The Unexpected Success

Have you ever had an unexpected success?

For example, you may have targeted a keyword term you thought was highly important, yet a few obscure long term keywords brought you more business? Or the site you've put all your effort into lately isn't doing as much business as that throw-away site you've been neglecting?

I'm re-reading a great book called "Innovation & Entrepreneurship" by Peter Drucker. Drucker was a management consultant who wrote a lot about demographics, the importance of marketing and the emergence of the information society, with its necessity of lifelong learning.

Drucker discusses the "unexpected success", that thing that works, usually whilst you are pursuing something else.

Drucker gives the example of Macy's, which had the "problem" that it was selling too many appliances.

Why was this a problem?

Macy's considered themselves to be an upmarket clothing store, and clothing is where they had always put their effort. They took pride in it. Clothing defined who they were. Macy's actually wanted to slash their profitable appliance business because they thought it would affect their clothing business.

When Macy's management changed - management unclouded by the emotional investment of the past - they looked at the data, re-oriented around the unexpected success - the appliances - and Macy's business took off once again.

Why Does This Happen

Why does a carefully laid out plan, a plan you're executing well, and into which you have invested a lot of time and effort, not do so well, whilst some throwaway project is returning more?

It could be due to an underlying change in the market, or a section of the market you hadn't previously noticed is now revealing itself. Many people remain blind to such opportunities, even when, like Macys, it is staring them in the face.

We must always be on the lookout for these unexpected successes on the periphery of what we do.

The original IBM computers were scientific instruments meant for arcane academic research purposes. However, businesses started to buy computers for more mundane, everyday functions, like payroll. IBM reoriented their company around business machines, and the rest is history. Had IBM not tuned into what was working, rather than what their business plan said should be working, they probably wouldn't be here today.

The same thing happened with search. Search wasn't working as a business, even after Google was underway, until Google saw the massive opportunity presented by that much maligned, preposterous idea - pay per click - devised by Pay-per-click was working, in a business sense, in that it was a search function that delivered revenue. Google thought they were building a search engine. Remember the search appliance? Google reoriented and built the ultimate marketing machine instead.

How Do You Spot The Unexpected Success?

Sometimes the unexpected success isn't seen at all. Our frame of mind may render the success invisible. If we invest a lot of emotional energy into something, it can cloud our vision to new opportunity.

We need to be attuned to unexpected success. We need to look for those things on the edges. The obscure keywords where the traffic is growing quickly. Try not to second guess the market. Instead, measure what the market is actually doing. The market you were targeting might have moved. Or you may have discovered the edge of a new market no one else has seen.

The shift at Macy's was due to a shift in the underlying market. The market was segmenting. The market was no longer a socio-economic group of shoppers, it was a new, wider group of "lifestyle" shoppers. Had Macy's responded to data, rather than be blinded by their pre-conceptions, they would have exploited this opportunity sooner.

These opportunities lurk in the shadows. And can disappear just as easily.

Have you seen any examples of this happening in your work?

Published: October 2, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


October 2, 2009 - 12:56pm

Solid piece, Peter.

SEO (and business in general) is all about keeping a lookout for unexpected success.

October 2, 2009 - 1:58pm

If you want to hear God laugh, tell about your plans.

October 2, 2009 - 2:15pm

SEO itself was an unexpected success for me - I did not start out aimed in this direction.

October 3, 2009 - 12:54am

I have had many unexpected successes and many unexpected failures too! I think this is simply a limitation of the way we subjectively look at life. We all (like it or not) have a narrow vision of reality. However, we can stretch that narrow view by experimentation and having an open mind, and that can often bring in the unexpected successes - unexpected because of our perception of how reality "should" be, not how it IS.

October 3, 2009 - 9:34pm

This reminds me of something Aaron occasionally hints at..that he tracks his ideas and then invests in those projects that work.

I'd be interested in what you or Aaron think about this: Should you really just "look out" for unexpected successes or can you even leverage the knowledge that unexpected successes do happen regularly in your projects?

For example, say I want to start a website, and I have many ideas..and a hard time deciding which one to go for. Most of them have a compelling reason why people should link to them/I have an idea for a great piece of link bait for each of those sites.

On the other hand, for one of those site ideas, I have about a dozen link bait ideas at the back of my mind.

Would it not be a smart srategy to basically engineer what you describe in this post right into your plan? I could either action any of those ideas, which I all think are "great" or I could go for that idea for which I have a dozen link bait ideas at the back of my mind.

I think the advantage to going for the latter idea would be that you only have the fix cost can never exactly know if a link bait will catch on or not, but if you prefer the project where you have a lot of great link bait ideas, you can be pretty sure that one (or a few) of them will actually catch on (if you action all of them), and you'll only have the fix cost once.

sorry for complicating things - I hope you understood what Im getting at: Can't you actively use that understanding (that you can never be sure if a plan works no matter how much you like it) to your advantage (e.g. by preferring site ideas where you have a variety of link bait ideas to action, and thus *can* be sure that the fix cost of starting the whole site will not be a waste)?

October 3, 2009 - 10:07pm

Yes. We spend more money promoting the sites that are earning more, and we prefer to promote the linkbait ideas that seem like they would have the greatest chance of success based on our prior experiences.

October 3, 2009 - 11:21pm

Interesting - thanks for the quick reply!

October 4, 2009 - 11:57am

Hey @turk;

Along the same lines you mentioned about plans... I once heard a quote that I believe was attributed to the Great Mike Tyson (imagine this said with his high-pitch lisp):

"Evweybody got a pwan - till dey gets a punch in da mouf!"

October 9, 2009 - 4:02pm

That's how I do it. SEO is all about being lucky consistently.

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