I’m going to ask you to do something radical. This is the craziest thing anyone’s going to ask you today. I’m going to challenge you to read this entire post.

That’s right: complete an entire article on the Internet. It’s 3,000 words, and the average adult reading speed is 300 words per minute, so that’s ten minutes. And during that ten minutes, I’m going to ask you to only read this post: not answer email, or juggle multiple browser tabs.

I want to ask you to pay attention to what I’m saying, to have your attention focused on this article. And the deal we will strike is that I will do my best to make it worth your while: entertaining as well as informative. In the process, you will learn something about yourself.

While you do this, I want you to be aware of the impulse to switch to some other task. I want you to notice when it happens, that subtle pull or tug to click away. And I want you to resist it. Just until the end of the article. Surely you can do that, right?

Thank you for accepting the challenge. Ten minutes of your time! I better use this wisely.


Bright, Shiny Objects

We are chronically distracted.

Between our computers, laptops, phones, tablets, and televisions, all serving up a deluge of information, we are mentally overloaded. The way we deal with this flood of incoming data is to multitask: to check email when we get bored in a meeting, to answer instant messages while we’re writing a report, to respond to texts while driving. (Admit it.)

Yet, all the research shows that multitasking is a myth. One Stanford study, for example, challenged test subjects to rapidly switch between two cognitive tasks. People who were high media multitaskers — people who keep on the TV while surfing the Web — performed much worse. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said Eyal Ophir, the lead author of the study. Perhaps you’ll recognize this urge — it’s the urge you feel whenever you want to whip out your phone while waiting for a friend (or to bail on this article).

Anthony Wagner, another author of the study, explained, “When [high multitaskers] are in situations where there are multiple sources of information … they’re not able to filter out what’s irrelevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Ophir continued, “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.”

I define multitasking as “doing two or more things badly at once.” Multiple studies back up the Stanford finding: every cognitive task that you add to your already fragmented attention means that you do every one of those tasks worse.

Yet, we all believe we are exempt from this, right? “That doesn’t apply to me!” we chuckle. “I am able to make stock trades while watching TV and driving a train.” But research shows that you are not. To perform best, you must do one task at a time: you either read this article, or you answer your email. You either attend a meeting, or you browse the web. You either play videogames, or you drive. Mixing them doesn’t work.

Technology tools are so new that we don’t have rules for them yet. Let’s take the simple matter of text messaging. See if this sounds familiar. You have a focused stream of attention, you are working on some task, then you get a text message, and that flow stops. It is interrupted. You read the text, decide whether you’re going to respond, then type up a response and hit send. Then you get back into the flow of what you’re doing. Thirty seconds later, another interruption, another decision point, another reaction, and so on. It’s an endless cycle.

Now let’s multiply this times twenty. Think about your text messaging, instant messaging, direct messaging, Skype chat, Google Chat, Facebook chat, Facebook feed, Twitter feed, feeding the dog, system updates, software updates, status updates, and the relentless pounding onslaught of email: notifications, newsletters, cc’s, bcc’s, and spam.

How do we get anything done at all?!

As marketers, this is highly significant. In addition to our day-to-day marketing tasks — getting the important things done while dodging these distractions — there’s also the matter of staying focused on our overall marketing strategy.

I want to help you maintain marketing focus, specifically on three things.

  • What is your business?
  • Who is your target customer?
  • Which marketing programs work?

If you’ve made it this far in the article, I congratulate you! Most of your colleagues have not. Keep going; it will be worth it.


What is Your Business?

In business school, my first course was Marketing 101. Great class, taught by a great professor, whose name I have completely forgotten. (Too much texting.) However, I’ll never forget two things he said in that class. The first was, “Please put your clothes back on, Mr. Hargrave.” The second was, “Stick to your knitting.”

Stick to your knitting. Know what you do well as a business, and avoid the temptation to get distracted. In other words, stay focused.

If you’ve ever read the fantastic book Good to Great, you’ll remember “The Hedgehog Concept.” In this book, author Jim Collins analyzed companies that had phenomenal growth over a fifteen-year period — far outperforming the overall stock market — and analyzed what made those companies great. One of these factors he called “The Hedgehog Concept.”

Great companies live at the intersection of these three circles:

  • What they are passionate about;
  • What they can be the best in the world at;
  • What drives their economic engine.

What we are passionate about. What do we love to do as a company? What is it that permeates this culture that I’m a part of?

What we can be the best in the world at. We may enjoy doing some things, but we’re never going to be the best in the world at them. Do we have the people, resources, and processes in place to be world-class?

