Shared Accountability — A Frightening Concept

With Halloween right around the corner with all of its goblins and scarecrows, it seems appropriate to ponder the frightening — accountability.

Halloween SEO
“Boo The Penguin Pug,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by DaPuglet

With Halloween right around the corner with all of its goblins and scarecrows, it seems appropriate to ponder the frightening — accountability.

As a practicing SEO, my clients expect me to provide advise they can trust and to offer recommendations that are effective. It is my belief that the search marketer must work as a collaborator with the site owners to accomplish their marketing goals.

This does not mean always doling out easy-to-accomplish, short-term strategies that have all of the staying power of Halloween candy. The quick-fix treat will fast turn into a trick if it is not grounded in long-term strategic thinking. Accountability must be shared for results to continue past the turn of the calendar page. The SEO/client relationship does not work if both parties are not willing and able to commit the time and resources to accomplish the strategic and tactical recommendations.

Was It Bad Advice or Bad Consent?

Most SEOs, myself included, will admit that not every project undertaken, every client engagement, every campaign launched was a total, unqualified success.

Not every client becomes a raving fan — much though we would sure love it and work hard to make it happen. I am no longer taking new clients and have the pleasure of taking time to reflect on what has made some engagements a wonderful journey, an exploration into the heights and depths of search marketing success, and others a tough slog in a trackless wasteland.

What separates one from the other? It has not been how difficult the tasks were to accomplish, for all SEO is just technology and marketing. I have worked with as many struggling and stumbling teams as brilliant marketers and terrific technologists. This does not seem to be the deciding line.

What I have come to realize is that projects that didn’t work were not necessarily the product of bad advice, but rather a mismatch of advice and consent. All too often, I have encountered ambitious eager marketers who underestimated the technical challenges that their site presented. They were gung-ho to conquer their marketplace, and didn’t realize the limitations of their technology or team. Sometimes they have encountered a technology roadmap so long that the marketing team’s requirements are an outpost on the map that won’t be reached in this century.

This is a hard realization for those whose results hinge on site changes that no one else considers significant. Sometimes, the mismatch was due to no one realizing just how much real work must go into SEO in a content-driven search environment. Little magic elves don’t create quality content in just a few moments.

The most successful and rewarding client engagements have required a shared set of goals (SEO, marketing and technology) coupled with a real understanding of the task at hand and mutual accountability on all sides for accomplishing the milestones needed to meet the goals. This requires a level of honesty and openness that is refreshing as it is infrequently encountered.

When it all works together, the results can be truly gratifying. It has been my pleasure to enjoy more than my share of these sweet successes.

Walk a Mile in Your Client’s Shoes

Agency folks love to complain about the pace of our work, the numerous bosses (AKA “clients”), the often restricted budgets, creative latitude and so on. It is human nature to bemoan the challenges we face personally, but to serve the interests of our clients we also have to factor in the obstacles our clients must, in turn, surmount.

Hipster shoesAgency folks love to complain about the pace of our work, the numerous bosses (AKA “clients”), the often restricted budgets, creative latitude and so on. It is human nature to bemoan the challenges we face personally, but to serve the interests of our clients we also have to factor in the obstacles our clients must, in turn, surmount.

The worst thing an agency partner can do is bring no ideas. The second worse thing is to present an idea, concept or approach to a client that does not fit their strategy or creates a headache disproportionate to the potential upside and opportunity. It’s the headache that often gets discounted or ignored. You’re just bad at your job if you are off strategy — but the risk-reward balancing trick is tough to achieve for anyone without a crystal ball and even tougher without the consideration of internal decision factors that the client may not explicitly divulge. This is where perceptive agency partners take a walk in their clients’ shoes.

Agencies are regularly tasked with helping their clients locate the edge that is relevant, strategic and effective for clients without pushing them over that edge. It’s the proverbial fine line that is influenced by factors well beyond those commonly found in a plan or brief. Marketers confront pressures unique to their particular environment when making difficult and finessed decisions regarding budgets, partners and opportunities. This allows them to make the best decision for their business in that space and time. It may not be the optimal decision according to a sterile predictive model but none of us live in that sterile world.

