If you’ve ever failed in marketing, you’re not alone.
Nobody likes to mess up, but we’ve all been there. And what sets truly remarkable marketers apart from everyone else isn’t that they don’t ever make mistakes. They do. It’s just that they learn from their failures.
As Barack Obama put it, “You can’t let your failures define you. You have to let your failures teach you.” (Thanks, Obama. No, really. Thank you.)
With that in mind, we asked 11 experienced marketers to share what they’ve learned from their past blunders. These pros are living proof that we can learn as much from those times things didn’t go our way as we can from our biggest wins. As you’ll see, getting it wrong helped them grow their business, develop a customer-focused philosophy, improve their abilities as a leader, and much more.
So let’s dive right in.
Jump Straight to a Lesson Learned from a Marketing Fail
- Target the Right Keywords
- Develop Buyer Personas to Inform Your Marketing
- Put QA Checks in Place
- Add Automated Checks When You QA
- Validate New Ideas with Customer Research
- Test One Change At a Time
- Set Realistic Goals and Expectations
- Create Clear Content Briefs
- Promote Visibility Within Your Team
- Prioritize Projects Based on Potential Impact
- Don’t Sell Yourself Short
1. Target the Right Keywords
Every marketer knows the value of organic keywords. Understanding what your target audience is searching for (and how you can rank for specific keywords) can help you optimize your campaigns and develop an effective SEO strategy.
But what if a piece of content doesn’t rank at all? What if it ends up ten pages deep in the SERPs? What if it forever sinks to the deep Mariana Trench of Google?
Take Andy Crestodina, co-founder of Orbit Media Studios. He spent over 20 hours on a 4,100+ word article (and a 12-minute video) only to have it fail as a piece of organic content. He figured he’d optimize it for a popular phrase, get it to rank, and win a steady stream of traffic. But that never happened.
Andy owns up to why he failed:
I didn’t dig in deep enough while checking competition. As it turns out, the high ranking pages have huge numbers of inbound links. Even though the difficulty score was low, the linking root domain numbers were off the charts. But I never checked.
Andy learned a powerful lesson: your content won’t rank by magic.
You need to put hard work into targeting the right phrases that can compound traffic over time. To avoid losing your content in Google search obscurity, take the time to research the keywords you want to target first.
Hit the sweet spot for keywords by researching phrases that have a good mix of search volume, general intent, and popularity among competitors. (Source: Orbit Media)
And don’t just look at search volume. Make sure you check out how your competitors rank to ensure you’re ready to take them on. You want to know if you’re going up against the Mohammed Ali of content before you throw your hat into the ring.
2. Develop Buyer Personas to Inform Your Marketing
Buyer personas go hand-in-hand with your marketing strategy. They’re the needle to your strategy’s thread. The arrow to your bow. The Kim to your Kanye. (You see where I’m going with this.)
Defining the ideal customer audience you want to attract will help you market to them in the best way possible. However, to build robust, accurate buyer personas, you need one thing: data.
Early on in his career, Brandon Gains, VP of marketing at MonetizeMore, created personas from gut-feeling alone. He didn’t validate them through qualitative research, surveys, and interviews. And without a formal process to gather internal and external data points, he failed to involve a large customer base in his company’s marketing and product direction.
But to get internal buy-in from department heads, he needed more than his gut feeling. He needed to fix how his company crafted buyer personas:
We reignited our user research process and developed more of a scientific approach that incorporates internal and external research into concrete deliverables that I use across the company.
Like Brandon says, you need to ground your buyer personas in research and data—a.k.a. the real world (and, no, not the MTV version). Even though it’s nitty-gritty work, setting up customer interviews and internal discussions across your sales, customer success, product, and marketing teams will pay off in the long run. You’ll be able to better determine your objectives and anticipate consumer needs.
3. Put QA Checks in Place
Quality assurance is one step you should never skip, but it’s also the one you’ll be most tempted to skip. Don’t do it. Resist the urge. QA is key for ensuring a high-performing campaign.
Put yourself in your visitors’ shoes: how would you feel if you clicked on a link that went to a nonexistent page? Frustrated or annoyed? Definitely. Content with typos and broken links can create a bad first impression.
It’s what happened to Scott McLeod, chief of staff at Resident. He learned the hard way about the importance of QAing after running ads to a landing page that didn’t load. (It’s a big no-no considering you need to ensure your site loads as quickly as possible.)
His advice? Be extra mindful to check that you inspect every aspect of your campaign. Or, to put it another (bigger, bolder) way:
You need to provide a seamless user experience for your customers that will make ’em love you. Treat it like a first date: you want to please your prospects from the get-go so they’ll have more reason to want to keep dating you. (And maybe even marry you.)