What drives our economic engine. What are people willing to pay us to do? What is it that’s actually driving revenue? Where does the money come from?

He calls it the Hedgehog Concept. When other animals are threatened, they have all sorts of fight-or-flight responses, but the hedgehog has one defense. One defense! It curls into a ball, with its spines outward. The hedgehog maintains its focus: all its evolutionary energy has been channeled into perfecting that one move.

It’s much cuter when it’s a baby hedgehog concept.

It is my observation that most companies do not know their Hedgehog Concept. In most companies, this will not be explained to you at training. Frequently, even the CEO cannot articulate this. Finding the intersection of this Venn diagram, and living in the middle of that space, is our job as marketers.

Frequently this is a matter of reframing, or rethinking about your business. Here’s an example from our company, Media Shower. When we were just starting out, we thought our business was writing great content.

Hedgehog Concept: Great content writing.

But there are several companies that write good content, not to mention thousands of freelance writers (and at least, like, six of them are good). So can we be the best in the world at just writing great content? Also, can we really make enough money when we’re competing against every content marketplace out there? So we redefined the business. We thought bigger.

We said, “Writing is only a part of the content marketing process. There’s also strategy, and finding the best writing team, and publishing, and promoting it. It’s really a system.” So we developed that entire system, and then said, “We’ve got an entire content marketing system: just set it and forget it.”

Hedgehog Concept: Great content marketing, from start to finish.

Now, here’s the weird thing: customers don’t think they need this. They don’t see the value. They think it’s just as easy to hire a bunch of freelance writers and load the content themselves, not understanding they will spend 20 hours per month managing the process, then scrambling to find new writers when their freelancers disappear to India on a spiritual pilgrimage.

So even though the need is there, the customer understanding of that need is not. But you know what need is there? The need to grow the freaking business. Every marketer knows they have to deliver results: more traffic, more leads, more customers. If they don’t do that, they’re out of a job. So we thought even bigger.

Hedgehog Concept: Great content marketing that grows your business.

Is it what we’re passionate about? Heavens yes. Are people willing to pay us for this? Absolutely. Can we be the best in the world? I think we already are.

What is your business? Do you really know? Can you phrase it in a way that will actually interest your target customer? If not, start over. Think bigger.

Are you still with me? Excellent. Level up!


Who is Your Target Customer?

After working with hundreds of companies, we have learned that about 90% of the marketers who come to us have never clearly defined their customer. If you are one of the minority who have done this, congratulations! But the odds are that you have only a fuzzy, amorphous idea of a customer in your head — not a clear description of your customer, written on a piece of paper so others can read it.

A good customer description should have:

  • Male/female breakdown
  • Average age
  • Average level of education
  • Average salary
  • Marital and family status
  • Type of work (or specific job title, for B2B marketers)
  • Personality traits

Forget personas! Personas are just another way of losing focus. Just give us a clear picture of your bread and butter target customer. One customer. I understand you may want different types of customers, but who is your customer now? Who is paying the bills? Find that person, and set phasers on sell.

Many marketers go through this process, only to find the customer they thought they were serving is not actually their target customer. For example, we work with a company that provides payment services to freelancers. They originally thought their target customer was independent contractors (say, graphic designers) who needed an easy way to get paid by clients.

This company also has an open API, and it turns out the developers using their platform to build new payments systems were far more lucrative than designers. (Would you rather go after all the starving artists of the world, or would you rather own the technology for payments?) Marketing to developers is a different ballgame from marketing to freelancers, so this required a huge shift in strategy.

Without writing it down, you only have this amorphous blob of a customer in your head, and you can’t make these big strategic decisions. Your customer can change over time, but you want to do your best to get your current customer — the one who built your business — in laser focus.

We can take the Hedgehog Concept and apply it to our target customer as well:

  • What customer are we deeply passionate about serving? Who are we good at helping?
  • What customer can we be the best in the world at serving? Where is our competitive advantage?
  • What customer drives our economic engine? Who has the money to pay us?

Running your target customer through these criteria can help you avoid large and costly mistakes. I am reminded of a big flameout in our industry a few years ago. There was a Web consulting company that had a handful of large customers and a lot of smaller customers. The company decided to get rid of all the smaller customers: literally, they just fired them all. Then they quadrupled their minimum monthly retainer, so they could go after more of the bigger customers.

The strategy passed Hedgehog Criteria #1 and #3, but the problem was their business could not be the best in the world at serving larger customers. Large customers have longer sales cycles, multiple decision makers, and there were already established competitors with deeper relationships to these companies. A year later, the company was out of business.

