Have you ever wondered how you can evaluate the potential effectiveness of a new marketing idea quickly, easily, and without spending a lot of money? I’ve seen countless clients jump onto a hot new trend, advertising format, or social platform without thinking through whether it’s really right for their business or customers.
Big companies use their limitless media budgets and tons of research data to model and test how a particular marketing action is going to land, but for small and medium businesses, that isn’t really realistic.
The problem with generic marketing advice
Marketing advice for small and medium business tend to be pretty basic. It’s not that people are wrong when they suggest you think about your customers’ needs or explain best practices for SEO, it’s just that this kind of lowest-common-denominator advice fails to understand what most businesses actually need when it comes to marketing.
The problem – somewhat counterintuitively – is that generic marketing advice is proactive. That would normally be a great thing, but in this case, it’s putting the cart before the horse, because most writers, content creators, and marketing gurus know nothing about your specific business challenges.
This makes the vast majority of online advice about how to market your products or services fundamentally nonstrategic, because it jumps right to the action phase without ever bothering with analysis or figuring out the right approach, which can have a huge negative impact on marketing effectiveness.
Something might be a good idea, but if it’s not solving the right problem for your business it’s not a good solution.
Marketing at its best is specific, not only to the customer, but to the marketer and the culture. Small and medium businesses, in particular, face such intense competition and revenue pressure that, despite the tremendous benefit of good marketing, getting it wrong – blending into a sea of same-ness, ignoring ethical issues or failing to define your values, or focusing on the technical elements of advertising while ignoring the message – can be a painful and expensive lesson in disappointment.
It’s like a coach whose only advice to their team is “let’s win.” When it comes to long-term marketing effectiveness, it’s not enough to just try your best.
The power of integrated marketing
Integrated marketing is so powerful because it aligns your entire business to a single message. It eliminates the gap between what a company says in its marketing and what it does everywhere else.
Integrated marketing isn’t just about using the same creative or copy across different campaign channels. Sure, it’s important that your social media posts, website, point of sale material, and digital advertising are all singing from the same songbook, but a good integrated strategy is a platform that makes every decision easier. Being an integrated marketing organization means you have a set of objectives and principles from which you can operate without having to constantly rethink how you want to work or what you’re trying to achieve.
It’s stretching a consistent message across channels, but it’s also understanding a company’s mission and goals and letting all marketing actions flow naturally from that. If you don’t have a bottomless media budget, it’s the single most powerful factor in aiding long-term marketing effectiveness for small and medium businesses.
The AGE Check
Lately I’ve been exploring the idea of how to make integrated marketing more accessible, and to make it easier for clients to make good-quality decisions on their own, after our contract has ended. I’ve found that clients who understand and believe in the power of integrated marketing tend to fare much better on their own than clients who see marketing as a necessary evil, or in-service to the “real” engine of their business – sales.
The most powerful integrated marketing tool I’ve come up with is also, paradoxically, the simplest.
I call it the AGE Check, and it’s useful when you’re considering a course of action you haven’t taken before, when your company has an established set of values it’s trying to uphold, or when you have a good grasp on how you want to do things, just maybe not what you should be doing.
Instead of a worksheet, checklist, or set of instructions that might not have much strategic value, a “check” is a way to qualify thinking or actions without a significant amount of data.
It’s easy to generate ideas, but what we tend to need are ways to quickly evaluate ideas in the context of what we’re trying to achieve, in order to tell whether something is worth exploring further or can be safely discarded as irrelevant. The AGE check allows business owners and entrepreneurs to shoot from the hip without taking their eyes off the target.
AGE stands for Appropriateness, Generosity, and Evidence. The way it works is deceptively simple: When you’re presented with an idea or are trying to make a decision about a course of action, ask yourself honestly whether the idea or action is appropriate, generous, and if there’s any evidence it’s going to do what you want it to do. If it doesn’t check all 3 boxes it’s probably not going to be effective and you should look for another solution.
What is appropriate marketing?
Actions and ideas that are appropriate for your business aren’t predatory or opportunistic, and acknowledge the healthy boundaries that exist between brands and consumers.
