The Truth About Marketing (Online or Off) That No One Wants to Admit

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There’s a sad story about failed marketing campaigns that maybe you’re familiar with. Perhaps this has happened to you (I know it’s happened to me on more occasions than I care to admit).

The story goes something like this:

Upon launching your product, or presenting a new offer, you do all the right things.

… You create useful and valuable pre-launch content that builds all sorts of interest and attention.

… You carefully craft your messaging based on tested and scientific copywriting methods.

… You have your audience keenly dialed in and channel their interest and desires through all of your marketing.

… You couldn’t be more convinced that your product or service is what they want.

Then you open the doors for a grand opening, AND…

Sales are dismal. You make a few here and there, but it’s certainly not the flood you expected.

So where did you go wrong?

You followed the rules and listened to the experts. Why aren’t things working?

Therein lies your problem …

You played it safe. You thought you could get away with merely doing what works, what’s tested, proven, safe.

The reality is: what’s proven has already been done. As priceless as those lessons are, the standard way of executing them is yesterday’s news.

The more audiences become exposed to online marketing, the more blind they become to the latest tactics and techniques. What used to be captivating and novel soon becomes old hat. Just as people get ad-blindness over time, they also get a sort of “marketing tactic blindness” as those campaigns become more and more routine.

Here are some examples of tactics that used to be effective, but are now merely mundane:

  • The three-video hype-machine launch. They used to be rare, exciting, and useful. Now they’re just noise.
  • Transparency. It used to be unexpected and disarming. Now it’s merely a baseline for not seeming like a complete douche bag.
  • Webinars. They used to be novel and scarce. Now they’re common place.

It’s not that launch videos, transparency, or webinars are bad. But they’re not enough. They won’t make you remarkable. You need to add something more.

The problem is this: what was once an innovation quickly becomes a template that other people follow. And as soon as something starts to become adopted by the masses, it immediately begins to lose its effectiveness.

If you’re doing what’s been proven to work and you’re not experiencing the results you want, something needs to change.

Doing what no one wants to do

There are good reasons why there are only a few at the top of any industry or niche. Sure, those folks work harder than anyone else, but that’s only part of the reason they’re so successful.

The true reason they’re number one is because they aren’t afraid to be first. They aren’t afraid to venture out and do what no one else has done.

Want some examples of this kind of trailblazing marketing?

  • Nintendo Wii. Instead of trying to compete for the male-dominated gaming market, they targeted families and made video games fun and accessible for all ages.
  • Cirque du Soleil. They could have followed the template of predictable musical entertainment, but instead they combined music, acrobatics, and circus performance into a high-class, memorable experience.
  • Curves. Rather than the same boring gym, they created a fitness center specifically for women who wanted to get in shape and embrace their natural beauty and curves.

What it takes to be number one

I know what you’re probably thinking: “I can’t afford to take those kinds of risks and not have things work out.”

I get it. Becoming the best is not an easy road.

Being a pioneer can mean a lonely road, and it’s scary to not have data and charts to back up your theories. And when you need things to work, it’s hard to take risks.

That’s why I recommend that you work incredibly hard at building an audience and getting one offer working — something that you can repeat, that just works for you. Maybe it’s a group coaching program or a membership site (bonus points if it supplies recurring revenue).

Whatever your offer is, the goal is to get it to a point of stability and a place where it’s fairly predictable.

Once you do that, getting risky gets a lot easier. I’m talking about crazy, wild ideas that could change everything or fall completely flat. Writing a book or creating a TV pilot. Something no one has seen yet.

A final word on breaking the rules

It’s easy to get all romantic and starry-eyed talking about breaking the rules and creating marketing campaigns that have never existed before. You might think that I’m telling you that you need to ditch all traditional education and throw out your entire library of marketing training.

Of course you could do that, but it would be incredibly dumb.

