The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Marketers

It has been 14 years since a little-known Utah State University professor named Stephen R. Covey published “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which went on to sell 25 million copies and become the gold standard of the self-help genre. It is hardly Covey’s fault that his habits now sound like common sense, including advice to “be proactive,” “begin with the end in mind,” “think win[1]win” and “sharpen the saw” (that is, keep improving).

But as earlier self-help guru Dale Carnegie said, “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.” In that spirit, and inspired by Covey’s own list, we suggest seven common marketing practices to avoid.

No. 1: “Bias for Research”

Ineffective habit: “Don’t make a move unless it has been validated and revalidated with primary, secondary and tertiary research. Discount hypotheses. Move methodically down internal pathways. Don’t field anything without unanimous buy-in.”

Consider Apple, whose founder Steve Jobs famously said, “We do no market research.” Jobs preferred to rely on the wisdom of his team, believing that consumers could not predict their own needs. Contrast arch-rival Microsoft, known to do extensive research before launching a product, such as the Windows Phone. Gartner estimates Apple’s share of the worldwide mobile phone market is 14.2% versus 3.3% for Microsoft.

Or take the case of television advertising campaigns, routinely subject to extensive copy testing before and after launch. Multiple studies have shown that the correlation between advertising pretesting and in-market results is weak and even negative. The U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) concluded, “Ads which get favourable pre-test results actually do worse than ads which didn’t.”

Why? Some answers were brought to the surface 40 years ago by Alan Hedges in his classic “Testing to Destruction.” Hedges argued that market research often forces people to construct rational justifications for irrational decisions, happens too late in the development process, and takes place under artificial conditions.

How to break this habit: Hedges’ answer, which still rings true, is not to avoid testing altogether, but to use it judiciously, with full knowledge of its limitations.

No. 2: “Always Be Closing”

Ineffective habit: “Treat every customer as a target. Do what it takes to convert. Pelt them with promotions and pop-ups. Make them register for access to anything. Put prominent links on your videos. Don’t waste time getting to know them too well. Pull out a contract at ‘hello.’ Practice ‘sign and dash.'”

An oily salesman in the film “Glengarry Glen Ross” spells out the mantra of “A-B-C,” as in: “A[1]always, B-be, C-closing.” Unfortunately for him, there is evidence that, unless you’re willing to be a perennial down-market discounter (“Everything on sale, all the time!”), strong-arm tactics undermine consumers’ perceptions of your value and the meaning of your brand.

One study showed that using an aggressive “closing technique” on prospects may increase one-off sales but tends to diminish trust, lowering the long-term value of the relationship.5 Trust in sales, marketing and advertising has been falling anyway over the past five years. For example, Nielsen’s latest “Trust in Advertising” report showed that 53% of people globally “don’t trust” television advertising, and 67% say the same of online advertising.

How to break this habit: It turns out that the solution to diminished trust is what people have been telling their significant others for years: Just listen. A different study on “perceived salesperson listening behavior” showed that, if people believe a salesperson is paying close attention to them, the result is “greater anticipation of future interaction.” Listening principles can effectively be applied in a digital context.7 Start with trigger-based CRM, adaptive site experiences and active social monitoring.

No. 3: “Begin at the Beginning”

Ineffective habit: “Who doesn’t like a surprise? When designing your marketing strategy, start with Wired magazine’s “What’s Hot” column. Do the same tomorrow. Put out fires. Focus all your attention on pain points, and don’t worry where you’re going. You’ll get there.”

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely studies the forces that cause us to drift toward obesity, insolvency or this-quarter business strategies. He calls them “present-bias focus,” a mental cost-benefit analysis that tells us a Sno Ball now is worth more than long-term health. We are inherently irrational, he says, and “the basic essence is the trade-off between the short term and the long term.”

Increasingly impatient shareholders aren’t helping. In a recent McKinsey & Co. study, 63% of executives surveyed said pressure to produce short-term results is increasing. However, a study sponsored by Europe’s Insead showed that this pressure often results in gaining short-term market share at the expense of long-term competitive position.

How to break this habit: Stephen Covey’s idea to “begin with the end in mind” was not a call to mindless optimism. It is a call to focus on long-term outcomes. And it anticipated recent studies showing that the best antidote to both short-term thinking and long-term overconfidence is a realistic, detailed anticipation of likely challenges and how to address them. Successful athletes visualize the race itself, not just the winner’s podium.

No. 4: “Fire the Know-It-Alls”

Ineffective habit: “People who know a lot about a certain subject can be opinionated and difficult. Who needs that? There is no ‘Ph.D.’ in team. Expertise is expendable. The smartest person in the room is the youngest. Why? Because he gets it. What’s ‘it,’ exactly? Nobody knows.”