How can we factor in the real world issues that can and should influence marketing decisions?

Some Things We Can Glean From Historical Response

Have similar recommendations met with resistance or delay in the past? What was the underlying reason for that resistance? Is it likely to change or is it endemic to the organization or industry?

Industry factors like regulatory constraints should be pretty straight forward and clearly considered but companies and individuals have different appetites for risk that also need to be considered. You can moderate the tendency to play it too safe over time by building trust, gaining proof points with successful recommendations and a thorough, objective examination and presentation of your plans.

6 Strategies Behind the Trend in B-to-B Client Conferences

Producing an event is expensive and risky. What’s the benefit? Should you launch a client conference of your own? In conversations with several marketers, I have identified six reasons to consider it.

Have you noticed how so many B-to-B companies seem to be running their own proprietary conferences these days? I can’t turn around without another customer event popping up on the radar. AppNexus has its Summit, three years now. Quad/Graphics relaunched its Camp Quad last year. MeritDirect celebrated its 16th Co-op this year. This got me wondering: Producing an event is expensive and risky. What’s the benefit? Should you launch a client conference of your own? In conversations with several marketers, I have identified six reasons to consider it.

Customer events are especially popular in the tech world. Kathleen Schaub, vice president of IDG’s CMO Advisory Service, reports that customer events are twice as common (at 48 percent) as participation in trade shows (27 percent) among tech marketers. But the trend appears in financial services, manufacturing and business services as well. Here’s why B-to-B companies are jumping into proprietary events.

  • Uninterrupted Face Time: What a great way to get your customer’s full attention, especially compared with a trade show, where you have to compete with zillions of others. SiriusDecisions, the marketing consulting firm, views its popular Summit as a place to deliver fresh research to its clients, as part of its paid advisory service. The Summit brought a capacity crowd of 2,300 attendees to Nashville’s Opryland complex for three and a half days, with 150 sessions. No distractions, just 100 percent client attention.
  • Efficient Prospecting: Although primarily for clients, many of these conferences are designed to include prospects, as well. Who better to sell for you than happy current customers? NewsCred deliberately added an extra day to its #ThinkContent Summit that would be open to non-customers, by invitation. “We worked with the sales team to identify target accounts, and we invited marketing leaders from those companies to bring their teams,” says Jasmine Cortez, event marketing manager. These attendees were treated like leads, with post-event nurturing communications and sales follow-up.
  • Customer Retention:Events that are perceived as valuable translate into customer good will and loyalty. For NewsCred, the primary objective is to deepen customer relationships, says Melissa Blazejewski, B-to-B events manager. Client conferences also serve to deepen the host company’s understanding of its customer needs and stimulate account penetration. Says Brad Gillespie, head of global marketing at SiriusDecisions, “Sifting through data about Summit attendees makes us smarter as marketers. But the primary benefit is in cross-buying. Attending the Summit is clearly associated with clients’ subscribing to new service lines.”
  • Brand Value Expansion: Quad/Graphics cleverly positioned its Camp Quad event to serve senior marketing people, although the typical day-to-day customer for the large printing company is a production specialist. The Camp Quad event was located near its network of Wisconsin printing plants, which showcase for their newer technologies and service offerings. So the attendees not only picked up new marketing ideas, they broadened their understanding of Quad’s capabilities. Says Maura Packham, marketing and communications VP, “The post-event feedback shows that people feel differently about Quad’s value proposition. This was our goal.”
  • Content Production:Conference programming serves as a valuable source of new content for various uses throughout the year. “We advise our clients that the best B-to-B campaigns are centrally themed and extend over time. We practice what we preach, by using the Summit as the launch event for a year’s communications,” says Gillespie. For Quad/Graphics, the client event becomes a useful reason to call for the sales team, who follow up with non-attendees saying “Here’s what you missed.”
  • Make Money: Many client events, like Camp Quad, are hosted entirely by the organizer, with attendees paying only travel expenses. But some, like SiriusDecisions, are run like a profit center, with sponsors and exhibitors paying the freight. “Our value proposition is convenient access to useful information,” says Gillespie. “Our sponsors deliver over 100 case studies, which are highly valued by attendees. We run the event as a business, but its main purpose is to educate and enrich our customers’ experience.”

