The challenge of data capture

data entryBefore you can analyze data, you have to collect it. And collecting data is easy, right? Perhaps, at least until you do try to analyze it and you find out your data is actually just a big pile of mush. Without rules, strategy, and discipline you are better off collecting nothing at all. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

It is beyond the scope of a blog post to advise on how to structure your data but I can offer some anecdotes drawn from real-life experiences to at least point you in the right direction and highlight some of the problem you can face.

The single biggest problem in data collection is allowing free-form data entry. The second biggest may well be not allowing free-form data entry, which makes this a complicated problem. Some compromise is required, and a thorough understanding of what you actually plan on doing with the data.

A very simple example comes with the entry of names and addresses. Let’s say I enter some information about John Smith who lives at 32 Anywhere Lane. Then let’s say you enter some information about Jay Smith who lives at 32 Anywhere Ln. Of course, this is the same person. John goes by the nick-name of Jay and I asked him for his legal name (John), you asked him for his name (Jay, as he is called by his friends). The second problem is that I wrote out the word “Lane” and you used a common abbreviation “Ln.”. Same thing, but not to a computer search. As far as the computer is concerned, these are two very different people.

The problem of Lane vs Ln can be solved by a set of rules that translate one to the other – standardizing the data. Or we can force people to select the type of road from a pull-down, although that presents a problem when we run into oddball road descriptions. Pull-downs are usually slower to use than just typing. We have a bigger problem with Jay and John. Perhaps we have a list of common nicknames or we can even decide that these two people, having the same address (which we have now corrected) might be the same and at least flag it for examination. We might be able to get fancy and refer to any number of databases that include names and addresses and find out that John, Cindy, and Tom are the only residents at 32 Anywhere Lane, so chances are even higher that John is Jay, unless Jay is actually John’s brother who has moved in with him. Unless we can pick up the nickname from some other database, the best we can do is flag this as a possible match. But until it is fixed, we now have two people in our data base when there is only really one in real life.

Things get really fun when we look at other information like job titles. I once examined a list of job titles for people who purchased a certain product. There were really only about 10 different job functions at most, and those names were the most common, but after you remove those 10 common titles I was left with over 400 other titles to sort through. And these 400 titles all basically were different variants on the same 10 job functions. These 10 titles, by the way, represented different management levels too so really there were only about 4 real different titles plus a few different management levels. This can present a real problem if you haven’t done your homework up front.

For fields like title (or pretty much any other attribute) you can either let the user enter free form text, or force them to select from a predefined list. Doing the former can present a real problem but will be largely accurate. I say “largely” because here, too, someone can enter “Business Development Manager” once, and then later enter “Biz Dev Mgr”. Perhaps you can create rules to resolve these two, but abbreviations can be even more cryptic and difficult to decipher, especially when an abbreviation can resolve to several different things. And that’s the easy part. What do you do when you get a title that reads “Chief Evangelical Officer” or “Content Scrum Director”? Note: these are both real titles…

These problem all go away when you force the user to select from a list, but it also creates new problems There is a definite loss of resolution with the information because you are forcing the user to select an attribute that is a “best fit” rather than one that is accurate. An “Asia/PAC Field Marketing Manager” might have to settle for “Field Marketing Manager” or even “Marketing Manager”. These lose information and that might be fine if you want to analyze data for all marketing managers, but what happens when you want to parse for people supporting Asia/PAC? This person might be based in CA, not in Asia, and with this loss of granularity in the title you have now lost the ability to correctly sort that entry.

A second problem happens when you need to combine data from two different sources that used different selection lists. What happens when you acquire a new company and you track level as “People Manager” vs. “Individual Contributor” but they track “Manager”, “Director”, and “Vice President”? “People Manager” tells you nothing about what level the person is, and “Manager”, “Director” and even “Vic e President” do not always indicate that the person is a people manager. The combined data is essentially useless for this attribute.

There is no right answer to all of this, but I hope these examples highlight the importance of planning ahead. What data you collect and how you collect it should reflect what you plan on doing with it in the future.  Think of all the types of analysis you might run on it at any point, and then design your data collection plan. The time to do this is before you start collecting data, not when you have 10,000 entries and find out that all that data is actually useless for what you want to do.

