“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”
— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Lamott’s advice for writers makes a great mantra for modern marketers. Effective marketing has always required creativity, curiosity, and a healthy dose of courage. But given how much our profession has changed in recent years, risk taking has become even more crucial.
Sure, we could keep rearranging furniture in rooms we’ve “already been in,” but our customers aren’t in those rooms anymore. Our audiences are no longer captive; they don’t need information from us about our brands. Empowered with smartphones and the Internet, they bounce from one “room” to the next, collecting information on their own—only stopping long enough to engage with content that’s interesting and relevant to their lives.
Research shows marketers’ roles are in flux; they know they need to learn new skills, adapt to changing business environments, and take chances that might impact the business as a whole. But in this time of uncertainty where brands race for eyeballs, few of whom have found a reliable formula for success, decision making feels riskier than ever.
How can marketers become more comfortable with risk taking? It starts with a change of perspective.
Change is always hard and a little scary, especially when it comes to something as important as our careers. But for marketers, continuous change has become the status quo. So we might as well get used to it.
According to Adobe’s Digital Roadblock report:
64 percent of marketers expect their role to change in the next year and 81 percent expect a change in the next three years.
40 percent want to reinvent themselves, but only 14 percent believe they know how to go about it.
54 percent believe the ideal marketer should take more risks, and 45 percent hope to take more risks themselves.
Yes, it’s a challenging time to be in marketing, but it’s also an exciting one. There are no right answers, and the path to success isn’t clear. But isn’t that what attracts most people to creative fields in the first place—the freedom to experiment, make unexpected connections, innovate, and take some risks?
Now it’s time to turn that innovative spirit inwards, to reinvent ourselves so we can help our companies and industries reinvent marketing by learning some new skills, trying out new tactics, and flexing our risk-taking muscles.
Learning to accept and take risks can be difficult, but without risk, there is no reward. Here are five marketing risks worth taking:
When taking risks of any kind, the most important question is always: “What’s at stake?”
Let’s put things in perspective: We’re not brain surgeons or air traffic controllers. If we fail to engage people with our content marketing, the worst thing that can happen is that no one cares. Hopefully, we learn some valuable lessons we can use next time around and move on. But when we take risks and succeed, we come out looking like innovators and thought leaders.
Sandra Ford Walston—known as The Courage Expert—interviewed hundreds of successful professionals for her book, The Courage Difference at Work. As she recently told me, “Many of these people said their real courage was the willingness to take on a project no one wanted, because everyone believed it was going to fail. Taking that risk and finding a way to make it work is what really launched their careers.”
Rafe Offer, founder and CEO of Sofar Sounds, spoke about what this means for creatives at a recent conference in London: “I used to work for Coca-Cola and we would research to death. At Disney we would try 10 things—if nine failed and one worked, that one might be the next Lion King. My advice is just get out there and try something.”
Bottom line: Taking some calculated risks that don’t pan out probably won’t ruin your marketing career, but never adding anything new to the conversation just might.
Want more training or coaching around new marketing skills? Ask for it by using the language of courage.
“Most people really don’t have an overall linguistic ability to communicate what they want,” says Walston. “Declare you want to be successful and have a passion for this work. No leader will look down on you for wanting to be better at your job. Just say, ‘It is always my goal to be a success and a shining star for this organization. I see my limitations around X, and I am requesting additional training or time to shadow you.'”
Don’t let uncertainty wreck your self-confidence and mute your voice. As creatives, the most valuable assets we have to offer our companies are our ideas. And right now, brands need a lot of ideas from people who are willing to brainstorm outside the box—and risk sounding a little foolish.
“Regardless of our title, income, or status in life, none of us want to feel rejected,” says Walston. “Feelings of rejection have to do with that egoic chatter in the head: ‘If I say this, they’ll laugh or snicker.’ So what? We’ve all been snickered at. Or ‘I only know 40 percent, and Bill knows 90 percent, so I should just let him talk.’ These scripts keep us stuck in an attitude of ‘why bother?’ when we should be asking ‘why not?'”
If content marketing has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that old-school marketing doesn’t engage people unless they’re already interested in your brand. Consumers don’t get on social media to read thinly veiled product pitches or 10 reasons why they should work with your company.
They know where to find that information if they need it, but when they’re surfing the Web, they want to read stories, be entertained or educated, and connect with other people. This is exactly why brand storytelling works; it puts a human face on marketing.
For content marketers, this means digging a little deeper, getting a little more personal, and showing some vulnerability in order to make real connections with readers.
For marketing leaders, this means loosening the reigns and giving writers the freedom to have a conversation with readers, not just tell them what to think or buy. Jason Bloomberg, CEO of digital transformation firm Intellyx, puts it this way: “Humans create the content, and the best content results when an individual is communicating something they care about. Taking risks with the content and going ahead and publishing it nevertheless is one way to show you care about that content.”
To effectively engage others, marketers must trust themselves, their ideas, and their voices. Just as importantly, marketing decision-makers must trust their teams. Not only does this enable agility and scaled creativity, it also creates a company culture where risk taking is valued.
In an interview with Forbes, Janda Lukin, vice president and brand leader for Oreos, talks about how her team is driving innovation by engaging new customers with an old brand:
As an organization we’ve learned to become more nimble in pushing down decision making across our communications for responding to opportunities from a real-time standpoint, particularly within social . . . It’s a cultural shift. It has taken some time for us to get there. It starts from the top but it also starts from the bottom: You have to have people who are willing to push and take those risks. But at the same time you need the support from the top to go and do that.
As a result, Oreos has launched a winning Super Bowl ad, a series of popular viral videos, and a campaign focused on celebrating the small things in life. The following video, for example, has received more than 2.5 million views on YouTube:
As marketing continues to evolve, the entire profession has become a whole new frontier—and that’s good news for risk-takers. Where there is unexplored territory, those who are brave enough to venture out and try new things are the ones who will come out on top.
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