Convinced? It’s a challenge to organize your own event, but the payoff can be huge.

A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Benchmarking: There’s No Such Thing as an Average 2% Response Rate

It seems easy enough to answer the question: How to know if a marketing campaign measures up? But managing client expectations (whether they’re internal or external) is sometimes more fuzzy

It seems easy enough to answer the question: How to know if a marketing campaign measures up?

Often enough, there are predefined business objectives, acceptable margins for profit and cost, and a marketing return on investment that is straightforward enough to calculate. If one is able to know any and all of these markers, then one can know if a marketing campaign, or even a single tactic, is making the grade.

But managing client expectations (whether they’re internal or external) is sometimes more fuzzy. And a marketing execution doesn’t always go according to plan, prompting investigations on what might have gone wrong. (I’m still surprised how testing is underutilized, for example.)

On the happier end of the spectrum, stellar results might prompt a whole other set of questions: “Did we really beat the long-standing control? This campaign performed gang-busters, how does it measure up to efforts of our industry peers? Is this campaign award-worthy?”

As a public relations professional in the world of direct response, I’ve often been asked to help an agency or marketing client understand how good or bad a particular marketing result might be. When the question is about results that are less than expected, there is often internal wrangling about the creative, the list and/or the strategy — any of which might be the culprit. When the results are fantastic, clients often want to know, are we beating whatever the competition may be up to.

In both scenarios, among go-to options are various industry research sources. Anyone who has a subscription to Who’s Mailing What! archive (direct mail, email), or taps eMarketer or Econsultancy (digital and mobile information), or steps up to Gartner, Forrester and the like for subscriptions to qualitative reporting, certainly has access to great data and idea stores.

I personally keep a copy of “DMA Statistical Fact Book” (annually published) and “DMA Response Rate Report” close at hand. The “DMA Response Rate Report’s” 2015 version is recently published, and is available at the DMA Bookstore. Both are understandably Direct Marketing Association top-sellers.

The “DMA Response Rate Report” aggregates data from respondents — providing a true benchmarking resource. And it breaks response data out by media, and by industry (selling cars is not selling clothes) which gives marketers a helpful guide of what to shoot for and expect. It’s worth a whole other post to delve into its insights, but IWCO Direct and SeQuel Response recently offered some. A quick inspection of the report can let marketers know what they might expect from an otherwise well-executed campaign.

And I’m happy to say to some clients, too, as another benchmark, that they should enter the International ECHO Awards. It’s perhaps the best way to be recognized for achievement (beyond the paycheck). With judges inspecting the world’s best in data-driven advertising, an ECHO trophy says that a marketing team, agency or organization knows its stuff. This year’s competition deadline for entering is July 10, and DMA is offering a Webinar on May 19 to give tips and insights from the judges themselves (speaking will be yours truly, joined by fellow Target Marketing blogger Carolyn Goodman of Goodman Marketing Partners and Smithsonian’s Karen Rice Gardiner). Have only five minutes to spare? You can always hear directly from Carolyn here about the entry process.

Enter early and often! I’d love to point to your campaign as a “benchmark” later this year.

Best Practices Exist for a Reason, Part 1: Email

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

Over the years, I’ve absorbed studies about the ventricles of the brain and how it performs distinctly different cognitive processes. I’ve read color studies, the anatomy of eye movement, how words and numbers trigger comprehension and reaction, fonts and their role in evoking an emotional reaction, persuasion psychology and unconscious motivation—the list goes on and on—all in an effort to apply these learnings in order to help our clients get the maximum response to their marketing efforts.