Any great trailblazer needs to first know the terrain before they start going off the path. You need to have the right training — from the right teachers — before you can become a wilderness warrior and survive without a compass or a map.

So I’m not saying that you should ditch the classics and time-tested marketing advice. Of course not. By all means, master them. Be able to recite them from memory.

But please, don’t stop there. That’s only the beginning.

After you’ve done that, you’ll be well equipped to go off the path. To venture where no one has gone before, and start creating templates that others will follow.

That is, after all, where the true rewards lie.

About the Author: Jonathan Mead likes to eat inspiration for breakfast and helps people kill their day jobs by opting out of the template. For more on trailblazing your own market, check out the gratis online event he's doing here.

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  1. Combining Online and Offline marketing strategies seem like a next frontier (along with mobile).. already reports show up that print magazines drive sales on mobile phones.. that’s just one application. That’s where new innovations will happen I think.

    • I think you’re right. We’re doing a lot of work retooling our site and strategies to be better pioneers in this area. Email seems to be the new Twitter, it’s just a stream that kind of gets ignored. You have to be able to adapt.

      • The Fun and the Tough part at the same time! :)

        My email is not as bad as twitter but yeah, getting there. Content marketing keeps growing so the noise ratio is just gonna jump up and up.

    • Innovation, trail blazing, amazing ideas Johnathan! I am definitely interested in learning more. I have ventured out a bit on my own as well, taking the best of a few ideas, to try and blaze a trail in a new direction. I really enjoyed reading this article and will be signing up for more. Take care and I look forward to learning more!

  2. Yeah, creating a marketing campaign is one hell of a job. So many factors contribute to just one campaign that it can become a mess if you are not organized.

    That is why take it one step at a time and start with it, even if you are half way in creating your campaign. The worst thing you can do is fully create it and see it fail in the end. Along the road, you will need to adjust accordingly to what results you see in the beginning.

    • I think you just hit on something that not many people get. A marketing campaign is a living, breathing creature. It’s not just a mechanical plan that you implement and see through like dominoes in a chain. You have to be able to feel into what’s happening when you put stuff out there, and adjust accordingly. At least if you want to be able to succeed.

  3. Just because you do everything “right” that is no guarantee of success. Every business is (or at least should be) doing everything “right,” but what are you doing to make yourself stand out. Sometimes even a little outside of the box can have a dramatic impact.

    • I think doing everything “right” is one of the fastest paths to failure.

      • I hear what you are saying. You touched on hinted at something very important… Something I feel we’ve lost in all the glitzy content. A message we’ve missed in favour of the latest and greatest techniques.

        But I want to say it outright: Market Differentiators.

        Market differentiators is still a core piece of any successful business. Yes, it’s a tried and true strategy. But if you’re not different, you’re the same. If you’re the same, you’re easy to ignore. Go be different.

  4. Thank you for a brilliant article. I think that in order to be successful one has to think out of the box, especially as everything seems to have been done already. The key is to not deviate a little bit but to completely burst forth into the unknown. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. :)

  5. “Transparency. It used to be unexpected and disarming. Now it’s merely a baseline for not seeming like a complete douche bag.”

    I just started reading copyblogger, but I certainly hope for a higher level of professionalism in future posts. Vulgarity is entertaining in certain situations, but never in a professional/educational context such as this.

    The post was otherwise really good, thanks for the insight!

    • I agree. Gutter language like “douche bag” is really not needed to make the point. I was shocked to see this on copyblogger. I won’t be referring others to read this soon unless the editors require guest bloggers to clean-up the language. There’s no need for trash talk.

  6. “Webinars. They used to be novel and scarce. Now they’re common place.” Amen to this! I’ve become selective because most of the webinars I’ve attended haven’t taught me anything new. Too bad webinars don’t come with labels (I know) such as beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This way if you’re not a newbie, you could choose the intermediate or advanced version where you’d learn something new. :)

    It’s important to strike a balance between proven marketing techniques and ones that you’ve never tested before. If you don’t test new techniques, how will you what will work and what won’t work? Get out of your comfort zone. One of my client’s does this. He insists on doing things ‘outside-of-the-box’ because everything’s been done before. But he’s smart enough to use what works in addition to taking a risk here and there.

