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Why is marketing so dang hard?

As marketing grows ever more complex, columnist Scott Vaughan has some practical tips for marketers on how to simplify your efforts so that you can better focus on the outcomes that matter.

I’m sitting around with a bunch of friends on a recent off-road trip. Nearly all have professional gigs and work in some type of corporation. The conversation kicks up about our jobs, how we got started and so on. To get the full picture, we have engineers, sales, finance and operations pros all represented, all with big opinions. I proceed to talk about my marketing role. The grief starts flying: “Go play with your crayons, make us some t-shirts, perhaps a slogan!” No clue as to the complexity and effort required for real marketing.

I tried to explain (maybe a tad defensively) how the marketing profession has changed and what it takes. While I stopped trying to make my case to this group, this conversation continued, with various marketing colleagues discussing how much more diverse and complex — and, at times, difficult — marketing has become. More noise, more data, more channels, more technology. More, more, more.

When I hear “more,” my reaction is a need to simplify. The task for marketing leaders is how to prioritize, streamline and focus to exceed the goals we’ve been given and the results we’re accountable for. Yes, there are hacks. Truly simplifying, however, requires more than mere hacking. It takes a disciplined, holistic approach.

Here are things marketers can do every day, every week, to simplify for greater outcomes.

Say “no” first

Okay, not literally. Don’t be the jerk or the “no” person, and don’t get defensive. Rather, you always ask, “What happens if I don’t do this?” It can be a task (e.g., writing a blog, posting on social, going to an event) or it can a major initiative (e.g., build and deliver a new marketing program, buy a piece of technology).

To make this “no” approach fully work, start your daily or weekly get-done list with what you are NOT going to do. Write ’em down and cross ’em out. Then, make sure your focus is not just on work that you can get done, but also on work that will make a difference in the business. These difference-makers can be chunked up into tasks to keep them moving forward.

That sets up and aligns with the next guiding principle…

Pursue the big idea(s)

The big idea has become underrated or even forgotten. We’re so busy creating programs, applying technology and analyzing data, we forget we’re still engaging, serving and delighting humans. Often, having a disruptive idea can have much more impact than lots of smaller efforts.

This ability to rally behind one or two big ideas allows marketers to focus their resources and makes it easier for key stakeholders to get behind the same initiative. This creates emphasis and builds momentum. Of course, you still must pick the right initiatives.

Experience life

In the spirit of creative ideas and remembering that most marketers are communicating with and selling to humans, our best ideas and inspiration can come from places outside the markets we serve, the industries we work in and the business world generally. Go for a hike, walk around the neighborhood or get to an art show. See the world through a different lens. There are ideas and inspirations all around us.

Too often we live in our industry, and it’s easy to get stuck inside a bubble. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen have come from everyday life. For B2B, this can mean borrowing some ideas from our B2C marketing colleagues who think of people (their consumers) first.

Build and use templates

Let’s shift from experiential to process.

One quick, effective way to scale is to take the time to create simple templates that all projects and processes can start from. This doesn’t mean being robotic, of course. Rather, the focus is on having a place to start quickly and build good, consistent habits.

For example, we have a template for every kind of program we develop that outlines the components, timeline, roles and deliverables. We rarely must start from scratch, and these templates build over time so they’re robust and flexible to meet specific needs. We also have templates for all types of marketing and sales materials.

A small bit of time upfront doesn’t only save effort in the long run, it contributes to making sure resources stay focused on achieving goals.

Apply automation to known processes

Software can’t fix a bad process. We’ve all learned this, likely the hard way. However, technology can be valuable when applied to replace established, repeatable processes.

For example, countless times I’ve caught myself asking, “Do you remember when we used to process data through spreadsheets?” And think about the days before marketing automation. We would blast — I mean, “send” — communications to every lead the same way in bulk.

With software, we can now set up nurture tracks and personalized workflows based on the prospect’s interest or behavior. This is a big example, but there are tools that can shortcut so much of what our teams do every day, freeing up time to focus on the right stuff.


One of the things we all fall prey to is spending weeks on creating something, only to use it once. Events and content in our marketing world are the biggest victims here. We spend months planning for an event, creating messaging, developing collateral and organizing a party — and then, in three days, it’s over. This “stuff” should be repackaged and continue to be used for other mediums.

Content is another “one and done.” We spend weeks on developing the biggest, coolest asset ever, and we use it for lead gen. How about taking the main themes and topics and sectioning it up into a blog series, a set of check lists and sales tools? This content reuse effort alone will save hundreds of hours a year to refocus time in other areas that yield bigger payback.

Final thoughts

Yes, marketing can be hard. Our customers’ expectations are rising, and the pace of change is accelerating. But by changing the ways we approach marketing and simplifying where possible, we can refocus our efforts on the stuff that matters, getting bigger wins for all involved.

by Scott Vaughan