One final thought: the more data you collect, the safer it is for you later. If, for example, you ask every question you can think of, and capture both free form entries and then also make them pick from lists, you will have the safest data for future unanticipated uses. But you also need to think about your user’s tolerance for entering data. If you are at a trade show and are trying to grab data from someone, they are only going to be willing to spend so much time answering questions before they time out. The alternative is to settle for the data that the trade show itself collects when you scan a badge, but here you will certainly have the problem of their fields only loosely matching your fields. What fun!

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Defending yourself with internet chaff

cannonOnce something is posted to the internet, it takes on a life of its own. And it is a very, very long life at that. So how do you deal with false information about you or your company, or even true information that you do not want revealed? This is not easy task. Once something gets posted the horse has truly left the barn. And it’s not going back inside. But all is not lost.

First of all, this further supports the argument for having a large and visible presence on line. If you do not curate your online presence, then you are leaving it up to others to do so instead. At best your online presence is disorganized, at worst it is the result of malicious intent. The best way to fight this proactively is to put yourself on the internet in large volume. Posts, tweets, profiles, comments, etc. However you want to do it, the more you put you on the internet, the larger percentage of your online image comes from you and not someone else. And if it comes from you, then you can control it.

Hopefully it goes without saying but I’ll pause for a moment to remind everyone to be scrupulous about what you post, about checking access, and about periodically checking your online presence. First of all, just because you post something that is private today does not mean it will be tomorrow, or that someone might not repost what you say with full attribution, in a public space tomorrow. In general, just don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to see on the website of the New York Times. Ever. To anyone. If you absolutely must post sensitive information, be very, very careful about how you are posting it. Just because you have all your permissions set correctly on Facebook, for example, if you comment on a post that is set to world access then your comment is also open to the world. And every once and a while, log out of all your accounts and google yourself. You may be surprised.

So what to do when, despite your best intentions, something unfortunate gets posted about you at some point? You might get it taken down or retracted if you are very lucky, but it might already be too late. Google or other sites may have already cached it. There are several ways to try to deal with this but the most effective is to drop chaff. When an airplane is being lit up by radar – either from ground based guns or a missile, one way to avoid detection is to use stealth technology of course, but if you can’t become invisible, the next best thing is to get lost in the crowd. The plane will release chaff – strips of metallic material cut to specific dimension s to make them particularly visible on radar. Now the plane is still there, but on radar it suddenly looks like a cloud of hundreds of planes. Which one is the right signal? Hopefully the guns or missile pick the wrong one.

In a similar fashion, you can bury a problem post or tweet or even hashtag in chaff. Let’s take a simple example. If the color of your eyes is a secret, and someone posts that you have green eyes, you are in trouble. But if someone else then posts that you have blue eyes, and a third person posts that you have brown eyes, and a fourth posts that you have black eyes… the correct post is still there but if I’m searching for the color of your eyes, I no longer know which post is correct amongst the chaff. The right information is still there, but it is effectively hidden. This is simple example, but someone might instead have posted something about you that is actually insulting or even damaging If you fail to contain or remove it, the next best thing is to bury it.

You can respond after that fact, but the more online presence you have initially then the less chaff you will need to release when something is posted that you don’t like. Exactly what the chaff needs to be and how to release it for best effect will depend on the specific media and content that you are trying to bury. You might need to create multiple dummy accounts to release the chaff from, for example, or even enlist the help of friends or acquaintances. This, too, argues for strong internet presence up front so that you already have a solid foundation to build on. But however you do it, do it quickly. Unfortunate posts have a way of spreading quickly, and once it catches the attention of the internet you will just have to wait for the storm to pass before you can start to use the chaff to bury the unfortunate incident. Good luck!

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Re-personalizing Marketing

shopkeeperComputers, databases, and the internet have allowed business to have unprecedented access to huge markets. We can reach millions of prospects with our messages, or at least we have that potential. But has this been a good thing? Along the way we seem to have lost the personal touch that consumers once enjoyed. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We can reach the mass market but still treat each customers as an individual. Many companies have made great strides in individual customer interaction. So why aren’t more companies marketing to the individual? Google is, without a doubt, but B2B marketing has been slower to turn the huddled masses back into individuals. It’s time to give people their identity back, even in the business world.

