This Concept Explains Why Marketers Fail to Consistently Resonate with Audiences

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"I don't understand!" she shouted. "This used to work EVERY time! What is happening?! What are we gonna do?!?! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!"

Okay, so that's not really what she said.

This calm, cool, and collected friend and I were colleagues on a marketing team years ago. She was responsible for all things direct response, and I was responsible for the content. And her actual words were probably something like, "Uh, Jay? We're not gonna hit our quota this month. I don't get it. We did exactly what we've done a million times before. This should be fine."

But despite those calm, cool, and collected words, I caught a faint whiff of existential dread. (And since we were marketers talking about leads, by "faint whiff," I mean, a skunk wearing a vest labeled "FREAK THE EFF OUT" had just waddled across the office and took out decades of personal angst directly onto my teammate's face.

Apparently. 

Here's why she was so distraught. For years, the company had run the same playbook to generate leads. (The name of the company isn't important. Let's call it GrubSnot.)

For years, GrubSnot published multiple blog posts each day to generate traffic, and then pointed that traffic (always a nice way to refer to human beings) to a big, colorful banner beneath the article. This banner would advertise a FREE Ebook, but of course, "FREE" stood for "Form Requiring Endless Entries." Because marketing!

And so, month after month, year after year, BubsCot would rely on this approach. Publish blog posts, point people to an ebook, convert leads on a forced form.

Blog posts >> Ebook. Blog posts >> Ebook. Over. And over. And over. And obviously, over time, our audience decided, "We're over it."

Arguably, this was my biggest failure as a team manager. Despite my best efforts -- or maybe they weren't -- I couldn't convince CubSlot leaders to invest more heavily in longer-term approaches and higher quality content. By the end of my first year there, I was out.

But, I mean, I understand the resistance to change at RubsTot: They'd found their tried-and-true, and just like any company that does, they were beating the ever-loving (Grub)Snot out of it. If they decided to change, well, it would be after it was too late.

Hence the "Uh, Jay?" from my teammate delivered with "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" urgency.

At the time, I struggled to explain this objectively, but now, I realize: We'd reached the Crapping Point.

When Tried-and-True Becomes Tired-and-Terrible

The Crapping Point is one moment on a chart I'll share with you in just a second. I believe this chart can explain the effects of time on any project or company, no matter how exciting or hollow, big or small, well-intentioned or scammy -- and everything in between. My attempt to explain the affects of time on our work is part of a larger, ongoing exploration to understand one question:

What does it take to create consistently great work?

In the business world, shortcut culture seems to be engulfing everyone, while creativity has been twisted to mean Random Acts. Like a stunt double called in to substitute for the real work, we use our creativity to try and manufacture spikes through one-off ideas, rather than create operational approaches to innovation and improvement. As people obsess over the short-term, the need for consistency gets lost, and with it, the ability to create anything unassailable: original, resonant, and enduring.

Two weeks ago, I tried to diagnose the illness. The need to manufacture spikes is a symptom. Random Acts of Creativity are symptoms. What's the root cause preventing us from creating consistently great work? I believe it's stagnation

Even the best creative projects, careers, and companies run the risk of growing stale over time. There is no "set it and forget it." Over time, the resonance wears away, whether that's the resonance we feel when we create the work or the feelings our audience exhibits towards what we create. (BTW, trying to manufacture spikes in the numbers suffers from stagnation even worse than longer-term approaches. After all, what makes a spike is that both the up-swing and the down-slope stand in stark contrast to the line before and after it. In other words, just as quick as the numbers go up, they go down.)

Stagnation is the enemy. That's why, when my former colleague said, "We did exactly what we've done a million times before. This should be fine," she'd actually answered her own question. She just didn't realize it. We'd done the exact same thing a million times before. Yanno that old saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"? Well, in our line of work, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results.

So let's try to regain some sanity here. To do so, it's important to fully understand the problem to then find a solution. Luckily, we can visualize stagnation as one part of a chart showing the resonance of our work over time. The natural decrease in that resonance in the face of time is something I call:

Emotional Decay

When we find something that works, something that resonates for us as the creators and for them as the audience, that thing undergoes a transformation we didn't ask for and probably want to prevent. We can most vividly understand that transformation by thinking about our own reactions to launching A Thing That Worked Real Good. When we create A Thing That Worked Real Good, our reaction to what's happening changes to match the change in resonance.