    • One of the greatest side benefits is that *very* few people are doing things that aren’t already well-tested. If you have the courage to step out of that, you put yourself in a playing field where the competition is scarce.

  7. For my clients, which are all small businesses, the beauty of thinking outside of the box is that it’s usually time intense over financially intense. Just because you’re thinking of new ideas and breaking all of the rules, doesn’t mean that it has to be expensive. Dream big with your time, not just your pocketbook, and you can come up with some really creative marketing tactics.

  8. Agreed, but I think it really depends on the market you’re in.
    Not every market has been inundated with the 3-video launch or webinars or other kinds of campaigns that seem old-school to those of us who have been online for a while.
    For my clients who are creative solopreneurs — jewelry makers, crafters, photographers, etc. — the kind of marketing that may seem dated to some is working well.
    That said, what it boils down to is being able to apply tried-and-true salesmanship and marketing principles that have always worked, just in a different medium.

    • Good point. Every market is different. The big markets, like fitness, health, business, etc. though are in terrible need of people willing to try different stuff.

      But yeah, I sometimes wish I wish in a space online where no one has done internet marketing yet. :)

      • Agreed! Those big markets you mention could do with a marketing makeover! For the creatives I work with, many online marketing techniques are new, but for me trying to do my thing online to *get* those clients? — yep, internet marketing has been done to death. : )

    • But once they get hooked into the marketers’ world of possibility, they will treat marketing formulation as a deletable commodity. And their own products or services will also begin to be treated – with few exceptions – as moldy cyberdust not worth a speck of attention. It’s just a matter of time before the world bores of all these cookie-cutter marketers. It’s a shame because many great products and services will get lost in the shuffle, unless mega-corporations or well-heeled entrepreneurs are behind them. There’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Eliza, and the elite keep jabbing it with nails to sell products.

  9. I couldn’t agree more that it’s best practice to understand the “classics and time-tested marketing” formats. It truly does empower the business th owner with basic knowledge and that is a great place to begin – at the beginning.

    I love the idea that the three-video hype-machine launch, Transparency, Webinars are becoming mundane. However, I would say that true rewards lie in being authentic.

    As cliche as it may be, the truth is you can’t go wrong with the truth. As an Artist who has spent more money on marketing consultants, marketing coaches, and marketing copy by fancy copyrighters than necessary; I learned that the best return is a return to self awareness, simplicity, and expression – TEMPERED with the ABCs of marketing. After all, marketing is just a fancy-pants way of saying letting people know you exist (products or services). Unfortunately, I recently gave authority to experts in writing my artsy copy and was left with such a sterile contrived tone that all the creativity, inspiration and soul was lost. (I’m still in the process of undoing that.) It was doctored up to the point that it felt plastic. It reminded me of a really bad face-lift, the skin where once real, was now implanted and pulled so much that the original shape was lost and no longer organic.

    I feel all to often business owners give their power away to marketing experts and in effect cease their ability to make intelligent decisions. They forget to discern wether or not the information they receive enhances their business or diminishes it. The trend right now is Authentic Marketing – feel good messages that inspire soul. Yet, if your product or service doesn’t provided spiritual solutions and inspire awakening, then it’s just more marketing lies designed around the POPULAR template of the day. I recently saw a TV ad for pizza that allows me to be me — think Lance Armstrong pizza. I thought, whaaat? It’s pizza.

    Let’s take the point of view that the public isn’t stupid and doesn’t need to be sold anything. Let’s get REAL with letting the public know of services and products as opposed to showcasing clever ideas that make the product more than it is (like pizza), hyped copy and buy now triggers. What if classic and time-tested marketing was outlawed and businesses had to let their services or products talk for themselves? Speak the truth and allow the intelligent consumer to choose them – all on their own. What then?

