But What Can I Do Today?

Marketers frequently ask “What can I do today to make my numbers tomorrow?” And the unfortunate answer is: not a whole hell of a lot.

In the cheesy 90’s teen football movie Varsity Blues, a high school coach obsessed with winning at any cost pressures his team to inject cortisone into their joints to “play through the pain”. At the start of the film this costs the school’s varsity quarterback a college football scholarship; his knee has become so injured “playing through the pain” that a doctor determines he can never play again.

Seeking out “best practices” or “one weird marketing hack” is the equivalent of shooting cortisone into your business. It’s not going to improve your future prospects, and it may actually make them worse. That’s why I have a hard time getting excited about hyper-tactical content.

And yet…

I’ve noticed something interesting now that I’ve been writing and Tweeting consistently for more than a year. Tactical content always gets more pickup and eyeballs than strategic content. The easier it is to implement my blog or newsletter content today, the more popular it is with readers.

I see the same trend in general Black Friday/Cyber Monday content. I wrote my first BFCM post in August. Almost no one was talking about holiday strategy at that time. We’re currently two weeks out from the main event, and the number of blog posts and Twitter threads on media investment and promos vs bundles has increased exponentially. 

Don’t get me wrong–much of this late-breaking content is excellent. But if you’re still working through your BFCM strategy this late in the game, that is a clear sign of larger issues with how you manage your business.

This is a pattern I see repeatedly in the world of eCom and digital marketing. People want to know “What can I do today to make my numbers tomorrow?” And the unfortunate answer is: not a whole hell of a lot.

Your sales on any given day are coming from one of two places: new customers or returning customers. There are basic rules that govern the behavior of returning customers at scale, so returning customer spend is relatively predictable. Recency is a major factor. So today’s sales from returning customers are primarily a function of your total sales over the past six months.

The delta between your sales goal and projected sales from returning customers must be closed with new customer acquisition. If you miss plan on a given day, one of three things has happened:

  1. Returning customers didn’t shop at the level you projected. This is usually due to changes in your product and pricing strategy that weren’t fully baked into your projections.
  2. New customers didn’t shop at the level you projected. This is usually due to faulty assumptions around marketing strategy or media investment. Sometimes this, too, is driven by product decisions.
  3. Catastrophic failure of some kind. This could be your website going down, or a major ad network like Facebook going down, or a macro disaster like Covid-19.

You can’t do much to hack your way out of these situations on the day of. Your sales performance is the product of many interconnected decisions, some of which were made 12-18 months ago. You can’t really slap a bandaid on it by sending the fourth email of the day or launching a new offer. These “solutions” often help close the gap between forecast and actual sales for a day. But like the cortisone shots, they don’t work long term.

That’s why I keep returning to a few recurring themes: customer behavior, understanding how customers interact with your product category and your assortment, and viewing marketing channels as a collection of customers. But it’s hard to translate these topics into a to-do list without learning more about a given brand’s specific situation.

Unfortunately, a lot of eCommerce and retail organizations are incredibly reactive. And for whatever reason, the notion that today’s sales are largely a product of the last six months’ sales is not widely understood. So you often wind up in the following situation:

  • Annual sales goals are clumped into a few high-stakes periods throughout the year.
  • Sales volume during those periods must be increased 10-30% YoY without question.
  • Lots of time and energy is invested into two questions: “How much should we spend to promote the tentpole event?” and “What kind of offer should we run?”
  • Almost no energy is invested into priming the pump in the three to six months leading up to the event.

The result is that no one in the organization approaches the big day with much confidence in hitting the number. Of course, they present confidence up the ladder and absolutely bleed insecurity down the ladder. This creates a cultural obsession with “What Can I Do Today?”, and a cultural disincentive towards long term thinking. 

Spoiler alert: by the end of Varsity Blues, the team essentially overthrows the coach because they realize that (1) he’s willing to sacrifice their NCAA and NFL prospects to win high school games and (2) he’s unwilling to consider strategic alternatives* that would reduce physical injuries to the team. Lesson in there.

*throwing the football instead of running the football