Unlearn What You Have Learned

The techniques that lead to marketing success online are dramatically different than traditional marketing taught in school or that you’ve likely learned on the job. In fact, to succeed with web marketing, your existing knowledge about advertising and public relations will be counterproductive.

My friend Steve Johnson reminded me of this quote: "You must unlearn what you have learned." Yoda says that in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back.

You must unlearn what you have learned about advertising and PR. Effective online marketing is not about buying access through advertising or begging the media to write about your company and its products and services. Instead it is about creating great content (websites, press releases, blogs, podcasts, videos, etc.) that the search engines reward with high rankings, which will drive people to your stuff.

You must unlearn what you have learned about controlling your online content. For your ideas to spread online, you’ve got to give up control. Make your web content totally free for people to access, with absolutely no virtual barriers: no electronic gates, no registration requirements, no wiggly letters to enter, and no email addresses necessary.

You must unlearn what you have learned about the value of your products and services. Face it: Nobody cares about your products and services except you and the others in your organization. What your potential customers do care about are themselves. They care a great deal about solving their problems. When you understand your buyers and their problems—and clearly communicate this—it will cause your visitors to pay attention, resulting in people who flock to you because they are excited that your organization might be able to help them.

You must unlearn what you have learned about marketing measurement. Executives at companies large and small, as well as marketing and PR people, push back on the ideas of using free content as a marketing tool because of an insistence on ROI measurements. The old rules of measurement were about two things that don’t matter when spreading ideas: "leads" (how many business cards we collect; how many people call the toll- free number; how many people stop at the tradeshow booth; and how many people fill out a form on our website, providing their email address and other personal information) and "press clips" (the number of times our company and its products are mentioned in mainstream media such as magazines, newspapers, radio, and television).

Instead of creating information on the web as lead bait, set a goal to measure how your ideas spread online. How many people are exposed to your ideas? How often are bloggers talking about you and your ideas? (And what are the bloggers saying?) Where are you appearing in search results for important phrases? How many people are engaging with you and are making the choice to speak with you about your offerings?

It can be really, really difficult to unlearn what you have learned, which is why so many people have trouble implementing great online marketing and PR programs. Don’t believe me? How many spaces do you type after a period? It took me nearly a year to unlearn typing two spaces after a period. A year! Just to stop typing a space! Twenty-something years ago I learned the "old rule"—that you always type two spaces after a period. So I always typed two spaces until I started to write books and magazine articles. People like Michelle, the editor of this magazine, said I was required to obey a new rule: One space only or manuscripts were rejected (not really, she just globally replaced my extra spaces, but still …). Suffice it to say that habit was ingrained! Go on, you try it. Let’s see if some of you old dogs can learn this simple trick.

I suggest that when people are faced with the inevitable push back from executives about "the ROI thing" to ask the executives a few questions: 1) Have you answered a direct mail ad or visited a tradeshow as an attendee? (Nearly all answer "No.") 2) Have you used Google or another search engine? (Nearly all answer "Yes.") OK, I then ask, why are we putting all our marketing resources into the old stuff such as tradeshow booths and direct mail instead of the things that people are using today? I also tell people that if this doesn’t work, then they need to find a new employer that will value them.

While it is difficult to unlearn what you have learned, doing so will transform your marketing. It is worth the work.