My Top 5 Marketing Mistakes

The choices that held us back most.

Hey folks đź‘‹, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

As hard as I try, I still make mistakes—but they’re not all equal. In fact, I’ve started categorizing them into 3 buckets:

  • Bad Bets: New ideas that you try willingly that don’t pay off.

  • Good Intentions: Decisions you have to make with incomplete data that you get wrong.

  • Unforced Errors: Avoidable mistakes, usually from acting too quickly or emotionally.

The more I work, the more of my mistakes fit into the Good Intentions bucket (thankfully), but these are the top 5 marketing mistakes I keep thinking back on.

Nobody died, but they did hold us back. And they’re all my fault.

1. The search for the silver bullet.

I thought there was a hack or 2 somewhere out there that we could leverage to grow our business exponentially. “If we could just do this one thing…”

There isn’t.

As I was just learning marketing, Ryan Holiday’s Growth Hacker Marketing was a popular primer in massive growth. “Hacks” were the topic of nearly every conversation in any industry. Sean Ellis, who coined the term “growth hacking,” had created the GrowthHackers community, and it was thriving.

We all assumed that if you were going to grow, you were going to hack your way there. And really, that is the case for most. Except, the idea got lost in translation.

The original idea of growth hacking was applying the scientific method to marketing. Hypothesize, experiment, analyze, repeat. It was focused on data and quick learning. Somewhere along the way, the popular narrative morphed into “do this one thing to grow 10x”—and I got sucked in.

Lesson learned: Take an iterative approach to improving each aspect of your marketing. There’s no silver bullet, you need lots of things working well together.

2. Not betting bigger on things that showed promise.

Directly attributing revenue to specific marketing efforts is… maybe not impossible, but it’s at least impractical. I thought I had to prove without a shadow of a doubt that something was working well before expanding it, and that if I couldn’t prove it, it wasn’t working.

Don’t get me wrong. If you can attribute sales and upgrades to specific ads or campaigns, then by all means report on it. But usually the buying journey is not so straight. I thought it was, and that held us back.

There were many things like blogging, buying-intent Google search ads, a few specific trade shows, and partner marketing that seemed to be working, but because we couldn’t directly attribute those actions to revenue, we held off on expanding them.

Now that I know how to read the signs better, I realize that many of those things were actually very effective, and I should have done my job better to find their ceilings instead of being conservative.

Lesson learned: If something’s working, it’s your job to find the limits of how far it will go. Keep pushing until you find it.

3. Being too granular with our target audience.

Picking a niche audience and solving problems just for them is usually a best practice, but we took it too far. It seems obvious now, but it was a real “Ah-ha!” moment for us at the time.

Text Request is a business texting platform. Our first good customers were SMB movers and cleaning services (more on finding traction here), but we realized soon enough that there were common use cases for texting that applied across industries.

That really threw us for a loop.

We could serve dozens of industries 8 different ways, and so we tried to market to each industry specifically. That made our messaging, our targeting, our marketing in general ineffective. Everything we did spoke directly to a few people while alienating 99% of our audience.

Unfortunately it still worked just well enough to make us think it was a good idea.

What we found, though, was that there’s a lot of overlap between industries and use cases that makes it tough to segment, but there are very clear buying patterns by company size. E.g. SMB, Mid-Market, and Enterprise.

Groundbreaking, I know, but like I said—an “Ah-ha!” moment at the time.

Lesson learned: Group customers by their buying process, not their industry, specific use case, or even their role. Then help them make a buying decision.

4. The SEO nightmare.

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rehash it much here, but the main thread is this:

We created a ton of blog content with the goal of bringing in traffic, succeeded—organic search became our #1 revenue producer—but failed to create content for a core audience. We got so much “unqualified” traffic that Google started sending us only unqualified traffic.

They thought that’s who we were targeting.

I’ve talked to dozens of marketers who’ve done something similar. I think ours just worked well enough (in the wrong direction) that we hit an inflection point where things started to break. The amount of work and stress it’s taken to undo those negative effects has been painful.

Lesson learned: Create a ton of content to help your core audience solve problems and make buying decisions. You’ve got to nail your core audience before you can do this effectively.

5. Trying too many new ideas.

Early on at Text Request, we had no idea what would work, so we tried a bunch of marketing initiatives. Then I read the book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares.

The book covers 19 different channels for marketing and bringing in customers. Honestly, it’s a great resource. We tried all 19 at some point or another, and kept doing whatever stuck. Except there was no clear strategy.

We were trying new things constantly—new was better, so we thought—and we kept that culture of do the new thing going far too long.

Instead of creating new opportunities, it led to inconsistent marketing and messaging, starting and then cutting off campaigns before they had time to flourish, and spreading ourselves too thin.

Lesson learned: Find one thing that works, keep it going, and build on it. Then find a second, and repeat.

Mistakes in marketing are inevitable. They’re also usually okay—you’re going to get seemingly endless at-bats to get something right, it’s fine if you get a few wrong. But you have to put in place ways to recognize when you’re making mistakes, so you can course-correct faster.

Start by creating an internal rubric for measuring effectiveness. Something you can reference as you go, that makes you pause the treadmill of work long enough to ask “Is this actually working? And if not, why not?”

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Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.