Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 13, 200910:13 AM

Failure Is Not An 0ption

Just last week, I caught myself watching Apollo 13 for the umpteenth time on TV. The Oscar Award-winning Ron Howard epic was released in 1995 and dramatizes the lunar mission that took place in 1970.

Things went terribly wrong on that space voyage. A cryogenic tank exploded in the service module which caused a power failure and loss of oxygen in the command module. The entire purpose of the mission then shifted from landing on the moon to suddenly having to solve a problem no one imagined would happen in a circumstance that had unique challenges. And while the mission is mostly known for the famous words spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell: "Houston, we've had a problem," it was the lead flight director for Mission Control on Earth, Gene Kranz, who turned to his team and challenged them to find a solution for the orphaned space ship by saying, "Failure is not an option."

In recounting the story, this is what Lovell says about the Apollo 13 mission: "Survive we did, but it was close. Our mission was a failure but I like to think it was a successful failure."

It's interesting to think about the correlations that exist between those moments nearly 40 years ago and today in business.

Many businesspeople would like to think that everything they do has to be perfect and that the market will reward them for their acumen, but many do, indeed, fail. It's not just the recession that creates bankruptcies and insolvencies; it can be poor management, not understanding your marketplace and - sometimes - simply bad luck. It turns out that in the traditional business world, failure is indeed an option (and sometimes, it is an acceptable option). The Internet and new media act differently from the regular day-to-day activities of traditional business. In fact, when it comes to the online world, failure is not an option.

The only way that people really fail with their online marketing or social media initiatives is when they treat them like their traditional marketing and advertising campaigns.

To truly embrace the notion that "failure is not an option," two things need to happen:

  1. Shift to a "live" mindset. Everything online is moving toward what is widely being called the "live Web." It is (practically) happening in real time. Case in point: it was announced this week that Facebook is acquiring FriendFeed. The breaking news was grabbed from a highly trafficked tech blog (TechCrunch) and proliferated across Twitter faster than you can say: "Please retweet this." It was practically an hour before the major mainstream media outlets were able to get the word out on their own websites (and in their traditional news channels the following day). Why? The traditional infrastructure is simply not set up for a real-time environment. Businesses are the same. Think about how you can change your existing business model from what you have to a "real-time" mindset. Imagine what it would be like for the New York Times to start acting more like Twitter.
  2. Learn as you go. When you work in a real-time environment, you don't have to wait for things like a campaign or project to be over to learn what happened. The beauty of this is that you can change and optimize your business as you go. Think about your advertising: at the beginning of the quarter you brief your marketing department and advertising agency on your new products and services. From the briefing several campaigns and initiatives are launched. It's usually not until the end of the following quarter that a proper analysis is given that takes into account everything from sales to the overall sentiment expressed by consumers about your creative in the marketplace. Now, compare that with the power of advertising on a Search Engine like Google, Yahoo! or Bing. You can see - live - which keywords are generating clicks and which of those clicks are generating some kind of conversion. Within minutes, you can learn, change course, adjust and optimize. You don't learn after everything is said and done (so as not to repeat the same mistakes next year), you are learning in a real-time environment. With that kind of pace, mistakes are often just mis-steps (or, at least, they should be).

The tragedy is that many businesses online still believe that failure is an option.

Even if the online campaigns don't hit (or surpass) all of your pre-established key performance indicators, there is little doubt that between the data you gathered and the learning that took place that you, your business and your marketing grew in ways you probably never even imagined possible. If all else fails, the digital channels still provided you with a real-time focus group. If someone does not like what you're doing online, it's usually just a simple search on a platform like Google, Technorati and/or Twitter to know why.

Failure is not an option anymore. At worst, you learned, you grew, you changed, you adapted, you optimized and you figured out what works ... and what doesn't. And, if all else does fail, try to have some kind of "successful failure."

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Montreal Gazette - In new media, failure really isn't an option.
- Vancouver Sun - Failure is not an option, unless it's successful.

By Mitch Joel


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