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How to adopt an active marketing strategy for your business

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolWhen asked how he was so good at scoring goals, Wayne Gretzky – the greatest hockey player of all time – said, “I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

It seems like such an obvious concept. But if it was only that easy, everyone would be doing it.

The sentiment of Gretzky’s comment maps extremely well to business. If we, as business executives and leaders, could see the future direction of the market – of customer demand, of what the world wanted – we would simply skate to where the “puck” is going and deliver on that need. Sadly, it’s not even close to that easy. It takes more than a crystal ball to accurately predict the future movements of your business environment and stay in front of those needs.

As a strategy and marketing executive at a high velocity technology startup, I’m focused on trying to solve these exact problems. There are a few specific points that I’ve learned over the years that can help you skate to where the puck is going instead of where it has been.

Push the market, don’t chase the data.

There are two different types of strategic marketing models: active and passive. The models are separated by a different thought process around the decisions and choices that you have to make on a daily basis.

Active marketing is focused on innovation and creating or inventing a market. What matters most in active marketing is making sure your strategy, product direction and marketing message are all pushing the market forward towards a place where only you can deliver the promised solution. Active marketing is creative, inventive and innovative all at once, and it results in a distinct competitive advantage.

Passive marketing is a method in which you look to your competitors and customers and react to what they tell you is happening in the market. It’s focused on the data that you collect about the market, reacting instead of looking forward to what is coming well beyond what the data points indicate today.

Don’t get me wrong – you have to collect and analyze the data around your customers, competitors, market dynamics and technology changes. But you can’t fall into the trap of expecting the data to tell you what to do. It’s never that simple. Data shows you the market dynamics as of a moment in time.

The high velocity technology market changes so quickly that by the time you are able to collect data and turn it into a fully baked feature or product, the market has moved and is on to another ask. You have to continuously use data collection to inform strategic decisions about market direction and move your company and technology to deliver on what the buyer doesn’t yet know they want. In essence you have to take all the data you can get, analyze it and make predictions on where the market will be in the future (not today), then make a plan for how you can move to intercept that prediction while continually analyzing data to uncover any required corrections to your course. This is the crux of active marketing.

Timing is everything.

Active marketing sounds like something that is difficult, but it can be achieved. The trick to success is timing.

Like a hockey player skating towards an open section of ice, you may have to slightly slow down or speed up your velocity in order to time your entrance into the gap and get a clean shot at the goal. Strategic marketing is no different. If you are too early to market, you’ll skate right by the buyer demand and someone else will pick up your miss. If you are too late to the market, you’ll miss the chance to even have a shot at success – allowing others to take control of the situation and move the market in another direction instead.

The difficulty of nailing market timing is knowing when and how to speed up or slow down. The best strategic marketers will understand timing intuitively – it’ll be a “gut feel.” Wayne Gretzky just knew how fast or slow to skate to be in the right place at the right time. In lieu of having this innate ability, there are a few things you can do to improve your market timing expertise.

Practice predicting market and business dynamics. This will improve your instincts. Just like a hockey player does drills and scrimmages to become proficient at flow and timing, to be a strategic marketer you have to do the same thing. Practice following a few specific markets or businesses in detail and try to predict the success of the macro moves of the entities on the battlefield.

Will the latest product release be successful? What does it mean to the market? How will competitors respond to this move? What will happen to the market when they do?

Make sure you write this down! Publish your predictions on public forums such as Twitter, Facebook or Seeking Alpha. Open yourself up for discussion and criticism so that you can learn from the opinions of others who are also practicing strategic prediction.

Push the market with innovation. You aren’t a passive player in the market – you are an entity that has the ability to move markets and make things change. You can speed up your company’s trajectory towards a prediction you’ve made by innovating and pushing the market forward. Don’t be complacent and hope that your prediction was correct. Create new technology, messaging, vision, features, etc. that will help your prediction come true. There is no reason to sit back and hope you are right. Be an activist investor and make your investment successful.

Don’t be afraid to let them catch up. Sometimes you out-skate the puck. Sometimes what you create or innovate is beyond what the market can currently consume. Don’t be afraid to let your competition catch up. As long as you have a lead and are thinking ahead of the competition, it’s no big deal to let other market players back you up on what you are selling. An active marketer will quite often move too fast – but if your predictions are correct, the rest of the market will start to adopt your messaging, copy your features and otherwise execute passive marketing behind you. Let them do just that. It reinforces what you have created as successful and lets the buyer catch up to where you are. When you successfully skate to where the puck is going to be, go ahead and let it come to you. And while you are waiting, plan your next move!

Dream big, execute small.

Every time that Wayne Gretzky took the ice, he was thinking “I’m going to score a goal.” There was no doubt in his mind that he is going to succeed in what he sets out to achieve. As a market mover, you have to think the same way. Believe that the market you create or push forward will succeed and that you will be the one to deliver on that need.

Dream big. The trick to making sure you are successful is to always remind yourself of the end goal and destination – and to make sure that goal is enormous and difficult to achieve. Tell yourself: this company is going to be a billion dollar valuation. I’m going to hit $100M in revenue next year. Engineering will double in size in the next six months.

It doesn’t matter what your goals are. What matters is that they are large enough to keep you dreaming and to give you the drive to make the decisions that will push your market towards these goals.

Execute small. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you dream big, so break these dreams down into smaller chunks to execute. Then, break those chunks down into even smaller chunks until you’ve created consumable chunks that you can get up and achieve every single day. You have to execute very small in order to succeed big.

Adjust frequently with minor changes. The interesting thing about dreaming big and executing small is it gives you the ability to correct your course. Chances are you aren’t going to change your biggest dream very often. It’s huge, after all. It’s a major thing that has so many moving parts that it’ll be difficult to adjust that vision more than once or twice in the lifetime of a company. By breaking your dream into very small, consumable chunks, you give yourself the ability to course correct in real time.

As external and internal forces to your company morph and change, you’ll have to adjust the particular small chunks you’ve created. . You might lose a key employee, the competition might come out with a better widget than your design, or your marketing message may need adjustment. These things don’t change the overall goal, but they may change the path you take to get there. Don’t be afraid to adjust your short and mid-term decisions in order to continue down the path towards your main destination. Execute with patience on the bigger-sized chunks and don’t be afraid to adjust the small to mid-sized ones as necessary to win.

Don’t forget to shoot.

As Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

What he means is this: shoot frequently. Make a decision, move forward and go for it. If you don’t take a shot, you’ll never score. If you are spending your strategic time thinking about pushing the market forward, checking your timing, dreaming big and executing small, you will quickly find that your shots will score more often than not.

Good luck becoming a strategic marketer, and remember: you make the calls, you take the shots and you make your company succeed.

By Tyler Shields (EMBA ’12), vice president of marketing, partnerships and strategy at Signal Sciences Corp.