Recently a senior marketer in my group announced her resignation, as I was discussing this with a few of the members of my web team they kept expressing their surprise that she would leave given that she had worked with us for just a few years and now, seemed to really be in a place to leverage the success she had built in her time with us. To these “veterans” (7 plus years) the notion of leaving didn’t make sense.
Rather than trying to explain a particular reason for why she may have left, I commented to my coworkers that this individual was a builder while they were maintainers. Given that these terms were my own on-the-fly creation, this lead to a lengthy discussion about the role people play within their organizations and how a smart organization looks at people not just as long terms resources, but as fitting into an evolving puzzle.
Whether it was the Internet, social media, or the printing press, the one thing that is certain in business is that trends and tactics will change. The smart companies are the ones that adapt to these new concepts fast, ideally before they are even seen as true evolutions, while companies that conservatively wait, end up struggling to remain relevant and, oftentimes, to remain profitable. People play a major part of this cycle as well — like the marketer who I mentioned before — her role was critical in bringing a certain amount of strategy to reality; something which other types would not have been able to do so swiftly.
The evolution within a business comes through a continuous cycle comprised of four distinct, although potentially overlapping, phases. It is a company’s ability to understand, staff, and adapt at each of these stages that dictates its success in transitioning into new marketing eras.
1- Change -
When a new business method begins to take root, it’s difficult to embrace and understand. These ideas, from the printing press that took businesses into a mass market world, to Television replacing Radio and Print as an awareness building tool, or the most recent example of internet and social media empowering consumers to learn and engage outside of the corporate gates, it’s almost always scary times to the establishment. Change is frightening personally as it may mean a role is no longer needed, a person is no longer relevant and corporately, as it is almost always costly and significant to shift an organization.
Thus when it comes time for a significant shift there is usually conflict. The first person who introduced a direct response TV buying to the Marketing VP was probably shot down a dozen times… In hindsight it seems silly, after all, who wouldn’t want more targeted media at better rates, but at the time it was an idea that risked harming what was working.
The change agents who stir up the status quo and suggest the new idea face an uphill battle. Generally they are coming from the middle or lower ranks, younger, and newer to the organization, having seen an idea in their own lives that they wish to bring to their organization and are passionate about (although this is not a requirement as evidenced by Steve Jobs who changed apple to a music, media and portable company in his 40s).
The individual or individuals who introduce a new idea must have immense passion for it to withstand the inability of their peers and organization to change. Often this is not possible and the person who introduces a new approach or new idea finds itself moving onto an organization that’s already clued in and read to move. This is the toughest role but without a change agent it is impossible for a company to adopt a new idea early on and instead it is only when it has become beyond mainstream that the organization brings it in.
2 – Build –
It maybe days or years from the time from which an idea transitions from introduction to acceptance, but once it has been internalized, the desire to act is usually very swift and may come with little thought or planning… This is the fire-drill reaction now that the business realizes it has something hot on its hands.
If a change agent has the patience and fortune to be able to stick around, he will get the benefit of implementing, but if not the company will go out and look for an expert, a person who can champion the idea. Of course, if the concept is new, say paid search marketing in the very late 90s, the talent pool is extremely small, if any experienced individuals exist at all, and requires the company to be very flexible in who they bring in (internally or externally) to take on the challenge… If they wait for perfection the business will miss any early advantage.
The build phase is one of constant trial, retrial and ultimately great success (or dismal failure). During this period companies are building up their new approach and running in multiple directions as they struggle to figure out a strategy rather than just using tactics. For a truly early stage, innovative company, this is the period to lead an entire industry.
3 – Maintain –
After enough time of running around and building various programs, the winning ideas emerge over lesser thoughts and a program emerges to be pursued. This is the start of the maintenance period–an indefinite time in which the company thrives as their proven program drives continued success.
This is a period of steady growth as investments made during build pay off, marketing, production and operational triggers are optimized (rather than being invented) and small adjustments propel the company to see even better revenue. Boards, shareholders, customers remain content as everything progresses…. It’s not about excitement or headlines, but instead, it is a time of stable growth.
While they may still exist within the organization, few change agents are seen during this time and those that are present bring forward smaller ideas, often facing strong resistance, after all, everything is going well.
4 - Stagnate -
Eventually, whether through laziness, blindness, or simply marketplace innovations which are not matched, companies start to slip. What was a steady, albeit slow, evolutionary process, turns into treading water as the company leaves maintenance and begins to stagnate. In the right conditions this transformation can be so subtle initially that revenue and other key metrics continue to grow.
Stagnation is, of course, an eventual path towards death and what companies and marketers fear and fight to push off.
If the organization is truly open, the early signs of stagnation can be identified quick enough to avoid the most impact as the company, seeing a marketplace challenge, jumps into conflict with both feet to embrace what is new. Even more successful businesses parallel process the entire cycle and are already conflicting while maintenance takes place allowing themselves to evolve before they even smell an issue… This level of prepared growth is something I will explore further later in this post.
However, these are the exceptions, not the rule. For most companies, and the examples are too numerous to count, stagnation is already occurring, even as a company sees itself as succeeding.
The issue of course is complacency. The best ideas can quickly become the last idea, but to those who launched it, this is often impossible to see.
Take the evolution of social media sites. While geocities and private communities had been around for over a decade, it was Friendster that started a mass network and then Myspace that, leveraging Friendster’s network issues, grew to dominate the “social” landscape in 2006. Myspace honed in on users’, especially young ones, desire to have their own profiles connected with people they knew offline and on. Enabling them with a simple, yet highly customizable solution, sign ups seemed unstoppable.
But within a few years they had stopped. We all know the reason — Facebook. But it was not that Facebook was better that doomed Myspace, it was that Myspace had already failed itself by stopping true innovation.
Myspace believed their platform was what users wanted and rather than developing better ways to connect or evaluating the implications of their open (and therefore very slow, very cluttered) system, they focused on new content. In all likelihood, this was where research led them — users wanted more music, more goodies, but behind the scenes they didn’t realize that what they were really looking for was something more connected.
Facebook came in, without any expectation of being a half billion member site 4 years later, and put better features in place that met the user’s needs. To be clear, it was not a feature war as much as an ideation one… Facebook got that people wanted a sense of exclusivity and used schools to launch. They understood that it was the actions of people’s friends over that of their own that got them to come back and they used what really amounted to less features, less control to win. And still Myspace didn’t see the writing on the wall. They remained confident in their size, their solution and direction. They didn’t return to conflict fast enough, or to a wide enough degree to regain the upper hand. And that was that.
Speaking of social networking, the evolution of digital and now social properties has vastly changed the concept of a stagnating business. 50, or even 15 years ago a business cycle just like the one I have described existed, but it took time, lots of time. Information flowed slowly to companies, which could, and in fact had to, develop slowly to allow consumers to keep up with their innovations.
But just as digital gives us new challenges in how we go to market, it also changes how we have to evolve within the market. The ability to rapidly connect to millions of users is a tool that may not have existed a week ago, but changes everything. It’s no longer about years, products, services and information that can change at an amazing rate. This requires organizations to look at their cycles differently and recognize that as quickly as they innovate, they may be out of style, especially in larger organizations where shifting still means embracing paid search, let alone the latest twitter trends.
Stagnation is what kills, but it’s also what starts the next step as companies drive to react to the new market, the new products or whatever else has changed and so we jump, fall or get pulled kicking and screaming back to conflict and restarting the cycle.
While understanding these stages, it is inherently vital to addressing them, it is equally, if not more important to grasp the paradox that they reveal in business — the need to innovate and the simple desire to thrive off of what is already working and proven. More on that next week…