We specifically have the team follow from ad to checkout, especially for major sales or mass communications … Creating redundancy in the QA process or review process leads to less mishaps.
When you have ten other things to do, it can be tempting to call something done without going through the crucial last step of QAing it. But ensuring you take this time will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
4. Add Automated Checks When You QA
While Scott recommends running QA checks, Derric Haynie, chief ecommerce technologist at Ecommerce Tech, takes it one step further. He suggests using automated checks to protect you from tiny errors that can cost you your ad spend. The best marketers do this to provide the best post-click experience from ad to landing page.
This realization didn’t come to Derric immediately, though. It’s something he learned after running a PPC campaign that drove to a dead 404 page. A small oversight that meant throwing $10K down the drain. (In McDonald’s terms, it’s equal to 40,000 Chicken McNuggets. A whole lotta nugs.)
Luckily, Google Ads includes final URLs to help make sure your ads are leading your prospects to the right landing page. Derric uses this field, especially for dynamic ads.
Nowadays, I’m using Google’s ‘Final URL’ column and either copy/pasting or exporting all the URLs to check the final destination works. They now have a landing page validation checker built in.
5. Validate New Ideas With Customer Research
These days, data needs to be the driving force behind any marketing strategy. It’s a must-have for any business’s growth and success. (If Obi-Wan Kenobi were a marketer, I’m sure he’d want you to use the data force.)
Ask any great marketer, and they’ll tell you that they don’t make business decisions without the data to back it. It’s a best practice, but one we can easily forget.
Marc Bitanga, Founder & Managing Director at Discoverable Media, almost committed an epic fail because a key stakeholder of a media company was determined to make a drastic change to their website without the data to support it.
The stakeholder thought the change would lead to a big win. Marc, on the other hand, felt like it wasn’t a good idea. Working with his UX team, he conducted research to confirm his hunch. He recorded real-life feedback sessions with customers to validate the stakeholder’s requirements.
Turns out Marc’s intuition was right: the proposed changes would have led to a bad experience for website visitors. If anything, Marc is a prime example of why research is the key to making informed decisions. And Marc has learned his lesson:
I avoid similar fails today by conducting as much customer research as possible to improve customer centricity.
Remember to keep your customers at the heart of every marketing idea and decision so that you can determine if an idea is viable or not. It’s frequently the difference between crash-and-burn ideas and successful ones.
6. Test One Change at a Time
Great marketing comes from testing, analyzing, and iterating based on results. (It’s an art and a science.) As marketers, we’re always busy pushing campaigns out the door, but we need to remind ourselves not to get in over our heads. When testing, that means taking a step back and making changes one at a time, versus all at once.
For instance, Casie Gillette, senior director of digital marketing at KoMarketing, redesigned a big website for a client that involved a ton of changes at once. Everything from updating URLs, switching CMS systems, and updating content. Her mistake?
We hadn’t tested moving a site to HTTPS and changing all of the URLs and content at the same time.
The modifications led to a massive loss in qualified traffic and leads all at once, plus a host of pesky technical issues. Casie knew page content revisions and testing were both necessary to improve relevance and ranking. To increase conversions, her team tested on-page tags, created guides to compete in SERPs, and even optimized their landing pages with CTAs, banners, and forms.
It was basically an all-out blitz to find what was working and how to replicate it across the site … It really came down to consistency, testing, and replication.
There’s no magical one-size-fits-all recipe for success. But you can focus your testing efforts rather than tackling everything at once. That way, you can identify what works and what doesn’t. (It’s a testing best practice.)
7. Set Realistic Goals and Expectations
Goals are the building blocks for any marketer. They provide clarity and guidance for when you start putting together a marketing strategy and action plan. But making sure your goals are well-defined and realistic is often easier said than done, especially if you’re ambitious.
Sphoorti Bhandare, PR and content whisperer—yep, you read that right—prepared for a big store launch one month in advance. Despite her proactive planning, though, things started to fall apart one by one a week before they were set to go live.
With little time and no contingency plan, Sphoorti postponed the launch. While not ideal, it did help her realize where she failed:
We hugely underestimated the effort required to make the launch successful and didn’t really write down a crisis communication plan for worst-case scenarios.
Many things can go wrong on a marketing campaign. When you start a new project, ask yourself: do I have the time, resources, and budget I need to accomplish everything? Then set specific, realistic marketing goals and inform everyone of them.
The biggest lesson I took from this was to set realistic goals and expectations and consistently monitor them. Not only for the marketing team, but for every department, vendor, and executive involved.
Having a crystal clear vision of what you want to achieve can help hold you and your team accountable within a given time frame. If you aren’t able to reach your goals in the end, that’s OK. The beauty of goal-setting is taking a step back and seeing how or where you can improve next time.
