Your output will only be as good as the inputs

Reading and learning can help marketers take inputs and turn them into valuable outputs. The key is to decide what topics are important to you.

readingSuccessful people read a lot. If you want to follow in their footsteps, three question arise: why should you read, what should you read, and how should you read.

Why marketers should read

On why. We marketers are judged on our output and the outcomes they enable – sales, market share, net margin, profit, top-of-mind awareness. Constant good-quality input is the only way to maintain high quality output and outcomes.

The issue with this input=output equation is that the only person who controls the input is you. But as author Ted Gioia said: “In your life, you will be evaluated on your output. Your boss will evaluate you on your output. But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output.

“The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read.”

Some authors spend up to triple the time on input versus output – in other words, they read a lot more than they write. What about marketer? It is hard to argue we should be spending twice as much time reading about our preferred topic as doing it. But then what proportion is right? 10%? 20%? In the end, it is your choice but remember that your input depends on your output.

You could put this to the test by opening a book at your desk and starting to read it but imagine the kerfuffle this would cause. It’s quite strange when you think about it. Why is it deemed fine to listen to a webinar or presentation, but reading a book at your desk is beyond the pale?

What marketers should read

So what should you read to improve your input? My suggestion is to focus on topics, not individual books, and choose two for a period of time – one you think you know about but could do with a refresh, and the other something unfamiliar but which you should really should know.

I have been putting this in action over the past couple of months with two topics: strategy and marketing effectiveness. I’ve studied strategy at the highest level in MBA classes, and delivered marketing strategies in three different industries and countries. But I still had the nagging doubt that I was not bang up to date.

Guess what? When I started talking to strategy experts, I realised my hunch was correct. The concepts and content within strategy thinking have changed a lot over the past few years. Forget all the wartime strategy material of the past, or Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage; newer material around strategy is easier to understand, apply and, probably most importantly of all, talk to the boss about.

I can’t say I’m an expert on the second topic – marketing effectiveness – but I know I need to understand it intimately and to start applying it to my day-to-day.

The challenge for any marketer is that to study marketing effectiveness in a lot of detail, much of the source material is in hard-to-read academic papers or in books that are not exactly full of picture or cartoons to enliven the dense prose! The topic itself is not easy, and the instruction manuals to understand the topic don’t make it easier. Negative binomial distribution models are not page turners.

Sure we can read the research from Les Binet and Peter Field, and Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, but this is not enough if you want to develop the level of expertise required to communicate the ideas to a smart CEO, convince your team or communicate with your agencies.

How marketers should read

This leads me to third part of the input=output equation: how should you read? The best place to start, in my experience, is with a clean slate. Assume you know nothing about the desired topic and build from the ground up.

This is one of the hardest things to do – admitting a lack of knowledge of a topic is very challenging. But starting like this means you can build up from a solid base, rather than preconceived notions.

Learning is put into effect when our behaviour in the future is different from the past.

Begin with the base textbooks or papers about the topic. There are still plenty of people who have not read How Brands Grow. Read Eat Your Greens, study Daniel Kahnemann and Dan Ariely for human behaviour. Don’t just read the summaries; watch the videos, do the courses, look at the journals, read the criticism. Get a full 360-degree view.

As part of your input=output work, you will start noticing the connections and patterns between what people have researched and written. This is a real outcome of the work – combining new knowledge with what you already know. That is when the magic happens!

However, to get to that point, you need to have a programme of reading and a commitment to it. That includes finding the time. But getting out of your comfort zone and being exposed to these concepts does not just broaden your horizons, it is critical for your career.

Tips for learning

The first thing I found is that I need to give myself uninterrupted time during the week to get my head around a new topic – eliminating the usual distractions.

The second thing is to commit to presenting the ideas to someone at work sooner rather than later. There is nothing like a deadline with senior management to focus the mind.

The third thing is to try and teach the detail of it to someone. Explaining concepts to a class or to someone who does not know the topic is a sure-fire way to really understand something at a deep level. And when you write about the topic, do it so a person with no background in marketing can understand it.

When will you know that all this reading and learning is actually working; that you are taking the input and turning it into valuable outputs? The answer is simple. Learning is put into effect when our behaviour in the future is different from the past.