Guest Genius: Ann Handley

Each Tuesday, we’re happy to turn over our blog space to a Guest Genius, someone who can give a fantastic and fascinating perspective about making word of mouth work. 

This week’s guest genius:
Ann Handley
Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs

Fly-Fishing Where the Fish Are


Recently I spent a glorious morning learning some basics of fly-fishing in the swift-moving East Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River in Post Mills, Vermont, a village of Thetford.

Truth be told, the morning itself wasn’t all that glorious (it was rainy and overcast) nor was the fishing (we didn’t catch a thing, save for a tree limb during one wild back-cast). But the experience itself was indeed glorious, and it has stayed with me in the way that only the best and richest experiences do, spectacular despite the rain and the lack of catch.

Since then, I’ve been rolling it over in my head: What was it that made me connect with fly-fishing? I am not a fisherman, nor did I grow up around fishermen. I have fished previously only once or twice, but neither of them do I recall with much clarity or passion. So what’s so different now?

All I can really come up with is that I was ready for fly-fishing. Probably, I was ready to learn something new and embrace a new experience. But on another level, I was ready for the zen of fly-fishing: Ready to keep my feet planted but knees soft, to challenge my right hand to hold the fly rod just so and move my arm out and straight up 60 degrees and then down, pausing ever so slightly—counting one-one-thousand, two—while my left hand tried to pull up the slack on the line, landing the fly at the sweet spot, and my brain clumsily trying to keep track of my body’s movements while maintaining all of it upright on uneven and slimy, slippery rocks.

In other words, what I was probably most ready for was the freedom of fly-fishing… of not having to think about any of the other stuff of life—work, home, kids; all those lists of things to do and buy and attend to—while I was concentrating on the rod, the cast, the fly carried on the current, and staying upright in the stream. I wasn’t even thinking about the fish, lurking as they were in that water the color of iced tea; I figured it was a creature that could take care of itself. And besides, actually catching a fish was secondary to figuring out how to.

It also occurs to me that fishing using flies was not unlike marketing using the tools of social media and the medium’s inherent word-of-mouth properties. This isn’t exactly one of those blogging posts in which nearly any life experience is parable-ized into profound marketing truths. But for those of us who follow good marketing and aspire to great marketing, fly-fishing has its parallels.

1. Fish where the fish are.
I know, easy one: market to your customers where your customers are. But this rusty marketing adage has more relevance today than ever. Don’t wait for your customers to come to you; get out there and meet your community where they gather. Where, exactly? That’ll vary on your market and audience, but maybe it’s on MySpace, blogs, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Find out.

2. Don’t try to control things too much.
As far as this newbie can tell, fly-fishing is an inexact mix of experience, education, skill, and instinct… with some luck and observation tossed in. As you cast your fly into the water, you need to control your movements and the landing of the particular fly you selected, but the changes in the current carry your fly to surprising places, or the fly doesn’t necessarily appeal to its intended recipient. And so you must let go, so to speak, of the things you cannot control.

So it is with letting your community have reign over your message: The challenge is to not control things too much and yank back prematurely, because it might be carried off to unexpectedly fruitful places. At the same time, you must reel it in when the fish aren’t biting, the audience isn’t connecting, or when it’s simply swamped.

3. Still, execution is everything (almost).
At one point on Sunday morning, I sent a beautiful cast into the stream. It broke on the back swing and circled in, the fly landing so sweetly on the current that it almost brought tears to my eyes. But still… not a single fish bit at that fly, lolling as it was so naturally in the brown water. All I could do was pull it in and cast again. And there’s the qualifier: execution is everything, assuming it lands results.

4. You can’t fish without getting wet.
Social media tools are a bit messy: partly because they are new, and partly because we haven’t yet realized their full use and potential (or lack thereof). I fell twice into the Ompompanoosuc—once soaking my sleeve and once scraping my leg—and I waded in deeper than I expected. But in the end, that was part of the fun. For that reason, I can’t be too critical of businesses who wade into the social media water and fail. There’s points for trying.

When I think of other issues swirling around social media tools—I always come back to a simple issue: Yes, businesses want to make money, and marketing needs to demonstrate ROI. But the most dynamic, interesting and ultimately successful companies are those led by people who take risks, who have some fun, and wade into unknown waters. Those companies reap the largest rewards of customer loyalty and, ultimately, ROI.

In essence, the best companies are run by those who enjoy the ride. Or the fly-cast. Or both. Just ask the folks of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, who hang out not too far north and west of the Ompompanoosuc.

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