While I have a laundry list of “must-do’s” for every medium, I thought I’d share a few digital best practices as Part 1 in a series, and I’d love to hear why you’re NOT following these proven techniques:

  • Test Your Subject Lines: According to a 2014 poll by Howling Mad’s Parry Malm, marketers ranked subject lines among the top variable that affected email response rates however 25% ever conducted any testing. Parry (one of the leading experts on email subject lines) has learned that ‘Sale’ delivers 23.2% opens while ‘Save’ only gets 3.4%. He also found that if the subject line is personalized but the email content isn’t, you gain opens but don’t drive clicks. I put that insight in my ‘Duh!’ file.
  • Buttons Will Get More Clicks Than Text Links: Many have tested this theory (myself included) and the answer seems to always conclude that buttons will outperform text links. AWeber conducted a series of button/text links, and their findings are fascinating as they determined that, over time, text links outperformed the buttons—but they also concluded that what works today, may not work tomorrow. Again, test and keep testing.
  • Text Links Should Be in Color: While this might seem like a ‘Duh!’ I’m always surprised when I accidently hover my finger or mouse over a block of text and discover “there’s a hyperlink in them there hills!” If you want me to take an action (like clicking on something) then lead my horse to the water.
  • A Button Needs to Look Like a Button: Neil Patel, the co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics, owns the button testing world hands down and he concludes that the digital button that gets the most clicks is shaped like a button (rounded corners, slight drop shadow) and is colored (or at least in contrast to the rest of the page of copy in order to stand out—duh). Try NOT to match the color of your button to other call-out boxes on the page as the distraction prevents the action.
  • Button Copy Should Be in First Person: Try this test yourself. If your action button is written in third person (“Start now” or “Try Product X Free”) try testing it against copy in the 1st person (“Help Me Work Faster” or “End My Headaches”). It’s highly likely you’ll see a lift of at least 25% in clicks, at least according to Ashtyn Douglas and Joanna Wiebe who conducted similar tests.
  • Fonts Matter: While many designers will argue this topic endlessly, the current consensus is that sans serif fonts are superior for body text and serif fonts are best for headlines. Of course if you have a newer display, it doesn’t make much difference. But not everyone has the newest technology and some work on displays that are 10+ years old, so if you target a senior audience (yes, that includes senior managers in small companies who cannot afford to regularly upgrade their hardware), you may want to design for maximum legibility. Make sure your font is a system font (most likely to be supported by the majority of email clients and web browsers) like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Geneva or Trebuchet MS, and large enough for people to read without any effort—at least 10 if not 12 pt. Even though Google is now providing supposedly supported modern web fonts, it’s a little too early to tell whether every email client and web browser will be able to properly display them.

In summary, if all of these marketers have already done all the testing for you, why wouldn’t you at least consider these insights and apply them to your own email marketing efforts? Tell me. I’m all ears.

How to Treat a Client

Over the holidays, I relocated my office a few doors down the hallway in order to accommodate some staff changes. While cleaning out a bookcase, I came across a 1991 edition of Courier, the in-house newsletter for Ogilvy & Mather Direct. I had saved it because it was chock full of great tips on Client Service and reminded me of how much I had learned during my days at OMD.

Over the holidays, I relocated my office a few doors down the hallway in order to accommodate some staff changes. While cleaning out a bookcase, I came across a 1991 edition of Courier, the in-house newsletter for Ogilvy & Mather Direct. I had saved it because it was chock full of great tips on Client Service and reminded me of how much I had learned during my days at OMD.