200 years ago a customer walked onto a local shop on the high street and was greeted by name. The shop-keeper knew him (or her) because they shopped regularly at that store. The shop-keeper knew what their buying habits were, knew about their family life, and would often suggest new arrivals that might be of interest to the shopper. Personal service at its best.

Factories rose, cities swelled, and companies looked to expand their available market. Mail order catalogs expanded the reach to the consumer, and improved methods of transportation made distribution between business and consumers more effective. The small, personal interaction was beginning to be replaced by more impersonal means: mail, telegraph, and even telephone. Yes, telephone is still immediate and personal to an extent but not as much as face to face conversations.

Transporting goods had become easier, and distant communication had improved. Managing a large and distributed customer base, however, still required many, many paper records. Possible, yes, but cumbersome. As business looked for better ways to manage their information they turned first to mechanical means like punched cards and then eventually to electronic formats as computers started to appear. Information was collected, aggregated, and shared. It was now possible to market to huge numbers of people that you knew nothing about via direct mail and then email. The golden age of spam had begun.

Today, however, we are able to track individuals and their behavior – whether consumer or business. Google drops cookies on your computer, even if you aren’t logged into Google, and watches what you do. This is why ads for waffle irons follow you all over the internet after you have looked up a recipe for waffles.  Phone companies watch where you go. Stores track what you buy. There is a huge amount of information available about everyone, and the potential to track behavior to acquire more. It is possible to know exactly who you are reaching out to and what their interests are. Google does this to great effect, but even the lowliest B2B company has the ability to buy and/or collect data about their customers as well.

The end result is not merely the creation of random information, but a true win win situation. The customer gets communications that they actually want, and the companies who are marketing get to engage in more targeted, effective interactions. Large companies are getting much better at this, some with simple opt-in panels that let the user select their interest, some with actual data about the individual. Smaller companies are lagging behind but can apply many of these techniques as well.

Having the data is not enough, however, you need to use it. If you know the customer’s birthday, why not send them a “Happy Birthday” email or, even better, an actual card in the mail? If you know that a customer lives in Boston and they just had a huge snow storm, think about sending them a calendar featuring pictures of beaches (o.k., that’s actually just mean) or even just a “hope you are surviving the recent storm” note. Of course, you need to be careful about what information you do act on. It’s fine to comment on the weather where I work. It might be borderline to act on my birthday if I never told you. It would be super creepy to comment on my brand of toothpaste. You will have to judge where the line is for your business and your customers.

But in the end, the key is too think back to that time 200 years ago and ask yourself, “What would the local shop keeper do?” And make each interaction human. Don’t send out one email to 10,000 people. Send out 10,00 individual emails. Because one size just does not fit all.

 

 

 

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Bad interview techniques

InterviewInterviews are difficult at best. You are not actually determining whether or not the candidate can fulfill the job he or she is interviewing for, you are merely determining whether or not they can convince you that they can. There is a difference. And, to a large degree, you are getting a feel for whether or not you like them and would want to work with them.

I have interviewed and hired a large number of people over the years. I have also been interviewed a fair number of times as well. I recently read an article about some horror stories about people’s interviews and thought I’d add my 2 cents.

My first comment is on the all-too-common question, “What is your greatest weakness?” This can come in several variants but they amount to the same thing. First of all, if you are interviewing someone, please don’t ask this question. It’s a bad question to ask someone and it shows a dreadful lack of imagination. Yes, I know, everyone has shortcomings and what you really want to find out is how someone overcomes their weaknesses. Except all you end up finding out is how much research they’ve done on bad interview questions. Unless they have done their homework, they will usually wind up with some variation on, “I work too hard/am too committed/care too much/blah blah blah.” If they have done their homework they will have an innocuous moment of apparent (but not actually damaging) failure prepared to hand over with the accompanying subsequent brilliant learning experience. The third possible option, of course, is that they are a complete idiot and will cough up something like “I steal office supplies.” That would be a treat but I’ve never seen that happen (yet). I’ve been on some bad interviews where I’ve been sorely tempted to say that, but not everyone has my sense of humor so I haven’t actually said it (yet). Other than that, you will not get a meaningful reply and the interviewee will be thinking unkind thoughts about you.