It goes something like this (follow the red line along with the words below):

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

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I call this process Emotional Decay. The resonance wears away over time. That emotional pull we felt as the creators of the work and our audience felt as the recipients can slowly, or steeply, decay. That is the effect of time on our work.

We can plot different moments we experience on this line, too:

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Once we do something resonant, rather quickly, the audience experiences Nirvana. They think, “This is the greatest thing I’ve EVER experienced! This is how EVERYONE should do this thing! I love this brand so much I want to marry it and have lots of little baby brands with it!"

Or something.

We've all been there: That jaw-droppingly beautiful video. That gripping podcast episode. That unbelievably enjoyable newsletter written by one devilishly handsome author and speaker who would never, ever fish for compliments in his own newsletter.

That kind of work sparks awesome feelings. (I refuse to say "joy." If you don't know why, congrats on leading a more productive life than most humans with a Netflix subscription.)

Once others feel Nirvana with our work, it can carry, begin, or deepen our relationship together ... for a time. Eventually however, we experience the Drop-Off. For instance, we start seeing diminishing returns from the tried-and-true thing, or we begin to check out of the work and look to automate it, or our audience stops feeling all the feels. They still love us, but the spark isn't quite there anymore. No longer unassailable, we're vulnerable to disruption and choice. (Anyone who's ever been in a relationship for awhile knows this feeling. But unlike dating or marriage, our audience doesn't care about hurting us when they immediately move on to the next thing.)

The issue continues: If we don’t do anything to refresh the work, we experience Stagnation. We keep trying the tried-and-true too long; we completely lose interest in the work on a personal level, and it shows; the audience expects more of us after experiencing Nirvana, but we fail to exceed those ever-higher expectations we've created; the market has caught up or changed in a way that renders our once-exceptional work stale.

Eventually, we feel like things are crumbling around us. Every month or quarter is a mad dash to generate spikes in the numbers just to reach quota. Every new trend feels mandatory. Every email from our boss or client feels urgent. We. Lose. Our. Ish.

We've reached ... the Crapping PointI dunno what happened! It crapped out on us!

What was once exceptional has ceased to be table stakes (stagnation), and it becomes downright crappy. That's been the plight of gated ebooks in B2B marketing for awhile now. That will be the plight of nearly anything that works today, unless we keep refreshing our work to succeed tomorrow.

When we refuse to admit we have a problem, we face the reality of Emotional Decay only after it's too late. Then what do we do? Typically, we try to manufacture a spike. We seek a shortcut, a hack, a quick fix. To escape that ever-urgent feeling that comes with the Crapping Point, we just start the whole damn process all over again:

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"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

"HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE'RE AWESOME. THIS IS--Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is--oh no. Okay. It's not getting any better. It's just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is--OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!"

Over and over again, we tell ourselves the same lie: THIS time will be different. But each time, it's not. It's the same schtick, the same slide towards apathy or even animosity from our audiences. This trend or that trend, this guru or that one. It not only continues, it speeds up! It spins wildly out of control until we risk devolving wholly into shortcut culture, obeying each and every ridiculous Business Bro who appears in a YouTube ad in front of a sports car with a wad of cash in his slimy hand.

WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!

How to Survive and Thrive Instead

What if we cared less about the spikes and more about the trajectory of the entire line? What if we thought longer term? What if we could avoid the crapping point and use stagnation as a signal to take action? We could do so, if only we responded proactively to Emotional Decay ... before it was too late, instead of after.

That leads me to my fiercest belief about consistent creativity, one that's easy to agree with but hard to implement -- hence my year-long journey to try. My fiercest belief about consistent creativity:

Consistently great work consistently changes.

Creating consistently great work isn't about finding THE thing that works, then putting that on repeat. That ignores the issue of Emotional Decay. Instead, we need a new idea of what "consistency" means. The work itself doesn't repeat -- only the resonance it creates. But to achieve that, to resonate as time passes, we must change the work to make sense in each new moment in time. In other words, to truly avoid stagnation and combat Emotional Decay, we need to refresh the work.

Consistently great work consistently changes.

Does yours?

Posted on February 13, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.