This means your company has some earned or innate right, responsibility, or permission to communicate a certain message or take a certain course of action. This rule is broken all the time on social, where you’ll see facial tissue brands honouring veterans on Remembrance Day, or companies paying lip service to social causes like #BlackLivesMatter while their executive leadership team remains exclusively white.
The most common form of inappropriate advertising leans heavily on self-aggrandizement, where a brand will so exaggerate its own importance that it literally takes responsibility for your happiness, freedom, or success.
When I think of this problem I always think of the 2018 Wiser’s Whiskey campaign Hold It High, where the brand asks friends to publicly share what they mean to each other, because like great whiskey, friendship gets better with age. It’s a cool looking campaign, but the idea that a whiskey brand is even a little responsible for the bond between you and your friends is absurd, and an insult to the real commitment, sacrifice, and power of close friendship.
Agency strategists are great at coming up with rationales as to why it’s appropriate for a brand to stake its claim on such lofty concepts as purpose, self-expression, or close friendships, but if there’s a leap to be made it had better be appropriate or it’s just more ad noise.
What is generous marketing?
Generous marketing is anything that provides more value to the consumer than to the marketer. This is probably the greatest challenge for businesses of all sizes, and the biggest opportunity to gain more positive response and build equity with customers.
People say attention is the currency of modern marketing, but that’s really not true anymore in a landscape flooded with competing messages. The real coin of the marketing realm is generosity – the possibility of a campaign, initiative, or marketing action to give customers more than it asks in return.
When you get right down to it, generosity is fundamental to marketing’s most basic definition; an interaction between a customer and a marketer that provides value in-excess-of-cost to both parties. A win-win.
Generosity isn’t about free gifts, trials, or discounts, but often about the real consideration of consumer needs, and a true desire to serve. Think an online video so hilarious it doesn’t even matter that it’s an ad, a company who donates its products to people in need whenever a purchase is made, or a fitness apparel company that offers at-home workout classes via a website or app.
Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign, that printed custom bottle labels with hundreds of people’s individual first names, was brilliant marketing specifically because of how generous it was.
One of the most subtle and breathtaking examples of generosity I’ve ever seen in advertising is Weightless, an absolutely stunning video featuring paraglider Jean-Baptiste Chandelier. It’s an ad, but I’ll let you discover for yourself what for.
What is evidence in marketing?
Finally, effective marketing relies on evidence – whether that’s research, sales data, or insights – to determine what should be done, with whom, where, and when. It doesn’t jump on trends or sweep its shortcomings under the rug for the sake of “generating awareness.” It takes responsibility for its own success and brings a valuable message to desirable customers in a way that works for them.
Evidence ideally means market research, but that doesn’t automatically mean big data. Small data – informative, actionable data that is “small” enough for human comprehension – can be an incredibly powerful tool for small and medium business marketers. Small data can encompass anything from customer feedback you’ve collected yourself, to industry reports, to marketing effectiveness data gleaned from online tools like Google Trends or Statista.
Ultimately, the point of data isn’t to provide certainty or relieve us of the responsibility of decision-making, but to provide an input for insight and evaluation. Data by itself isn’t useful; it’s the marketer’s job to turn it into information using experience, analysis, and instinct.
Of-course finding evidence that a marketing action or idea is actually going to do what you want it to first means getting clear about just what that is. This might seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many businesses and marketing managers waste their time and money on “awareness campaigns” that have neither long nor short-term effects.
I’m suspicious of any brief that’s stated purpose is to generate awareness. Whose awareness? Awareness of what? What value does this specific awareness have, and what are you planning to convert it into? Answering these questions will go a long way towards making sure your market decisions are grounded in evidence.
Summing it up
Improving marketing effectiveness is possible for every business. Thinking about marketing in an integrated way forces us to evaluate our ideas in terms of how appropriate, generous, and evidence-based individual campaigns and marketing actions are in order to safeguard against wasting time and money, but it also maintains transparency and integrity in a world that increasingly demands these things of companies.
The AGE check is a simple tool you can use to qualify ideas and evaluate actions every day, in business and in life, and I hope it helps you think a bit more strategically about your next marketing move.