In the early days of the internet, a number of aspiring furniture retailers decided to take their businesses online. The convenience of a virtual showroom was undeniable. But consumers who were trained to “try before you buy” simply weren’t ready for it. Neither were some furniture makers. Retailers who envisioned the internet as a solution learned that it was, in fact, a problem in a competitive market. Many went belly up during the dot-com bust of the early 2000s.
Flash-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic when online shopping became commonplace across many sectors of the economy. Retailers who had already optimized their business model for e-commerce held a market advantage. Hindsight is 20/20: Pumping money into a virtual showroom was not an inherently poor business strategy for retailers, merely an idea ahead of its time when it was introduced a generation ago.
The phenomenon of chasing marketing’s newest trends or “shiny objects” predates even the internet. Sometimes, being the first to embrace a new marketing trend can lead to enviable return on investment (ROI) and strong success. Other times, it can lead to wasted resources and the failure of a marketing plan, a career or a business. But how should companies discern risk and reward when it comes to adopting a new practice, device or technology?
The short answer: Any trendy tools you take on ought to fit within your overall marketing plan. Consider the following four strategies for determining whether the trend is a good fit for your organization.
1. Philosophical/Strategic Fit
If you can’t close your eyes and imagine following a specific marketing strategy, there must be a reason. What is it about this shiny object, if anything, that undermines the corporate culture and identity you have worked to build?
The answer might be nothing. In that case, your hesitation might be strategic rather than philosophical. Consider whether following this trend amounts to what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once referred to as a “one-way door” or a “two-way door.”
One-way doors are irreversible decisions — impossible to come back from, inevitably a gain or a loss. Two-way doors are easy to reverse with a little time and effort. Bezos cautioned his shareholders in a 1997 letter to not to avoid two-way doors out of caution: “The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.”
Project a little. Look around the corner. Connect the events that are happening in your world. The risk might just be worth it.
2. Financial Fit
Of course, money matters when pursuing a shiny object. How much of an investment will it take? Can you afford to lose that?
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek once described his shift from a “thousand flowers bloom strategy” to a more conservative approach: “I believe in decentralized decision-making. So, I allowed a lot of things to happen without much involvement, just general context setting. We started hundreds of projects, but we didn’t finish a lot of them. For many of them, my analysis ended up being it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the wrong time to do it. The sequencing was off. Plus, we didn’t have the resources to fully do 100 projects at once. Now we have 10 bets going at any time, never any more.”
Spotify, with a market cap in excess of $15 billion as of January 2023, can afford to take on more risks than most businesses — but even then, only to a point. If the ceiling of High-Risk Strategy A leads to an ROI not greatly above Conservative Strategy B running simultaneously, it probably isn’t worth the cost regardless of your company’s market cap.
If you’re still sold on the merits of an expensive strategy, try corralling someone from your finance department to play devil’s advocate with you. The dollars and cents might make your decision easier.
3. Tactical Fit
OnMoney.com spent millions on a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in January 2000. The personal finance website bet on its ability to handle the resulting traffic, but when the advertisement aired the site was still labeled “beta.” Within a year, the company had fallen victim to the dot-com bust.
As much as a financial misfit, the downfall of OnMoney.com suggests a tactical misfit as well. If the shiny-object marketing strategy succeeds beyond your most bullish projections, will your organization be prepared for the influx of business? If not, do you have a strategy to increase the collective bandwidth of your group in short order?
Consider also whether the marketing tactic is going to attract the kind of customers you desire. Does it truly target the audience you seek? Many marketing strategies have the potential to succeed; not all of these will align with your goals if they succeed.
4. Practical Fit
Marketers must consider other practical concerns when chasing a shiny object:
- Is the strategy right for a company your size? What works for a multinational goods supplier might not work for a local automotive parts dealer.
- If you scale the strategy bigger or smaller to suit your needs, will it still be effective? Put differently, are you using the marketing equivalent of a big gun when you should be using a surgeon’s knife?
- Will the same strategy work regardless of the target region? A strategy that works with one regional audience might not land in a different region. A successful national marketing strategy might not work on a regional level.
- How are you going to operationalize it?
Keep in mind, too, that trendy strategies are fleeting by their nature. Even if your organization adapts a successful trend wisely, it might come too late to elicit the desired effect simply because the trend is no longer shiny. Conversely, the faster you adopt a new technology, the higher the risk. Cutting-edge or bleeding-edge strategies require a more complicated analysis, so take the time required (and not any more) to make a wise decision for your organization.