ARTICLE
August 13, 2021

Bikeshedding in Marketing: 3 Keys to Being an Effective Marketer

Louis Grenier
Founder of Everyone Hates Marketers

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.

Looking at marketing best practices is a form of bikeshedding

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.

Not really.

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.

Enter "bikeshedding"...

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.

Bikeshedding in marketing means you're wasting time working on unimportant tasks that don't contribute to your company's overall goals

Wow. Look at that bike shed.

They were “bikeshedding” just like I was at the start of my career.

Are you "bikeshedding" too?

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:

  • Increasing the number of customers
  • Increasing the average transaction size
  • Increasing the frequency of transactions per customer

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:

Perry Marshall on how marketers tend to bikeshed
​“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.”

Try to avoid these...

  • Optimizing checkout when you have 100 visitors a day
  • Securing your company’s profile on every social network you can think of
  • Running a 6-month RFP to pick your next creative agency
  • Taking 3 weeks to pick the right color for your next Facebook ad campaign
  • Reading books on how to pick the right legal entity for your business idea (I’ve done this)
  • Spending $300 on a logo for a project you haven’t even started (I’ve done this too)
  • Building a 112-page slide deck to convince your boss to change their Twitter strategy
  • Designing some extra feature that one customer requested one time
  • Focusing way too much on competitors and not enough on customers
  • Getting 10,000 LinkedIn followers on the company profile

They can all be considered trivial tasks if they’re not linked to a proper strategy.

How to stop bikeshedding in marketing

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):

Avoid bikeshedding in marketing - follow the process of diagnosis, guiding policy, coherent actions

​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.

Step 1: Diagnose

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.

Step 2: Identify the most pressing challenge that you can solve

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:

  • How common the problem is: does it affect 2% of your customers or ALL of them?
  • How serious the problem is: does it prevent you from doing your job or is it just a small stone in your shoe?

Aggregate the two scores to get an idea of the biggest, most pressing problem you should probably focus on right now.

Step 3: Come up with a series of tasks to solve that challenge

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.

Step 4: Execute the fuck out of it

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.

The best way to avoid bikeshedding in marketing is to engage in diagnosis, strategy, execution
The path to create a rock-solid marketing strategy (shared by Matt Dillon in our secret Facebook group)

A marketing pop quiz, to finish...

And if you struggle to answer any of these questions, it's a sign that you need to go through the Diagnosis -> Strategy -> Tactics:

  • Who are the people you seek to serve?
  • What do they believe?
  • What's their bleeding neck problem? What makes them think, “I need to solve that pain today?”
  • What makes them start on the journey of potentially using a solution like yours?
  • How do they go about researching potential solutions like yours?
  • What does the competitive landscape look like from their perspective?
  • Who influences them the most when it comes to buying decisions?
  • Where do they spend most of their time?
  • What do they hate the most about your category or industry that you could potentially challenge?
  • Why are they buying from you? What's the #1 reason they think you're the only solution for them to solve their specific pain?
  • What's a fair price?
  • What specific segment are you seeking to serve?
  • What's the biggest challenge you're trying to solve? What are you going to do about it?
  • What are you not going to do?
  • What are you going to say?
  • Where are you going to say it?
  • How are you going to know if it worked?

So, what’s your score?


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