Why Your Marketing Stinks and How to Fix It

Trees in the Park
Image by Lune Rambler

The following is a guest post by Erica Mills. She created a low cost tool called the Marketing Tree that forces you through a strategy process. I thought it was pretty cool, and asked her to blog about it.

Please welcome her. Bonus miles, the three best comments will get a Marketing Tree process mailed to them.

Since we don’t really know each other, it’s probably rude of me to say that your marketing stinks. Fair enough.

The thing is, I’ve taught thousands of organizations and businesses how to do effective marketing and here’s what I can say: your marketing might not stink, but you’ve probably got some Extreme Marketing Mayhem going on.

Why the mayhem? Because if you’re like most people, you head straight for the latest, greatest shiny objects and skip over all that boring planning and strategy stuff.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest might be awesome marketing tools for you…or they might suck. Either way, if you’re not clear on your goals and your audience, you’re chasing shiny objects, not doing effective marketing. Period.

I created the 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree to eradicate Extreme Marketing Mayhem and help you make the most of your marketing (read: no more chasing of shiny objects). It’s a deceptively simple tool that is freakishly good at delivering results.

The 1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree boils all this marketing business down to a series of simple questions-questions to which you know the answers, but likely haven’t taken the time to ask. (I know, I know, low blow.) Questions like:

WHAT does marketing success look like?
WHO do you need to be successful?
HOW will you reach them?

Simple, right? Okay, fair warning. There are a few other questions and some of them can be zingers. And the order in which you answer the questions matters. No skipping around.

But you know the answers AND if you take the time to answer them, you’ll go from Marketing Mayhem to Awesome Marketing Machine. It’s totally worth your time. Trust me.

[NOTE: This tool was designed with seriously resource-constrained organizations in mind-namely, nonprofits. If it works for them (and it does), it’ll work for you. If you’re a business, swap out ‘supporter’ for ‘customer’ and you’ll be set.]

About Erica Mills

Erica Mills (@ericamills)

Erica Mills heads up Claxon, a company on a mission to help those doing good get noticed. She helps leaders and organizations find their words. She also lectures at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

Erica is an internationally recognized expert on brand, messaging and marketing strategy. Her clients have included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Group Health Research Institute, and Microsoft, among many others. She likes a good bottle of wine almost as much as she likes a good, long run.


  • Hi, Erica…I think I get a tree because I’m the first to score here? Or, at least I was until the phone rang!

    This is similar to what we counsel in PR — align communications strategy to business goals and keep on eye on that prize (hint, hint…prize?). LOL

    Hope there are three better comments below this one for you!

  • We’ve been talking about marketing processes here lately (especially for social media in my case), and this sounds like it would be a useful tool.

    I think that your point about “chasing shiny objects” is a good one. It’s so easy to chase a new idea down the rabbit hole, but it takes considerable time and energy to climb out and dust yourself off.

    One prevalent “shiny object” is images, especially with the rise of Pinterest. It’s easy to post images, but do the images reflect your brand’s narrative?

    • Great point about images being potential shiny objects. Not chasing shiny objects takes almost as much restraint as not eating all the Halloween candy in the house!

    • Good stuff, Joseph. We’d like to send you a tree. Email me your addy to geoffliving@me.com, and we’ll send you a tree! Thanks for commenting.

  • Hmmmm…now what will be the criteria for the 3 best comments? Might it be to delineate the most important points?…like have a plan and a strategy; stop chasing shiny objects (squirrel!); eradicate Marketing Mayhem; be able to absorb the low blow because you HAVE answered the questions.

    My mantra is: “If you don’t know the ‘why’, the ‘how’ doesn’t matter. Bring on the zingers! Cheers! Kaarina P.S. I’ll bring wine:)

    • Looks like we’re both fans of Simon Sinek, good wine, and zingers. Not sure what Geoff’s “judging criteria” will be, but a good summary is always good, so thank you!

    • Hey Katrina: We decided to give everyone a tree! Email me your addy to geoffliving@me.com, and we’ll send you one! Thanks for commenting. May be in Toronto soon…

  • I’ve found that “what does marketing success look like?” is already a big zinger! As we talk with nonprofits about developing a marketing or social media strategy, it’s easy to jump to fundraising metrics – ‘dollars raised,’ ‘repeat donors’ etc. as the ultimate indicator of succes. But often, the more relationship-focused marketing wins like ‘personal conversations spurred,’ ‘time spent crafting thoughtful comments,’ are equally valuable, just harder to understand and articulate. (Also harder to track and measure … ROE vs. ROI blah blah blah.) But I agree – it’s so important to have the team on the same page when determining what success looks like – whether it’s dollars or conversations – from the very beginning! I’d love to see the tool you’ve developed, Erica!

    • Such a good point, Alison! The “softer” goals are tough. What I see is people setting those goals as an end, rather than a means to an end (which all of marketing is!), and not being rigorous about why they’re spurring conversations or crafting thoughtful comments. What’s different if all of that happens? Even if you can’t track as well, it’s so important for the team to know. Thanks for the teasing that out!