As I reread the front page article, it struck me that the 20 pithy tips in How to Treat a Client, penned by the late David Ogilvy, had stayed with me throughout my career—and, that I espouse them as my own. Given we’ve just entered a new year and there’s always lots of great advice being thrown around, I thought I’d reprint them here as a reminder of how great agencies truly operate. And they are as relevant today as they were 24 years ago…

  1. Never submit an ad unless you honestly think it is good.
  2. Tell Clients what you would do if you were in their shoes.
  3. Always put your Client’s interests above the agency’s.
  4. Never tell a Client a lie.
  5. When you make a serious mistake, tell your Client before he (or she) hears it from somebody else.
  6. Ask your Client for their opinions, and listen attentively to what they say.
  7. Never get between a Client and the footlights. Give her (or her) the credit for our success.
  8. Never miss a due date, even if it means working nights and weekends.
  9. Never get involved in the politics in the Client’s office.
  10. Never leak the Client’s secrets.
  11. When your Client makes a mistake, rush to the rescue.
  12. Know more about the Client’s business than he (or she) does.
  13. Invent new ways to help your Clients grow their business—above and beyond the call of duty.
  14. If you think a Client is a dope, conceal your opinion.
  15. Never use a product which is manufactured by one of the Client’s competitors.
  16. Make friends with your Clients, but never grovel. For example, never thank a Client for coming to a meeting.
  17. Never give a job to anyone in a Client’s family. They are impossible to fire.
  18. Expose your Clients to other people in the agency, in case you are hit by a taxi.
  19. Never argue with Clients about charges. Leave it to somebody in our Treasurer’s department.
  20. If you think you are a bad fit on an account, tell your boss. He can then assign it to someone else.

If you behave like this, you will win the gratitude and respect of your Clients—and of the agency.

Thank you, David. Truer words have never been spoken.

How (Not) to Run an Agency RFP

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process – and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process—and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect.

Agencies are always delighted when invited to participate in an Request for Proposal (RFP) process. While many may choose not to engage due to client conflict or the belief that their likelihood of being awarded the contract is nominal—or the budget outlined in the brief doesn’t come close to paying for the amount of work that will be required to achieve the client’s objectives—those that do participate have an expectation that the process will be fair and somewhat transparent.

Any agency worth its salt invests significant time, energy and out-of-pocket expense in a new business pitch. Whether it’s the early stages of completing the “competency” response (where the focus is on written information that provides an overview of the agency, some case studies that are relevant, industry experience, team bios, etc.,) or it’s a later stage when preparing for a face-to-face pitch, net-net, it takes a lot of hard work to prepare a smart, tightly integrated response that will help put your firm in the best possible light with the target decision makers. After all, we’re all supposed to be marketing experts and if we can’t market ourselves properly to a target audience of our peers, what kind of marketers are we?

That aside, recently we were included in three separate searches for a new agency and they shared a common trait—the big, black, hole.

We received the RFP, spent countless hours researching the brand to fully understand their point of differentiation, talked to past and current customers, participated in the Q&A process, coordinated with partners to fill in some capabilities gaps, and attempted to understand the financial metrics to ensure we could provide intelligent and thoughtful solutions that would actually yield a positive ROI. After weeks of work, we carefully assembled our response, printed multiple copies, bound the decks and invested in a courier to deliver it on the designated date to the clients’ location.

The next milestone on the RFP was to notify agencies that made it to the next round by XX/XX/XX.

Despite emails and phone calls to the RFP contact, we never heard a peep … even weeks and weeks after the deadline had passed.

In one instance, we finally got a junior staffer on the phone who told us the search had been cancelled and they renewed their contract with the incumbent—apparently they shopped around and convinced themselves there was no one better, but didn’t have the courage to let each participant know of their decision. But why? Afraid we’re going to try and talk them out of their decision??

In another instance, we finally got an email from a procurement officer advising us that the RFP had been cancelled—period—no other explanation. After a little sleuthing, we figured out the company hired a new marketing director in the middle of the search, and they probably wanted to regroup before proceeding. Fair enough—but don’t leave us all hung out to dry!

In a third instance, we finally tracked down an insider who told us the marcom team was going through a reorganization, and no one knew what was happening. Gosh. So glad I invested in THAT opportunity!

I’ve also noticed that many clients running RFPs are often ill-equipped to conduct the search properly. When we go through the Q&A process, they can’t seem to answer key questions that will drive strategically smart solutions. Or even basic things like:

  • Why are you looking for a new agency?
  • What are the biggest marketing challenges you’re facing today and, if you know, in the future?
  • What marketing efforts are you executing currently that are working and not working and why?
  • Who is your target audience—SPECIFICALLY?
  • What are your business metrics?
    • What is a new customer worth?
    • What is your churn rate?
    • How many products/services does a typical customer own?

