How to learn from your marketing mistakes

How to learn from your marketing mistakes{{}}It's not easy marketing your small business. You have to take risks and sometimes they don't pay off. But judging by the experiences of many successful business people - people like Richard Branson, Drayton Bird and Rowan Gormley -  it's often the mistakes that make them the success they are today, as Rachel Miller discovers

Every entrepreneur has made mistakes. The most successful ones are those that can admit where they've gone wrong and learn from it.

Richard Branson has blogged on this very subject. He says, "One thing is certain in business. You and everyone around you will make mistakes. When you are pushing the boundaries, this is inevitable - and it's important to realise this. Even when things are running well, there is always the prospect of a new reality round the corner."

It's clear that you can't avoid making mistakes. The important thing is to be open-minded - spot the mistake early, don't bury your head in the sand and be responsive.

And when it comes to marketing, it is absolutely essential to be prepared to adjust your strategy when it's not working.

Don't be complacent

Ironically, success can have its downsides. The direct marketing guru, Drayton Bird, says, "The worst habits are: first, to start thinking you're good; second, to stop trying so hard.

"When we are successful, we tend to go out and celebrate," he explains. "This in itself is usually a mistake. What we should do is capitalise on our success. For example, if you have a winning mailing or email, follow up. An email sent out the next day that repeats one that worked will get 80 to 90 per cent of the response. A follow-up mailing sent out two weeks later will usually get 50 per cent of the response."

Drayton Bird believes we learn more from failure than success. "We are forced to ask ourselves what went wrong - and we learn," he says. "As I have had far, far more failures than most people, I have learned a lot."

A spectacular series of mistakes

Bird reveals what he calls "my most spectacular series of mistakes":

  • Taking a successful newsletter and making it look like a magazine. Your newsletter should look like a private, personal thing - an insider's view - not a public thing.
  • Offering it to 50,000 prospects instead of testing on a few. Always test.
  • Sending the magazine out with the mailing. Too expensive; and what you can say about a publication is usually far more persuasive than the publication itself.
  • Mailing on 12th December. Suicide. Everyone's out getting drunk; not reading direct mail.

"That little lot cost me about £8,000," says Bird.

So what are the most common marketing mistakes made by small enterprises? They are exactly the same as those made by big business, says Bird. "Not measuring or testing. Talking about what they do rather than what their customers want."

And the best way to learn from your failures? "Ask the customers."

Admitting your mistake is the first step

Rowan Gormley knows how success can make it hard to spot your mistakes. The founder of the new online wine business, Naked Wines, Gormley previously worked with Richard Branson at Virgin for many years and set up Virgin Wines.

"The lowest point in my career was when I refused to acknowledge my mistakes and believed my own publicity. The data was telling us where we were going wrong at Virgin Wines but we kept reading how brilliant we were in the press.

"I was in denial. Once we accepted what was wrong, we stripped the business down and rebuilt it and then it really took off. It's amazing how a group of highly intelligent people can get things so categorically wrong. What looks good on a Powerpoint presentation just didn't do it for the customer."

Naked Wines is a radical departure from the usual wine merchant set-up. This online business puts its customers first - they taste and choose the wines and rate them online. It's an exciting venture, says Gormley. "Because we are a small company, the fantastic thing is we can come up with an idea and have it live quickly. If it feels right we do it then we look at customer reaction and evolve it from there."

Gormley is a big believer in instinct. "It's important to go with your gut feel and make something live, before the magic has been drummed out of it. Working for Richard Branson was pretty inspirational. His point of view was always that he hadn't had his instincts educated out of him. And he has been right more often than he has been wrong."