Confusing Goals with Ambitions

, Posted on Oct 15

Skipping the all-important “why?” can keep you chasing after ambitions, when you should be focused on goals.

There is an inside joke among PR practitioners about the client who asks, “How can we get on Oprah?” There’s really no punchline—just a nod and a wink representing the understanding that we’ve all been there, and we’ve all had to return the disappointing response.

It’s not that getting a client on Oprah isn’t among PR’s most coveted prizes; it’s just that the request represents a stolen base between what the client should be focusing on to achieve their organizational objectives and a tactical red herring that strays from a marketing program’s central goals.

Too often, we confuse goals and ambitions. Generally I find it’s because we stop to ask a simple but critical question: why? In the case of the Oprah-phile, it doesn’t matter that the company’s core audience is 50-year-old executives, most of whom never lay eyes on Oprah’s program. What matters is the short-sighted ambition of the “win” that an Oprah appearance would represent.

It takes discipline to focus on “why,” which is why it’s so important to examine, discover and document your end organizational objectives and commit all available resources to achieving them. Without this focus, the temptation to chase shiny objectives can derail an otherwise disciplined marketing approach. Around a documented, disciplined company objective you can construct an equally disciplined marketing program.

Remove all ambitions that aren’t relevant to the company’s absolute vital purpose in the world and you can begin to focus on actual goals.

  1. Keep it simple – “We want to sell more shoes to women.” Now that’s a nice and simple goal that you can build a marketing campaign around.
  2. Keep it singular – “We want to sell more shoes to women and market a line of lawn mowers for women in their 50s.” Whoa. Now things are starting to derail.
  3. Keep it sensible – “We want every woman in the world to own at least two pairs of our shoes.” Is that realistically attainable?
  4. Keep it strategic – “We want to sell more shoes to women and want to buy an ad during the Super Bowl to get attention.” Here, we’ve stolen the base to ambition, and we’ve looked right past hundreds of more strategic, cost-effective tactics that would likely far better fit our core purpose and target audience.

In other words, the reason your company exists is to sell a product or service. You don’t exist to get on the cover of Time magazine, to be number-one on Google, or to have the glossiest brochure at the trade show. Sure, those may all very well be the proper tactical means to achieve the end of selling more product or service. But take the time to truly examine and strategically discover that to be the case. Don’t assume. And don’t get blinded by ambition. And, please, trust the team you put in place to keep you focused on goals and away from distractions.

In marketing, it’s all about strategic communications. It’s all about the why—asking the question,  documenting the answer, and defining the metrics by which you’ll measure success. Without this direction and discipline, the temptress of ambition will lure you away from your goals, and success will be ever-illusive, because you’re not focusing on ultimate success, you’re focusing on ambition.

Off the top of my head, here are a few examples of ambitions disguised as goals. (I’d love to hear your favorites…)

“We want to be on the cover of the Wall Street Journal!” (Looks great in a clip book, but have you determined that’s where your greatest density of audience is?)

“We need a Facebook page!” (Sounds fun and trendy, but is your audience even on Facebook?)

“We want to be higher than Competitor X on Google for search term Y!” (Seems reasonable, but have you done the research to determine that Y is actually the most searched term among your target audience and market segment, and not search term Z?)

“We would love to get our president on the local nightly news.” (I don’t blame you, but if your audience is business decision makers, they probably aren’t home in time to watch the 5:00 news, and they are probably in bed for the 11:00 news.)

“We need a website redesign!” (Are you sure it’s the design that’s causing your website to underperform? Or is it the overall site strategy, the architecture, the search engine optimization, or lack of complementing dynamic content that is making your site invisible or not “sticky” enough?)

And of course….

“How can we get on Oprah?” (Why would Oprah want you? If you can answer that question without sheepishly grinning, we’ll see what we can do. But first, I also want to know why!)