I want to share a great baseball story that has stuck with me for a long time, which also complements some excellent marketing advice from a friend of mine.
First, the baseball story.
I had never heard of Steve Dalkowski until I read an article some years back by Mike Wheeler for the Kalido (now Magnitude Software) blog. Steve Dalkowski was probably the fastest pitcher in baseball history, whose fastball was routinely well over 100MPH, with top speed estimates as high as 125MPH. Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters in just 995 minor league games in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Unfortunately, Dalkowski’s incredible fastball was also incredibly unpredictable: He also walked 1,354 batters and won only 46 of the 236 games he started.
Mike Wheeler’s key point was that focusing on raw speed at the expense of reliability is a bad combination, whether you’re talking about a super-fast pitcher with no ball control, or super-fast data delivery without any data governance controls.
But there’s much more to Steve Dalkowski’s story – with a related marketing lesson as well.
Steve Dalkowski’s performance improved dramatically in the early 60’s while playing for Earl Weaver, then manager for the Baltimore Orioles’ double-A affiliate. In 1962, Dalkowski had the best year of his career, giving up less than one walk per inning for the first time, and a 52-inning stretch with an amazing 104 strikeouts and only 11 walks. During 1963 Spring Training, after pitching six straight hitless innings in relief, Dalkowski was told by the Orioles that he had finally made the team.
How did Steve Dalkowski finally improve his performance? Earl Weaver discovered Dalkowski had a low IQ; he’d merely get confused and distracted when coaches tried to teach him how to throw a change-up, hold a base runner, execute a pitch-out or other unfamiliar plays. Weaver concluded if the team was to ever capitalize on Dalkowski’s potential, he would have to keep things very simple. So Weaver had Dalkowski focus on nothing but throwing his fastball and an occasional slider. Two pitches. Just throw strikes. Earl Weaver probably didn’t think of this plan in business terms, but his coaching decision was certainly a wise application of the good old 80/20 Rule.
Keeping it simple is game-winning advice for marketers as well. No, not because your prospects have a low IQ! – very funny😉 Seriously, buyers are smarter than ever, but they are also very unlikely to bother trying to figure out on their own what your technology does. If they get confused or distracted by your message, they’ll simply move on.
Which leads me to that advice from my marketing friend. He was good friends with a rock star technology sales manager who explained his success by saying, “I know my fastball and I know my curve ball.” His ‘fastball’ was the #1 product of interest to the vast majority of his prospects; his ‘curve ball’ was his second product. Whether he opted for the fastball or curve ball depended on the needs of his prospect.
The company had other products, of course; and while he didn’t totally ignore those products, he knew his ultimate success depended on his ability to deliver a clear, compelling sales pitch for his top two products – his fastball and curve ball. So he focused right away on practicing those two sales pitches and made sure they were strikes.
While my friend’s rock star sales friend described his fastball and curve ball as being two different products, the logic still holds for other scenarios. If, for example, a company offers a single technology platform or solution as opposed to multiple products, then the “fastball” could be an engaging value proposition to answer the question, “What is it?” The “curve ball” could in turn succinctly answer, “How does it work?”
Marketing’s single most important responsibility is to define the company’s fastball and curve ball and then clearly communicate it – internally and externally – to set up your marketing campaigns and sales team for success.
In a cruel twist of fate, Steve Dalkowski severely strained a tendon in his elbow while pitching relief in the Orioles’ final 1963 pre-season game. With his post-injury fastball topping out at only 90MPH, Dalkowski never made it to the major leagues again and was out of baseball for good in 1966. One can only wonder what his pitching career might have been had he not languished for years, no doubt being constantly told to “try harder” before Earl Weaver’s wise leadership guidance.
Similarly, if current marketing messaging is not working, “trying harder” in a multitude of ways and directions with the same overall messaging will not help and instead merely waste time. The future is now. Business circumstances and technologies all change without advance notice. Marketing leaders must be willing to allow trying something new, starting with, I suggest, focusing on answering two simple but critical questions…
What’s your fastball?
What’s your curve ball?