As an interviewee there are a number of things you want to run screaming from. I had a company once ask me to take an on-line screening test – not a personality test, but more of an IQ test. I was actually intrigued, so I took the test anyway although I decided at that point that it was clearly not the right culture for me. Apparently I did well enough on it that they asked me to take it again – online – but this time using a monitoring service that watched me on my laptop camera as I took the test, to make sure I wasn’t cheating. This was beyond bizarre, and clearly a “run screaming” indicator. Tests, in general, should be taken as a warning sign.

I do enjoy the creative questions that break up the monotony, although I’m always a little suspicious of their intent. I had one person ask me, if I could pick any magazine to be on the cover of, what would it be and why. That was actually fun to answer, although I can’t imagine what my answer had to do with anything related to the job. And in case you were wondering, I picked Rolling Stone. Yes, I probably should have picked some business magazine, but anyone who remembers the song “The cover of the Rolling Stone” will understand. I’m pretty good at what I do already – o.k., not quite “cover of Newsweek” good, but good enough. I am, sadly, just an average musician. So if we are playing fantasy, let it be as a rock star. Dare to dream.

My final musing, in the form of a rant, is a curse on any company that requires you to make a detailed proposal/plan, present it, and then doesn’t hire you or pay you. Your time is valuable. If someone asks you to put together a business plan or marketing plan or product plan or whatever, this is significant intellectual property and represents your expertise. It is valuable. Sure, I completely understand the desire to see someone in action and find out what they would do in more detail than light interview questions. But if you ask someone to spend hours researching, planning, and tapping their expertise, then you are engaging them as a consultant, call it that or not. If you hire them, count those as hours already worked. If you don’t hire them, treat that as a consultant engagement and pay them for their time. To ask them to work for free under the guise of an interview is just mean. I don’t care who you are, working for you is not such a privileged that people should have to work for free just to interview. If you are the one being interviewed, consider how badly you want the job. If being treated with respect in the work place is important to you, ask them to pay you for your time. Their response will tell you a lot about the company culture, but keep in mind it might also cross you off their list.

Having said that, I’ve actually prepared and presented such plans on several occasion, but I actually enjoy giving presentations which is part of the reason I’m in marketing. So for me it was kind of a fun challenge. And come to think of it, every time I’ve done one I’ve been hired. Still, I should have been paid for it.

Sadly, with the economic downturns of the last 15 years, hiring companies are in a better position to get away with some of these shenanigans, but that doesn’t make it right. An interview should not be the time for you to get revenge on the world for the last time you had an awful interview, and it certainly should not be a way to get free work. Do unto others… you turn will come. And hopefully, if I’m ever interviewing with you, you will have forgotten that I trashed your favorite interview technique in this blog.

 

 

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Content-free advertising

soft drink being poured into glass

I recently watched an older TV ad from Pepsi that proved to us that Pepsi was as good, if not better, than “the leading cola” which is never named but is assumed to be Coke. A live taste test augmented by statistics. Pretty conclusive! Or was it?

We start off watching “John” take a taste test where says he prefers brand Y over X. Y, of course, is Pepsi. We are told that John picked Pepsi over the leading cola. Or… did he? He is given two drinks to taste, and he prefers brand Y. We are never actually told that brand X is “the leading Cola” – it is certainly implied, and John is told to “taste both colas” but it is never actually stated that the second one is the leading cola. It could be Pepsi, it could even be brown dishwater for all we know.

Finally, we are not told what “the leading cola” actually is, nor how “leading” is measured. Since they don’t actually say “Coke”, they could have picked a cola that was the leading cola in one store where it was the only cola served, but really is not a very good cola at all.

More simply, we don’t know whether John was a real consumer and not an actor, and if he wasn’t an actor then we don’t know whether they recorded several people taking the test until they found one who did, in fact, prefer Pepsi.

So much for the live taste test.

Next we are told that in taste tests all over, over 50% of people preferred the taste of Pepsi over the leading cola. Assuming that every test wasn’t rigged in the same way that the live demonstration was, there are many ways we can rig the statistics as well.

As with the live taste test using “John”, we have no idea how the sample testers were selected. They could easily have been people that were observed buying Pepsi in a store, or who even were simply asked “do you prefer Pepsi?”

Another part of playing with the sample could be that they simply throw out all the taste tests where Pepsi was not selected (or at least throw out enough so that they get their 50%+ result). They never tell us that the 50% comes from ALL the taste tests that they conducted. So even if they didn’t bias the sample by screening the testers, they could have cherry picked the results.