Using the Hedgehog Concept on your target customer can also help you define who can pay you. Not all customers have money. The best businesses have customers with money. This may seem self-evident, but you have no idea how many entrepreneurs try to start businesses selling T-shirts or novelty items.

I am so proud of you for making it this far.


Which Marketing Programs Work?

The final question: what is the one marketing program that you know works for your business, to reach this target customer? Think about that for just a moment, and get an answer in your head. Maybe it’s paid search, or content marketing, or direct mail. If you could only use one marketing channel to reach your customer, which would it be?

Over the 20 years I’ve worked in marketing, I’ve noticed a subtle anxiety that afflicts conscientious marketers, the fear that “I’m not leading-edge enough.” There’s something else out there that I’m not taking advantage of. I have to find the next big thing. That’s part of the reason you’re reading this, because you want to improve your marketing efforts. You want to do a better job. That’s good.

However, when it comes to new marketing programs, you have longer than you think. You can release some of this anxiety. To understand why, look at the technology adoption curve, which came from a group of researchers at Iowa State University, studying how technology innovations (like hybrid seed corn) spread among farmers.

In this model, you have a handful of innovators, who experiment with the new technology: they’re the risk takers. Then you have the early adopters, who are young and hip. The early majority are more conservative, but they’re open to new ideas: they join when it’s a “thing.” The late majority are older and even more conservative, so they’re late to the party. The laggards are the oldest and most conservative, and jump on board last.

You can figure out where you sit on this curve by just looking at how you use technology. The fact that you’re reading this likely puts you on the left side of the curve. But are you an innovator, someone who will buy the latest gadget even if it’s full of bugs? Do you buy version 2? Or do you wait for the cost to come down, only buying technology when it’s proven?

This model also applies to the marketing adoption lifecycle, which I will now illustrate by changing the title of the graph:

Here’s the problem with being a marketing innovator: you waste a lot of time and money. First, you don’t know what’s going to work, so you throw a lot of stuff against the wall. Second, the infrastructure isn’t in place. Let’s say you want to experiment with drone marketing. You come up with crazy ideas: we’ll paint a thousand drones with the company colors, and fly them over major sporting events!

Getting all the drones together becomes a nightmare: they all operate on the same frequency, so you need specially-built drones. You need a pilot for each drone, and they all have to be trained. And after all these spectators see your amazing drone flashmob, how are you going to get people to buy your product? How will you report on the campaign? That’s the innovator’s dilemma.

By the time the early majority buy into drone marketing, you now have specialized companies who do amazing company-branded drone shows, complete with Return on Investment reporting. It’s still novel enough that people enjoy seeing them.

The laggards buy into drone marketing 25 years hence, when everyone rolls their eyes and says, “Drone marketing? Why don’t we just do an iWatch campaign?” By then, of course, everyone knows the next hot thing is clone marketing, where you grow a thousand human clones to do the bidding of your marketing department.

Maintaining your marketing focus is difficult, especially if you naturally tend toward the left side of the curve. You want to experiment with a lot of crazy things, but this is usually inefficient. The good news is that you can relax, because you have longer than you think. When you hear about new marketing platforms (currently this might be Vine or Snapchat marketing), take an attitude of, “That’s interesting. Let’s let other people waste their money first.”

Another way of thinking about this might be a stock portfolio. Here are two sample stock portfolios:

Which one is likely to generate the highest return over the long haul?

Think of loading up your marketing portfolio with dependable, responsible things: focus on what works. Put in a few growth opportunities, to try new things that other companies have already proven. You can keep a small slice of “mad money” for innovations, but it’s ideal if these can be innovations on what’s already working. Instead of constantly looking for the next big thing, channel your energy into what works, and how to make it work better.


You Made It! (Almost)

I hope you’ve noticed your mind anxiously returning to your unanswered email, and to the exciting updates you’re missing on your Facebook feed. I hope you can see the direct analogy between that anxiety, and the anxiety of missing out on something with your marketing program. By answering the questions above, you can gain clarity, and relieve yourself of that anxiety.

The good news is, you already know the answers to these questions. You just need to focus long enough to clarify the answers to yourself. You have to write them down, so you can explain them clearly, to yourself and your co-workers.

You have a limited supply of energy.

You have a limited supply of attention.

You have a limited supply of time, and money, and resources.

Focus it on what matters.


Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of the upcoming book Mind Hacking. This post is free to distribute under CC 4.0: if you like it, please share it.