Super Bowl Winner Shares How to Compete at Digital Marketing

Written by , Senior Director of Strategic Marketing for the Digital Marketing Business Unit at Adobe and Board Vice Chairman for the Internet Marketing Association:

Although Adobe Sum­mit 2014 is start­ing to fade in the rearview mir­ror, I keep going back to some of the incred­i­ble learn­ing expe­ri­ences we had as mar­keters. One stand­out for me was the rel­e­vant mar­ket­ing lessons from some­one we least expected—Super Bowl Cham­pion Richard Sherman.

Sher­man is a great com­peti­tor. He com­mands respect on the ath­letic field. But he also com­petes well in the mar­ket­ing sphere. He pos­sesses the req­ui­site skills and the appro­pri­ate train­ing (Stan­ford edu­cated) to com­pete as a mar­keter. Many of us have sim­i­lar skills and train­ing, but we do not com­pete suc­cess­fully. Why is that?

What are we miss­ing when it comes to cre­at­ing the responses we desire with the mar­ket­ing prac­tices we deploy?

Adobe Sum­mit (#adobe­sum­mit) this year was dri­ven by a theme address­ing the rein­ven­tion of the dig­i­tal mar­keter. I’d like to share my thoughts about how we can push the rein­ven­tion of mar­keters and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, and I’ll start with Sherman’s story, how he rein­vented his image because of some of the com­pet­i­tive advan­tages he possessed.

Sher­man explained sev­eral advan­tages dur­ing his onstage inter­view at the Sum­mit event in March. I clearly saw six key take­aways that each of us could embed to rein­vent the way we approach our dig­i­tal marketing.

1. Have a Plan    

I know this sounds obvi­ous but a remark­able num­ber of busi­nesses do not ade­quately plan their mar­ket­ing. If our goal is to com­pete in a spe­cific mar­ket, what peo­ple, processes, and prod­ucts will we deploy to accom­plish that goal? Once feed­back is received from our audi­ence, how will we shape our response? We must cre­ate a plan that accounts for pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive cus­tomer reactions.

Richard Sher­man knew he wanted to make an impres­sion that set him apart from pre­vi­ous NFL nota­bles, such as Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders. He rec­og­nized that those play­ers fre­quently gained expo­sure through the media, so he tar­geted TV as a chan­nel to gain expo­sure for himself.

Although thank­ful to be play­ing in the NFL, Sher­man real­ized that being a fifth round pick for the Sea­hawks “out there in the north­west” would make national expo­sure chal­leng­ing. But he fol­lowed the plan he had laid out once the oppor­tu­nity pre­sented itself. He knew the micro­phone would be on and eyes would be on him. He lever­aged the theme of con­flict that is preva­lent in sports, gain­ing impres­sion after impres­sion with his “moment” dur­ing the NFC Cham­pi­onship game.

2. Deep Dive into the Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing Mission              

We all under­stand that our over­ar­ch­ing mis­sion is to advance our brand and deliver amaz­ing expe­ri­ences through dig­i­tal chan­nels. What we’re talk­ing about here is the sub–mis­sion, if you will. What events/themes/circumstances are we look­ing to exploit with our mes­sag­ing? Which influ­encers or celebri­ties must we engage to advance our mes­sage? The under­ly­ing objec­tives that com­prise the sub-mission may include chang­ing a per­cep­tion or cre­at­ing a new par­a­digm about our vertical.

For Sher­man, the pri­mary mis­sion was to estab­lish his brand as an ath­lete and a per­son that deserves appre­ci­a­tion. Within that mis­sion, one of his objec­tives was to “pro­voke a response” fol­low­ing the game. (Would you agree he accom­plished that?)

3. Have a Mes­sage Prepared    

What would be our mes­sage in the event the eyes of the world were on us? We should define our response before events occur, so we can shape impres­sions that pre­serve and/or expand our brand.

Sher­man had a mes­sage he wanted to send. He said that, if the play he was involved in hap­pened ear­lier in the game, he might not have deliv­ered as vocif­er­ously, but he was pre­pared to share his mes­sage “I am to be respected. I can play this game.”

How­ever, because the deliv­ery back­fired, he had to react by shap­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent image, an image of  per­son to be liked, admired—and fol­lowed. The audi­ence per­cep­tion changed from neg­a­tive to pos­i­tive over the course of a few weeks. That mes­sage was part of his arse­nal as well, but it needed to be deliv­ered as a response rather than as an introduction.