Finally, the number “over 50%” is itself a bit suspicious. That’s an odd number, and a vague one as well. If the actual number was really much higher than 50%, don’t you think they would have said so? Did the advertisers think it would not be believable to have more people prefer Pepsi? Perhaps, but “over 50%” is still a suspicious number.

Really, this ad gives us pretty much zero information of any kind, other than that it is sponsored by Pepsi. But it sounds great, doesn’t it?

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Measure twice, market once

Close-up of craftsman hands in protective gloves measuring wooden plank with ruler and pencil. Woodwork and renovation concept.Are carpenters smarter than marketers? There’s an old saying – measure twice, cut once. Because measuring is important. If you get your measurements wrong, you are going to make the wrong cut. That ends up resulting in wasted time and money. If you are really lucky, you cut the wood longer than you need and you just waste time. More often, however, it seems that you cut the wood too short and now you need a new piece of costly wood to start over with. It’s a simple lesson. Marketers seem to fail with this basic advice for several reasons.

First, there are the people who just don’t have time to measure things. They rely on instinctively knowing what is working and what isn’t from general observations. And that in itself it a form of measuring, to be fair, but it is not a very reliable one. If you are a small operation, you might easily think that you have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t and you don’t have the time or energy to waste on measuring. Like saving for retirement, it’s never too early to start. Measuring doesn’t have to mean putting into place complex programs, but merely using tools that provide you with metrics. Even if you just gather the data you are off to a good start. And it’s so easy to gather data these days.

The next place that marketers fall down with measuring is simply because no one ever put their feet to the fire, so to speak, and required it of them. Some things are measured easily, some things aren’t. If no one is requiring you to measure, then why should you? Measuring can cut both ways. Good results can make you look good, bad ones can make you look bad. Sometimes it is just safer (for you) to pick more subjective forms of reporting. These are easier to “spin” if things are going wrong.

A near relative to not measuring is to measure the wrong thing. Here, too, everyone is inclined to measure the easy things to control. This helps make you look good. Take the classic example of leads gathered at a trade show, for example. What does a lead gathered at a trade show mean? Not much, actually. What does the total $ sold to customers who you talked to at a trade show mean? Better, but still not enough. What does the total $ sold to customers who you contacted for the first time at a trade show mean? Now we’re getting somewhere! Only this last figure helps tell us whether the money we spent on the show was worth it. And yes, there are intangible benefits like image and brand recognition that you get from being there as well, but if that’s your goal, then don’t wave the # of leads around as proof of success.

Finally, there is the case of measuring the right thing but in the wrong way. The data you are collecting would be really valuable IF IT WAS CORRECT. There are lots of ways to collect the wrong data and patting yourself on the back for your great data program. Garbage in, garbage out. Always know where your data comes from.

And then, of course, there is always faulty analysis. People are very good at adding 2 plus 2 and getting 5. Most importantly, please remember that correlation does NOT prove causation. There are whole websites dedicated to humorous correlations that clearly have no actual causal relationship.

These are all types of not only not measuring twice, or even measuring at all, but of even measuring the wrong thing. And then cutting. And then having to invent clever excuses about why your predictions failed to materialize. So be a bit of a carpenter in your job. Measure twice, measure right, and then cut once. Then build something wonderful.

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Making numbers work for you

 

CalculatingThere is a joke I heard that reminds me of marketing claims – especially ones that use data and statistics.

A man needs to hire a new accountant. He posts an advertisement, gets a bunch of applications, and selects three candidates to interview. The first candidate comes in and sits down. The man tells him, “I have only one question for you – what is 2 and 2?” The candidate thinks about it for a moment, looks puzzled, and then replies, “Well, 4 of course.” The man thanks him for his time and says he’ll be in touch.

The second candidate comes in next, and the man repeats his question, “What is 2 and 2?” The second candidate also looks puzzled and thinks about it for a moment. Then he smiles and replies, “Ah! This is a trick question! You’re trying to see if I am an original thinker. 2 and 2 is 22.” The second candidate looks very pleased with himself. The man smiles, and says, “Very good – thank you. I’ll be in touch.”

The third candidate comes in next. The man repeats his question. The third candidate immediately smiles and simply replies,’ Well, that depends.” The man looks puzzled and asks, “Depends on what?” The candidate says, “It depends on what you’d like it to be.”