    Great post – thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Brilliant insights here. The challenge as I see it lies in creating something different and compelling every time. So I come up with a new campaign and I hit a home run. It’ll only last for a short time.

    In order to succeed the next time around, I’d better come up with yet another home run, or it will be the same-old-same-old.

  11. Great encouraging article to challenge your readers to move out beyond the normal strategies of marketing to a path less traveled.

  12. Carol Schultz :

    Great post Jonathan. It makes me think of Blue Ocean Strategy, especially when you mention companies like Cirque du Soleil and Curves. As one who worked in an industry for 16 years before working to create a paradigm shift in that industry, I can attest to the process taking some real chutzpah. It is never easy or without some angst to follow the path of what you know is the way an industry should shift. Lots of No’s and “Great Idea, but it’s soft dollars”. Just keep pluggin along…

  13. I think when developing a marketing strategy, especially for a start-up, it’s sooo easy to just read the material, stick to the framework like it’s god-send, and really never do the unproven. But I think that people might accidently take this article the wrong way, thinking “Let’s take big risks all the time”. When it comes to business, I think it’s better to take smaller bets as you go along, and increase the risks each time (so you don’t risk losing it all immediately). At the same time, I’m a huge believer in venturing into the unknown, just not doing it when you have everything to lose. Thanks for the post though, it was awesome!

  14. “How to quit following a template laid by others…by following a template laid out by me!”
    Kind interesting..

  15. This is especially true if you are just starting out and trying to build an audience. You need to take risks or do something out of the norm to get noticed. And worst case, it fails. If you’re just starting out, you didn’t have a big audience to fail in front of. Try something else and see if that works.

  16. Always enjoy your insights Jonathan. I had to smile when I came to the part about webinars – despite the fact many ‘experts’ are still saying they are a must, I can’t count the number of webinars I’ve either registered for and skipped or passed up all together. It’s never my intention to ‘no show’ on someone’s hard work, but I’ve sat through more than my fair share of boring presentations and I just can’t make myself waste, err I mean invest an hour to hour and a half of my time on yet another sales pitch. Thanks for the inspiraton.

    • Webinars are tough on the marketer’s side because you’re asking for time — the one thing we can’t replace — so the content has to be top-notch. Articles can be skimmed, but a webinar is asking for a serious investment.

      • Which is why they’re such a great marketing tool, because you actually have an appointment that people have made with you. However, attendance is going down rapidly these days on webinars, so it makes it even more critical that you actually deliver.

  17. Coming up with a marketing strategy can be pretty tough. And just when you’ve thought that you have done everything and followed all steps necessary to make your launch a success, all your efforts fell flat. It can be pretty painful. In hindsight, which is harder — blazing a trail for your marketing campaign, or having to face a failed marketing attempt using an old strategy?

  18. Good stuff Jonathon. I totally love trying to be different than everyone else. Of course at times that can leave people shrugging. They’re used to things being done a certain way. Right now online marketing is very saturated IMHO and all of us are better off trying to ‘stand out’ rather than being a face in the crowd.

  19. To be successful, marketing must do two things: It must be creatively arresting, and it must be strategically relevant.

    Almost by definition, if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you can’t be terribly arresting, although even the oldest marketing tactics can still produce the occasional barn-burner of an attention getter.

    Once you have your audience’s attention, you must deliver a message that serves your objective. And this is where most marketing falls down, I believe. All the tactics you list may well be tried and true, but if they catch your audience where it lives now with effective messaging that will move your audience to where it and you want and need it to be, then they can still succeed.

    This does not in any way take away from your basic argument.

