What did a soggy diaper and fishing teach me about marketing? Everything.

Fishing is remarkably difficult. I came to this conclusion after casting lines in Jacksonville with my father-in-law, Raymond. We set up shop on his wharf early in the morning. It was already hot, humid, and I was a sweaty ill-tempered mess. Raymond was — on the other hand — totally in the zone. He had a number of small catches right from the beginning while my fishing bobber sat idle out in the lock.

After two agonizing hours, my line went taut. Finally! I started reeling it in. The fish was going to be huge, and Raymond would have to concede that I had the better luck of the morning. I tugged on the rod and heaved it out of the water. It made a splat onto the concrete, and that’s when my ego permanently deflated.

Instead of a delicious fish, I had snagged a used, soggy diaper.

Later that day Raymond and I went out on the boat, and that was when he really took me fishing. He demonstrated his sonar fish-finder. He showed me his map that marked successful catches along the river. The amount of knowledge and experience he had to share was mind-bending. I was burnt to a crisp when we got back at the end of the day, but I had also learned four key concepts about fishing that were— surprisingly — applicable to my growth as a marketing professional:

1. To catch fish, you need to learn how.

It was clear right from the beginning that I wasn’t going to be successful catching fish on my own. I needed to watch Raymond in order to adopt and practice a technique. Fishing required observation, trial-and-error, experimentation, muscle memory, patience, and practice.

How I applied it: Similarly, as a fledgling in my field, I needed to find a mentor. It was crucial to observe them and to learn what is required to provide moments of true value that are critical to successful marketing (such as a clear strategy, understanding your audience, variations in tactics, channels, and so on). I forced myself to experiment, make uncertain choices, find errors, analyze, adjust, and — above all — practice.

2. You can’t just get fish anywhere.

After a time, my technique may have been sufficient enough to attract fish, but I wasn’t going to catch any fish if they simply weren’t there at the wharf. We had to get on the boat and sail out to find fish big enough to bring home for dinner.

How I applied it: Some businesses choose to advertise or communicate on a particular channel because it is the flavor of the month. Other businesses make the mistake of dialing in to every channel and blast on all of them. No one can be the kwisatz haderach of marketing — the message either dilutes or becomes irregular. It’s important to understand how the audience listens, where they’re likely to interact with a business, and go to that place. I determined a set number of channels and executed on them to achieve the desired objectives.

3. To find fish you need real, hard intelligence.

It’s not enough to know how to fish. It’s not even enough to know where to go to get fish. You need to know how the school of fish is swimming, where they are going, when they’ll be there, and which tackle will bait the most biggest bigly of fish. Raymond had a suite of technical and analog resources on hand that helped him determine the where and the when for optimal fishing experience.

How I applied it: You can’t fly blind, and it’s certainly not good practice to throw everything to the wall to see what sticks. Paying attention to the analytics has been a big asset in understanding what works, what doesn’t, and why the outcome is the way it is. Adjusting ad settings such as scheduling and targeting, multivariate testing, and segmentation all contribute to optimizing the desired outcome.

4. Fishing requires patience. Make sure you have sunscreen.

We were out on the boat for hours. When we came back, I was as red as a beet and peeled for days. We had to wait for hours to get a successful catch.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you need to be constantly moving, providing moments of value, and you have to be all-in. I had to learn to manage resources and find the endurance to provide moments of value consistently over a long term in order to execute a successful strategy. It took a lot of patience, and I was definitely feeling the burn after I was through.

The bottom line?

Bring your sunscreen. Leverage your intelligence gathering resources. Take notes. Practice your skill. And — above all — learn to fish and don’t be the business that always reels in the soggy diaper.

Cover photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash