Learn How to Say No to Dumb Ideas

This article was originally published on ClickZ.com on January 2, 2009. It discusses how SEM and PPC specizlists should respond to requests for projects which, in the judgement of the search professional, have a dim chance of succeeding and/or a high opportunity. I think it’s still highly current because the hazards of being a “yes man” or “yes woman” have never been greater.

Have you said “no” to a dumb idea recently? If not, you may want to look back and determine whether you would have been better off if you had. We all like to say yes to clients and bosses. Sometimes the most valuable thing you can do within your organization or for your client (if you are on the agency side) is to say no. The term “yes man,” which is really gender neutral, even has a negative connotation within business. Yet, I see yes-man behavior all the time, particularly within the agency and service community.

Beware “Pet Projects”

There are always plenty of tasks and projects on any road map or agenda, many of them with a high likelihood of success. Otherwise those tasks and strategies wouldn’t have made it onto the roadmap (assuming the team putting the roadmap together was competent). Yet it isn’t unusual to see a strong personality on a team or outside supervisor suddenly derail a highly profitable project plan with some pet project. Saying no is scary, but as a professional who knows your way around search marketing and online marketing, you have a responsibility to point out flaws in a change in direction that has a poor predicted outcome.

Saying no or at least learning how to argue for the optimal solution is a skill that’s vanishing. It’s time to bring it back. This skill is actually both knowing when to say no and how to present a cogent argument as to why a new path is inferior to an existing one. It’s rarely taught but among my team it’s become one of the major predictors of an account manager’s success. Interestingly, the same seems to be true on the client side. I’m not talking about an abrasive personality that just says no and doesn’t support the utterance with facts. I’m talking about a person who feels comfortable enough with his/her level of expertise on a subject to assertively make the case for a position.

Remember: You’re Being Paid For Your Expertise

Sure, saying no feels dangerous. And there’s still a decent chance that a superior or client will override your objections. In reality, once you become a search marketing professional, your opinions (backed up by experience and expertise) are what you get paid for. There are a multitude of tasks and strategies to implement both within a search marketing campaign and within a company. Many of the failures in campaigns and within companies could have been avoided if experts who had the expertise and data to avert disaster had spoken up and convincingly made their case.

Some agencies in the online marketing space seem to have decided that any time a client asks for something, that agency should do it, even if such a project is at the fringes or completely outside their area of expertise. The same thing happens at the investor level. We’ve all seen agencies take on new investment (nothing against all you venture capitalists out there), along with either board of director control or at least significant board presence, and suddenly that firm is moving in directions counter to its brand, competence, and experience.

Fully Analyze the Cost of Changing Directions

The question becomes how do you present your case when you think a campaign is about to go off track due to a “pet project” inserted by a well-meaning senior manager or a client. The first method that can be effective is the pros and cons discussion. Often called the “Ben Franklin technique,” you create a list of pros and cons and weigh them individually and as a group to assist the team and the pet project’s owner to understand the dynamic. Another method that I actually prefer is an opportunity cost analysis. Opportunity cost is an analysis examining the missed opportunity of taking one path over another when working with limited resources. A good opportunity analysis includes an in-depth look at expected returns of the options presented. For example, the long-shot pet project might have a low chance of success but a high payout in the unlikely event that it’s successful. By multiplying the percentage chance of success against the value of the successful project/idea, one gets an expected net present value of the project. While risky projects may not be inherently bad — if they divert the team from a lower-risk project with a good expected return — the opportunity cost of changing direction may be unacceptably high.

Search Engine Reps Will Never Have Your Unique Expertise

Interestingly, as a search marketing expert, your responsibilities include protecting the marketing budget and campaign from outside influences who promote projects that have a low expected return. Those projects sometimes come from alternate agencies, bosses, media vendors, or in our case, the search engine reps. Some sales reps at the search engines have never tried to run a search campaign themselves.

So, beware when the management at a search engine decides to package up a new traffic opportunity, and sends the reps out to convince your team to opt into a setting that brings in more traffic be it contextual behavioral, video, audio, maps, advanced matching, or an extended match type. Make sure you fully weigh the costs against the promised opportunity before proceeding. Sure, testing new things is key to a campaign’s success, but only you have the expertise to evaluate the tests worth exploring, determine the order, and select the vendors. Use your experience to guide your campaign to optimal profit, even if it means that you must sometimes say no.