Are you familiar with the children’s story Many Moons? There are a few versions of it. I believe it was originally an African folk tale but the version I am most familiar with is the one written by James Thurber.
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately because in my day job as a mild mannered Director of SEO for a digital marketing company, I keep having the same kinds of conversations about client expectations and I feel like the answer is always the same: Let’s ask the client.
In the story there is a princess who falls ill (from eating too many raspberry tarts… who can blame her?) and the Royal Physician who apparently is not a very good physician basically tells the King she is going to die from her tummy ache. The King then tells his princess he will get her anything she wants. Her request is to have the moon. The King is no slouch and knew he couldn’t just gin up a deed for the moon and sign it over to his child. She was too smart to fall for that. The moon was no random star in the sky that a company can make a buck off of selling to dreamers. No, the King knew he had to deliver the actual moon to his sick little girl.
I’m going to pause here and relate this to digital marketing, because that is what got me thinking about this story. Client’s come to us, us being digital marketers, all the time with requests. Whether it is about traffic volume, revenue, design options, or conversion rates, there is always something the client wants. Sometimes a client request seems outlandish and we stare at our inbox in a daze trying to figure out how to handle it.
The King in this story had the same reaction. He went to his top advisers and each told him it was an impossible request. They each had a different reason why the request couldn’t be fulfilled.
I’ve been there. I’ve been one of those advisers. I’ve looked at my skills, my tools, my connections and said, “Nope, I can’t achieve that goal with the resources I have available to me. Furthermore, because I don’t want you to think I’m an idiot, I’m going to tell you why that particular goal cannot be accomplished, ever… by anyone.”
After the King went through each adviser he was dejected and his jester asked why he was so crestfallen. The King told his jester what his learned advisers told him and the jester replied, “They are all wise men and so they must all be right. If they are all right, then the moon must be just as large and as far away as each person thinks it is. The thing to do is find out how big princess Lenore thinks it is, and how far away.”
There is a certain point where I think we just expect other people to be completely irrational. We have such low opinion of other people and their understanding of the world that when they ask something that sounds ridiculous we assume they have no idea what they are talking about. “The moon! You want the moon?! It is a dusty ball of rock 238,900 miles away from here, give or take a few yards, and there is no conceivable way to go there and bring it back for you.”
When a client makes a request that is seemingly outrageous, we shouldn’t rely upon our own perception. For the most part, people are not irrational.
Back in the story, the jester goes to the Princess and talks to her about her request. He does not go to her and say she is being unreasonable or that her request cannot be accomplished. Instead he asks leading questions. “So, you want the moon… how big do you think the moon is?” In my own mind I am already reframing the question to “You want your website to make you a lot more money, how much is ‘a lot’ to you?”
The princess gives her perspective on the situation. In her mind, the moon can be covered up by her thumb, so it can’t be larger than her thumbnail.
The jester continues his interview of the princess. “How far away is the moon?” Or in Sean’s world, “When you say you want this increase in revenue immediately, what is ‘immediate’ to you?”
The princess tells the Jester that some night’s she can see the moon get’s tangled up in the branches of the tree just outside her window, so it can’t be any further than the tree itself. Someone could just climb the tree and pluck the moon out of the sky.
The Jester also asks the princess what the moon is made of. A similar question to ask a client is “What does a successful campaign look like to you in terms of channels activated and digital assets used?”
The princess tells the Jester that the moon is made of white gold. With this information, the Jester has the Royal goldsmith (we all have one of those, right?) craft a palm-sized white gold pendant to give to the princess.
The king was not satisfied because not being an idiot he knew the moon would appear in the sky again that night. So once again, he consulted all his advisors who all had wonderful silly schemes to prevent the princess from seeing the moon rise. In digital marketing land this is very much like the reporting phase of a project. We’ve done all the work and the numbers are coming in. Sometimes we are not pleased with what we see. We may have been shooting for a 33% lift in traffic or a 10% lift in conversion. We may have missed the mark.
Those meetings going over the reports to be given to the client can be nerve wracking. We are suddenly talking about different metrics never discussed with the client before.
In the story, the Jester steps in and solves the problem by once again involving the princess in the solution. He did not try to cover up the fact the moon was rising in the sky. Instead he asked her why she thought that was the case. She offered the opinion that the moon must be like flowers, fingernails, or the horns of certain animals that grow back when plucked.
I am not suggesting we take our reports, dump them in the client’s lap and say “we have no idea what this means, what do you think it means”. Instead we can talk openly about the results and solicit further insight from the client. Maybe the client knows there was other factors that aren’t showing up in the analytics. If looking at year-over-year numbers, it is possible the metrics are skewed due to unusual buying patterns or environmental issues.
The client knows and we can bring them into the discussion.
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