How to Deal with Uncertainty in Your Marketing Approach (and Your Life)

July 14, 2019

Uncertainty in Marketing

Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Greg Mischio, the Owner and Strategic Director of Winbound, a manufacturing marketing agency.

Do you lay awake at night, worrying about your marketing?

Do you hear that little voice in your head questioning what you know about marketing -- heck, questioning what you know about anything at all?

According to Jonathan Fields, uncertainty is actually a good thing -- if you don’t feel it, your marketing efforts aren’t likely to succeed.

In his book, “Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance,” he explains uncertainty’s important role, and explains how you can turn those sleepless nights into bottom-line success.

Why doing the “known” can be counter-productive

The business world has little tolerance for uncertainty.  

Business leaders want concrete facts. That want data that proves your point. They want to know something you’re proposing is going to work.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients ignore an idea for a new marketing angle in favor of copying what their competitor is doing. 

That mentality, Fields notes, is particularly dangerous. “The more certain you are of the answer or the outcome in advance, the more likely it is to have been done already -- to be derivative -- and the less anyone will care, including you.  Anything certain has already been done.”

As business leaders, we all know that you need to differentiate yourself from the competition.  But in our drive to eliminate uncertainty, we do what’s already been done. Hello, woodwork. I’m here to blend right in.

Why does uncertainty make us feel rotten?

I’ve just given you a completely rational explanation of why the quest for complete certainty can be counter-productive. So why don’t we don’t we stand up in the face of the uncertainty bully?

Because of its two ice-cold sidekicks:

  • Risk of loss
  • Exposure to judgement

These are very real threats to your career. Risk of loss equals real, bottom line dollars. Make the wrong call on an overall marketing campaign, and you put your company and your job on the line.

And as powerful as that might be, I sometimes feel the exposure to judgement is worse. How people will judge you, the damage to your reputation -- it all can give the most brazen marketer pause. 

“Uncertainty causes pain,” Fields writes. “With rare exceptions we experience living in the question as suffering, anxiety and fear. Sadly, that is our natural state.”

Everyone deals with it...sort of

I can sort most marketers I’ve known into two buckets:

  1. Those on the cutting-edge, pushing the entire industry forward.
  2. Those who avoid the cutting edge at all costs. They are holed up in lifer jobs, focused only on avoiding risk of loss and exposure to judgement. 

Sure, most of us are likely a mix of the two. Maybe, like me, you’ve been in both buckets at different points in your career. As an agency owner, I owe it to myself to really push the envelope and stay firmly rooted in the first camp. 

But that results in a hell of a lot of uncertainty. Plenty of wake-ups at 3 a.m., staring at the digital clock and going over everything. Our people. Our approach. Our execution.  

Would I be happier in role #2? I doubt it. I’ve held those types of jobs (briefly) in my career.  You’re just as likely to wake up at 3 a.m. with those gigs, especially if there is a threat of layoff or reorg.

And if you’re in role #2, it’s only a matter of time before the efficiency experts find you and eliminate your spot if they can’t easily quantify how you’re making the company money.

How to lean in to uncertainty

So how do those #1s do it? Are they superhuman? Nah, Fields says. It’s much more about Nurture than Nature. 

“There is a series of situational changes, personal practices, and shifts in mind-set that radically alter the way many of these people experience the same open-ended circumstances that shut most others down,” Fields says. 

What would that include? I strongly encourage you to read his book to really give the solutions the consideration they warrant, but here are a few in a nutshell. 

Find your certainty anchors: Fields describes these as experiences that later serve as your psychological bedrock. They can occur naturally or you can build them into your life.  

Tony Schwartz, who wrote the book “Be Excellent at Anything,” structured his day into three 90-minute writing bursts, which allowed him to finish his book in three months.   

For me, my certainty anchor is writing the first thing in the morning. It’s comforting to know I’ve set aside time to ensure the work gets done. And I love to write, so I know it will be time to do the work I love the most.

Build your hive: If you’re going to create something new, how you handle judgement and criticism will be critical. But handling feedback well is essential if you’re going to produce something great.

Fields recommends creating a “judgement-leveling creation hive,” which can be a group of engaged “mentors, champions and heroes.”

  • Mentors are great, but they seldom have the time to really help you through the tough times. I find a business coach can act as a true mentor and help you work through the business brambles. I rely heavily on Kyle Werych of Cultivate Advisors.
  • Heroes are probably more valuable. These are individuals who can inspire us by example without having to provide individual feedback and support. As an agency owner, three of my heroes include and Gini Dietrich, Andy Crestodina and Robbie Richards.
  • Champions are “people who will be there with you, no matter what happens, especially ones who will feel the pain equally, both emotionally and financially, if you fail.” My wife Sharon is my biggest champion, and I owe so much of what we’ve accomplished at Winbound to her support, understanding, and endless love. 

Socialize creation: I’ve written a couple fiction books outside of my professional writing. These involved a couple big rewrites, in which I felt like something was off and needed wholesale changes. 

Those were excruciating not just because of the work, but because I wasn’t entirely sure I was on the right path.

Fields encourages you to avoid the big rewrite and instead blend feedback-driven technologies into your process. “You can rapid-prototype, release, gather feedback, re-prototype and re-release incredibly quickly and with smaller and smaller changes.”

Train your brain: In the age of multi-tasking, Fields believes you really need Attentional Training, which is the art of focused awareness, and exercise. He reviews the body of research that supports:

A growth mind-set that “values work over genetics as the heart of excellence and fundamentally alters the way you experience feedback, criticism and judgement.”

Process simulation in which you focus on the process over the outcome, leading to a higher likelihood of daily action.

Owning the storyline and seeing the forest for the trees

One of the most enlightening chapters was “owning the storyline.” We’re often paralyzed by the worst-case scenario: What happens if I lose everything?  

That’s a good question, and Fields encourages you to explore. What would actually happen if you did lose everything? How would you recover? If you think through the scenario, the “going-to-zero” story doesn’t seem quite so frightening.  

I also like how Fields encourages you to see the forest for the trees by fully understanding your relationship to your endeavor. Is your business a true calling or a current interest? Knowing the difference will allow you to set a series of circuit breakers to ensure your devotion to the cause doesn’t take you to the point of no return.

Of this much I’m certain

We all deal with uncertainty, whether in business or in our personal lives. That’s life. No matter how much we strive for certainty, we know we’re at the mercy of the universe. It’s an intergalactic dice roll, folks.

And despite all the content written on how to do marketing and business, perhaps the most critical skill is coping with how uncertainty affects your mindset and ultimately your performance.  

Yet we are expected to handle uncertainty with little training or tools. Kudos to Jonathan Fields for creating a book that can help you fill that gap.

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Photo: Veronique Debord-Lazaro