The question you’re least likely to ask

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Helena Aziz

10. 02. 2020 | 5 min read

The question you’re least likely to ask

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Chances are, the question we’re all least likely to ask is probably also the most important. Or somewhere real close.

Here’s what David Foster Wallace had to say on the subject at a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2007.

‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”’

There was laughter that day, but it wasn’t exactly deafening. If those Kenyon graduates were anything like me, they were probably doing a little soul searching themselves. Like, What’s the thing I’m so familiar with that it just doesn’t register anymore? And, How the heck am I supposed to know?

Our water – the stuff we’re not seeing – are the conventions of marketing. And there are loads. What’s worse, the more expertise we’ve accumulated, the more likely we are to be blinded by these hidden assumptions.

Writing in the May-June 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Sydney Finkelstein flagged the way deep knowledge and experience can leave us ‘incurious, blinkered, and vulnerable – even in our own fields’. Especially – David Foster Wallace would have added – in our own fields.

One of Finkelstein’s antidotes to being blinded by our expertise was to seek out fresh ideas. As I’m fortunate enough to work at Velocity, ‘fresh’ was minutes away. Here’s what happened when I asked five colleagues to challenge a marketing ‘default setting’ with a new way to swim.

Hidden Assumption #1: Devs and sales folks are in two different worlds

Get your sales team and web developers talking. (They’ll solve pipeline problems you never knew you had.)

‘It’s easy to focus your time and budget on website features that attract prospects and keep them engaged. These things are super important. But the stuff that happens behind the scenes can have way more impact on your business.

So put your sales team and developers in the same room and get them talking. Ask sales about the information they need to close deals. Your developer can use these insights to streamline the process.

To take just one example, it could be the difference between a) a form that’s sent to Sales and picked up when someone checks their email, and b) a form that’s automatically enriched with crucial information and piped into your CRM, so the right info goes straight to the mobile of the right salesperson for that query.’

Dave Welch, Head of Development

Hidden Assumption #2: B2B marketing needs “B2B design”

Get design inspiration from beyond B2B for your next B2B project. (Awesome design isn’t about the right letter-number-letter label.)

‘There’s no such thing as B2B design. There’s just good design and bad design. But there’s still a sense that B2B design should look a certain way. (Safe, clinical, predictable – you get the picture.) The term pigeonholes and limits possibilities to a certain aesthetic, a particular way of doing things. But why not push against that? Why shouldn’t B2B design be bold, interesting, expressive and exciting? You’re still, fundamentally, speaking to another human being who feels and reacts.’

Vinny K-Maddage, Head of Design

Hidden Assumption #3: Deadlines are sacred

Drive your deadlines – instead of being driven by them. (As Humpty Dumpty said, ‘The question is which is to be master – that’s all.’)

‘Of course there’ll be times when you need a marketing asset for an event. That’s definitely a hard deadline. But in most cases being short-sighted about a deadline can hurt you in the long run. A few months down the road, no one is going to care whether you launched an asset on the 30th of January or the 10th of February. But they will care if it’s not as good as it could be. Quality is affected by timelines. Being flexible gives you a better shot at great work.’

Jodie Robinson, Head of Client Services

Hidden Assumption #4: Results are instant

Give your content time to prove itself. The idea that content can fail or succeed in two weeks is quite strange.

‘Content is often considered to be successful or unsuccessful within a week or two of release. So there’s a huge reaction – positively or negatively – to it. We need to get to a place where content is considered over a longer period. In many cases, the things we do are designed to make an impact across various channels over months rather than days. Over time, the results can be measured and understood carefully, and then fed back to the people who created the content so it can be optimised or repurposed.

Another problem: as marketers, we tend to get bored with our work long before our prospects do. We feel we’ve been banging on about a message forever when they’re only just beginning to understand it. Building a brand that stands for something is more about evolution than revolution.’

Neil Stoneman, Content Performance Director

Hidden Assumption #5: You have to know it all

Adopt a documentary mindset. (It’s fun!)

‘A documentary mindset is about going to find out stuff instead of pretending you know everything. Enlist colleagues and ringfence a budget for experiments. (If you don’t ringfence it you won’t spend it – and you must spend it!) Then you all agree that this thing you’re doing is called an experiment. It could fail. It will pivot. And we will learn and, since learning is one of the goals, we can’t fail. It sucks if you’re experimenting but your stakeholders aren’t on board with that — so they judge success the same way they would if you were delivering something with a predictable outcome.’

Doug Kessler, Creative Director

Curious about the ‘documentary mindset’? Eager to break free from the prison of pseudo-omniscience and rediscover the joy of shutting up and listening? Check out  B2B documentaries: the next big thing

(P.S. If you’re wondering who did David Foster Wallace’s piscine friends proud with that awesome image, it was Velociraptor Sean Leahy.)

Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • b2b-marketing

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