    The three examples you list, however, were more triumphs of trailblazing product development than trailblazing marketing. (Although, paradoxically, I’d be the first to argue that product development is inherently a marketing function.) Still, for the purposes of your column, can you cite examples of less ground-breaking products or services that succeeded because of the sort of trailblazing marketing of which you write?

  20. I agree with the sentiment of this article… (it’s better to lead than follow, and it’s better to innovate than re-create…) but the examples you cite (Cirque Du Soleil, Nintendo Wii, and Curves Gym) don’t illustrate the point you’re trying to make. Their marketing campaigns are not what was innovative, BUT THEIR PRODUCT WAS.

    Marketing starts at the product level, and it’s always good to never forget that. Especially in the arts areas (musicians, artists, novelists, writers, etc) – you can market the hell out of something, but if it’s not a unique, interesting, QUALITY PRODUCT – you’re sunk. In fact, the better you market a bad product, the worse you’ll do.

  21. I like that-
    “The reality is: what’s proven has already been done. As priceless as those lessons are, the standard way of executing them is yesterday’s news.”
    I think that the goal of reading and gaining other people’s knowledge is to help yourself excecute genuinely and finding the balance with what works for you in your context. Nice quote from Bruce Lee in this context:
    “Take what works for you, take out what doesn’t and add in your own style”.
    Great article Jonathan!

  22. It is never-ending battle for innovation these days. We get bored with products and we get bored with the way they are marketed. You are so right about needing an edge, something to completely stand out and blow the audience away, but boy oh boy it’s getting mighty hard to keep the masses entertained?

  23. Hi Johnathan, this article got me thinking. As someone always working to improve on my marketing I appreciate well written articles that can help me refine my business.

    It’s been my experience that trailblazing marketing starts with a trailblazing product that gets people to stand up and take notice. Seth Godin called it a “Purple Cow”. Cirque du Soleil has been referred to an act that is actually a Blue Ocean Strategy. Regardless of what you call it, your product has to have an edge to it and your business has to be known for something remarkable. If we want to grow our individual businesses, we each need to find the edge that exists in our companies or products and shine a light on it.

    The question I am left with is “What do you do if you can’t find the edge that sets you apart from others? Do you cut that product out of your business or do you create an edge?”

    • Agreed. I think the elephant in this room is that it has to start with a great product. To echo Bernbach: “marketing can’t create product advantage, it can only convey it.” All the clever marketing in the world won’t get people more than momentarily interested if your product is weak. Look at Old Spice…

  24. Wii, Cirque du Soleil, and Curves could be great examples of trailblazing marketing, but I see them more as great examples of products/services…

    When it comes to marketing tactics they tend to be fairly conservative. Curves, for example, advertises with coupons in the local paper. Wii advertises on TV. I’ve never seen Cirque hold a webinar although they do use video on their website.

    In conclusion, a lot of tactics (even some ancient ones) will work if you have something of value to offer. But, if you are just pushing something similar to every other guru-of-the-week you will probably fail due to the rising sophistication of the consumer.

  25. Well, surely the point of the internet these days is that there are no rules.
    Instead of copying others (who are probably at a different point in their internet lives than you are anyway), surely doing something you’re genuinely interesting + trying whatever idea pops into your head is a good approach.
    That way it may have been done by others because if it’s a good idea someone else probably thought about it too – but at least you will implement it with originality, keep your content fresh and might just stumble on something new and different that no-one else thought of.
    Plus – stop worrying about the competition and on getting ‘shares’ – it’s never going to get any easier and the ‘market’ will only get more crowded as the barriers to entry are virtually non-existent so just get on with it and enjoy the process – keep going and eventually the consistency will hopefully pay off as others get tired and frustrated.
    Just an idea…

  26. Its a never ending discussion… There is not a single niche left out where marketing is not there, but if you choose the niche where marketing competition is less you can succeed in a short span of time…

  27. It’s a road less travelled. It is high risk and it takes lots of self belief. Believing that this is the right thing to do, even if seems like a long dark tunnel.