The third candidate is immediately hired.

Now I am not implying that marketing claims are lies, although no doubt some are, but the truth is that numbers are so easy to manipulate. A little clever slight-of-hand and you can make the numbers mean pretty much anything. And like our story, 2 and 2 can be… whatever you want!

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The pairing of things

funny pair of fruits Apple and PEAR with eyesToday I am simply making some observations on things that go well together and things that don’t. Apropos of nothing.

Let’s start with things that do go well together. Like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Some of you might remember the old ads featuring two people bumping into each other and accidentally getting their chocolate and peanut butter mixed up. Indignation, followed by surprise. Why the surprise I never understood because I always thought it seemed pretty clear to anyone who had eaten these two foods that of course they would taste great together. And they do.

Then there is one of the great silver screen romances of all time: Bogie and Bacall. Humphrey Bogart met Lauren Bacall on the set of “To Have and Have Not” where they are reported to have fallen in love. Watching the movie that certainly seems easy to believe. The sparks that fly between their two characters seem more than just acting. Bogie was almost 25 years her senior but the bond was undeniable. In an uncharacteristic Hollywood move, they even stayed married through his early death to cancer.

Now let’s shift gears and take a look at some things that just don’t go well together. Two food examples spring to mind. The first is Garlic Ice Cream. I ate at a restaurant in San Francisco called The Stinking Rose (aka garlic). Everything on the menu featured garlic, including the ice cream. I was intrigued! It actually wasn’t all that bad at first but there was an aftertaste that really wasn’t very pleasant. I’m glad I tried, it satisfied my curiosity, and now I don’t ever need to have it again. And really, I’m not sure anyone needed to have created it in the first place.

Then there was the time with the Tobacco Ice Cream. Yes, I said tobacco. I was at a very fancy restaurant that featured a number of trendy and cutting edge items on the menu. One of their deserts featured a trio of tastes including a scoop of tobacco ice cream. Now I’m not nor ever have been a smoker. I strongly dislike the smell of tobacco and was pretty sure tobacco ice cream would be horrible. So why did I order it? Again, I was mostly curious. I figured that it had to taste better than it sounded. Guess what? It didn’t. It was simply nasty. It tasted nasty from the first bite and just got worse afterwards. No, I didn’t finish it. I am not glad I tried it, and can’t imagine what possessed them to make it.

And then there are the inbetweeners. Ones that might be good together but your just not sure yet. I was at a hotel recently and their house brand of shampoo was a mixture of mint and rosemary. Not two tastes I would have ever put together and an odd mix for a shampoo. But I really couldn’t decide whether I liked it or disliked it. Complete mystery.

Some people might hate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, although there might be something wrong with them if they do. Some people might like tobacco ice cream, although there is definitely something wrong with you if you do. Different tastes for different people. So be bold, be brave, be daring. Try that odd combination You might like it. Or not, but at least you’ll have had a new experience!

 

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Don’t finish what you start

Background - The EndMy last blog was all about finishing projects that you start and not abandoning them. Today I’m going talk about abandoning your projects and not finishing them. Now this may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. The point I made in my last blog is that when you start a project it’s simply wasteful to lose interest along the way and let it die off. However, it is also true that you don’t want to let a project keep going when it is obvious that it cannot succeed. That’s the time to pull the plug.

This is not easy to do for several reasons. First of all, this project belonged to someone. Someone had to come up with the idea, someone had to launch it, and someone feels a connection to it. That means someone has a personal, vested interest in not giving up. Hope springs eternal, as they say, and project owners are usually far more optimistic about the possible recovery and success of a failing project than anyone else. It’s their project, of course they’re not going to let it go easily.

And this is when it is so important to have done all your up-front planning. Two things in particular are needed here. The first is the proper specification and tracking of meaningful metrics. How do you know when things are turning bad? There should be metrics that will give you early warning signs, without having to wait until things are really bad. The time to identify these is during the planning process, not in the middle of the project. What does success, real success, look like? And what does failure look like?

