I learned about bikeshedding in marketing the hard way early in my career. It was my first job in marketing, and I wanted to make an impression as quickly as possible.
I was working for a SaaS company in Dublin, and one of my objectives was to increase the conversion rate from visitors to paid customers.
I really had no clue where to start.
I remember looking at the websites of major SaaS companies to get some ideas: Mailchimp, SalesForce, Zendesk...
Zendesk's registration form caught my eye.
They only had two fields: "First Name" and "Email".
We had eight.
I remember searching for articles mentioning best practices on how to increase form conversions and found plenty.
The vast majority had “Reduce the number of fields” as the first item on their list.
How you can automagically increase conversion rate by reducing the number of fields...
"Bingo!", I thought. "If Zendesk is doing it and so many articles are mentioning it, it must be a best practice, and it will work for us, too. After all, if we decrease the number of fields we surely will have more paid customers, it's mathematic: less friction, more conversions."
We remodeled our registration based on what I thought was a marketing best practice. The number of registrations from anonymous visitors to signups skyrocketed. I was ecstatic as it was my first major marketing win.
After a few weeks, we realized that the remodeled form didn't bring more new customers. It only increased the number of signups, but those signups were less qualified and less inclined to become customers.
We were back to square one.
I had made a big mistake and learned a valuable lesson: spending time and energy on trivial tasks instead of mission-critical issues like creating customers could cost me my job.
Introduced by Parkinson in his 1957 book, Parkinson's Law, or the Pursuit of Progress:
"The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved."
Imagine a power plant where a committee is tasked to approve plans and ensure safety.
The committee spends very little time talking about the reactor itself because it’s super expensive and too complicated for the average person to understand.
Instead, they spend the majority of their time talking about the materials to use in their staff bike shed.
Wow. Look at that bike shed.
They were “bikeshedding” just like I was at the start of my career.
Maybe you’ve just started as a newbie marketer and you want to make an impression as fast as possible. Perhaps you’re feeling like you’re not having the impact you expected in your current role. Or maybe you have new targets to reach.
You really have three choices as a marketer:
Anything that does NOT contribute to the above, directly or indirectly, can be considered bikeshedding.
Perry Marshall, an online marketing consultant who spoke on the 80/20 rule in marketing, thinks we’re bikeshedding because we like “the remote-control way of dealing with the world:”
“Most of the marketers I know are actually introverts, and they like the remote-control way of dealing with the world. They would rather take a survey than pick up the phone and talk to somebody.
Sometimes, there's a positioning issue as well, like, "I want to be the guru at the top of the mountain, and I don't want to come down to the bottom of the mountain and talk to all the ordinary people."
You could have that going on, too. And so, marketers often resist dealing with the flesh and bone of real humans, and they like to deal with their audience, their customers as a list or as a segment or as a demographic. They don't want to think of them as eyeballs and ears and skin and emotions and all of that.”
They can all be considered trivial tasks if they’re not linked to a proper strategy.
Come up with a proper strategy and execute the fuck out it, after having spent enough time diagnosing the situation around you.
In his book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt shares the three components of a proper strategy (that you can apply to any situation):
That’s the right way to deal with the pressure that comes with your job.
Diagnose to identify the right challenge. Strategize to decide on what to do (and what NOT to do). Execute.
The more you do it, the easier it’s going to get.
Speak to customers and customer-facing staff. Read as much as you can about your market. Look at trends in your category. Use your gut.
Ask yourself: "What is the most serious and common problem preventing me/us from reaching our objectives?"
If it is too difficult to pick just one problem, try to rate them on a scale from 0 to 10 for both of these variables:
Aggregate the two scores to get an idea of the biggest, most pressing problem you should probably focus on right now.
There could be multiple ways to solve it. Try to come up with as many ideas as possible: brainstorm with your team, look outside your industry for inspiration, listen to the 200+ episodes of the Everyone Hates Marketers podcast…
The World is your oyster.
Need I say more?
By the way…
This is the EXACT same format that Mark Ritson and other marketing-bullshit slayers agree on: market research+orientation (aka diagnosis), segmentation+targeting+positioning (aka strategy), execution.
And if you struggle to answer any of these questions, it's a sign that you need to go through the Diagnosis -> Strategy -> Tactics:
So, what’s your score?
It's the antidote to marketing bullshit.
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