One of the hardest things in Marketing is knowing when your efforts are just not working and to change up what you’re doing. For many, a project can feel like your baby, to be held tightly and loved even if they’re not particularly good at something.

Sometimes a program can “come good” with some effort and elbow grease. But others just won’t work no matter how much effort you put in. They were doomed right from the beginning.

You’ve also perhaps put your reputation on the line to deliver real business results. It’s a frightening thing to look at your work critically when clients or internal stakeholders are questioning results.

It’s actually incredibly important for a marketer to be able to review his or her programs critically and apply problem solving techniques to radically improve them – or – throw them out and start fresh.

How does a marketer know which is the best path for an under-performing program? That’s the tricky part.

The 3 Stages of Failure

James Clear, a writer who focuses on building good habits wrote an article called The 3 Stages of Failure in Life and Work (And How to Fix Them) which struck me as interesting. I hadn’t realized it until I read the piece, but his 3 Stages of Failure is the exact mental strategy I go through to determine a project that needs fixing (and how to fix it) and one that needs to be entirely replaced.

He has a methodology of breaking down failures into 3 distinct stages that are absolutely critical if you want to figure out which programs to improve (and how), and which to kill entirely.

The following excerpt is from The 3 Stages of Failure in Life and Work (And How to Fix Them) by James Clear.

  • Stage 1 is a Failure of Tactics. These are HOW mistakes. They occur when you fail to build robust systems, forget to measure carefully, and get lazy with the details. A Failure of Tactics is a failure to execute on a good plan and a clear vision.
  • Stage 2 is a Failure of Strategy. These are WHAT mistakes. They occur when you follow a strategy that fails to deliver the results you want. You can know why you do the things you do and you can know how to do the work, but still choose the wrong what to make it happen.
  • Stage 3 is a Failure of Vision. These are WHY mistakes. They occur when you don’t set a clear direction for yourself, follow a vision that doesn’t fulfill you, or otherwise fail to understand why you do the things you do.

Countless times over my career I have been faced with the challenge of trying to understand why a marketing project of mine hasn’t produced the results I expected, hoped for, and promised. I’ve become good at it. I don’t make excuses, instead I constantly review the 3 stages above for literally everything.

Let’s use an example

I was faced with the task of trying to get prospects to purchase a benchmark survey that reviews their own internal IT department and upon completion gives very specific improvement instructions. I employed an Adwords strategy that I had made work for other areas of the business to sell this program directly via ecommerce.

Adwords had been an incredible channel. We were good at it. It seemed like a perfect fit.
We had spent weeks preparing, launching, and measuring the effectiveness of this program. We had stakeholder buy-in.

The Adwords campaign was initially very costly and resulted in very few sales (actually none). What went wrong? We were GOOD at this!

Before we killed the program entirely I needed to understand just what went wrong so I could still hit my targets and still deliver to the business. I’ll happily give up on a loser, but I need to know it’s a loser first, and what specifically about it made it a loser.

So what went wrong?

I mentally moved through the 3 stages of failure.

  • Stage 3 is a Failure of Vision. The product was selling well amongst current members of the business. Based on feedback it provided fantastic value. The vision of the product seemed just fine.
  • Stage 2 is a Failure of Strategy. It was a complex product and hard to understand. It required a one-to-one communication to make it clearer before prospects were willing to even consider paying. Landing pages were a poor medium for this type of communication. We lost prospects because we wanted to marry them on the first date. We asked for a sale immediately on a product that needed more explanation.
  • Stage 1 is a Failure of Tactics. The Adwords program had been successful for other areas of the business. We were generating a 2-3x ROI for new memberships. We were good at managing the various components of Adwords and our creative had been successful elsewhere.

It was easy to understand that this failure was not a failure of vision (thankfully), and not a failure of tactics. We needed to adjust our strategy to make this work. We’d give it another shot…

We replaced the e-commerce strategy with an email nurturing strategy. Instead of asking for a purchased we generated leads with a free download related to the survey content. We delivered timely messages about the product over time and used lead scoring to predict sales readiness.

The net result was a significant upturn in results.

Applying This Strategy

I find it useful to employ this thought process daily, to literally every campaign you run. Successful ones, unsuccessful ones. Going through the stages mentally will enable you to actually review campaign results with a level of clarity and detachment that ensures you’re always striving for top results and swinging for the fences.

Take a few moments to mentally review campaigns you currently have running, or ones you’ve run in the past to see how this framework can help. And then begin to employ it every day and you’ll see results increase dramatically and quickly.

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