It seems daunting, right?
The idea of just improving. Of just putting it out there, of saying, “I’m going to improve.” Or, even bigger, “We’re going to improve.” Improve what? And how?
Plus, let’s be honest, you’re skeptical about improvement — that it can actually be done. You’ve always done things this other way, you know how to do that, and it worked up to a point. Plus, as they say, “Change is hard.” And improvement equals change.
Put it all together, and you know you want something to work better, but you don’t know where to start in making improvements, and you’re kind of doubtful it’ll work, and, anyway, it’s going to be hard. So maybe instead you’ll… go get a coffee. Or see what’s trending on Twitter right now.
But, about that saying, that change is hard? Not true.
What makes it seem hard is that we erect hurdles, we then look at those hurdles, and we convince ourselves, “Wow, this is going to be hard.” When what we ought to be doing is developing a plan (a simple plan) and then taking action.
We know about change. Fundamentally as marketers, our job is to help organizations — non-profits, public agencies, companies — change. To help them improve. That’s why they come to us: because we’re in the business of change. The business of improvement.
The improvement that people seek from a marketing company takes many shapes: handsomer marketing pieces, better communications, increased social media engagement, more signups or sales or donations, new website… the list doesn’t have to be long, but sometimes it is — which looks daunting. But here’s how to get started. Because the number one thing you must do is start. As Lao Tzu said about 2500 years ago, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As someone who ran a marathon some years ago but couldn’t easily have run around the block before the first day of training, I know this is true.
Action, even a first stumbling action, beats inertia every time.
The three steps to improve (anything) are:
- Identify what needs to be improved
- Start improving it
- Keep going
Granted, at first, this sounds suspiciously like an old Steve Martin comedy routine:
“You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire… and never pay taxes! You say, ‘Steve, how can I be a millionaire… and never pay taxes?’ First… get a million dollars.
“Now you say, ‘Steve… what do I say to the taxman when he comes to my door and says, “You have never paid taxes”?’ Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: ‘I forgot!’”
This is laughable – especially when Steve Martin says this. But comedy is all about unveiling hidden truths, and in this case, there’s beautiful clarity hiding within what looks simple and obvious.
1. Identify what needs to be improved
And by this, we mean truly improved. What stops so many of us in our tracks is the daunting, endless, to-do list that we immediately come up with. My wife and I are finally turning our attention to long-delayed improvements around our house and property. The initial list had 17 items on it, and would’ve required so much money we should just buy a different house. Things got simpler when we asked ourselves what the goals were, i.e., what needed to be repaired/maintained; what was on the list to improve quality of life; and what would be “nice” but not necessary.
Once we looked at goals, it was clear what were top priorities (our trees, the fence, at least one major appliance), what would add to our day-to-day lives (the kitchen, the home library, and the lanai), and what would be “nice” (so, no, I’m not getting a custom-built cigar lounge with wet bar in the backyard — and more’s the pity, I say).
Frequently, clients will come to us wanting a new website, or they’ll feel the “need” to do social media because everyone else is doing it, or they’re looking to get new collateral. All of those may indeed be top priorities — but what they actually need is to look at the underlying issues, set goals around resolving those issues, and then prioritize the potential improvements from there. (This, by the way, is why my wife and I put a second story on our house two decades ago: We kept having kids, and they needed a place to go. Made total sense, because it matched the actual goal.)
- Are your key constituents/buyers/donors not getting the message?
- Is revenue down?
- Are you not well-known?
- Is your messaging like a cry in the wilderness?
Those are actual problems. If you start with, “Wow, nobody’s heard of us!” then you realize you need to improve the awareness of what you do, and then you can figure out what to do with it. You can look at all the individual touch points of your marketing (or your house, or whatever), ask questions about their effectiveness, make a list of everything you’d like to improve, and then prioritize their improvement accordingly. Like this:
- Are people getting the message about us?
- Are we putting the message out?
- Does the message make sense?
- Do we even know what the message is?
…Hm… Sounds like we should take a look at what we’re saying, and if people are even hearing it, and what they make of it.
- Why is fundraising (or sales) down?
- Do people care about what we do? (Do they even know?)
- Have we lost some people and didn’t notice?
- Do we need to change tactics?
… Maybe we should take a fresh look at our data before rushing to judgment.
- Nobody’s heard of us!
- Why do we say that? Is it true? What’s the data show?
- Are they still getting our stuff – but they’re ignoring it?
- What do we have going on that’s relevant to them, that we should tell them about?
… Hey, when is the last time we really grabbed somebody’s attention, and how could we do it?
Now that you truly understand what needs to be improved, and why, and have developed a prioritized list, you’re ready to:
2. Start improving it
NO, you are not going to improve it all by, oh, Tuesday. Even if you’re Space X or Apple. (And, actually, those guys plan months and years in advance.)
It’s exactly the endless to-do list that daunts people, that makes them want to fire up Hulu to revisit America’s sitcom youth. But in your case, you’re not going to worry about all 17 items, from the chimney down to the foundation. Instead, you’re going to work your priorities — the most pressing items that will generate the most impact from the most improvement. (In my case: a tree not crashing down and taking out my roof or killing us in our sleep. Improving that sounds like a no-brainer, right?)
Instead, you’re going to feel great about this Action Plan and work your way down it. If we’re talking about marketing, you may wind up with something like this:
- Marketing plan — we need that first, because it’s going to point the way.
- Digital — we’re not looking so good every place everyone can see us, i.e., online. So once we’ve got this marketing plan, we should do that.
- Then we need to work our way down the list of what else came up in the marketing plan.
It might be new communications, or new branding, or targeted campaigns. But we’re not even going to worry about this yet (too daunting!) because we need to lay the foundation first, with that marketing plan.
Already, you feel a little better. You’re on a path. You’ve started with a first step, and you’re on your journey.
Now what you need to do is:
3. Keep going
Clients will sometimes ask, “When will my website be finished?” And we’ll say, “Never.” And that’s because we will launch their new website — but no one should ever consider their website “finished.” It will always be updated, tinkered with, improved, because your website is akin to a living, breathing organism: growing, evolving, and improving. (For social media, the example is even greater, as you pick up new followers and increase your engagement.)
Improvement is a heady drug. Once you’ve taken your first hit of improvement, and your brain gets that thrilling dopamine droplet that comes with success, you want more. It’s like losing the first pound after you go on a diet, or running your first mile, or making the biggest sale or getting the biggest donation of your career. That’s the beauty of improvement: Everybody wants it, and everybody loves it.
The way to keep going is to notch every success along the way — to recognize that, yes, you rolled out this improvement, that you achieved it, and now, dammit, you’re ready to tackle the next item on the list so you can roll out that improvement as well! And on and on.
Everything in life is improvable. Seriously. We can all do better, on ourselves, on our organizations and companies and nonprofits, on the world around us. But we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it all at once.
But if each of us started with even a ten percent improvement, imagine what we could achieve. Because: We could. We could achieve a lot.
Lee Wochner is the CEO of Counterintuity, a leading provider of marketing initiatives to non-profits and the public sector. Recognized as a California Thinker, he has been important organizations achieve greater impact for 25 years.