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Marketing Is a Practice, Not a Process

yoga atop a mountain

Marketing is rarely, if ever, easy. A really impactful marketing engagement—like, for instance, a multimedia campaign—is going to require the work of a team of people, from client contacts to project managers to creative thinkers and executors to digital experts to quality assurance, over a period of weeks or even months. These things take time, effort, and money to get done. And even if you’ve assembled the world’s greatest team of marketing experts, you aren’t guaranteed to have everything come off perfectly.

Not to sound too self-absorbed, but part of the reason I know this is because I’m a part of a pretty kickass team of marketers. And whether it’s our own internal marketing or it’s work that we’re doing for our clients, not everything works.

For those who haven’t done a ton of marketing work in their lives, that can be frustrating. But I want to take some time to explain why it’s the case, and why it’s something to embrace.

Changes and trends in marketing don’t stop

Of course, I’m not foolish enough to think that marketing is unique in this. Obviously if you’re working in the tech space, you’re going through a lot of the same problems for a lot of the same reasons. But things change incredibly rapidly in marketing, and marketers constantly have to be moving forward to keep up.

Here’s an example. I started working at Element Three in 2013 (I know, that’s a long time ago). When I was hired as a client team copywriter, we were almost exclusively an inbound marketing agency. Inbound marketing is a methodology that flips what most people think of when they think about marketing on its head—rather than the business seeking out its audience to deliver its message, the business creates marketing materials that the audience is likely to actively seek out. That means lots of blogging, white papers, videos, webinars, and anything else that a business can use to educate people about their industry. The point of the content is not to sell a product or service, but to show potential future clients that you know what you’re talking about—in other words, thought leadership—so when they buy, they think of you first. Rather than putting yourself actively in front of people, you’re attracting them with great content they want to read.

Now, you may notice I said we “were” an exclusively inbound marketing agency. That means that we aren’t now. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with inbound marketing; far from it. Obviously you’re reading an Element Three blog right now, so we clearly believe in it. But as the practice became more and more popular, the marketplace also became more and more crowded. Our clients weren’t exceptional simply for having a blog that they updated regularly—all their competitors had them too. Because of that, we needed to adjust—our thinking, at that point, evolved from “all inbound everything” to “inbound marketing cannot work alone.”

Marketing changed. If we hadn’t changed with it, I likely would not be writing this blog right now. Or, at least, I’d be writing it for a different company.

The practice of marketing

As people’s experiences change, and as the way they want to interact with businesses and brands change, we as marketers have to adapt immediately or get completely left behind. It’s somewhat similar to how doctors treat disease (and you’re going to have to bear with me here, because I didn’t attend medical school, but I think the simile stands up).

Diseases don’t just sit around waiting to be cured. They mutate, they adapt, they evolve. That means a few things—first, it shows the importance of adapting alongside your situation. In medicine, if you don’t keep up, people die. The stakes are not nearly as high in marketing—although some days, if definitely feels like they are—but the outcome is similar. If your marketing doesn’t keep up with what the market itself is doing, it can cost you your business.

But it also means that the things you think are sure to work will, invariably, sometimes fail. Medicine and marketing are both sciences. Typically when someone claims to have something “down to a science,” that means they’ve approached perfection. But they should probably be saying that they have it down to a process or a routine, because that’s not how science works. Science is built around asking questions, making hypotheses, and then testing them. Those hypotheses are not always true—the test shows that the assumptions we made were incorrect, or that hidden variables changed something in an unexpected way. That doesn’t mean the experiment was a failure. It’s how science is meant to work.

The meaning of “practicing” medicine is rooted in older modes of English speech, but it really works in this way—for any science, you’re really always training, always learning, and practically never an expert. Things change fast. You learn and adapt. And you’re always trying to get better to keep up with the way things are now and how they will be a week from now.

The discomfort of “failure”

Watching science play out in real time can be uncomfortable. Even in the best case scenarios, if you’re deep in it as it’s happening, you’re watching things change fast as new information becomes available. It can be pretty unnerving—nobody likes to hear “I don’t know” when the stakes are that high.

It’s a natural reaction to become annoyed or angry about it. Seeing experts “fail” is not great when you’re relying on them. And while again, obviously, the stakes are much, much lower in our world than in a lot of scientific endeavors, that same feeling applies. You pay a marketing firm to get results. Why aren’t they getting results? Why isn’t this working?

The answer is because we have this down to a science. We’re learning everything we can about a business or a brand. We use that knowledge and our expertise to ask questions, and to devise hypotheses about what we think will happen. Then we test them, and while often those hypotheses turn out to be accurate and you get the ROI you were hoping for, sometimes the unforeseen happens. Last year, we built out a wide-ranging digital and in-person strategy for a client with high hopes and lofty goals. And despite the fact that we did everything we could to hit those goals, the “in-person” part of the plan got torpedoed by COVID and quarantine. The goals didn’t get hit. Nobody’s happy about it, but the next time something like that happens, we’ll be better equipped to handle it.

The practice of marketing goes on.

Practice makes better, not perfect

Last year, when we were all “getting into” something new as quarantine stretched into infinity, I tried yoga for a bit. I never got to be any good at it (especially not the part when I got up early to do it before work) but I was struck by the way the word “practice” was used there, too. Like in medicine, everyone used it. Beginners and veterans and experts alike all talked about the practice of yoga, and the feeling behind it was never frustration.

Everyone was confident and at peace with the fact that there’s always more to learn, and always ways to get better. And that’s one thing that I really have tried to take into the rest of my life, and it’s something that has really changed me as a marketer.

None of us are ever going to be perfect. There will always be room for us to grow, whether we’re just starting out on a journey as a modem marketer or we have fifteen years of experience. The world’s moving faster than ever before, and that’s a good thing, not something to try to survive or deal with. Practice will always make us better, but it’s never going to make us perfect.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.