In her HBR (Harvard Business Review) article, Feeling Stuck or Stymied, Dorie Clark mentions that many professionals feel frustrated with slow progress in their careers. She witnessed that many ambitious people make the mistake of not giving themselves enough time to achieve their goals. Strategic patience. That's what they need to cultivate to give themselves a fair chance to succeed.
I was immediately drawn to the article because I could totally relate to what she was describing in the article. Yes, in terms of the progress in my career - I wish I had achieved so much more already. But the more prominent reason why I was drawn to the article and the concept of "strategic patience" is that these are very relevant to marketing. Just the way we need strategic patience to see success in our career, we need strategic patience to see success in our marketing investment.
Here are the five steps to cultivate strategic patience the author discusses in her article and how each of them can be applied to marketing.
Step 1. Research the target and terrain
The author says that we often are clueless about how long it takes to achieve what we set out to achieve. This leads to having unrealistic expectations and timeline. Her recommendation here is to do research on what has worked for others and based on the learnings, set an educated, realistic estimate.
When organizations first start investing in marketing, they tend to expect to realize a return on investment (ROI) rather quickly. In other words, they have an unrealistic expectation about how long it takes to generate a tangible ROI. This is usually because they haven't invested in marketing before and don't know what to expect. What they know for sure is that there has to be a healthy return and otherwise, they can't justify a continuous investment.
Some of the investments you make in marketing such as social media ads can bring rather short-term results. The cost per result (e.g., cost per lead) is high but ads do tend to bring results quickly. On the other hand, some initiatives like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and content marketing can take several months to a few years to realize a return. Despite the time it takes to see a return on investment, SEO and content marketing are smart investments because of their effectiveness in attracting your target audience, building an on-going relationship with them, and reducing your customer acquisition cost continuously in the long run. It is just like investing in stocks: we think about the return we will see in 5 years rather than in 5 days.
To have realistic expectations when it comes to your marketing ROI, it is recommended to do research and talk to other companies similar to yours to see how much budget they allocate to marketing, what key performance indicators they use to measure their marketing ROI (such as average conversion rates, cost per lead, etc.), and how long it took them to generate substantial ROI.
Step 2. Recognize that progress can be barely perceptible
The author says that the progress in your career can be very slow for a long time until you reach a threshold. This reminded me of the advice I give to students and new immigrants learning a new language. I immigrated when I was 18 years old and it felt for a long time like my English was not improving. And the moment came when I felt that it suddenly improved and since that moment, the rate of improvement accelerated.
This applies to marketing as well. Significant evidence of ROI can be missing during the first several months of investing in marketing. But that quiet period is when the solid foundation of your marketing is being built. This is why having key indicators and measuring them on a regular basis is crucial. And celebrate small wins throughout your journey.
For example, when you invest in your website by refreshing the design, working on SEO and content marketing, the ultimate key results you want to measure are most likely the number of leads from the website and the amount of revenue generated by those website leads. When you were not investing in your website before, it would certainly take time for you to see a large number of leads coming in, not to mention generating revenue from them. To notice, recognize, and celebrate all the right momentum, the key indicators to measure include the increase in website visitors, the improvement in the bounce rate, and the performance of your webpages on Google for your chosen keywords.
Step 3. Leverage your relationships in the right way
The author urges us to not compare our career success to the success of others' with many more years of experience. It is human nature to compare but this can lead to feeling inadequate and unfulfilled. Plus, it is rarely an apple-to-apple comparison because all of us humans are very different from each other. Instead of constantly comparing ourselves, the author's recommendation is to leverage our relationships in the right way by seeking advice from our trusted advisors and mentors.
When we first start investing in marketing, it is not a good idea to compare our results to the other companies' who have invested in marketing for several years already. They have a mature marketing practice. We just started building our foundation. Of course, we will not see the same return just yet. It is actually quite arrogant to think that we will immediately see the results that other companies took several years to achieve. What their achievements should do is motivate and inspire us and help us to set realistic expectations.
When you want to get some advice on your marketing but are not sure where to turn, a virtual or fractional CMO can be a good source of advice you can rely on. They can help you evaluate your marketing investments and results so far, set realistic yet ambitious targets, and provide you with unbiased, fresh perspectives.
Step 4. Stop moving your goalposts
The author discusses the so-called "shifting baseline syndrome", the tendency to change the reference point or norms we measure something against. Our achievements in year 1 can look like nothing when we look back in year 3. The author's recommendation is not to move our goalposts constantly because this can discount the meaningful achievements we've made and it can be discouraging.
In marketing, like all other aspects of our business, having clear objectives and key results (OKRs) and measuring our progress against them is very important. Creating a monthly marketing dashboard and continuing to measure the progress helps to understand which areas of our marketing needs more of our attention and what changes we need to make to generate better results.
In addition to monitoring the month-over-month progress, pay attention to year-over-year progress as well. When you witness positive and encouraging momentum, do make sure to talk about it and celebrate it with the wider team. You will see that it definitely energizes you and your team.
Step 5. Aim for "Directionally Correct"
As life can be full of unexpected surprises, both good and bad. The author says that we rarely get to achieve our career goals in the exact same form we had predicted. So, instead of sticking to the one and only path, make directional progress.
Enabling exponential growth is, I argue, the ultimate objective with small/medium enterprise (SME) marketing investment. Marketing is broad and several activities and initiatives fall on our marketing plate. We create and mature our brand. We expand the top of the funnel. We do various activities within the big umbrella called marketing and generate various business results. Ultimately, though, what these results lead to (should lead to, I would say) is enabling the business's exponential growth.
Not every marketing initiative we have our hands on will generate stellar results - some will, some will not. When we see suboptimal results in some of our marketing initiatives, we pause, analyze, and pivot. Having clear OKRs, collecting and analyzing our data, and making the necessary changes in a timely manner is the way to make directional progress and achieve the ultimate objective of enabling exponential growth.
"Let’s face it. Patience is annoying. It would be far better if we didn’t need it at all and could achieve everything we wanted quickly. But the truth is, in almost all cases, our most meaningful goals require effort and perseverance - and time.” Dorie Clark