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Want to differentiate? Start by accepting that you don’t know what you don’t know

Today I get the honor of participating in the Q&A panel for the SMX West session entitled Differentiate or Die. There are some really sharp minds and one true search icon that will share the stage with me, and so I know that it’s going to be a very humbling experience.

And interestingly, with every passing day I continually rediscover that humility is one of the primary character traits that determines long-term success in the online marketing space. More specifically, if you want to be successful as an online marketer, you had better come to terms with the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know.

This is probably an easy thing to accept for relative newcomers and small business owners that have to wear the marketing hat while also juggling the rest of their organizational roles. But for the grand majority of “experienced” marketers (especially those that work in the enterprise space) it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve got it all figured out and that your methodology and knowledge of your particular channel is beyond reproach.

And why not? After all, your KPIs look relatively solid and you continue to see solid growth YOY. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Not necessarily. One of most challenging facets of the online space is the dizzying pace of technological innovation. Whether it’s Google launching a major algo tweak and/or Adword feature or whether it’s one of the multitude of newly born startups leveraging heavy amounts of machine learning or the latest social networking flavor of the month, our industry is the birthplace of daily innovation.

Because of this technological saturation and because of an admittedly high signal to noise ratio, a lot of marketers choose to simply put their blinders on and adopt a very conservative approach to testing, experimentation, and adoption. In other words, they wait for someone else to prove the value of new innovations before they’re willing to take it for a spin.

That’s probably a good approach if you’re happy being in the middle of the competitive pack, but if you’re interested in taking your brand to the forefront, you have to start digging around into the nuts and bolts of your program as well as reading up and tracking down the new technology start-ups that are catering to your specific marketing channel(s). Why? Because it’s a mathematical certainty that what you’re currently doing is necessarily incomplete, and kicking the tires on newly developed features, techniques, networks, and technology are the only way that you can truly evolve your marketing program.

Or you can just continue on doing things they way they’ve always been done, believing that you know everything, and that your program incorporates everything under the sun and that there’s no reason to urgently pursue new opportunities to innovate. Just be aware that your competitors might not be so complacent.

They might be busy figuring out what they don’t know yet, and then using that newly acquired knowledge to differentiate while you’re busy dying.

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  • http://www.organicseoconsultant.com/ Miguel Salcido

    First off congrats on the gig at SMX West, and I’m bummed that I was not able to attend!

    What you are saying in this post is horrifying. It is not what anyone wants to hear or wants to believe. It is scary.

    But it is the truth.

    This the the new world order in business. The technology is the catalyst and the online marketing world has helped to fuel it. We live in a time of big data and that is forcing people to have to adapt and change constantly, making entrepreneurship a vital trait for any company or executive that wants to survive.

    I’ve recently fell in love with Forbes.com blogger Nathan Furr. In one of his posts he sums this up, backed by you guessed it, data. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanfurr/2011/04/21/big-business-the-end-is-near/

    70% of the Fortune 1000 will be replaced in a few years! Your post resonated with me and it reminded me of this article. Its a scary thing, but this is why I have gravitated towards online marketing as a career and passion. I have to change and adapt, I couldn’t possibly do the same work every day for the rest of my life. That notion scares me. Its the constantly changing world of online marketing that I enjoy. Oh, and I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. :-)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Miguel, and I look forward to meeting up in person soon! Thanks for sharing that article. I definitely agree with your sentiments, and use them as the basis for my career development in this wonderfully scientific industry of ours.

  • Anonymous

    I have been thinking about this a lot as we work to get closer to our planned re-launch and I really appreciate the focus you bring. In particular, your ability to express critical challenges: i.e. “dizzing pace…” or “low signal to noice”. We have to keep pace but stay with the signals and it can be exhausting which of course brings on the conservative, complacency! Your perspective here is perfect and reinforces my thinking that we innovate and create a successful company by ensuring we only proceed with the relevant parts of the noise or new tech. You have reminded me of the hedgehog concept (I read it in Good to Great) and need to use it more to move forward into other spaces but with those that meet core criteria ;) I get it & thanks!! I’m off to re-organize our tasks for our pre-launch month:)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for chiming in and I’m glad you found value in the post, Toni!

      It’s definitely tough to balance it all, but stick with the hedgehog concept (love that book!) and I’m sure you’ll do great!

  • http://twitter.com/dancristo Dan Cristo

    The only solution in my mind is to specialize. There’s no way one can master every facet of online marketing. Might as well pick the area that fascinates you most, and become the best in the world in that one thing.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for stopping in to chime in, Dan! It’s much appreciated.

      Just one question: what if you want to become the best in the world at coordinating multi-channel marketing?

      That’s what I’m finally getting a chance to do (even though my official role is to oversee paid and natural search) and I can tell you that it’s extremely challenging and yet utterly necessary, particularly for large brands. I have a lot of respect and admiration for my boss, her boss, and her boss’ boss. All of them have a hand in it, and I’m relishing the opportunity to pitch in from a lower, more tactical level but with an eye towards that higher, broader purpose.

  • C Bret Campbell

    Hello, Hugo. I’ll admit to being one of those newcomers to the “game.” I am reminded daily that in the grand scheme, I’m pretty ignorant.
    BUT, somehow your post has reminded me of my lack of knowledge in a very helpful way. Thank you for that.
    My company focuses on the music industry, and we see all sorts of terrible marketing. If you had one piece of advice for music-industry-internet-marketers, what would that be?

    • Anonymous

      It’s I again. I wanted to get the correct profile up, for you.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for chiming in, Bret! I’m glad you found the post useful. I’d advise you to focus on the fact that almost everybody loves music. Therefore, make sure to lean heavily on visual and audio media to connect with your consumer base. You have something that many marketers would kill for; “sexiness” factor. Leverage it as much as you can!

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the insight. It’s funny, but I had not thought of the “sexiness factor”… don’t know why not.
        That’s exactly why I asked, fresh perspective!

        • Anonymous

          Cool. Glad I could help out in some way. Rock on! (FYI – playing guitar is one my passions)

  • Spook SEO

    Very good article. I like this article because i can truly relate with this, not just in my work but as well as with my personal life. Yes, sometimes we have to admit that we dont know certain things. We are not perfect but we have to live with it. Learn to accept yor weakness by doing so no one will have the power to use it against you. Applying this attitude will help us survive the industry we work with.