    • Alison: Please email me your addy to geoffliving@me.com, and we’ll send you a tree! Thanks for commenting.

  • Just setting a goal for some of my clients is a huge deal – I’d love to play around with that tool (OK that sounded odd…).

    • So long as you’re not calling someone a tool, you’re okay! :) Goal setting, whether marketing or otherwise, is indeed a huge deal. It’s just not as fun as trying the latest fad or craze. (South Beach, anyone?)

    • Hey Annie. Thank you for coming by. Email me your addy to geoffliving@me.com, and we’ll send you a tree! Thanks for commenting.

  • Geoff, Erica. you are spot on. Marketers are rushing to the shiny objects, and they are also rushing to “activity”, even if it isn’t shiny (we need to get our next direct mail piece out by the end of the month, it doesn’t matter if its relevant now!!).

    I *TRY* to start every marketing program, when people talk about objectives, by asking something like “what challenge are you addressing or opportunity are you embracing” with this program. Most marketers look at me like I just sprouted six heads and maybe spout back something like “we need leads” or “we need to increase awareness”, others dismiss the questions completely as unimportant or believe the answer should be obvious.

    Great to see you taking this on with solutions that are simple enough marketers can actually use them!

    • Beware the 6-headed marketer! : ) The more resources are constrained, the more we rush forward with the ‘how’ and ignore the what and the who. It makes sense (and we’ve all been there), but it’s such a bummer, especially in the long-term, as you end up spinning your wheels rather than making headway. Glad there are people like you willing to ask the less shiny questions!

    • Thank you, Eric. If you email me your addy to
      geoffliving@me.com, and we’ll send you a tree! Thanks for coming by and commenting.

  • Having a clear target audience is KEY. So is reaching them.

    I’m not quite clear on how your tool helps improve marketing strategy. What are your “stats?”

    • 2 quick clarifying question so I can get you good answers: 1) how do you define “marketing strategy” (everyone has a slightly different definition so I like to get on the same page!) 2) are you referring to the stats that the tool improves marketing strategy or examples of stats that organizations who use the tool have used to define success?

      • Marketing strategy to me means how you promote your book for sales. That could be social media, website/blog, signings, giveaways, branding, press releases, etc. by stats I mean info on “before and after” using your tool. ;)

  • Geoff & Erica, The marketing tree starts with “What?” Seems like the tree is a great tool to get a group involved in decision making. So, who’s best to ask, then answer, this question in the seriously resource-constrained organization? E.D.? Staff? Volunteers?

    • The best case scenario is that your staff and board answer the questions separately on the ‘What’ section, and then compare answers. Depending on the org, who figures out the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ varies a lot. (Happy to talk more about that off-line, if you’d like. Also, probably goes without saying, but the larger the group, the clearer you need to be at the outset about who’s a decision-maker and who’s an inputter. Otherwise, you end up with everyone thinking they get to decide if you’ll be on Pinterest and it’s mayhem!) Does that help?

  • It sounds like a good plan. I think I’ll click on the link and see if I can use it to sell books. :-)

  • Excellent tool and love the simple yet very complete 1,2,3 formula.
    Erica: I wonder how often you see the following – I sit on two non-profit boards and when we start talking about the What it seems like our non-profit is make too many assumptions about what success looks like from our (staff/board) point of view rather than the clients we serve. In your opinion is part of the, “What success looks like” process include intimately understanding what success is from the end beneficiaries of our good work? As best we can, shouldn’t we have hard intelligence/ facts (surveys/Interviews) from our clients served as part of creating our What ?

  • I’m challenged as i need to target clients who purposely dont want to be identified. I provide project management servcies to nonprofits undertaking capital projects. They often develop their cap. campaign strategies, determine project scope and line up initial major donors, etc before going public with the campaign. Unforunately they often wait to bring is someone like me who can drill into the scope and define a realistic budget that may well not match their plans. I am always willing to do some initial work on a pro-bono basis just to verify the campaign lines up with expectations, promises to donors, etc. Some early effort can avoid painful choices down the road of cutting scope, program or having to go back to donors and say oops we need more money. A little up front effort can put things on a solid road to success. So my big challenge is to develop a market strategy to bring my services to clients who are intentionally staying below the radar.

  • Minimizing mayhem sounds like what I need. The shiny objects have so many of us hypnotized! Thanks in advance for the tree.

  • Hi, I wonder if this is primarily aimed at organisations and integrating the differing views staff etc or if it is as effective for a ‘one man/woman band’? I’m currently in the planning process of setting up a private practice for counselling which is a marketing minefield.There is the inevitable frustration of just wanting to get started but I keep reeling myself back in to the strategy stage.

  • sounds awesome! I’m new to nonprofits and marketing so I need all the assistance I can get.

  • Hi there if your offer still stands I would love to take the Marketing Tree for a test ride….those shiny objects are just so….SHINY! *grins*

  • With a goal to help multiple charities through a target audience that are socially-conscious consumers, the challenge remains… and I would love to have some insight on better ways to step up to that challenge and conquer it!

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