The second thing to figure out in advance is what the natural cycles of the project are. You may well expect natural downturns in your results. These may be due to the weather, or to business cycles, or to just the nature of the project. Leads might go up in a month when you have several trade shows, and down the following month when you had none. That is to be expected. But if you find that you sold less ice cream in a record setting August heat, something is probably wrong. It’s easy to spot the down-turns if you have the right metrics, but you need to know what factors contributed to it and whether it’s temporary. Sometimes it’s o.k. To have a short term set-back, just make sure that it really is the case before you start issuing free passes for downturns.

When you do pull the plug, it is important to do it cleanly and in a well thought out fashion. Don’t just “stop” all your activity, take the time to figure out how to do the least damage and get the most out of the shutdown of the project. Can you wind down the project, or does it have to happen quickly? Do you have significant expenses invested in an upcoming event or activity? It might be cheaper to see those through rather than losing the money that was already spent. You also need to think of you customers and prospects. Will the termination be visible to them? Will it look odd to them to see you discontinue some project suddenly? You need to think about how it will look and make sure that people leave with the message that you are merely dropping a poorly received program, and not with the impression that you are desperate and about to go out of business.

Finish what you start. Except when you shouldn’t. But make sure you know the difference and when each course of action is the right one. Decide up front what metrics you will use, what success looks like, and what failure looks like. Then see your project through and don’t get cold feet if there are life’s little ups and downs along the way. In the end you will finish more up than down.

 

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Finish what you start

Athletes cross the finish lineIt’s fun to start new things. It’s easy to start new things. The world is fresh and full of promise, and you are going to go out and make something wonderful. A new product. A new initiative. A new website. A New Year’s resolution. It’s easy to start. The problem is with the follow-through. And often leaving something half way done is worse than not starting at all.

This is certainly true in your personal life. Even something as simple as starting a new hobby has it’s cost because you often have to buy new tools or equipment. If you buy $2,000 worth of photography equipment and then sell it 6 months later after you have lost interest, you are going to lose a lot of money.

Business is no different. Everything you do in a business is supposed to be for the purpose of helping you make money. Some things, like manufacturing a product, contribute directly because you sell them for money. Others, like marketing, contribute by helping you to sell the products. If you are going to start a new project, it needs to be a good project. It needs to contribute to the process of making money. It needs to bring in more money, or enable the process of bringing in more money. And it needs to reap more than the cost of the project itself. Otherwise you don’t have a business, you have a hobby.

Sometimes you make your best guess and start a project that doesn’t turn out the way you thought it was going to. That is unavoidable. Sometimes, however, companies start a new project and simply lose interest before it has a chance to succeed. That is inexcusable. I don’t mean you have to see a project through if business conditions change, but in many cases projects just get dumped because some brighter shinier object showed up and diverted everyone’s attention. And this happens most often in marketing, where it’s not as obvious. You would never start to build a factory and then leave it half completed because you lost interest. That would be a very visible waste of money. So why do so many marketing projects get dropped along the way without waiting to see if they bear fruit?

I live near Boston and we had a horrible winter last year. So bad, in fact, that public transportation was shut down for weeks. Apparently the transportation system had been investing in new routes and stations for several years and not in maintenance. People get excited about a new station. It’s shiny, it’s new, it’s visible. No one gets excited about maintenance. And that’s what old projects are like: maintenance. When you start a new project you can make a lot of noise, get a lot of attention, and everyone claps and says what a wonderful job you are doing. When you are just maintaining the existing programs, there is no glory.

How do we fix this? Are we destined to struggle and try to enlighten people and get them excited about “more of the same”? That’s probably not a good use of anyone’s time. But they will get excited about new projects even if they are not really new projects, but rather a next segment in a series of sub-projects. Of course, this means that when you pitch each sub-project, the challenge is make it sound as big as the whole project. And also to have short-term metrics that can show success. This can be tricky if you have several phases that are simply laying the foundation for the parts that make money. Then your challenge is to get people excited about something that is building foundations not houses. Still, it’s better than the alternative of leaving a wake of incomplete projects behind you.

However you do it, the important thing is to finish what you start. Or don’t start at all. And if you do start and then drop the project for whatever reason, clean up after yourself. An abandoned blog, an incomplete website, am unfinished series – these are all signs that confusion and neglect and just plain unprofessional. And yet it happens all the time. Don’t be that company. Finish what you start, or at least clean up your mess. No one likes a barren wasteland.

 

Posted in Business | Comments Off on Finish what you start