We’ve all heard adages similar to “Experience is the best teacher.” For many of us (like me), it probably came from our parents, grandparents or other role model, meaning it was likely immediately disregarded when I really needed to hear it.
My digital marketing career started in 1997. I can remember being the young “Internet Guy.” Now, almost 20 years and some gray hairs later, I often find myself shaking my head and uttering “kids…” under my breath as I observe many of the same mistakes I've made on my career journey.
So here’s to everyone starting their professional career in digital marketing today—what I wish I knew when I was younger:
- Read voraciously. The rate of change in the digital marketing world is dizzying. The moment you think you have this world figured out and can kick back and rest on your knowledge, you’re irrelevant. The fact is there is so much good news, insight and important questions being asked every day that you are limiting your potential by not understanding your industry to the degree you should. Some of my favorite publications are Business Insider, Venture Beat, Re/code, Fast Company and Entrepreneur.
- Learn the power of a team. At 20 years old, I was pretty sure I had everything figured out. I had big ideas; I was going to change the world. What I’ve learned over the past 18 years is that good ideas are just ideas. Through collaboration with highly-skilled and passionate people, they can become great realities when executed well. Every idea needs a champion, ultimately someone to push it through. However, nobody should own the monopoly on ingenuity, strategy and tactics.
- Focus on clear outcomes. When I started in digital marketing I was a brand guy. I read a bunch of books, felt like I understood the process for strategic brand development and I couldn’t wait to apply it. It’s not like I don’t understand the value of this knowledge and process today. I just wish that I had focused my energy on learning how to engage an audience, drive awareness and generate meaningful, tangible outcomes (like sales!). I believe that starting marketing by engaging the customer ultimately informs the brand development process more than my fancy books and whiteboard did.
- Test, test, test. Did I mention that I had big ideas? It’s not that I don’t believe in the big, hairy, audacious goal, because I absolutely do. The mistake that I made was I started storyboarding my Super Bowl commercial with just about every idea I had. Sure, some people may catch lightening in a bottle, but there is no crystal ball in digital marketing. My biggest successes have been forged through hundreds of small, failed tests. You can recover easily from small, failed tests. Big, failed initiatives sting.
- Branch out. I’ve always been a digital guy. It’s been the startup, cool industry. I’ve found out, though, that I’ve missed out on a lot of successes by not understanding the other mediums, forms and disciplines of marketing.
A great professional gift for me was connecting with Marketing Architects. To see how we take our clients’ products to mass media—television, radio and digital—and drive sales is amazing. I realized that I have been playing one instrument and thought I was a band. The lift that mass media has on digital marketing is incredible. If you are purely marketing your product online, call us. You’d be amazed seeing what we’ve done for brands and product sales.
- Focus on meaningful data. In digital, we’ve been spoiled with data. What I’ve learned is that much of it is meaningless. I believe that any initiative should limit itself to evaluating 5-7 core metrics. These should be the data points that signal whether or not you are creating the meaningful outcomes I talked about above.
When evaluating a data point, ask yourself: what does this mean and how does it relate to what I am ultimately trying to accomplish? If you can’t come up with a clear answer, disregard the data.
- Never give up. My favorite quote (and really the motto of my life) is by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t—you’re right.” The funny thing about success is that you don’t learn much. I’ve experienced some amazing successes and I’ve been knocked down. The reality is I’ve learned more from being knocked down once than the accumulation of all of my successes.
Failure is a great teacher, and an inevitability. My rule is that I can be bummed out for one day with any great failure. Then I have to get up, dust myself off and get better as a person and professional. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this by experiencing big defeats and the pointlessness of spending too long feeling sorry for myself.
So yes, experience is the best teacher. A great irony of life is looking back and wondering if you only knew what you didn’t know and what could have been. Maybe you’ll make a lot less mistakes than I did, but probably not, which is a good thing.