The more you can share during the RFP process, the more likely you are to get intelligent, insightful ideas that can make a real difference to your business. And yes, that takes signing mutual NDA’s, investing real time and energy into the review process, and working with agency teams to discover who feels like a good “fit” and brings fresh ideas to the process that seem viable to your business.

It’s NOT a fishing expedition for free creative. (Would you go to a doctor and ask for a diagnosis without paying?) It’s NOT an exercise to freak out your incumbent so they’ll work harder/reduce their fees/change the way they do business. If that’s what you want, tell them that’s what you need, and if they don’t deliver, advise them you’re going to search for a replacement and that they needn’t participate as you have no intention of keeping the business with them.

After all, we’d all prefer not to work long nights and weekends if we don’t have a hope of winning. That’s just plain respectful.

Client Maturity

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development?

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development? This lack of maturity might result in an abandonment of the project before completion because it “seemed to take too long,” “needed too much development,” or “was broken.”

As campaign architects and builders, we find ourselves working with clients who need to learn a new vernacular in order to participate in meetings and decision-making with our teams. Simple explanations are one thing, but when we spend copious time in calls and meetings simply educating, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the fit of the client.

For the immature client, working to build campaigns will be a daunting task—made so by longer meetings and hours’ long descriptions of design and development processes as you attempt to keep them in the know and in the loop. If our client is lacking the required maturity to participate in a meaningful manner, the negative impact on the project may derail efforts to the point of paralysis or even abandonment.

In an effort to find the best customers for your company, consider developing a maturity-diagnosis document. In this document, ask questions to help you determine at what level your customer will be able to contribute to conversations and decision-making. You could ask questions such as:

  • Do you know the difference between drip and nurture campaigns?
  • Does your company have a revenue goal this year?
  • Are you on target to reach your goal?
  • How will this campaign contribute to the goal?
  • How big is your sales team?
  • How are they compensated?
  • At what level is your understanding of HTML and CSS?
  • Is your website responsive; do you know what that is?
  • Does your website offer e-commerce? If so, what platform?
  • Does your e-commerce system enable you to send auto-responders?
  • Do you know how to modify these auto-responders?
  • How dependent are you on your IT department or other departments?

As you can see, the questions you might ask should span myriad topics, but which to ask will be dependent upon your company and the types of services you provide to clients.

If you are a .NET website-development company, you may need to ask questions focused more on the maturity of knowledge of our client in the e-commerce space. If you provide simple blast emails, you may wish to focus on their understanding of various types of emails and SEO. In both cases, however, you are looking to minimize the overhead created by having to educate your client each step or phase of the project.

Not every prospect who dials your number or fills out a form is a customer with whom your company should engage. You are not in the business of education, you’re in the business of providing a service—and the more quickly, succinctly and efficiently you can provide that service, the more profitable you will be.

Vet your customers. They certainly vetted you.

Is It Time for a True Goodbye?

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

This morning we woke up to our first snow in the foothills of the Rockies. Even though it was only a light sprinkling—like powdered sugar on our lawn—it seemed entirely way too soon. We were not ready to say a goodbye to summer. We assumed we had a couple more weeks to enjoy patio dinners, the window boxes in full bloom and the hummingbirds on the feeders. We had to readjust.

Later in the day, I read this from Jeffrey McDaniel: “I realize there’s something incredibly honest about trees in winter, how they’re experts at letting things go.” I appreciated this advance lesson about winter … it helped me set my favorite season aside and anticipate the cozy fires in the woodstove, cross-country skiing and holiday family gatherings.

Many of my clients are multichannel retailers who introduce hundreds of new products in a season. Very few of these new rollouts become brand rockstars (as I call their bestsellers); many more end up in the middle of the performance pack and the rest trickle towards the bottom. This is a repeat pattern. I believe there is as much value in the bottom learnings as there are in the top-of-chart learnings. The conversations about the bestsellers are just more fun.

