Most marketers think FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—is a defensive tactic to scare customers away from a competitive option. It is, but marketers themselves become victims of the same dynamic when rapid change creates an environment where the old ways no longer work but the path forward isn't clear.

The pace of change within marketing is accelerating along two vectors: better choices, and many more options. Ironically, more and better choices all too often result in paralyzing indecision that can cripple your marketing and business development. It can also drain your budget.

Consider the example of Kim. Her small marketing group hummed along for many years, supporting executives and business development professionals. Everyone considered the firm she worked for a market leader, but when the market hiccuped, its sales dropped and concern mounted. Colleagues and friends asked whether Kim had a social media strategy ("everyone does"). Her CFO sent her articles, copying the CEO, about marketing analytics software used by major consumer brands (Kim's firm sells B2B). Even Kim's 16-year-old son piled on, saying that the company website was not optimized for SEO. Lunch with a business school classmate turned social media consultant left Kim overwhelmed by what needed to be done. Of course, with uncertainty in the industry, budgets were tight.

Barry Schwartz's research on the paradox of choice demonstrates how too many choices degrade people's ability to make decisions. Retailers like Costco recognize that phenomenon and deliberately limit the number of sizes and brands.

For B2B companies, simultaneous changes in technology, marketing channels, and customer behavior challenge a lot of tried and true tactics that worked in the past. The drumbeat that "everything is changing" implies Marketing faces fundamentally different challenges than in the past. The result is fear, uncertainty, and doubt about what will work. For organizations with a track record of past success, that kind of FUD often stands in the way of necessary action.

Many consultants benefit from FUD

Many consultants are happy to fan the flames of FUD, because it conditions CMOs to sales pitches promising a solution to "The Next Big Thing." Executives are told they "have to" get their company on Facebook and they should be tweeting up a storm. Or maybe it's Google+ they're supposed to be using. It's hard to keep up. One thing that's certain: A lot of consultants are benefiting from misdirected urgency.

As marketing departments fill up with highly focused skill sets, such as SEO, social media, and marketing automation, the typical marketing department knows more and more about less and less. It goes unnoticed that the fundamentals of good marketing are not changing. The central mission of marketing remains addressing customer needs via the innovation that your company brings to market.

Changes in technology, options, and customer behavior present an opportunity for marketing to think and act more broadly. Left unchecked, a focus on increasingly specialized roles narrows the focus away from the strategic. Attention to fundamentals adds a strategic layer that ramps up marketing's value and influence across the entire organization. Marketing opens up a vital window to the world; it's your company's eyes and ears.

Overcoming FUD starts with deep customer knowledge

Like other firms in her industry, Kim's team sent out postcards after major client wins and went to certain tradeshows because they always had. Her marketing needed a refresh, but she didn't know where to start. She hired my firm to conduct a marketing audit. She was especially interested in where social media could drive business development.

While talking to their clients, we learned that most of them believed many firms could deliver acceptable end results, but Kim's firm stood out for how it managed the process by reducing risk and managing costs. We played their marketing materials back to Kim and her CEO while pointing out what was lacking: The existing materials were all about the end results, offering no differentiation from the rest of the industry. The firm positioned itself as a good choice, but not the best choice. Sales responded accordingly.

Kim's CEO was equally surprised to learn that while his executive team and staff were respected and considered experts in their field, clients had a narrow and incomplete view of what the firm actually does.

Kim's firm was enormously proud that 95% of new projects came from satisfied clients. What it failed to appreciate was that its very satisfied client base wasn't generating project referrals. Clients in a position to make referrals didn't understand the range of services Kim's firm could provide; and, even more critical, they were unable to articulate why Kim's firm was better than other well-known options.

Being strategic gets the FUD out

Clearing away FUD involves implementing a strategic marketing plan that focuses available resources where they generate the greatest benefit. In Kim's case, facilitating referrals leapt to the top of her list.

Like most of my clients, Kim found she could implement an effective strategic marketing plan with the staffing and budget resources she already had—provided she let go of less effective tactics. A deep understanding of customers provides the foundation for determining strategic priorities and setting criteria for assessing tactics. Insights are key. Clients are surprised how often a third-party perspective can recognize strengths and flaws easily overlooked by those focused on the day-to-day.

Seen as hurdles by those who fail to adapt, rapid changes in technology, channels, and customer behavior create challenges, yes, but they also create opportunities for leadership and enhanced results. Success requires separating valuable marketing opportunities from the vast array of shiny objects seeking to distract you from your goal. Highly effective marketing requires a sharp strategic focus, not a new million dollar budget.

FUD gives way to clear choices

So what choices did Kim make? Kim fixed the firm's positioning to make it clear why it was a better choice than other options. Old, less-effective tactics gave way to new options matched to current priorities.

The entire executive team boosted its use of LinkedIn, since that is where their clients are. As a precaution, Kim monitors a couple of competitors who tweet or use Google+. The firm doesn't think about Facebook any more. Wins are up, referrals from past clients are up, and Kim's staff grew by a single, half-time contractor to refocus Web content on client impact.

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image of Bruce La Fetra

Bruce La Fetra converts limited resources into better business outcomes, such as higher revenue, profit, and customer loyalty, via strategic marketing plans that establish lasting competitive advantage.

LinkedIn: Bruce La Fetra