Big firms are obsessed with repeating previous successes, of doing it all over again and getting even bigger results next time. They talk a lot about how you codify success.
But what if your biggest success is based on a fluke, a stroke of luck, being in the right place at the right time, or a power cut?
You can’t plan for a Super Bowl power cut
The Oreo “Dunk in the Dark” ad is one of the most famous going. And yet, before the kick-off of that game, the content didn’t exist.
Because the power cut that turned the lights out wasn’t planned, wasn’t in anyone’s strategy (or if it was, the evil genius is still to be unmasked). But the general consensus has always been that Oreo won the marketing Super Bowl that night, with an ad spend of next to zero compared to the multi-million dollar efforts that were all planned.
So how do you repeat it? Can you codify that success?
You can’t plan for an overnight success you’re not expecting
I’ve written before about the legend of the No 7 Protect & Perfect Serum. It was an overnight success that was at least 5 years in the making. None of us expected that overnight boom after that length of time. I didn’t even watch the programme it was featured in, having seen the clips we’d been sent to preview.
We ordered a little bit of extra stock, but not a lot. If we’d forecast the scenario that actually played out, we’d have been laughed out of the building.
You can do the hard work
I had a former Vogue editor take issue with the whole Protect & Perfect thing because No 7 had paid for the research. Paid for the research, yes. Paid for the results, no. That’s not how academics work, or certainly not that one.
But we did do endless meetings with the research team, wrote lots of papers to convince the business to spend the money, and spoke to every journalist and researcher who would give us five minutes to tell them why the results were so encouraging.
For two years.
And eventually someone bit. It fitted with a programme idea.
You can be in the right place at the right time
None of us remembered if that was the first, the fifteenth or the hundred and sixty-first journalist we spoke to. You might say we got lucky. Perhaps. But we were there, telling a story that they were, just at that point in time, receptive to hearing.
Three months earlier or six months later, and it could have been worthless to them.
How do you codify those things?
The dictionary defines “codify” as arranging something into a formal system for people to follow. That’s probably why businesses love the idea. If you do all these steps, as we did before, then we’ll get a result as we did before.
It’s efficient. Supposedly.
But the world isn’t like that. So let’s stop pretending that it is.
Smaller businesses have a clear advantage
What was exceptional about the Oreo example was that something got created and approved and tweeted in a very short space of time. Many large businesses would have still been working out how many people needed to come to a meeting to work out what they were going to do. By which point the lights were probably back on.
But Oreo had got all the right people ready and waiting to see if anything happened that they could get on the back of. Apparently, there were 15 of them, from strategists to copywriters (yes, we get everywhere) to artists: short decision-making chain, nimble team.
If you’re a small business, then it’s much simpler and quicker to do something and respond in a thought-provoking way. Yes, our resources might be more limited, we may not have a team of 15 on standby, but small teams (especially teams of one) are nimble. Decisions can be fast.
That’s an advantage, and we don’t need a formal system to follow that.
It’s not just viral content
One week your newsletter might perform incredibly well: lots of opens, plenty of clicks, being forwarded onto other people. You might try and work out what the magic ingredients were and put all of them into your next one.
It’s not that you guessed wrong. It’s just the world is different the week after. Some people are having a better week, some aren’t. Same applies to your blog posts.
So it’s all fate?
Yes, and no. Some things are out of our control, like bumping into your future partner on the Tube.
What is in our control is telling our stories in ways that some people, our people, will find interesting. We’re not playing to the big crowd; we’re not trying to be the lead story on the evening news.
We’re just doing what our people find the most useful. And sometimes, we’ll hit an absolute jackpot that they really love. Not because we’ve codified a set of rules, but because we understand what they want and what we can do to help them get that.
You can’t codify success any more than you can codify fate. You can just care about the people who care about what you do or what you can do for them.
What would I codify for success?
These are not groundbreaking, and not sure they really qualify as codifying something. But these are the things I think small businesses can do with their content to be on a successful path:
- Show up. You can’t be successful if you don’t create something (or push the publish button).
- Only worry about your people, not your stats and certainly not anybody else’s.
- Sound like a human, not a corporate content machine.
- Make them laugh, occasionally.
- Make them what to know more, all the time.
I’m sure I could add a few more, but I think those are the most valuable. They’re the ones I try to follow. If I had to add one more then it would be to be interested in what others are doing and think about how you can do that. For example, my love of Yorkshire Tea runs deep, both as my tea of choice (sorry Dorset Tea) and for their marketing activity. I’m always interested in what they pick up on, and if there’s anything I can learn from it.
And for you, what are your steps for content that works for what you do? I’d love to know.