As I reflected on a client interaction I had this week, I thought about how helpful it is for organizations to learn from the past and then also to let go. I had facilitated a meeting where we tried to embrace failure not as life-over, but simply as feedback—to have a more positive outlook on the unplanned learning lessons that failure brings a brand. It was a tough sell. These young, smart, good-hearted brand builders were perfectionists. They only ever saw A+ on their report cards. Red Fs would have been scarring.

But, here’s the thing: Unplanned lessons are the exact opposite of lesson plans … those neat and tidy curriculum plans teachers try to follow until the students show up and things go awry. We often learn more from things that don’t quite go the way we hoped than things that do. If we dare to review our actions.

In a BusinessWeek article entitled “Radio Flyer Learns from a Crash,” Thomas Schlegel, VP for product development at Radio Flyer shared his thoughts on a product launch that was halted. After months of development and lots of production time and dollars, Schlegel scrapped it. “It didn’t live up to Radio Flyer standard,” he said. According to the article, “his boss, Robert Pasin, CEO, told Schlegel failure was OK as long as the company learned from it. Pasin now holds a regular breakfast for new employees at which he impresses upon them the idea that failure is inevitable if you want to innovate and valuable if you can learn from it. And after every project ends—whether the project has been shipped or been killed—Radio Flyer is developing what Schlegel describes as an ‘autopsy without blame,’ in which everyone involved in the development of a product discusses four questions: What went well on the project? What didn’t go well on the project? What did we learn? And, what are we going to do next?”

Author James Joyce gives us a new perspective on unplanned lessons: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Bravo to Radio Flyer. They made discoveries and acted on their volitional errors!

So, I switched gears in my client meeting and described to these Type A risk-averse professionals how another client actually embraces failures—publicly and light-heartedly. This company even had more than 300,000 customers take a tour of its flops: Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard. It’s a real live collection of 31 ice cream mistakes and missteps over the years memorialized for all to see.

Ellen Kresky, Creative Director for Ben & Jerry’s shares this: “One of my favorite things about Ben & Jerry’s is that we’re not afraid to acknowledge our shortcomings or failures to consumers. Take our Flavor Graveyard for example. We use it on our website, and you can actually go visit real tombstones at our Waterbury tour. The Flavor Graveyard features limericks to eulogize our flavor bombs. We even sell Flavor Graveyard t shirts. A few years ago we had a contest to bring consumers’ favorite flavor back from the dead for a limited time in scoop shops. A lot of us were secretly hoping that a flavor with a low gross margin would win so that consumers would benefit in more ways than one. And our wish came true. For me, this is an example of contrarian brand management. Projects like this help continue to build consumer love and trust, and manage to do that in an un-contrived way that stays true to our roots.”

I know it used to be a common practice for many multichannelers to take the time to have strategic post-mortem conversations evaluating a season’s results by sales channels (retail, on-line and catalog) and by customer segments. Product visual boards would be created and the nuances of what worked and what didn’t would be discussed along with promotional strategies and competitive tactics and offerings. In today’s attention deficit business culture where every one is chasing the next new thing, I’m afraid these important cross-departmental meetings have morphed into line item reports read individually and acted upon in silos. The subtle underlying threads of what didn’t work do not get fully analyzed and the real failure of this short cut practice is that similar mistakes get made again (and possibly again).

I am a proponent of serious, slow talk (like the Slow Food, Slow Travel and Slow Christmas movements!) post mortems where true learning and insights can occur. I have both led and participated in these with my clients and they work and are worth it. Stop and think time. Concentrated focus on the previous season’s happenings both for your brand and your customers’ experience with your brand. Free flow of information. Open agenda. Robust conversations. Potential surprise endings.

So, have you dared to slow down and look back with your brand team? Why not take time to better understand and collaboratively converse about your brand faux paus openly and then, and only then, bid them a true goodbye!