Your Revolution Will Not Be Planned

I’m just coming off of an immensely satisfying business gathering that I’ve not missed over many years. It’s a gathering of some of the smartest, most emotionally connected people I’ve ever met. (How I ever got invited, I don’t know – but they’re stuck with me now.) One of our many topics was the question of creating revolutionary change versus incremental improvement. The example given was that of developing highways (revolutionary change) versus adding rest stops (incrementally better).

Ultimately, our group rejected the question as a false choice. We said that you see revolutionary change only in hindsight. In other words, you wake up one day and recognize that things are fundamentally different – but they’re only a little different from yesterday, and yesterday was only slightly more progressed from the day before that. For example, while the U.S. Interstate Highway System got started under President Eisenhower in 1956, it was preceded by many laws, failed projects, and various other related efforts going back to the early 1900s. All those attempts to make incremental improvements led to a bigger attempt at improvement – and, in hindsight, a revolutionary idea.

Our group eventually wondered whether there had ever been a revolutionary change that was initiated as such. Someone said, “How about Kennedy proclaiming that we would go to the moon in ten years?” Certainly, going to the moon qualified as a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). But, while the idea of going to the moon was an innovative idea, actually going was not revolutionary change. It was a culmination of many small economic, psychological, and technological advancements. All those incremental changes led to the president calling for this “revolutionary” idea, and that, itself, led to the ten years’ worth of improvements that would be made before we left. In other words, even if we had never gone to the moon, we would have reaped the benefits of much of the technological change.

There’s a lesson here for us as marketers. We’re trained to think in terms of creating revolutionary brands, breakthrough campaigns, big ideas. We aim for the big bang: one and done.

Content (that is, content as a strategic function in our business) is different. Companies that set out to create viral content most often fail in obscurity. Successful media creators – whether they produce newspapers, magazines, TV shows, movies, or even novels – focus hour by hour, day by day, and week by week on creating the most valuable story products they can. Only in hindsight does any of it gets labeled “revolutionary.”

Content marketers need to follow this model: slow and steady. Even the content marketing “revolutionaries” – Red Bull, Kraft, Indium, Hubspot, and others ­– didn’t set out to create revolutions. They set out to make incremental improvements. Lots of incremental improvements that would add value to their customer’s lives. Only in hindsight do we see them as revolutionaries.

Only in hindsight will you recognize your revolution.

Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.