4. Deter­mine How to Respond to a Cat­a­stro­phe or Adverse Reaction

Not all launches are received the way we envi­sion the response. Take the #myNYPD PR cam­paign that launched a bar­rage of police bru­tal­ity images, for exam­ple. Our man­date to advance our brand should encom­pass poten­tial image recov­ery tac­tics. How will we adjust our mar­ket­ing to fit an unex­pected outcome?

Sher­man went into what he called “recov­ery mode” to respond in a pos­i­tive man­ner to accu­sa­tions of being a bad guy. He changed the mes­sage. He adjusted the con­ver­sa­tion by talk­ing about team­mates at the next day’s press con­fer­ence. He altered his strate­gic mes­sage deliv­ery once feed­back was received.

Cen­tral to achiev­ing an effec­tive out­come fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous launch is mea­sure­ment. With­out accu­rate feed­back ana­lyt­ics, it can be chal­leng­ing to deter­mine the best course of action. Sher­man said, “pro­voke a response … then mea­sure that response.” To win against your tough­est com­peti­tors, we should heed his advice.

5. Per­ceive and Pre­pare for Neg­a­tive Outcomes

We can­not be pre­pared for a neg­a­tive response to a cam­paign with­out first acknowl­edg­ing pos­si­ble adverse out­comes. Once we deter­mine the spe­cific out­comes (web­site traf­fic, social men­tions, etc.), we make deci­sions about the chan­nels, mes­sag­ing, tim­ing, and antic­i­pated response and feed­back. But what we often fail to do is con­sider that we may gen­er­ate an unin­tended reaction—and we must be ready to coun­ter­act that reaction.

This is one that I believe Sher­man teaches us because of the way his intended mes­sage was over­taken by an unin­tended burst of bravado and a firestorm of neg­a­tive response. Even before he hit the field for that fate­ful game, Sher­man knew the type of audi­ence he was in front of and the mes­sage he wanted to con­vey. How­ever, he did not antic­i­pate the end of the game with its rush of adren­a­line that led to his outburst.

6. Own Your Moment and Make It Last     

When you expe­ri­ence a defin­ing moment for your brand, own it, no mat­ter what feed­back you receive. Once you own it, take the steps defined in num­ber 5 to guide the audi­ence to the point where you max­i­mize your value.

Sher­man knew he would not accom­plish what he wants to by own­ing the image of a “thug,” which evolved instan­ta­neously after the inter­view. The next day fol­low­ing the stun­ning final play in the NFC Cham­pi­onship game and sub­se­quent viral response, at the team press con­fer­ence, Sher­man focused on his team and his role within the team, deflect­ing the atten­tion to the con­tro­ver­sial viral video. He spoke about his team­mates with respect­ful, heart­felt appreciation.

He turned what could have been a highly vis­i­ble dis­as­trous encounter into an oppor­tu­nity to take account­abil­ity for his actions, praise oth­ers, rec­og­nize the bless­ings in life, and work toward cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive envi­ron­ment that includes racial equal­ity. What fol­lowed was an impres­sive rise in social media fol­low­ers (not nec­es­sar­ily the type that have cemented their impres­sion based on the game-ending video) and global recog­ni­tion as an achiever and a good person.

Com­pet­ing with the Best in the Game

So, how will we compete?

If we’re fac­ing a “Richard Sher­man” on the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing play­ing field, we’ll embed these steps into our strate­gic devel­op­ment and be pre­pared for all out­comes. We’ll look for a moment when we can lever­age our mes­sage most effec­tively. We’ll also be ready to mea­sure response and react quickly. The tools are cer­tainly avail­able; it’s up to us to develop the processes and fos­ter suc­cess­ful team deploy­ment that will allow us to com­pete effectively.

The com­pe­ti­tion for mind­share is fierce, and we can’t always fore­cast defin­ing moments. How­ever, the lessons we can learn from Richard Sher­man as a great mar­keter pro­vide a foun­da­tion for com­pet­ing in the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing domain. Imag­ine our brand’s future, make a plan, and be pre­pared to respond to moments and move­ments. Do the things that will put us in the best posi­tion to cap­i­tal­ize on our moment in the spotlight.

Now I ask you, what busi­ness or brand turn­arounds do you admire? How were those impres­sions rein­vented? Who is the com­pet­i­tive mar­keter that you admire?

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