Perhaps because of its relative youth as a discipline, digital marketing has a predilection for youth. Younger people are assumed to be more adept by virtue of their age — and, by implication, older workers’ digital skills are suspect. Although proof is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that marketing department layoffs hit older workers harder, and organizations may have a hidden motive to perpetuate the cult of youth: Young people are usually less expensive.

Skills are skills, of course, and youngsters can be extraordinarily adept. But evidence shows that there is no inherent advantage to being young in the workplace. Studies have shown that age is not well-correlated with job performance or creativity. And other studies show that the number of years of higher education and job experience a person has are positively correlated with strong performance appraisals, and negatively correlated with unproductive behaviors, such as absenteeism and substance abuse. Moreover, experienced marketers have the advantage of having seen trends and markets rise and fall, leading to a healthy skepticism.

How to break this habit: As one metastudy from Oregon Health & Science University concludes: “There is more variability in work performance within age groups than between age groups.” So the solution to this bad habit is to focus on the person, not the person’s age.

No. 5: “Repeat Yourself”

Ineffective habit: “What works best is what worked best. Whatever the product, service, channel, technique, creative or execution — if it worked before, it can work again. Refresh, don’t revise. You know what you know, and that’s all you know. You know?”

The business boneyard is littered with companies that held on to a winning formula well after it had wilted. IBM clung to mainframes, Kodak resisted digitization, Dell was late to the mobile millennium. As Microsoft’s Bill Gates observed, no leader in one technology era has gone on to lead in the next. “Success is a lousy teacher,” he says. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Consider Jill Barad, who tried to promote educational software at Mattel using the same techniques that worked so well for Barbie dolls. The results disappointed in part because software has very different marketing dynamics than dolls. Likewise, many U.S. automotive manufacturers clung to higher-margin trucks and SUVs late into the first decade of this century, even as the consumer scaled back.

How to break this habit: The secret to breaking this habit is not knee-jerk innovation but an unsparing analysis of market dynamics. Studies of the impact of innovation per se are ambiguous, showing (not very helpfully) that it works when it works. As Clayton Christensen argued in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” few companies want to disrupt their own businesses. Winners are those, like Netflix, that are willing to undermine a dying market (DVDs by mail) to capture one that’s emerging (streaming entertainment) — that are willing to reinvent themselves on the fly.

No. 6: “Ask ‘What Would Google Do?'”

Ineffective habit: “Best practices are best — that’s why they’re called best practices. Apple and Google do everything right. No matter what business you are in, ask yourself, ‘What would [big popular company] do?’ Example: ‘How would Google groom dogs?'”

Not long ago, a digital marketing strategist found himself experiencing an eerie sense of deja vu. He had a meeting with a major airline about its e-commerce strategy, and the airline’s chief marketing officer said, “We need to become the Google of airlines.” Later that week, the strategist was meeting with a consumer packaged goods company, whose digital marketing lead asked, rhetorically, “How do we become the Google of breakfast cereals?”

These true stories highlight a common marketer’s mistake: assuming success can be dragged and dropped from one context (and industry) to another. Great companies surely have a lot to teach. Apple’s design aesthetic is something that designers are crazy not to study. But companies become great because their products and marketing exhibit their truth, not somebody else’s.

How to break this habit: The way out of this trap is to answer a question that is much harder than “What would [hot brand] do?” Namely: “What would my brand do?”

No. 7: “Think Win-Lose”

Ineffective habit: “Marketing is a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. You know which one you want to be. It’s not complicated. Play to win. Bad-mouth competitors, and ‘borrow’ their ideas. Extract every cent from customers. Be cheap.”

Business is ablaze with sports metaphors, telling us to crush the competition and go for the gold. In the words of a Nike television commercial that aired during the Olympics, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” What can be forgotten in the hyperbole is that sports is actually a highly cooperative endeavor. If teams did not agree to abide by a lot of nit-picky rules, the game itself would cease to exist.

Economists studying game theory problems, such as the well-known “prisoner’s dilemma,” tell us that the most effective strategy — the one most in each player’s self-interest — is to be consistent, transparent and reliable. Economist Robert Axelrod describes such behavior as “the evolution of cooperation.” Today’s marketer lives in an increasingly engagement-intensive, always-on environment, in which customers are nurtured over time, and partnerships, such as co-branded media, are increasingly common. There is one important caveat. Cooperation is important only in games — or relationships — that are intended to last. “Winner take all” is a short-term strategy.

How to break this habit: You are welcome to think in terms of winning and losing when negotiating with customers, suppliers, vendors, consultants and agencies. Just make sure you’re not planning to do business with them again.

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