got the motion into Daniel’s muscle memory.

The martial arts in real life are filled with these kinds of exercises, designed to give beginners a strong foundation in the basics before they even start fundamental techniques like basic routines (kata). In my own training, we have conditioning exercises to strengthen key muscle groups, agility exercises, coordination exercises, and so on. Each of these exercises contributes to the base skills needed to make techniques work. These are called the basics before the basics, the raw materials that we fashion building blocks from.

It should be no great stretch of the imagination, then, to envision the basics before the basics of digital marketing. What pre-requisites would you expect of a new employee or a new vendor that would come before even wondering if they know how to use Twitter or Facebook to generate results?

Here’s a short list of some things I might look for, some of the basics before the basics of digital marketing and social media:

1. Is the person a strong writer? Writing is the foundation, the bedrock, of most content creation. Even things like audio or video often rely on a written script in order to deliver maximum impact. Can you communicate ideas clearly? Can you create language that is persuasive? If you can write well, you can apply that skill to nearly every form of content generation.

2. Is the person a good analyst? Given a set of information, a set of data, can they extract something of value, some insight from it? They don’t have to be a Ph.D. in statistics, but they should be able to look at a pile of data, make a chart from it, and at least see if there’s some kind of trend, because that’s the foundation of web and social media metrics.

3. Is the person a good researcher? When posed with a question, can they come up with a solution by any legal means necessary? Can they Google intelligently? Can they put together discrete information sources and find an answer? Can they learn independently, without much guidance or hand holding? The ability to find the right answer and the persistence and willingness to get one is also a foundation skill.

As you can see from this short list, there isn’t a lot that’s needed as the basics before the basics. Like a good boxer, you don’t need a huge toolkit to be effective, but you need to be able to use the tools you have with excellence and consistency.

Those of you who come from an education background should immediately recognize the old cliche of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the three core skills listed above, the basics of the basics. In our quest for the newest shiny objects, we often lose sight of the fundamentals that can make us great, that are pre-requisites for us being great. While it’s great to have the newest, shiniest, most buzzworthy tools and services at our fingertips, it’s ultimately meaningless if we don’t have mastery of the basics to use them.

Side note: the mid-level block is surprisingly difficult to do correctly. In the picture above, from Flickr, if you do it wrong against something like a kick, you get your arm broken. Don’t try martial arts without the supervision of a qualified instructor.


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