8. Create Clear Content Briefs
You’ve got your strategy. You’ve got your buyer personas. Now you’ve got to whip together some content that supports this overall strategy and speaks directly to your buyers. Before you do anything, sitting down to create a clear content brief is one of the smartest time investments you can make.
(Believe me, you’ll thank yourself later.)
The best marketers would agree that a content brief can paint a clear picture for anyone you work with. Taru Bhargava of Foundation Marketing is one of them.
When she first started out as a content marketer, Taru commissioned freelance writers to contribute long-form articles. To save time, she only provided them with a topic. Little did she know that this approach would backfire.
Guess what? The lack of a detailed brief resulted in commissioned articles that suffered in quality. And, even more importantly, it turned into an enormous waste of time and effort. Realizing her blunder, Taru now follows a framework to include everything that’s required for someone to know before they create any content—the voice and tone, target audience, competitors, keywords, internal links, and more.
Sticking to a content brief and overcommunicating the expectations is always a good strategy when working with freelancers … Providing them with as much info as possible in the first go is the best way to avoid the to & fro of edits.
Creating a content brief as your north star helps everyone understand what you want to accomplish with a piece of content. A brief can take the guesswork out of content creation, saving you time and money.
We live in a fast-paced marketing world. Timelines fluctuate. Campaigns change. Requests from different stakeholders come at any given moment. Communicating these changes to every member of your team can be a significant challenge.
For example, Eric Siu, CEO of Single Grain, made a $500K deal to run a promotional campaign for a SaaS company. The problem? He didn’t tell his team, which left everyone scrambling at the last minute when orders started rolling in. Oops. You can imagine his colleagues weren’t too happy.
Eric admits he failed, but shares what he took away from the experience:
I learned that inter-departmental communication is important. It was a marketing fail, yes. But because so much of marketing is evangelizing your own marketing within the company, I lost respect and trust.
Making others aware of the work you’re doing—especially if that work involves them—is the key. When there’s so many tasks on the go, we need to hear something several times before we process it. Be extra clear and overcommunicate, so no one you’re working with gets caught by surprise. Then keep open lines of communication between you and any team you’re working with.
10. Prioritize Projects Based on Potential Impact
Managing a laundry list of priorities is probably nothing new to you. You’ve got top-level business objectives, departmental strategic initiatives, and marketing priorities to think about. But selecting the priorities that will have the greatest impact can be very tricky—especially when you have pressure from stakeholders to pursue certain projects.
Back in 2018, the Unbounce content team wondered if Call to Action Conference might warrant a digital magazine-style recap. We wanted to write recap material to extend the lifespan of the live event. And we were inspired by Montreal’s G2 conference and the amazing, physical print book their organizers use to commemorate the experience.
Excited, the Unbounce team jumped at the chance to create a ‘zine. But, as Unbounce’s Head of Content Marketing, Jennifer Pepper, says, “there were several other content projects I should have prioritized instead. Despite eagerness and stakeholders hoping to squeeze the most reuse out of our live event, there were more pressing content priorities and I should have a) trusted my gut and b) made a more solid case for working on the projects I knew could have a greater overall payoff for the business.”
If you own prioritization, it’s up to you to uncover the opportunities and make sure you’re making the strongest case to stakeholders on the right stuff to create. As a content lead, it’s about how you can educate stakeholders so they understand why some things are more worthy of your team’s time than others.
11. Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Whether you’re leading a big marketing team or just part of one, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Different experts have different opinions, and not everybody is right 100% of the time. How do you manage them?
Kasey Bayne, head of marketing at DataTrue, faced a difficult situation early in her career. Someone she was working with wanted to break into a new market by doing a big trade show. With no lead time or reputation in that industry (not to mention a very tight budget) Kasey had significant doubts. She voiced her concerns at first, but, against her better judgment, eventually agreed to the move.
The trade show turned out to be a flop. Kasey learned a valuable lesson nonetheless. “When you are the expert or marketing leader in your team, it’s important to be strong about your recommendations,” she says.
Prepare your case, bring your data, and your experience to present a solid recommendation as best as you can without being so quick to give in to others.
No matter your age or years of experience in the industry, trust your knowledge as a marketer. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and voice your concerns or suggestions. (As Marc Bitanga would say, it’s even better when you’re able to back up those arguments with data.)
If at First You Fail, Try Again!
Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has one of those days.
From these 11 examples, we can see how even experienced, expert marketers can fail. (And fail again.) But, crucially, they transform their mistakes into insights about what not to do in the future.
So if you happen to make a mistake—and you probably will—think of it as a learning opportunity. No need to wrap yourself in a blanket of shame; own your failures and turn them into your own personal ‘aha!’ moment.
Go on—take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.
You’ll be in great company.